“Symphony livens up silent movie”

Published by the Butler Eagle on March 4th, 2019. 

By Maggie Stock, Eagle Correspondent 

BUTLER TWP — Silent films were never intended to be silent experiences.

Movie audiences watched those black and white wonders while listening to a musician at an upright piano or theater organ, or in some cases small orchestras, play the soundtrack to all the screen action.

On Saturday night, the Butler Symphony audience enjoyed that piece of film history when Butler Intermediate High School became a movie house. Music director Matthew Kraemer led 26 musicians, including banjo and guitar, from behind the movie screen to play the score for Harold Lloyd’s classic “Safety Last!”

Harold Lloyd, not as well-known as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, actually made more films and was the most financially successful of the trio of silent film comics.

“Safety Last!” from 1923 is the story of a small town boy leaving for the big city to make his fortune and marry the girl of his dreams. When that girl pays a surprise visit, the boy doesn’t want her to know that he is only a department store clerk and not the manager, as she thinks.

When he hears the general manager offer $1,000 to anyone who can draw a large crowd to the store, the boy speaks up to say he has a great idea — someone to scale the 12-story department store building.

Inspired by real life building climber Bill Strothers, Lloyd used the stunt for the film, except that he, not Strothers, did most of the climbing (although not really 12-stories). The stunt culminates with the iconic scene of Lloyd dangling precariously from the hands of the clock near the top of the building. He makes it to the top in spite of pigeons and other mishaps to win the money and the girl.

Carl Davis, an American born composer and conductor who lived in England, wrote for many BBC television shows including “Upstairs, Downstairs;” several British films and theater productions; and collaborated with Sir Paul McCartney for the Liverpool Oratorio. He also wrote the score for Pittsburgh Ballet Theaters’ production of “The Great Gatsby” last year.

Davis composed the score for this film as part of a restoration project for silent film that began in the late 1970s. Davis scored about 60 films for the project and premiered the score for “Safety Last!” in 1989. The orchestration is modeled after dance bands of the 1920s, particularly the Paul Whiteman Band, and incorporates ragtime, jazz and melodramatic themes.

The orchestra began with a lively ragtime style for the credits and returned to ragtime throughout the 73 minute film to match the antics of the site gags. Timing is everything in comedy, and the very funny fabric sale scene matches the actors’ skills with well-timed music. The orchestra made good use of percussion extras to convey tension and suspense during the climbing stunt.

Unlike “talkies” when dialogue replaces music once in a while, the orchestra played non-stop, using music to convey the story, all while the audience laughed at the pratfalls or gasped at the dangers. Kraemer and the orchestra provided a well-executed soundtrack to this delightful film.

With all the Hollywood special-effects that audiences have come to expect, it is refreshing to know that a film made 96 years ago with limited technology and $120,000 can still entertain and make audiences laugh. “Safety Last!” is certainly comedy first.

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