At the Edward J. Pryzbyla Center on the campus of Catholic University, the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music has been hosting a regular film series this year. (Yours truly introduced the January 19 installment, Immortal Beloved.) The final presentation took place on Wednesday, April 20, with two short silent films, accompanied by new music, a double opportunity to discover not only two classic films, one of them almost completely unknown, but also music by two local composers performed live. The composers were doing double duty for this event, as they were also performing their scores while we watched the movies.
The first film was There It Is (1928) by Charley Bowers (1889–1946), a director whose work is almost completely forgotten in the United States (although he does have an entry in the Internet Movie Database). He stars in this film alongside one of the animated puppet characters for which he was renowned, made with a technique of animation he called the Bowers Process. It has to be seen to be believed. (This movie is on a DVD, More Treasures from American Film Archives: 50 Films, 1894-1931, from the National Film Preservation Foundation, made with funding from the National Endowment of Humanities, which is the right way to spend tax dollars.) Washington composer Maurice Saylor's new score called for piano and accordion (played by composer Andrew Simpson, who also contributed some of the music), various wind instruments (oboe, recorder, clarinet, bass clarinet, all played by Saylor), and percussion (Phil Carluzzo). The music had several themes, of which the sweetest was the tinkling melody (usually in the high octaves of the piano) for MacGregor, the little creature that Bowers's character, a Scotland Yard detective, carries around in a matchbox (shown here packing its toothbrush for the trip across the Atlantic).
The evening's second film was a known classic, Laurel and Hardy's Liberty (1929), with a score by Andrew Simpson, for piano and wind instruments. In their introductions, Prof. Simpson (who teaches composition at Catholic University) and Mr. Saylor described both pieces as "works in progress," and Simpson said that he would have liked to include percussion but could not prepare the part in time. Hopefully, the two composers will have the time and opportunity in the future to revise their scores and present them in another venue beyond this workshop. Musically, both scores are certainly worth that effort. Simpson's music featured beautiful quotations of patriotic melodies during the silly review of American history, the story of liberty that is then so memorably contrasted with Laurel and Hardy, in prison stripes, booking down a street as they break out of jail. Where Saylor's score was otherworldly (in addition to a number of delightful clownish effects), Simpson's music borrowed jazzy sounds that fit perfectly with the 1920s setting. What the two composers had described as the breakneck nature of this score (marked "Frantic" and even "Dangerously" during the concluding passage with the two buffoons at the top of a skyscraper under construction, as in the image shown here) came across quite effectively, in spite of their professed performance anxiety.
More Treasures from American Film Archives: 50 Films, 1894-1931
Charley Bowers: The Rediscovery of an American Comic Genius
Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy, Vol. 3