Monday, February 22, 2021

On 'Joan of Arc' and why less is more; plus previewing the Kansas Silent Film Festival in N.H.

A poster for Dreyer's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc.'

I had forgotten how intense 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) can be. I was reminded by yesterday's screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer's late silent at the Center of the Arts in Natick, Mass.

The Center for the Arts (referred to as "TCAN," with the N standing for Natick) is housed in a converted firehouse, which is a good thing, as 'Joan' generates quite a bit of heat, and I'm not talking about how she's burned at the stake. 

I'm talking emotional heat, and that's important to keep in mind when considering music for the film.

It's an unusual movie for many reasons—Dreyer's reliance on extreme close-ups, the almost-abstract settings, and the one-of-a-kind performance of actress Renée Falconetti in the title role.

(Literally: this was the only motion picture that Falconetti, an acclaimed stage actress, ever appeared in.)

It's unusual, too, in the role that music can play in the overall effect of this film on an audience, I think. More than most, 'Joan' is the kind of film that benefits from an aggressive, assertive score.

By that I don't mean loud, obnoxious music. I mean a score than minutely follows and brings out the many changes of emotional temperature in the narrative, which unfolds largely in the faces of the performers. (Remember all those close-ups!)

Dreyer's film, as I see it, is an attempt to use the then-new motion picture to bring a specific historical event to life visually. We see that intention clearly at the start of the film, which shows the old record books with the ancient line-by-line questioning and testimony covering the pages. 

But Dreyer's trick, borrowed from the stage (just like Falconetti), was to strip things down to emphasize the human element—hence no elaborate 14th century interiors or other sets to gawk at. And that's an extraordinary choice for the time, as movies were still in the "look what we can do" phase of visual design. 

In Europe, consider what Fritz Lang was doing at roughly the same time with 'Metropolis,' with its sprawling visuals of a futuristic city. And Hollywood was cranking out elaborate costume dramas by the yard, from Douglas Fairbanks on down. 

Yes, movies were a visual art, and the prevailing idea was to give people lots to look at: eye-popping sets, incredible locations, even elaborate title cards.

Renée Falconetti as Joan of Arc.

Not Dreyer. His telling of 'Joan' is simplicity itself. As I see it, his film actually borrows one of the best elements of the live theatre—intensity of focus that comes with actually limiting what an audience sees.

Think about it. Compared to movies, the stage has some real built-in limitations in terms of presentation.

With theatre, all the magic has to come within the narrow confines of a single building and whatever can be conjured by cardboard and paint. On stage, reality is not an option, at least in terms of going on location—say, setting a scene in a real city street crowded with real people.

I believe some of the best theatre happens when directors use that limitation to reduce potential distractions and focus on things such as the human drama and emotional line of a story. 

Think of Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town' (written not far from where I live, by the way, and based on the nearby town of Peterborough), which is staged with the simplest props and furniture. 

Yes, everyone loves a great set. In London, the set itself often gets applause when the curtain goes up. But ultimately, very often less can be more, or it can lead to an emphasis that otherwise wouldn't be present.

Because this is about music, how about 'Amadeus,' the stage play about Mozart and Salieri by Peter Shaffer? Right in the script, the stage directions are very explicit: although set in the palaces of 18th century Vienna, it should be given on a mostly blank stage, with minimal settings. 

Costumes, however, should be "sumptuously of the period," and as originally staged, they were. 

All of this serves to bring out the human element of the drama, which is an intense experience as played out in a theater with an audience. Did Salieri assassinate Mozart? How did it happen? It's gripping stuff to see Salieri's concern about his rival slowly bloom into an all-consuming obsession.

Also, leaving out the bric-a-brac of elaborate set design allows our imaginations to create something more elaborate than any set designer could conjure, and more personal, but that's a whole other topic.

Amadeus: conceived as a stage play, not nearly as effective on screen. 

Then consider what happened when 'Amadeus' got made into a movie. Because movies can go anywhere, in went elaborate location shots: castles and palaces and exteriors bringing to life bustling Vienna in the 18th century. (Director Milos Forman actually filmed a lot of it in Prague, which I guess looked more like 18th century Vienna than Vienna did.)

And the resulting film, laden with visual splendor, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1984. But I remember being disappointed with it because it somehow lacked the intensity of the evening in the theater. 

It felt flabby. And I realize now that one reason is that the human story was buried by all the rich visuals: the horse-drawn coaches coming and going, the immense interiors, and so on.

It lacked the focus of the stage play. And although it was the same story, it was a completely different experience.

So back to Dreyer's film. By emphasizing extreme close-ups, but by keeping everything else fairly abstract, he greatly enhanced the intensity of the human drama of what on the page was a dry, historical record. 

And so I think he cleared the way for music to make a major contribution to the film's overall impact, then and now. His film, I think, is almost like music already—it's an abstraction (like music) intended to affect us on an emotional level.

As such, 'Joan' has attracted composers from outside the silent film accompaniment world. Richard Einhorn's 'Voices of Light' (1994) is often performed to screenings of the film, with great effect. A glance at Wikipedia bring to mind the old Jimmy Durante line, "Everyone's trying' to get into the act." Scores have been done by everyone from British early music group the Orlando Consort to the Australian rock band 'hazards of swimming naked.'

My own approach, as taken on Sunday in Natick, was to first follow the film's lead and strip the music down to bare essentials. So for the first two-thirds of the movie, I used strings only. No brass. No percussion. Just strings, and heavy on the sustained notes. (Which sound pretty good on the Korg synthesizer that I use.)

This is a bad comparison, but it's similar to what composer Bernard Herrmann (at left) was going for when he used strings only to score Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (1960). I recall him observing that he wanted "a black and white score for a black and white film." Hey, I steal from the best.

However! Within that limited palette, I felt free to bring out the emotional ups and downs of Joan's interaction with her inquisitors, which varies widely from sympathetic to antagonistic. So it was a score of constantly shifting ground: melodic or harmonic fragments tossed about as the emotional waves rose and fell. 

There really wasn't much action. But still, the visuals inspired at-times rapid shifts in tempo, mood, and character. At times, I felt like I was scoring people's faces rather than a traditional silent film.

But then, when Joan is sent to be executed, things change. Maybe it's because we're now outside, and now Dreyer begins to include hints of Joan's world and all the people in it. It's still very abstract, though. We rarely see anyone in full figure.

So for the final third of the film, I switched to an orchestral setting, knowing that the big "burning at the stake and rampaging mobs" scenes that conclude the film would really benefit from it. 

In switching, though, I kept the texture quite spartan at first, hoping that if I did it effectively, it wouldn't be noticed. And then I gradually amped things up to the point where Joan really does get burned at the stake (still all in close-ups), when it's justified to pull out all the stops, which I did. 

Drums, trumpets, the works!

And that takes us to the next adventure: a three-day tribute to the Kansas Silent Film Festival, which (alas) has gone all-virtual this year due to Covid-19. 

Here in New Hampshire, we're recreating the Kansas festival this weekend with three programs of films featuring performers from the Sunflower State.

Info is in the press release below. But let me note here that I'm especially excited to do music for three films that I've never accompanied before: Fatty Arbuckle's 'The Round-Up' (1920); Louise Brooks in 'The Show-Off' (1926); and Vera Reynolds in 'Risky Business' (1925), which turns out to be a surprisingly effective film. (Even without Tom Cruise.)

We'll even have delicacies imported from Kansas: specifically, legendary hot pickles from Porubsky's Deli in Topeka. In a world: Wow!

The only thing missing is you as part of the audience. So, essential collaborator that you are, get thee to the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. this weekend, and let's make some silent film magic together!

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 MONDAY, FEB. 15, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Upcoming Kansas-themed film festival includes silent-era 'Risky Business' and 'Wizard of Oz'

Relocated due to Covid-19: New Hampshire version of Kansas festival offers three days of silent film with live music, Feb. 26-28

WILTON, N.H.—It's not the 1980s version with Tom Cruise, but a 1926 comedy/drama about a rich socialite in love with a poor country doctor.

It's 'Risky Business,' co-starring Kansas native Zasu Pitts, and it's on the program of the Covid-19-inspired "Kansas Silent Film Festival in New Hampshire" later this month.

With the annual Kansas festival suspended due to coronavirus, the pop-up New Hampshire version is being staged as a tribute 1,500 miles away.

The three-day festival will also feature the rarely screened silent film version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925), a slapstick comedy that includes Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man.

The Granite State version of the Kansas Silent Film Festival will run from Friday, Feb. 26 to Sunday, Feb. 28 at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St. Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free, with no reservations required. To support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film programming and the Kansas Silent Film Festival, a donation of $10 per person is suggested.

The Town Hall Theatre has been operating safely since last July by following all state and CDC public health guidelines.

All films will be shown with live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who usually travels to the Kansas festival each year to practice his craft.

"With no in-person event in Kansas this year, I felt we had an opportunity to recreate the festival's special magic here in New Hampshire," Rapsis said.

Video introductions to each feature will be provided by Denise Morrison, a Missouri-based film historian who serves as emcee at the Kansas Silent Film Festival.

During intermissions, movie-goers will be invited to sample imported delicacies such as hot pickles from Porubski's Polish Deli in Topeka, Kansas.

The three days of programming spotlight films with connections to the Sunflower State, which produced a bumper crop of early Hollywood stars.

Kansas-born screen icon Louise Brooks stars in 'The Show Off' (1926); and Buster Keaton (born in Kansas when his parents were in a traveling medicine show) in the classic silent comedy 'The Navigator' (1924.)

The festival also includes a rare screening of 'The Little Church Around the Corner,' a 1923 melodrama featuring Kansas-raised Claire Windsor paired with actor Walter Long, a native of Milford, N.H.

Also on the festival's program: the original silent film version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925), with comic actor Oliver Hardy playing the Tin Man. Hardy would later be paired with Stan Laurel to form the immortal comic duo Laurel and Hardy.

"People are surprised to learn that there's a silent 'Wizard of Oz,' " Rapsis said. "But it's completely different from the MGM musical from 1939—it's a slapstick comedy that was created as a vehicle for roughhouse comedian Larry Semon, who plays the scarecrow."

In Kansas, in lieu of live performances this year, the Kansas Silent Film Festival will host a program of virtual screenings for online viewing. For more info, visit www.kssilentfilmfest.org.

In New Hampshire, each day of the relocated tribute festival includes two feature films separated by an intermission:

Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, 7:30 p.m.: Claire Windsor in 'The Little Church Around the Corner' (1923) and Fatty Arbuckle in 'The Round-Up' (1920). Kansas-born star Claire Windsor stars in 'The Little Church Around the Corner' (1923), a labor relations melodrama with a role for Milford, N.H. native Walter Long; followed by 'The Roundup' (1920), a rarely screened feature film starring Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (also from Kansas) that wasn't released in the U.S. following accusations of murder against the comedian, leading to a notorious series of court trials that exonerated Arbuckle, but left his career in ruins.

Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, 7:30 p.m.: Kansas-born silent screen icon Louise Brooks stars in 'The Show-Off' (1926) and Zasu Pitts (also from Kansas) appears in 'Risky Business' (1926). In 'The Show Off,' Brooks (from Cherryvale, Kansas) stars in the story of a working-class family's reluctance to accept their daughter's suitor. In 'Risky Business,' Zasu Pitts (from Olathe, Kansas) co-stars with Vera Reynolds in a comedy/drama about a rich socialite who falls in love with a poor country doctor—a relationship the girl's family is determined to break up, with unforeseen consquences.

Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, 2 p.m.: The original silent 'Wizard of Oz' (1925) plus Buster Keaton in 'The Navigator' (1924). In the final program, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore with the original silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz,' starring comedian Larry Semon as the scarecrow and featuring Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man! Then it's the timeless visual comedy of Kansas-born Buster Keaton, often called the most silent of the silent comedians. In 'The Navigator' (1924), Buster sets sail on a deserted ocean liner, riding a high tide of hilarity. Classic silent film comedy!

"Thanks to everyone at the Kansas festival for giving us permission to stage this socially distanced tribute," said Rapsis, who has attended every Kansas Silent Film Festival since 2000. "We may be 1,500 miles away, but our hearts are in the same place."

For more about the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., please visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456. For more about the Kansas Silent Film Festival, visit www.kssilentfilmfest.org.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Valentine's Day reactions to '7th Heaven' (1927); next up, music for 'Joan of Arc' (1928) on 2/21

The scene in '7th Heaven' that prompted shrieks from our audience.

Pleased to report a terrific Valentine's Day screening of '7th Heaven' (1927), the romantic drama starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. About 40 people turned out last Sunday for our show at the Town Hall Theatre, and you could tell the audience was buying it throughout. 

Near the beginning, people actually shrieked when Farrell held a troublesome character over an open manhole. And reactions continued all during the showing. It was a lively, engaged audience—an essential part of the silent film experience. So good job, everyone!

Just as the tagline for Farrell's character is "I'm a remarkable fellow," '7th Heaven' is a remarkable movie. Though nominally set in Paris on the eve of World War I, the idealized set design and the emphasis on big human emotions make it essentially timeless—a story that works today without any footnotes or explanations.

The only aspect that might seem a little incredible to a viewer today is Chico's spacious rooftop Paris flat, which doesn't have running water but which does have a generous floor plan and amazing views. How could a sewer worker afford such digs? But then again, it's a romantic fantasy. 

(Clarification: anyone working in the sewer business in a professional capacity cannot be paid enough for what they do.)

Chico's apartment: perhaps the positive side of all those French union strikes.

The thing about '7th Heaven' is that although it's a serious drama, it's also filled with comedy. This is important, not just because it's fun to laugh (and the comedy does still work), but somehow the mix humanizes everything, and I think is a key to getting an audience to truly care about the characters in under two hours—quite an amazing trick when you think about it.

In the music, I aimed to walk this tightrope, keeping things rooted in a sober frame but letting an audience know it's okay to chuckle at antics such as Chico's street-cleaning efforts or the dilapidated state of Eloise the Taxicab.

Although the film is set in Paris, I avoided trying to make the music sound stereotypically "French" in any way—no accordion licks, for instance. The film is visually French enough, and doesn't need any help from the soundtrack for atmosphere.

Rather, as a kind of sonic signature for Chico, I used a lilting 6/8 melody (to capture his optimism) that sounded more like a Scottish bag pipe tune. And for Diane, the weight was carried by a staccato four-note figure introduced when we see her being whipped by her sister.

Both of these figures, and some other tunes and chords I folded in to have material to work with, were able to be developed and transformed as the movie progressed. And after awhile, it became rather like an evolving Strauss tone poem, with scraps of tunes colliding into each other, all floating on a kind of surging harmonic sea, and all in service (I hope) to the movie's emotional line. 

When scoring a picture live, this state of mind doesn't always coalesce. But when it does, it takes on the feeling of a great shared adventure: one that encompasses those who made the film so long ago and also the audience sitting right behind me, with the music somehow creating the matrix that helps yesterday's stories reach out and touch today's hearts.

And when that happens, there's nothing like it. Creating the score in real time, with the movie playing overhead on the big screen, I get so absorbed, I don't know where the music comes from. At the same time, I'm absolutely present and engaged in the process of getting just the right music as a scene unfolds, keeping in mind what we've just done and what's coming next, and where we are in the overall story arc. Heaven, indeed!

In terms of screenings, what's next? The performance schedule continues to fill in, even during the ongoing pandemic.

This weekend, it's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) down in Natick, Mass. on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 4 p.m. Another serious film, and this time without comedy. But something about the Natick Center for the Arts brings out the dramatist in me—a year ago, we did 'Pandora's Box' (1929) there, and I felt I hit it out of the park. So I'm looking forward to it.

Please join us! Housed in a converted firehouse, the Natick venue is a great place to take in movies. And not far away is Zaftig's Deli, where I can get my reuben knish fix. (There's nothing better on a cold day! Or any day, really.)

See you there, although with one caveat for all Catholics: I've been informed by the Archdiocese of Boston that the screening does not count as going to Mass. In my book, however, a visit to Zaftig's Deli counts as a religious experience.

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Acclaimed stage actress Maria Falconetti in her only film performance, in 'Joan of Arc' (1928).

MONDAY, JAN. 25, 2020 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Rediscovered silent religious drama to be shown at Natick Center for the Arts on Sunday, Feb. 21

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), long thought lost until a copy was found in Norway, to be screened with live music

NATICK, Mass.—A ground-breaking European feature film—considered lost for decades until a copy surfaced in Oslo, Norway—will return to the big screen in February at the Center for the Arts in Natick.

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), a film noted for its innovative camera work and an acclaimed performance by actress Maria Falconetti, will be screened on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 4 p.m. as part of the Center for the Arts Silent Film Series.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Tickets are $18; Center for the Arts members $15, with limited seating due to Covid-19 capacity restrictions.

Directed by Denmark's Carl Theodor Dreyer, 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' chronicles the trial of Jeanne d'Arc on charges of heresy, and the efforts of her ecclesiastical jurists to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions.

The film’s courtroom scenes are shot almost exclusively in close-up, situating all the film’s meaning and drama in the slightest movements of its protagonist’s face.

Of Falconetti's performance in the title role, critic Pauline Kael wrote that her portrayal "may be the finest performance ever recorded on film." Her performance was ranked 26th in Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, the highest of any silent performance on the list. Falconetti, a legendary French stage actress, made only two films during her career.

The film has a history of controversy. The premiere of 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' in Paris on Oct. 25, 1928 was delayed because of the longtime efforts of many French nationalists, who objected to the fact that Dreyer was not Catholic and not French and to the then-rumored casting of Lillian Gish as Joan.

Before the premiere, several cuts were made by order of the Archbishop of Paris and by government censors. Dreyer had no say in these cuts and was angry about them. Later that year, a fire at UFA studios in Berlin destroyed the film's original negative and only a few copies of Dreyer's original cut of the film existed. 

Dreyer was able to patch together a new version of his original cut using alternate takes not initially used. This version was also destroyed in a lab fire in 1929. Over the years it became hard to find copies of Dreyer's second version and even harder to find copies of the original version of the film.

It was banned in Britain for its portrayal of crude English soldiers who mock and torment Joan in scenes that mirror biblical accounts of Christ's mocking at the hands of Roman soldiers. The Archbishop of Paris was also critical, demanding changes be made to the film.

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' was released near the end of the silent film era. About 80 percent of all movies made during that time 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.

In the case of 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' the original version of the film was lost for decades after a fire destroyed the master negative. In 1981, an employee of the Kikemark Sykehus mental institution in Oslo, Norway found several film cans in a janitor's closet that were labeled 'The Passion of Joan of Arc.'

The cans were sent to the Norwegian Film Institute where they were first stored for three years until finally being examined. It was then discovered that the prints were of Dreyer's original cut of the film before government or church censorship had taken place. No records exist of the film being shipped to Oslo, but film historians believe that the then-director of the institution may have requested a special copy.

For 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' Rapsis will improvise a score from original musical material that he creates beforehand, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of a full orchestra.

"What I try to do," Rapsis said, "is create music that bridges the gap between a film that might be 90 or 100 years old, and the musical expectations of today's audiences."

'The Passion of Joan of Arc'  continues another season of silent films presented with live music at the Center for the Arts. The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and with an audience.

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

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 4 p.m. at the Natick Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

Admission is $18, Center for the Arts members $15. Tickets must be purchased in advance online at www.natickarts.org.  For more information, call the Center box office at (508) 647-0097 or visit www.natickarts.org.

 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Valentine's Day: '7th Heaven' with live music on Sunday, 2/14 at Town Hall Theatre, Wilton NH

A lobby card promoting '7th Heaven' (1927).

Coming up next: a Valentine's Day screening of '7th Heaven' (1927), the romantic drama that helped Janet Gaynor win 'Best Actress' at the very first Academy Awards.

I've been talking it up by advising audiences to bring an ample supply of tissues. Maybe we can get Kimberly-Clark (makers of Kleenex) to sponsor the event.

But first, a few comments about the 'Kansas Silent Film Festival in New Hampshire' that we're organizing for later this month.

Our pop-up version of this popular festival, to be held 1,500 miles away from its usual location, is mostly my way of coping with the fact that it's not happening this year, at least in its usual format, due to the ongoing pandemic.

Yes, the Kansas Silent Film Festival will take place virtually. And you'll find more details on that when they're posted on their Web site, which is www.kssilentfilmfest.org.

But not being able to go out there, as I have every year for the past 20 years (really!), is something I just couldn't just accept. In February, some people go to Aruba and bask in the sunshine. Me, I go to Kansas, and bask in the friendliness.

But with no Kansas, there was a big hole in my calendar. So if I'm not going out to Kansas, why not bring Kansas here?

And that's what we're doing, with a three-day tribute to this terrific festival running from Friday, Feb. 26 through Sunday, Feb. 28 at the Town Hall Theater in Wilton, N.H.

On the program: six silent feature films (plus some surprises), all with ties to the Sunflower State, which produced a bumper crop of silent era greats: Buster Keaton, Louise Brooks, Fatty Arbuckle, Zasu Pitts, and more!

We're even importing some Kansas delicacies to bring some local flavor to our audiences: specifically, hot pickles from Porubsky's Deli in Topeka. Many thanks to all our friends at the Kansas festival for letting us do this and for helping us out so much! (And for sending the pickles!)

Get all the details by downloading the flier

Alas, so far most of the response to this has been negative. It's mostly from people who seem to think I'm being irresponsible by holding such an event during a pandemic. 

People are entitled to their opinion. But they should understand that in New Hampshire, state health guidelines have allowed theaters to operate (under strict safety protocols) since last July. 

At the Town Hall Theatre and a few other venues, we've been running film (with live music) all during this time, with no problem. The theater is limited to 50 percent capacity, and there's plenty of room for social distancing. 

New Hampshire does have a 10-day quarantine requirement for visitors from outside the New England region. So I don't expect many out-of-state people to trek to the Granite State for our homegrown tribute. 

But people who enjoy vintage film ought to realize that the few theaters willing to run it are in a fight for survival, and that's largely what this is about.

Currently, first-run films are a non-starter for a venue such as the Town Hall Theatre: studios aren't releasing their best stuff, the audiences aren't attending, and the terms for the pictures that are in release don't make economic sense for small theaters.

As Dennis Markaverich, owner/operator of the two-screen Town Hall Theatre for the past 47 years, put it: "It's like shoveling money into the boilers of the Titanic."

So I'm thankful Dennis is open to creative and unusual programming during these dark times (who else would let me run Fritz Lang's five-hour 'Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler'?), and I'm glad to help him keep the theater open and the concession stand humming until better times return. 

So if you're concerned about the pandemic, I understand. Please stay home. But stop dumping on those of us making efforts to keep local theaters from tanking. 

Tank you—er, thank you. Okay, end of rant.

Now, about '7th Heaven': it's one of the biggies. You can tell because over the years the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (also one of the biggies) has run it not once but twice. Amazingly, as a young woman Janet Gaynor once worked at the Castro Theater, the festival's long-time home.

To read the thoughtful essays posted by the San Francisco folks, check out their Web site.

And to read the press release I cranked out last week in an attempt to pitch our screening as a great way to celebrate Cupid's big day, look out below!

Hope to see all you romantics at the Town Hall Theatre next Sunday. And don't forget your Kleenex® facial tissues, a Kimberly-Clark brand.

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Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor in their rooftop love nest in '7th Heaven' (1927).

SUNDAY, JAN. 31, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

'7th Heaven' (1927) gets Valentine's Day screening on Sunday, Feb. 14 in Wilton, N.H.

Classic silent film love story won Janet Gaynor first-ever 'Best Actress' Academy Award

WILTON, N.H.—It's a one-of-a-kind film about a timeless topic: true love.

'7th Heaven' (1927), a romantic drama that won actress Janet Gaynor the first-ever 'Best Actress' Academy Award, will be shown with live music on Sunday, Feb. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

The screening is free to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines. Capacity is limited to 50 percent; patrons are required to maintain social distance and wear masks until seated.

'7th Heaven,' which also netted Frank Borzage the first 'Best Director' Oscar, is a fable set in Paris just before World War I. It's the story of an abused and abandoned young woman (Gaynor) who is cast aside by her family, only to be adopted by an ebullient sewer worker (Charles Farrell) with his sights set on higher things.

In her new home, the girl learns a fresh way of looking at life. Eventually love blossoms—but will it survive the onset of war? Director Borzage used all the techniques of silent film at its height to craft a universal and timeless story that audiences have found moving since the picture's first release in 1927, one year before the talkie revolution.

'7th Heaven' received the most nominations of any film—a total of five—at the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony, held on May 16, 1929 in the waning days of the silent era.

Besides winning 'Best Actress' for Gaynor and 'Best Director' for Borzage, it also won an Oscar for Benjamin Glazer in the 'Best Writing, Adapted Story' category. '7th Heaven' was also nominated for 'Outstanding Picture, Production' (the forerunner of today's 'Best Picture' category) and 'Best Art Direction.'

Gaynor's first-ever 'Best Actress' award was also given in honor of her performances in 'Street Angel' and 'Sunrise' in the same year. She won over competing actresses Gloria Swanson and Louise Dresser.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, who improvises 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."

'7th Heaven' was remade in 1937 as a talking picture starring Simone Simon and Jimmy Stewart in the lead roles.

Critics and film buffs regard the original silent version of '7th Heaven' as a high-water mark of silent cinema. "The original '7th Heaven' is still the yardstick for all movie love stories," wrote Joe Franklin in 'Classics of the Silent Screen.'

Reviewer Tim Brayton wrote that '7th Heaven' is "the kind of movie that births a lifelong love affair with silent cinema. ... I'd be extraordinarily hard-pressed to come up with any way in which it's not flawless."

'7th Heaven' will be screened on Sunday, Feb. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Free admission; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series. For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456.


Sunday, January 31, 2021

Thoughts on 'The Freshman': If comedy doesn't have an audience reaction, is it still funny?

Harold Lloyd hangs on in 'The Freshman' (1925), his college football classic.

One of my best silent film memories dates from 1993, long before I began accompanying them, when we were hosting a visitor from Russia for much of that spring and summer. This was just after the Soviet Union collapsed, which had enabled our friend to travel outside the country for the first time.

At one point, we visited the Big Apple (that's New York City for those of you who don't know your urban fruit), and the Film Forum in Greenwich Village happened to be running a Harold Lloyd retrospective in honor of the comedian's 100th birthday year.

Great! This was at a time when seeing a Lloyd feature in any format was a rare privilege—never mind in a theatre running a 35mm print and with live music.

So we bought tickets to a screening of 'The Freshman' (1925), and promptly entered another dimension. Before it started, Mischa had no idea what to expect. But once the lights went down, with live piano music from longtime Film Forum accompanist Steve Sterner, audience reaction was explosive. 

 Really! Our Russian friend was bowled over, and so were we. The laughter proved contagious at first, and finally convulsive, as Lloyd topped one gag with another until people around us were literally gasping for breath. Us, too! You could not resist.

"This would go over great in Russia," Mischa exclaimed, after singing along with another chorus of "Freshie," the tune that Sterner wove throughout the show and then, as I recall, had the audience sing together afterwards. 

It was my first experience with a phenomenon I've since come to know well: the "Harold Lloyd Works Best With A Big Audience" principle that's right up there with the laws of thermodynamics. Again, really. In gearing his films for the big audience experience, Lloyd knew what he was doing, both when he made the films and later, when he kept them off television.

To not see 'The Freshman,' or any other Lloyd feature, in a crowded theater, is to not see the film Lloyd made. It would be like trying to view the Mona Lisa at the bottom of a pool. It's just not the same.

Or to paraphrase the old question about a tree falling in the forest and making a noise: if a comedian slips on a banana peel and no one is there to laugh, is it funny?

I don't know the answer to that question. But I do know we're screening 'The Freshman' on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 7) at the Town Hall Theatre in lovely downtown Wilton, N.H., which is nowhere near Greenwich Village. Kick-off time (for the film) is 2 p.m., which will get you home in plenty of time for the big game. 

So this is where you come in. Don't deprive Harold of the atmosphere he needs to flourish. Make your way to the Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 7 for the 'The Freshman,' and you'll see the latest Russian pop culture phenomenon a terrific and timeless football comedy.

This means you! Press release below. See you there!

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Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston in 'The Freshman.'

THURSDAY, JAN. 28, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Supplement Super Bowl Sunday with classic football silent comedy

Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' to screen as pre-game show on Sunday, Feb. 7 at Wilton's Town Hall Theatre

WILTON, N.H.—What happens when a first-year student's dreams of college collide with the realities of campus life?

The result is Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' (1925), one of the most popular comedies of the silent film era. Filled with classic scenes and a great story, 'The Freshman' endures as one of Lloyd's most crowd-pleasing movies.

See for yourself as a pre-game show on Super Bowl Sunday. 'The Freshman' (1925) will be screened with live music on Sunday, Feb. 7 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 support the theater's silent film series.

The program will be shown with live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines.

'The Freshman' follows Lloyd from his small town to Tate College, where he hopes to achieve fame as Big Man on Campus. Instead, his quest for popularity becomes a college-wide joke, with Harold getting tricked by upperclassmen into hosting the school's annual "Fall Frolic" at his own expense.

Realizing he's an outcast, Lloyd decides he can make his mark on the college football team, where he holds the lowly position of waterboy and serves as tackling dummy. On the day of the Big Game, can the bespectacled "freshie" somehow save the day and bring gridiron glory to dear old Tate?

'The Freshman,' the most successful film of Lloyd's career, was an enormous box office smash. Its release sparked a craze for college films that lasted well beyond the 1920s, and even a popular hit song, the collegiate fox trot "Freshie."

For football fans, the film's climactic game sequence was shot on the field at the actual Rose Bowl in 1924. The crowd scenes were shot at halftime at California Memorial Stadium during the November 1924 "Big Game" between UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Other exterior scenes were filmed near the USC campus in Los Angeles.

Also, 'The Freshman' will finish well before the kick-off for Super Bowl LV, which starts at 6:30 p.m.


Beyond its comic appeal, 'The Freshman' today has an additional layer of interest in its depiction of college life in the 1920s—a time of raccoon coats, ukeleles, and many other long-gone fads and fashions.

"It was long before television, the Internet, cellphones, or Facebook," said Rapsis. "To us today, it looks like college on another planet, which I think adds to the appeal of a film like 'The Freshman.' But at its core, 'The Freshman' is still a great story about people, and that's why it remains such an entertaining experience today, especially when shown as Lloyd intended it."

In 1990, 'The Freshman' was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," named in only the second year of voting and one of the first 50 films to receive such an honor.


Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is recognized 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 critical favorites, Lloyd's films reigned as the top-grossing comedies throughout the period.

However, Lloyd's public image faded after his retirement in the 1930s, when he turned his energies to charitable causes such as the Shriners. He retained control over his films, refusing to release them for television and only rarely allowing them to be screened at revivals, fearing modern audiences wouldn't know how to respond to his work or to silent films in general. He died in 1971.

In recent years, Lloyd's family has taken steps to restore Harold's reputation and public image. They've released his work on DVD, and arranged for more frequent screenings of his films in the environment for which they were made: in theaters with live music and a large audience.

Despite the passage of time, audiences continue to respond just as strongly as when the films were new, with features such as 'The Freshman' embraced as timeless achievements from the golden era of silent film comedy.

Critics review 'The Freshman':

"Regarded as the quintessential Harold Lloyd vehicle.”
—TV Guide

"Gag for gag, Lloyd was the funniest screen comic of his time. Passionately recommended. "
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

Head back to school—and the stadium—with Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' (1925), to be shown with live music on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7 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 support the theater's silent film series. For more info, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456.



Sunday, January 24, 2021

Mid-winter melodrama: Lillian Gish stars in 'Way Down East' on Thursday, 2/4 in Plymouth, N.H.

 A poster for the French release of 'Way Down East' (1920).

This is the one that helped me understand what D.W. Griffith accomplished.

Yes, the film is justly famous for its climactic sequence. But what about all that stuff—more than two hours of antique hokum—leading up to it?

About 10 years ago, I was preparing to score this warhorse for the first time. As I watched it at home, without music, I kept wondering how anyone could take this movie seriously.

The one-dimensional characters. The cornpone humor. The slow pace. 

But at show time, was I ever surprised. We were blessed with a heavy turnout, and the crowd was with it right from the start. 

Really! They were hooting and hollering even during Griffith's moralistic introductory titles, laden as they are with long-outmoded Victorian sentiment.

And it never let up. Long sequences that I felt played at a glacial pace suddenly snapped to life. 

The missing ingredient, of course, was the audience. Griffith knew what he was doing: he knew how to tap into what is essentially mob psychology and engage a large group right from the start. And he knew how to keep everyone watching all the way through.

We may wear different clothes today, and have different gadgets, and be different in a hundred different ways. But we're still human, and in very elemental ways we respond just as humans have for thousands of years. 

Griffith understood that dynamic, and harnessed it to make pictures that would grab an audience's attention and then never let go. That was his big accomplishment!

Why? Because more than anyone in early cinema, I think, Griffith showed that movies could tell tales on a grand scale—tales that could be engineered to keep an audience spellbound for three hours at a time. 

See for yourself when I accompany 'Way Down East' on Thursday, Feb. 4 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. Part of the film was made close by, on the Connecticut River! Details and more information in the press release below.

Hope to see you there!

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Lillian Gish on the Connecticut River near White River Junction, Vt.

MONDAY, JAN. 18, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film classic 'Way Down East' at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Feb. 4

D.W. Griffith blockbuster starring Lillian Gish, filmed partly in New England, to be screened with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H. — The iconic image of actress Lillian Gish trapped on an ice floe and headed straight for a waterfall will once again fill the big screen when 'Way Down East' (1920) is revived on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

General admission is $10 per person.

The movie, a blockbuster melodrama directed by D.W. Griffith, is set in old-time rural New England, and was partly filmed on location in New Hampshire and Vermont. It stars Gish in an acclaimed performance as a wronged woman trying to make her way in an unforgiving world. Can she find love and redemption, or will she ride to her doom on the raging river's ice floes?

'Way Down East' will be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

At the Flying Monkey, accommodations are in place to keep patrons safe in the Covid-19 era.

Face-coverings are required to enter the theater, and should remain on at all times until movie-goers take their seats. Capacity is limited to 50 percent; audience members are asked to observe social distancing in choosing seats.

In 'Way Down East,' Gish stars as a poor New England country girl who travels to Boston to visit her rich relatives in the hopes of getting financial help. While there, she's dazzled by upper class society and romanced by a rich womanizer (Lowell Sherman) who takes advantage of her innocence by tricking her into bed with a fake marriage ceremony.

Convinced she's found the husband of her dreams, Gish returns home to the country, only to be abandoned. She informs her faux husband she's pregnant; he orders her to get an abortion. Instead, Gish goes into exile to have the baby, finds herself persecuted for giving birth out of wedlock, and flees even further into the country to seek refuge. The film was noteworthy in its time for addressing such topics as abortion and women's rights.

Modern critics hail 'Way Down East' for Gish's performance, which continues to mesmerize audiences nearly a century after the film's release. "Gish provides an abject lesson in screen acting and brings home the importance and effectiveness of seeing a film in a theater with a crowd," wrote Paul Brenner on www.filmcritic.com in 2007. "If you are not moved at the scene of Gish baptizing her dead baby, then you should check the obituaries of your local paper to see if you are listed."

The film also stars silent era heartthrob Richard Barthelmess. In the film's climax, Barthelmess must dash to rescue Gish from being carried away on the ice floes.

Much of the acclaimed ice floe sequence was filmed in March 1920 on location on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire and the White River in Vermont, as the winter pack ice was breaking up. No process shots or post-production special effects were available to filmmakers at the time, so Griffith and his crew had no choice but to stage and shoot it all on a real river, with the players out on the ice. To get the floes to break up and float down the river, Griffith's crew dynamited pack ice upstream.

Gish later said that she suffered frostbite by following director Griffith's command to always keep one hand in the water during the shooting.

Despite such hardships, 'Way Down East' cemented Gish's reputation as one of the silent era's major stars. Gish would continue to work in films and, later, television, until the 1980s. She died in 1993 at age 99.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis specializes in creating music that bridges the gap between an older film and the expectations of today's audiences. Using a digital synthesizer that recreates the texture of a full orchestra, he improvises scores in real time as a movie unfolds, so that the music for no two screenings is the same.

"It's kind of a high wire act, but it helps create an emotional energy that's part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "It's easier to follow the emotional line of the movie and the audience's reaction when I'm able to follow what's on screen, rather than be buried in sheet music," he said.

Because silent films were designed to be shown to large audiences in theaters with live music, the best way to experience them is to recreate the conditions in which they were first shown, Rapsis said.

"Films such as 'Way Down East' were created to be shown on the big screen to large audiences as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, silent films come to life in the way their makers intended. Not only are they entertaining, but they give today's audiences a chance to understand what caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

'Way Down East' was based on a popular stage drama, for which director Griffith paid the then-astounding sum of $175,000 to turn into a movie. The picture proved to be a huge moneymaker, taking in $4.5 million, making it the fourth-highest grossing movie of the silent film era. 'Way Down East' would be the last of Griffith's great blockbusters; tastes changed as the 1920s rolled on and Griffith's Victorian style fell out of favor. Receipts from 'Way Down East' kept Griffith's studio afloat during a subsequent series of box office flops.

"This picture was a monster hit when it was released," Rapsis said, "and it still holds up well today. As a melodrama, it's a great film for an audience to cheer on the good folks and boo and hiss the bad guys. But there's an additional level of interest now because the film captured a way of life that's long since disappeared."

'Way Down East' will be shown on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H. General admission is $10 per person. For more info, visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com or call (603) 536-2551.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Calling all kids! 'Peter Pan' (1924) with live music on Sunday, 1/24 at Wilton's Town Hall Theatre

Original promotional art for 'Peter Pan' (1924). 

Next up: the original silent film version of 'Peter Pan' (1924), which we're showing with live music on Sunday, Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

I'm big on this one for people (especially families with kids) who aren't regular silent film fans because it makes a great impression. In fact, I vividly recall the first time I experienced it. 

It was in March 2000, and the first time I attended the Kansas Silent Film Festival. I was there to see (and hear) the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra perform, and used a Delta flight pass to journey out there.

'Peter Pan' was the first film they accompanied. Like most people, I had no idea there was a silent film version, and it turned out to be a revelation. From the moment Nana the family St. Bernard came to life in the opening scene, I was a believer.

I've gone back to Kansas every year since, eventually joining their stable of accompanists once I started doing music for silent film screenings. 

So, in an update from the present, I'm sad to report that just yesterday we learned that this year's Kansas festival has been cancelled due to coronavirus. 

Some online presentations might be staged this year to tide us over. But we'll need to wait until February of 2022 for the next Kansas Silent Film Festival, which by default will now become the 25th "annual."

However, our screening of 'Peter Pan' next Sunday is a go. (That's Betty Bronson in the lead role: she was handpicked by author J.M. Barrie to play the part.) 

Our ability to show films during an ongoing pandemic is thanks largely to the Town Hall Theatre's ability to comply with all Covid-19 public health recommendations to keep patrons safe. It's mostly common sense: masks on until seated, social distancing, frequent cleaning and hand sanitizing. 

We've been doing silent films with live music since the theater reopened last July, with no problems so far.

In fact, we've just completed a week-long series, 'The Storytellers,' which included screenings of five big features five days in a row. That's a lot of music, but I enjoy the occasional multi-day marathon as it enables me to get deeply in the accompaniment zone. 

For some reason, after maybe the third day of a run of continuous shows, I begin to be capable of things that I can't explain. Music seems to flow directly from the keyboard—there's a fluency that's otherwise not present. Maybe it's fatigue-induced.

Well, with no screenings this coming week, I should be well rested for 'Peter Pan' on Sunday, Jan. 24. Also, I'm pleased to report that Jordan Rich of WBZ-AM 1030, the all-news radio station in Boston, recently recorded a "New England Weekend" segment promoting our screening. 

You can listen to it here: New England Weekend

For more information and details, check out the press release below. Hope to see all you kids (and kids at heart) who won't grow up on Sunday, Jan. 24 at the Town Hall Theater!

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MONDAY, JAN. 11, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com 

Silent film version of 'Peter Pan' at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 24

Original big-screen adaptation of magical fantasy classic to be shown with live musical score

WILTON, N.H.—It was the film that introduced movie-goers to visions of flying children, magical fairies, human-like animals and menacing pirates.

It was the original silent film adaptation of 'Peter Pan,' a picture personally supervised by author J.M. Barrie. The film was a major hit when released in 1924, with audiences eager to get their first big-screen look at the wonders of Neverland.

Movie fans can see for themselves when the first 'Peter Pan' (1924) is screened on Sunday, Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The screening will be accompanied by live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician.

Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines, including reduced seating capacity.

Thought lost for many years, and overshadowed by more recent adaptations, the original silent 'Peter Pan' maintains its freshness and charm nearly a century after its original release.

In the story, first presented as a stage play in 1904, three children in London are visited one night by Peter Pan, a youth in search of his shadow. Pan shows his new friends how to fly, and then convinces them to join him in a journey to Neverland.

There they encounter Indians, mermaids, and a band of pirates whose leader, Captain Hook, is Pan's sworn enemy. The children are captured by Hook and taken prisoner aboard his pirate ship, setting the stage for an epic battle, the outcome of which will determine if the children may return home.

Though the Peter Pan story is well-known today due to subsequent adaptations (and also merchandising that includes a ubiquitous brand of peanut butter), the tale was new when Hollywood first brought it to film in the early 1920s.

In England, author Barrie gave his blessing to the first-ever screen adaptation, though he retained control over casting and insisted that any written titles in the film be taken directly from his own text.

After a major talent search, Barrie settled on unknown 18-year-old actress Betty Bronson for the title role, and filming began in 1924. The role of Captain Hook was played by noted character actor Ernest Torrence, who invented the now-iconic villainous pirate persona that would become a Hollywood legend.

The film's highlights include special effects that maintain their ability to dazzle even today. The film's memorable images include a group of mermaids entering the sea, a miniature Tinkerbell interacting with full-sized children and adults, and a pirate ship lifting out of the water and taking flight.

'Peter Pan' also includes a cast of animal characters played by humans in costume, including the family dog Nana and an alligator who serves as Hook's nemesis, lending the film a magical quality.

After the film's release, no copies of the original 'Peter Pan' were known to exist, and for many years the film was regarded as lost. However, in the 1950s a single surviving print turned up in the George Eastman Archives in Rochester, N.Y., from which all copies today have descended.

The show also includes Chapter 2 of "Officer 444" (1926), a weekly serial in which Officer 444 pursues "The Frog," a criminal mastermind with plans to take over the world. Subsequent chapters will be shown at future Town Hall Theatre silent film screenings.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis specializes in creating live musical scores for films made prior to the introduction of recorded sound. Based in New Hampshire, Rapsis specializes in improvising music for silent film screenings at venues ranging from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in San Francisco, Calif.

Rapsis creates film scores in real time, as a movie is running, using a digital synthesizer to reproduce the texture of a full orchestra. He averages about 100 performances per year, and has created music for more than 300 different silent feature films.

"Improvising a movie score is a bit of a high wire act, but it can result in music that fits a film's mood and action better than anything that can be written down in advance," Rapsis said. "It also lends a sense of excitement and adventure to the screening, as no two performances are exactly alike."

'Peter Pan' is the latest in the Town Hall Theatre's series of silent films with live music.

The series gives movie-goers a chance to rediscover the experience of silent cinema presented as it was intended: on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put all the original elements together, the films of early Hollywood still come to life," said Rapsis. "These are the films that caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

Upcoming programs include:

• Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021, 2 p.m.: "The Freshman" (1925). In honor of Super Bowl Sunday, Harold Lloyd's blockbuster hit comedy about a college boy who dreams of success on the gridiron. One of Lloyd's all-time best!

• Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021, 2 p.m.: "Seventh Heaven" (1927) Celebrate Valentine's Day with Frank Borzage's legendary tale of romance on the eve of World War I. Leading lady Janet Gaynor won the very first Academy Award for Best Actress for his work in this moving, emotional tribute to the timeless power of love.

‘Peter Pan’ (1924) will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 24 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 support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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

Friday, January 15, 2021

Tonight! Final round of 'The Storytellers' with Buster Keaton starring in 'The Saphead' (1920)

Buster returns from the millinery in 'The Saphead' (1920).

Hi everyone! I feel like I'm reporting from between rounds in a title fight going the distance.

We're nearly through our week-long 'Story Tellers' series at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

And it's been an endurance test because three of the pictures are each about three hours: on Tuesday, it was Griffith's 'Intolerance' (1916); an Wednesday, it was Lang's 'The Spiders' (1919), and last night it was another three-hour Griffith, 'Way Down East' (1920).

So today I feel like I'm entering the later stages of a 12-round bout with Rocky Graziano. But like Jake LaMotta, I'll take the hits and intend to keep on coming.

Fortunately, tonight we finish with 'The Saphead' (1920), a much lighter (and shorter!) movie from 1920 that has the distinction of being the first starring feature role of a very young Buster Keaton.

I included 'The Saphead' as a kind of dessert to the series, and also because it's a good example of how many early full-length pictures were stories adapted from the stage. 

In this case, it was a Wall Street comedy called 'The New Henrietta' that originally starred Douglas Fairbanks Sr. when produced on stage in 1913. Fairbanks also starred in an earlier film version, 'The Lamb' (1915).

But when it was time for a remake retitled 'The Saphead,' Fairbanks wasn't available. To take his role, he suggested Buster Keaton, who until that time had been Fatty Arbuckle's understudy in slapstick mayhem.

Buster turned in a superbly understated performance, quite different from his over-the-top physical comedy antics with Arbuckle. It marked the real start of his career as an independent performer, which would lead to his series of starring features in the 1920s. 

Because it's not an official "Keaton" film, however, it's not screened as often as the others. So here's your chance to see it as intended—on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

And that's where you come in. (Actually, the door is where you come in.) Please join us for this evening's finale to 'The Storytellers.' With silent film—and especially with silent comedy—the more, the merrier!