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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Archive Fever, vol. II

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event at the Donnell Library Center called "Meet the Music Makers: Silent Film Accompanists." In the 1910s and '20s, film distribution companies used to send out musical scores along with the silent films so that a live accompanist could play along in the theaters. Many of those scores have now been lost, and many of the films have been, too. I watched a restored version of a Constance Talmadge film, Mama's Affair (1921, script by Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by Victor Fleming, who later directed Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz), which had been pieced together from 85-year-old fragments. I've been interested in film restoration and decay since I saw the haunting images from Bill Morrison's Decasia a few years ago.

The accompanist for Mama's Affair, Carolyn Swartz, improvised the score for nearly 90 minutes at the event. She took questions at the end, at which point it became clear that the people who attend public library screenings of silent films on weekday afternoons are a very peculiar, self-selecting crowd (I was the youngest person in the audience by more than 40 years). One man asked her why she didn't incorporate a particular song that had been popular in the time period into her improvisation, since there appeared to be a reference to the song's lyrics in the screen titles (it was something about a rose's youthful beauty fading in the autumn--I couldn't relate). She said she didn't know the tune and asked if he could hum a few bars. He began to sing, and at least ten or fifteen audience members joined in! She promised she'd try to fit it in if she ever played for the film again.

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Blogger Ben on Fri Mar 10, 07:47:00 AM:
There's an arthouse theater in Palo Alto that has an original Wurlitzer organ contraption, and an elderly local man opens many films with a few minutes of period score-playing.

There's also the Alloy Orchestra, which writes their own new scores for classic silent films -- so far this includes Metropolis, the Russian film Man with a Movie Camera, and a few others. They play using everything from guitars and saxophones to washboards and garbage can lids. I saw their Metropolis and it was a lot of fun.