Tuesday, January 15, 2019

To France, or China, or Manchester, N.H.: Silent film, live music restarts this weekend

Scoring 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927) on Saturday, Jan. 19 at the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Mass.

I'm back.

After a quiet period over the holidays, the silent film performance calendar cranks up again this weekend with three shows in three days:

• On Friday, Jan. 18, it's a George Méliès program at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Mass. with my fellow silent film accompanist (and world-reknowned guitar-tist) Paul Bielatowicz.

The screening, which we put together just in the past two weeks, starts at 7:30 p.m. It's part of the Belmont International Film Festival.

I'm really looking forward to working with Paul B. again. I first encountered him exactly a year ago at the same theater, and we've been keeping track of each other ever since.

Paul doing his thing.

Paul specializes in Méliès films, and his guitar-based approach to accompaniment is very different from mine. But it's great stuff that he does and well worth hearing live.

Also, Paul is usually touring the world. For example: all February, he'll be criss-crossing Europe with Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy band.

So a chance to hear him close to home is not to be missed!

• On Saturday, Jan. 19, the sailing ship drama 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927) embarks from the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Mass., with music by me.

This should be fun because it's a grand picture in a real cool museum in a building—one designed by the same guy who built the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C., which is on the back of all U.S. $10 bills.

It's a great audience flick and always gets a strong reaction. More details and info in the press release below.

• An on Sunday, Jan. 20, the local chapter of the Sons of the Desert (the Laurel & Hardy appreciation society) in Manchester, N.H. celebrates Mr. Hardy's birthday (which is Jan. 18) with a varied film program, including silent titles with live music by you-know-who.

The program is free and all are welcome to attend. The program begins at 4:30 p.m. at the Southside Tavern, 1279 South Willow St., Manchester, N.H.

So, back to the keyboard. Here's another nice weekend (really!) I've gotten myself into: one filled with music and sailing ships and Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.

Last weekend had some Laurel and Hardy in it as well, as I was able to catch 'Stan & Ollie,' the new biopic about the duo's later years.

I saw it in London, where it opened last Friday amid a ton of local promotion: on billboard, on London buses, in the Underground, you name it!

Yes, even in the Underground.

Well, it worked with me. I was going to wait until getting back to the States. But after absorbing all the news coverage the film was getting, I had take the plunge. (At 16 pounds a ticket, it was more like a swan dive.)

But I'm glad I did, as this is a film that film lovers can really love.

I accepted 'Stan & Ollie' fully and completely from the opening moment, when we first hear a funny scraping sound and it turns out to be Stan sawing off the heel of his shoe, as he did in real life.

Dominating the Odeon in Leicester Square.

After that, I was totally, completely absorbed for the duration of the picture. And I was quite moved to see the lives of two performers I've loved since childhood be the basis for such a warm, wonderful story.

It was a movie I didn't know I'd waited 45 years to see.

I encourage you to see it too, and in a movie theater, if you can find one running it. The U.S. release has been tiny compared to what I saw in the U.K., where I understand it was No. 2 at the box office last weekend.

As for this weekend: well, if you'd like to come to one of my screenings, you can choose between France (Méliès), China ('The Yankee Clipper') and Laurel and Hardy in Manchester, N.H.

If sailing ships are your thing, you won't find a better film than 'Yankee Clipper,' which I'm accompanying on Saturday night at the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Mass. Details in the press release below. Hope to see you there!

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On board the 'Yankee Clipper' (1927), starring (and captained by) William Boyd, at right.

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

'Yankee Clipper' silent drama with live music Saturday, Jan. 19 at Custom House Maritime Museum

Set sail with action-packed high seas adventure during era of 19th century clipper ships

NEWBURYPORT, Mass.—The era when wind-powered ships ruled the seas comes to life on the silver screen in 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927), a nautical adventure film to be shown on Saturday, Jan. 19 at at the Custom House Maritime Museum, 25 Water St., Newburyport, Mass.

The silent drama, starring a young William Boyd and filmed at sea aboard authentic 19th century vessels, will be screened with live music performed by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

Showtime is 6 p.m. Admission is $20 per person for museum members, $25 for non-members, with all proceeds to benefit the Custom House Maritime Museum.

Produced by Cecil B. DeMille and directed by Rupert Julian ('Phantom of the Opera'), 'The Yankee Clipper' set new standards for historical adventure when it was released in 1927.

The film takes place in the 1840s, during a period of intense rivalry between British and American sailing captains to win lucrative trade routes between China and the U.S.

As 'The Yankee Clipper' opens, Captain Winslow (William Boyd) takes a revolutionary new clipper ship, built by his father, on its first voyage from America to the Orient.

While in China, Winslow attends a dinner hosted by a wealthy Chinese merchant and rescues English maiden Lady Jocelyn Huntington (Elinor Fair) from rioting beggars.

Winslow agrees to a race from China to Boston against an English clipper ship, with the fastest vessel to be awarded an important tea contract.

To win, the ships must brave dangerous seas, mutiny, and potential sabotage on board. Romance enters the picture when Lady Jocelyn inadvertently winds up on board the American ship.

The cast features a very young William Boyd in the leading role. Boyd, a popular actor in silent films, would go on to gain fame in later years by playing the character sidekick role of "Hopalong Cassidy" in many Hollywood Westerns. Also, at the time the film was made, female lead Elinor Fair was married to producer Cecil B. DeMille.

The film also features actor Walter Long as Portuguese Joe, a ship's crew member.

Long, a native of Milford, N.H., was a popular character actor with an extensive career in early cinema that ranged from an appearance in D.W. Griffith's epic 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) all the way to playing the heavy in Laurel & Hardy comedies much later.

Critics today hail 'The Yankee Clipper' as a masterful drama from the height of the silent film era, one imbued with a great sense of authenticity and historical accuracy. The production filmed on location at sea for six weeks aboard the 1856 wooden square-rigger 'Indiana.'

Leonard Maltin called 'The Yankee Clipper' a "splendid 19th-century seagoing adventure, as clipper ships race full-sail from China to Boston to earn a coveted tea trade contract. En route: typhoon! No fresh water! Mutiny! And a woman on board! Realistic yet heightened drama has it all."

Music for 'The Yankee Clipper' will be created live by Jeff Rapsis, who specializes in improvising scores to classic silent films in live performance. For each film, Rapsis will improvise a score from original musical material that he creates beforehand, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of a full orchestra.

"What I try to do," Rapsis said, "is create music that bridges the gap between a film that might be 80 or 90 years old, and the musical expectations of today's audiences."

The Custom House Maritime Museum is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization operated by the Newburyport Maritime Society, whose mission is to protect, preserve and interpret the maritime heritage of the lower Merrimack Valley region and how it relates to American history.

'The Yankee Clipper' will be shown on Saturday, Jan. 19 at 6 p.m. at the Custom House Maritime Museum, 25 Water St., Newburyport, Mass. Admission is $20 for members, $25 for non-members, with all proceeds to benefit the Custom House Maritime Museum. For more information and to buy tickets online, visit www.customhousemaritimemuseum.org, or call (978) 462-8681.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Why isn't this film more highly regarded? Thoughts on Griffith's 'Hearts of the World'

Sheet music to go with D.W. Griffith's WWI drama 'Hearts of the World' (1918).


That's the reaction of an audience of about 70 people to 'Hearts of the World' (1918), a seldom-screened D.W. Griffith drama that I accompanied yesterday at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

The picture really blew our collective socks off. Really! Like Griffith's other pictures fro the same time, it held the screen and then some. And having both Gish sisters, Lillian AND Dorothy, in major roles, didn't hurt.

Again: Wow!

And an added element of edge-of-your-seat suspense came when I previewed the film just prior to the screening, and the disc we were using (the only one I had) began freezing and pixellating in the climactic final 15 minutes. Youch!

I found I could get it to run in a Blu-ray machine rather than the old DVD player I use in my office, but still... At the theater, we really didn't know if the movie would play all the way through, but it did, adding an extra note of triumph.

So one more time: Wow!

I was wondering if 'Hearts of the World' would work 100 years after its release, and the answer was a resounding YES. It's cut from the same cloth as Griffith's other big melodramas: a story that hooks an audience early, intense emotional confrontations, a thrilling race-to-the-finish climax, and scenes of Lillian Gish losing her mind.

Robert Harron prepares to shoot his sweetheart, Lillian Gish, rather than allow her to fall into the hands of the Huns, in 'Hearts of the World.'

As with most of the early Griffith features, it took time to really get going. But once underway, the two-hour picture (short for Griffith at this time) played like a house afire. Our audience applauded, cheered, and reacted strongly throughout.

So the question is: why isn't this film more highly regarded? Why isn't it better known? Griffith made it right after 'Birth of a Nation' (1915) and Intolerance (1916), and just before 'Broken Blossoms' (1919) and 'Way Down East' (1920), all acknowledged as among his greatest achievements.

I'd have to guess that it's partly due to the reputation of 'Hearts of the World' as a propaganda film. And true, it WAS made at the request of the British government, which allowed Griffith access to the front lines in France. And it's true, the Germans are portrayed as animals, but that's no different from the heavies in other Griffith melodramas.

Also, from what I've read, good and complete prints of the film have been hard to come by. (The version we used, which seemed to be complete, was a transfer of a 16mm print to DVD by Grapevine Video of Phoenix, Ariz.)

But now, a full century after its release, maybe it's time to reassess 'Hearts of the World.' Maybe it's time to move beyond the textbooks (which largely ignore 'Hearts' anyway) and give it credit for being a prime example of Griffith during his peak as an influential director.

I'd never encountered it before. And at yesterday's screening, I asked for a show of hands from those who'd already seen it. Not one!

So to our fresh eyes, the film was able to make a very strong impression. Griffith's knowledge of how to structure a story and manipulate the collective emotions of an audience was very much in evidence.

Also, it was another example of how difficult it is to know how a silent film will play unless you screen it the way it was intended to be shown: in a theater, on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The British connection: D.W. Griffith greeted by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

So, rediscovery? Well, not solely on the basis of one very successful screening in a small theater in rural New Hampshire, even though quite a few people came up to afterwards to say how much they enjoyed the experience.

But I have to say, I would say 'Hearts of the World' holds its own against any of the other big Griffith blockbusters of the era. It has all the ingredients in place to pull along an audience with an inevitability not unlike the ice floe in 'Way Down East' that carries Lillian Gish to the waterfall.

If you get a chance to see it in a theater, do so! Just make sure the disc gets checked before the show.

This is my final post of 2018, so let me extend thanks to all whom I've encountered this year in the ongoing adventure of creating live music for screenings of silent films.

Looking forward to a 2019 filled with further discoveries as I continue collaborating with people both dead and alive. (Cue the joke about sometimes not being to tell the difference. Har!)

Even as we move further in time from the era when cinema did not include a recorded soundtrack or dialogue, interest in the films from that time continues to persist, and even seems to be growing.

So thank you to all who play a role in supporting and enjoying the art of silent film with live music.

See you next year!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Ending 2018 with 'Hearts of the World,'
D.W. Griffith's rarely screened WWI drama

Propoganda or good old-fashioned melodrama? Or both? You decide!

Back online after several weeks of radio silence. The holidays, you know? And lots of other non-musical things going on.

I'll be back at the keyboard in late January with a performing schedule that includes silent film screenings in Topeka, London, and possibly Berlin, Germany.

But I do have one end-of-the-year gig coming up this weekend: it's D.W. Griffith's 'Hearts of the World' (1918), a rarely screened drama that I'm accompanying on Sunday, Dec. 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in beautiful downtown Wilton, N.H.

I'm curious about this film, which I've never worked with before. It's right from the middle of Griffith's most period of work: before it came 'Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Intolerance' (1916); after it came 'Broken Blossoms' (1919) and 'Way Down East' (1920).

So what about 'Hearts of the World?' Why is it so little known? Why is it so little shown? (I sound like Dr. Seuss!)

I gather a major reason is that it's viewed as a "propaganda" film. And it's true—Griffith made the movie at the invitation of the British government, and it portrays Germans (the enemy!) in the worst possible light.

But I have this theory about Griffith that makes me curious about 'Hearts of the World.'

Griffith is regarded as a cinematic pioneer, and rightly so. Bringing length and depth to the American motion picture, his best films (including those above) caused tremendous excitement. More than anyone, he opened people's eyes to the possibilities of this new art form.

D.W. Griffith on set with child, hat, and megaphone.

But too often, the emphasis is on Griffith's technical achievements: his editing, his camera placement, and so on.

These are important, but I don't think they're the major reason for Griffith's impact.

What really mattered with Griffith was his ability to construct a story to hook an audience early, and then never let go.

That was Griffith's genius. You HAD to see what happened next. That's what sold tickets. More than anything else, that's what made his films so influential.

And I've seen it happen again and again. A creaky old melodrama like 'Way Down East' seems almost laughable when viewed alone.

But put it in front of an audience (which is how it was intended to be shown) and add music, and even today it snaps back to life.

People are on the edge of their seats as the story carries them along with the same inevitability of the ice floe carrying Lillian Gish to the waterfall.

Because of his prior experience directing melodrama in small town theatres, Griffith knew in his bones how to grab and audience and keep its attention.

And he had to, because if he didn't, people would throw things, or worse. Story-telling mattered.

That talent to hook an audience is a major part of what Griffith brought to the motion picture, and so I'm curious how it applies to 'Hearts of the World.'

Despite its reputation as a propaganda piece, will the story grab us and carry us along? Will the classic Griffith touch be in evidence?

There's only one way to find out, and that's to do what's rarely done: run the picture with live music in theater with an audience.

And that's where you come in. Join us for a screening of 'Hearts of the World' on Sunday, Dec. 30 at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

More details in the press release below.

And Happy New Year!

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A scene from D.W. Griffith's 'Hearts of the World' (1918).

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

Rarely screened D.W. Griffith drama to run Sunday, Dec. 30 at Town Hall Theatre

'Hearts of the World' (1918), starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish and with scenes filmed on live battlefields, to be presented with live music

WILTON, N.H.—A century-old war drama with scenes shot on location in the actual trenches of World War I is coming to the Town Hall Theatre.

'Hearts of the World' (1918), directed by D.W. Griffith for the British government, will be shown on Sunday, Dec. 30 at 4:30 p.m.

The program will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to help defray expenses.

'Hearts of the World' stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish, sisters who were among the most popular screen actresses of the era.

The film is also noteworthy due to its ties to Britain's World War I effort.

In an effort to change the American public's neutral stance regarding the war, in 1916 the British government contacted Griffith due to his stature and reputation for dramatic filmmaking.

Griffith and several members of his company traveled from Hollywood to Europe, where the war had been raging for three years, to film 'Hearts of the World' on location in England and France.

Set in France, 'Hearts of the World' tells the story of a young American man, Douglas Gordon Hamilton (Robert Harron), who lives in a rural French community and is love with local woman Marie Stephenson (Lillian Gish).

But their romance is interrupted when World War I dawns, and Douglas decides to join up with the French Army.

The Germans then mercilessly bomb and infiltrate Marie's village, and Douglas is injured in battle. As lecherous German soldiers close in on Marie, a recovering Douglas plans a daring rescue.

The early scenes are stolen by Dorothy Gish as "The Little Disturber," a mademoiselle of questionable morals who wreaks comic havoc with the allied troops.

Dorothy Gish steals a scene in 'Hearts of the World' (1918).

The film, Griffith's third feature-length film after 'Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Intolerance' (1916), deliberately portrays Germans as cruel and viscious war-mongers.

According to his biographer, Griffith's idea for the story came from reading a December 1915 account of French families driven from their homes by the war.

He began formulating an idea for a movie soon after, working on it in the evenings after the daytime filming of 'Intolerance.'

Once in England, Griffith made the rounds, meeting with members of the British War Office and conferring with famous writers such as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who supposedly agreed that his best contribution to the war might be "a drama of humanity photographed in the battle area."

To make 'Hearts of the World,' The British Government gave D.W. Griffith unprecedented access to locations that were otherwise restricted from journalists.

Exterior shots were largely filmed throughout England from May to October 1917. Griffith made two trips to France where he filmed footage of the trenches.

In one instance, Griffith and his film crew were forced to take cover when their location came under German artillery fire; he escaped unscathed.

The film company then returned to Los Angeles, where British and Canadian troops recreated battle scenes and other interior scenes on a stage. The scenes shot in Europe and Los Angeles were edited together with footage from stock newsreels.

On April 6, 1917, events overtook 'Hearts of the World' when the U.S. entered the war while the picture was still in production.

The completed film was released in March 1918, where it found box office success until the war ended with the Armistice of Nov. 11, 2018.

After that, the public appetite for war films fell off drastically, ending the run of 'Hearts of the World.'

In reviving 'Hearts of the World,' the Town Hall Theatre aims to show silent movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score during the screening.

"Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early cinema leap back to life. They all featured great stories with compelling characters and universal appeal, so it's no surprise that they hold up and we still respond to them."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Upcoming programs in the Town Hall's silent film series include:

• Sunday, Jan. 27, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Last of the Mohicans' (1922). The original big-screen adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's tale about colonial settlers among the Native Americans during the French and Indian War.

• Sunday, Feb. 10, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Eagle' (1925). Rudolph Valentino's comeback film is a rousing romp set in Imperial Russia. See the silent screen idol as a soldier who catches the eye of the Czarina, only to desert his platoon when trouble brews back home.

‘Hearts of the World' will be shown on Sunday, Dec. 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 person to defray expenses.

For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com.

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).

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.

* * *

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.


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!?