Silent films were never silent.
The smallest theater had not just a piano. They also had a drummer and a violin player.
Larger theaters had orchestras of up to 180 pieces in the 5,000 seat houses plus chorus, solo voice and special sound effects.
I have always looked at silent films as a form of dance.
In 1980 I brought motion picture sound pioneer Bernard B. Brown to Toronto for three wonderful days. It was part of a special celebration I did for the 50th anniversary of Warner Brothers Looney Tunes. Mr. Brown had scored many in the early days. He had even directed a few.
As well he had directed the sound recording on 1927’s THE JAZZ SINGER with Al Jolson. He can be seen in the orchestra in the picture.
Further along, in 1939 when he had moved from Warner Brothers to Universal he pioneered multi-track recording on the picture ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL with Deanna Durbin, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia 100 (for which he received one of two Academy Awards in a career that saw him receive eleven Oscar nominations).
All these were valid enough reasons but there was one reason even more important than the rest.
At 16 he had played first violin in the orchestra which accompanied D. W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) through the 365 performances of the film’s premiere run at Clune’s Auditorium in Hollywood (as THE CLANSMAN, the picture’s original title).
While film writers tell us THE BIRTH no longer has the power to move audiences I felt that properly scored the film would be as powerful today as it had been when first seen.
Mr. Brown, who had taught film and film sound at UCLA on retiring, was the best possible resource.
I learned a lot from him. More, much more, than I had imagined I would.
After he returned to Hollywood I got a call from a film teacher at a local university asking if I would show THE BIRTH OF A NATION.
I got there to find 500 grade 13 high school students has been bicycled in.
Terry Ramsaye, in his A MILLION AND ONE NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES (1925) wrote that the audience for motion pictures is between the ages 11 to 30, primarily 14 t0 24.
This screening gave me the chance to present the film to the best possible audience, nineteen to 24 year olds who demanded to be impressed. If the film bored them they would have no fear of showing it.
When the film reached its tensest moments the entire audience was leaning forward in their seats. At the picture’s conclusion they went wild just as audiences in 1915 had.
Then came an invitation to screen the film for THE TORONTO FILM SOCIETY at the Ontario Institute For Studies in Education auditorium (which seats 600).
I arrived to find that the projectors I was to use ran faster than the ones I used to create the score on reel to reel tape while the tape player ran slightly slower. There was no way I could synchronize the score with the film. I was in a real mess.
Then I realized that I could run parts of the film in silence while I used the projection booth’s monitor speakers to synch up the score. Necessity certainly is the mother of invention. Needless to say, it was a trying experience.
The results proved worth it. The audience went wild. This audience ran the full age gamut from young to old. When the film ended they were on their feet stomping and cheering.
Red faced and livid the director of the silent series charged into the booth leaping up the steps towards me. He said, “Reg, that score was brilliant! I especially admired your inspired use of silence.”
I could hardly claim credit. The brilliance was Griffith’s not mine. I was just following his cues. The silence came not from choice but from necessity.
I learned a lot that night. I learned to use silence in silent films.
In the 1990s from Charlie Vesce in New York I bought a 16mm print of Rex Ingram’s 1921 THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE.
While waiting for the print to arrive I bought cds of tangos, South American music and period French music. I spent a fortune om research.
When the print arrived I watched it silent. Two weeks later I watched it again silent. This time I was hearing music in my head. The picture told me how it wanted to sound.
Then I set about creating that sound.
When I had it ready I invited people, strangers, in to see it. I did this by posting flyers around Toronto. Friends are poor critics. They are afraid to wound. I needed people who demanded their expectations not only be met but more importantly surpassed.
One night there were only two people. A very attractive young woman came with a man old enough to be her grandfather.
After the first break the woman turned towards me. She said, “The music. The music. The music.”
When the picture ended the older man said to me, “We are from Argentina. You had that on the beat all the way through. We are going to send Argentine people here.”
That was the best possible praise.
I am showing THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE Sunday, February 5, 12, 19 and 26 at my home in Toronto, 463 Bathurst Street.
Unfortunately it is illegal in Toronto to invite strangers into our homes. Don’t be a stranger.