Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Western double feature, plus: 'What would Lewis & Clark think of frequent flier points?'

An original poster for 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926).

Yessiree Bob, I'm no rancher or gunfighter or cowpoke.

But there's something about sitting in a darkened theater and losing one's self in a silent western with live music.

What is that something? I can't describe it. And neither can Bob, whoever he is.

But you can experience it yourself tonight (Thursday, May 24) with a double feature at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

The two silent Westerns on the bill: William S. Hart's 'Hell's Hinges' (1918) and Tom Mix in 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926).

Showtime is 6:30 p.m., pardner. Admission $10 per person.

And you know, it's curious: I've never quite responded to Westerns as a genre. 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre,' anyone? No thanks—I'll take the Marx Brothers, thank you.

As a native of New Hampshire, I guess it's just not my thing, ayup.

To me, the West is Sullivan County and the Connecticut River Valley. (Which is where D.W. Griffith filmed Lillian Gish on the ice in 'Way Down East,' by the way.)

But I find I really get into silent Westerns. No matter the quality of the film, the story, or the performances, they're absorbing and entertaining and somehow it all works for me.

I've sensed this all along. But I've really come to know it by going out twice a year to do accompaniment at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in the San Francisco area.

The museum schedules screenings in two-month blocks, and they always start out with a silent western feature: usually something I've never heard of.

And I always seem to be out there right at the opening of a new schedule, which means I'm usually in the saddle, so to speak, for Hoot Gibson or William S. Hart or more obscure performers.

Maybe it's because I've just flown across the country, having just gazed down at the desolate landscapes that formed the setting for so much Western lore.

By the way: how amazing that we can zip from coast to coast before lunchtime when it took early settlers months of hardship! I wonder what Lewis & Clark would make of frequent flier points.

But about Westerns: maybe seeing them in "silent film" form, where everything runs a little faster, is more in step with my own internal clock.

And perhaps the simplicity of many of the Western stories and the characters that inhabit them—maybe that's more suited to the silent film medium.

After all, there's something very primal about seeing people as characters who we know are good, and who will triumph, and characters who are irredeemably bad, and will get punished.

And often the punishment is physical and real, and meted out by the fists of the good and virtuous. What could be more satisfying?

Real life doesn't work that way, of course. Just read the news!

But I think people crave this in a story, as it so rarely happens in life as slog through it. And silent westerns seem uniquely suited to deliver it in a way that I respond to.

And you? Join us tonight and find out!

The Flying Monkey Theatre is at 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. More info online at www.flyingmonkeynh.com or call (603) 536-2551.

* * *

And let me wish all a good Memorial Day weekend—one in which we take time to remember the many, many people who sacrificed their lives for a cause greater than themselves.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

We're off to Brandon, Vt. with 'Wizard of Oz,' where it's all about the audience

'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) as you've never seen it.

Tonight is opening night for another season of silent cinema with live music at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt.

It's the eighth year I've come up to Brandon for a monthly series of silent film programs. And one reason I keep doing it is the audience.

For some reason, silent film remains big news in Brandon, at least judging by the turnout.

We routinely get more than 100 people who pack into the Town Hall, a mid-19th century building never intended to be a movie theater.

But it works pretty well, and has especially good acoustics with its open stage and high ceiling and wooden floor.

The shows draw everyone from "tiny tots to octogenarians," to borrow a phrase from author Walter Kerr.

Attendance is important because any donations go to ongoing renovations to the facility, which lay abandoned for decades until its recent renaissance.

In the eight years I've been going there, the committee of volunteers has updated the bathrooms, added a heating system, worked on replacing the slate roof, and improved accessibility for the disabled.

But it's also important because a big and lively audience is an essential ingredient for the silent film experience.

You can have live music. You can have a beautiful print. You can have a big screen.

But without an audience, it's not the experience that prompted people to first fall in love with the movies.

And in working with an obsolete art form, I don't take attendance for granted.

Consider the turnout we had for a screening of 'The Black Pirate' this past Thursday night at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

This is an actual movie theater, and it's my privilege to do music for a monthly series there as well.

This is in the middle of world-class city known for its long-term affinity for the arts and culture, including cinema.

And for this screening, I'd snagged an on-air interview on WBZ-AM 1030, Boston's powerhouse news radio station and the most-listened-to radio station in New England.

And attendance for 'The Black Pirate' was...16 people. Wow! There were way more pirates on screen than people in the seats.

We still had a great time. And at least that was up from about a dozen we had last month for Buster Keaton's masterpiece 'The General.'

We enjoyed better numbers last year at the Capitol, so I'm not sure what's going on.

In talking with the management, theories range from "too many other silent film programs in the area" (which, alas, could be true) to "too many home entertainment options," a phenomenon that's affecting attendance at all movies, not just silents.

Maybe we could take a page from the Brandon playbook: somehow wreck the Capitol, and then get people to come in support of restoring it.

Heck, they could even charge people for taking swings at it with a sledgehammer. Anything to get people to the theater!

If this trend catches on, you heard it here first.

In the meantime, we're launching this year's Brandon series with a real curiosity: the silent film version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925).

I avoided this Larry Semon film for years, given its abysmal reputation among cinephiles.

But I finally ran it a year ago in Wilton, N.H., and was surprised at the strong (and strongly positive) reaction it got.

People enjoyed it. They actually applauded when Larry had his big moment with Dorothy Dwan near the end.

If you're in the area this evening (Brandon is about 20 minutes north of Rutland, Vt.), please come by and check it out!

Here's the press release for the show, which includes the line-up for the reason of the 2018 season. See you in Oz!

* * *

Larry Semon, Dorothy Dwan, and Oliver Hardy are off to see the Wizard...sort of.

TUESDAY, MAY 8, 2018 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Brandon Town Hall to host summer silent film series with live music


Schedule leads off on Saturday, May 19 with silent film version of 'The Wizard of Oz'

BRANDON, Vt.—Classics of the silent film era return to the big screen starting next month in Brandon Town Hall, which hosts another season of vintage cinema with live music in the historic facility.

It's the 8th year of the town hall's popular silent film series, which gives residents and visitors a chance to see great movies from the pioneering days of cinema as they were meant to be shown—on the big screen, with an audience, and accompanied by live music.

Screenings are held once a month on Saturday nights starting in May and running through October. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to benefit the Town Hall's ongoing restoration.

Over the years, silent film donations have helped support projects including handicapped access to the 19th century building; renovating the bathrooms; and restoring the structure's original slate roof.

Live music for each silent film program will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer and composer who specializes in scoring silent films.

"It's great to be bringing silent film back to the big screen in Brandon for another series," Rapsis said. "Brandon Town Hall is a wonderful place for these movies to be seen at their best."

In accompanying silent films live, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. He improvises the music in real time, as the movie is shown.

First up in this season's line-up is the silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz,' the nearly forgotten 1925 silent film version of the famous tale.

Long overshadowed by the immensely popular 1939 remake, the rarely seen silent 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) will be screened on Saturday, May 19 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt.

Released by Chadwick Pictures, 'The Wizard of Oz' was intended as a vehicle for slapstick comedian Larry Semon, who directed the picture and played the role of the scarecrow.

Dorothy is played by Dorothy Dwan, Semon's wife. Also in the cast is Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. Prior to his teaming with comedian Stan Laurel later in the 1920s, Hardy often played Semon's comic foil.

The silent 'Wizard of Oz' bears little resemblance to the highly polished MGM musical released just 14 years later. However, due to the enduring worldwide popularity of Baum's 'Oz' characters and stories, the silent 'Wizard of Oz' remains an object of great curiosity among fans.

The film departs radically from the novel upon which it is based, introducing new characters and exploits. Along with a completely different plot, the film is all set in a world that is only barely recognizable as the Land of Oz from the books. The film focuses mainly upon Semon's character, who is analogous to Ray Bolger's Scarecrow character in the 1939 version.

Also on the program is an even earlier 'Wizard of Oz' film from 1910 that runs less than 10 minutes.

Because silent films were designed to be shown to large audiences in theaters with live music, the best way to experience them is to recreate the conditions in which they were first shown, Rapsis said.

"Films such as 'The Wizard of Oz' were created to be shown on the big screen to large audiences as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, silent films come to life in the way their makers intended. Not only are they entertaining, but they give today's audiences a chance to understand what caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

The program is sponsored by Pat Hanson.

Other shows in this year's Brandon silent film series include:

• Saturday, June 9: 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928) starring Buster Keaton. Pampered Buster returns home from college to help his father, a tough riverboat captain, battle to save the family business. Climaxed by an eye-popping cyclone sequence, 'Steamboat Bill' is crammed with classic Keaton gags and sequences. Silent comedy at its finest! Sponsored by Nancy and Gary Meffe.

• Saturday, June 30: 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed' (1926). Taken from 'The Arabian Nights,' the first full-length animated feature tells the story of a wicked sorcerer who tricks Prince Achmed into mounting a magical flying horse, sending him off to a series of wondrous and romantic adventures. Sponsored by Pam and Steve Douglass.

• Saturday, Aug. 11: 'Laurel & Hardy: A Silent Fine Mess.' The beloved comedy team got their start in silent film, and so celebrate their origins with a selection of their funniest short comedies. Get ready to laugh as Stan and Ollie made fine messes out of everything from a day in the country to a night on the town. Sponsored by the Brandon/Forestdale Lions Club.

• Saturday, Sept. 8: 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) starring William Gillette. Recently discovered in France after being lost for nearly a century, see this original 1916 adaptation of Sherlock Holmes stories as performed by William Gillette, the actor who created the role on stage and performed it more than 1,000 times. Sponsored by Kathy and Bill Mathis, in memory of Maxine Thurston; also an anonymous donor.

• Saturday, Oct. 20: Chiller Theatre, 'Der Golem' (1920). In 16th-century Prague, a rabbi creates a giant creature from clay, called the Golem. Using sorcery, he brings the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution, but then complications ensue. Early German fantasy movie anticipates Frankenstein story. Sponsored by Jan Coolidge, Lucy and Dick Rouse, Marc & Arlyn Briere, Dorothy Leyseth and Edward Loedding.

The silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) will open this season's silent film series at Brandon Town Hall. The movie will be screened on Saturday, May 19 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt. All are welcome to this family-friendly event. Admission is free, with free will donations accepted in support of ongoing Town Hall renovations.

For more information, visit www.brandontownhall.org.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Mother's Day and Steamboat Bill Jr; new piece for flute/piano, plus 'The Black Pirate' on 5/17

What about Mom? Buster Keaton and Ernest Torrence in 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928).

Nice turnout yesterday for our Mother's Day screening of 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), the opening title in this year's "Silents, Please!" series at the Somerville Theatre.

I have to say, it was a curious choice for the occasion: a film about a riverboat captain and his son, with no wife/mother ever mentioned.

And the captain's business rival has a daughter, but there's no wife/mother figure present in that family either.

Maybe it's the absence of a maternal influence that's the point. Everything would have been fine but for the two male dolts and their testosterone-driven rivalry, which caused everyone's problems.

But by showing what can happen when no mother is present, perhaps 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' is actually a more fitting tribute than I first thought.

Bolstering this argument is something I had forgotten: one of the film's early gags involves a special Mother's Day promotion for carnations.


I won't give away the gag, but the promotion must have been hugely successful, as every man arriving on an out-of-town train is wearing one!

And it's interesting: after the screening, comments included several attendees who thought we chose 'Steamboat' specifically because of the Mother's Day reference. Wow!

But now from steamboats to pirate ships: on Thursday, May 17, I'm doing live music for 'The Black Pirate' (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks.

Showtime is 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass., which runs a monthly silent film series. More information in the press release below.

Before that happens, I'll have the privilege of hearing a read-through of a piece for flute and piano I wrote out this weekend.

It's at the Wednesday at the Manchester (N.H.) Community Music School, where flutist Aubrie Dionne and pianist Elizabeth Blood will tackle the six-minute piece.

I want to thank composer Romeo Melloni for asking me to contribute music to his monthly forum at the school.

If you're interested in what it sounds like, here's a link: Flute and Piano Duo

And below is all the info about 'The Black Pirate.' See you there, me 'arties!

* * *


SATURDAY, MAY 5, 2018 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film ‘The Black Pirate’ (1926) at Capitol Theatre on Thursday, May 17

Adventure flick stars Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood’s original action hero; shown with live musical accompaniment

ARLINGTON, Mass.—He was the Indiana Jones of his day, thrilling early filmgoers with amazing stunts and feats of heroic derring-do. He was Douglas Fairbanks Sr., one of Hollywood’s first megastars, and his timeless charisma can be seen again on Thursday, May 17 at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

Featured attraction for this month's silent film screening is ‘The Black Pirate’ (1926), an epic swashbuckling tale of the high seas that proved one of Fairbanks’ most popular blockbusters. The forerunner of all pirate movies, it was also one of the first Hollywood films to be released in color.

Showtime for 'The Black Pirate' is Thursday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors.

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

Fairbanks, originally a stage actor, broke into films in the industry's early years. By 1920, starring roles in a romantic comedies established Fairbanks as a popular leading man. He then turned to historic adventure films, including ‘The Mark of Zorro’ (1920) and ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1921), which cemented his reputation for on-screen athleticism, heroism, and romance.

In 1920, Fairbanks’ marriage to fellow megastar Mary Pickford was one of the era’s biggest media events and resulted in Hollywood’s first celebrity power couple. They combined their last names to call their estate “Pickfair,” and massive crowds turned out everywhere during the couple’s European honeymoon.

At the peak of his popularity, pictures starring Fairbanks set the standard for Hollywood action adventure films, including such titles as ‘Robin Hood’ (1922), ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924), and ‘The Black Pirate’ (1926), all of which were major box office successes.

When the silent film era ended in 1929, an aging Fairbanks found he was less enthusiastic about the effort required to make movies and retired from the screen. He died in 1939 at age 56 after suffering a heart attack; his now-famous lasts words were, “I’ve never felt better.”

The Fairbanks feature is the latest in a series of monthly silent film screenings at the Capitol Theatre. The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by assembling the elements needed for silent film to be seen at its best: superior films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and a live audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Rapsis, accompanist for the screenings. “There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that spirit.”

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

Upcoming titles in the Capitol's silent film series include:

• Thursday, June 14, 8 p.m.: 'The Iron Horse' (1924). Young director John Ford's breakthrough film tells the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad through the untamed West.

• Thursday, July 5, 8 p.m.: 'The Beloved Rogue' (1926) starring John Barrymore. Epic costume adventure based on the life of the 15th century French poet, Fran├žois Villon

• Thursday, Aug. 16, 8 p.m.: 'Her Sister from Paris' (1925) starring Constance Talmadge, Ronald Colman. Talmadge in top form playing two very different sisters in this effervescent battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy.

• Thursday, Sept. 13, 8 p.m.: 'The Last Laugh' (1924). In this ground-breaking character study from director F. W. Murnau, Emil Jannings delivers a tour-de-force performance as a doorman in a swanky Berlin hotel.

• Thursday, Oct 18, 8 p.m.: 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923). Just in time for Halloween: Lon Chaney stars as Quasimodo in this sprawling silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic story.

‘The Black Pirate’ (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. will be shown with live music on Thursday, May 17 at 8 p.m. Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors. For more info, call (781) 648-6022 or visit www.capitoltheatreusa.com.

Friday, May 11, 2018

'Steamboat Bill' in 35mm Sunday in Somerville,
plus weird pre-show accompanist rituals

Promotional art for 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' featuring a rosy-cheeked Keaton, making me thankful the films weren't made in color.

Just as some athletes have unusual warm-up routines, silent film accompanists often have weird pre-show rituals.

With me, it's when I plug in the sustain pedal into the back of my synthesizer. I then have to lower the pedal down to the floor behind the keyboard, almost like I'm weighing anchor.

And because of the way the pedal unit hangs from its power cord, getting it to land right side up takes a deft shift of the line at the very last minute, when the unit touches the ground.

If it lands correctly, I consider it a good omen. If not, I steel myself for whatever grand joke the Gods are about to play.

For last night's screening of 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926) at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., the pedal landed correctly. And so the screening went forward without a hitch, unless you count (SPOILER ALERT) the marriage at the very end. Har!

We'll see how the pedal falls on Sunday, May 13 at the Somerville Theatre, when I'll accompany the screening of a 35mm print of Buster Keaton's 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) at 2 p.m.

There's a lot of 'Steamboat' around this weekend. I notice fellow accompanist Ben Model is doing music for the iconic film, which he refers to simply as "one where the house falls on him."

It says something about a film when people refer to it with even having to use the title. Nice!

But 'Steamboat' is one of the most popular Keaton's, mostly because it's so good, but also because due to an oversight it's in the public domain.

I've done it so frequently that my material for the film has emerged as not so much improvised but recalled from prior performances.

So it's a good candidate for sitting down this summer and putting the score on paper, which is something I'd like to do more of. We'll see.

For now, there's no sheet music—it's all in my head, and will be at the Somerville Theatre this Sunday when we run 'Steamboat.'

Hope to see you there! And if you'd like more info, I'm pasting in the press release below.

* * *

Buster's burly on-screen father, Ernest Torrence, first encounters his unexpectedly un-masculine grown son in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

SATURDAY, MAY 5, 2018 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent comedy 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' at Somerville Theatre on Sunday, May 13


Buster Keaton masterpiece to be screened with live music as venue's 'Silents Please' series returns

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—Silent film with live music returns to the Somerville Theatre this month with 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), a classic comedy starring Buster Keaton, one of era's top performers. 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will be revived using a 35mm print for one showing only at the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, on Sunday, May 13 at 2 p.m.

Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $15 per person; $12 seniors and students.

The Somerville Theatre's 'Silents Please!' allows fans to experience silent film the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, in 35mm prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you put the experience back together, you can see why silent films caused such excitement for early movie-goers," said Ian Judge, the Somerville's manager and director of operations.

In 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' Buster plays the bumbling son of a riverboat’s rough captain. When a rival brings a newer boat to the river, the family is forced to face competition, just as Buster is forced to ride out a cyclone threatening to destroy the community.

Can Buster save the day and win the hand of his girlfriend, who happens to be daughter of his father's business rival?

The film includes the famous shot of an entire building front collapsing on Keaton, who is miraculously spared by a conveniently placed second-story window.

Keaton, who grew up performing with the family vaudeville act, was known for never smiling on camera, an important element of his comic identity. A trained acrobat who learned at an early age how to take falls, Keaton did all his own stunts on camera in the era before post-production special effects.

Critics continue to hail Keaton’s timeless comedy as well as his intuitive filmmaking genius. In 2002, Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton that “in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.”

Keaton, who never attended school, thought of himself not as an artist but as an entertainer using the new medium of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

The screening of 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

Rapsis will create the accompaniment on the spot, improvising music as the movie unfolds to enhance the action on the screen as well respond to audience reactions. He will perform the music on a digital synthesizer capable of producing a wide range of theatre organ and orchestral textures.

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

Upcoming titles in the Somerville's 'Silents, Please!' series include:

• Sunday, June 10: '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? Shown via DCP.

• Sunday, July 8: 'The Docks of New York' (1928). Masterful drama about a ship laborer who rescues a beautiful woman from drowning, but then finds his life changed in unexpected ways. A gem from the late silent years. Shown via 35mm print.

• Sunday, Aug. 12: 'Laurel & Hardy Silent Comedies.' Some of the timeless duo's finest (and funniest) comedy two-reelers, all presented in 35mm, including 'Big Business' (1929), You're Darn Tootin' (1928), and 'The Finishing Touch' (1928).

'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will be screened on Sunday, May 13 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Tickets are $15 adults, $12 students/seniors. For more information, visit www.somervilletheatre.com or call (617) 625-4088. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A memorable introduction, plus 'Barbara Worth' on 5/10 at Red River Theatres, Concord, N.H.

An original poster for 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926).

Just back from a quick trip to San Francisco, where I accompanied Hoot Gibson in 'The Phantom Bullet' (1926) on Saturday night at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

Niles is the only venue I know of that runs silent film programs every week all year round. It's a treat to go out and pitch in with music.

My visits seem to coincide with the start of a new two-month show schedule, and Niles always leads off with a Western—often something really obscure.

This time was no exception: I'd never heard of 'The Phantom Bullet,' a Universal Western of no particular distinction. And there was no way to preview it, so I played it sight unseen.

But I wasn't the only one in this predicament. With the volume of film they show—and with a collection that includes hundreds of titles rarely shown anywhere—the Niles staffers can't possibly keep up with studying every single movie in advance.

And so in introducing 'The Phantom Bullet,' staffer Rena Azevedo-Kiehn said up front she'd never seen the film. Instead, she told a few Hoot Gibson stories, but about 'The Phantom Bullet,' she stated cheerfully: "I got nothing!"

This was such a refreshing intro that I wanted to capture it here. It made it seem like we were all on this great journey of discovery together!

There's something to be learned from that, including something I already know but keep forgetting: Less is more.

It also reminded me of when I was a student at Fordham and the New York Times carried local TV listings, but due to space limitations the movie descriptions were often one single word.

I remember this listing, which I cut out and have saved somewhere:
Channel 11, 2 a.m. "Genius at Work" (1946), Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwell. Where?
* * *
Coming up is another Western, but one that's vastly different from the Hoot Gibson "oater" we enjoyed at Niles.

It's 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), a terrific film burdened with what I consider one of the worst titles of all cinema.

Showtime is Thursday, May 10 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., in Concord, N.H. More info is in the press release pasted below.

And don't let the clunky title stop you from discovering this great movie, which stars Ronald Colman, Vilma Banky, and a very young pre-'Wings' Gary Cooper.

Among the movie's many virtues is that directory Henry King went to the trouble of shooting on location in Nevada's forbidding Black Rock Desert.

A day-by-day chronicle of the movie's production was kept by a local paper, giving us a wealth of "you were there" info about the making of the film.

So we have a ton of behind-the-scenes material about 'Barbara,' including many great stories about the hardships and sacrifices endured by all.

But in introducing the film—well, I'll take my lead from Rena Azevedo-Kiehn and mostly let audience members discover it on their own terms.

Hope to see you there!

* * *

Vilma Banky and Gary Cooper in 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926).

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 11, 2018 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Rip-roaring epic silent Western at Red River Theatres on Thursday, May 10


'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), ground-breaking drama starring Gary Cooper and Ronald Colman, to be screened with live music

CONCORD, N.H.—A film that helped create Hollywood's love affair with the American West will continue this season's silent film series at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), a silent drama starring Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, and Vilma Banky, will be shown on Thursday, May 10 at 7 p.m. in Red River's Stonyfield Farm Theater.

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

Admission to this special program is $12 per person.

Directed by Henry King, 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' chronicles the epic story of pioneer settlers who dreamed of irrigating California's parched Imperial Valley in the early 20th century. Filmed on location in Nevada's Black Rock desert, the movie is noted for its extensive use of vast open spaces and wild scenery.

The story centers on a rivalry for the affections of Barbara Worth (Vilma Banky), adopted daughter of a powerful rancher. A local cowboy (Gary Cooper) finds himself competing with a newly arrived engineer (Ronald Colman), who has come to the rural valley to work on plans to harness the Colorado River for irrigation.

Will the local ranchhand prevail over the city slicker engineer? Can citizens of the parched region conquer nature and transform their lands into an agricultural paradise? Will rumors of shortcuts taken in constructing a massive dam lead to disaster?

All these questions combine to create a film that showed Hollywood and movie-goers the power of a drama set in the rural American west.

The film is also noted for its camerawork by Greg Toland, who would later go on to do principal photography for 'Citizen Kane' in 1941.

For 'Barbara Worth,' Rapsis will improvise a score from original musical material that he composes beforehand, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of a full orchestra.

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

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' continues a series of silent films presented with live music at Red River. The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and with an audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened,” Rapsis said.

“There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that spirit. At their best, silent films were communal experiences in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

Red River Theatres, an independent cinema, is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to screening a diverse program of first-run independent films, cult favorites, classics, local and regional film projects, and foreign films.

The member-supported theater’s mission is to present film and the discussion of film as a way to entertain, broaden horizons and deepen appreciation of life for New Hampshire audiences of all ages.

Upcoming shows in Red River's 2018 silent film series include:

• Thursday, Aug. 23, 7 p.m.: "The General" (1926) starring Buster Keaton. Civil War saga about a Confederate railroad engineer whose locomotive is stolen by Northern spies. Ranked among the great films of any era.

• Thursday, Nov. 7, 7 p.m.: "Wings" (1927) starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers. Winner of first-ever Best Picture Academy Award, epic tale of U.S. biplane pilots in Europe during World War II.

Gary Cooper, Vilma Banky, and Ronald Colman star in 'The Winning of Barbara Worth,' to be shown on Thursday, May 10 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $12 per person.

For more info, visit www.redrivertheatres.org. or call (603) 224-4600. For more about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Monday, April 30, 2018

'Who's supposed to be the hero?' and other questions about Fritz Lang's Nibelungen films

All is not sunny in the lands of the Nibelungen.

After the grim ending of 'Kriemheld's Revenge' (1924), maybe we were all in need of a chuckle.

During the audience Q & A following the film, a young fan got a loud laugh with this simple question.

"Just who is supposed to be the hero in this film?"

I had to say: beats me! With so much treachery, the Nibelungen tales as realized by Fritz Lang in his two-part silent extravaganza don't lend themselves to easy answers.

Probably the best response came later: a guy came up to me afterwards and suggested that perhaps the story's true hero was the dragon, who gets sacrificed in the first 10 minutes of the five-hour saga.

Siegfried bathes in the blood of the just-slain dragon.

Maybe. He's just about the only creature, human or otherwise, who doesn't do anything bad to anyone in the story. He's just there minding his own dragon business, but of course he has to be slain. He's a dragon, after all.

Such were the conversations following this weekend's screening of both parts of Lang's Nibelungen epic: 'Siegfried' (1924) on Saturday, April 28 and 'Kriemheld's Revenge' (1924) on Sunday, April 29.

Both screenings took place at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., which I consider my home field and where we run a monthly series of silent films with live music.

This was quite a challenge to take on. But it would not have happened at all without the support of long-time theater owner/operator Dennis Markaverich. Thanks, Dennis!

Dennis, a life-long film fanatic, is the reason the Town Hall Theater often shows up on lists of New England's best places to see a movie.

Creating music for these two films, which really do add up to about five hours of running time, was a really satisfying experience.

Musically, I tend to go for the big gesture, and the Nibelungen legends and Lang's approach both lend themselves to this approach. There's a reason Wagner turned to the same material for his four-opera Ring cycle!

So for me, the films were a chance to take a set of themes and really work with them over a long narrative arc.

As an example: I came up with a melody associated with Kriemheld that underwent quite a transformation as the story progressed.

In the first film, she's the woman of Siegfried's dreams. In the second film, she's pissed and out for revenge.

So her theme at first was a classic eight-bar "love" melody in the style of Tchaikovsky or Andrew Lloyd Weber.

But later, as things turned dark, the melody turned sour, and then got chopped up and became something of a war cry.

It was still Kriemheld's tune, however, and I think that helped everything hold together.

Overall, I enjoyed the two-part challenge, and received a lot of good comments afterwards. So if Dennis is up for it, we might try some others at the Town Hall Theatre.

Such as?

Well, I think the two Zorro films—'The Mark of Zorro' (1920) and 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925) would make for a good back-to-back screenings over two days.

Same with Valentino's 'The Sheik' (1921) and 'Son of the Sheik' (1926).

In both cases, the first film is a little creaky, while the second is much more polished, which shows how far film technique had come in such a short time.

And if it's more Fritz Lang you want, how about running his also-five-hours-long film 'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler' (1922) in two parts over two days?

Any other ideas?


Looking ahead: next performance for me will be piano accompaniment for 'The Phantom Bullet' (1926), a Universal Western starring Hoot Gibson.

It's screening on Saturday, May 4 at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, Calif., so redeem those frequent flyer miles and join me!

After that, May has a crowded calendar of shows back home here in New England. The schedule is heavy with comedies and Westerns, so hope to see you at an upcoming screening.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Halfway through: 'Siegfried' today, 'Kriemhild's Revenge' tomorrow (4/29) at Town Hall Theatre

A vintage poster for 'Kriemhild's Revenge.'

Fritz Lang's 'Nibelungen' films are packed with magic. But the real miracle today was the audience.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon—one of the first this spring—about 50 people turned up for our screening of 'Siegfried' (1924), the first of Lang's two-part epic.

The second part, 'Kriemhild's Revenge' (1924), runs tomorrow (Sunday, April 29) at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Taken together, the films add up to almost five hours in length. So we're showing them over two days, somewhat like the 'Harry Potter' plays running in London and now New York.

I thought the music for 'Siegfried' came together well. It took me awhile to get into "the zone," but one there it all flowed pretty effectively.

For 'Siegfried,' I borrowed the "leitmotif" technique from composer Richard Wagner, who developed signature melodies for main characters in his 'Ring' operas.

Something like that happened this afternoon. Each character had a tune, or at least a fragment, that helped tell the story as it unfolded on the screen.

Most of the "tunes" were actually short phrases that could be reshaped in many different ways depending on what was going on.

Siegfried, for example, had a simple two-part "call and answer" phrase that was proved really flexible as the movie progressed.

It could communicate triumph, despair, determination, and so much else. It appeared high in the treble, deep in the bass, and sometimes as an inner voice when other things were happening.

The only character to get a full eight-bar melody was Kriemhild, who was represented by a tune that starts out like "My White Night" from 'The Music Man' but quickly goes in other directions.

That same tune will be transformed quite a bit in 'Kriemhild's Revenge,' in which the title character takes her frustrations out on a large scale.

What does that mean? Come to the screening and find out!