August 2023
The Beautiful Noise of Silent Films
Prescott Film Festival pairs a live orchestra with Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!

Colorado musician Rodney Sauer speaks about Harold Lloyd’s silent film Safety Last! with genuine affection. “He was very good at comedy, and this is just packed with stunts. There’s a gag every ten, 15 seconds. A little romance thrown in. And he’s Harold Lloyd, so he has to climb a twelve-story building and hang from it. Which he really did — no camera tricks back in 1923!”

Original lobby card

His enthusiasm carries over to the music he plays for Safety Last! “The style of the humor is brash, so the music can lighten it up a bit. But with comedy, you mostly want to stay out of its way. A little romantic theme for the girlfriend, and then with a thrill comedy like this, you want to make things more tense. You’ll hear light popular music at the start, turning into mysteriosos and minor-key pizzicatos.”

Sauer leads the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which will play Harold Lloyd up his building at the Prescott Film Festival on September 24. It’s part of Sauer’s 30-year mission to revive and celebrate the forgotten art of silent-movie orchestration.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra draws from archival sources like the cue sheet below.

“Silent” films a misnomer

Historically silent movies weren’t silent for very long. By 1913 presenters had enlisted music’s ability to heighten moods, drive narratives and help the flickering images connect with audiences. In towns large and small, Sauer says, movies rolled to the music of a local orchestra, chamber ensemble or piano player. “You had church music, and movie-house music, which at one point was probably the most commonly played music on the planet.”

That made the movie house a training ground for many early 20th-century musicians. Ragtime composer James Scott played in movie houses. Jelly Roll Morton was an organist there. “Louis Armstrong played cornet in movie houses early in his career,” Sauer said. “That's when he switched to trumpet.”

What they played varied by location. “In those days, I’d compare music in silent-movie theaters to set design and costuming in stage theatres,” Sauer said. “The films were scored locally, according to local resources.” A big city might have a full orchestra; smaller towns might use a few musicians or just a pianist. With very little prep time, they’d patch together original compositions with cue sheets from prior films and a little improvisation to make them fit. “In the 1920s you could go to a hundred different showings of Safety Last! and hear a hundred different scores.”

That music provided a vital animating link between the prerecorded celluloid and the people in the seats. “It’s a live-performance medium,” Sauer said. “A silent-film presentation is a collaboration between the film, the musicians, the architecture and the audience.”

Building a soundscape

The Jazz Singer (1929) and the emergence of “talkies” slammed the door on silent-film orchestras almost overnight. “Most theaters just threw their cue sheets and orchestrations away.” Sauer said. “Some people couldn't bear to do that, and looked to find those compositions a home, and some of that wound up in archives.”

Those archives, the internet and musicians like Sauer have rekindled interest in a forgotten frontier of American musical history. To date the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra has scored over 125 silent films, recording over 40 film scores for DVD, Blu-Ray and Turner Classic Movies. The five-piece ensemble (piano, violin, cello, clarinet and cornet) has been touring the country, wrapping melodies around the likes of Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford and Buster Keaton, since 1994.

“We're small enough to play like a chamber orchestra, and large enough for an orchestral sound.” Sauer says. The players enjoy “live” spaces, like the Jim and Linda Lee Performing Arts Center, that amplify music, rather than modern cinemas that deaden it to favor dialogue. And it’s fun, he says, to blend carefully composed music with the needs of the moment. “It brings the live element back to these films. Part of the experience is watching and reacting to the audience. That’s why I hope people will bring their kids to this. It’s a perfect film for them, and they bring great energy to the show.”

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