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HomeentertainmentMovie NewsCarl Davis, ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’ and ‘Napoleon’ Composer, Dies at 86

Carl Davis, ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’ and ‘Napoleon’ Composer, Dies at 86

Carl Davis, who composed the scores for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice and perhaps most famously Abel Gance’s epic 1927 silent film Napoléon, has died. He was 86.

Davis died Thursday after suffering a brain hemorrhage, his family announced.

“We are so proud that Carl’s legacy will be his astonishing impact on music,” they wrote on Twitter. “A consummate all-round musician, he was the driving force behind the reinvention of the silent movie for this generation, and he wrote scores for some of the most-loved and remembered British television dramas.”

Born in Brooklyn but living in the U.K. since 1961, Davis was hired by documentarians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill to create music for the 13-hour 1980 miniseries Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film and for Napoléon.

“My first score for a silent movie was Napoleon,” he said in 2010. “Five hours of it! It was such a success that we needed a second one. And we just kept going.”

Davis went on to create music for such silent films as D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923), Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), Ben-Hur (1925), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Greta Garbo’s Flesh and the Devil (1926), Buster Keaton’s The General (1931) and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931).

He often served as conductor during screenings of these films at festivals and inside concert halls.

“You have a choice between music that is descriptive of the events onscreen, such as an explosion in a war film, or something as obvious as a dance or a march, which are always in relation to a picture,” he said. “You can follow the physical or emotional incidents which fall into place in a continuous way.

“Then there’s the kind of music that Chaplin used for comedy, which is rather like cartoon music, following every physical action — they call this ‘Mickey Mousing.’ Here the film seems almost choreographed to the music — it’s like composing a continuous ballet or an opera.”

Born on Oct. 28, 1936, Davis started playing the piano at age 2 and saw his first silent movie at the Museum of Modern Art at age 4. He said the Disney film Fantasia (1940) was an early influence on him.

Davis studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and then conducted for the New York City Opera and wrote music for off-Broadway plays including Diversions.

In England, he found work early on with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. His music for the 26-hour documentary series The World at War in 1973 accorded him international attention.

He did lots of work for the BBC, highlighted by the 1962 news satire program That Was the Week That Was; Pride and Prejudice, the acclaimed 1995 miniseries that starred Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; the 2007 series Cranford; and Upstairs, Downstairs in 2012.

In addition to The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), for which he won a BAFTA, Davis’ film résumé included Man Friday (1975), Champions (1984), The Rainbow (1989), Scandal (1989), Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Widows’ Peak (1994), Mothers & Daughters (2004) and Ethel & Ernest (2016), his first score for an animated film.

He worked on “Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio,” recorded in 1991 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and composed often for ballet and dance.

Davis received a special BAFTA prize in 2003, then was awarded a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in ’05.

Survivors include his wife, actress Jean Boht, whom he married in 1970 (they set up their own record label, The Carl Davis Collection, in 2009); daughters Hannah and Jessie; and grandchildren Molly, Fred and Alice.

His music can be heard at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles during screenings of Flesh and the Devil on Sunday and Safety Last on Aug. 27 as part of a Silent Sundays series.

Davis recorded for Faber Music and “was a central figure in our roster since his arrival in 1990, over half of the company’s existence,” CEO Richard King said in a statement. “We are honored and proud to have worked alongside such a compositional giant.”



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