The experience of watching a silent film has never been truly noiseless. From the early teens well into the late 1920’s, silent films were almost always projected with some form of musical accompaniment, the nature of which varied according to the individual film and the scope of the theatre and clientele. Special releases premiering in big cities at important theatres were often accompanied by original scores performed by 40-plus piece orchestras, while screenings of the same film in smaller cities and towns might be accompanied by a single musician, usually a piano player or organist, improvising the musical accompaniment. Compiling, not to mention learning, enough appropriate music for countless reels of film was a formidable task that was resolved with two essential documents for the musician: music cue sheets and photoplay music.
Music cue sheets are highly detailed lists of musical suggestions, tailored to the narrative sequencing of a specific film. They were first produced by the Hollywood studios, but were also sold by musical entrepreneurs outside the studio system. Some, such as the “musical synopsis” for Across the Continent, simply listed the names of these musical suggestions along with their proper place in the film. Others, such as the “thematic music cue sheet” for Abraham Lincoln, featured the beginning melody of each suggested piece on a musical staff under the “cue” of an intertitle or action seen on screen.
The second important element, photoplay music, is a sort of umbrella term. It is used to describe a series of compositions or musical arrangements, sometimes original but more often lifted from popular classical melodies, used to accompany a film. Photoplay music includes everything from venue and orchestra specific original scores for larger releases, to musical arrangements simple enough to be played by a single accompanist, but substantial enough to be fleshed out for small ensembles or large orchestras. Cue sheets suggested specific arrangements of photoplay music for a film but it was the conductor or accompanist who ultimately decided which photoplay music to purchase and what to play during the film.
Here at George Eastman House we have a valuable collection of both cue sheets and photoplay music, donated by the estate of the late Theodore Huff, a collector, archivist, professor, biographer, and silent film accompanist. Perhaps even more impressive than the sheer volume of this collection is the intersection between the two elements. An active silent film accompanist and music collector himself, many of Huff’s photoplay music scores correspond directly with the musical suggestions listed on his music cue sheets. And that’s where I come in.
I am a Masters student here at the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and the University of Rochester and I have spent the past few months initiating the process of digitizing this important collection. Cue sheets are still used to accompany screenings of silent films, but they are also incredibly useful research tools for archivists and scholars by virtue of their meticulous cataloging of running times, footage counts, projection speed, cues between scenes and more. Take for example the cue sheet for The Famous Mrs. Fair, which on just the first page offers up a wealth of information about the film. This is especially important for lost films for which music cue sheets constitute an important point of access, both in terms of technical specifications and narrative atmosphere as indicated by the musical suggestions, to films we might otherwise know nothing about.
The scope of the current project addresses the collection of music cue sheets for nearly 900 films. Once completed, we hope to continue into a second phase of digitizing over 1,600 pieces of photoplay music – the actual music pieces suggested in the cue sheets – for a comprehensive digital library of silent film music that will be accessible to archivists, scholars, musicians, and others. It’s a daunting but an exciting project and I’m grateful for the opportunity to get the process started.