Almost 100 years after it was made, the Charlie Chaplin film The Vagabond, still leaves audiences laughing and swooning, no matter where it plays. I've seen children on the Indian subcontinent laughing uproariously at Chaplin's antics the same way that elderly movie-goers did on a different occasion in California. Chaplin's silent films are hypnotic. The fact that no words are audible adds to their allure. But "silent film" can be a misnomer. Many silent films were made to have a musical accompaniment, and modern screenings of anything by Chaplin, Lon Chaney, and other silent-era greats are almost expected to have an aural component.
That's where Jon Mirsalis comes in. An accomplished pianist who's one of the world's foremost historians on Chaney's works and silent film in general, Mirsalis will accompany three Chaplin shorts that are playing at the Castro Theatre on Saturday, January 11, 2014. The films -- The Vagabond, The Cure, and Easy Street -- are screening as part of The Little Tramp at 100: A Charlie Chaplin Centennial Celebration, which is being presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Mirsalis interprets each film scene on the spot. How to play for a silent film? For Mirsalis, it's about improvisation. And it's about creating sheets of sound that -- in a counter-intuitive way -- are both noticed and unnoticed. The best musical accompaniments to silent films, Mirsalis says, stay in the background.
"What makes a good score is, first, you don't want to call attention to yourself," he says. "There are and have been accompanists who love to put in what I call musical gags. One accompanist would play, whenever there was a fire sequence, the song Blaze Away. If you know the song, it's 'Ha, ha. Isn't that cute?' But that's a terrible thing to do. Because it takes people off the film. I should be invisible. In fact, the best compliment that people give me when a film is over is to come up to me and say, 'You began playing the film and for the first minute or so, I was conscious you were playing. And then I just tuned you out.' And people are often apologetic. They'll say, 'I completely forgot you were there until the end credits came on and you stood up and people applauded.' That's the best compliment, because that's the way it's supposed to work. The music is supposed to provide the mood of the film. Even a film today, like a John Williams score for Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Lincoln -- you don't sit there and say, 'Wow, this is a great score.' You are sucked into the movie."
In the hey-day of silent films, between the 1890s and 1920s, about 20,000 were made, according to Mirsalis. After "talkies" appeared around 1929, and the demand for silent films badly ebbed, movie studios destroyed thousands of original-print silent films, including films by Chaney and other major stars. The only reason some of these films still exist: Copies happen to have been held in archives. Even today, rare silent films are occasionally found in old houses and old storage spaces. Chaney, for example, made more than 150 films, but a relative few survive, Mirsalis says. Chaney's work for Universal Studios is almost completely lost.
"It's ridiculous," Mirsalis says. "Of the 110 films he did for Universal, I want to say about 10 or fewer survive. That's because, in 1948, Universal burned all their silent library. MGM lost one vault of films due to a fire. Fox lost a lot of films just to neglect. Paramount likewise with neglect. Universal said, 'Gee, we have no use for this silent film. We're paying storage costs on all this flammable nitrate film. We're paying high insurance costs. There's absolutely no market for it.' This was just before TV was starting to take off. And TV wasn't doing much with silent films other than shows that made fun of them. They took these old films and ran them in 24-frames-per second, and made them really fast and silly and put a gag narration track on it. So there was no market. And Universal felt they could melt the films down and extract the silver. So they destroyed everything that didn't have a soundtrack. So the reissue of The Phantom of the Opera and The Man Who Laughs, which had a soundtrack, and a handful of late 1920s films, they destroyed. They destroyed all the original material from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is beyond dumb."
Mirsalis, who runs the website lonchaney.org, solidified his silent-film expertise in his "off hours." His day job is as a research scientist at SRI International, a major Menlo Park research and development center. Mirsalis' title: Managing Director, Division Operations, and Director, Preclinical Development, SRI Biosciences. He has doctorates in toxicology and genetics from North Carolina State University. Mirsalis' interest in silent film dates back to when he was 10, when he was a regular reader of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine that chronicled cinematic ghouls and published flattering articles on Chaney's films. In 1974, Mirsalis began assembling notes about as many Chaney films as he could, and he bought his first film: an eight-millimeter print of The Phantom of the Opera. His collection has gotten much bigger, as well as his reputation. In the last 30 years, Mirsalis has done everything from program a Chaney film series at the Pacific Film Archive to scoring the music for the Milestone Films' release of The Phantom of the Opera.
Mirsalis, 61, lives in the Peninsula area called Emerald Hills and is part of an elite group of silent-film accompanists. About six veteran accompanists live in the Bay Area, he says. He doesn't compartmentalize his interests, so colleagues at SRI International know about his outsized interest in Lon Chaney and silent films. "Everyone knows about it -- in fact, the CEO of our company is a violinist, and many of my staff show up when I play for films," he says. "I keep them separate in the sense that I have a day job. I go to work and I do science in the daytime, but I usually don't spend my weekends doing science. But you'll find that, traditionally, there's a link between science and music. An awful lot of scientists are musicians. And if you go back to Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci times, it's like a left-right brain thing. People who tend to have aptitude in science also tend to have aptitude in music. And I am a pretty good researcher, whether I'm researching cures for infectious disease or what the proper credits were on a 1914 film. Some of the skills are the same, in that you use all your resources, and you compile it all. And in both science and in film history, sometimes you have to make educated guesses as to what really happened."
Before our interview ended, Mirsalis threw out a fact that few people know about: "Before my piano playing days, I was a pretty good rock guitarist in a reasonably successful band in the Cleveland area. I knew Joe Walsh growing up. But I quickly realized that that is not the life you can make money at or have a good time at. Even for the people who are successful, it's a rough life. In fact, my old guitar teacher, Walt Nims, wrote Precious and Few, which was a big hit. He was also the lead guitarist of The Outsiders. But it's a tough life. How many big bands of the 1970s are still around? And I enjoy science, which I find to be challenging."
Jon Mirsalis will accompany three Charlie Chaplin film shorts at the Castro Theatre on Saturday, January 11, 1pm. The films -- The Vagabond, The Cure, and Easy Street -- are screening as part of The Little Tramp at 100: A Charlie Chaplin Centennial Celebration, which is being presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. For tickets and more information visit silentfilm.org.