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A Score for Steamboat Bill

TCM’s Classic Film Festival, History According to Hollywood, March 2015

Hollywood hosted the 6th annual TCM Classic Film Festival during the last week of March and fans could not have been happier. Nearly one hundred of the greatest movies ever made were screened at three original “cinema palaces”: The Chinese and Egyptian Theatres, both built by flamboyant showman Sid Grauman in the 1920’s; and the El Capitan, gorgeously restored over the last two decades by the Walt Disney Company. With multiple screenings in the same programming blocks, there was no way any patron could see more than a handful of the scheduled movies.

This was my own inaugural season attending a TCM Fest, despite being a Hollywood native, a life-time worker in “the Industry” and someone who can literally watch movies around the clock. The cost of an all-access pass is daunting and those who have them are still required to line up in endless queues based on one’s “pass level”. Upon learning, however, that $20 and a brief wait in a stand-by line virtually guarantees entry to all but the most popular films, I decided to take a chance. My reward was a seat at four famous flicks, a look at the Festival’s overall operation and the wonderful experience of watching a silent movie while its score was played “live” by an accomplished orchestra.

Pinocchio1940_800

What a pleasure to see Pinocchio (1940) for the first time since childhood. Although only the second full-length feature made by Disney Studios, it remains one of the greatest achievements in the history of animation. Hand-painted frames, photographed through a new, multi-plane camera process, created the realistic illusion of depth. The combination of beautiful drawings in vivid colors, humorous cartoon characters and Paul J. Smith’s musical score is still stunning, 75 years after the movie’s creation.

As pleasurable as Pinocchio may have been, it was almost topped by the pre-show pomp inside the El Capitan. After a bouncy medley ending with “Hooray for Hollywood”, the flower-bedecked Wurlitzer organ and the musician playing it were lowered below the stage. Soft blue and magenta spotlights swept across the walls, highlighting box seats that held costumes and candelabra from “Cinderella”, the Disney attraction currently playing at the theatre. And for a finish, scrims slid open and curtains were raised revealing a backdrop with the iconic Hollywood sign and the foothills beneath it basking in the glow of a sunset. That’s entertainment!

Hollywood’s famed Roosevelt Hotel, across the street from the Chinese Theatre complex, was headquarters for many TCM Festival attendees, identifiable by the all-access passes they wore. The expansive lobby hosted visiting film-goers who huddled on comfortable sofas, chatted in small bars and restaurants and hobnobbed in mezzanine meeting rooms. TCM staffers and security personnel were ubiquitous and friendly. The Blossom Room, site of the first Academy Awards dinner in 1927 (and where one of my aunts was a long-time waitress), appeared to be the inner sanctum for special presentations and celebrity interviews. What caught my eye were the rare, beautiful movie posters adorning the walls inside. It took repeated polite requests on my part to secure a two-minute dash through the room for a quick glance, even though the space was clearly in-between events at the time.

To savor a longer look at the posters, I bought a copy of “Gotta Dance! The Art of the Dance Movie Poster, From the Mike Kaplan Collection“. A veteran Hollywood producer and director, Mr. Kaplan was sitting at a table across from the Blossom Room, signing copies of his book. With him was dance and film critic Debra Levine, who wrote the book’s forward. This edition of colorful posters, many with foreign release titles, is a valuable resource for anyone who loves movies and dance.

rebecca

Meanwhile, back at the El Capitan, the great suspense film Rebecca was about to begin. Produced by David O. Selznick, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, the film won 1940’s Best Picture Oscar. Faithfully adapted from a novel by Daphne de Maurier and enhanced by Franz Waxman’s lush score, “Rebecca” is a compelling study of a woman’s psychological insecurity. At 130 minutes, it seemed a trifle long and talky for this fan’s repeat viewing. However, it is well worth anyone’s time to see Dame Judith Anderson’s eerie portrayal of Mrs. Danvers, the novel’s menacing housekeeper. Her strangely sapphic devotion to her deceased mistress at the Manderley estate is unforgettable and earned Anderson a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

christmas-in-july_500

The following afternoon, a sweet, light-hearted comedy was showing at the Chinese Theatre. Christmas in July (1940) was written and directed by Preston Sturges, the first person to ever receive that double credit. The simple story, adapted from a Sturges play, stars Dick Powell and Ellen Drew as a young couple in New York, too poor to even buy a ring and get married. He’s convinced he will win a $25,000 contest prize in a coffee company’s search for a new slogan. When his co-workers send a fake telegram announcing he’s the winner, Powell spends the money on presents for his entire neighborhood. Slapstick, confusion and rapid-fire dialogue abound before everything is sorted out at the final curtain.

That happy ending was just the beginning for Preston Sturges. He would spend four meteoric years at Paramount Studios creating a remarkable string of critical and financial hits, including “The Lady Eve”, “Sullivan’s Travels”, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “The Palm Beach Story”. There was an unofficial company of character actors who appeared in every Sturges film—William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn and a score of others—and his scripts contained highbrow wit and lowbrow pratfalls in equal measures. An urbane, cultured genius who spread himself too thin, his fall from grace was slow but sure.

Sturges was responsible for some of the funniest scenes ever filmed and no detail escaped his eye–or ear. The musical director for “Christmas in July” and two other Sturges pictures was Sigmund Krumgold. He filled his busy scores with the usual cues, non-stop music and popular songs of the era, but left sufficient room for Sturges to add some exaggerated sound effects: zippers zipping, cranks ratcheting, springs wobbling, glass shattering—anything for an added laugh.

Steamboat-Bill-Jr-poster_500

Fortune surely smiled on me when Don Williams, a close friend, gave me a ticket to an event where he’d be one of its featured players. Williams is a percussionist, part of a multi-generation family of studio musicians; his prolific older brother is composer John Williams. Don was in a 16-piece orchestra that was going to premiere a new score—live—as accompaniment to one of the greatest of all silent movies, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). It is Buster Keaton’s second-to-last independent film before he signed with MGM and lost full control of his own scripts, ideas and budgets. The arrival of sound pictures a year later didn’t help the gravel-voiced Keaton and neither would his increasing battles with studio heads and his own alcoholism.

Hollywood historian and author Leonard Maltin introduced the film to a full house of 650 fans at the Egyptian Theatre. He recalled meeting the elderly, dour Keaton, his “hero comic”, as a kid in New York. Describing some of the death-defying action we were about to see, Maltin said “all of the CGI today couldn’t match what Buster was doing then. He was the best visual effect!”

“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” begins in a genteel manner but gradually becomes a laugh-aloud comedy with almost unbelievable stunt work, all performed by Keaton. Simple sight gags grow more complicated until the final third of the movie when a cyclone arrives and virtually destroys an entire town. At one point, a complete house falls on the comic after which he calmly opens a door and walks out. Later, Keaton is hanging on to a tree when an off-camera crane hoists it into the air, swings it violently while racing a block or two away and then plops it down again. There are perfectly-timed dives into the Sacramento River with Keaton sometimes pulling heavy hemp ropes or other people along with him. The most dangerous stunt and one of the star’s most famous is when a one-ton, three-story wall of a house falls on Keaton; he escapes death only because he’s placed himself in the exact spot where a small, open window will drop directly over him. (Before this legendary shot, several crew members walked away from the set because they were convinced the star would be killed.)

The delightful, 70-minute 2015 Premiere score for “Steamboat” was written and conducted by Carl Davis, an extremely productive composer of music for film (many of them silent), TV series, opera, ballet, documentaries and Broadway shows. American born in 1936, Davis has lived in England since 1961; he regularly conducts both the London and Liverpool Philharmonic orchestras and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He was commissioned by Kevin Brownlow, the noted documentarian, to write scores for TV shows about the history of silent films. Davis then wrote music for some of the most famous pre-sound movies: Abel Gance’s “Napoleon”, “Ben-Hur”, “Greed”, “Intolerance” and “The Phantom of the Opera”. He also scored individual documentaries about the three great comics of the silent era, Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton.

It seemed odd to see Davis and 16 musicians file into the front of the Egyptian, sit behind their instruments and “sound A” for a final tuning. But once the house lights dimmed and the movie began, it was easy to forget that these artists, hard at work for over an hour, were even there. The orchestra was a single voice–speaking for the performers, announcing every action on screen, augmenting any emotion displayed, whether sad or joyful. Music in motion pictures, live in the 1920’s and recorded on soundtracks ever since, is an all-important partner, equal to what we see with our eyes. Irving Thalberg said, “There never was a silent film…without that music, there wouldn’t have been a movie industry at all”.

These very able and mostly young professionals are members of the musician’s union. They work all over the city, booking record dates, jazz gigs and jobs with the Philharmonic; three of them regularly play with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Their educated backgrounds are required when only two or three rehearsals are possible for something as complicated as the “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” score. The musicians mastered every note of the difficult charts practically overnight and made it sound easy. There was standout work from Sandy Hughes (no relation) on flute and piccolo, but everyone in the orchestra deserves high praise.

The Davis score will be recorded soon for a new DVD release of Keaton’s movie. There are other, older versions on the market, the work of different composers, but wait for the Carl Davis recording. He can effortlessly glide from sweet waltzes and snappy Charlestons to serious, string quartet moments, from pell-mell chase scenes to comedic pratfalls (cue the trombone slide and tympani crash). There are individual themes for Buster, his father, his girlfriend and her father. There are early American-sounding tunes and tremendous storm sequences that call for swirling wind machine effects, chimes and a dozen other percussion instruments. Davis has his art down to a science: the moment something changes on the screen, even as small as an eyebrow twitch or quick smile, the music is right there with it, blending perfectly with our eyes’ perceptions of the action.

Finally, some comments from the musicians themselves. When Don Williams, who played trap drums almost exclusively during the performance, was asked how he liked Keaton’s movie, he laughed and said, “Like it? I saw maybe ten seconds of it. We’re reading notes and watching Carl for cues. There’s no re-takes when the music is live.” Sandy Hughes, the flawless flautist, remembered the intense focus during rehearsal although she and some fellow musicians saw portions of the film. “What made the performance all the more special was hearing the audience’s reaction which was missing in rehearsal”, she said. “The more they laughed, the better we played.”

 

Comments

  1. Richard Davis says:

    Wish I were there, especially for “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”.

  2. colleen russell says:

    First, very clever title! Thanks for sharing your in-depth, vivid, personal experience. You’ve convinced me to sign-up for next year!

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