Thursday, August 20, 2015

Tonight: The spectacular silent version
of 'Ben Hur' in Ogunquit, Maine

A little late in getting this posted, but tonight (Thursday, Aug. 20) brings a screening of the epic silent version of 'Ben Hur' (1925) at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

Showtime is 8 p.m. and tickets are $10 per person.

'Ben Hur' is a great film for music, highlighted by the spectacular chariot race and an equally impressive naval battle.

I have some good material for scoring this one, and I'm looking forward to tonight's screening.

Truth be told, I'm still recovering from last week's four-shows-in-four-days marathon, which wiped me out.

More on those in a post-to-come, including one show in an old barn where the screen was an actual bedsheet and some audience members sat in a vintage sleigh!

But I'll be back at full strength tonight. So here's the text of the 'Ben Hur' press release with more info on the show.

Hope to see you there, heathens!

* * *

The famous chariot race sequence in 'Ben Hur' contains some of the greatest editing of the silent era.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film epic ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) at Leavitt Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 20

Hollywood's original Biblical-era blockbuster to be screened with live musical accompaniment

OGUNQUIT, Maine—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. 20 at the historic Leavitt Fine Arts Theatre in downtown Ogunquit, Maine.

The screening, with live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, starts at 8 p.m. Admission is $10 per person.

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

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, which leads him to a series of epic adventures in his quest to find his mother and sister and restore his family fortune.

The screening is the latest in the Leavitt's summer series of silent film screenings. The series aims to showcase the best of early Hollywood the way it was intended to be experienced: on the big screen, with live music, and in a theater with an audience.

"Put together those elements, and it's amazing how much power these films still have. You realize why these films caused people to first fall in love with the movies, said accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a full score for the 2½-hour epic.

'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 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.

MGM executives at the time, aware of the quality of the original version, attempted to destroy all prints of the 1925 'Ben Hur,' sending the FBI out to confiscate collector copies in the 1950s. However, the studio did preserve the negative of the 1925 version, so the film remains available today.

The Leavitt, a summer-only moviehouse, opened in 1923 at the height of the silent film era, and has been showing movies to summertime visitors for nine decades.

The silent film series honors the theater's long service as a moviehouse that has entertained generations of area residents and visitors, in good times and in bad.

In creating music for silent films, 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. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

Upcoming shows in this year's series include:

• Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, 8 p.m.: 'Silent Comedy with Harry Langdon' Silent comedy featuring the unique style of Harry Langdon, whose innocent baby-faced character rocketed to fame late in the silent era on the strength of films directed by a very young Frank Capra. Rediscover Harry's quiet genius the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen and with a live audience.

• Saturday, Oct 31, 2015, 8 p.m.: 'The Lodger' (1927). A serial killer is on the loose in fog-bound London. Will the murderer be caught before yet another victim is claimed? Just in time for Halloween, suspenseful British thriller directed by a very young Alfred Hitchcock. The program is subtitled 'Chiller Theater' due to the theater's lack of central heating.

'Ben Hur' (1925) will be screened with live music on Thurday, Aug. 20 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theater, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine. Admission $10. For more information, call (207) 646-3123 or visit

Monday, August 10, 2015

Coming up: Four films in four days! First:
'Grandma's Boy' 8/13 in Plymouth, N.H.

'Grandma's Boy' (1922) will be screened with live music on Thursday, Aug. 13 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse, Plymouth, N.H.

Let's start with an injury report:

The left pinkie is pretty much healed, and just in time.

I'll need all 10 fingers for a mini-marathon of four performances in four days in three separate states. Making a list, it's two in New Hampshire, one in Vermont, and one in Massachusetts. (Good thing in New England the states are so small!)

But first up, a quick report on yesterday's unexpected double feature at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

I say "unexpected" because I originally had just 'Red Signals' (1927) programmed as part of our summer-long series of silent train melodramas.

But last week, I came across a DVD-R copy of the Eastman restoration of 'Roaring Rails' (1924), which I'd never seen.

I popped it in, and was treated to an immensely entertaining (and great-looking) film starring Harry Carey and a child actor I'd never heard of before: Frankie Darro.

Frankie Darro gives a knowing wink in 'Roaring Rails' (1924).

In 'Roaring Rails,' Darro, as "Little Bill," suffers one calamity after another, to the point where you can't help but wonder if one of the scriptwriters was Job himself.

Let's see: Little Bill starts the film as a French lad who loses his mother in World War I. Then, brought the U.S as an orphan, he causes a huge train crash that costs his adopted railroad engineer father his job.

As 'Roaring Rails' progresses, Little Bill winds up on a bridge that gets blown up, costing him is eyesight. He's then taken custody by a cruel caretaker who at one point flings the blind youngster into the side of a metal bed.

All not so great for Little Bill, but enough to prompt me to add 'Roaring Rails' to yesterday's program, doubling it up with 'Red Signals' (1927), another railroad drama.

Who was this kid? Turns out Frankie Darro (born Frank Johnson in 1917 to parents who performed as "The Flying Johnsons" in a traveling circus) had a Hollywood career that lasted longer than most.

As a child star, he grew up in the movies, although not that much: as an adult, he was 5-foot-3, so wound up playing lots of jockeys, even showing up as one in the Marx Brothers classic 'A Day At the Races' (1937).

He also got into voice work—perhaps most notably as the character "Lampwick" in Disney's 'Pinocchio' (1940).

Darro then served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and unfortunately caught malaria. The affliction stayed with him for the rest of his life, causing Darro to turn to alcohol to the point where it apparently impaired his health, according to the limited biographical info available.

Still, he kept performing; later big screen roles included uncredited work as Robby the Robot (unseen, in costume) in 'Forbidden Planet' (1956) and as a 'slave' extra in the big remake of 'Ten Commandments' (also 1956).

Darro did some TV work as well. His credits include an appearance as "newsman" in a couple of episodes of the 1960s 'Batman' TV series starring Adam West in the title role. (And with Neil Hamilton, leading man of the silent era, playing Commissioner Gordon.)

So in learning about Darro, I was reminded of Jackie Coogan, the child star that Charlie Chaplin launched to fame by co-starring him in his breakthrough feature, 'The Kid' (1921). Coogan continued to perform throughout his life, but in roles that included Uncle Fester on TV's 'The Addams Family' and Barbara Eden's wacky uncle in 'I Dream of Jeannie.'

I often wonder about the psychological issues that go with being a star in childhood, but then a minor character actor in later life. It can't be easy.

Darro, alas, died in 1976—of a heart attack at age 59, still fairly young.

But I hope he'd be pleased to know his performance as 'Little Bill' way back during the silent era still keeps an audience riveted to the screen.

That was the case yesterday in Wilton, where 'Roaring Rails' turned out to be the clear program favorite. 'Red Signals' (1927) was no slouch, but seemed a little less focused—and didn't benefit from having any child star beset by endless mishaps.

Audience response was strong for the whole program, as it's been throughout this series of obscure railroad melodramas. So I'm further convinced that there are worthy discoveries to be made among the thousands of silent feature films that have survived.

Few ever get a chance to be revived with live music and in front of an audience. But it's the only way to know for sure, so I intend to keep doing it.

Coming up in my four-day mini-marathon are programs featuring more well-known performers—Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton among them.

First up is Harold Lloyd in 'Grandma's Boy' (1922), his own breakthrough film, which we're screening on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

Admission is $10. More info about the screening is in the press release below. There's nothing like a Harold Lloyd film in a theater with an audience, so hope to see you there!

* * *

Harold Lloyd works up the courage to face a tramp in 'Grandma's Boy' (1922).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent comedy 'Grandma's Boy' at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Aug. 13

Classic Harold Lloyd feature film to be screened with live music accompaniment

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—The silent film era returns to the big screen at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center with the showing of 'Grandma's Boy' (1922), a classic silent comedy accompanied by live music.

Showtime is Thursday, Aug. 13, at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey, 39 Main St., Plymouth. All are welcome to this family-friendly event; admission is $10 per person general admission.

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 scores for silent films.

'Grandma's Boy,' stars Harold Lloyd, a popular 1920s film star.

'Grandma's Boy' tells the story a cowardly young man (Harold Lloyd) who seeks the courage to battle a menacing tramp who terrorizes his small hometown.

Audiences loved 'Grandma's Boy' when it was first released, and the picture helped establish Lloyd as a major star for the rest of the silent film era.

In revival, 'Grandma's Boy' continues to delight movie-goers and serves as a great introduction to the magic of silent film. It also provides a marvelous window into small town American life as it was lived a century ago.

Despite his mega-star status in the 1920s, Lloyd is largely unknown to today's audiences, mostly because he retained control of his films in later life and refused to let them be shown on television.

"People today remember Charlie Chaplin, but the silent era had many popular stars," Rapsis said. "Harold Lloyd's 'average American' character was immensely popular in the 1920s, not just in the U.S. but around the globe."

With the release of Lloyd's films on DVD, audiences are rediscovering his timeless genius. The reissue sparked a demand for screenings in theaters, where the Lloyd films continue to cast their spell on audiences.

Shown in a theater with live music, Lloyd's features maintain their power to delight movie-goers.

"Times have changed, but people haven't," Rapsis said. "The Lloyd films were designed to be shown in a theater with an audience, and to appeal to a worldwide audience, and their universal themes haven't lost any relevance," said Rapsis, who has performed music for silent films in venues ranging the Donnell Library in New York City to the Kansas Silent Film Festival.

Using original themes created beforehand, Rapsis improvises the music live as the films are shown.

"When the score gets made up on the spot, it creates a special energy that's an important part of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra for the accompanimemt.

The Flying Monkey originally opened as a silent film moviehouse in the 1920s, and showed first-run Hollywood films to generations of area residents until closing several years ago.

The theater has since been renovated by Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man restaurants, who created a performance space that hosts a wide range of music acts.

Movies of all types, however, are still a big part of the Flying Monkey's offerings, and the silent film series is a way for the theater to remain connected to its roots.

‘Grandma's Boy’ (1922), a classic silent comedy starring Harold Lloyd, will be shown on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth. Admission $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Sunday, Aug. 9: another RR melodrama...
...but first, a word from the folks at Za-Rex

Two icons of a New England childhood: Cowboy star Rex Trailer reaches for a refreshing glass of Za-Rex.

So the other day I was yakking with Peter Clayton, long-time owner/operator of the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

And I noticed his white T-shirt was emblazoned with the logo of 'Za-Rex,' a brand of fruit-flavored syrups that were popular in New England when I was a child.

"Peter, where'd you get that Za-Rex shirt?" I asked.

In answer, he turned around to show me the back of the shirt, which carried a stylized 1950s picture of a family enjoying Za-Rex-flavored drinks: a dad, a mom, two daughters, and a cute little boy.

"See the boy?" he asked. "That's me!"

What? Well, it turns out that Peter's dad was the guy behind Za-Rex! And way back when, he included images of his own kids (Peter's two sisters, and Peter) in the company's marketing. (Later came the company's mascot, Zippy the Zebra.)

This made me giddy. To any child who grew up within reach of Boston television in the 1960s and 1970s, Za-Rex was a hallowed name.

Though the brand had long since disappeared (people turned away from mixing their own beverages, either with Za-Rex or Kool-Aid powder), Za-Rex was very much alive in the large part of my brain still ruled by the marketing aimed at me as a kid.

But Peter told me the brand actually had been revived by two guys who bought the rights to it a few years ago. Check it out: I might order some for old-time's sake. (If I do, I'll try to resist drinking the syrup straight, as once was my practice.)

So in introducing Chaplin's 'The Kid' (1921) to our audience this past Thursday night, I also mentioned how delighted The Kid in me was to have just learned that the theater's owner was heir to the now-vanished Za-Rex empire.

It being New England, this earned a nice round of applause.

As a warm-up to 'The Kid,' the program included Chaplin's 'The Adventurer' (1917) and Arbuckle's 'Coney Island' (1917), mostly for its surfside atmosphere, so similar to Ogunquit.

Despite a nagging injury to my left-hand pinkie, the music came out well. In terms of textures, I progressed from piano only for 'Adventurer' to organ for 'Coney Island' and then full orchestra for 'The Kid.' I think it helps give each film a separate character, and using orchestra for the feature helps communicates its relative importance.

But no time to reflect as another show is coming fast down the track on Sunday, Aug. 9. It's the next in a series of railroad melodramas we're doing this summer at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre: 'Red Signals' (1927), an action-packed crime thriller starring Wallace MacDonald, Earle Williams, Eva Novak, and a cast of dozens, all of whom you've probably never heard of.

The railroad flick's we've screened so far this summer have all produced strong responses from audiences. They may be totally obscure, but they still do their job.

We'll finish the series later this month with one train-related film that's definitely not obscure: John Ford's 'The Iron Horse' (1924), the epic tale of the construction of the transcontinental railroad.

But first, climb aboard 'Red Signals' this Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to defray expenses.

Here's a press release with more info:

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre continues series of vintage railroad dramas on Sunday, Aug. 9

Full steam ahead with 'Red Signals,' silent train adventure with live music

WILTON, N.H.—This summer's series of silent railroad films at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre continues this weekend with a matinee screening of 'Red Signals' (1927).

The action-packed film about sabotage on a western railroad will be shown with live music for one screening only, on Sunday, Aug. 9 at 4:30 p.m.

Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to help defray the cost of screening silent film on the big screen with live music.

The plot of 'Red Signals': The Western Limited Railroad has suffered numerous wrecks recently and when headquarters learns that the wrecks have also been looted, they send in "Sure Fire" Frank Bennet to take over as superintendent and put things right.

After a chance meeting, Frank hires his wandering brother Lee to work for the railroad. Lee may be Frank's best chance against crooked railroad man "Take-A-Chance" McGuire, who is in cahoots with the former superintendent and has plans to get rid of Frank so they can continue robbing the railroad.

The train-themed movies in this summer's series are all fast-paced silent-era melodramas set in the world of big-time railroading.

"These movies were made at a time when cars and trucks were rare, and railroads were a part of everyday life across the nation," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will provide live music for each movie.

"So the early studios capitalized on the public's close relationship with trains by churning out all kinds of railroad-themed pictures. In the silent era, it was a popular sub-genre," Rapsis said.

The series concludes on Sunday, Aug. 30 with 'The Iron Horse' (1924), John Ford's epic drama about building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.

Silent-era railroad dramas are of particular interest to train buffs because they're filled with scenes of working railroads in action about 100 years ago, at a time the nation's reliance on the rail network reached its peak.

Each film in the series has been selected for its overall story quality and lasting audience appeal.

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre has been showing films since 1912. In addition to running the best current releases on its two screens, the theater remains committed to alternative programming such as its ongoing series of silent films with live music.

The silent series gives local audiences to experience great work of early cinema as it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The Summer Train Film Series continues with a screening of 'Red Signals' (1927) on Sunday, Aug. 9 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission to the screenings is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested.

For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit For more info on the music, visit

Monday, August 3, 2015

Coming up on Thursday, Aug. 6:
Chaplin's 'The Kid' in Ogunquit, Maine

A story with a smile, and perhaps a tear—especially if I reinjure my left pinkie.

A recent trip to Cambodia and Vietnam meant several weeks away from the keyboard, and the layoff took its toll.

The day after I returned, I was playing a program at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, and somehow managed to tear off the skin from the tip of the pinkie on my left hand. Youch!

I've never had this happen before, so I have to believe it was the result of not playing for awhile, and then coming back to it too suddenly.

Whatever the cause, it sure stung! But I made it through the show.

And I thought it had healed in time for a Harold Lloyd double bill I accompanied this past Sunday at the Somerville Theatre, but no—it broke open, forcing me to rethink or change all my usual instincts for playing.

Again, I got through the show, but it was somewhat less than fun!

So for a little while, any upcoming shows will feature more treble than bass as I take time for the pinkie to truly heal up for good. A screening of 'Open All Night' (1924) tomorrow night at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library will be my first experiment with one less finger than usual, so we'll see.

And then it's back to the Leavitt on Thursday, Aug. 6 for a screening of Chaplin's breakthrough feature, 'The Kid' (1921) as well as a few of Chaplin's earlier short comedies.

Say what you want about other silent film comedians—Chaplin's iconic tramp figure has endured as a symbol of the whole art form, and he still draws bigger crowds than any other performer from the era.

And for those of us deep into exploring the odd neglected corners of silent film (where occasionally a gem is discovered, but usually not), it's worth remembering that Chaplin was the "gateway drug" for many silent film people. His films are often the reason people first get interested in the art form.

It was that way with me. I remember the first Chaplin two-reeler I saw: 'One A.M.,' a Mutual two-reeler from 1916. Our junior high music teacher screened it during study hall to give us something to do, and I recall being captivated by the idea that Chaplin was the only person in the movie. (With the exception of Albert Austin as a taxi driver right at the beginning.)

So I'm looking forward to Thursday night, and possibly having some folks get intrigued enough by Chaplin to want to learn more. That's how it starts!

Newbie or oldbie (Is 'oldbie even a word?), I hope to see you on Thursday night out in Ogunquit. More info is in the press release below.

* * *

A still that still works: Chaplin and Coogan watch out for the law, which is watching them.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Chaplin's 'The Kid' (1921) to screen on Thursday, Aug. 6 at Leavitt Theatre

Landmark silent film comedy/drama to be presented with live music at historic Ogunquit venue

QGUNQUIT, Maine—Silent film with live music returns to the Leavitt Theatre with a screening of Charlie Chaplin's classic comedy/drama 'The Kid' (1921) on Thursday, Aug. 6 at 8 p.m.

The special program, which also includes several of Chaplin's short comedies, with be presented with live music by Jeff Rapsis, one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. Admission is $10 per person.

Chaplin was already the world's most popular comedian and filmmaker when he produced 'The Kid,' his first feature-length project. The movie, with its daring mix of intense drama and slapstick comedy, proved an instant sensation and marked one of the high points of Chaplin's long career.

'The Kid' follows the story of a tramp (Chaplin) who attempts to raise an orphaned boy on his own. It includes several classic scenes, and is highlighted by a sequence in which Chaplin battles authorities attempting to return the child to an orphanage.

Co-starring with Chaplin in 'The Kid' is five-year-old Jackie Coogan, who turned in what many critics rank as the best child performance of the entire silent film era. Chaplin himself worked closely with the young Coogan for more than a year to develop the youngster's acting abilities.

Coogan went on to a long career that much later included the role of "Uncle Fester" in the popular 1960s Addams Family television show. (That's him on the right.)

The Chaplin program continues another season of silent films presented with live music at the Leavitt. The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in restored prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put pieces of the experience back together again, it's surprising how these films snap back to life," Rapsis said. "By showing the films under the right conditions, you can really get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."

The Leavitt, a summer-only moviehouse, opened in 1923 at the height of the silent film era, and has been showing movies to summertime visitors for nine decades.

The silent film series honors the theater's long service as a moviehouse that has entertained generations of Seacoast residents and visitors, in good times and in bad.

Another iconic image from 'The Kid' (1921).

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

'The Kid' will be preceded by several short Chaplin comedies made earlier in his career that helped establish his worldwide popularity.

Upcoming shows in this year's series include:

• Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, 8 p.m.: 'Ben Hur' (1925) starring Ramon Navarro. In the Holy Land, a Jewish prince is enslaved by the occupying Romans; inspired by encounters with Jesus, he lives to seek justice. One of the great religious epics of Hollywood's silent film era, including a legendary chariot race that's lost none of its power to thrill.

• Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, 8 p.m.: 'Silent Comedy with Harry Langdon' Silent comedy featuring the unique style of Harry Langdon, whose innocent baby-faced character rocketed to fame late in the silent era on the strength of films directed by a very young Frank Capra. Rediscover Harry's quiet genius the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen and with a live audience.

• Saturday, Oct 31, 2015, 8 p.m.: 'The Lodger' (1927). A serial killer is on the loose in fog-bound London. Will the murderer be caught before yet another victim is claimed? Just in time for Halloween, suspenseful British thriller directed by a very young Alfred Hitchcock. The program is subtitled 'Chiller Theater' due to the theater's lack of central heating.

'The Kid' (1921) starring Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, will be screened with live music on Thurday, Aug. 6 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theater, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine. Admission $10. For more information, call (207) 646-3123 or visit

For more info on the music, visit


“Chaplin's first real feature mixes slapstick and sentiment in a winning combination, as the Tramp raises a streetwise orphan. Wonderful film launched Coogan as a major child star, and it's easy to see why.”
– Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

Monday, July 13, 2015

Coming up: a double bill of Harold Lloyd's
'Why Worry?' (1923), 'Speedy' (1928) in 35mm

A poster for our double-feature on Sunday, Aug. 2, which includes 'Why Worry?' (1923).

Phew! Just completed a four-day mini-marathon of silent film screenings that ended yesterday with a bang.

Or actually, many bangs, as there was plenty of gunfire in 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926), a Tom Mix action adventure and the latest installment of this summer's "train melodrama" series at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

I don't know what it is about these railroad films, but they've been packing them in. We must have had 100 people at Sunday afternoon's screening—amazing considering it was an unusual date (we're usually the last Sunday of each month) and it was totally gorgeous mid-summer weather in these parts.

Even in the form of a somewhat blurry transfer (the best available), people were primed to cheer on Mix and Tony the Wonder Horse as they battled the evil gang bent on robbing the K & A.

It's not the longest film ever made (at 53 minutes, I'm thinking it must be descended from a Kodascope show-at-home print or something similar) but still holds the screen very effectively.

And it's a great film for music, too. I had some good basic train material, a fanfare/march for Tom and Tony, a love theme, and some "bad guys" music, all of which come together really well, I thought.

One reason attendance has been strong could be that I've reached out to non-silent-film people by posting info about the series on railfan messageboards.

And I have seen some new faces at these screenings, including a couple who came up to me after Sunday afternoon's screening to say how much they enjoyed it.

They'd never been before, but came because "we love trains," the woman said. And their unsolicited comment was music to my ears: "We forgot there was someone playing the music," she said.

I hope I have an easier time abroad than Harold in 'Why Worry?'

Looking ahead: I'm traveling out of the country for the rest of the month, but will return in time for a double bill of Harold Lloyd features on Sunday, Aug. 2 at the Somerville Theatre.

In a program that starts at 2 p.m., we're screening 'Why Worry?' (1923) and 'Speedy' (1928), using 35mm prints from the Harold Lloyd Trust.

More than most, I think, the Lloyd pictures are tooled to work with a large audience. Because we tend to get upwards of 150 people for comedy programs at the Somerville, I'm really looking forward to the Aug. 2 program.

It's a great chance to experience Lloyd's work as his original audiences did: in a theater, on the big screen, and surrounded by people all reacting together.

It makes a huge difference. Must be something about crowd psychology loosening up and intensifying our own reactions. Anyone doing a doctoral research program on this?

And I'm especially excited by 'Speedy' because I've just seen where silent film location detective John Bengston identified an appearance of Lou Gehrig in the scenes with Babe Ruth shot outside the original Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Look! There's Lou Gehrig in Babe Ruth's 'Speedy' cameo. (Enlargement of detail on right.)

Bengston posted info about this a few years back, but I came across it only recently. Makes you wonder what else might be lurking in films that we think of as familiar.

Well, come see if you can spot any more members of the 1927 Yankees on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville.

More info is in the press release pasted in below. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Harold rides the NYC Subway.

Contact Jeff Rapsis at (603) 236-9237 • e-mail

Somerville Theatre to screen back-to-back Harold Lloyd silent comedies in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Aug. 2

Program includes political satire 'Why Worry' (1923) and 'Speedy' (1928), shot on location in 1920s NYC featuring extended Babe Ruth cameo

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — He was the bespectacled boy next door whose road to success was often paved with perilous detours.

He was Harold Lloyd, whose fast-paced comedies made him the most popular movie star of Hollywood's silent film era.

See for yourself why Lloyd was the top box office attraction of the 1920s in a double feature revival of two of his best movies: 'Why Worry?' (1923) and 'Speedy' (1928).

Both films will be screened using archival 35mm prints on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. General admission is $15; seniors/students $12.

Live music will be provided by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New England-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

The 35mm prints are on loan from the Harold Lloyd Trust of Los Angeles, Calif.

"The Harold Lloyd program continues our commitment to screening movies using real film whenever possible," said Ian Judge, the Somerville's general manager. "This format is how these pictures were designed to be shown, and as time goes by, finding good 35mm prints and a theater with the know-how to handle them is getting harder to do."

Lloyd's go-getter character proved immensely popular throughout the 1920s, with fans following him from one adventure to the next. Designed for a large audience, Lloyd's pictures—with their potent mix of comedy, sentiment, and thrills—are legendary for their ability to stir an audience in a theater even today.

Lloyd and his 8-foot-tall co-star John Aasen in 'Why Worry?'

In the political satire 'Why Worry?', Harold plays a wealthy hypochondriac traveling abroad for his health who gets caught up in a local uprising. Thrown into prison, Harold is forced to use his wits to escape and rescue his nurse from the clutches of an evil Revolutionary.

Regarded as one of Lloyd's most surreal movies, 'Why Worry?' features a cast that includes an actual real-life giant—8-foot-tall John Aasen, discovered in Minnesota during a national talent search.

'Speedy,' Lloyd's final silent feature before the transition to talkies, finds Harold as a baseball-crazed youth who must rescue the city's last horse-drawn streetcar from gangsters bent on running it out of business.

Filmed almost entirely on location in New York, 'Speedy' features remarkable glimpses of the city at the end of the 1920s, including footage of Coney Island and the original Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Lloyd with former Red Sox pitcher and then-current Yankee Babe Ruth in 'Speedy' (1928).

The latter scenes include an extended appearance by Babe Ruth, then at the height of his career during the team's storied 1927 season.

"In 'Speedy,' New York City is practically a part of the cast," Rapsis said. "In filming it on location, Lloyd knew scenes of New York would give the picture added interest to audiences across the nation and around the world. But what he didn't anticipate was that today, the location shots now provide a fascinating record of how life was lived in 1920s urban America."

Rapsis will improvise a musical score for both films as they're screened. In creating accompaniment for the Lloyd movies and other vintage classics, Rapsis tries to bridge the gap between silent film and modern audiences.

"Creating the music on the spot is a bit of a high-wire act, but it contributes a level of energy that's really crucial to the silent film experience," Rapsis said.

Other upcoming features in the Somerville's "Silents, Please" series include:

• Sunday, Sept. 13, 2 p.m.: 'The Matrimaniac' (1916) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. An unusual program that contrasts this early Fairbanks marital farce with another picture released by the same studio after Fairbanks had moved on, but which uses material from the Fairbanks film to support an entirely different story.

• Sunday, Oct. 4, 2 p.m.: 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926) starring Harry Langdon, Joan Crawford. The great silent film comedian Harry Langdon returns to the Somerville's big screen, this time with a very young Joan Crawford playing his love interest! His debut feature finds Harry entering a cross-country walking race to save the family business and impress the girl of his dreams.

• Sunday, Nov. 22, 2 p.m.: 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino. Sweeping drama of a divided family with members caught up on opposites sides during World War I. Breakthrough film for Rudolph Valentino, introducing the sultry tango and launching him to stardom.

All entries in the Somerville's silent film series are shown using 35mm prints, the native film format that few theaters are now equipped to run following Hollywood's transition to digital formats.

Harold Lloyd's ‘Why Worry?’ and 'Speedy' will be shown in 35mm and with live music on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m. at Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Admission to the screening is $15 or $12 seniors/students; general admission seating. For more info, call (617) 625-5700 or visit For more info on the music, visit

Friday, July 10, 2015

Tonight: 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921) —
but first, thoughts on humans beyond all help

A vintage promotional slide for 'Orphans of the Storm.'
Tonight it's time to tip our chapeaux to Bastille Day and the French Revolution, in the form of a screening of 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), the great D.W. Griffith epic that stars the Gish sisters, a giant guillotine, and yes, a cast of thousands.

But first, a few thoughts about last night's uproarious screening of a pair of silent films that starred two different dogs—one still obscure, and one still famous.

The obscure dog was 'Peter the Great,' a German Shepherd who started out as a stunt double for other movie dogs before becoming a movie star in his own right. At the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. last night, we screened his only surviving feature, a crime thriller called 'The Sign of the Claw' (1926).

And people loved it! So Peter, if you're up there beyond the Rainbow Bridge, you live on here through your one remaining flick.

The still-famous dog was none other than 'Rin Tin Tin,' whose name echoes across the generations. We screened one of Rinty's lesser-known features, 'The Night Cry' (1926), in which our canine hero does battle with an enormous buzzard billed as a "California condor," but I have my doubts.

(Okay, an update from the always-reliable IMDB: "The trained condor who appears in the film, known as "Bozo," was the only condor in captivity at the time." That's him in the Scandinavian poster at right.)

But our audience of about 60 people had no doubts at all. They absolutely loved 'The Night Cry.' It was one of those full-throated audience engagements that you always hope for when screening a silent film: people shrieked at the action, laughed at the plot twists, applauded the good guys, and booed the villains. (Yes, they gave the bird the bird.)

And the conclusion of 'The Night Cry,' with its "triple climax" structure, drew an especially strong reaction. People were gasping and cheering and shouting (and yes, barking) so much, it drowned out the accompaniment. (No complaints from me on that!)

I don't want to spoil 'The Night Cry' for anyone, so let me just say this modest film features an absurd plot, but underneath lies a structure ingeniously built to fake out an audience.

Just when everyone senses the story has reached its big climax and we're ready for the big embrace and 'The End,' something ELSE happens to then drive the action to new heights.

And then, it happens AGAIN!

I've scored 'The Night Cry' a few times now, and the reaction is always big. And so I'm beginning to think there's more than one level as to why these films were so popular, and why they still work so well today.

First, there's the animal thing. Yes, everyone loved Rin Tin Tin, because everyone loves animals. That's something that hasn't changed in the past 100 years, and perhaps not in 10,000 years.

But also, the Rin Tin Tin films are designed to show off the dog's talents. And to do that requires a story populated by a human cast that's essentially helpless—the kind of people who get themselves into situations that only a dog could solve.

This inverts our relationship that we at the top of the food chain have with our animals. Dogs smarter than people! And somehow, we respond quite strongly to the idea that our faithful four-footed companions are capable of tremendous feats of intelligence and bravery—look, it's right there on the screen!

Either that, or we just get a kick out of people doing really dumb things and needing a dog to rescue them.

In any case, it speaks (woof!) to what I have come to believe whole-heartedly: that the audience is an essential part of the silent film experience.

The films of the silent era, good or bad, were designed from the ground up to be shown to a large audience. To view them any other way is to rob them of a good portion of their effect—no different as if you were to screen them without music.

It's that important, because being part of a crowd allows us to experience all manner of intensified emotions that just aren't possible when we're at home in the basement, alone with our entertainment center.

So thanks to everyone at the Flying Monkey last night for collaborating on what was for me a great and memorable experience. Having an audience respond like that even once in awhile makes it all worth it.

Okay, on to Revolution. Please join us this evening (Friday, July 10) for 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), screening at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Tickets are $10 per person. More info in the press release below:

* * *

Lillian and Dorothy Gish star in 'Orphans of the Storm.'

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

French Revolution epic comes to Red River Theatres on Friday, July 10

D.W. Griffith's silent film masterpiece 'Orphans of the Storm' tells thrilling tale of sisters separated during political upheaval

CONCORD, N.H.—Heat up Bastille Day this year with the fires of revolution! 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), a sweeping silent film drama set during the uproar of the French Revolution, will be shown with live music on Friday, July 10 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person. The movie will be accompanied by live music performed by New Hampshire silent film composer Jeff Rapsis.

'Orphans of the Storm,' set in 1780s France, follows the story of two sisters, one blind, who seek to cure her vision by risking a trip from their country village to Paris. There, they are soon separated as anarchy erupts, the aristocracy is toppled, and the city is engulfed by the unpredictable chaos of revolution. Will fate reunite the two sisters before the guillotine separates them forever?

The film, part of Red River's silent film series, is being shown in part to mark Bastille Day (July 14), a holiday in France known as La Fête Nationale that celebrates the storming of the notorious Bastille prison in Paris in 1789 as a symbol of the French Revolution.

'Orphans of the Storm,' directed by legendary silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith, features dramatic mob scenes of revolutionary Paris filmed on a massive scale. Also, the story builds towards a spectacular and fast-moving race-to-the-rescue climax that wowed audiences in 1921, making 'Orphans of the Storm' one of the year's biggest hits.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish in costume for 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921).

Leading roles in 'Orphans of the Storm' are played by two actual sisters, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, both major stars of Hollywood's silent era. Lillian Gish, an iconic actress of the silent era, went on to a career that lasted long enough to include an appearance on 'The Love Boat' television series in the 1980s. She died in 1993 at age 99.

Younger sister Dorothy Gish also enjoyed a productive career that included stage, film, and television roles into the 1960s; she died in 1968 at age 70.

'Orphans of the Storm' was the last in a string of successful blockbusters helmed by Griffith, who pioneered large-scale historical epics with films such as 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), 'Intolerance' (1916), and 'Way Down East' (1920). Though he continued making films, Griffith was superseded the 1920s by a new generation of filmmakers willing to take his innovations even further, creating the foundation of the motion picture industry we know today.

Although 'Orphans of the Storm' was released nine decades ago, critics today say Griffith's French Revolution epic holds up well for modern viewers. Leonard Maltin praised the film's "lavish settings and race-to-the-rescue climax," judging it "still dazzling." Critic Jeremy Heilman of wrote "the sheer amount of realized ambition on display in it makes it a sight to behold."

The guillotine is ready for its close-up in 'Orphans of the Storm.'

About D.W. Griffith, film historian Kevin Brownlow summarized his genius by writing, "however skillful the other early directors might have been, none of them knew how to project anything but the most basic emotions until Griffith showed them. And it was emotion, rather than close-ups and fade-outs, that made the people of the world fall in love with the moving picture."

The screening of 'Orphans of the Storm' will be accompanied by an improvised score created live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis achieves a traditional "movie score" sound for silent film screenings by using a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra.

"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.

Other dates and titles in the Red River silent film series include:

• Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Cameraman' (1928) starring Buster Keaton. To impress the girl of his dreams, mild-mannered portrait photographer Buster takes up the glamorous profession of newsreel cameraman. One of the best comedies of the silent era.

• Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Lodger' (1927). A serial killer is on the loose in fog-bound London. Will the murderer be caught before yet another victim is claimed? Just in time for Halloween, suspenseful British thriller directed by a very young Alfred Hitchcock.

Red River Theatres' 2015 Silent Film Series will continue with a screening of 'Orphans of the Storm’ (1921) on Friday, July 10 at 7 p.m. in the Jaclyn Simchik Screening Room at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 224-4600 or visit For more information about the music, visit

Monday, July 6, 2015

Dogs, the French revolution, spies, and trains: Accompanying four feature films in four days

Rin Tin Tin proves way smarter than his human co-stars in 'The Night Cry' (1926), coming up on Thursday, July 9 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

I'm revving up for what amounts to a home stretch of silent film accompaniment prior to taking some time away from the keyboard for the rest of the month.

That means four films in four days, and in four different theaters, too. It's the silent film equivalent of hitting for the cycle, I guess.

But before getting into the details, let me address yesterday's screening of 'The Big Parade' (1925) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

An original poster for 'The Big Parade' (1925).

We had a pretty strong turnout for the last day of a three-day holiday weekend—and for a matinee on a beautiful summer day at that. It wasn't too long ago when Davis Square was all but shut down, the streets clogged with four feet of snow.

But they came to see 'The Big Parade,' in the form of a great 35mm print on an enormous screen in a big old movie theater. (And unlike all the 4th of July parades this year in my home state of New Hampshire, there was nary a presidential candidate to be seen.)

It's a familiar film to me that I love accompanying. And because it's one of the big ones, it's worth reviewing prior to a screening just to make sure all the cues and cuts are fresh in your head.

This is especially important with my referee's whistle, which I match to the half-dozen times a whistle gets blown on screen as a key part of the action: the police who break up the fight in Champillon, the mail call scene, and several other points.

I think it adds a nice burst of sonic realism, but of course it has to be right on the money if it's going to work and not draw attention to itself. So it's worth getting to know those points of the film extremely well.

Same with the bugle calls, of which 'The Big Parade' has several. And on that score, not all bugle calls are alike. The purist in me, for instance, knows you really shouldn't play "Reveille" when the troops are being called to chow, as happens in 'The Big Parade.'

Instead, you should play "Mess Call," which goes like this:

Likewise, when a bugle is played calling the troops to assemble and move out, you ought to play "To Arms," which sounds like this:

Most people at a screening wouldn't know the difference. But for those who might, it's one more thing done "right" that doesn't break the mood and thus keeps the spell of silent film intact.

As you may know, all bugle calls are based on a simple triad, or the notes in a major chord. Because of that, it makes them easy to fit around other material—including the big love theme I was using in yesterday's score.

So this all works out really well in the big "moving out" sequence in 'The Big Parade,' where repeated shots of a bugler alternate with scenes of the troops assembling, and then footage of John Gilbert and Renee Adorée frantically searching for each other amid the chaos.

I was able to mix "To Arms" with the love theme pretty fluently, modulating all over the place and sometimes even playing the love theme using the rhythms of the bugle call just to add to the chaos.

Renee Adorée and John Gilbert providing reason for a "love theme" in 'The Big Parade' score.

But the most important thing about 'The Big Parade' is to HOLD BACK. As powerful as many of its scenes are, it's crucial to save something for the climactic battle scene, which Vidor cut together with the rhythm of a good 4th of July fireworks show.

At the battle's true climax, the screen is filled with a blinding series of rapid explosions that lasts only just a few seconds, but it's enough—any more would have probably been excessive. And it's only THEN that you hold nothing back, musically, I think.


Tom O'Brien, John Gilbert, and Karl Dane prepare for the climactic battle.

At the end, it was gratifying to hear such strong applause for this 90-year-old picture that still plays so well. It's a great honor to do music for it, especially on a 4th of July weekend, and I hope to play for it again very soon.

Okay, here's a brief round-up of the four upcoming screenings. I'll post detailed press releases later as we get closer. If nothing else, this is just to help me keep them all straight.

I had no idea that dog star Peter the Great started out as a stunt double for fellow canines Strongheart and Thunder the Wonder Dog.

• Thursday, July 9, 2015, 6:30 p.m.: "A Dog Double Feature" spotlighting silent-era canine stars Peter the Great and Rin Tin Tin; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; . In 'The Sign of the Claw,' a police dog helps solve a crime wave. The only surviving film of Peter the Great, a popular German shepherd performer. 'The Night Cry' (1926) finds iconic dog superstar Rin Tin Tin accused of killing sheep. Can he find the real bandit and clear his name? Part of a monthly silent film series at a newly restored moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Admission, $10 per person.

With hair like that, no wonder there was a revolution.

• Friday, July 10, 2015, 7 p.m.: "Orphans of the Storm" (1921); Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.; (603) 224-4600; Just in time for Bastille Day, D.W. Griffith's sweeping story of two sisters (Lillian and Dorothy Gish) caught up in the throes of the French revolution. Griffith's last major box office success fills the screen with a succession of iconic images. Silent film with live music at this popular venue for independent and arthouse cinema in New Hampshire's state capital. Admission $10 per person.

In my favorite scene from 'Hands Up!' (1926), Raymond Griffith teaches his Native American captors the latest dance moves.

• Saturday, July 11, 2015, 7 p.m.: "Hands Up!" (1926) starring Raymond Griffith; Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.; We mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War with this uproarious Raymond Griffith comedy. A southern spy must work every angle to prevent a shipment of western gold from reaching Union forces. Plus Laurel & Hardy comedy shorts! Join us for series silent films and live music in a wonderfully restored town hall in Brandon Vt. that features great acoustics. Admission free, donations accepted, with proceeds to help continuing preservation work.

Looking for big-screen thrills and spills? With 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926), even this poster is action-packed.

• Sunday, July 12, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: "The Great K & A Train Robbery" (1926) starring Tom Mix; Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Treachery on the rails as our hero goes undercover to learn who is tipping the bandits. One of the best Tom Mix films, with plenty of action and some fantastic stunt work. Part of a series of silent films with live music at a theater where movies have been shown since 1912! Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged.

Hope to see you at one or more of these screenings. And if anyone makes it to all four, I'll buy you lunch at the nearest White Castle. (Transportation not included. By the way, it's in the Bronx.)