Tuesday, May 29, 2012

'The Flying Fleet' leaps surprisingly off the runway

Ramon Novarro puts some glamour back into aviation in 'The Flying Fleet.'

It happened again! A silent film that I had my doubts about leaped to life when shown in a theater with an audience.

In this case, it was 'The Flying Fleet' (1929) the late MGM silent about U.S. Navy aviators starring Ramon Novarro, Ralph Graves, and Anita Page. (Can you imagine a movie star today with a name like 'Ralph Graves?') The plot: six Annapolis graduates all hope to be pilots. Who will make it? Who won't? And how will Anita Page get in the way?

Our monthly silent film screenings in Wilton, N.H. are on the last Sunday of each month, which means they usually fall on Memorial Day weekend. So I try to use the occasion to pay tribute to our country's military. So when picking titles last fall, 'The Flying Fleet' seemed a good bet: not the usual fare, but something worth reviving.

But when I finally looked at it this month to get ideas for music, I was less than impressed. What a dud! Undeveloped characters, little drama, even less romance, a few forced "comedy" scenes, and primitive aviation sequences, at least compared to 'Wings.' Uck!

Then, with final exams where I teach, there wasn't time to send out the usual press materials. And finally, as Memorial Day weekend drew closer, it was clear we'd be blessed with spectacular weather in our part of the world, which is usually murder for an afternoon silent film screening.

So imagine my surprise on Sunday, May 27 when a fairly good crowd turned up on a brilliant sunny day to take in this relic. And to my further surprise, the film really did work!

In terms of music, things went well right from the start: a rousing chorus of 'Anchors Aweigh,' a tune that threaded its way into a lot of what followed. (I avoided other tunes, such as the 'Wild Blue Yonder' tune, because they draw too much attention from the movie and also people notice if I hit a wrong note.)

An early scene in the doctor's office when the cadets get checked out built nicely using bouncy accompaniment and chords with augmented fourths, which always seem to indicate busy-ness and things happening. But 'The Flying Fleet' really soared (pun intended) when the aviation scenes started.

Not sure why I didn't sense this when previewing the film, but these scenes are full of motion and tremendously exciting, and I love doing music for them. I was especially happy with how the music developed in the first sequence, when the trainee pilots get their first ride in a plane. It just grew organically, getting more energetic and intense as the action progressed, and then got dissonant when one of the hopefuls developed a major case of air sickness.

And the real value of improv came out near the end, when (SPOILER ALERT), following a crash at sea, an injured character decides he's too much of a burden on his fellow aviators and slips into the sea while they sleep. The music, in a minor key and with 'Anchors Aweigh' as the bass line, just grew and grew with the sequence, but I pulled back right before the character slides into the water, which really emphasized the drama of the moment. And then I could come in again strongly when the other characters awoke and realized what had happened. Tremendously exciting cinema, if I do say so myself.

The ending of 'The Flying Fleet' was still completely unsatisfying: we hear that the heros get medals of honor, but don't see anything, and Anita Page shows up on a hospital vessel, prompting one of our audience members to ask loudly: "How did she get on the ship?!" (A good question.) And yes, some of the scenes still included Czech, untranslated from the source print, lending a surreal aspect to the film. (Was the U.S. Navy using Czech for coded transmissions in the 1920s?)

But the film's impact was undeniable. The whole saga of the six fellows, and who would make it as a pilot and who wouldn't, and then what would happen, really stuck to the screen and really held the audience. So score another one for silent film when shown in its native habitat: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience!

'Some Things Never Change' Department: In introducing 'The Flying Fleet,' I played up the idea that the film was interesting today in part because it showed how things were done in the U.S. Navy in times past. I think my exact line was "It shows the U.S. Navy 80 years ago, but it might as well be 800 years ago."

Well, blow me down if a U.S. Navy vet didn't come up afterwards and say that it's all still pretty much exactly the same, including the Hotel Coronado in San Diego. The only thing that's changed, he said, was the Pensacola training base, which was apparently wiped off the map by a hurricane at some point. Other that that, it's still the same, although the aircraft have been updated.

I stand corrected. And so now 'The Flying Fleet' is of interest to modern audiences because it shows us how some things haven't changed.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Honor Memorial Day with 'The Flying Fleet' on Sunday, May 27 in Wilton, N.H.

I'm behind in getting out press materials for upcoming screenings, but here's a quick preview of our screening this weekend of 'The Flying Fleet.' It's a 1929 drama starring Ramon Navarro, Ralph Graves, and Anita Page, and we're running it on Sunday, May 27 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, and it's a nice way to tip our cap to all who've served in the U.S. armed forces.

Though the film focuses on the U.S. Navy, it's really about aviation, at least as it was practiced by that branch at the time. And yes, although it's a romantic drama, "...the real stars of this movie, made with the full cooperation of the Navy, are the planes and the flying."

That's according to a review on the Web site DVD Talk. Continuing on: "The plot is pretty thin but the aviation sequences more than make up for that. At the time this film was made bi-planes were state of the art and it's amazing to see the ground crew hand-cranking the engines to get them started. Even the advanced plane that is to be flown to Hawaii is a four-person twin engine craft with open cockpits. The crew has to communicate by passing hand written messages, the navigator takes sightings with a sextant, and the communications officer sends updates in Morris Code. It seems so primitive from this point in time."

Here's a link to the full review if you want more details. So it's not 'Wings' (the classic flying film from 1927), but 'The Flying Fleet' is a rarely screened aviation adventure that I'm really looking forward to this weekend. Hope to see you there!

And here's an interesting note: Anita Page, just 18 years old at the time 'The Flying Fleet' was made, remained with us all the way up until 2008, when she died at the ripe old age of 98, one of the last surviving stars of the silent era.

'The Flying Fleet' (1929) will be screened with live music on Sunday, May 27 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; donations accepted. For more information on the theater, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fairbanks as Zorro: Like father, like son...

'The Mark of Zorro' (1920) on Thursday, May 17 in Plymouth, N.H., and then...

'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925) on Friday, May 18 in Concord, N.H.

It wasn't planned this way. But sometimes the best plan is no plan at all!

Consider: On Thursday, May 17, we're screening 'The Mark of Zorro' (1920) at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H. Then, on Friday, May 18, we're running the sequel, 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925), in Concord, N.H.

Why, Zorro himself could not have timed it better!

It's actually a total coincidence — 'The Mark of Zorro' in Plymouth was planned a long time ago, while the screening of 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' was just scheduled in Concord as a last-minute attraction. Still, it's a rare chance to see both movies (the original and the sequel) as they were intended: in a theater, with live music, and with an audience.

And back to back, or nearly so!

Actually, last year I did schedule both the original 'Zorro' and the sequel as one double feature in Wilton, N.H. But it turned out the program would have run nearly four hours long, so we had to change to just 'The Mark of Zorro' and then run 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' a year later. (Which we just did.)

And I just thought of something. Until recently, we had a restaurant in our part of the world that went by the simple name of 'Z.' Talk about your sponsorship opportunities!)

Well, restaurant sponsorships or not, it's a good time for the Douglas Fairbanks 'Zorro' films, as Fairbanks was used a model for the George Valentin character in the recent Oscar-winning silent film 'The Artist,' so there's been a bump in interest in him.

But the 'Zorro' films, and really just about any other Fairbanks picture, remain some of the most popular pictures from the silent era. No matter how much time passes or how different life may become, something in Doug's pictures still works with audiences.

See for yourself by taking in a screening of 'The Mark of Zorro' (1920) on Thursday, May 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. General admission $10 per person. And then follow it with 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925) on Friday, May 18 at 7 p.m. at the Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. General admission is also $10 here.

Both screenings will be accompanied by live music by yours truly. Here are the back-to-back press releases.

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Original 'Zorro' to screen with live music in Plymouth, N.H. on Thursday, May 17

Silent adventure epic starring Douglas Fairbanks to be shown at Flying Monkey

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—It was the original swashbuckling blockbuster—the film that first brought 'Zorro' to the big screen, and also turned actor Douglas Fairbanks into Hollywood's first-ever action hero. 'The Mark of Zorro' (1920) will once again fill the silver screen, accompanied by live music on Thursday, May 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person.

'The Mark of Zorro,' a major hit when first released, tells the story of young Don Diego Vega, the outwardly timid son of a wealthy ranch owner in Spanish California of the early 19th century. Witnessing the mistreatment of the poor by rich landowners and the oppressive colonial government, Don Diego assumes the identity of "Señor Zorro," a masked figure of great cunning and skill, and vows to bring justice to the region. As Zorro, he also woos the beautiful Lolita Pulido, a woman who is distinctly unimpressed with Don Diego, but who is captivated by the masked swordsman.

The film stars Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who until 'Zorro' had focused on playing traditional all-American leading roles in romantic comedies. The success of 'Zorro' launched Fairbanks on a series of historical adventure films that went on to rank among the most popular spectacles of the silent era, including 'The Three Musketeers' (1921), 'Robin Hood' (1922), 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924), and 'The Black Pirate' (1926). The original 'Zorro' film was so popular it inspired one of Hollywood's first big-budget sequels, 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925), also starring Fairbanks.

Fairbanks, one of the silent screen's most popular leading men, was the inspiration of the character George Valentin in 'The Artist,' the recent Oscar-winning Best Picture.

Critics have praised 'The Mark of Zorro' for its tight story, fast pace, and many exciting action sequences, which include numerous stunts performed by Fairbanks himself. Steven D. Greydanus of the Decent Films Guide wrote that the silent Zorro "...contains some of the most jaw-dropping stunts I’ve ever seen this side of Jackie Chan." Film writer Leonard Maltin described 'Zorro' as a "silent classic with Fairbanks as the masked hero...perhaps Doug's best film...nonstop fun!"

This genre-defining swashbuckler was the first movie version of the Zorro legend. The film was based on the 1919 story "The Curse of Capistrano" by Johnston McCulley, which introduced Zorro. The screenplay was adapted by Fairbanks under the pseudonym "Elton Thomas" and Eugene Miller. The story has since been remade and adapted many times, most recently in 1998 as 'The Mask of Zorro' starring Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas.

'The Mark of Zorro' was the first film released by the newly formed United Artists studio, formed in 1920 by Fairbanks with fellow silent film superstars Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and director D.W. Griffith. The silent version of 'Zorro' also played a key role in the formation of the DC Comics Batman character; in the original 1939 story, a young Bruce Wayne sees 'Zorro' on the same night that his parents are later murdered, which leads him to adopt Zorro's mask and cape as a basis for his own transformation into 'Batman.'

The May 17 screening of 'The Mark of Zorro' will be accompanied by an original score created and performed live by New Hampshire silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis achieves a traditional "movie score" sound for silent film screenings by using a digital synthesizer to reproduce the texture of the full orchestra.

'The Mark of Zorro' will be screened on Thursday, May 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. For more information, visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com or call (603) 536-2551.

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Sequel 'Son of Zorro' to screen with live music in Concord, N.H. on Friday, May 18

Silent adventure epic to be shown at Red River Theatres after 'Mark of Zorro' sell-out last week

CONCORD, N.H.—See Hollywood's first-ever big budget sequel! Following the huge success of 'The Mask of Zorro' (1920), silent-era superstar Douglas Fairbanks returned in 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925), in which he played both the sword-brandishing avenger of injustice AND his whip-wielding son. 'Don Q, Son of Zorro,' widely regarded as one of the best action pictures of its time, will be screened with live music on Friday, May 18 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person.

The showing of 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' at Red River was arranged following a sold-out screening of 'The Mark of Zorro' earlier this month to mark Cinco de Mayo. After the strong audience reaction to the original 'Zorro,' Red River officials programmed the 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' sequel so audiences could see how the story continues.

Douglas Fairbanks, an immensely popular star whose career peaked in the 1920s, served as the model for the George Valentin character in 'The Artist,' the recent silent film that recently won multiple Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture.

In 'Son of Zorro,' Fairbanks plays Don Cesar de Vega, Zorro's grown son, a prodigy with the whip who is visiting the family's Spanish homeland to finish his education. It's anything but a dull semsester abroad: Cesar duels with Don Sebastian of the Queen's Guard (soon to be his rival for the hand of lovely Dolores de Muro), makes love to a general's daughter, and befriends the visiting Archduke of Austria. But a quarrel ending in violence gives Don Sebastian the chance to dispose of his rival by framing him for murder! Feigning suicide, Zorro's whip-wielding son escapes to the family's abandoned castle, where he makes plans to clear the family name.

Here's a Russian poster for 'Son of Zorro.' Douglas Fairbanks = Дуглас Фербенкс. Got that?

The May 18 screening of 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' at Red River will be accompanied by an original score created and performed live by New Hampshire silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis achieves a "movie score" sound for silent film screenings by using a digital synthesizer to reproduce the texture of the full orchestra, and accompanied 'The Mark of Zorro' at Red River earlier this month.

"The Red River audience really enjoyed Fairbanks in 'The Mark of Zorro,' so it seemed a natural to follow up right away with the sequel," said Rapsis, who provides live music accompaniment for silent film screenings across New England and beyond. "'Son of Zorro' is a terrific popcorn movie by itself, but the chance to screen it directly following the original is a great way to present these two films as they were intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience."

Red River Theatres, an independent cinema, is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to screening a diverse program of first-run independent films, cult favorites, classics, local and regional film projects, and foreign films. The member-supported theater’s mission is to present film and the discussion of film as a way to entertain, broaden horizons and deepen appreciation of life for New Hampshire audiences of all ages.

'Don Q: Son of Zorro' will be screened on Friday, May 18 at 7 p.m. in the screening room of Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. For more information, visit www.redrivertheatres.org or call (603) 224-4600.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Did I tell you about the time the keyboard fell on me?

Well, it happened this past Friday night (May 4, 2012) during a screening of 'The Mark of Zorro' (1920) at the Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

See, there's a lot of action, horse-riding and otherwise, in 'Zorro,' which leads to long series of repeated notes in the way I accompany. And while doing it, I hadn't noticed that my synthesizer keyboard had been gradually shifting towards me, until suddenly it tipped off its X-stand and onto my lap!

This was right in the middle of an action scene, and the show must go on. So I kept the right hand going while using the left hand and knee to push the keyboard back on the stand. It worked, and no one in the audience seemed to have noticed.

So much for the glamorous world of the performing arts. But overall, it was a good screening: a sold-out house (in the theater's small screening room) and enough interest for us to be talking about screening the sequel, 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925) later this month as a follow-up. We'll see...

I do want to say what a joy it was to do music for a film that elicited such a strong audience response. Sometimes you do a film and yes, the audience just sits there. Other times, the reaction is immediate and immense. At 'Zorro,' the energy started from the moment Fairbanks flashed his knowing smile during his first 'Zorro' appearance, and it never let up.

And then Saturday night (May 5) brought me back to Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall, where I accompanied 'Metropolis' (1927) to open this year's summer silent film series. (We do one each month through Halloween.) I try to keep the Brandon programs heavy on comedy, as it's a summertime fun series, but I thought the May screening was a good chance to show something a more dramatic.

'Metropolis' certainly filled the bill; many of the 40 or so who showed up had never seen it, and many seemed stunned by it afterwards. (In a good way.) Lots of great conversations before and afterwards, and also a tour of the recently renovated bathrooms, the latest milestone in the continuing effort to renovate Brandon Town Hall. It's amusing that the work isn't quite finished yet, so there are rows of toilets with no partitions installed between them yet. For now, privacy is overrated.

I had an especially interesting conversation with a woman who looks after a young man from Burlington, Vt. who suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. She had called me before the show to find out if Brandon Town Hall was accessible to all, and I was pleased to tell her that yes, an elevator had been installed as part of the renovations. (It sounded like I knew what I was talking about.)

During intermission, I got a chance to meet them both in person. I was interested to see how the young man, who has limited motor control of his facial features, is able to communicate in part through use of a picture frame with letters on both sides. He points to letter with his eyes, which allows him to spell out words.

He really seemed to be enjoying the movie, and we had a brief chat about how silent films are sometimes a lot more accessible and enjoyable for people who suffer from a range of conditions that limit their ability to watch contemporary movies. I see a lot of this at screenings I do, and perhaps there's something there. I would love to find out if there's been any research done or if anyone else works in this field. If you do, tell me!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

This weekend: 'Zorro,' 'Metropolis,' plus silent film returns to the Leavitt

Doing music for two of the big silent classics this weekend, plus news of newly scheduled screenings (starting in June) at the one-of-kid Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine. That's it pictured above. Highlights below.

• On Friday, May 4 at 7 p.m., it's 'The Mark of Zorro' (1920) starring Douglas Fairbanks, at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord. N.H. Still tickets left! Admission $10; for more info, visit www.redrivertheatres.org or call (603) 224-4600.

• On Saturday, May 5 at 7 p.m., it's 'Metropolis' (1927), the great German futuristic fantasy film, at Brandon Town Hall, Route 7, Brandon, Vt. Admission is free but donations are encouraged to support ongoing town hall renovations.

• And we will indeed return to the Leavitt Theatre this summer with at least a few silent film programs. The first is set for Friday, June 8 at 8 p.m.; not sure of the title but will get that nailed shortly. Tickets $10 each.

Check out the interior of this vintage theater. Many of the seats still have wire racks underneath them so gentlemen can stow their hats!

Screenings at the Leavitt are a terrific chance to see a silent film with live music in a moviehouse that's virtually unchanged since it opened in 1923 as, yes, a silent moviehouse. Additional screenings to be announced. The Leavitt hangs out at 259 Main St. in Ogunquit; for info, call (207) 646-3123.