Copyright: Friends of Beer Wurlitzer 2017
However the days of the cinema orchestra were numbered due to the arrival of the mighty cinema organ. With its high-tech, sophisticated, all singing, all dancing, bells and whistles versatility, the organ was more glamorous, more reliable, and much cheaper than the band musicians.
It made an awful lot of musicians unemployed, which was always the idea. The organ gave strength to the band, and the ability to maintain a sound which it never had before. The organ incorporated special effects and novelty sounds that the band could not achieve – horse’s hooves, car horns, train whistles, and more. It was always sold on the basis that if you had a band, you could lose a few musicians if you got an organ in. You had your one person who had the ability to perform before the film to keep the audience happy, and to play during the movie itself.
From the fairground tent these silent flickering images progressed to the comparative grandeur of the music hall. Music halls took cinema in because during the summer they weren’t going to get much in the way of audiences, so it made sense to show film. During that time the music hall was perfectly set up for silent film. It had a pit, it had musicians who were use to playing and use to making very quick changes, and it had a nice space to watch a film in. Plus, you could also get a drink!
The growth of moving pictures in the early 1900’s presented new opportunities for jobbing musicians, many of who may have worked in theatres, or may simply have been piano teachers. Cinemas were very hungry for musicians, so there would have been a lot of employment opportunities. Cinemas grew at a rapid rate during that time, particularly just before the First World War.
As cinema grew, so did the importance of those who accompanied it. A new skill began to emerge – the ability to read not only music, but also movies. As musicians in cinemas played, they built up repertoires of accompanying music for many varied scenes, and began to develop improvisational skills, built on their musical knowledge, to fit the films they were accompanying. They all accumulated libraries of mood music.
The cinema experience grew and popularity and so entrepreneurs began building lavish picture houses staffed by uniformed commissionaires, that offered the masses a taste of luxury and opulence, as opposed to the traditional image of the darkened fleapit of the early years. These palaces housed orchestras or a band. Some of these musicians became as famous in their own right as the stars they accompanied.
By the 1920’s, every town across Britain housed at least one picture house, and employed if not an orchestra, at the very least, a band. In Britain 40,000 musicians played to the “silents”, and being a silent cinema musician carried huge responsibility.
Although these musicians could get it wrong, when they got it right the effect was astonishing, making you forget that what you were watching was only a movie. Musicians drove the film, kept it in sequence, told the story, and projected the emotion. The audience always let them know if they weren’t happy.
As the teens became the twenties, fashion and social change led to a change in musical taste in the cinemas as well as on the dance floors. Jazz was the new music, basically imported from America after the First World War, and it really fitted the kind of comedies and the flapper films coming over from Hollywood by the mid-1920’s. The repertoire changed quite dramatically from light classical to being jazz based.
Today, those early attempts at cinema and flickering images can seem naïve and childlike to 21st century eyes, particularly in the over-exaggerated movements and facial expressions of the “silent” stars - Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Clara Bow, and Rudolph Valentino all had to work their magic without the aid of dialogue. For some, cinema came of age with the introduction of sound in 1929.
The essential ingredient of early film was not only the visual imagery, but also the music that drove it and held it altogether. It was the soul, the emotion, and the voice of silent film. From the earliest days of the moving image, movies were accompanied by live music. The very first films that people saw in any great numbers were probably the bioscope films that were being seen in fairground tents rather than in a space that we would now think of as a cinema.
A Brief History of Early Cinema