Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Interview with Hugo Riesenfeld

Here is a short interview with Hugo Riesenfeld from 1919. In this interview, Riesenfeld discusses the rise of orchestral accompaniment in the cinemas and the wider use of classical repertory.

Music in the Picture Theatre

Hugo Riesenfeld Mixes Interesting Bits of Philosophy With Plain "Hoss Sense" On Subject

MUSIC and its place in the motion-picture of yesterday, to-day and tomorrow was the subject of an interview recently had with Hugo Riesenfeld, the managing director of the Rivoli and Rialto, Broadway's photoplay palaces. The salient comments of Mr. Hugo are quoted directly, as much of their significance would be otherwise lost:

"The taste for good moving pictures is inherent; it is mankind's desire to see itself and its neighbor. In the big city, where the personal touch does not exist for a large part of the population, there are hundreds of thousands who seek in the movie the picture of domestic life, the family group, the little home incidents the romances of everyday existence that the inhabitant of the small city and the country lives day by day.

"The desire for good music, however, is not innate. It is gained by most of us from hearing the best of tunes again and again, until we acquire the taste. Added to the motion picture, in pleasing surroundings and carefully chosen to fit the story, music and pictures blend into one harmonious whole, and the audience scarcely realizes that it is getting as much good music as it would hear at an ordinary concert. And it does not go to sleep.

"The taste in pictures improves under the stimulus of good music until the original movie fan becomes a confirmed motion picture and music patron. How the taste for better things in motion picture theatres developed is best seen from the offerings in the average motion picture house. A month ago I was in a theatre far uptown and saw a beautiful scenic picture with a voice singing behind the stage. I heard people exclaiming about the beauty on the screen and the music. The idea, first conceived and executed in the more expensive theatres downtown, has spread to the little neighborhood institutions and is being appreciated to the utmost by thousands whom neither propaganda for classical music nor music school could reach.

"Four years ago we bashfully introduced a classical number here and there on our program, but the bulk of our music was of the promenade concert variety. Four years of serious effort has not been in vain. We are not afraid to-day to play the most difficult and modern composers and the people like it.

"The next step? The motion picture-music houses are coming in great numbers. If I were to venture into the field of prophecy I should say that within the next five years New York will see the present Broadway theatrical district one great array of beautiful motion picture houses. The orchestras will be an even bigger feature than they are now, and we have almost fifty trained men in each of our houses. But the people want music and they are going to get it."

Source: “Music in the Picture Theatre,” Music Picture News 22 November, 1919: 3729.
Image from Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Note that Riesenfeld's name is misspelled in the database (and on the photograph).

Monday, April 27, 2009

Not a "Moving Picture Show"

Here is an interesting ad for B. F. Keith's Bijou theater in Boston from 1910. (Click image to bring you to original source in Google Books.)

Note how the ad attempts to separate the Bijou from other movie theaters on the basis of the other elements of the show:

  1. lectures

  2. lantern slides

  3. live drama

  4. music

The description of the music shows a particular need to balance priorities: "high grade but not too classical; pleasing but not too commonplace." We would be hard-pressed to come up with a better description of the "middle-brow."

Piano Rolls

Here is a ad for a music service that provides piano rolls designed specifically for motion picture houses. This is also from Motion Picture News and you can click through to go to the original source in Google Books.
Text not available

Grauman Show in 1919

Here is a nice little 1919 article from Motion Picture News describing a Sid Grauman stage act, complete with a number of good photos. Double click the image and it will take you to the article in Google Books.
With the cut on the opposite page the full stage of Grauman

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Types of Musical Accompaniment

This is an excerpt from George Beynon's 23 March 1918 "Music for the Picture" column in The Moving Picture World. In this column Beynon tries to sort out the differences among the music services available to producers and exhibitors of the time. In the middle of his discussion, he takes a long detour into issues of modulation.
“Music Service for the Exhibitor.”

A well-known producer confessed to us the other day that he did not know the difference between a score, a setting or a cue sheet, and supplemented the remark by saying he did not believe one producer in ten knew what he was paying for in the matter of the much-abused term, “Music Service for the Exhibitor.”

For the information of exhibitor, producer and orchestra leaders, we will try to classify specifically all forms of music pertinent to “Fitting the Pictures.”

MUSICAL SCORE—A Musical score is a compilation of either original or standard music, prepared in synchrony with each and every dominant scene of the picture, carrying throughout themes and counter-themes to denote the characters portrayed on the screen. Each number should be in key sequence and arranged in such a manner that there be no obvious break during the playing of the entire score. They must of necessity be short, and for that reason requires varied orchestral treatment to avoid monotony. Many occasions arise where there are two characters in the foreground, and two themes must be blended together, showing two emotions at one and the same time. Frequently a standard number must be changed in tempo and rhythm to convey the proper idea. Special legitimate effects sometimes must be arranged by the use of the orchestral instruments themselves to obviate shoddiness. All these things call for superb orchestration and a thorough knowledge of instrumentation. A real musical score requires almost as much ingenuity, careful thought and untiring efforts as an opera score, for in every way it meets the same obstacles, which must be overcome. “The scores for “The Birth of a Nation,” “Ramona,” “Civilization,” “Intolerance,” or “Peer Gynt,” will live and continue to be classed as epochs in the picture industry. These are prepared only for the big run features.

MUSICAL SETTING—A musical setting is comprised of standard selections placed loosely, in rotation, in a folder, for the purpose of fitting a picture. There is no synchrony, and because of that fact, no key sequence is considered, for it may happen that where the break occurs the key will fit the following number perfectly. For practical purposes one theme only is used, although it is sometimes feasible to use two. This music cannot possibly fit every foot of the picture, but can hold the atmosphere in a general way and carry the picture. These are used in every theater and are frequently prepared by the aid of cue sheets.

MUSICAL CUE SHEET—A musical cue sheet is a prepared list of cues, indicating where the music should be changed, and suggesting certain selections which are suitable for use, with the tempo and character of each noted to allow for substitution. The approximate time is shown, and sometimes a three-word description of the scene to be fitted is given. Cue sheets are distributed by the picture producers for the benefit of the exhibitor who cannot procure his film in time to see it before the first performance, and are good, bad, or indifferent, according to the ability displayed by the writer of them.

MUSICAL SUGGESTION SYNOPSIS is a concise musical review of the picture with suggested numbers that may be used as a theme. Atmosphere, period of time, location and big moments are noted, and frequently selections are mentioned for use in the climaxes.

At the present time of writing, the above is a complete classification of music for the pictures. The rapid growth of the industry, bringing with it new ideas, may cause changes to be made in the method of musical presentation, but now we can only rely on four forms denoting picture accompaniment.

The importance of music as an adjunct to the picture has been but recently recognized, and there is considerable confusion in the minds of producer, exhibitor and layman regarding its classification. By definition, example and qualifications, we have tried to standardize music for the pictures in order that the producer will not be further muieted [quieted?] by unscrupulous arrangers, and exhibitors will know what they are getting when called by its proper name.

Scores and settings are frequently regarded as one, and the same thing and capital is made out of it by those fakers who throw together loose music and demand score prices for it. In many respects the two are alike; they are played as an accompaniment and must fit the picture. The difference lies in the necessary qualifications required by each.

A score must follow the picture minutely, foot by foot, as an accompaniment follows the voice. It must be in perfect synchrony. By this we mean that if a dominant scene has a footage of 150 feet, and the film projection calls for 15 minutes to the thousand feet, the appropriate selections should run exactly two minutes and fifteen seconds. Naturally the number of measures required will be governed by the tempo selected. An adagio or andante sostenuto number will not be as long as an allegro or allegretto. The following examples, indicative of the time duration of fifteen seconds, will show a marked difference, and by using these as a basis one can readily understand how an entire score can be in absolute synchrony.

A score must have key sequence—in other words, each successive number must be in a relative key to the one immediately preceding it. As students of harmony well know, there are five relatives to every key, so the task is not so great as would appear on the surface. Besides using legitimate relatives, it is permissible to use an enharmonic key, or one which begins with a note common in the chord of the preceding key; for example: Going from the key of F to the Key of A major, we find A is the third of the chord in the key of F, and is also the tonic of the key of A. The best results are obtained when they finish and begin.

At (A) you will notice the upper A is held in common, the F falls one half tone, and the C rises one-half tone, while at (B) these progressions similarly obtain, but in different voices.

The following examples of enharmonic keys are the only ones available and must be used judiciously lest discord appear in the change:

1—5 flats, key of Db, has for its enharmonic 7 sharps, key of C sharp
2—6 flats, key of Gb, has for its enharmonic 6 sharps, key of F sharp
6—7 flats, key of Cb, has for its enharmonic 5 sharps, key of B
and vice versa.

The following table of relative flat keys is worked out in the sharp keys in the same manner.

[1662] Our contention is not that these keys should be used in sequence and selection made with this in mind only. By no means. A number must first be selected for its suitability alone, and then if it does not fall within the rule for key sequence, it should be transposed to a key relative to the preceding number. Before deciding the key for transposition, the orchestration should be carefully scrutinized lest a key be selected that will carry some instrument out of its range. This would be calamitous and make the work of transposition absolutely abortive. Where there appears to be no key suitable for transposition, it is better to write an original modulation for approximately a fifteen-second length. This should be tacked on the end of the preceding number and not used at the cue for the next number. Of course, allowance should be made for it in the timing.

The qualifications required for a musical setting are by no means so exacting, nor do they entail such minute detail or painstaking effort. It must fit the picture in a general way and portray the big emotions depicted. No special orchestral arranging is necessary, no blending of themes is possible, nor is key sequence counted upon to work out satisfactorily. Synchrony is not attempted; the principal problem is simply to fit the picture with standard music. This form of musical accompaniment is not a score and must not be classed as such.

Turning from the playable music to the suggestion sheets, remarkable as it may seem, we frequently see producing companies advertise their cue sheets as scores. This is misleading to the exhibitor and his orchestra leader, and is most detrimental to the company itself.

The difference between the cue sheet suggestions and the musical suggestion synopsis is again the difference between detail and generality. In both cases the picture must be seen in order to suggest proper music, but when a cue sheet is prepared, it entails the use of a stop-watch to catch the time, a stenographer to get the titles, and an assistant to note the effects. When the data has been obtained, each number must be selected with care, looking to its suitability, and practicability, for small combinations, as well as for its probable existence in the library of the average orchestra leader. Of course, the tempo being given, he has a chance to substitute if he deems it wise, and this is made easy because of the given time duration. Cue sheets are sent out when no score is prepared, and from them the leader can compile his musical setting.

Musical leaders prefer to disregard cue sheets for some reason or other, and yet they require some idea of the picture they must fit. These fellows used to read the reviews of the pictures in question and thus learn its general trend. As an aid to this class of musicians, the musical suggestion synopsis was adopted and has received many high commendations for its brevity and conciseness. It is also an aid to those leaders who have been neglected by the exchange, or whose cue sheet has been delayed in the mails. It suggests the music required in a general way and leaves to the judgment of the orchestra conductor the proper presentation of his picture.

Music service in any form is absolutely essential to the up-to-date theater, and every producer should see to it that he is getting the service he is paying for under its proper classification.
Source: [George W. Beynon,] “Music for the Picture,” MPW 23 March 1918, 1661-62.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Truth About Voice Doubling, Part IV

Here is the fourth and final part of the article on voice doubling. (Part I here. Part II here. Part III here.)

In this segment, Larkin notes that the practice of voice doubling seems to be waning and in any case there are numerous other issues for the sound film that are exceedingly more troublesome.

[110] Songs for "The Divine Lady" were "dubbed" in after Miss Griffith completed the picture. An odd complication developed when it came to doubling the harp. It had been arranged for Zhay Clark to play this instrument for Miss Griffith, but when that portion of the picture was viewed it was discovered that Miss Griffith's fingernails were longer than Miss Clark's, and that her hands, therefore, could not substitute effectively for Miss Griffith's.

So Miss Clark spent two days teaching Miss Griffith the fingering of the harp, and how to come in with the orchestra. Then the star did the scene herself. The music and songs, according to those acquainted with the facts, were "dubbed" in the East—a feat easily accomplished merely by watching the picture on the screen and getting from doubles a sound-track that would fit properly.

Voice doubling is often done in the monitor room after the production is complete, the double playing the designated instrument or reading the lips of the player and timing his words to fit these lip movements.

But voice doubling seems to be on the wane. As time goes on, there will be less need for it. In rare instances, of course, it will be done where stars can't sing or play the instruments called for int he script. But stars are rapidly learning to sing and play. It won't be long now until a majority of players can boast of these accomplishments.

Then, too, microphone miracles are becoming more prevalent every day. This is due primarily to rapid improvement in equipment. Josef Cherniavsky, the musical director for one company, says: "Give me a person who is not tone deaf and I will make him ninety-five percent perfect in talking pictures." Perhaps Mr Cherniavsky is a wee bit enthusiastic, but at least his outlook indicates the present Hollywood trend.

Bearing out his statement, it is interesting to note that if a voice has tone quality, but lacks volume, the fault can easily be corrected by the amplifier. Take Alice White. Alice White sang her own songs (unless I have been terribly fooled, and I suspect I have!) in "Broadway Babies," sang them sweetly, but in a piping little voice that couldn't be heard off the set. Yet when the "play-back" gave evidence of surprising volume in her tones, loud cheers went up from company officials. The "play-back," by the way, is a device which plays back the voices of the cast from a wax record shortly after the scene is filmed. It's an invaluable check-up.

The problem of the foreign player is, of course, difficult to solve. At first t was regarded as an insurmountable obstacle. It is being discovered by producers, however, that what they thought was a hopeless liability in the beginning has actually become an asset. In the case of feminine players in particular, accent is a decided charm. Such foreign players as Baclanova, Goudal, et al, are giving up the thought of perfecting their English. Nils Asther is studying English religiously. Care will always have to be exercised, nevertheless, in casting these players.

Another instance of piano doubling occurred in "Speakeasy," that splendid underworld picture about the prize-fighter and the girl reporter. Fred Warren, an exceptionally capable pianist, doubled at the piano for Henry B. Walthall. This was accomplished by tying down the keyboard of the real piano at which Walthall sat, so that when he struck the keys, nothing happened. You will remember, of course, that he sat facing the audience in such as position as to conceal his hands. Warren sat off stage at a real piano, about fifteen or twenty feet away, in a spot where he and Walthall could see each other. The recording "mike" was near Warren. As he played, Walthall imitated his motions. They had rehearsed the thing to perfection.

Although voice doubling is to the public the most interesting phase of sound work—because it is hidden from public view, no doubt—it is one of the comparatively simple things which confront producers. Problems much more subtle really vex them. For instance: New caste has grown up with the advent of conversing pictures; sound engineers are competing with directors for prestige and dominance; there is often open warfare between directors and monitor men; the new terminology of the business—"dubbing," "bloping," the invention of "split sets"; the mere fact that light travels faster than sound—a circumstance baffling to engineers, and one that gives them grey hairs.

Just recently sound engineers found out that perfect synchronization in a big theater is virtually impossible—all because light travels faster than sound. IF you are sitting comparatively close to the screen, all is well. If you are sitting in the back of the house, or in the balcony, it's another matter. Sound vibrations reach you after you have seen the image speak. The speed with which light vibrations exceed sound vibrations will depend of course upon where you sit. And this is a problem the sound engineers are trying to solve.

So you see producers have other troubles than doubles!

Source: Mark Larkin, "The Truth About Voice Doubling," Photoplay Magazine, July 1929, 32-33, 108-10.

NB: It is my understanding that Photoplay Magazine from this era is in the public domain due to not having renewed the copyright.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Truth About Voice Doubling, Part III

Here is the third part of the article on voice doubling. (Part I here. Part II here.)

This section notes difficulties Douglas Fairbanks had negotiating the recording apparatus and questions whether Hollywood has any reason to be concerned when people find out that voice doubling is a common practice.

[109] A surprisingly large number of players in the film capital are now training their voices, in diction as well as singing, for the express purpose of avoiding the necessity of voice doubling. Vilma Banky, for instance, spends two hours a day perfecting her English. And James Burroughs, Bessie Love, Carmel Myers, Billie Dove, Gwen Lee, Jaxqueline Logan, Frances Lee, Leatrice Joy, Armand Kaliz and innumerable others are all taking vocal lessons. Most of these have sung professionally at some time in their career.

In that worthy picture, "Alibi," Virginia Flohri, a widely-known radio singer, doubled for Irma Harrison who, you remember, sang a song in the cafe as Toots, the chorus girl. Miss Harrison simulated singing while Miss Flohri actually sang into the microphone off stage. In this instance their timing was not perfect.

MISS FLOHRI also sang for Jeanne Morgan in the Romeo and Juliet vaudeville number, if you remember it, and Edward Jordon sang for Robert Cauterio.

Obtaining suitable voice doubles is often a difficult task. The voice must not only fit the player, it must suit the characterization as well. And good singing voices are not always easily found. One reason for this is that persons of marked vocal accomplishments are frequently reluctant to double. They are afraid their voices will be recognized, that it will cheapen them. A notable case in point was that of Marion Harris, the vaudeville headliner, who turned down an offer of $10,000 from Universal, according to one of her representatives, to substitute her voice for a film player, presumably in "Broadway."

No end of problems develop, of course, in connection with registering the voice. When

[110] Douglas Fairbanks did his bit of talking for "The Iron Mask" his stentorian tones all but wrecked the recording apparatus.

BEFORE beginning, he was cautioned by the sound engineers to speak softly. However, for Doug this was impossible. He could not get dramatic effect with his conversation thus cramped. As a result the first uproarious line of his speech brought the sound men pouring out of the mixing chamber like a swarm of mad hornets. Much argument ensued. Finally Earle Browne, director of dialogue, hit upon the bright idea of moving the microphone thirty feet away and turning it so that it faced away from Fairbanks.

Laura La Plante's problem in "Show Boat" was quite the opposite of Doug's. The most difficult thing she had to learn in working with a double was, not to sing silently, but to finger a banjo perfectly. She realized, naturally, that the eyes of countless trained musicians would be upon her in the audiences the world over. In consequence, she could not fake. She had to be convincing. So she spent several weeks learning the correct fingering of a banjo.

Some of the stars, of course, actually play musical instruments, though few have done so professionally. There's Bessie Love and her ukulele, and a few others. In "Mother Knows Best," Barry Norton actually played the piano while Sherry Hall sang his song. Sherry stood before the "mike" just outside the camera lines and Barry played his accompaniment and at the same time spoke the words of the song inaudibly, putting into them the proper timing, a thing possible to him because of his knowledge of music.

Of course, every effort is made on the part of producers to guard the secret of doubling. Picture-makers feel that it spoils the illusion, that it hurts a production's box office appeal. In this respect, however, they are wrong. I know this from my own personal experience in exploitation work. In nearly twelve years of steering the box office destinies of photoplays—especially film roadshows, some of the largest of which I have handled personally—I have yet to encounter a single set-back or loss because the public had knowledge of a double's work. On the other hand, I found that it often stimulated business to let the public in on a secret or two.

Eva Olivotti, one of Hollywood's most prominent voices, assured a friend that, if it became known that she doubled for Laura La Plante in the singing numbers of "Show Boat," she would never be able to obtain another job. That is an example of the fear instilled into the hears of the doubles by the companies for which they work. They are afraid even to breathe the nature of their employment.

THE fact remains, however, that Miss Olivotti did sing Miss La Plante's songs and sang them very well, indeed.

Part IV here.

Source: Mark Larkin, "The Truth About Voice Doubling," Photoplay Magazine, July 1929, 32-33, 108-10.

NB: It is my understanding that Photoplay Magazine from this era is in the public domain due to not having renewed the copyright.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Truth about Voice Doubling, Part II

Here is the second part of the article on voice doubling. (Part I here.) Of particular interest in this segment are the descriptions of looping and rerecording of music for dubbing onto the sound track. In fact, extensive rerecording remains uncommon until at least 1931 due to the loss of fidelity when mixing multiple recordings.
[33]If you saw "Weary River," you will remember that dick sat at a piano and played and also sang. The means by which this was accomplished was ingenious to say the least.

YOU will remember that it was a grand piano. Mr. Barthelmess faced the audience. You did not see his hands upon the keys, yet you saw him go through the motions of playing and singing. And you heard what you thought was his voice. But it was not his voice.

Many persons have said that it was the voice of Frank Withers. But it was not. It was the voice of Johnny Murray, former cornetist at the Cocoanut Grove, and now under contract to First National to sing for Richard Barthelmess. He is a real, dyed-in-the-wool voice double, Johnny is.

There was much enthusiasm on the set the day Johnny Murray put over the song, "Weary Rever." Dick threw his arms around Johnny's shoulder and said something like this: "Don't you ever die, young fella, or go East, or get run over, or anything!" And they both laughed.

Dick faced the audience during the filming of the scenes at the piano at which Dick sat, but that is not so. But the strings of the instruments were deadened with felt so that when Dick struck the keys, the strings would give forth no sound. And Frank Churchill, pianist in a Hollywood theater orchestra, sat at a real piano off stage and played the accompaniment while Johnny Murray sang. The recording microphone was close to them and nowhere near Barthelmess. Dick merely faked the singing and playing, but he did it so beautifully that the results were convincing beyond doubt.

Probably the highest paid voice double in pictures is Lawford Davidson, who doubles

[108] for Paul Lukas. Mr. Lukas, an exceptionally fine actor, is handicapped for American pictures by a foreign accent. For that reason, therefore, it is necessary for someone else to speak his lines. And Davidson is said to receive five hundred dollars a week for this service.

Many individuals in Hollywood are wondering why Davidson has seen fit to submerge his own personality for this sort of work, for he is regarded as fully as gifted an actor in his own right as Paul Lukas. He is listed in all casting offices as a five-hundred-dollars-a-week man. It may be, of course, that he has an arrangement to appear in other pictures, too.

There are a number of ways of doubling the voice on the screen. Usually it is done through a method known as "dubbing." This means that it is done after the picture is shot. "Dubbing" is a term handed down to the movies by the makers of phonograph records. When portions were taken off several phonograph records to make one record, the process was referred to as "dubbing." So "dubbing" it is these days in pictures.

Most of the dubbing that Margaret Livingston did for Louise Brooks in "The Canary Murder Case" was accomplished by "dubbing." Miss Livingston took up a position before the "mike" and watched the picture being run on the screen. If Miss Brooks came to a door and said, "Hello, everybody, how are you this evening?" Miss Livingston watched her lips and spole Miss Brooks' words into the microphone.

Thus a sound-track was made and inserted

[109] in the film. And that operation is called "dubbing."

All synchronizations are dubbed in after the picture is finished. The production is edited and cut to exact running length, then the orchestra is assembled in the monitor room (a room usually the size of the average theater) and the score is played as the picture is run. The sound-track thus obtained is "dubbed" into the sound film or on to the record, depending on which system is used.

If foreign sounds stray into the film, such as scratches and pin-pricks, they are "bloped" out. Some call it "blooping." This means they are eliminated with a paintbrush and India ink. The method is not unlike that applied to the retouching of photographic negatives.

Voice doubling is sometimes forced upon the producers as an emergency measure. Such was the case with Paramount in connection with "The Canary Murder Case."

THEY called Miss Livingston to the studio one day and said, "Miss Livingston, we are up against it and we think you can help us out. We want to turn 'The Canary Murder Case' into a talkie and Miss Brooks is not available. We think you can double for her. Will you do it?"

She thought it over. Well, why not? It meant experience in the talkies, and double her usual salary. So she work clothes that duplicated Miss Brooks', "dubbed" some of the stuff and played some of it straight, her profile always to the camera.

A few times she missed the timing, and as a result her words did not come out even with Miss Brooks' lip movements.

After it was all over a very amusing incident occurred. Miss Livingston was sitting in a restaurant in New York and the friend with whom she was having dinner remarked, "So you have been talking for Louise Brooks, have you?"

From a nearby table came a strange voice. "Yes," quoth the voice, "and it had better be good!"

They looked around in astonishment and there sat Louise Brooks!

Of course, they all laughed and immediately went into a huddle about Hollywood.

Part III here.
Source: Mark Larkin, "The Truth About Voice Doubling," Photoplay Magazine, July 1929, 32-33, 108-10.

NB: It is my understanding that Photoplay Magazine from this era is in the public domain due to not having renewed the copyright.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Truth About Voice Doubling, Part I

As the earlier post on voice doubling indicates, Photoplay Magazine was well aware of the practice in 1929. In July of that year, they published a relatively long article on the practice. The first part of it is reprinted below.
The Truth about Voice Doubling

When you hear your favorite star sing in the talkies, don't be too sure about it. Here are the facts about sound doubling and how it is done.

Light travels 186,000 miles per second, but nobody cares. Sound pokes along at approximately a thousand feet a second, and still nobody cares.

But when Richard Barthelmess, who is famed as a film star and not as a singer, bursts into song in "Weary River," playing his own accompaniment, folks begin to prick up their ears.

And when Corinne Griffith plays a harp in "The Divine Lady" and acquits herself vocally, with the grace of an opera singer, people commence asking pointed questions.

And when Barry Norton does a popular number to his own accompaniment in "Mother Knows Best," a quizzical light appears in the public's eye.

Then, too, when Laura La Plante strums the banjo in "Show Boat" and renders negro spirituals below the Mason and Dixon line style, the public breaks out in an acute rash of curiosity which can be cured only by disclosing state secrets of the cinema.

Richard Barthelmess did not sing and play the piano in "Weary River." A double did it.

Corinne Griffith did not sing or play the harp in "The Divine Lady." A double did it.

Barry Norton did not sing in "Mother Knows Best." A double did it. He did, however, play the piano.

Laura La Plante did not sing and play the banjo in "Show Boat"—at least not for all the songs. Two doubles helped her. One played the banjo, the other sang.

And so it goes, ad infinitum.

THERE are voice doubles in Hollywood today just as there are stunt doubles. One is not so romantic as the other, perhaps, but certainly just as necessary.

Those who create movies will probably not cheer as we make this announcement. In fact, they may resent our frankness. They may even have the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences write letters to PHOTOPLAY about it.

Richard Barthelmess received what he considered rather embarrassing publicity in connection with the song he did not sing in "Weary River." And, as a result of that, persons who undoubtedly know say that he is effecting a change of policy regarding future pictures. I was told on good authority that he informed Al Rockett, who heads First National's studios in Burbank, that he did not choose to

[33] sing in forthcoming photoplays. "I am not a song and dance man," he explained, "and I don't want any pictures that feature me as such."

Nevertheless, Richard will sing—or rather someone will sing for him—in his forthcoming feature, titled at present, "Drag." That is, he will have a voice double unless they change the story. One never knows, you know, until the picture is released. There's many a slip between the screen and the cutting-room floor!

But Dick will not be seen actually in the act of singing as was the case in "Weary River." Probably there will be only his shadow, and the expression of the man for whom he is singing, this man—in the rôle of a song producer—registering reactions to the song.

Go to Part II.

Source: Mark Larkin, "The Truth About Voice Doubling," Photoplay Magazine, July 1929, 32-33, 108-10.

NB: It is my understanding that Photoplay Magazine from this era is in the public domain due to not having renewed the copyright.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Playing for the Picture

In 1918, George W. Beynon assumed the role of running the "Music for the Picture" column in The Moving Picture World, taking over from Clarence E. Sinn, who had been running the column on and off since its inception in November 1910. Beynon's inaugural column, reprinted below, includes a brief biography of Beynon, where we learn, among other things, that at one point in his career Beynon was hired to synchronize music to Lasky's Famous Player films and that he was expected to complete his work on a film in three days. This is probably a good guide to how long it took professionals in theaters at the time to do their synchronization work—clearly it was very labor intensive.

(This paragraph has been updated.) After his retirement from the film music business, where evidently he made a considerable amount of money, Beynon lost his fortune in the 1929 crash. In the 1930s, he would become an organizer of bridge tournaments and a newspaper columnist on the game. In 1993, the NY Times still recognized him as a G.O.M. of the game. Early in life, Beynon also had a brief career as a professional hockey player, but after a fight during his third year in the league, he was barred for life. (One this point, see Beynon's obituary in the NY Times 11 June 1965.)

Beynon to Edit Music Department.

Beginning with this issue of the Moving Picture World (February 2) the Music Department will be conducted by George W. Beynon. Mr. Beynon is a musician of wide experience and marked skill. He has made a deep study of photoplay requirements, and of the demands of the management of theaters and of the desires of the public.

Mr. Beynon was born in Canada, but later became a citizen of the United States. He was graduated in Arts from the University of Toronto. Under the tutition of Dr. Anger, an authority on harmony and theory and author of many text books, he spent four years in the Toronto Conservatory of Music. In Leipsic [sic], Germany, he was given the Mus. Doc. degree.

Much time has been given by Mr. Beynon to orchestral and band arranging. He has synchronized many operas to tableau form, which have been used extensively. As an arranger his experience has covered songs, classic and popular music, vaudeville acts and grand opera selections.

Mr. Beynon spent some years as a professional singer. He has a deep bass voice and filled concert and recital dates all over the country. He led choirs and bands, and later entered the orchestral field, where he has remained. In September, 1915, Mr. Beynon was engaged by Oliver Morosco to assemble and synchronize music for “Peer Gynt.” The first playing of the arrangement was at the Broadway Theater by an orchestra of thirty pieces.

As a result of this work Mr. Beynon was engaged to write a score for all of the Pallas and Morosco productions and later secured a contract with the Famous Players and Lasky companies. His schedule called for the arrangement of a score every three days. A total of 162 were written. Exhibitors praised Mr. Beynon’s work, and it is said that many found the way paved for the enlargement of their orchestras and the increasing of their prices of admission.

Mr. Beynon has been retained by some of the large film companies to take charge of their musical service. Also he has found time to direct the musical programs of several theaters.

On January 27, at the presentation at the Lyric Theater of “Lest We Forget,” Mr. Beynon personally will direct an orchestra of thirty pieces.

Proper Presentation of Pictures Musically. Playing for the Picture.

Music for the picture is here to stay. The screen action, watched in silence, has not the wonderful effect that is obtained by use of a musical setting which holds the atmosphere and interprets the dominant emotion. The musical accompaniment to a song is always subservient to, and in perfect tempo with, the singer. It rises and falls with the voice, breathing softly in the pianissimo passages and crashing loudly in forte moments, yet never dominating the situation, nor predominating over the voice. It supports and carries the singer. This principle applies exactly to music for the photoplay. Let your music support the action and carry the atmosphere of the feature.

In this day of symphony orchestras of thirty or forty men, music values have been distorted beyond all proportion. Some of our biggest theaters have become a bedlam of noise, and the idea prevails that each scene must be interpreted musically, to the extreme. We are carried back to the Biblical days when the “sound of brass and crashing of cymbals” was music to the ears of the populace; when songs were loudly shouted and the “trumpets blared” out their motifs. Surely we cannot blame the photoplay for this retrogradation, but the fact remains that many orchestras do not accompany the picture, but play over it.

A scene depicting the grief of an aged mother is shown and the orchestra begins “Asa’s Tod” by Grieg, when “One Who Has Yearned Alone” (Tschaikowsky), “A Keltic Lament” (Foulda) or Lamento (Gabriel-Marie) would have been more reasonable. When they must fit a real anguishing death scene, they have used their loudest thunder and the scene becomes less impressive by contrast. Why use Il Guarany Overture for a picayune fight when one may need it for a terrible battle scene, or La Chevaukee from La Valkyrie for horsemen riding, when it may be used for the stirring onslaught of rushing cavalry charges. The many beautiful selections, specially arranged for strings alone, are seldom, if ever, used in large orchestras. Yet they are most effective, easily procured, and provide a charming change of color, that soothes the ear. It is a grave mistake to use dynamic numbers that overshadow the scene depicted. Each selection sticks out like a sore thumb and the attention of the patrons is detracted from the picture entirely. Losing for the moment the thread of the plot, they sit back and listen to the concert.

Many leaders try to fit every passing scene or “flash back” and provide a choppy, meaningless mélange that irritates the audience. Each scene or series of scenes always has a predominant thought or motif behind the action shown. It is the thought which should be portrayed, and if a “flash back” occurs it does not signify a change in the dominant emotion. Thus the music should continue until a complete change is established. For example, a father is dying and longing for his only song. We are shown in a “flash” the dissipated son, drinking in a saloon. This lasts for 15 seconds and returns to the death bed scene. Sorrow is the dominant emotion and to change to a fox-trot for the “flash” would disrupt the continuity of the scene. The father dies, the family slowly leave [sic] the room with the doctor, and we are then shown an exterior of the home of the hero. This is the point to change the music to a lighter vein in keeping with what follows. There may be a series of scenes containing the same feeling, but distinctly separate and remote from the standpoint of action. In this instance there need be no change in the music to fit each scene; for, by using a long selection which portrays the prevalent thought, you get a smooth and true presentation. Cowbells, sand blocks, wind machines and traps of all description are frequently brought in at every possible excuse. In fact, a drummer is sometimes judged by his agility in handling, one after the other, every contraption around him. Legitimate “effects” have their place in re-enforcing the disturbances depicted on the screen, but when used continually become meaningless and a nuisance.

The fallacy lies in the fact that musical director tries to get as many big musical moments as possible into every film. The consequence is, that, taking the music in its entirety, you get the idea of a series of mountains and valleys, the latter being the incidental or neutral numbers (selected to give the orchestra a little rest) which, by contrast, become drab and meaningless. The photoplay, as the name indicates, is a play given upon the screen, and all the varied scenes and situations gradually lead to a climax. This may come at the finish of the picture, just before the end, or in the middle. Music should be selected with this point kept in view. The climax of the picture should be the climax of your music, though subservient to, and always below, the action. At no time should music predominate or stand out from the scenes shown. The entire setting should be graded up to the climax and down to the anti-climax. There are many examples of big scenes that would be accepted as the climax if the orchestra were not careful in its playing for them. Music must keep pace with the progressive strides of the picture industry. The time has passed when a job-lot of music can be dumped into the orchestra pit to be played for the picture. Music must fit each prevailing emotion (not dominate it), in tempo and character, and also in sequence with the preceding number, with due regard for what is to follow. Key sequence is necessary, to obviate abrupt discords in changing from one number to the next and to consolidate the many selections into a comprehensible whole. The entire musical setting should be built up and welded together; a perfect accompaniment to the picture, unheard by the audience but felt.

Leader Service Bureau. Questions Answered—Suggestions Offered.

Q. “Can music be procured for a saxaphone [sic] quintet in sufficient quantities to use for pictures?”

A. “No. There is little if any music written solely for saxaphones, but if you wish to introduce the instruments into your orchestra, the baritone saxaphone readily plays from a cello part, the alto from a clarinet part transposed and the soprano from the violin part. As an innovation we imagine it would be immense, but might become too ‘Jazzy’ as a regular thing.”

Q. “What is the best instrumentation of a seven-piece orchestra for a small theater playing pictures?”

A. “Piano, Harmonium, two Violins, Flute, Clarinet, and Cello.”

Q. Do you believe in changing the traditional tempo of a number to suit the scene?”

A. “Generally speaking, no—but if the scene is interrupted by a ‘flash back’ of a few seconds the music might be retarded or hastened to fit the flash, returning to the original tempo to complete the scene.”

Q. “Can I get a list of music that can be played free?”

A. “We refer you to our printed lists in the issue of November 10, November 24, December 29, January 12 and January 26. If you cannot readily procure these we will be pleased to send you a copy of them upon your request.”

Q. “I am anxious to study Harmony. What are the best text books to use?”

A. “The best is a matter of opinion. We should suggest ‘Harmony,’ by Prout, ‘Harmony and Theory,’ by Richter, ‘First Rudiments of Harmony,’ by Anger.”

Source: George W. Beynon, “Music for the Picture,” Moving Picture World 2 February 1918, 675.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Michael Bay Eating a Bowl of Cereal

This short film parodies recent cinematic trends in action films. The sound track is equally over the top, and it occurs to me that because the clip uses no dialogue and because, as a parody, it self-consciously invokes the rhetorical excesses of contemporary cinematic codes, it might serve as an effective example for a commutation test.

The easiest way to prepare the video for a commutation test would be to capture the video stream using something like or a program like Snapz Pro X for the Mac and then strip the audio using appropriate editing software (Quicktime Pro, MPEG Streamclip, iMovie, etc.).

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Voice Doubling

Here is a nice image of voice doubling in the early sound era. Here, the doubling is being done live. It could also be "predubbed"—that is, prerecorded—with the actors lip-syncing to playback or "postdubbed"—that is, a voice rerecorded through "looping" after the filming. In 1929, mixing in postproduction was technically possible but unreliable, and so was not common. When postdubbing was used, generally the entire performance (rather than just the voice) had to be redone.

Image source: Photoplay, June 1929

Monday, April 13, 2009

How It Is Done at the Strand, Part III

No, you haven't missed parts I and II. I just haven't yet inputted the first two parts.

In any case, the item below is from a series of articles that Harold Edel, manager of the Strand Theater in New York City, wrote for Moving Picture World in 1918. Here, he is talking about how he uses singers on his program. This is further evidence that the illustrated song did not so much disappear as it was transformed into part of the "musical portion" of the show, with the emphasis now falling more on the musical performance than on the illustration. Interestingly, Edel suggests a strongly gendered aspect of the transformation, as female singers were apparently by 1918 generally given a simple "spotlight" treatment, whereas the men were more likely to be supplemented by visual aids (if not slides per se). That, at least, is Edel's view.

It has been noticed at the Strand Theater that usually, when a single male singer appears, his offering is enhanced with special effects in the way of drops and lighting, while in the case of the female artist this is not as a rule evident. The reason for this is about the same as that which prompts the editor of the newspaper to print the picture of a woman more readily than that of a man. An attractive female artist can keep the interest of an audience centered upon herself throughout the entire length of her offering as a result of her personal charm and with the aid of graceful gestures, which, of course, cannot be used by the man. In other words, we have accepted the statement that woman has more magnetism than man. Thus when it comes to a question of the rendition of a vocal number the female singer, as a rule, immediately has the advantage over the male, and to make up for this handicap we make special effort to enhance his presentation. It is for this reason also that we allow a woman to render one selection during the entire time she is on the stage, while a man usually presents two numbers in the same length of time. A change of numbers also tends to keep up, if not increase the audience’s interest in the artist.

If the audience of the Strand, or similar theaters, consisted entirely of dyed-in-the-wool music fans this would not be necessary to such an extent, for then a voice of merit would in itself satisfy. However, when an audience consists of strict motion picture fans, semi-music lovers and ardent patrons of high-class music, in order to satisfy all it is necessary to present more than a good voice. The rendition of a number must be made interesting to the person who comes to the theater only because Mary Pickford’s picture is there, as well as the patron who purchases a ticket chiefly to hear the Strand’s musical program. It is therefore necessary for an exhibitor to look upon the presentation of his musical program differently from the man who holds a musicale for lovers of music only.

As an illustration: Recently one of our beautiful female artists rendered one vocal number in the time allotted to her appearance on the stage. With merely a spotlight upon the young women throughout the entire number she presented her offering, enhancing her wonderful voice with a personality that was equally wonderful, and receiving a storm of applause. Later in the evening, even though he was a finished artist and a handsome man, one of our male singers, in the same length of time consumed by the young woman, presented two shorter numbers, each with special drops and lighting. Though he was personally just as talented an artist as the female singer, and despite the fact that his two numbers were exceptionally suited to his voice, the female singer received just as much applause without the stage effects as he did. This I have observed time and again.

It was some time ago when I noticed the applause given men did not average up to that accorded to women singers, and ever since I have tried to make up for this in the manner above described. As an illustration of just how we enhance the presentation of a male vocal offering I will cite the effects accorded Herbert Waterous, the prominent bass soloist, during his recent appearance at the Strand. As usual he was scheduled to sing two numbers, “Out on the Deep” and “There’s a Million Heroes,” the latter having been selected for its patriotic possibilities in presentation.

“Out on the Deep” was rendered before an appropriate drop, with the spotlight on the singer, suitable changing of lighting taking place on the drop, the house itself being semi-lighted. Then as direct contrast the house was thrown into darkness and on the stage appeared a drop of the White House, in the evening sky which appeared the faces of the various celebrities mentioned in the lively song. During the second chorus, at the psychological moment, the screen was lowered and motion pictures of marching troops from various parts of the country were projected. Applause punctuated the singing of this song every few seconds as different visualizations were offered. Thus the patriotic effect of the song was brought out to best advantage, and, to use the vernacular of the theater, it stopped the show at practically every performance.

Various exhibitors have failed to make their vocal selections popular because they have not analyzed their audience enough to learn that the presentation of these numbers is an art in itself, just as the presentation of the photoplay is. Another thing, it must always be kept in mind that the numbers rendered may be “high brow,” so to speak,” but they must be popular enough among the average American audience. In trying to give a high-class performance it is the natural tendency to present “high-brow” music even though it is foreign to the average high-class motion picture audience, which is a big mistake. To again fall into the stage vernacular, if it goes “over the heads” of the audience it does more harm than good. There is hardly a limit to the music which is regarded as “high brow” and yet is familiar to the layman, and it is such music, and only such music that the exhibiter should dare to offer to the mixed public comprising his audience.

Source: Harold Edel, “How It Is Done at the Strand,” Moving Picture World 19 January 1918, 369. Image of Edel from Moving Picture World 7 August 1915, 983.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Outline of a Program, c. 1914

The outline for a "routine" program below comes from the delightfully titled Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting: A comprehensive volume treating the principles of motography; the making of motion pictures; the scenario; the motion picture theater; the projector; the conduct of film exhibiting; methods of coloring films; talking pictures, etc. The book is by John C. Rathbun, an editor of Motography, one of the principal trade papers of the time.

These guidelines date from 1914, a time when the multireel feature was beginning to take hold; but the program outlined still presumed that films would be principally exhibited by the reel. At this point, the reel rather than the film remained the basic unit of the commodity—the exchanges that supplied the films to the exhibitors were still renting and charging by the reel rather than by the title, and there was as yet no certainty that multireel features would be exhibited continuously (that is, without an "intermission" between reels, since the lack of a break required the theater to own multiple projectors)—or even exhibited on the same evening.

This situation would quickly change over the next couple of years, and the multireel feature (of variable length), rather than the reel, would become the basis of the program. The illustrated song largely disappeared along with the change to feature-based programming, although we should add that singers continued to appear regularly on programs throughout the silent era (and indeed into the early sound era), albeit most often without slides.

The routine of the program followed by the average picture theater is as follows:
  1. Announcements. After the lights in the audi-

    [116]torium have been dimmed, the stereopticon throws a few advertising or house announcements on the screen. These may be cards from the local merchants telling of a special line of good or a sale, or they may be slides telling of certain features of the house management such as “Pictures Changed Daily,” “Weekly Review every Tuesday Night,” or “Special Educational Release Tomorrow.”

  2. Motion Picture. The first film follows the announcement immediately the last slide dissolving into the “leader” of the film, if the theater is equipped for this arrangement. In no case should a long intervening glare of light precede the picture nor should any perceptible time elapse between the slides and the film. At the end of the film it is preferable to dissolve the picture so that it gradually fades away, instead of having it come to an abrupt end with a shower of dancing spots and a glare of light.

    Should the film break or some other accident occur in the operating booth, a slide should be immediately projected, notifying the audience that the show will be continued in a few moments. Announcement slides such as “Just a Moment, Please,” or “Film Will Start in a Moment,” can be obtained at any exchange.

    While the film is being shown, the pianist or orchestra should play music that is appropriate to the picture, and not a miscellaneous medley of airs that may occur to the player as the show progresses, as it is possible to dispel the illusion entirely by the carelessness of the musician. Musical scores for nearly all of the films may be obtained from the exchanges.

  3. Song. At the end of the film the singer enters, and the first song slide is projected upon the curtain, or in case the song slides are not used, the operator trains his spot light upon the singer at the moment of entrance, being careful to follow every movement with the light. When two operators are employed, as is usually the case when song slides are used, the first re-

    [117]winds the film, and the second operates the stereopticon. With one operator, the rewinding must be postponed until the intermission. The employment of two operators is a real economy on busy nights and holidays, or in shopping district shows, as with two men the intermissions are shorter and more shows may be given in the working hours.

    For the best effect, the first lantern slide should dissolve into the tail piece of the film without intermission, an effect that is only possible by the use of two operators. At the end of the song, the motion picture machine operator projects the “leader” of the film into the last song slide which is gradually dissolved out of the field before the end of the leader.

    When there is only one operator, and when a spotlight is used in place of the slides, the singer should be kept as nearly as possible in one position so that the operator will not have to be continually on the alert with the spot.

  4. Second Film. Follows in the same way that the first follows the announcement slides.

  5. Second Song.

  6. Intermission or Third Reel. At the end of the second song, or the third reel, if one is used, the stereopticon operator projects an announcement slide, “End of the Show. Those Who Have Not Seen the Entire Performance May Keep Their Seats.” The auditorium lights are now turned on to full brilliancy and preparations are made for the next show.

Source: John C. Rathbun, Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting: A comprehensive volume treating the principles of motography; the making of motion pictures; the scenario; the motion picture theater; the projector; the conduct of film exhibiting; methods of coloring films; talking pictures, etc., (Chicago: Charles C. Thompson Company, 1914), pp. 115-17. This text is available through the Internet Archive.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Princess Nicotine

Although there are many other good examples to use in a lecture on nickelodeon-era practices, I particularly like "Princess Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy" from the first series of Treasures from American Film Archives (National Film Preservation Foundation) because it covers the ground efficiently. It is short (like the great majority of films shown in that period), shows the level of film technique (for example, in apparently superimposed images and effective cutting), reflects the continued novelty and importance of special effects films (which made film distinct from traditional theater), includes Martin Marks' richly allusive score that is nevertheless very accessible to students (who invariably catch at least the Nutcracker quotes), and is still funny, even 100 years later. It also provides a light-hearted moment to remind students that early films will sometimes depict and valorize practices and attitudes that some will find objectionable today. About the only thing "Princess Nicotine" won't do is demonstrate that dramatic films were important during the nickelodeon era, too.

Illustrated Songs

I'll have more to say about the illustrated song in the coming weeks, as I plan to post a slide set of "In my Merry Oldsmobile," which we reproduced in chapter 10 of the textbook. In the meantime, PBS Kids has a nice, if brief description of the illustrated song. The site also includes two examples, albeit in fairly low resolution (Quicktime required):

Monday, April 6, 2009

Music is One-Quarter of the Show

Anticipating both Vincent LoBrutto's and David Lynch's comments (which we cite on p. xxii of the preface), American novelist Rex Beach makes a similar claim in 1917. Here is a most interesting short notice published in Moving Picture World:
Motion picture theater owners all over the world are driving thousands of dollars of business from their houses every week with musical programs unsuited to productions, in the opinion of Rex Beach. The author, whose novels are to be pictured under his supervision and distributed through Goldwyn, believes that carefully selected music, not necessarily original, but chosen for its suitability to the subject, will account for twenty-five per cent. of the financial success of a picture.

“Orchestral music,” he said recently, “has the same psychological effect on a motion picture audience as band music on marching soldiers. In both cases, music is necessary to weld the emotional appeal.

“We all remember the elemental pianist when the motion picture was in the curio stage—how he pounded and thrummed and fought out civil war battles on his piano keys. He served a purpose, but his day is done.

“Succeeding this earnest person was the six-piece orchestra. You know how these fellows passed the evening—overture waltz, intermission for refreshments, organ selection, a silent wait, orchestra returns and upsets chairs getting adjusted for the popular medley, a little ragtime, organ improvisation and so on to the finish.

“It is very largely different to-day in an evergrowing number of theaters. Here in New York the Strand, for instance, employs an expert to devise musical settings and has them played by a forty-piece symphony orchestra. That brings almost as many people back the next week as the worth of the picture.

“Motion picture music need not be classical, but it must be appropriate. In a large measure the audience is unconscious of its effect, but the effct [sic] is there and must be taken account of by the theater owner who expects to make money.”

Source: “Music One-Quarter of Show, Says Beach,” Moving Picture World 13 October 1917, 220
Image of Rex Beach from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Transition from Short Films to Features

As you may know or may have gathered from some of my previous posts, I am currently working on a project dealing with sound and music in early American cinema. The previous post is culled from my current reading and concerns the remodeling of a theater in Nashville. What I find especially interesting about this account is the way it reflects the change from the program of shorts, which dominated the era of the nickelodeon, to the program centered on the long feature, which dominated the later years right up until today.

The earlier program operated under what was basically a vaudeville, variety aesthetic (in the early days, movie theaters often billed themselves as "electric vaudeville"); this aesthetic would later become a basis of many radio and television variety shows, but would also characterize both media as a whole (with schedules developed around presenting a wide variety of programs throughout the day—as opposed to later radio, especially FM, which developed into narrow formats aimed at slicing off a particular demographic, and to cable channels, which are also based on the principle of the format). The later film programs retained significant allegiance to the variety aesthetic inasmuch as the feature was understood to be only a portion of the program. But aside from the so-called "special features"—the most prestigious films that initially would normally be distributed via some sort of "road show" modeled on traveling Broadway shows and could run upwards of 3 hours and cost $5 for the best seats—the feature in a regular movie theater rarely took more than 80 minutes of a two-hour plus program; these programs would include comedies, serials, newsreels and other shorts as well as live entertainment; the cost for these shows was at most 50 cents for the best seats at peak times.

August 1917 is quite late to be moving to feature programming. (Eileen Bowser's fine treatment of the industrial change from production of shorts to features, The Transformation of the Cinema, 1907-1915 ends two years prior.) The first paragraph of the article notes, for instance, that, prior to its renovation, the Elite was one of "the few remaining five-cent houses." The theater in fact had seemingly been one of the lower class of theaters. Not only had the Elite been using what I presume was some sort a mechanical organ or orchestrion ("player orchestra"), but the instrument had also been located at the back of the theater near the exit, indicating that its purpose was probably more ballyhoo than playing to the picture. Though it is billed as joining the ranks of the "high-class feature house," the Elite will evidently continue to rely on a mechanical instrument for music, having invested in "a modern Melville Clark Apollo player piano." (Information on the Melville Clark Piano Company, which specialized in player pianos and would be taken over by Wurlitzer in 1919, can be found here.) The piano has been moved to "the screen end," where it will be "operated by hand during performances." At a time when most theaters profiled in The Moving Picture World were boasting the ever-increasing size of their orchestras to symphonic proportion, the Elite was evidently still not investing in an actual pianist, even if its management saw an advantage to paying someone to operate the player piano by hand (or rather foot) rather than setting the machine to "automatic," as we might infer had been done formerly with the "player orchestra" located near the door.

In terms of the program itself, the article makes a point of mentioning that the Elite is adopting a policy of a weekly change of program. During the earlier period daily or bi-weekly changes of program were far more common, and the way the article mentions the change here indicates that in Nashville at least the weekly change remained somewhat uncommon—even among the "high-class" theaters that had adopted feature programming.

Nashville Elite Opens as Feature House

Nashville, Tenn.—The Elite theater reopened its doors to the public on Monday, August 13, after extensive repairs and a complete renovation. Prior to its closing the Elite was one of the most popular of the few remaining five-cent houses on Fifth avenue, Nashville’s leading amusement center, but with the reopening there comes into existence a new high-class feature house.

Owing to a wreck, the train bearing the initial program from Atlanta did not reach the city until many hours behind schedule time, and the formal opening was postponed until nine o’clock in the evening, by which time a large crowd had gathered at the doors.

The Crescent Amusement company, which operates the Elite, played a trump card in offering Marguerite Clark for the initial dates in the late Paramount production, “The Amazons.” Douglas Fairbanks in his newest Artcraft subject is booked for the second week; both of these films run the entire six days [i.e., there is no show on Sundays], which in itself is an item worthy of mention in this city. Every indication points to the complete success of the Elite as a permanent feature house, it having followed the course of the Crescent and Fifth Avenue theaters in changing from short length to features.

In addition to an unusually attractive decorative scheme on the walls and ceilings of both auditorium and corridor, an immense typhoon fan has been placed over the entrance, augmented by a battery of wall buzzers placed at intervals of twelve feet along both sides, and the customary rotary fans suspended from the ceiling. This makes the Elite without doubt one of the coolest houses in the state.

The semi-direct lighting system is employed, which gives just the proper amount of light for easy access in and out of the aisles, without impairing the vision of the projected picture. An attractive feature of the house, which was not formerly in effect, is the use of white washable seat covers, which adds much to the comfort of the patrons, especially in summer weather. The floor has been covered in heavy battleship linoleum, and the partitions at the back of the aisles upholstered with a durable leatherette fabric. All doors have been handsomely regrained, and heating apparatus gilded.

The large player orchestra has been removed from near the entrance and a modern Melville Clark Apollo player piano installed at the screen end, and is operated by hand during performances. This instrument was invented by a Nashville man and distributed by a local piano concern, the F. A. Leatherman company.

Source: J. L. Ray, “Nashville Elite Opens as Feature House,” Moving Picture World 1 September 1917, 1414.

Commentary here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Making the Musical Adaptation

Below is a short article by Joseph Carl Breil on making special scores for films through adaptation of pre-existing music. This is from a three volume collection of short essays on various aspects of the film industry, and it was published in 1922. I have included a link to the original source, which is available through the Internet Archive.


Scorist for "The Birth of a Nation."

Editor's Note [contained in the volume in which this piece appeared]: Joseph Carl Breil holds a unique place in the motion picture world. To his keen foresight may be attributed the present-day musical adaptation for motion picture productions. It was he who first saw the need for such adaptations, and his score of D. W. Griffith's masterpiece, "The Birth of a Nation," not only stamped him as the pioneer in this work but also immediately marked him as a master in the art of making the musical adaptation for the motion picture production. He has had the distinction of having a grand opera produced and has written scores for many hundreds of the finest motion picture productions.

WHAT music has done for motion pictures in developing their entertainment value and in lifting them to a plane never dreamed of by the pioneers of the industry is a matter of general understanding. To quote Mr. Arthur James, Editor of Moving Picture World, "Music took pictures by the hand and led them to greatness, and today pictures without music are not even considered for public entertainment."

Those sentiments, coming from so great an authority as Mr. James, speak for themselves. Since music has done so much for the motion picture in the past and up to the present time, it is but reasonable to presume that music will do even more for the pictures in the future.

So, there is a place for the musician in the movies. He has the opportunity to win everlasting fame by linking his name with the name of some great producer, director or star, by writing the score that will interpret the theme and moods of the play.

It is no easy matter to score a motion picture. And the musician who is ambitious to do this type of work must have a comprehensive knowledge of the music that has been written, and a high degree of appreciation of the values necessary, for the scorer must fit his harmonies to the elusive emotions of the players on the screen.

The scorer must be able to work spontaneously. He must register his thoughts on paper simultaneously with the

[86] pre-viewing of the picture. These are cardinal requisites of the motion picture scorer.

As soon as the producer has his picture in its finished form, he calls in the scorer, who must be able to take notes as he watches the drama. These notes indicate just what music he thinks will be most appropriate and most impressive when accompanying the various scenes.

Of course, the scoring is not a haphazard fitting together of various melodies that will interpret the different parts of the picture. There must be a general theme that will be in keeping with the theme of the picture. Selecting the general theme is in itself a difficult task, and a task that requires revising.

After the theme has been decided upon and the various pieces of music incorporated, the score is played by an orchestra for the producer who watches another preview of the picture. The producer listens and criticises, and accepts or rejects the score.

It would be useless for me to tell the lover of the photodrama how much music means to silent drama. Music is so much subtler than speech that it conveys to the audience the very finest shades of dramatic meaning. Music speaks to the audience without detracting from the action of the story, and without the interruption caused by explanations. It is a known fact that the layman feels rather than understands music. Therefore, in accompanying the silent drama, music makes a direct appeal to the emotions. It is easier for the actor to gain sympathy and understanding when music accompanies the picture.

The scorer finds a rich field in opera music. Certain compositions accompany certain dramatic situations on the operatic stage. These situations are of course to be found in the moving picture story. For instance, in the picture "Kismet," Otis Skinner as Haaj is about to stab the merchant. For that scene, Mr. Carl Edouardo, Director of Music at the Strand Theatre in New York, and scorer of all the splendid pictures screened at that theatre, selected the music which accompanies the scene in "Salome," where John the Baptist is murdered. Naturally, it interprets the scene in "Kismet."

[87] When the reels are projected in continuity during the musician's preview of a picture, a stop watch is used. The picture must be perfectly timed. The symbolic music is selected and the various compositions are so arranged that they will coincide with the running time of each scene as recorded by the stop watch.

When one considers the infinite variety of emotions, themes, atmosphere, and the many sudden flash-backs that constitute this motion picture drama, it is easy to understand how difficult a task scoring a motion picture really is.

To select from the hundreds of thousands of pieces that have been written that one selection which is in perfect harmony with the scene that is being enacted, is the scorer's task. Not only knowledge is essential; time and patience are just as important.

But it is fascinating work. Persons qualified by musical knowledge and musical training will find it attractive. There is ample opportunity to exercise one's creative instincts, and the musician will find that he is amply rewarded for such creative accomplishment. It is a pleasant and dignified position, and the scorer of the great motion picture classics is finding his name flashed on the screen along with the name of other artists who have helped to make the picture.

To brother musicians who are looking for fresh fields where their efforts will be recognized and acclaimed, I advise giving this work a trial. If you have the qualifications—if you can prove your ability by some clever piece of scoring, you will find that a royal welcome awaits you in the motion picture field.

Source: Photoplay Research Society. Opportunities in the Motion Picture Industry—and How to Qualify for Positions in Its Many Branches. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Los Angeles: Photo Research Society, 1922, pp. 85-87.

Images of Breil from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division. First image; second image

Update: Another picture of Breil, this one from the same volume that contained the article (on the photoleaf between pp. 68-69). I have rotated the image to make it square.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Man at the Movies

A 1918 cartoon from Moving Picture World of a man's emotional reactions at the movies. Note how his emotions are represented as cued by the orchestra.

(Double click on image for larger version.)