Silent film 'Body and Soul' is 'scandalous' once again Revived: A showing of Oscar Micheaux's 1924 film, restored to its full length and with live music, will raise funds for the building of the Heritage Museum of African Americans in Film.

March 20, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

When Michael Johnson was casting about for ideas for the first fund-raiser for the building fund of the Heritage Museum of African Americans in Film, one in particular caught his attention for the sweet symmetry it represented: showing a classic African-American silent film with live musical accompaniment.

"All the grand theaters in the silent era had pipe organs," Johnson says. "They'd send music sheets with the movie, and the organists would play whatever they were sent."

It's rare enough even to see a silent film on the big screen today, let alone one with live musicians providing the score. But jTC Johnson wants to bring the tradition back to life. He has commissioned Baltimore musician and professor William "Bill" Cummings to write original music for "Body and Soul," Oscar Micheaux's 1924 film starring Paul Robeson in his film debut. The film will be screened tonightat the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Robeson plays a dissolute preacher who seduces a young parishioner, bringing them both to ruin with his drinking, gambling and rapaciousness. The characterization was so strong that the New York state censor board found it objectionable on the grounds that it was "scandalous, immoral and would tend to lead to crime." To assuage their concerns and ensure the release of his film, Micheaux cut the controversial scenes out of "Body and Soul," shortening it from nine reels to five, according to Johnson. He also re-shot a more upbeat ending.

The "Body and Soul" the audience will see tonight is "the full version, with all of the stuff taken out of it [put back in]," said Johnson.

Cummings will perform the music on an electronic keyboard.

Cummings, who is a professor and director of college choirs at Coppin State College, compares scoring a movie to writing commercial jingles, which he has also done during his 30-year career. "It's almost the same thing," he said. "Composing is creating moods. I can go to the beach, or go to the woods, and simulate that feeling in music."

To compose the "Body and Soul" score, Cummings watched a videotape of the film and divided it into segments, "from the high points and low points, [then tried] to create moods that relate."

The Heritage Museum of African Americans in Film is scheduled to open in June at 5 W. North Ave., in the former Parkway Theater. The 5,000-square-foot space will house two exhibition halls for artifacts and memorabilia from African-American filmmakers and stars, as well as a 250-seat theater on the second floor. The museum will also have a store selling hard-to-find African-American videos. The first exhibit will feature the films and career of Dorothy Dandridge, known for her roles in "Carmen Jones" and "Island in the Sun."

Johnson said that he hopes to do more openings of silent classics with live accompaniment once the Heritage opens. "This is how movies were meant to be seen in those days, with a musician," said Johnson, "and that's what we're really excited about."

Sound of silents

What: "Body and Soul," with live musical accompaniment by William "Bill" Cummings

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive

When: Today at 8 p.m.

Tickets: Any donations accepted (all proceeds benefit the building fund of the Heritage Museum of African Americans in Film)

Call: 410-764-0184

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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