In the Silence
by Cait Collins
The West Texas A & M University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mark Bartley, presented its seventh annual silent movie presentation Sunday evening. The movie was the 1920 release of the MARK OF ZORRO starring Douglas Fairbanks. The music was an original composition by B. J. Brooks, West Texas A & M Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition. He is an award-winning composer of music for ensembles, solo performers, and the electro-acoustic medium. My nephew plays violin in the orchestra, so I looked forward to the event.
I have watched bits and pieces of silent movies. Some did not have the background music; therefore, they lacked impact. Silent films were designed for musical accompaniment. Large cities hired orchestras to provide the music. Small communities relied on a piano or an organ. Still, the silent movies provided entertainment until the first “talkies” were released in the late 1920’s.
I dabble with screenplays. The plotting and characterizations are similar to novels, but the dialogue drives the story. Imagine no voice from the screen to give insight into the characters’ motives and feelings. Imagine having to explain this in writing, on the screen. Imagine the lengths the actors went to in order to provide characterization. The gestures were exaggerated, facial expressions intensified. As I watched the movie, I began to appreciate the talent and contributions of the early movie makers. The silent film screenwriter faced an awesome task. I am amazed with the results of their efforts.
While I enjoyed the movie and the music, I recognized the differences in a modern screenplay and the silent screenplay.
- The silent movie screenplay contained more detail than modern screenplays. I could not access the script for the MARK OF ZORRO, so I reviewed the screenplay for the 1920’s release of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Back story, character traits, and scene details that I would include in a treatment were part of the script. Without the actor’s voice to convey the character, the information had to be noted in the screenplay. The writer had to provide every clue so that the director and editors could complete the film. They had to choose which pieces of dialogue would appear on the screen, how much motivation and time frame information to provide the audience.
- The titles or dialogue pages included in the film were works of art. I won’t pretend to understand the process, but each page of dialogue was hand-lettered and perfectly level. I’m from the old school of broadcasting. Before the invention of CGI’s, product information, credits, and such were produced on art cards, photographed, processed and mounted as slides. We used press-on lettering purchased in art supply stores. Such conveniences were not available to the silent film art directors.
- Costumes and sets were not as elaborate as what we find in modern films.
- I did not see a single edit. Strange that with all our technology, I still see matt lines from green-screen shots.
- Even in modern films, music enhances the mood and action. In the silent film, the music is the mood. Every note must portray romance, the chase, tension. I congratulate Dr. Brooks on his score, Dr. Bartley and the WTAMU Symphony Orchestra on their artistry. I truly believed the music was embedded in the film.
It takes a village of artists to produce a good movie. The screenwriter writes the dialogue and the guides. The art directors, costume designers, lighting designers, cinematographers, directors and editors construct the film. The composer and the orchestra add the drama. Working together and appreciating individual talents creates innovations and opportunities. I am thankful to be a part of the village.