Sunday, July 14, 2013

Coming soon (like this afternoon)...
'Ben Hur' (1925) at the Somerville Theatre

If you're checking out this blog either in advance of or just after the screening of 'Ben Hur' (1925) at the Somerville Theatre, welcome! It's been a busy week for me, so I'm afraid I don't have a lot of specific info about the show or the film other than to say I'm really looking forward to it.

If you're considering joining us today, please do! It's a one-of-a-kind program (including an earlier one-reel version of the story produced in 1907) and a chance to see one of the great films of early cinema on film and on the big screen with live music and an audience -- the way it was intended to be experienced.

And if you've just seen it, thanks for coming and I would love to get your thoughts and opinions on the movie, the music, or the overall experience, thumbs up or down. You can comment on this blog or reach me via e-mail at Feedback is really helpful because I often have no idea what it's like out in the audience.

If you're seeking info about additional screenings, just click on "Upcoming Silent Film Screenings" at the upper right, and you'll see a list of my engagements. A simple search online will lead you to many other silent film screenings as well.

For more info about the screening and the film, I'm pasting in the text of the most recent press release that we sent out. Here goes....

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Somerville Theatre unearths early 1907 15-minute version of 'Ben Hur' story

Ultra-short version, filmed in NYC, to precede screening of epic full-length ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) on Sunday, July 14

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—One of early Hollywood's greatest epics returns to the big screen with a showing of 'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) on Sunday, July 14 at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. The screening, in 35mm with live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, starts at 1 p.m. Admission is $15 per person.

This week, the Somerville announced a special added attraction to the July 14 program. Preceding the blockbuster 1925 version of 'Ben Hur' will be a rare one-reel adaptation produced in 1907 by the Kalem Film Co. of New York City. The earlier version, which runs just 15 minutes, was filmed on location in and around New York City, with Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn substituting for the Holy Land.

The Kalem one-reel edition is highlighted by an early screen appearance of actor William S. Hart, who had toured for many years in a stage version of 'Ben Hur' in the key role of Messala. Hart would later turn his attention full-time to Hollywood, where he pioneered the western genre during the silent era.

The 1907 'Ben Hur' will be shown via a rare 16mm print as a warm-up for the MGM's 1925 version of 'Ben Hur,' which will be screened in 35mm. Live music for both films will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

"This earlier version of 'Ben Hur' is a real find," said Ian Judge, Somerville Theatre manager. "It's very unusual to get a chance to see it on the big screen, and we're thrilled to include it with the MGM version of 'Ben Hur' as part of our 'Silents, Please' series."

The one-reel version of 'Ben Hur' was not without controversy. The film was made without obtaining the rights to the story, the usual procedure in the industry at the time, and Kalem was sued by the estate of author Lew Wallace, who had published the immensely popular 'Ben Hur' novel in 1880.

The parties reached an out-of-court settlement in 1911, in which Kalem paid the estate $25,000—an extremely large amount for the time. The action helped to establish the necessity of film studios obtaining motion picture rights to the properties they used for their stories.

The main attraction for the screening on Sunday, July 14 remains the MGM version of 'Ben Hur,' starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. Among the first motion pictures to tell a Biblical-era story on an enormous scale, the film helped establish MGM as a leading Hollywood studio, employed a cast of thousands and boasted action sequences that included a large-scale sea battle.

The 1925 'Ben Hur' is highlighted by a spell-binding chariot race sequence that broke new ground in film editing and still leaves audiences breathless.

Set in the Holy Land at the time of Christ's birth, 'Ben Hur' tells the story of a Jewish family in Jerusalem whose fortune is confiscated by the Romans and its members jailed. The enslaved family heir, Judah Ben Hur (played by Novarro, a leading silent-era heartthrob) is inspired by encounters with Christ to pursue justice, which leads him to a series of epic adventures in his quest to find his mother and sister and restore his family fortune.

The screening is the latest in the Somerville Theatre's monthly series of silent film screenings. Dubbed 'Silents, Please,' the series aims to showcase the best of early Hollywood the way it was intended to be experienced: in 35mm prints, on the big screen, with live music, and in a theater with an audience.

"Put together those elements, and it's amazing how much power these films still have. You realize why these films caused people to first fall in love with the movies, said accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a full score for the 2½-hour epic.

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

'Ben Hur,' directed by Fred Niblo, was among the most expensive films of the silent era, taking two years to make and costing between $4 million and $6 million. When released in 1925, it became a huge hit for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.

The film was remade by MGM in the 1950s in a color and wide-screen version starring Charleston Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. Some critics believe the original 1925 version offers superior drama and story-telling. MGM executives at the time, aware of the quality of the original version, attempted to destroy all prints of the 1925 'Ben Hur,' sending the FBI out to confiscate collector copies in the 1950s. However, the studio did preserve the negative of the 1925 version, so the film remains available today.

"We encourage people to attend, as it's a rare chance to see the original 'Ben Hur' from a studio 35mm print," said accompanist Rapsis. "Also, people should come because silent films were communal experience—one in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions. If you've never attended a silent film with live music, this one is worth checking out.”

Upcoming films in the Somerville's silent series include:

• Sunday, Aug. 4, 1 p.m.: 'The General' (1927) starring Buster Keaton. Stone-faced Buster's cinematic masterpiece, set during the U.S. Civil War, finds Keaton playing a Confederate train engineer forced to pursue his locomotive when it's hijacked by Union spies. One of the grandest adventure/comedy films of all time.

• Sunday, Sept. 8, 1 p.m.: 'The Freshman' (1925) starring Harold Lloyd. Get in a back-to-school mood with Lloyd's genre-defining comedy about a young man's climb to social prominence via the college football squad. Great story aided by top-rate silent film comedy.

Both silent version of ‘Ben Hur’ will be shown on Sunday, July 14 at 1 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission is $15 per person. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit

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