AT 7:30 P.M. FRIDAY in Symphony Hall the United States Film Festival opens, as is its custom, with a premiere: F.W. Murnau's 1927 silent-film classic "Sunrise." But it isn't the film that is being premiered - it's the music, specially crafted for the occasion by composer David Newman.
That music, to be performed live under Newman's direction by the Utah Symphony, is the product of two months' work and much planning. But it isn't the first time "Sunrise" will have been heard with a full orchestral score, even in Salt Lake City.In fact when "Sunrise" first played Salt Lake, in November 1928 at the Victory Theater, it was with the same Movietone (i.e., sound-on-film) soundtrack with which it had opened on Broadway the year before. Although lacking dialogue, that soundtrack incorporated sound effects and an orchestral score by Hugo Riesenfeld. (For theaters not so equipped, a printed cue sheet was issued with the film, to be played by the house orchestra or, more commonly, organist.)
As such it represented the end of an era, the culmination of a tradition in which music was an even more integral part of the movie-going experience than it was in the early days of the sound era.
What's more, that tradition goes back almost as far as film itself. When the Lumiere brothers unveiled what is now regarded as the first commercially successful cinema presentation, "Arrival at the Train Station," in Paris in 1895, the program included a pianist. Within months full orchestras were accompanying Lumiere screenings in London and by the turn of the century attempts had been made to present opera on film, synchronized with phonograph records. However, it was not until the arrival of electrical recording (and amplification) in the mid-1920s that pre-recorded soundtracks became a practical reality for most theaters.
Initially the music was lifted from other sources, usually the classics or popular songs. The first important composer specifically commissioned to score a film appears to have been Saint-Saens, for "The Assassination of the Duke de Guise" in 1908 (later published as his Op. 128). He was followed in short order by the Russian Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov and, in America, Walter Cleveland Simon and Joseph Carl Breil.
Breil began turning out original music for films as early as 1912, with his music for Sarah Bernhardt's "Queen Elizabeth," performed live by a 16-piece orchestra during the movie's Chicago run. But the picture with which his name is most closely linked is D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," which Breil scored three years later.
By today's standards that score may appear something of a hodgepodge, consisting not only of original material but such traditional tunes as "Camptown Races," "In the Gloaming" and "Bonnie Blue Flag" and a heavy influx of the classics (most famously the Klansmen's ride to the rescue to "The Ride of the Valkyries"). One notes, however, that some of the same tunes pop up in Max Steiner's music for "Gone With the Wind" and that the Valkyries' Ride has done similar duty in such recent films as "The Blues Brothers" and "Apocalypse Now." Moreover, Breil's original music yielded at least one classic of its own: the Elsie Stoneman (i.e., Lillian Gish) theme, which as "The Perfect Song" achieved even greater immortality as the theme song of radio's "Amos 'n' Andy." (The major portion of the score can be heard on Label X LXDR-701/2, as recorded by the New Zealand Symphony under Clyde Allen.)
There were several reasons for the interpolations. First, like his predecessors Breil wanted music that would cue specific emotions - hence the reliance on familiarity. But unlike most sound-film composers (whose work is normally confined to non-dialogue stretches) he also had the problem of providing music for the entire film - at its original 159-minute running time, no mean feat.
That's an aspect of so-called silent films often lost sight of today, the fact that scarcely a frame would be seen without music, sometimes underscoring, at other times enhancing the natural rhythm of the picture itself. "I'll never forget the first time I saw one that way," recalls local film buff Hunter Hale. "It was `The Mark of Zorro' at the Arcade on the West Side, with Gaylord Carter at the organ, and after three minutes you forgot you were watching a silent movie."
For the past four years Hale has helped spearhead a silent-film series at the Organ Loft, at which such classics as the 1927 "King of Kings," "Wings," "Seventh Heaven" (which in its day yielded the popular song "Diane") and Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" have been screened, sometimes with their original scores, sometimes not.
Hale isn't slavish about such things. As he points out, "Even when a movie had an original score, it was seldom used intact. `Sunrise,' for example, opened in New York with a Movietone soundtrack, but a few months later when it opened in Los Angeles it was with a live orchestra and a different score. Then, when it got to Salt Lake, the Victory played it with the soundtrack but the Rialto used the organ score.
"Then, too, sometimes we find that the original scores don't hold up so well today." He cites Griffith's "Broken Blossoms," which was done at the Organ Loft not with the original Louis Gottschalk score but with music by organist Mike Ohman. That is certainly in keeping with the silent era, which generally left such matters to whoever was at the console. (We still have prompt books the organist could buy that indexed hundreds of snippets and/or more extended pieces under various moods and subject matters.)
In fact it is a rescored film that appears to be largely responsible for the renewed interest in silent films and their music, specifically Francis Ford Coppola's 1982 restoration of Abel Gance's 1927 masterpiece "Napoleon," which was deliberately outfitted with a brand-new symphonic score by Coppola's father, Carmine, performed live at various locations around the country. The irony is the original score was by no less a figure than Arthur Honegger, the Coppolas' suppression of which did not endear them to various members of the film-music community.
"They said it didn't exist," says Library of Congress music specialist Gillian Anderson, "but they didn't need to. We have it here at the library and there's only about an hour's worth extant - not really enough to do anyway - and it isn't even clear which sections go with which."
Otherwise, Anderson says, the practice of commissioning new scores to go with restored silents, a la "Sunrise," is more European than American - e.g., the numerous Kevin Brownlow TV restorations with Carl Davis scores that have come to this country via PBS. "Usually what we do is the original films with the original scores," she says, citing the Museum of Modern Art series in New York. She herself is hoping to conduct a screening of Griffith's "Intolerance" in New York this year, using the original Breil score.
In the meantime the Library of Congress is in the process of issuing a catalog of all its silent-film holdings, to be called "Music for Silent Films (1894-1929): A Guide," and has already issued a CD of Victor Herbert's music for the 1916 film "The Fall of a Nation." Anderson considers that among the best of the original silent scores, along with Mortimer Wilson's music for the Douglas Fairbanks "Thief of Bagdad" (Davis' score, by contrast, is pure Rimsky-Korsakov) and the music William Axt provided for the 1926 "Don Juan," originally released by Warner Bros. with a Vitaphone (i.e., sound-on-disc) soundtrack.
Apart from that, she says, "the most significant scores were the `compiled' scores, like `Birth of a Nation' and "Way Down East,' which is just fabulous," Another score she would like to see restored is "Wings," which was screened at the library just last year with the original music. "Buddy Rogers (one of the original stars) was there, and even though he had just seen it the previous weekend he hadn't heard the Zamecnik score in years and was just captivated by it." The current home-video edition, by contrast, uses a score by Gaylord Carter.
Riesenfeld's "Sunrise" also falls into the "compiled" category - i.e., it makes extensive use of pre-existing music. In fact the story is that it was at an early screening of this film that Alfred Hitchcock first heard the piece he would later adopt as the theme music for his television series, namely Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," which Riesenfeld used during the scene in the photographer's studio. (Although Hitch might also have heard it in the sound remake of George Arliss' "The Green Goddess," where it also figures.)
Unlike the Coppolas, Newman is not pretending the Riesenfeld score doesn't exist. "It was on a print of the film I saw," he says, adding that as director of the Sundance Institute Film Preservation Program he thinks a case could be made for reconstructing it. "But the cost would be astronomical. Besides which that wasn't what we wanted to do. We wanted this to be an event like the 1927 premiere, a celebration of the film but in a different language, the language I feel"
Among other things Newman says he found himself responding to the film's contemporary aspects, "such as the expressionistic style it was shot in and the use of light. Another thing that really appealed to me was the symbolism, the subtext. Those long scenes, for example, when he goes to meet the woman in the field or when the trolley appears out of nowhere in the middle of the forest. Things like that really get your juices going."
From the first, "Sunrise" was praised for its fluidity and unity of concept. The out-wardly simple story of a farmer (George O'Brien) who becomes involved with a city woman and nearly loses his wife (Janet Gaynor) in the process, it makes use of camera tricks and set designs whose potential has yet to be fully explored.
Citing its subtitle, "A Song of Two Humans," filmmaker Pare Lorentz at the time of the picture's release went so far as to call it "an audible and visual symphony, carefully divided into three movements." "There really is a symphonic flow," Hale agrees, "in that it doesn't hop, skip and jump like a lot of silent films do."
It is also notable for its sparing use of subtitles. Indeed the Deseret News, in reviewing the film, stated there were "not over a half a dozen subtitles in the entire picture." In fact there are 28, but even that appears small compared with the 94 in "Broken Blossoms" or the 249 in "Old Ironsides," two films of comparable length.
Which means that for once Newman is able to score action and emotion, as opposed to dialogue. And for once without the compromises or political squabbles presented by a film still in production.
"As I went along, it seemed more and more his story," he says of the O'Brien character. "Not only is the city an exciting and dangerous place, but most of the time he's a little bit dangerous, too, because he's obsessed, first with the woman, then with getting his wife back." The result is 95 minutes and 12 seconds of music, some of which Newman says is polytonal, "with a lot of major/minor things," but most of which he has simply "tried to make beautiful and fluid and dramatic."
Occasionally, he says, he is even having the orchestra contribute some sound effects - barking dogs, clapping, etc. "A lot of the time it just took on a life of its own."
Tickets to the opening, at $25, are available at Symphony Hall, the Cosmic Aeroplane and the Park City Adventure Center. For information call 328-3456.