Appreciating When a Man Loves / Manon Lescaut (1926-7)

When a Man Loves - “WAML” for simplicity’s sake - a non-speaking movie with a synchronized musical
soundtrack, is a movie and score that is waiting to find its full place in film, film music, and general musical
history. While it has long been recognized as the first feature length film of its type with a fully-composed,
recorded and synchronized soundtrack, it has been overshadowed by the exuberant first Vitaphone
synchronized sound feature, Don Juan, and the well-known Jazz Singer with Al Jolson which shortly followed
WAML and launched spoken dialog into the movies.  Often it is discussed in the context of only one or two of its
several areas of significance.
In assessing WAML It is helpful to consider all of these areas: the history of the Manon story including its many
representations on stage and screen, the development and state of film music in 1927, the introduction of
sound technology including Hadley’s involvement in its introduction, the merits of the music apart from the film,
the production values of the film apart from the music,  and the lives and personalities of Manon’s original
author Abbe Prevost, the two leading stars John Barrymore and Dolores Costello, and Hadley himself.
We are very fortunate in that a good copy of the 1927 recording, which was done on 33 1/3 rpm, hard shellac
disks, miraculously survived and was rediscovered with a large set of Vitaphone disks on a Warner back stage in
the 1980s. The film was brought back from more than one source for restoration, mostly in full size prints, and is
now available to be seen and heard on DVD through Warner Archives. As it becomes better known and studied
it is to be hoped that someday the music, remarkable for its time and still very compelling today, will get live
performances with and without the film, and will receive the new recording in full fidelity that it so richly
deserves.
Manon Lecaut is one of the great classics of French literature. Written by Abbe Prevost in 1731 as the seventh
volume of his Adventures of a Gentleman of Quality,   The History of the noble des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut
was an immediate success - quickly banned, eventually revised to create a more moral tale, and adapted into
several works for the stage. There are not just the two best known operas by Puccini and Massenet, but also an
earlier, brilliant one by Daniel Auber, still in the repertoire today, and the more recent jazz-influenced lyric
drama Boulevard Solitude by the concert composer Hans Werner Henze.  It was also the subject a famous ballet
that had great influence on the Paris tradition, and was the subject of other movies before and since, including
another 1926 silent film. The number of translations, printings, editions, and scholarly dissertations is beyond
accounting, and it is safe to say that Manon makes a very great number of appearances on stage, and in
classroom assignments and discussions each year. Each new creation joins very heady company, and Warner
Bros. went to great lengths to make theirs a worthy addition.  Fine actors and actresses were used throughout.
Filming was done on lavish, detailed sets depicting French country life, the streets of Paris, the opulence of Louis
XV’s court, a beautiful church, grim prison and dockside scenes, authentic ship interiors, and so forth. An artistic
program with an embossed cover, available at showings, explained that Louis XV courtly costumes were
borrowed from the French National Archives under a $25,000 bond, (over $300,000 in 2013 value), to help assure
authenticity.
The great stage actor John Barrymore, star of many films, was given the role of the young gentleman des Grieux,
and the dramatic story line, which in stage productions is normally centered around the young beauty Manon,
emphasizes his story as is the case in the novel. He chose one of the radiant beauties of the film world, Dolores
Costello, out of personal interest, but Costello was an ideal choice to portray the naiveté and simple
compulsiveness of the highly contested Manon. As Barrymore was given the highest billing and leads much of
the drama, the story was somewhat more a “des Grieux” and as such has lent its ultimate title to several
succeeding films. The plot develops quickly but allows for steadily deepening levels of involvement and contrast,
culminating in great physical action far removed from the simpler life where the story begins.
Music was very important aspect of silent film performance from its beginning, provided by piano, organ, and
orchestra. There were several important approaches taken, but when properly done - not always the case - most
emphasized a system of short motifs and medium length musical settings strung together or played
appropriately to help set particular moods. The music could be very fine - the French composer Saint-Saens is
credited with an important, eighteen minute film composition in 1908, Victor Herbert provided a much longer
set of music for Fall of A Nation in 1916, and other noteworthy composers, not as well known today, provided
music representing the latest classical innovations. Film music could also emphasize popular and familiar
melodies, pure improvisation, and whatever music was available or known to the performer.  For movies where
the score was not written out, the concept of cue sheets along with classification of musical motifs as to
suitability for certain types of scenes, allowed the use of large libraries of established music.  The concepts of
compiled musical scores of was not new at all to the movies, having been used in principle for hundreds of years
in street productions, puppet operas, and the like.  Large theaters, which were also producing vaudeville, might
have many thousands of short pieces ready for use.  When the distribution of recorded soundtracks was
considered, spoken word was not a consideration; rather, the goal was a fine and consistent musical
performance to eventually accompany the films wherever they were shown. Although film sound technology had
been under development for several years, the rapid growth of radio helped spur its introduction into
commercial release. “Sound on film”, as we are accustomed it today, where the soundtrack exists next to the
picture on the film (and now appearing on digital media), was being developed, but Warner Brothers chose a
technology that used record disks, superior to sound on film at the time. This also gave Warner licensing
advantages but still resulted in a system with limited dynamic range and always presented synchronization
challenges. Female voices and higher wind instruments were particularly affected, a topic that has been
discussed by numerous authors.
Hadley was involved in film music for at least a decade and half prior to the first Vitaphone release. Music from
his operas, symphonies, and stage musicals, including his two Bohemian Grove productions (a third would
follow) were a part of the standard literature that was incorporated into compiled or improvised film scores and
productions. He also produced specific genre pieces for use in this way. He was involved in early musical sound
technology, apparently consulting and certainly conducting on the first broadcast of the Amsterdam
Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1924. Warner’s first Vitaphone release featured a short film of Hadley conducting
the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture, and Hadley conducted the orchestra for
its full length feature, Don Juan. For the second Vitaphone release, a comedy set in the battle areas of World
War One titled The Better ‘Ole, Hadley created a compelling and appropriate composite score consisting of a mix
of existing and new material, in the silent film tradition. For the early Vitaphone releases, it was necessary to
create films that could be shown without the soundtrack, and the regular silent release schedule was proceeding
in any event. Future authors - hopefully soon - will reveal more of the story, but Mrs. Hadley recounted in the
1940s how the conductor of the Vitaphone Orchestra, Herman Heller, came personally to Hadley’s apartment in
New York to ask him to compose a Manon Score. What a compelling challenge this must have been for a
composer of operas and symphonies, so aware of the Manon legacy and the inevitable comparisons. Yet Hadley
must have been aware that it was in Warners' vaults; it is interesting to speculate that he may have been saving
up some thematic material.
There is much that sets Hadley’s score apart from the majority of the film music of the time. Actually, it falls into
a very narrow class of its own simply due to the shortness of the period when soundtracks were recorded
without dialog and were heard continuously through the movie. A keyboard player has great latitude in keeping
in step with a film, but it is very difficult for an orchestra, and the larger the orchestra, the less flexibility in
getting back into place once things have slipped out. Operas with continuous music (such as Wagner’s) have
recourse on stage that is not possible with film.  Thus for film, with even a moderately large orchestra it is often
easier to play in sections that can be started at appropriate times and finish in time for the next one. Movies
with dialog also follow this pattern. Compositionally, though, Hadley the advantage of writing for a situation
where the music could be continuous, as the timing would be fixed, allowing for the largest possible overall
structures and development. Well versed in the opera tradition, he wrote in a fluid, lyrical style that allowed the
large orchestra to play continually as in a Wagner creation or as silent movie keyboardist would do. While
interesting to note, this does not create a compelling listening experience in itself.  But Hadley’s score is at once
both melodic and mood-setting. The melodies are not the sort that one would sing but represent a Wagnerian
technique known as leitmotif, or “leading motive”. These are recognizable musical fragments representing a
character, place, or situation, that can be fitted together, while being constantly altered to fit the moment as
they help draw the listener into the personality of the character portrayed.  Hadley’s great skill in constantly
varying and weaving his themes together, changing the orchestration, altering the mood via major and minor
keys, and adjusting tempos, keeps the music fresh and interesting. But what really stands out, especially in a
Hollywood film of 1927, is the broad, arching, deeply romantic canvas that he paints. Much of the European film
composition done elsewhere at this time represents the best of modernist Classical trends, and these
compositions are still important today. But Hadley’s music anticipates the grand, elegant sweep and sound of
the great films of Hollywood’s Golden 1930s - five to ten years before many of the most celebrated scores
written by the group of expatriate Europeans, and some Americans, that dominated that wonderful decade.
Other compositional techniques that are not obvious enhance the cohesiveness of the score. In serious concert
writing, very short melodic fragments are often the basis for long pieces of work, as they are expanded greatly,
written in different directions, turned around and upside down, and show their full melodic potential. (Think of
the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, where the ominous first four notes are put to use over and over
again, across all four movements, in dazzling variety). Hadley uses a short scale passage, sometimes directly in
scale order, sometimes with small intervals or jumps, sometimes with a rhythmic enhancement, as the kernel of
several different melodies, lending a unity and consistent feel to the work. There are also sophisticated,
interesting musical techniques such as his use of fugue, where a melody is stated on top of itself, re-entering in a
new voice. This is often used for music of a high, noble, and intellectual nature and is used - in short amounts
appropriate for an audience being entertained by a movie - to suggest the antiquity, dignity and grandeur of the
French Court. Hadley was capable of creating complex, challenging compositions for the concert hall, but his long
experience in writing for widely varying audiences and purposes is shown in his transparent handling of these
musical disciplines. The large orchestra allowed Hadley to use his highly developed orchestration skills -
something praised by the famous German composer Richard Strauss (Canfield p.80) - to create additional color
and interest. Sprightly, integrated horn calls portraying screen action, glissandos in the violins to enhance the
appeal of Manon's kitten, and the delightful appearance of saxophones to help suggest the luxurious decadence
of the court,  are enjoyable, lightly used touches. In 1927 these old techniques helped emphasize the new
integrated sound while perfectly serving the musical line, and still charm today.  WAML’s musical score plays at
times like a tone poem for the concert stage, at others like a ballet with it its quick changes to follow the
dramatic line, to a degree rarely if ever achieved by a film accompaniment up to this time. Whether this
represents a revelation that affected expectations for the future is difficult to say. WAML was of necessity
probably heard more often in its day without soundtrack than with it - but it can be safely assumed that it was
sought out and examined by many leading film producers and composers of the day. And it was greatly
appreciated by Hadley followers. His earliest biographer, Herbert Boardman, declared that it contained some of
Hadley’s most beautiful music, high praise indeed for a composer whose compositions had graced concert stages
all over Europe and America, and whose operas saw success at the Metropolitan in New York and in Chicago.

The full story of des Grieux and Manon Lescaut is not normally presented in drama, it is shortened and adapted
for the audience, and WAML is no exception. It is faithful in spirit to the original - up to a certain point anyway.
Long-time Manon enthusiasts watching WAML for the first time should be prepared to enjoy it with artistic
tolerance and not be disappointed if some favorite scenes and even whole sections give way for Hollywood
considerations. But there are features of the story and this particular production that give special meaning to
what some might dismiss as a simple costume contrivance, no matter how beloved. Several autobiographical
and participatory elements In WAML give it a delicious authenticity. Abbe Prevost’s own story is more fascinating
than fiction; without giving too much of the story away perhaps it is enough to say that Prevost apparently had
the aspirations that des Grieux does early in the story and succumbed in the same way, settling permanently
into a full calling only later and using the material as a true basis for his Adventures.  Two centuries later on the
set of WAML John Barrymore was pursuing Delores Costello, and a true romance developed as the filming
unfolded; the passion on the screen is very real. They were to marry, and one grandchild, Drew Barrymore, is
well known to us today.  And Hadley, by his own word, had been intrigued by Manon Lecaut from his boyhood
days¹.  But the dignified Henry Hadley also had an early bohemian period in Paris that he always remembered
fondly, and one would like to think that he composed music about youth in Paris directly from the heart, and
from personal observation.
There is more that has, can, and should be written about WAML - outstanding direction by Alan Crosland, great
performances by the supporting cast, including Warner Oland of later Charlie Chan fame as Manon’s deliciously
scheming brother, an uncredited appearance by Myrna Loy. There is much irony also. It was overpowered by
later movies, hampered by the limitations of its recording technology, even parodied, perhaps, in movies
referencing the silent era. Despite the great exposure afforded by being a Vitaphone star, the technology, so
problematic to speaking roles, was ultimately damaging to Delores Costello’s career. She stands as a pioneer of
the truest sort in that regard. John Barrymore and Henry Hadley both drove themselves very hard in very
different ways; each would pass away within a decade of WAML’s time of brief glory, when it was featured on
the cover of the New York Times’ magazine section, and delighted moviegoers swore that they forgot that they
were listening to recorded sound. Modern technology has added to the miracles of the nineteen twenties,
allowing us to hear the original recording repeatedly and enjoy discovering its delightful surprises. Hopefully
someday a suite of WAML’s sparkling and haunting melodies will become known to concert audiences, and silent
film audiences will be treated to the choice of the original Vitaphone experience or a new, stereophonic, high
fidelity soundtrack. Rare complete live performances will be treasured by anyone lucky enough to witness them
and experience a truly remarkable marriage of film and musical sound.
Coming: Illustrations, sound and video clips