Southampton Film Week: Steamboat Bill Jr. with live theatre organ

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The experience of the cinema is one becoming increasingly redundant in modern times. Why pay an unreasonable ticket price to sit through an hour of advertising preceding 90+ minutes of Hollywood banality – when there’s the option of remaining comfortable at home away from noisy popcorn munches with a Netflix stream of your choosing?

Fortunately I was able to experience the closest equivalent to cinematic time travel at the Guild Hall’s screening of Buster Keaton’s 1928 comedy Steamboat Bill Jr. accompanied by Donald MacKensie’s live organ. Pipe organs were prevalent in UK theatres during film’s silent period, as the only instrument capable of improvising loud and vibrant film scores; solo pianos being too quiet and orchestras too expensive. Installed in 1937, Southampton’s Guild Hall’s organ doesn’t fit into that timeline, but theatre organs were still widely used for entertainment purposes through to the end of the Second World War.

Designed by John Compton’s company, it consists of two consoles for the different purposes of ‘classical’ (for recitals) and ‘theatrical’ (cinema and variety shows). Its 4,000 pipes are enclosed in the building’s chambers, producing acoustic sounds emulating everything between glockenspiels to French horns. Renovated 4 years ago, the organ is still used today in recordings and special events such as this.

Donald MacKenzie, a man who despite his niche profession gets regular work, began by demonstrating the organ’s range by playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The complexity and vivaciousness of the instrument, is something to behold, producing a scope of tones and colours more intense than contemporary electronic synthesisers.

Following a short interval, the film was screened with MacKenzie improvising (though incorporating existing tunes) its score. Steamboat Bill Jr. is textbook Keaton silent comedy – a simple plot built around set pieces of stunts and slapstick expertly performed with his trademark stoic expression. In case you’re wondering, this is the film with the famous house falling stunt; imitated and referenced by many, but never as dangerously (Buster is clearly inches away from being killed).

Though well executed, physical humour is both timeless and international – a man falling over can be funny any time in any place, having live music adds an element of theatre hard to replicate. The second best way to see these films as they were originally shown is with a specifically composed score (TV prints of silent films often use library music, regardless whether it fits the on screen action). MacKenzie is adept at seamlessness, half the time I forget he was ever there, the spontaneity fitting the action on screen was that good.

Future events of this kind will be held at next year’s film week. More information on the Guild Hall’s organ, including pictures can be found here.

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