Silent Movies: Music in the Dark
In the days of the silent film, the need for music arose primarily to cover the noise of the projector in film theaters. It was an added bonus that the music, by its nature, could entertain the ears while the eyes were occupied by the screen actions. Music brought a mood, a structure, pacing, a kind of magic to moving pictures which would other wise be silent— uncomfortably so.

When the first talkies arrived, the need for music didn't go away. Yes, the act ors could now speak, but with their voices came the steady hiss of the soundtrack. It was found that this could be overcome by adding continuous background music, very much like Muzak camouflaging the noises of a restaurant or shopping mall.

Even in the earliest stages of the new medium's development, the use of music for film was dictated by convention. In an article in Moving Picture World in 1911, Clarence E. Sinn described how certain scenes ought to be illustrated with music. For a chase scene, for instance, he recommended a progression starting with "Pianissimo Agitato," moving on to "Forte" with a steady increase in tempo, followed by a "Fortissimo Galop" and concluding with a "Furioso."

In 1924, composer-arranger Erno Rapee published a book called Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists; a Rapid Reference Collection of Selected Pieces, Adapted to Fifty-two Moods and Situations. It contained semi-classical, semi-popular works by composers like Johann Strauss, Emil Waldteufel, Otto Langey, and Gaston Borch. Even while playing,

a pianist could constantly refer to the index of "moods" conveniently printed in the margins of the sheet music, listing the available moods, for instance:

"Aeroplane" (page 2)
"Chase" (page 599)
"Fire-fighting" (page 151)
"Misterioso" (page 242)
"Neutral" (page 467).

One of the earliest Laurel & Hardy films to feature a music track was the silent Habeas Corpus, produced in October of 1928. The film score used stock music written by J.S. Zamecnik, then a big name in mood music and published by Sam Fox, which was linked by incidental music by Rosario Bourdon.

In another 1928 silent, We Faw Down, Laurel and Hardy cheat on their wives and go out drinking with two girls they meet on the street. For the music track, a list of appropriate popular tunes was lined up:

"That's My Weakness Now"
"Cheatin' on Me"
"Whoopee"

and then, when the mood changes, you would hear things like:

"Dramatic Agitation"
"Somebody's Wrong."

This conventional and somewhat uninspired approach to film scoring was carried over into the production of the talkies.

Shield Goes West
At the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, a man named Marvin Hatley, the composer of the popular "Ku-Ku" theme, was known as the "musical director" of the studios. However, it was actually another man who was mostly responsible for the many snappy little tunes that started to appear in the Hal Roach shorts in 1930. When Roach converted his studio to sound in 1929, The Victor Talking Machine Company provided all the necessary technology— and also sent Leroy Shield, who worked as Victor's "Musical Director in Charge of Hollywood, California Activities." After scoring a few films with stock music, Shield started to compose fresh music.

Personal details on Leroy Shield are rather sketchy. We do know he was born in a small town near Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1893, the son of a train conductor. Young Leroy aspired to be a different kind of conductor—he was soon leading the local high school band. At a very young age he toured as a classical pianist, introducing to the American public the modern composers Ravel, Milhaud, Baxt, and Casella.

In 1923 he started work as a Conductor-Arranger for Victor. This meant that he oversaw recording sessions, "directed" orchestras (those of Whiteman, Goldkette, and Horace Heidt), and played the piano or celeste when necessary.

 

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