Topic: World-renowned film organist brings not-so-silent film era back to Edmonton
Phenomenal Film Handler
From: Melville Saskatchewan Canada
Registered: Apr 2011
posted 10-31-2016 04:35 PM
World-renowned film organist brings not-so-silent film era back to Edmonton
You could say Dennis James was born a few generations too late.
The theatre organist has made a career out of recreating the soundtracks of a bygone era.
James, who will perform Monday night in Edmonton, is a music historian who has spent the bulk of his career performing and preserving the sounds of silent films.
"I'm about the only organist in the field that actually continues the profession as it was intended, playing the music of the time that was written for the movies," said James, who has performed in theatres and cinemas the world over.
Long before James began playing the organ in the dark reaches of movie theatres, the instrument was already considered a relic of the past.
As black-and-white silent films were replaced with "talkies," theatre organs were unplugged in favour of blaring speakers with canned music and audio tracks.
But the pipes never lost their lustre for James.
Born in Philadelphia in 1950, he started playing the family organ as a child and soon moved on to more formal training.
His first teacher was Leonard "Melody Mac" Maclean, a leading theatre organist during the 1920s. By the time they began working together, MacLean was well into his 80s, and wanted to share his craft.
'I was so diluted'
James quickly learned how enrapture an audience the old-fashioned way, by seamlessly matching music to the action on the screen.
"And the funny thing about the whole thing is that I thought I was going to be able to make an entire career out of playing silent films, something that had died around 1926, when talkies started. But nobody told me that.
"[But] I actually became very successful in continuing the silent film profession as it was performed in the 1920s. And I'm still doing it."
He began performing in auditoriums while at university, and before long had become passionate about finding and restoring the scores for silent films.
That passion still drives him.
"I do a lot of research and I find the original musicians who played for these films. I've been doing this now for almost 50 years, and I've worked with many of the studios, got access to the studio archives and worked with film collectors and music collectors worldwide.
"I'm as much a detective as I am a musician and performer."
It was one of these early musical investigations that landed James his first big break in the industry.
He learned that one of the most coveted silent film scores, from the 1919 movie Broken Blossoms, long considered one of the best productions of the era, was still out there, hidden on some dusty shelf.
'I've been waiting for your call'
He began his hunt for the lost sheet music with a call to the leading lady, Lillian Gish.
"I just got out the phone book and called her, and mentioned that I was planning on tracking down the components for this film. And one of the most mysterious things happened, that really set up my career. The very first thing she said to me was, 'I've been waiting for your call.' "And that puzzled me at the time."
The mysterious Gish lent James her personal print of the film, got him permission to use the score, and flew from New York City to Indiana to take part in the screening.
She hired him on the spot, and the two toured together for six years.
Soon after they hit the road, she explained her puzzling comment about premonitions.
"She had always maintained, from the end of the silent era, that silent films were actually a separate medium from talkies and sound films, and eventually they wouldn't be considered old-fashioned, but be considered on their own merits by the younger generations," James said.
"She had always predicted that young people would want to experience silent films with live music. And so when I called, I was the first one."
It turns out Gish was right.
Though it's a niche market, his revival tour with Gish was the beginning of a long, if unlikely career. He went on to perform with Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Linda Ronstadt and the Chicago Symphony, just to name a few. He has performed from Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre to the Louvre in Paris.
And tonight at the Winspear Centre he'll add a thrilling soundtrack to a screening of the 1923 movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
"When people see me, they're seeing the way it was and hearing it the way it was when the films were made," said James.
"I started doing it in 1969 as a sophomore prank at Indiana University, and here we are 48 years later and I'm still doing it."
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