Saturday, January 22, 2011

Going from 'Birth' to 'Orphans'

I just realized that I'm in the middle of something of a D.W. Griffith sandwich: Last Monday I did music for a screening of 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), and the next title I'm doing is 'Orphans of the Storm.' So some notes on the former, and then a press release for the latter.

We showed 'Birth' at the wonderful old Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H., which, like the film, dates from 1915. A good crowd of about 80 people showed up for the screening, which took place on Monday, Jan. 17 as a way to mark Martin Luther King Day. (All our Palace screenings are Monday nights, and it just worked out that one of our dates was MLK day, hence the program.)

The film is a wonderful picture for a musician to follow and bring to life. There are many, many places where the effectiveness of the onscreen action can be enhanced by the right kind of music. I'm not talking about the big Civil War battle scenes or, later, the clan's "ride to the rescue." I mean some of the "room" scenes, where you have several people acting out a scene, and what they do to communicate things visually (Griffith used few 'dialogue' intertitles) is often quite subtle.

So I try to make sure that the eye glances and head tilts and the eyebrow movements are, when appropriate, reflected by shifts in the music, the melody or the chords, enough to underscore the flow onscreen. I think it helps a modern audience (and a good number of attendees that night were not regulars, as far as I could tell) absorb and follow and accept a silent film. So I was pleased with that aspect of it.

We received little comment about the racial controversy that has followed 'Birth of a Nation' since its first release. Any film in which the Ku Klux Klan ride to the rescue, and which has black roles played by white actors in blackface, is bound to generate some comments. Our catchphrase in the ads for this one was "Lest We Forget," and at the screening, I tried to briefly provide a little context—that the film was worth screening because it shows how far we've come, and also helps us confront what prejudices we may yet still harbor within ourselves. But everyone I spoke to was glad for the chance to see the film, and didn't see the racism as offensive, but simply astonishing to witness, rather like an auto accident.

So two days later, I was surprised to get a call from a woman who watched the film to its end, and then left sickened and disgusted that we would show such a film, and that she would end up watching it, on MLK Day, of all days. Long story short, she had been invited to go at the last minute and wasn't really familiar with the film's content beforehand, and I guess my talk wasn't enough for it to make sense, and so she really took it the wrong way.

We wound up talking for nearly an hour. It was a good chat, and although she came to understand our intention in showing the film, I believe she felt it was still the wrong thing to do. There you go. So nearly a century after it was released, 'Birth of a Nation' continues to stir strong emotions. Amazing!

Looking ahead, we have a screening of another D.W. Griffith epic, 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), on Sunday, Jan. 30 at 4:30 p.m. in Wilton, N.H. Here's all the info in the form of a press release that's been issued to alert the local media. I'm especially proud of my "tale of two sisters" line, with apologies to Charles Dickens.

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For more info, contact:
Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

French Revolution epic comes to Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Jan. 30

Silent film masterpiece 'Orphans of the Storm' tells tale of two sisters

WILTON, N.H.—Warm up a cold winter weekend with the fires of revolution! 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), a sweeping silent film drama set during the uproar of the French Revolution, will be shown with live musical accompaniment on Sunday, Jan. 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. The screening is free to the public, with donations accepted to defray costs.

'Orphans of the Storm,' set in 1780s France, follows the story of two orphaned sisters, one blind, who seek to cure her vision by risking a trip from their country village to Paris. There, they are soon separated by events beyond their control as anarchy erupts, the aristocracy is toppled, the French royal family is executed, and the city is engulfed by the unpredictable chaos of revolution. Will fate reunite the two sisters before the guillotine separates them forever?

'Orphans of the Storm,' directed by legendary silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith, features dramatic mob scenes of revolutionary Paris filmed on a massive scale. Also, the story builds towards a spectacular and fast-moving climax that thrilled audiences in 1921, making 'Orphans of the Storm' one of the year's biggest hits.

The leading roles in 'Orphans of the Storm' are played by two actual sisters, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, both major stars of Hollywood's silent era. Lillian Gish went on to a career that lasted long enough to include an appearance on 'The Love Boat' television series in the 1980s. She died in 1993 at age 99. Younger sister Dorothy Gish also enjoyed a productive career that included stage, film, and television roles into the 1960s; she died in 1968 at age 70.

'Orphans of the Storm' was the last in a string of successful blockbusters helmed by D.W. Griffith, who earlier pioneered large-scale historical epics with films such as 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), 'Intolerance' (1916), and 'Way Down East' (1920). Though he continued making films, Griffith was superseded the 1920s by a new generation of filmmakers willing to take his innovations even further, creating the foundation of the motion picture industry we know today.

Although 'Orphans of the Storm' was released nine decades ago, critics today say Griffith's French Revolution epic holds up well for modern viewers. Leonard Maltin praised the film's "lavish settings and race-to-the-rescue climax," judging it "still dazzling." Critic Jeremy Heilman of wrote "the sheer amount of realized ambition on display in it makes it a sight to behold."

About D.W. Griffith, film historian Kevin Brownlow summarized his genius by writing, "however skillful the other early directors might have been, none of them knew how to project anything but the most basic emotions until Griffith showed them. And it was emotion, rather than close-ups and fade-outs, that made the people of the world fall in love with the moving picture."

The Jan. 30 screening of 'Orphans of the Storm' will be accompanied by a score created and performed live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis achieves a traditional "movie score" sound for silent film screenings by using a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra.

'Orphans of the Storm' will be screened on Sunday, Jan. 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, in Wilton, N.H. For more information, visit or call (603) 654-3456. The Wilton Town Hall Theatre runs silent film programs with live music on the last Sunday of every month. See for yourself the films that made audiences first fall in love with the movies!

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For more info, contact:
Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •
Images attached.
More high-resolution digital images available upon request.

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