Silent films have never been silent. Movies from 1895 to 1936 may not have included recorded sound effects or synchronized dialogue and music, but live music was instrumental to the successful presentation of these films.
Live accompaniment ranged from a solo guitarist, pianist, or theater organist at smaller venues to full orchestras at larger halls. The scores were often improvised with a cue sheet for sound effects to heighten suspense, but many scores have been lost to history.
Dallas Chamber Symphony will premiere a new score to one of the silent film era’s masterpieces, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, on Tuesday, February 21, adding a modern sound to a beloved story.
Dallas Chamber Symphony commissioned the new score from Craig Safan, an award-winning film composer whose film and television credits include The Last Starfighter, Stand and Deliver, Cheers and Life Goes On. Safan has always been interested in musical theater and after composing music for a friend’s independent film, he discovered a passion for composing for the screen.
“My basic approach to music is dramatic. I’ve always liked music that painted a picture, told a story,” Safan said.
The Kid is his first silent film assignment. Charlie Chaplin wrote, produced, directed and acted in the comedy-drama. Chaplin plays a tramp who finds an orphaned baby and raises him to be his sidekick.
The 1921 film was Chaplin’s first full-length film as a director. “I tried not to get in the way of the film. Every gesture, every camera angle is so well-thought out. It’s really sophisticated. I want to deepen the film and add an element of nostalgia,” Safan said.
Safan recognizes the challenges silent films present to modern audiences. Today, audiences are accustomed to extensive variety in the film scores.
There are several layers of music and sound effects in modern movies and by comparison, silent films can seem flat. A silent film’s score is crucial because there is no support from other sounds in the film.
Safan wrote the score over a month, first developing significant thematic elements after studying the film. A heart theme is the emotional core of the score.
A melodramatic, humorous theme highlights the wit of the film. The tramp’s theme has a 1920’s jazz character and the kid’s theme is more up-tempo with a ragtime influence.
After creating variations of these themes, he wrote out the orchestrations. The process requires discipline.
“You have to wake up every morning and work. You can’t have writer’s block and be a film composer,” Safan said.
Safan will hear his score played by the orchestra for the first time when he attends the concert. The Dallas Chamber Symphony will screen The Kid while performing the score with Richard McKay, Dallas Chamber Symphony’s artistic director and conductor, guiding the orchestra through the story.
“Working with the film is less flexible. You have to go with the film’s tempo and phrasing. The film conducts me and then I conduct the orchestra,” McKay explained.
Several years after the film premiered, Chaplin composed a score for The Kid, and Safan respects the film’s history.
“You want to be delicate with it, let it play. It’s a window into a past time – what they wore and their attitudes. But the music shouldn’t sound like it did when the film first premiered,” Safan said.
The Dallas Chamber Symphony has screened a dozen silent films throughout its five seasons. McKay has discovered audiences are not familiar with the classic films and the modern quality of the music intrigues patrons.
“Performing concerts like this gets people out of their living rooms to experience this one of a kind event. This score is simply something that couldn’t have been created in Chaplin’s time,” McKay said.
Safan believes the new score will reinvigorate interest in one of film’s early master storytellers. “Hopefully, it will allow an audience to freshly see an old film and develop a new appreciation for Chaplin’s detailed work,” Safan said.
The Dallas Chamber Symphony’s presentation of The Kid is the second half of a concert featuring contrasting American composers.
The first half of the concert features Fog Tropes, Ingram Marshall’s most famous work that established him as a preeminent composer of electro-acoustic music, and Keven Puts’ purely acoustic Seven Seascapes.
The concert begins at 8:00 p.m. at the Dallas City Performance Hall.
Learn more about the concert, visit www.dcsymphony.org.
Kimberly Richard is a North Texan with a passion for the arts. She’s worked with Theatre Three, Inc. and interned for the English National Opera and Royal Shakespeare Company. She graduated from Austin College and currently lives in Garland with her very pampered cocker spaniel, Tessa.