Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Once-lost swashbuckler 'Bardelys' this week in Plymouth; report on 'The Kid' in Newport, R.I.

Portrait of the artist taking a photo of the poster for 'The Kid.' I'm visible as a reflection at left. 

This week it's off to Plymouth, N.H., where I'll accompany a screening of the lost-but-rediscovered MGM swashbuckler 'Bardelys the Magnificent' (1926) on Wednesday, May 11.

Show time is 6:30 p.m. I'd forgotten how much fun this film was, as I hadn't seen it since it was re-issued about 10 years ago after a nearly complete print was discovered in France. 

Lots more info in the press release below. For now, a few thoughts about a screening of 'The Kid' (1921) in Newport, R.I. and the excitement of performing for an audience where silent films aren't a regular part of the programming.

In Newport, the screening of Chaplin's 'The Kid' at the historic Jane Pickens Theatre (a single screen downtown moviehouse 100 years old this year!) was a direct outgrowth of a screening of 'The General' last February.

The venue ran Keaton's Civil War epic in partnership with a local bookstore, which had brought in author Dana Stevens to speak about her new book 'Camera Man.' I came down to do live music, and so made my first-ever visit to Newport, despite being a life-long New Englander. (I'm more of a "North of the Mass. Pike" kind of guy, but that's another story.)

Although the "JPT" (as it's called) runs all kinds of film (first-run, classics, foreign, independent), it seems silents with live music haven't been on the menu, despite the console of the venue's original theater organ still in place. (The pipes are still there as well, mummified in the walls.)

But 'The General' was so well-received, manager Alex Whitney was open to the idea of running other silent-era titles. He readily programmed a screening of 'Nosferatu' next October, right before Halloween, which I can't wait to accompany and which I'm sure will fill the house. 

So we talked about perhaps other silents in between, with me making the case that such programming was in keeping with the theater's roots as a silent movie house, but also an experience that can't be duplicated at home or via streaming. I also advocated for some kind of regular series as a way to build an audience over time.

My fellow silent film accompanist Ben Model often speaks of "audience preservation," a big part of keeping the silent film experience going. In the case of Newport, it's "audience development"—trying to create and sustain enough interest in the form so that it's worth it for a theater to program.

The marquee showing eclectic programming typical of the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport, R.I.

Alex wasn't ready to commit to a regular slate of silents, but he was intrigued enough to program 'The Kid,' with everyone crossing their fingers that an audience would materialize, even without the added attraction of a book-signing. 

And I'm pleased to report that it did: about 60 paid admissions. The result was an audience that responded strongly throughout Chaplin's comedy/drama, and was full of questions before and after the show. Most had never experienced a silent film with live music. 

And the questions were really basic, ground-level inquiries (Where do you get these films? Are you playing the original score?) that reminded me that many attendees were right at the beginning of a wonderful journey of discovery, if they chose to pursue it.

Comedies such as 'The Kid' were the "gateway drug," I said, to a world of cinema that is of course not new anymore, but is new to us. It's a different kind of cinema that at its best is a very different movie-going experience that what you're used to—with stories told visually (by necessity) that tend to be more abstract and universal and more about the big emotions such as Love (with a capital L) or Fear or Joy or Jealously, and with no dialogue to get in the way, and with music helping stir your own reactions to the story as it unfolds on-screen, and with not just comedies, but dramas, thrillers, adventures, and more, and all with the added bonus today of showing us (in many films) what life was life for ordinary people just living their day-to-day life, but in narratives underpinned by stories driven by universal elements of the human experience that speak to us even today, because we're still human beings. And so on.

Wow! Didn't mean to go all William Faulkner there, but that's what happens when I get excited. And how exciting to think that the Newport film-going community was on the threshold of experiencing a world of movies—silent ones—but which can still speak to us today.

And it helped that the Jane Pickens has excellent acoustics for what I do and how I do it. The sound from my two ancient Roland speakers bounces right off the wooden stage floor and really fills the house. Nice!

You could tell by the questions that people were into it. The back-and-forth continued in the theater long after the public Q & A finished. One gentleman (another Jeff) came up with greetings from film accompanist Donald Sosin, an old school chum of his with whom he keeps in touch, and who was on the other coast at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I considered that a good omen for Newport.

So what's next? Other than 'Nosferatu' in October, nothing specific right now. But we've managed to build regular silent film series in locations as disparate as Brandon, Vt. (our 11th season starts this weekend!) Ogunquit, Maine (another seaside community with a vintage theater) and Plymouth, N.H., where I'm accompanying 'Bardelys the Magnificent' tomorrow night.

So I'm hoping Newport can be a good home for silent cinema, too. Time will tell.

And now it's time for info about 'Bardelys the Magnificent'—the press release is below, and hope to see you at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H.

*     *     *

 

John Gilbert, Eleanor Boardman, and executioner in 'Bardelys the Magnificent' (1926).

MONDAY, MAY 2, 2022 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Rediscovered silent film swashbuckler to 're-premier' in Plymouth, N.H. on Wednesday, May 11

'Bardelys the Magnificent' (1926), long thought lost until a copy was found in Europe, to be screened with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—A major Hollywood feature—considered lost for decades until a copy surfaced in France in 2006—will soon return to the big screen.

'Bardelys the Magnificent' (1926), a big-budget MGM release starring John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman, will be screened on Wednesday, May 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission to the screening is $10 per person.

Based on a novel by prolific Italian/English author Rafael Sabatini, 'Bardelys the Magnificent' is a tale of romance, honor, and derring-do set during the reign of King Louis XIII of France.

The story follows the adventures of French nobleman Bardelys, who assumes the identity of a dead man to be close to the woman he loves.

The ruse backfires, however, when it turns out the dead man is wanted for treason against the King. This propels Bardelys into a series of swashbuckling adventures as he must avoid being caught and executed, all the while pursuing his beloved.

The title role is played by legendary leading man John Gilbert, then at the height of his 1920s stardom and popular for his good looks, magnetic personality, and athletic stunts.

Actress Eleanor Boardman plays Roxalanne, his love interest; the huge cast includes many silent film-era stars and supporting players.

'Bardelys the Magnificent' was directed by King Vidor, who was responsible for several well-known silent-era classics, including 'The Big Parade' (1925), 'The Crowd' (1928), and 'Show People' (1928).

The picture was a solid hit in its original release, making money and enhancing the reputations of everyone involved.

Later, MGM's rights to the Sabatini novel expired in 1936, and the studio destroyed all copies per the licensing agreement. It was only later that archivists realized that no other copies of the film were known to have survived anywhere.
 
For seven decades, the only footage of 'Bardelys the Magnificent' known to exist was in the form of a brief clip included in a movie theater scene in 'Show People,' another Vidor picture. 'Bardelys' was regarded as a major lost feature film from the silent era.

Then, in 2006, researchers in France discovered an almost complete copy of 'Bardelys the Magnificent' in a private collection. The print was missing about 10 minutes of footage, but was otherwise intact and in excellent condition. 

The missing footage is replaced with still photos taken on the set, written descriptions, and by footage recovered from a 'Coming attractions' trailer for the film.

Restoration was completed in 2008; the film was subsequently released on DVD, and has since been screened at several festivals around the country.

Silent films were produced until 1929, when talkies arrived. About 80 percent of all movies made during the silent era are now lost due to decomposition, carelessness, fire, or neglect.

But copies of "missing" films still occasionally turn up in archives and collections around the world, so researchers and archivists continue to make discoveries.

Jailhouse love scene from 'Bardelys the Magnificent' (1926).

For 'Bardelys the Magnificent,' Rapsis will improvise a score using original musical material that he creates beforehand. For a movie score to support 'Bardelys,' Rapsis will use 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 90 or 100 years old, and the musical expectations of today's audiences."

The screening of 'Bardelys the Magnificent' is the latest in the Flying Monkey's series celebrating films that recently entered the public domain.

Copyright protection for all U.S. films released in 1926 expired on Jan. 1, 2022.

To mark the occasion, the Flying Monkey is showcasing vintage 1926 comedies, dramas, and adventure films, all with live music, and all now in the public domain.

Upcoming screenings in the Flying Monkey's "Public Domain Extravaganza" series include:

• Wednesday, June 8, 2022, 6:30 p.m.: "The Black Pirate" (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. The original pirate swashbuckler, with Fairbanks sword-fighting his way through a period adventure tale set during the age of sailing ships.

"By 1926, the movies had matured enough to offer a wide range of great entertainment that still holds up today," Rapsis said. "Come see for yourself as we screen some of the year's best flicks, all of which recently entered the public domain and now belong to us all."

'Bardelys the Magnificent' will be shown on Wednesday, May 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

On Sunday, May 1 in Wilton, N.H.: 'Man With A Movie Camera,' innovative silent documentary filmed in Ukraine

A Russian-language poster for the documentary 'Man With A Movie Camera' (1929), shot largely in Ukraine. 

This Sunday, it's a double-header!

First, at 2 p.m., a screening of the silent documentary 'Man With A Movie Camera' (1929) at the Town Hall Theatre of Wilton, N.H. Lots more about that in the press release below.

After that, I scoot over Temple Mountain to the Park Theatre of Jaffrey, N.H., where I'll accompany Harold Lloyd's 'Grandma's Boy' (1922) for the venue's 100th birthday celebration, which starts at 5 p.m. 

More info about the Park's big celebration (it's a fund-raising, with tickets $50 each) is online here.

But first, kudos to the audience for last night's screening of 'Old Ironsides' (1926) at the Custom Home Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Mass.

Packed into an upstairs exhibit room that became an impromptu movie theater, the Friday night crowd was with the picture right from the start, with big reactions throughout. 

Everyone seemed to really get into the tale of the early days of the U.S.S. Constitution, which remains afloat a short distance down the coast in Boston Harbor. People cheered the action, gasped at the love story, and roared at the comedy.

George Bancroft and Esther Ralston at the wheel in 'Old Ironsides' (1926).

Why? Well, sometimes it just clicks. In this case, I think it was a combination of the right space (small, but nearly standing room only for the 40 attendees, which creates energy and excitement) and a really good match of subject matter and audience interest.

In this case, 'Old Ironsides' formed a celebration of sailing ships from long ago, which you'd have to expect would go over well at a maritime museum.

During one of the picture's extended battle scenes, one very nice lady contributed to the sonic mayhem by having her cell phone go off repeatedly. I didn't mind this, once I realized her ring-tone was not coming from my synthesizer. 

But still. Note to self: don't neglect to tell people to turn off their devices. Pacemakers excepted.

About Sunday's screening of 'Man With A Movie Camera'—most of this ground-breaking documentary (it's more like an early music video, actually) was shot in and around Kiev and Odessa, then part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and now part of the independent nation of Ukraine.

A lot of the sickening destruction going on in Ukraine involves these cities and the people living in them. Because 'Man With A Movie Camera' celebrates these people and their lives, I felt it was only appropriate to get the film on the screen right now.

Seeing it will remind us, I hope, of the huge human tragedy that's unfolding there right now. These are real people in a real place with a long and proud history.

At the risk of sounding flippant, here's what I didn't put in the press release. 

I felt it was only appropriate to show the film on May Day, which back in the days of the Soviet Union (which Vladimir Putin would like to return to) was often an occasion for parades of military hardware through Red Square. 

Instead, let's use the day to celebrate images of ordinary daily life in Ukraine, even if they're from long ago, as a way to thumb our collective noses at the inhumane bastard in the Kremlin.

*  *  *

 

A scene from Dziga Vertov's eye-opening film 'Man With A Movie Camera' (1929).

MONDAY, APRIL 18, 2022 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Filmed in Ukraine: 'Man With A Movie Camera' with live music on Sunday, May 1 in Wilton, N.H.

Feature-length silent documentary made in Kiev, Odessa regarded as world's first extended music video; May Day screening is "gesture of defiance"

WILTON, N.H.—It has no story, but it tells everyone's story. It's a silent film, but it's the world's first music video. It has no actors because the star is you, the audience.

It's 'Man With A Movie Camera' (1929), director Dziga Vertov's celebration of city life in Ukraine via a dizzying collage of images and kinetic cinematography that's left audiences breathless for nearly a century.

The film was shot largely in Kiev and Odessa, cities that were then in the Soviet Union but which are today part of an independent Ukraine.

'Man With A Movie Camera' will be shown on Sunday, May 1 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

The screening will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating scores for silent films.

Dziga's experimental documentary caused a sensation when it was released at the end of the 1920s, when motion pictures were still a new artistic medium.

Even with no story and no actors, 'Man With A Movie Camera' was filled with eye-popping visuals that anticipated later music/image films such as 'Koyaanisqatsi.'

Today, the scenes of ordinary life in Kiev and Odessa possess a special poignance due to recent and ongoing Russian military attacks.

"In the Soviet Union, May Day (May 1) was a holiday used to promote solidarity, with military parades a common feature," Rapsis said.

"We chose to program 'Man With a Movie Camera' on this day as a symbolic gesture of defiance against Vladimir Putin's aim to reestablish a Soviet-style empire of client states, including Ukraine," he said.

The screening will include a display of authentic Soviet-era propaganda posters and banners that Rapsis collected during visits to the region in 1991 and 1992, when the Soviet Union was collapsing.

Although no official score was composed for the silent feature, director Vertov specified the type of music that he wanted played wherever the film was screened. Rapsis will create music that follows those guidelines.

"Vertov wanted a kind of kinetic, energetic music to be played with the film, rather than background music," Rapsis said. "The goal is to create music that acts as an equal partner in conveying a kind of exhilaration that I think Vertov was going for."

Filmed mostly in the bustling Ukrainian cities of Kiev and Odessa in the late 1920s, the film features a wide range of slice-of-life scenes showing everything from streetcars to sports contests. Vertov took his camera everywhere, from a birth hospital to a divorce court.

Most spectacularly, Vertov experimented with filming ordinary scenes (such as a crowded public square) at a very slow frame rate. When run at a normal speed, the result was a speeded-up view of reality that few had ever seen or studied before.

He also experimented in the other direction: scenes of athletic events are shown in extreme slow motion, so the human form can be observed in ways never before possible.

Yelizaveta Svilova seen in the film editing the film we're seeing. Figure that one out!

Vertov's wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, was an equal partner in creating 'Man With A Movie Camera,' editing the film. She also appears in the film, editing it as we're watching it.

"It's a film filled with self-referential puzzles and meta moments," Rapsis said. "It also plays like a piece of visual music, with fast sequences followed by slow ones and moods that often change."

"Although 'Man With A Movie Camera' has some dark scenes, ultimately it's a celebration—of life in what was then the fast-changing Soviet Union, but also in a way that speaks to life regardless of time or place," Rapsis said.

"That's what I'll try to capture in the musical score, which will be performed live and will be largely improvised," Rapsis said.

‘Man With A Movie Camera’ will be shown with live music on Sunday, May 1 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

For more info, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

To Cleveland and back: 3 days, 5 films, 1,650 miles—and Keaton's 'Butler' on Wednesday, 4/27

Buster shows off an old-time boxing stance in 'Battling Butler.' Get those gloves up, Keaton!

Ding!

Next up is Buster Keaton's boxing comedy 'Battling Butler' (1926), which I'm accompanying on Wednesday, April 27 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

Hope you'll join us for this screening, part of a series of films released in 1926 that became public domain as of Jan. 1, 2022. 

You the public now own 'Battling Butler.' Aren't you interested in seeing it?

The complete press release with more info is at the bottom of this post. 

For now, a few thoughts about my recent three-day visit to Cleveland, Ohio. (I'd call it a "flying visit" but I actually drove out there and back—about 10 hours each way.)

The reason was the 47th annual sci-fi marathon at Case Western Reserve University, where I accompanied the early German film 'Der Golem' (1920). The festival usually takes place in January, but was postponed this year due to the Coronavirus spike at that time.

It got rescheduled to last weekend, and it worked out that I could get out there as planned. 

I then reached out to the folks at the Cleveland Cinematheque, where I've been privileged to accompany silents, with news that I'd be in town, and so they asked me to do 'Nanook of the North' (1922).

Thus I drove to Cleveland—out on Friday for shows that night at the Cinemathèque, then the next day at the sci-fi festival, then back east to arrive in time to accompany a 2 p.m. screening of the silent 'La Bohème' (1926) at the Somerville Theatre.

Why drive? Because I used my big-ass digital synthesizer at each of the venues, and it's really not practical to put that on a plane. 

Plus, even with gas more expensive and the absurdly high tolls on the New York State Thruway, it's cheaper to drive. That includes wear and tear on my Subaru Forester, which recently passed the 240,000 mile mark.

Plus, if I flew, I could not stop in Erie, Pennsylvania at the one Krispy Kreme donut franchise along the way. 

So it's silent film accompaniment, with a little bit of long haul trucking thrown in. Ah, the glamour of show biz!

The Cinematheque drew a respectable audience for 'Nanook,' for which I used a light texture (mostly harp) for the first 20 minutes but then switched to full orchestral sound for the sea lion hunt and then for the rest of the picture.

'Nanook' was preceded by a Buster Keaton short, 'The Frozen North,' thus creating a theme for the program. I wondered aloud if we should turn up the air conditioning.

As always, John Ewing and Genevieve Schwartz and everyone else at the Cinematheque were terrific hosts. As usual, I took the opportunity (as an outsider) to remind everyone how fortunate Cleveland was to have a theater committed to running such diverse programming all year round.

I had told John about 'Straight is the Way' (1921), the obscure Cosmopolitan Pictures comedy/drama set in my home state of New Hampshire and recently pried loose from the Library of Congress vaults via a Kickstarter project by Ed Lorusso.

So John decided to run it as an unofficial bonus feature following 'Nanook.' Only a few people stayed, but together we witnessed the "Midwest Re-Premiere" of a film that hasn't been seen anywhere for more than a century. 

An unknown film with no one famous in it does not make for great expectations. But once again, 'Straight is the Way' proved moderately entertaining, much to everyone's surprise. So I plan to keep programming it, and say thanks again to Ed L. for making the title available.

As for the sci-fi marathon: what a blast from the past! People getting together for a 36-hour shared experience—a real throwback to the era not just prior to the pandemic, but also before streaming and everything available at any time.

An attendee arrives at the sci-fi marathon with her Mystery Science Theatre 3000 companion. 

While I appreciate the convenience of digital-streaming-everything-on-demand-in-the-comfort-of-your-home-when-you-want-it, I remain a complete slave to cinema as a shared experience.

I think it's the best and most satisfying way to experience cinema, and especially films from the silent era. For me, it's certainly the most rewarding way to accompany them. And personally, I just like it better.  

So it did my heart good to see people fussing over film prints in a projection booth, setting up camp among the seats of Case Western's Strosacker Auditorium, and just generally being enthused at the idea of seeing favorite and not-so-favorite flicks on the big screen.

A peek inside the booth, with impromptu conference in progress.

Getting to be a rare sight: actual cans of actual film!

'Der Golem' was set for Saturday at 4:30 p.m., about halfway through the marathon. I arrived about halfway through the previous film. It was billed as a "surprise" and turned out to be an original 35mm release print of Star Wars (1977), now retitled "Episode 4: A New Hope."

So after readying all my stuff backstage for quick deployment, I went around and took a seat in back to catch the last 30 minutes of this film, which I hadn't seen in decades. Although the print was badly faded, people were into it. People were shouting comments and wisecracks, as often happens in this kind of setting, and which is all part of the fun. 

I then set up for 'Der Golem' and was once again thrilled to hear how good my beat-up Roland speakers sound when placed on the Strosacker's wooden stage. The music just leaps to life. After running through a few chord progressions, I heard someone behind me say, "Awesome!" 

After running through a Koko the Clown cartoon as a warm-up, we went straight into 'Der Golem' and I have to say, everything just fell into place. There was something about the silent image and the live music and that audience that gave everything a majesty and portentousness that otherwise would not have happened. 

Things got especially powerful during the amazing sequence when the Rabbi conjures up evil spirits to find the secret word to bring life to the inanimate. I used a steady 3/4 beat throughout, starting very simply, over which I wove increasingly frenetic figures until finally reaching something like the spirit of Ravel's "La Valse," described somewhere as a dance on the edge of a volcano. 

You could tell there was genuine audience engagement, especially when the creature begins to turn on its creators. Wow! You just can't experience tension, anticipation, and energy like that at home. And 'Der Golem' is a very satisfying film in that respect, as it all gets released in the film's climactic sequence. 

I was gratified to receive a hearty ovation, but gestured to the screen behind me, as that's what it's all about. 

A view of the auditorium Friday afternoon, before most attendees arrived.

Alas, attendance at the sci-fi festival was clearly down from my last appearance here, in January 2020, just before the pandemic took hold. Then, for a screening of 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924), we had to move people (and their sleeping bags) around to make room for my keyboard. This time, there were acres of open space. 

Yes, the pandemic has had an effect. And yes, times are changing. 

A stuffed cat in the Strosacker Auditorium.

But I hope the spirit that's part of the DNA of this festival and similar ones—the sense of wonder and love of cinema that prompted people to create such communal events in the era before VCRs and DVDs and everything-on-demand—will persist as we all march forward. 

Afterwards, I pointed the Subaru Forester east towards Boston, arriving in time (with an overnight stay in Syracuse, N.Y.) for the matinee of 'La Bohème' at the Somerville Theatre.

Silent film on the Somerville's big marquee! 

The screening marked the return of the venue's 'Silents, Please!' series after a long pandemic-induced hiatus. In welcoming back the audience, I recalled how the last silent at the Somerville was on Sunday, March 15, 2020, when the theater screened Rin Tin Tin in 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925) to a smaller-than-usual crowd. 

"I remember at the time talking with Ian Judge, the Somerville's manager, and thinking that this pandemic thing might cause theaters to have to close for as much as two weeks, or maybe even a month," I said, to knowing laughter. 

I also got laughs with an off-the-cuff remark about the music.

"If you're expecting to hear Puccini's immortal music, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed," I said. "What I do will be mostly improvised, and I'm not Italian, so it wouldn't sound like Puccini even if I tried. I'm Polish and Lithuanian, so I might be able to go for Witold Lutosławski."

Of course it's a real question: for a silent film version of a famous opera such as  'La Bohème,' what role should music play? My answer: same as always. The accompaniment should support the story, the characters, the action, the emotions, the changes of mood, and everything else happening on the screen.

At its best, the music helps a silent film cast a spell on an audience—and that's true for 'La Bohème' as much as any other story. In fact, I think if I did try to channel Puccini, that would only take people out of the on-screen narrative, which would be a distraction.

So I didn't channel Puccini, nor Lutosławski, nor anyone else. I just reached into my own reservoir of strong feelings and emotions and tried to conjure music that helped the film connect. 

As usual, it was a mix of deliberate calculation and in-the-moment reaction. 

Prior to the screening, I had decided an all strings texture was right for this kind of film, which gives audiences a chance to soak in a prolonged emotional bath. 

But for those big moments with Lillian Gish and John Gilbert filling up the screen—where the soaring melody over lush chords came from, I really couldn't tell you.

It certainly wasn't the hotel in Syracuse.

Okay, enough about the road trip. Here's all you need to know about 'Battling Butler' on Wednesday, April 27 at the Flying Monkey. Hope to see you there!

*   *   *

Buster gets physical in 'Battling Butler' (1926).

TUESDAY, APRIL 12, 2022 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Buster Keaton's 'Battling Butler' at Flying Monkey Moviehouse on Wednesday, April 27

Silent film series continues with knockout boxing comedy focusing on the fight game, accompanied by live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

Acclaimed for their originality, clever visual gags, and amazing stunts, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Battling Butler' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, April 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person. Live music will be provided by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

'Battling Butler' tells the story of pampered millionaire Alfred Butler (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Sally O'Neil) by pretending to be a championship boxer with the same name.

The masquerade leads to knockout comedy both in and outside the ring, giving Keaton ample opportunity to display his gifts for physical and visual comedy.

The screening is the latest installment of the Flying Monkey's series showcasing the best films of 1926, all of which entered the public domain on Jan. 1, 2022.

In the 1920s, boxing rivaled baseball as the nation's most popular sport. Neighborhoods, communities, and ethnic groups all rooted for their favorite fighters, and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey ranked as an international celebrity.

Because of this, boxing stories were popular with early movie audiences as well.

"As an elemental contest between two opponents, boxing inspired early filmmakers to do some great work," Rapsis said. "It's a visual sport that doesn't require a lot of dialogue or commentary to understand, and so was perfect for silent movies."

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands as one of the silent screen's three great clowns.

Many critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies." But while making films, Keaton never thought he was an artist, but an entertainer trying to use the then-new art of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

All those talents are on display in 'Battling Butler,' which holds the distinction of being the top-grossing title of Keaton's silent features.

Buster on the ropes—literally—in 'Battling Butler' (1926).

The Flying Monkey's silent film screenings provide local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in restored prints, with live music, and with an audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you can watch them as they were designed to be shown,” said Rapsis, accompanist for the screenings.

“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.”

The screening of 'Battling Butler' is the latest in the Flying Monkey's series celebrating films that recently entered the public domain.

Copyright protection for all U.S. films released in 1926 expired on Jan. 1, 2022.

To mark the occasion, the Flying Monkey is showcasing vintage 1926 comedies, dramas, and adventure films, all with live music, and all now in the public domain.

Upcoming screenings in the Flying Monkey's "Public Domain Extravaganza" series include:

• Wednesday, May 11, 2022, 6:30 p.m.: "Bardelys the Magnificent" (1926) starring John Gilbert. Gilbert tries his hand at swashbuckling in this big-budget MGM historical extravaganza about exploits of an unjustly disgraced French nobleman. A major film long thought lost until a single print was recently discovered in France.

• Wednesday, June 8, 2022, 6:30 p.m.: "The Black Pirate" (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. The original pirate swashbuckler, with Fairbanks sword-fighting his way through a period adventure tale set during the age of sailing ships.

"By 1926, the movies had matured enough to offer a wide range of great entertainment that still holds up today," Rapsis said. "Come see for yourself as we screen some of the year's best flicks, all of which recently entered the public domain and now belong to us all."

Buster Keaton stars in 'Battling Butler,' to be shown on Wednesday, April 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

Monday, April 18, 2022

On Thursday, 4/21: 'Ben Hur' in Manchester, N.H., plus giving Shakespeare 'the silent treatment'

Ramon Novarro in the original silent film version of 'Ben Hur' (1925).

Next up: I'm doing music for a screening of 'Ben Hur' (1925) on Thursday, April 21 at the Rex Theatre in downtown Manchester.

Hop into your chariot and join us! Showtime is 7:30 p.m. and a ton more info in the press release attached below.

For now, a few thoughts about yesterday's screening of the silent film version of 'Othello' (1922) starring Emil Jannings in the title role.

Yes, Shakepeare without all those spoken words getting in the way!

It being Easter Sunday, the smaller-than-usual turnout was to be expected for our screening at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

But what wasn't expected was for the film to have such an impact, which it did.

This was one reason for programming the film in the first place: I've found that even the most unlikely film can somehow leap to life when presented as intended: on a big screen, in a good print, with live music, and in a theater with an audience.

This, however, was different. We were about to give Shakespeare "the silent treatment."

A poster promoting the original German release of 'Othello' (1922).

Prior to the screening, the last in our four-month celebration of films celebrating their 100th birthday,  I laid out the challenge before us.

I observed that Shakespeare is known primarily for the language of his playwriting. And here we are, proposing to take one of his most well-known tragedies, and present it without that key element of language.

Yes, there would be some words, presented in intertitles where needed. But only a tiny fraction of the 3,560 lines Shakespeare composed for his play would be used.

And to make it more of a challenge, the film was produced in Germany. So the text would have been originally in German, then translated back to English for a "foreign" release in English-speaking lands.

Also, Shakespeare's play can take 2½ to 3 hours to perform. The silent 'Othello' clocks in at about 75 minutes. So there's another thing to consider: without all those words to get through, the story might flow quite differently.

What's going on here, I said, is something of a test of the actual story that underlies Shakespeare's play. How much of the power of Shakespeare's 'Othello' rests in the Bard's cadences, and how much comes from the tale itself?

Stripping away all the words and telling the story visually—which is what silent film does—could be a good way to tell.  

Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss in 'Othello' (1922).

It's worth remembering, I said, that Shakespeare based nearly all of his writing on stories that already existed. He didn't so much write his plays from scratch as he did adapt stories for the stage.  

In the case of Othello, his source was something called the "Hecatommithi," a collection of tales published in 1565 by Giraldi Cinthio, an Italian novelist and poet. 

Odds are that there's something powerful in this tale, as evidenced by other adaptations of Othello—most notably, the big opera 'Otello' by Giuseppe Verdi, first staged in 1887, and which involved Shakespeare's play being rewritten as an opera libretto by Arrigo Boito.

But still—how well did Shakespeare choose his story? Seeing the silent 'Othello' might be a good way to tell.

Prior to the screening, I was asked what my strategy was as accompanist. I said it was really no different than any other silent drama: to try to come up with music that helped the film work, both on its own terms but also so that it would meet today's audience expectations.

Coming into it, for some reason I had in mind Beethoven's 'Coriolan Overture,' which I had heard recently on the radio, and which was written not for Shakespeare's play 'Coriolanus' but for a contemporary drama by Heinrich Joseph von Collins.

Still, that was what I was going for: a kind of taut classical texture capable of drama, but within certain restraints and limits. 

I came up with two main motifs: a staccato four-note motto that proved very versatile, and a legato four-note "down the scale" phrase that was equally useful. These became the basic building blocks that helped it all come together. 

So in the end, if our test had any validity, Shakespeare's tale passed with flying colors. He chose well.

Afterwards, a woman came up to me who said she was a Shakespeare buff who had helped start a "Shakespeare in the Park" program in Kentucky.

She'd come to the screening "out of curiosity" and not expecting much, but found she really enjoyed the film and found it true to the Bard's spirit, even with most of his words were missing. 

Also, she confirmed that much of the language that did survive (via title cards) was indeed Shakepeare's own. (The only thing I could identify was Iago's famous "Put money in thy purse" exhortation.) 

So it was enough to satisfy even a serious aficionado. Good show!

A similar challenge awaits next Sunday (April 24), when I create music for MGM's silent film version of 'La Bohème' (1926), screening at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre.

For the music, I don't intend on channeling Puccini, but will do my own stuff to support the film as best as I can. Will the story (and the star power of Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, at left) be enough to carry the day without the famous score? 

Well—the tale was strong enough to support the contemporary hit musical 'Rent.' So that's encouraging.

But can it survive the test of the silent treatment? Come and find out!

Okay, here's the long-promised press release about 'Ben Hur' (1925) on Thursday, April 21 at the Rex Theatre in Manchester, N.H. 

Vidi ibi an quadratus sit! (That's Latin for "See you there or be square!")

*    *    *

Colorful original release poster for 'Ben Hur; (1925).

TUESDAY, APRIL 12, 2022 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film epic ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) coming to Manchester's Rex Theatre on Thursday, 4/21

Celebrating Easter: Hollywood's original Biblical-era blockbuster to be screened with live music at newly resurrected venue

MANCHESTER, N.H.—One of early Hollywood's greatest epics returns to the big screen with a showing of 'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) on Thursday, April 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

The screening will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

Admission is $10 per person, general admission. Tickets are available online at www.palacetheatre.org or at the door.

'Ben Hur,' starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, was among the first Hollywood motion pictures to tell a Biblical-era story on a large scale.

The film, which helped establish MGM as a leading studio, employed a cast of thousands and boasted action sequences including a large-scale sea battle.

The film is highlighted by a spell-binding chariot race that still leaves audiences breathless.

Set in the Holy Land at the time of Christ's birth, 'Ben Hur' tells the story of a Jewish family in Jerusalem whose fortune is confiscated by the Romans and its members jailed.

The enslaved family heir, Judah Ben Hur (played by Novarro, a leading silent-era heartthrob) is inspired by encounters with Christ to pursue justice. This leads him to a series of epic adventures in his quest to find his mother and sister and restore his family fortune.

The film is particularly appropriate for the season of Easter, which is celebrated on Sunday, April 17. (Orthodox Easter falls on Sunday, April 24 in 2022.)

'Ben Hur,' directed by Fred Niblo, was among the most expensive films of the silent era, taking two years to make and costing between $4 million and $6 million. When released in 1925, it became a huge hit for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.

The chariot race scene in 'Ben Hur,' with Novarro and other cast members driving teams of horses at high speed on a mammoth dirt racetrack in a gigantic replica of a Roman stadium, was among the most complicated and dangerous sequences filmed in the silent era. It remains noted for its tight editing, dramatic sweep, and sheer cinematic excitement.

The chariot race was re-created virtually shot for shot in MGM's 1959 remake, and more recently imitated in the pod race scene in 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.'

Besides Novarro in the title role, the film stars Francis X. Bushman as Messala, the Roman soldier who imprisons the Hur family; Betty Bronson as Mary, mother of Jesus; May McAvoy as Ben Hur's sister Esther; and Claire McDowell as Ben Hur's mother.

'Ben Hur' was based on the best-selling 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace, which interwove the story of Christ's life with the Ben Hur clan, a fictional Jewish merchant family.

Celebrity "extras" in the chariot race scene included stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Lionel Barrymore, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and a very young Clark Gable.

The film was remade by MGM in the 1950s in a color and wide-screen version starring Charlton Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. Some critics believe the original 1925 version offers superior drama and story-telling.

In creating music for silent films, accompanist Jeff Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

For each film, Rapsis improvises accompaniment using original themes created beforehand. No music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) will be shown on Thursday, April 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

General admission is $10 per person. Tickets available online at www.palacetheatre.org or at the door. For more information, call the Rex box office at (603) 668-5588.


Saturday, April 16, 2022

This Sunday: Silent Shakespeare! And then 'Ben Hur,' then Cleveland, and then back to Boston!

The moor, the not-so-merrier: Emil Jannings as 'Othello' (1922).

This weekend, things take a turn towards the literary—after which I take a turn to Ohio!

Up first: music for an early silent screen adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Othello' (1922), made in Germany and starring Emil Jannings in the title role. 

Yes, silent Shakespeare! See what you think: the screening is Sunday, April 17 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. More detail in the press release below.

After that, it's music for big bad 'Ben Hur' (1925), screening on Thursday, April 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H. 

And the next day finds me swinging out to Cleveland, Ohio, where I'll accompany two films at the Cleveland Cinematheque on Friday, April 22 and then join the fun at the annual 36-hour sci-fi marathon at nearby Case Western University.

At the Cinematheque, it's 'Nanook of the North' (1922) and then the recently reissued 'Straight is the Way' (1921), a curiosity set in my own home state of New Hampshire. 

At the sci-fi marathon, it's 'Der Golem' (1920), which will be screened about 20 hours into the big show. Looking forward to the reaction!

And then I scoot back to Boston to do music for the big MGM silent film version of 'La Bohéme' (1926) starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert. Screening is Sunday, April 24 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, and marks the restart of the venue's 'Silents, Please!' series.

But before any of that, it's time to brush up our Shakespeare this Sunday afternoon. Here's the press release. Happy Easter weekend and hope to see you at the movies!

*  *  * 

Actor Emil Jannings has a hard time competing with Werner Krauss' mustache in 'Othello' (1922).

MONDAY, APRIL 4, 2022 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent Shakespeare! Early film version of 'Othello' to screen on Sunday, April 17 in Wilton, N.H.

First-ever feature adaptation of Bard's classic tale to be screened with live music at Town Hall Theatre

WILTON, N.H.—His tales have been adapted for the big screen since the beginning of the movies.

He was playwright William Shakespeare, whose tragedy 'Othello' first appeared as a feature film via a movie made in Germany in 1922.

The silent 'Othello' will be shown with live music on Sunday, April 17 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

The screening will be accompanied with live music by Jeff Rapsis.

The silent 'Othello' takes Shakespeare's dialogue-driven drama and transforms it into a story told visually.

'Othello' boasts two of the most celebrated German actors of the era: Emil Jannings in the title role, and Werner Krauss as his nemesis, Iago.

Jannings would relocate to Hollywood later in the 1920s, winning the first-ever Best Actor honors at the inaugural Academy Awards in 1929.

Krauss, a noted German stage actor, is best remembered for playing the title role in the film 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920).

The film closely follows Shakespeare's story of Othello, a Moorish general provoked to jealousy regarding his wife Desdemona.

The story opens with Othello choosing the loyal Cassio as his lieutenant. This arouses bitter jealousy in Iago, another soldier, who vows to scheme against his general.

Othello is soon sent to Cyprus to repel a Turkish invasion, and he arranges for Iago and his wife to bring Desdemona with them to Cyprus.

When Iago's wife learns of a treasured handkerchief that Othello gave to Desdemona, Iago hatches a plan that he hopes will destroy Othello by provoking him to jealousy.

The film, directed by Russian-born Dmitri Buchowetzki, is widely regarded as a successful adaptation of the Bard's story to the silent screen.

"Produced on an elaborate scale, Othello may not be true to the letter of Shakespeare, but is undeniably a smorgasbord of visual delights," according to a review on LetterboxDVD.com.

Live music for 'Othello' will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to create a traditional full orchestra "movie score" sound.

Rapsis emphasized the unique value of seeing early cinema as it was originally presented.

"These films were designed for the big screen, live music, and large audiences. Put it all together, and you can get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies," Rapsis said.

The screening of 'Othello' will precede the 458th anniversary of Shakespeare's birthday, which scholars believe to be April 23, 1564.

"It may seem counterintuitive for a Shakespearean play to be made into a silent film," Rapsis said.

"But stage dramas were a huge source of material for early cinema, and Shakespeare's stories were popular enough to warrant the attention of filmmakers right from the beginning," Rapsis said.

The screening is part of the Town Hall Theatre's ongoing series honoring the 100th anniversary of significant motion pictures from 1922.

Programs have included all of 1922's five highest-grossing titles, each shown on the big screen with live music, as well as century-old oddities, short films, cartoons, and more.

The silent 'Othello' will be shown with live music on Sunday, April 17 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

For more info, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Keaton's 'The General' at Coolidge Corner on Wednesday, 4/13, plus a question of volume

Buster and co-star in 'The General' (1926).

Coming up: I'll be doing live music for a screening of Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Wednesday, April 13. 

It's a special occasion because Slate film critic Dana Stevens, author of a new book on Keaton, will be on hand for a Q & A after the show. It'll be moderated by local film guru Ty Burr.

'Camera Man,' which came out a few months ago, has been rapturously received, and has led to a host of Keaton screenings this year. (I had the privilege of doing an earlier one with Stevens in Newport, R.I. this past February.)

So march on down to the Coolidge Corner to see Keaton's masterpiece on the big screen, and meet the author of a brand new book that puts Keaton's work in the context of his early-20th-century times.

More details in the press release below. 

For now, a few thoughts about volume inspired by yesterday's screening of 'Ben Hur' (1925) at the new Showroom venue of the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

This is a surprisingly touchy subject, as there's apparently a vast range of perceptions of what's appropriate volume for silent film accompaniment.

Yesterday, I arrived early to set up and work with the house tech to set the sound levels. Each house is different, and the Showroom is a venue I've only played once before, so it's important to take time to set up the audio.

Keeping my keyboard volume output at mid-range, we worked out the levels, checking each of my synth settings to make sure everything was acceptable in the house. I felt it sounded a bit dry, so just a touch of reverb was added to the main orchestral setting I planned to use. Great!

(The reason to keep my synth output at mid-range is because I need that level to make use of the various volume levels the touch-sensitive keyboard is capable of producing. I find I can't do that effectively if the output is below mid-range: level 5 out of 10.)

We also have to account for the fact that in most places with house sound (such as the Showroom), a good amount of sound volume passes over my head (down at front) and so audiences can sometimes receive significantly more volume than I hear.

Okay, fine. Because I work primarily in improv and create the accompaniment live and in the moment, it's my preference to sit at the keyboard for at least a half-hour before a show: warming up, working through material, and just getting into the zone. For me, it's hard to start a film just cold—it's not like pressing a button.

But because people are filing into the theater, during this time I've found it's helpful to temporarily take my volume output down to about 2 out of 10 as a courtesy. That way people can hear each other talking, while I can still do my thing, even though it's not the volume I'll be working with for the film.

The Colonial Theatre's new "Showroom" venue, set up for silent film.

So this is what I was doing yesterday when I noticed it was 10 minutes to showtime, and I hadn't thought to yet use the bathroom. (Very important in advance of a 2½-hour film.) So I switched to some synth-generated pattern music and got up to take care of business.

That's when someone from the theater came up to me with a concerned look on her face. People were complaining, she said, that the music was much too loud and that we needed to take the volume down somewhat.

Really? I've gotta tell you, I like to think I'm easy-going and welcome feedback and would do whatever it takes to accommodate an audience. But right in front of creating live music for a challenging and marathon-length film, this is not the thing to hear. 

(Even worse: a few years ago, someone came down to the keyboard in the middle of a show in progress at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine and placed a folded-up note on the keyboard, for Pete's sake. Using one hand, I opened it to read "MUSIC TOO LOUD!")

Maybe it's a weakness on my part, but I find this kind of thing really throws me when it comes right before I'm about to commit to an improv accompaniment journey of some length, and which will require some concentration—especially after we've taken time to set levels that everyone agreed were acceptable. 

And it's especially discouraging when I've deliberately been playing at a quiet level as a courtesy, and then to be told it's still too loud

Would people stop a tightrope walker just before he or she steps out on the wire above Niagara Falls to tell them they don't approve of the type of wood being used in the balance pole?

I strive not to be the temperamental artist type, but jeez. This is me, baring my soul in music in hopes of bringing to life a worthy cinematic experience, and I'm being told to keep it down lest it interfere with someone's enjoyment of the film?

Well, why don't I just stop playing altogether? Maybe then everyone will be happy? 

Of course I didn't speak those words. I told the theater woman we'd see what we could do. In introducing the film, I addressed it openly: we'd had some complaints, but here's the situation. This is a BIG film, I said, and at times the music will be BIG as well. 

However, it's still a new venue to me, I said, so I'll do my best to keep things at a level we can all find generally acceptable. But people have to understand: this is not background music. At its best (if I'm doing it effectively) it's a crucial part of the experience.

I think I run into trouble when people new to the experience expect the accompaniment to be background music, or (even worse) something that's optional or just decoration.

Well, no. In silent film, although music generally shouldn't be noticed on its own, it's often a full player in the overall experience. That was true then, and it's still true now. 

So while it shouldn't gratuitously call attention to itself, the music should have a presence. And in some cases, it really should be pretty darned big and bold.

Take 'Ben Hur.' You really can't play quiet stuff during the sea battle scene or the famous chariot race. So if I'm at the keyboard, it's going to be loud, exciting, dramatic, and all that.

In the end, I was able to pull it together yesterday. No one covered their ears or walked out that I'm aware of, anyway. When it was over, we had nice comments and good questions. I made my usual joke about checking with the Diocese of Manchester to confirm that attending a screening of 'Ben Hur' did not count as attending Mass. Thank you and have a good night!

I don't know. Maybe I'm looking at this wrong way. Maybe I should really amp up the volume, and then supplement my income by selling over-priced ear plugs. Or possibly sell stationery so people can write me letters to be delivered in the middle of a performance.

Even if I go ahead with those ideas, they won't be ready in time for Wednesday's screening of 'The General' at the Coolidge Corner. Here's the promised press release with all the details!

*   *   *

Buster Keaton in 'The General.' 

MONDAY, APRIL 4, 2022 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Buster Keaton's 'The General' with live music at Coolidge Corner on Wednesday, April 13

Civil War railroading comedy/adventure film lauded as stone-faced comic moviemaker's masterpiece

Screening includes Q & A with Dana Stevens, author of 'Camera Man,' newly published Keaton book.

BROOKLINE, Mass.— He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The General' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, April 13 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline, Mass.

The screening will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $23 per person.

The show is the latest in the Coolidge Corner's acclaimed 'Sounds of Silents' series, which gives audiences the opportunity to experience early cinema as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The screening will be followed by a Q & A with Slate film critic Dana Stevens, author of 'Camera Man,' a newly published book exploring Keaton's work in the context of 20th century history.

Stevens’s book will be for sale after the screening, courtesy of Brookline Booksmith. The Q & A will be moderated by Boston-based critic Ty Burr.

'The General,' set during the U.S. Civil War, tells the story of a southern locomotive engineer (Keaton) whose engine (named 'The General') is hijacked by Northern spies with his girlfriend onboard.

Keaton, commandeering another train, races north in pursuit behind enemy lines. Can he rescue his girl? And can he recapture his locomotive and make it back to warn of a coming Northern attack?

Critics call 'The General' Keaton's masterpiece, praising its authentic period detail, ambitious action and battle sequences, and its overall integration of story, drama, and comedy.

It's also regarded as one of Hollywood's great railroad films, with much of the action occurring on or around moving steam locomotives.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will improvise an original musical score for 'The General' live as the film is shown.

"When the score gets made up on the spot, it creates a special energy that's an important part of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra for the accompaniment.

With Center for the Art's screening of 'The General,' audiences will get a chance to experience silent film as it was meant to be seen—in a high quality print, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today."

Rapsis performs on a digital keyboard that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts.

Critics review 'The General':

"The most insistently moving picture ever made, its climax is the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy."
—Walter Kerr, author of 'The Silent Clowns'

"An almost perfect entertainment!"
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

"What makes the film so special is the way the timing, audacity and elegant choreography of its sight gags, acrobatics, pratfalls and dramatic incidents is matched by Buster's directorial artistry, his acute observational skills working alongside the physical élan and sweet subtlety of his own performance."
—Time Out (London)

‘The General’ (1926) starring Buster Keaton will be shown with live music on Wednesday, April 13 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline, Mass. as part of the theater's 'Sounds of Silents' series. Admission is $23 per person. For more info and to buy tickets, visit www.coolidge.org or call (617) 734-2500. For more about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Up next: the original silent 'Ben Hur' (1925) on Sunday, April 10 at the Showroom in Keene, N.H.

A Spanish language poster for MGM's 'Ben Hur' (1925).

Easter must be on its way, as this month's silent film schedule is thick with Biblical epics.

Coming up next: the original silent version of 'Ben Hur' (1925) on Sunday, April 10 in Keene, N.H. If there's a film you should try to see on the big screen, this is it. More details in the press release below.

For now, let me report that we enjoyed a healthy turnout for last Sunday's unusual double bill: Lon Chaney in 'Flesh and Blood' and Harry Houdini in 'The Man From Beyond,' both films from 1922.

The Chaney film, which I'd never done before, held up pretty well, with an escaped-prisoner-seeking-justice storyline that kept our audience engaged throughout. Large chunks of it are set in Chinatown, but I resisted the temptation to play pentatonic-scale-"Oriental"-sounding music.

Instead, I kept mostly to a piano & strings texture, except for a scene where a harmonium gets played, and then also when Chaney performs a sentimental tune on a solo violin. One wonders how musicians of the 1920s would have matched the on-screen action in this film.

The Houdini picture is a mind-bending affair about reincarnation that left most people scratching their heads. How can a guy become frozen in 1820, then thawed out 100 years later, to the point where he's riding around in automobiles and attending a wedding, and not realize it was a century later?

But the rousing waterfall rescue sequence that concludes the film, which was actually filmed at Niagara Falls, was enough to leave everyone satisfied.

Okay, here's the press release on 'Ben Hur.' Hope to see you this Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre's new "Showroom" venue in Keene, N.H.!

*    *    *

An original release poster for MGM's silent epic 'Ben Hur' (1925).

MONDAY, APRIL 4, 2022 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film epic ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) coming to Showroom in Keene on Sunday, April 10

Prelude to Easter: Hollywood's original Biblical-era blockbuster to be screened with live music at Colonial Theatre's new venue

KEENE, N.H.—One of early Hollywood's greatest epics returns to the big screen with a showing of 'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) on Sunday, April 10 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre's Showroom, 20 Commercial St., Keene.

The screening will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

Admission is $15 per person, general admission. Tickets are available online at www.thecolonial.org or at the door.

'Ben Hur,' starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, was among the first Hollywood motion pictures to tell a Biblical-era story on a large scale.

The film, which helped establish MGM as a leading studio, employed a cast of thousands and boasted action sequences including a large-scale sea battle.

The film is highlighted by a spell-binding chariot race that still leaves audiences breathless.

Set in the Holy Land at the time of Christ's birth, 'Ben Hur' tells the story of a Jewish family in Jerusalem whose fortune is confiscated by the Romans and its members jailed.

The enslaved family heir, Judah Ben Hur (played by Novarro, a leading silent-era heartthrob) is inspired by encounters with Christ to pursue justice. This leads him to a series of epic adventures in his quest to find his mother and sister and restore his family fortune.

The film is particularly appropriate for the weeks leading up to Easter, which is celebrated on Sunday, April 17. (Orthodox Easter falls on Sunday, April 24 in 2022.)


'Ben Hur,' directed by Fred Niblo, was among the most expensive films of the silent era, taking two years to make and costing between $4 million and $6 million. When released in 1925, it became a huge hit for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.

The chariot race scene in 'Ben Hur,' with Novarro and other cast members driving teams of horses at high speed on a mammoth dirt racetrack in a gigantic replica of a Roman stadium, was among the most complicated and dangerous sequences filmed in the silent era. It remains noted for its tight editing, dramatic sweep, and sheer cinematic excitement.

The chariot race was re-created virtually shot for shot in MGM's 1959 remake, and more recently imitated in the pod race scene in 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.'


Besides Novarro in the title role, the film stars Francis X. Bushman as Messala, the Roman soldier who imprisons the Hur family; Betty Bronson as Mary, mother of Jesus; May McAvoy as Ben Hur's sister Esther; and Claire McDowell as Ben Hur's mother.

'Ben Hur' was based on the best-selling 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace, which interwove the story of Christ's life with the Ben Hur clan, a fictional Jewish merchant family.

Celebrity "extras" in the chariot race scene included stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Lionel Barrymore, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and a very young Clark Gable.

The film was remade by MGM in the 1950s in a color and wide-screen version starring Charleton Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. Some critics believe the original 1925 version offers superior drama and story-telling.

In creating music for silent films, accompanist Jeff Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

For each film, Rapsis improvises accompaniment using original themes created beforehand. No music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) will be shown on Sunday, April 10 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre's Showroom, 20 Commercial St., Keene.

General admission is $15 per person. Tickets are available online at www.thecolonial.org or at the door. For more information, call the Colonial box office at (603) 352-2033.