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.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Silent 'Tarzan' double feature with live music
Thurs., Sept. 18 at Leavitt Theatre, Ogunquit

A crazy (but memorable) poster in which my name battles a lion and Tarzan for prominence.

Here's a thought about our silent Tarzan double feature coming up this week (Thursday, Sept. 18) at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine: I think the 'Tarzan' stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs are in the same category as 'The Lost World' by Arthur Conan Doyle or 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Yes, they were all made into popular silent films. But that's not what I mean, despite this being a blog about silent film accompaniment. What I'm thinking about is how each author used then-current changes in society to imagine original stories that became powerful modern myths.

I suppose it's true that the basic stories of mankind haven't changed since pre-history. Boy meets girl, pride comes before a fall, etc. In Western civilization, tales illustrating such themes are woven into Greek mythology, the Bible, into Shakespeare—everything. They're important in part because they are unchanging.

But what I like about Tarzan—and about 'The Lost World' and about 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,' too—is that they seem to me to entirely new stories rooted in what was happening right in their times. They represented changes in culture and society that just weren't part of the ancient landscape. They were new.

In the case of Tarzan, Burroughs fashioned a storyline to create a human raised without benefit of modern civilization's extensive and potentially corrupting influence. Was he a better person because of it? You could debate it either way, but the idea was rich enough to spawn endless novels and sequels, turning Tarzan into a cultural icon.

And how about dinosaurs? Every time I go into a toy store and see all the dinosaur-related items, I wonder if it would be like this if Sir Arthur hadn't penned 'The Lost World,' published back in 1912. By spinning a tale that gave humans a way to interact with pre-historic creatures long thought extinct, Doyle's creativity gave life to a whole cultural subset that persists to this day.

'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde': another case of scientific developments driving the creation of a new tale that reflected present reality and also helped us cope with its consequences. Author Stevenson emerged from the lab of his writing room with a memorable tale of a man with two identities, a story that owed nothing to anyone.

So back to this week's screening: Tarzan is among an elite group of characters who were spawned by changes in society in the early 20th century, and then propelled to fame by the movies. And this goes to heart of what I find exciting about early cinema: it's like being present at the creation of brand new myths that speak closely to age we live in.

Of course change keeps happening, and faster and faster all the time. And so I have to ask: who among us is spinning the tales and creating the characters that will help us understand our own times? It's not easy to know.

But we can be sure of the impact of Tarzan, and of dinosaurs, and of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even down to the current day. And I think it's really exciting to go back to when such stories were brand new to readers and movie-goers alike.

I do hope you can join us for the silent Tarzan double feature at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit. Details and more info about the films are in the press release below.

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Elmo Lincoln, the original Tarzan of the Movies, stars in 'Tarzan of the Apes' (1918).

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

Silent film 'Tarzan' double feature at Leavitt Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 18

Screening of timeless family movie classics in historic Ogunquit venue to feature live musical accompaniment

OGUNQUIT, Maine—You won't get to hear his famous jungle yell. But everything else that made Tarzan a vine-swinging movie legend will fill the big screen at an upcoming one-night-only silent film double feature at the historic Leavitt Theatre.

The silent program, set for Thursday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m., includes two early Tarzan features that helped popularize the character created by author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Both films will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. General admission for the event is $10 per person.

The program features 'Tarzan of the Apes' (1918), the very first full-length movie adaptation of the Tarzan story. The film covers the basic story of how Tarzan was separated from his aristocratic British parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke. As a young child, he is adopted by apes, and raised in the jungle until his rediscovery as a young "ape man" and his reconnection with civilization begins.

The original 'Tarzan of the Apes' was filmed in 1917 in Morgan City, Louisiana, using Louisiana swamp country as a stand-in for the African jungle.

Playing Tarzan is Elmo Lincoln, the first actor to popularize the role. Lincoln, a hefty athlete, went on to play the ape man in two subsequent films before the role was given to other actors.

After Lincoln's movie career fizzled in the 1920s, he found work in the mining industry. Later in life, he returned to Hollywood to take small parts in low budget movies, working as an uncredited extra in two Tarzan films in the 1940s. Lincoln died in 1952 after suffering a heart attack.

Also to be shown at the Leavitt is 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' (1927), an RKO Pictures adaptation of a 1923 Burroughs novel of the same title.

The film finds Tarzan forced to journey through the African jungle to the legendary City of Diamonds, where he and his pet lion Jadbal-ja must save an Englishwoman from being sacrificed to the Gods.

Playing Tarzan in this film is James Pierce, the fourth actor to portray the role. Pierce was a part-time actor who coached high school football in Glendale, Calif., where his squad included future actor John Wayne.

After landing the Tarzan role, Pierce married Burroughs' daughter Joan in 1928. Although other actors took over the Tarzan role in motion pictures, Pierce and his wife voiced the roles of Tarzan and Jane in a popular 1930s radio show.

Pierce later ran a real estate agency in southern California. He died in 1984; he and his wife are buried in Indiana with tombstones marked "Tarzan" and "Jane."

For decades, no copy of 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' was thought to exist until a nearly complete print was discovered in a foreign archive in the 1990s.

James H. Pierce plays Tarzan in 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' (1927).

The Tarzan double feature is the latest in the Leavitt's series of silent film screenings with live music. The series aims to show the best silent films in the way that caused people to first fall in love with the movies—on the big screen, in a theater, with live music, and with an audience.

"We're looking forward to running this amazing double feature of early Tarzan movies," said Peter Clayton, longtime owner/operator of the Leavitt. "So much of what's great about the movies started back in the silent era, and Tarzan is no exception. It's a great joy for us to present these films on the big screen again with live music."

The Leavitt opened in 1923 as a silent movie house, and has been in business every summer season since. Over the past winter, Clayton installed a new digital projection system to enable the Leavitt to continue to offer first-run Hollywood films.

Both Tarzan flicks will be accompanied by New Hampshire-based silent film musician and composer Jeff Rapsis, who has prepared new material to go with both pictures.

"In accompanying these Tarzan films, I hope to evoke the mystery and excitement of the jungle setting that was a big part of their popularity," Rapsis said.

"I also hope to bring out the excitement that helped people first fall in love with the movies, and which is still in these pictures," Rapsis said. "That's especially true in the 'Golden Lion' film, which plays like an early version of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' "

The Tarzan Silent Film Double Feature will be shown with live music on Thursday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1 in Ogunquit, Maine. General admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (207) 646-3123 or visit For more information about the music, visit

Friday, September 12, 2014

Harold Lloyd's 'The Kid Brother' in 35mm
on Sunday, Sept. 14 at Somerville Theatre

A poster for 'The Kid Brother' (1927), to be shown in 35mm on Sunday, Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass.

When I was growing up and first getting into silent film, Harold Lloyd loomed as a mysterious and mythic figure to me.

Why? Because I'd read all about his work and his films and his great popularity. But in Nashua, N.H. in the 1970s, there was no way to actually see the films themselves.

So, as we prepare for a screening of Lloyd's great feature 'The Kid Brother' (1927) in 35mm on Sunday, Sept. 14 at the Somerville Theatre, let me recall how hard it used to be to see Lloyd's work, which might help explain why I feel every Lloyd showing is something of a special event.

I first got hooked on silent film back in EBHV. (That's short for the "Era Before Home Video.") To collect or enjoy silent film, you had to buy or rent home versions on actual film, and run them on your home projector.

And so I eagerly ordered 8mm prints of Chaplin and Keaton titles from Blackhawk Films, and ran them all the time to my confused neighborhood friends. But precious few of Lloyd's films were available to buy or rent for home use, and those that were seemed to be just the very early ones.

I wondered: What was the deal with the Lloyd films? Were they lost? Were they just not any good? Was there something wrong with them? Would I ever get to see them?

What had happened, I later found out, was that Lloyd himself felt quite strongly that his films, to be seen at their best, needed to be shown in a specific environment: in a theater, with live music, and with a large audience.

After the silent era ended, he kept close control of his work, refusing to license it for television or for home use, which he felt would diminish what he and his co-workers had strived so hard to achieve.

It was a testament to the quality of the work, and to Harold's achievement, that memories of his films persisted for decades despite their unavailability. That one photo of him hanging from the clock in 'Safety Last' (1923) probably would have been enough by itself to keep his name from fading completely.

But for the most part, the best Lloyd films were kept locked away for decades by their maker himself, and during that time his name recognition really did fall off. Later in life, Harold's eventual solution was to create compilation films, stitching together the best sequences from his great silent features of the 1920s and also some of his sound pictures of the 1930s.

These were released in the 1960s, and Harold was right: his work still worked when shown in theaters, even for a new generation of film-goers who weren't familiar with his character. And the experience of seeing it in a theater with a large audience was a crucial part of seeing his work to its best advantage.

After Harold died in 1971, his films were eventually licensed for home and broadcast, but in versions that were edited for television. These "Time-Life" editions are almost universally decried as desecrations among serious film buffs.

But these versions were broadcast on some local PBS stations, usually as program filler, and that's how I first saw a lot of Harold's best work. (Thank you, New Hampshire Public Television.) To me, it was a revelation, even sitting alone at home in my pajamas on a Saturday morning at 10 a.m., which was not Harold's idea of optimum viewing experience for his films, I know.

Film after film that for years had been only titles in a book were now real experiences to me. And I thought each of them was absolutely superb.

I found the visual quality of Harold's late 1920s work, as in this still from 'The Kid Brother' (1927), to be particularly impressive.

Seen together, they created a silent film world that had previously been unknown to me. It was like hearing people talk about Beethoven's symphonies for years, and then finally getting to hear them. I reveled in my new acquaintance of the richness of Harold Lloyd's world.

And a similar revelation happened later, when I first got to see Lloyd's films in a theater and as part of an audience. The effect was electric. Lloyd was right again: the screening conditions (basically, showing the pictures with live music in a theater with an audience) were vital to films having their full effect.

Now, when I think of the best silent-film going experiences I've had, many of them are Lloyd pictures, which were designed to produce audience response. A showing of 'Safety Last' (1923) that I arranged in 1983 while a student at Fordham University, which astonished all the campus film geeks who'd never heard of him. A screening of 'The Freshman' (1925) at the Film Forum in New York City in 1993 where I don't think I've ever laughed so hard.

More recently, as an accompanist: A screening of 'Girl Shy' (1924) to an audience in a barn in upstate New York worked the audience into a frenzy. A similar thing happened with a screening of 'Speedy' (1928) in Concord, N.H. The Lloyd films always get an audience going.

As a result of all this, I'm conditioned to think of any screening of a Harold Lloyd picture as a special event. So I'm really looking forward to doing music for his great feature 'The Kid Brother' (1927), presented this weekend in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre down in Somerville, Mass.

I do hope you can join us. A Harold Lloyd film with live music and a large audience remains one of the great experiences of the cinema. If you'd like more information, the press release for this screening is pasted in below.

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Harold pays attention to Jobyna, while Harold's brothers pay attention to him.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent comedy masterpiece 'The Kid Brother' to be screened in Somerville

Harold Lloyd program on Sunday, Sept. 14 features 35mm film print, live musical accompaniment at Somerville Theatre

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—He was the most popular film star of the 1920s, routinely outpacing comic rivals Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at the box office. His "everyman" character, embraced by audiences, inspired movies that today remain crowd-pleasers for film-goers of all ages.

He was Harold Lloyd, the boy next door who could wind up hanging from the hands of a clock high atop a skyscraper. Audiences loved Lloyd's mix of visual comedy and thrilling adventures, making him one of the most recognized icons of early Hollywood.

See for yourself when 'The Kid Brother' (1927), a film regarded as Lloyd's masterpiece, is screened on Sunday, Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theater, 55 Davis Square in Somerville, Mass.

The movie will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. Admission $15 for adults; $12 for students/seniors.

'The Kid Brother' will be shown in the Somerville Theatre's main theater using a 35mm print provided by the Harold Lloyd Trust of Los Angeles.

In 'The Kid Brother,' meek country boy Harold Hickory (Lloyd) looks up to his tough father, but is overshadowed by two burly older brothers. When a traveling circus brings trouble to town and possible disgrace to the Hickory clan, can Harold save the family name?

From that simple situation, Lloyd weaves a roller coaster of a tale that critics and film historians say show him at the height of his powers as a filmmaker and comedian.

"The first silent film I ever saw that made me actually stand up and cheer," wrote critic Steven D. Greydanus of The Decent Films Guide. "As a first introduction to silent film, I would pick 'The Kid Brother' over the best of Chaplin or Keaton every time."

"Unlike Chaplin’s Little Tramp, who was as much defined by his bizarre eccentricities as his bowler and cane, Lloyd’s character, with his trademark spectacles, was an instantly likable, sympathetic boy-next-door type, a figure as winsome and approachable as Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks," Greydanus wrote.

The film costars Jobyna Ralston, Walter James, Eddie Boland, and Constantine Romanoff.

Harold Lloyd, along with Chaplin and Keaton, stands as one of the three masters of silent comedy. Though Lloyd's reputation later faded due to unavailability of his movies, the recent re-release of most of his major films on DVD has spurred a reawakening of interest in his work. This has led to more screenings in theaters such as the Somerville, where it was designed to be shown.

"Seeing a Harold Lloyd film in a theater with live music and an audience is one of the great experiences of the cinema of any era," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician who will accompany the film. "These films were designed for a specific environment. If you can put those conditions together again, you can get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies," Rapsis said.

The films will be shown using 35mm black-and-white prints on the theater's big screen with correct lighting, speed, and aspect ratio. Although the Somerville, like most movie houses, recently installed digital projection, 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," Rapsis said. "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 Kid Brother' is a chance to enjoy 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, Oct. 5, 2 p.m.: 'The Crowd' (1928). Director King Vidor's acclaimed drama about the life of an everyman who aims high, but life has other ideas. Released by MGM near the end of the silent era, and filled with iconic scenes showing the eloquence of silent film at its most fluent.

• 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 greatest comedies of the silent film era.

'The Kid Brother' will be screened in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Sept. 14 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

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Early Hitchcock: 'The Lodger' (1927)
on Thursday, Sept. 11 in Plymouth, N.H.

That's British actor Ivor Novello on the poster for this week's screening of 'The Lodger.'

Think about it: Alfred Hitchcock began directing movies when they came without soundtracks.

And for the rest of his long career, he maintained that silent film was "the purest form of cinema."

How odd that a man who ended up helming wide-screen color spectaculars such as 'North by Northwest' (1959) should yearn for the silent film era, with all its limitations.

What he meant, I think, was that if you stripped cinema down to its essence, you'd have one thing: pictures that move.

That was silent cinema. And this limitation forced Hitchcock (and other filmmakers, too) to make the most of this essential quality of cinema. (At right, an unflattering picture of a very young Hitchcock.)

And for the best directors, the limitations of silent film weren't limitations at all. They actually served to concentrate all the energy on telling a story visually, which I think helped establish some of the unique qualities of cinema at a very early time in its development.

For instance: even within the confines of silent film, Hitchcock was already finding ways to be Hitchcock. 'The Lodger' (1927) shows much of Hitchcock's style already in place. Heck, the film started his long-running practice of playing brief cameo roles in his films.

So 'The Lodger' is worth seeing, especially if you're a Hitchcock fan. You'll find it interesting, I think, to see how Hitchcock could still be unmistakably Hitchcock using just moving images on the screen.

For me, Hitchcock's movies hold an honored place in my "Great Movie Experiences Hall of Fame," mostly because of fortuitous timing.

While I was in college, five of Hitchcock's big 1950s spectaculars were restored and released to theaters for the first time in decades.

This was in the early 1980s, just before home video became widespread, and so it was big news. These films hadn't been seen in public (or television) for decades.

And as a freshman at Fordham University, I was able to see pictures such as 'Rear Window' (1954) and 'Vertigo' (1958) at the most prestigious theaters in New York City, often with packed houses. What an impression they made!

(I recall 'The Trouble With Harry' (1955), set in New England, made me feel terribly homesick. But then so did 'On Golden Pond,' which had come out that summer and was filmed in New Hampshire.)

The re-release of the Hitchcock films was my first experience being among a lot of people who really enjoyed older cinema. For me, it was quite a rush, and helped me realize the importance of screening films in a theater with an audience: something I advocate for strongly today.

With that in mind, I hope you'll join us for our screening of 'The Lodger' (1927) on Thursday, Sept. 11 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

For more info, check out the press release below. Thanks!

* * *

Ivor Novello plays the title role in 'The Lodger' (1927).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Hitchcock's first, 'The Lodger,' to screen
Thursday, Sept. 11 at Flying Monkey Moviehouse

Creepy silent thriller about killings in London marked legendary director's debut; to be shown on the big screen with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—A half-century of murder has to start somewhere. And for movie director Alfred Hitchcock, it began with 'The Lodger' (1927), a silent thriller that stunned audiences when it was first released, and contained many of his trademark touches.

'The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog,' will be shown at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center on Thursday, Sept. 11 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.

The film, shot in England and based on a story and stage play by Marie Belloc Lowndes, concerns the hunt for a serial killer in London. British matinee idol Ivor Novello plays Jonathan Drew, a quiet, secretive young man who rents a room in a London boarding house. Drew's arrival coincides with the reign of terror orchestrated by a mysterious "Jack The Ripper"-like killer, who murders a blonde woman every Tuesday evening.

As the film progresses, circumstantial evidence begins to mount, pointing to Drew as the murderer. Suspense and drama escalate in true Hitchcock fashion as the viewer wonders if the lodger really could be the killer—and if so, what danger awaits the landlord's daughter, who is falling in love with the mysterious stranger. The all-British cast includes Malcom Keen, Arthur Chesney, and Marie Ault.

'The Lodger' introduced themes that would run through much of Hitchcock’s later work: an innocent man on the run, hunted down by a self-righteous society, a strong link between sexuality and murder, and a fixation on blonde women. About 'The Lodger,' Hitchcock scholar Donald Spoto wrote that for "the first time Hitchcock has revealed his psychological attraction to the association between sex and murder, between ecstasy and death."

'The Lodger' also launched the Hitchcock tradition of making a cameo appearance in each of his films. In 'The Lodger,' Hitchcock appears briefly about three minutes into the film, sitting at a desk in a newsroom with his back to the camera and using a telephone. The cameo appearance tradition, which continued for the rest of his long career, came about in 'The Lodger' when the actor supposed to play the part of the telephone operator failed to turn up, and Hitchcock filled the breach.

Some critics say 'The Lodger' broke new ground in the previously moribund British cinema, showing a truly cinematic eye at work. In creating the movie, Hitchcock had clearly been watching contemporary films by German directors F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, whose influence can be seen in the ominous camera angles and claustrophobic lighting.

While Hitchcock had made two previous films, in later years the director would refer to 'The Lodger,' his first thriller, as the first true "Hitchcock movie." The movie has since been remade several times, most recently in 2009, in an updated version starring Alfred Molina and Hope Davis.

In reviving the original 'The Lodger,' 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. 9, 6:30 p.m.: 'Chicago' (1927). The original big screen adaptation of the notorious Jazz Age tabloid scandal, based on real events. Dancer Roxie Hart is accused of murder! Is she innocent or headed for the slammer? Later made into the popular Broadway musical. A film long thought lost but recovered only recently.

• 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!

‘The Lodger' will be shown on Thursday, Sept. 11 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

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Jaw-dropping stupidity": Alas, no Oscars
for Oscar the Elephant in 'Soul of the Beast'

Madge Bellamy and Oscar the Elephant star in a tender scene from 'Soul of the Beast' (1923), a totally ridiculous but completely fascinating silent film melodrama.

This weekend at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre, we wrap up our summer-long series of silent films starring animals. And we do it with a jumbo-sized double bill.

On Sunday, Sept. 7 at 4:30 p.m., we bring you a pair of films featuring the biggest movie stars of all...elephants!

Yes, elephants. Cue the puns about it being a "really oversized show."

And just as elephants are large, so is the gap in quality between our two features: 'Soul of the Beast' (1923) and 'Chang' (1927).

In 'Soul of the Beast' (1923), Madge Bellamy and Oscar the Elephant co-star in a rural circus melodrama that's hands-down the nuttiest silent film I've ever seen, never mind attempted to accompany.

In contrast, 'Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness' (1927) is such impressive filmmaking that it was nominated for an Academy Award in the "Unique and Artistic Production" category.

Ironic: one film stars an 'Oscar,' while the other actually got nominated for one. But I don't think you'll have any trouble telling the two apart.

'Soul of the Beast' follows the story of a circus runaway (Bellamy) who flees her mean stepfather/ringmaster, taking along her beloved trained elephant companion.

Together, they wander the Canadian wilderness, embarking on unlikely misadventures that are so mind-boggling I can't begin to describe them here.

Instead, let me quote a rare online review of this obscure picture from the Web site:

"Sometimes intentionally comic, this film is laughable even when it attempts to be serious. ... Ultimately, we must say that 'Soul of the Beast' is not-so-much ado about nothing, but it nonetheless remains inexplicably watchable due in toto to its jaw-dropping stupidity."

Wow! Not exactly a rave.

Even so, I urge you to see 'Soul of the Beast,' as it compels the kind of fascination generated by all bad art, and with car accidents, too: it's strangely mesmerizing and hilarious and tragic, all at the same time. It will haunt you for days, as it has me.

It's as if legendary "bad film" director Edward D. Wood, Jr. had been working in the 1920s. You will never see anything like it.

The same can be said of 'Chang,' but in a good way. Shot on location in the remote jungles of Siam (now Thailand), it's an unusual blend of documentary and narrative movie.

Over a period of many months, co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack patiently gathered remarkable footage of wild animals in the jungle, including many scenes never before caught on film. (In an age when we're used to seeing close-up of wildlife, it's hard to imagine how exciting this must have been to early film-goers.)

And they then interwove this footage with a fictional story of a native family (played by local non-actors) meant to show man's never-ending struggle for survival in the wilderness. Yes, the story itself was fiction, but everything else about the family's life was rendered exactly as it would have been found a century ago in rural Thailand.

As such, it's a remarkable record of a way of life that had been unchanged for centuries, but which today is pretty much lost. And I have to say, this hybrid combination is still surprisingly compelling.

I first encountered 'Chang' several years ago at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, when it was screened with solo piano accompaniment by Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

I had never heard of it. But I remember being swept up by the movie's story, which builds to quite an intense climax. I'm sure part of this was due to Rodney's excellent accompaniment.

But another element, I think, was the simple honesty of the film-making. No trick photography or special effects are used. Instead, everything in the film was real, meaning that it actually happened in front of a camera.

Notwithstanding the fictional storyline, everything in 'Chang' is displayed to us just as it would have appeared had we found ourselves in the jungles of southeast Asia in 1927.

And I think that's as big as any elephant we'll encounter at Sunday's double feature. Why? Because it creates a bond between moviemaker and viewer that's rooted in the fidelity of the camera.

Knowing what we are seeing actually took place (instead of being rendered on a hard drive, for example) lends a level and honesty and interest to a film that I think definitely makes a difference, at least in my experience seeing and accompanying movies in theaters filled with people.

So why did Hollywood just suffer its worst box office summer in a generation? Why is attendance down? Maybe the elephant in the room, so to speak, is that many of today's films are too disconnected from the basics of cinema by digital rendering and other sophisticated tools that get in the way of the fundamental promise of film: the belief that what we're seeing in front of us with our own eyes is actually happening and worth believing.

At its heart, cinema is reality reshaped. And, after accompanying hundreds of silent films and witnessing the audience reaction to them, I think it's very important not to forget that "reality" part.

So if nothing else, an older and seemingly primitive film such as 'Chang' can remind us of the simple power of cinema basics: using a camera to record scenes, and then arranging them for maximum coherence and impact.

'Chang' is worth seeing on that account alone—even if you have to first suffer through 'Soul of the Beast' to do so.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Coming up: Chaplin in Ogunquit, Maine
and then more animals in Wilton, N.H.

Happy birthday, Charlie! The "Little Tramp" character turns 100 this year.

It's the last week of summer before Labor Day weekend, and two screenings beckon:

• On Thursday, Aug. 28, I'm accompanying a Charlie Chaplin program at the historic Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine. Showtime is at 8 p.m.; tickets are $10 each.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Chaplin's entry in the movie biz, as well as the centennial of his iconic "tramp" character. So we thought it was high time to do a program of the short comedies that first established Chaplin's worldwide fame.

Still deciding which titles to include in the mix. But the program promises to be a fun one for newbies and long-time fans alike. For many, Chaplin continues to be the "gateway drug," leading people to an interest in other personalities and films of the silent era.

As the for the music, for Chaplin films I try to mimic the style of music he used in his later films, when he actually was able to supervised recorded scores that accompanied his work.

Chaplin's own music seems to draw from the traditions of English Music Hall pantomime, which makes sense because that's the environment in which he grew up.

So although most of Chaplin's early short comedies have no "official" soundtrack, I think they too lend themselves to this style of accompaniment, which Chaplin probably had in mind all along. So that's what I try to do.

• Sunday, Aug. 31 will see another "all animal" silent film program at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. In this case, it's a triple feature, with two films starring dogs and one with a horse. The show starts at 4:30 p.m.; admission is free, but a $5 donation is requested to defay expenses.

The films? 'His Master's Voice' (1925) finds Thunder the Dog helping human co-star George Hackathorne overcome his cowardice on the battlefield; in 'The Return of the Grey Wolf' (1923), Leader the Dog comes to the aid of his master, a fur trapper blinded in an accident; and in 'Guardians of the Wild' (1928), Rex the Wonder Horse helps the good guys fight the bad guys over the fate of a pristine patch of wilderness that he calls home.

Of the three, 'The Return of Grey Wolf' (1923) is perhaps the loopiest, and therefore my personal favorite. It comes with titles that at times tell us when Leader opens his mouth, he's saying "Woof Woof!" To be fair, these utterances are then translated into more detailed human thoughts. But still, that's something I'd never seen before.

All three are crackerjack entertainment and superb examples of why people first fell in love with the movies.

They're not recognized as classics. But to me, their value as popcorn entertainment (and as cultural artifacts, too) shows how even little-known "program fillers" from the silent era still really packed a punch.

After this, our animal series finishes up in a big way, with a finale of films starring elephants. On Sunday, Sept. 7, we're screening 'Soul of the Beast' (1923) starring Oscar the Elephant, and 'Chang' (1927), a film shot on location in the jungles of Siam.

Madge Bellamy co-stars with Oscar the Elephant in 'Soul of the Beast' (1923).

Of the two, 'Soul of the Beast' is hands-down the most outlandish silent drama I've ever encountered. I don't want to give away too much, but this is one strange flick, and I'm looking forward to seeing how an audience reacts.

In contrast, 'Chang' is the moving story of a rural family forced to battle the jungle for survival. Filmed documentary-style on location, the film is a remarkable record of a way of life that has long since vanished.

In the directors' own words, Chang is a "melodrama with man, the jungle, and wild animals as its cast." Kru, the farmer depicted in the film, battles leopards, tigers, and even a herd of elephants, all of which pose a constant threat to his livelihood.

'Chang' was good enough to be nominated for the Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Production at the very first Academy Awards in 1929, the only year when that award was presented.