Sunday, December 2, 2018

In which I am mistaken for a fellow traveler, and a religious non-debate ensues

Mary Pickford approaches the baptismal font in 'Tess of the Storm Country' (1922).

A full century after they were made, silent films attract an audience for reasons that are many and varied.

A cousin of mine attends because he's into antiques. He likes seeing chairs and tables and whatever else was in people's homes back then.

But last night, I was reminded that not all reasons are created equal.

We had just finished screening 'Tess of the Storm Country' (1922), a great Mary Pickford melodrama, as the main attraction of a "Christmas Past" program.

Our audience at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., seemed to enjoy it. Afterwards, I asked for questions and comments.

Mary Pickford in 'Tess of the Storm Country' (1922).

I guy I'd never seen before raised his hand.

"That film showed the America that USED to be!" he said loudly.

I didn't understand quite what he was getting at...maybe how times were simpler and people knew their roles?

"Yes, yes," I said. "It was certainly another era."

I mentioned something about how the rich family behaved like the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age (or today), and we moved on. But afterwards the guy came down to talk one-on-one.

And he said it again, as if to congratulate me: "That film showed the America that used to be," he said, and then continued. "You know, all the original 13 colonies were founded because of religion."

Ah! That's what he was getting at. He likes his America heavy on Christianity, and here was a film that showed the good old days when people feared and respected God as imagined in scripture.

Like many films of the era, 'Tess of the Storm Country' is saturated with Christian imagery and suffused with a kind of of innocent, sentimental piety. This was seen as good box office: just look at Cecil B. DeMille's 'King of Kings' (1927) to see this principle used in the most cynical fashion, with the cast required to attend Catholic Mass every day on set.

In 'Tess,' the whole story is told in a Christian framework of "Peace on Earth, good will to men." This is nice and fits the story its characters, and is one of the reasons it works as a Christmas movie, I think.

A two-page spread promoting 'Tess.'

Well, my new friend found that the world as depicted in 'Tess' matched the world he'd like to see in 2018, apparently. It's a world where rich and poor alike are subject to the judgment of Almighty God, and the fate of all was in large part determined by how dedicated they were to observing Christian scripture, i.e. the Bible.

And he continued for a bit, lecturing me about how this country was founded on religious belief and faith in God and Jesus Christ, and so on.

I like to think I'm tolerant of all points of view, and I'm grateful for any fan's support. But this guy irritated me, as he was taking this melodrama and reading into it so much that I felt just wasn't there.

Also, he was using it to justify a misunderstanding of American history and civics that borders on religious bigotry, I felt.

So when he paused, I found myself saying this:

"But we have this document called the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of worship, so people of all faiths are welcome and encouraged to play full roles in society. Isn't that great?"

We chatted for a bit more, and I can't recall his responses, mostly because I was tired, but also because I was no longer really interested in what he had to say.

Also, he realized that he had mistaken me for a fellow traveler. When he found out that wasn't the case, he beat a hasty retreat, presumably because I might burst into flames at any moment.

Like I said, people come to silent films for many reasons. But it's disappointing to me when the reasons involve an nostalgia for an imagined past that never was, or even worse, use them to support a worldview that endorses superiority of one religion over another.

Full disclosure: I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, but have since become a religious free-thinker. I'm officially a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Nashua, N.H., but have no direct involvement in the church as even that is too structured for me.

But I'm not an atheist. I find I'd like to someday take my life experiences and use them to create a spiritual system that reflects what I've encountered. I don't know for sure, but it'll probably revolve around recognizing human awareness as a sacred thing.

A good example of human awareness is our ability to recognize paradox. What other being has the ability to recognize and contemplate a paradox? Consider: a gasoline tanker truck on the side of the road, not moving. Why? It's out of gas. Paradox!

Speaking of out of gas, so am I. And it's a good time to be that way, as the silent film calendar is finally slowing down after a very busy Halloween / Armistice Day period.

Coming up: a handful of screenings through mid-January, including a rare Russian film at an Academic Convention this Friday in Boston; Harold Lloyd's 'Grandma's Boy' (1922) next Sunday (Dec. 9) in Natick, Mass.; and D.W. Griffith's rarely screening 'Hearts of the World' (1918) on Dec. 30 in Wilton, N.H.

Details on the "Upcoming Screenings" page. See you at the movies!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

'The Big Parade' (1925) on Thursday, 11/29
at Merrimack College, North Andover, Mass.

Vintage promotional art for 'The Big Parade' (1925).

With so many screenings to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this month, it's starting to feel like I'm fighting World War I all over again.

Whether it's the aerial drama of 'Wings' (1927) or Chaplin yukking it up in 'Shoulder Arms' (1918), November has been a long march through movies about the "Great War."

Speaking of marching, next up is 'The Big Parade' (1925), the sweeping WWI epic directed by King Vidor that became the top-grossing film of its day.

See why by experiencing it on the big screen with live music on Thursday, Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

Details in the press release below. Hope to see you there.

Right now, I'm fresh off scoring a screening of 'Barbed Wire' (1927), a great Pola Negri drama set in France during (you guessed it) the WAR.

A scene from 'Barbed Wire' (1927).

Unusually, 'Barbed Wire' is not about the action at the front. Instead, the film focuses on the war's effect on a small rural village in France.

It's a tightly constructed drama with strong performances by Negri and Clive Brook in the lead roles, and Clyde Cook supplying comic relief. Even hard-working character actor Gustav von Seyffertitz shows up.

'Barbed Wire' also has a surprisingly moving Christmas scene, with captured German soldiers celebrating the season in a prison camp. So it's worth putting on the screen at this time of year.

Our audience at the Manchester (N.H.) Historic Association really seemed to enjoy the picture. The music came together quite nicely for the dramatic scenes, I thought, and Clyde Cook's antics got actual laughs!

Brook, by the way, has emerged as one of my favorite actors of the era. Everything I've seen him in, he's great. And he's flat-out terrific as the down-on-his-luck attorney in 'Underworld,' released just after 'Barbed Wire.'

On my list to see someday: Brook playing the title role in the early talkie 'Sherlock Holmes' (1932).

So many films, so little time!

Well...Hope you have time for 'The Big Parade' tomorrow night. See you there!

* * *

John Gilbert and Renée Adorée commit massive public display of affection in 'The Big Parade' (1925).

TUESDAY, NOV. 20, 2018 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis at (603) 236-9237 • e-mail jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Epic WWI drama 'The Big Parade' to be screened on Thursday, Nov. 29 at Rogers Center


To be shown with live music to commemorate 1918 Armistice; blockbuster silent film changed the way Hollywood depicted battle on the screen

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — It was the 'Saving Private Ryan' of its time — a movie that showed audiences war as experienced by a front line soldier whose life is changed forever by its horrors.

It was 'The Big Parade' (1925), a sprawling World War I epic and a box office sensation that made MGM into a powerhouse studio.

'The Big Parade' will be screened one time only at the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. The screening, part of the Rogers Center's Tambakos Film Series, is open to the public and admission is free.

The Rogers Center is located on Walsh Way on the campus of Merrimack College, 315 Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass.

The screening coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, which ended the fighting of World War I.

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

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

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

Comedy, romance, and a cow in 'The Big Parade' (1925).

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

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

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

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

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

MGM's silent blockbuster ‘The Big Parade’ will be shown with live music on Thursday, Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center, located on Walsh Way on the campus of Merrimack College, 315 Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. Admission is free. For more information, call the Rogers box office at (978) 837-5355.



Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Time for another time change: Tomorrow's screening of 'Barbed Wire' starts at 5:30 p.m.


And you thought you were finished when you set your clocks back one hour earlier this month!

Well, if you're planning to attend a screening of 'Barbed Wire,' time for another adjustment.

The screening is Wednesday, Nov. 28 at the Millyard Museum in Manchester, N.H.

But the starting time is 5:30 p.m., not 7 p.m., which is the time that I inadvertently had in an e-mail I sent out to my mailing list about a month ago.

I'm sending out a follow-up today to make sure people know the correct starting time.

In the meantime, I hope you'll take time to come see this little-known Pola Negri film, which turns out to be a powerful World War I drama with a lot to say to us today, more than a century since the Armistice.

I first saw it a few years ago at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, and was struck by the intense emotion of the story.

And I was also thrilled to see it had a genuinely moving Christmas scene! There's no silent film equivalent of 'It's a Wonderful Life,' but 'Barbed Wire' turns out to be very much a film to remind us of the true meaning of the holiday season.

All that will come together, I hope, at the Millyard Museum. I want to thank my friends at the Manchester Historical Association for including silent film with live music as part of their programming!

And see you there...at 5:30 p.m.!

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

* * *


MONDAY, NOV. 5, 2018 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film classic 'Barbed Wire' at Manchester Historic Association on Wednesday, Nov. 28


Drama starring Pola Negri set in World War I prison camp to be screened with live music in Millyard Museum; highlighted by unusual Christmas scene

MANCHESTER, N.H. — A rarely shown World War I prison camp drama with an unusual Christmas sequence will once again fill the big screen when 'Barbed Wire' (1927) is revived on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 5:30 p.m. at the Manchester Historic Association's Millyard Museum, 200 Bedford St., Manchester, N.H.

'Barbed Wire,' a silent drama starring Pola Negri and Clive Brook, will be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

Admission is $5 for members; $7 for non-members. Attendees are asked to call the Millyard Museum at (603) 622-7531 to reserve a seat or visit www.manchesterhistoric.org to buy tickets online.

Set in rural France, 'Barbed Wire' dramatizes the human conflicts that occurred throughout Europe during what was known as 'The Great War.'

In a small village, Mona Moreau (Pola Negri) and her aging father work their farm to feed the brave young men fighting for France. But when their farm is commandeered to build a camp for German POWs, they must feed the prisoners as well.

In the beginning, Mona resents the German prisoners she is forced to feed, but soon she begins to empathize with them. Mona's sympathies begin to raise the suspicion of her neighbors and worst of all, she fears she may be falling in love with handsome prisoner Oskar Muller (Clive Brook).

The relationship is opposed by the townspeople, who ostracize the girl's family, setting in motion dramatic events shaped by war, prejudice, forbidden love, and shared humanity.

"The ending of 'Barbed Wire' astounds viewers today because of the bitter lessons it tries to extract from the wartime experience, and how applicable they are to our world right now, so many years later," Rapsis said.

"At the time, society had just been through a global conflict fueled by hatred, bigotry, and intolerance, and people knew what that led to. They knew. And we can learn from them still," Rapsis said.


Directed by Rowland V. Lee for Paramount Pictures, a highlight of 'Barbed Wire' is a sequence in which the German prisoners celebrate a traditional Teutonic Christmas, by turns solemn and rowdy, despite being incarcerated.

The film is being screened in conjunction with the Millyard Museum exhibit "Manchester and the Great War," currently on display now through Dec. 31, 2018.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis specializes in creating music that bridges the gap between an older film and the expectations of today's audiences. Using a digital synthesizer that recreates the texture of a full orchestra, he improvises scores in real time as a movie unfolds, so that the music for no two screenings is the same.

"It's kind of a high wire act, but it helps create an emotional energy that's part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "It's easier to support the emotional line of the movie and the audience's reaction when I'm able to follow what's on screen, rather than be buried in sheet music," he said.

Because silent films were designed to be shown to large audiences in theaters with live music, the best way to experience them is to recreate the conditions in which they were first shown, Rapsis said.

"Films such as 'Barbed Wire' were created to be shown on the big screen to large audiences as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, silent films come to life in the way their makers intended. Not only are they entertaining, but they give today's audiences a chance to understand what caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

'Barbed Wire' will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 5:30 p.m. at the Manchester Historic Association's Millyard Museum, 200 Bedford St., Manchester, N.H. Admission is $5 for members; $7 for non-members. Attendees are asked to call the Millyard Museum at (603) 622-7531 to reserve a seat or visit www.manchesterhistoric.org to buy tickets online.



Monday, November 19, 2018

Playing 'Name That Tune' at the Coolidge, and other tales from 'The City Without Jews'

A scene from 'The City Without Jews (1924).

Last week I had the privilege of creating live music for 'The City Without Jews' (1924), an Austrian film about anti-Semitism. This put me in front of a totally new audience, and led to some surprising conversations.

About the film: it's a wild fantasy about a European nation whose leaders vote to expel all Jews, with unexpected consequences. Long thought lost, it's been kicking around in mutilated form in a partial print for a few decades now.

But a complete and pristine nitrate copy turned up in a Paris flea market in 2015. (These things happen!) Newly restored and available, it was included in this year's Boston Jewish Film Festival, a multi-week affair that takes place in venues all over Beantown each November.

I was thrilled to be asked to do music for 'The City Without Jews,' and also delighted to find that it would be screened at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass., just over the Boston city line.

The Coolidge is justly famous for the depth and breadth of its cinematic programming, including a long-running "Sounds of Silence" series with live music accompaniment for silent films. It's very popular.

The interior of the Coolidge Corner's main theater.

It's also kind of a classy place, and run a certain way, it seems, which makes it unlikely that a lone wolf such as me (independent, no agent) would get invited to perform there. Which is just the way it works: some venues have their regulars, or prefer to work only through booking agents, just have certain ways of operating.

So as a local musician who specializes in silent film accompaniment, it was a real honor to be asked to do my thing at the Coolidge for 'The City Without Jews." I also regarded it as kind of a breakthrough—an exciting chance to accompany an important film in front of a new group of cinema-goers.

Working with the staff of the Boston Jewish Film Festival and the Coolidge was a dream! Everyone couldn't do enough for me. I was pampered and fussed over as we plugged my keyboard into the house sound system and adjusted levels. They even asked to get me coffee!

I had what I thought was some good material for the film, which is a challenge to score because it keeps shifting tone, often quite abruptly. It's a drama, now it's a comedy, now it's a romance, now it's a comedy again, etc.

To help it all hang together and to smooth it all out (and also to keep from overdoing the music), I used a "strings only" soundscape that turned out to be a good move, I thought. Definitely a case of less is more.

Among the audience members who approached me afterwards was a woman who wanted to congratulate me for doing such a great job incorporating an obscure Israeli folk song into the music.

This was news to me, because the improvised score was completely original. I had improvised it, meaning I didn't plan anything ahead of time, other than to select a pair of melodies I'd invented earlier and thought would be a good base to work from.

Hence my reaction: "huh?"

She then named the tune, which I forget, and said she was surprised I knew it because it was a melody from her childhood and isn't well known today.

I suppose I could have just said "Thank you" and told her I appreciate her kind words. But no—I had to find out what tune she was referring to. So I asked her which tune was the Israeli folk song?

And so she sang part of one of the melodies I had used, and sure enough, the way she rendered it, it did sound like a Jewish folk song.

Well, we only have 12 notes, and sometimes the sequences and rhythmic patterns are bound to be similar.

But this was topped by a gentleman I met later. During the screening, he'd been running an app on his phone that analyzes audio and matches it with a database of known melodies.

He had no idea the score was being improvised and was live. But when he learned I was responsible for the music, he said he was glad to meet me, because he wanted to ask how I was able to quote so many different tunes in putting together the score.

"Er, how many different tunes?" I asked.

"Well, it got up to 23, but that was only in the first half-hour. After that, I turned off my phone."

He showed me the results: a Bach fugue, Peruvian flute music, and a roster of incredible artists and music I had never heard of. And I was using all of it, according to his app!

Let me emphasize that this was news to me. What I had just done was my own music, original to me. Improvising music in real time is my creative outlet and mode of artistic expression and also my therapy, I think.

But here was technology telling me that what I had just done had already been done in some way, although in little pieces here and there. Wow weird! It's enough to make one shake one's head, which is what I did.

And even after an introduction in which it was explained that I would improvise the music, and then after talking with him for 10 minutes, it was clear from his questions and our conversation that he didn't grasp the idea that I was playing a keyboard right there and making the music happen right then.

He just didn't get it. His brain didn't allow for this possibility. To him, it was all sound files and downloads and I don't know what else.

Here's the thing with technology: it's great. It powers my synthesizer and helps me get to theaters when I don't know the way and is responsible for the films I accompany and allows this blog to be posted and read all over the world. I'm grateful for it!

But I think too much technology risks crowding out where the music comes from, which depends on a very old and fragile technology: my brain working in a certain way. And I've found that requires what Hemingway referred to as a "clean, well-lighted space" to focus on creating music that works in real time.

So...can you imagine trying to compile a score by actually drawing music files from the vast storehouse of sound files out there? And trying to make it work in real time to effectively support a film as it plays on a screen? And never mind taking into account the mood of the room, the reaction of the audience, and so many other factors that make each screening an individual and unique experience?

With me, silent film accompaniment is a way for me to produce original music, and having to harness it to support a film is a great way for me to manage and organize this creative impulse. It's what I do.

So once the technology is in place (synthesizer set up, projector loaded, etc.), I prefer to focus on the keyboard and the sounds and the chords and the melodies as I react to the film and the audience around me. I don't want to change settings or download files or worry about any of it.

I write all this here because people such as the gentlemen with the app seem to think that all music exists as sound files to be downloaded, and must be made somewhere else, but not by real people in real time right in front of them.

But it is! It has to come from somewhere, after all. It's not magic. But some people seem to think that it's some kind of black art to create music on the spot (without sheet music!) and that all film music has to be recorded and mixed and processed in advance.

Well...

Such was my big night at the Coolidge. It really was an honor to work in this theater and to meet such cool people, both at the venue and with the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

I hope to work with them all again soon!


And I followed that up on Friday night with a crackerjack screening at the Flying Monkey up in Plymouth, N.H.: a Buster Keaton double feature of 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928).

This may sound more like a weather announcement, but I'm pleased to report we experienced gales of laughter throughout!

And with the music...sometimes everything just falls into place. You have the right stuff at your fingertips when its needed, and you hit every mark, and it just works like a dream. Friday night was one of those nights!

Looking forward to returning to the Flying Monkey again on Saturday, Dec. 1 for a holiday program of silent films.

But before that happens: a Thanksgiving road trip this week to a family get-together in Chicago provides a chance to drop in again at Cinema Detroit, where I accompanied a Marion Davies film this past summer—their first-ever program of silent film with live music.

Well, I'll be darned if Paula and Tim Guthat haven't gone and booked some more silent film programs for exactly when I'll be passing through. This month they're running a "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" series (with material from the recently compiled DVD of the same title), and so I'll accompany a Mabel Normand program on Friday, Nov. 23 at 5 p.m.

So after you recover from your turkey-induced trance, head over to Detroit and digest some very interesting early cinema. Hope to see you there!

And then Charlie Chaplin takes the screen on Sunday, Nov. 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, but more on that later.

And it's a month to go before Christmas!?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Scoring 'The City Without Jews' (1924) tonight
and then Buster Keaton later this week

Expressionism on screen in 'The City Without Jews' (1924).

Tonight marks my debut at the highly regarded Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass. The big time!

I'll be accompanying 'The City Without Jews' (1924), a recently restored Austrian film being presented by the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

The screening is at 6:30 p.m. and tickets are available at the door. They're $36 per person for non-passholders, which I know is a little steep.

But the movie is worth it, plus the program includes a conversation with Lisa Silverman, an Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Title card from the film, which was recently fully restored after a nearly complete copy surfaced in a Parisian garage sale.

'The City Without Jews' is a challenging film to score in that to my eye, it blends several genres: there's some drama, comedy, romance, satire, expressionist terror, and so on. So I've been puzzling how best to create a score that respects all these elements and still holds it all together.

What I've decided is to limit myself to a palette of strings only. For one thing, the Korg I use actually has some very good string patches that don't sound too synthesizer-y.

But I also feel that when faced with a film that mixes in so many approaches to what is fundamentally a very serious topic (in hindsight, perhaps more than the filmmakers themselves could have realized), a limited and "monochromatic" sound world allows me a platform on which I can improvise freely and lessens the risk of over-doing it or over-emphasizing any one element at the expense of another.

So I can acknowledge the comedy, and score the drama, and heighten the expressionism in some scenes, but all the while creating something that holds together and builds an effective soundscape for this challenging film.

Does that make any sense? Well, we'll find out at 6:30 p.m. tonight.

In the meantime, many thanks to Ariana Cohen-Halberstam and Nyssy Clark of the Boston Jewish Film Festival for their invitation to be part of this year's screenings, and their help in booking me at the Coolidge.

Things lighten up considerably later this week with a Buster Keaton double feature on Friday, Nov. 16 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

We're running the "Movies about Movies" program, meaning back-to-back screenings of 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928), Buster's two features in which he explores the nature of film itself.

It's quite a meta program, which suits me fine. I've never met a meta that I didn't like.

Showtime is 6:30 p.m. and admission is $10 per person. More details in the press release I've pasted in below.

Hope to see you at one or 'tother screenings. Or both!

* * *

Original promotional art for 'The Cameraman.'

MONDAY, OCT. 29, 2018 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Buster Keaton double feature at Flying Monkey on Friday, Nov. 16


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

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

See for yourself with a screening of 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928), two of Keaton's landmark feature films, at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. on Friday, Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m.

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

In 'Sherlock Jr.,' Buster plays a small-town movie projectionist who dreams of working as a detective. But then Buster's romantic rival frames him for stealing a watch from his girlfriend's father. Fortunately, the situation mirrors the plot of the movie currently playing at Buster's theater. Inspired by the movie, can Buster find the real thief and win back his girl?

'The Cameraman' tells the story of a young man (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Marceline Day) by working as a freelance newsreel cameraman. His efforts result in spectacular failure, but then a lucky break gives him an unexpected chance to make his mark. Can Buster parlay the scoop of the year into a secure job and successful romance?

Both films focus on exploring the potentials of the motion picture, then a brand-new medium.

Buster in 'The Cameraman.'

In 'The Cameraman,' Keaton uses the movie business itself to create comedy that plays with the nature of film and reality.

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

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions ranging from sadness to surprise. In an era when movies had few special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

All those talents are on display in 'Sherlock Jr.' and 'The Cameraman,' which was selected in 2005 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

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

Rapsis, who lives in Bedford, N.H., improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

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

'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928) will be shown with live music at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. on Friday, Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $10; for more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Armistice Day +100: Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m.:
scoring 'The Big Parade' at Somerville Theatre

Tom O'Brien, John Gilbert, and Karl Dane sharing a foxhole in the World War I drama 'The Big Parade' (1925).

In introducing films lately, I've found myself choking up a bit when I get to the upcoming 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, when the guns in Europe went silent.

Well, the long march to the big day is nearing an end. On Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, it will be a full century since World War I ended.

On that day, I'm honored to do live music for one of the great films about that conflict, 'The Big Parade' (1925) at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

We're using a 35mm print for the screening, which starts at 2 p.m. More info is available in the press release I've pasted in below, and I hope you'll attend.

The emotional thing happened again last night prior to a screening of 'Wings' (1927) for a packed house at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. Introducing the film, I kinda choked up for a moment.


Just before the show: a full house settles in for 'Wings.'

I thought about it, and I recognized a pattern: it always happens when I say that no one is among us who was there: who wore the uniform, who shipped off to Europe, who fought alongside others, who awoke 100 years ago this Sunday to the blessed sound of silence.

And that gets to me, I think, because it so vividly illustrates the impermanence of what we as human beings experience.

On Nov. 11, 1918, the entire human race, more or less, shared the experience knowing that a huge and unthinkably awful war had finally ended. It was a conflict that would cast a shadow over the next century and beyond, influencing events around us even day.

But now, just a few generations later, the human experience of World War I produces a silence that's different from that heard on the European battlefields that morning. It's the eternal silence that subsumes everything as the present becomes the past—the past which every passing day and month and year bury deeper and deeper, as it inevitably must.

It's a process that humans grapple with in many different ways. It's the root of everything from hoarding to ancestor worship. We don't want to lose the past. But the passage of time divorces us from it just the same.

I think that's a big reason why I'm drawn to films of the silent era. When we run them, for just a little while, the past is not lost. We breathe life into it and can get a sense of what it was like when the past was the present.

In a way, by showing these films, we're able to hear from people who can no longer speak for themselves. And I find that's what stirs my emotions.

To me, it's a certain kind of special magic that I think is worth experiencing—especially if it involves a good story, a good cast, and a director with an eye for the visual.

'Wings' has all that, and generated a huge reaction from our sold-out house last night at Red River Theatres.


I want to thank my colleagues at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire for supporting the event, and Red River for continuing to find room for silent film with live music in their schedule.

So as the actual 100th anniversary of Armistice Day approaches, I hope you'll join me at the Somerville Theatre for a 35mm print of one of the great World War I flicks: 'The Big Parade.'

Details below!

* * *

An original poster for 'The Big Parade.'

OCT. 21, 2018 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis at (603) 236-9237 • e-mail jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Epic WWI drama 'The Big Parade' to be screened in 35mm on Sunday, Nov. 11 at Somerville Theatre


To be shown with live music on 100th anniversary of 1918 Armistice; blockbuster silent film changed the way Hollywood depicted battle on the screen

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

It was 'The Big Parade' (1925), a sprawling World War I epic and a box office sensation that made MGM into a powerhouse studio. It's the latest installment of 'Silents, Please!,' a silent film series with live music at the Somerville Theatre.

'The Big Parade' will be screened in 35mm one time only at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. General admission is $15; seniors/students $12.

The Veterans Day screening coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, which ended the fighting of World War I.

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

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

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

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

Renée Adorée and John Gilbert in 'The Big Parade.'

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

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

"We felt screening 'The Big Parade' on Sunday, Nov. 11 was a suitable way to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice," said Somerville manager Ian Judge. "World War I is now part of history, but this picture is from a time when it was foremost in people's minds. What was then called 'The Great War' was the 9/11 of its day, and this film captures that intensity and allows us to experience it today."

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

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

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

MGM's silent blockbuster ‘The Big Parade’ will be shown in 35mm and with live music on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. at Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

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





Sunday, November 4, 2018

'Wings' and other silent films set in WWI:
often the drama is about returning home


The silent film 'Wings' is all about airplanes.

So it's fitting that I'm posting this preview of the film (which I'm accompanying this week in Concord, N.H.) from an eastbound JetBlue Airbus 321 somewhere high above Nebraska.

Actually, the altitude is now exactly 34,793 feet, according the readout on the seatback video screen in front of me.


I'm heading home after accompanying a William S. Hart drama, 'The Cradle of Courage' (1920), last night at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, Calif.

Before I get to 'Wings,' a few thoughts about the Hart drama, which was unusual. Unlike so many of his features, it's not a Western. Instead, it's about doughboys returning home to city life (in this case, San Francisco) after World War I.

And with the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day coming up next weekend, I was glad for the chance to see this rarely screened Hart opus, in which our hero gives up his pre-war occupation as a crook to become a policeman instead. And the 16mm print at the Niles Museum was a stunner: sharp, with great tonal values throughout.

'The Cradle of Courage' offers a strong dose of life as it was lived in the nation's cities a century ago. The settings are real and grim, including many exterior shots filmed on location in the city by the Bay. Dialogue in the intertitles is filled with antique argot and colorful tough-guy slang.

A not-so-young soldier William S. Hart (he was over 50 at the time) wanders the streets of old San Francisco after returning home in 'Cradle of Courage.'

But it's especially powerful as a reminder that those who served in what we now call World War I often faced fresh battles upon returning home. And that's worth remembering as we approach the centennial of the day the guns went silent.

You can see that same dynamic in other World War I movies of the silent era. It's in 'Wings' (1927), which I'm accompanying this Wednesday, and also 'The Big Parade' (1925), which I'm doing music for on Sunday, Nov. 11 at the Somerville Theatre. Both have powerful and bittersweet "returning home" scenes.

My own homecoming later today will involve mostly getting licked by two dogs. So as centennial of Armistice Day approaches, it's worth remembering how so many did not have it so easy.

And one way to remember those who served, and to honor their sacrifices, is to take in a movie such as 'Wings.' I think a mainstream film aimed at a general audience captures some of the excitement and also the dread of the war in a manner quite different from any history book or documentary.

Well, this week, you can see for yourself. More info about our screening of 'Wings' at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. is in the press release below. Hope to see you there!

* * *


MONDAY, OCT. 15, 2018 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Epic silent film 'Wings' (1927) on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Red River Theatres

Story of U.S. aviators in World War I won first-ever 'Best Picture'; screening to feature live musical accompaniment

CONCORD, N.H.—It won 'Best Picture' at the very first Academy Awards, with spectacular airborne sequences and a dramatic story that still mesmerizes audiences today.

'Wings' (1927), a drama about U.S. aviators in the skies over Europe during World War I, will be shown on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

The screening is in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, which ended the "Great War" and which led to our modern observance of Veterans Day.

Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 per person, general admission.

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

The show will allow audiences to experience 'Wings' the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

'Wings,' a blockbuster hit in its original release, recounts the adventures of U.S. pilots flying combat missions behind enemy lines at the height of World War I in Europe. 'Wings' stunned audiences with its aerial dogfight footage, vivid and realistic battle scenes, and dramatic love-triangle plot.

'Wings' stars Clara Bow, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, and Richard Arlen. The rarely-seen film also marked one of the first screen appearances of Gary Cooper, who plays a supporting role. Directed by William Wellman, 'Wings' was lauded by critics for its gripping story, superb photography, and technical innovations.

'Wings' is notable as one of the first Hollywood films to take audiences directly into battlefield trenches and vividly depict combat action. Aviation buffs will also enjoy 'Wings' as the film is filled with scenes of vintage aircraft from the early days of flight.

Seen today, the film also allows contemporary audiences a window into the era of World War I, which was underway in Europe a century ago.

" 'Wings' is not only a terrific movie, but seeing it on the big screen is also a great chance to appreciate what earlier generations of servicemen and women endured," accompanist Jeff Rapsis said. "It's a war that has faded somewhat from our collective consciousness, but it defined life in the United States for a big chunk of the 20th century. This film captures how World War I affected the nation, and also shows in detail what it was like to serve one's country a century ago."

Rapsis, a composer who specializes in film music, will create a score for 'Wings' on the spot, improvising the music as the movie unfolds to enhance the on-screen action as well as respond to audience reactions. Rapsis performs the music on a digital synthesizer, which is capable of producing a wide range of theatre organ and orchestral textures.

"Live music was an integral part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "At the time, most films weren't released with sheet music or scores. Studios relied on local musicians to come up with an effective score that was different in every theater. At its best, this approach created an energy and a connection that added a great deal to a film's impact. That's what I try to recreate," Rapsis said.

'Wings' is about 2½ hours long. The film is a family-friendly drama but not suitable for very young children due to its length and intense wartime battle scenes.

‘Wings’ (1927) starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

Tickets $12 adults, general admission. For more info, visit www.redrivertheatres.org. or call (603) 224-4600.