There aren't too many openings for silent movie accompanists these days. In fact, Anne Vorce of the Arlington Film Workshop (AFW) has nailed what may be the only such job in town.
"I've played piano for a lot of different things -- in concerts, with recitalists, at private clubs -- but this is one thing I've never done before," she said. "It's truly a lost art .... There's something about the way music enhances film. Words can't do it all. Or sometimes words aren't needed. They're extra. In that sense, silent movies are really an art form."
Vorce will play the piano for two silent movies at AFW's "Re-Discovering the American Film" series, which opened this week. Six other movies in the series, which is free, include early "talkies" featuring still-known stars.
"The sound tracks of today's modern films originated in the days of the silents," Vorce said. "Each movie house had a resident pianist when silent films began in the early 1900s. For the first 15 years or so, they played anything they felt like .... The movies' action and music were finally merged in the 1920s. Specifically written scores were eventually sent to movie houses for use with silent films."
Vorce says she plans to make up her own music -- Russian-flvoredd classical and original compositions -- to play May 1 for the silent movie "Tempest," which stars John Barrymore.
"Tempest" is a drama about the Russian revolution and Russia's involvement in World War I.
"It was almost current events at the time it was filmed, since that historic revolution had just taken place about 10 years earlier," points out Bob Fells, AFW's coordinator for the film series.' "Charles Rosher was the cinematographer, he's one of the best."
Vorce and Fells hope to revive the original silent movie music for the showing of Ronald Coleman's "Beau Geste" March 27. Both AFW members are delving into film archives this week at the Library of Congress, and Fells is visiting New York's Museum of Modern Art in hopes of finding the original score.
"I got the idea forshowing that film when "The Last Remake of Beau Gests' as was released a few months ago," Fells said. "We're getting the original 1927 silent film on loan from the Museum of Modern Art."
The "Re-Discovering the American Film" series is being offered in Arlington's main library every Monday at 7 p.m., for seven more weeks. Movies are shown in the second floor screening room of the library, 1015 N. Quincy St.
In addition to the silent films, two "talkies" will be shown in what used to be called "glorious" technicolor and "made obsolete in the 1950s," Fells said. Other "talkies" will star Al Jokon; Bob Hope, then a new face in Hollywood; a young W.C. Fields, and an even younger George Burns and Gracis Allen.
Fells said Jolson's "The Singing Foot" (1928) is an early talkie that begins as a silent and ends with sound.
"Its the second film he made after "Jazz Singer," which was the first commercially successful film with music and dialogue," Fells said. "Hollywood immediately followed up with another film in the same mold; that was "The Singer Fool.' It became the top box office film for 12 years, even the more successful than Jazz Singer. One of the songs from that movie, Sonny Boy, also became the first American record to sell a million copies."
"International House," a comedy starring W.C. Fields, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Bela Lugosi, "was made in 1933, just before the censorship code came to Hollywood," Fells said. "You could still put in a lot of risque situations and double entendre remarks, which the film code later prohibited. As a result, a lot of young people laugh and are unexpectedly surprised at the frankness in the film."
There are more "talkies" in the series because "we find they tend to outdraw silent films," Fells said. "Part of the reason for this is that younger people have mixed ideas about silent movies. Of course, they're seen them on television, but they were meant to be shown with music accompaniment. You should no more show a silent film without music than you should do a ballet without music."
As AFW's accompanist, Vorce emphasized that stamina is the big problem she'll face while playing piano for the two feature-length (90 minutes) silent movies. "It's a very strenuous thing for a musician to do. You have to keep playing, while also gauging audience being spontaneous and creative and watching the film the whole time!"
A lot of research, rehearsal and film screening goes into her piano accompaniment, Vorce said.
"I feel I owe it to the film and to the audience to do this I'm also really interested in the art form and experimenting. It's lots of fun."
Dates for films in the AFW series:
"Beau Geste" (1927), with Ronald Coleman; live piano accompaniment, March 27.
"I ever Say Die" (1939), with Bob Hope, Martha Raye and Andy Devine, April 3.
"Anthony Adverse" (1936), with Fredic March, Olivia de Havilland and Claude Rains, April 10.
"The Singing Fool" (1928) with Al Jolson, April 17.
"Dive Bomber" (1941, in technicolor), with Errol Flynn, Fred MacMurray and Alexis Smith, April 24.
"Tempest" (1928), with John Barrymore; live piano accompaniment, May 1.
"International House" (1933), with W.C. Fields, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Bela lugosi, may 8.