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Guest Blog: Making New Music For A Classic Silent Film

Guest blogger Barbara Vance is an award-winning author and publisher who teaches narrative and media at the University of Texas at Dallas.  Her work has appeared in many formats, from literary journals, poetry collections and numerous Texas publications to alternative reality games. 

What started out as my interest in a silent-film event in Dallas turned into an intriguing conversation with Dallas Chamber Symphony Conductor Richard McKay about the Dallas Arts District,  movies and creating an entirely new symphony orchestra. 

  • Dallas Chamber Symphony presents Sailor-Made Man Tuesday Nov. 13. Details.

I am a Harold Lloyd fan, so when I heard that Sailor-Made Man, one of his best films was to be shown accompanied by the Dallas Chamber Symphony, I was ecstatic.

For those unfamiliar with him, Harold Lloyd was one of the great silent film comedians of the 1920s—better, I think, than either Chaplin or Keaton.   The plucky actor with his signature glasses and a reputation for performing most of his own stunts (despite missing two fingers that were blown off when a bomb mistaken as a prop blew up in his hand) had a knack for devising stories that were both funny and charming.

This humor and charm are on display full force in Sailor-Made Man, in which an idle playboy who joins the Navy in an effort to prove himself to the father of the girl he loves.  It is the definitive fish-out-of-water story as spoiled Harold proceeds through recruitment, adjusts to military life, and finds himself ashore in Khairpura-Bhandanna.

“I fell in love with the movie in the first ten minutes,” says Dallas Chamber Symphony’s founder and conductor, Richard McKay.  “Lloyd has a great personality—there is so much expression in his face—and he is very diverse.”

McKay knew he wanted to accompany at least one film during his inaugural 2012-13 season.  “I wanted to gravitate toward something different than a main blockbuster;” he says, “I wanted something unique that would capitalize on the structure of a chamber orchestra.”

Enter Brian Satterwhite, the award-winning Austin-based composer who has written music for over 100 short and feature-length films.  It was Satterwhite who introduced McKay to Sailor-Made Man, and the two agreed it was a perfect fit.  But McKay took things a step further, commissioning an entirely new score for the film.

If you’ve seen a Harold Lloyd film on TV lately, you know the music that accompanies them (although still not the original soundtrack) is already fantastic, so taking on a new interpretation is a daunting task to say the least.  “I have watched the film a few times—every time without sound,” says McKay who will see it with music for the first time during rehearsal.

The cherry on the top of what promises to be an enjoyable performance is that audiences will be able not only to see the film, but also to see exactly how a conductor synchronizes music and film—which is thrilling if, like me, you get a kick out of behind-the-scenes information.  Musicians play from sheet music, but McKay will have an extra monitor that shows both the film and cursors that act as cues, moving across the screen in time to the action.  While it will be hard to keep your eyes off of Lloyd, sneak a peek at these “punches” (that’s my new word for the day) and you will have a new appreciation for all that goes into one performance.

With as many new things as will be happening Tuesday night, it will be hard to decide where to focus—the film, the score, or the behind-the-scenes experience of just how musicians do what they do.

Richard McKay conducting the Dallas Chamber Symphony

3 Things to Know:

Notice how Lloyd is unable to move the thumb and index finger on his right hand (he wore a prosthetic with a glove).

The Harold Lloyd character was the basis for Superman’s Clark Kent identity.

Lloyd was responsible for most of the story lines and gags in his films, although he rarely took credit.