The Patsy - new music by Gwyneth Herbert
(Birds Eye View Festival, BFI South Bank- March 10th 2010, review by Alyn Shipton)
A high point of the BFI’s annual women’s film festival, Birds Eye View, was a newly commissioned score for Marion Davies’ 1928 silent comedy classic "The Patsy", by the jazz vocalist and songwriter Gwyneth Herbert.
Although Herbert made her name as a singer of jazz ballads and - on her latest CD All The Ghosts - performs strikingly original songs about London life, she chose to create a sound world that mainly used her voice as an instrumental colour. It was absorbed into a whimsical, dreamlike musical landscape populated by kazoos, swanee whistles, melodicas, ukuleles, guitars and assorted percussion, that set an appropriately irreverent backdrop to the movie.
However, Herbert permitted herself one new song, a highly memorable theme which book-ended the familiar story of the put-upon girl who falls in love with her older sister’s boyfriend. Starting as "She’s not the sort of girl for you", by the end it had become “Everybody knows that she’s the girl for you”. The jaunty contour of its melody line reappeared in much of the musical accompaniment to the film itself. Anchored by Al Cherry's ragtimey guitar, this nodded at hot club jazz, skiffle, and blues.
There were musical jokes aplenty, with a howl of feedback every time Marie Dressler as Davies’s harridan of a mother spoke. The MGM lion gave out female growls, a running gag about a faulty doorbell prompted a repetitive chimed theme, and car sequences spurred whirring theremins and a volley of motor horns.
Herbert’s three-piece band, of herself, Cherry and multi-instrumentalist Foz Foster, neatly side-stepped the piano clichés of many silent film comedy scores. A sequence involving Davies and her would-be lover Tony in a rowing boat might have invited frantic chase music as his oars splashed into the water behind the local cad’s speedboat, but Herbert chose to give us a glimpse inside the dreamy thoughts of Davies watching her man at work. A quarrel over a Spanish shawl was wittily accompanied by a habanera, and the timing of the dancers’ feet in a ball scene was perfectly anticipated.
If there were weaknesses in the score, which somewhat went round in circles at about the 45th minute of this hour-and-a-bit long movie, they were down to the original editing, which required a sharper scalpel than Davies’s indulgent lover, the media magnate William Randolph Hearst, was prepared to allow her producers at the time.
Photo credit Sophia Schorr-Kon