Spooky Silents '08

October is wrapping up, and I've just wrapped up a slew of shadowy, creepy silent films: Barrymoore's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Sun 10/26 @ Silent Clowns, on piano), the Chaney/Browning West of Zanzibar (Tues 10/28 @ C.A.C., on Miditzer VTPO), Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera (Weds 10/29 @ Church of St. Paul the Apostle, on a 4/89 Möller pipe organ), and last night was the Conrad Veidt/Paul Leni The Man Who Laughs (Thurs 10/30 @ Walter Reade, for the Young Friends of Film of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, on Miditzer VTPO).

Visible above is a great photo of me and Bruce Lawton shot by our photographer friend (and silent film fan) Steve Friedman. This was taken at a show of Chaplin shorts Bruce and I did at St. Pauls this past June. (The reason the two 16mm's look different is that one is an Eiki which I've converted to run at 21.5 fps and the other is a standard 24 fps machine).

The J&H show went well; not as big a turnout as we usually get at the Silent Clowns, but that's often how the dramas we show work out. Felt much better about my playing for both this picture and the one I'd played the day before – a new print of the Lubitsch Lady Windermere's Fan at MoMA. Both shows were on piano, and I've been trying to find new things to do musically, to continue to develop my accompaniment vocabulary. I'm never really crazy about my playing anyway, and am getting a little tired of what I've been playing. Just in case everyone else is, too, I've been pushing myself at shows and feel like the weekend's films were a bit of a step forward.

The three organ shows went well, also, with the church pipe organ Phantom going the better of the bunch for me, although this could be that it's a film I know awfully well and so the concentration balance during the performance of watching and absorbing the film vs. creating music was different. Zanzibar I sight-read, and the Veidt/Leni was something I'd seen and played a couple times. The scores went well for all of these shows, but as an accompanist, sometimes how well I know a picture makes the experience different. [The exception for me being The General, which I know inside and out and have personally never been happy with what I've played for it. Go figure. But, as other accompanists will tell you, usually when you do what you feel is a terrible score the audience response is the complete opposite…and I've learned to remind myself that a terrible performance usually means the score was actually quite good.]

Fortunately we got enough people to sign up for the MoMA class (actually, as of now the # is well over the minumum) and Cruel and Unusual Comedy is going to start next Wednesday. Ron, Steve and I have been rescreening the prints and making adjustments to the running order and in one or two cases film selections. Last week's screening had a bit of a nice surprise: one of the films we're running is Lizzies of the Field, a Sennett car-gag picture, for Eileen Bowser's program (on Nov 19) and a 35mm print as well as a 16mm came in. The 35mm turned out to be a really nice print of the first reel. Which none of us had ever seen. This film generally exists and circulates in an abridged edition with a complete reel two and a much-truncated reel one. So, it may be that we've found the lost first reel. We're going to try to run the 35mm and then switch to the second reel from the 16mm print (which is a Blackhawk/Killiam print). It also turns out that the Ham & Bud short we'd selected for the "excessive violence" program (guest speaker Trav S.D., on Nov 12) is a gorgeous and 100% complete 35mm print, with all original titles…and is also a really funny Ham & Bud. It was fun revisiting all these shorts, as there were a bunch of them we hadn't looked at in a few years.

November is looking like it will be a more academic month for me, between the first three sessions of Cruel and Unusual at MoMA, six AMMI education screenings of The Immigrant, beginning to work on a book of – and about – silent film music for G. Schirmers (who, ironically, published the Erno Rapée silent film music book back in 1925), and finalizing the selections for the Ernie Kovacs DVD set from Koch Entertainment that I've been hired to curate. Hopefully I'll have time to add another score to my altscore.com website…

See you at the silents!

Ben Model
silent film accompanist/historian