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Friday, September 07, 2012

Up to Speed

From the Vault Dept.: Without the bridge of parsable chatter, silent movies work on the viewer in a more subtle, more emotionally enriching way. Often it seems as if there’s a direct, uncensored communication to the heart. But such movies traditionally are far from silent. From large orchestras to crappy pit pianos, there’s always been music. Here’s a review of one such event from a few years back, featuring a trio ensemble of percussionists and one of the silent era’s greatest comedians.


Harold Lloyd in Speedy
AS A CLEAR, BEAUTIFUL evening darkened into balmy night, the black-and-white face of Harold Lloyd filled the screen – and the three-man orchestra, arrayed below, kicked into musical madness. “Speedy,” released in 1928, was Lloyd’s final silent film (and he made very few talkies before retiring as very rich man), itself a tribute to times of old with a paper-thin plot centered around the last horse-drawn trolley in Manhattan.

Lloyd had a company of excellent gag writers who could make the comic most of any situation. He visited an amusement park in the 1920 short “Number, Please?” but expanded the idea into a hilarious Coney Island sequence for “Speedy,” no doubt the result of the extended New York stay he and his crew gave themselves. And it hardly matters that the sequence advances the plot not a bit – the gags are what matter and the gags are terrific.

A fight scene pitting a gaggle of greybeards against a gang of young toughs is as funny as a fight can be, each new twist in the action topping the last. Most modern comedies lack this kind of inventiveness, which still seems fresh 75 years later.

The Alloy Orchestra
But there’s an added attraction to a presentation like this. The Alloy Orchestra knows this or they wouldn’t have been accompanying silent films (most notably at the Telluride Festival) for a dozen years. Silent movies speak, as it were, to a different part of our understanding than do the talkies. I don’t have scientific studies to back this up. I know it only from the personal experience of seeing those films with live accompaniment. The best of the silents used title cards rarely. Speech was unimportant. The added music, however, is powerful. Chosen and performed with that power in mind, it can summon unexpected emotions.

If Prokofiev had written for the old Max Fleischer cartoon’s, he might have approximated the musical style of the Alloy Orchestra. At times it sounds like Danny Elfman’s more antic scores.

Even a knockabout film like “Speedy” (the title salutes Lloyd’s own nickname) requires music of depth and complexity, and it was astonishing to hear what a couple of keyboards, an accordion, a saxophone and a junkyard of found percussion devices can do. The film’s gags spring from our eternal conflict with our environment; the music, especially with all those drums and cymbals, springs from our wish to order and subdue that environment.

Lloyd with guest star
Movies, especially of that era, look for orderly outcomes, triumphs of love. You know he’s going to win the race and get the girl, and there’s quiet reassurance in that as we share in the buffets of rough-and-tumble pursuits. I’ll even dare to say that it was as transformative an experience for last Saturday’s audience as it was for an audience in 1928. We’re farther away than ever from those old trolleys (and soda fountains, and, I’m sorry to note, Coney Island’s Luna Park), but this combination of music and movie is ageless.

Starring Harold Lloyd; music by the Alloy Orchestra
MASS MoCA, June 29, 2003

Metroland Magazine, July 3, 2003

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