The 1923 Skandia Cinema, Stockholm
The silent film was never silent. Even the first public showings of motion pictures at the end of the 19th century often had a musical accompaniment of some sort. At the beginning not much attention was given the music as it served only to break the silence of the flickering images on the screen. Within a few years this random procedure found something of a standard formula in the accompaniment furnished by a house pianist. The honky-tonk piano, slightly out of tune soon became the most common apprehension of what a silent movie sounded like. It still is.
The untuneful hammering was the experience most people had when going to the movies as a majority of the cinema goers were living in small towns or villages. In the big cities a visit to the cinema often was something completely different. Many big city cinemas were palaces with an in house orchestra of sometimes as much as over a hundred musicians. The big cinema orchestra quickly became an attraction in itself. For people of lesser means, the cinema orchestra was probably their first encounter with “high-brow” culture, and must have been a wonderful experience to a person who wasn’t used to attend regular symphonic concerts.
The orchestra pit at the New York Roxy in 1927
Nearly every large cinema theatre had a musical director who arranged the movie scores from week to week. For this purpose the biggest cinemas had enormous libraries, some of them containing as many as 25,000 pieces of music. Normally, a silent film score consisted of different bits and pieces of music to fit the mood of the scene. Most commonly used were symphonic extracts from the old masters as Bach, Mozart or Brahms but also ballet music and interludes from operas and stage plays. Folk tunes and popular melodies quickly found their way to the movies. All these pieces were then carefully patched together by either the musical director or a hired arranger. When the musical director couldn’t find satisfactory music for a certain bit of action, he was often obliged to compose some himself.
It was at this point the film score as we know it was born.
To gain control of the overall impression of their movies, some studios started to commission scores, and had those sent out with the prints. An original score craved its composer. A two hour movie required as much music as an average opera. One of the first original scores was written by Victor Schertzinger for the movie Civilization in 1916. Schertzinger later turned into a director of many silent pictures, most notably Redskin (1929). Among his talkies The Road To Zanzibar (1941) is probably his best work. He kept a foot in the music department throughout his career. He got his biggest hit with the song Tangerine which he wrote for the noir classic Double Indemnity (1944).
The original score became more and more common practice for the biggest movies. The Frank Tuttle movie Puritan Passions (1923) had a score by Massachusetts born Frederick Shepherd Converse, his only credit in the movie world. The Marion Davies vehicle Little Old New York (1923) and Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924) both had original orchestral scores, both of them are apparently considered lost today. By the mid 20's, many bigger European productions also had original scores written. Gottfried Huppertz wrote a huge, almost Strauss-like score to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Giuseppe Becce who usually worked on a smaller scale wrote almost 200 scores during his career from 1913-59, among them several for F.W Murnau.
The films with a smaller budget usually settled for theme songs instead of an original score. One of the first who used specifically written theme songs in his movies was Charlie Chaplin, who even early on frequently composed music for distribution with his films. In many cases the sheet music to the theme songs was for sale in the lobby. Many of these theme songs became big hits, several of them even bigger hits than the films themselves.
Let’s have a listen at some of the most well known theme songs from the late 1920’s.
Charmaine - What Price Glory? (1926)
Written by Lew Pollack & Erno Rappee
Played by Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians (1927)
Charmaine later became Mantovani's signature tune, and with that a true elevator classic.
Diane - Seventh Heaven (1927)
Written by: Lew Pollack & Erno Rappee
Played by: Nat Shilkret & His Victor Orchestra
Diane was recorded by Jim Reeves in the 50's and by Miles Davis in the 60's making it a clssic in many different genres.
Ramona - Ramona (1928)
Written by: Mabel Wayne & L. Wolfe Gilbert
Performed by Gene Austin to Nat Shilkret & His Victor Orchestra
Ramona is probably the most well known of all the silent theme songs. This version sold more than a million copies. Ramona has been used many times in many different movies. In Europe the Dutch/Indonesian duo, The Blue Diamonds had a huge hit with an uptempo version in 1960.
Weary River - Weary River (1928)
Written by: Louis Silvers & Grant Clarke
Played by Jan Garber & His Orchestra
Weary River has been recorded so many times it has become a true evergreen.
Should I - Our Modern Maidens (1929)
Written by: Nacio Herb Brown & Arthur Freed
Played by Jesse Stafford & His Orchestra
Should I was also the theme song for the 1930 talkie Lord Byron Of Broadway and has been recorded in many different versions ever since.