When silents were silent

D.W. Griffith’s Those Awful Hats (1909) depicts a conventional film show with piano accompaniment. Most film shows at this time were like this – but not all. Image from http://www.journeybyframe.com

I read it again the other day. Someone explained how silent films were accompanied by music by starting with the phrase, “Of course, silent films were never silent …” We’ve all used those words, or something like them, explaning the basics of silent film to those new to or indifferent towards the medium. It’s corny, but it’s useful. Kevin Brownlow has a chapter in The Parade’s Gone By entitled ‘The Silents Were Never Silent’. But is it true? Well, if you are going to be historically exact about such things, then the answer is no. Some of time, if not very often, silent films were silent. At the risk of sowing seeds of confusion, we shall attempt to explain when, where and why.

Films from the so-called silent era were ‘silent’ because for the most part there was no soundtrack included on the film print. Although Eugene Lauste patented a sound-on-film system as early as 1907, the first films with soundtracks did not appear, in a few experimental shorts, until the early 1920s. Sound-on-film as we know it was effectively devised by the American Lee De Forest, whose De Forest Phonofilms (short films chiefly showing dramatic or musical sketches) were shown in some cinemas from the mid-1920s. Also during the silent period there had been numerous efforts at synchronising films with disc recordings, chiefly for songs. The concept first became prominent in 1900, and enjoyed much success around the 1907-1910 period, to the extent that it became common for many film programmes to include one song title using synchronised recordings. The concept was revived and improved by Warner Bros for The Jazz Singer (1927), which introduced the idea of sound film (specifically sound feature films) to a mass audience, though it was sound-on-film that would soon take over and give us the talkies.

But for the most part a silent film was silent unless accompanied by live music. But was the music always there? When films were first exhibited commercially, in 1894, via the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow, they were silent. You peered down into the machine, paid your cent or penny, and thirty seconds of so of silent miniaturised action played before your eyes. Edison wasn’t happy with this, and in 1895 introduced the Kinetophone, an adaptation of the Kinetoscope with accompanying (though not synchronised) phonograph recordings. Yet for the most part people started seeing silent films silently.

This continued with the first Lumière presentations around the world in 1895/96, which generally took place without music in salons before select audiences, introducing the concept, before the films would then be transferred to variety theatres where they could be commercialised. Here they would be accompanied by music, since every variety theatre came with a house band or orchestra. Films needed music to be commercially palatable, and because the musicians were on hand. So the idea of films needing music to bring them fully to life was established very soon.

Then films grew longer, and more dramatic, and more popular, and started to demand dedicated auditoria. Film shows in American nickelodeons or British electric theatres (we’re talking about the mid-1900s here) were 45 minutes to an hour long, with several films on the programme. It was a long time for an audience to sit in silence, or so it might seem to us, and many have assumed that because later practice was to have music accompaniment for even the humblest item in the film programme, then it was naturally so during the earlier, nickelodeon period.

Rick Altman, in Silent Film Sound (2004), startlingly overturned this assumption. He argues that music was commonplace in nickelodeon shows (i.e. around 1905-09) but that it was performed between the films, and often only then. He cites evidence from film journals, guides to managing film shows and memoirs to show that if a pianist was used at a film show, it might simply be to accompany a singer performing to illustrated song slides – and if you had a synchronised film to provide the song (usually with the audience joining in too) then there was no need for the expense of the musician. Music was also handy for keeping the audience amused during the change of reels, but there was no necessity for music to be played throughout. Even when musical accompnaiment started to be introduced, it wasn’t necessarily ubiquitous, with Altman citing evidence for film shows where the dramatic films were show with music, while the comedies played silently.

How widespread was this practice? Altman isn’t able to say, though there is enough incidental evidence to suggest that it was common enough not to require any kind of comment at the time as being anything out of the ordinary. Not was it restricted to America. In his pioneering articles for Film History on film exhibition in London 1906-1914, Jon Burrows shows that there were some London cinemas in the pre-1910 period which showed films without any musical accompaniment, though here the circumstances were slightly different. In the period before the Cinematograph Act was introduced, the London Country Council licensed entertainments as music, drama or music an drama. A simple way of dodging the censorious eye of the L.C.C. was not to have any music (or dancing) at all.

My own researches in this field have uncovered some indirect evidence for the practice, but no direct evidence. For example, in December 1910 The World’s Fair (a journal for fairground showmen which had a lot of interest in the emerging cinema business) gave these sample weekly costs for an independent showmen running a film programme:

Film service (two changes weekly) £12 0s
Singing pictures (with hire of synchroniser) £2 10s
Rental £3 5s
Rates £0 12s
Electricity £5 0s
Staffing £12 0s
Printing £2 0s
Billposting £1 0s
Advertising £1 10s
Sundry costs £4 0s
Total £43 17s

So, money for a synchronised sound picture, but no money for a musician. That doesn’t mean that a musician might not have been an extra cost just not accounted for here, but compare such an assessment of the needs of the exhibitor with the list of requirements from c.1912 given in our series How to Run a Picture Theatre, where it is assumed that a film show will have a musician providing accompaniment throughout.

However, I have done a fair amount of research into memoir evidence of cinema-going at this period, and I have not come across a single person recalling going to a film show where the films were shown silently. But memoirists (like film historians) can easily confuse later practice with earlier experiences of film-going, and imagine that what they became used had always been so. Moreover, one only has to think of how cheaply some of the first London shop shows or American nickelodeon shows were run, and how long they screened films for (from morning til might) to realise that have a musician playing all day was a luxury that not all could afford.

There is other evidence of the occasional nature of musical accompaniment in London film shows 1907-09. Police reports on film shows in the East End in 1909 reveal that one show had a mechanical piano that played throughout, irrespective of what was going on the screen; another had a piano with a sign saying that anyone in the audience was invited to play if they were able to; another gave no indication of any music being played at all. Other kinds of film show did without music – for example, the immensely popular Hale’s Tours of the mid-1900s (films shot from the front of moving trains projected in a carriage-like space to create the sensation of travelling) had no music, only the sound of the machinery and a ‘ticket collector’ telling the audience what views were on show. And many a special lecturer with films designed to illustrate a place visited or a cause requiring support got by without music (which would have drowned out what they wanted to say in any case).

Up to 1910, audiences at film shows expected music, but not necessarily music to accompany films. How widespread this practice was we do not know, but it was common enough among some of the humbler shows (which were greatly in the majority) to pass without comment. That it was not entirely desirable, however, is demonstrated by the fact that the practice rapidly died out after 1909. Film shows moved out of converted shops into larger, more luxurious auditoria, and audiences could no longer be expected to endure mean entertainment on hard benches, without raking, and in silence.

The preview theatre at Urbanora House, London, 1908. No music is being played

However, silent films did not stop being silent on occasion thereafter. Previews of films, for prospective buyers and later for critics, were generally conducted without music. Audiences had come to expect film and music to be indivisible, but the industry saw the two as separate. There might be the occasional time when a weary pianist would set down their hands for a while and no doubt get jeered by the audience while the film played on in silence, but that just confirms the expectation that audiences now had, in the 1910 and 20s. Silence could only be accidental – or just once on a while something done for dramatic effect. The best-known example of the latter was the British film Reveille (1924), a First World War drama which reaches it climax with the two-minute silence, which was presented without musical accompaniment, as the director George Pearson recalled:

Emotional music had illuminated the film throughout, led by that master of his crafty, Louis Levy. At the vital instant, his baton stopped. Melody ceased with lightning suddenness … dead silence in that great packed auditorium … the screen telling only of things that spoke to the heart alone. An old quavering mother at a little open window, old eyes seeking the heavens, worn hands against her aged breast … silence … and then a faint breeze stirring the thin muslin curtain, wafting it gently to touch her cheek … to kiss it … and wipe away a tear … and falls as silently as it had lifted … and still, the silence … exactly two minues … an audience seemingly spellbound. Then Louis Levy’s baton lifted … struck … and the Reveille broke the magic of silence …

It is an extraordinarily powerful piece of filmmaking and – so far as I know – the only part of the film that survives today.

Silent films are sometimes silent, even today. Anyone who has been to a screening of a silent film at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris will have been obliged to experience the film in silence, as they have a firm rule based on the belief that any musical acompnaiment to a silent that we might come up with now would be a distracting pastiche, and it is better to be without the music at all, so that the film may be experienced in its purity. Anyone who has sat through a silent feature film in silence will be aware that such purity is difficult to achieve, and the rumbling stomach of our neighbour is more of a distraction than musical pastiche might have been. In the earlier years of the Pordenone silent film festival, when they had fewer musicians (and sometimes just the one), then you had to expect periods of silence when the pianist took a well-earned rest and we the audience sat through the rest of the film in silence, conjuring up tunes in our heads as best we could. And in the mid-1990s, at the National Film Theatre, I presented several programmes of Victorian cinema (i.e. pre-1901) without musical accompaniment at all, just me talking over the films. A mixed blessing for the audience, possibly.

So, silents were sometimes silent, and sometimes they are silent still. But (doctrinaire spirits at the Cinémathèque Française notwithstanding) we are all the better for the silents not really being what they are until they are silent no more.

11 responses

  1. The sample weekly costs from The Worlds Fair; there is no mention of a musician, but neither is their any mention of a projectionist…..would both come under ‘Staffing’ perhaps ??….£12 a week might cover four or five people, working full time, in 1910.

  2. This is interesting to think about. I had assumed music was always used, at least to cover up the noise of the projector. I remember sitting through “Birth of a Nation” and many other movies in dead silence during film classes. I would have welcomed some music, even unsynchronized.

  3. Hmm. The World’s Fair article says something about up to 8 people for £12 a week (maybe not all fulltime?), which could include a projectionist, but equally could include a musician. Maybe it wasn’t such a great example to quote after all. Must look further.

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  5. The question of musical accompaniment at trade shows is intriguing. In Glasgow, by the time regular trade shows were established (1914-5), music seems to have been fairly common, at least when the previews were in cinemas rather than private screening rooms.

  6. Just a brief mention in the Glasgow trade journal, The Entertainer, of July 24th 1915… The reporter is writing about an amusing incident where a pianist used inappropriately cheery music for a deathbed scene, and he comments: “Of course this is not an isolated case wherein music and the pictures seem to get at cross purposes. I could give many instances, and trade shows are not exempt.”
    This is very scant evidence, but maybe the trade show reviews have more on this. I wasn’t really paying attention to them, but will do when I go back to that journal.

    Trade shows were held at five different city-centre cinemas in Glasgow, and in the private screening rooms of the largest renters. I don’t suppose they would engage the orchestra (or the vocal quartettes which were in vogue at the time), but maybe a pianist was not uncommon. I shall post here if I find something else…

  7. From The Entertainer I gather that La Scala cinema in Glasgow had a vocal quartette during the first months of WWI; there are even a couple of photographs of them. What is even more interesting is that at some point they decided to “sing in full view of the audience, and this [was] considered a decided improvement” (The Entertainer 6 Feb 1915). I think the fact that they were concealed from view before that indicates that they did accompany some of the films, that is they not only sang during intervals. I don’t think reel changes were an issue in that particular cinema.

    The La Scala was a rather unique venue which seems to have kept high standards, but it was in a crowded location so the singers may have been an attempt at differentiation. They were certainly noteworthy for the trade paper, so they must have been clearly distinct from previous traditions of singing to pictures. Mind, the cinema advertised in the Entertainer, so all this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. I’ll see if I can post a scan of the journal in the next couple of weeks.

    I’m looking forward to the essays in the Sounds of early cinema in Britain book (not out yet as far as I know?) Dr Trevor Griffiths has a great article in it about other aural traditions in Scottish cinemas.

  8. Oh joy. I feel a post coming on, highlighting the different ways in which silents films were accompanied and are accompanied today. Orchestra, brass band, rock band, jazz band, vocalists, piano, player piano, sound effects machine, organ, harp, guitar, violin, accordion, electronica, silence …

    I assume the sounds of early cinema in Britain book is a little way off, assuming it’s one of the outcomes from the recent Beyond Text project.

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