Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Canines and equines and pachyderms, oh my!
3 weeks of silent animal stars in Wilton, N.H.

Leader the Dog stars in 'The Return of Grey Wolf' (1923), showing on Sunday, Aug. 31 at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

Our summer-long series of silent films starring animals will conclude with an unprecedented series of screenings over the next three Sundays!

It's quite a jump from our usual pace of one silent film program each month at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre.

But with great animal performers filling the big screen with amazing feats all summer long, I kinda wanted to do a trick or two myself.

Plus, I unearthed so many great (if unknown) titles that deserved a spot on the program. So we had to add a few extra shows to fit everything in.

And the result is that for the next three Sundays, we're screening no less than eight separate titles, all of which I've never accompanied before.

One reason for so many titles is that the animal films have come down to us in versions that tend to run short: most are well under an hour, so doing three at once isn't too much of a stretch.

The reason they're short, by the way, is that a lot of these obscure titles were sold for home use in 16mm prints that were often edited down from the full-length versions shown in theaters.

In many cases, the 16mm prints are all that survived over the years. The original 35mm prints, produced on highly unstable cellulose nitrate stock, have long since decomposed.

As you may know, something like 80 percent of all silent film is lost forever. So we're fortunate indeed, I think, to be able to see what remains of the work of such yeoman (or yeo-animal) performers as Champion the Dog, Rex the Wonder Horse, Oscar the Elephant, and so many other once-popular box office names.

The fact that many are slightly trimmed makes them even more action-packed than they might have been originally. Yes, they're sometimes a little loopy in the plot department, but probably no more so than they were all along.

One curious semi-local connection: a surprising number of animal films are set in rural Quebec!

One of the strangest is 'Return of the Grey Wolf' (1923), in which we get titles telling us that Leader the Dog and his canine pals are saying "Woof! Woof!" and so on. (That is, until the doggy dialogue is "translated" into English, with lines such as "Gee, great to see the gang!") The film runs on Sunday, Aug. 31.

And let me put in a special plug for Oscar the Elephant, who stars in 'Soul of the Beast' (1923), one of the titles on the Sept. 7 program. I have to say that I've never seen a more bizarre feature film from the silent era. I had never heard of Oscar before I started planning this series, but I'm so glad to finally make his acquaintance in the one picture of his known to have survived.

What's it about? I don't want to spoil the fun other than to say, yes, it takes place in French-speaking Canada. Let's just say it's what might have been the result if cult film director John Waters had come onto the scene about 50 years earlier than he did.

Really looking forward to seeing how an audience responds to this one. I hope you'll be willing to join the fun for 'Soul of the Beast,' and all the films coming up in the three-week finale to our animal series.

For more specific info, here's the press release from earlier this month.

* * *

Looks like early film comedy icons Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are going to the dogs.


TUESDAY, AUG. 12, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Going to the dogs — and horses
and monkeys and elephants, too


► Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre announces finale of summer-long 'All-Star Animal Silent Film Extravaganza'

► Venue to run big-screen critter classics on three consecutive Sundays: Aug. 24, Aug. 31, and Sept. 7

WILTON, N.H. — They couldn't speak, but that was no handicap in the silent film era.

They were the great animal stars of early Hollywood: amazing dogs, horses, and even elephants who were as popular as any human performer when the movies were young.

In fast-paced action pictures, they chased down villains, rescued their owners, and saved the day with no dialogue needed.

See for yourself how animal stars helped establish the popularity of motion pictures as the Wilton Town Hall Theatre completes its summer-long retrospective of the great non-human performers of early cinema.

The popular series will conclude with programs on three consecutive Sunday afternoons: Aug. 24, Aug. 31, and Sept. 7.

"Animal pictures were hugely popular during the silent era, and it's easy to see why," said Dennis Markaverich, long-time owner/operator at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. "They're full of action and adventure, and it's been a real thrill to see them back on the big screen this summer."

Live music for all screenings will be performed by Jeff Rapsis of Bedford, N.H., one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.

The three-week finale begins on Sunday, Aug. 24 with three films starring dog performers who were lesser known, but no less talented than big names such as Rin Tin Tin.

• Sunday, Aug. 24, 4:30 p.m.: "More Forgotten Dogs." A trio of films featuring popular canine performers whose stars have faded. In 'Tracked' (1928), Ranger the Dog stands accused of killing sheep and must go on the lam; 'The Sign of the Claw' (1926) features Peter the Great, a German Shepherd star whose career was cut short by a tragic accident; and 'Sky Rider' (1928) finds Champion the Dog taking flight in an airplane drama.

• Sunday, Aug. 31, 4:30 p.m.: "A Triple Feature: Two Dogs and a Horse." Another thrilling triple feature! 'His Master's Voice' (1925) finds Thunder the Dog (that's him at left) helping human co-star George Hackathorne overcome his cowardice on the battlefield; in 'The Return of the Grey Wolf' (1923), Leader the Dog comes to the aid of his master, a fur trapper blinded in an accident; and in 'Guardians of the Wild' (1928), Rex the Wonder Horse returns to help the good guys fight the bad guys over the fate of a pristine patch of wildernessd.

• Sunday, Sept. 7, 4:30 p.m.: "Really Big Stars: An Elephant Double Feature." We finish our look at the silent era's animal stars with a double feature of films with elephants in leading roles! 'Soul of the Beast' (1923) stars Oscar the Elephant, who accompanies a circus runaway fleeing a mean stepfather. Together, they astonish the rustic inhabitants of rural Quebec. In 'Chang' (1927), shot on location in rural Siam (now Thailand), a native family in the back country battles the jungle for survival. Note: the Sept. 7 program was originally scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 17 but was moved to Sunday, Sept. 7 due to a scheduling conflict.

All shows are free and open to the public, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to help defray expenses.

"At their heart, these pictures capitalized on people's love of animals to produce great entertainment," Rapsis said. "They still work, and really do come to life when shown in a theater with live music and an audience. Also, because of the passage of time, they're perhaps even more interesting today than they were when first released."

Movies in the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series were popular when first seen by audiences in the 1920s, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen as intended. They were not made to be shown on television, cell phones, or other personal media; in reviving them, the Town Hall Theatre runs them using top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and before a live audience.

The three-week finale to the "All-Star Animal Summer Silent Film Extravaganza" starts on Sunday, Aug. 24 at 4:30 p.m at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with a donation of $5 per person suggested to help defray expenses. For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

It's like seeing your kid ride a bike
for the first time without training wheels

Okay, some thoughts on this past weekend, which saw me do music for three silent film screenings in three states in three days.

Each program couldn't have been more different: the films were (in order) a drama set during the Russian Revolution; a frothy Hollywood backstage comedy; and a German sci-fi epic about mankind's first voyage to the moon.

But after each one, I found myself with similar thoughts. How is this possible? Read on.

Emil Jannings in 'The Last Command' (1928).

Friday, Aug. 15: 'The Last Command' (1928) at Red River Theatres, Concord, N.H.

Nothing like starting a weekend by watching Emil Jannings go berzerk! Even with just 19 paid admissions, this multi-layered Josef Sternberg drama delivered its usual impact, with Jannings in a towering performance that helped earn him the first-ever Best Actor Academy Award.

Doing music for 'The Last Command' was very gratifying and satisfying, allowing me to play with the Czarist-era Russian National Anthem and also to uncork my inner Mussorgsky.

Inspired by earlier screenings, I've scribbled quite a bit of detailed analysis on 'The Last Command.' But I also recall saying that it's the kind of film that prompts new new thoughts and questions every time I encounter it.

Well, that's what happened in Concord. This time, I realized another interesting thing about 'The Last Command' is how important the then-brand-new motion picture industry itself to the whole structure of the tale.

Although most of the film takes place during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and has nothing whatsoever to do with the movie biz, the story is bookended by scenes that take place in present-day (that is, 1928) Hollywood.

These sequences, set behind the scenes in a motion picture studio, provide a crucial framing device that gives 'The Last Command' a multi-faceted and fascinating complexity.

Last Friday, it struck me how dependent the story of 'The Last Command' is on cinema itself. It's not an adaptation or retelling of a tale from Shakespeare or Dickens. It's original to the movies, and it had to be, because the movies themselves play an important role in giving the story its dramatic power.

And I think that's big, as it goes to the core of one of the reasons I find the era of silent cinema so engrossing. I love the idea of people such as director Sternberg and his collaborators exploring the unique power and properties of film, and using it to reinvent and reshape reality and present it to us in ways never been seen before.

The story really was original to the times, and drawn from real-life events of the time. German director Ernst Lubitsch knew of a former Russian general who had come to the U.S. after the Revolution to open a restaurant. He then later encountered the ex-general trying to find work as a movie extra. Lubitsch mentioned the man's tale to screenwriter Lajos Bíró, who used it as the basis for 'The Last Command.'

So it shows the movies spreading their wings, and I get a lot from seeing that in so many films of the silent era. Another good example is Keaton's 'The Cameraman,' which also used the new medium of the movies to reimagine and comment on reality in ways no one had ever done before in quite the same way.

They were very much works that spoke for their era, but also for the human condition of all time. And I find myself moved by that: seeing the possibilities of this new art form made manifest right before my eyes.

It's related to the feeling you get when, say, you witness a child ride a bicycle without training wheels for the first time. As Stephen Sondheim has George Seurat say in 'Sunday in the Park with George': "So many possibilities." Like I said, it's big.

William Haines and Marion Davies encounter Charlie Chaplin, sans moustache, in 'Show People' (1928).

Saturday, Aug. 16: 'Show People' (1928) at Brandon Town Hall, Brandon, Vt.

Here's a late silent that still packs a lot of entertainment value, even if most of the cameo appearances of 1920s mega-stars go unrecognized by today's audience. (Elinor Glyn? Who's that?)

To help things along, we had a capacity crowd (more than 100 people) at Brandon Town Hall, where 'Show People' was the featured attraction for Saturday night's show.

The score came together nicely, I thought, all based on a fairly simple "show biz" melody that lent itself to being reshaped to match the tempo and pacing of the film's sequences.

Alas, it exposed me to yet another hazard of live performance: the meal that doesn't agree with you.

In this case, I hadn't eaten much all day, so indulged in a fairly big meal at this Italian place I like in Rutland, Vt., which is on the way, about 20 minutes before Brandon.

Then, seemingly right after, I was up in Brandon sitting at the keyboard. I had finished the meal—but the problem was, the meal hadn't finished with me!

Really: about half-way through 'Show People,' I felt myself all but under attack from the inside. There was no getting up to do anything about it. So all I could do was what my dear departed grandmother would probably describe as "clamping down my innards." Ah, the glamor of showbiz!

I managed to get through the film, but that wasn't the end of the evening's ordeal. Afterwards, a young girl (one of my biggest fans in Brandon! came up to give me a big hug. I got through that, but then she followed this gesture by snapping the band of her handmade bracelet, causing all the baubles to scatter under the stage.

She immediately burst into tears, of course. Somehow I got onto my hands and knees and began searching for precious bits of plastic and ceramic to help reconstitute the ruined bracelet, all the while trying NOT to pass enormous amounts of pent-up gas.

Geez! I didn't read about moments like these in the memoirs of Berlioz!

To keep from focusing on the wrong things, I kept reminding myself about how 'Show People' was such a fun romp through the movie business. I've come to think of it as director King Vidor's Valentine to an era that everybody knew was just about over. And, like 'The Last Command,' it made extensive use of the movie business itself to get most of its energy, and to tell a story that played with our notions of what's real and what's pretend.

Two very different movies, but both making use of the then-new business of motion pictures—and its unique properties—as an indispensable part of their stories. Once again I found myself thinking that a lot of the fascination I have with the silent era comes from seeing filmmakers stretch their legs and discover new possibilities in the medium.

Also, I couldn't escape this other realization: If you're going to eat a big meal, do it after a screening, not before.

The cast of 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) searches the lunar surface not for cheese, but gold.

Sunday, Aug. 17: 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) at Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, Mass.

By attending this screening, my two college-era friends from New York City thought they would easily take the "came from the farthest distance" award.

But they were blown out of the water by a Lang fanatic who came all the way from Germany, he said, and solely to see this screening of 'Woman in the Moon.'

Seriously! His first time in the U.S., and just to be present for this rarely shown late silent sci-fi epic from the director of 'Metropolis' (1927).

And it gets better. "Leon" was actually from South Africa; he had only just arrived in Germany on holiday when he learned of the 'Woman in the Moon' screening, prompting him to buy a trans-Atlantic ticket and somehow get a U.S. visa on extremely short notice.

Wow! That's hardcore.

But then true Lang fans are a hardy bunch, I've found. It's like they know Lang's films (at least the big silent epics) won't be everyone's cup of tea, so they take it upon themselves to be faithful and loyal advocates all the more.

Case in point: also present for Sunday night's screening was an extremely knowledgeable film buff I know whose opinions deserve to be taken seriously. And yet this guy can't stand most of Lang's films (the silent ones, anyway). And sure enough, he felt 'Woman in the Moon' was as bad as the rest: overblown, preachy, nonsensical, and so on.

Wow! This is a film I've been fascinated by since discovering it a few years ago. I've come to think of it as a surprising (and neglected) major work by an important director. And as Lang's final silent film, and one of the last major ones ever made, I see it as a kind of mind-bending finale to the whole era. A three-hour silent film epic about cardboard characters going to moon to seek gold, carrying all their love triangles and hidden agendas on board the 1920s-era spacecraft.

And with this guy, the kindest thing he had to say about Lang's space opera was praise for the suit worn by actor Willy Fritsch in the first part of the film. (This is before Fritsch changes into his Alpine mountaineering outfit for the moon journey. Okay, so Lang didn't nail every detail about space travel.)

I can't disagree with my friend's opinion: 'Woman in the Moon' is not a "great" film by any traditional measures. So this got me thinking about why I'm such a fan. What is it about Lang's final silent that I respond so strongly to?

One thing is that to me, the movie is a convincing statement about how much vitality the silent film still had. Right up to the end, new possibilities were being explored. I'm really moved by that sense of discovery that I sense in 'Woman in the Moon.' If you'll allow me a poetic leap, I think it's a cousin to the basic human desire to voyage to the moon, "and do the other things," as John F. Kennedy phrased it: not because they're easy, but because they're hard.

What Lang did was hard. You try creating a three-hour epic story about space travel from scratch.

And yes, success isn't guaranteed, in neither cinema nor space travel. But I applaud Lang's audacity in bringing this wild tale to the screen. I'm responding to that, I think, while the quality of the actual finished film is something else altogether.

So perhaps I'm reacting not so much to the film itself, but to the context in which it was created. Lang clearly wanted to blow our minds, and he wasn't afraid to shoot the moon, so to speak. I love that spirit of inventiveness and creativity, which I sense throughout 'Woman in the Moon.' The desire to create something totally new and strange.

And that takes me back to the notion of seeing a kid ride without training wheels. Lang was way beyond that. In his amazing last three silents—'Metropolis' (1927), 'Spies' (1928), and 'Woman in the Moon' (1929)—Lang was using film to create whole new worlds.

In terms of the "training wheels" analogy, Lang's 'Woman in the Moon' is more akin to a professional cyclist in the Tour de France.

And yes, even they take their share of spills.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Out of this world: 'Woman in the Moon' at
Harvard Film Archive, 35mm, Sunday, Aug. 17

Exploring the lunar surface in 'Woman in the Moon' (1929).

I know it sounds like a lame joke to say that a silent film might just leave you at a loss for words.

But that's how I feel about 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), the final silent film from German director Fritz Lang.

I think it's an astonishing sci-fi rocket ride. And I'm thrilled to be doing live music for a rare screening of it, in 35mm no less, on Sunday, Aug. 17 at the Harvard Film Archive.

There's a press release below with detailed info about the film and the screening. I encourage all to join: sci-fi geeks, silent cinema buffs, Lang groupies. There should even be room for a few mainstream folks.

But for now, here's 10 reasons you should see 'Woman on the Moon' as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

1. Hitler didn't want you to see this film. Really! It depicted advanced German rocket technology in such detail, Hitler had the film suppressed when he came to power, as he had ideas other than space travel about how rocket technology might be used. (Like attacking London.)

2. It's structured and paced like an espionage thriller, so you won't be bored.

3. In the big launch sequence, Lang and his screenwriter/collaborator Thea von Harbou invented the idea of a backwards countdown, which later came into common use for actual space launches.

4. What it got right. In reaching the moon, it's astonishing how Lang and his collaborators anticipated so much of what later actually came to pass with Apollo: a tall spacecraft assembly building, multi-stage rockets, lunar landing capsules.

5. What it got wrong. Howlers include a strange notion of zero gravity, moon voyagers dressed like alpine mountaineers, and a conveniently breathable moon atmosphere.

6. Oh, and the moon is full of GOLD! Didn't you know?

7. Director Lang hated Hitler, so it's probably not a coincidence that the villain (a quick-change artist played by Fritz Rasp) bears more than a passing resemblance to Der Führer.

8. 'Woman in the Moon' has been totally overshadowed by its iconic predecessor 'Metropolis' (1927), also directed by Lang. Don't you feel the least bit sorry about that? Here's your chance to right that wrong.

9. The hairstyles of female lead Gerda Maurus.

10. This film will just generally blow your mind for its sheer audacity.

So we're counting down until blast-off time, which is Sunday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. Hope to see you at the launch pad—er, the Harvard Film Archive.

* * *

Now arriving: mankind on the lunar surface.

TUESDAY, AUG. 12, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent sci-fi space adventure film
to highlight Fritz Lang retrospective


'Woman in the Moon,' pioneer drama about first moon voyage, to be screened with live music on Sunday, Aug. 17 at Harvard Film Archive

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—A sci-fi adventure hailed as the first feature film to depict realistic space travel will be shown this weekend at the Harvard Film Archive.

'Woman in the Moon' (1929), directed by German filmmaker Fritz Lang ('Metropolis,' 1927), will be screened in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. Admission is $9 per person/$7 students & seniors.

The screening is part of a retrospective of Lang's work and career that continues through September at the Harvard Film Archive.

The rarely seen full-length version of 'Woman in the Moon' follows an intrepid band of space pioneers as they attempt mankind's first voyage to the lunar surface, where they hope to find large deposits of gold.

The film, made with German rocket experts as technical advisers, is noted for anticipating many of the techniques used by NASA for the Apollo moon launch program 40 years later. For example, a multi-stage rocket is employed to escape Earth's gravity, and a separate capsule is used to reach the lunar surface.

The film is also noted for introducing the idea of a dramatic "countdown" prior to launch, which later became standard procedure in actual space flight. Critics regard the film's extended launch sequence as a masterpiece of editing and dramatic tension.

But 'Woman in the Moon,' with its melodramatic plot and colorful characters, also stands as the forerunner of many sci-fi story elements that quickly became clichés: the brilliant but misunderstood professor; a love triangle involving a beautiful female scientist and her two male crewmates; a plucky young boy who yearns to join the expedition; fistfights and gunfire and treachery on the lunar surface.

Added to the mix is a vision of the moon (created entirely on a massive studio set in Berlin, Germany) that features a breathable atmosphere, giant sand dunes, distant mountain peaks, and bubbling mud pits.

"This is a great and at-times bizarre film, one that must be seen to be believed," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will create live music for the screening. "It's as entertaining as any spy-thriller. And as a past vision of a future that didn't quite come to be, it really gets you thinking of time and how we perceive it."

Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H., will improvise live musical accompaniment during the screening, using both an acoustic piano and a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound of a full orchestra and other more exotic textures.

The cast admires a close-up view of the moon prior to landing.

'Woman in the Moon,' a full-length feature than runs more than 2½ hours, should not be confused with the much earlier film 'A Trip to Moon,' a primitive "trick" short movie made by French filmmaker George Méliès in 1902 and famous for the image of a space capsule hitting the eye of an imaginary moon man.

"Unlike the Méliès film, there's nothing primitive about 'Woman in the Moon,' " Rapsis said. "It's silent film story-telling at the peak of its eloquence, with lively performances, imaginative camera angles, and superb photography."

Director Fritz Lang, who was responsible for the groundbreaking sci-fi epic 'Metropolis' (1927), planned 'Woman in the Moon' as another step in his quest to stretch cinema's visual, story-telling, and imaginative capabilities.

Bad timing is one reason that 'Woman in the Moon' (titled 'Frau im Mond' in German) is not as well known today as 'Metropolis,' its legendary predecessor. Lang completed 'Woman in the Moon' just as the silent film era was coming to a close.

As one of the last silent films of German cinema, 'Woman in the Moon' was unable to compete with new talking pictures then in theaters, making it a box office flop at its premiere in October, 1929.

However, German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth worked as an adviser on the movie, and it developed cult status among the rocket scientists in Wernher von Braun's circle. During World War II, the first successfully launched V-2 rocket at the German rocket facility in Peenemünde had the "Woman in the Moon" logo painted on its base.

Ship Commander Willy Fritsch prepares to pull the launch lever.

During the war, the Nazis tried to recall and destroy all prints of 'Woman in the Moon' due to its detailed depiction of state-of-the-art rocket propulsion technology; in later years, this served to make the film even more hard to find. For many years, the film was available only in cut-down 16mm versions that ran as short as one hour.

But pristine and complete 35mm copies of 'Woman in the Moon' did survive in several European archives. Today, restored prints are amazingly clear and sharp, Rapsis said.

" 'Woman in the Moon' is technically one of the best-looking silent films I've ever seen," he said. "If you think all silent films are grainy and scratchy-looking, 'Woman in the Moon' will change your mind. It's like an Ansel Adams photograph come to life."

‘Woman in the Moon’ will be shown in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive, located in Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. Tickets are $9 per person/$7 students & seniors. For more information on the screening, visit http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/ or call 617-495-4700. For more information on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em: 'The Last Command'
on Friday, Aug. 15 at Red River, Concord, N.H.

Evelyn Brent lights up in 'The Last Command' (1928).

Smoking may not be good for you. But it's great for certain silent films.

That's what I'm thinking as I prepare to do music for 'The Last Command' (1928), being screened on Friday, Aug. 15 at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

The story of a Czarist General whose life changes forever during the Russian Revolution, it's an epic picture that won Emil Jannings (that's him below) the first-ever Best Actor Academy Award.

It's also a fitting way to commemorate this summer's 100th anniversary of the events that plunged Europe and then the world into what we now call World War I.

So with all that going for it, why cigarettes?

Because cigarettes, and the various ways they're handled, are an important method of communication in 'The Last Command.' If you join us for this marvelous film (and I hope you do), watch for how cigarettes are used to show the changing relationships between the characters.

That's all I'll say for now. But I point it out because it's something I didn't notice when I first encountered this film, perhaps because (like everyone else these days) I'm not really literate in reading a film visually in the way that the best silent films demand. Or maybe I'm just slow on the uptake.

Either way, it's a great example of how the limitations of silent film (no dialogue) prompted directors to find purely visual ways to tell their stories on the big screen. The fewer intertitles (words on the screen), the better.

Keep in mind that Josef Sternberg, director of 'The Last Command,' had a background in painting and the visual arts. So he was particularly attuned to how on on-screen image was arranged and lit, and how the eye consumed it. And all that is used to great effect in 'The Last Command.'

And then there's that Best Actor award. There are few moments in cinema more electrifying than watching Emil Jannings go berserk at the climax of 'The Last Command.' So come see it!

How about another cigarette reference? No butts about it!

For more info, check out the press release below...

* * *

THURSDAY, AUG. 7, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent epic 'The Last Command' with live music
at Red River on Friday, Aug. 15


War picture from 1928 won 'Best Actor' for Emil Jannings at first-ever Academy Awards

CONCORD, N.H.—'The Last Command' (1928), a silent film drama that won Emil Jannings 'Best Actor' honors at the first-ever Academy Awards, will be screened with live music on Friday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main st., Concord, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person.

Live music for the screening will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician recognized as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.

Rapsis will create the film's score live as the movie is shown by improvising music based on original melodies created beforehand.

"Making up the music on the spot is kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But there's nothing like the energy and excitement that comes with improvised live performance, especially when accompanying a silent film."

Rapsis accompanies films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra. He has performed live film scores at events ranging from the Kansas Silent Film Festival to the Cinefest vintage film convention in Syracuse, N.Y., and last year collaborated with Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow on a silent film program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

'The Last Command,' directed by Josef von Sternberg, tells the sweeping story of a powerful general in Czarist Russia (Jannings) forced to flee his homeland during the Bolshevik revolution. He emigrates to America, where he is reduced to living in poverty.

Finding work as an extra at a Hollywood studio, the former general lands the part of a commanding officer in a movie about the revolution, causing flashbacks to his traumatic experiences. The conflict leads to a spectacular climax and a towering performance that earned Jannings 'Best Actor' honors.

The film takes audiences on a journey through big emotions as well as issues of history, time, power, and especially a man's duty to his country and to his fellow citizens—and what happens when the two obligations diverge. 'The Last Command' is also one of early Hollywood's most creative and challenging looks at the conflicts of World War I, which began 100 years ago this summer.

The film also stars a young William Powell as a Hollywood movie director who crosses paths with the general during the Revolution, and 1920s starlet Evelyn Brent as a seductive Russian revolutionary.

Evelyn Brent and Emil Jannings get to know one another in 'The Last Command' (1928).

Critic Leonard Maltin hailed 'The Last Command' as "a stunning silent drama...a fascinating story laced with keen observations of life and work in Hollywood." Time Out of London called it "the first Sternberg masterpiece, expertly poised between satire and 'absurd' melodrama. The cast are fully equal to it; Jannings, in particular, turns the characteristic role of the general into an indelible portrait of arrogance, fervour and dementia."

Director Sternberg, a master of lighting and black-and-white photography, created 'The Last Command' as a visual tour de force. The film is often cited as a prime example of the emotional range and visual accomplishment of silent films at their height, just prior to the coming of pictures with recorded soundtracks.

Rapsis said great silent film dramas such as 'The Last Command' told stories that concentrate on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them in the 21st century, especially if they're presented as intended—in a theater on the big screen, with a live audience and live music.

"Dramas such as 'The Last Command' were created to be consumed as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life as their creators intended them to. This screening at Molloy College is a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies."

Red River Theatres, an independent cinema, is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to screening a diverse program of first-run independent films, cult favorites, classics, local and regional film projects, and foreign films.

The member-supported theater’s mission is to present film and the discussion of film as a way to entertain, broaden horizons and deepen appreciation of life for New Hampshire audiences of all ages.

Upcoming events in Red River's silent film programming include:

• Friday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m.: 'Nosferatu' (1922). Celebrate Halloween by experiencing the original silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous 'Dracula' story. Still scary after all these years—in fact, some critics believe this version is not only the best ever done, but has actually become creepier with the passage of time.

• Friday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m.: 'Charlie Chaplin Comedy Night.' Spend part of Thanksgiving weekend with the Little Tramp on the 100th anniversary of his first screen appearances. The whole family will enjoy restored prints of some of Chaplin's most popular comedies shown the way they were intended: on the big screen, with live music, and an audience.

'The Last Command' (1928) will be screened with live music on Friday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. 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 www.redrivertheatres.org. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

'Show People' (1928) on Saturday, Aug. 16:
There goes Reagan's gay interior decorator!

Actor William Haines at the height of his popularity.

To tell the story, or to not tell the story? And before the film, or afterwards?

These are questions posed by the career of actor William Haines. Although his name has now faded into obscurity, Haines was one of Hollywood's most popular leading men in the years when silent film died and sound film took over.

His career abruptly tanked, but not because Haines couldn't make the transition to talkies. It tanked because he was gay.

Really! Haines remained box office gold for MGM into the early 1930s, but refused to hide his off-screen homosexuality. With MGM's wholesome image at stake, studio boss Louis B. Mayer finally issued an ultimatum: for publicity purposes, Haines must agree to a sham marriage to an MGM starlet, or his career was over.

Haines said no thank you, and Mayer made good on his threat. Haines was soon off the screen.

But Haines had the last laugh. His movie career over, he launched a fabulously successful interior design business (I know, you saw that one coming) which for decades catered to Hollywood's royalty. Later in life, he counted Ronald and Nancy Reagan among his favorite clients.

So here's the deal: On Saturday, Aug. 16 in Brandon, Vt., we're screening 'Show People' (1928), a great late MGM silent comedy in which Haines co-stars with Marion Davies. Like so much of Hollywood's output, it's built on a boy-meets-girl story, except in this case Haines was acting on more than one level.

William Haines and Marion Davies encounter an out-of-costume Charlie Chaplin in 'Show People' (1928), a movie about movies.

Directed by King Vidor, 'Show People' is a crackerjack picture about the movie business itself as it existed near the end of the silent era. With its light-hearted spirit of mockery, 'Show People' is a valentine to all the energy and excitement that everyone knew was about to change forever.

In promoting the film, is it right to bring attention to the story of Haines' homosexuality? Or should the film be allowed to stand or fall on its own terms, without that context? After all, audiences at the time would have had no idea. So why bring it up?

I used to think it was a mistake to mention the background, as I thought it would make for an unhelpful distraction. As an art form, silent film has enough obstacles to reaching audiences today. I feared that every time Haines appeared on-screen, all people would think is, "There goes Ronald Reagan's gay interior decorator!"

But I've come to realize that just as Haines was courageously open about his sexual orientation, his life story needn't be covered up. As you can tell from this post, I now feel it's actually a big part of why any of his pictures, silent or sound, are worth checking out today.

Not only was he an winning on-screen performer, but the man had the courage of his convictions at a time when there was immense pressure to conform to certain norms. That's a story worth telling, and so I do. Hence this post, and all the other publicity celebrating his career and life story.

So I hope you'll join me at Brandon Town Hall (on Route 7 in lovely Brandon, Vt.) for a screening of 'Show People' (1928) on Saturday, Aug. 16 at 7 p.m. Admission is free, with donations accepted to help with ongoing renovations to the facility.

More info about the film and the screening is posted in the press release below.

* * *


Silent film series to feature Hollywood's
first openly gay leading man


William Haines stars in uproarious silent film comedy 'Show People' (1928) with live music on Saturday, Aug. 16 at Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall

BRANDON, Vt.—He was the Tom Hanks his time: a leading man with a breezy charm who always got the girl.

But the film career of William Haines, one of early Hollywood's brightest stars, was cut short for an unfortunate reason: at a time when sexual preference was a taboo subject, Haines was openly gay.

See Haines at the peak of his popularity in 'Show People' (1928), an MGM comedy co-starring Marion Davies that spoofs the movie industry, pitting high drama against low comedy. Showtime for 'Show People is Saturday, Aug. 16, at 7 p.m. at the historic Brandon Town Hall and Community Center on Route 7 in downtown Brandon, Vt.

All are welcome to this family-friendly event; admission is free. The screening is the latest in the Brandon Town Hall's silent film series, and will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating scores for silent films.

Any free will donations will go toward Town Hall restoration. The screening of "Show People' is sponsored by the Brandon Town Players and Bill & Kathy Mathis In Memory of Maxine Thurston.

William Haines was one of MGM's biggest stars in the late 1920s, often playing the male lead romantic comedies. But off-screen, Haines was gay—and, unusually for the era, did not hide his homosexuality.

This led to friction with his bosses. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, convinced that movie audiences would not accept a gay leading man, urged Haines to keep his long-term relationship with actor Jimmie Shields a secret.

Haines maintained his star status at MGM during the move to talking pictures. But a publicity crisis arose in 1933, when Haines was arrested in a YMCA with a sailor he had picked up in Los Angeles' Pershing Square.

Mayer then delivered an ultimatum: Haines had to choose between a sham marriage to an MGM actress or giving up his career. Haines refused to submit, choosing to be himself rather than to pretend to be someone he wasn't. Mayer subsequently fired Haines, terminated his contract, and banished him from the industry.

His movie career over, Haines recovered by launching an interior design firm, using his connections to become the most sought-after decorator in the Hollywood movie colony. The business prospered over the decades, with a client list of A-list celebrities as well as political figures such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Haines remained with his partner Shields for the rest of his life. Joan Crawford, who co-starred with Haines in several pictures, described the pair as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." In recent years, Haines has been recognized as a courageous pioneer in gay rights in the early Hollywood community.

'Show People,' directed by King Vidor, shows Haines at the height of his leading-man status. The light-hearted story follows Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies), a beauty queen from Georgia trying to break into the movies as a dramatic actress. Haines plays Billy Boone, lead actor of a slapstick comedy studio where Pepper gets her first break.

Characters from two very different movies collide in a scene from 'Show People' (1928).

Can the young actress yearning for drama survive the indignity of pies in the face? And when her big break finally comes, will it mean sacrificing her growing friendship with Billy?

And can Billy rescue the fun-loving Georgia girl from a studio that aims to invent a whole new persona for her as a serious actress, descended from European royalty?

Can low comedy win out over high drama? In answering that question, 'Show People' pokes fun at Hollywood phoniness and the culture of celebrity worship that had already emerged by the 1920s. 'Show People' also offers rare behind-the-scenes glimpses of movie-making at the very end of the silent period, when studios were rushing to prepare for sound.

"It's like they knew an era was ending, and 'Show People' is kind of a Valentine to the whole silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the screening. "It's a love letter to all the craziness that went into creating the movie business."

Set in backstage Hollywood, 'Show People' features cameos by dozens of major stars of the period, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., William S. Hart, and John Gilbert.

A scene in the MGM company cafeteria.

In 2003, 'Show People' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

The program will also include short silent film comedies prior to the main feature.

The Brandon Town Hall's silent film series aims to recreate the full silent film experience, with restored prints projected on the big screen, live music, and with a live audience. All these elements are essential to seeing silent films they way they were intended, Rapsis said.

“These films are still exciting experiences if shown as they were designed to be screened,” Rapsis said. “There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that experience. At their best, silent films were a communal experience very different from today’s movies—one in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

Other upcoming features in Brandon Town Hall's 2014 silent film schedule include:

• Saturday, Sept. 13, 7 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. Screening sponsored by the Brandon Artist Guild, Charles Powell and Steve Zorn.

• Saturday, Oct. 18, 7 p.m.: "Chiller Theater Silent Double Feature starring Lon Chaney" The annual "Chiller Theater" presentation in the as-yet-unheated Brandon Town Hall. Just in time for Halloween, two classic silent films that will creep you out. In 'The Unknown' (1927), Lon Chaney plays 'Alonzo the Armless,' a disabled circus performer smitten with Joan Crawford. What he does to prove his love for her makes for an unforgettably twisted tale from director Tod Browning. Plus: Another Lon Chaney feature TBA. Screening sponsored by Lake Sunapee Bank.

‘Show People’ (1928), a classic silent comedy starring William Haines and Marion Davies, will be shown on Saturday, Aug. 16 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.. Admission is free, with donations requested to help support ongoing renovations. For details, visit www.brandontownhall.org. For more info on the music, visit jeffrapsis.com

Friday, August 8, 2014

Artist at Work: Charlie Chaplin in 35mm
on Sunday, Aug. 10 at Somerville Theatre

Chaplin, here with co-star 'Scraps,' amps up the poverty in 'A Dog's Life' (1918).

This weekend finds me doing music for Charlie Chaplin on the big screen of the Somerville Theatre's main theater.

The show, consisting of the first four of Chaplin's comedies released by First National, is on Sunday, Aug. 10 at 2 p.m.

Of course you don't need a specific reason to show Chaplin. But if one was required, the year 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Chaplin's entry into the movies, and also the 100th birthday of his iconic 'Tramp' character.

So there! Happy birthday, Charlie Chaplin. Maybe someone should bring a cake.

Coincidentally, the Somerville Theater opened 100 years ago this year. So lots of centennials to go around.

And here's another: one film on the program is Chaplin's 'Shoulder Arms' (1918), a daring comedy set in part in the trenches of World War I, which began 100 years ago this summer.

Because of all this, we're charging a fee of $100 a ticket. No, wait—the Somerville management has just informed me that ticket prices will remain at the usual $15 per person.

About the films: besides 'Shoulder Arms,' we're also screening 'A Dog's Life' (1918), 'Sunnyside' (1919), and 'A Day's Pleasure' (1919).

I'm told the 35mm prints the theater received are virtually brand new (struck in 2010) and have excellent black & white density, so what's on the screen promises to be just about as good as what audiences saw nearly a century ago.

The films themselves are interesting in that they show Chaplin trying at a turning point in his growth as a filmmaker.

In just four years, Chaplin had gone from unknown newbie to the funniest man in the world. Really!

What to do next? Chaplin could keep cranking out the funny short comedies, but somehow that wasn't enough.

And so, starting with the films he made for release by First National in 1918, he began searching for something richer, more complex—different.

As outlined in Walter Kerr's great book 'The Silent Clowns,' Chaplin began to take his 'Tramp' character in new and challenging directions, testing his behavior in various situations.

And sure enough, each of the four films on Sunday's program show Chaplin exploring different paths and new ideas, pushing boundaries and stretching possibilities.

In 'A Dog's Life,' he amps up the realism and adds a dose of pathos: the Tramp is depicted as genuinely penniless, and in a menacing world that looks like it was designed by Charles Dickens.

'Shoulder Arms' tries to find comedy in current events—in this case, the notably unfunny topic of World War I, still raging when Chaplin started the film. (It was released as the fighting was dying down in late 1918, and became a smash hit.)

'Sunnyside' (1919), set in an idyllic rural landscape, finds Chaplin exploring pastoral fantasy, in the form of an extended ballet sequence.

And 'A Day's Pleasure' (1919) returns to the knockabout style of his earlier comedies, although Chaplin is now saddled with a wife and two kids.

W.C. Fields once referred to Chaplin as a "god-damned ballet dancer." A scene from 'Sunnyside' (1919) might be one reason why.

Four films, four very different directions. Yes, they're all funny. But beyond the laughs, what was Chaplin up to?

We can't know for sure, but I think Chaplin answered this question in the film he made right after these four comedies: 'The Kid' (1920), his first full-length feature.

A feature film demands things that a short comedy doesn't. It demands a solid story. It demands characters rather than caricatures. It demands planning and pacing and depth.

In his first four First National comedies, Chaplin was pushing himself into new places to test his character in different environments. In effect, he was laying the groundwork for 'The Kid' and the other features that would be his crowning achievements.

The process that got him there is clearly visible, I think, in the quartet of comedies we're screening this Sunday at the Somerville. If we needed a slogan for the show, it might be this: ARTIST AT WORK: CHAPLIN'S FIRST FOUR FOR FIRST NATIONAL.

But then I see this contains a weird internal palindrome: FIRST FOUR FOR FIRST. That's bad karma, and confusing, too.

So let's just say it's a program worth catching if you're anywhere within traveling distance of Davis Square in Somerville, Mass. on Sunday, Aug. 10.

And don't pay any attention to the weather, which is supposed to be gorgeous. We've had way too much great weather all summer long in our part of the world, so you won't be missing anything.

And besides, how many chances do you think you'll get to see some of Chaplin's best work on the big screen in 35mm with live music and an audience?

See you there!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Silent film version of 'Peter Pan' (1924)
on Thursday, Aug. 7 in Ogunquit, Maine



Okay, getting back into the groove with a screening of the silent version of 'Peter Pan' (1924) on Thursday, Aug. 7 at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine. Showtime is 8 p.m. and admission is $10 per person.

Most people are surprised to learn that there's a silent version of 'Peter Pan.' And those who see it are always surprised at how much fun it is and how well it holds up.

My theory: there's something about the silent film format that engages an audience's imagination in a way that helps the Peter Pan story come to life.

In that vein, the film contains one of the most effective audience participation sequences in all of silent cinema.

So come see for yourself. The press release with all the information is below. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Betty Bronson plays the title role in the silent film version of 'Peter Pan' (1924).

THURSDAY, JULY 17, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film version of 'Peter Pan' at Leavitt Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 7


Screening of timeless family movie classic in historic Ogunquit venue will feature live musical accompaniment

OGUNQUIT, Maine—It was the film that introduced movie-goers to visions of flying children, magical fairies, human-like animals and menacing pirates. It was the original silent film adaptation of 'Peter Pan,' a picture personally supervised by author J.M. Barrie. The film was a major hit when released in 1924, with audiences eager to get their first big-screen look at the wonders of Neverland.

Local movie fans can see for themselves when the first 'Peter Pan' (1924) is screened with live music on Thursday, Aug. 7 at 8 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Me.

The program will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $10 per person. The show, which is appropriate for all ages, makes for a unique family night out after a long summer day of outdoor activities.

'Peter Pan' is the latest in the Leavitt's series of silent film screenings with live music. The series aims to show the best silent films in the way that caused people to first fall in love with the movies—on the big screen, in a theater, with live music, and with an audience.

"We're thrilled to be presenting the original 'Peter Pan' at the Leavitt, where familes can come together and experience it in a way that's impossible to duplicate with a home entertainment center," said Peter Clayton, longtime owner/operator of the Leavitt.

The Leavitt opened in 1923 as a silent movie house, and has been in business every summer season since. Over the past winter, Clayton installed a new digital projection system to enable the Leavitt to continue to offer first-run Hollywood films.

Thought lost for many years, and overshadowed by more recent adaptations, the original silent 'Peter Pan' maintains its freshness and charm more than 80 years after its original release.

In the story, first presented as a stage play in 1904, three children in London are visited one night by Peter Pan, a youth in search of his shadow. Pan shows his new friends how to fly, and then convinces them to join him in a journey to Neverland.

There they encounter Indians, mermaids, and a band of pirates whose leader, Captain Hook, is Pan's sworn enemy. The children are captured by Hook and taken prisoner aboard his pirate ship, setting the stage for an epic battle, the outcome of which will determine if the children may ever return home.

Though the Peter Pan story is well-known today due to subsequent adaptations (and also merchandising that includes a ubiquitous brand of peanut butter), the tale was virtually new when Hollywood first brought it to film in the early 1920s. In England, author Barrie gave his blessing to the first-ever screen adaptation, though he retained control over casting and insisted that any written titles in the film be taken directly from his own text.

After a major talent search, Barrie settled on unknown 18-year-old actress Betty Bronson for the title role, and filming began in 1924. The role of Captain Hook was played by noted character actor Ernest Torrance, who invented the now-iconic villainous pirate persona that would become a Hollywood legend.

The film's highlights include special effects that maintain their ability to dazzle even today. The film's memorable images include a group of mermaids entering the sea, a miniature Tinkerbell interacting with full-sized children and adults, and a pirate ship lifting out of the water and taking flight.

'Peter Pan' also includes a cast of animal characters played by humans in costume, including the family dog Nana and an alligator who serves as Hook's nemesis, lending the film a magical quality.

After the film's release, no copies of the original 'Peter Pan' were known to exist, and for many years the film was regarded as lost. However, in the 1950s a single surviving print turned up in the George Eastman Archives in Rochester, N.Y., from which all copies today have descended.

'Peter Pan' will be accompanied by local musician and composer Jeff Rapsis, who has prepared new material to go with the picture.

"Silent film was intended to be screened with live music that not only supported the action, but clued in the audience to changing moods and scenes," said Rapsis, a New Hampshire resident and one of the nation's leading silent film musicians. "I hope this new music will help bring to life the film's special qualities of fantasy and child-like wonder."

‘Peter Pan’ will be shown with live music on Thursday, Aug. 7 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1 in Ogunquit, Maine. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (207) 646-3123 or visit www.leavittheatre.com. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com