Friday, July 23, 2010

Chaplin, Carl Davis and the Movies

On a warm summer night at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I had the pleasure of watching Carl Davis conduct his scores for three Chaplin Mutual comedies on a giant, outdoor screen at the bandshell, accompanied by the full sounds of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

Hearing Carl Davis' music performed live, and conducted by the maestro himself, was quite possibly the greatest thrill of my life. Added to this was the fact that the performance had a huge turnout, with a large, receptive audience - perfect for the three Chaplin comedies.

The evening began at 6:30 as the gates to the bandshell were opened, and we were fortunate enough to get good seats about two rows from the front. The show itself began at 7:30, with an hour-long performance by the Two Man Gentlemen Band, a novelty act featuring banjo and upright bass. This was a fun prelude to the main attraction to follow.

Following a brief intermission, it was the perfect time of the evening to start the film program. At dusk, the giant screen was rolled down, and the hosts from Celebrate Brooklyn!, the organization who puts on this series, introduced Carl Davis.

Davis introduced each film, and there was an absolute sense of magic in watching this brilliant composer, whose scores were the very first that I ever heard accompany silent films, as he led the Brooklyn Philharmonic in accompanying these brilliant comedies. I first became acquainted with Davis' music through his arrangement of the Rimsky-Korsakov "Scheherazade" for Douglas Fairbanks' "The Thief of Bagdad". Although I was only 8 years when I first heard this score, its impact on my interest in silent film was indescribable. Even more influential was the mammoth "Hollywood" series, for which Davis provided many, many musical cues, including the hauntingly beautiful theme song. It's not an exaggeration to say that Davis was one of the most profoundly influential individuals on my entire life and work.

This brings me to perhaps the best part of the evening. As the third film began, Chaplin's "Behind the Screen", set at a Hollywood movie studio, Davis' score began with that immediately recognizable "Hollywood" theme. Sitting there, watching him conduct that piece live, brought tears to me eyes and reminded me of all the reasons why I love film, why I'm here in New York, why I've pursued this passion so relentlessly for the last 18 years of my life. Hearing it brought everything into a kind of immediate, crystal clear perspective that I'm really grateful for.

The films themselves went over great with the audience, especially "One AM". This copy even included the "mountain climbing" sequence, in which the intoxicated Charlie dons a Swiss mountain climber's get-up and uses a ski and pick-ax to make his way up the staircase. It's always wonderful to see films like that with an audience.

One moment summed up the entire evening perfectly. A friend, whom I had invited to the screening, and who had not yet seen a silent film all the way through, leaned over to me, during the scene in "One AM" in which Charlie is running in place on a rotating table, and whispered in my ear, "this is amazing!"

1 comment:

pvitari said...

Sounds like a fantastic evening. Davis came to Atlanta some time in (I think) the early 90s. On two evenings, he conducted the Atlanta Symphony playing his reconstructed score of City Lights while the movie screened. (This took place in Symphony Hall at the Woodruff Center for the Arts.) I went with the (sadly now defunct) Silent Film Society of Atlanta to both screenings and they were fabulous. As I recall around this time there was raging debate about Davis' reconstruction, i.e., whether it should have been done at all. Some felt that since City Lights had a synchronized sound score that one should only watch the movie with its original recording; the other side felt there was nothing wrong in turning off the soundtrack and enjoying a live symphony orchestra playing such lovely music. I guess I fall in the latter camp though I certainly understand the rationale behind the former. Anyway, after the first night's screening the Silent Film Society was able to meet with Mr. Davis and he signed my laser disc of City Lights, which I had toted along. He wrote, "To the Silent Film Society of Atlanta, all my love, Carl Davis." I still treasure that laser disc!

Paula Vitaris,