Carl Davis on composing for Buster Keaton: ‘the hardest challenge’

This is a guest post for Silent London by the composer and author Carl Davis. Today is his 85th  birthday, and his new album Buster Keaton: The Carl Davis Soundtracks is released next week, 5 November. The two-disc set comprises highlights from the Carl Davis soundtracks composed for the Buster Keaton movies commissioned for Thames Silents and The Cohen Film Collection. The music is composed and conducted by Carl Davis and performed by the Thames Silents Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of London and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. recorded between 1984 and 2020.

What makes Buster Keaton different from his two great rivals, Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in the Hollywood of the 1920s? These three artists played very defined and different characters and supporting them in their differences is the role of the music.

Charlie’s Tramp evolved from 1914 and he played him until 1936 when the character made his final appearance in Modern Times. Chaplin was himself a gifted composer. As soon as sound film became the standard he completed and recorded his score for City Lights (1931) and did so for the rest of his career. Chaplin’s scores evolved out of the pre-1914 world of Victorian Music Halls: sentimental ballads, waltzes and polkas as well as melodramatic underscoring.

Harold Lloyd represented the opposite extreme. Hidden behind the frames of black-rimmed glasses was the aspirational contemporary man. His films always had happy endings and belong emphatically to the Jazz Age.

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)
Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

For me, Keaton holds the hardest challenge. He was known as ‘The Great Stone Face’ because of his inscrutable facial expression. What music can be found to convey his extreme stillness? It’s his deeply expressive eyes that give the game away, responding with great intensity to events from which he’ll eventually respond with extremely purposeful activity.

My silent film music guru, the late David Gill, producer with Kevin Brownlow of the Hollywood series and the subsequent Thames Silents, set me on the right path. He explained that Keaton always had a project, some problem to solve and we, in the scoring, must be at his side to help solve it. Whether attempting a marriage proposal or winning a decisive battle, we must be there for him. Like Lloyd, Keaton’s films tend to end happily but sometimes there is a sting in the tail. But my scores always end on a positive note.

Carl Davis
Carl Davis

Keaton’s films also cover a wide range of subjects and historical periods which I’ve always relished. Of the three full length features represented on Buster Keaton: The Carl Davis Soundtracks, each is scored to precisely match their period and setting. For instance, The General (1926) utilises songs composed during the American Civil War (1861-1866), helping the audience to identify which army they are watching. I gave Keaton’s character a new theme as we watch him move between both factions.

Our Hospitality (1923) is a revenge melodrama, set in the deep South in the 1830s. There is a scene in which Buster decides to go fishing, giving me the excuse to quote Schubert’s song ‘Die Forelle’ (The Trout) and Schubert subsequently became the inspiration for the entire score. Whereas Our Hospitality is scored for a chamber orchestra of 18, The General required a more grandiose treatment. But there is a reality check via the use of the recently invented harmonica, or mouth organ.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) confronts a jazz age couple with the ruthlessly competitive ethics of the tourist boat industry. Keaton’s character begins as his most unpromising character yet and is pitted against complete parental disapproval and the powerful forces of nature: in this case, a huge flood. All the same, our hero is one of Keaton’s zaniest, overcoming impossible odds to end in complete triumph. The score goes every which way to accommodate Keaton’s constant changes, from ragtime to Schubert, this time his song ‘Die Allmacht’ (The Almighty).

Buster Keaton's One Week (1920)
Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920)

Part of the pleasure of scoring Keaton is discovering the shorts, the two-reelers, shot between 1921 and 2924. They are very varied in character, starting with having very complete plots as in The High Sign and evolving into variations on a theme: One Week (how to build a house); The Playhouse (a stagehand’s dream) and The Scarecrow (two buddies share a mechanical house). My ‘borrowings’ are equally diverse: The High Sign and The Scarecrow quote from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and The High Sign with its extortionist gang resembling the Ku Klux Klan continues a tradition, possibly begun by DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation by quoting Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. I bring in traditional American square dance tunes in The Scarecrow as Buster is chased at length by a persistent and ultimately unfriendly dog, and dissonant 12-note chords for the scrambled house in One Week.

Having a fistful of ‘shorts’ in hand has made programme-making very interesting, rather like a delicious starter before the main course of a meal – the main course being a substantial feature film. Another phrase for this is ‘a curtain raiser’ – also very convenient for latecomers.

Composing scores for a Buster Keaton film is one of my most challenging tasks. The man was a genius and the scores must measure up to a very high ideal. I keep trying and there are many more to do. Let’s go!

By Carl Davis

• Pre-order Buster Keaton: The Carl Davis Soundtracks now.

• For more from Carl Davis, visit The Carl Davis Collection.

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