WATERVILLE — Mark Tipton remembers going to a video store when he was young and renting Charlie Chaplin movies. Given the career Tipton would go on to have, it’s not surprising to hear where he found fault with the silent movie.

The music.

“I listened to the music that was provided, and I just thought it was a little boring and redundant,” Tipton said, “and I thought I’d like to try to spice it up a little bit.”

Tipton, who lives in Ellsworth and is the development director at the Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor, went on to study classical music at Oberlin College in Ohio and beyond, and he made good on wanting to spice up the score in silent movies. He’s written about two dozen and frequently performs the compositions live during screenings of the films.

“We actually just performed one at the Strand in Rockland,” he said, adding it was “Robin Hood” from 1922. “We had a very enthusiastic crowd.”

Tipton and his group — Les Sorciers Perdus, which translates to The Lost Wizards — will be coming back to the Maine International Film Festival on Wednesday to play a new score for the silent film “7th Heaven.”


The 1927 film was one of three films to be nominated for Best Picture at the inaugural Academy Awards held in 1929. While it didn’t win that award, it did clean up elsewhere. Actress Janet Gaynor won the first ever Best Actress award, and director Frank Borzage and screenwriter Benjamin Glazer each won the hardware in their respective categories.

The film is set in Paris just before World War I begins. It is a love story between a poor street sweeper and a prostitute. It was critically acclaimed upon its release and still boasts a 100 percent rating on the review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.

Les Sorciers Perdus played at last year’s festival, performing the score to another 1927 silent movie, “Sunrise.”

“I just thought it would be a fun project to take on,” Tipton said. “Maybe I’d do one or two films. At this point it’s been a while.”

Festival Programmer Ken Eisen praised Tipton’s scores, saying they bring a different experience to the audience.

“It becomes more than just watching a movie somehow,” Eisen said.


Silent films were never meant to be seen without accompanying music, Eisen said, and in the past they were always shown with live music — full orchestras in the big cities down to just a single piano in the small towns.

“If you’re showing it without music, you’re not really showing it,” he said.

“Sunrise” is one of the great classics of silent cinema, Eisen said. “7th Heaven” isn’t as well known, but he called it “absolutely fantastic.”

There is “incredible beauty and cinematic wonder in silent films,” he said, but while most people know silent film stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, there are many more “wonderful and timeless” silent films for audiences to enjoy. Silent films can be “visually beautiful” in a way films made after that era can’t be, he said, and they gave directors room to work in unique visual ways.

“I think audiences are going to be enchanted by it,” Eisen said of the film.

Tipton, who plays the trumpet, said his passion for that era of music was inspired by a person he worked with in Brooklyn: Vince Giordano, who specializes in 1920s and 1930s jazz. Tipton said Giordano had thousands of recordings of music that accompanied silent films.


“Hanging out with him in my 20s was a big influence,” Tipton said.

To prepare for “7th Heaven” or any film he’s scoring, Tipton said he will watch the film a few times without sound “so I can formulate my own reaction to it and see where the emotional tugs are.” From there, he makes a cue sheet, which outlines his responses to the movie. For a big score, such as the one for the 1927 German science fiction epic “Metropolis,” Tipton said there can be more than 200 cues. A shorter film will usually come in closer to 100

“There’s usually a lot of quick changes in films from that era,” he said.

From there he begins composing. Tipton said it takes “bits and pieces” of a month to write the composition, but he can get it done in two or three weeks if that’s all he’s focused on. All that boils down to about 100 hours of writing music, he said.

Since it’s an emotional film, “7th Heaven” was an interesting film to score, Tipton said; but it has slapstick moments as well, so he had to bring that out in the music, which he said is “lyrical and lush.”

“But it’s really a beautiful and romantic drama,” Tipton said. “I don’t think it’s lost anything with age. It still is a very poignant film, so anyone in the audience will get something out of it.”


While it’s difficult to find time for rehearsals with his job, Tipton said Les Sorciers Perdus, which has had a rotating cast over its 10-year run, tries to practice three to five times ahead of a screening performance. Plus added challenges are built in. Sometimes a venue will have a different version of the film than the one Tipton based his composition on.

“We have to adjust on the spot,” he said.

Performing his original scores to silent movies from the 1920s and 1930s is certainly a niche market, Tipton said, but it’s one that exists. Les Sorciers Perdus probably plays at least one of these shows a month, with some months busier than others. They have a good relationship with theaters up and down the coast, from One Longfellow Square in Portland — where he played his first film — to the Strand in Rockland. And scores continue to have multiple lives. The group will bring back scores to play multiple times.

While watching old Charlie Chaplin movies inspired him to want to write new compositions for silent movies, the first film he actually scored a decade ago was more obscure: a 1915 German horror movie called “The Golem.” Based on a Jewish myth, the film is about a clay statue brought to life to be a servant, but the golem goes on a murderous spree. The film itself is considered partially lost, since the Berlin-based archive it rests in contains mostly just fragments of the original. A lost film is a feature or short that no longer exists in any collection or archive, both public and private. It is part of a trilogy and was shown in the United States as “The Monster of Fate.”

“One Longfellow Square (in Portland) invited me to write a score — they had a series of silent films — and that’s what I chose,” Tipton said. “It’s visually compelling. That’s how all this got started in 2008.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis


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