Monday, October 31, 2011

'Faust' (1926) postponed to Sunday, Nov. 6

The big snowstorm that hit our corner of the world this past weekend left the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre without power, and so the planned screening of 'Faust' (1926) on Sunday, Oct. 30 has been postponed to Sunday, Nov. 6 at 4:30 p.m.

I wasn't able to update this blog until now (Monday morning) because it's the first Internet access I've had since the storm hit our area on Saturday. Yes, the storm itself had blown over by Sunday morning. But what it left behind was a landscape of downed trees and power lines, and no landline or cellphone service. Fortunately for us, our house in Bedford, N.H. had power restored fairly early; even now, large parts of our town are without power, and it could take several days to restore everyone, I'm told.

Having no way of knowing if the Wilton screening was still on, I loaded up the gear and off I went. I found the roads into Wilton barricaded due to downed trees, but managed to thread my way through back streets to the downtown area. There, theater manager Dennis Markavarich had posted handwritten "CLOSED NO POWER" signs on the doors, but I knocked and he was there anyway. The town (and the theater) had lost power on Saturday night, and no one knew when it might be restored. Later, I discovered (see the map) that Wilton was right in the heaviest bands of snow.

Well, I apologize to anyone else who may have made the trek out there to see 'Faust.' With no power, we had no show, and we had no way to make a decision about it beforehand and get out the word. However, it's still a film that's really worth seeing, and so I hope folks can make it out to our "replacement" showing on Sunday, Nov. 6 at 4:30 p.m. We're also screening Buster Keaton's comedy short 'The Haunted House,' (1922), in honor of Halloween but also because it contains, improbably, a big reference to 'Faust.'

Back in Wilton, phone service had also been lost completely, prompting the town to put temporary signs along roads telling people to drive to the fire department in case of emergency. But what was really unusual was the lines of cars at gas stations -- in some cases, dozens of vehicles snaking out of station parking lots and down roads, blocking traffic lanes and so on. It reminded me of the gas shortage lines of the 1970s. It was, of course, the combination of many stations closed with people needing fuel for gas-powered generators. Back where I live in Bedford, with 60 percent of the town is still without power, after dark the cold landscape throbbed with the asymetric hum of generators running all night.

What does this have to do with silent film? Other than some of the gas lines having the potential to deteriorate into scenes similar to Laurel & Hardy's comedy short 'Two Tars,' not much. But I at least wanted to try getting the word out about our changing plans.

By the way, we're still showing 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library on Tuesday, Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. -- unless we get another two feet of snow between now and then. After Hurricane Irene in August and now this, anything's possible.

Update: It's now Monday evening (Oct. 31), and I've seen news reports this evening that describe Wilton as one of the hardest-hit communities in the state. There's even a small chance that the power may not be on by this next weekend, so keep your fingers crossed and we'll update things as they happen.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Coming on Sunday, Oct. 30: 'Faust' (1926)

I don't know what's going on, but I'm going through a period where fully formed melodies are coming to me all at once. It's weird—I'll be doing something like driving or riding my bike, my mind occupied by other things, and suddenly I'll find myself with a rich, completely formed melody in my head.

This happened a week ago, when I started humming an expansive tune that will work well as a main theme for 'The Big Parade.' Where it came from, I have no idea. (For details on this melody, see the last post.) And it happened again this past Saturday, when I was out for a brief bike ride on one of the last relatively warm weekend afternoons I expect we'll have in our part of the world before Old Man Winter sits on us for the next six months.

Right after leaving the house, I found myself thinking in 3/4 time, exactly in rhythm with the pedals on the bike. And I found myself thinking of 'Pee Wee's Big Adventure' (1985), perhaps because of the picture of Frances Buxton that I'd used in the last post, and also because I'd just read something about how film composer Danny Elfman (who did the film's distinctive score) suffers from hearing loss, and maybe also because of the prominent role of a bike in that picture.

And as I pedalled out onto County Road, right into my head came a rollicking waltz accompaniment, which was then topped by a sardonic melody that seemed to be tailor-made for Emil Jannings as "Mephisto" in 'Faust' (1926). It was right there, a four-phrase melody that was ripe with expressive possibilities! I tried to "solfeg" it (the musical term for sounding out the notes) while I rode, thinking it was in E minor, but couldn't quite figure out the harmony of the middle portion of it. A minor? Something else?

So upon returing, I went to the piano and found that the melody in my head was in B minor, which was cool because that's the key traditionally associated with the underworld. (So I was off by a major fourth—hey, I'm no Mozart.) And the harmony thing was basic but tricky: B minor, then to C major, then back to B minor. Unusual, but a move that the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns seemed to use quite often. Anyway, it has the flavor of a lot of his stuff, especially the "Danse Macabre," which might have been in my head along with all the bicycles and images from 'Pee Wee's Big Adventure.'

Geez, I ought to rig this so you can hear some of these melodic scraps. I'm working on it. For now, if you'd like to hear the tune I thought up on a bicycle, come see 'Faust' (1926) on Sunday, Oct. 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

And also, a special thanks to film blogger and reviewer Jay Seaver for mentioning me and the music I did at a screening of 'Peter Pan' (1924) earlier this month at the Brattle Cinema in Cambridge, Mass. Thanks, Jay! Didn't realize you were in attendance. Hope to do more screenings in the Boston area as opportunities arise.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Preparing for 'Faust,' 'Hunchback,' and 'Parade'

After a busy stretch with multiple screenings in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, a bit of a lull right now, with a couple of weeks to prepare for the next batch of silent film action.

• First up is Murnau's 'Faust' (1926), which we're screening for Halloween at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 30 at 4:30 p.m. I've been eager to do this one for some time now, as it's visually quite grand and something about the Murnau films brings out the Richard Strauss in me: long, arching melodies with odd leaps, and often a 3/4 time waltz-type underscoring. I don't have material set for this yet but I look forward to developing it this week. Despite the overall grimness of the material, this one should be fun, as Emil Jannings as Mephisto kind of reminds me of the character of Frances Buxton in 'Pee Wee's Big Adventure.' What do you think?

• Almost immediately following is 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923), another one I've never done but wanted to. It's Tuesday, Nov. 2 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library, where we've started to pull some nice crowds since moving our Manchester series there from the Palace Theatre. On this one, I have yet to watch the film all the way through, so the score is still very much in the embryonic stage.

• And then it's 'The Big Parade' (1925), which we'll be uncorking on Thursday, Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. (It's the day before Veterans Day!) I've done music for this several times before and it's always gone well, but I've never been totally satisfied with the material I've used. So I'm already in the process of coming up with a completely new suite of material that I hope will help the film come to life on many levels for contemporary audiences. We'll see. A plus here is that the Flying Monkey continues to improve its presentation; for our recent showing of 'Nosferatu,' the house sounds (which I plug into) was absolutely incredible. Afterwards, I had people saying they had chills running up and down their spine from the film! So I'm looking forward to creating a suitably dramatic soundtrack for 'The Big Parade.' Weirdly, a wonderful and expansive main theme came to me at random while driving around yesterday. As soon as I got home, I wrote it out lest it fade from consciousness, never to be recovered. It's a good one, but I'm always suspicious when such a fully formed melody seems to write itself. Sure enough, I later realized that it has the exact same chord progression as the 'Going Home' melody in the second movement of Dvorak's 'New World' symphony. But it's still my own tune, and I'm looking forward to developing it for use in 'The Big Parade.'

• And finally, still hoping to do music for a screening of 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925) somewhere as part of the now-in-progress tour for Susan Orleans' new book, 'Rin Tin Tin, the Life and the Legend.' Not looking likely at this point, however, as planned showings in Massaschusetts and Maine have evaporated, and her one appearance in our neck of the woods is now a signing (no film) at the Brookline (Mass.) Booksmith on Friday, Dec. 2. The closest actual 'Clash' screening is the Avon Theatre in Stamford, Conn. on Tuesday, Nov. 8, but they've said they don't have room for live music, so there you go. I might venture down there anyway just to see it in 35mm—something that will be increasingly hard to do with the industry and so many theaters converting to digital. Well, her tour seems to be going well and I hope the book does well. :)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Saturday, Oct. 15 in Brandon, Vt.: 'Cat and Canary'

We finish up our 2011 season of silent film in Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall on Saturday, Oct. 15 with a 'Chiller Theatre' presentation of 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927), Paul Leni's wonderfully evocative haunted house thriller. It's being dubbed 'chiller theater' because the town hall is currently unheated, and it being October in New England, things can get downright frigid once the sun goes down. So we're taking the precaution of urging attendees to dress warmly, and hoping that once things get going, the magic of silent film will heat things up as well.

I have truly enjoyed presenting silent films in Brandon with live music during the past two years. People there have been enthusiastic, the screenings have raised money for the ongoing renovation of the town hall (which will someday have heat!), and I look forward to another season next year. Send in your requests and we'll see what we can do!

The screening of 'Cat and the Canary' is at 7 p.m. and is free to the public, though donations are accepted to help the renovation. And if it's not too cold, I have a short surprise to follow as a bonus. See you there. Here's the press release with more information...

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'Cat and Canary' (1927) to play Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall with live music on Saturday, Oct. 15

Creepy haunted house silent film thriller to be shown after sundown in 'Chiller Theater'

BRANDON, Vt.—'The Cat and the Canary' (1927), a haunted house thriller from Hollywood’s silent film era, will be screened with live music as part of 'Chiller Theatre' on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to benefit the Town Hall's ongoing restoration.

The Halloween-themed screening is the final show for this season's silent film series at the Brandon Town Hall. Organizers have dubbed it "Chiller Theater" in part because the town hall remains unheated. Attendees are encouraged to dress warmly and bring a blanket to keep warm.

'The Cat and the Canary' stands as the original movie thriller -- the first picture to feature the reading of a will in a haunted mansion complete with clutching hands, a masked killer, disappearing bodies, and secret passageways.

Silent film starlet Laura LaPlante leads the cast as a young heiress who must spend the night in the creepy old mansion, which is filled with relatives who all have motives to frighten her out of her wits. Meanwhile, a dangerous escaped lunatic is loose on the grounds. Can she and the others make it through the night?

Created for Universal Pictures by German filmmaker Paul Leni and based on a hit stage play, 'The Cat and the Canary' proved popular enough to inspire several remakes, including one starring Bob Hope. It was also the forbearer of all the great Universal horror classics of the 1930s and '40s.

The Brandon screening will use a fully restored print that shows the film as audiences would have originally experienced it. 'The Cat and the Canary' will be accompanied by live music by New Hampshire composer Jeff Rapsis, who specializes in silent film scoring. Rapsis will improvise the score on the spot during the screening.

"Silent film is all about the audience experience, and this one is a perfect Halloween crowd-pleaser," Rapsis said. "It has something for everyone—spooky scenes, some good comedy, and it's all fine for the whole family."

Critics praise the original 'Cat and the Canary' for its wild visual design and cutting edge cinematography. Film reviewer Michael Phillips singled out the film for using "a fluidly moving camera and elaborate, expressionist sets and lighting to achieve some of the most memorable shots in silent film, from the amazing tracking shots down the curtain-lined main hallway to the dramatic zooms and pans that accompany the film's shocks."

Leonard Maltin called the original 'Cat and the Canary' a "delightful silent classic, the forerunner of all "old dark house" mysteries."

The program also includes vintage short subjects.

'Cat and the Canary' will be shown on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of the town hall. For more information, visit For more info on the music, visit

Friday, October 14, 2011

Notes on scoring 'Peter Pan' and 'Nosferatu'

You'd think two films could not be more different. I mean, one is an uplifting fantasy for children of all ages, while the other is about a guy who sucks blood from people and spreads the plague wherever he goes.

But 'Peter Pan' (1924) and 'Nosferatu' (1922) actually have a lot in common. I had the privilege of doing live music for them on consecutive days this week ('Pan' on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and then 'Nosferatu' on Thursday, Oct. 13 at the Flying Monkey Theater in Plymouth, N.H.), and I found myself surprised at the similarities. For starters, they're both fantasies -- even more so than most silent films -- and they both follow a similar story arc. They both start in a relatively contemporary setting with ordinary people, who are then transported to a distant locale where they encounter evil. In 'Peter Pan,' the Darling kids fly off to Never Never Land, thinking it'll be great, but then encounter Captain Hook. In 'Nosferatu,' Mr. Hutter rides off to Transylvania to close a property deal, and winds up encountering you-know-who. Both end with a return to the starting place, though with different results.

So in terms of music, I found myself building the score along the same lines. In both films, quite a bit of material in the opening sequences used material with a sharpened 4th in the scale, which creates four whole tones in a row and imbues any sort of melody with a kind of wonderous quality, I think. Both have hints of uncertainty right from the start: with 'Peter Pan,' it's the apprehension of Mother Darling about the mysterious boy who's been lurking outside the window, while in 'Nosferatu' there are a series of ominous incidents (the dead flowers) that hint at evil to come. So in both cases, I was able to sneak in some unsettling material to help bring that out -- in the case of 'Peter Pan,' it was just a slide up a half step, but that's all that's needed. Less is more.

However, each film required a kind of "anchor" melody to signify the status quo, and for it to be played cleaning through at least once. Why? Because more than an hour later, I think it really helps to have this melody return to augment the emotional release that comes with the story's denouement. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Each film then features a journey to the strange local, which lends some motion to the narrative. In both films, I tried to bring this out in the score, keeping things energetic and having the music perform the age-old function of signifying a scene change. And once we're in the new locale, it was time to uncork the bigger musical moves to showcase the new surroundings and reactions of the characters (and the audience) to them. Things diverge a bit here, because Ernest Torrence as a not-so-menacing Captain Hook (who, among other things, is studying up on his etiquette) is not nearly as sinister as Max Schreck's coffin-dwelling vampire in need of dental work. But in both films, they served as the catalyst for the music to take a turn for the big, which I could do with maximum effect because I'd kept things small and light up until then.

'Peter Pan' then climaxes with a pirate battle, while 'Nosferatu' is a bit more measured, taking its time for the title character to make his way to Wisborg and set up shop. In either case, though, I looked at these respective sections as similar to the "development" section of a piece of music in sonata form -- the part where you take your themes and mix them up and work them out and chop them up and put them back together again, all to serve the on-screen action and emotion. At any given screening, there's no telling how this will go, but I'm pleased to report that in both cases it seems to fall together nicely.

And each film ends with a restoration of some sort, providing me my chance to bring out the big "anchor" theme (in 'Peter Pan,' it was about motherhood; in 'Nosferatu, it was love) for one big rising climax prior to the final cadence.

One note about audience reaction, which was distinctly different. The 'Peter Pan' crowd at the Brattle was quiet to the point of reverence, which I kind of expected, as the screening followed a book-signing by Harvard scholar Maria Tatar, who just published an annotated edition of J.M. Barrie's play. But they did perk up for the big "clap to save Tinkerbell" scene, which always gets everyone going. (I was pleased, by the way, when Tatar told me afterwards that she had no idea the silent 'Peter Pan' could be such a compelling film.) Up in Plymouth, we drew a lively crowd indeed, with full-throated screams breaking out during the spooky organ music prelude. There was also a lot of good-natured laughter by folks new to silent film, which sometimes happens when you show this flick or 'Phantom of the Opera.' No harm, but it was enough to cause one guy about halfway through to shout loudly (vulgarity alert!), "Will you shut the fuck up!?"

Reception was enthusiastic at both venues. We had about 40 folks for 'Peter Pan,' and maybe twice that for 'Nosferatu,' which was by far the largest house we've had yet up in Plymouth, where I've been doing monthly screenings for more than two years. Let's hope it's a breakthrough and attendance builds further from there!

Thanks to everyone at the Brattle and the Flying Monkey for their support of live music with silent film. I'm looking forward to the next screening, which is Saturday, Oct. 15 (tomorrow!) in Brandon, Vt., where the final film of the 2011 season is Paul Leni's thriller 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thursday, Oct. 13: Notes on scoring 'Nosferatu'

You know Halloween is just around the corner when 'Nosferatu' shows up on the calendar of your local theater. And that's the case at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in downtown Plymouth, N.H., where we're running F.W. Murnau's creepy adaptation of the 'Dracula' tale on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $10 per person.

'Nosferatu' is a terrific silent film for music, I think. As a drama, it's easier to score (for me) than a comedy, which requires constant precision timing for the music to augment the laughs while not overwhelming them. But with a drama, and especially an eerie one such as 'Nosferatu,' there's a lot more freedom for music to build atmosphere and tension and whatever else helps bring the film to life for contemporary audiences.

I first did music for 'Nosferatu' by accident. Four years ago, I was booked to do music for a screening of 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,' another landmark of German expressionism. However, on screening day, problems arose with 'Cabinet' and we had to substitute 'Nosferatu' at the last minute. I hadn't prepared anything for this film, but it was one of those times when everything fell together just right. Sometimes it happens! I think one of the reasons was the visual appearance of actor Max Schreck, whom I understand Murnau selected specifically because of his appearance. Something in what Schreck looks like makes creepy music just flow naturally.

For Thursday's screening, I have a few ideas in mind for what I might do, including a helpful forboding chord sequence that I invented for other 'Nosferatu' screenings, and an arpegiatted version of the Dies Irae from the Catholic Death Mass should prove handy. Not sure how much time I'll have to tweak any of the synthesizer settings ahead of showtime, but I'll try to keep remembering how less can be more. It's especially important not to get too creepy too soon, but to let it build naturally during the first half-hour, until we get to Nosferatu's castle.

Because 'Nosferatu' is often tackled by groups who don't do silent film music on a regular basis, the film is occasionally burdened with an ineffective or insensitive score: too loud, too much, too soon, smothering the film under a tsnami of sound. People who do that forget that the music is supposed to support the film, not overwhelm it. I attended a 'Nosferatu' screening about 10 years ago that featured music by a local rock band, and what they played was so loud that it literally made my ears hurt. I don't know about you, but that's not my recipe for effective accompaniment.

Well, that's a taste of what to expect at 'Nosferatu.' Hope you can make it! Below is the text of the press release that went out last month.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film frightfest at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Oct. 13

'Nosferatu' (1922), pioneer classic horror flick, to be screened with live music in Plymouth, N.H.

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—Get into the Halloween spirit with a classic silent horror film! 'Nosferatu' (1922), the original screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula,' will be screened with live music at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. on Thursday, Oct. 13. The show, which starts at 6:30 p.m., will feature live accompaniment by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $10 per person.

'Nosferatu' (1922), directed by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre. It was among the first movies to use visual design to contribute to an overall sense of terror. To modern viewers, the passage of time has made both this unusual film seem even more strange and otherworldly. It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will try to enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screenings.

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

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

The film, shot in 1921 and released in 1922, was an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel, with names and other details changed because the studio could not obtain rights to the novel. For instance, "vampire" became "Nosferatu" and "Count Dracula" became "Count Orlok." After the film was released, Stoker's widow filed a copyright infringement lawsuit and won; all known prints and negatives were destroyed under the terms of settlement. However, bootleg copies of the the film would surface later, allowing 'Nosferatu' to be screened today as audiences originally saw it.

The Dracula tale would be remade many times, including a famous version in 1931 starring Bela Lugosi in the title role. The character of Dracula would go on to become a staple of cinematic horror, appearing in more than 200 commercial feature films to date—second only to fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

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

‘Nosferatu’ will be shown on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit For more info on the music, visit

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

• Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, 6:30 p.m.: "The Big Parade" (1925) starring John Gilbert, Renee Adoree; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; Director King Vidor broke new cinematic ground with this epic drama that took viewers right into the trenches and showed the ugly side of then-recent World War I. Screened in honor of Veterans Day. Admission $10 per person.

• Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, 6:30 p.m.: "When The Clouds Roll By" (1919), starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr.; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; Fairbanks tangles with a twisted psychiatrist in this unusual romantic comedy. Will love win out? Find out in this contemporary (for 1919) tale, made just prior to Fairbanks launching his series of swashbuckling historical adventures. Admission, $10 per person.

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

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Coming Wednesday, Oct. 12: My Brattle Debut!

I'm thrilled to report that on Wednesday, Oct. 12, I'll be doing live music for a screening of the original silent film version 'Peter Pan' (1924) at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Show starts at 8 p.m., and is part of the theater's three-day festival of fantasy films involving either Peter or Alice, as in Wonderland.

If you're not familiar with the New England cinematic landscape, let me tell you that the Brattle is the really, really big time for vintage cinema. Just off Harvard Square, the Brattle has been showing classic and independent films for something like six decades now, continuing the tradition long after so many others were wiped out by the VCR revolution in the 1980s.

But the Brattle soldiered on, and continues to do so today. Under the leadership of Ivy Moylan and Ned Hinkle, it continues to program all kinds of great film. (I checked and just tonight they screened 'Dr. Strangelove' (1964) and 'Duck Soup' (1933) -- how cool is that?) I was actually a member many years ago, when I had more of a chance to get down there, but I still attend screenings when I can.

What's great about the Brattle is the commitment to screening film as it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, using actual film prints, and with an audience. And I'm pleased to report that this commitment extends to scheduling the occasional silent film, and using live music whenever possible, which is what we're doing with 'Peter Pan.'

Several Halloween-type silents with live music (from others) are coming at the end of this month -- for more info, see For me, my big chance will be doing the music for Peter Pan. It's not actually my musical debut at the Brattle; in 2005, the theater screened 'Dangerous Crosswinds,' an independent feature film directed by Bill Millios for which I did the music.

But still, next week I'll be doing it live for the first time. I encourage you to check it out -- not only is the original 'Peter Pan' a real hoot, but it's a great film for music, too. Hope to see you there.

It's looking like a busy week. I also need to prepare for a screening of 'Nosferatu' (1922) on Thursday, Oct. 13 at the Flying Monkey Theater in Plymouth, N.H., and then 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927) on Saturday, Oct. 15 in Brandon, Vt. More on those later. For now, here's the 'Peter Pan' press release, with more info about the Brattle screening on Wednesday, Oct. 12...

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film version of 'Peter Pan' at Brattle Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 12

Rare screening of legendary cinema classic to feature new musical score performed live

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—It was the film that introduced movie-goers to visions of flying children, magical fairies, human-like animals and menacing pirates. It was the original silent film adaptation of 'Peter Pan,' a picture personally supervised by author J.M. Barrie. The film, starring actress Betty Bronson (at left) in the title role, became a major hit when released around Christmas of 1924, with audiences eager to get their first big-screen look at the wonders of Never Never Land.

Thought lost for many years, the original silent 'Peter Pan' maintains its freshness nearly 90 years after its release. Boston-area audiences can see for themselves when the first 'Peter Pan' (1924) is screened with live music on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. Tickets are $9.75, with discounts for students, seniors, children, and Brattle members.

The screening of 'Peter Pan' will be accompanied by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis, who has prepared new material for the 115-minute picture. Rapsis improvises the score for each screening in real time, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra.

"Live music is an integral part of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who accompanies films at venues all across New England. "Music not only supported the action, but clued in the audience to changing moods and created an overall atmosphere. This new music for 'Peter Pan' is designed to help bring to life this film's special qualities of fantasy and child-like wonder."

The screening is part of the Brattle's "Peter and Alice" repertory series, which runs from Tuesday, Oct. 11 through Thursday, Oct. 13 and celebrates two iconic fantasy figures -- Peter Pan and Alice of the "Alice in Wonderland" stories. More information on the other screenings can be found at

In 'Peter Pan,' first presented as a stage play in 1904 and then issued in book form, three London children are visited one night by a strange youth in search of his shadow. Peter Pan, accompanied by the meddlesome fairy Tinkerbell, teaches his new friends how to fly, and then convinces them to journey to Never Never Land. There they encounter Indians, mermaids, and a band of pirates whose leader, Captain Hook, is Pan's sworn enemy.

This sets the stage for an epic battle, the outcome of which will determine if the children may ever return home.

Though the Peter Pan story is well known today due to subsequent adaptations (and a brand of peanut butter), the tale was freshly invented when Hollywood first brought it to film in the early 1920s. In England, author Barrie agreed to allow the adaptation, though he retained right of refusal over casting and insisted that any written titles in the film be taken directly from his own text. After an extensive talent search, Barrie settled on unknown 18-year-old actress Betty Bronson for the title role, and filming began in 1924.

The film's highlights include special effects that maintain their ability to dazzle even today. The film's memorable images include a group of mermaids entering the sea and a pirate ship lifting out of the water and taking flight. 'Peter Pan' also includes a cast of animal characters played by humans in costume, including the family dog Nana and an alligator who serves as Hook's nemesis, lending the film a magical quality.

After the film's release, no copies of the original 'Peter Pan' were known to exist, and for many years the picture was regarded as lost. However, in the 1950s a single surviving print turned up in the George Eastman Archives in Rochester, N.Y., from which all copies today have descended.

"If you're not familiar with how accomplished silent film could be at its peak, then 'Peter Pan' will surprise you," Rapsis said. "The Brattle screening is worth checking out because it's a chance to see this great film as it was intended: in a theater, with an audience, on the big screen, and with live music."

'Peter Pan' (1924) will be shown on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. at the Brattle Theater, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. Admission is $9.75, with discounts for seniors, students, children, and Brattle members. For more information on the screening, visit, e-mail, or call (617) 876-6837. For more information on the music, visit

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Double" feature: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920)

Geez, with so many creepy films on tap, it must be getting close to Halloween. We have Alfred Hitchcock's murderous 'The Lodger' (1927) on Saturday, Oct. 2 at 4:30 p.m. in Wilton, N.H., and then John Barrymore in the original 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920) on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library.

For info on 'The Lodger,' see the post prior to this one.

I'm looking forward to 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' (1920) on Tuesday, Oct. 4. The story is one of those great innovative tales that an author (in this case, Robert Louis Stevenson) comes up once in awhile, and you wonder how no one ever thought of it before. Though published as a novella, the tale seems tailor-made for the movies, and so it's no surprise that it's been made into something like a dozen different versions.

The Barrymore film holds up well, I think. I saw an interesting comment about this version on the Internet Movie Database site: that this original version benefits from being so antique, the Victorian atmosphere is achieved more naturally than in many technically superior remakes!

This is aligned with something I've come to believe -- that the more time that passes, silent film will become more interesting because it captures life in a way that no other medium can.

Weird trivia department: the Wikipedia entry for this film lists avant garde composer Edgard Varèse as playing a policeman! But that's Wikipedia for you.

I sometimes joke that in doing music for silent film, I'm collaborating with dead people. Regarding the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I once collaborated on a stage adaptation of the work with author Kurt Vonnegut, who was very much alive at the time, although he didn't know we were working together.

What happened was that some time in the 1970s, Vonnegut had sketched out a wacky musical comedy treatment of the Jekyll and Hyde story that was never produced. No songs were written, but he thought enough of it to include the script in 'Palm Sunday,' a collage of non-fiction and other material that was published in 1980. (At right is a picture of Vonnegut from about that time. He died, alas, in 2007.)

After graduating from college in 1986, I returned to my hometown of Nashua, N.H., where I found myself in charge of directing an annual student-produced musical variety show at my former high school. For a really slam-bang second act, I figured we'd take Vonnegut's treatment and actually get it on stage.

So I wrote songs where Vonnegut indicated they should go, and off we went. I had a college friend in New York City who actually worked for Vonnegut's wife, Jill Krementz, and I was hoping to use that connection to get the author to attend. It didn't happen -- to our surprise, the internationally acclaimed author had other fish to fry. For a while there, though, it was like 'Waiting for Guffman,' or Godot, or some such thing.

Still, it was a lot of fun. Among Vonnegut's tweaks to the story was to have Dr. Jekyll use LSD in his potion and turn into a giant homicidal chicken, all of which we staged. It was pretty subversive stuff for high school theater, but that all now seems like a lifetime ago. Any cast members out there? Whitney Rearick, whatever happened to you?

Well, here we go again with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- this time, the 1920 film version (no homicidal chickens) on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library. Hope to see you there! Here's the press release...

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Original 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' to screen Tuesday, Oct. 4 at Manchester Public Library

Silent film thriller starring John Barrymore to be shown on the big screen with live music

MANCHESTER, N.H.—It was a sensational best-selling novel, then an immensely popular stage play. So it was just a matter of time before the movies tackled 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of a man tortured by two personalities—one thoroughly good and the other completely evil.

'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' (1920), the original silent film adaptation of Stevenson's classic story, will be shown at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. The program, the latest in the library's silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with donations welcome.

Starring iconic actor John Barrymore, the film was a huge early hit for Paramount Pictures. It helped establish the "thriller" genre and showed the potential of the movies to vividly tell disturbing and creepy stories.

Dr. Jekyll, a London physician and philanthropist, becomes fascinated with the dual nature of man after the profligate Sir George Carew exposes him to temptation. When Jekyll invents a potion that separates the good from the evil in a person, he decides to live both roles and names the evil persona Mr. Hyde.

Jekyll is in love with Millicent, the daughter of Sir George; meanwhile, Hyde prowls the poorer districts of London, debases and discards Theresa, a dance hall performer. Jekyll's control over Hyde weakens gradually to the point where his alter ego resorts to murder, forcing Hyde into a showdown to save his loved ones and reign in the evil he himself has spawned.

The film put Barrymore, a noted stage actor, on the cinematic map. Following 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' Barrymore would go on to be one of the biggest stars of early cinema. His handsome visage, dubbed "the great profile," was instantly recognizable to movie-goers of the time, who flocked to see Barrymore in later films such as 'Sherlock Holmes' (1922), 'Don Juan' (1926), and 'The Beloved Rogue' (1927).

Barrymore's performance in 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' is noteworthy in part because, in an era of limited special effects, his portrayal of the early stages of Jekyll's transformation was done using only facial expressions and gestures. Make-up was only used later in the film following the full transformation of the Hyde character.

Stevenson's story has been refilmed many times, including versions in 1931 and 1941, and was most recently remade in 2008 as a TV movie starring Dougray Scott.

In screening the original 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' the Manchester Public Library aims to recreate all essential elements of silent film experience: high quality prints shown on a large screen, with live music and an audience.

"These films caused people to fall in love with the movies for a very good reason," said Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score during the screening. "They were unique experiences, and if you can recreate the conditions under which they were shown, they have a great deal of life in them. Though they're the ancestors of today's movies, silent film is a very different art form than what you see at the multiplex today, so it's worth checking out as something totally different."

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

‘Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' will be shown on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. in the Manchester Public Library's Carpenter Auditorium, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.; (603) 624-6550. Free admission; donations encouraged. For more information on the library, visit For more info on the music, visit