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!

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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:

Monday, May 11, 2015

'Birth of a Nation' on Memorial Day weekend?
Well, it actually makes a lot of sense, I think.

Okay, let's face it: 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) is a film flawed by racism. Just check out that poster above!

That should be obvious to anyone who sees it. But does that mean no one should ever see it?

I deal with this question every time I program 'The Birth of a Nation' or accompany it.

This ancient D.W. Griffith movie basically depicts black people as inferior to white people and makes heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan. How can anyone justify showing it?

Indeed, some people feel strongly that the film should never be shown. Instead, it should just stay locked up and kept out of sight.

Well, I disagree—obviously, as I'm doing music for 'The Birth of a Nation' for a Memorial Day weekend screening on Sunday, May 24 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

A coupla three of reasons for disagreeing...
• First, I feel the film amounts to a valuable primary source. It vividly shows the pervasiveness of racism in America at the time it was made. As the late Roger Ebert pointed out in remarks I quote below, that's something worth knowing.

• And then there's the undeniable effect that 'The Birth of a Nation' had on the early motion picture industry. In making the film, director D.W. Griffith demonstrated the power of cinema on a grand scale. And Hollywood would never be the same.

• Finally, I think all the big Griffith films ('Birth' included) really do need to be screened in their original environment for their impact to be appreciated. By "original environment," I mean in a theater, with live music, and—most importantly—with an audience. So that means actually running the film.

Still, I've always felt it helped to have a reason or an occasion to justify screening 'The Birth of a Nation.'

For a few years now, I've made a point of scheduling 'Birth' in January in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. I felt the holiday was a perfect opportunity to showcase what King and so many others had to battle.

But now it occurs to me that Memorial Day weekend is a good time to show the film, too.

It's partly rooted in the history of this solemn holiday. Memorial Day grew out of Decoration Day, which originally arose in the 19th century as a time for communities across the nation to honor their Civil War dead.

Because 'Birth' is all about the Civil War and its aftermath, about because this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's end, it seemed to me that Memorial Day Weekend was a fitting time to screen this film.

It's also the 100th anniversary of the film's original release, so that counts for something, too.

But even without these anniversary tie-ins, it's still a film worth screening—not to promote racism, but so that we don't forget the extent of it during a time that no one today has any first-hand experience of.

Film (even a fictional tale) as a primary source. I'm not an academic, but I think as more time passes, old cinema will increasingly help illuminate times long past.

Imagine if we had some film from Shakespeare's time? Or from the time of Christ? Imagine how much such film, even it was purely fictional stories, could tell us about the times in which it was made?

I've been working my way through some audio lectures about Western Civilization lately, and it's amazing how excited scholars get over the most mundane of scraps of info that have come down to us. So I can't help but think: wouldn't it be great to find a romantic comedy filmed during, say, the reign of Pharoah Snefru of Ancient Egypt?

While I'm at it, I recently learned that the only major civilization to learn how to read and write, and then totally forget how, were the ancient Greeks prior to the time of Socrates. For about five centuries, during what's called the "sub-Mycenaean" period, there's no trace of any writing. They became illiterate!

We're heading in that direction in this country, so don't think it can't happen, folks.

Okay: if this Memorial Day weekend finds you in New Hampshire, I hope you'll join us. More details of the screening in the press release below:

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An original poster for 'The Birth of a Nation.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

‘The Birth of a Nation’: Silent film masterpiece or racist artifact?

Controversial movie to be screened with live music on Sunday, May 24 at Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre

WILTON, N.H.—What if a movie was acclaimed as a masterpiece, but portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes? What if a movie aimed to show the realities of life during the Civil War, and yet used white actors playing roles in blackface? What does it say if a movie was clearly racist, depicting blacks as an inferior sub-species to whites, but was still a box office smash?

Those are among the questions posed by ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915), the ground-breaking epic film from director D.W. Griffith, which continues to inspire controversy a full century after its initial release.

In honor of the film's 100th anniversary, as well as the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, a restored print of the film will be screened on Memorial Day weekend at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., Wilton, N.H. The screening, part of the Town Hall Theatre’s silent film series, will include live music and take place on Sunday, May 24 at 4:30 p.m.

Admission is free and the public is welcome. A donation of $5 per person is suggested. The program will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis.

Although the film is regarded as a masterpiece tarnished by racism and prejudice, Memorial Day weekend was chosen to screen ‘The Birth of a Nation’ because of the recent 150th anniversary of the Civil War's end.

Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.

“Although ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has been reviled for its blatant and pervasive racism, it was a huge hit in its day and was accepted as one of the landmarks of early cinema,” said Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will perform a live score for the movie.

The year 2015 also marks the 100th anniversary of the original release of 'The Birth of a Nation.'

“Screening this compromised classic is a chance for today’s audiences to consider first-hand evidence of the obstacles to race equality that existed a century ago, to think about what progress has been made, and to also ponder how many of the prejudices on display in this film that we may still harbor, even unconsciously,” Rapsis said.

As the first-ever Hollywood blockbuster, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ thrilled audiences in 1915 with its large-scale wartime action sequences, its recreation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and spectacular photography by cameraman G.W. Bitzer.

Even at the time of its release, the movie was regarded as monumentally insensitive to issues of race, depicting blacks as a sub-race inferior to whites and portraying Ku Klux Klan members as heroes. Conceived by Griffith, a native Southerner, as a saga of two families caught up in the Civil War and its aftermath, many viewers and critics regarded the film as a prolonged statement of cinematic bigotry.

Seen today, the film abounds with offensive racial comments and imagery both overt and implied. To further complicate matters for contemporary audiences, Griffith had all leading roles of black characters played by white actors in blackface; black actors were kept in the background or used only for crowd scenes, which lends the film a surreal quality to modern viewers.

Among the white actors in blackface who played prominent roles is New Hampshire native Walter Long, a popular character actor in Hollywood's early years. Records are unclear about his hometown: Long was born in either Milford or Nashua in 1879.

Despite the racism, the film’s innovative and powerful story-telling techniques, as well as its massive scale, opened Hollywood’s eyes to the full potential of cinema as an art form, exerting a powerful influence on generations of filmmakers to come.

The film’s pervasive influence extended beyond theaters, at times in unfortunate ways. As an unintended consequence, ’The Birth of a Nation’ inspired a revival of the then-dormant Klan, which flourished anew in the south thorough the 1920s, making extensive use of Griffith’s film for propaganda purposes.

The controversy continues today, with ‘Birth of a Nation’ inspiring passions a century after its release.

Has enough time passed for today’s audiences to regard this landmark film as an artifact of its time, or an indication of enduring prejudice? This Memorial Day weekend, decide for yourself how far we’ve come with a screening of a restored print of this tarnished American classic the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The film stars Lillian Gish (at right), Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, and dozens of other silent-era performers. Gish, who died in 1993 at age 99, continued to act in films as late as 1987, when she appeared in ‘The Whales of August.’ Her later work includes an appearance on the TV series ‘The Love Boat’ in 1981.

All movies in Wilton Town Hall Theatre's silent film series were popular when first released, 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 at the Rogers Center as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

‘The Birth of a Nation’ will be shown on Sunday, May 24, 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.


“...the film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.”
—Roger Ebert, 2003, The Chicago Sun-Times

“If one can put the racial overtones aside, this is quuote probably the most accurate celluloid representation of Civil War times to exist. It was made only 50 years after the Civil War ended, when many people who had actually been through the war were still alive to give first hand accounts.”
—Robert K. Klepper, ‘Silent Films,’ (1999)

“More than a hugely successful spectacle, it was a masterpiece—using Griffith’s trademark cinematic techniques and combining emotional intensity and epic sweep—but it was a deeply tainted one. Its racism—consciously intended by the filmmaker or not—makes parts of ‘Birth’ extremely difficult to watch today.”
—Peter Kobel, ‘Silent Movies,’ (2007)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon: Three comedians,
three film programs, three different states

Our Chaplin program killed in Brandon, Vt., although it wasn't responsible for any of the tombstones seen here.

A gap in the accompaniment schedule means I'll be taking a break from blog posting, at least until later in May.

Just this week, though, my summer performance schedule was highlighted in the Hippo, a weekly lifestyle publication that circulates in New Hampshire.

(Full disclosure: I'm co-owner of the Hippo, but we keep editorial and content decisions totally separate from the business side. So I was just as surprised as anyone to see the piece.)

So if you've found this blog through Hippo, welcome! Check out the schedule (click the "Upcoming Screenings" link at upper right) and come experience silent film as it was intended to be seen—in a theater, on the big screen, with live music, and with a live audience.

Just to round up recent screenings...

This past weekend was a case of country accompanist / city accompanist.

On Saturday night, I drove three hours up to the small town of Brandon, Vt., where we kicked off the 2015 silent film series at the local town hall with a program of Chaplin short comedies. Huge turnout (well over 100 people) and lots of big laughs, so a great start to this year's efforts.

Then on Sunday afternoon, I drove one hour down to Boston, where a screening of a 35mm print of Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928) drew about 150 people to the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. Strong reaction on that one, too—especially when, in introducing the film, I asked "Any Yankees fans here?"

The enormous (and perhaps symbolic) staircase that co-stars with Harry Langdon in 'Three's a Crowd.'

And finally, Tuesday, May 5 saw our monthly silent film program at the Manchester (N.H) City Library: a screening of Harry Langdon's very odd feature 'Three's a Crowd' (1927).

I use the library series to try out films I've never done before to see how they play before an audience. 'Three's a Crowd,' an obscure title which marked Langdon's directorial debut and also the beginning of his rapid popularity decline, got a pretty positive reaction from the 40 or so folks who turned up.

Me, I think it's a deeply flawed picture, but I gave it my best. I did come away thinking it's one of those pictures that would benefit from a carefully planned and integrated score, rather than the improv approach I generally use.

Come to think of it, that's the area that's starting to interest me more and more—the kind of film that lends itself to a through-composed score. So I may be heading more in that direction, which means fewer screenings but more ambitious music.

I think I've learned a lot from the improv approach and gotten a lot of great experience. But now it's time to build on that and come up with some more carefully planned scores that use music to really support a film and help it connect with a contemporary audience.

That takes time, which is one thing I'm generally in short supply of. But it's where I feel I want to go, so we'll see.

Posting will resume later this month, when we screen Clara Bow in 'It' (1927) on Friday, May 15 at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., and then D.W. Griffith's 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) on Saturday, May 24 at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sunday, May 3: Keaton's 'The Cameraman'
in 35mm at Somerville Theatre in Davis Square

Buster's 'The Cameraman' (1928) will be screened in 35mm on Sunday, May 3 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre.

Wow! After following a frantic pace for the first four months of 2015, I find myself looking at a calendar that's far less packed with silent film screenings, at least for now.

I do a couple shows this weekend, then a small gig on Tuesday, May 5. And then, after that, nothing for 10 whole days!

That's the longest stretch of unbroken accompaniment-free days since January, when I was clambering about the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Well, speaking of which: I intend to use the break to finally put together an account of the Kilimanjaro journey, which was amazing on many levels.

But for now, the big deal is a screening of Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Showtime is Sunday, May 3 at 2 p.m. More info is in the press release below.

But a few words from me: I really have to give the Somerville credit for continuing to run 35mm programs in an era when everyone else seems so focused on digital.

Actual physical film has been the native format for motion pictures since the beginning, and to abandon it so quickly and without recognizing its unique qualities does seem rather short-sighted.

So bravo to the Somerville for keeping their 35mm projection systems in place, and for cultivating the booth expertise to screen film to its best advantage.

Yes, I know some film prints can be scratched or faded or have any number of problems, and that digital offers an experience that's touted as free of these short-comings.

Maybe I'm getting old, but I do feel there should be more appreciation for the 35mm format, since it was what the creators of movies had in mind for the past century.

And then there's the audience experience. Virtually all films made until recently were designed to be shown in a theater with an audience present. Taking that out of the equation can rob a film of a big part of its impact—especially older films.

So if motion pictures were indeed the art form of the 20th century, I see a place like the Somerville as kind of a Museum of Fine Arts for cinema. They're making an effort to screen great pictures in the way their creators intended them to be seen: on film, in a theater, with an audience—and, in the case of silent films, with live music.

Alas, it pains me to say that attendance of late hasn't been spectacular. Maybe it was the brutal winter, which we're still emerging from around here.

Or maybe it's just that people don't feel the film/theater/audience experience is worth it. We're becoming so accustomed to seeing what we want on demand, and when we want to see it (at home alone with our parakeet) that the audience experience has been devalued.

Of course I feel differently. And I believe you'd agree with me if you can come to our screening of 'The Cameraman' (1928) this Sunday at the Somerville Theatre. Hope to see you there!

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Buster Keaton and Eddie Gribbon in MGM's 'The Cameraman' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Buster Keaton's 'Cameraman' in 35mm at Somerville Theater on Sunday, May 3

Classic silent film comedy masterpiece to be shown on big screen using real film with live musical accompaniment

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies still rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The Cameraman' (1928), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Sunday, May 3 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission to the screening is $15 or $12 seniors/students.

'The Cameraman' tells the story of a young man (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Marceline Day) by working as a freelance newsreel cameraman. His efforts result in spectacular failure, but then a lucky break gives him an unexpected chance to make his mark. Can he parlay the scoop of the year into a secure job and successful romance?

Music for will 'The Cameraman' will be performed live by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire composer regarded as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.

The program is the latest in the Somerville Theatre's 'Silents, Please!' series, which aims to recapture the magic of early Hollywood by presenting silent films as they were intended to be shown: in 35mm prints, in a theater on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put together those elements, it's surprising how much entertainment value these films still have," said Rapsis, who improvises live music for silent film screenings throughout New England and beyond. "You realize why these films caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

In 'The Cameraman,' Keaton uses the newsreel business to create comedy that plays with the nature of film and reality. The movie contains classic sequences often cited as among Keaton's best, including a scene where Keaton and a large man both struggle to change into swimsuits in a tiny dressing room. The scene, which runs several minutes long, was filmed in one take.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands as one of the three great clowns of the silent screen. Many critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions ranging from sadness to surprise. In an era when movies had few special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

All those talents are on display in 'The Cameraman,' which was selected in 2005 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Rapsis said the Keaton movies, like all silent films, were made to be shown not only with live music, but also on the big screen to large audiences.

"They weren't intended to be watched on a home entertainment center by, say, just you and your dog," Rapsis said. "However, if you can put all the elements back together, the films really do spring back to life."

Rapsis improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But for me, the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience."

• Sunday, June 7, 2 p.m.: 'Play Safe' (1927) and 'Show People' (1928). A double feature of two comedies from the silent era's peak. 'Play Safe' includes one of most hair-raising train chase sequences ever filmed, while 'Show People' is director King Vidor's sly and self-referential valentine to the era of silent movie-making.

• Sunday, July 5, 2 p.m.: 'The Big Parade' (1925) starring John Gilbert, Renee Adore√©. 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!

Buster Keaton's ‘The Cameraman’ will be shown in 35mm on Sunday, May 3 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.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

More than your average post: Keaton, Griffith,
the Packard Center, Ben Cohen, and more!

A documentary film crew will be on hand for our screening of Keaton's 'The General' (1926) on Sunday, April 26 at 4:30 p.m. in Wilton, N.H.

How would you like to be in the movies by going to the movies?

That's what might happen on Sunday, April 26 when a documentary film crew will be on hand for our screening of Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

They're from Merge Creative Media in New York City, and they're working on a feature-length documentary on the continuing popularity of Keaton's comedy.

To do that, they're looking to talk with folks after our show—a double-bill that includes Raymond Griffith's 'Hands Up!' (1926) followed by Buster's 'General.'

They're both comedies set during the U.S. Civil War, which ended 150 years ago this very month—hence the program. The fun begins at 4:30 p.m. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to help defray costs.

If anyone out there is making a documentary about Raymond Griffith, feel free to show up and interview our audience members as well!

Lots more info about Sunday's below in a press release (below) that went out earlier this month. But first a few things to cover...

• Visiting the archives: You know that scene at the end of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' when the Ark of the Covenant is placed a massive government warehouse?

I couldn't help thinking about that last Saturday, when I got a tour of the Packard Campus of the National Audio Visual Conservation Center out in Culpeper, Va.

The facility, about an hour's drive south of Washington, D.C., is home to the bulk of the media operations of the Library of Congress. It handles pretty much everything connected to recorded sounds or images: acquiring materials and equipment, conserving and preserving them, and housing them in permanent climate-controlled storage.

As curator Rob Stone took me through the place, I just could not get over the scale of what I was seeing. Stepping through Maxwell Smart-like sets of doors, we entered corridor upon corridor of metal-doored vaults filled with fragile nitrate film, all of it in cans stacked neatly on fire retardant shelving in concrete units chilled to 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Altogether 124 vaults make up the largest nitrate film storage facility in the Western hemisphere.

A corridor in the Packard Center's nitrate film vault area.

And that was nothing compared to the enormous quantity of safety film also kept in cold storage on site. The underground bunkers go on seemingly to infinity, prompting the thoughts of 'Raiders.' I'm told there are 90 miles of shelving in use here. The place overall maintains something like 7 million artifacts, with thousands more arriving every day.

When and if I get a chance to return, I hope to write a long post about the Packard Center. There's so much going on there that anyone with the slightest interest in film and media would find it fascinating on many levels. I know I did.

I mean, what can you say about a place where cans of film—some of it priceless—arrive by the pallet-load? Just one example: Jerry Lewis recently agreed to donate his entire archive (about 4,000 reels of 35mm film amassed over the course of his long career) to the Packard Center. So Rob Stone has been working with Lewis and his family to catalog the newly arrived material and shepherd it into the archives.

But then there are the rooms full of equipment used to work with obsolete media formats, and the weird custom-built machinery used to transfer material from several dozen videocassettes at once to digital file formats—and of course the story of the facility itself.

Tucked into the side of a hill, it's no accident that the Packard Center looks a bit like a fortress. It was originally built by the U.S. Federal Reserve in the 1960s as a secret facility to store U.S. currency in case of a Cold War emergency! It was also set up to function as a command center for government functions in the event of nuclear attack.

The place was decommissioned in 1993, and sold to philanthropist David Packard in 1997. Unbelievably, Packard sunk $150 million of his own money (Congress chipped in $82 million) to transform it into a state-of-the-art preservation mecca to centralize the far-flung audio/visual holdings of the Library of Congress.

And then Packard gave it back to the government! I'm told it's the second-largest gift ever to the feds, exceeded only by the Smithsonian Institution.

An exterior view of the above-ground part of the Packard Center. (It's actually built into the side of a hill.

The place opened in 2007, and even includes a well-appointed theater that runs regular vintage film programs. (It's one of the very few theaters in the nation that can legally project nitrate film.)

The interior of the Packard Center's theater, complete with organ, which malfunctioned recently, prompting the call for piano accompaniment.

That's why I was there: Rob had an opening for someone to accompany a Gloria Swanson program on Saturday, April 18, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to come down.

Rob was a great host, even taking me out to dinner with his wife Jody prior to the show.

The evening's feature was 'Zaza,' a big Paramount costume story which I hadn't seen before but which followed the usual pattern of Gloria's starring vehicles.

The only surprise came from the theater's digital piano. About half-way into the picture, I lost the lower half of the keyboard! For some reason, the notes below middle C just stopped playing.

Luckily, it was a quiet part of the film, so it seemed natural to restrict the music to the upper registers while I pondered what to do.

I didn't mind it right then, but I knew if I didn't find a way to restore the lower notes, I would start to go insane, as would the audience.

What happened was that I had grazed one of the many "setting" buttons that are flush with the keys (bad design there), partially activating a function designed to play chords instead of just single notes. I say "partially" because I only got as far as losing the individual notes, but I somehow hadn't completed whatever sequence of buttons was required to start up the chord function.

So I scanned the buttons, all the while accompanying Gloria, and found one that seemed the likely culprit: it was marked "Chords" and was glowing red.

I weighed the odds. If I pressed it again, there was a good chance that it would cancel the uncompleted chord activation and restore my keyboard, which would be great.

On the other hand, there was a chance that pressing it would activate a bossa nova rhythm, or a speed guitar function, or some other setting that would create a sonic train wreck.

As I had no other options, I went ahead and pressed it—and it worked! The light went off and all my notes were restored. I was never so glad to play octaves in the bass!

And this reminded me of something attributed to Winston Churchill: "There is nothing as exhilarating as getting shot at and missed." He was right!

But many thanks to Rob Stone and Mike Mashon and everyone else at the Packard Center who put on a great program and made me feel welcome the entire time I was there. I'm looking forward to returning with more time to explore the collection.

For a more complete look at the Packard, check out this story from Washingtonian magazine. And here's a Washington Post piece about the place.

• What's old is new: For several years, a high school student and movie buff named Matt Bilodeau helped me with a monthly silent film series at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library.

Well, Matt went on to attend Keene (N.H.) State College, where he's now a sophomore and taking a film production class this semester.

I was delighted to find out that for his class project, Matt and his roommate had created a short silent film. And I was even more delighted to be asked to create music to accompany it.

So last Wednesday, I hauled out to Keene and we recorded several takes for the five-minute comedy, titled 'Tripping Across the Way.'

Working with 16mm film, Matt and his classmates had fashioned something that captured the dream-like quality of the silent film experience. Bravo!

Also, Matt said he hoped to create a film that looked like a silent film of the 1920s, but had more contemporary content. I think he succeeded on both counts!

See what you think: the film is online and available for all to see.

• Who are you? Time for another edition of "Brush With Greatness," in which I encounter bewildered celebrities. This time the victim is Ben Cohen, the "Ben" of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Here's a picture of us together:

Ben and Jeffy (not Jerry) at the Airport Diner in Manchester, N.H.

Ben (and his partner Jerry Greenfield, who wasn't with him) is one of my business idols. Another one is Charles Ives, who died in 1954, so I won't be meeting him anytime soon.

So I was happy to connect with Ben, who was in our town of Manchester, N.H. to promote his campaign to get big money out of politics. He was great to talk with, and seemed delighted that I use a book about the early days of Ben & Jerry's as one of the texts of a writing class I sometimes teach.

But what does this have to do with silent film?

Well, our paths crossed by virtue of local restaurant magnate Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man group of restaurants here in New Hampshire. Alex also owns the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., so that's the flimsy excuse I have for including my encounter with Ben in this already overly long blog post.

I actually gave Ben my silent film accompanist card (as well as my standard day job publishing card), and he was polite enough to seem pretty impressed.

And I'm sorry, but that's all the time we have for "Brush With Greatness."

• Back to the program: Okay, about this weekend's program at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. Here's the long-awaited text of the press release. Hope to see you there!

* * *

One war, two comedies: Raymond Griffith in 'Hands Up!' (1926), our companion feature to 'The General.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film classic 'The General' with live music in Wilton (N.H.) on Sunday, April 26

Buster Keaton's U.S. Civil War comic masterpiece to be screened with companion feature, 'Hands Up!' in honor of 150th anniversary of war's ed

WILTON, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies still rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The General' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, April 26 at 4:30 p.m. The show is free and open to the public with suggested $5 donation.

The program, which includes a companion Civil War comedy 'Hands Up!' (1926), will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis.

"This month marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, so we thought a fitting way to commemorate this milestone would with a double feature of silent films set during that period," Rapsis said.

'The General' tells the story of a Confederate locomotive engineer (Keaton) whose engine is hijacked by Northern spies with his girlfriend on board. Keaton, stealing another train, races north in pursuit behind enemy lines. Can he rescue his girl? And can he steal his locomotive and make it back to warn of a coming Northern attack?

Critics have called 'The General' Keaton's masterpiece, praising its authentic period detail, ambitious action and battle sequences, and its overall integration of story, drama, and comedy. It's also regarded as one of Hollywood's great train films, with much of the action occurring on or around moving steam locomotives.

Also on the program is another comedy set during the Civil War, 'Hands Up!' (1926), starring Raymond Griffith, a once-popular silent film star with boyhood ties to New Hampshire.

Long before he entered the movies, as a student Griffith attended St. Anselm prep school in Goffstown in the early 20th century.

A talented actor and comedian, Griffith became a major comic star in the 1920s for Paramount Pictures. Unfortunately, most of his films are lost, making it difficult to assess his career and talents today.

In 'Hands Up!' Griffith plays a wily Confederate spy charged with preventing a shipment of Western gold from reaching Union forces. The film is regarded as the best of Griffith's few surviving pictures.

While Griffith's work has languished in obscurity, Keaton's films are more popular than ever.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts.

Critics review 'The General':
"The most insistently moving picture ever made, its climax is the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy."
—Walter Kerr

"An almost perfect entertainment!"
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

"What makes the film so special is the way the timing, audacity and elegant choreography of its sight gags, acrobatics, pratfalls and dramatic incidents is matched by Buster's directorial artistry, his acute observational skills working alongside the physical élan and sweet subtlety of his own performance."
—Time Out (London)
Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician who has accompanied shows at venues across New England, said films from the silent era were not made to be viewed at home on online. By running a monthly series, the Wilton Town Hall Theatre lets people experience silent film as it was meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will improvise the musical score on the spot as the films screen. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today."

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

Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926) and Raymond Griffith's 'Hands Up!' (1926) will be shown on Sunday, April 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., in Wilton N.H. The program is open to the public. Suggested donation $5. For more info, visit wiltontownhalltheatre.com; for more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Coming 4/24: Langdon's 'The Strong Man'
...but first, my Library of Congress debut!

An original poster for Harry Langdon's 'The Strong Man' (1926), which I'm accompanying on Friday, April 24.

Here's some news: Today I head down to Washington, D.C., where this weekend I'll make my silent film accompaniment debut at the Library of Congress.

The screening is actually at the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation out in Culpeper, Va., where Saturday night I'll do music for 'Zaza' (1923), a romance starring Gloria Swanson and H.B. Warner.

Many thanks to Rob Stone of the Packard Center for offering me a turn on the bench as guest accompanist for a screening at their theater.

Here's a picture of the Packard Center:

It didn't always look like this. Prior to its current role as a center for film preservation, the Packard Center was quite a different place. Built during the Cold War, its original purpose was to serve as a secret storage bunker for the currency stockpiles of the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving!

Later, it turned out that storage vaults for paper money could be repurposed for nitrate film. And here we are!

I'm looking forward to visiting the Packard and seeing the conservation labs and vaults, which I'll report about when I return.

Unless I find a few spare bags of leftover currency, in which case I'll never return.

For now, here's a press release about an unusual screening coming up on Friday, April 24.

It's 'The Strong Man' (1926) starring Harry Langdon, and directed by a very young Frank Capra.

Harry Langdon in 'The Strong Man' (1926).

What's unusual about the screening is that it takes place on the campus of Northeast Catholic College, a small school in rural New Hampshire. (Until this year, the school was named The College of Saint Mary Magdalen.)

I've done shows there in the past, and it's proven to be a great environment for the silent film experience. Student turnout is strong and enthusiastic. We project the films on a huge blank wall in the multi-purpose room, so the image is really, really big.

The screening is open to the public, so I encourage anyone in need of a good laugh to trek on up through the back roads of Warner, N.H. (just off Interstate 89, so it's not that remote) and take in this screening.

It'll also be interesting because the story of 'The Strong Man' involves themes of religion and faith, which ought to resonate on a Catholic college campus. We'll see.

If you'd like to join in, below is the press release. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Harry Langdon in 'The Strong Man' (1926).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Frank Capra's first movie highlights silent film program at Northeast Catholic College on Friday, April 24

Harry Langdon's classic silent comedy 'The Strong Man' to be shown with live music; screening open to the general public

WARNER, N.H. — Silent film with live music returns to the big screen at Northeast Catholic College this month with a showing of an acclaimed comedy starring Harry Langdon.

The screening, on Friday, April 24 at 8 p.m., will feature Langdon's classic comedy 'The Strong Man' (1926).

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

Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free to students with a college ID; general public is $5 per person.

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

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

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

Harry Langdon enjoys attention from 'Mary Brown' in 'The Strong Man' (1926).

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So the screening at Northeast Catholic College is a great chance to experience films that first caused people to first fall in love with the movies," he said.

Established as a residential, Catholic liberal arts college in 1973 and located in Warner, N.H., the Northeast Catholic College (formerly the College of Saint Mary Magdalen) seeks to call students to the life-long pursuit of intellectual and moral virtue through the rigorous study and discussion of primary texts and through its vibrantly Catholic student life.

Frank Capra's 'The Strong Man' will be screened with live music on Friday, April 24 at 8 p.m. at Northeast Catholic College (formerly Magdalen College), 511 Kearsarge Mountain Road, Warner, N.H. Admission is free to students with a college ID; general public is $5 per person.

For more information about Northeast Catholic College, visit www.northeastcatholic.edu/ For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.