Monday, June 29, 2015

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

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

Looking for something different to mark Independence Day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who will make it? Who will not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JUNE 24, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis at (603) 236-9237 • e-mail jrapsis@gmail.com

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


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

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

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

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

The show will feature live accompaniment by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis.

'The Big Parade,' released just a few years after World War I ended, was hailed by critics as the first Hollywood film to depict the harsh reality of combat and its impact of troops in the trenches and foxholes. Its hellish battle scenes were staged on a massive scale and still retain their ability to shock audiences.

The picture, based on the best-selling novel "What Price Glory?", follows the story of a young man (John Gilbert) who rebels against a privileged background by enlisting in the army just before the U.S. enters World War I.

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

In addition to vivid war scenes, the film contains a famous dramatic sequence in which the French woman (Renée Adorée) realizes her love for the soldier, and tries to find him to say goodbye as the massive convoy of troops pulls out for the front. Another celebrated sequence depicts the light-hearted first meeting of the soldier and the girl, in which he teaches her how to chew gum.

'The Big Parade' went on to become the top-grossing movie of the entire silent film era, earning $6.4 million domestically and making director King Vidor into the Steven Spielberg of his day. It stood as MGM's biggest single box office hit until the release of 'Gone With the Wind' in 1939.

Rapsis will improvise a musical score to the film in real time. In creating accompaniment for the 'The Big Parade' and other vintage classics, Rapsis tries to bridge the gap between silent film and modern audiences.

"Live music adds an element of energy to a silent film screening that's really crucial to the experience," Rapsis said. " 'The Big Parade' is filled with great scenes that lend themselves well to music. It's a real privilege to create a score to help this great picture come back to life," Rapsis said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A music group performing with the trapeze above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 10, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chief organizers Rob Stone and Rachel Parker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The audience gathers prior to the 'Sherlock' screening.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

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

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

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

Whaddaya know? A pair of 'Wings!'

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

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

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

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

Keep 'em flying!

An original poster for 'Wings' (1927).

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MONDAY, MAY 25, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 5, 2015

Runaway trains and William Haines:
A double bill featuring two 35mm prints
on Sunday, June 7 at Somerville Theatre


Next up: a double bill I've been looking forward to for a long time—at least since I found that the Library of Congress had circulating 35mm prints available of both titles.

The two pictures are 'Play Safe' (1927) starring Monty Banks and 'Show People' (1928) directed by King Vidor and starring William Haines and Marion Davies.

The screening is on Sunday, June 7 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission $10 per person. Don't let the great weather keep you away. :)

About the films: I'm very excited about 'Play Safe,' a film I've never scored before. In fact, I've never seen it in its entirety.

We're running it part because of the incredible runaway train sequence that forms the film's climax. This famous footage has been excerpted for decades as a convenient way to demonstrate the power and excitement of silent film at its very best.

But the entire film doesn't often get shown, and I'm not sure why. It could be because leading man Monty Banks never made it into the Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd pantheon of silent clowns. I've heard varying reports of how well the film holds up as a whole.

So we'll just have to see for ourselves, won't we?

I'm also excited about 'Show People' (1928). More than any other silent picture I know, it captures the spirit of life in Hollywood in the 1920s, at least the way the studios wanted the public to think of it.

One of the last silents released by MGM, and directed by King Vidor at the height of his career, 'Show People' stands as a Valentine to an era that was quickly coming to an end even as it was in production.

Hey! There's Charlie Chaplin with William Haines and Marion Davies!

Because it's all about Hollywood, 'Show People' is a very "meta" picture. At one point, Marion Davies (playing a star-struck would-be actress) has a chance encounter with the great Hollywood star...Marion Davies. At another point, a movie theater is screening 'Bardelys the Magnificent,' an earlier picture directed by King Vidor—who just happens to be visible in the audience.

And remember all those star cameos in 'It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World?' The same thing was done 35 years earlier in 'Show People,' with everyone from Douglas Fairbanks to Charlie Chaplin popping up for brief appearances.

At this writing, it's not certain which title we'll run first. Could go either way—so come to the screening and find out!

I'm also excited because both 35mm prints are in pretty good shape. Below are excerpts from a print inspection report from David Kornfeld, the Someville's master projectionist and self-proclaimed "living dinosaur" (for his continuing advocacy of celluloid).
PLAY SAFE (1927). Print is on acetate, from 1990, in virtually new condition! The density is good (not great). It's 1.33 (yay!), except for "The End" title card which, weirdly, is 1.37 with a soundtrack. Go figure. ... Ive never seen this movie, but it has a reputation! Theres a train chase scene at the end which is supposed to be amazing! Come and see for yourself!

It's playing with:


SHOW PEOPLE (1928). Print is on mylar, from 2003, and is in like new condition! Not a splice, not a scratch, not a hint of wear! Density is very good. This one is 1.37, with a soundtrack (which, obviously, I wont be playing). It's marked "long version," so thats probably a good thing. The frame has been properly reduced (for once), so we wont be doing the Movietone crop.

(The comments preserve David's aversion to apostrophes, by the way.)

Okay, for more info about the films, check out the press release below.

Just to try to give it a different angle, the press release played up the fact that William Haines was Hollywood's first-ever openly gay leading man.

They're both terrific films, so don't believe that weather report calling for a perfect late spring day on Sunday. Forecasts, bah! I can say for certain that you'll have a good time at this Sunday's show at the Somerville.

C'mon, who do you trust?

* * *

A Swedish poster for 'Show People' (1928) featuring William Haines.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 20, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Somerville Theatre to celebrate Hollywood's first openly gay leading man


William Haines stars in classic silent film comedy 'Show People,' shown in 35mm with live music on Sunday, June 7

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—He was the Tom Hanks of the late 1920s: a leading man with a winning manner and breezy charm who always got the girl.

But the film career of William Haines, one of early Hollywood's brightest stars, was cut short for an unfortunate reason: at a time when sexual preference was a taboo subject, he was openly gay.

See Haines at the peak of his popularity in 'Show People' (1928), an MGM comedy co-starring Marion Davies that spoofs the movie industry, pitting high drama against low comedy.

Showtime for 'Show People' is Sunday, June 7 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

The event also includes a screening of the silent comedy feature 'Play Safe' (1927) starring Monty Banks. Both films will be screened using 35mm prints from the U.S. Library of Congress.

All are welcome to this family-friendly event; admission is $15 per person general admission.

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

William Haines was one of MGM's biggest stars in the late 1920s, often playing the male lead in the studio's romantic comedies. But off-screen, Haines was gay—and, unusually for the era, he did not hide his homosexuality.

This led to friction with his bosses. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, convinced that movie audiences would not accept a gay leading man, urged Haines to keep his long-term relationship with actor Jimmie Shields a secret.

Haines maintained his star status at MGM during the transisition to talking pictures in the late 1920s. But a publicity crisis arose in 1933, when Haines was arrested in a YMCA with a sailor he had picked up in Los Angeles' Pershing Square.

Mayer then delivered an ultimatum: Haines had to choose between a sham marriage to an MGM actress to make himself acceptable to Middle America, or give up his career. Haines refused to submit, chosing to be himself rather than to pretend to be someone he wasn't. Mayer subsequently fired Haines, terminated his contract, and banished him from the industry.

His movie career over, Haines recovered by launching an interior design firm, using his connections to become the most sought-after decorator in the Hollywood movie colony. The business prospered over the decades, with a client list of A-list celebrities as well as political figures such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Haines remained with his partner Shields for the rest of his life. Joan Crawford, who co-starred with Haines in several pictures, described the pair as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." In recent years, Haines has been recognized as a courageous pioneer in gay rights in the early Hollywood community.


'Show People,' directed by King Vidor, shows Haines at the height of his leading-man status. The light-hearted story follows Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies), a beauty queen from Georgia trying to break into the movies as a dramatic actress. Haines plays Billy Boone, lead actor of a slapstick comedy studio where Pepper gets her first break.

Can the young actress yearning for drama survive the indignity of pies in the face? When her big break finally comes, will it mean sacrificing her growing friendship with Billy? And can Billy rescue the fun-loving Georgia girl from a studio that aims to invent a whole new persona for her as a serious actress, descended from European royalty?

Can low comedy win out over high drama? In answering that question, 'Show People' pokes fun at Hollywood phoniness and the culture of celebrity worship that had already emerged by the 1920s. 'Show People' also offers rare behind-the-scenes glimpses of movie-making at the very end of the silent period, when studios were rushing to prepare for sound.

"It's like they knew an era was ending, and 'Show People' is kind of a Valentine to the whole silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the screening. "It's a love letter to all the craziness that went into creating the movie business."

Marion Davies graduates to serious roles while William Haines sticks with comedy in 'Show People.'

Set in backstage Hollywood, 'Show People' features cameos by dozens of major stars of the period, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., William S. Hart, and John Gilbert.

In 2003, Show People was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Also on the program is 'Play Safe' (1927), a comedy starring Monty Banks and Virginia Lee Corbin. 'Play Safe' includes an extended sequence set on a runaway train that critics have acclaimed as some of the most exciting filmmaking of the silent film era.

The Somerville Theatre's 'Silents Please!' series aims to recreate the full silent film experience, with restored 35mm prints projected on the big screen, live music, and with a live audience. All these elements are essential to seeing silent films they way they were intended, Rapsis said.

“At their best, silent films were a communal experience very different from today’s movies—one in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions,” Rapsis said.

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

• Sunday, July 5, 2 p.m.: 'The Big Parade' (1925) starring John Gilbert, Renee Adoreé. Director King Vidor's intense drama about U.S. doughboys sent to World War I France, where the horror of trench warfare changes their lives forever. Among the first Hollywood films to depict realistic battlefield action; still maintains its power to shock.

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

‘Show People’ (1928), a classic silent comedy starring William Haines and Marion Davies, and 'Play Safe' (1927), will be shown with live music on Sunday, June 7 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) leads off series
at historic Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine

The interior of the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

And now for a silent film series where the theater is part of the show!

Really: the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit Maine first opened as a moviehouse in 1923, and has remained pretty much unchanged ever since.

Yes, there's upgraded digital projection and sound so first-run films can be run during the summer tourist season.

But the building itself, inside and out, gives you essentially the same movie-going experience as it did in 1923. Same wooden sloping floors, same wooden seats, same plain Maine decor.

Three cheers to longtime owners Peter and Maureen Clayton for keeping the Leavitt going since the mid-1970s. And best of luck to son Ian, who is assuming more responsibility for programming and running the theater this season.

The Leavitt's ticket booth has guarded the theater's entry for decades.

We've been doing silent film with live music at the Leavitt for a few years now, and it's back on the schedule this season—a total of seven film programs from now through Halloween.

I'm grateful to the Clayton family's support of silent film with live music, and we've been getting good crowds, too. So it's a great place to get the "total" silent film experience: the picture and live music, but also the crucial element of seeing a film with a large audience.

First up is Buster Keaton's classic feature comedy 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), which we're running on Thursday, June 4 at 8 p.m. Admission is $10 per person.

For more information about this year's silent film series at the Leavitt, check out the press release below.

Hope to see you there!

* * *


TUESDAY, MAY 26, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Leavitt Theatre to host summer silent film series with live music


Classic comedies, action-packed dramas highlight schedule; featured stars include Chaplin, Keaton, and Clara Bow

OGUNQUIT, Maine—Classics of the silent film era will return to the big screen starting next month at Ogunquit's Leavitt Theatre, which will host a season of vintage cinema with live music in the historic facility.

The series gives area film fans a chance to see great movies from the pioneering days of cinema as they were intended to be shown—on the big screen, with an audience, and accompanied by live music.

Most screenings will be on Thursday evenings and will begin on Thursday, June 4 with the Buster Keaton comedy 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928). The series runs through October, concluding with a Halloween screening of Alfred Hitchcock's early horror classic 'The Lodger' (1927), to be shown on Saturday, Oct. 31.

Admission is $10 per person.

A total of seven programs will be offered in the series. Films will include comedies by Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. Dramas include MGM's epic silent version of 'Ben Hur' (1925) as well as 'Wings' (1927), a blockbuster film about World War I aviators that won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture.

"These are the films that first made people fall in love with the movies, and we're thrilled to present them again on the big screen," said Peter Clayton, the Leavitt's long-time owner.

The Leavitt, a summer-only moviehouse, opened in 1923 at the height of the silent film era, and has been showing movies to summertime visitors for nine decades.

The silent film series honors the theater's long service as a moviehouse that has entertained generations of Seacoast residents and visitors, in good times and in bad.

"These movies were intended to be shown in this kind of environment, and with live music and with an audience," Clayton said. "Put it all together, and you've got great entertainment that still has a lot of power to move people."

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

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.

In scoring a movie, Rapsis creates music to help modern movie-goers accept silent film as a vital art form rather than something antiquated or obsolete.

"Silent film is a timeless art form that still has a unique emotional power, as the recent success of 'The Artist' has shown," Rapsis said.

Buster Keaton and Ernest Torrence in 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928).

First up in the Leavitt's series is 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), a classic silent film comedy starring Buster Keaton.

In 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' Buster plays the bumbling son of a riverboat’s rough-hewn 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.

Other feature films in this year's series include:

• Thursday, June 18, 2015, 8 p.m. 'Wings' (1927) starring Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen; directed by William Wellman. Sweeping drama about fighter pilots in World War I; one of the great achievements of the silent cinema, winner of "Best Picture" at the first-ever Academy Awards. Compelling story, great performances, battle scenes filmed on an immense scale, and in-air aviation sequences that remain thrilling even today.

• Thursday, July 30, 2015, 8 p.m.: 'Silent Comedy with Harold Lloyd.' See why Harold Lloyd was the most popular performer of the silent film era. Instead of getting ahead, his everyone man character (a nice young man with horn-rimmed glasses) had a knack for getting into spectacular trouble, often requiring him to overcome amazing odds to win the day.

• Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, 8 p.m.: 'The Kid' (1921) starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan. Chaplin's landmark comedy/drama about a man who raises an infant against all odds. As the film tells us: "A story with a smile, and perhaps a tear." Highlighted by amazing performance of four-year-old Coogan, who matches Chaplin pratfall for pratfall. Also, two of Charlie's earlier slapstick comedy shorts that helped establish him as a star.

• Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, 8 p.m.: 'Ben Hur' (1925) starring Ramon Navarro. In the Holy Land, a Jewish prince is enslaved by the occupying Romans; inspired by encounters with Jesus, he lives to seek justice. One of the great religious epics of Hollywood's silent film era, including a legendary chariot race that's lost none of its power to thrill.

• Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, 8 p.m.: 'Silent Comedy with Harry Langdon' Silent comedy featuring the unique style of Harry Langdon, whose innocent baby-faced character rocketed to fame late in the silent era on the strength of films directed by a very young Frank Capra. Rediscover Harry's quiet genius the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen and with a live audience.

• Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, 8 p.m.: 'The Lodger' (1927). A serial killer is on the loose in fog-bound London. Will the murderer be caught before yet another victim is claimed? Just in time for Halloween, suspenseful British thriller directed by a very young Alfred Hitchcock. The program is subtitled 'Chiller Theater' due to the theater's lack of central heating.

Buster Keaton's classic comedy 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) will lead off this season's silent film series on Thursday, June 4 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Fine Arts Theatre, 259 Main St. Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; (207) 646-3123; admission is $10 per person, general seating. For more information, visit http://www.leavittheatre.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ninety-nine years after first screening,
'The Birth of a Nation' returns to Wilton, N.H.


Turns out our screening of 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) on Sunday, May 24 is actually a rerun!

Yes—in the spring of 1916, D.W. Griffith's epic film enjoyed a three-day engagement at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre.

I learned about this just a few days ago courtesy Jeff Klenotic, associate professor of film at the University of New Hampshire.

Jeff, who's studied early movie theaters in our part of the world, sent me this surprising tidbit from his research. ("Dennis," by the way, is current theater owner/operator Dennis Markevarich.)
"I’m not sure if you or Dennis are aware of this, but Wilton Town Hall Theater presented Birth of a Nation for a three day run on May 15, 16 and 17 in 1916. It was shown with a full touring company of musicians known as the “Birth of a Nation Symphony Orchestra” that traveled with the film as it played from city to city and town to town. Tickets were 50c, 75c and $1 and they showed two screenings per day.

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre, where movies have been screened since 1912.
"People traveled for miles to see the film, and a special train was run from Milford to accommodate people from there who wanted to see the film. Originally, Milford wanted to get the film, but the movie theater there was too small (300 seats) and the Town Hall couldn’t get fire insurance that would allow them to screen the picture. Apparently, a heavy dose of rain subdued attendance, but the film was nonetheless hailed as a success."
Wow! It's a pretty safe bet that 'The Birth of a Nation' hasn't run in Wilton since this original engagement, so the resulting 99-year gap must be close to some kind of record among movie theaters.

One thing we have going against us is the weather. The Sunday of the upcoming Memorial Day weekend promises to be spectacular! Unlike the promoters of the 1916 screenings, I'd much prefer rain, as that tends to help attendance.

But rain or shine, our return engagement is one show only: on Sunday, May 24 at 4:30 p.m. Don't miss it, or you might have to wait another 99 years for it to return.

P.S. Jeff Klenotic has asked me to share the Web site for his research project. Jeff writes:

"The website is designed as a public resource and I think some of your silent film followers might be interested in exploring it. The name of the project is "Mapping Movies" and the web address is: http://mappingmovies.unh.edu/maps."

Okay, everyone: check it out! Jeff also sent along an original newspaper ad for the screening, which is below. At the time, the Town Hall Theatre was referred to as the "Wilton Opera House," but it's the same place: