Monday, 7 April 2008

Melodrama from Stage to Screen, 6 April 2008

This panel was part of the British Silent Film Festival at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham. It set out to explore some of the ways in which music contributes to melodramatic effect in silent film – at the level of accompanying gestures, delineating psychological processes, intensifying spectacle, and so on. In doing this we also addressed issues such as the performance style (voice, gesture) in some early phonograph recordings and films, the pervasive influence of melodrama in modern film, the transition from silent to sound film, and the way in which the audience engages with the drama.

The four presentations approached the theme from different angles. I set things rolling by identifying some of the defining features of stage melodrama at the start of the 19C to put the session in context, and then talked about the role of music in scene-types that are essentially static, and which seem to have a clear legacy in film. In these instances music can help to draw the spectator into the drama, or, conversely, to encourage contemplation of the bigger drama.

Philip then introduced phonograph recordings (the flogging scene from Uncle Tom's Cabin (1904) with Len Spencer and the Edison Symphony Orchestra; The Outcast (1905) unknown performers; the transformation scene from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1905) with Len Spencer and the Edison SO; Desperate Desmond (1915) with Fred Duprez and Eugene A Jaudas). He considered the idea of melodrama as spectacle in purely sonic (rather than visual) terms, rooted in traditions and conventions of the theatre with which audiences would have been familiar.

Neil spoke about the thought processes that a modern performer/improviser goes through when accompanying silent films, with the example of the 1928 Sweeney Todd with Moore Marriott. Although disappointingly restrained, the film nevertheless contained scenes that were melodramatic at heart - including a lengthy exchanges of glances between Todd and Mrs Lovett, the struggle between Todd and the young boy, and the contrasting character types. Neil illustrated ways in which the music can help to sustain, elucidate, even create or derail narrative, and above all how it can make the audience care about the characters and draw them into the drama.

Polly's presentation focused on the use of gesture in three of Hitchcock's early talkies (Number 17, Blackmail, Murder), and demonstrated the legacy of silent film acting techniques. One example was the way in which actors essentially spoke their intertitles, acting a sometimes lengthy sequence of emotions _before_ delivering their lines. She concluded by playing an excerpt without the sound, as a silent film with musical accompaniment (provided by Neil), which highlighted this lingering practice very effectively.

Participants: Sarah Hibberd, Philip Carli, Neil Brand, Polly Goodwin.

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