“HE WHO GETS SLAPPED” – A conversation with composer and pianist Matti Bye

M.G.M.’s seminal classic chosen for Closing Night feature of the
16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival

“… a picture which defies one to write about it without indulging in superlatives. It is a shadow drama so beautifully told, so flawlessly directed that we imagine that it will be held up as a model by all producers.” ~ The New York Times, 10 November 1924

Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

This Sunday night at the Castro Theatre the Matti Bye Ensemble will accompany the 7:30 pm screening of M.G.M.’s He Who Gets Slapped. The film set box office records at its 1924 world premiere in New York and over the decades has been internationally recognized as a true Cinema classic. It is the first project of what will become the most prestigious film studio in Hollywood – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Its “boy wonder” producer Irving Thalberg secures the talents of Swedish director Victor Sjöström and signs popular character actor Lon Chaney to the title role of the pathetic circus clown, “He”. The young romantic leads go to John Gilbert and Norma Shearer – each will be catapulted to the top of Hollywood’s A-List of Box Office favorites. It is the dawn of a new era in filmmaking. Art – as in, “Art for Art’s Sake”, the M.G.M. logo – has joined the Industrial Revolution. He Who Gets Slapped is a daring choice for its creators. The plot is melodramatic, the moods get cynical and downhearted, the circus scenes are lofty and strangely difficult, and a lion is set loose to devour the antagonists.

The film’s original score was handled by composer William Axt whose previous credits included the highly successful productions of The Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks, Scaramouche with Ramon Novarro, and The Navigator with Buster Keaton. In 1925, Axt would score the epic Ben-Hur, The Scarlet Letter in 1926 (also directed by Victor Sjöström) and Love (starring John Gilbert and Greta Garbo), and in 1927, The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg (starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer). The original music for this year’s presentation at the Silent Film Festival has been created by Matti Bye who scored a big success in the 2010 Festival with Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages and L’heureuse mort. I recently met-up with Matti at Boogaloos, a fantastic cafe with outdoor seating located in the Mission. Through the circus-like cacophony of sirens, jack hammers, and the clamor of Muni buses – Matti and I shared our passion for this remarkable film.

Center – Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, Victor Sjöström, John Gilbert

Sean: How did you get tagged by the Silent Film Festival for HE Who Gets Slapped?

Matti: It’s a commission work from the Festival. I think I had suggested this film because I’m a big fan of Victor Sjöström. I’ve composed for several of his films, including his most famous, Phantom Carriage, made in Sweden. I thought He Who Gets Slapped – a film made in America with a Swedish director – was a good choice for the Festival and for me. Also, I’m a big Lon Chaney fan. I agree that there are a lot of difficulties in the film and the plot. What I can see is that it’s one of the darkest films from this time. It has a very pessimistic view. The plot is more than tragical. It’s about the evilness of man.

LON CHANEY — He Who Gets Slapped

Matti: The circus scene you refer to where the people are laughing at an act that isn’t at all funny is more about pointing out how cruel and evil mankind is. That’s my interpretation of it. So, the scene is almost magnified to show this cruelness. We have lots of circus music, but we concentrate on the melodrama. The music is dark, not slapstick. It’s more classical and very strong, with lots of percussion. In a way, the music is almost pathetic – to emphasize the tragical approach of the story.

LON CHANEY – “HE”, about to be slapped

Matti: We started in April when we had this Artist in Residency at the Headlands [ http://www.headlands.org/article.asp?key=6 ]. Stacey Wisnia and Anita Monga from the Festival told us about this. They asked if we were interested in coming to the Headlands and be Artists in Residence – to work with this music as a commission for the Silent Film Festival. We stayed there four weeks in April. The Headlands is a totally magical place. It’s very close to the ocean, a military building from the 1930s. It’s very intact, everything very preserved – including its original bowling alley. You have your own studio and room. It was a fantastic time. We started the work there and finished it in Sweden. We’ll be playing for three films, each very different in style. For He Who Gets Slapped there will be four of us – me on the piano along with percussion, violin, and banjo. We’re playing for The Great White Silence – which is more of a documentary, about Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. We’ll use two pianos and three string players from the Bay Area. For The Blizzard we’ll have a trio – piano, violin, and guitar.

Sean: When did you actually know you would be scoring three films for this year’s Festival?

Matti: Last summer, after our performance at the Festival. It was very successful for us, so we started talking right away about the films we could have for this year.


Sean: My real interest in silent film began with a half-hour TV series called Silents, Please. One film was presented each week, edited down, with a synchronized score and narration. I particularly remember the broadcasts with Rudolph Valentino in Son of the Shiek and Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad. It was the accompaniment that triggered a sense of longing in me – longing for a genre of film that was then totally unavailable and out of sight. My feelings couldn’t have been about “nostalgia”. Nostalgia about what? I was just a kid. But I suddenly wanted to know more about the featured stars and the era itself. So, camping out at the Castro Theatre for the annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival is a dream come true for me. And here you are again this year, with brand new music for a major film featuring my favorite star, Norma Shearer. How did you get started in the business of playing for silent films?

Matti: I was in music school. My two big interests in life were music and film. I played the piano and went a lot to the Cinematheque in Stockholm where I live. They had a pianist playing for the silents, but he died. They knew I played the piano and loved film, so they asked me to come in. I started playing regularly at the Cinematheque. It’s like a film club, a society. They will show all the works of Todd Browning or Victor Sjöström and other art films.

Sean: Do you incorporate Traditional modes of silent film scoring into your compositions?

Matti: That’s a tricky question. In a way, I’m not particularly interested in the historical view of silent film music. It’s very infected when we talk about it. I think it’s a living art form. It is constantly developing. I think it’s good that some of the musicians are taking an historical approach and it’s wonderful to hear it. But it is very difficult to know exactly what was played at that time. And it was so very different from city to city, from year to year, and all of it depending on the musician and how they worked. There are a lot of different questions. As we know, there is very little documented about it. I have that very large book, Motion Picture Moods, which suggests various accompaniment and is very interesting to read. But for me, it’s useless when I’m playing. It’s not unusual that a film can be two hours long. It’s a challenge – to be a quick and spontaneous composer. I have my “traditional approach” to film music. I have Classical piano training. In that way, I have this library, a grammar, where I can use the works of Beethoven and Chopin or Wagner. It is the essence of film music, of course, and I have it in my fingers when I am improvising. But I’m not interested in looking for actual pieces that you know were played for certain films. I love the kind of nostalgic feeling you get from seeing the film. It’s already there in the moment and with the images, so you don’t have to add very-very traditional music to it. I’m more interested in what feels timeless.

Sean: And not so locked-into an era.

Matti: Exactly. I also want new audiences to become interested in these films. For the musician, the most important thing is to have the passion for them – that you’re not letting the film be just an excuse for making your own music. We have two rules when we play to silents. The first: always the eye on the screen. We are always facing the screen, of course. The second: all the dynamic is in the story, in the images. I don’t put any dynamics in the score because I want the musician following every small detail in the film, in the acting. Make the dynamic when you see it on the screen.


Sean: Before you started working on the score, you were already familiar with He Who Gets Slapped and knew you could get behind it. From the point where you began improvising and finding the recurring signature passages for the characters and ideas – the leitmotifs – how long did it take to get it down on paper and say “this is the way I want it to go”?

Matti: That happens very quickly. You get so much information and inspiration in the pictures. For me, composing for film happens very fast.

Sean: In the initial stages, as you are watching the film and improvising – are you recording yourself or does it all just stay up in your noodle?

Matti: Sometimes both. I will record on my iPhone just to remember a melody or chord progression.

Sean: I will be listening very intently during every scene with the Leading Lady, Norma Shearer. In the past decade or so there has been a renewed interest in the life and films Norma Shearer largely due to the Turner Classic Movie channel and events such as the Silent Film Festival.

Norma Shearer (Consuelo), John Gilbert (Bezano), Lon Chaney (He)

Matti: I think she is a really-really good actress and so sweet, of course. There is something about her that is so natural, so realistic. Watching her, it’s easy to forget – during this time – that it was all very new. She was not playing so over-theatrically as was seen in films going back to 1910. There is a sense – as with other film actors – that she would not have been good on the stage. It’s difficult to explain what that difference is.

Sean: My affair with her began as a little boy watching “old movies” on TV. I wasn’t factoring-in they were old, I was watching something new. I saw her first in Noël Coward’s Private Lives and have remained captivated ever since. Irving Thalberg gave her the ultimate in “Star Treatment” – she got the best lighting and cameramen. Norma had a bit of a problem with a cast eye, a “lazy eye” – it would wander inwards toward her nose. She exercised constantly to keep her eyes straight and balanced. Her directors capitalized on her gorgeous profile, both right and left, and very often framed her face in a three-quarter view. Throughout all of her films, there are only rare moments when she is shown in a full-face close-up. But when it happens – because she’s channeling energy in keeping the gaze steady and balanced – her charisma just pops off the screen and her beauty registers even more fresh and vibrant. She once said that being in front of the camera was “food and drink” to her.

Matti: I suppose it’s about having “IT” on the screen. And she’s got it absolutely! I agree that it’s very easy to fall in love with her.


Sean: What’s on your calendar after the Festival?

Matti: My next stop is Strasbourg. We’re playing Witchcraft Through the Ages again. I also live partly in Berlin where I’ll be doing some solo concerts.

Sean: Given the opportunity, what silent film would you choose to score?

Matti: One of my favorites is The Wind with Lillian Gish. I also love the German Expressionist films like Dr. Caligari, Murnau’s Sunrise, of course. I played for three years in Bologna at the Cinema Ritrovato. They screen a lot of silent films with live accompaniment. It’s lovely, outdoors in the Piazza Maggiore, with three to four thousand in the audience. You can see a lot newly restored films there. As you know, films that were thought to be lost are constantly being found, such as the missing material for Metropolis discovered in South America. It’s like opening a door into a world of lost art.


In the musical ensemble for He Who Gets Slapped:
Matti Bye – Piano, glockenspiel and organ
Kristian Holmgren – toy instruments, follie effects, organ and banjo
Mattias Olsson – percussion
Lotta Johansson – violin and musical saw

Click here for more information on: MATTI BYE

At The Castro Theatre, 17 July 2011

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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    [...] DOUGLAS – On Stage At The Castro Theatre“CASABLANCA” – The SF Symphony accompanies screening“HE WHO GETS SLAPPED” – A conversation with composer and pianist Matti ByeABEL GANCE’S “NAPOLEON” – San Francisco Silent Film Festival to present complete restoration [...]

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