Marilyn Lerner Talks Scoring Silent Film

February 21, 2018 | By

Marilyn Lerner. (Photo credit: Lauren Des Marteaux)

Back in November of 2017, Marilyn Lerner performed her score for Frank Borzage’s 1928 silent classic Street Angel live at Toronto’s Revue Cinema, and she returns this Sunday February 25th for the Conrad Veidt circus shocker The Man Who Laughs, Paul Leni’s 1928 film version of Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel.

Programmed by Alicia Fletcher, the current Silent Revue series The Greatest Show on Earth has featured tales from the circus, and tales of clowns – some romantic, some demented, some straight comedic – and in my latest podcast (seen end for download links) I discuss with Lerner her unique gift for jazz, improv, and performing music live while supporting a film’s story, characters, performances, and feeding off audience reactions as well as her own.

It’s a remarkable and unique skill which adds extensively to the experience of seeing a film with live music, and the Revue’s been programming select and carefully curated classics, rarities, and oddities for some time. Programming Director Eric Veillette hosted the first Silent Revue screening in 2009, and was profiled in a recent piece just as the programme was navigating through its 8th season.

My conversation with Lerner extends beyond her scoring & performing live, and includes philosophical and aesthetic thoughts on silent film and film noir, and the art of improvising. During our Q&A, a few names pop up, and as mentioned at the end of the podcast, there are some related reviews at

Time didn’t permit an in-depth review of Street Angel – I still have yet to find time and tackle that giant Murnau, Borzage at Fox 12 film set I picked up for a song at HMV several years ago (and yes the DVD hub & pockets are pretty terrible) – but in relation to Janet Gaynor, like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Borzage’s Street Angel was a revelation in German Expressionism, directorial style, and Janet Gaynor’s marvelous acting.

She appeared in the aforementioned films, and is perhaps best known for co-starring with Fredric March in David O. Selznick’s Technicolor production of A Star is Born (1937), a film I reviewed in depth alongside the 1954 Judy Garland remake, the 1976 Barbara Streisand remake, and the film that started it all, the 1932 Constance Bennett classic What Price Hollywood?

I also bring up the film score for Joe May’s 1921 production of Indian Tomb, a pulpy mini-epic of escapism written by Fritz Land and Thea von Harbou, which Lang later remade himself in 1959. That colour diptych – split up as Indian Tomb and Tiger from Eschnapur with an outrageous cliffhanger – starred Debra Paget and a mixed German-French cast, given the exotica was a co-production released in those countries with respective dub tracks. (I reviewed the May production on DVD in a smaller capsule format, but the Lang production is more detailed, and was written after a rare 2012 35mm presentation at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.)

A review of The Man Who Laughs will follow shortly after this weekend, and my follow-up podcast will feature silent film composer-performer Jeff Rapsis, who performed his full score for A.W. Sandberg’s epic melodrama The Golden Clown / Klovnen (1926), which screened January 28th.

That lengthy conversation will be up in 1-2 weeks, but please give my chat with Marilyn Lerner a spin, as it’s available on Google Play, iTunes, Libsyn, and YouTube.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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Category: EDITOR'S BLOG, INTERVIEWS, podcast

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