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Guest Blogger: Debuting an Original Silent Film Score in Paris
More From Scott Palson in Paris
By Scott Paulson
May 28, 2010
On Sunday night, at the invitation of the Black France Film Festival, my ensemble, The Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra (re-christened Le Petit Orchestre du Peuple for this venue) accompanied Josephine Baker's 1927 silent film "Siren of the Tropics" as was done in silent movie houses of the era. We performed my new original score, and asked as always for the audience's assistance in creating the sound effects. The French audience was openly affectionate and participatory. Those were the two things I was told not to expect.
"Scott, they will love your show and they will talk about it fondly among their friends afterwards but you will see no immediate clue of this." "They will really want to participate -- but they won’t. They’ll want to accept your offer of a horse-chase solo on the coconut shells, but they will not accept the coconut shells from you.”
That is what the Americans in Paris told me.
Well, dozens of coconut shells were played virtuostically by the French on Sunday night, as well as various bulb horns, three sets of cymbals, five vibra-slaps, two sets of slapsticks and countless other sets of the tools of my trade. Police whistles, bird calls, Antillean drums, Parisian police whistles, telephone bells -- the audience pulled out all the stops to bring Siren of the Tropics to life. They were also very respectful of the movie -- they only made their sounds when cued -- well, the vibra-slap people got a little carried away, but that wasn’t too bad. There can almost never be too much vibra-slap -- but there can be too much flex-a-tone, so I kept that instrument for myself.
The audience was brilliant… and the band was great, too! Gene Perry was excellent on conga drums and Andrew Infanti was brilliant on the Forum's grand piano. I did well on tenor ukulele and melodica. I managed to find my oboe in the dark and played my Satie-inspired cues just in time. The chromatic harmonica that I bought for the trip provided some operatic recitative to buy time while I put the next set of sheet music in front of the pianist (good thing harmonica can be played with fewer than two hands!) Couldn’t bring my orchestral harp to Paris, but my little autoharp was a fairly good substitute.
Another big surprise that night: We performed with an immaculate 35mm print of "Siren of the Tropics." The Forum des Images staff let me view the film at lunchtime to make sure it was similar to the version that I am used to. It was almost exactly the same, but so much more detail was visible -- and the French title cards and inter-titles had some fascinating variations. The projectionist generously let us view the film a second time for the afternoon dress-rehearsal.
When the audience arrived, I recognized many of the panelists and participants of the Black France Film Festival. Lots of new faces were in the audience, as well, because the screening was open to the public and well-advertised — the price was very reasonable: just 7 Euros. I worked quickly to distribute instruments and provide instruction to the early-arrivals in the audience, because my usual pre-game show was replaced with some important festival announcements.
As we all watched the movie together, it became obvious that the 1927 film story and the real 1920’s Baker story had some parallels. We celebrated the success of Papitou/Josephine in Paris. Le Jazz Hot, with a little slapstick and a lot of Charleston, was blended with some ritual drumming and some fine acting and French fashion. Yes, there was even some plot-specific, character-driven, tasteful Josephine Baker nudity. All that for 7 Euros!!!
The audience was asked to leave their noisemakers with the staff at the exit doors, but, God bless them, they all came down to the stage to return my instruments to me personally, and spent time thanking me and commenting on the fun they had performing with Josephine Baker.
"Siren of the Tropics" was not Josephine Baker’s favorite movie. Some scenes bothered her terribly because of the film speed (that’s forgivable in the slapstick scenes -- but in her more elegant scenes there are a couple of moments where I wish I could have intervened for her.) Hey! Josephine was also upset that her character doesn’t get the guy at the end of the movie. For her sake, let’s pretend that they had another chance later in life.
We are indebted to the French for embracing Josephine Baker's talents. In Paris this African-American achieved so much. An aviatrix? Yes! A military officer in the war effort? Yes! A star of musical theater and films? Yes!
In my next entry, I’ll provide the list of the winners of the Black France Film Festival with comments from colleagues who participated in the competition. The competing films were screened all weekend long, and were re-capped at a ceremony immediately after our ciné-concert. The event photographer, Lolita Parker, Jr., is seeking clearance for additional event photos for us.
Everything related to researching, scoring and performing music with silent film.