Cineastes and those intrepid enough to dig around in the recessed archives of the Criterion Collection may be well attuned to the silent works of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith and Fritz Lang, but most have likely never experienced the full magic of those early filmmakers’ classics as they were intended at the time of their release—with a live musical accompaniment.
Back in the early part of the last century, pitted orchestras and organists nestled in nooks fervently tapped out the scores for Sergei Eisenstein’s “The Battleship Potemkin”(1925), Raymond Longford and F. Stuart-Whyte’s “Sunrise” (1926) and Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) to heighten the audience’s immersion and to create the perfect confluence of visual and aural arts.
It was a time when the filmgoing experience was more than a bag of popcorn and a digital hard drive. These were gala events driven by blood, sweat and synergy. And now, thanks to the efforts of two sustaining programs in the Boston area, it is possible to hear and see the silents as they were nearly a century ago.
The Coolidge Corner Theatre, home of this week’s screening of the Sounds of the Silents film program, and the Somerville Theatre, which hosts the Silents Please! program, bring a taste of the film experience as it once was to contemporary Boston.
"The wish was to have a regular program to present films in the way they were originally presented and to present that to a new generation," says Martin Norman, a Coolidge Corner Theatre board member and one of the founders of the Sounds of Silents film program at the grand Brookline theater.
While the Sounds of the Silents program was launched in 2007, silent films with a live performed score at the Coolidge began back in the 1990s, when the then-creative director David Kleiler invited the nascent Alloy Orchestra to accompany "Metropolis." Since then, the Alloy trio, which includes Mission of Burma member Roger Miller, has been a Sounds of Silents fixture and plays accompanying gigs across the country.
The theater will be showcasing "The Mark of Zorro" with the Not So Silent Cinema performing on April 22. Brendan Cooney, the founder of the Not So Silent Cinema who has played similar scoring accompaniments at the Armory in Somerville, will be playing the Coolidge for the first time on April 22. The new, originally composed score for "The Mark of Zorro," which Norman calls "the blueprint for superheroes with dual identities," and a star-making vehicle Douglas Fairbanks, will be what Cooney describes as a "faux-latin vibe" to echo the Spanish California setting of the film. Cooney also has a Halloween band that accompanies silent horror films during the season of the witch and selects a specific arrangement for each particular engagement. The ensemble for "Zorro" will consist of a bass, a trumpet, a percussionist and Cooney on piano.
Over time, the Sounds of Silents program formed a collaboration with the Berklee College of Music to create new scores commissioned by the Coolidge program and performed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra. It's over an arduous fifteen-week period that film scoring students, under the direction of professor Sheldon Mirowitz, compose and practice the piece, capping the term with the score's performance at the Coolidge. Their most recent accompaniment, "Safety Last!" was performed for a sold out house this past December. (Watch a documentary on the making of the film score.)
The next film for the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra to score and accompany at the Coolidge has yet to be determined, but they do have a loose timeline to perform in the fall. Next year, they'll also perform at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ("the biggest silent film festival in the world," Mirowitz points out) and plan to build a West Coast tour around that.
Norman is quick to point out that the refurbished Art Deco interior of the Coolidge's main theater, with warm reds and rich golds, is the perfect setting for such a performance. As an attendee of that December sellout, I couldn't disagree. Witnessing the silhouetted energy of the student orchestra strumming arco saltando in perfect harmony with the frantic, jerky movements of Harold Lloyd as he perilously hangs from the stylus of the now iconic clock face high above a bustling Los Angeles street, is an enthralling something else. The whole experience comes together seamlessly; and while you're acutely aware of the intricate complexity unfolding before you, you can't help but submit to the symphonic pulse taking hold in your chest as it magically ebbs and flows with the movement onscreen.
Over at the Somerville Theatre where the Silents Please! series took root over a year ago, after keyboardist Jeff Rapsis had accompanied the 1916 silent version of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" as part of the theater's annual Science Fiction Film Festival, live scored silents have become an integral part of the theater's year long centennial celebration. Rapsis has played to the films of Mary Pickford, "Way Down East" and "Wings" (the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture). This June, he will accompany a selection of early Chaplin films.
"They sell pretty well," notes theater manager Ian Judge. Unlike Sounds of Silents, where a predetermined or specifically composed score is performed, what Rapsis does on his digital synthesizer is "improvisational live cinema" as he likes calls it, where you "create an experience in real time." You could think of it like a jazz trio playing on-the-fly atmospheric backdrop during an open mic poetry slam. Rapsis, who runs the Hippo Press of New Hampshire during the day, calls the endeavor his 'avocation,' and like the Alloy Orchestra, plays film scoring gigs around the country, which has become something of a niche arts market. His next big challenge will be to score D.W. Griffith's nearly three-hour "Intolerance" at the Flying Monkey Movie House in New Hampshire on May 8.
For an "art form that is no longer part of the scene," as Rapsis says with a restrained chuckle, silents seem to be sounding off around the country with an audible foothold in Boston.
This article was originally published on April 21, 2014.