The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Hesperus uses early English music to accompany the 1922 silent movie version of “Robin Hood” — Part 2 of 2

July 11, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

This Monday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Madison Early Music Festival – in partnership with the Wisconsin Film Festival — will screen a 1922 silent film version of “Robin Hood” with period-appropriate musical accompaniment provided by the Arlington, Virginia-based early music group Hesperus.

Here is a link to their homepage:

At 6:30 p.m., also in Mills Hall, Hesperus member Tina Chancey (below) will give a one-hour pre-concert lecture about “The Search for Robin Hood.”

Individual tickets are $10 and are available at the door.

For more information about the festival – including tonight’s all-John Dowland concert by The King’s Noyse, visit:

Chancey recently gave The Ear an e-mail interview and preview about her lecture and the mixed media event. Here is the second of two parts:

How is the Fairbanks version different from the Errol Flynn remake from the 1930s?

In 1922 things were not going well in Hollywood. People weren’t buying movie tickets and actors and technicians were being laid off in droves. Douglas Fairbanks ((below) was also in a slump; he had been playing romantic comedies for five or six years and he was bored stiff. His friends and advisors suggested that he take advantage of his natural athleticism and develop film projects that showed him off as a kind of action hero. His first one, the 1920 “Mark of Zorro,” was a big success; “Robin Hood” was his second historical swashbuckler.

Filming “Robin Hood” put a lot of actors and stagehands back to work; they built a 900-foot high castle in the middle of what’s now Santa Monica Boulevard and populated it with hundreds of extras. Set designers included a lot of nifty stunts for Fairbanks-at one point he slides down a curtain in the banquet hall, under which is hidden a long playground slide. He also climbs up walls using hidden handholds and jumps off battlements onto trampolines.

All of these stunts are common today, but they were invented for this film. The version with Flynn (below) is fine, but I like Fairbanks better. He’s a complex character, alternately brave and vain, afraid of women and chivalrous, goofy and clever.

Fairbanks sounds like a pretty complex person in real life.

He was quite a handful sometimes. One of my favorite stories concerns a publicity stunt he did for the film’s opening in New York in 1923. He was supposed to dress in a suit, go to the top of the Empire State Building and pretend to shoot an arrow off the observation deck.  However, when the photographers stopped shooting he let the arrow go ‘by mistake’ and off it sailed into the streets of Manhattan. Next morning, the newspaper had two pictures side-by-side, Fairbanks shooting an arrow, and a poor tailor on the lower East Side who was sewing by an open window when an arrow came through it and hit him in the butt. The tailor received $5,000 in compensation, quite a figure in those days, and Fairbanks got some very good publicity from his publicity stunt gone awry.

Why do you do this project and what do you hope it achieves for the audience?

HESPERUS’ mission is to bring the music of the past alive by collaborating with other artistic disciplines such as film, theater, dance and mime. People love movies, and live film scores are very popular right now.

By doing music from when the film was SET, not when it was filmed, we’re giving the (often) extreme acting styles of the 1920’s a historical context; it seems less silly and the audience feels more grounded in place and time. Many people have said to us that by the middle of the film the music and video blend together; they forget we’re in the room with them.

How do audiences usually react to it?

Here’s a sample response: “I’ve been raving about Sunday’s movie performance to my friends.  Your music performance and singing was fantastic.  It made seeing the film like going on a magical trip. I hope lots more people will get the opportunity to experience this.”

How does seeing the film illuminate the music? How does the music illuminate the film?

I like to pair music that’s non-programmatic with a narrative; the music naturally enhances the dramatic impact of the film, and the narrative line makes the music speak more vividly than before. One of my favorite pairings of music and action is the use of the song Madame d’Amours for the love scenes between Robin and Marion; it’s very moving.

There are many film versions of Robin Hood, including this summer’s release with Russell Crowe. Do you have favorite versions and can you explain what you like or dislike about them?

Since we don’t have hard facts about the life of an actual Robin Hood, screenplays about him draw on a variety of stories made up any time between the year 1150 and the present. In the early stories he’s a knave and a trickster; later he becomes a yeoman and later a knight; by the time of Henry VIII he’s a nobleman unjustly accused and banished; in later centuries he begins to rob from the rich and give to the poor and he acquires a merry band and a girlfriend.

As you trace the character’s development, you notice that he gains appropriate new qualities in each subsequent era, according to the qualities that era most values. There’s a parallel with Santa Claus and with Zorro, both literary creations that changed through the years.

I like the Richard Greene (below) Robin Hood TV show in the 1960s, and the recent BBC version; the first for the show’s theme song (complete with French horns), the second for its sheer inventiveness of plot.

If you go to “Robin Hood,” let The Ear know what you thought of this mixed media event using 16th century music and 20th century film.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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