Music while they worked

In The Parade’s Gone By, Kevin Brownlow has a short chapter on that intriguing aspect of studio practice in the silent era, the use of musicians on set to help the actors get into the right mood. Not all directors used it, and not all actors needed it, but Conrad Nagel recalled

Every set would have musicians. Mickey Neilan had an orchestra of four, so there was always fun on his set … These musicians would know a hundred to a hundred fifty pieces of music, and they’d have a piece to go with whatever happened on the set. For hundreds of years, when you went to war, the regiment would take a band along. The music would give a great lift to the soldiers. And it was the same on a silent-picture set; the music kept you buoyed up.

Marshall Neilan, King Vidor, William Wellman all approved of the practice; Charlie Chaplin and Edward Sloman never used it. It is such a familiar part of silent film history, and yet how much do we actually know about it, beyond the anecdotal? I received an enquiry from researcher Polly Goodwin the other day about the use of musicians on set, and I realised I knew next to nothing. So, with her permission, I am reproducing her request here, in the hope that readers will be able to suggest texts, films, photographs or whatever. Here’s her email:

I am a researcher into silent film acting and I am currently investigating the phenomenon of on-set music during the filming of (many) silent films. So far, whilst I can find a few mentions of the frequency with which musicians (I believe sometimes called ‘sideliners’?) were invited onto the set, to play whilst the cameras were rolling, accounts tend to be brief and sporadic. There are a few photographs showing them at work, and the odd anecdote from actors and other on-set workers and in contemporary articles, but that is as far as I have been able to go. I wondered if anyone could give me any advice about where I might find more information on this (if, indeed, there is much information to find?) As yet, I have not found any accounts by the musicians themselves, for instance, or (which would be most interesting) by actors/directors etc. really addressing the impact (positive or negative) that this music and those who played it had. I find it such an intriguing situation – acting with the presence of music, and also of the director’s ‘direction’, in many cases, and would love to really get a fuller picture of what this unique acting environment would be like to perform in.

Has anyone come across any information about this, or any evidence in the form of photos, or, even more pie-in-the-sky-optimistically, in any snippets of on-set ‘behind the camera’ footage?

Any advice or suggestions would be more than appreciated.

Well, the Brownlow book is a start – chapter 30 covers the practice, and has two photographs, one of William de Mille with Efrem Zimbalist Jr on set, the other showing Pauline Starke and Conrad Nagel in Edmund Goulding’s Sun-up, with violinist on location. But what else is there?