Music for silent films has been an enduring strand to Carl Davis’s career: many of the greatest movies ever produced were made in the silent era. Carl has written the scores for nearly 60 pre-talkies, including the phenomenal Napoléon.
The cinematography in Napoléon and the stunts of great comedians Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton are still extraordinary today. The silent films were never meant to be silent and at the time the most artistically ambitious films had original scores composed for them.
In the fifty years after the first talkie was made, two-thirds of all silent films perished. Many others were lost, cut to pieces or had inappropriate music dubbed on them. This changed irrevocably in 1980 when Thames Television (following the success of the Hollywood series) sponsored a theatrical presentation of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. The print of this (then) five-hour masterpiece had been painstakingly restored by Kevin Brownlow and the late David Gill, and a new orchestral score composed by Carl Davis. The impact on the audience was extraordinary and live cinema – the fusion of film and live music – was reborn. The same team, Brownlow, Gill and Davis, have since worked together on over 30 restorations of silent films. Their efforts have resulted in a worldwide revival of this lost art form with a chain of restorations featuring Garbo, Gish, Fairbanks and the three great clowns: Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.
The Davis catalogue now includes more than fifty scores for this medium, including Flesh and the Devil, Ben-Hur, The Thief of Baghdad, Greed, Intolerance, Safety Last and The General, and has brought him international acclaim. Carl had the honour of conducting his own score of The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Opera House in 2006, the first time a silent film had been performed there. Carl regularly premieres new work at the Turner International Film Festival, and in 2015 he presented new music to the Buster Keaton classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. Newly restored in 4K and featuring this specially-commissioned score from Carl Davis, the Cohen Film Collection’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. returned to cinemas across the UK in September that same year, with a first showing at the BFI.
Napoléon remains one of the most exciting silent film events ever – it is only rarely shown (with three intervals!) and 2013 and 2016 performances at the Royal Festival was an acclaimed sell-out. In 2016, history was made and with a collaboration between Carl and Jean Davis and the BFI to bring the fully digitised restored version of Napoléon out on BluRay and DVD. Carl released the soundtrack on CD and on iTunes. A great achievement for everyone involved.