Friday, July 3, 2009

Better Music for the Film

This is S. M. Berg's inaugural column for Exhibitor's Trade Review. Prior to his work for ETR, Berg had helped Clarence E. Sinn on the music column in Moving Picture World. He will in fact recycle a number of his contributions to MPW in "Music for the Photoplay."

Better Music for the Film Means Bigger
Box Office Receipts and Pleased Patrons

No phase of the motion picture industry can develop greater problems than those which music brings forth.

Although I claim ten years’ association with music for the film, every day seems to bring difficulties which only earnest thought overcomes. The film never helps the musician, but always demands continued service from him. Not so with the directors.

The manufacturers place at the disposal of directors every facility in the way of costumes, settings, elaborately fitted studios, and yet much in the film is left to the imagination of an audience, which must be overcome by the musical interpretation. Frequently the locale is hard to discover, were it not for subtitles added to the film. I recall an instance of this kind in a picture made in California, the scene being an officer dressed in military uniform, seated in a hut with a negro servant waving a palm leaf over him. This could have represented a situation in almost any country with a warm climate but the sub-title read “The Burning Sands of India.” An orchestra later playing this picture in a theatre, showed good judgment by using a weird Indian number, the melody being carried by oboe with tom-tom accompaniment, resulting in the scene getting over the audience.

Picture a woman quietly seated by her fireside thoroughly engrossed in a piece of embroidery—flash of an exterior—suspicious character lurking around who tries a window to force an entrance—flash interior scene—woman hears noise, turns and sees hand from behind curtain, registers fear and emotion. If during such a situation, a number is played by the orchestra that musically interprets this action, the fear portrayed on the screen will be felt by the audience. Any efforts made by manager or musician cannot be too great to musically play the picture but yet in the same breath must come the warning “Do not overplay.”

A reasonable inquiry would be “What is overplaying?” and the answer should be: “Distracting the audience’s attention by the music predominating. Here is an entirely new phase of music for the film. If one is fortunate enough to be a patron of the opera, how frequently does one find the orchestra ‘drowns the singer,’ due to overzealousness of the conductor.

Every large city today has its Strand, Regent, or Rialto where colossal organ and symphony orchestra are a feature of the advertising and in my reports on visits to many of these houses, it is with reluctance that I must recount that overzealousness and overplaying are predominant. The happy medium is the end that should earnestly be striven after.

In a discussion with a well known manager, a few days ago, who is running quite a large sized house but depends on his music for piano and organ only. I remonstrated with him that he should get a small orchestra, and received the answer, “If I cannot get a big one I’ll stick to what I have got.” Such is the situation today in music for the film and yet it is certainly a pleasure to review the enormous strides which have been made in this branch of work in the past few years. It seems but yesterday in my earlier days, when I too was playing the film and engaging other musicians, that I was frequently answered: “What, I play in a movie theatre?” I can assure my readers that this was no uncommon experience. Strides we all have made but we still have with us horrible examples of non-progressiveness.

As before stated, that music for the film daily brings forward problems that appear insurmountable, I have made a practice of consistently visiting theatres that I may learn pointers to pass on to others interested in the development of this work.

During the past week I visited a theater which here shall be nameless, located in the extreme up-town district of Broadway, New York. The management advertise a change of program on Monday, Thursday and Sunday, together with four big acts of vaudeville. The house is a spacious, modern theatre, with a seating capacity of about 2,000. Price of admission are 10-15-20 cents and boxes 25 cents. The orchestra consists of four musicians, the instrumentation being piano director, violin, cornet and drums. I entered the theatre on a Saturday night at about 8:15 and noticed it was about one-third filled. A foreign musical vaudeville act was on the boards and the orchestra was out of the pit, the act playing its own accompaniment. As the act closed, the orchestra drifted in. When the applause died our, the pianist improvised on the last song that had been rendered, which was “Marie-Marie,” an Italian ditty. The cornet player tried to follow and ignominiously failed. A minute elapsed and when the curtain rose again, a trio of voices was heard off-stage, followed by a singing and talking act with a good deal more talking than singing, so that the orchestra was certainly not overworked. The screen was dropped at the close of this act and the World Film release, The Heart of a Hero,” featuring Robert Warwick, was offered. The picture was released on November 6, and this incident happened on November 11, so the theatre practically was a first run house.

“The Heart of a Hero” depicts the life of Nathan Hale, the great American patriot, whose last words when about to be hanged were, “I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country.” Readers will realize that here s a story demanding every assistance of music and any serious attempt to present this picture with a fitting musical accompaniment would stir the emotions of an American audience. The following is a truthful account of how this was musically presented.

Immediately at the close of the act, as the screen was lowered, the musicians turned out their lights, three of them left the pit, leaving the pianist, who started out playing one of Bohm’s second grade compositions full of arpeggios. This went on for the whole of the first reel. As that neared the end, he repeatedly struck top “A” of the piano several times as sort of a call to the rest of the musicians. They returned to the pit and the drummer distributed a piece of music which happened to be a “Valse Lento” popular two or three years ago, which they continued to play for seven or eight minutes. Then the lights were turned out, again they left the pit with the exception of the drummer who took his place at the piano and improvised for about one-half a reel. Once again the orchestra returned and as the third reel was projected, started in with a selection of the Count of Hoffman which was played from beginning to end.

My patience was exhausted. I left my seat and sought the manager of the house. Introducing myself, I candidly told him the music presented with this patriotic picture was a joke. His reply was: “Yes, I realize that my music is not all that it should be. I have only been manager of this house for one month, during which time I have been forced to change my orchestra twice, and these men now playing have only been with me a week. I know what music should be, because I was assistant to Mr. Rothapfel at the Regent Theatre long before the Strand was built, and many was the time I was kept until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, making a musical setting for the pictures. Perhaps you recall,” continued the manager, “‘Quo Vadis.’ That was one that I worked very hard on. Our difficulty now in this house is to find musicians that will play the vaudeville and also the pictures.”

When this strain of argument was given me, I realized that “discretion was the better part of valor,” and left the theatre because I felt convinced that I expressed what was in my mind, I would possible have been thrown out. This instance appears to be the most flagrant case of negligence that I have ever discovered. Here is a man that served his apprenticeship to the King of the Motion Picture Exhibitors, S. L. Rothapfel, and who openly confessed that he has been robbed of his nights’ sleep in preparing the next day’s work, but yet on his own initiative allows such an inspiring American picture as “The Heart of a Hero,” to be blasphemed by a musical interpretation such as we rendered in his house.

To my thinking this substantially accounts for the house being but one-third filled on a Saturday night in the heart of a Broadway residential district in Greater New York.

Many on reading the above account will possibly accuse me of exaggeration, while some will answer, “Well, this man is playing the penalty of his lack of attention to the music by his poorly patronized house,” but there is still another phase which is worthy of the manufacturers’ consideration. This house is a first run theatre. Possibly the same picture may be booked a few days later in another theatre in the neighborhood. Friends of the patrons who visited the first run theatre might ask the question “How is the ‘Heart of a Hero’? I am going down to see it tonight.” The answer logically would be: “I don’t think much of it,” so that both the film company and the second theatre who played the picture suffer from another’s negligence.

It is pleasure to recall that many of the producing companies realize the importance of music to the film, and have come into line to provide some help to both the player and exhibitor in this work. Sincere co-operation on the part of musicians and manager on behalf of music for the film, will recompense one and all in the end they are striving for, namely, box office receipts and satisfied patrons.

Source: S. M Berg, “Music for the Photoplay,” Exhibitor's Trade Review 9 December 1916, 62.

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