Dennis James: The art of music in silent film

by Scot Casey

For over 40 years, Dennis James has been promoting and performing historically accurate music to accompany silent films. Whether he is performing on a Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ, glass armonica or theremin, James masterfully recreates the musical scores with which these early films were meant to be seen. The Mount Baker Theater, which opened in 1927, is one of the last of the Grand Silent Movie Palaces built in the Pacific Northwest and, as such, is the perfect setting for James’ performances and showing of these films.

Mr. James first experienced an appreciation for music and film at an early age. In 1958, when he was 7 years old, at a screening of the Kirk Douglas film, “The Vikings,” he remembers, “That soaring Alp Horn theme played at the opening panoramic sweeping image of the Viking ships coming into a fjord filmed from above. Such grand Technicolor spectacle and a huge orchestra – that did it for me.” He added he “can still sing that theme with a gusto that only an 8-year-old budding musician can summon!”

In 1969, at Indiana University in Bloomington, he attended his first silent film with live accompaniment on a theatre pipe organ by the legendary Gaylord Carter. The film was “The Mark of Zorro.” James says he can still “remember eagerly turning to my dad at the end, thoroughly especially impressed by the cheers and standing ovation, and saying to him those fateful words . . . I can do that!” To this day, he said, much of his own scores are built around Gaylord’s work as a tribute to this initial inspiration.

He made his silent film scoring debut the next year with “Phantom of the Opera.” Lee Erwin, a New York silent film organist, flew in to offer generous guidance. Amidst Vietnam War protests and the burning of ROTC buildings, Erwin taught James about music and silent film scores. James’ account of the opening night is charming and charged with the intensity of the moment: ”Wearing a cape and mask borrowed from the theater department, I went on that night and began to play that newly composed score I had prepared with Lee. The energy of the occasion was so great, and I was so inspired, I almost immediately abandoned my carefully prepared composition to improvise something ever so much more appropriate to that event on the spot. Quite the thrilling way to begin what has turned out to be a full length career.”

Mary Pickford once made the comment, “When sound came to films, they took a giant step backwards!” James said his passion to preserve the historical and authentic relationship between music and silent film arises out of this belief. “I like the concept,” he said, “that it would have been more logical, thinking of film as an art form progression, for the silent film to have evolved from the sound film.” It is this sense of honoring the historical integrity and artistry of the film and music from this era that distinguishes Dennis James as a historical preservationist and musician. “This original matching music to the period images,” he added, “facilitated the original audience’s emotional response in a manner already highly developed and there is a similar continuity to the present day with modern performances of other historically developed music-enhanced theatrical music forms: opera, operetta, Broadway shows, ballet, vaudeville and so many others.”

Dennis James recently performed the Charlie Chaplin Tribute at the Mt. Baker Theater. He will be returning on Feb. 21 for “Glass-ical Musick,” an illustrated program featuring Benjamin Franklin’s glass Armonica. And again on March 13 to perform for two Harold Lloyd films, “Never Weaken” and “Girl Shy.” Don’t miss this opportunity to experience these films the way they were originally intended to be seen and heard.

LIVE SHOW: See Dennis James perform “Glass-ical Musick,” an illustrated program featuring Benjamin Franklin’s glass Armonica, on Feb. 21 at the Mt. Baker Theatre. He returns March 13 to perform for two Harold Lloyd films, “Never Weaken” and “Girl Shy.”  For more details, see http://www.mountbakertheatre.com/shows/. 

Published in the February 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine