Silent film to come to life with live music

Maria Newman wrote a new score for the silent film, “Daddy-Long-Legs” and will conduct and perform with the Malibu Coast Chamber Orchestra to a screening of the film Saturday at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. Photo by Amy Williams / TMT

Malibu Film Society screening of “Daddy-Long-Legs” to be accompanied by live music by Malibu Coast Chamber Orchestra.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The Malibu Film Society will show a fully restored version of Mary Pickford’s classic crowd-pleaser, “Daddy-Long-Legs,” Saturday at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. The 1919 silent feature film, directed by Marshall Neilan, will screen accompanied by the Malibu Coast Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Malibu resident Maria Newman.

Newman had originally written the score for “Daddy-Long-Legs” at the request of the Mary Pickford Foundation and Timeline Films, when the foundation began a major project to digitally restore several of Pickford’s films, many of them drawn from the collection of the Library of Congress about 10 years ago.

Although her father, Alfred Newman, is one of Hollywood’s most prolific and celebrated film composers (he has won nine Oscars for his work on such films as “The King and I” and “Camelot” and nominated for well more than 40 others, including the 1955 musical “Daddy Long Legs”) and her brother, David Newman, has followed in their father’s footsteps, an award-winning film composer in his own right, Maria Newman took a classical path.

“A film historian I’ve known a long time, Hugh Monro Neely, approached me about scoring this particular movie,” Newman said. “Unlike my brother, I consider myself a classical composer, so I didn’t think this would be for me. I’m from this famous, intimidating family and I just never wanted the pressure of composing for film. But Hugh said that they wanted me to compose in my own language, so I saw this as a fun challenge.”

Mary Pickford was a Broadway actress from Canada 100 years ago when she hesitantly accepted work in “the flickers” at D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studios to make ends meet. She soon became the highest paid actor in Hollywood, known as “America’s Sweetheart,” and founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks in a bid for independency from the major studios.

In an era when women were denied the right to vote, Pickford was granted unprecedented production authority over her films and she shrewdly capitalized on her strengths-a perception of her as an innocent and naïve, curly-locked waif.

“Daddy-Long-Legs” exemplifies that image. Adapted from a 1912 novel by American author Jean Webster, the story concerns a young orphan, Judy Abbott, who is sponsored through college by an anonymous donor. Because she has only caught a glimpse of his shadow as a tall, long-legged man, Judy addresses her monthly letters to him as Daddy-Long-Legs. It turns out that (spoiler alert) her benefactor is not some old graybeard but the wealthy young man with whom she has already fallen in love.

The story was so popular that three versions of the movie were made, with the 1955 adaptation, starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, scored by Newman’s father.

During the silent film epoch, movies shown at theaters were normally accompanied by a single tinny piano, with stock songs of the era frequently being incorporated and familiar riffs being played during chase scenes or romantic interludes. Newman chose not to take that route, eschewing source music of the day for her “own language.”

“Hugh was looking for something unique in this new score and didn’t demand any parameters,” Newman said. “So I went entirely with how the film affected me emotionally, rather than with stock music of the time.”

Consequently, in a scene where children at the orphanage get ahold of some applejack, Newman scored dissonant music to give the feeling of tipsiness, reflecting what was showing on screen. “The music really follows the pace of the film,” Newman said.

Originally scored for a small chamber orchestra, with orchestration written for one player on the separate instrumental sections, Newman expanded the orchestration to accommodate larger groups, dependent on the venue (the group appearing at the Malibu Jewish Center will comprise six or seven players, including percussion).

Newman will conduct, play the violin and a snare drum. “I added a snare to give a sort of military flavor to a couple of scenes,” she said. “You know, [Igor] Stravinsky also did several different orchestrations of his pieces because, during the war, he never knew what ensemble makeup he would be traveling with. Normally, with a chamber group, there is no conductor and everyone just works together. In accompanying a film, you have to keep pace with what’s happening on screen. So I watch the movie while playing, to make sure we’re not too early or too late.”

The Malibu Coast Chamber Orchestra performs at the Montgomery Arts House through the Malibu Friends of Music, a nonprofit organization that Newman and her husband Scott Hosfeld founded, which provides concert experiences in the home expressly designed for such, and is open to the public and free.

Hosfeld also performs as part of the chamber group. He agrees that the challenge to this type of play is in conforming to the “relentless” tyranny of the film.

“You are under the gun to be consistent throughout,” Hosfeld said. “You have milliseconds to jump on the instant something is happening onscreen. And everyone plays for ninety minutes, with no rests between movements and no time to turn pages.

“Maria is very good at finding the emotional thread with the music,” Hosfeld continued. “Even though she’s a 21st century composer, she plays timeless music.”

“Daddy-Long-Legs” will screen this Saturday, Dec. 5, at 7:30 p.m. at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, 24855 Pacific Coast Highway. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door for adults (free to MFS members); $15 in advance, $20 at the door for children 17 and under; $20 in advance, $25 at the door for college students and faculty. Tickets, Malibu Film Society membership and more information can be obtained online at or by calling 310.589.0223.