Monday, November 22, 2021

Raymond Griffith comedies in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, 11/28—finish Thanksgiving with a laugh

Raymond Griffith inspects a gold mine in 'Hands Up!' (1926).

Raymond who?

He's the other Griffith—not director D.W., but the big screen's "Silk Hat" comedian.

He's Raymond Griffith, who rose to major comic stardom in the 1920s but is now entirely forgotten.

Well, except for this weekend.

On Sunday, Nov. 28, I'll accompany what are generally regarded as Griffith's best surviving features: 'Paths to Paradise' (1925) and 'Hands Up!' (1926).

The double feature starts at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, Wilton, N.H. More details about screening are in the press release below.

One reason Griffith isn't better known is that a good portion of his output is lost.

And even the films we have aren't complete. 'Paths to Paradise,' for example, is missing its final reel, making it a sort of "Venus de Milo" of silent film comedies. 

But the good news is that the films plays fine without the reel.

And there's more good news: Griffith's sly character holds up well. Modern audiences almost instantly "get" Griffith, with the laughs following.

So happy Turkey Day and see you at the movies Sunday afternoon. More info in the press release below:

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Raymond Griffith matches wits with fellow thief Betty Compson in 'Paths to Paradise' (1925).

MONDAY, NOV. 22, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Films of forgotten silent comedian to screen at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 28

Double feature with live music resurrects work of Raymond Griffith, neglected star of early cinema who had a Granite State connection

WILTON, N.H.—He was a silent film actor who really couldn't talk, thanks to a childhood vocal injury.

He was Raymond Griffith, the "Silk Hat" comedian, whose film star popularity in the 1920s rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

But when talkies arrived in 1929, Griffith's lack of a speaking voice prompted an abrupt end to his on-screen career. Most of his starring silent films have since disappeared, causing Griffith to be virtually unknown today.

But the elegantly dressed comic, who as a youngster attended St. Anselm Prep School in Goffstown, N.H., will return to the cinematic spotlight once again with a double feature of two of his surviving works.

'Paths to Paradise' (1925) and 'Hands Up!' (1926), a pair of comedies regarded as his best, will be screened with live music on Sunday, Nov. 28 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St. in 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.

"Griffith's character was that of a worldly, shrewd, and quick-thinking gentleman, usually dressed in a top hat and a cape, who enjoyed outwitting con artists and crooks at their own game," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician who will improvise scores for both films.

"It turns out he was very different from Chaplin or Keaton, and so were his films—they seem a bit more cynical and so perhaps more modern. But we've shown them before and they hold up well with a live audience today."

'Paths to Paradise' (1925) stars Griffith as a polished con man who competes with a feisty female jewel thief to steal a heavily guarded diamond necklace. The film finishes with a wild car chase through the California desert.

Unfortunately, all existing prints of 'Paths to Paradise' are missing the final 10 minutes, but the film ends at a point that completes the plot and provides a satisfying finish.

Raymond Griffith dances in 'Hands Up,' in one of the funniest scenes in all silent comedy. Come and find out why!

'Hands Up!' (1926) features Griffith as a Confederate spy during the Civil War whose mission is to prevent a shipment of gold from reaching Northern forces. The film survives complete, and is considered by most critics to be Griffith's masterpiece.

Both films were produced and released by Paramount Pictures, where Griffith was under contract in the 1920s as one of the studio's leading stars.

"These films were designed to be seen in theaters by large audiences, not on a small television screen by people sitting at home," said Rapsis, who provides music for the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

Born in Boston in 1895, Griffith injured his vocal cords at an early age, rendering him unable to speak above the level of a hoarse whisper.

After appearing in circuses and attending at least one year (1905-06) at St. Anselm Preparatory School in Goffstown, N.H., he went on to serve in the U.S. Navy prior to World War I and in 1915 wound up in Hollywood, where the movie business was already booming.

Early on, Griffith worked at Mack Sennett's Keystone studio, where he developed a reputation as an excellent actor and a superb comedy writer and director. He eventually gravitated to behind-the-camera duties, serving as Sennett's right-hand man for a time.

He eventually moved to Paramount studios in the early 1920s, where he began to appear again in on-camera roles.


Griffith's mastery of character parts prompted Paramount to star him in his own movies starting in 1924. In the next few years, he completed a dozen feature films, most of which today are lost due to neglect or improper storage.

Following the arrival of sound pictures in 1929, Griffith's lack of a speaking voice forced a return to behind-the-camera work, with one notable exception: he played a non-talking role as a dying French soldier in Lewis Milestone's World War I classic 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' (1930) which won that year's Academy Award for Best Picture.

As a producer, Griffith's work included the classic family film 'Heidi' (1937) and 'The Mark of Zorro' (1940). He retired in 1940, and died in 1957 at age 62 after choking at a Los Angeles restaurant.

"Though he's not as well known today as Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Griffith was doing some really good work during the peak of his career," Rapsis said. "It's great that the public will get a chance to appreciate the two wonderful Griffith films as part of the Flying Monkey's series."

'Paths to Paradise' and 'Hands Up' will be shown on Sunday, Nov. 28 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.

Review of 'Hands Up!':

"This is one buried treasure that deserves a wider audience. Griffith is thoroughly ingratiating; it's a pity that so many of his movies have disappeared and the survivors are so seldom revived."

 —Amazon.com

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Tonight: Keaton's 'College' in Brandon, Vt., plus thoughts on 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse'

The Colonial Theatre's new 'Showroom" venue in Keene, N.H.

Tonight it's back to comedy, with Buster Keaton's 'College' (1927) at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center in Brandon, Vt. And just in time, as we could all use a laugh. 

More details in the press release below. For now, a few notes about two gargantuan back-to-back screenings I did music for in honor of Veterans Day.

On Wednesday, Nov. 10 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., I accompanied 'The Big Parade' (1925), King Vidor's sweeping drama following John Gilbert's journey through World War I. 

And then on Thursday, Nov. 11 in the new "Showroom" venue of the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H., I accompanied Rudolph Valentino tangoing his way through 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921), another sweeping drama.

That's a lot of sweeping in two days!

But that's the point: both films clock in at about 2½ hours, which gives an accompanist a lot of room to develop material and work with it as the film unfolds. To me, it's the best of all possible worlds: I get to lose myself in these long movies, so much so that the music ends up coming from I-know-not-where.

I've done both films before, and know their basic story arcs, but don't have any special material set aside for either of them. So in both cases, it was "sit down and see what happens."

What happened Wednesday with 'The Big Parade' was effective enough, I thought. 

The comic scenes in the first half of the film failed to produce much real laughter, which was disappointing. But for the big transition scene, where the troops are finally called to the front, I was able to use a "love theme" to whip up quite a bit of drama. 

Specifically, the tune featured a falling fifth, which I found relatively easy to transform to fit other needs: in this case, fear, anxiety, encroaching terror, and ultimately all the overwhelming emotions that cause Melisande to desperately keep holding onto the transport truck taking Johnny to the front. 

But the real high point for me came with 'Four Horsemen.' You have to get quite far into the film before meeting the minor but key character of 'Tchernoff' (played by Nigel De Brulier), a kind of mystic who introduces the idea of the 'Horsemen.'

That's Nigel De Brulier hovering up left in 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.' 

I hadn't thought about how to handle him, but when he first appears, it just came to me: four chords that I felt perfectly captured his role in the movie. It's really a quite simple cycle: e minor / C Major / F# Major / B Major. (And then back to e minor, if you want.) 

Depending on how you lay out the chords on the keyboard, the progression creates a sense of great power: either hidden and held back if played as a chorale, or great power unleashed if used to support energetic rhythms or busy melodic figurations swirling about.

But I found it most effective with more notes in the bass than is usually done: including small intervals in the right hand lent a kind of weight to each chord that really helped what was happening on screen, I thought. 

So that was a keeper! So simple, but I'm liable to completely forget about it after a few more films, so I wrote it down in a notebook as a reminder. (I certainly don't expect to use it tonight with Buster Keaton, or tomorrow for a screening of Harold Lloyd's domestic comedy 'Hot Water,' although perhaps it might work for Harold's mother-in-law.)

The Colonial's new 'Showroom' venue (so named because it housed an auto dealership in the 1920s) was a delight to work in. They've already scheduled some screenings in 2022 and I look forward to returning!

But before any of that happens, it's Buster Keaton tonight in Brandon, Vt. With the foliage mostly gone and the sun now setting well before 5 p.m., what better place to be than a movie screening with a lot of other people in need of a laugh. See you there!

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Buster Keaton on campus in 'College' (1927). 

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 3, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Buster Keaton comedy 'College' with live music on Saturday, 11/13 at Brandon Town Hall

2021 silent film series concludes with screening of timeless classic send-up of campus life

BRANDON, Vt.—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.

Acclaimed for their originality, clever visual gags, and amazing stunts, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'College' (1927), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Conant Square/Route 7 in Brandon, Vt.

The program will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with all proceeds supporting ongoing restoration of the Town Hall.

'College' follows the story of a hapless university bookworm (Keaton) forced to become a star athlete to win the attention of his dream girl. Can Buster complete the transformation in time to woo her from his rival? And along the way, can he also rescue the campus from sports-related shame?

The film was released in 1927, at the crest of a national fascination with college life. In addition to being a great Keaton comedy, 'College' offers vintage glimpses into what higher education was like nearly a century ago.

Buster Keaton and Anne Cornwall in 'College' (1927).

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 'College.'

The screening is sponsored by local residents Lucy and Dick Rouse, Edward Loedding and Dorothy Leysath, Sam and Sharon Glaser, Peter and Louise Kelley, and Bar Harbor Bank and Trust.

In reviving Keaton's 'College,' the Brandon Town Hall 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 'College' 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.

Rapsis encouraged people unfamiliar with silent film to give 'College' a try.

"If you haven't seen a silent film the way it was intended to be shown, then you're missing a unique experience," Rapsis said. "At their best, silent films still do connect with cinema-goers. They retain a tremendous power to cast a spell, engage an audience, tap into elemental emotions, and provoke strong reactions."

Buster Keaton's 'College' (1927) will be screened on Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Conant Square/Route 7 in Brandon, Vt. The program will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with all proceeds supporting ongoing restoration of the Town Hall.

For more information, visit www.brandontownhall.com.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

This means you! All veterans welcome free to 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' tonight

Rudolph Valentino in 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921). He's the one on the right, by the way.

Tonight I'm doing live music for 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921) at a new venue: the "Showroom," a performance space developed during the pandemic and opened recently by the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

The Colonial itself has been around since 1924, and among its other distinctions is that it's the theater where a 7-year-old me was traumatized by 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' when it played there in 1971. 

If reasons are needed to show 'Four Horsemen,' I can name several: it's the 100th anniversary of the film's release; as a World War I epic, it's fitting for Veterans Day; it launched Rudolph Valentino as a megastar and introduced the tango worldwide; it's a terrific motion picture that shows early Hollywood at its most innovative and ambitious.

And for me, there's one personal reason that makes 'Four Horsemen' worth screening. I think the last line delivered by Nigel De Brulier's character is among the most moving in all cinema. It's not spoiling anything when I share it with you now: "I knew them all!" Watch for it, and you'll see.

So if you're in the area, please consider attending. All veterans welcome free of charge as a way to honor your service. Lots more about the film in the press release below. So march yourself on over to Keene and report for duty tonight at 7 p.m. 

That's an order!

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From 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921): How's that for an image that fills the screen?
 

TUESDAY, NOV. 2, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

See the epic movie that launched Rudolph Valentino as a megastar

Veterans admitted free to WWI saga 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,' screening with live music on Thursday, Nov. 11 at Colonial Theatre's new 'Showroom' venue

KEENE, N.H.—A movie that launched the career of silent film heartthrob and megastar Rudolph Valentino will be shown on Veterans Day at the Colonial Theatre's new venue in downtown Keene.

'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921), a multi-generational family saga that climaxes during World War I, will be screened with live music on Thursday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. the Showroom, 20 Commercial St., Keene, N.H.

Tickets are $13.50 to $15 per person; all veterans will be admitted free to this special Veterans Day screening.

Proof of vaccination or negative results of a COVID-19 PCR test administered within 72 hours are required for admittance to events at Showroom. Also, masks are required to be worn at all times while at the venue.

Based on a novel by Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibañez, 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' tells the story of an extended Argentine family with mixed ethnic background: one side is German, while the other is French.

The family gets drawn into World War I in far-off Europe, with members ending up on opposing sides. With brothers pitted against one another on the battlefield, the destruction of war changes lives forever.

'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' had a huge cultural impact, becoming the top-grossing film of 1921, beating out Charlie Chaplin's 'The Kid,' and going on to become the sixth-best-grossing film of the silent era.

Also, the film turned then-little-known actor Rudolph Valentino into a superstar, associating him with the image of the Latin Lover. In addition, the film inspired a tango craze and fashion fads such as gaucho pants.

Directed by Rex Ingram for Metro Pictures (a predecessor of MGM studios), 'Four Horsemen' grew into a mammoth production: over $1 million was spent in making it and more than 12,000 people were involved. The film was hugely successful at the box office, grossing nearly $5 million during its initial run, an enormous sum at the time.

The film was notable as one of the first major Hollywood productions to include World War I (then known as the 'Great War') in its storyline, and also in that it did not glorify the recent conflict or look past the tragedy that it brought. It's also among the first U.S. feature films to make full use of the unlimited visual power of the new motion picture medium.

Although Valentino (at left) dominates the film, other actors of note are featured. Alice Terry, the billed star as well as Ingram's wife, was a popular actress of her day. She would be cast in the next Ingram/Valentino flick rushed out in the same year before Rudy's jump to Paramount, The Conquering Power (1921).

Alan Hale Sr. appears in a supporting role; he was perhaps best known as Errol Flynn's sidekick in numerous films, his role of Little John in several Robin Hood flicks, and as the father of Alan Hale, Jr., who played the Skipper on the television series Gilligan's Island.

In 1995, the silent version of 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Regarding the title: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are mentioned in the Bible in chapter six of the Book of Revelation, which predicts that they will ride during the Apocalypse. The four horsemen are traditionally named War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death.

"This is a big sprawling drama, and a great chance to see Rudolph Valentino in the picture that launched his celebrity," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will create live music for the screening.

Rapsis will improvise live musical accompaniment during the show, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound of a full orchestra and other more exotic textures.

"Creating the music on the spot is a bit of a high-wire act, but it contributes a level of energy that's crucial to the silent film experience," Rapsis said. 
 
'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921) will be screened with live music on Veterans Day, Thursday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre's new Showroom, 20 Commercial St., Keene, N.H. Tickets are $13.50 to $15 and must be purchased online at www.thecolonial.org; veterans admitted free.
 
Veterans may walk up with ID at the door or reserve by calling the box office at (603) 352-2033. Due to limited seating, only the attending veteran can be accommodated at no charge.
For more information, visit www.thecolonial.org.

Monday, November 8, 2021

In this week's hand, two pairs: dramas and comedies—music for four films in five days

Original poster art for 'The Big Parade' (1925).

I've caught my breath after October's marathon of Halloween screenings, and just in time.

Why? Because this week the calendar comes back to life (sounds like Halloween all over again) with two big dramas for Veterans Day, then a pair of comedy programs on the weekend.

Finally—laughter!

First up is MGM's sprawling WWI drama 'The Big Parade' (1925), which steps off at 6:30 p.m. sharp on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

The screening is in honor of Veterans Day, and there's a lot more info in the press release I've added to the bottom of this post. 

On Veterans Day itself (Thursday, Nov. 11), it's another biggie: 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921), starring Rudolf Valentino. 

The large supporting cast includes Alan Hale Sr., father of Alan Hale, Jr., who would go on to play the Skipper in "Gilligan's Island." (Hey, we all have our cultural reference points.)

Showtime for 'Horsemen' is 7 p.m. at the Showroom, a new venue opened during the pandemic by the Colonial Theater in Keene, N.H. See more info by clicking "Upcoming Silent Film Screenings" at the top right hand corner of this page. 

And then we turn the page to comedy. Saturday, Nov. 13 finds Buster Keaton attending 'College' (1927) in Brandon, Vt., while Sunday, Nov. 14 finds Harold Lloyd in 'Hot Water' (1924) in Wilton, N.H.

More details about those screenings once we get past Veterans Day.

For now, here's the press release about 'The Big Parade' (1925) on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth. Hope to see you there!

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Renée Adorée and John Gilbert communicate without words in 'The Big Parade' (1925).

TUESDAY, NOV. 2, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis at (603) 236-9237 • e-mail jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Epic WWI drama 'The Big Parade' to be screened on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at Flying Monkey

To be shown with live music in honor of Veterans Day; blockbuster silent film changed the way Hollywood depicted war on the screen

PLYMOUTH, N.H. — It was the 'Saving Private Ryan' of its time — a movie that showed audiences war as experienced by a front line soldier whose life is changed forever by the experience

It was 'The Big Parade' (1925), a sprawling World War I epic and a box office sensation that made MGM into a powerhouse studio. It's the latest installment of the silent film series at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

'The Big Parade' will be screened one time only on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m. General admission is $10.

The show will feature live accompaniment by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis.

'The Big Parade,' released just a few years after World War I ended, was hailed by critics as the first Hollywood film to depict the harsh reality of combat and its impact on troops. Its battle scenes were staged on a massive scale and still retain their ability to shock audiences.

The picture, based on the best-selling novel "What Price Glory?", follows the story of a young man (John Gilbert) who rebels against his privileged background by enlisting in the army just before the U.S. enters World War I.

He is shipped out to France, where he falls in love with a local French woman before being transferred to the front. There, he and his squadmates face the German war machine, where they must endure the ultimate tests of duty and honor in a battle they come to see as meaningless.

A scene from 'The Big Parade' (1925).

In addition to vivid war scenes, the film contains a famous dramatic sequence in which the French woman (Renée Adorée) realizes her love for the soldier, and tries to find him to say goodbye as the massive convoy of troops pulls out for the front. Another celebrated sequence depicts the light-hearted first meeting of the soldier and the girl, in which he teaches her how to chew gum.

'The Big Parade' went on to become the top-grossing movie of the entire silent film era, earning $6.4 million domestically and making director King Vidor into the Steven Spielberg of his day. It stood as MGM's biggest single box office hit until the release of 'Gone With the Wind' in 1939.

"We felt screening 'The Big Parade' was a suitable way to mark Veterans Day," said Flying Monkey manager Brooks Bartlett. "World War I is now part of history, but this picture is from a time when it was foremost in people's minds. What was then called 'The Great War' was the 9/11 of its day, and this film captures that intensity and allows us to experience it today."

Rapsis will improvise a musical score to the film in real time. In creating accompaniment for the 'The Big Parade' and other vintage classics, Rapsis tries to bridge the gap between silent film and modern audiences.

"Live music adds an element of energy to a silent film screening that's really crucial to the experience," Rapsis said. " 'The Big Parade' is filled with great scenes that lend themselves well to music. It's a real privilege to create a score to help this great picture come back to life," Rapsis said.

MGM's silent blockbuster ‘The Big Parade’ will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Admission to the screening is $10, general admission seating. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

Monday, November 1, 2021

On live scoring 'Dracula' at the Somerville, plus a new way to show 'Nosferatu' to keep it scary


One of the scariest things about 'Dracula' (1931) at the Somerville Theatre: standing in the middle of Holland Street to get the requisite marquee shot.

Doing live music for 'Dracula' (1931) last night at the Somerville Theatre proved an interesting adventure in film underscoring.

After all, this wasn't a silent picture. True, there's no music. But it does have dialogue, sound effects, and a certain eerie quality that comes, in part, from the silence. 

I didn't want to get in the way of any of that. So I knew going in that there were times when I couldn't —and shouldn't—play anything. 

But once in the theater, I found it surprisingly difficult to resist the urge to play music. I accompany more than 100 films each year. And it was just really weird to be sitting there, with a film on the screen and a keyboard in front of me and an audience present, and not play.

As the film unspooled, I felt the character to whom I could most relate was Renfield, with his hunger for spiders representing my hunger to press the keys and make sounds. 

But I didn't need to be restrained, and in the end I felt I had a good sense of when to stay out and when to come in, and when to come in strong. 

Lugosi and victim in the unfinished basement of Carfax Abby. 

Although I improvised the score, I did create a full-fledged 'Dracula' theme in advance, which came in handy and helped the whole thing hold together.

Perhaps the most successful sequence was when Dracula tried to hypnotize Professor Van Helsing. 

On screen, played silent, it seems overlong and drawn out, with the quiet broken only by Bela Lugosi's commands to "Come here!"

But with music, I was told afterward that it turned into a scene of considerable dramatic suspense. Hooray!

And in the end, it all seemed to work, as I was glad to receive a thunderous ovation from the 200+ attendees, and with nothing thrown at me—not even the bag of garlic cloves I had given out as a door prize beforehand.

Well, Halloween may be over, but my ongoing silent film music marathon is not.

We go from Lugosi's 'Dracula' to 'Nosferatu' (1922), which I'm accompanying tonight (Monday, Nov. 1) at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Mass.

It's ostensibly in honor of the 'Day of the Dead,' but you don't really need an excuse to screen Murnau's classic film. Just as the sign on the railroad tracks tell us that "Any time is train time," theaters should all have signs saying "Any time is Nosferatu time." 

Any that's actually a concern. I've done music for 'Nosferatu' a half-dozen times this year. At some point, overexposure may diminish this film's special power over audiences.

So, to remedy that, when I'm appointed King, I will issue an edict that all theaters can only screen 'Nosferatu' unannounced, and only in the middle of other films that people would have come to see.

That would a way to make it really frightening. You would just never know. It would boost the film's reputation immensely, and help box office receipts, as people who wish to see it would have to keep buying tickets hoping to see Nosferatu. It would be like winning the lottery!

And people buy lottery tickets all the time. Why not apply the same logic to movie theaters with 'Nosferatu' the unexpected jackpot prize?

Well, until that happens, your best bet is to come to the Coolidge Corner tonight. 

And for now, let me leave you with this unexpectedly amusing marquee shot from the Somerville Theatre: what a way to promote 'Dracula,' who can only come out at night!

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MONDAY, OCT. 18, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Creepy classic thriller 'Nosferatu' to screen at Coolidge Corner on Monday, Nov. 1

'Sounds of Silents' series to be revived with pioneer silent horror movie with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis

BROOKLINE, Mass.— An iconic local theater will bring its silent movie series back to life with a film about the undead.

'Nosferatu' (1922), the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula,' will be screened with live music on Monday, Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline, Mass.

The screening will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $23 per person.

The show marks the resumption of the Coolidge's acclaimed 'Sounds of Silents' series, which gives audiences the opportunity to experience early cinema as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The series, like all other Coolidge programming, was paused during the recent pandemic. But with the theater now open, the series is returning.

On deck (almost): 'Nosferatu' at the Coolidge Corner Theatre this evening.

'Nosferatu' (1922), directed by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre.

To modern viewers, the passage of time has made this unusual movie seem even more strange and otherworldly.

It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screening.

"The original 'Nosferatu' is a film that seems to get creepier as more time goes by," said Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H. who accompanies silent film screenings at venues across the nation.

In 'Nosferatu,' actor Max Schreck portrays the title character, a mysterious count from Transylvania who travels to the German city of Bremen to take up residence.

In the town, a rise in deaths from the plague is attributed to the count's arrival. Only when a young woman reads "The Book of Vampires" does it become clear how to rid the town of this frightening menace.

Director Murnau told the story with strange camera angles, weird lighting, and special effects that include sequences deliberately speeded up.

Although 'Nosferatu' is suitable for all family members, the overall program may be too intense for very young children to enjoy.
A shadowy character: Mr. Nosferatu comes a calling.

Modern critics say the original 'Nosferatu' still packs a powerful cinematic punch.

“Early film version of Dracula is brilliantly eerie, full of imaginative touches that none of the later films quite recaptured,” Leonard Maltin wrote recently.

Critic Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader called 'Nosferatu' "...a masterpiece of German silent cinema and easily the most effective version of Dracula on record.”

Despite the status of 'Nosferatu' as a landmark of early cinema, it was almost lost forever.

The film, shot in 1921 and released in 1922, was an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel, with names and other details changed because the studio could not obtain rights to the novel.

Thus "vampire" became "Nosferatu" and "Count Dracula" became "Count Orlok." After the film was released, Stoker's widow filed a copyright infringement lawsuit and won; all known prints and negatives were destroyed under the terms of settlement.

However, intact copies of the film would surface later, allowing 'Nosferatu' to be restored and screened today as audiences originally saw it.

The image of actor Max Schreck as the vampire has become so iconic that it can be seen in a recent 'Sponge Bob Squarepants' episode.

The Sounds of Silents series is made possible by the generous contributions of Dr. Martin and Becki Norman, Dr. Thomas Gutheil, Susan Stoller, and Elizabeth Driehaus.

‘Nosferatu’ will be shown on Monday, Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline, Mass. as part of the theater's 'Sounds of Silents' series. Admission is $23 per person. For more info and to buy tickets, visit www.coolidge.org or call (617) 734-2500.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Going the distance with Lon Chaney, 'Dracula' at Somerville Theatre, and one more 'Nosferatu'

'Where East is East' (1929), screening today at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, Wilton, N.H.

It's silent film aerobics. Three more! Two more! One more!

That's the feeling you get when accompanying nine separate feature films in six days.

Physically, it's not that demanding. I'm basically sitting and moving my fingers.

But mentally, it can be taxing. You're concentrating sometimes for hours without a break, again and again.

The trick, I think, is to pace yourself—take the films one a time, do the best you can with each, and always keep something in reserve.

It's like a 10-round boxing match. If you're in Round 7, you don't think about Round 10. You need to stay in the moment, or you'll get in trouble.

One odd effect of accumulated screenings is that the "silent film accompaniment" instinct sometimes keeps going even after a film has ended. 

I find myself opening the car door and thinking "okay, F minor chord here." 

It's like the old gag in which a punch-drunk boxer responds to any bell-like sound by instinctively going into a crouch and coming out swinging.

Well, the bout continues—in fact, it's actually heading toward something of a climax, this being the actual day of Halloween itself. 

Today's action include a round with Lon Chaney in 'Where East is East' (1929), the actor's final collaboration with director Tod Browning. The bell rings at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Then I head down to Somerville, Mass. this evening to create a live score for a 35mm print of 'Dracula' (1931)—another Browning film, but this one a talkie, with Bela Lugosi in the lead role. 

It's my first time back at the Somerville since accompanying a Rin Tin Tin double feature on March 15, 2020, the day before the venue shut down due to the pandemic.

I've never done music for the talking Dracula, but I think I have some good stuff ready. My aim is to bob and weave with the movie, to find opportunities where music can augment the movie without getting its way. We'll see how it all comes together this evening.

And I'll try to avoid getting too punchy in the process. Once the film starts, it's like the bell rings, and you must stay focused and in the moment to go the distance.

But then maybe boxing is the wrong analogy. Silent film accompaniment is more like ballet: the film and the musician dance together in the hopes of creating something exciting, absorbing, and perhaps even beautiful.

Or maybe it's a little of both.

Either way, see you at 2 p.m. in Wilton for Chaney is 'Where East is East' and then this evening in Somerville for 'Dracula' at 7 p.m. 

More details in the press release below:

*   *   *

Bela Lugosi as Dracula menaces Helen Chandler in the 1931 classic.
 
TUESDAY, OCT. 12, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Halloween special: Lugosi's 'Dracula' on big screen in 35mm with new live score

Horror classic to be shown at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 31 for one screening only

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Do you dare spend Halloween braving 'Dracula' on the big screen?

That's the question at the Somerville Theatre, where the classic 1931 version of 'Dracula' will run for one showing only on Sunday, Oct. 31.

The movie, starring Bela Lugosi in the title role, will be shown using a 35mm film print from Universal Studios, which released the early horror classic in 1931.

Showtime is 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $15, with senior/student discounts. Tickets are available online at somervilletheatre.com or at the box office.

The screening will feature live music by Jeff Rapsis, the Somerville Theatre's silent film accompanist.

Although 'Dracula' is a talking picture, it was released with virtually no musical score, a common practice during the transition period from silent to sound pictures.

Rapsis will perform original music live during the screening using a digital keyboard to recreate the texture of a full orchestra.


Directed by Tod Browning, 'Dracula' was a sensational box office success and has mesmerized movie audiences ever since with its eerie visuals and Lugosi's iconic performance.

The story opens in far-off Transylvania, where mysterious Count Dracula hypnotizes a British soldier, Renfield (Dwight Frye), into becoming his mindless slave.

Dracula then travels to England and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon the Count begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires.

When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to Dracula's never-ending bloodlust.

Located in Davis Square, the Somerville Theatre is one of the few first-run venues in the region committed to preserving the ability to screen movies using 35mm film prints.

"We feel it's important to show films on actual film when possible, the way classic movies were intended to be shown," said Ian Judge, creative director of the Somerville Theatre.

The Somerville recently reopened after a 17-month hiatus for the pandemic, during which significant renovations were made to the 1914 theater.

The Halloween screening of 'Dracula' will include live music by Jeff Rapsis, a local composer and performer who specializes in creating accompaniment for silent films.  

'Dracula' was released when Hollywood and movie theatres were still undergoing the transition from the silent era to pictures with synchronized sound and dialogue.

During the silent era, studios did not produce official scores for most films. Instead, accompaniment was left up to local musicians, and could vary greatly from one moviehouse to another.

When studios converted to talking pictures, the tradition of recording a musical score was not well established. In the case of 'Dracula,' Universal omitted music in part to save production costs.

As a result, after the opening credits, the 1931 'Dracula' contains no music except for a brief scene in an opera house.

In recent decades, composers have experimented with creating original music for the movie—most notably Philip Glass, who composed a score in 1998 for the Kronos string quartet.

Rapsis sees 'Dracula' as closely linked to the silent-era tradition of films shown with live music.

"Tod Browning was a prolific director of silent films, including many thrillers that anticipate 'Dracula,' " Rapsis said. "So even though 'Dracula' is a talking picture, Browning's filmmaking style is strongly rooted in the silent era, when it was assumed that local musicians would be important collaborators in a picture's effect on an audience."

Unlike the Glass score, which plays almost continuously during the movie, Rapsis will use music only in certain places where he feels it will either enhance the mood, heighten tension, or signify a change in the emotional line of the story.

Although 'Dracula' is not a silent film, there are definitely places where the silence speaks volumes and remains very effective," Rapsis said. "I hope to leave those intact, but enrich other parts of the film in the way that only music can."

Silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Yes, those are his real teeth!

Rapsis works largely by improvising as a film plays in the theater, in the tradition of theatre organists of the 1920s.

"There's something very special about the in-the-moment energy of a live improvised performance," Rapsis said. "It's never the same, and at its best it really can help a film connect with an audience and make the whole experience come together."

The original 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi will be shown in 35mm and with live music for one screening only on Halloween night, Sunday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Tickets are $15 per person, with discounts for students and seniors. For more info, call the theater at (617) 625-5700 or visit www.somervilletheatre.com.


Saturday, October 30, 2021

Three screenings, two states, one day: Chaney in afternoon, then Nosferatu at night

Tonight: Cue the theme from 'The Love Boat.' Not.

The spooky steeplechase continues!

Today's scheduled includes live music for three silent features: at 2 p.m., a double bill of Lon Chaney thrillers in Wilton, N.H., and then this evening it's another 'Nosferatu,' this time in Ogunquit, Maine. 

More on tonight's 'Nosferatu' is in the press release below. 

This afternoon's Chaney features, 'Outside the Law' (1920) and 'The Unholy Three' (1925), are a continuation of a mini-marathon at the Town Hall Theatre that began last night with a screening of 'The Blackbird' (1926), a film I'd never accompanied before.

Lon Chaney as 'The Bishop' in 'The Blackbird' (1926).

Like all the Chaney MGM melodramas directed by Tod Browning, the plot and interaction of the characters build to a level of drama that's almost operatic, even though it's a silent film.

Because of that intensity, 'The Blackbird' does well with music that can rise to the moments when needed. 

At last night's screening, I began with a quiet vamp in a minor key, meant to evoke the seedy music halls of old London in which so much of 'The Blackbird' is set.

As the film progressed, I found the vamp, without any accompanying melody, was able to be transformed in a multitude of ways to support the drama: by turns menacing, sinister, joyous, and/or exhilarating when needed.

Ultimately, with some dissonant notes held above it, the vamp was entirely capable of carrying the great "moment of truth" scenes always found in the Chaney/Browning collaborations.

Let's hope the same magic happens with today's two features, and with 'Where East is East' (1929), which I'm scoring tomorrow (Sunday, Oct. 31) at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre to finish out the Chaney series on Halloween.

And then I head down to Boston to create live music for the Browning-directed 'Dracula' (1931) at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday night—something I've never done before and about which I'm very excited.

But first things first! See this afternoon for two Chaneys, and then this evening for 'Nosferatu' at the Leavitt Theater in Ogunquit, Maine. More details in the press release below.

*    *    *

MONDAY, OCT. 4, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Creepy classic thriller 'Nosferatu' to screen at Leavitt Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 30

Celebrate Halloween with pioneer silent horror movie on the big screen with live music—see it if you dare!

OGUNQUIT, Me.— Get into the Halloween spirit with a classic silent horror film.

'Nosferatu' (1922), the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula,' will be screened with live music on Saturday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine.

The screening will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $12 per person. Costumes are encouraged!

'Nosferatu' (1922), directed by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre. It was among the first movies to use visual design to convey unease and terror.

To modern viewers, the passage of time has made this unusual film seem even more strange and otherworldly.

It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screening.

"The original 'Nosferatu' is a film that seems to get creepier as more time goes by," said Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H. who accompanies silent film screenings at the Leavitt and venues across the nation.

"It's a great way to celebrate Halloween and the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places," Rapsis said.

In 'Nosferatu,' actor Max Schreck portrays the title character, a mysterious count from Transylvania who travels to the German city of Bremen to take up residence.

In the town, a rise in deaths from the plague is attributed to the count's arrival. Only when a young woman reads "The Book of Vampires" does it become clear how to rid the town of this frightening menace.

Director Murnau told the story with strange camera angles, weird lighting, and special effects that include sequences deliberately speeded up.

Although 'Nosferatu' is suitable for all family members, the overall program may be too intense for very young children to enjoy.

Modern critics say the original 'Nosferatu' still packs a powerful cinematic punch.

“Early film version of Dracula is brilliantly eerie, full of imaginative touches that none of the later films quite recaptured,” Leonard Maltin wrote recently.

Critic Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader called 'Nosferatu' "...a masterpiece of German silent cinema and easily the most effective version of Dracula on record.”

Despite the status of 'Nosferatu' as a landmark of early cinema, another scary aspect of the film is that it was almost lost forever.

The film, shot in 1921 and released in 1922, was an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel, with names and other details changed because the studio could not obtain rights to the novel.

Thus "vampire" became "Nosferatu" and "Count Dracula" became "Count Orlok." After the film was released, Stoker's widow filed a copyright infringement lawsuit and won; all known prints and negatives were destroyed under the terms of settlement.

However, intact copies of the film would surface later, allowing 'Nosferatu' to be restored and screened today as audiences originally saw it. The image of actor Max Schreck as the vampire has become so well known that it appeared in a recent 'Sponge Bob Squarepants' episode.

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 'Nosferatu,' 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 cinema such as 'Nosferatu' 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.

The classic early horror thriller ‘Nosferatu’ will be shown on Saturday, Oct. 30 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.