Smoking may not be good for you. But it's great for certain silent films.
That's what I'm thinking as I prepare to do music for 'The Last Command' (1928), being screened on Friday, Aug. 15 at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.
The story of a Czarist General whose life changes forever during the Russian Revolution, it's an epic picture that won Emil Jannings (that's him below) the first-ever Best Actor Academy Award.
So with all that going for it, why cigarettes?
Because cigarettes, and the various ways they're handled, are an important method of communication in 'The Last Command.' If you join us for this marvelous film (and I hope you do), watch for how cigarettes are used to show the changing relationships between the characters.
That's all I'll say for now. But I point it out because it's something I didn't notice when I first encountered this film, perhaps because (like everyone else these days) I'm not really literate in reading a film visually in the way that the best silent films demand. Or maybe I'm just slow on the uptake.
Either way, it's a great example of how the limitations of silent film (no dialogue) prompted directors to find purely visual ways to tell their stories on the big screen. The fewer intertitles (words on the screen), the better.
Keep in mind that Josef Sternberg, director of 'The Last Command,' had a background in painting and the visual arts. So he was particularly attuned to how on on-screen image was arranged and lit, and how the eye consumed it. And all that is used to great effect in 'The Last Command.'
And then there's that Best Actor award. There are few moments in cinema more electrifying than watching Emil Jannings go berserk at the climax of 'The Last Command.' So come see it!
How about another cigarette reference? No butts about it!
For more info, check out the press release below...
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Silent epic 'The Last Command' with live music
at Red River on Friday, Aug. 15
War picture from 1928 won 'Best Actor' for Emil Jannings at first-ever Academy Awards
CONCORD, N.H.—'The Last Command' (1928), a silent film drama that won Emil Jannings 'Best Actor' honors at the first-ever Academy Awards, will be screened with live music on Friday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main st., Concord, N.H.
Admission is $10 per person.
Live music for the screening will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician recognized as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.
Rapsis will create the film's score live as the movie is shown by improvising music based on original melodies created beforehand.
"Making up the music on the spot is kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But there's nothing like the energy and excitement that comes with improvised live performance, especially when accompanying a silent film."
Rapsis accompanies films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra. He has performed live film scores at events ranging from the Kansas Silent Film Festival to the Cinefest vintage film convention in Syracuse, N.Y., and last year collaborated with Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow on a silent film program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
'The Last Command,' directed by Josef von Sternberg, tells the sweeping story of a powerful general in Czarist Russia (Jannings) forced to flee his homeland during the Bolshevik revolution. He emigrates to America, where he is reduced to living in poverty.
Finding work as an extra at a Hollywood studio, the former general lands the part of a commanding officer in a movie about the revolution, causing flashbacks to his traumatic experiences. The conflict leads to a spectacular climax and a towering performance that earned Jannings 'Best Actor' honors.
The film takes audiences on a journey through big emotions as well as issues of history, time, power, and especially a man's duty to his country and to his fellow citizens—and what happens when the two obligations diverge. 'The Last Command' is also one of early Hollywood's most creative and challenging looks at the conflicts of World War I, which began 100 years ago this summer.
The film also stars a young William Powell as a Hollywood movie director who crosses paths with the general during the Revolution, and 1920s starlet Evelyn Brent as a seductive Russian revolutionary.
Critic Leonard Maltin hailed 'The Last Command' as "a stunning silent drama...a fascinating story laced with keen observations of life and work in Hollywood." Time Out of London called it "the first Sternberg masterpiece, expertly poised between satire and 'absurd' melodrama. The cast are fully equal to it; Jannings, in particular, turns the characteristic role of the general into an indelible portrait of arrogance, fervour and dementia."
Director Sternberg, a master of lighting and black-and-white photography, created 'The Last Command' as a visual tour de force. The film is often cited as a prime example of the emotional range and visual accomplishment of silent films at their height, just prior to the coming of pictures with recorded soundtracks.
Rapsis said great silent film dramas such as 'The Last Command' told stories that concentrate on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them in the 21st century, especially if they're presented as intended—in a theater on the big screen, with a live audience and live music.
"Dramas such as 'The Last Command' were created to be consumed as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life as their creators intended them to. This screening at Molloy College is a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies."
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.
Upcoming events in Red River's silent film programming include:
• Friday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m.: 'Nosferatu' (1922). Celebrate Halloween by experiencing the original silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous 'Dracula' story. Still scary after all these years—in fact, some critics believe this version is not only the best ever done, but has actually become creepier with the passage of time.
• Friday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m.: 'Charlie Chaplin Comedy Night.' Spend part of Thanksgiving weekend with the Little Tramp on the 100th anniversary of his first screen appearances. The whole family will enjoy restored prints of some of Chaplin's most popular comedies shown the way they were intended: on the big screen, with live music, and an audience.
'The Last Command' (1928) will be screened with live music on Friday, Aug. 15 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.