Enigmatic composer and conductor Carl Davis prepares to premiere the new soundtrack to Harold Lloyd's famous film The Freshman at Symphony Hall tomorrow. Here he describes what it is about Harold that he finds so fascinating.
Yes, he was the tall one with the glasses who did really scary stunts like climbing up skyscrapers and dangling from clock faces.
That is the general knowledge that most people know about Harold Lloyd. Broaden out that view and you will find that Harold Lloyd was one the most successful and popular comic film actors of the 1920s, peaking in 1925 with The Freshman, a satirical feature film on college life and football American style.
The view of Lloyd as nothing but a hyper stuntman was enhanced by the release of two compilation films in the 1950s consisting of clips ripped out of context and looking unrealistically fast – rather like ants on a hot plate.
I made my own first contact with Lloyd material, composing scores for the Thames Television documentary series Hollywood and subsequently the biographical series Harold Lloyd – the Third Genius. Working on these projects helped me place Lloyd in the context of his period and to understand his relationship to the other two giants of silent comedy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Each of these clowns and film makers had distinct and different persona contrasting sharply with their actual selves. Chaplin’s tramp, a Beckett-like creation with no past or future, clinging to the edges of society but with deep emotional depths. Chaplin was passionate about music and left us with two virtual textbooks on composing for film, his scores for City Lights and Modern Times. Keaton was more phlegmatic but his character had some skills and could drive a train and be a cameraman and projectionist.
His success rested on his implacable facial expression. Lloyd’s character comes nearer to a normal man. Even the trademark black rimmed glasses (by the way, they had no lenses) instead of making him odder, makes him, well, more real.
It was scoring the Lloyd feature films that brought me closer to what made Harold tick. The success of the Hollywood series aired in 1980 encouraged the screening of full length silent features with new or reconstructed period scores and orchestral scores commissioned by Channel 4, beginning with Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon in November 1980. It was in 1989 that I tackled my first Lloyd feature, Safety Last.
It was then that I realised that, far from being a succession of elaborate stunts, a Lloyd feature had a very coherent plot and the stunts were always performed within a context which made them credible. For instance, my favourite sequence in Safety Last is not the climb, which is the most famous, but the department store sales which is savage and utterly realistic.
My thinking on scoring these silent comedies is that the music serves in two ways: it could underline specific actions with a telling phrase or create by musical means sound effects, a hit on the head, a gunshot, or a dinner bell.
This precise mimicking was developed enormously in animated cartoons and is known in the trade as “Mickey Mousing”. More interesting for me is to compose a longer piece (the final game sequence in The Freshman lasts over 10 minutes) which has the extraordinary effect of making the film action seem choreographed to the music and carries the viewer along without interruption.
The Safety Last performances and recording in 1989 were followed up by two more Lloyd scores during the 1990’s – The Kid Brother and Speedy. Subsequently, I myself carried the banner for Lloyd by composing scores for The Freshman and the two-reelers, An Eastern Westerner and High and Dizzy.
Because one of my pleasures is to find places where Harold is not swinging perilously from high places but rather when Harold has a strong emotional response such as the climax of The Freshman where the college bully reveals that he has been duped and everyone thinks he is a fool.
The balance of stunts, gags and true feeling is the hallmark of a Lloyd feature and that is the continuing pleasure of performing my scores.
* Silent Film – Harold Lloyd with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra takes place on Friday at 7.30pm. Tickets are available from Symphony Hall or Town Hall box offices in person or on 0121 345 0603.