Just add music

Tonight was the annual Halloween concert at IU Auditorium. We watched the legendary Dennis James play a score to the 1925 classic The Lost World, an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story.

The organ at the auditorium dates to 1889 and is a legend itself: 4,543 pipes, 109 stops and has been playing on campus since 1948. It was built for the Chicago fair, at a cost of $65,000. The Internet tells me that would be almost $2 million today. It came to IU after a restoration in Boston in 1944. The largest pipe is 32 feet, it takes two people to move the organ on station, and has more than 100 miles of electric wiring. Also, it sounds darned impressive.

James, meanwhile, is a graduate of IU. He started this particular gig when he was a college student, as a joke and an excuse to get to play the organ. Now he’s a world-renowned performer. He’s played everywhere and touched anything with keys worth operating. He comes back each fall, for 51 years now, to play a Halloween show. And the spirits are looking in.

He told us how music worked in cinema before they put sound to film. It’s a fascinating process, one we’ve all forgotten to think or ask about. Turns out most movies just sent a basic system of sound cues and the resident organist would fill in the spaces based on their interpretation and their own personal libraries. James reeled off a bunch of the music we’d hear in his performance, but I was too lost in trying to imagine how any movie would have as many personalities as it would performers to jot many of the titles down.

The Bat Signal!

The movie was state of the art stop-motion animation. You can find the full film, and various different edits, on YouTube, but it’s just not the same as being there feeling the music coming from everywhere around you.

By the way, this was the first movie to be shown as an in-flight movie. (Which was dangerous in a lot of ways in 1925.) And it was lost for about 80 years, James said, because an order came down from the movie company to destroy the prints, and so most of them were burned. The copy you can enjoy today was held by a private collector and “discovered” in 2003. I’m sure there’s a good story, there. Anyway, the movie!

So no one in England, Jolly Old, believes this one professor who says he’s found dinosaurs living in contemporary Brazil. It’s always the jungle, you see. And so he creates a team to go bring back proof, and find the missing member of his original team. So we follow the adventures of this intrepid bunch — including a famous big game hunter, a young journalist, the daughter of the missing man and a few others — into the Amazon. They find the dinosaurs and a whole lot more. And the dinosaurs are some pretty impressive work, giving the state of the film-making art of the time.

Watterson R. Rothacker, whose name you see on the title card, was the owner of one of the early film processing laboratories. The Industrial Motion Picture Company opened in 1909 and Rothacker and his partners made industrial films that were used for advertising companies, and produced newsreel footage. From what I’ve read, he was keenly interested in using film to educate the masses. Our man was running one of the largest laboratories in silent film on a strip of land in North Chicago where Northwestern is today. By 1914 IMP could put seven cameras in the field at once. And then came The Lost World, which was apparently the firm’s biggest popular project. First National Pictures, which brought you this lovely movie, would ultimately fall under Warner Brother’s control.

And it turns out, in addition to our musical accompaniment being a world-class professional, he is a total ham.

The show was great. It’s one part organ concert, which was our purpose for being there — my step-father loves the pipe organ and this was the first opportunity he’s had to enjoy the old Roosevelt machine — and one part classic theater. During the intermission we all agreed that it was easy to forget the one and concentrate on the other. The film was a lovely 1920s romp. I found myself suspending disbelief about the idea of dinosaurs, but not about the geography required to have a volcano on top of a mesa. And how the volcano is only a bit part, meant to showcase some action. There were plot holes, is what I’m saying. But there was good action! It’s a romp for kids, and we all felt like kids again seeing it. No one moreso, perhaps, than James. I shot this from the hip, but isn’t it interesting how the mask is the part that comes into focus …

Tis the season for spooky things.

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