Danse Macabre (1922) A Silent Film Review

The music of Camille Saint-Saëns. The best of silent era cinematography. Professional dancers in all roles. Dudley Murphy’s experimental visualization of the French tone poem certainly pulls out all the stops!

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No bones about it

Silent cinema and music have always gone together like peanut butter and jelly but there were some films that pushed the connection further than just providing quality accompaniment. Singalong pictures, complete with “follow the bouncing ball,” had their start in the silent era and some films were directly inspired by operas and musicals.

Early skeleton action.

Independent director Dudley Murphy went further still with Danse Macabre, a visual rendering of Camille Saint-Saëns’s famous tone poem. Saint-Saëns himself has a special film connection as he is the composer of the earliest confirmed film score for The Assassination of the Duc de Guise in 1908. (Other early scores were for multimedia presentations, not solo motion pictures.) He was certainly, along with Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, among the first big classical music names to become associated with the movies. (Interesting given his own conservative stance toward more modern classical music.)

So, it’s very fitting that Saint-Saëns would be the first subject of the ambitious Visual Symphonies series. The idea was to create a visual feast that would play in perfect sync with the music that inspired it.

Never too many skeletons.

Danse Macabre lives up to its title, with the LA Phil stating that the text “merges the legend of Death fiddling on Halloween as skeletons dance on their graves with the late Medieval tradition of the Dance of Death (danse macabre, Totentanz), in which all are equal, from king to peasant, and are led dancing to the grave.”

Murphy chose to take a more romantic route. Rather than merely displaying Death and the dance of the skeletons, Death is represented by a skeleton stalking Youth and Love in Spain during the time of the Plague. Spain was hit hard by the Black Death starting in the 14th century but judging from the costumes, the picture is likely set in the 1790s or thereabouts. And, honestly, setting a picture in Europe “during the time of the Plague” is like saying you’re setting a film in Australia during the time of kangaroos.

The lovers dance during a pandemic.

With our Decameron and Masque of the Red Death setting in place and the skeleton already fiddling away, we are introduced to the main characters. Ballet stars and choreographers Adolph Bolm and Ruth Page play Youth and Love, respectively, while character actor Olin Howland takes on the role of Death.

The film embraces its theatrical pedigree with spotlights and dance interludes but the attack of Death on the pair is pure cinema with double exposures doing most of the heavy lifting. The end is particularly good with the lovers believing that they have escaped Death—only to have him emerge again as the picture ends.

Oh, hai there.

This theme was by no means unusual or unfamiliar to audiences of the time. While the film industry ignored the 1918 pandemic in a manner that can only be explained by deliberate action, the use of the plague, cholera and tuberculosis as plot devices was common. The 1919 German drama The Plague of Florence featured its main cast being stalked by the physical embodiment of the disease, a gaunt woman dressed in rags and painted with skeletal makeup. Indeed, coverage of Danse Macabre raises no objections to its dark themes and this was at a time when horror films were carefully reworked so as not to disturb or frighten the audience too much.

Perhaps, like Theda Bara’s paste-on bra in Cleopatra, Danse Macabre was allowed to get away with more under the banner of art and history. Well, whatever the reason, I’m glad that the moody shadows, animated skeletons and stalking Death were all allowed to remain as a counterbalance to the spun sugar leads.

Death approaches.

That’s not to say that there was any issue with Bolm and Page’s dancing. They look spectacular on the screen and their costumes are a dream. Rather, if you’re playing characters named Youth and Love, a bit of the deadly is needed lest the film slip into saccharine territory.

Overall, though, this is extremely my thing. I am no expert on dance by any means but I do have a weakness for slightly stagey and stylized classical presentations. (Maybe it’s because I watched the Maurice Sendak-designed Nutcracker a few times too many.)

Death making an entrance.

While Danse Macabre is described as an experimental film these days and it was certainly always an independent production, the picture received a fair amount mainstream attention and release in 1922. Industry publications gave it favorable coverage with Motion Picture News stating that “the film will be found wholly successful in houses that have orchestras competent to play the Saint-Saëns composition or single musicians with the same ability.”

And therein lies the rub. Danse Macabre’s precise choreography perfectly timed to a particular piece of music would have been hellish for an inexperienced musician to accompany. One missed note would throw the entire thing off and, remember, this was a few years before synchronized sound was commercially viable in American theaters.

The dance begins.

Music in silent era theaters has been described in romantic terms by performers and directors—in other words, people who could afford the pricy theaters with expensive orchestras. For the rest of the public and particularly people who did not live near or who could not afford to attend a nicer theater, it was a crapshoot. There were wonderful musicians at the time, but it could also be old Mr. Bates pounding out standards on the dubiously tuned community center piano.

In an interview with Moving Picture World, Dudley Murphy made it clear that his market for his musical films was the exclusive club of larger theaters. These theaters had been putting on live prologue shows that tied into the film being screened. A faux Dadaist performance of Ain’t We Got Fun before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for example.

Death in the house.

Visual Symphonies were meant to replace these prologues, save the theater the cost of producing these prologues and spread the enjoyment of good music… but the Royal Theater of Turnip, South Dakota (seats 30) and Mr. Bates’ piano clearly were not in Murphy’s calculations, though he did promise a method to perfectly sync the projection with the accompaniment.

In addition, player piano rolls were to be produced for the Visual Symphonies but that assumed the presence of a player piano, a costly instrument. (The equivalent of about $8,600 at the cheapest Sears Roebuck prices and well over $10,000 for nicer models! A cheaper, plain upright piano would have been about $6,000 at the time.)

Murphy’s goal was a noble one—I will always support the spread of classical music—but not entirely practical. Macgowan and Murphy ambitiously announced that they were exploring the production of Debussy’s Faun, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Moonlight Sonata, selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and March Slav, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, Wagner’s Flying  Dutchman, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, and Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave. However, the Visual Symphonies series ended abruptly, possibly due to a distinct lack of sales to smaller theaters, the meat and potatoes of the film industry.

Murphy was simply ahead of his time. The Visual Symphonies screamed for fully synchronized sound and by the time it arrived, he had moved onto other endeavors. A pity because I personally would have loved to see what he did with all of the pieces listed above and would also like to request some Borodin and Sibelius.

Of course, Murphy was not the first to tie classical music in with the movies. Philip Van Loan had produced The Soul of the Violin the same year and boasted of endorsements from Enrico Caruso and Richard Strauss. Animator Mary Ellen Bute created wildly innovative visuals for classical music starting in the 1930s. Alexander Aleieff and Claire Parker’s 1933 short Night on Bald Mountain is a masterpiece of pinscreen animation. And, yes, we should mention the beautifully animated if painfully naïve and literal-minded Silly Symphonies and Fantasia of Walt Disney (which visited Totentanz themes relatively often). I myself prefer the Looney Tunes classical approach to everything from Wagner to Mozart to Brahms.

I just like skeletons.

Danse Macabre definitely falls into the upper echelons of classical music visualization. The embrace of staginess, the grace of the performers, the tasteful special effects and animation all combine to create a memorable visual feast. It’s grim and glorious, especially in its refusal to allow for a completely happy ending. Do check it out, it’s a real must-see.

Where can I see it?

Stream online courtesy of the Chicago Film Archives. It was also released on the out-of-print Unseen Cinema box set.


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