Monday, June 4, 2012

Silent films resonate in the 21st century

Pianist accompanies vintage silent movies for a modern crowd

June 03, 2012

Taryn Plumb/Globe Correspondent
  • Hudson resident Richard Hughes provides the musical accompaniment for the 1927 silent film It, featuring Clara Bow, for             a recent community gathering in Stows Old Town Hall.
Mark Wilson for the Boston Globe

Up on the screen, in black and white, a vivacious starlet projects not with her voice or her body language but with her entrancing eyes.
They widen and shine with happiness; lower and smolder with desire; pop and flame with anger; droop with sadness.
As silent film siren Clara Bow captivates, pianist Richard Hughes follows: Low notes greet her sorrow, high ones her cheer; down-the-keyboard trills reflect her flirty, playful nature.
“I’m reacting to the screen,” said Hughes, who makes a living in nostalgia: The 62-year-old Hudson resident is a pianist in the old-fashioned, nearly forgotten art of silent film musical accompaniment.
Silent movies evoke a different time — one that wasn’t necessarily simpler, as the clich√© goes, but uncertain, like ours, and for many of the same reasons — and they also offer a respite from the cacophany of contemporary cinema.
And even in today’s instant-access, frenetic culture, they continue to captivate: Just look to the popularity and success of last year’s silent French film “The Artist,” which won five Academy Awards, including those for best picture, actor, and director, or the rerelease of the colorized, re-scored 1902 “Le Voyage dans la lune.”
Hughes serves as a sort of tour guide to this slower, subtler world, as he accompanies various silent films — from Buster Keaton slapstick shorts to feature-length narratives starring the quintessential flapper girl Bow — in showings at local schools, libraries, senior centers, historical societies, private clubs, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities.
As he put it, the medium endures because the same themes — betrayal, triumph over adversity, love lost and found again — transcend time and place, whether it’s the ancient Greek theater, the burgeoning post-World War I movie theater, or the 21st-century multiplex. All that changes is the manner in which it’s presented.
“One thing remains absolutely the same: our emotions,” Hughes said.
Because technical challenges prevented the recording of synchronized sound and film until the late 1920s, theaters almost always had an organist or pianist accompanying silent film reels, either playing scores of their own creation or cobbling together “little clips and bits” of music written by others, Hughes explained. Popular songbooks, meanwhile, provided “moods” that could be applied to any movie.
As Hughes noted, comedy scores are much more “jaunty and light,” and are played in a “more staccatto way, more cavalier,” with more space between the notes. Darker movies, on the other hand, have “muddier” scores, with lower and often more sustained notes.
But whatever the film, improvisation is a key component, according to Hughes.
“It’s very difficult to play something exactly’’ as composed, he noted.
“You have to build in transitions or bridges from one piece into another.”
His interest initially piqued by a piano teacher — he had fiddled on the keys since age 7, and always liked silent films, particularly “Keystone Kops” shorts — Hughes started looking into the craft 15 years ago after he was laid off from his precision manufacturing job. After some research, he found the book “Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists,” by Erno Rapee, originally published in 1924.
“This is my bible right here,” he said, laying it down on his kitchen table.
On its well-worn and dog-eared pages are more than 50 “moods,” ranging from “sinister’’ to “hunting,” to “aeroplane.”
As he learned to play them, he created his own cue sheets to synch with the onscreen action. He’s also scored original compositions for several Charlie Chaplin shorts, and hones his “moods” and themes on an 1895 Hallet, Davis & Co. grand piano in his living room.
Not surpisingly, he’s particularly fond of Chaplin, “the little tramp” who started in vaudeville, and went on to become one of the most successful and enduring silent film stars.
“He had depth to his character: He was so crass one second, and in the next filled with compassion,” Hughes said. “He was probably the best pantomime comedian who ever lived. He left a huge legacy.”
Buster Keaton , meanwhile, best known for his dangerous stunts, physical comedy, and outrageous sight gags — all endured with his “great stone face” — is another Hughes favorite.
“Even nowadays he’s a real crowd-pleaser,” said Hughes. “People want to laugh.”
Indeed, guffaws and titters rippled across the room as Keaton scaled trucks, plunged through open windows, and sent pursuing cops colliding into one another during a recent screening of 1921’s “The Goat” as part of the annual SpringFest in Stow.
The goofs were followed up by romance: 1927’s “It,” starring feisty Jazz Age bombshell Bow.
“Secretly, I’m in love with Clara Bow,” Hughes told the crowd of several dozen assembled in Stow’s Old Town Hall, describing the movie as “a Cinderella story” and “one of the first chick flicks.”
Based on the book by Elinor Glyn, the film follows Betty Lou (Bow), a shopgirl, and Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), the owner of the store where she works. The pair fall in love, but a misunderstanding splits them apart — until the end, when they’re back in each other’s arms again.
As popcorn popped, the music flowed with emotions: buoyant and trilly; elegant and elongated; swanky; dreamy; somber.
s he played on a keyboard hooked up to a portable sound system, Hughes tapped his black-and-white wingtips, swayed and bobbed his shoulders.
“It’s just different, something people aren’t used to seeing,” Lewis Halprin, who organized the event through the Stow Lions Club, said after the requisite “The End” filled the screen. “They’re used to full-color 3-D. But you can get a perfectly good experience with black and white, and no sound at all.”
Audience member Bob Walrath recalled how, as a kid, going to the movies was a “regular Saturday afternoon thing.” (For him, the draws were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.)
It was just part of your normal routine,” he said.
Hughes agreed, noting that what’s been lost in the late 20th and early 21st century is the communal aspect of cinema.
In the beginning, “it was more of an interactive thing, a community thing,” he said.
Ultimately, “silent movies are fun,’’ Hughes added.
“They’re educational. It’s an opportunity to glimpse what life was like back then.”
Ultimately, “silent movies are fun. They’re educational. It’s an opportunity to glimpse what life was like back then.”

© 2012 NY Times Co.

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