Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Not So Silent

I know that Spite Marriage isn't one of Buster Keaton's better movies -- it was the last good picture he did before the M-G-M factory broke his spirit, but it still shows signs of being compromised, in a way that his independent pictures don't -- but I like it. And one thing I really like about it is that as a silent film made after the introduction of recorded sound in theatres, it has a pre-recorded and synchronized musical score, meaning that for once we can actually see a Keaton film with a score created at the time.

As I've complained before, most silent movies are currently saddled with scores that just don't sound right. They're either too peppy or too morose, or they don't match up very well with the action, and they certainly don't sound like anything that would have been heard at the time. The score for Spite Marriage may not be a great score, but at least it represents an example of the kind of thing audiences would have expected to hear with a silent comedy. Yet most composers don't try to listen to these scores and learn from them. The DVD set that includes Spite Marriage also includes The Cameraman, which didn't have a pre-recorded score, and the composer for the DVD version created a score that is, stylistically, nothing like the Spite Marriage score. Would it have hurt to ask a composer to listen to that score, or other scores from the late '20s, and model his or her work after that? Then you'd have something that fits the movie.

This scene from Spite Marriage, where Buster tries to get the heroine to lie down, is by far the most famous in the movie (Keaton performed it live for many years thereafter). But note how the music works in this scene. The composer doesn't play a long, jaunty tune to set the rhythm and pace for the scene -- which is how most silent-comedy scores seem to be written nowadays. We don't really get the kind of thing we associate with silent comedy (a peppy tune for muted brass) until the last minute or so. Instead, the score uses short musical sequences, frequently stopping and starting according to the progress of the action, and tries to catch individual actions in the music, as if this is a cartoon. And scoring a silent movie is in many ways quite similar to scoring a cartoon.



2 comments:

Buzz said...

It's amazing how "modern" this sequence is, yet at the same time it can only work WITHOUT dialog. The moment Keaton's character is given speech, he will be trying to cajole his wife into staying awake just long enough to get into bed -- and all the charm and intimacy of the scene would be lost. If you tried something likem this today, it would have to be with an excuse why Keaton's character couldn't/wouldn't talk.

Mike Tennant said...

The connection between scoring silent movies and scoring cartoons is actually quite close. Carl Stalling, who scored the majority of the WB cartoons, started out as a pianist (or maybe organist) in a Kansas City theater, where he played the scores for the silents. However, there were times when the scores didn't arrive with the films, and Stalling would have to improvise his own score. This practical experience provided him with an excellent background for scoring cartoons: inventing or interpolating short pieces of music to convey the general mood of a scene, borrowing liberally from the vast library of existing songs stored in his head.