How Robin Got His Groove Back
With Another Restored Score, Musicologist Gillian Anderson Rescues 'Robin Hood'
Once again, the peace of the realm is threatened by the tyrannous hand of Prince John, and the noble outlaw known as Robin Hood must spring into action to protect the subjects of Richard the Lionhearted. And off he goes, bounding onto horses, clambering up trees, sliding down castle drapes, firing arrows here, fencing there. He's a whirlwind, all but invincible. But what's this? Something's amiss with the guardian of Sherwood Forest. He has no sound to accompany his thrilling exploits, no rousing score to propel him onward and quicken our hearts as he leaps into the jaws of danger. Without music at his back, poor Robin might as well be facing the Sheriff of Nottingham with an empty quiver. He's just a shadow of the dashing hero we know. But, alas, who can help him?
Gillian Anderson to the rescue! This eminent musicologist can give Robin the melodic support he needs. Indeed, she already has. The 1922 film Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as the legendary archer, is one of some two dozen films from the earliest era of motion pictures for which Anderson has recovered, restored, or reconstructed the scores. She'll take any surviving musical notation for an early film score -- from complete orchestrations to piano accompaniments to mere scraps of music -- pore over it like a scholar, and meticulously develop a completely orchestrated score that equals the film in running time.
What she creates is more than just some melodious noodling to go along with the images; it's a perfectly synchronized aural counterpoint to the film's visuals, a match in atmosphere and emotional texture. And when you're present at a screening of one of these films, with the restored score performed live by an orchestra conducted by Anderson, it's also a trip back in time, an opportunity to experience a motion picture as it was in the days before the talkies, when, as Anderson says, it was "more than just a screening; the showing of a film until 1929 was a dramatic event."
Each year for the past three years, Anderson has treated Austin audiences to one of her restored scores for an early film in a screening-performance at the Paramount Theatre. On the heels of her successes presenting Nosferatu, Ben Hur, and Wings, she returns this week with the Fairbanks Robin Hood, a sterling example of the kind of high-spirited adventure that won the actor his reputation as a dashing leading man and made him one of Hollywood's first great stars. Though Allan Dwan directed the picture, it's Fairbanks' show all the way.
The film is far and away the lightest of the films that Anderson has brought to Austin to date, and a stark contrast to last year's offering, the somber and spooky Nosferatu. Anderson is cheerfully straightforward about the mood of the material. "In the case of Robin Hood, you have an adventure-comedy with absolutely clear-cut good guys and bad guys," she says. "Fairbanks did the film with tongue in cheek, and one naturally hisses Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham and cheers all the hijinks of Robin Hood and his men. This is not a heavyweight intellectual property. Yet, I found it amusing and fun from the beginning and I still do."
The project came about because Anderson had already restored the score to another Fairbanks film, the original screen version of The Thief of Bagdad. That film, which she considers to have one of the 10 best American film scores written before 1929, was one of her very first film projects. "I chose The Thief of Bagdad and got it into my repertory," Anderson says, "then the Musée d'Orsay asked if I would prepare the piano scores for two other Fairbanks films, Robin Hood and The Black Pirate. The Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor asked me to do a performance of Robin Hood for 11-piece orchestra, so I first re-orchestrated the missing first violin and first trumpet parts for a performance there."
As with every project Anderson undertakes, the scoring of Robin Hood required a massive investment of time and study. When Anderson works on a film, she pores over it to a degree that would shame most graduate students in cinema studies. She'll watch a film "like a hawk," she says, "not to collect my own reactions, but rather to eventually memorize the exact timing of the series of images that make up each scene. I have to watch every scene over and over again to synchronize it." She might also do a shot-by-shot analysis, as she did with Nosferatu, to obtain a very detailed sense of each scene's length, mood, and emotional content. It's not uncommon for her to watch a film hundreds of times during the course of a project.
Each restoration project features its own individual challenges. "Nosferatu involved a particularly tricky bit of detective work because the score had been lost," Anderson notes. Reconstructing the film's original accompaniment involved sifting through the wealth of material that had been written about the film, about F.W. Murnau, the director, and about Hans Erdmann, the composer, for clues as to what the music sounded like and when it was played in the film. With a score drawn from pre-existing sources, sometimes the challenge is to identify the music that was compiled from other sources, find it, and put it back together. "In the case of the accompaniment for Robin Hood," she says, "the challenge was to invent violin and trumpet parts that would be faithful to the style of the rest of the parts. I had to examine very closely how the other string parts were written in order to see what the re-orchestrated violin one part should do and likewise the trumpet two, horn, and clarinets for the first trumpet. I learned how the music of that period moved, what harmonies were favored." Whatever the particular challenges of a project might be, Anderson says that her work always gives her "a fascinating window into the harmonic and orchestration practices of the Twenties."
Another window that Robin Hood gives into the practices of its time is its almost exclusive use of accompaniment drawn from music that already existed. In the early days of film, the preferred approach was to use familiar music to run with the images, and original music was actually frowned upon. Fairbanks himself encountered this prejudice a few years after Robin Hood, when he attempted a picture with a fully original score by composer Mortimer Wilson. Anderson says "there was a big controversy in the press over the score for The Thief of Bagdad. There were those who preferred a totally compiled score to the totally composed original one that Wilson had produced. During the first few weeks of the New York run of the picture, in response to pressure from a source whom he does not name, Wilson was forced to use pre-existing music instead of his own to accompany some of the scenes. Gradually he removed all of [the compiled music], and subsequently most of Fairbanks' later films were accompanied by original music by Wilson. So apparently the conflict was resolved eventually in the favor of a totally composed original score.
"Robin Hood was an example of an accompaniment like those preferred by some of the critics. It was mostly compiled from pre-existing sources. [For instance,] the overture is an arrangement of Elizabethan songs from Shakespeare's time. But it had a few compositions by Victor Schertzinger, a Hollywood composer and director. Robin Hood's march is by Schertzinger, for example. With the advent of sound pictures, the totally composed score became the norm for 'A' pictures, so I regard Fairbanks as being ahead of his time in this regard. He wasn't there yet with the music for Robin Hood."
Still, the Fairbanks film provides insights into the differences in scoring a film with a lighter mood. "The music for Robin Hood is used a little differently than is the music for Nosferatu," says Anderson. "Schertzinger and A.H. Cokayne (which I think may be a pseudonym for Fairbanks, but I'm not sure) accompany the action scenes with 'hurry' music, for example, just as Erdmann does in Nosferatu. However, because Robin Hood is an adventure comedy and is tongue-in-cheek, the music often heightens the comedy by counteracting what you are seeing on the screen. For example, at the opening the Earl of Huntingdon" -- Robin before he becomes Robin Hood -- "wins a joust and is ordered by the king to collect his reward from a woman (Maid Marian). He is terrified. This pretentious, royal music plays as he kneels before the lady. The music conveys heroism while he is acting like a bloody coward. While a lot of the music is very frisky (in keeping with the amount of jumping around on screen), the music sometimes reinforces the dark mood on the screen, particularly when Prince John is in his cups and planning nasty stuff. The music is very slow and dark and dissonant. Like every other score for a film of this period, the music speaks of its own time. It is dance band, cafe orchestra, and march music from the early Twenties or before, very attractive, likeable stuff."
Part of the reason that restoring or reconstructing a score is such a grueling process lies in the nature of accompaniment for so-called silent films. "These accompaniments do not function as those of today do," Anderson points out, "an insight I would not have gained had I not tried to realize so many. They are constructed in blocks of sound that last 30 to 60 seconds. Instead of being sculpted to every second of the image as contemporary scores are, they establish a mood and keep going until the next block defines a new scene. The music is continuous for two or more hours, whereas a contemporary score often lasts no more than 40 minutes out of two or three hours. The music enters and exits, and sound design takes over where there is no composed accompaniment."
Thus, performing an early film score can be exhausting, making demands on Anderson as a conductor that are even greater than the considerable demands made on conductors working with live performers in an opera or a play. She is working nonstop from the moment the film starts through the projection of the very last frame. "I have to stay focused on the image and the score, on the synchronization," Anderson says. "I rarely get to think of anything else, because if I do, I get distracted and this is usually not good." And because Anderson typically gets a limited number of rehearsals to work with musicians in the cities where she performs, she says her conducting gestures "have to be very clear, so the orchestra can quickly pick up the new tempos and also so that they can be clear when I need them to speed up or slow down." As it happens, the conducting style that Anderson has developed is extremely graceful and fluid, full of rounded gestures that are almost balletic. But while it may be lovely to watch, Anderson notes that it has a practical purpose: "I have to convey the changes of mood in my gestures so that the orchestra will reflect this in their playing. It helps them to remember the changes."
While the restoration and presentation of early film scores is demanding, Anderson finds it satisfying on every level, every step of the way: "The satisfaction that I draw from a project starts from the reality that I just get a real kick out of just touching music, turning the pages turns me on, learning about it and passing on what I have learned. (That's why I enjoyed being a music librarian for years.) But I also love the aural realization of the research in a performance. It's a whole-brain, whole-body experience in the end. There's the fun of the detective work and research, which I do very well. There's also the fun of learning a lot of new stuff. It's intensely satisfying to hear what you have done and realize that it works with the images. That is a big kick. Often, especially if it's the premiere and if the process of restoration has been difficult or if the conditions of the performance have been hard, I get deeply touched just before the end of the show. That's the time when I really feel all the hard work and grueling attention to detail have paid off. Then, finally, there is the satisfaction of being a missionary for a pretty important point. I get to proselytize for the fact that the original art form was a mechanical moving image with live, often orchestral, accompaniment.
"Most histories of early film are written almost entirely about the image," she says. "The music, which directs your attention to certain things over others, is almost never mentioned or added into the equation of a film's effect. This is like writing a history of opera without mentioning that there are singers. It is perverse. Unlike almost any other academic discipline I can think of, most cinema scholars are not interested in the historical insights that can be gained by trying to bring back to life the original artifact, the image with its original musical accompaniment. I think it is important to learn about this difference and about how differently the music functions today. That's the kind of insight historical research is all about, and motion pictures are part of our national heritage, an important part, one of our greatest contributions to world culture in the 20th century. It is important to preserve that heritage, and preserving that heritage does not mean just preserving the image. It means restoring the image, the music, the theatres, and performing these works in front of an audience. It is not fully preserved or restored until one adds the theatre and the audience to the equation."
Anderson's enthusiasm for the music of early cinema is so strong and backed by such commitment and accomplishment as to be almost heroic. You can picture her standing in a forest of film reels, her baton raised defiantly as a certain archer's bow and arrow, always at the ready to defend her realm. With a rousing score behind her, of course.
Robin Hood with a restored score by Gillian Anderson performed live will be presented Fri, Jan 12, 8pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. Call 469-SHOW or 472-5470 for information.