Monday, July 13, 2015

Coming up: a double bill of Harold Lloyd's
'Why Worry?' (1923), 'Speedy' (1928) in 35mm

A poster for our double-feature on Sunday, Aug. 2, which includes 'Why Worry?' (1923).

Phew! Just completed a four-day mini-marathon of silent film screenings that ended yesterday with a bang.

Or actually, many bangs, as there was plenty of gunfire in 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926), a Tom Mix action adventure and the latest installment of this summer's "train melodrama" series at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

I don't know what it is about these railroad films, but they've been packing them in. We must have had 100 people at Sunday afternoon's screening—amazing considering it was an unusual date (we're usually the last Sunday of each month) and it was totally gorgeous mid-summer weather in these parts.

Even in the form of a somewhat blurry transfer (the best available), people were primed to cheer on Mix and Tony the Wonder Horse as they battled the evil gang bent on robbing the K & A.

It's not the longest film ever made (at 53 minutes, I'm thinking it must be descended from a Kodascope show-at-home print or something similar) but still holds the screen very effectively.

And it's a great film for music, too. I had some good basic train material, a fanfare/march for Tom and Tony, a love theme, and some "bad guys" music, all of which come together really well, I thought.

One reason attendance has been strong could be that I've reached out to non-silent-film people by posting info about the series on railfan messageboards.

And I have seen some new faces at these screenings, including a couple who came up to me after Sunday afternoon's screening to say how much they enjoyed it.

They'd never been before, but came because "we love trains," the woman said. And their unsolicited comment was music to my ears: "We forgot there was someone playing the music," she said.

I hope I have an easier time abroad than Harold in 'Why Worry?'

Looking ahead: I'm traveling out of the country for the rest of the month, but will return in time for a double bill of Harold Lloyd features on Sunday, Aug. 2 at the Somerville Theatre.

In a program that starts at 2 p.m., we're screening 'Why Worry?' (1923) and 'Speedy' (1928), using 35mm prints from the Harold Lloyd Trust.

More than most, I think, the Lloyd pictures are tooled to work with a large audience. Because we tend to get upwards of 150 people for comedy programs at the Somerville, I'm really looking forward to the Aug. 2 program.

It's a great chance to experience Lloyd's work as his original audiences did: in a theater, on the big screen, and surrounded by people all reacting together.

It makes a huge difference. Must be something about crowd psychology loosening up and intensifying our own reactions. Anyone doing a doctoral research program on this?

And I'm especially excited by 'Speedy' because I've just seen where silent film location detective John Bengston identified an appearance of Lou Gehrig in the scenes with Babe Ruth shot outside the original Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Look! There's Lou Gehrig in Babe Ruth's 'Speedy' cameo. (Enlargement of detail on right.)

Bengston posted info about this a few years back, but I came across it only recently. Makes you wonder what else might be lurking in films that we think of as familiar.

Well, come see if you can spot any more members of the 1927 Yankees on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville.

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

* * *

Harold rides the NYC Subway.

Contact Jeff Rapsis at (603) 236-9237 • e-mail

Somerville Theatre to screen back-to-back Harold Lloyd silent comedies in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Aug. 2

Program includes political satire 'Why Worry' (1923) and 'Speedy' (1928), shot on location in 1920s NYC featuring extended Babe Ruth cameo

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — He was the bespectacled boy next door whose road to success was often paved with perilous detours.

He was Harold Lloyd, whose fast-paced comedies made him the most popular movie star of Hollywood's silent film era.

See for yourself why Lloyd was the top box office attraction of the 1920s in a double feature revival of two of his best movies: 'Why Worry?' (1923) and 'Speedy' (1928).

Both films will be screened using archival 35mm prints on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. General admission is $15; seniors/students $12.

Live music will be provided by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New England-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

The 35mm prints are on loan from the Harold Lloyd Trust of Los Angeles, Calif.

"The Harold Lloyd program continues our commitment to screening movies using real film whenever possible," said Ian Judge, the Somerville's general manager. "This format is how these pictures were designed to be shown, and as time goes by, finding good 35mm prints and a theater with the know-how to handle them is getting harder to do."

Lloyd's go-getter character proved immensely popular throughout the 1920s, with fans following him from one adventure to the next. Designed for a large audience, Lloyd's pictures—with their potent mix of comedy, sentiment, and thrills—are legendary for their ability to stir an audience in a theater even today.

Lloyd and his 8-foot-tall co-star John Aasen in 'Why Worry?'

In the political satire 'Why Worry?', Harold plays a wealthy hypochondriac traveling abroad for his health who gets caught up in a local uprising. Thrown into prison, Harold is forced to use his wits to escape and rescue his nurse from the clutches of an evil Revolutionary.

Regarded as one of Lloyd's most surreal movies, 'Why Worry?' features a cast that includes an actual real-life giant—8-foot-tall John Aasen, discovered in Minnesota during a national talent search.

'Speedy,' Lloyd's final silent feature before the transition to talkies, finds Harold as a baseball-crazed youth who must rescue the city's last horse-drawn streetcar from gangsters bent on running it out of business.

Filmed almost entirely on location in New York, 'Speedy' features remarkable glimpses of the city at the end of the 1920s, including footage of Coney Island and the original Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Lloyd with former Red Sox pitcher and then-current Yankee Babe Ruth in 'Speedy' (1928).

The latter scenes include an extended appearance by Babe Ruth, then at the height of his career during the team's storied 1927 season.

"In 'Speedy,' New York City is practically a part of the cast," Rapsis said. "In filming it on location, Lloyd knew scenes of New York would give the picture added interest to audiences across the nation and around the world. But what he didn't anticipate was that today, the location shots now provide a fascinating record of how life was lived in 1920s urban America."

Rapsis will improvise a musical score for both films as they're screened. In creating accompaniment for the Lloyd movies and other vintage classics, Rapsis tries to bridge the gap between silent film and modern audiences.

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

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

• Sunday, Sept. 13, 2 p.m.: 'The Matrimaniac' (1916) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. An unusual program that contrasts this early Fairbanks marital farce with another picture released by the same studio after Fairbanks had moved on, but which uses material from the Fairbanks film to support an entirely different story.

• Sunday, Oct. 4, 2 p.m.: 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926) starring Harry Langdon, Joan Crawford. The great silent film comedian Harry Langdon returns to the Somerville's big screen, this time with a very young Joan Crawford playing his love interest! His debut feature finds Harry entering a cross-country walking race to save the family business and impress the girl of his dreams.

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

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

Harold Lloyd's ‘Why Worry?’ and 'Speedy' will be shown in 35mm and with live music on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m. at Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

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

Friday, July 10, 2015

Tonight: 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921) —
but first, thoughts on humans beyond all help

A vintage promotional slide for 'Orphans of the Storm.'
Tonight it's time to tip our chapeaux to Bastille Day and the French Revolution, in the form of a screening of 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), the great D.W. Griffith epic that stars the Gish sisters, a giant guillotine, and yes, a cast of thousands.

But first, a few thoughts about last night's uproarious screening of a pair of silent films that starred two different dogs—one still obscure, and one still famous.

The obscure dog was 'Peter the Great,' a German Shepherd who started out as a stunt double for other movie dogs before becoming a movie star in his own right. At the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. last night, we screened his only surviving feature, a crime thriller called 'The Sign of the Claw' (1926).

And people loved it! So Peter, if you're up there beyond the Rainbow Bridge, you live on here through your one remaining flick.

The still-famous dog was none other than 'Rin Tin Tin,' whose name echoes across the generations. We screened one of Rinty's lesser-known features, 'The Night Cry' (1926), in which our canine hero does battle with an enormous buzzard billed as a "California condor," but I have my doubts.

(Okay, an update from the always-reliable IMDB: "The trained condor who appears in the film, known as "Bozo," was the only condor in captivity at the time." That's him in the Scandinavian poster at right.)

But our audience of about 60 people had no doubts at all. They absolutely loved 'The Night Cry.' It was one of those full-throated audience engagements that you always hope for when screening a silent film: people shrieked at the action, laughed at the plot twists, applauded the good guys, and booed the villains. (Yes, they gave the bird the bird.)

And the conclusion of 'The Night Cry,' with its "triple climax" structure, drew an especially strong reaction. People were gasping and cheering and shouting (and yes, barking) so much, it drowned out the accompaniment. (No complaints from me on that!)

I don't want to spoil 'The Night Cry' for anyone, so let me just say this modest film features an absurd plot, but underneath lies a structure ingeniously built to fake out an audience.

Just when everyone senses the story has reached its big climax and we're ready for the big embrace and 'The End,' something ELSE happens to then drive the action to new heights.

And then, it happens AGAIN!

I've scored 'The Night Cry' a few times now, and the reaction is always big. And so I'm beginning to think there's more than one level as to why these films were so popular, and why they still work so well today.

First, there's the animal thing. Yes, everyone loved Rin Tin Tin, because everyone loves animals. That's something that hasn't changed in the past 100 years, and perhaps not in 10,000 years.

But also, the Rin Tin Tin films are designed to show off the dog's talents. And to do that requires a story populated by a human cast that's essentially helpless—the kind of people who get themselves into situations that only a dog could solve.

This inverts our relationship that we at the top of the food chain have with our animals. Dogs smarter than people! And somehow, we respond quite strongly to the idea that our faithful four-footed companions are capable of tremendous feats of intelligence and bravery—look, it's right there on the screen!

Either that, or we just get a kick out of people doing really dumb things and needing a dog to rescue them.

In any case, it speaks (woof!) to what I have come to believe whole-heartedly: that the audience is an essential part of the silent film experience.

The films of the silent era, good or bad, were designed from the ground up to be shown to a large audience. To view them any other way is to rob them of a good portion of their effect—no different as if you were to screen them without music.

It's that important, because being part of a crowd allows us to experience all manner of intensified emotions that just aren't possible when we're at home in the basement, alone with our entertainment center.

So thanks to everyone at the Flying Monkey last night for collaborating on what was for me a great and memorable experience. Having an audience respond like that even once in awhile makes it all worth it.

Okay, on to Revolution. Please join us this evening (Friday, July 10) for 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), screening at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Tickets are $10 per person. More info in the press release below:

* * *

Lillian and Dorothy Gish star in 'Orphans of the Storm.'

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

French Revolution epic comes to Red River Theatres on Friday, July 10

D.W. Griffith's silent film masterpiece 'Orphans of the Storm' tells thrilling tale of sisters separated during political upheaval

CONCORD, N.H.—Heat up Bastille Day this year with the fires of revolution! 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), a sweeping silent film drama set during the uproar of the French Revolution, will be shown with live music on Friday, July 10 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

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

'Orphans of the Storm,' set in 1780s France, follows the story of two sisters, one blind, who seek to cure her vision by risking a trip from their country village to Paris. There, they are soon separated as anarchy erupts, the aristocracy is toppled, and the city is engulfed by the unpredictable chaos of revolution. Will fate reunite the two sisters before the guillotine separates them forever?

The film, part of Red River's silent film series, is being shown in part to mark Bastille Day (July 14), a holiday in France known as La Fête Nationale that celebrates the storming of the notorious Bastille prison in Paris in 1789 as a symbol of the French Revolution.

'Orphans of the Storm,' directed by legendary silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith, features dramatic mob scenes of revolutionary Paris filmed on a massive scale. Also, the story builds towards a spectacular and fast-moving race-to-the-rescue climax that wowed audiences in 1921, making 'Orphans of the Storm' one of the year's biggest hits.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish in costume for 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921).

Leading roles in 'Orphans of the Storm' are played by two actual sisters, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, both major stars of Hollywood's silent era. Lillian Gish, an iconic actress of the silent era, went on to a career that lasted long enough to include an appearance on 'The Love Boat' television series in the 1980s. She died in 1993 at age 99.

Younger sister Dorothy Gish also enjoyed a productive career that included stage, film, and television roles into the 1960s; she died in 1968 at age 70.

'Orphans of the Storm' was the last in a string of successful blockbusters helmed by Griffith, who pioneered large-scale historical epics with films such as 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), 'Intolerance' (1916), and 'Way Down East' (1920). Though he continued making films, Griffith was superseded the 1920s by a new generation of filmmakers willing to take his innovations even further, creating the foundation of the motion picture industry we know today.

Although 'Orphans of the Storm' was released nine decades ago, critics today say Griffith's French Revolution epic holds up well for modern viewers. Leonard Maltin praised the film's "lavish settings and race-to-the-rescue climax," judging it "still dazzling." Critic Jeremy Heilman of wrote "the sheer amount of realized ambition on display in it makes it a sight to behold."

The guillotine is ready for its close-up in 'Orphans of the Storm.'

About D.W. Griffith, film historian Kevin Brownlow summarized his genius by writing, "however skillful the other early directors might have been, none of them knew how to project anything but the most basic emotions until Griffith showed them. And it was emotion, rather than close-ups and fade-outs, that made the people of the world fall in love with the moving picture."

The screening of 'Orphans of the Storm' will be accompanied by an improvised score created live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis achieves a traditional "movie score" sound for silent film screenings by using a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra.

"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.

Other dates and titles in the Red River silent film series include:

• Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Cameraman' (1928) starring Buster Keaton. To impress the girl of his dreams, mild-mannered portrait photographer Buster takes up the glamorous profession of newsreel cameraman. One of the best comedies of the silent era.

• Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Lodger' (1927). A serial killer is on the loose in fog-bound London. Will the murderer be caught before yet another victim is claimed? Just in time for Halloween, suspenseful British thriller directed by a very young Alfred Hitchcock.

Red River Theatres' 2015 Silent Film Series will continue with a screening of 'Orphans of the Storm’ (1921) on Friday, July 10 at 7 p.m. in the Jaclyn Simchik Screening Room at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 224-4600 or visit For more information about the music, visit

Monday, July 6, 2015

Dogs, the French revolution, spies, and trains: Accompanying four feature films in four days

Rin Tin Tin proves way smarter than his human co-stars in 'The Night Cry' (1926), coming up on Thursday, July 9 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

I'm revving up for what amounts to a home stretch of silent film accompaniment prior to taking some time away from the keyboard for the rest of the month.

That means four films in four days, and in four different theaters, too. It's the silent film equivalent of hitting for the cycle, I guess.

But before getting into the details, let me address yesterday's screening of 'The Big Parade' (1925) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

An original poster for 'The Big Parade' (1925).

We had a pretty strong turnout for the last day of a three-day holiday weekend—and for a matinee on a beautiful summer day at that. It wasn't too long ago when Davis Square was all but shut down, the streets clogged with four feet of snow.

But they came to see 'The Big Parade,' in the form of a great 35mm print on an enormous screen in a big old movie theater. (And unlike all the 4th of July parades this year in my home state of New Hampshire, there was nary a presidential candidate to be seen.)

It's a familiar film to me that I love accompanying. And because it's one of the big ones, it's worth reviewing prior to a screening just to make sure all the cues and cuts are fresh in your head.

This is especially important with my referee's whistle, which I match to the half-dozen times a whistle gets blown on screen as a key part of the action: the police who break up the fight in Champillon, the mail call scene, and several other points.

I think it adds a nice burst of sonic realism, but of course it has to be right on the money if it's going to work and not draw attention to itself. So it's worth getting to know those points of the film extremely well.

Same with the bugle calls, of which 'The Big Parade' has several. And on that score, not all bugle calls are alike. The purist in me, for instance, knows you really shouldn't play "Reveille" when the troops are being called to chow, as happens in 'The Big Parade.'

Instead, you should play "Mess Call," which goes like this:

Likewise, when a bugle is played calling the troops to assemble and move out, you ought to play "To Arms," which sounds like this:

Most people at a screening wouldn't know the difference. But for those who might, it's one more thing done "right" that doesn't break the mood and thus keeps the spell of silent film intact.

As you may know, all bugle calls are based on a simple triad, or the notes in a major chord. Because of that, it makes them easy to fit around other material—including the big love theme I was using in yesterday's score.

So this all works out really well in the big "moving out" sequence in 'The Big Parade,' where repeated shots of a bugler alternate with scenes of the troops assembling, and then footage of John Gilbert and Renee Adorée frantically searching for each other amid the chaos.

I was able to mix "To Arms" with the love theme pretty fluently, modulating all over the place and sometimes even playing the love theme using the rhythms of the bugle call just to add to the chaos.

Renee Adorée and John Gilbert providing reason for a "love theme" in 'The Big Parade' score.

But the most important thing about 'The Big Parade' is to HOLD BACK. As powerful as many of its scenes are, it's crucial to save something for the climactic battle scene, which Vidor cut together with the rhythm of a good 4th of July fireworks show.

At the battle's true climax, the screen is filled with a blinding series of rapid explosions that lasts only just a few seconds, but it's enough—any more would have probably been excessive. And it's only THEN that you hold nothing back, musically, I think.


Tom O'Brien, John Gilbert, and Karl Dane prepare for the climactic battle.

At the end, it was gratifying to hear such strong applause for this 90-year-old picture that still plays so well. It's a great honor to do music for it, especially on a 4th of July weekend, and I hope to play for it again very soon.

Okay, here's a brief round-up of the four upcoming screenings. I'll post detailed press releases later as we get closer. If nothing else, this is just to help me keep them all straight.

I had no idea that dog star Peter the Great started out as a stunt double for fellow canines Strongheart and Thunder the Wonder Dog.

• Thursday, July 9, 2015, 6:30 p.m.: "A Dog Double Feature" spotlighting silent-era canine stars Peter the Great and Rin Tin Tin; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; . In 'The Sign of the Claw,' a police dog helps solve a crime wave. The only surviving film of Peter the Great, a popular German shepherd performer. 'The Night Cry' (1926) finds iconic dog superstar Rin Tin Tin accused of killing sheep. Can he find the real bandit and clear his name? Part of a monthly silent film series at a newly restored moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Admission, $10 per person.

With hair like that, no wonder there was a revolution.

• Friday, July 10, 2015, 7 p.m.: "Orphans of the Storm" (1921); Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.; (603) 224-4600; Just in time for Bastille Day, D.W. Griffith's sweeping story of two sisters (Lillian and Dorothy Gish) caught up in the throes of the French revolution. Griffith's last major box office success fills the screen with a succession of iconic images. Silent film with live music at this popular venue for independent and arthouse cinema in New Hampshire's state capital. Admission $10 per person.

In my favorite scene from 'Hands Up!' (1926), Raymond Griffith teaches his Native American captors the latest dance moves.

• Saturday, July 11, 2015, 7 p.m.: "Hands Up!" (1926) starring Raymond Griffith; Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.; We mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War with this uproarious Raymond Griffith comedy. A southern spy must work every angle to prevent a shipment of western gold from reaching Union forces. Plus Laurel & Hardy comedy shorts! Join us for series silent films and live music in a wonderfully restored town hall in Brandon Vt. that features great acoustics. Admission free, donations accepted, with proceeds to help continuing preservation work.

Looking for big-screen thrills and spills? With 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926), even this poster is action-packed.

• Sunday, July 12, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: "The Great K & A Train Robbery" (1926) starring Tom Mix; Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Treachery on the rails as our hero goes undercover to learn who is tipping the bandits. One of the best Tom Mix films, with plenty of action and some fantastic stunt work. Part of a series of silent films with live music at a theater where movies have been shown since 1912! Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged.

Hope to see you at one or more of these screenings. And if anyone makes it to all four, I'll buy you lunch at the nearest White Castle. (Transportation not included. By the way, it's in the Bronx.)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Coming Sunday, 7/5: 'The Big Parade' (1925)
in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre

An original poster for MGM's blockbuster 'The Big Parade' (1925).

Looking for something different to mark Independence Day?

Then march on over to the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass., where I'm doing live music for a screening of 'The Big Parade' (1925) in 35mm on Sunday, July 5 at 2 p.m.

Despite now being 90 years old, this amazing movie—all about American soldiers who ship off to Europe to join in World War I—has lost none of its emotional impact.

Directed by a very young King Vidor, the film set new standards for realism in the then-still-new medium of cinema. It was the 'Saving Private Ryan' of its time, as mentioned in the press release below.

The result was an enormous blockbuster for MGM, which had just been created by a recent merger. 'The Big Parade' caused a sensation, becoming the studio's highest-grossing picture up until 'Gone With the Wind' hit the screen in 1939.

What I like most about 'The Big Parade,' and what I think still works just as intended, is its very simple but powerful structure.

Vidor directed the first half of the film in the style of a light romantic lark. We follow the GIs into the French countryside, where they bunk together in barns and get to know one another—and we get to know them. Plenty of hijinks ensue, including flirting with the local women, with no shortage of humor. It's kind of like a Sad Sack comic book story come to life.

That's John Gilbert under the barrel, getting to know a French village gal played by Renée Adorée.

But then the men get called up to the front, and everything changes. Vidor takes the men we've gotten to know and marches them into the trenches, and we can't help but be pulled along with them. We're suddenly in a world of darkness and mud and giant explosions and shrapnel and death everywhere.

In the trenches: John Gilbert surrounded by comrades Tom O'Brien (left) and Karl Dane.

Who will make it? Who will not?

I've accompanied this film many times now, and the structure never fails. You get to know these characters, and then you're tossed into the trenches with them. Everything is suddenly more intense, more vivid, more urgent, and more real. It's as if you wake from a dream but then get caught up in a nightmare.

Vidor not only brought you visually into places most audiences had never been taken, but his structure helped mimic the emotional landscape of battle. His structure helps us feel at least a little bit of what it's like to be part of a group now facing danger in a strange land for a cause that may or may not be worth fighting for, despite your duty.

With this in mind, it's a great film for music. To help underline the contrast, I've found it works well to score the whole first half as if it's one of those Sigmund Romberg operettas—a fanciful European fairytale.

Then, in the second half, I shift to an entirely different and much more aggressive style of accompaniment to communicate how things have changed. To me, the point where there's no turning back is the scene when the soldiers emerge from a forest and move out onto a blasted battlefield that's under continuous shellfire. No more Romberg from then on, folks.

'The Big Parade' is sometimes called the first "anti-war" film, but I think that's overemphasizing one aspect of it and putting it into a box in which it doesn't fit.

Rather, I think it celebrates the whole complex experience of being an American and serving one's country. And I can't think of a more satisfying way to finish a weekend of fireworks celebrating our nation's birth.

So come see 'The Big Parade.' More info about the screening is in the press release below. Hope to see you there!

P.S. Interesting trivia about 'The Big Parade'...renowned painter Andrew Wyeth first saw the film with his father in 1925, sparking a life-long interest. In a 1975 letter to director King Vidor, Wyeth claimed to have seen the film more than 200 times! For more info, check out info on this lecture at the Farnsworth Museum in Maine, where I've been trying to program 'The Big Parade' for some time now. How about it, guys?

* * *

The classic shot: John Gilbert and Renée Adorée in 'The Big Parade' (1925).

Contact Jeff Rapsis at (603) 236-9237 • e-mail

Epic war movie 'The Big Parade' to be screened in 35mm on Sunday, 7/5 at Somerville Theatre

To be shown with live music; blockbuster silent film drama
changed the way Hollywood depicted battle on the screen

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

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

'The Big Parade' will be screened in 35mm one time only at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, July 5 at 2 p.m. General admission is $15; seniors/students $12.

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 of troops in the trenches and foxholes. 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 a privileged background by enlisting in the army just before the U.S. enters World War I.

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

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.

Other upcoming features in the Somerville's silent film schedule include:

• Sunday, Aug. 2, 2 p.m.: 'Speedy' (1928) starring Harold Lloyd. Can Harold New York City's last horsedrawn streetcar line from the clutches of a greedy transport tycoon? The Big Apple co-stars in one of Harold's great silent comic masterpieces. Plus an extended cameo appearance from none other than Babe Ruth!

• Sunday, Sept. 13, 2 p.m.: 'The Matrimaniac' (1916) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. An unusual program that contrasts this early Fairbanks marital farce with another picture released by the same studio after Fairbanks had moved on, but which uses material from the Fairbanks film to support an entirely different story.

• Sunday, Oct. 4, 2 p.m.: 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926) starring Harry Langdon, Joan Crawford. The great silent film comedian Harry Langdon returns to the Somerville's big screen, this time with a very young Joan Crawford playing his love interest! His debut feature finds Harry entering a cross-country walking race to save the family business and impress the girl of his dreams.

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

MGM's silent blockbuster ‘The Big Parade’ will be shown in 35mm and with live music on Sunday, July 5 at 2 p.m. at Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Now boarding at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre:
A summer-long series of silent railroad films!

All aboard the Arizona Express, departing at 4:30 p.m. sharp on Sunday, June 28.

Last year, it was animals. The year before that, sailing ships.

But this summer, our silent film series at the marvelous Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre will focus on trains.

So all you foamers, mark those calendars: the series starts on Sunday, June 28 at 4:30 p.m. with 'The Arizona Express' (1924), a rip-roaring saga of the rails with enough mainline action to please any railroad fan.

("Foamer" is a derisive term used by railroad employees for people who love trains, so used because such folks foam at the mouth when one goes by.)

There's a press release below with more info about 'The Arizona Express' and other films we're showing in the series.

But for now, I'm just coming off a busy weekend of accompaniment adventures that included:

• A well-attended screening of 'Wings' (1927) on Thursday, June 18 at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

• A lively response to 'The Lost World' (1925) on Saturday, June 20 at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt.

• An unusual screening of 'The General' (1926) on Sunday, June 21 at the Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Mass.

The last one was scheduled as part of the first anniversary celebration of the Aeronaut, a sprawling craft brewery set up in a big old industrial space on a Somerville side street.

It's quite a place. The brewery's symbol is the iconic image of a lawn chair with balloons attached to it; because of that, the warehouse space is festooned with lawnchairs with clusters of balloons hanging from the ceiling.

But it's not just about the beer. (Which is great, by the way.) Owners Ben and Christine Holmes are developing the Aeronaut's cavernous home into a public art and performance space that features an ever-changing roster of musical acts, interpretive dance, and anything else that seems worth trying. Even silent films with live music!

And that's where I come in. Alas, before I came in, city inspectors came in, making a surprise visit to the Aeronaut, and ruled that if the film was shown where we'd planned to (an alcove off to one side), we'd be in violation of the Aeronaut's permit.

A music group performing with the trapeze above.

What to do? No problem: just show the film in the main room. Well, actually, one problem: the screen high above was obscured by a full-size trapeze and aerial silks hung from the steel girders high above.

Would this be the first silent film presentation to be cancelled due to a trapeze?

Well, nope—as it turned out, Ben had access to one of those mobile scissor lifting platforms that could be used to reach the ceiling. He piloted it from the loading dock down a narrow corridor, then raised it up to stow the trapeze and hanging silks in the rafters.

This piece of equipment saved the day. I wonder what Buster Keaton could have done with one of these.

And so the show went on: Ben introduced me as "the improvisational composer," which I kind of liked. Good reaction to 'The General.' and there's talk of another show later this summer. We'll see.

For now, I'm looking forward to our summer series of train movies in Wilton, N.H. For more information, please read on!

* * *

Tom Mix and Tony the Wonder Horse star in 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

All aboard! Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre
to launch series of vintage railroad dramas

Full steam ahead with summer line-up of train-themed silent films; all screened with live musical accompaniment

WILTON, N.H.—If you like trains, get ready to climb aboard.

A series of vintage big screen railroad dramas highlights this summer's silent film schedule at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre.

The train-themed movies, all accompanied by live music, are fast-paced silent-era melodramas set in the world of big-time railroading.

"These movies were made at a time when cars and trucks were rare, and railroads were a part of everyday life across the nation," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will provide live music for each movie.

"So the early studios capitalized on the public's close relationship with trains by churning out all kinds of railroad-themed pictures. In the silent era, it was a popular sub-genre," Rapsis said.

The Town Hall Theatre's railroad series opens on Sunday, June 28 at 4:30 p.m. with 'The Arizona Express' (1924), a rip-roaring melodrama rarely screened since its original release.

Other films in the series include silent cowboy star Tom Mix in 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926) on Sunday, July 12; and the railroad crime story 'Red Signals' (1927) on Sunday, Aug. 9.

The series concludes on Sunday, Aug. 30 with 'The Iron Horse' (1924), John Ford's epic drama about building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.

A scene from John Ford's 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

All shows in the series start at 4:30 p.m. The Town Hall Theatre's screenings are free and open to the public; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

Silent-era railroad dramas are of particular interest to train buffs because they're filled with scenes of working railroads in action about 100 years ago, at a time the nation's reliance on the rail network reached its peak.

Each film in the series has been selected for its overall story quality and lasting audience appeal.

"Even if you're not a railfan, each of these movies offers a great story told at a fast pace," Rapsis said. "These films were designed to be crowd-pleasers, and they still work today. They're the films that caused audiences to first fall in love with the movies."

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre has been showing films since 1912. In addition to running the best current releases on its two screens, the theater remains committed to alternative programming such as its ongoing series of silent films with live music.

The silent series gives local audiences to experience great work of early cinema as it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

An original poster for John Ford's epic 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

The complete roster of films in this summer's railroad series includes:

• Sunday, June 28 at 4:30 p.m.: 'The Arizona Express' (1924). We launch a summer series of train films with rip-roaring melodrama. When David Keith is sent to prison for allegedly killing his uncle, his sister Katherine must prove his innocence and get the information to the governor's office in time to save him.

• Sunday, July 12 at 4:30 p.m.: 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926) starring Tom Mix. Treachery on the rails as our hero goes undercover to learn who is tipping the bandits. One of the best Tom Mix films, with plenty of action and some fantastic stunt work.

• Sunday, Aug. 9 at 4:30 p.m.: 'Red Signals' (1927). After a series of train accidents in which the wrecks were looted, the railroad's top brass bring in "Sure Fire" Frank Bennett to set things right.

• Sunday, Aug. 30 at 4:30 p.m.: 'The Iron Horse' (1924). Director John Ford's sprawling epic tale about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Highlighted by spectacular location filming in the wide open spaces of the Old West.

The Summer Train Film Series will begin with a screening of 'The Arizona Express' (1924) on Sunday, June 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., Wilton, N.H.
Admission to the screenings is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested.

For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit For more info on the music, visit

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Finding my way to this year's 'Mostly Lost':
joining in an interactive vintage film event

My own photos of Mostly Lost in action were—well, mostly lost causes. This one is borrowed from accompanist Ben Model.

What happens when you assemble dozens and dozens of unidentified film clips, and then run them in a theater full of vintage movie experts armed with Internet access?

You get 'Mostly Lost,' a unique classic movie gathering—unique in that it actually encourages audience members to talk (the louder the better), check their laptops, and generally raise a ruckus, all while a film is running.

The idea is that someone might be able to identify something on screen: an actress, a location, a detail that fixes a year or date. And often, that's enough for everyone else to start calling out suggestions or mining the Internet for more info to nail down the film's title.

The thing is, it works! More often than not, a film is identified thanks to the collective brain power of some of the film community's biggest nerds—er, leading aficionados.

And I've seen it in action, having just returned from attending the most recent edition of "Mostly Lost," now in its fourth year at the Packard Center of the Library of Congress down in Culpeper, Virginia.

The full "Mostly Lost" is three days of film screenings and other events. But a tight schedule meant I could only make it down for the final day on Saturday, June 13.

Even so, a visit to the Packard Center earlier this year (thanks, Rob Stone!) had me eager to see "Mostly Lost" in action.

That, and a $59 round-trip airfare (that's no misprint) on JetBlue out of Hartford was enough for me get down there. And I'm glad I did.

What really surprised me is how interactive the whole process is. Once the films start running, one after another, everyone joins in. And I mean everyone—not just the big-name experts on hand, but just plain folks of all ages. They all throw out suggestions, comments, corny jokes, and anything else that comes to mind.

It's surprisingly refreshing—because, I think, we're so used to experiencing cinema as a passive art form. We sit, we watch. But at "Mostly Lost," we engage with the screen in a way that transforms movie-going into a collaborative effort.

The view from my seat on Saturday during 'Mostly Lost.' That's Phil Carli at the keyboard at lower right.

I think it's a close cousin to what an accompanist does in creating a live score for a silent film. The real-time involvement with the motion picture is engrossing, absorbing, and satisfying in a way that transcends cinema as a passive activity.

At Mostly Lost, the screenings take place in the Packard Center's comfy and well-appointed theater. No conference room atmosphere here, folks—it's one case in which I can see my federal tax dollars put to good use. (Actually, the whole Packard Center is like that. We'll see how I feel next April 15, though.)

Sessions are broken into chunks of roughly 90 minutes each, and follow a definite pattern.

At first, we all stare at whatever footage comes up. Then invariably, someone recognizes something—often a performer, with a comment such as "that's the guy who played the orphanage director in Chaplin's 'The Kid,' but I don't remember his name.

Then someone else remembers the guy's name, and soon the cross-referencing begins, checking cast lists against plot summaries against studio production lists, all online in various places.

So it's like a crossword puzzle. Often, if you get one solid answer, you can fill in many other things based on that. And before you know it, the formerly unknown film now is now reconnected with its name, production date, studio, cast, and so much else.

Chief organizers Rob Stone and Rachel Parker.

At this year's Mostly Lost, selections ran the gamut from "Unidentified Auto Comedy" to "1917 Crime Melodrama." The Saturday session I attended included American films in prints from the Netherlands that sported Dutch intertitles that no one could really translate in real time. "GOUD IS LOKKEND EN MACHTIG," anyone?

Still, almost all the films were positively identified via records of their original U.S. release.

And even if what's on screen isn't entertaining, usually the commentary is. Few things are funnier than a room full of film experts watching footage of an unidentified travelogue from Verona, Italy that consists entirely of long sustained shots in which absolutely nothing moves.

"I think I can see the ivy growing!" shouts accompanist Phil Carli, part of a chorus of increasingly irate comments.

Speaking of which: nearly all the fragments are from the silent era, meaning the festival's three accompanists were kept busy. Carli was joined at the keyboard by Ben Model and Andrew Simpson, who took turns, swapping out for each film. They're among the best in the field, and one of the delights of the festival is hearing them create accompaniment for fragments of film they've never seen before, sometimes while also shouting out their own suggestions.

Phil, it seems, has an encyclopedic knowledge of vintage autos, which comes in handy. Absent other clues, the shape of a car's running board can sometimes pinpoint when a film was (or was not) produced.

If someone has a lot to say about something on-screen, the person is handed one of the wireless microphones and allowed to talk freely. That happened to me during another travelogue, which came to us identified only as scenes from Switzerland.

When the footage screened, I was surprised to recognize scenes of the Landwasser Viaduct, a landmark structure on the mountain railway that links Chur with St. Moritz high in the Alps. Just last year, I had ridden on and photographed this line, and immediately knew what it was.

The iconic stone viaduct soars over a deep gorge before plunging into a tunnel in the side of a vertiginous cliff face. The line as a whole is famous because of how it loops around and on top of itself several times to gain altitude as it climbs up the narrow valley. It looks a model railroad layout, but in real life!

Accompanist Ben Model snapped this pic of the Swiss travelogue during Mostly Lost.

So I started spouting off—and the next thing I know, I'm holding one of the wireless microphones and I'm narrating a vintage travelogue about Switzerland, drawing upon my arcane fixation with railroads as well as my half-assed knowledge of the mountain culture of my wife's people.

And when that failed me, I resorted to stand-up, even though I was sitting down.

"Here we see scenes of an Alpine logging operation," I remarked. "If this had been a sound film, right now you would undoubtedly be hearing plenty of yodeling."

Accompanist Phil Carli immediately obliged by shifting the music into a bumptious folk idiom, topping it off with a scrap of melody from the well-known theme song to the "Swedish Chef" of Muppets fame, for which he apologized even before he'd finished playing the phrase. Wow!

'Mostly Lost' is a chance to catch up with folks such as film experts Bruce Lawton and Eric Grayson, seen here enjoying mostly lunch.

As the day progressed, I expected to get a little antsy as the grind of fragments wore on. But that never happened. Instead, time flew, with each piece of film bringing the possibly of discovering something special or unknown.

The atmosphere was buoyed, I think, by the energy of all that film nerd power in one place, and all focused on a single shared task. Think of it: Some of these people had been preparing 40 years or more for this moment!

Plus, special presentations throughout the event broke things up. The day I was there, film buff Jim Kerkoff presented "Visiting Roach Royalty," a delightful account of his efforts to track down living ex-employees of Hal Roach studios during visits to the Los Angeles area back in the 1980s.

Things were taken up a notch for public events in the evenings, for which "Mostly Lost" moved from the Packard to the marvelous State Theatre in downtown Culpeper.

The night I was there saw the U.S. East Coast premiere of the newly discovered and restored 'Sherlock Holmes' feature film from 1916.

The audience gathers prior to the 'Sherlock' screening.

Restoration lead Robert Byrne (president of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival) delivered a well-illustrated presentation of what it took to rehab the single print discovered last year in the archives of the Cinémathèque Française.

Then the lights went down, and we watched the film, with great live piano accompaniment from Phil Carli.

A scene from the long-lost 1916 feature film 'Sherlock Holmes,' in which actor William Gillette played the role he made famous on the stage.

And as it played out on the screen before us, I found myself marveling at how fortunate we were to be able to see a film considered lost for nearly a century. And yet here it was, with nary a scene missing and looking pretty darn good for a 1916 Essanay feature.

So if I had to comment on anything, it might be the festival's name. With so much footage being identified, and with marquee attractions such as the newly restored 'Sherlock,' maybe it should really be called something else: 'Mostly FOUND.'

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Coming up: two chances to see 'Wings' (1927)
on the big screen, in a theater, with live music

Warplanes menace the apparently enormous head of Clara Bow in this vintage movie poster.

'Wings' is all about biplanes, so perhaps it's fitting that in the next two weeks, I'll be accompanying two separate screenings in two different states.

Whaddaya know? A pair of 'Wings!'

First up: the Flying Monkey Theatre in Plymouth, N.H. on Thursday, June 11. Then, a week later, it's the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

Both venues have movie theater roots dating back to the silent era, so it's possible 'Wings' played at either (or both) in its original release.

But if you missed it in 1927, you have two chances to catch it this month. Hope to see you there!

If you'd like more info, below is the press release that went out for the Flying Monkey show this week. I'll update it with the Leavitt's press release info after the Plymouth show.

Keep 'em flying!

An original poster for 'Wings' (1927).

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Epic silent film 'Wings' (1927) to be shown on Thursday, June 11 at Flying Monkey

Sprawling story of U.S. aviators in World War I won first-ever 'Best Picture'; to be screened with live musical accompaniment

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—Silent film with live music returns to the Flying Monkey with 'Wings' (1927), an epic adventure set in World War I that won 'Best Picture' honors at the very first Academy Awards ceremony. 'Wings' will be revived for one showing only on Thursday, June 11 at 6:30 p.m.

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

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

The screening of 'Wings' will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New England-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations. Admission is $10 per person.

Buddy Rogers and Clara Bow in 'Wings' (1927).

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

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

Seen today, the film also allows contemporary audiences a window into the era of World War I, which was underway in Europe a century ago. The U.S. entered the war in 1917.

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

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

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

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

The Flying Monkey originally opened as a silent film moviehouse in the 1920s, and showed first-run Hollywood films to generations of area residents until closing several years ago. The theater has since been renovated by Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man restaurants, who created a performance space that hosts a wide range of music acts.

Movies of all types, however, are still a big part of the Flying Monkey's offerings, and the silent film series is a way for the theater to remain connected to its roots.

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

• Thursday, July 9, 2015, 6:30 p.m.: 'A Dog Double Feature' spotlighting silent-era canine stars Peter the Great and Rin Tin Tin. In 'The Sign of the Claw,' a police dog helps solve a crime wave. The only surviving film of Peter the Great, a popular German shepherd performer. 'The Night Cry' (1926) finds iconic dog superstar Rin Tin Tin accused of killing sheep. Can he find the real bandit and clear his name?

• Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, 6:30 p.m.: 'Grandma's Boy' (1922) starring Harold Lloyd. A ccowardly young man must learn to conquer his fears before dealing with a larger menace to his community. Riotous small town comedy that helped propel Harold Lloyd into the most popular movie comedian of the 1920s.

‘Wings’ will be shown on Thursday, June 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit