What did people hear when they attended silent movies in the nineteen-teens? Without a soundtrack, what music conveyed the emotion of a movie's scenes?
These questions animated musicologist Don Meyer’s project exploring the musical practices of silent films during the Progressive Era. For the project, Meyer set out to recreate the music of the silent movie era as it might have been heard in theaters at the time.
This project restores the sound of movie music from the early 1900s, using a film produced in Chicago by the once-prominent Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.
Don Meyer, Professor of Music at Lake Forest College, working with undergraduate Chicago Fellows Research Assistant Sydnie Bivens ’17 in the summer of 2015, located an already-digitized version of a film produced in the target time period, and by the target film studio.
Max Wants a Divorce, produced and shot in Chicago in 1916, and starring German comedic actor Max Linder, offered ample opportunity to explore the musical styles that accomapnied silent motion pictures.
This particular film presents the comedic scenario of Max, a newly married man, coming into a $3 million inheritance on the condition that he remain a bachelor. He and his new wife scheme to get a divorce (not so easily done in that era), so that they can receive the money and later remarry.
Although now forgotten by all but the most serious silent movie buffs, in its heyday Essanay Studios was one of the industry's most prominent producers of silent films. Founded in 1907 with the word "Essanay" derived from the first initials of the founders' last names, (George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson), the studio prospered at its second location, 1333–45 W. Argyle Street in Uptown Chicago. Today, the building remains standing, and is part of St. Augustine College.
In 1912, the company opened a branch in Niles, California, where the mild outdoor weather offered ample opportunity to shoot popular western-style pictures. In 1914-1915, as well, Charlie Chaplin joined the studio as its star, where he filmed his classic The Tramp (1915). C/haplin disliked Chicago's dismal weather, though, and - along with the film industry generally - soon left Chicago and cooler weather for the west coast's fairer climate.
Max Linder, a French comedic actor with a pantomime style similar to Chaplin's, joined Essanay shortly after Chaplin's departure, and starred in a number of Essanay productions. Many of them, like Max Wants a Divorce, had the actor's name as part of their title. Linder never achieved the star power of Chaplin, and Essanay studios, after a failed merger with three other film companies, folded into what became Warner Bros. in the 1920s.
Putting the Film Together
Before English-speaking audiences could enjoy the film, we had to restore and update the intertitle cards that represented the film's dialogue. The version we worked with, which we found on YouTube, had been translated from the original English into French and German, and then back into English, resulting in some awkward phrases. We edited the language and graphic design student Rachel Tenuta '17 prepared new intertitle cards to represent the film's dialogue.
Once the title cards were ready, Don Meyer and the Lake Forest Moving Picture Orchestra recorded Meyer's compiled score for Max Wants a Divorce, marrying the new soundtrack to the century-old film.
This project presents the fruits of their research. You can now watch the entirety of Max Wants a Divorce, including the new soundtrack, or watch and listen to specific musical themes, known as "photoplay cues," in order to hear each musical melody separately.
Max Wants a Divorce has been performed with a live orchestra numerous times across Chicagoland. In the image at right, Don Meyer sets the scene with a talk on "Restoring the Music of Silent Movies."
- January 30, 2016: Lake Forest Place
- February 6, 2016: Lake Forest College
- May 17, 2016: Chicago History Museum