Silent Films (and Its Music) … are Back

October 27, 2009 Updated: October 29, 2009
Ben Model at the piano  (Morten Skallerud)
Ben Model at the piano (Morten Skallerud)

Ever wonder what happened to those impassioned pianists who played for the silent movies of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy? The artists have not been lost in the dusty archives from the 1920s. Their art has never been lost and is even making a comeback.

Ben Model, one of the leading silent movie accompanists in the U.S., has been a silent film pianist at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York for the last 25 years. From an early age, his life seemed to be shaped for this unusual career.

“I began playing piano for silent films while attending film school at New York University. This was before VHS and so all films were shown in 16 mm … silent. I had grown up absolutely in love with silent films, and it bothered me that they were [being] playing so poorly. I had been playing piano since I was a kid, and felt I had to do something to help these wonderful movies. I figured, ‘I don't know what I'm doing, but it's got to be better than nothing!’”

The head of the film department at the university thought his accompanying the "silents" during class was a great idea and encouraged him to do it. Since there were no "how-to" books, Ben Model searched out everyone in New York City who was accompanying silents and befriended the organist and composer Lee Erwin.

At that time (early 1980s) Lee was the house organist for the Carnegie Hall Cinema (now Zankel Hall) and had accompanied silents on the theater organ during the 1920's himself.

“Lee passed on to me his philosophy and techniques of how to accompany silent films and was a friend and mentor for many years. Lee passed away in 2000 at the age of 91.”

Ben Model had no difficulty accessing silent movies when he was growing up, especially comedy shorts, as they were shown on TV throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. He could also buy copies of old films in 8 mm and 16 mm. As a youngster, he saved his lawn-mowing and paper-route money and bought Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harry Langdon short films; it was the only way to see more of them.

“My parents tell me I discovered Charlie Chaplin at the age of 3, in the mid-1960s.”

Silent films stopped being shown regularly in the early 1980s with the rise of cable TV. That's when Laurel and Hardy and the "Little Rascals" shorts—which had been on the air since the early 1950s—ceased being shown as well.

But Ben Model’s love for silent movies had already grown strong—especially after it turned out he lived in the same town as the famous Broadway critic Walter Kerr, the author of "The Silent Clowns."

“My folks heard he had a large 16 mm film collection, and I wrote him a letter (I was 12). A few days later, he called me up and, for the next 15 years or so, I went to his house a few times every year to watch silent movies in his study which was set up with a screen, and theater seats, and 16 mm projectors, … and a reel-to-reel tape recorder that Mr. Kerr played soundtracks on which he had compiled from instrumental records.”

'When Lights Go Off, I'm Working for Keaton, Griffith and Murnau'

Sheet music of 'Sinister Misterioso' by Irenee Berge: a piece which used to suggest danger in the dark and scenes with villains. (Collection of Silent Cinema Presentations, Inc.)
Sheet music of 'Sinister Misterioso' by Irenee Berge: a piece which used to suggest danger in the dark and scenes with villains. (Collection of Silent Cinema Presentations, Inc.)
The language of silent cinema is different from that of talking pictures, in that a sound film uses dialogue to introduce most of the information. That is why music accompaniment is necessary in order to transmit the protagonists’ emotions and fill in the emptiness caused by soundless action.

After the Lumiere brothers first demonstrated their films in 1895 in Paris, specific excerpts from classical music pieces were used to accompany silents, expressing various feelings. Later, composers like Gaston Borch, J.S. Zamecnik, Domenico Savino, and Leo Kempinsky wrote music that sounded like classical pieces, but had names like "Misterioso Andante," "The Crafty Spy," "Jollity," and "Agitato Furioso." For example, the sheet music for "Sinister Misterioso" by Ireneé Bergé states that it is to be used "to suggest danger in the dark and scenes of somber character."

Nowadays, things have changed and usually music is tailor-made for every movie. We call this, of course, a sound track.

Ben Model is keen on creating his own accompanying music. However, he believes that the best style of music for accompanying silent films is that which music audiences heard in the 1910s and 1920s, be it classical or not.

“This is a subject of some debate among fans, as there are several groups who accompany silents today who have a more contemporary approach musically. There are rock groups like Dengue Fever and Yat-Kha who accompany silents, and there are also electronic performers, hip-hop DJ's, et. al., who are doing this as well. Lots of people really enjoy this mix of eras, and some people can't stand it. My own approach comes from my background as a filmmaker. I want to support the work of the people who made these films, and for an audience of today to take these movies seriously and enjoy them the same way the films' creators intended. When the lights go off, I'm working for Keaton, Griffith, Murnau.”

Tastes Have Changed

Ben Model explains that by the 1920s, theater audiences were mostly hearing orchestras of different sizes, and theater organs, as well as pianos. The piano has become the stereotypical sound of silent movies to many people, because it is what was used for silent films presented on TV for many years, and because it is an instrument that is more convenient and affordable today than hiring an orchestra or installing an organ.

What is more, the piano has the capability of expressing all the emotions of a silent film. Of course, so does the Wurlitzer theater organ and, of course, any good orchestra.

“There are many theaters around the U.S. that have theater organs in them that show silent movies, like the Loew's in Jersey City, New Jersey or the Paramount in Middletown, New York. At several venues I play at, including MoMA, there is a virtual theater organ called the Miditzer, which uses digital samples of real theater organ pipes and runs off a laptop, MIDI keyboard, and organ pedals.”

Along with instruments, the feeling upon accompanying silent movies seems to have also changed with time.

“The main difference between silent film accompaniment—and it was not just piano … also (and mainly) theater organ and orchestral ensembles—is that today we accompanists have much more time to prepare. In the silent era you were playing every day, a few shows every day, whereas now an accompanist may have a few shows every month, or more, or less. There's more time and breathing room between performances to hone the score and digest how the previous performance has gone.”

Another important fact is that people’s collective musical tastes and understandings of what film music is has evolved greatly.

“Most accompanists working today do not employ what I call the ‘Peter and the Wolf’ style of scoring used a lot in the silent era: each character has a theme and it gets played every time they show up. In the 1920s, it was common also to play songs where the title had something to do with the onscreen action. Today using ‘song title puns’ and familiar music is a signal for the audience not to take the film seriously.”

After the dip of interest during the 1980s and early 1990s, there's been a steady increase over the last 10 years, because of the internet, numerous DVD releases, and the fact that video projectors have become affordable to theaters and other arts-presenting venues. And Ben Model admits that his schedule is filling up.

“There are more silent film shows presented and released on DVD every year. I have more bookings every year, and have already had over 140 performances so far in 2009.”

“What is more, silent film festivals are popping up around the world. There is an annual silent film festival in Tromsø, Norway that I play at every year, and there is a major silents fest in Pordenone, Italy that has been around for many years.”

Model is also busy at the MoMA: There is a weekly film series there that will run through June 2010, called "An Auteurist History of Film,” and he is playing as well for a few silents in the museum’s film preservation festival in November 2009.

Celebrate your Halloween with F. W. Murnau’s classical horror movie "Nosferatu" (1919), with Ben Model at the piano/organ: on Tuesday, Oct. 27 at the Cinema Arts Centre in New York City. (http://www.cinemaartscentre.org), and on Oct. 29 in Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA (http://www.berkshiremuseum.org).

Ben Model’s personal website: www.silentfilmmusic.com.