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The first appearance of an accordion in a motion picture….

February 26, 2011

Here’s a bit I’ve been working on for the Accordion Uprising book.

 Adolphe Le Prince playing a diatonic button accordion

The first appearance of an accordion in a motion picture happened within the first eight seconds of film history.  Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince made his first movies in 1888, and the subject of the fourth surviving film is his son Adolph Le Prince playing a button-box accordion and dancing in front of his grandfather’s house.  Prince’s films could only capture about two seconds at a time.  So for seconds number seven and eight of the very first movies, the accordion made the cut.  Le Prince was all set to publicly reveal his accordion-movie technology when in 1890, on the verge of a demonstration trip to the United States, he boarded a train for Paris and was never heard from again.  His  disappearance has remained unexplained for more than a hundred years – the very first movie mystery.

Gloria & Rudolph (accordion lovers)

Some decades later, a number of famous accordionists played accompaniment in silent-movie theatres.  In Hollywood though, Syl Prior (born 1894) played while the silents were filmed.  With the ever-portable accordion, he played live during shooting, setting the emotional tone for actors like Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino!

It helped to have soundtracks if you wanted to get into films, and talkies opened the way for a number of Golden Agers to be heard as film took hold.  Anthony Galla-Rini alone, as a bill-paying break from pushing classical accordion, played for High Noon, Rhapsody in Blue, The Gunfighter, Shine on Harvest Moon, The Razor’s Edge, and Laura. (Both the Syl Prior story and the Galla-Rini info  come from the Golden Age of the Accordion book.)

But when you hear accordion in a Hollywood movie or a TV soundtrack, commercial, or on pop albums for the last forty years, you’re probably hearing one of two guys.  Carl Fortina and Frank Marocco.  Between the two of them they played on 800 movies and counting, plus many, many TV and ad gigs and pop recordings.  They played together on Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys classic “Wouldn’t it be Nice?” (Listen near the beginning, and Frank’s sort of fiddle-part under, “You know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it.”

Kid looking at Jimmy Stewart playin' accordion, both in dusty "cowboy" outfits.

Jimmy Stewart in the old-west playin’ his anachronistic 1930’s accordion with its strange belgian(?) bass left-hand.

A few highlights from Fortina’s 500-some soundtrack credits: Love Me Tender, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Godfather, How the West Was Won, Witness for the Prosecution (working with Marlene Dietrich), and Jimmy Stewart’s bits in the famous accordion-western Night Passage (Jimmy knew how to play, just not so well.)  Fortina’s played squeezebox on Star Trek and the Brady Bunch and adapted to Elvis, Dylan, Ringo Starr, Diana Ross, and Luciano Pavarotti.

Marocco’s 300 films include: The Blues Brothers, Heartbreak Hotel, Edward Scissorhands, Finding Nemo (every recent animated feature has to hire one accordionist), Pirates of the Caribbean, Schindler’s List, The Muppet Movie, and Revenge of the Nerds.  Classics all.

Carl Fortina got his start when L.A.’s go-to accordionist Dominic Frontiere retired way back when.  If these two ever retire, there’ll be a feeding-frenzy among accordionists to see who gets their session chairs.  We’ll be there to report on it.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2012 12:12 pm

    Hey Bruce….I met Carl Fontina at the Las Vegas convention in 2003 (I hadn’t heard anything about him before that) I noticed that he had a Parmount studios jacket on and I think I blabbed something about wanting to hear Frank Marocco since he was the movie accordion player…..He turned to me and told me “I was the accordion movie guy and got Frank his first job in the business”…. I think I still have some video of him schmoozing on the vendor’s floor with Paul Pasquali demo’ing his Concerto accordion…

  2. January 29, 2012 8:56 pm

    James Gerke over on the Accordion Friends Facebook site just asked: “Does anyone know who plays the accordion on the “Hugo” movie soundtrack? There is practically nothing on the Internet about the musicians.”

    I was ready to bet you a dollar it was Frank Marocco, but I too was jumping to the wrong conclusion. There are even more accordion players in the movies! Some aren’t even in Hollywood! Apparently it was British player Eddie Hessian in “Hugo,” playing what various sites are calling a “musette.” This is misleading because I’m pretty sure he’s not playing the musette bagpipe, but rather the “musette-tuned” accordion which was meant to sound like/take over for that bagpipe. Both used in the (stereo)typical French cabaret music sometimes called… “musette.” Yeah language!

    “Hugo’s” soundtrack also included the ondes martenot, which is an awesome electronic instrument from that era (the 1920s). I think we played some of it on our Theremin/Musical Saw/Glass Harmonica show:

    • July 24, 2013 11:34 am

      Rob Howard on the Accordion Freedom Forum added this about the Hugo accordionist:

      “Eddie Hession was once 2nd in the CIA Coupe Mondiale (1981, I think), and these days performs in the tango band Zum and with the Budapest Cafe Orchestra. He has largely succeeded Jack Emblow as Britain’s leading session accordionist, and can be heard on numerous film, TV and recording artists’ soundtracks. He can be seen playing accordion in the dance scene in Captain Corelli’s Mondolin.

      “Hession was All Britain Virtuoso Champion in 1980 and 1981, and he has guested with Mantovani, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and other orchestras. I think he has made one solo CD, but several with ZUM.”

      Thanks Rob, now we should go track down more music by Eddie Hession!

  3. April 10, 2012 7:51 am

    Dominic Frontiere, the session-guy before Marocco and Fortina, can be seen in Doris Day’s “Love Me or Leave Me.” It’s based on the songs and life of Ruth Etting, who was a music star back in the ’20s, with her abusive gangster boyfriend played by Jimmy Cagney. Etting had a hit with the song “Sam, the Old Accordion Man,” which Doris does here:

    More knowledgable posters than I at the Accordion Freedom Forum recognized Frontiere playing there, noting that he’s “playing a 1950 Excelsior for a film that was taking place in the 1920’s. Accordions looked different back then.”

    Now I wish I knew who was playing on the Ruth Etting recording:

  4. August 13, 2013 11:22 am

    Got a comment from Vancouver composer Andy Fielding asking about Fritz Lang’s 1953 film noir “The Big Heat,” which has swell accordion. “It’s fun, isn’t it, to realize there was a time when jazz accordion music was considered sufficiently racy for depicting a bar where murderous thugs hung out?”

    On further research this seems to have been Carl Fortina’s work:

    “Vars, for example, contributed original cues to Columbia’s The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang, which also included stock music by Arthur Morton, Daniele Amfitheatrof, Ernst Toch, Carl Fortina, George Duning and others.”

    Polish Music Journal 4.1.01 – Schubert: The American Film Scores of Henry Vars

    (That’s a fairly interesting article about soundtrack composer Henry Vars and the system where composer’s work was owned by studios who cut-and-pasted “cues” from different works together in various films, often re-using the same music. That must have been artistically fulfilling for all involved, hopefully it paid the bills.)

  5. September 25, 2020 12:58 pm

    This post rolled right into the “squeezebox at the movies” section of my Accordion Revolution book (pg 122 in the print edition).


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