The Docks of New York" - A Visual Symphony

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Robert Israel Music
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The Docks of New York" - A Visual Symphony

Unread post by Robert Israel Music » Sun Aug 22, 2010 7:53 pm

Generally speaking, there is little written material (or discussion) about the method which contemporary composers use to score pre-1929 classic films. And, as there may be a small group of people who have some interest in this, I would like to share a few of my thoughts concerning Josef von Sternberg’s masterpiece THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928).

Based upon the necessity of viewing this film countless times, there are many details that I have come to observe while composing music for this feature. (May I note here that I do not wish to provide a complete description of the entire score, but portions from this work so as to discuss a few ideas I had during this project).

When I am given the assignment of creating a musical score for a film, invariably there are many questions which I may ask myself about the project: its location, ethnic overtones, the time in which the story is set, and so forth. In the case of THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK, it caught my interest to note that von Sternberg did not directly state the exact year and time of the story, but rather hinted at it: “These were the days before oil fuel made stoking a lady’s job--.”

This decision by von Sternberg seems to require a viewer to become more involved and observe the details within each sequence; and they do reveal themselves throughout the story. Considering the minute correctness of the set design in this production (actual gaslights are functional and not just decorative), it is rather apparent that the film makers were clear on the era of their piece. The setting is assuredly before the First World War.

From this premise was it possible to decide upon the style of scoring I would use for the dive bar sequence. Music from the 1920s would have been inappropriate to my way of thinking because it would have been out of context with the era, as determined by von Sternberg, and certainly the music of the so called “Gay Nineties” would provide an excellent platform upon which to build the necessary musical accompaniment. Many of the songs I used were about fallen women, broken hearts and even about falling in love. But, the common thread was that these were all love songs.

John Ford felt an affinity with American folk songs and used this music to great effect in his film productions. This is a great model upon which a composer may employ some techniques in scoring a film. Even in his silent features, there are inter titles which announce the precise music he had in mind to accompany a scene. For example, in Ford’s film HELL BENT (1918), one of the main characters stands outside a window, towards the end of the film, and sings the song “Sweet Genevieve.” Apart from evoking a clear sense of the era, it also reinforces this tender moment on screen. Thus, knowing the lyrics from the songs which I arranged for the von Sternberg film were not arbitrary choices.

After Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) has an altercation with his boss in the dive bar, Mae (Betty Compson) takes him back to their table. The moments of dialogue between Bill and Mae are so beautifully staged and acted that musical comment on their conversation would be redundant. It was better to concentrate on what music was playing in the bar. Bill shows off his tattoos to Mae and explains that he is not bragging about his love affairs. She replies “I’m not braggin’, either.” This sequence musically starts with a song by Gus Edwards entitled “I’ll be with You When the Roses Bloom Again.” It is a sad piece about two lovers which will most likely be separated by war and death. When Mae asks Bill if he had even been married, the music segues to the old 19th century traditional song “I Don’t Know Why I Love You But I Do.” When Bill demands hot coffee, the tune “Mandy Lee” begins: another love song. He then asks her if she had ever been married. When she is surprised by the question, she rejects the notion by answering, “Say, who’d marry a girl like me?” The song following this title is “She May Have Seen Better Days.” Finally, as this sequence reaches its high point, with Bill telling Mae that she is the most beautiful girl in the world and that he would marry her in an instant, the melodies which support the growing love story are “And the Band Played On,” and “After the Ball.”

The music may sound bright and chipper to modern day ears, but their content can be anything but happy. In fact, I was rather surprised at myself at how emotional I began to feel when I understood more about these songs. No, they are not deep in the sense of a Beethoven symphony or a Wagnerian tragedy, nevertheless, they are documents of a society from long ago and the attitudes which prevailed during that social epoch. I realize that most viewers today may not have any familiarity with these songs or their significant meaning, but this is no reason to sabotage the opportunity to provide the music of that time, which historically is accurate in its depiction in this musical context. For those people who do know the meanings of these songs, they possess the passkey to a subtext that has already been implied by von Sternberg, which the music merely highlights.

From the bawdy drunken rabble, to the smell the smoke filled room, to the background chatter of the patrons as they laugh and dance and talk, von Sternberg’s virtuoso technique pulls us into each scene so that we can almost feel a part of the chaotic energy; and, it is the music from the mechanical player piano that completes this illusion. From the moment we enter this bar until the wedding ceremony, there are dancers on screen most of the time as well as visual references to the player piano. Despite the fact that the pianola is the source of music throughout this sequence, I felt it would have been too much to use exclusively a player piano sound; thus, I worked a more colorful orchestration into the score as the story progressed to the wedding. “Gay Nineties” era music may not be to everyone’s taste (and it certainly was not to mine for many years), but it is the style of music that would have been played at a bar of this kind during the era in which the story of this film is set. I was also considering how master composers Max Steiner or Alfred Newman might have approached this task.

The main title music I composed is really a theme for the Mae Roberts character: a fallen woman who has hit bottom and wants to die; it is love that saves her. I composed this theme with the idea of imbuing it with something lyrical and poignant. The secondary motif, which is stated during the cast of characters, represents both Bill and Mae. It is as if one melody line calls out (lower register instruments, cellos, basses, bassoon) and is answered by instruments higher up (violins, flutes and clarinets). As we track along the New York waterfront, there is a distant quote of the song “The Sidewalks of New York.” This is merely a way of announcing the era of this story. A crash cymbal captures the anchor being weighed and then a tubular bell reinforces the full stop of the ship’s engines.

The main theme is stated again, later in the film as Bill ships off to sea after leaving his wife. Von Sternberg created a beautiful montage of the engine room, of the massive metallic beast which powers the ship. For this moment (one could almost feel the visual texture of Lang’s opening to METROPOLIS, or to the editing style of Eisenstein) I wanted to capture something of this machinery and its sounds. Strings whirl over a rapid four note pattern, brass instruments play slightly discordant harmonies, high pitch dissonant winds answer back, percussion and low dark clusters from the piano fill the foundation with a pounding and heavy rhythm. The reason for highlighting these details musically is that it reinforces something that Bill Roberts must be thinking about as he toils himself to death: “I left the most beautiful girl in the world for this?!”

When I consider what THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK is about, I feel that it is not a story about gloom and despair, of hopelessness and futility, set at the lowest echelon of society or in the pit of degradation, but rather a story about two lost souls who find each other in the dark, and through love are saved and are able to build a better life together. It is a beautiful and uplifting story about redemption through love.

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Jack Theakston
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Unread post by Jack Theakston » Sun Aug 22, 2010 10:54 pm

Robert,

First off— welcome to Nitrateville! I'm glad you could take the time to post here, as I'm aware that your schedule is just a bit busy!

Furthermore, thank you for posting this most relevant essay (we were just discussing the film in another thread here). I think it helps to explain some of your modus operandi in composing for a film (a topic rarely written about), and expand upon some selections that on face value, particular viewers may find unusual or out of place. One of my biggest complaints about modern scoring is the lack of care some musicians take in selecting pieces for scenes that specifically call for one piece or another, whether it be a visual cue or a direct cue in the intertitle.

In many cases, as you pointed out, the choice of a song for a scene isn't just some blind attempt by the director to sell sheet music, but a definite cue by the director for some dramatic music that represents something in the film. Whether or not this selection is appropriate or effective is a matter of opinion, but it's an obligation on the part of the accompanist to follow these cues, for at the very least one person in the audiences knows and understands the value of the song being played.
J. Theakston
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Unread post by Big Silent Fan » Mon Aug 23, 2010 6:46 am

Thank you Mr. Israel for taking the time to talk about this subject. Over the last ten years I've seen many silents with wonderfully done, fresh new scores ("The White Sister" stands out as an example) and a few that really seemed to have missed the mark when they were heard in newly restored films. In another post, I just mentioned how the new score used in the restored "Piccadilly" failed to include oriental music during a most important scene.
Music is so vital to the silent film experience. My Paramount Anniversary copy of "Docks of New York" contains a carefully scored organ accompaniment and it matches the film nicely. I look forward to one day hearing what you have done.

Masterpiece?

I've never quite understood the use of this term. I imagine it might be simply a matter of taste...but could you explain why so many consider this film a "masterpiece" and not simply a well done story? I've probably seen the film a half dozen times.

It was that sort of description that sent me searching for a copy several years ago, and perhaps it raised my expectations too high before I first saw it.

Thank you for all of the enjoyment you have provided over the years. I will study your discourse carefully.

Rich Wagner

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Jeff Rapsis
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Unread post by Jeff Rapsis » Mon Aug 23, 2010 7:26 pm

Thanks for a great post describing the process by which a new score can be assembled out of period materials, with new music composed to match, and all threaded together to heighten the film's impact. It's a great description of the artistic challenges and opportunities that scoring a silent film presents.

I think one of the things that keeps silent film fresh and interesting is what musicians such as Robert Israel and Rodney Sauer and Ben Model and Phil Carli and so many others do to bring a film to life, either through written scores or by improvisation or a combination of approaches.

So even if I've seen, say, 'The Cameraman' a hundred times, seeing it with a new score, or an old one I've never heard before, is a chance to experience it all over again. With a fresh score, you never know what's going to happen, especially in live performance.

In this sense, silent film as an art form is the opposite of ballet. In ballet, the music is fixed, while what you see on stage is up to the choreographer, and approaches can vary wildly. In silent film, what you see on screen is fixed, but the score accompanying it is up to the musicians, and yes, the approaches can vary just as much.

Anyway, just a few thoughts that came to mind after reading Robert's thoughtful post. More, please! Love to hear about how Robert approached the massive project of scoring the Lloyd films, which are all top notch.

Robert Israel Music
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Unread post by Robert Israel Music » Sat Aug 28, 2010 3:57 pm

Why do I consider THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK a masterpiece? I believe it is in the remarkable details of the production: Josef von Sternberg’s superb direction (more on that in a moment), a brilliant script by Jules Furthman, marvelous cinematography by Harold Rosson, and a terrific cast of very strong performers. If you consider that this film runs a little more than 75 minutes, one of the great achievements is that you can feel (upon reflecting) that you know more about the characters and details of the story than were actually presented in the film itself.

Mae’s character is not simply “a fallen woman.” Certainly she has slipped into a life of degradation and pain, so much so that she attempts to commit suicide, but despite the tragedy of such a circumstance, when she is given an opportunity to know love again (certainly she has already had a broken heart, or that some villain took advantage of her, or any number of other despairing events), she takes the chance. And after she gets married, she says to her husband, “You don’t know what this means to me, Bill!” and “I’ll be a good wife, Bill.” These are subtle indications of a more detailed and complex character than we see on the screen.

Bill’s marriage to Mae is not a completely self-serving act on his part. It may seem that he wants to do this just to have a good time. But really, he is a man that may not understand love and perhaps has never endured the pain of a broken heart. Does this make him a bad man? No, I don’t think so. When Mae asks him, “Ever been married, Bill?” A man with experience in love might have answered, “Almost,” or “I never really thought about it.” Bill replies, “Say, who’d marry a guy like me?” We can imagine that he has not known love the way she has. In his life, he knows only a few simple things: he knows how to stoke a furnace, how to go ashore and get drunk, have a woman to be with, and then he knows to return to the ship when he hears the steam whistle sound. “There ain’t no power on Earth that could ever keep me ashore.” And isn’t it so beautiful when we can understand the meaning of the scene when Bill jumps ship: it is because he has discovered love with the most beautiful girl in the world, and it is that love that calls Bill back to shore. Love is the greatest power of all!

Consider the very opening of the dive bar sequence. We can see the low and the grimy and the dirty place that these people go to become drunk and to cavort and to fight. We also see the mechanical player piano and the little advertisement on the broken glass on the front of the piano (perhaps there have been too many barroom brawls?) with Hymn-Book Harry’s message, “Save your soul and your money.” Unlike the entry to Dante’s Hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” we as viewers are given an indication that even in such a terrible place, there is still hope for those who reach out for it. The details in this film are rich and deeply textured, and nothing is in the frame that does not belong there for a reason.

When Hymn-Book Harry arrives to conduct the wedding ceremony, he sees the usual drunken rabble and is disappointed. His jaded expression does not show us anger, but that he has seen this scene too many times before. And yet, he has not lost his hope and his faith that he may find someone that wants to be saved. He turns to leave when he discovers that there is no wedding license, but Baclanova’s character (her character is nameless in the film) stops him. Hymn-Book Harry goes to Mae and he can see something in her face that is different from the surrounding crowd. This is a man who knows people and recognizes a glimmer of hope when he sees it: it is his business to know this, and he is there for the reason of helping to save souls. “Does it mean that much to you?” This is not just another throw away title card, but a very important question. She does not answer, but he knows what the answer is by what he sees in her eyes, and more importantly, we can see it, too!

Observing this moment in the film, von Sternberg has presented us with one symbol of society that is often considered by many to be the very foundation of a civilization: a place of religious worship. And, how unconventional a setting it is: a bar/bordello becomes a church?! But, what is a church? A place filled with religious artifacts and marble halls? No, it is a place where people gather to witness or conduct religious ceremonies, and marriage is one of the holiest of these. (I suspect that there were plenty of people, seeing this film in 1928, that may have taken umbrage with von Sternberg’s seemingly irreverent view of this setting, but the wedding ceremony is true and honest, and even beautiful because it is about love as we will confirm later).

Hymn-Book Harry’s disposition is very serious as he begins the ceremony, and his feelings towards Bill is, at the very least, suspicious if not skeptical. He speaks with authority and in earnest, admonishing everyone in the room regarding the responsibilities of marriage. And we can feel the power of his voice and the deep commitment Hymn-Book Harry has to his faith. Removing his spectacles, he turns to Mae and speaks ever so tenderly. This is an indicator to us that the pastor recognizes the fact that this woman has not lost her faith. She believes in love and marriage and the pastor realizes that this may be a way to save her. It may also be a way to save Bill!

When the marriage ceremony is completed, von Sternberg manages to capture something significantly beautiful: the expression on Bill Robert’s face. Actor George Bancroft (Bill) gives a look as though he is like a little boy in a candy store, an honest and childlike expression of pure joy! And when the pastor turns to look at Mae, von Sternberg uses a gauze like effect around the lens so that we may understand that Hymn-Book Harry still gets teary eyed after performing a wedding service. Mae has been pulled from the water and death, but it is love that is really her salvation.

Baclanova’s character gives Mae a ring to use so that she may consummate her marriage to Bill, and she says, “I hope it does you more good that it did me!” And when she looks at Mae after the service and kisses her, we see the tears in her eyes. This is not because women traditionally cry at weddings. This is far more sophisticated and deeply emotional. She is crying because she remembers when she once got married and what it meant to her. “Until I got married, I was decent!” It was not the marriage that made her become a prostitute, it was the fact that her scoundrel husband abandoned her and left her with nothing.

There are so many details to consider within the narrative itself, and then one may begin discussing all of the technical attributes to this production: the wonderful editing, the richly textured and evocative cinematography, the brilliant acting of the cast and von Sternberg’s complete and total control of his dazzling technique. Interestingly, some have argued that von Sternberg is not really an intellectual in the sense of a Ingmar Bergman, or a Sergei Eisenstein. I disagree. To have such complete control in guiding the creation of something so profoundly endowed with layer upon layer of meaningful details; to prompt an individual to see beyond the surface images and to feel a tremendous range of emotions; to relate such a simple plot yet instilling it with such dense complexity, that for these reasons do I find this film a masterpiece. It is a great work by an intelligent and gifted artist, and a team of other intelligent and gifted artists, making a film that has endured time and is still a relevant comment on the classic love story.

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Unread post by drednm » Sat Aug 28, 2010 7:45 pm

I agree, Robert...

Just watched The Last Command again.... what are your thoughts on this one? I think Emil Jannings and Evelyn Brent are superb here. Superb!
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Unread post by boblipton » Sat Aug 28, 2010 8:30 pm

Evelyn Brent is greatly underrated because her best movies were made with great directors or better post-publicized actors like Louise Brooks.

Bob
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Unread post by drednm » Sat Aug 28, 2010 8:40 pm

I thought Evelyn Brent was excellent in The Mating Call, an early version of Barbara Stanwyck, but she was wondrous in The Last Command.

She may have been one of the very best actresses of the late 20s and early talkies.
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Unread post by Mike Gebert » Sat Aug 28, 2010 9:20 pm

Evelyn Brent is a very good actress, but the camera loves Brooks in Love 'Em and Leave 'Em. I don't think that's just a retrospective view.

Reading Robert Israel's prose description of the events in Docks of New York, it could be any number of movies of the 20s-- the message about love is a common one (Murnau's Faust, for instance), the rescue of a woman down in the dumps is hardly unusual, etc. It's all in the telling-- most of all Compson's performance, and Sternberg's atmosphere and directorial precision. Hell, who ever used Gustav von Seyffertitz for more than just that vulture-like profile? Yet von Sternberg sketches a rounded character in a few moments-- not just, as observed above, that he makes a real wedding happen in an unlikely place by taking Compson's feelings utterly seriously, but that moment later when he tells Bill he'd better come by with the license money the next day, and communicates all the gravity of his vocation in that line.
If Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at twenty-two, the history of music would have been very different. As would the history of aviation, of course.― Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing

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Unread post by Big Silent Fan » Sat Aug 28, 2010 9:21 pm

Robert Israel Music wrote: If you consider that this film runs a little more than 75 minutes, one of the great achievements is that you can feel (upon reflecting) that you know more about the characters and details of the story than were actually presented in the film itself.
Agreed. Although I haven't viewed this in at least four years, the conclusion (in the courtroom where Bill confesses to the judge), is the Hallmark moment for me.

I didn't think very highly of Bill's character early on in the story (or any of the other 'dregs of society' seen in the film); but the courtroom scene seems to reflect your comment where you wrote,
"And isn't it so beautiful when we can understand the meaning of the scene when Bill jumps ship: it is because he has discovered love with the most beautiful girl in the world, and it is that love that calls Bill back to shore. Love is the greatest power of all!" [End Quote]

Thank you Mr. Israel for taking my earlier comment in the spirit I intended. It certainly is an honor to hear your response and look forward to hearing your score when it becomes available.

Although I am not a musician, I have spent many hours working on musical scores for films that either had no sound, or (like "Piccadilly"), needed a more suitable score to truly see how great a film it is. In this case, I was lucky to have an earlier copy of the film with a wonderful score.
Rich Wagner

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Unread post by Big Silent Fan » Sun Aug 29, 2010 5:03 am

Thinking through the events in the review brought to mind another famous classic (one that had not yet been made), Frank Capra's, "It's a Wonderful Life."
"Docks of New York" doesn't begin with a prelude in the heavens...with a loving god deciding to get involved in a man's life. But just the same, when suicidal George Bailey jumps in to save the (somewhat dysfunction) Clarence...when Bill jumps in, preventing Mae's suicide, it began a chain of events in his life that (by the films end), has his soul crying out, "I want to live," as Bill jumps ship, leaving his wretched existence behind.

Yes...my mind has been working overtime.

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Unread post by drednm » Mon Sep 06, 2010 9:02 am

The Docks of New York is a gorgeous film haunted by harbor lights and fog and cigarette smoke and pianola music. Robert Israel's score is just about perfect, and his essay above about love and redemption gets to the heart of the film.

We don't really know why Betty Compson takes a dive into the harbor but we can guess. Likewise, we know little about the George Bancroft and Olga Baclanova characters, so it comes as a small surprise when we learn that Baclanova has been married. We don't expect to find love in a noisy dive like this. And neither do Compson and Bancroft.

Nothing is quite what it seems to be here. The tough, grimy, world-weary characters are all something else beneath their veneers. They all harbor hope. And while a tear may give a clue to their insides, they maintain their tough stances no matter what. When Baclanova gets hauled off by the cops, she almost seems happy; she certainly shows no remorse.

Ditto for Compson and her "trial." She merely accepts. The characters all seem to go with the current. Indeed the only rash move anyone makes is when Compson jumps off the wharf. Everything else seems to be preordained.

As for the marriage, most viewers likely assume it's a sham (they have no license after all) despite the ceremony by Hymn-book Harry. Again, nothing is quite what it seems to be.

Bancroft and Baclanova are terrific but Betty Compson steals the film. The needle-threading scene is a marvel....
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Unread post by Arndt » Mon Sep 06, 2010 9:29 am

The Criterion DVD only confirmed what I have always felt about TDONY: This is as perfect a film as I have seen.
"The greatest cinematic experience is the human face and it seems to me that silent films can teach us to read it anew." - Wim Wenders

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