Silent Films Were Never Really Silent

by | Jul 27, 2017 | Community

In the earliest days of moving pictures, the hand-cranked kinetoscope, mutoscope and later the nickelodeon, the viewer witnessed a moving picture silently … alone. With the invention of the movie projector, films were viewed in vacant storefronts converted with benches and screens. As crowds grew, projectors were moved into theaters. The movie projector, however, posed a small problem; it made a distinct and annoying noise. The solution to the problem came swiftly and enduringly – music!
As early as 1913, virtually all films were being exhibited with some sort of musical accompaniment. In the earliest days, the music was usually an improvised foreground of popular songs with some light classical music; all performed on a piano. In rural areas the piano stayed, but in small cities piano gave way to the organ and in larger cities the organ gave way to the orchestra. The orchestras were generally fairly small in comparison to a symphony orchestra, but on occasion full-sized orchestras were used for feature-length, blockbuster films.
Prior to 1920, with a few notable exceptions, most music remained either improvised by one person or curated into a ‘photoplay’ list from whatever music library was nearby. But, with small ensembles becoming popular, musicians needed to get on the same page (both figuratively and literally) more efficiently. The solution to the problem came at the hands of music publishers. In order to make the task of accompanying films easier for orchestras, publishers (independent of the studios) would send theater music directors a list of photoplay numbers, which, not coincidentally, publishers held copyrights on. A majority of the time, the photoplay was created from existing songs, but occasionally (blockbusters) the music was original. The publisher’s ‘cue sheet’ was born in 1920 and lasted up until the time of ‘talkies’ took hold around 1929.
Up to this point we have discussed photoplay as being either improvised or as structured in a cue sheet, and cue sheets as being either based on existing songs or on original songs. There is a fourth option yet to be discussed and that is the full re-score. An orchestral re-score starts with a re-examination of the film, all its characters, scenes, storylines, actions, and smallest on-screen movements. Once the film is analyzed, a set of musical themes is created. Themes can depict characters, moods, locations, situations or events. The themes are then arranged and orchestrated into a brand new, completely customized, film-enhancing score.
When an orchestra then performs the score live as the film is projected, it is called a live-to-picture performance. The Valencia Symphony Orchestra (VSO) is proud to be presenting its second live-to-picture event on August 26 at 7 p.m. at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center – “A Chaplin/Lloyd Double Bill”.
Charlie Chaplin’s The Adventurer (1917) and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) represent some of the finest on-screen comedy of the silent-era. Chaplin’s The Adventurer was the last of the twelve films Chaplin produced for Mutual Film Company at Lone Star Studios. It stars Chaplin as an escaped convict who finds favor with a wealthy family after he saves a young lady from drowning. The young lady’s suitor does everything he can to have the convict apprehended. Lloyd’s biggest box-office hit, The Freshman, stars Lloyd as Harold Lamb, a college freshman who dreams of being a big man on campus. A disastrous tryout lands him a spot on the football team as a human tackling dummy before he becomes the team’s water boy. But Harold holds on to his dreams, aided by his sweetheart, Peggy.
The VSO was created to bring symphonic music to the masses. The live-to-picture experience takes ordinary moments and allows the audience to be part of something special. It is a truly unique experience where even those who do not love the symphony, find a new way to experience it. The VSO is also a place for young musicians and composers to use the skills they have learned in college and bring these films to life, in some cases, for the first time. VSO is also extending its educational outreach by working with the Santa Clarita Valley Youth Orchestra in a side-by-side performance at the SCPAC in March, 2018.
As you might imagine, re-scoring a film, securing performance rights and hiring a professional orchestra is no small undertaking. It requires time, talent and the financial resources to bring it all together. The Valencia Symphony Orchestra Association is working on a Charity Wine Tasting that will occur in September 2017. Please keep a look out in the calendar for the date and location.
To purchase tickets for the Valencia Symphony Orchestra’s Chaplin/Lloyd Double Bill please visit or call the PAC box office at 661-362-5304. 




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