Monday, September 11, 2017

This week, four screenings in four states:
silent film with live music in NH, MA, VT, CT

We enjoyed a great turnout of about 250 people on Sunday, Sept. 10 for the Boston premiere of the rediscovered 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916), which was shown in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre.

But I'm already looking ahead to a crowded week of screenings that takes me to four different states in five days.

Luckily, our states in New England are small, so they're all easy day trips.

Okay, rounding them up in order, which is how Holmes would have approached it:

Wednesday, Sept. 13 finds me doing music for Mary Pickford in 'The Little American' (1917) at the Cheshire County Historical Society in Keene, N.H.

They're running it because the patriotic film played Keene exactly 100 years ago, after the U.S. had entered what we now call World War I.

Keene State College Prof. Larry Benaquist will lead a discussion on issues ranging from the film's propaganda value to Pickford's role as one of the pioneering women in cinema.

The program starts at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public. More information is online.

Richard Barthelmess and Ernest Torrence battle in 'Tol'able David.'

Thursday, Sept. 14 gives me the chance to revisit an early favorite: Richard Barthelmess in 'Tol'able David' (1921), Henry King's evocative rural drama.

Shot in the Virginia countryside where King grew up, the film captures a way of life that hadn't changed in generations, but which now has completely vanished.

In addition, the film boasts a great story and a fine cast, headed by Barthelmess (who Lillian Gish called "the most beautiful man" she'd ever worked with) and also including stalwart character actor Ernest Torrence playing one of the creepiest roles of his career.

See it all for yourself at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass. The show starts at 8 p.m., and there's plenty more info in the press release pasted in below.

Harry Houdini leaves little to the imagination in 'Terror Island.'

Saturday, Sept. 16 sees me hauling myself up to Brandon, Vermont for the latest in our monthly silent film series at the Brandon Town Hall.

This time it's a double feature of rarely screened adventure thrillers starring none other than Harry Houdini!

The titles: 'Terror Island' (1920) and 'The Man From Beyond' (1922).

Yes, it's the same Harry Houdini known as the "Handcuff King," the legendary illusionist who amazed audiences around the globe with daring stunts and seemingly impossible escapes.

Houdini, like many performers of the era, had a fling with the new-fangled flickers, starring in several silent thrillers designed to showcase his good looks, magnetic personality, and athletic prowess.

The result was a kind of embryonic mixture of Indiana Jones-type adventure with mysticism, James Bond-style gadgetry, dangerous stunts, and anything else the plots demanded.

Houdini eventually gave up on the movies in favor of live performance. But came to Brandon and you'll see what he was up to.

Show starts at 7 p.m. No admission charged, but free will donations are welcome to support ongoing Town Hall renovations.

Lots more info in the press release, which I'm pasting at the end of this post.

Promotional art for Vernon and Irene Castle.

Sunday, Sept. 17 brings me to Connecticut, where I'll present an unusual silent film program as part of a Vintage Dance Weekend taking place in and around Hartford.

Featured attraction is 'The Whirl of Life' (1915), an obscure early drama but one starring no less than Vernon and Irene Castle, the ballroom dance sensation of the decade!

I hadn't known much about the Castles until the organizers of this screening asked me to run this title as the featured attraction.

Turns out the Castles were quite the shooting stars, rocketing to fame in 1914 in the first-ever Broadway musical by an up-and-coming composer named Irving Berlin.

Among other accomplishments, they popularized the foxtrot, and of course the film has scenes of them doing the dance that remains a ballroom staple. Okay, everyone: Slow, slow, quick quick!

Preceding 'Whirl' is a classic Charley Chase farce, 'Mighty Like a Moose' (1926), which also has some dancing in it, plus a lot of other great stuff.

Should be a fun program at Hartford's Charter Oaks Cultural Center, and it's actually open to the public—even to non-vintage-dance folks.

If you'd like to attend, there's more info at this Constant Contact page.

Okay, a busy week beckons. But first, let me follow through with the promised press releases, first for 'Tol'able David' and then for the Houdini program. Hope to see you at one or two—or perhaps you'll attempt to collect all four!

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rip-roaring rural drama at Arlington's Capitol Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 14

'Tol'able David' (1921), ground-breaking silent coming-of-age drama filmed entirely on location, to be screened with live music

ARLINGTON, Mass.—A film that helped Hollywood understand the power of location shooting will continue this season's silent film series at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

'Tol'able David' (1921), a coming-of-age drama starring Richard Barthelmess, will be shown on Thursday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m. at The Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass.

Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors. Live music will be provided by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New England-based performer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

Barthelmess plays the title role of David Kinemon, an adolescent eager to prove to the community that he's a man. He gets his chance when three escapees from jail come to town and menace the local residents.

When push comes to shove, who will emerge on top?

Based on a 1919 short story by author Joseph Hergesheimer, 'Tol'able David' was directed by Henry King, then at the start of a long Hollywood career that would go on include such later classics as 'Twelve O'Clock High' (1949) and 'The Gunfighter' (1950), both starring Gregory Peck.

Boyish leading actor Barthelmess, one of the silent era's superstars and the Leonardo DiCaprio of his day, won praise for his realistic portrayal of a 15-year-old, although he was 25 at the time the film was made.

The cast also features character actor Ernest Torrence, who transformed the role of Luke Hatburn into what some critics have called one of the most sinister villains in all of cinema.

For 'Tol'able David,' director King insisted the film be shot on location in rural Virginia, where the story was set and where he grew up in the 1890s.

Much of 'Tol'able David' was filmed in the countryside within a few miles of the director's boyhood home in Staunton, Va., and as a result was infused with the spirit and details of a vanishing way of life that King knew so well.

The film is full of the simple rituals of small-town life as it was lived a century ago, when most people lived on subsistence farms ruled by the rhythms of nature and without modern conveniences.

It was also a time when there was no greater responsibility than driving the mail wagon into town—just as it appears in 'Tol'able David.'

To create a musical score for 'Tol'able David,' Rapsis will improvise using material assembled beforehand, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of a full orchestra.

"What I try to do," Rapsis said, "is create music that bridges the gap between a film that might be nearly a century old, and the musical expectations of today's audiences."

'Tol'able David' continues a monthly series of silent films presented with live music at the Capitol.

The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and with an audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened,” Rapsis said.

“There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that spirit. At their best, silent films were communal experiences in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

Upcoming shows in the Capitol's 2017 silent film series include:

• Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, 8 p.m.: 'Der Golem' (1922). Prepare for Halloween with one very weird flick! In 16th-century Prague, a rabbi creates a giant creature from clay, called the Golem. Using sorcery, he brings the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution. Early German fantasy film anticipates Frankenstein story.

Richard Barthelmess and Ernest Torrence star in 'Tol'able David' (1921), to be shown on Thursday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m. at The Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. Admission $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors.

For more info, call (781) 648-6022 or visit

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Houdini and crew on location at Niagara Falls for 'The Man From Beyond' (1922).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rare Harry Houdini films with live music at Brandon Town Hall on Saturday, Sept. 16

Legendary 'Handcuff King' escape artist starred in a series of stunt-filled early silent adventure movies

BRANDON, Vt.—He reigned for decades as the legendary "Handcuff King," famous for his daring and impossible escapes staged around the world.

But Harry Houdini also had a brief career in the movies, starring in a series of silent adventure films that showed off his athletic prowess as his talent for illusion, stunts, and escape.

See Houdini back on the big screen with a double feature of two of his surviving films on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt.

Admission is free, with donations welcome. All proceeds support ongoing restoration of the Town Hall, which dates from 1860 and is being brought up to modern standards as funds allow.

The screening is sponsored by an Anonymous Donor.

The rarely screened Houdini films will be shown with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer regarded as one of the nation's leading silent film musicians.

Houdini made only a handful of movies in the 1910s and 1920s, and much of his film work is lost.

But enough of it escaped oblivion to provide a glimpse of the world-renowned escape artist at the peak of his worldwide fame.

In 'Terror Island' (1920), Houdini stars as a swashbuckling inventor who steers his high-tech submarine to a forbidden tropical isle to rescue the woman he loves.

The film includes underwater sequences designed to show off Houdini's ability to survive being submerged for long periods of time.

'Terror Island' was an ambitious production for Houdini; the film was directed by James Cruze and released by Paramount.

Existing copies are missing about 20 minutes of footage but the story remains easy to follow.

In 'The Man From Beyond' (1922), Houdini plays a man frozen 100 years in the Arctic who returns to civilization to reclaim his reincarnated love.

Once thawed out, Houdini tries to straighten out the lives of the descendants of his old friends and lost loves. The film includes a daring climax filmed at Niagara Falls.

Although Houdini's films were well-received, he eventually abandoned his movie career, preferring to concentrate on live performance.

Houdini, born Erik Weisz, was a Hungarian-born, American-Jewish illusionist and stunt performer noted for his sensational escape acts.

He first attracted notice in vaudeville in the U.S. and then as "Harry Handcuff Houdini" on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up.

Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can with water in it.

In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London's Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for an hour.

Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown.

In 1913, Houdini introduced the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water, holding his breath for more than three minutes. He would go on performing this escape for the rest of his life.

Houdini died prematurely in 1926, at age 52, of peritonitis following a burst appendix that may have been caused by blows received to the abdomen by a visitor backstage at a performance in Montreal.

Following his death, Houdini's reputation as a legendary performer continued to make his name a household world in the decades that followed.

Although not well known as a film actor, Houdini's work in motion pictures was not forgotten. In a posthumous ceremony on Oct. 31, 1975, Houdini was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7001 Hollywood Blvd.

Houdini is one of several "big name" performers featured on this year's silent film program at Brandon Town Hall.

"These films are audience favorites, and people continue to be surprised at how engrossing and exhilarating they can be when shown as they were intended: in a theater, and with live music," said Rapsis, who accompanies more than 100 screenings each year at venues around the nation.

Rapsis improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But for me, the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience."

Other upcoming shows in this year's Brandon silent film series include:

• Saturday, Oct. 21: Chiller Theatre, 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920). John Barrymore plays both title roles in the original silent film adaptation of the classic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. A spook-tacular performance that helped establish Barrymore as one of the silent era's top stars. Sponsored by an Anonymous Donor and Heritage Family Credit Union.

A 'Harry Houdini Double Feature' will be shown with live music on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt. Admission is free; free will donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of the town hall. For more information, visit

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