Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Chaplin, Keaton, and maybe von Sternberg...
plus werewolves & topping 200,000 pageviews

Playing for 'The Cameraman' (1928) in an unusual venue: the Arlington Grange Hall in Winchester, N.H.

There's a high-profile festival of silent film going on this week in Pordenone, Italy. (That's "poor-deh-know-nay" for the very few non-native Italian speakers following this blog.)

Held each year in early October, it attracts the best and the brightest silent film restorers, archivists, scholars—and yes, musicians.

I'd like to check it out someday. But until the invitation comes, we'll just continue having our own silent film festival closer to home, with a bunch of great programs coming up that I hope you'll consider attending.

Tranfusion confusion: an injured man receives wolf blood in 'Wolfblood,' with unexpected consequences.

• Tonight (Tuesday, Oct. 6), I'm doing music for a screening of 'Wolfblood' (1925), a low budget lumbercamp melodrama noteworthy as one of the first examples of the "werewolf" theme in cinema. With Halloween coming up, why not? Showtime is 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library, 405 Pine St. in downtown Manchester, N.H. Admission free, donations encouraged.

• Thursday, Oct. 8 brings 'The Kid' (1921) and Charlie Chaplin short comedies at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Co-starring a five-year-old Jackie Coogan, 'The Kid' was Chaplin's breakthrough; a full-length picture that successfully combined comedy and drama. Admission $10 per person.

• Friday, Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. brings a Buster Keaton program at the Arlington Grange Hall, 39 Mechanic St., Winchester, N.H. (Ha! Take that, Pordenone attendees.) Free admission but they're suggesting a donation of $7 per person. Two Keaton comedies, both focusing on movies: 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928). Can't get much more meta than that.

• Saturday, Oct. 10 brings a tentative gig at the Brattle Cinema, 40 Brattle St., in Cambridge, Mass. A series about the roots of film noir includes two screenings of Josef von Sternberg's ground-breaking crime drama 'Underworld' (1927) in 35mm at 4 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m. I call it tentative because at at this point, I'm not sure if I'm actually doing accompaniment. As soon as I know yes or no, I'll post an update.

See? Just like Pordenone! Except not in Italy.

After this weekend, we enter the heavy Halloween schedule, which this year features Alfred Hitchcock's early thriller 'The Lodger' (1927) in about a half-dozen different locations around New England.

I haven't scored 'The Lodger' in some time, but it's full of Hitchcock's then-emerging style and a way to get in the right frame of mind for Halloween. I've developed some new musical material to help this title connect, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it evolves over multiple screenings.

But for this week, the focus is on werewolves, comedy, and gangster. If you'd like more info on 'The Kid' this Thursday, I've pasted in the text of the press release below. See you there!

And finally, a tip of the virtual hat to all visitors to this blog, which just topped 200,000 page views.

Blogs are so 2008, I know. But this format seems to work as a way to sometimes get into detail about creating live music for silent film screenings, so I plan to keep it up.

Thanks for visiting and please come again.

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

Chaplin's 'The Kid' to screen on Thursday, Oct. 8 at Flying Monkey

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

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—Silent film with live music returns to the Flying Monkey with a screening of Charlie Chaplin's classic comedy/drama 'The Kid' (1921) on Thursday, Oct. 8 at 6:30 p.m.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But movies of all types 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.

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

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

Upcoming shows in this year's silent film series at the Flying Monkey include:

• Thursday, Oct. 22, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927). Can a group of strangers survive the night in a haunted house to learn the secret of a madman's will? Find out in the original Gothic thriller from silent film director Paul Leni. Just in time for Halloween, a movie filled with deep shadows, dark secrets, and a surprisingly timeless mix of humor and horror that will keep you guessing.

• Thursday, Nov. 12, 6:30 p.m.: "Really Big Stars: An Elephant Double Feature." A pair silent films starring pachyderms! In 'Soul of the Beast' (1923), Oscar the Elephant accompanies a circus runaway fleeing her mean stepfather, launching a melodramatic plot of love, revenge, and cruelty. In 'Chang' (1927), shot on location in rural Siam (now Thailand), a native family in the back country battles the jungle for survival. Nominated for the Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Production at the first-ever Oscars in 1929.

'The Kid' (1921) starring Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan, will be screened with live music on Thursday, Oct. 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission $10.

For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com. For more on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.


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

Friday, October 2, 2015

Men are from Mars—especially Harry Langdon...
'Tramp Tramp Tramp' in 35mm on Sunday, 10/4

Harry Langdon arrives in a town about to be destroyed by a cyclone in 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926).

This weekend brings the new Ridley Scott film, 'The Martian' (2015), which has drawn more attention than usual because of NASA's coincidental announcement this week that water's been found on the red planet.

In my little silent film bubble, this weekend also brings Harry Langdon's comedy 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926) with its amazing cyclone climax, giving this picture a vital current events connection as well.

How? Because we're screening 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (via a 35mm print) on Sunday, Oct. 4 at the Somerville Theatre—just as Hurricane Joaquin threatens to arrive here on the New England coast.

Take that for topicality, Matt Damon!

The two films are distant cousins, actually, if only because Harry Langdon sometimes acts like he's a resident of Mars. So we're in for a weekend of alienation no matter what.

But that's the beauty of Langdon, I think—he's so different from what people expect from silent film comedy that he comes across as refreshing even today.

Another attraction of 'Tramp Tramp Tramp,' which helped rocket Langdon to worldwide fame for a brief time late in the silent era, is his co-star: a very young Joan Crawford.

Harry Langdon and Joan Crawford in 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926).

Incredibly, she plays Harry's love interest. How that all works, and what eventually results, you'll have to see to believe.

But whether (weather?) or not Hurricane Joaquin hits or misses us, 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' is a film well worth seeing for its great gags, and especially for its extensive outdoorsy location shooting that feels very much like a Buster Keaton picture.

And the cyclone sequence, said to partly inspire the better-known climax of Keaton's later masterpiece 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), is played out on a grand scale, with Langdon looking like a cross between Emmett Kelley and a street person.

Also, among those collaborating on the picture was a young scenario writer named Frank Capra, who would be promoted to first-time director on Langdon's very next feature, 'The Strong Man' (1926).

And finally, the film's opening scenes take place in...Massachusetts! How's that for a local connection?

So come in from the weather this Sunday and enjoy Langdon's 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' in 35mm: a rare chance to see the film in its original film format and with live music and an audience, as intended.

Showtime is 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission is $15 per person, or $12 for seniors/students.

For more info, check out the press release below:

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'Tramp, Tramp, Tramp' (1926): Six reels of Long Langdon Laughs!

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

Somerville Theatre to screen rare Harry Langdon film with live music on Sunday, Oct. 4

Comedian's debut silent feature 'Tramp, Tramp, Tramp' (1926) co-stars a very young Joan Crawford

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — A silent film comedy written by Frank Capra will highlight the next installment of 'Silents, Please!' at the Somerville Theatre.

'Tramp, Tramp, Tramp' (1926), the first feature film of silent clown Harry Langdon, will be shown in 35mm and with live music on Sunday, Oct. 4 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville. General admission is $15; seniors/students $12.

Silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will provide live music for the screening.

The comedy follows Langdon's misadventures in a cross-country walking race that starts in Massachusetts.

Langdon, who rocketed to fame near the end of the silent film era, enters the contest to win prize money to save his father's shoe business.

Along the way, he tangles animals, criminals, railroad trains, and a spectacular cyclone that destroys an entire town.

One of the iconic images of silent film comedy: Langdon on a chain gang in 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926).

Harry also encounters romance, in the form of a very young Joan Crawford in one of her first major motion picture roles.

Also working on the film was Frank Capra, then a young scenario writer. Capra would be promoted to the director's chair for Langdon's next picture, 'The Strong Man' (1926), and then go on to one of Hollywood's most storied careers.

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

Rapsis will improvise a musical score for 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' as the film is screened. In creating accompaniment for the Langdon feature and other vintage classics, Rapsis tries to bridge the gap between silent film and modern audiences.

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

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

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

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

'Tramp, Tramp, Tramp' (1926), a silent film comedy feature starring Harry Langdon and Joan Crawford, will be shown with live music on Sunday, Oct. 4 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.somervilletheatreonline.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Tonight 9/23: Opening night at Rogers Center
features double bill of Buster's best pictures

Buster in 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924), showing tonight at the Rogers Center in North Andover, Mass.

Alas, I'm not attending this year's Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas, which takes place this weekend.

But I'm doing the next best thing: accompanying a pair of upcoming Keaton programs in my corner of the world.

First up is tonight's season-opener at the Rogers Center for the Arts on the campus of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

The program features 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'Our Hospitality' (1923), two of Buster's best silents that I think show his remarkable abilities even early in his film career, when these pictures date from.

For more info on this show, and the rest of the season at the Rogers Center, check out the press release below.

And then on Sunday, Sept. 27, I'm accompanying Keaton's last silent feature, the MGM-produced "Spite Marriage" (1929) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. Showtime is 4:30 p.m.

Both programs are free and open to the public, although a suggested donation of $5 per person is requested for the Wilton show to help defray expenses.

Buster's silent features still work as well as ever, and remain audience favorites today.

But even just a little historical perspective makes them all the more interesting and amazing, I think.

What I'm thinking about is how I recall someone once described the difference among silent film's "Big Three" of comedy.

Charlie Chaplin's art was essentially rooted in the past—a kind of Victorian sensibility found in the theatrical melodramas of the 19th century. Audiences responded to the timeless and familiar qualities of this kind of story-telling.

Harold Lloyd played a character very much of the present, meaning the Roaring '20s. Audiences responded to him because his adventures were part of the shared experience of contemporary living.

And Keaton? Well, we're still trying to catch up to Buster: his outlook, his attitude, and everything else.

In that sense, I think an important aspect of Buster's work is how he used the film medium.

Watch enough silent films of all types, and you realize how advanced Keaton was for his time.

Remember, it was an era when filmmakers were just beginning to develop the basic grammar of cinema: long shots vs. close-ups, transitions, camera positions, and so much else.

Apparently on instinct alone, Buster knew how to position a camera and frame a shot and edit a sequence for maximum impact.

Timeless appeal: Buster and a sundial in 'Seven Chances' (1925).

So his films are full of techniques that later became common in motion pictures.

But that's something not immediately apparent to modern audiences, who've been marinated in visual story-telling and entertainment our whole lives.

To us, Buster's films look like: well, what films are supposed to look like. But check your calendar: we live in 2015, and Buster was working 90 years ago.

Talk about timeless!

Okay, here's info about tonight's screening and the rest of the 2015-16 season of silent film with live music at the Rogers Center in North Andover, Mass. Hope to see you there!

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Buster Keaton (left) stars in 'Our Hospitality' (1923), part of the 2015-16 silent film series at the Rogers Center for the Arts.

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

Rogers Center announces silent film series with live music for 2015-16 season

Classic comedies, dramas to be screened with live accompaniment at Merrimack College, North Andover, Mass.

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—Silent film on the big screen and with live music will return to the Rogers Center for the Arts in North Andover, Mass. with a series of shows scheduled for the 2015-16 season. Admission to the screenings is free and the public is welcome.

The schedule includes a double dose of comedy from one of silent era's top funnymen; a creepy thriller to be shown for Halloween; a mind-bending epic drama set in four different time periods; and the original silent version of 'Ben Hur.'

Musical accompaniment will be performed live by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis, regarded as one of the nation's leading silent film musicians.

The series aims to recapture the magic of early Hollywood by presenting silent films as they were intended to be shown: in restored prints, in a theater on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put together those elements, it's surprising how much power these films still have," said Rapsis, who specializes in improvising live music for silent film screenings throughout New England and beyond. "You realize why these films caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

The series features some of the most-requested titles from the silent film era:

• Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'Buster Keaton Double Feature' starring Buster Keaton. Buster breeches the fourth wall big-time in the imaginative "Sherlock Jr." (1924); an old-time backwoods family feud is the focus of "Our Hospitality" (1923), Keaton's breakthrough feature film. Laugh your way through two of the funniest comedies of the silent era!

• Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Lodger' (1927), directed by (a very young) Alfred Hitchcock. The search is on for the man responsible for a series of murders in fog-shrouded London. Legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock's career began in the silent era, when then young director first produced his brand of darkly suspenseful thrillers. Remember: in silent film, no one can hear you scream! See if if you dare!

A poster for 'Intolerance' (1916), part of the 2015-16 silent film series at the Rogers Center in North Andover, Mass.

• Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, 7 p.m.: 'Intolerance' (1916), directed by D.W. Griffith and starring (literally) a cast of thousands. D.W. Griffith's early blockbuster about man's inhumanity to man weaves together four stories spanning four eras of civilization. Filmed an a vast scale, setting a new standard for Hollywood extravagance. A movie made for the big screen, and here's your chance to see it!

• Wednesday, March 23, 2016, 7 p.m.: 'Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ' (1925) starring Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman. Just in time for Easter! In the Holy Land, a Jewish prince is enslaved by the occupying Romans; inspired by encounters with Jesus, he lives to seek justice. One of the great religious epics of Hollywood's silent film era, including a legendary chariot race that's lost none of its power to thrill.

All films will be screened at the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass.

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

The opening program in this season's silent film series at the Rogers Center will include Buster Keaton's 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'Our Hospitality' (1923), to be screened on Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts, 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, September 22, 2015

Coming to the Manchester (N.H.) City Library:
Werewolves, time travel, and earthquakes!

Greta Garbo and Nils Asther fog up the big screen in 'Wild Orchid' (1929), on the schedule this season at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library.

Who says there's no future in silent film?

I've just puzzled out titles through the end of 2016 for our monthly screenings at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library.

December 2016 sounds like the future to me, so there!

The schedule is packed with a wide variety of titles, with one exception: no well-known silent-era classics.

Nope. 'The General?' Sorry. 'Metropolis?' Not here.

Don't get me wrong—these pictures are great, and I love doing music for them.

But for the Manchester City Library series, the emphasis is on films that rarely get shown, with priority given to those I've never had a chance to see or accompany before.

One reason for this is that the Carpenter Auditorium is relatively small—maybe 150 seats. So it lends itself to niche programming. Another reason it that doing unfamiliar films helps me develop my craft.

But most importantly, I continue to be amazed at silent-era films that I've never heard of but which hold the screen if given a chance to run as intended: on a screen, with live music, and in front of an audience.

Outlets such as TCM are great. But with silent film, there's no substitute for seeing it in a theater with a group of people. It's a completely different experience from seeing it on, say, your home entertainment center with just you and your dog in attendance.

With so many vintage titles lost forever through decomposition and neglect, you'd think that the pickings from the silent era would be slim.

But instead, the pickings are actually quite fat. Even with about 75 percent of U.S. silent feature-length films gone, several thousand still survive in one form or another. This adds up to a huge world that film buffs can explore for years, discovering surprises all the time.

That's what it's been like for me, anyway.

And so that's what the library series is all about: celebrating the vast amount of silent cinema that has come down to us intact, and giving it a chance to be seen as intended.

So what's coming up? I've updated my "Upcoming Silent Film screenings" page to list everything through December, 2016.

But the text of the press release below includes a convenient one-stop schedule for you to ponder. Check it out, and hope to see you at these programs.

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Dolores Costello awaits the big shake-up in 'Old San Francisco' (1927).

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

Manchester (N.H.) Library announces 2015-16 line-up of silent films with live music

Schedule includes the first-ever "werewolf" flick, a drama about time travel, and Hollywood's original "disaster" movie

MANCHESTER, N.H.—Silent film with live music continues at the Manchester City Library with the release of the 2015-16 season schedule.

Upcoming programs include stories of time travel, forbidden romance, airborne border patrol agents, and vintage anti-Communist propaganda.

A highlight of the schedule is Hollywood's first-ever disaster flick: 'Old San Francisco' (1927) from Warner Bros., a drama about racism climaxed by a recreation of the catastrophic 1906 earthquake that destroyed the city.

Another notable title is the first-ever "werewolf" movie: 'Wolf Blood' (1925), an outdoors adventure in which an injured lumber camp boss receives a transfusion of wolf blood and—well, you know.

The films are shown on the first Tuesday of the month in the lower level auditorium of Carpenter Memorial Library, 405 Pine St. in downtown Manchester.

All screenings begin at 6 p.m. The public is welcome and admission is free, with a donation of $5 per person suggested to help defray expenses.

Live music for all screenings is provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

Rapsis, who performs at film festivals and screenings around the country, organizes the Manchester City Library screenings as a way to practice his craft and present seldom-seen silents as they were intended—with live music and with an audience.

The series focuses on obscure movies that may have been popular or notable or significant when first released, but which since have faded into obscurity.

"Rather than celebrated masterpieces, the films we show in Manchester are more typical of what people would find playing at their neighborhood movie house in the first decades of cinema," Rapsis said.

Screening silent films in a theater setting with live music allows their entertainment and cultural value to be enjoyed by modern audiences, Rapsis said. That's true with any vintage motion picture—even those that aren't well-known classics, Rapsis said.

"There's a reason people fell hard for the movies right from the start, and putting the silent film experience back together helps us to experience that same excitement even today, no matter what the specific film is," Rapsis said.

Because some early feature films run less than an hour, the upcoming schedule includes two programs of double features.

Rapsis creates live musical scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer that can reproduce the texture of the full orchestra. The accompaniment is improvised in real time using musical material Rapsis creates beforehand augmented by ideas that occur during the screening.

"Creating a score in real time is kind of a high-wire act, but I think it adds an essential element of spontaneity and excitement to any silent film screening," Rapsis said. "You never know exactly how it's going to turn out."

The 2015-16 silent film schedule at the Manchester City Library through next May (monthly programs except January 2016) is as follows:

• Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, 6 p.m.: 'Wolf Blood' (1925). Get ready for Halloween with this early try at turning the werewolf legend into a movie. An injured lumber camp boss receives a transfusion of wolf blood during an operation, and...well, you can take it from there.

• Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, 2015, 6 p.m: 'My Friend from India' (1927). Dandy Tommy Valentine (Franklin Pangborn) meets and falls for Barbara, the niece of Socialite Bedelia Smith, but fails to learn her name, so he is forced to consult a "Swami mystic." Light-hearted romantic comedy starring a lesser-known star of early cinema who later flourished as a character actor in talkies.

• Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, 6 p.m.: 'The Road to Yesterday' (1925). Bizarre Cecil B. Demille drama about a married couple who find their strained relationship is the result of unhappiness they experienced in past lives; epic tale encompasses a fiery train wreck, flappers, and time travel.

• Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, 6 p.m.: 'Wild Orchids' (1929). Steamy tale of forbidden romance: An older man takes his young wife (Greta Garbo) on a business trip to Java. Aboard ship, she witnesses a wealthy passenger brutally thrashing a servant. The violent man is immediately taken by Garbo's beauty and resolves to meet her.

• Tuesday, March 1, 2016, 6 p.m.: 'Melodrama Double Feature.' Twin bill of classic low budget melodramas: 'Tentacles of the North' (1926) about two ships trapped in the Arctic ice; and 'The Phantom Flyer' (1928) about an airborne border patrol officer who uses his flying skills to save his sweetheart from a band of cattle rustlers.

• Tuesday, April 5, 2016, 6 p.m.: 'Old San Francisco' (1927). Big-budget Warner Bros. historical drama starring Dolores Costello, Warner Oland; story about racial strife in 'Frisco climaxed by a recreation of the city's catastrophic 1906 earthquake. Pioneering film paved the way for all disaster flicks that followed!

• Tuesday, May 3, 2016, 6 p.m.: Scandal! Two Early Potboilers. Double bill of early drama: 'The Cheat' (1915), an early Cecil B. Demille story about financial scandal; plus 'Shattered Dreams' (1919), an anti-Bolshevist tale in which a rich businessman attempts to teach his idealist son a lesson by buying him an island off the coast of Florida to establish a Communist paradise.

• Tuesday, June 7, 2016, 6 p.m.: 'The Rag Man' (1925). Seldom-screened drama in which young Jackie Coogan plays a child who runs away from an orphanage fire and takes refuge with Max, a junk man played by underrated silent comic actor Max Davidson.

The next film in the Manchester City Library's monthly silent film series is 'Wolf Blood' (1925), which will be screened with live music on Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 6 p.m. in the Carpenter Memorial Auditorium, lower level of Manchester City Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.

The program is free and open to the public. A donation of $5 per person is suggested to help defray expenses. For more information about the Manchester City Library, call (603) 624-6550 or visit http://www.manchester.lib.nh.us. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Thoughts on accompanying 4 films in 4 days;
Harry Langdon in Ogunquit on Thursday, 9/17

An original promo sheet for 'The Strong Man' (1926).

Usually I preview upcoming shows here. But with four films in the past four days, that process kind of got away from me, so nothing got posted. Apologies!

So let me say up front: the next silent film program I'm accompanying will be a Harry Langdon's 'The Strong Man' (1926) on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

If you'd like more info, the full press release is tacked to the end of this post.

But now let me recap the what I've been up to since last Thursday before it gets buried by the days ahead.

From 'Hangman's House.: The Emerald Isle or the Weimar Republic?

Thursday, Sept. 10: 'Hangman's House' (1928) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.: Attendance was down in this entry of our monthly series, probably because it was NFL kick-off night featuring Tom Brady's return to the New England Patriots, which is very big news in this part of the planet.

Still, John Ford's last silent film held the screen with its Murnau-inspired visuals, with the action set in a part of Ireland subject to heavy ground fog, apparently. Great to see John Wayne show up as an over-excited villager busting down a fence during a horse race.

'The Cameraman': a film about film itself.

Friday, Sept. 11: 'The Cameraman' (1928) at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.: This one fell together quite effectively, I thought. Above average attendance for Red River, and a film that the audience found hilarious right from the beginning, when Buster Keaton finds his face in the lovely Marceline Day's hair.

I know 'The Cameraman' pretty well now, and so knew to keep the music as light as possible for as long as possible. Only when Keaton tries photographing the chaotic Tong War can you open up, but then you have to bring it right back down again. Thrilled to hear laughter even during the loudest sections of the war. Success!

The silent Tarzan: supply your own jungle yell if you like.

Saturday, Sept. 12: 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' (1927) at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center in Brandon, Vt.: A wealth of pre-show publicity in the local media coupled with a rainy evening led to a record-busting attendance of about 125 people. Nice!

James Bridges as Tarzan got a good reaction, but people seemed more excited by our warm-up feature, 'The Sign of the Claw' (1926), the only surviving feature of second-tier German shepherd star Peter the Great. Hooting and hollering on this one started early, when Peter pulled a hapless toddler from the path of a heavy truck.

From 'The Leaping Fish': the label says it all.

Sunday, Sept. 13: 'The Matrimaniac' (1916) and other films starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass.: More rain helped boost attendance at this program of rarely screened early Fairbanks pictures, which also included 'The Missing Millionaire' (1917) and 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' (1916).

For 'Matrimaniac,' the only full-length feature, reaction was muted, I thought—possibly the effect of having to run the 35mm print at 24 fps, clearly too fast. Looking forward to the Somerville getting the ability to run variable speed when needed on its 35mm Norelcos.

'Millionaire,' a later film that used the same footage from 'Matrimaniac' to tell a completely different story to capitalize on Fairbanks' popularity, was a real treat. Seeing the two movies one after another reminded me of a Michael Frayn farce—or a bit like Keaton's 'Spite Marriage' (1929), where we see scene played completely straight, then see it again as Buster ruins it in increasingly creative ways.

And what can you say about 'Leaping Fish' and its gleeful depiction of drug use? Throughout the film, my accompaniment was augmented by the sound of jaws hitting the floor.

So it was a good four-day run with a variety of films in some vastly different settings.

But I like doing these mini-marathons because by the end, I feel like I have a fluency at the keyboard that allows me to go places I usually can't.

Somehow, the momentum carries me. Either that, or I'm so disoriented I just don't know what the hell I'm doing anymore.

Could be a combination of both!

Okay, here's the press release for the Langdon program later this week. Hope you can make it!

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Harry Langdon in 'The Strong Man' (1926).

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

See Frank Capra's first-ever film at Leavitt Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 17

Harry Langdon's classic silent comedy 'The Strong Man,' directed by a very young Capra, to be shown with live music

OGUNQUIT, Maine — Silent film with live music returns to the big screen at the Leavitt Theatre in September with a showing of an uproarious comedy starring Harry Langdon.

The screening, on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m., will feature Langdon's classic picture 'The Strong Man' (1926).

Helming 'The Strong Man' was young first-time director Frank Capra, who would later go on to create such Hollywood classics as 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1939) and 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946).

Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Admission is $10 per person.

'The Strong Man' tells the story of a World War I soldier (Langdon) who, following his discharge, finds work as assistant to a circus strong man. As the act travels the United States, Langdon continually searches for a girl he corresponded with while stationed overseas in the military.

The search leads to a town controlled by Prohibition-era gangsters, which forces Harry to test the limits of his own inner strength even as he looks for his dream girl. Can Happy triumph over the bad guys? And is love more powerful than brute strength?

The feature-length film showcases the unique child-like personality of Langdon, who is largely forgotten today. For a brief time in the 1920s, however, he rivaled Charlie Chaplin as Hollywood's top movie clown.

Langdon's popularity, which grew quickly in the last years of the silent era, fizzled as the movie business abruptly switched to talkies starting in 1929.

'The Strong Man,' a family-friendly comedy, was was selected in 2007 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Harry Langdon experiences temptation in 'The Strong Man' (1926).

In recent years, 'The Strong Man' has been recognized as a major achievement of the silent film era—a satisfying and timeless balance of emotion and comedy.

"A little tragedy and a lot of laughs can be seen in 1926's The Strong Man," wrote critic Richard von Busack in 2007. "Director Frank Capra's energy and sturdy plot sense counterpoint Langdon's wonderful strangeness."

'The Strong Man' will be accompanied by live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who performs at venues across the region and beyond.

"These films were created to be shown on the big screen as a sort of communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life in the way their makers intended them to.

"So the Leavitt's silent film screenings are a great chance for people to experience films that first caused people to first fall in love with the movies," he said.

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

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

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

Upcoming shows in this year's series include:

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

'The Strong Man' (1926) will be screened with live music on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theater, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine. Admission $10. For more information, call (207) 646-3123 or visit www.leavittheatre.com.

For info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Frank Capra's 'The Strong Man' will be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theater, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine. Admission $10. For more information, call (207) 646-3123 or visit www.leavittheatre.com.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Tonight: John Ford's silent 'Hangman's House'
at Flying Monkey theater in Plymouth, N.H.

Okay, here's one I've been looking forward to.

Tonight (Thursday, Sept. 10) our monthly silent film series in Plymouth, N.H. takes a turn for the dramatic with 'Hangman's House' (1928).

It's the final silent film from young director named John Ford, who would go on to win four Academy Awards for his later work.

'Hangman's House' isn't regarded a masterpiece. But that's what I find exciting about it.

Unencumbered by legend or expectations, it's a picture that simply shows silent film at the top of its expressive power.

To me, it's a prime example of how filmmakers had learned how to naturally use the motion picture medium to tell a story visually, and for maximum effect.

And it helped that German director F.W. Murnau had come to Hollywood to make 'Sunrise' at Fox studios at the same time Ford was working there.

'Sunrise,' widely regarded as one of the most beautiful pictures of any era, set new standards for what a silent film could look like.

'Hangman's House,' set in Ireland, shows Murnau's influence in the scenes played out amid the ground-hugging fog and shadows.

A fireplace becomes a window into terrifying visions for a dying judge in 'Hangman's House.'

There's also a terrific visual fluidity to 'Hangman's House.' Although the story proceeds naturally, Ford is able to weave in vivid fantasy images that show the inner feelings of characters and underscore the drama.

'Hangman's House' is one of those late silents that came and went quickly, released when talking pictures were already the rage.

At the time, I think few people appreciated how absorbing even a non-masterpiece silent could be.

So it's a special pleasure to present a film such as 'Hangman's House' to audiences today. Uncorked after all these years, it's a time-capsule of drama that plays just as strongly as when it was new—perhaps even more so, because silent film is such an unusual experience for modern audiences.

People are often surprised to find a well-made movie with all the techniques of silent film story-telling at its disposal, and a director who knew how to use them.

And I'm so pleased to do accompaniment that I hope helps facilitate this discovery. The music will definitely be of the "less is more" school, with just a hint of Irish coloring.

Another attraction of 'Hangman's House' is that it includes one of the earliest on-camera appearances by a clearly identifiable John Wayne.

There he is!

Wayne shows up in a crowd of lively villagers watching a horse race. The Duke's response is so exuberant that he destroys the fence holding back the crowd!

It's a perfect cameo for Wayne, who indeed would not be held back. He'd later work with Ford on 14 major motion pictures, including classics such as 'Stagecoach' (1939) and 'The Searchers' (1956).

One major Ford/Wayne collaboration would be 'The Quiet Man' (1952), taking the pair back full circle to a story set in Ireland.

So join us tonight for a rarely screened movie that you may never have heard of—but which you surely won't forget.

Showtime is 6:30 p.m., so you'll be out in time for the Patriots kick-off.

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

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

Silent drama 'Hangman's House' with live music at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Sept. 10

Early John Ford horse-racing story set in Ireland features prominent cameo by very young John Wayne

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—The silent film era returns to the big screen at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center with a showing of 'Hangman's House' (1928), a classic silent drama accompanied by live music.

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

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

Set in Ireland, 'Hangman's House' follows wanted man Denis Hogan (Victor McLaglen) who returns in disguise to his Irish homeland to seek revenge.

Once back, he becomes embroiled in an intense romantic drama involving a local judge (Hobart Bosworth), his daughter (June Collyer), a forced marriage and surprising revelations about his own sister.

The film is highlighted by a high-stakes horse race. Among the spectactors is a very young John Wayne, clearly visible as an extra who gets so excited he single-handedly destroys a fence.

The story culminates in a spectacular fire sequence that mesmerized the film's original audiences and still maintains its power today.

'Hangman's House' is praised for taut story-telling and evocative camerawork. Ford returned to Ireland as a setting in his later film 'The Quiet Man' (1952), this time starring John Wayne.

The screening of 'Hangman's House' is the latest in the Flying Monkey's monthly series of great silent films shown on the big screen with live music.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will improvise an original musical score for 'Hangman's House' live as the film is shown.

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

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

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

But movies of all types 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.

‘Hangman's House’ (1928), a classic silent drama directed by John Ford, will be shown with live music on Thursday, Sept. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth. Admission $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com. For more on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Labor Day over, now back to work:
Accompanying five shows in six days

Gloria Swanson stars in 'Sadie Thompson' (1928), screening tonight (Tuesday, Sept. 8) at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library.

The silent film calendar was rather light as August turned into September. And I'm not complaining.

But that's over now. The next six days bring five very different programs to accompany: drama, comedy, jungle action, and more.

And this week's mini-marathon is capped by an unusual Douglas Fairbanks double feature in which footage from one of his early comedies was reedited into a new film that tells an entirely different story!

I'll post info here about the screenings as they come up. Or check out the "Upcoming Silent Film Screenings" link at upper right.

Beyond this, I'm looking forward to a busy performance calendar this fall, with a packed schedule of Halloween shows followed in November by an appearance at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in California.

In December, I head to Cincinnati for a program on Thursday, Dec. 10 at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center, where I last performed in 2013.

And on the way back, I'll make my international debut on Sunday, Dec. 13 at the Revue Cinema in Toronto, Canada.

To prepare for these high-profile gigs, I'm working on pushing my keyboard technique up a notch.

So I've recommitted to playing the Hanon technical exercises on a regular basis, plus a few of my own invention.

The goal remains to develop more fluency getting around the keyboard, and imagining and making music without necessarily looking down at the keys, which helps in accompaniment.

Also on the improvement program is good old Beethoven.

Recently, I realized a long-standing ambition when I got hold of the Liszt piano transcriptions of Beethoven's nine symphonies.

So I'm slowing playing through them in order, and it's been a real rush to experience this familiar music and bring it to life in this way.

Basically, each day I work through a movement at a very slow speed (sight-reading has never been my strength) and note any harmonies or progressions that are surprising or instructive.

That way I push my keyboard technique, but also absorb some of Beethoven's moves for later use.

Raoul Walsh and Gloria Swanson in 'Sadie Thompson' (1928)

We'll see if any of this makes a difference with tonight's screening of 'Sadie Thompson' (1928) at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library.

It's Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore doing battle in the steamy tropics, so it helps that we're in the middle of a September heat wave in our part of the world.

'Sadie Thompson' is missing its final reel, but I think that actually adds to the experience.

To me, it seems as if the conflict between Swanson and Barrymore gets so intense that film just can't contain it any longer.

Instead, we're left with a reconstruction of stills and descriptions that leave the climax up to our own imaginations, making it potentially more personal and powerful than anything a filmmaker could put on the screen.

So it's an unusual form of narrative: a traditional film until the final reel, and then the audience is required to imagine the action based on a general outline.

There's a certain primal power in this approach. I recall Hitchcock saying that it was more terrifying to let something nasty happen offscreen, because people's imaginations would always make it worse than any filmmaker could show. There's something about that in the way 'Sadie Thompson' must now be shown, with its last reel missing.

So 'Sadie Thompson' is in the same category as, say, the Venus de Milo, or Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony.' They're great works of art that achieve perhaps a higher form greatness by virtue of their being incomplete.

Maybe that's a principle that I can apply to writing blog posts. Maybe what I write will be that much better if I fail to