Thursday, October 23, 2014

Saturday, Oct. 25 in Oqunquit, Maine:
'Phantom of the Opera' (1925)

A poster for this weekend's screening of 'Phantom' at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

This weekend, I'm doing music for 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) in a place where movies have been shown continuously since before the 'Phantom' itself first hit the big screen.

It's the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, where the original Lon Chaney silent version of 'Phantom' will be shown on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m.

The screening, part of a community celebration dubbed 'Ogunquitfest,' is also being billed as 'Chiller Theatre,' given the building's lack of a central heating system.

More info on the film and the screening is in the press release below.

But I'd like to add that in the spirit of Halloween, the Leavitt Theatre itself can be counted among the "undead," given its recent brush with closure.

Yes, after 90 continuous years of operation, last October it looked like the Leavitt would be among the casualties of Hollywood's conversion to digital format for first-run films.

As a summer-only theater in a seasonal coastal resort, the economics for the Leavitt were marginal at best.

The interior of the Leavitt, virtually unchanged since movies began being shown there in 1923.

So there simply wasn't $60K in the till to install a digital projection system needed to continue showing the latest releases.

As the 2013 season ended, long-time owner Peter Clayton (who's run the place since 1976) was reluctantly ready to throw in the towel.

But his sons, Ian and Max, suggested a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter to raise the money. The month-long campaign came through with more than enough to go digital, plus add a few extras like air conditioning.

And so it came to pass. The Leavitt, still under Clayton family management, was back in business for 2014, with a full summer of first-run movies and a variety of other programming. (Yes, including a silent film series!)

In an age where more than ever we need spaces for people to gather for communal experiences that include great cinema, I think the continuing "undead" status of the Leavitt is something to be celebrated.

So I hope you'll join us for "Chiller Theater," after which the theater will go into winter hibernation. And I hope you'll make it a point to return often during the 2015 season!

* * *

Lon Chaney as 'The Phantom' menaces Mary Philbin.

SATURDAY, OCT. 4, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film 'Chiller Theatre' at Ogunquit's Leavitt Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 25


Just in time for Halloween: 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925), pioneer classic horror flick, to be shown on the big screen with live music

OGUNQUIT, Maine—Get into the Halloween spirit with a classic silent horror film!

'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the first screen adaptation of the classic thriller, will be shown with live music on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine.

The event will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Admission is $10 per person. The horror film event is being dubbed "Chiller Theatre" due to the summer-only building's lack of a heating system. Organizers ask attendees to check the weather and bring along sweaters and blankets if a cold evening is anticipated.

'The Phantom of the Opera,' starring legendary actor Lon Chaney in the title role, remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre. To modern viewers, the passage of time has made this unusual film seem even more strange and otherworldly.

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

"The original 'Phantom' is a film that seems to get creepier as more time goes by," said Rapsis, who is based in New Hampshire and ranks as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. "It's a great way to celebrate Halloween and the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places."

'The Phantom of the Opera,' adapted from a 19th century novel by French author Gaston Leroux, featured Chaney as the deformed Phantom who haunts the opera house. The Phantom, seen only in the shadows, causes murder and mayhem in an attempt to force the opera's management to make the woman he loves into a star.

The film is most famous for Lon Chaney's intentionally horrific, self-applied make-up, which was kept a studio secret until the film's premiere.

Chaney transformed his face by painting his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom.

Chaney's disfigured face is kept covered in the film until the now-famous unmasking scene, which prompted gasps of terror from the film's original audiences.

"No one had ever seen anything like this before," Rapsis said. "Chaney, with his portrayal of 'The Phantom,' really pushed the boundaries of what movies could do."

A closer look at Chaney's 'Phantom' get-up.

Chaney, known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his versatility with make-up, also played Quasimodo in the silent 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and circus performer 'Alonzo the Armless' in Tod Browning's 'The Unknown' (1927).

The large cast of 'Phantom of the Opera' includes Mary Philbin as Christine Daaé, as the Phantom's love interest; character actor Snitz Edwards; and many other stars of the silent period.

'The Phantom of the Opera' proved so popular in its original release and again in a 1930 reissue that it led Universal Studios to launch a series of horror films, many of which are also regarded as true classics of the genre, including Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932).

The silent film version of 'Phantom' also paved the way for numerous other adaptations of the story, up to and including the wildly successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical from 1986 that continues to run on Broadway and in productions around the world.

The Leavitt's screening of 'The Phantom of the Opera' is part of the 11th annual Ogunquitfest, an area-wide celebration of autumn and the Halloween season.

The screening is the final installment of the Leavitt's 2014 Silent Film Series. Although 'Phantom of the Opera' is suitable for all family members, the overall program may be too much for very young children to enjoy.

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

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

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) will be shown on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine. Admission $10 per person; for more info, call (207) 646-3123 or visit www.leavittheatre.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Coming out: Intimate details of
my first bi-keyboardal experience

The set-up at Harvard University's Carpenter Center for a class screening on Tuesday, Oct. 21.

Once you go bi-keyboard, you can't go back.

That's what I discovered this week at Harvard University's Carpenter Center, where I did live music for a class screening of two silent films.

On the program: the Epstein/Buñuel version of 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1928) and also 'The Smiling Madame Beudet' (1923).

For 'Usher,' I used strings exclusively, augmented by an actual clangy school bell for some key images. I thought it held together well.

In the unexpected challenge department, the Harvard Film Archive's 35mm 'Usher' print turned out to be a French edition with no English subtitles.

So instructor Adam Hart did his best to translate on the fly, which required me to tone down the music each time so he could be heard.

But it was the seductive 'Smiling Madame' who led me to my first bi-keyboard experience.

Unplanned, of course, as all the best adventures seem to be. But it happened, and here's how:

The 'Madame Beudet' film frequently references a performance Gounod's 'Faust.' So for the score, I figured on using the opera's famous waltz in a full orchestral texture throughout the movie, evolving it as the story proceeded.

But early on, the wife character is seen playing dreamy music on a living room piano. (Later, we see the actual sheet music: it's Debussy's "Jardins sous la Pluie," or "Gardens in the Rain.")


Yes, I could evoke the impressionistic feel of this piece (whole tone scales, etc.) on the synthesizer, no problem. (In other words, fake it.)

But right next to me was the Carpenter Center's big Yamaha grand piano. And I couldn't resist the idea of using an acoustic piano for scenes of when the family upright gets played.

It took some finagling to get the big grand positioned so that I could reach it (and its pedals) quickly, and also so the keyboard would be lighted from the screen. (I didn't want to have a light on all during the film just so I could use the piano for a few moments.)

Another view of my set-up, this time showing the screen.

Turned out the synth and the piano were exactly in tune. So, without having to modify the synth's pitch, I could play both instruments together if I wanted to. Which I did.

It took a little getting used to, but I found playing two keyboards, one on either side of me, wasn't impossible.

It was actually kind of fun to mix sustained synth chords to back a melody played with staccato piano notes, or vice versa.

I felt like bandleader Paul Shaffer on the David Letterman show, hemmed in by black and white keys all around me!

Now all I have to do is shave my head.

I found that by straddling the piano bench, I could even use the sustain pedals for each keyboard at the same time. Flexibility exercises would have helped on this.

So when Madame Beudet is seen playing the piano (as at left), the score including the sound of a real piano, even if it was faux Debussy. (Faux sounds so much better than fake. Maybe because it's French.)

And when Monsieur Beudet mocks his wife's preference for Debussy by banging on the family piano—well, I was ready for that, too. I specialize in banging.

So it worked out quite well. And now, when asked to accompany films at Harvard, I'm going to be on the prowl for opportunities to layer in acoustic piano with a synth background, or vice versa.

And what if I also bring along my bass tuba? It may or may not be for a French film, but I can't help but think this combo would be a "menage a trois."

P.S. Wherever there's a piano, there's usually a piano bench. Most piano benches come with a storage space that can be accessed by lifting the hinged seat, somewhat like opening a treasure chest.

And like a treasure chest, you never know what you'll find in the world's piano benches.

I've found everything from tennis balls to sheet music that once belonged to an elderly acquaintance who had died more than a decade ago.

So from now on, I'm taking it upon myself to document to contents of the piano benches I encounter, starting with the one at Harvard University's Carpenter Center.

Think of it as a low-rent version of Geraldo opening Al Capone's safe.

The bench itself clearly contained items of some heft. Upon opening it, I found...


...two large Boston phone directories from 2008-9!

Join us next time for another episode of "Piano Bench Mysteries."

Finally, a high culture alternative to reality television!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

This Friday, Oct. 24: 'Nosferatu' (1922)
at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

Join us for 'Nosferatu' (1922) on Friday, Oct. 24 at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. If you dare...

Forget Christmas!

For a silent film accompanist, Halloween is the most wonderful time of the year.

If nothing else, silent film is other-worldly enough to be a general draw during this macabre part of the calendar. And so the screenings come, one by one...

Usually, just for sanity's sake, I try to pick one of the great favorites each year and focus on it. One year, 'Nosferatu' (1922) another 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925), and so on.

But this cycle that system kinda broke down for various reasons. And so now I'm doing music for a lot of different films one after another. It's scary on a whole new level.

First up is the original silent 'Nosferatu' (1922), being shown on Friday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

Alas, we're in the smaller "screening" room, so it might just happen that we sell out.

If that happens, I'll arrange for a repeat as soon as feasible. But if you really really hope to see it this Friday night, I suggest getting tickets beforehand online at www.redrivertheatres.org.

After 'Nosferatu,' it's 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) on Saturday, Oct. 25 at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, and then a Lon Chaney double feature on Sunday, Oct. 26 at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

And more after that, but one weekend at a time.

With 'Nosferatu,' I like to remind attendees that vampires were not a cliché with early cinema audiences.

Original audiences had never seen anything like the vampire played by Max Schreck, and it must have been a genuinely unsettling experience.

To make the point of how our frame of reference has changed, I bring along an unusual prop: a box of 'Count Chocula' breakfast cereal.

How terrifying can a vampire be when the figure has been turned into a cartoon breakfast cereal pitchman? (Actually, very much so, if you read the ingredients.)

Today, the vampire legend has been largely detoothed, so to speak, by overexposure, familiarity and commercialism. Heck, kids today learn numbers on Sesame Street from "The Count," a cuddly muppet.

Fortunately, director F.W. Murnau's visual style, and the other-worldly quality of silent film itself, is more than enough to bring audiences back into the spirit of the original 'Nosferatu.'

To see for yourself, I invite you to join us. For more specifics about 'Nosferatu' on Friday, Oct. 24 at Red River Theatres, check out the press release below.

And remember: in silent film, no one can hear you scream!

And P.S.: For yet more provocative thoughts on old vampire films, check out recent posts at www.nitratediva.wordpress.com. Some great stuff about Tod Browning's early talkie 'Dracula' (1931) as well as the lesser-known Spanish language version of the 1931 Universal classic, which Red River will screen on Friday, Oct. 31.

* * *

The shadow of Nosferatu as the creature closes in on a victim.

SATURDAY, OCT. 4, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

'Nosferatu' coming to Red River Theatres on Friday, Oct. 24


Pioneer classic horror movie to be shown on the big screen with live music

CONCORD, N.H.—Get into the Halloween spirit with a classic silent horror film!

'Nosferatu' (1922), the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula,' will be screened with live music on Friday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

The film will include live music performed by New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

'Nosferatu' (1922), directed by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre. It was among the first movies to use visual design to contribute to an overall sense of terror. To modern viewers, the passage of time has made this unusual film seem even more strange and otherworldly.

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

"The original 'Nosferatu' is a film that seems to get creepier as more time goes by," said Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H. who ranks as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. "It's a great way to celebrate Halloween and the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places."

In 'Nosferatu,' German actor Max Schreck portrays the title character, a mysterious count from Transylvania who travels to the German city of Bremen to take up residence. A rise in deaths from the plague is attributed to the count's arrival. Only when a young woman reads "The Book of Vampires" does it become clear how to rid the town of this frightening menace.

Director F.W. Murnau told the story with strange camera angles, weird lighting, and special effects that include sequences deliberately speeded up.

Although 'Nosferatu' is suitable for all family members, the overall program may be too much for very young children to enjoy.

Modern critics say the original 'Nosferatu' still packs a powerful cinematic punch.

“Early film version of Dracula is brilliantly eerie, full of imaginative touches that none of the later films quite recaptured,” Leonard Maltin wrote recently. Critic Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader called 'Nosferatu' "...a masterpiece of the German silent cinema and easily the most effective version of Dracula on record.”

Max Schreck as Nosferatu and friend emerge from the hold of a ship in 'Nosferatu' (1922).

Despite the status of 'Nosferatu' as a landmark of early cinema, it was almost lost forever.

The film, shot in 1921 and released in 1922, was an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel, with names and other details changed because the studio could not obtain rights to the novel.

For instance, "vampire" became "Nosferatu" and "Count Dracula" became "Count Orlok." After the film was released, Stoker's widow filed a copyright infringement lawsuit and won; all known prints and negatives were destroyed under the terms of settlement.

However, intact copies of the the film would surface later, allowing 'Nosferatu' to be restored and screened today as audiences originally saw it. The image of actor Max Schreck as the vampire has become so well known that it showed up in a recent episode of 'Sponge Bob Squarepants.'

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 events in Red River's silent film programming include:

• Friday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m.: 'Charlie Chaplin Comedy Night.' Spend part of Thanksgiving weekend with the Little Tramp on the 100th anniversary of his first screen appearances. The whole family will enjoy restored prints of some of Chaplin's most popular comedies shown the way they were intended: on the big screen, with live music, and an audience.

‘Nosferatu’ will be shown on Friday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. in the Jaclyn Simchik Screening Room at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 224-4600 or visit www.redrivertheatres.org. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

In which I get into Harvard University;
plus reviews, radio interviews, and more

Phyllis Hart stars in 'Chicago' (1927), a silent film that got a recent thumbs-up from a college newspaper.

Some great Halloween screenings coming up, but first a few updates from the present:

An unexpected review: I've just found a wonderful review of our screening of the silent film version of 'Chicago' (1927) earlier this month at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center up in Plymouth, N.H.

It's by Sarah Liebowitz of 'The Clock' (the student paper of Plymouth State University) and I think she did a great job capturing the spirit of the film and its ability to reach audiences today, even those unfamiliar with silent cinema.

Me, I'm the choir. I certainly believe in the timeless power of silent film. But it's really heartening and encouraging to seed others discover this on their own.

Thank you for making my day, Sarah. If you come to 'Phantom of the Opera' at the Monkey later this month, please stop by to say hi!

The back end of the Carpenter Center at Harvard, including the doors through which I lug my digital synthesizer and sound gear.

Playing at Harvard: I continue the head-spinning experience of going down to Harvard University to do live music for a variety of silent film screenings. I've done three in the past few weeks, and three more are coming up, including one later this afternoon.

Why head-spinning? Because as music-crazed teenager in Nashua, N.H., I was immersing myself in material such as Igor Stravinsky's Charles Elliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, and so always thought of the place as a citadel of American musical culture.

I never got to attend, of course, and later shelved my musical ambitions for the word game. So I never expected, all this time later, to be coming down to campus and playing my own stuff where the like of idols such as Leonard Bernstein and Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland and John Adams (the composer, and the founding father) once hung out.

It's a great honor, a real satisfaction, and a genuine thrill. 'Nuf said. (But I want to thank David Pendleton of the Harvard Film Archive, Heidi Bliss of Harvard's Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, and everyone else who has played a part in this adventure so far.)

The screenings take place at the Le Corbius-designed Carpenter Center in an environment that's pretty luxurious compared to the town halls where I often ply my trade. In a real plus for silent film, the booth is equipped with 35mm projectors that can run variable speed! Also, in an unheard-of luxury, able projectionist Clayton Mattos will often check with me (before and during a screening) about a film's running speed.

A classier front-end view of the Carpenter Center, the only structure in North America designed by Le Corbius, the 20th century oracle of architectural modernism (and big fan of concrete.)

Last Wednesday night, I accompanied 'The Big Parade' (1925) for a class taught by Harvard Prof. Tom Conley. The print was the Harvard Film Archive's very own gorgeous 35mm print, and the screening was open to the public, so we had a nice turnout.

Because it was 'The Big Parade,' I pulled out all the stops, bringing down the digital synthesizer and staging what I thought was a suitable soundtrack to scenes of World War I trench fighting. (In other words, KABOOM!)

And, despite my need for a bathroom break just when the soldiers were being called up to the front, it was one of those magical screenings where a film seems to completely absorb an audience.

Even better, it was not the usual silent film crowd, but a mix of people who may not have been expecting the experience that King Vidor and company had planned for them nearly a century ago.

I often say silent film is about the big emotions, as demonstrated here by John Gilbert and Renee Adoree in 'The Big Parade.'

I have to admit I was pleased how most of the score came out. I think I hit all the big moments, and was especially happy at how the well-known "departure" sequence came together, with Renee Adoree hanging onto the truck taking John Gilbert to the front. And I found myself quite overcome (SPOILER ALERT!) during the final sequence, when the pair are finally reunited.

So after "The End," despite three hours at the keyboard, I couldn't help but stand up and thank everyone for helping to collaborate in bringing 'The Big Parade' to life, and encourage them to understand that to really experience the full power of silent film, this was the way to do it: in a theater, on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

It was only then that I remembered that this was Prof. Conley's class, not my personal forum. But the professor was nodding his head in agreement, and later thanked me for the performance, so I trust I didn't tred on any Ivy League toes.

And it was a real rush to talk with attendees afterwards, some of whom have actual music backgrounds! One woman, Peggy Wang, a Boston-area violinist, seemed completely enthralled with the whole experience. It's interactions such as this that make all the efforts at creating effective accompaniment worthwhile.

We'll see what I can do later today with screenings of the Epstein/Bunuel version of 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1928) and 'The Smiling Madame Buedet' (1928). The titles are being run today at 4 p.m. at the Carpenter Center as part of a class in silent cinema led by Adam Hart.

Later, on Sunday, Nov. 2, I'm doing music for a double bill of obscure silent Fritz Lang titles being screened by the Harvard Film Archive, which runs an ambitious schedule of repertory programs in the same theater.

The program is at 7 p.m. and includes 'The Wandering Image' (1921) and 'Fighting Hearts' (1922), both of which are new to me. The Lang films lend themselves to my musical strengths, I think (the big gesture), so I'm looking forward to helping bring them to life.

A scene from Fritz Lang's early film 'The Wandering Image' (1921), considered lost for decades until a print was discovered in Brazil.

And then on Tuesday, Nov. 4, a new challenge beckons at the Carpenter Center: my first-ever Japanese silent, "I Was Born, But..." (1932), directed by Yasujiro Ozu. I'm very much looking forward to scoring this one, as it's an unusual film with a whole different sensibility than most silent cinema. I'm not sure what I'll do just yet, but I hope to create music that brings this quality out.

The only downside to this whole adventure has been fighting the traffic in and out of Boston. The Harvard folks have been great in terms of arranging parking passes and the like. But they can't do much about road construction on Memorial Drive, which I think has been going on since the silent film era.

The upside to this, however, is that I'm developing a much better understanding of the small one-way streets of Cambridge, Mass. Need directions?

Virginia Prescott of New Hampshire Public Radio's 'Word of Mouth.'

On the radio: Tomorrow (Wednesday, Oct. 22), I've been invited to drop by the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio for a pre-Halloween segment with Virginia Prescott, host of the station's popular "Word of Mouth" program.

It's a real treat to do this. Not only will it provide a nice publicity boost for several upcoming Halloween screenings, but Virginia is one of those people who seem to bring out the best in anyone she speaks with.

I once thought my high point in terms of public radio celebrity interaction was bumping into Tom and Ray Magliozzi (the "Car Talk" brothers) some years ago in an elevator at the studios of WBUR in Boston.

But that encounter has since been surpassed by my interactions with Virginia. For one thing, she has much better hair than either of the Car Talk guys.

I'm not sure when the 'Word of Mouth' segment will air, but I'll post the info here as soon as I know. The station's Web address is: http://www.nhpr.org.

Virginia Prescott making a gesture that I expect to see a lot of tomorrow, given my inability to stop talking.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

SATURDAY, OCT. 4, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 17, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In reviving the original 'Chicago,' the Flying Monkey aims to show silent movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score during the screening. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early cinema leap back to life. They all featured great stories with compelling characters and universal appeal, so it's no surprise that they hold up and we still respond to them."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Upcoming feature films in the Flying Monkey's silent film series include:

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

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

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