Sunday, February 9, 2020

A child's laughter = proof of immortality; also, 'The Navigator' on 2/12 in Plymouth, N.H.

Harry Langdon, overgrown child, in 'The Strong Man' (1926).

Harry Langdon's character was essentially that of an overgrown child.

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that four young kids right behind me responded so strongly to 'The Strong Man' (1926), which we screened last night at the Campton (N.H.) Historical Society.

Really! Harry had them right from the start. I think they were hooked at the early scene where Harry knocks over the Ellis Island benches.

And if it wasn't that, it was definitely the scene where Harry brings his unexpected lady friend up a staircase rear-end first.

There was one girl in particular who could not stop her genuine giggling — you know, the kind that can't be faked.

And that got everyone going. And after that, Harry could do no wrong!

This was for an audience who'd never heard of Langdon prior to the film's opening credits. And yet Harry was able to reach across the years and establish a bond with a child born in the second term of the Obama presidency.

Could you ask for better proof of the enduring appeal of the silent comedy greats?

Coming up next: a screening of Buster Keaton's equally timeless classic 'The Navigator' (1924) on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. More info and details are included in the press release I've tacked on at the end of this post.

And now back to the news from Campton, N.H. Last night's pot luck supper was one for the ages. I can't name half the dishes I sampled, but it was all just right on an evening where the temperature at sundown was 9 degrees and falling. Hunger is evidently not a problem in rural N.H.

Alas, attendance at this year's annual silent film screening was down due to everyone in town suffering from a nasty mid-winter cold that's been making the rounds. (I had it all through January, so I sympathize!) And not a single presidential candidate showed up!

Even so, the laughter filled the historical society's meeting and exhibit room, which once served as the community's town hall.

To introduce Langdon, and to show people why his slow pace was such a breath of fresh air, I decided to program something beforehand to show 1920s comedy at its most frenetic.

I chose the ending of 'Play Safe' (1927), a Monty Banks feature, which is a surprisingly hair-raising chase and rescue on a runaway railroad train.

Banks is even more obscure than Langdon today. So audiences simply aren't unprepared for the scale and ambition displayed in this sequence, which takes one's breath away.

A full "snow" moon rising at dusk over snow-bound Campton, N.H. Click to enlarge.

But I think it provided the perfect set-up for Langdon, as it highlighted clearly why he stood out at the time. Slower, smaller, more subtle — off the top of my head, I described it as "comedy in a jewelry store," which isn't a bad way of putting it.

Well, whether or not this way of introducing Langdon made a difference, last night's screening showed that audiences can and will respond to his best work.

Why is that a question? Because years ago, in his book 'The Silent Clowns,' author Walter Kerr described running Keaton's 'The General' to appreciative audiences, but Langdon was greeted with utter silence. So I've always felt that Langdon would be a tough sell.

Well, maybe not. Maybe all he needs is a little perspective. And come to think of it, don't we all?

Okay, below is all the info about Keaton's 'The Navigator.' Hope to see you there!

* * *

Buster Keaton prepares to dive deep in 'The Navigator' (1924).

MONDAY, FEB. 3, 2020 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Classic seafaring silent comedy ‘The Navigator’ (1924) in Plymouth on Wednesday, Feb. 12



Buster Keaton's nautical masterpiece to be screened with live music at Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—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.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The Navigator' (1924), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 S. Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

'The Navigator' is a comedy that follows the adventures of wealthy nitwit Rollo Treadway (Keaton) and his pampered girlfriend, who find themselves adrift alone on a massive ocean liner. Forced to fend for themselves without servants, the pair attempt to cope with day-to-day life, creating classic comedy in the process.

But when the ship runs aground on a remote island inhabited by cannibals, is Buster's resourcefulness enough to save the day?

Filmed at sea on a real ocean liner that Keaton treated as the largest prop in comedy history, 'The Navigator' has been hailed as one of the most original and distinctive movies to come out of silent film's golden era of comedy.

The film is highlighted by underwater scenes, with Keaton in an oversized antique diving suit, that were revolutionary at the time.

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 'The Navigator.'

The nautical-themed program also includes a Keaton's short comedy, 'The Boat,' as a warm-up to 'The Navigator.'

Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician who accompanies shows at venues across New England, said Keaton's films weren't intended to be shown on television or viewed at home.

In reviving 'The Navigator,' the Flying Monkey hopes to show silent film as it was 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 Rapsis. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'The Navigator' 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.

'The Navigator' is the latest in an monthly series of great silent films with live music at the Flying Monkey. Upcoming programs include:

• Wednesday, March 11, 2020: 'Wild Horse Mesa' (1925). Adaptation of Zane Grey novel about a bankrupt rancher who tries trapping wild horses using barbed wire, with unforeseen consequences.

• Thursday, April 9, 2020: 'Ben Hur' (1925). In the Holy Land, a Jewish prince is enslaved by the occupying Romans; one of the great early Bibical epics, just in time for Easter!

• Thursday, May 7, 2020: 'Why Worry?' (1923). Rich hypochondriac Harold Lloyd gets more than he bargained for on a recuperative visit to a banana republic undergoing revolution.

• Thursday, June 18, 2020: Harry Houdini Double Feature. Rare surviving films from the great illusionist's brief movie career: 'Terror Island' (1920) and 'The Man From Beyond' (1922).

'The Navigator' (1924) starring Buster Keaton will be screened with live music on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 S. Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Dinner with a movie, N.H.-style: pot luck supper and silent film on Feb. 8 in Campton

The Town Hall Theatre really IS in Wilton's Town Hall.

First, an update from the present: Great screening of Harold Lloyd's 'Girl Shy' (1924) yesterday at Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

About 100 people went along for the wild ride as Harold raced to get to the church on time, and response was phenomenal!

So it was a great way to kick off our 13th year of monthly silent film programs at this terrific venue, named New England's best movie theatre by none other than Yankee Magazine.

As a silent film accompanist, in the next two months I will be privileged to ply my trade in such glamorous locations as Utica, N.Y., Topeka, Kansas, and Columbus Ohio.

But for me, humble Wilton, N.H. will always be considered home base.

So as we start another year, many thanks go out to the theatre's owner-operator Dennis Markevarich, a genuine movie-lover, for allowing this series to continue and flourish!

Looking ahead: if the Town Hall Theatre sounds quirky, then how about a gig that's become one of my favorites: the annual pot-luck-and-silent-movie-screening organized by the Campton (N.H.) Historical Society.

Talk about dinner and a movie, New Hampshire style!

Arrive at the quaint white clapboard Campton Town Hall at about 5 p.m., and you'll find people bringing in steamer trays of pasta, various meatloafs, potato dishes, heaping bowls of salad, and so much more.

We all sit cafeteria-style at long tables in a back room, with everyone trying hard to leave room for the smorgasbord of desserts that are always on hand.

And after all that, we waddle out to the main hall for a silent film program that's free and open to the public.

It's not the largest building, so the place is always packed. The historical society is actually closed from December to April, so this is a big mid-winter gathering that everyone attends.

And with the N.H. Presidential Primary coming just a few days later (on Tuesday, Feb. 11), heck, maybe this year Amy Klobuchar will drop by!

If you think you'll be hungry on Saturday, Feb. 8 (for food or silent film, or both), consider joining in the fun. More details in the press release below:

* * *

Harry Langdon over a barrel, or several barrels, in 'The Strong Man.' (1926).

MONDAY, JAN. 27, 2020 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com


See Frank Capra's first-ever film at Campton Historical Society on Saturday, Feb. 8


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

CAMPTON, N.H. — It's dinner with a movie, New Hampshire style: a pot luck dinner followed by a silent film program.

Silent film with live music returns to the big screen at the Campton Historical Society next month with a showing of an uproarious comedy starring Harry Langdon.

The screening, on Saturday, Feb. 8, will feature Langdon's classic picture 'The Strong Man' (1926).

The event, which is free and open to all, takes place at Campton Town Hall, Route 175, Campton, N.H.

It starts with a pot luck dinner at 5 p.m., with the film program to begin at 6 p.m.

Those attending the pot luck dinner are asked to bring one of the following: soup, bread, salad, main dish, dessert or beverage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original promotional art for 'The Strong Man.'

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

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

"So the Campton Historical Society's program is a great chance for people to experience films that first caused people to first fall in love with the movies," he said.

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

'The Strong Man' (1926) will be screened with live music on Saturday, Feb. 8 at at Campton Town Hall, Route 175, Campton, N.H. The program, which is free and open to all, starts with a pot luck dinner at 5 p.m., followed by the film program at 6 p.m.

For more information, visit www.camptonhistorical.org.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Whistle while you work: accompanying 'Girl Shy' (1924) on Sunday, 1/26 in Wilton, N.H.

Original poster for Harold Lloyd's 'Girl Shy' (1924).

Tomorrow it's off to Wilton, N.H., where I'll accompany Harold Lloyd's great comedy 'Girl Shy' (1924) at the Town Hall Theatre. Showtime is Sunday, Jan. 26 at 4:30 p.m.

More details are in the press release tacked on below.

For this film, I have to make sure I bring one more instrument in addition to my digital keyboard: a referee's whistle.

Why? Because a running gag in 'Girl Shy' involves blowing whistles of different types, and as versatile as the synthesizer is, nothing sounds more like a whistle being blow than an actual whistle being blown.

Of course not all whistles are alike. In Josef von Sternberg's 'Underworld' (1927), which I accompanied this past Thursday, a jail break is illustrated by close-up shots of a steam whistle being blown. For that, I didn't bring the referee's whistle because it's an entirely sound — one that the synth in fact can reproduce quite well.

Other films that require the referee whistle are Lloyd's football epic 'The Freshman' (1925) with its extensive gridiron scenes; Fritz Lang's 'Woman on the Moon' (1929) with its close-ups of a whistle being blown to restore order during an lecture hall uproar; and F.W. Murnau's 'The Last Laugh' (1924), in which a whistle plays a major role in the doorman character played by Emil Jannings.

The referee whistle is especially important in 'Last Laugh,' which has a dreamy sequence in which an inebriated Jannings keeps blowing the whistle again and again inside his apartment. A true referee's whistle allows you to generate a wide variety of expressive whistles, which are essential to this scene working, I've found.

I once couldn't find my actual referee's whistle, so bought a cheap plastic replacement on the way to a screening of 'The Last Laugh.' Turns out it could only generate one tone and at one volume, with virtually no ability to alter the intensity, pitch, or anything about the sound.

So the whistle was a one-note wonder, literally. And it was totally unsuitable for bringing out what Murnau and Jannings were going for, I think.

I later found my metal referee's whistle, and it now holds a place of honor in my equipment box. I'll bring it to 'Girl Shy,' and I hope to see you there, too!

* * *

Harold and friend engage in a little kinky fun in 'Girl Shy.' (1924).

TUESDAY, JAN. 14, 2020 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

First-ever rom-com! Harold Lloyd comedy 'Girl Shy' at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, 1/26

Live music to accompany uproarious silent film classic; to be shown on big screen

WILTON, N.H.—It's a candidate for Hollywood's first-ever "rom-com": a silent film comedy that inadvertently pioneered an enduring cinematic genre.

It's 'Girl Shy,' a frenetic, kinetic, get-me-to-the-church-on-time Harold Lloyd silent comedy classic, to be screened on Sunday, Jan. 26 at 4:30 p.m. at Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The screening will be accompanied with live music by Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free and open to all; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

'Girl Shy' (1924) stars Harold Lloyd as a timid young man from a small town who pens a book about imaginary female conquests. Trouble begins when bashful Harold falls in love for real, and then must rescue his beloved from marrying the wrong man in the big city.

Harold's dilemma prompts a climactic race to the altar that stands as one of the great chases in all of cinema. The sequence was so successful that MGM used it as a model for the famous chariot race in the original silent film version of 'Ben Hur' (1925).

Lloyd and admirers in 'Girl Shy.' (1924).

The film is bursting with visual comedy typical of the silent era, but the romantic story line was strong enough to act as a counterweight, creating a new hybrid genre now known as the romantic comedy, or "rom-com."

Co-starring in 'Girl Shy' is actress Jobyna Ralston, who often played Lloyd's leading lady, including in later Lloyd masterpieces 'The Freshman' (1925) and 'The Kid Brother' (1927).

'Girl Shy,' directed by Lloyd's colleagues Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, was among the 10 top-grossing films of 1924.

Harold Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, stands today as one of the three masters of silent comedy. Throughout the 1920s, Lloyd's films enjoyed immense popularity, ranking regularly among the highest-grossing of the era.

Though Lloyd's reputation later faded due to unavailability of his movies, the recent re-release of most of his major films on DVD and other media has spurred a reawakening of interest in his work and has led to more screenings of his work in theaters, 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 and the Town Hall Theatre's resident accompanist.

Rapsis emphasized the value of seeing early cinema as it was originally intended to be shown.

"These films were designed for the big screen, live music, and large audiences. If you can put those conditions together again, you get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies," Rapsis said.

'Girl Shy' starring Harold Lloyd will be screened with live music on Sunday, Jan. 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to defray expenses.

For more info, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456.


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Up next: 'Underworld' on 1/23 in Plymouth; plus reports from three unusual recent shows

Evelyn Brent and Clive Brook in 'Underworld.' (1927).

It's one of the great silent dramas: 'Underworld' (1927), the gangster saga directed by Josef von Sternberg.

And I'm accompanying it on Thursday, Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Movie House in Plymouth, N.H.

Besides a small dramatic role by comedian Larry Semon (who would die just one year later), the film features a major part for Clive Brook, one of my favorite silent-era actors.

Brook plays 'Rolls Royce' Wentsel, an alcoholic attorney who becomes sidekick to gangster Bull Weed, played by George Bancroft.

It's a juicy role: a cultured, educated man who finds himself swept up in the world of hitmen and holdups.

It's kind of like the character of Tom Hagan, the "consigliere," that Robert Duvall played to Marlon Brando's Don Corleone in 'The Godfather' (1972).

More about 'Underworld' is in the press release below.

Here's a report on a trio of unusual silent film screenings that filled the recent three-day weekend:

Air mattresses being set up on stage for the 45th Annual Sci-Fi Marathon at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Saturday, Jan. 18: I don't know what you were doing at 7:15 a.m., but I was trying to find a place to park in a snowstorm in the University Heights area of Cleveland, Ohio.

How did I get here? Mostly by Interstate 90 the day before, all in a single gulp from New Hampshire to Ohio. (It's about 10 hours.)

But the larger answer to that question was found in the Case Western Reserve University Film Society's 45th Annual Sci-Fi Marathon, which ran from Friday night into early Sunday morning.

I was there to do music for 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924), an early Soviet fantasy film with sci-fi elements.

I arrived the night before, ending up on completely the wrong end of the beautifully maintained (and vehicle-free) Case Western campus.

But organizer Samuel Ramos was able to guide me by phone through security barriers to Strosacker Auditorium, where regulars were already packing the lobby waiting to get in and claim their turf for the 30-hour event.

Early-bird attendees about to enter Strosacker Auditorium for the sci-fi marathon. Passing through a security check, many with rolling luggage in tow, it was they were boarding an aircraft!

With the house due to open soon, we loaded in and set up my gear in record time. Because I wasn't playing until the next morning, we had to stow the keyboard and speakers backstage, but the trio of projectionists were able to tape down my cabling in place so we'd be ready to go quickly.

I was honored to find a young woman using painter's tape to mark the spot where my keyboard would go, including a big NO for emphasis.

I didn't get her name, but she was a CWRU grad who flew in from Texas each year to join in the marathon.

That's one thing I love about these types of events: they inspire a kind of fanatical devotion and spirit of community among attendees that's very special. No matter what else one does the year-round, when it's time for the CWRU Sci-Fi Marathon (or any other similar event), you know where you belong.

Here's a panorama shot from the stage as attendees began to enter and set up shop. Click to enlarge!


I woke up the next morning to find Cleveland enveloped in snow and sleet. I drove through deserted streets to find the Case Western campus shuttered, with no security people to open the gates. So I parked in a nearby hospital garage (FOR PATIENTS AND STAFF ONLY!) and trudged through the slush to arrive just in time for the 7:30 a.m. screening of 'Aelita,' which is the earliest start time I've ever played.

It was weird to return to an auditorium filled with people who'd been there all night. The sun hadn't actually come up yet, and people asked me not to refer to the actual time or the weather outside because they were still running on the illusion that it was just still kind of a late night.

But off we went, first with a surprise screening of a 'A Trip to Mars,' a 1924 Koko the Clown short cartoon, which got a nice reaction.

An example of Martian fashion in 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924).

Then came Aelita, and when I saw from the titles it was a version that runs a little slow (almost two hours!), I braced myself. Would it be possible to keep a fatigued audience engaged in this esoteric early drama for that length of time?

I'd decided earlier to resist the temptation to use the synthesizer to make "space age" sounds. Instead, I went into my "Rachmaninoff/Shostakovich" mode, which I thought was only appropriate for a Russian film.

The only recognizable tune that got used was the old Czarist national anthem (the one heard in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture), which turned out to be exactly right, I felt, for the allegorical rulers/oppressed sequences set on Mars.

For the main character, a radio engineer obsessed with a mysterious signal that might just be from the Red Planet, I came up with a "signal" motif or repeated notes that kept recurring: two notes, three notes, and then four notes. DAH da. Da DAH da. Da DAH da da.

This, and a bunch of other stock themes for characters and situations, all came together to make a very effective score, I thought.

Audience reaction was strong throughout, with lots of shouted comments about the wild plot and strange images. I even got heckled at one big missed cue: a soldier character plays a small accordion on screen a couple of times, and at one point I misjudged when to have that sound ready—and he instead went over and hit a few notes on a piano!

"That's a funny sounding piano!" someone shouted. It sure was! I quickly went back to orchestra.

Gusev the soldier serenades a Martian gal with his pesky accordion late in 'Aelita.' (This time I was ready!)

To my surprise, people really did stay with it, and the film (as often happens) seemed to make a lot more sense in a theater with an audience. It holds up really well, with the only explanatory note necessary for modern audiences is to note that at the time, people with larger homes were compelled by the government to take in other people. All part of the glorious revolution, comrade!

The film ended with a rousing ovation for the accompanist, who couldn't stay because he was due back in New Hampshire the next day for a screening.

With the campus still closed and the snow still flying, I had to finally drive my car down some pedestrian walkways (sorry!) to get the service alley behind the auditorium to load in my gear.

Then off I went for the drive back to New Hampshire, only to find slow going due to the weather, which had shut down portions of the N.Y. State Thruway.

So an unexpected night in Syracuse, N.Y. and then an early morning departure put me back in the Granite State on Sunday in time for a 2 p.m. screening in Warner, N.H.

Warner (N.H.) Town Hall, which doubles as a movie theater.

Sunday, Jan. 19: This event was on behalf of the New Hampshire Telephone Museum ("Where History Talks!"), which this year is pursuing a "Telephone Goes To The Movies" theme.

Sunday's program was a nod to silent comedies that somehow feature the telephone: Harold Lloyd's short 'Number, Please' (1920) and Buster Keaton's feature 'Seven Chances; (1925).

Why 'Seven Chances?' Because the whole plot of the film depends on a missed phone call, plus it has several fun scenes in phone booths and with telephone switchboard operators.

The screening was held in Warner Town Hall, which I'd never been in before but which proved ideal for silent film screenings: wooden floors, great acoustics, a big built-in screen, big but not too big.

Laura French, executive director of the Telephone Museum, greets the audience.

And with the Patriots out of the playoffs, our Sunday afternoon start time attracted a full house, which surprised me for this kind of one-off screening.

One other surprise: as I drove into town on Route 103, a large portable sign used for highway directions had been commandeered to promote "SILENT FILM AND LIVE MUSIC WITH JEFF RAPSIS"' Wow, my name in lights, New Hampshire style! (Also, when I went back afterwards to get a photo, it had already been turned off. Frugality, New Hampshire style!)

Great response to both films, with lots of big laughs in all the right places. Thanks for Laura French and Graham Gifford of the Telephone Museum for organizing a stellar program!

Buster times an egg in 'The Navigator' (1924).

Monday, Jan. 20: And this was followed on Monday night with a screening of two nautical-themed comedies to benefit the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Mass.

A silent film program there last year was popular enough for us to try another, this time moved to the nearby (and more spacious) Firehouse Center for the Arts.

On tap (a water reference!) was Buster Keaton's 'The Boat' (1921) followed by 'The Navigator' (1924).

Alas, when we booked this date some time ago, no one realized it was the third day of the three-day weekend caused by the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

This might have cut into attendance somewhat. But still, about 40 people braved cold temperatures to see Buster on the high seas.

I had a good time doing music for 'The Navigator.' Using a handful of obvious sea-faring melodies (such as "Anchors Aweigh") to set the tone, I was able to build an entire score mostly out of variations of a simple tune that I've been developing as an all-purpose Keaton theme.

For the better part of an hour, the basic material of this melody was transformed in different ways into material that helped underline Buster's routines. Sometimes a graceful waltz, sometimes a steady march, sometimes arrhythmic doodlings — whatever seemed to suit the comedy on screen.

Afterwards, I received the highest complement possible: the museum's director told me for awhile she was so absorbed in the movie, she forgot the music was being made live.

So three days, three screenings in three very different settings, but which all seemed to hold the screen. Accompaniment in the year 2020 is so far off to a good start!

Next up is 'Underworld.' Here's the press release. Hope to see you there in Plymouth, N.H.!

* * *

Original promotional art for 'Underworld' (1927).

TUESDAY, JAN. 7, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

'Underworld' to screen with live music at Plymouth's Flying Monkey on Thursday, Jan. 23


Oscar-winning silent crime drama directed by Josef von Sternberg was forerunner of Hollywood 'gangster' movies

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—'Underworld' (1927), a silent drama that spurred a boom in 'gangster' movies, will be screened with live music on Thursday, Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

The film will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $10 per person.

'Underworld,' directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring George Bancroft, is notable for being the first major motion picture to portray a criminal in a sympathetic light instead of as a villain. Its popularity touched off a Prohibition-era boom in Hollywood gangster pictures that reached its peak following the stock market crash of 1929.

The story of 'Underworld' follows gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft), who becomes entangled in a love triangle involving a reformed drunkard, “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook) whom he takes on as his right-hand man, and Bull’s girlfriend “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent). Bull Weed's imprisonment leads to a dramatic climax.

Bancroft's performance in 'Underworld' set the stage for memorable characterizations of gangster protagonists by Jimmy Cagney ('Public Enemy,' 1931), Paul Muni ('Scarface,' 1932), and Edward G. Robinson ('Little Caesar,' 1930), which all follow directly on from the model created by 'Underworld.'

The film's script, by Chicago newspaperman Ben Hecht, earned an Oscar for Best Screenwriting at the first-ever Academy Awards. The film is also noted for director von Sternberg's innovative use of black-and-white photography, which presaged many film noir techniques in following decades.

Director Von Sternberg was obsessed by light, and developed methods of “painting” his compositions with the arrangements of lamps, scrims, and reflectors on the set. Today he is remembered most for having used that skill in a series of films he made with Marlene Dietrich, starting with 'The Blue Angel' (1930) and continuing in six more star vehicles made in Hollywood, including 'Morocco' (1930) and 'Shanghai Express' (1932).

A promotional poster for 'Underworld' (1927).

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

Using a digital synthesizer to reproduce the texture of the full orchestra, Rapsis will improvise the score on the spot during the screening.

"Films such as 'Underworld' were created to be shown on the big screen and in a theater as a shared experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life in the way their makers intended them to.

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

'Underworld' is the latest in an monthly series of great silent films with live music at the Flying Monkey. Upcoming programs include:

Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020: 'The Navigator' (1924). Buster Keaton sets sail in his classic sea-faring comedy about a spoiled rich couple marooned all alone on a drifting ocean liner.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020: 'Wild Horse Mesa' (1925). Adaptation of Zane Grey novel about a bankrupt rancher who tries trapping wild horses using barbed wire, with unforeseen consequences.

Thursday, April 9, 2020: 'Ben Hur' (1925). In the Holy Land, a Jewish prince is enslaved by the occupying Romans; one of the great early Bibical epics, just in time for Easter!

Thursday, May 7, 2020: 'Why Worry?' (1923). Rich hypochondriac Harold Lloyd gets more than he bargained for on a recuperative visit to a banana republic undergoing revolution.

Thursday, June 18, 2020: Harry Houdini Double Feature. Rare surviving films from the great illusionist's brief movie career: 'Terror Island' (1920) and 'The Man From Beyond' (1922).

'Underworld' (1927) will be shown on Thursday, Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Three sci-fi marathons in the next two months: Aelita; The Lost World; and Jekyll & Hyde

A scene from 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924), which I'll be accompanying on Saturday morning at the Case Western Reserve University Film Society's annual Sci-Fi Marathon.

They say good things come in threes. And I'm fortunate to be doing silent film music at no less than three different sci-fi marathons in the next few weeks.

Silent film at a sci-fi marathon? Yes! And surprisingly, not one of them is 'Metropolis' (1927), Fritz Lang's famous pioneering epic of the genre.

For those of you keeping score, here's the line-up:

• On Saturday, Jan. 18, I'll accompany for 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924) at the annual Case Western Reserve University Film Society Sci-Fi Marathon, now in its 45th year. For more info: http://films.cwru.edu/sfmarathon45/

• On Sunday, Feb. 16, I'll create music for the John Barrymore version of 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' (1920) at the annual Boston Sci-Fi Marathon at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. More info: https://www.bostonscifi.com/

• And on Saturday, March 21, it's music for 'The Lost World' (1925) at the annual 24-Hour Ohio Science Fiction Marathon in Columbus, Ohio. Details: http://www.scifimarathon.com/

I first started playing silent films at sci-fi marathons in 2011, when the long-running Boston Sci-Fi Marathon screened a rare print of the original silent version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' I was asked to do live music.

The audience discovered a film so strange and old that it seemed new. And I discovered an audience unlike any other I'd played for: one that screamed and hooted and hollered and talked back at the screen and was generally having an all-out love affair with the whole experience.

Since then, I've functioned as the house accompanist for the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon. They don't show a silent every year. But when they do, it's always one of my favorite gigs of the year.

So I'm delighted to now be getting asked to appear at similar festivals, such as the two upcoming marathons in Ohio.

And it makes sense, I think. In an age of everything-instantly-available, the sci-fi marathon endures because it's a group experience that can't be reproduced in the home.

And within that framework, there's definitely a place for silent film with live music.

The next couple of months include other road bookings that'll bring me far from my home base:

• February finds me at the annual Kansas Silent Film Festival in Topeka, Kansas, where I'll score 'Soul of the Beast' (1923), 'The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg' (1926), as well as a passel of shorts. This year's event is Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday, Feb. 29; it's my 21st consecutive year of attending.

• On Sunday, March 8, I'll travel out to Utica, N.Y., where I'm accompanying the recently restored 'Mothers of Men' (1917) as part of an exhibit on Women's Suffrage at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, a terrific small museum that boasts a solid art collection and innovative programming.

• And Sunday, March 22 finds me at the Cleveland Cinematheque, where I'll do music for Ernst Lubitsch’s 'The Marriage Circle' (1924) and 'Hands Up!' (1926) starring Raymond Griffith. Many thanks to long-time Cinematheque director John Ewing for continuing to include silent film with live music in the programming mix.

See you at the movies—or with all this road time, maybe on the N.Y. State Thruway!

Monday, January 6, 2020

Dialing up Keaton's 'Seven Chances' on 1/19
for the New Hampshire Telephone Museum

Buster Keaton checks the time in 'Seven Chances (1925).

Later this month, it'll be my pleasure to bring silent film with live music to a brand new venue for me—the New Hampshire Telephone Museum!

Yes, New Hampshire has a telephone museum. And yes, we're screening a telephonic silent film program on Sunday, Jan. 19.

Actually, the screening will take place in nearby Warner (N.H.) Town Hall, as the museum itself (also in Warner) isn't quite the set up to hold a screening.

On the program: Buster Keaton's great comedy 'Seven Chances' (1925), in which the telephone plays a key role in the plot, and which includes scenes of vintage switchboards and phone booths.

Also: Harold Lloyd's phone-heavy short comedy 'Number, Please' (1920).

If reading this has made you realize there is such as thing as a New Hampshire Telephone Museum—well, then we've accomplished our goal already.

Located at 1 Depot Street, the Telephone Museum ("Where History Talks!") is worth a visit. Check them out online at www.nhtelephonemuseum.org.

And our screening? It's Sunday, Jan. 19 at 2 p.m. at Warner Town Hall. More info in the press release below. Hope to see you at the movies!

* * *

A Swedish poster for 'Seven Chances' (1925).

MONDAY, DEC. 30, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Buster Keaton comedy 'Seven Chances' (1925) on Sunday, Jan. 19 at Warner Town Hall


Silent film presentation by New Hampshire Telephone Museum features classic race-to-the-finish romantic farce with live music

WARNER, N.H.—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, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Seven Chances' (1925), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Sunday, Jan. 19 at the Warner Town Hall, 5 East Main St., Warner, N.H.

The program starts at 2 p.m. and is open to the public. Admission is $10 per person; $5 for N.H. Telephone Museum members.

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

Adapted from a stage play, the story finds Buster learning that he'll inherit $7 million if he's married by 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday—that very day!

Buster's hurried attempts to tie the knot on his own go awry, but then a newspaper story changes the game, creating an avalanche of would-be brides who relentlessly pursue Buster as he searches for his one true love before the deadline.

Buster surrounded by brides-a-plenty in 'Seven Chances' (1925).

'Seven Chances' was the first screen adaptation of the now-familiar story, since used in movies ranging from the Three Stooges in 'Brideless Groom' (1947) to Gary Sinyor's 'The Bachelor' (1999), a romantic comedy starring Chris O'Donnell and Renee Zellwinger.

"Also, a missed telephone call plays a key role in the plot, so 'Seven Chances' was of interest to the Telephone Musuem," Rapsis said. "It also had several scenes showing vintage telephone switchboards and phone booths that were common in that era."

The program also includes 'Number, Please' (1920), a telephone-themed short comedy starring Harold Lloyd.

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."

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 'Seven Chances.'

In reviving Keaton's 'Seven Chances,' the Telephone Museum aims to present silent film as it was meant to be seen—using 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 'Seven Chances' 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.

Buster Keaton's 'Seven Chances' (1925) will be screened on Sunday, Jan. 19 at 2 p.m. at the Warner Town Hall, 5 East Main St., Warner, N.H.

The program is presented by the New Hampshire Telephone Museum and is open to the public. Admission is $10 per person; $5 for N.H. Telephone Museum members. For more information, call the museum at (603) 456-2234.

Monday, December 30, 2019

A big finish for 2019 with 'Four Horsemen,'
now a big start to 2020 with 'Metropolis'

Nigel De Brulier (upper left) gets ready to say his big line at the end of 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.'

One reason I create music for silent films is that the experience allows me to commune with the big emotions of life: Love with a capital L, or Fear, or Joy, or Despair.

I don't get that from any other story-telling art form, with the exception of opera.

So silent film is my way to remind myself I'm still alive, and what the big emotions feel like. It doesn't always happen, but when it does, it makes it all worthwhile.

Well, I'm pleased to say it happened in spades yesterday afternoon at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., where I accompanied "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921) before a near-capacity crowd.

There are things in this big, sprawling picture that greatly move me. And it all leads up to one very special moment right at the end, when the Nigel De Brulier character is asked if he knew a man buried in an enormous hillside cemetery.

"I knew them all," he cries in the graveyard, and at that moment I feel like I'm connected to all of humanity, to something great and wonderful and meaningful—something larger than myself.

The crowd seemed to get it as well, judging from the response throughout and the reaction afterward. I even earned a partial "Standing O" from one side of the room.

Thank you to everyone who joined the journey, both for this screening and for more than 100 others during 2019. It's been a great year and I'm looking forward to 2020.

Speaking of which...

My next screening (and first of 2020) is 'Metropolis' (1927), which will be screened on Sunday, Jan. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

For complete info, here's the press release. Hope to see you at the movies!

* * *

'Metropolis' (1927) will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

MONDAY, DEC. 9, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Restored classic film 'Metropolis' to screen at Colonial on Sunday, Jan. 5


Landmark early sci-fi fantasy epic, with half-hour of rediscovered footage, to be shown with live music

KEENE, N.H.—A silent film hailed as the grandfather of all science fiction fantasy movies will be screened with live music at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

'Metropolis' (1927), an epic adventure set in a futuristic world, will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H.

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

Admission is $10 per person general admission. Tickets are available online at thecolonial.org or at the door.

'Metropolis' (1927), regarded as German director Fritz Lang's masterpiece, is set in a society where a privileged elite pursue lives of leisure while the masses toil on vast machines and live in poverty.

The film, with its visions of futuristic factories and underground cities, set new standards for visual design and inspired generations of dystopian fantasies from Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' to Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil.'

In reviving 'Metropolis' and other great films of cinema's early years, the Colonial 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 Rapsis, who will improvise an original live score for 'Metropolis' on the spot. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early cinema leap back to life."

In 'Metropolis,' the story centers on an upper class young man who falls in love with a woman who works with the poor. The tale encompasses mad scientists, human-like robots, underground spiritual movements, and industrial espionage, all set in a society divided between haves and have-nots.

The version of 'Metropolis' to be screened at the Colonial is a newly restored edition that includes nearly a half-hour of missing footage cut following the film's premiere in 1927. The lost footage, discovered in 2008 in an archive in Argentina, has since been added to the existing 'Metropolis,' allowing plot threads and characters to be developed more fully.

When first screened in Berlin, Germany on Jan. 10, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes. After its premiere, the film's distributors (including Paramount in the U.S.) drastically shortened 'Metropolis' to maximize the film's commercial potential. By the time it debuted in the U.S. later that year, the film was only about 90 minutes long.

Even in its shortened form, 'Metropolis' became a cornerstone of science fiction cinema. Due to its enduring popularity, the film has undergone numerous restorations in the intervening decades in attempts to recover Lang's original vision.

It was widely believed that this would be the most complete version of Lang's film that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see. But, in the summer of 2008, the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine discovered a 16mm dupe negative of 'Metropolis' that was considerably longer than any existing print.

It included not merely a few additional snippets, but 25 minutes of "lost" footage, about a fifth of the film, that had not been seen since its Berlin debut.

The discovery of such a significant amount of material called for yet another restoration, a 2½-hour version that debuted in 2010 to widespread acclaim. It's this fully restored edition that will be screened at the Center for the Arts.

" 'Metropolis' stands as an stunning example of the power of silent film to tell a compelling story without words, and reach across the generations to touch movie-goers from the real future, which means us," said accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who provides live music for silent film screenings throughout New England and beyond.

To accompany a silent film, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. The score is created live in real time as the movie is screened. Rather than focus exclusively on authentic music of the period, Rapsis creates new music for silent films that draws from movie scoring techniques that today's audiences expect from the cinema.

The restored 'Metropolis' will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H. Admission is $10 per person general admission. Tickets are available online at thecolonial.org or at the door. For more information, call the Colonial at (603) 352-2033.

CRITIC'S COMMENTS on ‘METROPOLIS’

“'Metropolis' does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world.”
—Roger Ebert, 2010, The Chicago Sun-Times

“If it comes anywhere near your town, go see it and thank the movie Gods that it even exists. There’s no star rating high enough.”
—Brian Tallerico, Movieretriever.com