The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was asked to make a presentation on silent film music at the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado in 2001. Susan Hall and I decided to prepare a score for the film Beggars of Life, using the original “cue sheet,” as a film theater orchestra would have done in 1928 in theaters not yet wired for sound. These notes are developed from that presentation.
We have performed our score for Beggars of Life around the country from Films at Lincoln Center to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and it has now been recorded for the August 2017 release of Beggars of Life on Kino-Lorber video.
Background: About Silent Film Music
There are three ways to score a silent film.
A "composed score" is one that is made of fresh music composed for the film. This works when you’ve got an adequate budget and schedule, and can result in an impressive accompaniment. But until the advent of recorded scores in “talkies,” this method rarely made economic sense except for big pictures that could be expected to run in the same theater for many months. Examples of composed scores include the Mortimer Wilson score for The Thief of Bagdad, parts of the Paramount scores by J.S. Zamecnik and Hugo Riesenfeld, the modern scores of Carl Davis, and those created through Turner Classic Movies’ Young Film Composers Competition.
"Improvised scores" are made up by a musician as the film runs. This is a very efficient way to present silent films, but is best suited to solo instrumentalists or small avant-garde groups, since it's hard for a large ensemble to make stuff up that makes musical sense. Improvised scores are the most common type of score in live-music silent film screenings today, but it was not always so—there are more improvising musicians now than there were in the 1920s. Improvisation was not part of the standard classical music education, and most musicians needed something written on a page.
A "compiled score" is assembled from pre-written music, and was the most common type of orchestral silent film score. Each scene is scored by pulling an appropriate piece from the theater’s music library—storm music for storm scenes, romantic music for love scenes, etc. Since all of the music is already composed and orchestrated, a complete orchestral score can be assembled and rehearsed in a matter of days. When the film’s run is over, the music can be filed back into the library to be reused later. Thousands of “photoplay music” compositions were published for building libraries from which one could compile film scores. “Cue sheets,” containing a list of the scenes in a film along with suggested musical compositions, were available to musicians to assist in the preparation of compiled scores. Cue sheets were particularly helpful when the film did not arrive until the opening night and could not be previewed. Mont Alto's score for Beggars of Life is a compiled score.
The Cue Sheet for Beggars of Life
The original cue sheet for Beggars of Life is four pages long. My discussion contunes below these four pages.
As you can see, a cue sheet contains cues (titles or actions) to watch for on the screen, and recommends pieces to play for those scenes. It also gives a snippet of the music—not enough to perform the piece, but enough to give an idea of the sort of music the compiler feels is appropriate. This cue sheet was probably made by James Bradford, although the compiler isn’t given credit. Although it features Paramount’s logo prominently, there is some doubt whether the studio had any influence in the creation of cue sheets, and my impression, based on the rather sparse available evidence, is that cue sheets were published by the film exchanges with little input from the studio.
Susan Hall and I started by recreating, as best we could, the “original cue sheet score.” Searching through six archives of photoplay music, I was able to locate 25 of the 35 pieces called for by the cue sheet. The ten missing pieces include three out of the four compositions of his own that James Bradford placed in the cue sheet. The one Bradford piece we found, "Chanson Algerian" (cue 39), is an interesting example of music recycling, since Bradford originally composed it for the 1926 film Beau Geste. While an “oriental” piece might seem out of place in a hobo story set in middle-America, the piece is well-written and works well enough, so we left it in.
When we played the pieces with the film, I found that James Bradford’s cue sheet makes—in my humble opinion—a lousy score for this movie. Perhaps thinking Beggars of Life was a bit slow, he loaded the score with music of high melodrama. Because I like this film, I was unwilling to present a score that I considered to be distracting, over-dramatic, and ill-suited to the tone of the film; however historically valid it may be. Since I am more a musician than an academic historian, it was an easy decision to follow Bradford’s own advice, as shown on the cover of a different cue sheet: “The purpose of this musical setting is to aid the leader in selecting appropriate music for the picture. It is not intended that he should purchase the pieces suggested nor should it be inferred that without them a good musical setting is not possible. Their purpose is rather to illustrate the style and character of the music that fits each scene and so enable to leader to select a similar piece from his library.”
Susan Hall and I already had to find substitutions for pieces that we couldn’t locate, so we also substituted pieces that we felt didn’t serve the film. However, we did keep many of Bradford’s suggestions. Even after being somewhat toned down by our substitutions, this score is more melodramatic than most of Mont Alto’s scores.
As an example, at cue 3 Bradford calls for "Bientôt Libre" by Gabriel-Marie. (The audio below is a complete recording of the piece that we made for the Cohen Collection release of The Fall of Babylon.)
Bientot Libre is a great piece for the climax of an action picture (we use it ourselves during the hurricane sequence in Steamboat Bill, Jr. and for a battle in The Fall of Babylon), but I find it much too melodramatic here. The scene in question is a beautiful example of the creativity of late silent-era film-making, cleverly using visuals to imply a voice-over without using a voice. A disturbing story is being told in flashback, and this piece is more appropriate for a battle, a flood, or an avalanche. So we overruled Bradford, and selected a different Gabriel-Marie composition, the tense but subdued "Mystère Oppressant," instead.
When Wallace Beery first appears, he is singing a song (cue 14). In the “part talkie” version of the film, this was a sound sequence with Beery’s voice synchronized, although the sound discs apparently do not survive. The intertitles indicate that Beery is singing "Hark Those Bells." James Bradford was apparently unable to find a published version of that song, since he recommends a piece called "Joe Bowers." I could find neither "Hark Those Bells" nor "Joe Bowers," so I picked a piece called "The Old Barn Dance" that sounds plausible for a bawdy barroom song. We use the same song at cue 31, where Bradford calls for a repeat of "Joe Bowers."
(I was recently able to find Joe Bowers, as recorded in 1952. However, it didn't seem worth re-working our established score for.)
James Bradford also tried to play up the humor in the film, sometimes appropriately (the morning haystack sequence, the mock trial) but often he put funny music in scenes that are not particularly humorous. Scenes 30, 31, and 36 are scored with goofy music that I found out of character with the film’s growing tension. But where I feel he is particularly misguided is in scene 37, where the black actor Edgar “Blue” Washington hasn’t yet realized his friend is dead. Bradford underscores it with a ragtime cake-walk, a choice that borders on offensive, and which certainly doesn’t support the film’s intended tone.
Scenes in the cue sheet where we retained Bradford’s original suggestions (allowing for the substitution of the title song, see below) are 1, 2, 6, 11, 12, 16, 19 (used for 18 as well), 23, 25, 27, 29, 33, 35, 39, and 41.
The Lost Waltz
In the cue sheet, the “theme” of the picture is a waltz called "Beggars of Life" by “Robinson” (possibly the prolific songwriter J. Russell Robinson?), of which the complete "chorus" is printed as cue 1 and the "verse" at cue 9. At the bottom of the last page it is identified as being published and available from Waterson, Berlin, and Snyder of New York.
However, the published music called "Beggars of Life" that we found in the Hank Troy collection is a different waltz. It has the same title and is from the same publisher, but it's a different composition by a different composer: Karl Hajos. The Hajos "Beggars of Life" waltz can be found fairly widely as piano/vocal sheet music (with lyrics appropriate to the film), as a dance orchestration, and on several period recordings (such as The Troubadours, with male quartet, Victor recording 21683-B), all of which mention the song as being from this film.
Except for the cue sheet excerpts, we have never found the Robinson composition, so the Hajos version may be the only one that was published—that’s the one you’ll hear in our score. There’s obviously some story about what happened to Robinson’s composition and why it was replaced, but I don’t know what it is.
The "Beggars of Life" song appears in the cue sheet at the opening title, at the end, and as a love theme at several points during the movie where the cue sheet states “Repeat Theme No. 1.” In the days before photocopiers it was inconvenient to repeat music, so you don’t usually find many recurring themes.
The song was published only in a dance-orchestra arrangement, and it’s awfully perky for what is mostly a dramatic movie. We ended up using the piece almost wherever it was called for, sometimes allowing it to blossom into its romantic lushness against our better judgment, and other times we have reduced the instrumentation to make it more intimate. For two scenes in the film (the finale and the haystack sequence), we opted not to use the theme song, but instead to reprise the Benjamin Godard "Adagio Pathetique" (which Bradford calls for in cue 11). The reason I wanted to avoid the dance piece may be clear when you see the final scene, but the substitution is made smooth since Godard’s more serious piece and Hajos’ waltz use identical rhythmic patterns.
Late in 2016 I did a little "Beggars of Life" waltz chord challenge, attempting to breathe life back into the forgotten Robinson composition, if you're curious about how it may have sounded.
For this film, including details on what is known about the original recorded soundtrack, I highly recommend Thomas Gladyz's book "Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film."
For a thorough examination of accompaniment practices across the entire silent film era, I recommend Silent FIlm Sound by Rick Altman.