Monday, September 13, 2021

This weekend: three screenings in three states, including start of two-month Tod Browning series

The exotic Universal crime melodrama 'Drifting' (1923) opens a two-month series exploring the early work of director Tod Browning. The film will be screening on Sunday, Sept. 19 at 2 p.m. in Wilton, N.H.

Let's see—on Friday, it's Rhode Island. On Saturday, it's Vermont. And on Sunday, it's New Hampshire.

Good thing that where I live, the states are small!

Yes, it's a peripatetic weekend coming up, with me accompanying a pair of comedy classics and a crime melodrama I've never done before.

The classics: Harold Lloyd's "Get me to the church on time" comedy 'Girl Shy' (1924) on Friday, Sept. 17 at Slater Park in Pawtucket, R.I., and Harry Langdon in 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926) on Saturday, Sept. 18 at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt.

If you're in need of laughs (and who isn't?), it's worth the drive to either of these screenings. Details are on the "Upcoming Silent Film Screenings" link at the top right of this page.

The crime melodrama is 'Drifting' (1923), an early effort from director Tod Browning starring Priscilla Dean and Wallace Beery. It's the first in a two-month series of screenings exploring Browning's silent features, which rarely get shown.

Well, not in Wilton, N.H., where Dennis Markevich, owner/operator of the Town Hall Theatre, continues to hold off on running first-run pictures until the studios make it financially feasible for a small independent theater to do so. (I know, fat chance.)

In the meantime, alternative programming keeps things going, and that includes a healthy dose of silent cinema with live music. This has provided the chance to engage in some unusual programming, including this upcoming look at Tod Browning's lesser-known titles.

I'm looking forward to this because the Browning films I know are suffused with a kind of bizarre fatalism, and so it'll be interesting to see how strong this thread is in the half-dozen films in our series, most of which are unfamiliar to me.

And with Halloween coming up, we'll of course include a good helping of films starring Browning's favorite on-screen collaborator, Lon Chaney. 

Here's a press release announcing the series, which opens this Sunday. Hope to see you there, and in the weeks to come!

P.S. A special shout-out to the Somerville Theatre, which is finally reopening on Friday, Sept. 17 after being closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic.

If you're in the Boston area, consider attending and supporting this landmark moviehouse, which has undergone renovations and is now ready to resume its rightful place in the Beantown cinematic pantheon.

And mark your calendars: on Sunday, Oct. 31, I'll be performing a live score at the Somerville Theatre to a more familiar Tod Browning picture: the classic 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi.

Although not a silent film, this early talkie was released by Universal without a musical score. So it's not uncommon for musicians today to try adding one.

Philip Glass did it some time ago, and now so will I—and that's really scary!

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I love this photo portrait of Tod Browning, taken during the peak of his directing career. Whoever did this captured the man's essence.

MONDAY, SEPT. 13, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Early work of macabre film director Tod Browning showcased in Town Hall Theatre series

Two-month retrospective runs through Halloween; opens with exotic crime melodrama 'Drifting' (1923) with live music on Sunday, Sept. 19

WILTON, N.H.—He's best known as the director of the original 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi and the early cult classic 'Freaks' (1932), a horror film featuring handicapped circus performers.

But long before those macabre masterpieces, director Tod Browning pushed the boundaries of cinema while developing his craft during the silent era.

Often collaborating with legendary actor Lon Chaney, Browning specialized in twisted melodramas, gritty crime thrillers, and bizarre stories that drew on his own background as a carnival sideshow entertainer.

Browning's early work will be highlighted in a two-month series of rarely screened silent feature films at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.  

The screenings are free and open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film programming.

All screenings will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

"These early pictures from Tod Browning will change your mind about silent cinema," Rapsis said. "When shown in a theater with live music and an audience, the early Browning pictures really leap to life. They're a terrific example of why people first fell in love with the movies."

The series opens on Sunday, Sept. 19 at 2 p.m. with 'Drifting' (1923), an exotic crime drama directed by Browning. The film, a story of opium smugglers and set in a remote Chinese village, stars Priscilla Dean, Wallace Beery, and Anna May Wong.

Additional screenings include:

• Sunday, Oct. 10 at 2 p.m.: 'The White Tiger' (1923). Crime drama about a gang that uses a chess-playing device to swindle unsuspecting wealthy victims. Starring Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith, and Wallace Beery.

• Friday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m.: Lon Chaney in 'The Blackbird' (1926). Bizarre melodrama in which Chaney leads a double life as a criminal mastermind of the London slums and also the Bishop, his pious but deformed brother. Will the entrance of a new woman expose his secret?

• Saturday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m.: Twisted Halloween Weekend Double Feature. Lon Chaney stars in a pair of Browning-directed crime melodramas. 'Outside the Law' (1920) features Chaney as a gangster who frames a former rival and turns his young daughter to a life of crime. In 'The Unholy Three' (1925) Chaney is a criminal ventriloquist who runs a pet store that fronts a masterful scheme for fleecing wealthy customers.

• Sunday, Oct. 31 at 2 p.m.: Lon Chaney in 'Where East is East' (1929). Chaney, as "Tiger Haynes," a jaded animal trapper in the jungles of Laos, cares only for his young daughter, Toyo, who plans to marry a circus owner's son. But the couple's happiness is threatened by the appearance of a mysterious woman.

Browning was born in 1880 in Louisville, Kentucky as Charles Albert Browning, Jr. Browning's uncle, baseball star Pete "Louisville Slugger" Browning, gave his nickname to the iconic baseball bat.

As a child, Browning was fascinated by circus and carnival life. Before finishing high school, at age 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to join a traveling circus, from which he never returned.

By 1901, at the age of 21, Browning was performing song and dance routines on riverboats plying the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, as well as acting as a contortionist for the Manhattan Fair and Carnival Company.

Browning developed a live burial act in which he was billed as "The Living Hypnotic Corpse," and performed as a clown with the Ringling Brothers circus. He would later draw on these early experiences in his filmmaking.

During this time he showed his fascination with the macabre by adopting the professional name 'Tod,' after the German word for 'Death.'

Browning (at right) began acting in films in 1909, first as a slapstick comedian, eventually working under legendary early director D.W. Griffith. While continuing to perform on camera, he also began directing short films.

In 1915, Browning was severely injured when a car he was driving collided with a railroad locomotive. According to biographers David J. Skal and Elias Savada, the tragic event transformed Browning's creative outlook:

"A distinct pattern had appeared in his post-accident body of work, distinguishing it from the comedy that had been his specialty before 1915. Now his focus was moralistic melodrama, with recurrent themes of crime, culpability and retribution."

Hired to direct by Universal Pictures in 1919, Browning focused on exotic thrillers often starring popular star Priscilla Dean. Later, at MGM, Browning often worked with legendary actor Lon Chaney in melodramas known for their bizarre stories and emotional intensity.

Although Browning continued to work into the 1930s, alcoholism contributed to his career gradually halting. He retired from motion pictures in 1942, and died a recluse in 1962.

Over time, critics have come to recognize Browning's distinctive contributions to cinema, especially in his silent-era collaborations with Chaney at MGM from 1925 to 1929. Today his films are regarded as a unique body of work that reflect Browning's singular vision and outlook on life.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will provide music for all films in the series, improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But for me, the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience."

The two-month retrospective of Tod Browning's early work will open with 'Drifting' (1923), a exotic crime drama starring Priscilla Dean, to be shown with live music on Sunday, Sept. 19 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The screening is free and open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film programming.

For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

A tale of two performers: James Murray and Barbara Kent in 'The Shakedown' (1929) on Thursday, Sept. 9 in Plymouth, N.H.

A vintage one-sheet promoting 'The Shakedown' (1929).

Talk about contrasts!

In preparing to create music for 'The Shakedown' (1929), a terrific late silent melodrama, I found myself oddly captivated by the fate of its two leading performers.

Think of it. James Murray, following up his acclaimed performance in 'The Crowd' (1928), would in a few years be destitute and reduced to panhandling on the streets of New York.

Barbara Kent, one of the era's most popular starlets, would soon fall out of fashion, making her last screen appearance in 1935.

But then, what different paths fate had in store for either performer.

Murray would die just a year later, in 1936, by drowning in the Hudson River. He was just 35.

Kent, however, would go on to a very long and active life outside the movies, flying her own airplane into her mid-80s. 

 She would live until 2011, passing away at age 103.

That contrast, I think, lends an element of poignancy to 'The Shakedown' when viewed today. 

Although a picture ought to stand by itself, our knowledge of what would later happen to the people in it (in some cases, much later) is something that's hard to forget entirely.

Consider child actor Jack Hanlon, who in 'The Shakedown' delivered a memorable performance as an orphan. See him on screen: he would go on to be a member of 'The Little Rascals' troupe, but then leave show business to serve in World War II, and afterwards worked as a professional mover.

He died in 2012 at age 96. Another long life! Was it well-lived? How can we really know? And in wondering, you can find yourself also asking about your own life. Is it being well-lived?

Equally hard to know, really. But knowing the basic outlines of what would happen to the people captured in movies a century ago is all part of the experience of seeing the films today.To me, it adds a layer of interest that wasn't present in the original release.

I'm accompanying 'The Shakedown' on Thursday, Sept. 9 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. Showtime is 6:30 p.m., and a lot more info is in the press release below.

To generate interest in the film, I decided to focus on director William Wyler (at left, later in life), partly because it's an early work from someone who would go on to a major career during Hollywood's Golden Age. (There I go again, projecting into the future.)

But I was also inspired by something I didn't realize until reading liner notes for the recent reissue of 'The Shakedown' by film writer and historian Nora Fiore, who often blogs and posts online as the Nitrate Diva.

In her notes, Nora pointed out Wyler's brief comic cameo during the climax of 'The Shakedown.' It's a memorable moment, and I had no idea it was the director himself until Nora revealed this. 

So we'll all play "spot the director" on Thursday, Sept. 9 as we screen 'The Shakedown.' Hope to see you there! More info below.

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James Murray and Jack Hanlon in 'The Shakedown' (1929).

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 1, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Gritty boxing melodrama ‘The Shakedown’ (1929) at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Sept. 9

Early effort by legendary director William Wyler to be screened with live music at historic venue

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—He received a dozen nominations for Best Director, more than anyone in Hollywood history.

He was three-time Oscar-winning director William Wyler, whose 50-year Hollywood career included such Golden Age milestones as 'Roman Holiday' (1953) and 'Ben Hur' (1959).

But everyone needs to start somewhere. And one of Wyler's earliest efforts, the silent melodrama 'The Shakedown' (1929) for Universal Pictures, will be screened with live music on Thursday, Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth.

The screening, the latest in the Flying Monkey's silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

Admission is $10 per person, general admission. Tickets are available online at www.flyinghmonkeynh.org or at the door.

'The Shakedown,' a boxing story about a crooked prizefighter who adopts an orphan, shows a young Wyler already fluent in the language of cinema.

Wyler weaves an on-screen tale that flows deftly from action to suspense, but also includes moments of light-hearted comedy.

Starring James Murray and Barbara Kent, 'The Shakedown' is set in a hard-boiled world of professional swindlers who hustle small-town crowds with fixed boxing matches.

After saving an orphan's life, boxer Dave Roberts is forced to decide whether to continue his low-life ways, or turn the tables and escape those who control him.

As the small-town fighter, actor James Murray was following up his acclaimed performance in King Vidor's 1928 drama 'The Crowd.'

Original poster art promoting 'The Shakedown' (1929).

Murray's promising career as a leading man, however, would soon be undone by alcoholism, which rendered him unemployable.

Murray was reduced to panhandling during the Great Depression, dying at age 35 by drowning in New York City's Hudson River.

Petit starlet Barbara Kent (who stood under five feet tall) peaked in popularity during the transition from silents to talkies, when 'The Shakedown' was released. Afterwards, her career gradually faded.

Making her last screen appearance in 1935, Kent continued with an active life that included flying her own airplane into her mid-80s. She died in 2011 at age 103.

Playing the orphan was noted child actor Jack Hanlon, who would soon become a member of the popular "Little Rascals" troupe.

Hanlon, who would leave show business to serve as a paratrooper in World War II and later worked as a professional mover, died in 2012 at age 96.

Although completed as a silent picture, the huge popularity of movies with talking sequences caused Universal to order Wyler to reshoot parts of the film to create a version that included dialogue.

Wyler embraced the new method of making movies, incorporating speech naturally into his stories, impressing studio bosses with his sure technique and laying the groundwork for his long career.

In 'The Shakedown,' Wyler makes a brief cameo as a comic bungler who holds a 'Round 3' card upside down during the climactic boxing match.

Wyler would go on to play an influential behind-the-scenes role in the cinematic careers of performers ranging from Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn to Laurence Olivier and Barbara Streisand.

The original silent version of 'The Shakedown' will be shown at the Flying Monkey, with live music by New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

In creating music for silent films, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound.

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand. No music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

'The Shakedown' (1929) will be shown on  Thursday, Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person general admission. Tickets are available online at flyingmonkeynh.com or at the door. For more information, call the Flying Monkey at (603) 536-2551.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

'Go West' with Buster Keaton on Sunday, Aug. 29 at Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

'Go West' (1925) with Buster Keaton, today at 2 p.m. in Wilton, N.H.

Today's forecast: cloudy with rain possible at any time. In other words, perfect movie weather!

So come on over the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., where this afternoon we're finishing up a summer-long series of silent Westerns with a dose of comedy.

Today's main attraction: 'Go West' (1925), Buster Keaton's comic send-up of the genre. If you've never seen this picture with an audience, you've never really seen it. 

Also, we'll run what's left of 'Womanhandled' (1925), a Richard Dix comedy that survives only partially but I think holds up really well. Come and we'll find out together.

The show starts at 2 p.m. See you there!

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MONDAY, AUG. 23, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

'Go West' with Buster Keaton at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Aug. 29

Classic silent film comedy masterpiece to be screened with live musical accompaniment

WILTON, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Go West' (1925), one of Keaton's landmark features, on Sunday, Aug. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The screening is free and open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film programming.

The program will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

'Go West' marks the finale of the Town Hall Theatre's summer-long salute to silent film westerns.

"After a season filled with intense dramas, we figured we'd finish our western series with something lighter— a comedy," Rapsis said.

The show will also include portions of 'Womanhandled' (1925), a partially lost comedy Western feature starring Richard Dix.

In 'Go West,' Buster heads out to ranch country, where the stone-faced comedian encounters romance in a highly unusual way.

Rustle up some belly laughs as Buster must once again prove himself worthy to all those who doubt him.

'Go West' was an unusual film for Keaton. With its portrayal of a down-and-out wanderer who becomes a reluctant hero, 'Go West' could have been a vehicle for Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

The film was praised by critics and did well at the box office, but today is lesser known than Keaton classics such as 'The Navigator' (1924) and 'The General' (1926).

Co-starring in 'Go West' is a mourn-faced cow named Brown Eyes, with whom Keaton worked extensively prior to the filming.

Brown Eyes received a credit in the movie, and even got a salary of $13 a week for her acting.

Keaton's female co-star is actress Kathleen Myers. Joe Keaton, the comedian's father and a popular vaudeville performer, appears briefly in a barbershop scene.

Much of 'Go West' was shot on location in Kingman, Ariz., during the summer of 1925, in temperatures approaching 120 degrees.

"These films are audience favorites, and people continue to be surprised at how engrossing and exhilarating they can be when shown as they were intended: in a theater, and with live music," said Rapsis, who accompanies more than 100 screenings each year at venues around the nation.

Rapsis improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But for me, the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience."

‘Go West' (1925) starring Buster Keaton will be shown with live music on Sunday, Aug. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The screening is free and open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film programming.

For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456. For more about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

 

Friday, August 13, 2021

Nosferatu: Not just for Halloween anymore!
(During a pandemic, any time is Nosferatu time)

I'll never travel basic economy again!

Screening 'Nosferatu' with more than two months to Halloween? Really?

Well, consider. It's Friday the 13th. And we're in pandemic. So yes, it's as good a time as any for the original screen adaptation of the plague-infused Dracula tale.

And 'Nosferatu' (1922) is what I'll be accompanying tonight, starting at 8 p.m., on the lawn outside the Custom House Maritime Museum, 25 Water St., Newburyport, Mass. 

(And all the sailing ship action makes it a good fit for the Maritime Museum, too.)

Tickets are $15 each and are still available. And it's outdoors, so the screening may or may not include bats!

I don't actively seek out outdoor screenings to accompany, as just too many things can go wrong: summertime cloudbursts, bugs swarming around the keyboard light, fire trucks responding to a call. (Hopefully not at the screening.)

But outdoors or not, a gig is a gig, and summer is the time they happen in my part of the world. 

And so I'll be playing al fresco again on Tuesday, Aug. 17 up at Alton, N.H. Town Bandstand for a screening of 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925) starring Rin Tin Tin.


I was invited up there to be part of the town's extended "Old Home Days" festival in 2019, the year before the pandemic. We ran Buster Keaton's 'Seven Chances' (1925), and the response was good enough to merit a return this summer.

However, it came with an unusual request: for this year, please run a movie with a lot more action in it. 

Wow! It's a tough audience when Buster Keaton in 'Seven Chances' doesn't offer enough action. 

So this year I went with 'Clash' because it starts off fast (Rinty rescuing his own dog family from a raging forest fire) and then just never stops moving. (Also, the raging forest fire makes it as timely as Nosferatu during the pandemic.

And in between, I'm back indoors on Sunday, Aug. 15 to do music for the early 1916 silent adaptation of Jules Verne's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' The voyage starts at 4 p.m. at the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass.

Lots more info in the press release below. Hope to see you there, or under the stars (and among the mosquitos) in Newburyport, Mass. tonight or Alton, N.H. next Tuesday!

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MONDAY, JULY 26, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Natick Center for the Arts to screen original 1916 silent film version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'

Early adaptation of Jules Verne classic pioneered underwater photography; shown with live music on Sunday, Aug. 15

NATICK, Mass.—The original silent film version of the Jules Verne classic '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1916) will be shown with live music on Sunday, Aug. 15 at 4 p.m. at the Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

Tickets are $18; Center for the Arts members $15.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

In production for more than two years by Universal, the original silent film version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' is an epic retelling of the classic Jules Verne novel, and with elements from other Verne stories mixed in.

Allen Holubar stars as the domineering Captain Nemo, who rescues the passengers of an American naval vessel after ramming them with his iron-clad steampunk submarine, The Nautilus.

On board 'The Nautilus' in '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1916).

Incorporating material from Verne’s 'Mysterious Island,' the film also follows the adventures of a group of Civil War soldiers whose hot-air balloon crash lands on an exotic island, where they encounter the untamed “Child of Nature” (Jane Gail).

Calling itself “The First Submarine Photoplay Ever Filmed,” the film is highlighted by pioneering underwater photography, including an underwater funeral and a deep sea diver’s battle with a giant cephalopod.

The film, directed by Stuart Paton, was filmed largely in the Bahamas to take advantage of shallow seas and bright sunshine.

Several methods were devised to capture scenes underwater, including a sort of "reverse periscope lens" that used mirrors in long tubes to enable a camera onboard ship to film below the surface.

The film has little in common with a later adaption released in 1954 by Walt Disney Studios and starring James Mason.

In honor of extraordinary technical and artistic achievement, the silent version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will create a musical score for '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' live during the screening, in the manner of theater organists during the height of silent cinema.

"For most silent films, including '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,' there was never any sheet music and no official score," Rapsis said. "So creating original music on the spot to help the film's impact is all part of the experience of silent cinema."

"That's one of the special qualities of silent cinema," Rapsis said. "Although the film itself is well over a century old, each screening is a unique experience — a combination of the movie, the music, and the audience reaction."

The original silent film version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1916) will be screened with live music on Sunday, Aug. 15 at 4 p.m. at the Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

Tickets are $18; Center for the Arts members $15. Tickets must be purchased in advance online at www.natickarts.org. For more information, call the Center box office at (508) 647-0097 or visit www.natickarts.org.
 


Sunday, August 8, 2021

Heading west once again, this time with John Ford: two early features at Town Hall Theatre

A darkly lit scene from 'Hell Bent' (1918), directed by a very young John Ford.

Heading west today—west to Wilton, N.H., that is—to accompany two early John Ford dramas starring Harry Carey.

It's the latest installment in our summertime salute to silent film Westerns at the Town Hall Theatre.

This afternoon, we're screening 'Straight Shooting' (1917) and 'Hell Bent' (1918), a pair of features that mark the first westerns directed by a very young John Ford. (Billed in these here titles as "Jack" Ford.)

So gather round the cinematic campfire (not the best image for nitrate film) and take in two rarely screened tales from long ago. More info in the press release below.

Also, I'd like to report that silent Garbo remains a top box office attraction. Last night in Brandon, Vt., 'Wild Orchids' (1929), a late MGM silent starring the Swedish sphinx, drew a sizeable crowd on a humid evening.

Perfect conditions for a steamy, tropical romantic thriller! 

Original promotional materials for 'Wild Orchids' (1929).

But I've found 'Wild Orchids,' with its "stalking big game" metaphor threaded throughout a cat-and-mouse story, always makes a strong impact on audiences. Coming as it did at the very end of the silent era, it was produced by people who were at their peak of fluency in the medium.

And the result is a film that really holds up well. After last nights screening, I had an interesting conversation with a couple who said that for a silent film, they were surprised at how sophisticated it was.

Well, I'm surprised that 'Wild Orchids' is not more embraced by critics. But then Garbo always wanted to be left alone, anyway.

If you're eager to see 'Wild Orchids' on the big screen, I'll do it again later this month—on Wednesday, Aug. 18 at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

In the meantime, hope to see you at this afternoon's double helping of John Ford silent westerns. The round-up begins at 2 p.m.!

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Early cowboy star Harry Carey plays as "Cheyenne Harry" in two early John Ford westerns.

MONDAY, JULY 26, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Director John Ford's first two Westerns to be shown in Town Hall Theatre double feature

Summer series of rare silent Westerns with live music continues with Harry Carey films on Sunday, Aug. 8 in Wilton, N.H.

WILTON, N.H.—Even if you've won four Oscars for Best Director (more than anyone else), you had to start somewhere.

See the very first Westerns helmed by John Ford, who would later win multiple Academy Awards, in the next installment of the Town Hall Theatre's summer salute to silent film westerns.

'Straight Shooting' (1917) and 'Hell Bent' (1918), both directed by Ford when he was in his early 20s, will be shown as a double feature on Sunday, Aug. 8 at 2 p.m.

The screening is free and open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film programming.

The program will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

"Both of these early John Ford Westerns are more than a century old," said Rapsis. "They didn't need to pretend to be in the 'Old West' because it was there all around them."

Critics regard 'Straight Shooting' as a landmark in the history of the Western. The first feature directed by Ford, it revived the career of early superstar Harry Carey, who gives a rough and tumble performance as a hired gun who turns on his employers to defend an innocent farmer and his family.

In 'Hell Bent,' "Cheyenne Harry" (Harry Carey playing the same character from Straight Shooting) flees the law after a poker game shootout, and arrives in the town of Rawhide, where he becomes friendly with local cowboy Cimarron Bill and dance hall girl Bess Thurston.

When gang leader Beau Ross kidnaps Bess, Harry goes to desperate lengths travelling across the deadly desert in order to free Bess from her hard-bitten captor.

“Cheyenne Harry” is a role Carey would play into the 1930s, an amiable antihero who pals around with outlaws but who really has a heart of gold. Carey's work was a pivotal influence on John Wayne, a later Ford collaborator.

Carey's rugged frame and craggy features were well suited to westerns and outdoor adventures. When sound films arrived, Carey displayed an assured, gritty baritone voice that suited his rough-hewn screen personality.

As he aged, Carey transitioned from leading roles to character parts, including the President of the Senate in Frank Capra's 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' (1939).

John Ford, the only four-time 'Best Director' Oscar winner, stands as an iconic figure in American cinema. In a career spanning five decades, Ford directed more than 140 films. He's widely regarded as one of the most important and influential filmmakers of his generation.

Ford's work was held in high regard by his colleagues, with Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman among those who named him one of the greatest directors of all time.

Ford made frequent use of location shooting and wide shots, in which his characters were framed against a vast, harsh, and rugged natural terrain.

Upcoming titles in the Town Hall's summer series of silent Westerns include:

• Sunday, Aug. 22 at 2 p.m.: Set in western Canada, 'Mantrap' (1926) tells the story of a New York divorce lawyer on a camping vacation to get away from it all, but gets more than he bargained for with Clara Bow, then fast on her way to becoming Hollywood's 'It' girl. Directed by Victor Fleming, who would go on to helm 'Gone With the Wind' (1939) and 'The Wizard of Oz' (1939).

• Sunday, Aug. 29 at 2 p.m.: Our look at silent-era Westerns concludes with the genre's lighter side. In 'Womanhandled' (1925), Richard Dix tries to win his girlfriend by taking up the rugged cowboy life, only to find it not so rugged. In 'Go West' (1925), Buster Keaton sends up the legends of the West with his timeless brand of visual comedy; includes perhaps the most unlikely love story in any mainstream 1920s Hollywood film.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will create musical scores for each film live during its screening, in the manner of theater organists during the height of silent cinema.

"For most silent films, there was never any sheet music and no official score," Rapsis said. "So creating original music on the spot to help the film's impact is all part of the experience."

"That's one of the special qualities of silent cinema," Rapsis said. "Although the films themselves are often over a century old, each screening is a unique experience — a combination of the movie, the music, and the audience reaction."

'Straight Shooting' (1917) and 'Hell Bent' (1918), two early westerns directed by John Ford and starring Harry Carey, will be screened on Sunday, Aug. 8 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Free admission; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Tonight: Original silent version of 'Ben Hur' with live music at Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H.

It's a world threatened by pandemic, climate change, and pharmaceutical commercials! What we need is a good old-fashioned Hollywood religious epic to give us hope.

And we'll get just that tonight (Thursday, Aug. 5) with the original silent version of 'Ben Hur' (1925) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

The journey starts at 6:30 p.m. More details in the press release below. See you there!

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An original poster for the original silent version of 'Ben Hur' (1925).

MONDAY, JULY 26, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film epic ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Aug. 5

Hollywood's original Biblical-era blockbuster to be screened with live music at historic venue

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—One of early Hollywood's greatest epics returns to the big screen with a showing of 'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) on Thursday, Aug. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth.

The screening, the latest in the Flying Monkey's silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

Admission is $10 per person, general admission. Tickets are available online at flyinghmonkeynh.com or at the door.

The silent version of 'Ben Hur' was originally slated for a screening earlier this year at the Flying Monkey, but was postponed to Thursday, Aug. 5.


'Ben Hur,' starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, was among the first motion pictures to tell a Biblical-era story on a large scale.

The film, which helped establish MGM as a leading Hollywood studio, employed a cast of thousands and boasted action sequences including a large-scale sea battle.

The film is highlighted by a spell-binding chariot race that still leaves audiences breathless with excitement.


Set in the Holy Land at the time of Christ's birth, 'Ben Hur' tells the story of a Jewish family in Jerusalem whose fortune is confiscated by the Romans and its members jailed.

The enslaved family heir, Judah Ben Hur (played by Novarro, a leading silent-era heartthrob) is inspired by encounters with Christ to pursue justice. This leads him to a series of epic adventures in his quest to find his mother and sister and restore his family fortune.

'Ben Hur,' directed by Fred Niblo, was among the most expensive films of the silent era, taking two years to make and costing between $4 million and $6 million. When released in 1925, it became a huge hit for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.

The chariot race scene in 'Ben Hur,' with Novarro and other cast members driving teams of horses at high speed on a mammoth dirt racetrack in a gigantic replica of a Roman stadium, was among the most complicated and dangerous sequences filmed in the silent era. It remains noted for its tight editing, dramatic sweep, and sheer cinematic excitement.

The chariot race was re-created virtually shot for shot in MGM's 1959 remake, and more recently imitated in the pod race scene in 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.'

Besides Novarro in the title role, the film stars Francis X. Bushman (at right) as Messala, the Roman soldier who imprisons the Hur family; Betty Bronson as Mary, mother of Jesus; May McAvoy as Ben Hur's sister Esther; and Claire McDowell as Ben Hur's mother.

'Ben Hur' was based on the best-selling 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace, which interwove the story of Christ's life with the Ben Hur clan, a fictional Jewish merchant family.

Celebrity "extras" in the chariot race scene included stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Lionel Barrymore, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and a very young Clark Gable.

The film was remade by MGM in the 1950s in a color and wide-screen version starring Charleston Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. Some critics believe the original 1925 version offers superior drama and story-telling.

In creating music for silent films, accompanist Jeff Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand. No music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) will be shown on  Thursday, Aug. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person general admission. Tickets are available online at flyingmonkeynh.com or at the door. For more information, call the Flying Monkey at (603) 536-2551.


Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Improv comedy on a grand scale: 'Seven Chances' on Aug. 4 at Leavitt Theatre, Ogunquit, Maine

A Swedish poster for 'Seven Chances' (1925). Wow, what happened to Buster's hat?

It's a film Buster Keaton didn't really want to make. But it turned out to be among his most memorable,  thanks to a climactic sequence added only after the picture was considered finished.

It's 'Seven Chances' (1925), and the way it was put together is a great example of how things got done in 1920s Hollywood, and at the Keaton Studio in particular.

I'll accompany 'Seven Chances' on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre In Ogunquit, Maine. More details about the screening are in the press release below.

When introducing the film, I often relate the story of how Buster felt 'Seven Chances,' originally a stage farce, wasn't really his kind of comedy. But felt obligated to make it because his producer, Joe Schenck, had purchased the rights.

Turned into a motion picture, 'Seven Chances' originally ended with an outdoor chase: a tuxedo-clad Buster pursued across the landscape by an army of angry would-be brides. 

Later in life, Keaton recalled his team feeling they had an ending that was "okay. Not a world-beater, but just okay."

But when the rough cut was previewed to a Los Angeles audience, the crew noticed something: at the very end of the chase, they audience perked up. 

On screen, as Buster tumbled down a hill, he accidentally dislodged three small rocks, which started bouncing down the hill with him, as the chase faded out. "I had to scram to get out of the way," Buster recalled.

That, and the reaction it got, inspired Buster and his crew to go back create the now-legendary "rock slide" sequence, which was then spliced into the picture.  

If three rocks were good, then three hundred rocks would be better!

It was improv comedy on a grand scale. And it's a great example of how Keaton's comedy was to a great extent "found" in the world around him. 

No formal scripts were used, either for his short comedies or his features of the 1920s. He and his team would decide on a story, figure out how to start it, and then come up with a "finish," as shown above with 'Seven Chances.'

And then off they'd go, either in the studio or, more often, into the streets of Los Angeles or the surrounding California countryside. As Buster said late in life, "We figured the middle would take care of itself."

Of course there had to be a certain amount of preparation, especially when the story was set in a historical period. 'The General' (1926), with its minutely detailed costumes, locales, and props from the Civil War era, did not happen by accident. 

But the comedy often did.

This Wednesday's screening of 'Seven Chances' won't happen by accident: it's at 7 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine. The venue opened in 1923 as a silent movie house, and remains largely intact. 

It's likely that 'Seven Chances' played there in the summer of 1925. And if it didn't, then we'll remedy that on Wednesday night. Hope to see you there!

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Buster in 'Seven Chances.' I've always been intrigued by the bearded bride in the center of the crowd.

MONDAY, JULY 26, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Buster Keaton comedy 'Seven Chances' (1925) on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at Leavitt Theatre


Silent film presentation with live music features classic race-to-the-finish romantic farce

OGUNQUIT, Maine—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Seven Chances' (1925), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1 in Ogunquit.

Admission is $12 per person. Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Adapted from a stage play, the story finds Buster learning that he'll inherit $7 million if he's married by 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday—that very day!

Buster's hurried attempts to tie the knot on his own go awry. But then a newspaper story changes the game, creating an avalanche of would-be brides who relentlessly pursue Buster as he searches for his one true love before the deadline.

'Seven Chances' was the first screen adaptation of the now-familiar story, since used in movies ranging from the Three Stooges in 'Brideless Groom' (1947) to Gary Sinyor's 'The Bachelor' (1999), a romantic comedy starring Chris O'Donnell and Renee Zellwinger.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts, including some spectacular examples in 'Seven Chances.'

The historic Leavitt Theatre opened in 1923 as a summer-only silent movie house. Now approaching 100 years of operation, it continues to show movies, but also functions as a restaurant, bar, and lounge.

In reviving Keaton's 'Seven Chances,' the Leavitt Theatre aims to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the film. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'Seven Chances' leap back to life in ways that audiences still find entertaining."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound. He improvises the complete score in real time during the screening.

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

Buster Keaton's 'Seven Chances' (1925) will be screened with live music on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1 in Ogunquit. Admission $12 per person; tickets available at the door.

For more information, call (207) 646-3123 or visit www.leavittheatre.com.