At last night's screening of 'Our Hospitality' (1923), I tried something different.
This great Buster Keaton film (one of his best, I think) has an extended sequence on a period-authentic railroad train of the 1830s.
The train's staff includes a top-hatted conductor who sits high atop the last coach. He's equipped with an oversized horn to signal the engineer out in front when needed.
The horn, like so many props in Keaton's films, becomes an object of comedy as the journey progresses, serving to punctuate several disasters that occur en route.
But in such a visually rich sequence, I've always felt the horn gets a little lost in the shuffle.
So, prior to last night's screening at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., I got my old trombone out of the garage, literally dusted it off, and prepared to use it for the "horn" sound during the train sequence.
Which is what I did.
One side effect of this kind of musical multi-tasking is that it forced me to use only my left hand on the keyboard for much of the train scenes. The other hand was needed to hold and manipulate the trombone.
But this turned out to be an advantage, I think, because it prevented me from over-playing during this sequence, which takes place very near the film's opening.
The trombone sound seemed a little harsh and out of place to me—so much so that it risked taking attention away from the film, I thought, rather than pointing up the comedy.
Also, I hit all the cues (six times) in the outbound journey, but I'd forgotten the horn gets blown one more time later in the film and so wasn't ready for that one. Oops!
Afterward, I asked the audience of about 50 folks if it worked, and was surprised to get a resounding YES!
So I'll keep the horn for future screenings, and try to remember that seventh time.
Looking ahead: I also tried something different for a screening of Cecil B. DeMille's epic 'King of Kings' (1927) set for Friday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.
The film depicts the last days of Jesus, so I figured it would be appropriate to show it on Good Friday.
But here's where the "something different" comes in. To promote it, I didn't just send out the usual press release to the usual suspects.
I also snail-mailed the release and a cover letter to 60 different churches in or around the Concord area. I pitched the screening as a fresh perspective on the Jesus story as told by Hollywood filmmakers from another era. It's a sermon topic, a great night at the movies, an uplifting experience, and teachable moment all in one! (Well, at 2½ hours, it's hardly a moment.)
I don't know if this hucksterism will result in more attendance, or get me struck down by a bolt of lightning.
But I had to do something because we're running 'King of Kings' in one of Red River's big theaters (instead of the much-smaller screening room, which accomodates 50 people at most) and so I need to fill seats. So come one and come all!
For more info, here's the text of the press release below.
TUESDAY, APRIL 8, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • email@example.com
'King of Kings’ to be screened with live music on Friday, April 18 at Red River Theatres
The perfect prelude to Easter: 1927's silent film Biblical blockbuster about the life of Jesus features cast of thousands, giant earthquake
CONCORD, N.H.—It was the original big-screen blockbuster, an epic movie on a grand scale depicting the greatest story of all: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and featuring a cast of thousands, ‘The King of Kings’ (1927) stands as one of the sensations of Hollywood’s early days.
In honor of this year’s Easter season, a restored print of ‘The King of Kings’ will be screened with live music on Friday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.
The screening is a chance to experience this landmark film as it was intended to be seen: in a high quality print on the big screen, with live music and with an audience. The screening will take place in the theater's Stonyfield Culture Cinema.
Tickets are $10 per person.
As a movie, ‘The King of Kings’ was designed to push the limits of Hollywood story-telling. Director DeMille, already famous for over-the-top historical epics such as the original ‘Ten Commandments’ (1923), demanded and got a then-astronomical budget of $2 million, which he used to construct massive sets, hire thousands of extras, and stage an enormous earthquake at the film’s climax.
“The monumental devastation unleashed by Christ’s crucifixion dwarfs even the cataclysmic Holy Grail finale of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,’ ” wrote film historian Charles Musser in 1992, observing that “raw material and non-union labor gave more bang for the buck in 1927.”
The film was considered daring as the first mainstream Hollywood picture to depict the actions and life of Jesus on-screen in great detail, paving the way for future generations of filmmakers.
Although the movie’s title cards quote directly from scripture, ‘The King of Kings’ was not a scholarly depiction of scenes from the Bible. Rather, it was created to emphasize drama and conflict, prompting DeMille to change many aspects of the story as traditionally related in the New Testament Gospels. DeMille even spiced things up by including teams of zebras and other exotic non-native creatures in the film.
Because of this, 'The King of Kings' was regarded as blasphemous by some, and proved “as controversial in its day as Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ was in 1988,” Musser wrote. “Although DeMille made his film under the pious supervision of clergy, he managed to titillate audiences with the same heady mixture of sex and moralism that had made...earlier films so successful.”
In just one example, DeMille opens the film with the character of Mary Magdalene leading an orgy, though she is quickly rescued from debauchery by an encounter with Jesus.
Outrage or not, audiences flocked to the 2½-hour epic, which was released in May 1927 and quickly broke box office records for attendance in the U.S. and around the globe. Audiences regarded it as grand entertainment.
The cast included early Hollywood star H.B. Warner as Jesus Christ, winning plaudits for his portrayal of the lead role. (Warner’s later roles included druggist Mr. Gower in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’) Playing Peter is character actor Ernest Torrence, famous as Captain Hook in the original version of ‘Peter Pan’ (1924); the role of Judas is acted by Joseph Schildkraut, already a Hollywood veteran who later went on to play Nicodemus in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ (1965), a much-later Hollywood epic on the same topic.
‘The King of Kings’ was also noted for technical breakthroughs. It featured state-of-the-art movie lighting techniques, including a glowing halo that surrounded Christ whenever he appears on screen. ‘The King of Kings’ was also among the first mainstream Hollywood pictures to use color in several sequences.
To enhance the film’s spiritual underpinnings, during production DeMille arranged for a Catholic Mass to be celebrated each morning before shooting started. In a publicity ploy, DeMille also made his stars enter contracts that prevented them from doing anything “unbiblical” for a five-year period; prohibited activities included attending ball games, playing cards, frequenting night clubs, swimming, and riding in convertibles.
The film’s sets ended up being so massive that they simply weren’t torn down, and so wound up appearing in several other pictures. A giant gate built for ‘The King of Kings’ was later used in 1933’s ‘King Kong.’ Some of the original sets were finally lit ablaze in 1939 for the burning of Atlanta in ‘Gone with the Wind.’
Critics remain impressed by the film’s epic sweep, although they often dismiss how DeMille pandered to a mass audience. “It’s a stupendous exhibition by any standard, though you can practically smell the sawdust and greasepaint,” wrote critic Peter Matthews in 2004. “Despite the baloney (or because of it), ‘The King of Kings’ captures the fervor of naïve devotion. On that level, the movie is a genuinely uplifting experience,” Matthews wrote.
'King of Kings' will be screened with live music performed by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.
Rapsis, who uses original themes to improvise silent film scores, said great silent film dramas such as 'King of Kings' used their lack of dialogue to create stories that concentrated on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them today, especially if they're presented as intended — with a live audience and live music.
"Dramas such as 'King of Kings' were created to be shown on the big screen as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life as their creators intended them to," he said.
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.
Red River Theatres includes silent film in its programming to give today's audiences a chance to experience the great films of cinema's early years as they were intended: in restored prints, on the big screen, and with live music and an audience.
Upcoming events in Red River's silent film program include:
• Friday, June 13 at 7 p.m.: 'The Iron Horse' (1924). A young John Ford directed this big movie on a big subject: the building of the Transcontinental Railroad following the Civil War. Epic film weaves together several narratives and includes parts for everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Buffalo Bill. Plus great western action sequences that set new standards for cinema!
• Friday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m.: 'The Last Command' (1928). Emil Jannings snagged the first-ever Best Actor Academy Award for his towering portrayal of a Czarist general and patriot forced to contend with the Russian Revolution in this sweeping late silent drama directed by Josef von Sternberg. One of early Hollywood's most creative and challenging looks at World War I.
'King of Kings' will be shown on Friday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 224-4600 or visit www.redrivertheatres.org. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.