Your Director tells you to Cry!
Musicians help silent film stars shed tears
Musicians help silent film stars shed tears
Do you ever go to a movie for a good cry? In the earliest days of the movies 'tears were administered externally.'
|Corinne Grant |
The actor or actress would tilt the head back, standing with closed eyes waiting for a command to let the glycerin flow. Remember that the eye can only hold a limited number of drops. (Glycerine may be spelled with and without the final e.)
Other methods were used such as a Bermuda onion of great potency hidden inside a handkerchief.
It is even said that in her earlier days with director D.W. Griffith, Lillian Gish, champion weeper of the screen was photographed in close-ups shedding great drops of woe caused not by mental anguish but because D.W. himself was kneeling on the floor out of camera range pinching her toes!
|Glycerine drops in the eyes, artificial tears for silent movies|
One actor's rule for tears will not work for another. Mary Philbin forced herself to imagine terrible things that might have happened to herself or members of her family and she felt so bad that she cried.
After an hour of unsuccessfully trying to cry for a mother-and-daughter scene,
Mary Alden suggested to Carmelita Geraghty that she imagine that her mother or father were dead. "Carmelita closed her eyes and visibly concentrated. 'I couldn't help it,' she apologized. 'But you see they are both so awfully healthy!'"
"Put a smile on yer face, can't yer?" Lillian Gish, Broken Blossoms
I'll give you something to cry about!
One famous director of the days when a violinist would have been considered an unheard-of extravagance was wont to bring tears by the use of personal vituperation - bawling out. He would rail at some timid little ingenue; tell her she ought to be back at the department store ribbon counter; that she could never and would never act. She was called names and yelled at until she would burst into tears. When she reached the acceptable level of agony, he'd call for the cameraman to shoot it.
The 'Just Do It' Theory
'Watch Robert Edeson,' was Cecil De Mille's advice to new players. De Mille held that it is unnecessary for a player really to feel any emotion. "If he cannot imitate grief, rage, terror, tears. He is not an actor at all." When Edeson is asked to do an emotional scene, he deliberately plans the effect he wants to produce.
|German silent film production pauses giving its its star|
the full treatment to help her get teary eyed in 1924
Weine mein Kindchen, weine!
Cry, cry my child!
Who started bringing in musicians to help actors emote? Some credit Billie Burke. A story goes that she heard someone on the studio whistling and that gave her the idea to bring in a violinist. There are others. Pioneers who worked with Griffith in his early Biograph days assert that once back in 1909, he brought in a violinist to play sob stuff for Florence Lawrence.
Unlike stage acting, film work is usually done in bits and pieces. The actor is not given the chance to work up to an emotional scene. There is no audience to work off of. There are times where, in a close up scene the actor may be playing to the camera instead of his or her costar.
The close up was a revolutionary innovation where the reflection of sentimental appeal was concerned. Faces five feet long were flashed on to the screen as the cameras were moved up within a few feet of the actors and actresses. Eyes a foot or more in length flooded with tears that represented the largest output from human ducts that were ever intended to vibrate the heart strings.
D. W. Griffith showed a famous close-up around 1911 in a short where a bad guy is holding a wrench that those around him think is a gun. The actual technology was being used years before that, though.
|1919 Violinist, piano player, cameraman and director|
The educated audience member gets a lot more enjoyment. Watching an early silent and judging it by today's standards is like meeting someone of a different culture or age and judging them by your own preferences.
There are a lot of wonderful resources for us to learn more about silent movies and history so we'll know about the films, those who created them, and the audiences of the time for whom they were being made.
With the evolution of the close up came a higher demand for actors who could naturally radiate emotion from the screen. The more subtle, realistic expressions of emotions such as sadness, love, fear or hate became to be even more valued than histrionic ability. As it was said, the latter might be taught but the former, never.
Regardless of your talent, your method, school of acting or your experience, how do you turn on tears, rage, delight and so on at the drop of a hat? How do you switch from one of these emotions to another? Well, it's their job and music was helpful to the silent actor to achieve the emotions they needed to achieve. They were able to find music to help or make you cry.
Lillian Gish is interviewed by Joan Rivers on The Tonight Show 1983
"'Those were real tears I shed in the scene during which I portray the grief of Anna Moore over her loss. Anyone who says that glycerine are as good doesn't know anything about it,' she said emphatically.
"'And it is equally untrue that you can act as forcefully and bring tears just as easily if you think about some sorrow of your own. The camera catches the thoughts as well as the expression of those thoughts. You have to get under the skin and the mind of the character you are playing in order to realize for the camera the emotion you are endeavoring to express.
"'A western critic who was present when were taking that scene with the baby said that it lost 75 per cent in effectiveness on the screen because the voice was lost to screen audiences. He said that as he saw the scene in the studio it was the most realistic grief he had ever seen portrayed. That was due to the fact that I really felt bad about Anna Moore's loss.'"
-- Excerpt from a 1922 Movie Weekly interview with Lillian Gish regarding scene in Way Down East where her character's baby is taken away. (Any more info would be a big spoiler to those who have not seen the film.)
|Cecil B. De Mille 1919|
"Camera acting is a spasmodic affair at best. The artist is not permitted to work up into a climax gradually, nor has he the inspiration of an audience to throw him into the mood.
"He must simply plunge into it head first. He arrives of a sunny morning feeling very much in tune with the world and I say, 'Do the death scene. Register the agony of a soul in torment.'
Real tears are demanded, on tap at a moment's notice "because understand we got to get this picture out on schedule." We can't take time for him to go out on the lot and gradually work himself into a fine frenzy of emotion. He has to show it on the spot. A mournful tune helps a lot." -
-Allan Dwan, director.
Cecil B. De Mille admits that the music so plays upon his moods that in strong
scenes he has had to stuff his ears with cotton to concentrate on his directing. "Music helps everyone but the director," he said. "There have been times when, if I had my way I would smash every instrument playing for me. Yet I must have it for my actors and the crew as it throws them into the spirit of the scene as nothing else does.
"Given the scene of a son parting with his mother; the musicians start up Home Sweet Home; they play it very well, and I find my own eyes filling with tears. 'What an affecting scene!' I think. And in the meanwhile I have failed to notice that the actors have fallen down in some little touch which would have put over on the screen the emotion the music made me feel."
Miss Douglas, leader of the orchestra who worked on Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad talked about trying to appease both Mr. Fairbanks, the star and the film's director Raoul Walsh with the choices of music.
|Douglas Fairbanks with the female musicians|
who've been with him more than three years
The Thief of Bagdad can be streamed live or it's available on DVD. The film is restored. Includes audio commentary by Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance. Featurette including rare behind-the-scenes photographs.
"I bought seventy-five dollars' worth of Oriental music-tunes full of poetry and romance of the mystic East yet with plenty of vigor and vim to appeal to Doug. But no sooner would my orchestra swing into this music than Raoul Walsh would come sauntering over and say, 'Now play My Wild Irish Rose or 'Let's have Mother Marchee or Macushla.'
"It was perfectly remarkable how his face would light up and how dreamy his look would become at the sound of some beloved Irish melody such as When Irish Eyes are Smiling. So if there's a bit of blarney in The Thief of Bagdad, you will understand why. You will also understand how tactfully I had to shift from Oriental to Celtic tunes to keep both the star and director happy."
The temperamental Eric von Stroheim is just as temperamental about the music he wants in his studio and has decided ideas about it. One of the scenes in Greed called for a very fantastic effect. To achieve this von Stroheim asked his musicians to play a score of the music backward. They protested a bit, but he insisted. "The effect is all I want," he told them. The strange this is he got it!
|Nazimova is clearly moved by the music|
Rupert Julian has called music one of the most essential factors in the making of an artistic picture. The moving picture is the art of pantomime," he said; "every emotion must be expressed in the face and in every gesture of the body. Music is one of the greatest inspirations for this. Hence I consider good musicians a necessity for my direction...." Julian was originally from New Zealand.
Elinor Glyn has two favorites, All Alone and Chanson Triste. When she is directing a picture she asks for them in emotional scenes.
So are these helpful acting tips? We see actors preparing for parts today listening to specially chosen music to help get into the zone. What songs make you cry? Are there songs, pieces of music that help you register sadness, happiness, rage, romance?
Songs that move the stars to tears
"Music? Oh yes I think it is essential for the reason that in screen work you must leap right into the climax of the emotion without any gradual working up to it. Music makes this easier to do it. It helps the actor and actress feel the scene more sincerely." So says actor, Conrad Nagel.
Dolores Costello and Conrad Nagel get emotional
"When I was a little girl, explained Norma Talmadge, 'a young friend very dear to me died. I went to the funeral and at the same time I must have heard Ben Bolt for whenever I hear this old piece all my sorrow at the time comes vividly back to me. It was my very first experience with death and everything seemed very mysterious and terrible to me and my grief was deep and sincere."
|Conrad Nagel is|
The leader of one of the little orchestras at the Cecil B. De Mille studio says that Leatrice Joy prefers the ballad type of music for the sentimental words as well as the sentimental strains and that Parted by Tosti and Noel Johnson's Gray Days seen to please her most. While playing opposite Miss Joy in Hell's Highroad Edmund Burns asked for Italian music.
The favorite emoting melody for Pauline Frederick is Rock-a-by Baby according to Dolores Oroqui who with Roy Bush has played for more than a score of motion pictures as the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio at Culver City.
Rock-a-Bye Baby was also a song that helped Clara Bow to bring about tears. You can find out more about this in the documentary Clara Bow: Discovering It Girl. The documentary is included on this DVD version of Bow's movie, It a breakthrough film and performance in which Bow co-stars with Anthonio Moreno.
You can stream the movie and also stream the documentary Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl I've seen both and can recommend both. If you have Amazon Prime, the documentary is included in your membership.
Lillian Rich, Robert Ames, Norman Kerry, Irene Rich, Clive Brook, Gayne Whitman and John Roche prefer bits of grand opera. "Irene Rich must have Valse Treiste for all her emotional roles," said Bernard Browne leader of the trio who played for a majority of her pictures.
Monte Blue wants nothing but White Blossoms and in his latest picture, The Limited Mail. An accordion player was taken when the company went on location in Colorado to play a piece while he worked. Blue's father was half French and half Cherokee or Osage Indian.
Marie Prevost delights in Rose of Picardy and White River, an old time waltz melody.
In a 1996 interview with actress Anita Page, she talks about a song from Samson and Delilah that helped her with her acting. When talking pictures came around, they couldn't play the song while the cameras were rolling.
The songs that made them cry:
Lon Chaney's favorite was Let the Rest of the World Go By.
When Confessions of a Queen was being filmed Alice Terry and Louis Stone both expressed a liking for Eleanor and we played it almost constantly.
Conrad Nagel and Norma Shearer both like Madrigal of May and Lew Cody is very fond of Remembering. Aileen Pringle's favorite is Memory Lane.
|Carmel Myers, Willard Louis in Babbitt|
Willard Louis who played the title role in Warner Brothers' Babbitt one had the musicians the Spinks Waltz during the whole filming. Every one around the set was tired of it -- but Louis.
June Marlowe, like Marie Prevost, wants Rose of Picardy and can weep large voluminous tears. John Barrymore in the making of Beau Brummel called for the old ballad None But the Lonely Heart.
Billie Burke and John Barrymore display emotion in A Bill of Divorcement
William Congreve, The Mourning Bride, 1697 begins, "Music has Charms to sooth a savage Breast..."
(... To be continued)
* As new pages in the series are added there will be links here:
Love Music, Music for All, Musicians in Strange Places: Part two of series
Silent Movie era musicians: Added benefits playing at screenings, jazzing up the actors, playing between the scenes: Part Three of this series
Related Book, Pages of Interest:
Contemporary Pop, Rock and Country Memorial and Tribute Songs
Fashions of the 1920s Silent Film Stars
Douglas Fairbanks popular biography by Jeffrey Vance. The author has done other five star customer rated biographies on such stars as Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He's even featured on the newly restored Thief of Bagdad DVD video. (Link above)
Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin Tshirt
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Lillian Gish in a Three Way Mirror Jewelry by hermoines
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Italian actor, Rudloph Valentino with wife Natacha Key Chain
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Film Fun Aug 1919
Motion Picture December 1924
Photoplay Sept 1913, April 1918, 1921
Picturegoer April 1923
Picture Play Jan 1926