On August 27th, Austin’s Paramount Theatre will be presenting Alfred Hitchcock’s silent classic The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog as part of their Summer Classic Film Series. For this special event, local composer Graham Reynolds will be premiering an original score for the film to be performed live alongside the movie, just as some theaters did for the silent films of the 20th century. In celebration of this recreation of early cinema, here are just a few ways in which film, music, and sound interacted in the heyday of the silent era.
Calhoun, Dave. Ivor Novello and June Tripp in The Lodger, 1927. Digital Image. “The best Alfred Hitchcock movies of all time” Time Out. https://www.timeout.com/newyork/film/the-best-and-worst-alfred-hitchcock-movies. Accessed August 18, 2017.
Though The Lodger was Hitchcock’s third film, he later considered it to be the movie in which he first exercised his signature style.
Music as a Separate Program
In the first decade of the 20th century music was regularly heard around the movie theater, whether it was with a small ensemble or even a gramophone. However, it was not necessarily played during the movie. As strange as it seems now, musical accompaniment wasn’t everybody’s first idea in trying to pair sound and film. Live music was often performed in theaters entirely separate from the films to provide variety to the evening. The music would occasionally even eclipse the movies as the main attraction.
Kwilinski, Kenneth. A nickelodeon theater in Salem, Massachusetts, date unknown. Digital Image. Cinema Treasures. http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/40573. Accessed August 18, 2017.
“Nickelodeon” (five cent) theaters rapidly spread across the country in the early 20th century. Any storefront with a window could be easily converted into a theater, and often they were.
Taking influence from the exhibition practices of the era (including vaudeville shows and even academic lectures), films were preceded and concluded with live music. Illustrated songs or musical acts would also be performed during intermissions and reel changes. There was even a law in the state of Massachusetts that all exhibitors must “furnish some other form of entertainment” for their audiences every twenty minutes. The only music audiences would hear during the movie would be from a pianist or gramophone playing in the lobby of the theater to lure in attendees.
Unknown. An illustrated song image reprinted onto a postcard for purchase, 1908-10. Digital Image. The Portal to Texas History. https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth743985/. Accessed August 18, 2017.
The music videos of their day, illustrated songs were slideshows of images accompanied by lyrics and music.
Yup, there was a time when people were paid to talk during movies. With the intrusive dialogue title cards and ambiguous plots of silent movies, the lecturer’s role was to stand on stage and explain to the audience what was actually going on. Lecturing, like interluding musical acts, was also a previously established exhibition practice popularized by “Magic Lantern” slideshow shows. The presentation style of a lecturer varied and could be anything from scholarly and academic to passionately comedic.
Austin Pixels Staff. A few members from the rotating cast of Master Pancake. “Master Pancake Theater, Austin.” Austin Pixels. http://www.austinpixels.com/2011/05/master-pancake-theater-austin/. Accessed August 18, 2017.
The legacy of entertainment lecturer lives on today as seen through the rise of YouTube commentator culture and performance shows like Alamo Drafthouse’s signature series Master Pancake.
Lecturers did more than just reiterate information, though. A major transformation to the profession began in 1903 when lecturer LeRoy Carlton popularized the hat-trick of impersonating the voices of characters in films, effectively becoming one of the world’s first voice-actors. From 1907-09, multiple movie companies were started with the sole purpose of imitating Carlton’s lecturing style, developing the practice into full-cast productions.
In an attempt to standardize movie screenings with varying lecturers, movie studios wrote and published pre-approved literature for lecturers to read from when presenting their movies. However, the frequently bombastic spirit of these professionals often resulted in lecture performances going off-script.
With the release of many story-heavy films around 1906, more and more theaters began hiring effects artists to perform live sounds in sync with films, imitating everything from a gust of wind to a kiss. Done properly and punctually, sound effects could heighten the realism a film, but anything less than perfect would spell disaster. Common audience complaints included the poor timing of effects artists, unrealistic choices in instrumentation, the lack of continuous sound effects, and paradoxically, the use of continuous sound effects. It was impossible to please everyone.
Clover, David. An illustrated image of the Regent Street Cinema during a magic lantern show with sound effects, pre-1893. Digital image. “West’s ‘Our Navy’ at The Regent Street Polytechnic.” Our Navy. http://user29269.vs.easily.co.uk/polytechnic_exhibitions.htm. Accessed August 18, 2017.
Stephen Bottomore writes that sound crews were often comprised of “unskilled youths,” also known as effects boys. These rambunctious crews were consistently able to get laughs when it came to comedic sounds, but the art of adding realism and drama to a scene was often lost on them.
The lessons learned in trying to balance all of these considerations would influence film sound as we know it today. A primary example of this was when effects artists began learning to use sounds that would indicate an element on screen but not necessarily imitate it, such as recreating the beep of a horn to show a car going by instead of the sound of a roaring engine. In being more subtle and letting the imagination of the audience fill in the gaps, sounds could be present but not interrupt the narrative of the film.
In some theaters, musicians (most often pianists) were also given the role of providing sound effects. As sound crews started to loose popularity in the 1910s, hiring instrumentalists proved to be more economical. This influx of skilled musicians is perhaps what laid the groundwork for music to begin accompanying films with fully realized compositions.
Although musical accompaniment for films had been done in the early 1900s, it was by no means a popular trend. In 1907, Baltimore theater owner William Fait was actually laughed at for having his pianist play classical music during movies. But as more musicians started performing sound effects alongside movies, film critics argued that music could be used to signal the emotional tones of a film rather than just the visual ones.
Bullerjahn, Claudia. Cartoon depiction of a pianist inappropriately playing the tune “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly” to a death scene, from Moving Picture World, 1911. Digital Image. “Der Song als durchgängig bedeutender Bestandteil der Filmmusikgeschichte.” ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/260639223_fig1_Abbildung-1-Karikatur-von-H-F-Hoffman-bezogen-auf-unpassende-Stummfilmbegleitungen. Accessed August 18, 2017.
Musical accompaniment had the capacity to commentate on the emotional state of a movie. However, selecting appropriate music for a given scene was a learning process.
Musical accompaniment became the preferred aural gimmick for silent movie theaters in the 1910s. Although audiences enjoyed musical accompaniment, there were still many criticisms much like there were for sound effects and lecturers. The difference was that musical accompaniment was fully endorsed by film studios for its potential in standardizing the business end of cinema.
As musical accompaniment grew in popularity, many theaters began installing second projectors in their facilities. This allowed projectionists to alternate film reels quickly, eliminating the need for illustrated songs and multiple intermissions. This was a calculated effort on behalf of movie studios in order to transform movie-going into a more focused, high-class event. By cutting out the time previously taken up by live music, studios were able to present feature length films, rather than shorter movies. Ultimately, musical accompaniment was more business-friendly than other sound practices. It drew the audience’s attention to the film’s narrative rather than to an illustrated song, an uncontrollable lecturer, or poorly-trained sound effect performers.
Baum, L. Frank. The title card for His Majesty the Scarecrow of OZ, with music composed by Louis F. Gottschalk, 1914. Digital Image. “His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/His_Majesty,_the_Scarecrow_of_Oz. Accessed August 20, 2017.
In 1912, the first cue sheets for instrumentalists that allowed a standardized, notated format for accompanying movies were commercially published. Film corporations such as The Oz Film Manufacturing Company were some of the first to produce original scores for their films.
Although organized semi-chronologically for this article, all of these sound practices were still being used to at least some degree throughout the silent film era. Some theaters would even overlap the disciplines, utilizing a mix of lecturers, sound effects, or accompaniment (though not very successfully). That said, musical accompaniment seems to be the end-all amalgamation of these practices: it informs the viewer of the emotional and narrative contexts of the film, provides musical sound effects, and of course, demonstrates the artistry of live music.
To experience the sounds of silent cinema yourself, be sure to check out The Lodger at the Paramount, this Sunday, August 27, 2017 at 3:00pm.