Shortly after moving to the Boston area in the early 1960s, I had my first experience of a silent, classic when some friends took me to the old Paramount Theater to see the 1921 “Phantom of the Opera,” accompanied on an authentic Wurlitzer by a real veteran. He was right on cue, with the right sounds in all the right places. At the end, where the phantom charges down the steps into the Seine, the organist surprised us by suddenly breaking in with the familiar Toccata from Boellmann’s Suite Gothique. I was hooked.
I’ve seen quite a few organ-accompanied silents since then, and in various venues, where the organ accompaniment ranged from quite convincing to amateurish. For me, though, the standard against which all subsequent performances would be measured was set a few decades ago in San Francisco. My friends liked old movies and I’d heard of a theater there with a rather famous organ. When we pulled up in front, the marquee announced the epic WW1 first Academy Award winner “Wings”—and the organist was the noted Gaylord Carter, a veteran of the silent era. He was amazing throughout, with just the right music, noises, and nuances, flowing flawlessly. Carter set my standard for his particular art form, and his performance is immortalized on the brilliantly restored Blu-ray recently released by Paramount along with a newly recorded version of John Stepan Zamecnik’s orchestral score used in road show engagements in the time of the film’s release.
That standard was also met on the evening of Veteran’s Day. The venue was not a theater this time, but rather, Boston’s imposing Old South Church in Back Bay. The screen, while of fair size, was hardly equal to the voluminous space, and it was set so low that the bottom was blocked in places by shadows of pew-ends and heads. Then too, as the movie unreeled, it seemed to lack some of the contrast, clarity and brilliance one might expect from more commercial projection equipment. The organ, however, was large and versatile, portions of which are located at both the back and front of the room. Not a mighty Wurlitzer, it is in some respects even mightier, for, unlike most theater organs, it consists almost entirely of “straight” (non-borrowed or “unified”) stops, which provide an even wider palette of tonal color. Built originally in 1921 by Ernest M. Skinner for the Civic Auditorium in St. Paul, Minnesota, it was rescued when that building was demolished, and rebuilt between 1985 and 1996 for Old South, with some additions (both vintage and new). With 115 ranks of pipes, from four rumbling 32ft. pedal ranks to a variety of flutes, powerful and imitative reeds and an entire division of string-toned stops, it is now Boston’s second-largest organ, and its varied tonal colors and wide dynamic range guaranteed that it was capable of just about anything an organist wanted it to do—as we were about to discover. Indeed, its resources were expertly utilized.
The movie was “The Big Parade,” a WWI epic from 1925, the same era as the slightly more famous “Wings,” but dealing with foot soldiers instead of aviators. The staging and action scenes were quite impressive (and frequently harrowing), particularly considering that it was filmed in an era long predating today’s digital effects. As in “Wings,” there was the requisite romantic element, this time between “Jim,” the romantic lead, played by John Gilbert, and Melisande (Renée Adorée) a winsome French farm girl he encountered, in a village where the troops were billeted on arrival in France.
Before enlisting, Jim was a spoiled scion of a wealthy family; once in the army he teamed up with two blue-collar sidekicks, who provided elements both of humor and heroism. The humor (and budding romance) occurred mainly in a small French town where the troops were waiting to be deployed. But when the march to the front began—the “Big Parade” of the title—all became serious. It should be remembered that this film was made less than a decade after the end of the war, so the producers had plenty of first-hand sources available among surviving veterans to advise them with regard to the modus operandi, as well as access to appropriate props such as uniforms, vehicles and firearms, and in fact, the Army cooperated in the production.
The soldiers spread out, carrying their weapons and backpacks, relentlessly advancing over bodies of dead compatriots before encountering a German stronghold. Crawling across fields and sheltering in bomb craters, taking significant losses, they eventually destroy deadly machine-gun and artillery emplacements and drive the Germans back. Jim’s two buddies die heroically, and Jim takes a shot in his left leg. While recuperating in an expressionistic hospital in a converted church Jim hears that Melisande’s house has been bombed. Desperate, he limps painfully from his bed and drags himself to her bombed village 11 km away, only to be caught in some of the final fire of the war.
Suddenly, the armistice is signed (November 11th originally was called “Armistice Day,” not becoming “Veteran’s Day” until after WW2, in the 1950s). After a brief and poignant homecoming, Jim returns to France and where his Melisande is plowing with an ox. Jim’s appearance as a limping silhouette on the distant crest of a hill is one of the silver screens most vivid examples of the romantic return.
Now imagine all the action on the screen unfolding in dead silence. Except for the fact that images are moving, it would not be much better than looking at a picture book. That’s where music comes in. Enter Peter Krasinski at the Skinner console. The first thing that a great movie organist does is to follow the action on the screen precisely; the second thing is to understand the emotion playing out there, and to use his instrument to underscore it.
Though many of the most important silent films (including “The Big Parade”) were released with through-composed scores, on Tuesday night the accompaniment was entirely spontaneous. Not for nothing did Krasinski win an improvisation competition a few years ago. Give Krasinski a good movie and a large organ of exceptional capabilities (including this Skinner’s true “surround sound,” due to its placement), and the emotional impact of the film pours forth.
Sobbing string stops provided a gently sentimental background for Jim’s parting from his family or making love to his new-found sweetheart; some slapstick whimsy came with more comic registrations; the full organ “sang” “Over There” or “You’re in the Army now” as troops marched and bivouacked; a bugler called to arms on a chorus of three high pressure tubas; and the organ offered a sensitive background as Jim whispered goodbye to his dying buddy. As shells whistled, guns fired, grenades and bombs exploded, the appropriately named 32’ Pedal Bombarde got quite a workout. It was all right on cue—every bit of it tastefully appropriate to every inch of this now anything-but-silent film. And it takes us in. We are no longer sitting on pews in a warm church on a dark night watching tinted images flicker across a screen, but “over there,” near a battlefield in France, a century ago, looking and listening as a dramatic and tragic piece of history unfolds.