The opening of a new public venue is always cause for celebration and a flurry of interest. In this instance, The Stoller Hall is a clean, clear, beautifully-apportioned concert space directly opposite Manchester’s Victoria Station, which forms part of Chetham’s music school. It threw open its doors less than a month ago. It not only looks brand new, it even smells brand new.
Last weekend, as part of its opening salvo of events, the venue welcomed musician and broadcaster Neil Brand. Brand is an acknowledged past master of playing live piano accompaniments for silent film screenings, and in recent years he’s used his expertise in the field of cinema music to branch out as a very fine broadcaster for radio and television.
During his visit, The Stoller Hall made the most of Brand’s presence. Aside from discussing the art of the soundtrack with Chetham’s students, he was central to two public events. The first was Slapstick for Kids, an informal mid-morning programme of assorted silent clips with Brand as ivory-tickling MC. The bespoke playlist ranged from Walter R Booth’s The ? Motorist (1906) and Hal Yates’s A Pair of Tights (1929) to Lewin Fitzhamon’s Dog Outwits the Kidnappers (1908), right up to Laurel & Hardy’s short The Finishing Touch (1928), adding up to a veritable barrel of fun. The younger elements of the audience chortled away and seemed entirely won over, despite even the most recent of these films being older than any of their living relatives. Brand chatted to them to put the films in context, explained some behind-the-scenes secrets and discussed his own approach to scoring them. The whole thing was a simple delight.
That evening, Brand was on hand for the the main event: a full screening of the rarely-seen silent film Beggars of Life (1928), complete with a live score. In this, he had a team of collaborators. Collectively, the team are known as The Dodge Brothers, a much-admired country/bluegrass band. In particular, their double-bass player, Mark Kermode, has carved out a nice little sideline for himself as the UK’s most well-known film critic. Augmented by Brand on piano, the band provided a fitting accompaniment to the film. It’s a fact which can get lost in the mists of time that cinemas generally employed full bands to play alongside screenings back in the silent era, so the solo piano equivalent we’ve grown used to is actually less authentic than a group performance.
There’s also the fact that the down-home stylings of The Dodge Brothers is a neat match for the setting and period of Beggars of Life. Taking place on the cusp of the Great Depression, it sees hungry hobo Jim (Richard Arlen) pop his head round the door of a farmhouse, only to find that the owner is sitting dead in a chair (weirdly, it’s not unlike the discovery of Reg Cox in the very first episode of EastEnders, though thankfully The Dodge Brothers spare us the doof-doofs).
Hiding elsewhere in the house is Nancy (Louise Brooks), the dead man’s adopted daughter, who has very good reason to want to escape without delay. Soon Jim and Nancy are on the run together, riding freight trains into the horizon. Along the way, they encounter a community of other hobos, some of whom have started to notice the newly-posted ‘Wanted’ posters bearing Nancy’s face. One such is the imposing Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery), who could turn out to be either a foe or an ally.
Beggars of Life is nimbly handled by director William Wellman, blending small-scale scenes of character intimacy with full-on train-based action spectacle. Made at the dawn of the talkie era, two versions of the film were released, one of which boasted sound (and even song) inserts. It’s the silent version that’s survived, which in these circumstances is probably just as well as it keeps things clear-cut in terms of scoring.
For all its dramatic twists and turns, the film can’t help but romanticise homeless life to some degree. It has a carefree whiff of King of the Road about it. But aside from the odd train carriage-based longeur, it’s well told and acts as a fascinating time capsule. It’s a rather sweet tale which nevertheless manages to pack the occasional punch. Above all, it’s lifted by the utterly luminous presence of Louise Brooks. For some, Brooks is one of the architects of screen acting, who helped to draw it away from being a mere offshoot of stage performance. By turns here she is vulnerable, defiant, desperate and tender. It may not be her career-best performance, but it’s still capable of leaping off the screen nearly 90 years later, and the film belongs to her.
The Dodge Brothers/Neil Brand score is extremely well-judged, bringing a lively, satisfying extra dimension to the film without upstaging it. It turns the screening into an event, particular as the band return to the stage for a full live set afterwards, with Brand guesting on piano for a few numbers.
Brand is a wizard at the whole live film score thing, and could probably provide a satisfying, engaging piano soundtrack to BBC Four‘s off-air caption if he turned his hand to it. All told, these events see The Stoller Hall set sail in some style, and in the long run it’s to be hoped that they maintain and develop their working association with Brand.