Music News & Reviews

Maria Newman brings silent film 'Daddy Long Legs' to life

The Malibu Coast Silent Film Orchestra accompanies a silent film live in concert.
The Malibu Coast Silent Film Orchestra accompanies a silent film live in concert.

As the youngest child of Academy Award-winning film composer Alfred Newman, Maria Newman grew up “determined to never write a note of film music,” she said.

“I saw a lot of what my family went through dealing with not only (movie) music but how it fit into everything else — not only artistically but politically as well,” said the violinist, whose brother is film composer Thomas Newman and whose cousin is Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Randy Newman.

Yet despite her determination to focus solely on classical performance, she found herself irresistibly drawn to the movies.

On Saturday, Maria Newman and the Malibu Coast Silent Film Orchestra will perform her original score for “Daddy Long Legs” during a screening of the 1919 silent film at King David’s Masonic Lodge in San Luis Obispo. The event, which also features wine, cocktails, appetizers and live and silent auctions, is a fundraiser for next year’s San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

Newman’s connection to silent cinema goes back more than a decade.

In the late 1990s, she received a call from documentary filmmaker Hugh Munro Neely, longtime library curator of the nonprofit Mary Pickford Foundation.

“He said, ‘Would you be interested in scoring ‘Daddy Long Legs?’” Newman recalled. “I said, ‘Do you have the right Newman?’ He said, ‘(Yes), I know your music very, very well.’”

Rather than imitate early 20th century composers, Neely encouraged Newman to apply her own contemporary style to create a score for large chamber ensemble. The project proved successful, and a partnership was born.

Over the years, Newman has collaborated with the Mary Pickford Foundation on about 20 feature films and shorts. She’s also written scores for silent film classics including “The Gibson Goddess,” “Mr. Wu” and “Quality Street.”

“I have learned to love silent movies so much,” Newman said, especially since she’s spent so much time watching and studying them. “You see all the subtleties and all the detail that goes into the acting, the directing, the cinematography. …”

She’s especially fond of “Daddy Long Legs,” which she described as “an absolute brilliant picture.”

 “The movie starts with a montage of completely opposite lives in which two different babies are born,” Newman said. “One is born into absolute luxury and love. The other is placed in an ashcan and found by a policeman and taken to an orphanage.”

The first baby grows up to become cruel, cultured Angie Wykoff (Fay Lemport), while the latter becomes brave, clever Judy Abbott (Mary Pickford).

Judy attracts the attention of a benefactor who pays to send her to college. Since her mysterious sponsor insists on remaining anonymous, she nicknames him “Daddy Long Legs.”

Eventually, Judy is caught up in a love triangle between young Jimmie Mc Bride (“Daddy Long Legs” director Marshall Neilan) and Jarvis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton), a wealthy older man with a secret.

“It’s a really a story for all time,” Newman said.

According to Newman, each character in “Daddy Long Legs” has his or her own leitmotif in her score — jazzy in the case of Judy’s younger suitor, and elegant in the case of her older paramour. “There are themes of passion. There are themes of sadness. There are love themes,” the composer said. “These themes fit together to make almost a tone poem.”

According to Wendy Prober-Cohen, pianist with the Malibu Coast Silent Film Orchestra, bringing Newman’s silent film scores to life “can be rather harrowing.”

“We really have to be honed in with each other and with (Newman),” Prober-Cohen said. “As the conductor, she’s playing and watching her music and watching the movie.”

In March 2013, the orchestra provided live accompaniment for publishing magnate William Randolph Heart’s home movies at a film festival event at Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

“It’s really fun in that intimate setting, where you can see the musicians sweat as they try to keep up with the film,” Newman said.

During a regular concert, she explained, “We get excited and we play faster. We become languid and we rest. The movies don’t allow you to do that.”

If you go

‘Daddy Long Legs’

6:30 p.m. Saturday reception, 8 p.m. screening

King David’s Masonic Lodge, 859 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo

$35 to $45, $30 to $40 students and film festival society members

546-3456 or