Silent Movie Music: Share your favorite scores

It’s almost a cliche now but it’s worth repeating. Silent films were never silent. Music remains an essential component of the silent film experience and that is our topic of discussion today. We are going to salute the talented men and women who create the music of the silent movies.

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There are dozens of different ways to accompany a silent film but here are just a few scores that I felt went above and beyond:

Robert Israel’s score for the Flicker Alley release of Judex is a masterpiece. Exciting, witty and catchy as heck, it’s the gold standard for orchestral silent film music.

Jon Mirsalis’ piano score for the Kino Lorber release of Waxworks is just smashing. It has all the drama and pulpiness that is required for this “carnival nightmare” of a film.

I have a sneaking love for the synth score included with the Paramount VHS release of The Sheik. It’s dreamy and surreal and somehow is just perfect for the very strange film it accompanies.

Philip Carli’s live piano accompaniment for Mare Nostrum (2013 Cinecon, Hollywood) was a thunderous tour de force, perfect for the stylized spy drama.

Pretty much anything from Carl Davis ever.

I could go on for hours but I’m cutting myself off. What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and give the composers and accompanists a shout out.

A quick reminder:

Be excellent to each other.

This is all about the positive. No kvetching about scores you didn’t like.

If you heard a score live, be sure to include the approximate time and place. If your score is from a home media release, be sure to include the name of the company that released it (if you remember it). This will help others track down and enjoy the music you are discussing.

24 Replies to “Silent Movie Music: Share your favorite scores”

  1. Very interesting subject.
    Personally I was highly impressed by the musical score of “The late Mathias Pascal” (1925) in the Flicker Alley edition. It has a wonderful theme. Also I like the music from “The Patsy” (1928) as released by the Warner Bros. Archives.
    The score is essential for a silent film and I think even modern melodies can work well if the manage to capture the mood of a scene. If a score is not fitting I sometimes find it hard to watch a movie.

    1. I second the “Mathias Pascal” score nomination. I saw and heard the film for the first time on TCM with the Flicker Alley restoration and loved it. But maybe we shouldn’t get Fritzi started on Ivan M… #Swoonfest

  2. In the early 80s, a friend of mine presented a series of Keaton’s complete works at the St. Louis Art Museum. Many of the films were not as easy to find as they are now, so prints arrived from a variety of locations. Several of the features (I remember specifically “Seven Chances” and “The Navigator” had been restored in France with pastel title cars and original scores by Claude Bolling. I’d love to see Kino find a way to add those scores to their Keaton collection.

  3. Your question opened up a number of lines of thought for me, perhaps not entirely relevant, but I crave your indulgence.
    Because of the historical nature of my blog, I somewhat intentionally pay little attention to the scores of movies I watch, because in general they do not replicate the audience experience of the time. For that reason, I had a hard time thinking of any especially “good” scores I’ve heard in the past year or so.
    But, thinking about my earlier silent movie experiences, I recall that the first time I deliberately watched a silent movie (as opposed to being exposed to one by an adult), it was all about the score. In 1984 (if I remember right), a version of “Metropolis” was released with music by the Eurythmics, a then-popular New Wave band. I don’t really remember the score now, let’s say I came for the score and stayed for the movie (which was still largely unrestored at the time).
    In more recent years, I used to go to the Film Forum and Museum of Modern Art to see screenings of silents, back when I lived in NYC, and I greatly enjoyed the piano accompaniment provided by Stuart Oderman and Steve Sterner (I think). I believe some of Oderman’s work can be heard in “The Lumiere’s First Films” and a version of “Pandora’s Box.” It wouldn’t be the same as hearing him live, though. I think it was Ben Model I heard play the organ at the Cathedral or St. John the Divine for a Halloween screening of “Phantom of the Opera,” which was also excellent.
    While tracking down the details of all this, I also ran across the following article on “The Biograph,” which complicates but does not necessarily disprove your opening sentence: http://thebioscope.net/2011/08/29/when-silents-were-silent/

    1. The historical accuracy aspect is always a sticky wicket. On one hand, yes, you want to see these films as they were originally seen. On the other hand, holding out for perfect historical accuracy can be a bit much. The same argument could extend to Shakespeare (it’s not being performed or pronounced as he intended) or Bach (which has a considerable amount of Victorian ornamentation added). Since the focus of my site is introducing newcomers to silent film in the most friendly and welcoming way possible, I tend to just ask one simple question: Does the silent film score work as a general film score? If the answer is yes, I give it my stamp of approval.

      The Bioscope article… I rather enjoy the site but I’m sure you will agree that the arguments raised are hair-splitting to the nth degree. (Which the article’s author seemed to conclude as well.) It’s like denying that the American silent era ended circa 1927-1929 simply because Chaplin and Wile E. Coyote continued/were created in silence.

      1. Right, it completely depends on what your purpose is. From a “fan” point of view, it only makes sense to treat the artifact of the DVD or other release as a current thing, something you review in toto, including its special features, score, commentary, packaging, etc – all of which wouldn’t have existed at the time, but so what? It’s here now for people to assess on its own terms. Since my exploration is historical in nature, I’m more interested in focusing on those aspects that give us information about the time period in context. I don’t mind the fact that I’m hearing a new score, I but I’m far less likely to comment on it in the review.

      2. Very true. And I have found that some reviews become bogged down in the release details and ignore the film itself, which really is the most important thing.

  4. The first time I ever saw Laurel & Hardy’s silent short YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’ (1928) was in 1994, as part of a VHS series titled “The Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy.” The opening scene was synched to a beautifully lively rendition of “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean.” The British L&H DVD set includes YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’, but it is instead back with a so-so organ score. I much prefer the “Columbia” version — it made a very funny scene even better.

  5. I know a lot of fans loathe it, but I adore the Club Foot Orchestra score for Sherlock Jr. Like the film itself, it’s crazy and surreal. Sure it’s not of the 1920s (and even quotes the James Bond theme briefly), but does a score really always need to reflect the experience of a 1920s audience?

    1. True! I remember being very charmed when the French band Air said that they were not “forgers” and did not seek to exactly replicate the circa 1900 experience.

      1. I don’t see clips anywhere, which makes sense as the picture is just VHS quality. The score is from 1987 and composed by Roger Bellon. The Paramount release is interesting as there are subtle differences in the title cards and there is a brief scene that is absent from DVD releases.

  6. I love William Axt and Ernö RapĂ©e’s score for The Man Who Laughs. I really feel like the film captured the romance of the story and the love between Gwynplaine and Dea. The only gripe I have with the score is the very jarring placement of When Love Comes Stealing (during one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, no less!). I know they were showing off sound technology, but I felt like it was out of place for an otherwise fantastic score.

    Another personal favorite is the score for the General done by Joe Hisaishi. I think it really adds to an already great movie, and as a fan of this great composer it’s a dream come true!

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