Skip to main content

'There never was a silent film," Hollywood boy-wonder producer Irving Thalberg (1899-1936) once said. "We'd finish a picture, show it in one of our projection rooms and come out shattered. It would be awful. Then we'd show it in a theatre with a girl pounding away at a piano and there would be all the difference in the world."

Thalberg's "girl" is working overtime this summer. British combo the Cinematic Orchestra is on the Canadian jazz-festival circuit, performing from its acclaimed new soundtrack for the classic 1929 Russian silent Man With a Movie Camera (also just released on DVD by the Ninja Tune label). A new summer-long festival of silent-film classics, presented with live music, is taking place under the stars in Ontario wine country. And Toronto-based concert organist and classical pianist William O'Meara, whose improvisational work as a silent-film accompanist locally (at Cinematheque Ontario) and across Canada has blossomed from a "novelty act" to a "significant sideline" in the past five years, is performing in the dark across the province.

Silent-film appreciation is definitely on the rise. It is entirely possible filmgoers haven't had as many regular opportunities to watch silents on the big screen since the 1920s. This month, for instance, major festivals of silent film are being presented in San Francisco, Chicago and by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Cinematheque Ontario has several silents in its Classics of World Cinema program (mostly in the retrospective of Danish master Carl-Theodor Dreyer's work). For the fourth consecutive year, the Toronto International Film Festival will spotlight a silent classic, and recently announced Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow (1925) will be screened Sept. 12, with live orchestral accompaniment conducted and arranged by Berndt Heller. And the Canadian Film Institute presents the inaugural Ottawa International Silent and Restored Film Festival Sept 26-28, in the National Archives' auditorium, featuring classic comedy shorts (Keaton, Arbuckle, Chaplin et al.), matinees for kids and an intriguing program called Long and Short: Great Canadian Silents.

Story continues below advertisement

While scholarship and new technologies in film restoration have helped the cause of silents, programmers of festivals, cultural institutions and even a few commercial enterprises are also responding to audience interest. In a day and age when moviegoing involves being surrounded and bombarded by sound and music, a silent-film presentation is a comparatively intimate and uncluttered cinematic experience.

Of course, as Thalberg reminds us, silents were never silent. Live music was the reason no two screenings of a Buster Keaton two-reeler or an early Fritz Lang feature were ever alike. Even Hollywood's most powerful or egotistical directors (Chaplin, De Mille, take your pick) could not control the creative whims of silent-film accompanists across the land, whose talents ran the gamut. There were, however, efforts to impose some musical consistency.

In the 1920s, a bustling industry of mostly uncredited composers and arrangers cranked out multi-instrumental scores for big-city movie-house orchestras. Many films came with detailed cue sheets including musical "suggestions" (Chopin for funerals, Mendelssohn for weddings, etc.). Musicians could buy books of piano music for stock scenes. One of the biggest sellers was Sam Fox Moving Picture Music Vol. 1 (featuring Oriental Veil Music, Burglar Music and four varieties of Hurry Music), by composer J. S. Zamecnik, who studied with Dvorak and is estimated to have published more than 1,500 short pieces for silent movies.

But most silent-film accompanists improvised in the dark, drawing from their own repertoire. They were church organists, piano teachers, bar-room tinklers and even teenagers like my grandfather, a New Brunswick youth who came to Toronto on a scholarship to study with Healey Willan and Sir Ernest MacMillan, and made extra cash playing for the movies at Shea's theatre.

Soon after the arrival of motion picture sound in 1929, Thalberg's girl, my grandfather and thousands like them found their improvisational musical services were no longer required at the local movie house. A handful of pianists and theatre organists -- called upon from time to time by film societies, revival houses or museums -- kept the tradition alive; today, an array of creative musicians are getting into the act, and in turn broadening the audience for silents.

"The film itself is frozen, but the accompaniment can change with time," William O'Meara says. "I've seen silents done with jazz orchestra or percussion ensemble, and it can work very well. But you can't forget the film. Artistically, [silents]are rooted in the late Romantic literary idiom, so it's also possible to do great violence to them."

This is why many silent-film aficionados are diehard purists. Charlie Lustman runs the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles (the only venue of its kind in North America), where the house organist is a 90-year-old veteran of the art. Even the younger players stick to music written before 1929. "We're recreating the art form the way it was meant to be seen," Lustman explains. In addition to its year-round programming, the theatre also puts together a popular travelling road show. "The program is six comedy shorts with piano and organ accompaniment, as well as a live vaudeville show, to give audiences an authentic experience of moviegoing in the 1920s."

Story continues below advertisement

The Silent Movie Theatre's travelling show hits Canada for the first time on Sept. 26, when it rolls in to the Jackson-Triggs winery during Grapefest (in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.). Throughout July and August, the winery presents a silent classic every Friday night in its new 500-seat, open-air amphitheatre. Musicians from across Canadian have been commissioned to write and perform brand-new scores for each film.

Rising to just such a creative challenge became a major career turning point for the stellar British band the Cinematic Orchestra, which recently brought its refreshing blend of club, jazz and soul grooves to Toronto. In 2000, the band delivered what it thought would be a one-off live performance of music commissioned by the Porto Film Festival (Portugal) for a screening of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov's 1929 documentary silent Man With a Movie Camera. The resounding success of that gig directed TCO's work for the next three years, directly inspiring the tracks on their 2002 recording Every Day (Ninja Tune). After performing Man With A Movie Camera at numerous European film festivals, the band decided to release the soundtrack proper on CD, LP and DVD this year.

Man With a Movie Camera, a dazzling experimental documentary showing the urban life of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, opens with a title card on which the filmmaker states his intention: "This experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature." On the phone from Victoria, TCO bandleader, composer and producer Jason Swinscoe explains: "Vertov was a pianist himself, and made specific notes about the kind of score he imagined, which was extremely useful since we had a limited amount of time to rehearse for Porto. One of [Vertov's]ideas was a rhythmic piece of music that included repetition, which would work with many of the film's structural and visual elements."

Cinematheque Ontario is presenting Man With a Movie Camera tomorrow, with live improvised accompaniment provided by pianist O'Meara, whose preparation consists of watching the film ahead of time away from the piano. "I look for key events and character development, but I rarely think about what I'm going to play until just before the lights go down.

"The closest explanation I can give of what I do is that it's like when I was a child, sitting down at the piano and pretending to be a big composer. I've all this formal training in theory, counterpoint and structure, and have a very active career as a classical musician, particularly as part of a trumpet-and-organ duo.

"Even though I have this wide base of knowledge and experience, somewhere along the line this primeval, childish ability kicks in and I'm just in the moment."

Story continues below advertisement

The Cinematic Orchestra plays Montreal tomorrow and Ottawa Sunday.

Cinematheque Ontario's retrospective of the films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer runs through July in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall (416-968-FILM).

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at