Reviving the sounds of silents

Musicians breathe new life into mute movies at Toronto Silent Film Festival.

The films of the silent era were a varied lot, from slapstick to melodrama, featuring high society folk, cowboys, swashbucklers, vamps, flappers and rascals. Nearly a century later, these films are anything but silent.

Plenty of music, both traditional and modern, will be heard during the Toronto Silent Film Festival, which runs March 30 to April 7. The lineup — seven screenings held in various venues — includes the likes of Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, John Barrymore, F.W. Murnau, King Vidor, Mary Pickford, W.C. Fields and Clara Bow.

Now in its second year, the festival’s opening-night gala presents the little-known Maciste all’inferno (1925) with a new score composed by Andrew Downing and performed by a seven-piece ensemble.

Loosely based on Dante’s “Inferno,” the film features Maciste, a herculean character who appeared in more than 25 films during the silent era. “The special effects are quite extraordinary for the time,” says Downing, who enjoyed scoring the film’s battle sequence: “There’s this beautiful sadness, where the sound tells you what’s going on yet doesn’t quite fit the visuals.”

Downing’s introduction to silent film composition came nearly a decade ago when he was engaged to perform at a winery. “They hadn’t really thought it through, so they expected us to play music while The Phantom of the Opera was playing.” Sensing a wasted opportunity, he composed a score for the 1925 film.

Since then, Downing, who teaches a small jazz ensemble at the University of Toronto, has composed scores for several silents, including the German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Impossible Voyage by George Méliès as well as a series of Mary Pickford shorts, commissioned by TIFF in 2010.

His quirky chamber music compositions and improvisations, which rely heavily on the bassoon and other woodwind instruments, have also learned to take a back seat and not overpower the visuals. “The film can’t adapt to me. I have to adapt to the film,” he says.

Charlie Keil of U of T’s cinema studies department agrees with Downing. “The language is revealing,” he says. “We still call it accompaniment. Anyone making music for film has to be cognizant of who’s leading.”

Although newly commissioned musical scores can generate new interest in a film, Keil says the recent appreciation for silent film music is nothing new. Referring to a 1920s poll surveying Toronto audiences on their movie-going preferences, Keil says music was at the top of the list. “The live component was something that people paid attention to and it helped enrich the overall experience of filmgoing. Poor accompaniment could alter your experience entirely.”

The festival audience will also delight in the rumbling, thunderous sounds of the authentic theatre organ at Casa Loma when it presents It (1927), featuring perennial flapper Clara Bow on April 4. Reproducing the sounds of an entire orchestra, accompanist John Lauter says the theatre organ “was the voice of the silent film.”

A Detroit native, Lauter came to silent accompaniment from a more traditional route, learning from Gaylord Carter, a veteran of the original silent film era who later played in various Detroit theatres.

By creating themes for characters then improvising based on the situation, Lauter loves the spontaneity that is still brought on by a film he has played countless times. “If I were to do two screenings in a row, with a five minute break in between, parts of it would still come out entirely different. It’s all a creation within the moment.”

Unless something is really good, he adds. “Then I keep it.”

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 29, 2011.

Leave a Comment