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When a Pop Tune in a Silent Movie Isn’t Real…or Is It?

“Sing ‘Fly, Birdie, Fly’,” Angela Fish is prompted by her father in a scene from “Bell Boy 13”. She sits at the piano, beckons Douglas MacLean to join her on the bench, and launches into the song. What do I play here?

There isn’t the usual obligatory shot of the sheet music on the piano’s music rack. So, the song is either something everyone should know — like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” or “Jingle Bells” — or a fabrication by the scenarist. Right? I couldn’t quite figure out which of these possibilities was the reality, but I wanted to give it a shot and meet the expectations of the viewers who’d be watching the DVD I was producing and scoring.

A rabbit hole down Google didn’t turn up a pop tune from the ‘teens or ‘twenties. It didn’t turn up a hit record from a couple years’ prior to the film’s 1923 release, the way the Vernon Dalhart record of “The Prisoner’s Song” does for Steamboat Bill, Jr.. That song apparently had been around a lot longer than Dalhart’s record, but evidence of that for “Fly, Birdie, Fly” didn’t turn up. There were a couple of small search hits that popped, but for recordings many years after sound came in.

Bellboy 13
Emily Gerdes and Douglas MacLean in a production still from Bellboy 13 (1923), seen here in a lobby card

Emily Gerdes, who plays Angela Fish, may be faking her piano playing, but she is clearly singing the words “Fly, Birdie, Fly” in the two-shot of her and MacLean, and seems to be singing something that’s an actual song. Who knows? They may all have figured “no one’s going to hear anything, just make something up”. 

Which is what I did for my score. It’s something I’ve done before, where a song doesn’t actually exist or where sheet music for something doesn’t survive or isn’t readily findable. Or if it’s so obscure no one will know. I’ll create a piece that sounds like it’s from (in this case) the early 20s sounds like it’s what the people onscreen are singing or playing. That way, at least, if fits what the audience is taking in and they can forget about it and just enjoy the scene and the gags.

What’s fun about the tune in Bell Boy 13 is that it’s brought back later in the film. And, for fun and for rule-of-three’s symmetry, I close out the film’s score with it.

The Douglas MacLean Collection DVD from Undercrank Productions DVD is available on Amazon, the TCM Shop, DeepDiscount and other online retailers (click here to order). I’ll also have copies for sale at shows I’m playing in 2020.

Douglas MacLean Collection DVD

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