Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Saturday, Oct. 18 in Brandon, Vt.:
Lon Chaney 'Chiller Theater' double feature

Lon Chaney relaxes with a cigarette and Joan Crawford in 'The Unknown' (1927).

A Lon Chaney double feature? Halloween can't be far behind.

And yes, the Chaney double feature this Saturday up in Brandon, Vt. is a great way to get in the mood for getting scared.

After all, if Halloween is about costumes, then Chaney, dubbed "the Man of 1,000 Faces" for his pioneering make-up wizardry, ought to rank as a patron saint of sorts.

Weirdly, the two films on the program are not ones in which Chaney obscures his face with some ghoulish get-up, such as he did so famously in 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925).

Instead, in the 'Unknown' (1927), Chaney is forced to cope with the disfigurement not of his face, but of another vital part of his body.

And in 'The Unholy Three,' Chaney does dress up as someone else, but it's a kindly grandmother!

I don't want to give away too much more about either film. If you're curious, the press release below has a bit more info.

Small, medium, large: humans come in all sizes in Chaney pictures such as 'The Unholy Three.'

But it's worth pointing out that as the years pass, the Chaney films seem to get more twisted and surprising. In other words, they're aging well.

In presenting them to modern audiences, I continually find people surprised at how intense these films can be as they explore the dark side of obsession, passion, and the grotesque.

At its best, silent film is about big emotions. And in many ways, no one worked on a larger emotional scale than Chaney.

See for yourself at our double feature this weekend up in Vermont.

As an added incentive, each Chaney film includes a big-name co-star. 'The Unknown' features Joan Crawford in an early role, while 'The Unholy Three' has Australian actress Mae Busch, who later achieved immortality as a colorful female nemesis of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Not enough? I'm doing an additional Chaney program on Sunday, Oct. 26 in Wilton, N.H. that includes 'West of Zanzibar' (1927), in which Chaney plays another variation "disfigured man obsessed with revenge" theme.

More on that next week. For now, here's the press release about the Chaney program on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Community Center in Brandon, Vt.

See you there—unless you come in costume as the Invisible Man.

* * *

A vintage poster for 'The Unknown' (1927) starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film 'Chiller Theatre' at Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall on Saturday, Oct. 18

Double feature of creepy Lon Chaney movies to be shown on the big screen with live music

BRANDON, Vt.—Get into the Halloween spirit with classic silent horror films starring legendary actor Lon Chaney!

Two movies starring Chaney, 'The Unknown' (1927) and 'The Unholy Three' (1925), make up a creepy double feature at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt. on Saturday, Oct. 18.

The program starts at 7 p.m. and will feature live accompaniment by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis.

Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of Brandon Town Hall.

The event is being dubbed "Chiller Theatre" due to the building's lack of a heating system. Organizers ask attendees to check the weather and bring along sweaters and blankets if a cold evening is anticipated.

'The Unknown' (1927) features Chaney as "Alonzo the Armless," a circus knife-thrower with a dark past who uses his feet to perform his act. The film co-stars a very young Joan Crawford.

In 'The Unholy Three' (1925), Chaney plays a sideshow ventriloquist who joins forces with a midget and a circus strongman to unleash a crime spree on an unsuspecting town, with unexpected consequences.

Both films were produced by MGM and directed by Tod Browning, who specialized in exploring the dark and creepy side of circus life. Browning's career later culminated with his bizarre early talkie film 'Freaks' (1932), starring a cast of deformed carnival performers.

Lon Chaney is today regarded as one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema, renowned for his characterizations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with makeup.

Chaney remains famous for his starring roles in such silent horror films as 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925). His ability to transform himself using makeup techniques he developed earned him the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces."

But Chaney starred in dozens of other films throughout the silent era, many of them aimed at the growing appetite among movie audiences for the strange, macabre, or downright weird.

In 'The Unknown,' Chaney's character "Alonzo the Armless" is indeed without both arms. This forces him to use his feet to perform tasks that range from throwing knives in his circus act to smoking a cigarette. In one scene, Chaney uses his feet to strum a guitar.

'The Unholy Three' requires Chaney to play a ventriloquist—an unusual role for a film without dialogue. But the plot then requires Chaney to transform himself into a kindly old grandmother for portions of the movie.

A vintage poster for 'The Unholy Three' (1925).

To modern viewers, the passage of time has made these unusual films seem even more strange and otherworldly.

It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will try to enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screenings.

"Many of the Lon Chaney features seem to get creepier as more time goes by," said Rapsis, who is based in New Hampshire and ranks as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. "Today, they're a great way to celebrate Halloween and the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places."

The screening—the final installment of the Brandon Town Hall's 2014 Silent Film Series—is sponsored by Lake Sunapee Bank.

Both films are suitable for all family members, but the overall program may be too much for very young children to enjoy.

Modern critics say 'The Unknown' still packs a powerful cinematic punch.

The film "...revels in the seedy circus life, and creates some incredible set pieces, from Chaney's knife-throwing act to a sinister, cavernous doctor's lab,” wrote Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid.

And 'The Unholy Three' continues to be recognized as among Chaney's best work.

"One of Lon Chaney's best movies and biggest hits, about a trio of sideshow 'freaks' who become criminals to get revenge on 'normal' society," wrote TV Guide.

All movies in the Brandon Town Hall's silent film series were popular when first seen by audiences in the 1920s, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best. They were not made to be shown in the home. To revive them, organizers aim to show the films as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and before a live audience.

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

'The Unknown’ (1927) and 'The Unholy Three' (1925) will be shown on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7 in Brandon, Vt. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of the town hall. For more information, visit

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Next at Harvard: 'The Big Parade' (1925)
on Wednesday, Oct. 15; public welcome

A colorful vintage poster for 'The Big Parade' (1925), one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era.

Just a quick note here ahead of a screening coming up of an unusually good silent drama.

Tomorrow night (Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m.) I'll be at the keyboard for 'The Big Parade' (1925), MGM's blockbuster drama about U.S. doughboys who brashly head off to fight in World War I, only to return changed forever—if they return at all, that is.

We're running 35mm print of the flick in Harvard University's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, which is between Quincy Street and Prescott Street in Cambridge, Mass., just outside Harvard Yard proper. (It's a short walk from the Harvard Square T Station.)

Although the screening is for a class, it's open to the public. And it's free! So if you're within traveling distance, it's a great chance to take in one of the top silents in an actual theater with live music and an audience. (And in 35mm, too!)

It's especially good value, because with 'The Big Parade,' I think you actually get two motion pictures, not one.

King Vidor filmed the first 90 minutes of so of 'The Big Parade' as if it was a standard "join the army" drama, with John Gilbert and his buddies going off to rural France and making light-hearted ooh-la-la with the ladies. You almost expect Constance Talmadge to show up, fleeing the likes of Ronald Colman.

How's this for a meet-cute? Renee Adoree has John Gilbert over a barrel, so to speak, in 'The Big Parade' (1925).

But the mood shifts dramatically for the film's final hour. (Yes, the whole thing runs about 2½ hours long.)

I don't want to get into enough detail to spoil things. But I think a big part of the film's emotional impact is that Vidor first takes enough time to allow us to get to know the characters, and for them to get to know each other, before everything changes.

And so our emotions are fully vested when the characters are suddenly put into the unknown territory that makes up the balance of the film.

We can't not watch. We can't not care. And it makes for some powerfully effective cinema, I think.

A scene from later in 'The Big Parade' (1925).

It also makes for an interesting accompaniment challenge. No matter what happens in the first part, you need to hold back so you have some place to go to as things escalate.

To ensure this happens, I'm thinking of deliberately keeping things set at a "chamber orchestra" level during the first part, holding the full orchestra in reserve until it's really justified.

As an incentive, I try to keep in mind that audiences at the time this film was released had really never seen anything like what Vidor depicted on the screen, and many were quite shocked.

Nowadays, of course, we've seen it all, which tends to blunt the impact of what might have been mesmerizing movies were new. But music, if done a certain way, can help the film retain the dramatic punch that I believe Vidor was going for.

Will I be able to pull it off? Find out by joining'The Big Parade' down at "Hah-vad" tomorrow night!

And after this, it's non-stop Halloween screenings until the first weekend of November, starting with a Lon Chaney "Chiller Theatre" double feature up at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt. on Saturday, Oct. 18.

It's "Chiller Theatre," by the way, because the building has no heat. But more on that later this week...

Monday, October 6, 2014

'Chicago' (1927) at Flying Monkey
on Thursday, Oct. 9—and not all that jazz

A wild poster that captures the film's flamboyant spirit, I think.

Somewhat ironically, the biggest challenge in accompanying the silent movie version of 'Chicago' (1927) is an on-screen player piano.

But yes. In the film—being screened on Thursday, Oct. 9 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.—several scenes of violence take place in a room where a player piano is clanging away at some up-tempo tune.

So how to handle that in creating music for the film?

It's a tougher question that you might realize, as music in silent film does not merely serve to illustrate what's happening on screen, or even just to set a mood.

The way I do it, anyway, I've found music can help an audience read a silent film more readily. In other words, music can help an audience understand what's significant as it passes by in front of them.

What I mean is that for most people, silent film is not an everyday experience. Today, we're used to movies (and television, and everything else) that come with everything: sound, color, snappy dialogue, the works.

By necessity, silent film emphasized the visual aspect of motion pictures. The spoken word, and particularly tone of voice, wasn't available to help communicate important shifts of mood that signal to an audience that something important has just happened, making it easy to follow a story.

It's kind of like the difference between a phone conversation and an e-mail. As anyone in today's world knows, because e-mail lacks all-important tone of voice, a friendly note or comment can sometimes be interpreted as angry by the receiver. Hence the development of emoticons. :)

And because of that, an audience at a silent film needs to pay attention to the screen closely to keep up. Miss that raised eyebrow of Buster Keaton, and you might miss a shift in attitude that's just been communicated. And then you might not quite get what happens in the next scene.

I've found that music can help a modern audience stay with a film from another era. It can provide signals that help validate what we're experiencing in this now-arcane art form. Did what I just see have any real importance? It must have, because the music changed.

So what does this have to do with a player piano in 'Chicago?'

Well, if I just crank up the old pianola sound while the instrument is playing, I risk trivializing the importance of the on-screen violence or miscue the audience about its significance. And thus I would undercut a lot of the dramatic impact of the movie yet to come. "He's playing old-time piano ragtime, so what I saw can't be that serious."

On the other hand, if I do my job really well with the music, the player piano might somehow be able to communicate the sheer insanity of what's happening on screen. People are literate enough, in terms of film music, I think, to recognize irony when they see it, or hear it.

Because the player piano is featured so prominently in the scenes, including close-ups of the keys going up and down in ghostly fashion—it's clear the filmmakers wanted it to be emphasized. Still, I'm wondering how accompanists of 1927 handled this.

Another problem is audience expectations. With the Kander and Ebb stage musical version of 'Chicago' continuing to take the world by storm, I'm sure some people will expect to hear tunes from that woven into our screening.

Generally, I agree with accompanists who feel that when you insert a recognizable tune into silent film music, it causes the audience to think, "Oh, I know that tune," and thus interrupts the spell that a good silent film creates.

So sorry, but there won't be any "All That Jazz" in Thursday night's screening.

If you'd like to see how it all turns out, please join us for this terrific melodrama. More info on the film and the screening is pasted in below:

* * *

Phyllis Haver has more than one weapon in 'Chicago' (1927), and she's not afraid to use either of them.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Original silent film version of 'Chicago' to screen Thursday, Oct. 9 at Flying Monkey

Popular jazz-age melodrama, long thought lost but recently rediscovered, to be shown on the big screen with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—Long before it became a long-running Broadway musical and then 2002's Best Picture, the story of 'Chicago' first achieved worldwide fame as hit silent film.

Noted for its cynical humor and adult themes, early movie-goers loved how the original 'Chicago' captured the anything-goes flavor of the jazz age at its height.

See for yourself when the original 1927 screen version of 'Chicago' is screened at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center on Thursday, Oct. 9 at 6:30 p.m.

The program, the latest in the theater's silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

'Chicago' tells the jazz age story of gold digger Roxie Hart, a young wife who guns down her older lover and is then put on trial for murder.

With Roxie represented by a publicity-hungry lawyer, and with prosecution the hands of an ambitious district attorney, the courtroom drama hits the spotlight and scandalizes the country as the nation awaits an answer to the question: Is she innocent, or headed for the slammer?

The silent film version of 'Chicago,' based on a hit 1926 stage play, was for many years thought to be one of the many silent films that were completely lost, with no copies surviving in any archive. But in 2006, a pristine original print of the film was discovered in the archives of iconic director Cecil B. DeMille, who supervised its production.

DeMille personally supervised the shooting of 'Chicago,' but refused to take directorial credit for the lurid melodrama because its message clashed severely with DeMille's high-minded Biblical epic 'King of Kings,' then playing in theaters.

The film stars veteran actors Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart; Victor Varconi as her long-suffering husband; Eugene Pallette as her lover; and Robert Edeson as the lawyer who takes on Roxie's case. Directing credit was given to Frank Urson.

The headline says it all. No equivalent to the SCREAMING HEADLINE in today's Internet world, other than people who type in ALL CAPS.

The resurfacing of the original screen version of 'Chicago' after eight decades was regarded as a major cinematic rediscovery.

In reviewing the film, critic Jamie S. Rich of called it a "melodrama that remains fun to watch even 80 years later. It's more than a historical curio or an antiquated prototype for its more famous descendent; DeMille's production is stylishly ambitious and smartly constructed. This loose-limbed crime story is evidence of just how assured cinema had become prior to the advent of sound."

Other critics singled out the performance of Phyllis Haver as the film's highlight.

"Chicago impresses by its modern sensibility; its no-holds-barred look at love, lust, law, social mores, and the media; and especially by its delightfully amoral heroine, played to perfection by former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver," wrote Andre Soares of the Alternative Film Guide.

"All in all, in spite of the moralistic ending Chicago holds up remarkably well as a jaded (or perhaps just plain lucid) take on sex and power in American society, dealing with issues that are as relevant today as they were yesteryear," Soares wrote.

The story was used again in 'Roxie' (1942), a Hollywood remake starring Ginger Rogers, before being reshaped into 'Chicago,' the hit 1975 musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb. A Broadway revival that opened in 1996 is still running, and was the basis for a film version that won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Picture.

In reviving the original 'Chicago,' the Flying Monkey 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 feature films in the Flying Monkey's silent film series include:

• Thursday, Oct. 30, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925). Long before Andrew Lloyd Webber created the hit stage musical, this silent film adaptation of the classic French novel starring Lon Chaney helped place 'Phantom' firmly in the pantheon of both horror and romance. Just in time for Halloween—see it if you dare!

• Thursday, Nov. 13, 6:30 p.m.: 'Running Wild' (1927) starring W.C. Fields. Long before he entertained movie audiences with his nasal twang, W.C. Fields was a popular leading man in silent film comedies! This one finds Fields as a hen-pecked husband finally driven to make surprising changes in his life.

‘Chicago' (1927) will be shown on Thursday, Oct. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551. Admission $10. For more information, visit For more info on the music, visit

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Looking back at a RR double feature;
looking ahead to 'The Crowd' on Sunday, 10/5

Must be a screening coming up because here's the poster!

A much-anticipated screening (by me, and others, I hope) of 'The Crowd' (1928) in 35mm is coming up on Sunday, Oct. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass.

I do hope 'The Crowd' draws a crowd. But before getting into that, first let me tip my engineer's cap to two great silent train melodramas I accompanied this past Sunday at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Both films were bottom-of-the-bill programmers intended to play theaters for maybe a week, and then be forgotten.

But the folks who put together this pictures knew what they were doing. Their work holds up today, judging by the huge reaction each got from our audience.

'The West-Bound Limited' (1923), released by Joseph P. Kennedy's company FBO, focused on a rivalry for the affections of the daughter of the railroad's president.

Opening with a dramatic action sequence, this hour-long flick played like a house afire, with one intense scene after another.

'Transcontinental Limited' (1926), from second-tier studio Chadwick Pictures, focused more on the human side of things, and had a lot more humor in it.

But it too came through with a rip-roaring railroad climax that sent our audience (and me) home breathless and smiling.

Both these pictures are great examples, I think, of how the value of a particular silent film is hard to know unless you show it before an audience in a theater with live music.

Time and time again, I've encountered films that seem like nothing special when viewed on my own, but which sprang to life when screened as originally intended.

In addition, both train pictures were of interest because they focused on an aspect of American life that's completely different from today.

Gone are the days when the nation's cities and towns were connected by a dense network of passenger rail services. So it's fascinating to see society arranged and functioning in such a different way.

One issue with accompanying 'Transcontinental Limited' was the prominent role played by a then-popular novelty song, "Mademoiselle from Armentières," better known as "Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous."

I took a snatch of the melody, and also the rhythm of the song (which I didn't otherwise know) and used it extensively as the score emerged.

But that wasn't enough for about a half-dozen people in the audience, who came up afterwards to sing the whole thing in an impromptu recital right there in the theater.

Sliding into 'The Crowd,' with cast members on location at Coney Island.

About 'The Crowd': this was one of the first films I attempted to score. At the time I only had access to a blurry digital transfer, but the power of King Vidor's vision still came through.

I haven't done it since, due mostly to the inability to get a decent-looking edition. Also, I wanted to make sure my technique was up to what this film required.

Well, the "good-looking edition" question was solved earlier this year when Ian Judge, manager of the Somerville Theatre, got access to a 35mm print of the film, and scheduled it as part of the theater's monthly 'Silents Please!' series.

So I'm really excited to see this film on the big screen as originally intended. Why? Plenty of reasons are found in the press release below, which has all the details.

And as for technique—well, I don't know. I'm planning on doing an "all strings" score, using material that will grow out of open fifths with a kind of "Fanfare for the Common Man" kind of feel.

I think one of the keys to having music help tie the film together is to have some specific and easily recognizable music for scenes with clowns in them.

I won't say why, because I don't want to spoil the picture if you haven't seen it. And also, there's one specific tune (played by record on a Victrola) that I need to have ready.

Still, no matter how much experience I get, when I sit down to accompany a film, it's like stepping into the batter's box. Anything could happen, from a home run to a strikeout.

But my confidence is growing. Just today (Tuesday, Sept. 30), I'm headed down to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. to accompany a program of Chaplin films for a silent cinema course.

Harvard! As I've been joking lately, I might not have received that acceptance letter 32 years ago—but I knew if I waited long enough, I'd eventually get the call!

Hope to see you in the crowd at 'The Crowd' on Sunday, Oct. 5. More info in the press release below...

* * *

Tension is on the breakfast menu for James Murray and Eleanor Boardman in 'The Crowd' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film masterpiece 'The Crowd' to be screened in Somerville

Program on Sunday, Oct. 5 features 35mm film print, live musical accompaniment

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—One of the first major Hollywood films to use the life of an average family to create intense and moving drama will highlight the next installment of the Somerville Theatre's "Silents Please!" series.

'The Crowd' (1928), an MGM silent film that probed the dark side of the American dream, expanded the language of cinema and earned two nominations at the first-ever Academy Awards.

'The Crowd' will be screened on Sunday, Oct. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theater, 55 Davis Square in Somerville, Mass. Admission $15 for adults; $12 for students/seniors.

The movie will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. 'The Crowd' will be shown in the Somerville Theatre's main theater using a 35mm print.

'The Crowd' follows one man's story from birth through young adulthood, marriage, and family life. Although a drama, the film embraces a wide range of emotions from comedy to tragedy. Above all, it used the then-new art form of motion pictures to transform an ordinary life into a powerful narrative and universal story that even today maintains its power to move audiences.

In addition, director King Vidor insisted on giving 'The Crowd' an unprecedented realism, shooting scenes on location on New York City streets. Unusual for a big studio production at the time, the film featured scenes shot in a small apartment's cramped and unglamorous bathroom, including Hollywood's first-ever on-screen flush toilet.

Irony Department: An New York apartment meant to be a cramped walk-up actually looks kinda spacious by today's standards.

"This is the one first pictures that compelled audience members to think hard about their own lives—where they were going, and what it was all about," said Ian Judge, manager of the Somerville Theatre. "It connected powerfully with audiences, and showed the power of the movies to really move people in ways that no art form had done before in the same way."

The film stars James Murray in the lead role as John Sims and Eleanor Boardman as his wife, Mary.

'The Crowd' mixes striking visual styles and moving camera cinematography, influenced by 1920s German cinema and F.W. Murnau in particular, with intense, intimate scenes of the family's poignant struggle. Vidor avoided casting big-name stars in the film to attain greater authenticity; Murray was a studio extra, and Boardman was a minor actress and Vidor's second wife.

Vidor's great financial success as a director at MGM in the 1920s allowed him to sell the unusual scenario to production head Irving Thalberg as an experimental film as the silent era was ending. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer reportedly disliked the film for its bleak subject matter and lack of a happy ending. In fact, several alternate upbeat endings were filmed and previewed at the studio's insistence, but Vidor persevered and the film was released with the original, logical conclusion.

At the first-ever Academy Awards in 1929, 'The Crowd' was honored with a nomination for "Unique and Artistic Picture" and Vidor nominated for Best Director.

James Murray in 'The Crowd.' After an amazing performance, Murray sank back into obscurity and died young in the 1930s.

With then-new talking pictures capturing the public's attention, 'The Crowd' was only a modest box office success upon its initial release. Since then, it has been consistently hailed as one of the greatest and most enduring American silent films.

In 1989, this film was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Although 'The Crowd' was recognized as a brilliant achievement, few directors followed in Vidor's footsteps right away. Depression-era audiences sought escapist entertainment over the stark realism of 'The Crowd,' which filmmakers would not embrace again until after the end of World War II.

Director Jean-Luc Godard was asked in the 1960s why more films were not made about ordinary people, and his response was "Why remake 'The Crowd?' It has already been done."

Recent reviewers have found 'The Crowd' as compelling and timeless as ever.

"Certainly one of Vidor's best films, a silent masterpiece which turns a realistically caustic eye on the illusionism of the American dream. ... The performances are absolutely flawless, and astonishing location work in the busy New York streets lends a gritty ring of truth."
—Tom Milne, Time Out

"Perhaps the best silent film ever made and undoubtedly the most existential. If you don’t like the silent era, think again — and take a peek at The Crowd."
—AMC Movie Guide

'The Crowd' will be shown using a 35mm black-and-white print on the theater's big screen with correct lighting, speed, and aspect ratio. Although the Somerville, like most movie houses, recently installed digital projection for first-run pictures, the theater remains committed to keeping alive the experience of film in the 35mm format.

"For more than a century, movies were shot and edited and watched using 35mm film," said Rapsis, who will create live music to accompany the film. "Today, the chance to see a vintage film in its original format and in a theater is increasingly rare. The Somerville's screening of 'The Crowd' is a chance to experience this movie in the format and setting it was designed for."

The screening is the latest in a series of silent film events celebrating the recent 100th birthday of the Somerville Theatre, where movies have been shown since 1914. Upcoming screenings in the 'Silents, Please!' series include:

• Sunday, Nov. 16, 2 p.m.: 'The Strong Man' (1926) starring Harry Langdon. With World War I over, baby-faced soldier Harry Langdon searches for the girl who sent such moving letters to him in the trenches. Directed by a very young Frank Capra, 'The Strong Man' is today hailed as Langdon's best feature, and also one of the great comedies of the silent film era.

'The Crowd' will be screened in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Oct. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theater, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission $15 adults, $12 students/seniors. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit For more info on the music, visit

Friday, September 26, 2014

One track mind, two railroad pictures:
Railroad flicks on Sunday, 9/28 in Wilton, N.H.

The passenger depot still stands in Wilton, N.H., but the tracks are only used for freight.

Two railroad melodramas are on the bill for a silent film program Sunday, Sept. 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

For more info about the flicks, please check out the press release included below.

Pondering this program, I think it's a great example of how silent films, rather than fading into irrelevance as decades pass, can sometimes become more interesting over time.

In this case, both films show how not long ago, railroads played a crucial part in the day-to-day lives of most people in this country.

Really. In the United States, before the Interstate Highway system and modern air travel came into being (starting after World War II), if you wanted to go anywhere, you went by train.

Silent cinema reflects this reality. In picture after picture, characters hop on and off trains to make journeys with a frequency that's just completely alien to us today.

At the time, the nation was honey-combed and criss-crossed with rail lines connecting small towns and big cities across the land. This network was no accident, but the result of a century of railroad building all over the continent.

The dense rail network in New Hampshire in 1898. Several more lines were built as the network expanded up until the 1920s. Today, almost all these lines are gone.

But with the rise of highway and air travel, the U.S. essentially abandoned its robust passenger rail system. And this in turn greatly affected how town and cities were developed.

You know the story: with the rise of auto-dependent decentralized suburbia, city centers declined into centers of poverty, etc. Over time, fewer places in the U.S. looked like, say, downtown Bedford Falls in Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946), and more of us wound up living in Dick Van Dyke's New Rochelle, N.Y., just to pick an example.

The merits of this transformation can be debated. What silent film gives us, almost by accident, is a vivid window into how society functioned a century ago, before all these changes. And it turns out to be an incredible record.

Think of it: even the most preposterous low budget silent film program filler, in theaters for maybe a week and then forgotten, is filled with images of society and how it functioned: the clothes we wore, how we worked, where and how we ate, and, yes, how we traveled.

Seen today, such images have a layer of interest their creators never anticipated. It's accidental history. And I think it will become even more compelling as time passes.

Again, think of it: what if we had films from the time of Shakespeare, or from the Roman Empire? They'd contain a wealth of information, even just in terms of the backgrounds.

With silent film, we're not there yet. But the time will come, I think, when vintage cinema of all types will be routinely seen as unique and vital historical record, regardless of its entertainment or artistic value.

So that's one reason to preserve the films, good or bad, and keep showing them today—so that they will not be forgotten, and so future generations will be able to wonder at the unintentional revelations embedded within them.

For now, Sunday's double feature of railroad melodramas will certainly give you a sense of how much has already changed in just the past 100 years, at least in terms of how we regard railroads.

Today, railroads are regarded with such disdain (and are so disconnected to our regular lives, except when we're stuck at a crossing), that companies such as CSX find it in their interest to run public service advertising just to explain what they do.

But in the 1920s, railroads were the highly respected lifelines of the nation. They were also the subject of romance, adventure, drama, and thrills, as our two pictures will demonstrate.

And once more, think of it: in the 1920s, you could have taken a train to Wilton, N.H., where the station (still standing) is just a short walk from the Town Hall Theatre. By a miracle, the tracks are still in place (most in N.H. were torn up decades ago), but today the line only sees freight service to a quarry the next town over. Not much glamour there.

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Stop! Look! Vintage railroad melodramas on Sunday, Sept. 28 at Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre

Live music to accompany double feature program of classic silent-era train thrillers on the big screen

WILTON, N.H.—A double feature of vintage train melodramas will promise an express ride to excitement later this month when the Wilton Town Hall Theatre screens a pair of rarely scene silent-era railroad films with live music.

'The West-Bound Limited' (1923) and 'Transcontinental Limited' (1926) will be screened on Sunday, Sept. 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with a donation of $5 per person suggested to help defray expenses.

In 'The West-Bound Limited,' a fired employee takes revenge on the railroad by setting a trap for a head-on collision between a passenger train and a freight train.

In 'Transcontinental Limited,' Jerry Reynolds is an aging train engineer fast approaching retirement, but his eyes are giving out even faster! Will he still collect his pension?

Both movies were shot on location on actual working railroad lines. Made at a time when massive steam engines ruled the rails, both films are filled with scenes that train buffs will find fascinating today.

Railroad films were a popular sub-genre during the silent film era, when trains were the primary mode of long distance travel in the U.S. As an important part of the daily life of virtually every community in the land, railroads formed a popular background for many early films.

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

In reviving these two rarely shown train melodramas, organizers aim to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the films. "Recreate those conditions, and movies of early Hollywood like these railroad dramas leap back to life in ways that audiences still find entertaining."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound. He improvises the complete score in real time during the screening.

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

Rapsis encouraged people unfamiliar with silent film to give it a try.

"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 still do connect with cinema-goers. They retain a tremendous power to cast a spell, engage an audience, tap into elemental emotions, and provoke strong reactions."

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

• Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: Lon Chaney Halloween Creepfest. 'The Unholy Three' (1925) and 'West of Zanzibar' (1928). Two really really odd early thrillers about crime, twisted love, and bodily mutilation starring Lon Chaney, the man of 1,000 faces. Just in time for Halloween!

• Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: Buster Keaton in 'Seven Chances.' Finish off Thanksgiving weekend with a helping of laughter courtesy Buster Keaton. A pair of classic short comedies, then 'Seven Chances' (1925), a wild feature in which Buster has until sundown to get married or lose a fortune!

• Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: Chaplin's Short Best Comedies. This Christmas, receive some laughs! Mark the 100th anniversary of Chaplin's iconic 'Little Tramp' character with a selection of his best short comedies. A great way for the whole family to cap off the holiday weekend.

• Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: Silent Sci-Fi: 'Woman in the Moon.' An early sci-fi adventure epic about the first rocket ship to the moon, as imagined in 1929. Made on a grand scale; the rarely-screened final silent feature from German filmmaker Fritz Lang, director 'Metropolis.'

The Town Hall Theatre's 2014-15 season of silent film kicks off with a double feature of railroad melodramas on Sunday, Sept. 28 at 4:30 p.m at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a donation of $5 per person suggested to help defray expenses.

For more information, call the theater at (603) 654-3456 or visit For more information on the music, please visit

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Coming up: Two screenings of 'College' (1927),
along with thoughts about a missing sequence

Dean Snitz Edwards gestures to Keaton's sports equipment, which includes football gear, a clue that part of the film is missing.

First, a humble thanks to all readers. This little blog about silent film recently surpassed 150,000 page views!

I'm grateful for the interest. And I'll do my best to keep things informative and thought-provoking.

And for you aspiring bloggers, here's a tip. The way to really increase hits is to find ways to mention Jesus in your blog.

Seriously! One of my most-visited pages ever was this modest post in which I compared Harry Langdon to Jesus Christ.

Okay, back to business:

Next up is a pair of screenings of Buster Keaton's campus comedy 'College' (1927) at, yes, two local colleges.

On Wednesday, Sept. 24, the film opens the 2014-15 silent film series at the Rogers Center for the Arts, on the campus of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

And then on Thursday, Sept. 25, we'll screen the film at the Putnam Center for the Arts at Keene State College in Keene, N.H.

Keaton's 'College' to me is a good example of how so much of silent film is like the Venus de Milo, or Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony.'

Yes, it's true that about three-quarters of all silent film is lost. But even films that are nominally complete are sometimes missing things, or exist in some kind of compromised state.

Like the Venus de Milo, such film are missing limbs. Like the 'Unfinished,' they're missing whole movements. (The gag Keaton image at left seemed a good way to make this point.)

In terms of its completeness, 'College' does not present the same problems as, say, Raymond Griffith's 'Paths to Paradise' (1925), which lacks its entire final reel.

With 'College,' it's a more subtle kind of loss, because Keaton himself apparently cut at least one whole sequence from the film.

How can we tell? Evidence exists right in the film, which focuses on a bookworm's incompetence at any conceivable type of sporting activity.

Early in the film, when unpacking in his dorm room, Buster makes three piles: baseball equipment, track and field gear, and a complete football uniform.

Then, as if to underscore his intentions, he reviews three pamphlets: one each on baseball, sprinting, and football.

In the body of the film, Buster shows his complete ineptness at baseball and at track and field. But not football!

Keaton, in interviews late in life, said that a football sequence was indeed filmed for 'College,' but that it was removed in order to avoid direct comparisons to Harold Lloyd's football-themed campus comedy 'The Freshman' (1925).

If so, that's a real shame! Not only does it mean 'College' is missing a sequence, but its loss undermines the film's overall structure.

Consider: near the end, Buster is forced to make a mad dash through town to save his girl. In doing so, he demonstrates remarkable competence in all the athletic endeavors he previously failed at. And at once point, he is seen running through a crowd, deftly dodging people like a running back avoiding an army of tacklers.

Keaton is the blur in the foreground.

So although 'College' is complete, the clearly missing football sequence is a real loss.

My own theory is that Keaton and his team may have found the football sequence was too much and took it out. At some point, audiences would naturally grow impatient with the "incompetent" Keaton, and want him to rise to the occasion. The football sequence might have bogged things down too much.

Keaton was known to do this in other films. In 'The Navigator' (1924), he filmed an underwater sequence at great expense that had him acting as a traffic cop for schools of fish. He and his crew thought they had a winner, but during previews the audience was silent.

Keaton reasoned that by then, his girl was in trouble, and the audience had no patience for gags that didn't relate to Keaton coming to her rescue. So the "underwater traffic cop" sequence, which included Buster pinning a starfish to his chest, was cut from the release print.

Who knows what other sequences were filmed but then cut? Probably quite a few. The only reason we know of the 'College' football sequence is that the released film has references to it.

Any beyond that, Keaton (and all silent film) suffers from modern-day cutting and rearranging. Take this version of the final chase from 'Seven Chances' (1925), which is on YouTube.

I can't say I'm in love with the music. But more importantly, the sequence is missing quite a few linking shots and other elements that tied it all together. It's still fun to watch (all the viewer comments are positive) but it presents silent film as a lot more primitive than it really was.

Well, despite this, I suppose we're fortunate to have pretty much all of Keaton's output as it was originally released.

That wasn't always the case. In the 1940s, Keaton himself thought much of his great work from the 1920s was lost forever. Luckily, prints of every title eventually resurfaced—and new discoveries are still being made.

For instance: At last year's Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas, I had the honor of doing music for some previously unknown footage from Keaton's short film 'The Blacksmith' (1922).

So even though it's football season, I hope you'll join me for screenings of Keaton's 'College' (1927) this week. A press release with info about the Merrimack College screening on Wednesday, Sept. 24 is below. For info on the Keene State screening on Thursday, Sept. 25, please click on the "Upcoming Screenings" link at upper right.

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Keaton looks a little like one of the Gabor sisters in this vintage poster.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Classic comedy 'College' to open 2014-15 silent film series at Rogers Center

Public welcome; Buster Keaton movie about campus life to feature live music on Wednesday, Sept. 24 at Merrimack College

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s. Acclaimed for their originality and clever visual gags, and also admired for their authentic location shots and amazing stunts, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'College' (1927), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. at at the Rogers Center for the Arts on the campus of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free and the screening is open to the public.

'College' follows the story of a hopeless university bookworm (Keaton) forced to become a star athlete to win the attention of his dream girl. Can Buster complete the transformation in time to woo her from his rival? And along the way, can he also rescue the campus from sports-related shame?

The film was released in 1927, at the crest of a national fascination with college life. In addition to being a great Keaton comedy, 'College' offers vintage glimpses into what higher education was like nearly a century ago.

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

Keaton demonstrates his lack of athletic prowess in 'College.'

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts, including some spectacular examples in 'College.'

In reviving Keaton's 'College,' organizers aim to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the film. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'College' leap back to life in ways that audiences still find entertaining."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound. He improvises the complete score in real time during the screening.

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

Following 'College,' the 2014-15 silent film series at the Rogers continues with a thriller, a war adventure, and even a sci-fi epic.

• Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014, 7 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 will, even as an escaped madman prowls the grounds? 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 mix of humor and horror that will keep you guessing. Remember: in silent film, no one can hear you scream!

• Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) directed by Fritz Lang. A grand sci-fi adventure epic about the first rocket ship to the moon. The rarely-screened final silent feature from German filmmaker Fritz Lang (director of 'Metropolis'), 'Woman in the Moon' laid the groundwork for all of the great outer space movie tales to come, complete with melodramatic plot and eye-popping visuals. Welcome the year 2015 by pondering a vision of the future as imagined by one of yesterday's great moviemakers.

• Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino. An extended family split up in France and Germany find themselves on opposing sides of the battlefield during World War I. The film that turned then-little-known actor Rudolph Valentino into a superstar and associated him with the image of the Latin Lover. The film also inspired a tango craze and such fashion fads as gaucho pants. A great way to celebrate Valentine's Day!

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 still connect with cinema-goers. They retain a tremendous power to cast a spell, engage an audience, tap into elemental emotions, and provoke strong reactions."

The opening selection in this season's silent film series at the Rogers Center will be Buster Keaton's 'College' (1927), to be screened on Wednesday, Sept. 24 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.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Swinging with Tarzan on Thursday, Sept. 18
at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine

Wow! My name in lights at the Leavitt Theatre.

When you accompany a silent film, it's important to suppress your ego. It's not about the music, after all, but about supporting the film.

After a show, one of the most-prized compliments I can get is that people forgot I was there, playing live. Good stuff!

But I have to say, it was really gratifying to see my name in lights (or at least on the changeable marquee sign) this week at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

As it was for a Tarzan program, I figured it was only appropriate to clamber out the second-floor window and onto the roof to pose with the sign.

Thanks to theater owner Peter Clayton for snapping the pic, and for letting his theater be hijacked for a silent film series all summer long.

The Claytons, who've owned and run the theater since the 1970s, go all out to promote any program at their summer-only theater. Check out this hand-made poster for the Tarzan show, which Peter's wife Maureen colored using magic markers:

I like being described as a "live accompanist," as opposed to the other kind.

And I was pleased to hear Peter tell me that a copy of one of the posters we made up for the Tarzan show (see below) was given to none other than former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who found the connection to Joseph P. Kennedy (who produced the film) to be of more than passing interest.

Seeing as the weather is beginning to turn around here, and we're well past the high summer tourism season for Ogunquit, we had a respectable turnout for the showing: about 40 people.

In remarks prior to the show, I encouraged audience members to help out when Tarzan launches into his mighty on-screen jungle yell. Several times, people did!

Two titles made up the program: 'Tarzan of the Apes' (1918), starring Elmo Lincoln in the lead role, and 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' (1927) with one-time Tarzan James H. Pierce as the ape man.

I actually went with the later film first because I think it's much closer to what a contemporary audience would expect from a Tarzan film.

The story rockets right along from one event to another in fine 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' style. (Or is it the other way around?)

Despite the poor visual quality of existing materials, 'Golden Lion' roused the audience enough to win applause for Tarzan's leap over an underground chasm, on his way to saving a leading lady from a central role in a human sacrifice ritual.

The earlier Tarzan film—the first adaptation ever made—is much more primitive, and so I felt wasn't the best way to open an evening of silent cinema for an audience not familiar with the genre.

Still, it's filled with scenes of Elmo Lincoln (the original movie Tarzan) doing his iconic yell, and I'm pleased to report our audience did its part to fill in. Who says silent film isn't a collaborative experience?

By the way, am I the only one who thinks Elmo Lincoln looks more than a little like Jay Leno? All he needs is one of those 1980s sweatbands, and the resemblance is uncanny.

While the Claytons always promote their shows, I try to do my part, too. So, prior to last night's program, I handed over a stack of posters for the Leavitt's next silent film program:

The "Chiller Theatre" theme, by the way, isn't just a marketing concept. The summer-only theater doesn't have any central heating.