The business of bringing silent films alive for audiences in the 1910's and 1920's required the able assistance of talented musicians. From the organ bench or orchestra pit the scoring and accompaniment of the movie had the potential to magnify the qualities of any picture, perhaps even saving a mediocre or poor film. The musicians were required to provide emotional, dramatic and artistic assist to each picture. The selection of music they used was critical if the movie was going to be a success. For those players and orchestra leaders, it must have been grueling (if creatively rewarding) work. Their success and failure, based on period reports, indicate that the style and quality of movie music varied widely; it all depended on the training, background, abilities and tastes of the house talent.
The best and largest movie palaces had top end professional organists and full symphony orchestras. Here a patron was ensured of music that would match or surpass any screen drama or comedy. These legendary theaters, such as the Roxy in New York City rivaled their concert hall peers, sometimes surpassing them, in the quality of performance and diversity and difficulty of the repertoire on offer. Conductors such as Eugene Ormandy, and composers like Villa-Lobos, began in the silent cinema. However, no matter how large or small the ensemble, no matter it's technical ability, it still had to score a new film every week if not every day. Large theaters had the staff and in-house libraries to handle the inundation.
Yet, even in small towns, like Kittanning, there were also a variety of solutions to the problem. Professional musicians and semi-professional amateurs played the pictures daily and nightly. In Kittanning the Columbia Theater featured a theater organ, while the Lyceum boasted about its orchestra (a small group of 5 to 9 players). I am unsure of the full range of accompaniment at the other movie houses in town, but in nearby Ford City, The Roxy featured piano and violin, and occasionally one other player; either a drummer, clarinetist, or trumpeter. But how did they know what to play for several different movies a week, for hundreds of films over the course of only a few years?
One solution to providing effective music for the endless stream of dramatic situations was the cue sheet.
Cue sheets were a shorthand guide to the film which listed appropriate musical numbers for each part or "cue" of the film. These musical selections printed on the cue sheet were only suggestions that the players might follow closely or completely ignore. Most directors or accompanists had, at most, one chance to see the film before they played the picture live on opening night; which was generally considered the dress rehearsal. So to aid them in making the movie successful - which was in the interest of everyone: musicians, theater owners, film companies, music publishers - cue sheets were sent out to help guide the local talent make effective choices. The pianist, organist, or orchestra leader would look over the cue sheet, watch the film once (if possible), and organize music accordingly to play during the film's public run, adjusting afterward or on the fly, as needed. Some musicians never saw a cue sheet, some used them, ignoring them as much or as little as they pleased. Some musicians resented cue sheets as just another chance for film companies and music publishers to work together to push their ware. Some theatrical chains had in-house musical staff that would prepare music and send them out to the theaters in the chain, but this was an expensive and time consuming process; and a few top end motion pictures had new or compiled musical scores written especially for them, films like the 1925 Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
Below is the complete cue sheet for the 1926 Action Pictures western melodrama, Ace of Action. The film was directed by William Bertram and starred Wally Wales, Alma Redford, and Charles Colby, and had a screenplay by Betty Burbridge. The music has been suggested by James C. Bradford who edited hundreds of cue-sheets during the silent film era.
As you can see, the cue sheet sketches out each bit of the film, either by referring to an on-screen event (action), or to one of the title cards that carried the dialogue and other text (title), each section or cue also indicated the type and change of music. The music needed is illustrated with a musical quotation, and is listed by title with the composer's name in parenthesis, the approximate running time for the piece of music, and finally the copyright information for that work.
Today cue sheets are a valuable guide to the past for two reasons: 1. many of these films are lost, Ace of Action being one of them. In fact many scholars estimate that 80 to 90% of all silent films are lost forever, so cue sheets, along with press releases, advertisements, and reviews are about the only way we can ever know the contents of these movies, and 2. For those who wish to keep silent movies with live musical accompaniment alive, they provide a written record of what a particular film score might have sounded like, although as always, they were only one set of many, many possibilities.