Until the late 1920s films were all silent, with musical accompaniment generally provided live by a pianist. You might have seen clips of silent films with some very clichéd music playing on a hideous honky-tonk piano, such as Mysterioso Pizzicato (The Villain’s Theme). You will know that piece of music whether you think you do or not. However, that cliché is a very distorted view of the art of the silent cinema pianist. If you can track down some of the programmes Paul Merton did a few years back about silent film, try to find an episode where he employs an expert pianist to provide a realistic performance of silent film accompaniment, transforming the viewer’s experience. It really brings those old films to life, when they are accompanied by a skilled live performer rather than that kind of lazy woman-on-the-train-tracks stuff we’ve all heard. The accompanist had to be able to respond to the events on screen and bring the film to life, and it’s a tradition I am proud to say that one of my grandfathers was a part of.
Some film theatres went further, and attempted to provide sound effects as well, to create an even more immersive viewing experience. Some of the techniques used, which will still be familiar today to foley artists, were described in the 25th March 1909 issue of The Bioscope:
While a really good pianist can do much to improve a bioscope exhibition, his work can be further enhanced by the careful and judicious use of certain simple, inexpensive “props.” But great care must be exercised not to overdo the “effects,” or the results may become ludicrous and grotesque. A very fair imitation of the sound of falling rain may be produced by allowing small shot to run backwards and forward on the surface of an ordinary, flat-bottomed tin pie-dish. It is not a bad plan to place the required amount of shot in the dish, and then covering the top of the dish with a piece of cloth, fastened over the edge securely by fish-glue and string. For a small sum, a special “wind” whistle can be purchased from any of the makers of theatrical “properties,” and will be found most useful when showing motion pictures of rough seas and similar subjects. Two old cigar boxes, or blocks of wood, each with one side covered with sand-paper, form most useful “props” in capable hands, for they can, by drawing one sand-papered surface over the other, be made to produce the sound of escaping steam from a railway engine, and the sounds of the waves washing over the rocks and sands in a coast picture. Small drumsticks used on a bass drum will produce a fine effect of the passing of a train, while the dull rumbling roar of a train passing over a bridge can be imitated in a very realistic fashion with the aid of a bass drum and a pair of drumsticks which have been thickly padded at their tips with cloth.
To successfully imitate the sound of horse traffic passing over hard wood or asphalt roads, a couple of cocoanut [sic] shells will be found to do good service; the desired effect being produced either by hitting the shells against each other, or by striking them against a fair-sized piece of slate. The thud of horses’ hoofs on turf can be imitated with the cocoanut shells by substituting for the slate a piece of board well covered with several thicknesses of cloth. The usual method of imitating thunder is produced by shaking a good-sized piece of sheet iron, to which a wooden , handle has been attached. Sudden, sharp noises, liable to startle or alarm an audience, are better left alone, but a very fair imitation of a pistol shot can be produced by the smart stroke of a hollow block mounted at the end of a stick against a stone slab. Sleigh bell effects can easily produced by mounting a dozen bells, such as are sold for fastening to dog-collars, upon a loop of stout wire.
With a few such simple “props” as I have above described it is a comparatively easy matter to produce many sounds that will greatly help towards the realism of the picture. But your “prop” manipulator must be an enthusiast, and at the same time have a nice ear and judgment, for half-hearted work will yield very poor results. Let him see each new programme through at least once without his “props,” and always try to have a couple of rehearsals with the “props” and music, so that everything may run smoothly at the performance. It is strict attention to these little details that does so much to make a bioscope exhibition popular and a financial success. The public are as keen as ever, provided they have the pictures shown as perfectly as circumstances will permit, and they are quick to realise and appreciate any effort on the part of the exhibitor to increase the realism of his exhibition.