For the second year running, the world’s greatest cinema organist, Dennis James, came to the wilds of Upstate New York to accompany a silent film on Halloween to a riveted audience of horror-loving cineastes packed into Cornell University’s gloomy Sage chapel. In a way, to call what James does “accompanying” is to diminish his achievement. His playing is so perfectly matched to the onscreen action and emotion that the reverse seems more accurate: it’s almost as if the images are accompanying his playing, as if the flow of his ideas is conjuring the silver screen phantoms, much as 19th-century listeners saw visions when they heard Beethoven’s symphonies in a concert hall. Plato claimed that in the hierarchy of the senses vision had precedence over hearing, but listening to James play a silent film, one begins to wonder whether the Greek got that right.
The spires and gables of Cornell’s campus are set dramatically on the bluffs above Cayuga Lake, which stretches seemingly without end to the north. The place could well be the site of a gothic horror movie. Aside from the spooky architecture, gorges cut through the landscape and host savage waterfalls. These ravines have been the tragic sites of student suicides on the rocks and drownings in the churning rapids below. Safety nets have been installed beneath the bridges, but the specters of death and danger still soar on the misty updrafts swirling in these canyons of doom.
The cinematic possibilities for fright and adventure offered by the region’s geography lured a vibrant branch of the early film industry to Ithaca. Brothers Theodore and Leopold Wharton, who among other contributions to film history shot the first full-length on-location Western out on the Great Plains before World War II, founded a lakefront studio in Ithaca that produced movies here from 1914 to 1919. Most famous of these was The Exploits of Elaine and its sequels featuring starlet Pearl White, better known for her similarly alliterative Perils of Pauline. Early movie Heavyweights Oliver Hardy and Lionel Barrymore also made movies for the Whartons in Ithaca. Though its gorges make for unsurpassed cinematic settings, Ithaca isn’t exactly known for its reliable weather, and the Whartons headed for sunny California in 1919, settling down in Santa Cruz, rather far to the foggy north of the eventual capital of the movies in Hollywood. One of the Whartons’ Ithaca studio buildings remains, and an enterprising local group some years ago launched the Ithaca Motion Picture Project, which is drawing nearer to achieving its goal of establishing a museum of the region’s silent movie legacy in the old studio. To bring James back for Halloween, IMPP teamed up with the Cornell Cinema, whose diverse and imaginative program is the envy of many an American college or university.
In Dennis James, the IMPPsters have invited someone supremely suited — in this case in a durable tuxedo that is the uniform of the gigging musician — to buttress interest both local and national in Ithaca’s role in silent film history. After last year’s triumphant confrontation with F.W. Murnau’s Faust of 1926, last night’s Halloween extravaganza turned back the clock just two years to 1924 to the Austrian psychological exploration of sex, murder and music—The Hands of Orlac. Since the movie is about a concert pianist who loses his hands in a train wreck (funnily enough, “train wreck” is also the musician’s argot for a disastrous, i.e., derailed performance), a live pianist seems also a prerequisite. This vital role was played with tremendous finesse and passion by Frederick Hodges, flown in for the event from the Bay Area. Hodges is a gifted pianist in the Gershwinian mold, and also one of the great ragtime players of our time: classically trained and an admirer not just of refined American pianism of the Jazz Age, but also of some of the towering virtuosos (especially Russians) of the 20th & 21st centuries, Hodges has the robust technique and musical sensibility to bring the central character, pianist Paul Orlac, to life—and nearly to death.
A hand transplant replaces Orlac’s with those of a just-executed murderer. Curiously enough, the hands appear have a mind of their own and are apparently far more interested in, and better at, wielding the knife than tickling the ivories. In their score to this recently restored film, Hodges and James have Orlac play and think Chopin, whether seated at the piano as he concludes his last tour or later yearning—but not daring—to touch his oft-fainting wife, Yvonne, with hands lusting for sex and/or murder. In either case it is Chopin’s music of intense desire that animates and terrorizes Orlac. Hodges has the thunderous octaves to generate tsunamis of cinematic horror, as in the portentous Dies Irae he and James sent rushing down the chapel in the opening sequence. But Hodges has a tremendous sense of nuance and flexibility: it if his own hands at the Steinway are conjuring from Chopin’s yearning melodies the expressions of desire and fear playing across the powdered faces on screen.
And these are unforgettable, larger-than-life faces, none more so than that of Conrad Veidt with his arching Lisztian nose, veined forehead, and tragic dark eyes that even in black-and-white can convey lust and fury. Veidt had previously starred in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where he played Cesare the sleepwalking murderer. That landmark of German Expressionism was directed Robert Wiene, also the auteur of The Hands of Orlac. Veidt later fled Hitler’s Reich and turned up on Hollywood’s shore where, ironically, he often played the Nazi bad guys he had escaped in real life: in the Sound Era he is still most famous for his portrayal of the sinister German Major Strasser in Casablanca.
When Orlac’s hand-me-down hands begin to lust for the murderous blade, James would set his nearby Theremin to howling. Not just a king of the cinema organ, James is master of that ethereal musical invention of the early 20th century. For this Orlac the organ provided mostly the background soundscape through which Hodges roamed, raged and cowered. James would drop a scrim of flutes here, a red slash of oboe color there — all done to enrich the general mood of disastrous hurtling down the tracks. What James’ playing revealed is that while he is a renowned soloist, he is also a sensitive supporting actor.
The duo’s score, world-premiered this night, used the unapologetic cut-and-paste methods as practiced in the 1920s. Yet the whole cohered even in its sometime manic diversity. When Orlac’s new hands were finally pronounced not guilty of murders done both before and after they belonged to the unfortunate pianist, he did not rush from the police station where he had been falsely accused, but let fingers deprived so long of gratification lead him to the pleading face of his beloved, Yvonne: this outpouring of tactile lust was, of course, mute on screen but searing with musical emotion off it.
David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.