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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

HISTORY LESSON: The Feinberg Brothers

Silent films? Not so silent.

When the motion pictures of the early days were played in movie houses, and later movie palaces, patrons not only got to indulge in the visual aesthetic splendor, adventure, and romance, but their ears were entertained by a nearby musician tickling the ivories of the piano or organ. Songs played were those popular in the era, and each was chosen particularly to fit the mood of a given sequence. Of course, there were also several songs written specifically for films, which in turn became popular hits.

While this music provided a pleasant distraction and enhanced the experience of the motion picture viewing, what few know is that, beyond the dialogue, there was much more going on behind the scenes that the audience would never hear. In order to enhance the performance of the actors, or to evoke certain emotions, movie studios would often hire musicians to play songs while they filmed! (Below is a picture taken of the musicians playing on the set of Fred Niblo's Dream of Love). Clara Bow, for example, always requested that "Rock-a-bye Baby" be played when she had to do a harrowing, crying scene. (The background of this is both interesting and sad. Clara lost a friend in childhood who was burned to death, and this song always reminded her of him. Just hearing the music brought up the dormant sorrows of her childhood, which in turn made her performances more touching and authentic). 

While their work was uncredited, these musicians were "instrumental" (sorry) in creating a specific environment for the actors they worked with. But when sound came in, set musicians went out! The transition must have been difficult for performers, who up until then had had an easy go-to for emotional provokation. They were now forced to rely soley on imagination to get their performances across. This is one of the reasons that the histrionic, dream-like quality of silent film performances differs so greatly from the more nuanced and natural acting style that was to come with sound. The actors that could make the transition prevailed, and the rest disappeared into celluloid history.

Two musician/brothers, Sam and Jack Feinberg, did quite of bit of on-set performing before the advent of sound. In particular, they did a great deal of work on films alongside Lon Chaney. The films they worked with him on were:
   1. Thunder (1929)    
   2. West of Zanzibar (1928)
   3. While the City Sleeps (1928)
   4. Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
   5. London After Midnight (1927)
   6. Mockery (1927)
   7. The Unknown (1927)
   8. Mr. Wu (1927)
   9. The Blackbird (1926)

                                               They even had cameo roles in While the City Sleeps. Apparently, Chaney, who was an accomplished, untrained dancer, enjoyed singing, dancing and cracking up with the brothers in between takes. John Feinberg is remembered in particular for his famous violin, crafted by Rembert Wurlitzer, which he managed to get over 100 celebrities to sign, including dignitaries, politicians, and movie stars. Even the most elusive celebrities were so fond of John that they would make an exception to their "no autographs" rule and pick up a pen. Lon Chaney was a very private man, giving out few autographed photos in his lifetime, and then only to good friends. It is therefore exceptional that his name graces the violin, as does the ever enigmatic Greta Garbo's (below on the set of Romance).

Other people who signed the notorious violin include: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jean Harlow, Herbert Hoover, Charles Lindberg, Albert Einstein, Buster Keaton, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, etc. The violin still exists, and was  sold at a Christie's auction as recently as 1991, (for I believe $50,000). It is indeed a great historical piece, one that told many stories in its owner's life, and continues to do so after his death. I have no photo of the true violin, but below is another Wurlitzer production that must be close in design. The actual instrument was 23 inches in length.

*** Update: I recently learned that the fabulous Geraldine Farrar, opera singer and movie star, was supposedly the first film performer to request mood music to enhance her performances for the camera.


  1. What a wonderful post! I'm a musician and I've done some research about the music for the silent films but I hadn't heard about the musicians playing to help actors get in character. How fascinating! You're going to my blogroll!

  2. Yay! Thanks! Yes, it is a little known bit of information since the phenomenon lasted so briefly. But it is interesting, no? Thanks for stopping by! I am seconds away from checking out your page as well :)

  3. I have a photo of the Feinberg violin!