The weeks leading up to Halloween are among the busiest for a silent film accompanist. Screenings abound!
To make it manageable, and to not overdo familiar warhorses such as 'Nosferatu' and 'The Phantom of the Opera,' each year I try to pick a lesser-known silent that would work well for Halloween and put it into the rotation for the season.
This time around it's Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Lodger' (1927), which I'm accompanying at no less than five different screenings before the end of October.
First up is a show this Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts in North Andover, Mass. More info is in a press release tacked onto the end of this.
It's then followed by 'Lodger' screenings on Saturday, Oct. 17 in Brandon, Vt.; on Thursday, Oct. 29 in Keene, N.H.; on Friday, Oct. 30 in Concord, N.H.; and then on Sunday, Oct. 31 in Ogunquit, Maine.
This is one "Lodger" that won't stay put!
In addition, there's a half-dozens screenings of other titles on the docket, including 'The Cat and the Canary' on Thursday, Oct. 22 in Plymouth, N.H.; 'Nosferatu' on Saturday, Oct. 24 in Somerville, Mass.; and the original silent 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' on Sunday, Oct. 25 in Wilton, N.H.
Also on Sunday, Oct. 25: Lon Chaney's 'The Unknown' at the Aeronaut Brewery in Somerville, Mass.; 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' on Wednesday, Oct. 28 at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.; and another Chaney film, 'West of Zanzibar' as part of a day-long Halloween Marathon on Sunday, Oct. 31 in Somerville, Mass.
But before we plunge headlong into Halloween silent film mayhem, a few notes about an unusual booking yesterday (Saturday, Oct. 10) at the venerable Brattle Theatre off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.
Yesterday I did live music for not one but two screenings of 'Underworld' (1927), the highly regarded Josef von Sternberg drama widely credited with starting a craze for gangster movies that continued for the duration of the Prohibition era.
The two shows, part of a "proto-film-noir" series at the Brattle, were at 4 p.m. and then 7:30 p.m., with Edgar G. Robinson in 'Little Caesar' (1931) sandwiched in between. Both titles were in 35mm.
The first screening went superbly, I thought—I had the right material, and it all fell into place just as it should to help the film leap off the screen. Lots of strong moments where the music was just what I would have wanted.
The only thing that didn't work right was that I forgot about the on-screen alarm whistle that's shown sounding when Bancroft, as 'Bull Weed,' attempt to break out of prison. Oh well!
Between screenings, I went for a walk around Harvard Square, where everyone is so young! I was surprised to find the area overrun with tour groups from Japan and China, apparently in our part of the world to catch some foliage. Mt. Auburn Street was lined with tour buses as far as the eye could see.
I stopped in at Boathouse for dinner, but only realized after I sat down surrounded by beer taps that I really shouldn't consume adult beverages in advance of accompanying a film. So it was ginger ale.
I returned to the Brattle for the tail end of 'Little Caesar,' in time to see it conclude in a hail of gunfire. And then had plenty of time to warm up at the keyboard for the second screening of 'Underworld.'
And you know what? No matter what I did, I couldn't seem to recapture the magic "rightness" of the first screening.
Moment after moment passed with the music not quite hitting the mark, I thought. I was using the same melodic material, but it didn't seem to fit as well, and didn't morph fluidly from one emotional moment to the next.
As an example: Brancroft's 'Bull Weed' character inspired a rhythmic pattern of repeated notes that cycled among the musical interval of a minor third. Not so much a theme, but a musical signature for the character. Played without accompaniment, the melody's implied harmony made it sound tough and aggressive.
But if you played the same melody with a dominant seventh chord underneath it (so that the notes fit into the middle part of the chord), it could sound upbeat and jazzy, even jolly.
In the first screening, I made great use of this, I thought, in getting the right kind of music to fit Bull Weed's personality, which is mostly jovial but with occasional outbursts of shocking violence.
But in the second screening, I just couldn't find the chord when I needed it. Too often, it was too stern for what was happening on screen. And this threw my mind out of the moment, and took away from the score, I thought.
Well, the film keeps going, so you have to keep playing. The second screening did have its moments, but far fewer than the first. Too often, I think I was hoping to recreate what had happened at the first show, which takes you out of the moment, which is never a good thing with my method of accompaniment.
And weirdly, although this time I remembered the whistle, by the time it was time to use it, I had "dry mouth" and it didn't come off the way it should have.
If I ever face this two-at-a-time situation again (and I hope I do, as the Brattle is an excellent venue and often runs multiple screenings of titles), I'll have to see what I can do to avoid this trap.
Maybe I should have had a few beers at the Boathouse. Next time, I'll try that—all in the name of science, of course.
Okay, here's more details about 'The Lodger' on Wednesday, Oct. 14. Hope to see you there!
FRIDAY, OCT. 2, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Hitchcock's first, 'The Lodger,' to screen Wednesday, Oct. 14 at Rogers Center
Creepy silent thriller about killings in London marked legendary director's debut; to be shown on the big screen with live music
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—A half-century of murder has to start somewhere.
And for movie director Alfred Hitchcock, it began with 'The Lodger' (1927), a silent thriller that stunned audiences when it was first released, and contained many of his trademark touches.
'The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog,' will be shown at the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m.
The program, the latest in the Rogers Center's silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free and the show is open to the public.
"What better way to get into the Halloween spirit a little early than a silent film from Alfred Hitchcock?" Rapsis asked.
The film, shot in England and based on a story and stage play by Marie Belloc Lowndes, concerns the hunt for a serial killer in London. British matinee idol Ivor Novello plays Jonathan Drew, a quiet, secretive young man who rents a room in a London boarding house. Drew's arrival coincides with the reign of terror orchestrated by a mysterious "Jack The Ripper"-like killer, who murders a blonde woman every Tuesday evening.
As the film progresses, circumstantial evidence begins to mount, pointing to Drew as the murderer. Suspense and drama escalate in true Hitchcock fashion as the viewer wonders if the lodger really could be the killer—and if so, what danger awaits the landlord's daughter, who is falling in love with the mysterious stranger. The all-British cast includes Malcom Keen, Arthur Chesney, and Marie Ault.
'The Lodger' introduced themes that would run through much of Hitchcock’s later work: an innocent man on the run, hunted down by a self-righteous society, a strong link between sexuality and murder, and a fixation on blonde women. About 'The Lodger,' Hitchcock scholar Donald Spoto wrote that for "the first time Hitchcock has revealed his psychological attraction to the association between sex and murder, between ecstasy and death."
'The Lodger' also launched the Hitchcock tradition of making a cameo appearance in each of his films. In 'The Lodger,' Hitchcock appears briefly about three minutes into the film, sitting at a desk in a newsroom with his back to the camera and using a telephone. The cameo appearance tradition, which continued for the rest of his long career, came about in 'The Lodger' when the actor supposed to play the part of the telephone operator failed to turn up, and Hitchcock filled the breach.
Some critics say 'The Lodger' broke new ground in the previously moribund British cinema, showing a truly cinematic eye at work. In creating the movie, Hitchcock had clearly been watching contemporary films by German directors F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, whose influence can be seen in the ominous camera angles and claustrophobic lighting.
While Hitchcock had made two previous films, in later years the director would refer to 'The Lodger,' his first thriller, as the first true "Hitchcock thriller." The movie has since been remade several times, most recently in 2009, in an updated version starring Alfred Molina and Hope Davis.
In reviving the original 'The Lodger,' the Rogers Center aims to show silent movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.
"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score during the screening. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early cinema leap back to life. They all featured great stories with compelling characters and universal appeal, so it's no surprise that they hold up and we still respond to them."
Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.
Upcoming feature films in the Rogers Center's silent film series include:
• Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, 7 p.m.: 'Intolerance' (1916), directed by D.W. Griffith and starring (literally) a cast of thousands. D.W. Griffith's early blockbuster about man's inhumanity to man weaves together four stories spanning four eras of civilization. Filmed an a vast scale, setting a new standard for Hollywood extravagance. A movie made for the big screen, and here's your chance to see it!
• Wednesday, March 23, 2016, 7 p.m.: 'Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ' (1925) starring Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman. Just in time for Easter! In the Holy Land, a Jewish prince is enslaved by the occupying Romans; inspired by encounters with Jesus, he lives to seek justice. One of the great religious epics of Hollywood's silent film era, including a legendary chariot race that's lost none of its power to thrill.
‘The Lodger' will be shown on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. The program is free and open to the public. For more information, call the Rogers box office at (978) 837-5355. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.