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Piano Provides Earful For Silent Movies
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Piano Provides Earful For Silent Movies

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Piano Provides Earful For Silent Movies

Piano Provides Earful For Silent Movies
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To commemorate the 120th anniversary of the birth of Charlie Chaplin, Morning Edition looks at the history of silent film music. Film archivist Ken Wlaschin traces the evolution of silent film music from the late 1800s to the introduction of the "talkies" in the 1920's.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And we have another anniversary today. Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on this day 120 years ago. He's better known as Charlie Chaplin, the greatest star of the silent film era. We should mention this morning though that silent films were not without sound.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEN WLASCHIN (Film Archivist, Author): The very first ever film performance, which was in Paris in 1896, was accompanied by a piano. It was almost never that a silent film was actually silent.

INSKEEP: That's Ken Wlaschin. He's a film archivist and author of a book on the music of silent films.

Mr. WLASCHIN: The music, when it first started off, was up to the pianist, but gradually, the film companies started send out a listing of different kinds of music that they could play: Mexican music, war scene, cowboy music, hurry music.

(Soundbite of silent film music)

Mr. WLASCHIN: The silent film kind of evolved, and pretty soon you had really elaborate scores. The first really big elaborate score that is famous was for "Birth of a Nation."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WLASCHIN: Some of the programs that were presented in the big theater would have maybe a 70 piece orchestra playing the themes that were written for. For example, there were a number of - it sounds odd, but there were a number of films made of operas, silent operas. They had singers who would stand by the side of the stage and sing along with the performance.

(Soundbite of opera singing)

Mr. WLASCHIN: So the music got more and more complex as they went into the 1920s up until the coming of sound, which was about 1928.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WLASCHIN: One of the reviewers was talking about a film with the full orchestra and stuff in Manhattan and it was wonderful. And then he went to see it in a local cinema where they just had a piano. He said the film lost an awful lot of its effect, there were an awful lot of complaints that, you know, the local woman who played for the church, who also played the music for the films, she didn't pay any attention, so she would play "Hearts and Flowers" when the cavalry was charging across the screen. People used to say, Ella, you can't do that. You have to watch the screen.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Ken Wlaschin is a film archivist and author of the book, "The Silent Cinema In Song: 1896-1929."

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Renee Montagne, I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of music)

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