The Sound of Silents by Doug Adams
Filmmaking’s beginning was charged with the energy of endless possibilities. The era of the ‘silent’ film lasted from the 1890s to approximately 1929. The historical record places the first matching of music and film in December of 1895, six years before Meilies’ A Trip to the Moon.
Says Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Orchestra (an ensemble that specializes in the recreation of film music from this era): “Although A Trip to the Moon had no recorded score, it – like many Méliès films – did have a script for narration, which was provided with the film and expected to be read aloud during the screening. Before film developed a narrative style, theaters often used a narrator or lecturer to describe the action to the audience and put it in context, and some early films don't make much sense without it. (For instance, [in] A Trip to the Moon you'll remember an interminable discussion among academics in wizard hats in the opening scenes. The narration explains what the professors are arguing about.) The tradition of a narrator died out in Europe and America, but in Japan it continued into the 1930s, where it developed into a beloved performance art called ‘Benshi,’ and Japan resisted talking films much longer than the rest of the world as a result.”
By 1908 however, the musical potential of film was enough to draw the attention of Camille Saint-Saëns, who wrote an original score to The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (L'Assassinat du duc de Guise). While the music was successful enough to earn a permanent place in Saint-Saëns’ body of work, it was largely regarded as an experiment. Music for film was rarely original. The variable resources available to these films meant that the accompaniment was generally drawn from classic Late-Romantic concert hall music, and either reduced to piano or small ensemble performance. Usage, too, varied greatly. Sometimes the music accompanied the films themselves, though just as often it backed reel changes – or it was simply played outside theaters to draw audiences in.
Continues Sauer, “There was considerable variability in the accompaniment, and probably not much music synchronized to the action the way we’d think of it today … In many storefront nickelodeons, the only music was from a gramophone blasting unrelated music out into the street to draw in business.” He continues, “According to some manuals of theater operation, if there was a pianist, he was instructed to play to entertain the audience during rewinds and reel changes, not during the film itself (perhaps leading sing-alongs or playing classical or popular pieces). Rick Altman [author of Silent Film Sounds] has an ad for a theater touting a blind pianist, which only makes sense if he wasn't playing to the films. But this seems to have varied widely regionally. There weren't universally established practices, and it seems likely that in other theaters, pianists were playing to the film. Audiences didn't know what to expect, and likely accepted whatever was presented to them until a ‘there-should-be-music-that-supports-the-film’ ethic became established in the early teens.”
Much of Méliès’ financial struggle was due to the unauthorized reproduction of his films in the United States. Thomas Edison, looking to corner the budding film market in the States, copied and distributed Méliès’ films across the country without remunerating the filmmaker. In addition, Edison held nearly every film-related patent in the U.S., which held investors – and the industry itself – largely at bay. In 1908, the same year Saint-Saëns’ first film score was debuting in France, Edison formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, a nine-studio conglomerate that essentially muscled all other investors out of filmmaking.
Méliès’ career in film met its end just as another era in film music was dawning. His final project, The Knight of the Snows, was released in 1913, just as live underscore (or photoplay) music became common accompaniment for films. Only a year prior, Max Winkler had begun to explore the commercial potential in film music retail. Winkler worked at Carl Fischer in New York, and began to make available collections of (in his words) “butchered” classics that could be used to accompany films. In 1913 Sam Fox published his own collection of short compositions by John Stepan Zamecnik – the Sam Fox Moving Picture Music volumes. These pieces were arranged by their intended purpose, and went by such titles as “Western Scene,” “Indian Attack,” “Goodbye Music (For Parting Love Scene),” or “Burglar or Sneaky Music.” Fox had been a successful music distributer, having been the exclusive publisher for John Phillip Sousa, and Zamecnik was a violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra who had studied composition under Antonín Dvořák. The pairing seemed financially beneficial to both, and so it would be.
In October of 1915 a federal decision was passed in the case of United States v. Motion Picture Patents Co. where it was decided that the conglomerate went “far beyond what was necessary to protect the use of patents or the monopoly which went with them.” Their actions were declared an illegal restraint of trade under the Sherman Antitrust Act and by 1918 the MPCC was no more.
Film production proliferated in the United States, as did dedicated theaters complete with elaborate organs and house orchestras. It is estimated that, at this time, 40 percent of film showings were accompanied by theater organs, 25 percent by solo piano, and 25 percent by orchestras of varying sizes and instrumentation. (Ten percent of films remained unaccompanied.) However, the largest, most prestigious theaters all had orchestras, so while only a small percentage of the nation’s showings included orchestral accompaniment, the majority of the filmgoing public was exposed to orchestral rather than organ or piano music.
Musical practices still varied, though codified procedures were beginning to emerge. Many performances were improvised or complied from existing classics. Says Rodney Sauer, “The early movie theater orchestras saw their job not only as entertainment, but also education. Many musicians considered European classical music to be the height of musical culture, and they would perform excerpts of the classics as a way to bring up the musical knowledge of American audiences. The number of symphony orchestras did increase substantially from 1915 to 1930, so they may have had some effect.”
As for the ‘improvised’ scores, Clark Wilson, a member of the American Theater Organ Society, and a specialist in silent film accompaniment, describes that, “there should be little, if any, wholesale improvisation utilized in a good picture. While much ‘off the top of the head’ playing might work for a fast-paced short comedy in which there is no time to develop complex musical themes, such will not be the case for a feature or serious film. Let’s call what we are about to deal with limited or ‘controlled improvisation’ that we include around a solid set of selections drawn from a library of good music …
“Iris Vining, the legendary organist of the flagship Granada Theatre in San Francisco (and later the Fox Theatre, Atlanta) and one of the top film accompanists of the age said the following to her peers in the December, 1924 issue of Exhibitors’ Herald: ‘Don’t do too much improvising. Your audience … will appreciate good music well played. To too many organists, playing is just so much aimless wandering interrupted now and then by a fight or a fire.’”
Other performances depended more heavily on original music pre-composed specifically to suit the needs of the films. Says Sauer, “Many of the musicians, as well as the repertoire, for the early movie theaters came from vaudeville and melodrama theaters, which were two distinct traditions. From vaudeville came percussionists who had played for live comedians – supplying rim shots, drum rolls, and slapsticks – and they tended to play directly to the action of the film. From the melodrama came small orchestras, who preferred to play to the mood of the scenes, using full classical or popular pieces of music that were not strictly tied to the action. A particular theater's approach to music depended largely on what the musicians were doing before they started playing for movies.”
During this same time period, worsening economic and political situations in Europe were causing many composers to look the U.S. for employment. In 1914 Max Steiner, a young Viennese composer who has studied with Brahms and Mahler, came to States seeking work on Broadway. Hugo Riesenfeld, a violinist and composer who once played in a quartet with Arnold Schoenberg, likewise came to the States from Vienna. Although Riesenfeld also did a stint on Broadway as the concertmaster for Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company, he was already working in film by 1915. Just a few years later, he scored Joan the Woman for Cecil B. DeMille. In 1921 Ernö Rapée, a Hungarian-born composer, created a score for The Cabinet of Caligari by compiling concert works by such composers as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. In fact, the Caligari score may have been the first time these composers’ works were performed by an American orchestra. In 1924, Rapée would publish Motion Picture Moods, a collection of short, film-appropriate compositions not unlike the Sam Fox volumes.
Composers acclaimed for their concert hall works contributed to the young film music industry as well. In 1923 Arthur Honegger scored La Roue; in 1925 Darius Milhuad scored The Beloved Vagabond; in 1929 Dmitri Shostakovich scored Novvy Vavilon.
1926 and 1927 brought two new revelations: In ’26 William Axt and David Mendoza’s score for Don Juan (staring John Barrymore) became the first film score to be recorded. And in ’27 the dam broke. The Jazz Singer brought a whole new dimension to films. For the first time synchronized sound recording was a part of the filmgoing experience.
To take advantage of the new technology, Hollywood flooded the market with musical films. They were expensive and difficult to produce – the orchestra needed to be live on-set for the full shoot. Overdubbing was not yet a part of the process, so it was not unusual for the full ensemble to be required to put in 14 to 16 hours days just to record a two-minute song. But with the new audio gimmick in place, movies were doing record business, and were flush with cash. In 1929 Max Steiner left Broadway, ostensibly to orchestrate Rio Rita, but the allure of the Hollywood musical kept him firmly on the West Coast.
Soon Hollywood was churning out musicals at such a rate that audiences tired of them. Attendance sagged slightly, but was dealt a heavier blow in 1929 when the stock market crashed. However, it was far from a death knell. Prior to the market crash, film theater attendance averaged around 90 million tickets per week, nationwide. During the crash, that number dropped, but never dipped below 60 million. Likely, audiences were anxious to take their minds off the grim realities as hand.
Yet while Hollywood marched on, some belt-tightening was necessary. Live musical accompaniment was one of the first luxuries to be disposed with. The recorded music that had been so popular during the musicals’ brief reign was now applied to dramatic underscores. Performers were hungry for work. Film studios began to build music departments around stables of composers. Film scores were now seen as group efforts with teams of composers creating themes, and then trading them off to one another to create variations and developments. Simply by circumstance a new sound began to emerge. It was rooted in the traditions of European Late-Romantic music, informed by vaudeville and melodrama theater, and polished with the glittering patina of Broadway musicals.
In 1933 Max Steiner composed King Kong. It was one of the first full-length films to be extensively scored. It used the new Hollywood sound, but a single composer created it. It was, in short, a revelation. With its combination of tone, technique, and structure, Kong established film music practices that are still in place today.
King Kong was also a feather in the cap of its producer, David O. Selznick, second cousin twice removed to Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. In The Hugo Movie Companion, Brain Selznick writes, “My grandfather’s first cousin was the famous film producer David O. Selznick, who made the original King Kong, as well as Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun, and many other classic movies. He and my grandfather grew up together, and even though they both died before I was born, my grandmother’s house was filled with books about David O. Selznick that I loved to read. Perhaps this is why I’ve always loved movies.” The last act of the film version of Hugo, of course, deals directly with the importance of films and their history. Just as Scorsese’s film pays homage to the history of cinema via both its plot and certain recreated techniques, so does Howard Shore’s score honor the photoplay music that came before it.