COMPOSER Carl Davis has worked with the giants of the silent era -- nevermind that it's all been decades after the films came out.
So when he conducts the U.S. premiere of his score for the 1928 Harold Lloyd comedy classic "Speedy" on Saturday evening at Royce Hall, it won't be the first time he's given a silent movie a new voice.
But not too new. After all, he describes his score as very much of the movie's time. "I try to make Harold jazzy," Davis says. "He's 'Yes Sir, That's My Baby.' He's Paul Whiteman. He's Gershwin-y. 'Speedy' is actually the most pop-songy of the day of my four Lloyd [feature movie] scores. "
"Speedy" is the centerpiece of the 19th annual Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Silent Film Gala, which features Dustin Hoffman as honorary chairman. The film was Lloyd's last silent and one of his best. Shot on location in Manhattan, it centers on Lloyd's bespectacled "Everyman" Harold "Speedy" Swift, an absolute Yankee baseball nut who tries to save the last horse-drawn trolley bus in New York, operated by his girlfriend's grandfather. Babe Ruth has a wonderful cameo as a nervous passenger in Speedy's taxicab.
"I wrote the music for 'Speedy' in the 1990s for a special, very exciting new TV channel called Channel 4," says Davis. "They made a commitment to commission and screen these restorations of the silent classics with music by me. I have built up a repertoire of 50 features. This idea of live orchestra and films has become rather a specialty of mine."
Davis began his relationship with the LACO gala back in 1989, when he conducted Charlie Chaplin's own score for his 1931 masterwork "City Lights." "I had transcribed the score from the original parts that had been used at the recording sessions," says Davis. "We did all the major Chaplins [for LACO], two Buster Keatons and then I began this relationship with Harold Lloyd's granddaughter, Sue Lloyd, and I have done four scores for Lloyd movies."
"Speedy," he says, is a "very charming film. Harold is at his most daring and exciting. There's a most ingenious and wonderful parody of 'Ben-Hur,' " where he drives the streetcar like a chariot. I quote my own 'Ben-Hur' music" from the 1925 silent.
Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton were the top comedic geniuses of the silent era. Each had his own distinctive persona. "Chaplin is the man totally outside society, but he has to somehow exist alongside of society -- that is the Tramp and that made him loved," Davis says. "Keaton is the one of boundless ingenuity and optimism, with this funny face. Keaton is the connoisseur's filmmaker."
Lloyd, he adds, "is very clever and, in terms of sheer ingenuity, he is the cleverest of them all. Unlike the others, he desperately wants success. He is almost an archetype of what we regard as the American dream of success -- the house, the money, the property, the perfect wife. He desperately wants it. I think that made him a success of the time. . . . We now have a genuine appreciation of the art of filmmaking he brings to it, rather than his message."
LOS ANGELES CHAMBER ORCHESTRA'S SILENT FILM GALA
WHERE: Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
PRICE: $35, general seating; $75, priority seating; $300, gala includes post-film supper
INFO: (213) 622-7001, Ext. 215