A Night at the Silent Flicks

A silly smile, a goofy grin, a loopy laugh.  Through the whole performance of Orchestra New England.

Conductor Jim Sinclair arranged and narrated the program, filling it with entertaining anecdotes.  “We’re dressed for the ’20s,” Jim said, but then his tie malfunctioned, “and I’ll have to do this sans tie.”  As he took it off, a catcall came from the audience: “take it all off.”  Yes, it was that kind of evening.

What were we in for?  Musical accompaniment to three silent films.  The music was provided by an abbreviated orchestra of eight members, but the sound was just perfect.  Like those old radio shows, the percussionist Patrick Smith stole the hour, with his hilarious renditions of actors speaking, a horse clopping down the street, cops smacking into each other, doors slamming, the hot tamale, the flirting couple, and much more silliness.

So what were some of Jim’s tidbits?

I had never put together that silent films transferred straight from Vaudeville.  They didn’t even have to come up with new material.  This Charlie Chaplin film from early in the scheme of things, 1916, featured the Little Tramp (who turned 100 in 2014).  The Vaudeville stuff?  The classic duck-and-the-innocent-gets-punched schtick, the swinging doors routine, and roller skating slips and falls.  Here in it’s entirety (with music by someone else) is the two-reeler (each reel lasted about 9 minutes) The Rink:

You have to admit that the “Stout Lady” was a very good sport.  And did they speed up the film to get those shots?  Goodness!  They were all such athletes.

I had not seen Harold Lloyd before, and apparently of the main silent film comics, he was the sort of “normal,” leading man type.  We saw Haunted Spooks from 1920.  It’s filled with some dated black performer/minstrel stereotypes, but also one great Little Rascal who almost makes up for the other.

Buster Keaton certainly competes in high-jinks athleticism with Chaplin.  Keaton was also an engineer and used physics to help plan his stunts.  Don’t miss the moment in Cops from 1922 when Keaton grabs on to a moving car.  This one seems to use that ‘when a moving object hits an immovable force …’ or, well, I’m not much of a scientist.  Take a look:

This film has a kind of plot that exceeds the Chaplin strung-together routines, which is definitely part of its appeal for me.  Poor Buster all the way through, and then at the end…

Now I will say that the music used on these videos doesn’t compare to the hilarity of what we heard with Orchestra New England.

The overture they started with reminded me of “Fractured Fairy Tales,” although this was “An Operatic Nightmare (Desecration No. 2),” which Jim pointed out meant there had been a No 1!  It features familiar operatic music converted to fox trot and ragtime beats.  “You can dance to it,” said Jim.  Especially fun for you musicologists out there.

Check out a taste of it here.  The overture did its job; it certainly put us in the mood.

The three films were accompanied by Jim’s compilations of Irving Berlin, Richard Wagner, Igor Stravinsky, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Charles Gounod, and more, but like you’ve never heard them before.  He was not afraid to splice and dice the music, changing rhythms, fragmenting familiar motifs, and all so cleverly done that the music seamlessly integrated with the images.

I’m not sure if it was the pictures or the sounds or the combination that made my friend and neighbor Penny and me repeatedly laugh out loud, but we certainly did, with dopey aplomb.  Wish you could have been there, too.


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