Thursday, November 16, 2017

RARE silent version of Prix de beaute screens in Maryland on November 18

The terrific 1930 Louise Brooks film, Prix de beauté, will be shown at the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Springs, Maryland on Saturday, November 18th. And better yet, it will feature live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne, a superb musician who has given new life to the rarely shown silent version of the film. (I have seen Horne accompany this version of the film in the past, and it really is terrific.) More information including ticket availability can be found HERE.


Silent with live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne

PRIX DE BEAUTÉ was the final film Louise Brooks made in Europe before returning to Hollywood, following her two collaborations with G.W. Pabst, PANDORA'S BOX and DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. It was badly served by its sound version, released in 1930, and has been little revived since. Shown in its silent version, however, the film is revealed to be a masterpiece of modernist melodrama, and perhaps Brooks' finest work. Lucienne (Brooks) is a typist for a Parisian newspaper alongside her boyfriend and their best pal. When she wins a beauty pageant, glamorous new opportunities start to come her way, badly straining her relationship with her old friends. 

DIR Augusto Genina; SCR René Clair; PROD Romain Pinès. France, 1930, b&w, 113 min. NOT RATED 113 Minutes, Drama

A few years back, I had the chance to ask Stephen a few questions about his work as a musical accompanist, and specifically for Prix de beauté. Here is an excerpt from the interview.

TG: What is your approach to composing the score for a silent film?

SH: My approach varies from event to event, depending on many variables - some of them quite prosaic, such as how much time I have! On occasion I'll be commissioned to compose a fully notated score, either to perform solo or with other musicians. Most often my approach is improvisatory, but 'planned'. By which I mean that I'll watch the film and prepare certain musical elements, along with certain specific effects, such as when I'll switch between instruments (for those that don't know, I'm something of an instrumental multi-tasker). I like the elastic quality of an improvised performance, which I think can sometimes respond from moment-to-moment in a way that is hard to do with a fixed score. But equally I recognize that people like a good tune! So I try to thread melodic elements throughout, which I guess creates something of a hybrid: an improvised score.

TG: Were there any special challenges in composing the score for a silent film that is today best known as a sound film?

SH: I think it's simplest to assume that the audience hasn't seen the sound version. Obviously several people will have done, but the event should ideally stand on its own terms, as a silent film / live music event. However, there are some challenges that this silent version presents, particularly all the images that specifically reference sound effects: the repeated close-ups of loudspeakers, etc. One has to make a decision about whether to acknowledge them musically, or 'play through' them instead.

Unless you're playing an instrument that can produce comparable sound 'effects', I think it's best to approach these things in a slightly abstract way. In the tango song scene I've chosen to focus on a couple of specific elements within the scene - rather than trying to create an impression of vocalizing, for instance. However, the song in the final scene is inescapably important, so I think that I have come up with a rather clever solution to the problem.

TG: Were you able to integrate the two songs used in the sound version into your score? If so, how?

SH: I'm largely gearing the performance to people who are coming to this film without having seen the sound version. The songs are not generally known now, so while it's important that I play a tango when they're dancing / singing a tango, I don't think that it has to be the one sung in the sound version. But just wait until the climax...

TG: What can those who attend this screening screening look forward to?

SH: A lovely but flawed film, elevated to near-classic status by the transcendence of Louise Brooks. On a musical note, I've noticed that the music I'm preparing often starts in a major key, before resolving to the minor. I think this is the influence of the Brooks persona: full of joy, but with a lingering note of melancholy.

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