sound for film & video

The Transformation of Lord Lorton

A study of the silent film leitmotif in action

One of the more impressive silent film projects I’ve had the pleasure to be involved with is the recording of Martin Mark’s score for Lady Windermere’s Fan, the 1925 Ernst Lubitsch version of Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name. [1] Aside from being a notable and striking representative of the mature end of the silent era, Marks put together a delightful score, one that I’ve found to have an abundance of rewards for those who study it. (And as a recording engineer, it’s almost impossible to avoid studying a score by default, due simply to the sheer number of times listen to it as you perfect the edits and check the mix.) I’ve found several instances in the recording we did in 2003 to be very good illustrations of the subtle craft that underlies silent film music.

One example in particular is a lovely case-study of how a leitmotif can be manipulated in surprising and powerful ways. The raw material is a small waltz by Frank C. Dougherty, bearing the strictly utilitarian title of “Waltz (For General Use).”

The raw material: Frank C. Dougherty's, “Waltz (For General Use)”

The first strain of the Dougherty waltz

Back when he was working at the Library of Congress Marks stumbled across it in a publication called A Collection of Descriptive Music for Photoplays. Many years later he got a chance to put it to work in “Lady Windermere’s Fan” as a theme for a secondary, yet pivotal character: Lord Agustus Lorton.

Lord Lorton spies Mrs. Erlynne for the first time

Lorton is introduced to us as a sort of comedy subplot — “…London’s most distinguished bachelor”,  with the adjective distinguished managing the trick of implying “older”, “perpetual”, and “somewhat less than dignified” all at once. Despite his high social status Lorton displays a shameless eye for attractive women, even those who aren’t Ladies with a capital L — women such as the mature, but still captivating Mrs. Erlynne, with whom he appears leeringly smitten at first glance, despite “polite” society’s ill-regard for her.

During Lorton’s initial scenes Marks utilizes a collection of several melodies, but all are played with a roguish, and somewhat pompous spring in the step. Dougherty’s waltz is comprised of two distinct strains, and when Lorton pays his first nervous and stiff courtship visit to Mrs. Erlynne, Marks introduces the first strain in E-flat major, playing it with a somewhat bouncy rhythm of repeated 8th notes:

The choice of a waltz compliments the decorous formality of his high-society courting, but at the same time the spring in the doubled 8ths creates a second, gently contrasting layer of ironic mockery. Both the film and the music begin to subtly clue us that Lorton’s going to be played as an unaware dupe.

One title card later (“when the relation becomes more friendly”) Lorton is obviously more… “comfortable” with his visits. Melodies from the same collection we heard during the first visit are duly reused, but are now played with a breezy informality in nearly double-time, matching the sight of Lorton’s jaunty (and presumptive) familiarity. That is, until he drops into a jealous bluster at the sight of another man’s cigar in Mrs. Erlynne’s ashtray. (A sly visual double-entendre by the filmmakers, perhaps?) While she engineers this awkward event into an opportunity to wrap Lorton further around her finger, Marks mocks his indignity with the second strain of Dougherty’s waltz, in a comically menacing C-sharp minor.

Then, as she fully takes command by directly challenging the depth of Lorton’s feelings, the first strain returns (this time in E major), with its repetitive 8th notes now striking the ear a bit like the nah-nah of a playground taunt, underlining his powerlessness as he absorbs a thrust he cannot parry. (Soon he’ll be ending this scene with sad puppy eyes of contrition while other tunes continue to needle him in a similar fashion.)

By now both the film and the music have firmly established that Lord Lorton is a device — he exists as a foil for the demonstration of Mrs. Erlynne’s superior wiles. Yet in spite of this it’s also clear that Mrs. Erlynne is genuinely fond of him. And, more importantly, she needs him in order to regain her status in society.

Later it appears an invitation to Lady Windermere’s birthday party will offer the opportunity she’s been waiting for. But at the last minute the invitation is retracted, and Mrs. Erlynne finds herself rebuffed and humiliated in the foyer. Just as all seems lost, Lorton enters and again serves as a device, but this time as the device of her rescue.

The overall scene starts off with the second strain of the Dougherty waltz (once again representing a moment of tense social awkwardness), but upon Lorton’s entry Marks performs a wonderful slight of hand: rather than cycling back yet again to the first strain of Lorton’s ‘theme’, he instead reprises one of the other melodies woven into the earlier courtship scenes. [2] Only this time, there’s a difference; whereas earlier this melody had appeared in 4/4, here it’s performed as… a waltz! And one so similar a tone to the earlier instances of Dougherty’s first strain that a musical relationship is created, and the sense of mockery is reinforced yet again. [3] By choosing the alternate melody Marks avoids the hazard of tiresome repetition, but preserves the feeling of continuity through the style of playing; different music, yet the same “characteristic” pompous bounce. Plot wise, poor Lorton may have now advanced from fool to accidental hero, but as far as the music is concerned he remains unreformed, still serving as no more than a peg from which bits of comedy relief and plot development can be hung.

We’ve now experienced three scenes in which a jaunty waltz is used to torment poor Lorton without his being the wiser — that qualifies as laying it down pretty hard.

Having gained entry to the party, Mrs. Erlynne sets to work charming, flattering, and captivating all the guests, both male and female. Most especially, she wins over Lorton himself, who is so impressed by her heretofore unsuspected social abilities that he finally surrenders his remaining doubts about her suitability. In a pivotal shot that arrives as a surprise to the audience (spoiler alert!), Lorton kisses her hand and proposes marriage. And right “on cue” the first strain of Dougherty’s waltz returns. It’s even in the same E-flat major we first heard it. But this time there’s a vital change: Marks strips away the bouncing 8th notes, along with any other traces of mockery. Instead this now quite-familiar motif is presented afresh, in grand romantic style, sincere and heartbreakingly sweet. The new treatment stands in shimmering contrast not just to the tense drama of the preceding scene but also to the relentless musical taunting so firmly established in all of Lorton’s earlier appearances:

The glittering musical gift Marks bestows upon this long-abused character serves as a perfect reflection of, and reward for, the character’s own gallant gesture; Lord Lorton restores Mrs. Erlynne’s respectability, and in turn the composer grants Lorton (at long last!) a restoration of his dignity. Through the skillful stylistic manipulation of identical raw musical material a composer helps a character undergo — in a single startling moment — a metamorphosis from comedy relief to romantic hero. And provides us with a marvelous example of the mechanics and emotional power of the leitmotif.

The 1925 production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is available on the 3 DVD boxed set “More Treasures from American Film Archives“, produced and released through the National Film Preservation Foundation.


1: How do you make a silent film from a play written by one of the most gymnastically verbose playwrights ever to set pen to paper? Almost everyone I’ve told about it has said, “They must have used a lot of title cards.” Quite to the contrary, and perhaps ironically, the use of inter titles is almost terse. Instead Lubitsch succeeded in conveying the complex plot and cross-currents in primarily visual terms. Wilde’s clever prose may not be in evidence, but his the other engine of his work — a keen understanding of social mores — was transferred to the screen quite intact.

2: Billet-doux, by George Clutsam.

3: Indeed, Marty’s stylistic weaving here is so skillful that for quite a while I was under the mistaken impression he had returned to the first strain of the Dougherty waltz. It was only when I launched into breaking out the examples for this essay that I finally realized it was a different piece altogether.

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