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Part One

Playing the Pictures

Music and the Silent Film, 1895-1925


That film historians have only recently begun to recognize film not as a uniquely visual art but as a highly integrated one, one that unites the previously separate mediums of image, sound, and music, stems no doubt from a peculiarity rooted in the beginnings of film history itself. For nearly the first three decades, film was not a fully mechanized art; instead it relied on a strange simultaneity of technically disparate parts, merging mechanically reproduced moving images with live performances of music and sound. Unfortunately, this mix of real and reproduced media led instantly to a critical inequity. Because it was mechanized and represented a new technology, the visual part of the film came immediately to define the film proper. Then as now, film was prized primarily as a visual technology or art.

The history of silent film music is important not only because it challenges this visual-centric model of film, but also because it offers a new and deeper understanding of the term silent. Certainly, if film had been truly silent from the beginning, this section would not exist. If the following documents reveal anything, it is the irony of the most common term used to refer to early film. For in fact, the "silent" period was full of sounds-noise, music, even dialogue and narration. In qualifying the silence of early film, therefore, the documents in this section redefine that silence not as a lack of sound, but as a lack of integration. The undoing of film's silence, in other words, will come not with the inclusion of music and sound, but with their mechanization, the technological innovation that allowed music to be represented alongside the images.

The history conveyed by these documents of music in the silent period also challenges the assumption that the sound of film music was standardized or "classicized" by Hollywood composers of the 1930s and 1940s. Far from being the beginning of a classical tradition of wall-to-wall orchestral music, Max Steiner's "Golden Age" scoring model was, rather, the culmination of three decades of silent film music experimentation.

Like any art form, film has an extensive prehistory. Beginning as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, inventors and artists had been seeking ways not just to represent reality, but to animate it. It wasn't until the nineteenth century, however, with the invention of photography and the cinema-like experiences of the diorama and panorama, that those efforts took off, and as a result audiences were now treated to a flourishing of optical experiments. While some of these early experiments were more popular than others, none was completely successful at both animating the photograph and projecting it onto a large screen for mass viewing.1 That distinction was achieved only at the end of the century, on December 28, 1895, when the brothers August and Louis Lumière, owners of a film and photographic plate manufacturing business in Lyon, France, projected a series of short films, or cinématographes as they called them, onto the wall of the salon indien at the Grand Café in Paris.2

In terms of basic technology, these films were similar to the films we watch today, although they were silent and radically shorter. Each was limited to the length of the reel, which at first was only about 25 meters, or one minute, long. These first films were also limited in subject matter. As a surviving playbill for the Paris exhibition reveals, the Lumière films were actualités, or proto-documentaries.3 While many featured the Lumière family and the city of Lyon, one of the Lumière brothers' first production initiatives was to place trained cameramen in major cities and exotic locations all around the world to document life outside of France. The result was short scenics, of places like Venice, Milan, Naples, and even Melbourne. They made these short documentaries not to entertain audiences, but to advertise their film equipment company to a global market.4

The cinema experience for the audience at the Grand Café was more than just a visual spectacle. In an important footnote at the bottom of the playbill, musical accompaniment by the pianiste-compositeur Emile Maraval was announced. Little is known today of Maraval, nor does the announcement reveal what kind of music he played, whether he penned new music or simply improvised an accompaniment for each short film. Perhaps he changed the style and tempo of his music to suit the topic of each film, giving Venice and Australia different treatments. It is impossible to know5 Nonetheless, the presence of a musician at this first film exhibition is significant. Not only did the Lumière brothers find a way to animate photographs and project them onto a screen in larger-than-life-size form, but they also thought to integrate those images with music.

When a similar group of Lumière cinématographes was shown to Queen Victoria several months later, the musical part of the experience was somewhat different. As the program for this special occasion announces, the Windsor Castle exhibition was accompanied not by a pianist, but by an orchestra, specifically the Empire Theater Orchestra conducted by Leopold Wenzel.6 Although, again, little is known of Wenzel,7 the exhibition program yields much more information about what the musical part of the experience may have sounded like. On this occasion, not only was the accompaniment orchestral, but it relied to some extent on preexisting music, including selections previously written by Wenzel for the ballet and works by other composers such as Karl Millöcker, Olivier Metra, Ernest Gillet, and Charles Gounod. Wenzel also seems to have differentiated filmic action and subject matter through use of varying musical styles and tempi. "Hussars Passing through Dublin," for instance, was paired with a march by Métra, and the comedy "A Joke on the Gardener" with a waltz by Wenzel, while the final travelogue, "A Moving Train near Clapham Junction," was accompanied by "Metropolitan Galop" by Charles Hubans.

Not all of the earliest film exhibitions followed the Lumière exhibition format, of course, or even used the Lumière technology. In Europe, for instance, early cinema audiences were treated to Max Skladanowsky's Bioskop films;8 in the United States, audiences watched "vitascopes," films projected by Thomas Edison's Vitascope machine.9 While individual technologies varied, all these films appear to have been shown with musical accompaniment.

In the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, film's first home was the vaudeville theater. In this setting, films were not shown as "programs," or uninterrupted collections of short films with different subjects, as in Europe. Instead, the film was simply part of the parade of individual acts that defined the vaudeville program. A short film of a modern dancer or two men boxing, for instance, might have been sandwiched in between a juggler and a comic routine.

The isolated appearance of film in the vaudeville setting fuels the first challenge to the argument that early silent films may in fact have been silent. According to the contemporary literature, it is unclear whether music was indeed heard during the film portions of this kind of program. Some reports make no mention of music, while others indicate its clear presence. In April 1896, for instance, when Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City hosted the first Vitascope projections, the hall's band was said to have provided "a musical accompaniment." When the Vitascope was premiered the following year in Philadelphia, not only was a musical accompaniment provided, but it was valued as an essential aspect of the new cinema experience: "The soldiers marched to the stirring tune of the 'Marseillaise' and the scene stirred the audience to such a pitch of enthusiasm that has rarely been equaled by any form of entertainment. The playing of the 'Marseillaise' aided no little in the success of the picture. In the sham battle scene the noise and battle din created also added to the wonderful sense of realism."10

George Beynon, an early historian of film music, however, describes a different understanding of music for film in the vaudeville tradition. In the introductory chapter to his 1920 instruction manual Musical Presentation of Motion Pictures, "Evolution of the Motion Picture," Beynon insists that in the vaudeville setting music was provided for everything but the motion picture. If music was heard during the film sections of the program, he asserts, it was there by default rather than by design. "The film was run in silence except for the beating of the big drum outside for the purpose of drawing the crowds ... [and] during the 'packing process' [when] the pianist regaled the seated ones with some music, mostly apropos of nothing." It was only by accident, Beynon concludes, that a conscientious musician "forgot himself as to play soft music for a particularly touching death-bed scene."11

Although a few current film historians, including Rick Altman, argue that early film might have been truly silent, at least on some occasions or in some venues,12 the majority of the evidence indicates the opposite. In fact, "silent" films appear, generally speaking, to have had downright noisy. As the Philadelphia critic at the Vitascope premiere observed, in addition to the musical accompaniment, films had sound effects, and attempts were even made to include spoken dialogue. As film historian Charles Musser sums it up, "Modern-day film producers distinguish four basic kinds of sounds: music, narration, effects, and dialogue. Of these, all but the fourth were commonly used during the first year of moving pictures. But even dialogue was employed within a short time as actors or singers were placed in back of the screen."13 Early silent film, in short, was hardly silent but instead hosted a number of additive sound features. And of all the initial accompaniments, music appears to have been most consistently included, for it gave film broad and democratic appeal, helping it to appeal to different classes of filmgoers at a variety of venues.

Over the course of the next decade, the transition of film from novelty act to independent art form brought a number of changes to both film and its exhibition. One of the most significant changes was the acquisition of an independent exhibition space devoted solely to the display of moving pictures, starting in about 1905. In the United States, storefront theaters soon became known as nickelodeons because of their nickel admission price.14 As new spaces for film exhibition began to flourish, and a system of film rental was standardized through the establishment of film "exchanges," film production also changed. Even before the nickelodeon model began to dominate, production focus was shifting from documentary-minded films to fictional or "story" films.15 With this shift in focus came an increase in film length. Whereas the first narrative films and actualities typically featured a single shot or "scene," emerging narrative films expanded to include multiple scenes (typically six to twelve), occupying anywhere from two or three hundred to a thousand feet of film. Longer films took up one reel and typically lasted from ten to eighteen minutes, depending both on their length and on projection speed, which were not standardized until 1909-10. Shorter films were typically half as long so that two could occupy a single reel (known as a "split reel")16

As films grew in length, they began to be organized by genre. The earliest films tended to fall into three categories: actuality (travelogues, newsreels, reenactments, etc.), comedy, and drama. By 1910, those genres had been expanded to include a host of subgenres: western, Indian film, war picture, detective serial, melodrama, trick film, farce or slapstick, fairy tale, biblical passion, and science fiction. It was this initial flowering, between 1905 and 1910, that saw the rise of such pioneer filmmakers as George Méliès, Edwin Porter, D. W. Griffith, and Cecil B. DeMille and early production companies like Pathé, Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Selig, Lubin, Kalem, and Essaney.17

Just as the expansion of narrative filmmaking encouraged the specialization of directors and genres, it also led to the standardization of exhibition practices, especially with regard to musical accompaniment. For instance, in a 1909 advice column for fellow nickelodeon owners entitled "Plain Talk to Theatre Managers and Operators" (Document 1), featured in the trade magazine Motion Picture World, theater manager F. H. Richardson describes the standard instrumentation of the musical accompaniment as piano and drums. A successful accompaniment, he notes, rested on the musicians' ability to differentiate musically not only individual film actions and episodes but film genres as well. Although Richardson does not describe particular musical selections-what one would have heard during a Civil War picture, for instance, or a western-he did say that the pianist needed to have good improvisation skills. This suggests that music for the cinema before 1910 included renditions of popular tunes and simple impromptu melodies. He also describes the placement of the musicians, at the front of the theater next to the screen, which not only allowed them to see what they were accompanying, but also helped create the illusion that their sound was emanating from the screen. A simple methodology is also available in Richardson's description. A successful accompaniment rested on the musician's ability to attentively follow and differentiate individual film actions and also larger film genres through musical style and tempo.

The musicians did more than set an appropriate mood for each film, however. As Richardson notes, they were in charge of providing all the sound for the film, which they did primarily by way of sound effects. In the very early days of film, the standards for "realistic" sound had been set high by traveling shows like Lyman H. Howe's High-Class Moving Pictures and Hale's Tours and Scenes of the World.18 Because these road shows toured with a single, unchanging program of films, they had an elaborate array of sound effect devices, everything from train, truck, and tractor sounds to gunshots, chimes, electric door bells, baby cries, roosters crowing and dogs barking, the clip-clop of horses' hoofs, and wind, rain, thunder, and ocean waves. Some of these devices, like thunder sheets and wind whistles, were borrowed from the theater; others were developed just for moving pictures.19

Since the film fare at the storefront nickelodeon typically changed three times a week, theater musicians did not have time to compose elaborate sound accompaniments, nor did they have as elaborate an array of sound effect devices as the road shows had.20 The nickelodeon drummer typically had some standard percussion instruments: drums, bells, gongs, woodblocks, and whistles. By 1905 or so, he or she would also have a number of additional percussive devices, or "traps." Most traps articulated common sounds, animal noises like hens' cackling; and the sounds of mechanical devices like winches, ratchets, and blacksmith anvils; and signals such as chimes and steamboat whistles. Traps were widely advertised in music and film journals of the early 1900s, and were used well into the 1920s, the golden age of silent film. For those exhibitors who could not afford the expense of lots of traps or multiple persons to articulate them, sound-effect "cabinets" became available starting around 1907. Semiautomated machines, like the Ciné Multiphone Rousselot, the Excela Soundograph, and the British Allefex, consolidated many of the most popular traps or film sounds in a large tabletop device that could be operated by a single percussionist. The fact that these traps and cabinets were conceived of as percussion instruments, to be played by musicians, is a reminder that in the early cinema, sound and music were not separate. In silent film, film music was film sound.21

By 1910, singers had become part of cinema music, though as Richardson points out, they did not typically accompany films. Instead, they provided interstitial material-specifically, the "illustrated song," a musical interlude or sing-a-long that took place between films or while the reel was being changed on the projector. During this portion of the program the singer would stand to the side of the stage and sing while a series of pictures illustrating the text of the song, or the sheet music itself, was projected on the screen.22 Sometimes the song was coordinated thematically with one of the films in the program, but most often the illustrated song simply promoted the sale of a new popular song. It was one of the earliest examples of using film to market a product, in this case song recordings and sheet music for home consumption.23

Film production companies, of course, were interested in the standardization of the musical part of films as well. By 1910, most film companies were providing written synopses of new films as part of their rental service, and as early as 1909 Edison's film company took this practice one step further, distributing "musical suggestion sheets" in its bimonthly magazine, the Edison Kinetogram, under the title "Incidental Music for Edison Pictures" (Document 2). While one column condensed the plot into numbered episodes, a corresponding column suggested an appropriate type or tempo of music to play during each episode. These early cue sheets allow us a glimpse of the specific repertoires that pianists might have played. Although the description is often general, calling simply for waltzes, marches, or "popular airs" without identifying specific compositions, titles are occasionally given as well. The early cinema was clearly