On Saturday, February 28, at 7 p.m., East Enders will get the opportunity to experience a rare cinematic and musical treat. The First Presbyterian Church of East Hampton will screen Our Hospitality, a 1923 silent film classic starring Buster Keaton, accompanied live on pipe organ by film organist Bernie Anderson.
If you’ve never seen a silent film presented with live accompaniment, this will be a great chance to experience what is a unique art form presented by an organist who is a widely hailed master of the art. Anderson appears regularly at Loews Jersey Theater and the Union County Arts Center, two New Jersey venues known for screening silent films with live organ accompaniment. He has appeared several times at the East Hampton church in past years.
I spoke with Anderson about what makes watching silent films with live accompaniment so different from other ways of viewing silent films, and he emphasized the communal nature of the experience. “A lot of it has to do with being there—there’s something magical that happens with a live musician in the space. There’s an excitement when people get together for something totally different.” Just as live theater is much more involving than television broadcasts of theater, so is live accompaniment much more effective than the canned music usually included on the soundtracks of silent films. This is especially true when Anderson is at the organ console because of the care he takes to match his accompaniments, which are partially improvised, to the stories of the films.
“I try to be true to the movie,” Anderson explains. “It’s about storytelling through music. For example, a lot of organists, if they are accompanying The Phantom of the Opera (the 1925 classic starring Lon Chaney), will have the phantom character play scary, gothic music on the organ. But then why would Christine fall in love with him—he’s supposed to be playing the most beautiful music she’s ever heard.” Anderson also generally avoids trying to mimic musically every slapstick moment or pratfall in a silent comedy—“that gets exhausting,” he points out—and he refrains from what’s called “kidding the film,”—that is, getting a rise out of an audience by introducing a familiar musical theme that works as a joke because of what’s happening on the screen, but which has no bearing on the emotional world of the story. “That just draws focus to the organist and away from the film,” Anderson says.
The film Anderson will be accompanying on January 24, Keaton’s slapstick comedy Our Hospitality, tells the story of Willie McKay, a New York City boy who travels to the Southern land of his forefathers only to find himself caught up in the epic Canfield and McKay feud—a fictionalized version of the real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud. Keaton, who famously did his own movie stunts (he was the highly acrobatic son of vaudeville performers), plays Willie McKay, and he employs his trademark deadpan facial expression to outrageous effect through all manner of death-defying disaster. The idea of Southern hospitality gets thoroughly lampooned as the stone-faced McKay finds himself on the receiving end of a hailstorm of Canfield bullets, bullets he manages to dodge only through hilarious happenstance.
But as funny as Our Hospitality is, it is not all slapstick—there’s also the love story between McKay and the Canfield’s daughter Virginia—and that’s where Anderson’s artistry really shines.
“There’s a lot of sentimentality in Keaton films,” Anderson notes, and it’s one of his jobs to help make those moments work. Sometimes that involves very particular sounds. “I play the organ orchestrally, looking for effective sounds. If I fall in love with a rank [that’s organ parlance for a set of pipes with a particular sound], you’ll know it, because I’ll use it a lot!”
Our Hospitality will screen on Saturday, February 28, at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church of East Hampton, 120 Main Street, presented by Music at Old Town Church. Suggested donation $15; children and youth free. Visit fpceh.org or call 631-324-0711 for more information.