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The Dartmouth
May 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Silent film gets Dartmouth sound

For a long time it looked like the 1928 feature "Miss Sadie Thompson" had gone the way of many silent films, lying forgotten in a storeroom of dusty old movies, the film stock silently decomposing.

Twenty members of the Dartmouth Wind Symphony will be performing the score to "Sadie Thompson" during a live screening of the film in Spaulding on Friday, at eight p.m. -- a monumental junction of vintage film and live sound.

The story of "Sadie" is based upon a short story by Somerset Maugham, "Miss Thompson."

Four years after its release in movie theaters the film was made into a play and film with sound, both with the title "Rain."

Sadie Thompson is a prostitute who tries to escape from her past in San Francisco and forge a new identity in the South Sea islands.

Amidst carousing with US marines in the tropics, Thompson meets Davidson (Lionel Barrymore), a man who tries to turn her to a life of upright morality. But Davidson's motives are not as pure as they seem.

While seeing an old masterpiece such as "Sadie" on the big screen is a special opportunity, it is an even rarer occasion to see such a movie accompanied by live music. Not only will Dartmouth community members be able to hear "Sadie" accompanied by the Dartmouth Wind Symphony, but they will hear a new score composed in 1987 by Joseph Turrin.

Turrin is rumored to appear as a guest at the performance.

"More and more audiences are interested in multimedia events such as this, especially younger audiences," said Max Culpepper, director of the Dartmouth Wind Symphony.

When asked how Turrin's score evokes the mood of the film, he noted "Sadie was a loose woman, and whenever she's partying with the marines, there is a little ragtime theme."

The Wind Symphony is an organization used to performing eccentric performances. "I like to do things that are a little bit different, things with theatrics," Culpepper said.

Due to a limited budget for the original live performance of restored "Sadie," Turrin composed the score largely on woodwind instruments such as clarinets and oboes. The ensemble this Friday will also include a piano, two cellos and a bass.

Turrin chose woodwind instruments because of their tendency to fill up large spaces with fewer instruments, Culpepper noted.

Thus the Dartmouth Wind Symphony, ostensibly composed of such instruments, is perfect for the score.

When asked why he liked this film, Culpepper said it was for its daring content matter.

"This film has everything audiences like -- sex and violence," he said. Due to strict censorship rules on early movies, much of the dialogue and plot had to be inferred by the audience, unlike today when everything is laid out on the table.

"Sadie Thompson" is a classic film, one that dared to tackle sensitive issues in a time when the United States was still reeling from Red Scares and labor riots. Turrin's score and the restored film should recreate all of the drama and excitement of the 1920s this Friday.