Despite the fact that we call them “silent films,” films of the 1920s were by no means silent. To a modern audience, we may be bored when watching old silent films, but it’s easy to forget that we are experiencing them out of context. In addition the to intrigue the new form of cinema itself produced, the act of going to the theater was also an experience—one with social crowds and live music.
Most early 19th century silent films were accompanied by a solo piano or organ player who played improvised music and segments of popular tunes and classic favorites to follow the ups and downs of the plot action. In the 1920s, popular films presented in large cities occasionally gathered the accompaniment of an entire orchestra. For example, major films sometimes played in the Paris Opera alongside an orchestra.
Here’s a 1930s filmed re-enactment of what a cinema orchestra might have looked like:
For the musicians, at some point, cue sheets became distributed to help them better follow the films and make the job easier. Very few composers, however, wrote especially for films. Saint-Saens was one of the first, with his 1908 score for for L’Assasinat du duc de Guise. Other important ones came in 1924, such as Milhaud’s for L’lnhumaine, Antheil’s for Ballet Mecanique, and Satie’s very famous score for Entr’acte, which was one of the first to be synced with the film itself. This eccentric film by René Claire includes many of the contributors themselves as actors, so watch for Man Ray and Duchamp playing chess and Satie jumping on the roof of the Champs Elysées theater. Check it out:
Today, we can hardly separate a movie from its soundtrack. What would Jaws be, for example, without the iconic da-da! These traditions trace their ways back to pioneering composers of the 1920s. Without spoken dialogue, you can image the even greater importance of music to heighten emotions, convey messages, and create an overall experience not dissimilar to the excitement of a seeing a film in surround-sound on a wide-screen today.