Reviving a Silent Treasure – A Gold Necklace

A Gold Necklace is a 10 minute short film from 1910 starring Mary Pickford who was at the time early in a career that would see her become a major silent film superstar and influential force for the future of the industry. This film is cute and lighthearted with a comic air as a necklace gets lost and found and we see the mishaps of good intentioned players trying to restore the necklace to its owner without having a correct understanding of who the owner is. Mary Pickford is delightful in this, and I got a kick out of Mack Sennett’s performance of Sam on a few occasions when he looks directly into the camera with a smirk or a stunned look. The biggest problem with this film though is that the original finished version doesn’t appear to be available; I’m no film historian but all I could find was a collection of the scenes out of order, maybe the order they were filmed in, or maybe just a random order of clips spliced together on one reel, I don’t know but it made no sense to watch it like that. The Library of Congress has a digitized version like this and they have even posted it on YouTube.

I do think that there was a finished version at some point, and it seems to have been released and viewed publicly based on historical print adverts I have seen, but at any rate if it does exist somewhere (likely not) it’s not easily available to me or the general web surfing public I would imagine. This was a golden find for me, as I needed an interesting picture to score and here I could score a fun old movie and provide a corrected version of it to the public with just a little bit of video editing up front. Public Domain can be a great thing sometimes.

With the aid of a 1 paragraph synopsis I spent a day sorting out the correct order of the scenes and then dreamed up appropriate title cards or inter-titles to add to help the viewer follow the story for the bits that can’t be conveyed silently by body language, those are the slides between scenes that show dialog or explanation in a silent film. Visually I made these titles in a classic vintage style, and added my fish logo on there for good measure. So then I had a rather unique picture, about 11 minutes long which is a silent clean slate to add some musical inspiration to. Leading up to this I had spent a few nights flipping through public domain footage in search of something interesting to score, there’s a lot of weird stuff out there, a lot of boring stuff too, and a few gems which is how I regard A Gold Necklace. It took some extra effort to get it to a point that it was ready for music given the unedited state it was in but it was well worth it and really cool actually that after my own edit it was a unique version that nobody else had.

I discovered some particulars to scoring for a silent film that make it quite different from traditional film scoring and by far the biggest thing you notice right away is that you don’t need to make room for dialog! So as any composer who does underscore knows, rule #1 is dialog is king, you don’t crowd out the dialog. In this case I threw rule #1 out the window. The next thing you notice is the lack of ambient sounds and effects, which also makes a big difference, it was only an 11 minute show (with titles and credits added) which is short but it’s a huge sonic emptiness that needs to be filled and the music is a lot more of a focal point in silent films than in our modern talkies. So I needed 11 minutes of significant music, filler would not suffice here and I paid a lot of attention to transitions too. Every scene flows into the next with deliberate tempo and key changes. I didn’t just end segments without knowing what would come next, I basically had to write the ending of a segment and the beginning of the next segment simultaneously to ensure they fit and would flow together.

Silent films have a tradition of physical comedy, or over the top physical acting and this is quite understandable given the format, additionally the reels are often spun to playback faster than real time which adds a certain physical comedic effect. The music for these films was probably regulated even less than the playback speed because each showing was a unique live performance of an organist in a theater and every theater’s organist I’m sure had their own style and conventions but the music I’ve heard that accompanies silent films is usually also rather brisk and jovial. There were probably some amazing performers at the organ in many of these theaters, but I didn’t set out to recreate a historically accurate score. I wanted to come at it with an open mind and not rule anything out in the areas of instrumentation and style. I tested a few ideas out before deciding on some themes that actually had more of a traditional sound than I expected to use. In instrumentation I used a few modern instruments like electric piano, electric bass, and a little drum machine but acoustic guitar and a music box sound play a big role and it gets thickened with strings, voice, harpsichord, organ, piano, marimba, and percussion. The music box is from Spitfire Labs (free and extremely useful), the strings are a hybrid of Spitfire Studio Strings and me playing my pawn shop violin. The vocalizing is also me and the guitar and bass are actual instruments but the rest of the above listed are Logic’s software instruments.

I used no snare drum at all (weird right?). The percussion consisted of a fair amount of cymbals, shaker, knee slaps, claps, stomps, low tom, tapping on the guitar body and neck, triangle, and glockenspiel, and the software instruments I used were wood temple blocks, timpani (very fun to work with), a few additional cymbals, bass drum and a filtered analog drum machine sound. I did map out the tempo in Logic, I often work just in free tempo without a click. This is the longest piece I’ve done with the tempo mapped from start to finish and it has a lot of BPM variation as you see in the tempo track.

It took quite a bit of time to get all the changes programmed and to synch correctly with picture but I think it was the right way to go in this case. It was a complicated piece to do to hit all the cues and it just required a strict backbone to keep it all in place.

I plan on scoring more silent films in the future, and depending on the story I may step out further from tradition, it would be fun to get experimental with it, but since A Gold Necklace has such a playful story it didn’t fit to get edgy or too weird with the sound. I like the nod to early 20th century American song, hopefully that comes across but I think the Rhodes piano and harpsichord especially give it a little extra zing. I am guessing that most composers don’t have something like this in their demo reel, and it’s probably not an obvious fit to pitch something like this for most jobs that would come up but regardless I will be putting a clip from this in my next demo reel, which I think will be the next thing I put together. Now if I can only decide which section to use… I’m open to suggestions.

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