A Spectrum radio documentary by Alwyn Owen; ‘A Silence Filled with Sound’ is an evocation of the days of the silent film (orignally produced for the Overseas Programme Exchange Service in 1968.)
Many unidentified film-goers, orchestra members, piano accompanists and projectionists recall their experiences from the silent movie era in New Zealand. The radio documentary’s music is played by Mrs C. McBride, Len Smith and the Wellington orchestra of the Wellington Orphan's Club, conducted by Wilf Brunt.
To evoke the mood of each silent film, screenings would be accompanied by either piano or orchestral music and special effects. The sound from the musicians could make or mar a film and it was essential that performers should be alert, and able to improvise appropriate musical passages to keep the audience in the right mood.
A Warwick Bioscope is described. Film operators share the difficulties and dangers of working the hand-cranked film projectors. Successful applicants for projectionist and pianist positions retell the process of selection by which they were chosen.
Different types of music played to affect mood are discussed by the musicians themselves. One unidentified male pianist plays what he accompanied the film, ‘Robyn Hood’ and a medley of pieces to accentuate scenes of love, fight and sadness. Colour tinting was also applied to the film to enhance mood; scenes bathed in warm amber, blue, pink and yellow were often cut quickly between to produce” a realistic and pleasing effect”.
Interviewees describe how, when they were kids, they would torment the pianists by throwing peanuts or yell distracting noises at them. Favourite Saturday matinee screenings included old time serials, starring Pearl White, comedies with Charlie Chaplin, "Fatty" Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd, all which left the kids on edge of their seats and keen to return the following week.
Projectionist, Stan Fraser recalls when in the 1920s he was invited by the Superintendent of the Invercargill Borstal Institution to arrange a screening for inmates one Sunday night. Fraser says he had innocently picked a Harold Lloyd comedy without checking the title, however the Super stopped the screening and had him thrown out, as the film depicted Lloyd showing prison inmates how to steal.
Before the advent of electricity in the smaller towns, Fraser describes how the film projector was transported and powered. Tales of how far people in rural areas used to travel to see a film. Interviewees fondly remember the great stars like Gloria Swanson, Irene Dunne, Mary Pickford, Wallace Beery, Rudolf Valentino and Lon Chaney who all had their industry niche. Popular films of the silent era recalled here include Robyn Hood , Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Ten Commandments and comedies by Charlie Chapman.