Bringing Color to a Black-and-White Classic

Professor Sheldon Mirowitz (back row, fifth from the left) and the student composers and performers of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra following their December 16 performance.
Professor Sheldon Mirowitz (back row, fifth from the left) and the student composers and performers of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra following their December 16 performance.
Image Credit: 
Henry Hayes

It’s rare to find a youthful crowd in a line that snakes around the corner waiting to see a movie released 90 years ago. But that was the case at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre for the sold-out screening of Harold Lloyd’s classic 1923 comedy Safety Last! What made it such a hot attraction on a frigid Monday night in December was the addition of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO) performing a colorful new score live for the originally silent black-and-white picture.

Before the show, Dr. Martin Norman spoke on behalf of his fellow supporters of the Coolidge’s Sounds of Silents™ series, whose members generously underwrite the commissioning of new scores for silent movies. “This is the way these films were meant to be seen: on a big screen with live music, before a full house,” Norman said. Film Scoring Department Professor Sheldon Mirowitz also took the mic to describe the process of working with his six handpicked Berklee student composers, who wrote and conducted their portions of the score. Mirowitz described how they jointly created a general architecture and musical themes as a starting point from which the student composers took their departure.

The movie features extended comical but hair-raising scenes of Lloyd scaling the outside wall of a 12-story building. The dangerous climbing stunts were filmed without protective harnesses or blue screens. “The concept of climbing is central to this film,” Mirowitz told the crowd, “so we based the music on the augmented scale.” He then demonstrated themes from the score with their predominantly whole-tone movements and dramatic angular leaps.

The student composer-conductors passed the baton seamlessly as the film ran providing nearly continuous music for its 70-minute duration. The 11-piece orchestra included flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn, trumpet, trombone, bass trombone, keyboard, percussion, violin, cello, and bass played by students from seven different countries and three states. The score highlighted various situations with tongue-in-cheek xylophone and marimba figures and swooping trombone glissandi for comic scenes and airy woodwind passages in the sweet theme relating to Mildred, Lloyd’s love interest.

The film ends after Lloyd completes his harrowing climb and kisses Mildred on the roof, before they exit the frame. Following the credit roll, the theater lights went up and the audience leapt to its feet to offer a boisterous standing ovation to the musicians.

Safety Last! is the seventh film the BSFO has created music for in the Coolidge’s Sounds of Silents™ series. The group gave an encore performance of Safety Last! on New Year’s Eve at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre as part of Boston’s First Night celebration. The BSFO has also performed at the Nantucket Dreamland Theater and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

The BSFO has received a special commendation from the Boston Society of Film Critics and is the subject of a short documentary made by filmmaking students at Emerson College on creating the score for Safety Last!. Visit http://bit.ly/aboutBSFO to see the documentary.