Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sunday, March 29: Cecile B. Demille's silent
version of 'The Ten Commandments' (1923)


To paraphrase the Commandments themselves:

THOU SHALT NOT MISS IT!

And your chance to see it on the big screen is Sunday, March 29, when we run Cecil B. Demille's original silent film version of 'The Ten Commandments' (1923) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

The service (on Palm Sunday, no less) begins at 4:30 p.m. Minister of Music is me. Admission is free, but anything you can put into the collection plate (i.e. donation jar) would be appreciated.

This is the film where Cecil B. Demille really started becoming the Cecil B. Demille worthy of his name: demanding, dismissive of budgets, super-confident, dealing with scripture and New York money men with equal imperiousness. (That's him at at left, about the time of 'The Ten Commandments.')

Really. I've been reading a 'Empire of Dreams: The Life of Cecil B. Demille' (2010) by Scott Eyeman, and the off-screen drama connected with the original 'Ten Commandments' was equal to anything that made it into the picture.

The film, by the way, is quite different from the more-familiar 1956 remake starring Charlton Heston as Moses. For one thing, a big chunk of the silent version takes place in "modern" times, meaning 1920s California. So be prepared for some time travel.

But, yes, there's still the parting of the Red Sea, a special effect that was accomplished largely with Jell-O. It's pretty cutting edge for 1923.

It's also a film with a weird connection to the present. To film the Biblical scenes, Demille used the remote Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes in northern Santa Barbara County. Afterwards, the massive sets were not taken down. DeMille, worried that rival filmmakers might poach his massive set pieces, instead had them buried right there in the desert sands.

Fast forward to 2012, and archaeologists found large components of the sets still in place under the surface of the desert where Demille filmed. Since then, there's been an ongoing effort to excavate the site for its unique link to early Hollywood history.

Excavating a silent-era sphinx, courtesy livescience.com.

For recent developments, check out this Los Angeles Times story about the unearthing of an intact Sphinx.

But you don't have to do any digging to see the original 'Ten Commandments' on the big screen. Below is the text of a press release with all the info you'll need to join us.

P.S. I'll be doing the same film on Easter Sunday, April 5 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, Somerville, Mass., where we'll be screening a 35mm print from the U.S. Library of Congress. More on that next week!

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MONDAY, MARCH 16, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Original 'Ten Commandments' movie to screen at Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre


Silent film Biblical blockbuster to be shown with live music on Palm Sunday, March 29

WILTON, N.H.—Decades before he directed Charlton Heston as Moses, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille's original silent version of 'The Ten Commandments' (1923) wowed audiences the world over during the early years of cinema.

To celebrate the coming Easter season, DeMille's pioneering Biblical blockbuster will be screened on Sunday, March 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The silent ‘The Ten Commandments’ will be shown with live music played in the theater by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a $5 donation suggested per person.

DeMille's original 'Ten Commandments' was among the first Hollywood films to tackle stories from scripture on a grand scale. The picture was a popular hit in original release, and served as a blueprint for DeMille's later remake in 1956.

Despite the silent original's epic scale, the Moses story takes up only about the first third of the film. After that, the tale changes to a modern-day melodrama about living by the lessons of the Commandments. In the McTavish family, two brothers make opposite decisions: one, John, to follow his mother's teaching of the Ten Commandments and become a poor carpenter, and the other, Danny, to break every one of them and rise to the top. The film shows his unchecked immorality to be momentarily gainful, but ultimately disastrous.

A contrast is made between the carpenter brother and his mother. The mother reads the story of Moses and emphasizes strict obedience and fear of God. The carpenter, however, reads from the New Testament story of Jesus' healing of lepers. His emphasis is on a loving and forgiving God. The film also shows the mother's strict lawful morality to be flawed in comparison to her son's version.

The other brother becomes a corrupt contractor who builds a church with shoddy concrete, pocketing the money saved and becoming very rich. One day, his mother comes to visit him at his work site, but the walls are becoming unstable due to the shaking of heavy trucks on nearby roads. One of the walls collapses, with tragic results. This sends the brother on a downward spiral as he attempts to right his wrongs and clear his conscience.

Throughout the film, the visual motif of the tablets of the Commandments appears in the sets, with a particular Commandment appearing on them when it is relevant to the story.

That's not Charlton Heston, but silent-era actor Theodore Roberts as Moses.

'The Ten Commandments' boasts an all-star cast of 1920s performers, including Theodore Roberts as Moses; Charles de Rochefort as Rameses; Estelle Taylor as Miriam, the Sister of Moses; Edythe Chapman as Mrs. Martha McTavish; Richard Dix as John McTavish, her son; Rod La Rocque as Dan McTavish, her other son; and Leatrice Joy as Mary Leigh.

The Exodus scenes were filmed at Nipomo Dunes, near Pismo Beach, California, in San Luis Obispo County, which is now an archaeological site. The film location was originally chosen because its immense sand dunes provided a superficial resemblance to the Egyptian desert. After the filming was complete, the massive sets — which included four 35-foot-tall Pharaoh statues, 21 sphinxes, and gates reaching a height of 110 feet, which were built by an army of 1,600 workers — were dynamited and buried in the sand. However, the burial location at Nipomo Dunes is exposed to relentless northwesterly gales year-round, and much of what was buried is now exposed to the elements, as the covering sand has been blown away.

The visual effect of keeping the walls of water apart while Moses and the Israelites walked through the Red Sea was accomplished with a slab of gelatin that was sliced in two and filmed close up as it jiggled. This shot was then combined with live-action footage of actors walking into the distance, creating a vivid illusion.

‘The Ten Commandments’ is the latest in a series of monthly silent film screenings at the Town Hall Theatre. The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by bringing together the elements needed for silent film to be seen at its best: superior films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and a live audience.

“These films remain exciting experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Rapsis, the accompanist. “There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that spirit. At their best, silent films were communal experiences in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre originally opened as a silent film moviehouse in 1912, and has shown first-run Hollywood films to generations of area residents. Classic movies of all types, however, are still a big part of the Town Hall Theatre's offerings, and the silent film series is a way for the theater to remain connected to its roots.

Live music is a key element of each silent film screening, Rapsis said. Silent movies were never shown in silence, but were accompanied by live music made right in each theater. Most films were not released with official scores, so it was up to local musicians to provide the soundtrack, which could vary greatly from theater to theater.

"Because there's no set soundtrack for most silent films, musicians are free to create new music as they see fit, even today," Rapsis said. "In bringing a film to life, I try to create original 'movie score' music that sounds like what you might expect in a theater today, which helps bridge the gap between today's audiences and silent films that are in some cases nearly 100 years old."

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes he creates 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.

Other upcoming features in the Wilton Town Hall's silent film series include:

• Sunday, April 26, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: 'Silent Comedy and the Civil War' with Raymond Griffith, Buster Keaton. Confederate spy Raymond Griffith outwits Northern foes in 'Hands Up!' (1926), while Buster Keaton plays a Confederate train engineer in his masterpiece, 'The General' (1926).

• Sunday, May 24, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) starring Lillian Gish. Director D.W. Griffith's controversial Civil War epic reaches a major milestone. Flawed by overt racism that many find offensive even today, the picture nonetheless showed the world the potential of the then-new medium of film.

‘The Ten Commandments’ (1923) will be shown with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Sunday, March 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with a $5 donation suggested per person. For more info, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921)
on Wednesday, March 25 at Merrimack College

How many of the Four Horsemen can you name? Let's see—there's Pestilence, Death, War, and...Irving?

What film introduced silent-era megastar Rudolph Valentino and launched a prolonged tango craze?

Answer: 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,' a sprawling multi-generational family drama set in the years leading up and then during World War I.

And we're screening it, tangos and all, on Wednesday, March 25 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

I've only done this film once, and it's quite a workout. Not only is it loooong (with some versions running somewhere between 2½ and 3 hours) but it's also full of big dramatic scenes, including Rudy's steamy 'tango' sequence with its legions of on-screen guitar players.

And then there's the war, which is a menacing presence during most of the film. Somehow the music has to evoke that without growing tiresome. We'll see how I do.

So overall, it's a big film, and a fitting conclusion to our 2014-15 schedule of silent films at the Rogers Center.

I like doing films there and audience attendance has been growing—typically we get 80 to 100 people at these screening, sometimes more.

So I hope to be back with some silent film programs for the 2015-16 season. Please let me know what films you'd like to see run at the Rogers Center.

And in the meantime, I hope you can make it to the Rogers Center for a rare screening of this important and dramatic film.

And I encourage anyone to come down and sit with me on the bench. After all, it takes two to tango!

Okay—if you'd like more info about the picture or the screening, the press release (below) covers all the bases.

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Rudolph Valentino shows off his dancing skills in 'Four Horsemen.'

TUESDAY, MARCH 17, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Ground-breaking WWI silent film drama on Wednesday, March 25 at Merrimack College


'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' introduced Rudolph Valentino, started tango dance craze; to be screened with live musical accompaniment

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—A drama that helped launch the career of silent film heartthrob and megastar Rudolph Valentino will be shown in January at Merrimack College.

'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921), a multi-generational family drama that climaxes during World War I, will be screened with live music on Wednesday, March 25 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass.

The screening is part of the Rogers Center's silent film series. Admission is free and the screening is open to the public.

'Four Horsemen' was originally scheduled to be shown in February at the Rogers Center, but the screening was moved to a March date due to a scheduling conflict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All movies in the Rogers Centers’ silent film series were popular when first released, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best.

They were not made to be shown on television; to revive them, organizers aim to show the films at the Rogers Center as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ will be shown with live music on Wednesday, March 25 at 7 p.m. at the the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. Admission is free. For more information, call the Rogers box office at (978) 837-5355. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com

Preparing for the last Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y.
and other thoughts about creativity

A lifetime of inspiration from a single box of crayons. See below.

This week I'm driving out to Syracuse, N.Y. for the last-ever Cinefest, a four-day gathering of vintage film buffs and collectors.

A fair amount of silent film is run at this event, for which three pianists are usually brought in to provide accompaniment.

I've had the privilege of being in the mix for the past three years, during which I've played alongside phenomenal musicians such as Phil Carli, Jon Mirsalis, and many others. It's been quite an education for me.

Now, for the final year, they're bringing in no less than eight accompanists as a kind of last hurrah.

The roster includes Phil and Jon, but also Ben Model, Andrew Simpson, Makia Matsumura, Judy Rosenberg, Gabriel Thibaudeau—and me.


We'll get together on Wednesday night and decide who plays what. Simple math says each of us will play no more than two features at most, rather than the usual five or six.

I'm really looking forward it, and not because of the lighter workload. For me, it's a great chance to hear how other accompanists bring films to life. I always come away inspired and eager to push myself in new directions. (Instead of just the refrigerator.)

Why is this the last Cinefest? After 35 years, organizers felt it was time to pack up shop in the face of looming changes in the vintage film field: an aging fan base, the shift to digital, the easy availability of once-rare titles.

I'm heading to Syracuse in a pretty good state of mind, I think.

This past Sunday, on the way to accompany a screening of 'Grandma's Boy' (1922) at the public library in Townsend, Mass., I got to reflecting on how music still can really move me.

As someone caring for an elderly parent in poor health, I can't help but sometimes wonder what the aging process will be like for me.

I wonder if and when music will someday cease to inspire or excite me, or prompt me to feel anything.

Will it fade? Will it falter? Will it happen gradually? Or will the music just one day stop?

Well, the good news is that in recent days I've experienced several waves of affirmation that have me believing that music will continue to be an important part of my life no matter what.

On the way to Townsend, Mass., I was planning to listen to a CD with a series of lectures on the historical origins of Christianity, believe it or not. Hey, I try to keep up.

But when leaving the house, I couldn't find the CD. So instead, I just grabbed another disc at random. It turned out to be a recording of music by John Adams—not the president, but the California-based composer who grew up right here in New Hampshire. (That's him below, on the left.)

By a total coincidence, the disc had a performance of Adams' 'Chamber Symphony' from 1993. It's a work that I'll hear played live next month by the San Francisco Symphony when I go out there to do a program at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum on Saturday, April 11.

But here it was now, in my car. And I found myself carried away by the energetic lines and the propulsive rhythms. I find the music of Adams tremendously exciting, not just because of the music itself, but because of the possibilities it represents.

Think of it! After more than a half-century of dead-end atonalism, Adams (and other composers) developed a tonal language all his own that was unlike past music, and in fact sounded like it belonged to my age. And his music, in all its variety, shows how much untapped potential exists with the materials of music.

And it made me think of crayons, of all things. When I was young, the classic box of 64 Crayola crayons was the gold standard for creativity.

I remember starting with the basic eight, and then graduating to 16—a set that included combos such as "red orange" and "blue green."

But it was the big box of 64, with all the basics but also exotic shades such as Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna, that really fired my imagination. To me, the box of 64 represented unending possibilities. It was the symphony orchestra of crayons!

I eventually grafted some of the excitement about 64 crayons to the 12 notes of music. And I think I've maintained that sense of excitement, even now, far into adulthood. To me, the notes also represent endless possibilities.

And as I let the music of John Adams' 'Grand Pianola Music' (next on the disc) wash over me, I felt confident that music must remain a lifelong passion. There's still a lot of life left in that box of crayons, for me and anyone else who wants to use them.

After that, I turned on the radio, and heard different music. I recognized it immediately: the end of the first movement of the great Symphony No. 3 (the "organ" symphony) by Camille Saint-Saëns. (That's him at right.)

This was music I discovered while in junior high school, by means of a library LP of Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra. I found it thrilling and exhilarating stuff—so much so that I wore out the library's recording.

And now here I was, nearly four decades later, and the music was having the same effect on me. The tunes, the harmonies, the rhythmic energy—and all of it suffused with a sense of fresh and unending possibilities.

So I head to Syracuse, and my own musical future, feeling confident that music will continue to offer as much to me as it always has. Familiar music will continue to move me, and new discoveries will continue to inspire me.

I guess what I'm saying is that I don't think I'm ready to put away the crayons anytime soon.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Bring your own roar: Silent Tarzan flick
on Thursday, March 12 at Flying Monkey

James H. Pierce plays Tarzan in 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' (1927), showing on Thursday, March 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey.

When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981), it was films like 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' (1927) that they were paying homage to.

That's all I can think every time I've played music for this film, an entry in the Tarzan catalog that was lost for decades until a print turned up a few years ago.

It starts off fast, and then really keeps moving. It has wily villains, damsels in distress, exotic locations, heroic rescues, and exciting stunts galore.

But a silent Tarzan? You have to remind audiences today that when these movies were made, no one thought of them as silent. They were simply the movies, and people fell in love with them without expecting to hear talk or dialogue.

It was only later that synchronized sound brought Tarzan's iconic yell to your local theater as part of the movie-going experience.

Yes, you can see Tarzan do his yell in 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' as well as other silent Tarzan flicks. He beats his chest and opens his mouth and makes the jungle resound with his cry.

So I tell people: if you really really miss it, feel free to channel Carol Burnett and do your best Tarzan yell to fill in for him.

And some actually do!

Your next chance to be a vocal stand-in for Tarzan comes on Thursday, March 12, when I accompany a screening of 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

Showtime is 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 each.

Hope to see you there. For more information, please check out the press release below.

* * *

An original lobby card for 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion.'

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 25, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film 'Tarzan and The Golden Lion' at Flying Monkey on Thursday, March 12


Screening of long-lost movie classic in downtown Plymouth venue to feature live musical accompaniment

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—You won't get to hear his famous jungle yell. But everything else that made Tarzan a vine-swinging movie legend will fill the big screen at an upcoming one-night-only silent film program at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center.

The silent program, set for Thursday, March 12 at 6:30 p.m., features 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' (1927), an early Tarzan feature that helped popularize the character created by author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

'Tarzan and the Golden' was considered a lost film for many decades; its recent rediscovery has made it available for viewing for the first time since its original release.

The movie will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. General admission for the event is $10 per person.

'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' (1927) was an adaptation of a 1923 Burroughs novel of the same title. It was financed in part by Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy clan, whose 1920s business interests extended to movie production.

The film finds Tarzan forced to journey through the African jungle to the legendary City of Diamonds, where he and his pet lion Jadbal-ja must save an Englishwoman from being sacrificed to the Gods.

Playing Tarzan in this film is James H. Pierce, the fourth actor to portray the role on-screen. Pierce was a part-time actor who coached high school football in Glendale, Calif., where his squad included future actor John Wayne.

After landing the Tarzan role, Pierce married Burroughs' daughter Joan in 1928. Although other actors took over the Tarzan role in motion pictures, Pierce and his wife continued to voice the roles of Tarzan and Jane in a popular 1930s radio show.

Pierce later ran a real estate agency in southern California. He died in 1984; he and his wife are buried in Indiana with tombstones marked "Tarzan" and "Jane."

The film also includes a brief cameo of legendary actor Boris Karloff in heavy makeup playing a witch doctor.

For decades, no copy of 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' was thought to exist until a nearly complete print was recently discovered in a foreign archive.

The film has been restored and transferred to digital media so that audiences can enjoy it once again.

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

"If you can put it all together again, these films still contain a lot of great stuff," Rapsis said. "By staging these screenings of features from Hollywood's early days, you can see why people first fell in love with the movies."

Upcoming movies include a classic Buster Keaton comedy and an adaptation of 'The Count of Monte Cristo' that was thought lost for decades.

The Flying Monkey originally opened 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.

Live music is a key element of each silent film screening, Rapsis said. Silent movies were never shown in silence, but were accompanied by live music made right in each theater. Most films were not released with official scores, so it was up to local musicians to provide the soundtrack, which could vary greatly from theater to theater.

"Because there's no set soundtrack for most silent films, musicians are free to create new music as they see fit, even today," Rapsis said. "In bringing a film to life, I try to create original 'movie score' music that sounds like what you might expect in a theater today, which helps bridge the gap between today's audiences and silent films that are in some cases nearly 100 years old."

The Flying Monkey's silent film series will continue in 2015 with these upcoming titles:

• Thursday, April 9, 2015, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Three Ages' (1923) starring Buster Keaton. Keaton's first feature-length comedy interweaves tales of romance from three epochs: the Stone Age, the Roman Empire, and "Modern Times," meaning 1920s California. See why Buster is regarded as one of the great clowns of the silent era.

• Thursday, May 14, 2015, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Count of Monte Cristo' (1922) starring John Gilbert. The original screen adaptation of the Andre Dumas swashbuckler about a man unjustly imprisoned who later seeks revenge. A film thought lost for decades until a print surfaced in the Czech Republic!

The next installment in the Flying Monkey's silent film series will be 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' (1927), to be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Thursday, March 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Tickets are $10 per person. For more information, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Brush with silent film fame: a few thoughts
on meeting Ken Winokur of Alloy Orchestra

Alloy in action: that's Ken Winokur back behind the bedpan, playing percussion, with colleagues Terry Donahue on accordion and Roger Miller on keyboard.

Just prior to yesterday's screening of two silent W.C. Fields features, I was introduced to one of the big names in silent film music: Ken Winokur of the Alloy Orchestra!

The night before, Ken's group had done their new score for 'Son of the Sheik' (1926) at the Somerville Theatre, where I was doing my program the next afternoon.

Imagine that—a commercial movie theater running separate and big silent film programs on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon! Geez, we're fortunate to have the Somerville Theatre in our area.

I was thrilled to meet Ken, who with colleagues Terry Donahue and Roger Miller has been attracting big audiences to silent films for many years now.

(How big? I understand they had 600 people at the Somerville on Saturday night, way more than what we get for the Sunday afternoon shows. And at a higher ticket price, too!)

He was there to take in the Fields films, which he said he hadn't seen before. Turns out he lives not far from the Somerville, so I guess it was only a matter of time before our paths crossed.

Ken was a pleasure to talk to. We shared a few thoughts about synthesizers and how much gear Alloy has to move in and out of theaters. But that's about all we had time for before the lights went down.

And yes, knowing that a silent film music guy of Ken's stature is in the audience is enough to make me a little self-conscious when sitting down at the keyboard.

But I think of it as good experience in pushing myself into that "silent film accompaniment" zone, where the film takes over and I find I stop being nervous no matter who's in the room.

Luckily, that happened pretty quickly yesterday afternoon with 'Sally of the Sawdust.' And Ken sent me a note this morning with some nice comments about the music. Thanks, Ken!

I first heard Alloy back in the mid-1990s when they did music for Keaton's 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) at the Portsmouth (N.H.) Music Hall.

This was before I was doing accompaniment. But at the time, it made a huge impression, and it helped steer me back into the field. (I had collected vintage film way back as a teenager, but had moved on to other interests after college. Besides the opposite sex, that is.)

Later, I went to a couple of programs Alloy did in Northhampton, Mass. One of my best memories from that time was taking a retired (and recently widowed) newspaper colleague in his 80s down there for a screening of Harold Lloyd's 'Speedy' (1928), which he remembered seeing as a boy. Alloy did a magnificent job, and it was a great night!

Over the years, Winokur's group has drawn criticism from some film buffs who don't favor Alloy's approach to scoring silents.

That's unfortunate, as I feel there's room for a lot of different approaches. And in many cases, new music is what brings many first-timers to a silent film screening.

In my case, I like to think Winokur and his colleagues helped "loosen my ears" regarding silent film music. They helped me understand the value of coming up with new (and not necessarily period authentic) music to help bring these timeless works of art alive for contemporary audiences.

Yes, there are some very talented musicians who specialize in recreating the musical cues played when the films were first released. And there's tremendous value in that, too.

But there's also a lot to be said for creating new music that connects with people and, again, helps bring other audiences into the silent film tent.

That's what Alloy has been doing for the past quarter century, and I hope they continue for a long time to come.

After all, the chance for each era to create new music for these movies is one of the great glories of the silent film art—one that will help keep interest strong, and these films before the public, as years and decades continue to pass, I think.

If you're interested in learning more about the Alloy Orchestra, check out their Web site. They tour all over the country, and even internationally, so at some point there should be a show near you.

Next up for me is a presentation to the New Hampshire Creative Club this Wednesday, and then a screening of 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' (1927), one of the best surviving Tarzan silents, on Thursday, March 12 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. More on that in a separate post.

A Sunday afternoon screening of 'Grandma's Boy' (1922) follows at the Townsend (Mass.) Public Library, and then it's off to the last-ever Cinefest gathering in Syracuse, N.Y., where I'll be one of eight accompanists on hand for this four-day event.

Having that many accompanists in one place has gotta be some kind of a record. Perhaps we'll play musical chairs!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sunday, March 8: Rare double feature
of W.C. Fields silent films shown in 35mm!


People are often surprised to learn that W.C. Fields was a popular movie star during the silent film era.

How could that be? Wasn't his voice, that unmistakeable nasal twang, an essential element of his appeal?

But he was popular in silent films. And you can see why by coming to a great double feature of two of his best surviving silents this weekend.

It's on Sunday, March 8 at 2 p.m. at the great Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

We're showing 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), a circus melodrama directed by D.W. Griffith, of all people, in which Fields plays a loveable con artist who adopts a young girl and raises her in the rough-and-tumble world of the big top.

It'll be followed by 'Running Wild' (1927), a classic family farce in which Fields plays a henpecked husband who undergoes a sudden transformation to alpha male.

Both films will be shown in 35mm, their original format, with prints courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.

I'm told by the Somerville's projectionist extraordinaire David Kornfeld that the print of 'Running Wild' looks terrific. (That's Fields in 'Running Wild' at left.) He hasn't inspected 'Sally' in detail yet, but says at first glance it looks good.

Live music will be provided by yours truly.

It's an interesting pair of films that shows a slightly younger and more agile Fields playing two very different roles in two very different movies.

'Sally' is pure Griffith hokum, but then no one did melodrama better. In the film, Fields is called upon to play a wide range of emotions, and it's interesting to see what he could do with this kind of a role.

But it's light stuff, with plenty of scenes where Fields gets to show off his silent film comedy and pantomime chops.

Also of interest in 'Sally' is that it gives us a chance to see Fields doing his juggling act while still in his prime.

Versions of this film that I've seen often seem to cut out some of the juggling footage, so I'm interested to see if the LOC print has more material. It's possible.

But it's 'Running Wild' that I'm really looking forward to, as it's a great audience picture.

In running this before, I've found it starts strong with an absolutely hilarious depiction of dysfunctional family life, and then only gets better as the plot unfolds.

After being snow-bound for the better part of six weeks, the Boston area needs a laugh. And I can think of no more surefire way to produce that than inviting you to take in 'Running Wild' at the Somerville Theatre this Sunday afternoon.

Hope to see you there! For more info, check out the text of the press release below:

* * *

A mustachioed W.C. Fields and starlet Carol Dempster star in 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925).

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 25, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Somerville Theatre to screen rare silent films
starring comic icon W.C. Fields


Double feature shows legendary performer in earlier prime as younger man; program accompanied by live music

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—He was a performer who could be recognized by just the nasal twang of his voice.

But prior to reaching iconic fame in talking pictures, W.C. Fields starred successfully in a popular series of silent feature films for Paramount Pictures and other studios in the 1920s.

Rediscover the non-talking W.C. Fields in 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925) and 'Running Wild' (1927), two of Fields' best silent pictures, in a double-bill screening on Sunday, March 8 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Both films will be screened using 35mm prints from the U.S. Library of Congress. General admission to the double feature is $15 per person.

Live musical scoring for the movies will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

W.C. Fields remains famous today for his comic persona as a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist with a snarling contempt for dogs, children and women.

Although Fields achieved lasting fame as a movie star in talking pictures of the 1930s, his long career encompassed decades on the vaudeville stage as well as a series of silent film roles.

"People find it hard to think of W.C. Fields in silent films, but he was actually quite successful," Rapsis said. "As a vaudeville performer and juggler, Fields cultivated a form of visual comedy and pantomime that transferred well to the silent screen. Also, as a middle-aged man during the silent film era, he was able to play a family father figure—the kind of role that wasn't open to younger comic stars such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

In all, Fields starred in 10 silent features in the mid-1920s. Several are lost; in those that survive, Fields sports a thick mustache, part of his vaudeville costume as a "vagabond juggler" which he dropped in later years.

The Fields double feature is the latest installment of the Somerville Theatre's monthly "Silents, Please!" series, designed to showcase the silent era's best feature films the way they were intended to be shown—using actual 35mm film prints projected on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put all these elements together, the films come to life in a way that's surprising to modern audiences," said Ian Judge, the Somerville's general manager. "Our silent film series has been very successful at attracting an audience, we're thrilled to continue it on a monthly basis."

W.C. Fields and Carol Dempster in 'Sally of the Sawdust.'

In 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), Fields plays Professor Eustache McGargle, a good-natured circus juggler and con man who finds himself responsible for Sally (Carol Dempster), an orphaned girl whose mother has died.

Raised by McGargle, Sally grows up to become a popular performer. But when the show arrives in the town where her mother's relatives now live, Sally is forced to choose between the man who raised her and the wealthy family that wants to reclaim her as their own.

'Sally of the Sawdust,' based on the 1923 stage musical 'Poppy,' gives Fields ample opportunity to display his juggling talents, a staple of his vaudeville act. The film was directed by D.W. Griffith, a rare detour into light comedy from a filmmaker known for pioneering epic dramas such as 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921).

In 'Running Wild' (1927), Fields plays Elmer Finch, a cowardly and henpecked husband disrespected by his stepson, his co-workers, and even the family dog.

But every dog has his day, and Finch's comes when he undergoes hypnosis, which transforms him into a swaggering take-no-prisoners alpha male.

The result is a timeless domestic farce that foreshadows Fields' later talking films and continues to delight audiences when screened as intended: in a theater, with live music and an audience.

Fields appears as an even younger man in 'Pool Sharks' (1915), a short comedy also on the program. The film marks the first appearance of Fields on screen, and will be included as a bonus extra in the Somerville's program.

Rapsis improvises the music in real time, while the film is running, using a synthesizer that allow him to recreate the "movie score" texture of a full orchestra.

"Improvising a score live is a bit of a high-wire act, but it allows me to follow and support the film a lot more effectively than if I was buried in sheet music," Rapsis said. "Instead, I'm free to follow the film right in the moment. Each time it's different, which lends a certain energy and immediacy and excitement to the experience."

Following the W.C. Fields program, the Somerville has scheduled the following silent films to be shown in 35mm in the venue's main theater. All will be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis.

• Sunday, April 5, 2 p.m.: 'The Ten Commandments' (1923). Spend Easter Sunday taking in Cecil B. Demille's original silent version of the Biblical blockbuster. A landmark epic that set the stage for scriptural spectacle, but also a film with major differences from DeMille's remake three decades later.

• Sunday, May 3, 2 p.m.: 'The Cameraman' (1928) starring Buster Keaton. In one of his best pictures, silent comedy legend Buster Keaton plays a would-be newsreel cameraman. A great romantic comedy and a remarkable "inside" look at the early movie biz as only Keaton could provide.

• Sunday, June 7, 2 p.m.: 'Play Safe' (1927) and 'Show People' (1928). A double feature of two comedies from the silent era's peak. 'Play Safe' includes one of most hair-raising train chase sequences ever filmed, while 'Show People' is director King Vidor's sly and self-referential Valentine to the era of silent movie-making.

• Sunday, July 5, 2 p.m.: 'The Big Parade' (1925) starring John Gilbert, Renee Adoreé. Director King Vidor's intense drama about U.S. doughboys sent to World War I France, where the horror of trench warfare changes their lives forever. Among the first Hollywood films to depict realistic battlefield action; still maintains its power to shock.

A W.C. Fields double feature, including 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925) and 'Running Wild' (1927), will be screened in 35mm with live music on Sunday, March 8 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theater, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission is $15 adults, $12 students/seniors; general admission seating. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit http://www.somervilletheatreonline.com.

A grand time at the Kansas Silent Festival;
plus, an impromptu Chaplin stress test

That's me on stage, caressing the big Steinway grand during a slide presentation about Kansas-born actress Claire Windsor.

Last weekend brought my 16th annual trip to the Kansas Silent Film Festival, to which I've made pilgrimages each year since the turn of the century.

As I say: in February, some folks go to Aruba. I go to Topeka!

But I do it gladly, because the Kansas Silent Film Festival is one of those rare events set up to run mainstream silent films (as opposed to obscure rarities) to large audiences of just plain folks, rather than just plain film buffs. (Who are all nice people, by the way.)

One reason it attracts big crowds is the magical four-letter word: FREE! No admission is charged, so there's no barrier to the curious. There's no registration or badge required, and no tickets, either. You can come and go as you please.

The result is an environment that I find probably mimics the conditions under which silent films were really intended to be shown: on the big screen, with live music, and with a large audience.

And the White Concert Hall at Washburn University, where the films are screened on Friday nights and all day Saturday, is big enough to hold even an enormous turnout. Big crowds do turn up, depending on the program. So far, no capacity constraints.

And there's the people. Too many staffers and volunteers to list here, but all terrific folks who assemble each year, Brigadoon-like, to bring forth this event. You know who you are, and you're all great. (Many thanks to Carol Yoho for most of the photos used in this post.)

Another reason to go is the music. Usually, it's a rare chance to hear the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra live for several titles in one go, not to mention other regulars such as long-time theater organist Marvin Faulwell and his percussionist sidekick Bob Keckeisen.

Marvin Faulwell and Bob Keckeisen in action on Friday night.

This year, Mont Alto couldn't attend. But organizers brought in an equally compelling guest performer: accompanist (and film collector) Jon Mirsalis. Jon is one of the big names in silent film music, and his accompaniment style is one that I really respond to. So I was thrilled that he'd be part of this year's festival. More on Jon in a moment.

My own involvement is to provide piano accompaniment as needed for all manner of odds and ends, with the occasional feature thrown in.

This time around, my big number was 'The Little Church Around the Corner' (1923), an early Warner Bros. melodrama starring Claire Windsor, a Kansas native who attended Washburn University for a time.


Prior to the Saturday morning screening, I got together with percussionist Bob K. and worked out some key moments when his services would add oomph to the proceedings. Any film that features a mine collapse could stand some extra help from the percussion department, and Bob came through in spades.

He also used his crash box to nail a brick thrown through a glass window (another key scene), and also got some nice suspended cymbal action underneath some of the big emotional moments at the keyboard. Bravo, Bob!

'Little Church' turned out to be a good match for the material I'd selected: a big gushing emotional theme for the dramatic moments, a percussive dirge for mining and labor sequences, and some hymn-like chord progressions for the spiritual and religious scenes.

Heading down into the collapsed mine. Yes, that's a canary they're taking with them.

The picture had an unusual structure. The climactic mine collapse actually happens probably about two-thirds through the picture, after which there's an extended sequence showing the townspeople waiting to find out who, if anyone, survived.

For that, I drew back from the big "collapse" music to just playing quiet but steady repeated notes, some high up in the treble, but always simply, like a clock ticking, while the bass wandered slowly below, creating weird tonal relationships that added tension as the sequence progressed. To my delight, I found it becoming one of those impossible-to-plan-for times when everything comes together surprisingly well.

But then out came the gushing emotional theme for the rescue, and then the percussive dirge whipped up into a busy agitato for labor strife. And then the hymn-like music when an unexpected miracle takes place (don't let me spoil it for you) and then more gushing emotional theme for the inevitable happy ending.

A display of Claire Windsor artifacts included 'Little Church' sheet music! Which I didn't see until after the film!

I was really pleased with how it came out. Unlike short comedies, a feature like that gives an accompanist room to work with the material and develop it as the story progresses. I was thrilled to have some long-time film buffs tell me afterwards that they thought it was outstanding. Nice! Yay for me!

But the real highlight of the festival for me was Jon Mirsalis, who did music for three features during the festival: Harold Lloyd's 'Grandma's Boy' (1922) on Friday night; the first part of 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) on Saturday afternoon, and then 'The Seahawk' (1924) on Saturday night.

Jon brought with him his Kurzweil synthesizer/keyboard—yes, actually checked as baggage for the flight from San Francisco, the first time he ever took it on a plane, he said.

Carrying the Kurzweil across the White Concert Hall stage.

We happened to arrive at the Kansas City airport on Thursday afternoon at the same time Jon came in, and so were assigned duty to pick up him—and the keyboard—and drive them both to Topeka.

I have to say it was a real treat to bring Jon to Topeka, and then act as his chauffeur for much of his time there.

Jon has been into vintage film for a long time, and is just bursting with stories and lore from decades worth of accompanying, collecting, and obsessing over early cinema.

So get him talking, and there's no end to all the experiences and adventures he's willing to share. He's funny, articulate, and opinionated in the best kind of way.

But music is what he came to Kansas to make. And his work in creating live music for three very different films showed a level of musicianship and a sense of narrative that for my money is just unequaled.

Jon introduces his print of 'The Seahawk' on Saturday night.

And it's not that the Kurzweil can produce a wide variety of orchestral textures that all sounded pretty impressive in the White Concert Hall. (In fact, he used the house piano, a marvelous Steinway concert grand, for most of 'Grandma's Boy.')

No—Jon has a recognizable style that he can adapt effortlessly, it seems, to whatever is happening on screen, lending it just what it needs at the time: profundity, wistfulness, rhythmic energy, tension, relief, you name it.

It's nearly always right, I think—not just in the moment, but also in the context of the entire film. Jon knows when to go big, when to draw back, when to come to the foreground, and when to disappear. When he plays for a film, it's an ongoing magic act that we were all privileged to enjoy at this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival.

Another highlight was seeing 'The Birth of a Nation' very close to the film's actually 100th anniversary. I know festival organizers were a little nervous about screening this title and all its racist baggage, even making sure a few security guards were on hand just in case.

But as it turned out, there was no controversy that I could detect. Alas, I think attendance was actually down slightly for the afternoon segment in which the film ran.

How can you go wrong with 'Birth of a Nation' action figures?

A panel discussion following the film was lively, but had to end prematurely due to time limits, I thought. For my part, all I could do was make wisecracks about the irony of screening 'Birth' in the White Concert Hall. Har!

Chaplin stress test: One new wrinkle this time around was a one-day outreach program that found the musicians fanning out on Friday to do impromptu silent film programs.

For my part, I rode shotgun with festival organizer Bill Shaffer about 20 minutes west of Topeka to Auburn Elementary School in Auburn, Kansas for a morning assembly.

It's a great-looking modern school, and much larger than I expected for rural Kansas. (Turns out it draws students from a huge area.)

We were in the gym, and everyone couldn't be nicer as hundreds of kids orderly filed in and sat on the floor, eventually filling up nearly the entire basketball court.

But our screening of Chaplin's two-reeler 'The Rink' (1916) unexpectedly turned into a good example of how you just need to be ready to make the best of whatever you're given to work with.

In this case, it was an upright piano with an unusual handicap: for all keys below middle C, the piano's sustain mechanism was stuck in the "on" position, and couldn't be released. Press a note, and it would sound for as long as the strings vibrate, like a gong. Bonnnnnnnnnnnnnnngggggggggggggggggg!

Bill Shaffer and me working the elementary school circuit.

I opened up the piano and tried to figure out what was wrong—maybe a pencil had been dropped into it? But I could NOT get it fixed, and then it was showtime, and off we went.

And so the music for 'The Rink' (1916) was quite a bit more "rinky-tink" than usual, in that I had to be very sparing on the low notes, lest their sound accumulate into a kind of sonic welter.

Also, the gig demonstrated one of the pitfalls of screening films in the digital age. When you use a laptop to run a DVD, it seems there's a very good chance that the player will not be up to the task of reading or transmitting data at a steady rate. And so you get variations in rendering where the on-screen image slows down for a bit and then speeds back up to catch up.

In a comedy such as 'The Rink,' where timing and motion are its chief merits, this can really diminish a film's impact. Not to mention the "bonging" piano.

But you know what? None of this seemed to interfere with the ability of 'The Rink' and Chaplin to capture the attention of youngsters nearly a full century after it was made. As soon as the film started running, the reaction was immediate.

So consider it a kind of stress test. Can silent film appeal to kids in the age of digital distraction and instant gratification, even when hampered by a handicapped piano and an unsteady image speed?

The answer, as I witnessed in Auburn, Kansas on Friday, Feb. 27, is a resounding YES.

At the annual Cinema Dinner: characteristic pose with open mouth.

Property note: During a few spare moments on Saturday morning, we went looking at real estate. The local market seems like another planet compared to New England. In Topeka, you can get a substantial house and lot for just over $30,000!

I was curious to see what a $30,000 house looked like, so we went and found one. It needed work, but didn't seem half bad!

Maybe we could buy the place for our annual Topeka sojourn, and rent it out the rest of the year. I could then add "Topeka Slumlord" to my resume.

Publicity notes: Well, back home I've just enjoyed an unexpected burst of what they call "earned media."

Last night, our local ABC affiliate (WMUR-TV Channel 9 in Manchester, N.H.) re-ran a feature segment they produced a year ago about me and silent film music.

Why again? I can only guess something else fell through. Either that, or there's a continuing shortage of interesting people to profile in these parts.

Then this morning, the Concord (N.H.) Monitor ran a pretty extensive profile of yours truly. This lavish write-up led the front of the D section, but also had a teaser right on the front page!

Well, if you're going to be on the front page, it might as well be for playing the piano. As the Car Talk guys would say: "It could be worse!"

If you're interested, here's a link to the story online.

Pretty good, considering I used to be night editor of the paper some (well, many) years ago.

It really is a small state I live in.