Tuesday, May 21, 2019

'The Flying Fleet' coming in for a landing at Aviation Museum of N.H. on Thursday, May 23

Ramon Novarro stars in 'The Flying Fleet' (1929), MGM's silent drama about U.S. Navy aviators.

For me, one of the great joys of presenting silent film is showing vintage movies to people with interests outside cinema itself.

People really into cars, for instance, get a kick out out MGM's late silent 'Speedway' (1929), an auto race drama filmed on location at the actual Indy 500 track.

In my adventures accompanying silent film, one of the best examples of this unexpected interest was a program I did up in Vermont some years ago.

A local woman who attended was so taken by the horsemanship displayed on screen that she agreed to financially back a silent film series as long as the films had plenty of horses.

And so it came to pass. And although the benefactress is no longer with us, the series continues to this day, and in her memory I always try to program titles in which horsemanship is on display.

So another great example of this "interest other than cinema" phenomenon is coming up this week, when I'll accompany 'The Flying Fleet' (1929), an MGM drama about U.S. Navy aviators, at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire.

The screening is Thursday, May 23 at 7 p.m. More information is in the press release below. I encourage you to attend, even if you're not a naval history buff, as it's a well-made but rarely screened late silent drama that holds up pretty well, I think.

For me personally, this promises to be an unusual show because it combines my silent film musical moonlighting with my day job, which happens to be director of the Aviation Museum.

So it's a convergence of sorts. Maybe I won't have to clone myself after all.

Okay, press release below. Hope to see you filling out the ranks at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire's screening of 'The Flying Fleet'!

* * *

The USS Langley, the nation's first-ever aircraft carrier, makes several appearances in 'The Flying Fleet'(1929).

MONDAY, MAY 13, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jrapsis@nhahs.org

Aviation Museum offers vintage Hollywood-style Memorial Day tribute


'The Flying Fleet,' MGM silent drama about U.S. Navy aviators, to screen with live music on Thursday, May 23

LONDONDERRY — Get in the spirit of Memorial Day weekend with a vintage silent film drama about U.S. naval aviators that's a window into what it was like to serve one's country between the World Wars.

'The Flying Fleet' (1929), a star-studded MGM drama filmed on location at key U.S. Naval bases, will be screened on Thursday, May 23 at 7 p.m. at the Aviation Museum of N.H., 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, N.H.

The movie, made with the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy and filled with scenes of vintage air and seaplanes in action, will be shown with live music provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Admission for this special event is $20 per person; $15 for Aviation Museum members. The screening is a fund-raiser for the Aviation Museum's partnership with the Manchester School of Technology that will enable students build an actual airplane in the 2019-20 school year.

"As we approach Memorial Day weekend, this is a terrific way to remember those who served by looking back at what it was like for the generation between the two world wars," Rapsis said.

Ramon Navarro (center) and fellow cadets show plenty of 1920s beefcake in 'The Flying Fleet' (1929).

Starring MGM heartthrob Ramon Novarro, 'The Flying Fleet' follows the story of six graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis who make a solemn pact to all become Navy pilots.

The film follows the cadets through training with scenes filmed on location at bases in San Diego, Calif., and Pensacola, Fla. Scenes were also filmed aboard the USS Langley, the nation's first aircraft carrier. The Langley, an aging coal transport ship, was outfitted with an enormous upper-level deck in 1922.

But it's not just airplanes and ships. In 'The Flying Fleet,' two of pilots fall for the same gal (Anita Page) off base, causing a rivalry that plays out in dramatic plot twists and action both on the ground and in the air.

Promotional art for 'The Flying Fleet,' starring Anita Page and Ramon Novarro.

Page, a young MGM starlet who had appeared in Laurel & Hardy comedies, would soon retire from the screen, only to return late in life in several low budget horror films released after 2000. She died in 2008 at age 98.

The teaming of up-and-coming Anita Page and heartthrob Ramon Novarro was considered good box office. In a 2002 interview, Page recalled that Novarro was "... something to dream about. I mean he was so good looking."

A highlight of 'The Flying Fleet' is an appearance of "The Three Sea Hawks," a famous aerobatic team of the era. Drawn from a U.S. Navy squadron at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, the team used three Boeing F2B-1 and F2B-2 fighters. Its first demonstration in January 1928 at San Francisco gave rise to a popular nickname: "Suicide Trio" although officially the team was called "Three Sea Hawks."

Look! In the sky! It's a cameo appearance by 'The Three Seahawks.'

'The Flying Fleet' was made with U.S. Navy cooperation, with the note appearing in the opening credits: "Dedicated to the officers and men of NAVAL AVIATION whose splendid co-operation made this production possible." The film was the first major Hollywood production to use Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego.

Popcorn and drinks will be available for purchase, and the screening will mark the debut of the Aviation Museum's vintage candy concession counter.

The Aviation Museum of New Hampshire is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to preserving aviation history in the Granite State, providing educational outreach programs that encourage student interest in aeronautics and related fields, and organizing programs that bring together the state's diverse aviation community.

The Museum is located at 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, N.H. The museum is open Friday & Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, call (603) 669-4820 or visit the www.aviationmuseumofnh.org.

'The Flying Fleet' (1929) starring Ramon Novarro and Anita Page will be screened with live music on Thursday, May 23 at 7 p.m. at the Aviation Museum of N.H., 27 Navigator Way, Londonderry, N.H. Admission $20 per person; $15 for members. The screening is a fund-raiser for the Aviation Museum's partnership with the Manchester School of Technology that will enable students build an actual airplane in the 2019-20 school year.

Ralph Graves and Ramon Novarro undress each other in 'The Flying Fleet' (1929). Want to see more? Attend the screening!

Monday, May 20, 2019

Three birthday parties were celebrated,
but yours truly received the best gift of all

Future fans of past movies at the Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, Calif. this weekend.

The big news this weekend at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum was not one but three kids' birthday parties at the Saturday night comedy show.

So I got to play 'Happy Birthday' three different times, with each version up a key for dramatic emphasis.

Really, it was a joy to see so many young folks in attendance at a silent film program. And what's more, they reacted.

Chaplin's 'The Cure' (1917) and Keaton's 'Neighbors' (1920) started things off strong.

But the films of the second half — Charley Chase in 'Dog Shy' (1926) and Laurel & Hardy's early 'The Second Hundred Years' (1927) — provoked a reaction that truly soared off the Richter Scale for laughter.

The Chase film, which I'd never accompanied before, is a crackerjack comedy that brought the comedy pot to a high boil.

That set the stage for 'The Second Hundred Years,' which I've always felt was Laurel & Hardy lite, or at least unformed, as it's from the time before their characters had been fully developed.

Well, that didn't matter last Saturday night. Seldom have I heard such laughter in a theater! And right from the very start, too. Everything the two did was capital F FUNNY! And everything everyone else did was funny, too.

I love it when this happens, just for the sheer joy of conjuring up laughter from the ghosts of comedians who worked nearly a century ago now. There's nothing quite like it.

But for an accompanist, it's also a gift because once the laughter barn starts burning, there are stretches where it doesn't matter what you play due to the uproarious, sustained laughter.

Really. I couldn't believe the laughs that Stan Laurel could get from using a spoon to chase a cherry around a saucer, again and again and again. Amazing!

So a good time was had by all, including the many young folks who crowded the front rows. What a pleasure to bring a silent film program to life for tomrorow's film fanatics. There may have been three birthdays being celebrated, but I felt like I was the one getting the gift.

Speaking of which, this weekend's performance resulted in a much-appreciated shout-out on Twitter from L.D. Writer, who was in attendance:
"@jeffrapsis was incredible by the way. Easily some of the best silent film accompaniment I've ever enjoyed. Thanks for flying out West!"
No, thank you for such kind words!

I'll be back on the West Coast on Friday, June 28 to accompany a Chaplin program at the Niles museum.

But right now it's time to focus on what's coming up later this week. Performances include a special pre-Memorial Day program on Thursday, May 23 at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire, and then Harold Lloyd's classic comedy 'Safety Last' (1923) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

More info coming!

You know you've arrived when your name gets written on cardboard! In permanent ink!




Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A long trip to accompany short films at the Niles (Calif.) Essanay Silent Film Museum

On this weekend's California-style menu: short comedies, including Chaplin's 'The Cure' (1917).

Before we talk film, let's hear it for frequent flier miles!

And also for cutthroat competition in the Boston-to-San Francisco market, where no less than four airlines are duking it out. Delta, United, JetBlue, Alaska. And I might be leaving one out.

That means something like 15 daily non-stops each way (I'm not kidding) between the two cities. And that in turn means low fares.

But who actually pays cash? Instead, I cross the continent with a paltry outlay of frequent flier miles. Take that, Lewis & Clark!

And this confluence of competition and machines that travel at 550 mph enables me to occupy a semi-regular schedule at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, across the bay from San Francisco.

Why Niles? Well, it's the only theater I can think of that runs a different full-evening program of silent films (shorts and features) each and every week all year round. And they've kept that pace going for more than a decade!

So just as religious pilgrims follow Spain's Camino de Santiago, as a silent film accompanist eager to practice the craft, I make my own pilgrimage to silent film holy ground. Plus, they often run William S. Hart features than never get shown anywhere else.

I love sitting in the dark and getting absorbed by an obscure drama that might have thrilled my great-grandparents.

By semi-regular, my visits work out to twice a year: usually May and then November. But this year, a scheduling quirk has enabled me to also be at Niles for their annual "Chaplin Days" festival in June.

But first up: Saturday, May 18, where I'll sit in for a program of comedy shorts starring many of the big names: Chaplin's 'The Cure'; Keaton's 'Neighbors'; Laurel & Hardy's 'Second Hundred Years,' and Charley Chase in 'Dog Shy.'

It's an honor to do music for these pictures, which for me and so many others were the gateway drug that got us into silent film. I love to think that the audience for Saturday night's show might be a few folks who will make their own discovery of this unusual art form.

That's important to remember. The films may be familiar, or even old hat, to long-time silent film fans (although I don't think I've ever accompanied the Chase comedy), but not to most other people. So a key part of accompanying them, I think, is to remember the spirit of surprise and delight that often also accompanies seeing them for the first time.

Well, if you're in the Bay Area, please stop in for a visit. And if you miss this weekend, I'll be back on Friday, June 28 to accompany Chaplin's 'Shoulder Arms' (1918) as part of the Museum's annual "Chaplin Days" celebration.

See, while under contract with the Essanay Film Co., everyone's favorite tramp filmed several comedies (including 'The Tramp') at the firm's studio in Niles, in and around the neighborhood. (Hence the "Holy Ground" reference above.

It's really quite a connection to Chaplin's early years, and the museum makes the most of it. And I'm delighted to be helping out with this year's edition.

For more info on the Niles Essanay museum, visit http://nilesfilmmuseum.org/. And for an idea of what "Chaplin Days" is like in Niles, check out the photo below:


Friday, May 10, 2019

Best of New England, according to Yankee...
plus 'Safety Last' on Saturday, 5/11 in Brandon, Vt.

Hey, that's me in Yankee Magazine's recent "best of" listings!

Thrilled to be recognized by Yankee Magazine, even if they didn't get around to actually mentioning my name.

Still — glad to see this distinction bestowed upon the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., where I've accompanied silent films every month for 12 years and counting.

Next up for me: opening night on Saturday, May 11 for this year's silent film series in Brandon, Vt.

Leading off the monthly line-up is Harold Lloyd's thrill comedy 'Safety Last' (1923). Showtime is 7 p.m., and admission is free, although donations are accepted.

Lots more info on the screening and this series in the press release, which I've pasted in below.

For now, I want to state for the record that this evening's screening of 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. was fabulous!

We enjoyed a bigger-than-normal turnout of about 60 people, not one of whom had seen the film before. Nice!

Response was strong throughout — you could tell the audience was fully engaged by the nearly continuous reactions, which fed on themselves as they traced the story's arc. It's great when that happens!

And the score fell together very effectively. I brought strong material to start, I thought, and the film's leisurely pace gave ample time to develop it.

I even managed to hit all the sound effects cues: door bell, "dingy" bell, police whistles. So it was a very satisfying evening!

Not even the guy who publicly complained that the warm-up music was too loud was able to throw me off my game.

Really — I wasn't one minute into my "Welcome to the Flying Monkey" remarks when he raised his hand. I should have known.

"You know, these movies were shown with piano music," the guy groused. "What you're doing is TOO LOUD. You need to turn it down!"

This caught me off guard. I could tell that besides the issue of volume, he was clearly expecting a simple acoustic piano texture, and here I was with my digital synthesizer working with a full orchestra texture.

Like other accompanists, I work hard to create music that fits a film's atmosphere, captures a scene's emotional temperature, and supports the story.

So what do you say to a guy who is expecting piano music, and is publicly carping about the music before you've even started the adventure of accompanying it?

I tried being diplomatic, but he interrupted, repeating his complaint that the music was TOO LOUD.

But then he overstepped.

"Let's take a vote right now. How many people think the music is too loud?"

At that point, a good portion of the audience moaned and essentially shut him down. So that was that.

Fortunately, the negative energy didn't derail my efforts to score 'Sherlock Holmes.' In fact, it may have served to sharpen my game.

Maybe I should bring this guy with me for every screening.

And on second thought...naaaah.

Hope to see you Saturday night for 'Safety Last.' Remember to drive carefully!

* * *

From 'Safety Last' (1923): the shot seen 'round the world.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 1, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film classic 'Safety Last' on Saturday, May 11 in Brandon, Vt.


Thrill comedy climaxed by Harold Lloyd's iconic building climb; with live music at Town Hall

BRANDON, Vt.—It's an image so powerful, people who've never seen the movie still instantly recognize it.

The vision of Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock, from the climax of his silent comedy 'Safety Last,' (1923), has emerged as a symbol of the "anything goes" spirit of early Hollywood and the magic of the movies.

See how Harold gets into his high-altitude predicament in a screening of 'Safety Last,' one of Lloyd's most popular films, on Saturday, May 11 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall, Route 7, Brandon, Vt.

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

Over the years, silent film donations have helped support projects including disabled access to the 19th century building; renovating the bathrooms; and restoring the structure's original slate roof.

'Safety Last' marks the opening of the 2019 Brandon silent film series. The screening is sponsored by local residents Tracey Holden and Kirk Thomas.

The story of 'Safety Last' follows young go-getter Lloyd to the big city, where he hopes to make his mark in business and send for his small town sweetheart. His career at a downtown department store stalls, however, until he gets a chance to pitch a surefire publicity idea—hire a human fly to climb the building's exterior.

However, when the human fly has a last-minute run-in with the law, Harold is forced to make the climb himself, floor by floor, with his sweetheart looking on. The result is an extended sequence blending comedy and terror designed to hold viewers spellbound.

Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is regarded as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Lloyd's character, a young go-getter ready to struggle to win the day, proved hugely popular in the 1920s. While Chaplin and Keaton were always favored by the critics, Lloyd's films reigned as the top-grossing comedies throughout the period.

'Safety Last' launches the ninth season of monthly silent film screenings in Brandon, bringing fans a taste of movie-going when motion pictures were a brand new art form.

"Put the whole experience back together, and you can see why people first fell in love with the movies," said Rapsis, a practitioner of the nearly lost art of silent film accompaniment.

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound.

"Seeing 'Safety Last' with an audience is one of the great thrill rides of the cinema of any era, silent or sound," Rapsis said. "Harold's iconic building climb, filmed without trick photography, continues to provoke audience responses nearly 100 years after film was first released."

Harold hangs in there.

Tributes to the clock-hanging scene have appeared in several contemporary films, most recently in Martin Scorsese's 'Hugo' (2011), which includes clips from 'Safety Last.'

CRITIC COMMENTS ON ‘SAFETY LAST’:

"Impossible to watch without undergoing visitations of vertigo, Safety Last's climactic sequence is all it's reputed to be.”
—TV Guide

"Harold Lloyd manages to make the characters sympathetic enough to carry the audience's concern on his journey of crazy stunts and mishaps. One of the best of this era."
—David Parkinson, Empire Magazine

"The climb has both comic and dramatic weight because it is both a thrilling exercise in physical humor and a thematically rich evocation of the pressures men feel to succeed, lest they be viewed as less than a man."
—James Kendrick, Q Network Film Desk

Other films in this year's Brandon Town Hall silent film series include:

• Saturday, June 15, 7 p.m.: 'Chicago' (1927) starring Phyllis Haver. The original big screen adaptation of the notorious Jazz Age tabloid scandal, based on real events. Dancer Roxie Hart is accused of murder! Is she innocent or headed for the slammer? Later made into the popular Broadway musical. Screening sponsored by Nancy and Gary Meffe.

• Saturday, July 13, 7 p.m.: 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) directed by Fritz Lang. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, a grand sci-fi adventure epic about the first rocket ship to the moon. The final silent feature from German filmmaker Fritz Lang (director of 'Metropolis'), 'Woman in the Moon' laid the groundwork for all outer space movies to come. Ponder a vision of the future as imagined by one of yesterday's great moviemakers. Screening sponsored by Pam and Steve Douglass.

• Saturday, Aug. 10, 7 p.m.: 'Our Hospitality' (1923) starring Buster Keaton. Classic comedy/drama about a long-running family feud. Filled with great gags and a timeless story that culminates in a dramatic river rescue where Buster nearly lost his life for real! Screening sponsored by Bill and Kathy Mathis, in memory Of Maxine Thurston.

• Saturday, Sept. 14, 7 p.m.: 'The Beloved Rogue' (1926) starring John Barrymore. Epic costume adventure based on the life of 15th century French poet François Villon. Wrongly banished from the Royal Court and sentenced to death, can the patriotic poet save France from an evil plot and while he's at it, win the hand of his noble beloved? Screening sponsored by Donald and Dolores Furnari, Sally Wood, Edward Loedding and Dorothy Leysath, and Connie Kenna.

• Friday, Oct. 25, 7 p.m.: 'Faust' (1926), directed by F.W. Murnau. Emil Jannings stars in this terrifying version of the classic tale. A visual tour de force, full of creepy characters and frightening images. Our annual 'Chiller Theatre' presentation for Halloween! Screening sponsored by Jan Coolidge and Nancy and Gary Meffe.

See Harold Lloyd's iconic thrill comedy 'Safety Last' (1923), to be shown on Saturday, May 11 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall, Route 7, Brandon, Vt. The program is free and open to the public. Free will donations are encouraged. For more information, visit www.brandontownhall.org. For more about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com

For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.


Thursday, May 9, 2019

Warmer weather, a busier silent film schedule:
four days, three screenings, three states

Tonight! 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) starring William Gillette at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

April showers bring May flowers, and also a fresh bouquet of silent film screenings here in my home area of northern New England.

Consider: after a quiet month, suddenly the calendar is blooming with three separate shows in three states over the next four days.

First up: it's the original (and recently rediscovered) 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) starring stage actor William Gillette, which I'm accompanying tonight (Thursday, May 9) at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

More details about this screening is found in the press release, which I've pasted in at the bottom of this post.

But then Saturday, May 11 is opening night of another season of silent film screenings in Brandon, Vt.

We'll run Harold Lloyd's great thrill comedy 'Safety Last' (1923) to launch the monthly series, which runs through October. All screenings are at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center. Showtime is 7 p.m.

Then on Sunday, May 12, it's another big silent comedy, but this time in Massachusetts: Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926) at the Natick Center of the Arts in Natick, Mass.

Showtime is 4 p.m., and I'm hoping for inclement weather to make a comedy about the Civil War more of an appealing 'Mother's Day' draw. We'll see.

With this weekend, the pace of silent film screenings picks up as we head into summer. I'll keep hopping through Halloween, mostly in my home turf, but with upcoming adventures in San Francisco, Cleveland, Buffalo, and possibly other places.

As the title cards on Johnny Carson's 'Tonight Show' used to say: More to come!

But for now, here's the press release with details about tonight's 'Sherlock Holmes' screening. Hope you'll deduce that it's worth seeing!

* * *

Stage actor William Gillette in the original 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916).

WEDNESDAY, MAY 1, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

It's elementary! Rediscovered 'Sherlock Holmes' movie at Flying Monkey on Thursday, May 9


Original film adaptation, missing for nearly a century, on the big screen with live musical accompaniment

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—The first-ever movie adaptation of 'Sherlock Holmes,' a silent film released in 1916 and recently rediscovered, will screen this month at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth.

The original 'Sherlock Holmes' will be shown with live music on Thursday, May 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

General admission is $10 per person.

Like many films from the silent era, the 'Sherlock Holmes' movie was long considered lost until a nearly complete copy was discovered in 2014 at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris.

The film has since been restored, allowing movie-goers to again see the only screen appearance of stage actor William Gillette.

Gillette originated the role of Sherlock Holmes in a popular stage adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of the legendary British detective.

Stage actor William Gillette in 'Sherlock Holmes.'

Gillette performed as the brilliant Holmes more than 1,300 times over three decades, touring the nation and popularizing Conan Doyle's sleuth.

A popular stage actor, Gillette made no other known movie appearances. But his interpretation of the Holmes character laid the groundwork for all actors who would later play the role, including Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Set in Victorian-era London, the original 'Sherlock Holmes' is an episodic crime drama that incorporates the plots of several Conan Doyle tales.

Running about 90 minutes, it features all major characters of the Holmes stories, including companion Dr. Watson and nemesis/rival Prof. Moriarty.

It was filmed in 1915 in the Chicago studios of the Essanay Film Co., with exterior shots of the Windy City doubling for Victorian London.

The restoration was premiered several years ago at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

A scene from 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916).

The film 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.

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."

Upcoming titles in the Flying Monkey's silent film series include:

• Thursday, June 20, 6:30 p.m.: 'Safety Last' (1923) starring Harold Lloyd. The iconic image of comedian Harold Lloyd dangling from the hands of a downtown clock is only one small piece of a remarkable thrill comedy that has lost none of its power over audiences. See it for yourself on the big screen and with an audience.

The original ‘Sherlock Holmes' (1916), starring William Gillette in the title role, will be shown with live music on Thursday, May 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. General admission is $10; for more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Today's French lesson courtesy Abel Gance: 'Roulette' = little wheel; 'La Roue' = BIG film

Proof that people really WILL turn out to see Abel Gance's 'La Roue' (1923). Well, a few, anyway.

Once in awhile I like to scale a mountain.

Sometimes it's an actual mountain, like Kilimanjaro in Africa, which I climbed in 2015.

Other times it's an aesthetic mountain, such as doing live music for Abel Gance's 'La Roue' (1923), a movie that runs about 4½ hours.

That's what I did this weekend, over two screenings on Saturday, April 27 and Sunday, April 28 at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

That's a lot of film, and it's a lot of music. But it came together in a way that was very satisfying, I thought.

As you might imagine, a 4½-hour silent French drama didn't exactly sell out the house, especially when competing with a nice spring weekend in New Hampshire.

Still, just over a dozen brave souls took advantage of a rare chance to experience Gance's highly regarded drama the way it was intended to be shown — in a theater on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

What made it work for me was that I'd created a suite of inter-related musical ideas that were all based on four ascending notes in the minor scale: A, C, D, and E.

Played in sequence, and repeated and varied, they made for a great way to bring to life the many railroad-in-motion images that occur throughout Gance's film.

And the range of moods and emotions they can carry just on their own is quite wide, depending on how they're played and what kind of bass line or supporting harmony is applied.

Ivy Close and Séverin-Mars in 'La Roue.'

And when played all at once, they create a pungent chord (a minor triad with an extra note added in) that has just enough of a characteristic dissonance to hold its own as a motif. It sounds vaguely like a train whistle, too, which is a bonus.

Then I took the same four notes and they became the bass line of a yearning melody that was also present throughout. (Someday I'll get some fancy software to capture and post it here, but not today.)

And with just those elements, I had enough material to carry me along with the film on its long journey from the congested railroad yards of Nice to the high-altitude climax on the wide-open slopes of Mont Blanc.

I hadn't studied the film prior to the screening, which was by intent. I wanted to respond to the film musically the same way an audience would in seeing it for the first time. And 4½ hours is just too much to prepare in advance anyway.

A scene from 'La Roue' (1923).

This worked out well, for the most part. However, if I could do it again, I would be better prepared for moments such as when we see a character repeatedly blow a whistle. I would have done that as well.

Also, there are at least two dreamy dissolves to a medieval fantasy setting. Had I known that was coming, I would have transitioned to a plucked string or guitar texture to better underscore the proposition.

Finally, the professional of one of the characters is making violins, so I should have expected sequences in which a violin gets played. There indeed were, and for those to really work from a keyboard requires some real preparation and strategy, neither of which I had.

Still, it all held together really well. And there's so much room in a 4½-hour movie that you can't help but just come up with material that comes in handy.

For 'La Roue,' some rowdy tavern scenes early on gave birth to a rude melody with a lot of repeated notes that was catchy enough to keep re-appearing anytime excess of any kind was depicted onscreen.

And for the scenes between Norma and her violin-making pseudo-brother, a quiet waltz-like tune in 3/4 time just came naturally to my fingertips near the start, and continued to reappear at tender moments for the rest of the film.

So 'La Roue' turned out to be a grand adventure musically as well as cinematically. For the small group who attended both parts (and the few who say either just Part 1 or Part 2), I salute your willingness to take a chance on Gance.

Will I ever do 'La Roue' again? Well, I may circle around to it. Har!

Looking ahead: the pace of screenings picks up this month with summer series starting in Brandon, Vt.; Ogunquit, Maine, ad Somerville, Mass. I also have one-off shows at venues ranging from the Antrim (N.H.) Town Hall to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, Calif.

Stay tuned for more details!