There is nothing silent about silent film. Though spoken dialogue, integrated scores and sound effects were relatively late additions to movies, there was always sound — it just came in the form of live musical accompaniment, sometimes composed.
So what to do in the age of home entertainment, when a live orchestra or even a clangy upright piano is out of the question? The answer is, create new scores for silent pics on DVD. Among those leading the way is 20th Century Fox, starting with last year’s highly coveted “Ford at Fox” box, a collection of 24 films including five silents with newly written scores.
Fox’s follow-up, “Murnau, Borzage and Fox,” is a 12-film collection chronicling the rich legacy of helmers F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, major talents during silent film’s waning years. Here again, Fox provides new scores for the silents, written by Christopher Caliendo and Tim Curran, two composers from the Ford box.
(For Murnau’s legendary “Sunrise,” the boxed set employs both the old Movietone soundtrack and one composed by Timothy Brock for an earlier DVD issue.)
“If I learned anything, it was how to write in all kinds of different musical styles,” says Caliendo, who was given two months to score Murnau’s “City Girl” (1930) and Borzage’s “Lucky Star” (1929) for this set. “And my music had to support not just the dialogue but also the special effects as well as suggest internal things, like the actor’s mindset. You have to know when to play the physical and when to play the internal.”
Fox allotted Caliendo 15 musicians, which he sometimes used as a small orchestra and sometimes divided into trios, so as to vary his music’s impact and sound. “I’m using harp, piano and flute for ‘Lucky Star,’ and I have to learn how to write snow,” he recalls. “And then how do you take snow music and make it forceful and determined? It’s pretty challenging.”
Yet there are obvious rewards, too. “In the silent-film world, you know your music will be heard,” says Caliendo. “There are no special effects, no Foley. Freedom and excitement are all part of it, plus the anxiety. Sometimes your best work comes under restrictive conditions.”
Curran, who scored Borzage’s “Lazybones” (1925) with a mere three players, calls these assignments “the greatest projects I’ve ever worked on.”
He particularly lauds the freedom and support Fox has afforded him. “They trust me, and that’s a huge bonus,” he says.
“I joke that it’s a much easier gig because the directors are dead, and it’s true. But then you wonder: If John Ford were looking over my shoulder, what would he think? These guys were heavyweights, and their equivalents today most people don’t get to work with in their entire career. I don’t care that it’s 80 years old. It’s an opportunity to write for something great.”
As for the market realities concerning such specialty items, Steve Feldstein, Fox’s senior VP of corporate and marketing communications, doesn’t sound worried.
“This is a true cinephile project, not a mass-market product,” he says. “It’s for a specific audience. And I think that if a product like this is important to a collector, he will find a way to get it.”