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?

28 responses

  1. There is a photo in existence – I can’t remember who showed it to me, possibly Mr Brand – of the Von Stroheim Greed crew heading into Death Valley, with their piano on the back of a truck, with the name of the film production emblazoned on the side. Imagine that for a gig !!

  2. This is either too obvious and well-known to mention or a figment of my imagination, but: I’m sure I’ve seen it lampooned in a silent comedy, with a violinist on a film set? – but I can’t remember any more than that.

  3. Well-remembered re GREED – the newsreel footage of the filming in Death Valley has a shot where you see pianist and violinist accompanying a scene:

  4. If the musicians were employed by the studio, would they not appear on pay records or on daily call sheets…if such things still exist? Perhaps identifying a film (or films) where such records still exist, and then determining if on set musicians were employed might serve as a starting point. I freely admit I don’t know if such records exist, though…

  5. This constitutes a different order of “evidence” inamsuch as it is a fictional reconstruction of silent-era practice, but there is an intiguing sequence in the Kim Novak film JEANNE EAGELS (1957) that shows musicians playing on the set during the filming of a scene (which is directed by none other than Frank Borzage himself in cameo).

  6. I’m not so sure that footage of the Greed crew in Death Valley wasn’t itself staged. They sure covered a lot of mileage in the Valley.

  7. Naturally, a lot of the Greed footage is staged for the newsreel camera for publicity purposes…but then I can’t believe they took a piano all that way just for a ten-second gag on a newsreel…

  8. I ought to know, as I’ve written about the film, but doesn’t Anthony Asquith’s SHOOTING STARS have a musicians-on-the-set scene? It’s the sort of film that would have…

  9. Chili Bouchier – who appeared in Shooting Stars – writes briefly about studio music in her autobiography, cunningly titled Shooting Star. She’s not specifically talking about any one film but this passage appears in a section of the book (pp53-54), around 1927, when she’s about 17, and it sounds like she’s talking about the Stoll Studios in Cricklewood with Asquith:

    “There was a rather seedy little musical trio to play our ‘mood’ music and we were allowed to choose our own. I had ‘Sweet Sue’ for the jolly scenes and ‘The Songs My Mother Taught Me’ for the sad ones. I think that this musical accompaniment was a mistake as it affected everybody’s judgement of a scene. In a close-up the director would whisper instructions into the actor’s ear and as the emotions he wished them to convey flitted across their faces, everybody in the studio – mesmerized by the music and the director’s seductive voice – were tricked into a false perception of the scene. Viewed in a cold projection room without the seduction of the music and the director’s voice, I thought that we all looked as though we were suffering from a bad attack of constipation.”

  10. Hello,

    Asquith’s ‘Shooting Stars’ is replete with on-set musicians for the first reel of the film – you have a three piece band playing ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ for the western being shot on one set (the title of the song is used sarcastically against Annette Benson’s cranky actress). There is also a jazz band playing for the comedy being shot on the other set – we get several shots of both. And we get a little touch of Chili too.

    We’ll be playing ‘Shooting Stars’ at the British Silent Film Festival 4 to 6th June at London’s Barbican Cinema.

  11. Well I thought I remembered them being there, and it’ll be great to see the film once again in London. An interesting thing about SHOOTING STARS is whether it is satirising American or British cinema practice. It seems to fudge the issue on several points. So, do we know if musicians were used in British studios, or is SHOOTING STARS poking fun at an exclusively American ‘folly’?

  12. British studios used on-set musicians too…..George Pearson refers to his use of an in-house band several times in ‘Flashback’, the most detailed reference on p 87(hardback edition).The band consisting of viola, violin, harmonium and piano, played within earshot but out of sight of the actors….

  13. So he does – interesting how he emphasises the value of hiding the musicians, so that the music appeared magically to the actors. This seems a more likely practice than the musicians being visible, as we’ve had in the handful for studio stills. Pearson is writing about a 1920 film, and according to Rachael Low (who makes passing mention of the use of musicians in the studio in her 1920s volume) he started using musicians in 1918. Which then begs the question when the practice first started.

  14. Many thanks for all the postings that have come in already on this subject. There seem to be a reassuring amount of leads to follow up on this subject, and the pointers are much appreciated (great idea especially from Fred that may well yield results). Of course, there’s also the on-set musicians who appeared (as themselves) in films, though arguably the sound of the music in the studio in these circumstances is a by-product rather than the main aim. That said, for dance scenes and the like, the music would be key in keeping visual unity amongst movement. I know that the 1919 Filipino silent, “Dalagang Bukid” was quoted in an article written in the 50s as being “the first [presumeably filipino] musical silent picture. The same orchestra that appeared in the movie appeared in the pit…and it played the theme…as the movie was flashed on the screen.” It would be interesting to know if any directors who prescribed the music that should accompany their film had the self-same music played on set? Again, thanks for all your help and if anything else occurs to anyone I would be eager to hear.

  15. I’ve got a reference as early as 1907 to the use of music while film actors were ‘posing’. I keep meaning to put some references of this kind on a web-site, but am still working out how to do the site. I’ll keep Bioscopic posted…

  16. There weren’t many directors who recommended music for their films, except for Charlie Chaplin (often retroactively, after talkies appeared), D.W. Griffith, and Herbert Brennon (whose cue sheet for PETER PAN is a piece of work, recommending vast pieces from the familiar classical repertoire for very short scenes). Mostly the music was left up to the local theaters. And from the reminiscences I’ve seen (including some in this discussion already) the choice of on-set music was usually left up to the stars.

    There are a lot of pictures of musicians on the set — in Brownlow’s coffee table book “Mary Pickford Rediscovered” there’s a shot of the crew on The Love Light with a trio of violin, cello, and harp. Show People has the excellent comic scene where Marion Davies requests “Hearts and Flowers,” and you can clearly see the violinist exaggeratedly playing that chestnut. I seem to remember on-set musicians in a second scene in that picture (the out-door scene with the stunt man swimming across a lake), but I can’t quite remember.

    There’s a recreation of on-set music in the opening scenes of “Singing in the Rain,” which despite being a musical comedy, gets its facts about silent film production correct. Donald O’Connor’s character is an on-set musician, and predicts that the talkies will put him out of work.

    Besides the piano, pump reed organs were common on set because of their portability, and organ and violin was a common combination that I’ve seen in a number of still photos.

    I’ve seen several publicity shots of Buster Keaton with an accordionist on the set of THE CAMERAMAN, and there’s a shot of Frank Borzage in the recent boxed set with an accordionist whose instrument has “Borzage” written on it. A discussion at speculated that it may have been one of his brothers, but whether it was used for acting or just having fun between takes is not clear.

  17. Many thanks Rodney. I’d quite forgotten Singin’ in the Rain (d’oh). This is the Nitrateville thread on the Borzage accordionist – It does seem that most of the evidence is pictorial. Finding written evidence from the time is what’s tough.

    Stephen, if you can track down the 1907 reference, do let us know. It would be years ahead of when the practice seems generally to have started.

  18. Speculation perhaps, and slightly tangential, but how about Protozanov’s “A Chopin Nocturne” (“Noktiurn Shopena”) and “Moment Musicale” (“Muzykal’nyi moment”) both from 1913 – sadly the Chopin is, to the best of my knowledge, lost. Both were short ballets to existing music (Schubert, obviously, in the second case).

    Clearly it would be sensible to have the pianist on set to facilitate synchronisation. Given that they both star the same dancers I guess they were shot at the same time (they’re only 150 metres each) but does that mean that the producers brought the pianist in specially or were they studio staff who could therefore work on other films (with other musicians)?

    I see that in 1913 Protozanov also directed “What the Violin Lamented” (aka “Deranged) (“O chem rydala skripka” aka “Umalishennyi”) – also lost, which features a show-booth ballet-master. Perhaps the same arrangements pertained?

  19. There certainly are plenty of movies that call for specific tunes to be played, and these can sometimes be problematic. I remember reading that when DeMille shot “Carmen,” he did his best to make it clear that he was filming the book, not the opera, since he didn’t want to have to pay a license fee to Bizet. But Bizet’s music was used on the set, and certainly used in theaters. DeMille’s WHY CHANGE YOUR WIFE and DON’T CHANGE YOUR HUSBAND each feature close-ups of records, indicating that a particular piece is supposed to be played. Recording a score for STEAMBOAT BILL JR. is problematic because “The Prisoner’s Song” is still under copyright, and licensing pieces for synchronization to pictures is prohibitively expensive — so most musicians have to use something else!

  20. Okay — I finally saw the newsreel footage of GREED on the More Treasures DVD set. First off, if this were a publicity stunt, at least once an actor or the director would have shown up. This almost looks like it was filmed by a shy cameraman who wasn’t welcome. Secondly, it looks to me as though it’s not a piano but a portable harmonium or pump reed organ, which I can state from experience, is a LOT easier to carry around. They made nifty harmoniums (used by army chaplains among others) where the keybox and the stand would come apart and fit together as a closed suitcase, and it could be carried awkwardly by one person, somewhat more conveniently by two.

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