MONT ALTO MOTION PICTURE ORCHESTRA – Accompanies Opening Night of the 14th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival

An interview with pianist Rodney Sauer
On the scoring of “The Gaucho” starring Douglas Fairbanks and Lupe Velez

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Opening tonight at the Castro Theatre is the 14th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival and its glorious treatment of The Gaucho. Produced in 1927 and directed by F. Richard Jones, the film features one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mexican born American film actress, Lupe Velez. Accompanying the film will be the outstanding popular musical ensemble, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Silent film fans around the world revere their work and delight in knowing their scorings are now attached to at least twenty-five films currently available on DVD. I talked with their pianist, Rodney Sauer, about the labor of love that is the piecing-together of a score requiring nearly two hours worth of sustained playing and un-blinking attention to the screen.

Seán: How did you prepare the score for The Gaucho? Is there an original score that you drew from and are recreating?

Rodney: It goes back to how movies were done back in the ‘20s – which is what we are trying to create. Basically, back then, you would often get a new movie every week. So, there wasn’t time to write new music. It just wasn’t possible. Each theatre was left up to its own devices to provide music. It was a local thing, sort-of like comparing costuming and sets. If you went to see a Shakespeare play in Oklahoma and then saw it in Kansas you’d expect to see different sets and costumes, because that’s a local thing. In the silent film era the same was true of music – you would expect to hear different music at different theaters. The quality of their musical program was a point of pride among theaters. So, given that you’re working on your own as a theater musician and you need to create two hours worth of music every week – the way it was settled on was that you would maintain a big library of music that was used for film scoring, but it wasn’t written for any particular film.


When the film arrived, you would watch it and look for particular scenes and then go to your library and pull out music you think works for each scene. The big advantage is that the music is already written and orchestrated. You’d just hand it out to your musicians and say – “OK, when you see the storm happening, I’ll give this cue and we’ll play this much of “the storm music” and then we’ll stop. Then we’ll look up and the next cue will be this and we’ll play the next piece.” Then at the end of the run you file your music back in the library and use it again later. It was a very efficient method of making film scores, but it got repetitive if you had a small library. We have access to a very nice surviving library. Now we’ve got about three collections that belonged to different theater owners back in the ‘20s. We can use all this music to create these film scores.

Seán: I’m sure every movie collector is thrilled to hear this.

Rodney: When the talkies came in, all this music was basically useless. A lot of it got thrown away. Some of the music directors kept it, probably in their basement, and the wife nagged them about it every year. A bunch of it was donated to the University of Colorado at Boulder. That’s where we first found it. Since then, we’ve intercepted some collections that were drifting around looking for homes. We photocopied them and then donated it to the University, which now has a very nice collection of music. And there are other collections around.

Seán: Do people contact you saying, “I have all this stuff. What should I do with it?”

Rodney: Exactly. I was on the Internet looking for silent film music and wondering, “What’s it worth?” To be honest, the sorts of people who would really like it don’t have any money. So, what you want to do is donate it to a non-profit and write it off on your taxes. If you’re looking for a non-profit, try the University of Colorado and I’d be glad to handle the details and catalogue it.

Seán: I’ve seen the piano and organ book, “Motion Picture Moods”. It even has the moods categorized.

Rodney: Yes, that is useful, but it draws really heavily on classic music – which nowadays is less interesting. What is more interesting to me is music that was written specifically for silent film. There was a lot of it and it is much harder to find. Someone is working on a book that is going to reprint some silent film music and I am very excited about that.

Seán: Will this be for orchestra?

Rodney: Yes. The other book was also published for orchestra – and that’s an interesting story too. They wanted it to be useable by the widest variety of ensembles. But you didn’t know who was at each theater in terms of instrumentation. A small theater might have a three to five piece group. Mont Alto is a five piece orchestra. And it was called an “orchestra” back then – it’s not just us being a little high-handed. But if you went to a big theatre in San Francisco you’d probably have at least a 30-piece orchestra and maybe a 70-piece orchestra.

The Fox Theatre, Lobby, San Francisco

In New York, theaters competed against each other. “We have a 110-piece orchestra and can do the major works of Wagner!” It became a marketing issue. They needed to publish things that could be used by all these different groups. They had a very clever way of doing it. They wrote a piano part that also serves as the Conductor’s score. So, there is no full sore. The violin part has a lot of little cue notes telling you what the other instruments should be doing. Then in most of the other instruments you have cue notes telling you what less common instruments are doing. For instance, if you’ve got a melody written for oboe you will be “cross-cued” into the clarinet part. And if you don’t have a clarinet, it’s cross-cued into the violin. You can actually use these same arrangements for a trio all the way up to a 40-piece orchestra. They were just published that way. There is a certain instrumentation that was common. Ours was common for a fairly small group – piano, violin, cello, clarinet, and trumpet. Having one brass and one woodwind gives us a lot tone colors that a string quartet or piano trio doesn’t have. Having the piano filling in the background makes us sound a lot bigger than we really are. The piano is playing the bass, the inner strings, occasionally it plays the flute when it’s not covered somewhere else. So, you get this full sound in the background but it doesn’t sound like a piano solo because all the important stuff is being played by actual orchestra instruments.


In order to score The Gaucho, we watched it a couple of times then went to our collection and started pulling music we thought would fit. I pretty much do the film on my own now. I watch the film and say, “OK, let’s use this piece here and that piece there.” As we go through, certain scenes might develop – this is a really good piece for that guy there, let’s bring it back when he comes back. We don’t usually do things like a having particular themes for every character because you don’t know if that theme is going to work for every scene in which the character appears. If you’ve got a perky theme for the Hero and if at one point he’s in jail then you don’t want to play the perky theme. In this film, a character [played by Albert MacQuarrie] who appears fairly frequently, who’s got this fast-acting leprosy, is very sinister. His hands are black, he’s covered in cloth, you can’t see his face. So, when he shows up, everybody always has a bad reaction to him. They don’t want to catch this disease. We have a theme we use for him, for the “Black Doom”. The piece is called “The Prisoner”. It doesn’t matter that he’s not a prisoner, the piece just happens to fit this guy particularly well.

Seán: “The Gaucho” comes in right before the talkies are in full swing. Was there something in the breadth of Fairbanks’ career that influenced your choices? Or were the selections based solely on story rather than on his “image”.

Rodney: That’s a good question. It’s pretty much a story choice. This is a darker film than the other Fairbanks films we’ve scored. We’ve done three before this one. Usually, they are fairly funny. Even when he’s in trouble, he’s not in big trouble. One of the things I like about “The Black Pirate” – in terms of how he made it – is that even though his character is this competent sword-fighting nobleman who is disguised as a pirate, every time he tries to put a plot in motion it fails. None of them work! Until the very end of the movie. It’s un-like a lot of Heroes. But, his attitude is that he always smiles, even when the plots fail. He knows he’ll get out of it eventually. That is part of his trademark.

This film is a little different because his character is much more cynical and world weary, in a way. So, we use some more dramatic music than we use in most of the Fairbanks films. There’s some rather dark pieces. There’s a great piece by Sibelius that we found an arrangement of that suits us particularly well. There’s another piece by the Spanish composer, Granados. Using Spanish music makes a lot of sense because it’s set in Argentina. Douglas Fairbanks said ‘I don’t want to make this movie about Argentina. I want this to be our image of what Argentina is.’ We’re doing the same thing with the music. There’s a tango in it, it’s not Argentinean but an American Tango. The tango, of course, came from Argentina and everybody here new that was Argentinean music. So, even if it was written by a Tin Pan Alley hack, it was considered an Argentine piece.


Seán: How about for Lupe Velez? Have you got anything special going for her?

Rodney: She is so much fun in this movie. I think she’s the only heroine in a Douglas Fairbanks movie that actually stands up to him and matches him blow for blow. Their relationship is so much different. In “Thief of Baghdad” or “The Black Pirate” the heroine is pretty much a window dressing. She’s there to be a sort-of rape victim – so he saves her. In this movie, she is the stalker at the beginning. She tracks him down because she’s heard about him. She basically says, ‘You’re mine. And no one else can come near you. And – no! – you can’t get fresh with me. And watch you’re place because, now that you’re mine, You’re gonna behave!’ He loves it. You can tell they’re having a great time. I believe they had an affair during the making of the film.

Seán: Ah, now that’s interesting!

Rodney: It’s mentioned in the book by Jeffrey Vance, Douglas Fairbanks. He was still married to Mary Pickford, but he was getting a little bit…

Seán: Travel weary. You can see clearly that he’s getting mature. He’s not quite the chiseled young man that he used to be. To have the character “settle down” with a hot young thing such as Lupe Velez makes total dramatic sense. Is there a special moment in the film you look forward to playing?

DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS – The Thief of Baghdad (1924)

Rodney: One of the pieces I acquired over the years was in a pile of music from a theatre in Pittsburgh. A tango, just hand written on the page. It was not published. I think it was written by the local musicians to accompany a very obscure film called “The Flower Girl of Seville”. I have always loved this piece. It’s very sweet and deserves to be better known. So, this will be its premier in San Francisco. It’s called, “Amalia”. That’s a moment I look forward to because I know people are going to react to this piece. The second piece – there’s a scene towards the end where Fairbanks’ character is contemplating committing suicide. I wanted something special to happen there. Our cellist is very good. I gave him a challenge. We’re using the Intermezzo from the opera,”Goyescas” by Granados. It is a cello solo that has been played by virtuosos all over the world – Pablo Casals, Jacqueline Du Pré.

Seán: Does every member of the orchestra have the film in view?

Rodney: We do this a little differently from some. We all want to see the screen. We play chamber style – we don’t have a conductor. It depends on the piece, who needs to start it. So, everybody needs to be able to see the screen for those times when they’re cueing a piece. Over the years I’ve found I’m a lousy cue-giver. If the piece starts with a violin, it makes sense to let the violin cue it in. They’ll know how fast they want to play it and what they’re going to come in with.

Seán: Where are you based?

Rodney: Colorado, in a town called Louisville, near Boulder.

EVE SOUTHERN (as The Girl of the Shrine) and DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS (as The Gaucho)

Seán: What keeps you in Louisville, Colorado?

Rodney: First of all, everybody in the group is a professional musician. They all play in various ensembles around here. It’s where I’m raising my kids and where I have my collection. I moved out here and it’s where I’ve settled down. There are venues here, but we do travel around. There are some places to play silent films in Colorado. Kansas turns out to be an excellent place to play silent films. There’s a lot of these old movie theaters left from the ‘20s. A lot of them have turned into art centers. They love having entertainment come through town.

Seán: How many films do you play a year?

Rodney: It’s not a full-time thing. We usually perform between 12 and 20 shows a year.

Seán: Is there enough time in-between to allow for the planning?

Rodney: I would welcome more. But I don’t want to be touring six months out of the year. I never turn down an opportunity to play unless there’s a real problem. We do like to travel. We love San Francisco.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra – Clarinet: Brian Collins, Cello: David Short,
Violin: Britt Swenson, Piano: Rodney Sauer, Trumpet: Dawn Kramer


Seán: OK, then I want to put in a bid. I’m the biggest fan of Norma Shearer on the face of the earth. I’ll settle for most anything, but I would love to see you do a film that was made prior to her going to MGM. It’s a 1923 Warner Brothers epic, Lucretia Lombard. I saw it a long time ago down in Los Angeles at the Los Feliz Theatre. It may have had a score that went with it. Norma’s got everything but the hounds snapping at her rear end. Name the disaster, it happens to her. Then she dies in a fire. But, she is beautiful. And so young. MGM has not gotten to her yet – she’s yet to receive the MGM touch. But you can see why they latched onto her.

Rodney: And why she was a Star. It’s true with certain actors and actresses. Sometimes you see pictures of them and think ‘OK, yeah, they’re pretty enough, but what is it?’. And then you see them in motion. Different actresses go through these revivals. Six or seven years ago it was Marion Davies. Everyone was rediscovering her films. Mary Pickford has had a nice rediscovery lately.

Seán: What I find so impressive about your work are the subtle nuances and how you capture the flow of the story. I think I know a great deal about the styles of silent film acting. Your sensitivity to the feeling of the times is so amazing. What that is you learn along the way, right?

Rodney: Yes. You learn along the way when it’s too bombastic or not bombastic enough, and when a theme might need extra help. I think we make a bigger difference to a lesser film. We played for one of the Valentino films, “Cobra”. One of the reviewer’s comments was that ‘it’s a good thing Mont Alto played for this because it would have been deadly with a bad score.’ I think that’s true. We didn’t write this music. It was written by people who knew what they were doing back in the ‘20s. They were professional composers, some of them were classically trained. One of the composers we like is J.S. Zamecnik , a student of Anton Dvorak, who learned composition in the 1890s. He came back to America, but couldn’t get his stuff published. When he had the opportunity to write for silent films he took it very seriously. His thinking was that, after opera and ballet, this is the next big serious music genre that will come along and I’m in on the ground floor. When I discovered his music, almost no one was playing it, and certainly no one had recorded it since the ‘20s. I thought that if I could get this guy’s name and music out that people would be aware of it and know what to look for. I’ve had some success with that.


Seán: Are your scorings available on DVD?

Rodney: We’ve recorded 25 film scores for DVD. Our most recent is Bardelys The Magnificent which is being released today and which we’re playing live on Saturday. It will be available at the Festival. It has been lost for 80 years.

Seán: What film are you burning to do?

Rodney: I would love to do “Barbed Wire” with Pola Negri. It’s set in France in World War One.


She plays a woman whose farm is taken over for a prisoner of war camp. So, there are Germans being held in the prison. Unlike a lot of other films from that time, the Germans are portrayed as just being regular people who were caught up in the war like everybody else. The Hero is actually a prisoner of war and they fall in love. They think “we can’t get together now because we’re at war. But when the war is over everything will calm down and it will be as it was before.” What they find out is that war destroys everything. It’s a very powerful film.

Seán: How did this film come into your life?

Rodney: Someone sent me a video of it. There is only a 16 mm print that survives. But last year’s “Beggars of Life” blew up very nice to 35 mm. Hopefully, they’ll do it for “Barbed Wire”.

THE GAUCHO (1927) – Lupe Velez and Douglas Fairbanks
dancing a tango set to music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Click here to visit the: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

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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”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on 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:



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