Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Gold Rush' (1925) on New Year's Eve

I think Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' is one of the best ways to mark New Year's Eve. Yes, it has a built-in New Year's Eve theme, so that's good. Gives me a chance to work in the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne,' which carries a lot of emotion just by itself.

But it's also because it's a film that, at this distance (85 years now) is a concrete demonstration of time passing. Like all silent films, 'The Gold Rush' today is imbued with a concrete sense of time passing, of years gone by—not quite nostalgia, but more of a sense of the inexorable march of years, one after another, that is carrying us all along.

And then there's the snow-choked atmosphere. In this part of the country (New England), a wintry landscape is all part of celebrating New Year's Eve, I think. So 'The Gold Rush,' with its blizzards and snowbanks, seems to be a nice fit for that reason, too.

And guess what? We're screening 'The Gold Rush' at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. on Friday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. thanks to the wonderful folks at the theater and also to Janus Films, which is currently handling the U.S. rights to the Chaplin films. Should be a great show, plus you can enjoy dinner at the nearby Barley House restaurant (132 North Main St. in Concord) after 6 p.m. that night and get 15 percent off your dinner check if you show your 'Gold Rush' ticket. AND we'll conclude the screening with champagne supplied by Korbel. So sounds like a party to me! Hope to see you there: Admission $11 per person.

Here's the press release with all the details...

For more info, contact:
Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •


Celebrate New Year's Eve with Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush'

Comedy classic at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. to feature live music

CONCORD, N.H.—Celebrate New Year's Eve with 'The Gold Rush' (1925), Charlie Chaplin's timeless silent comedy of prospecting in the frozen north. The film will be shown with live music on Friday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. in the screening room of Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St. in Concord, N.H.

Admission to the event, which includes several silent short comedies and a champagne toast for all guests, is $11 per person. The films will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis, who improvises scores as the movie unfolds on the screen. The complimentary champagne toast is courtesy Korbel Champagne Cellars.

'The Gold Rush,' a landmark comedy and one of the top-grossing films of the silent era, finds Chaplin's iconic 'Little Tramp' character in the frozen wastelands of the Yukon, where his search for gold turns into the pursuit of something even more valuable—the love of a woman. The film contains several famous scenes, both comic and dramatic, including Chaplin eating his shoe and a heart-breaking New Year's Eve celebration.

'The Gold Rush,' regarded as one of Chaplin's best films overall, is also noted as a prime example of his unique combination of slapstick comedy and intense dramatic emotion.

"Eighty-five years young, 'The Gold Rush' is still an effective tear-jerker," wrote critic Eric Kohn of indieWIRE in October, 2010. "In the YouTube era, audiences—myself included—often anoint the latest sneezing panda phenomenon as comedic gold. Unless I’m missing something, however, nothing online has come close to matching the mixture of affectionate fragility and seamless comedic inspiration perfected by the Tramp."

The screening has been organized in partnership with The Barley House, 132 North Main St., Concord, N.H. To help celebrate New Year's Eve, ticket holders for 'The Gold Rush' can dine at the Barley House that night from 6 p.m. until showtime and receive 15 percent off the food portion of their dinner. For more information about The Barley House, call (603) 228-6363 or visit

'The Gold Rush' will be shown with live music on Friday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $11 per person. Tickets available at the door or in advance from the Red River box office online at or by calling (603) 224-4600.

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For more info, contact:
Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •
Images attached.
More high-resolution digital images available upon request.

Friday, December 17, 2010

'Modern Times' on Saturday, Dec. 26

The usual holiday madness, and also personal concerns that range from ailing parents to newly adopted puppies, have rendered the blog somewhat inactive of late. Ah, but the screenings continue. We have not one but TWO Chaplin features coming up: 'Modern Times' (1936) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 26 at 4:30 p.m., and then a New Year's Eve screening of 'The Gold Rush' (1925) on Friday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

'Modern Times' features Chaplin's own soundtrack, so I won't be doing music for that, but will accompany several silent comedy shorts to go with it. 'The Gold Rush' will be all me, with a heavy dose of 'Auld Lang Syne' and a little waltz tune for tender moments that I made up for a previous 'Gold Rush' screening and which several people have said ranks as the best melody I've come up with. (I know, that's not saying much.)

I'm so pleased to be able to screen these films. Initial contacts with the Chaplin estate a few years ago were a bit frosty, but Janus Films (which currently manages the U.S. rights for the Chaplin titles under copyright) have been wonderful to deal with. The end result is that cinema audiences in our little corner of the world have a chance to experience Chaplin in a manner pretty close to the way audiences originally experienced it.

Hope you can join us for the screenings, which each include a selection of comedy short subjects and maybe a few cinematic surprises. Here's the press release for 'Modern Time' on Saturday, Dec. 26...


For more info, contact:
Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Chaplin's 'Modern Times' in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Dec. 26

Free family-friendly screening of classic film comedy on holiday weekend

WILTON, N.H.—Mark the holiday season with 'Modern Times' (1936), Charlie Chaplin's timeless comedy about man surviving the machine age. The film will be screened on Sunday, Dec. 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. The family-friendly show includes silent short comedies with live music and is free to the public, with donations accepted to defray costs.

In 'Modern Times,' a fable about assembly lines and automation, the quest of Chaplin's 'Little Tramp' character for a place in society continues against the ever-quickening pace of modern life. But this time, the Tramp has a homeless young woman (Paulette Goddard) as a partner, who joins in a series of adventures that rank among Chaplin's best remembered comic sequences.

This showing features a digitally restored version of 'Modern Times' provided courtesy of Janus Films, allowing viewers to see the film as audiences enjoyed it when it was first released. The film is suitable for the entire family, and a great way to get out and relax together at the end of a busy holiday weekend.

'Modern Times,' Chaplin's final silent picture, was also the last in which he played the iconic 'Tramp' character. Released seven years after the movie industry had converted from silent pictures to talkies, 'Modern Times' contains no dialogue, but includes a soundtrack with music created by Chaplin.

For the other silent comedies at the screening, live musical accompaniment will be provided by local musician and composer Jeff Rapsis.

At the time of its release, 'Modern Times' was hailed as an instant masterpiece, and went on to be one of 1936's top-grossing films. Critics today regard 'Modern Times' as a farewell to the unique art of silent comedy as well as a great film in its own right that's stood the test of time.

“One of the many remarkable things about Charlie Chaplin is that his films continue to hold up, to attract and delight audiences,” wrote Roger Ebert, in a recent review of 'Modern Times.'

"Chaplin's last silent film is consistently hilarious, and unforgettable!" raved Leonard Maltin.

'Modern Times' will be screened on Sunday, Dec. 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, in Wilton, N.H. For more information, visit or call (603) 654-3456. The Wilton Town Hall Theatre runs silent film programs with live music on the last Sunday of every month. See for yourself the films that made audiences first fall in love with the movies!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pirates! (...but not in the Caribbean)

The holiday season is here, and of course that brings with it...pirates! Arrrgh the 'Erald Angels Sing, right?

Well, I suppose actually 'Robin Hood' is the Douglas Fairbanks film most appropriate for the season of giving, as at least some actual giving takes place (from the rich to the poor), as opposed to 'The Black Pirate,' in which the pirates give their victims nothing but gunpowder-powered blasts into eternity.

But anyway, we're screening 'The Black Pirate' in Plymouth, N.H. on Thursday, Dec. 9. Come one, come all. And I'm looking forward to audience reaction to the lesser-known 'Mystery of the Leaping Fish' (1915), with its shockingly casual images of gleeful cocaine use. How times have changed!

Here's all the details in the latest press release...

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film ‘The Black Pirate’ (1926) in Plymouth, N.H. on Thursday, Dec. 9

Adventure flick stars Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood’s original action hero

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—He was the Indiana Jones of his day, thrilling early filmgoers with amazing stunts and feats of heroic derring-do. He was Douglas Fairbanks Sr., one of Hollywood’s first megastars, and his timeless charisma can be seen again in a double feature of two of his best pictures on Thursday, Dec. 9 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center in Plymouth, N.H..

Featured is ‘The Black Pirate’ (1926), a swashbuckling tale of the high seas that proved one of Fairbanks’ most popular blockbusters. The forerunner of all pirate movies, it was also one of the first Hollywood films to be released in color. Also on the program is ‘The Mystery of the Leaping Fish’ (1915), an early Fairbanks spoof of the Sherlock Holmes tales.

The double feature starts at 7 p.m. Admission is free; contributions are encouraged. The films will be accompanied by live music by local composer Jeff Rapsis. Dinner is also available for patrons who arrive early at the Flying Monkey, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. For more information, call (603) 536-2551 or visit

Fairbanks, originally a stage actor, broke into films in the industry's early years. By 1920, starring roles in a romantic comedies established Fairbanks as a popular leading man. He then turned to historic adventure films, including ‘The Mark of Zorro’ (1920) and ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1921), which cemented his reputation for on-screen athleticism, heroism, and romance.

In 1920, Fairbanks’ marriage to fellow megastar Mary Pickford was one of the era’s biggest media events and resulted in Hollywood’s first celebrity power couple. They combined their last names to call their estate “Pickfair,” and massive crowds turned out everywhere during the couple’s European honeymoon.

At the peak of his popularity, pictures starring Fairbanks set the standard for Hollywood action adventure films, including such titles as ‘Robin Hood’ (1922), ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924), and ‘The Black Pirate’ (1926), all of which were major box office successes.

When the silent film era ended in 1929, an aging Fairbanks found he was less enthusiastic about the effort required to make movies and retired from the screen. He died in 1939 at age 56 after suffering a heart attack; his now-famous lasts words were, “I’ve never felt better.”

The Fairbanks double feature is the latest in a series of monthly silent film screenings at the newly renovated Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center. The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by bringing together the elements needed for silent film to be seen at its best: superior films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and a live audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you show them as they were designed to be screened,” 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 experience very different from today’s movies—one in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

‘The Black Pirate’ and ‘The Mystery of the Leaping Fish’ will be shown on Thursday, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Free admission; contributions encouraged. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit

A successful, suspenseful 'Peter Pan'

Okay, silent film screenings are a bit like going to the casino because you never know what's going to happen. On Sunday, Nov. 28, when we screened the original 'Peter Pan' (1924) in Wilton, N.H., we experienced adventures equal to anything depicted onscreen.

First, the good news: In the spirit of author J.M. Barrie donating all 'Peter Pan' royalties to a London children's hospital, we once again donated all proceeds of our screening to a similar charity—in our case, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute down in Boston, Mass. We've done this each year for the past three years at the behest of Dave and Ali Stevenson, who help organize the screenings. This year, thanks in part to a pre-show raffle organized by Dave (and featuring prizes from his 'Looser Than Loose' vault), we were able to raise $356 for the cause.

Now the bad news: We almost didn't show the film! What happened was on Sunday, my wife and I pulled in after driving 17 hours straight from Chicago. This made me addle-brained enough to not be as organized as I usually try to be, which in turn led to a scene about an hour before showtime in which I simply could not find the film.

After about 15 minutes of panicked searching, I found a copy of it and rushed off to the theater, which is a half-hour drive away. Getting there, I found the 2 p.m. showing of 'The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornet's Nest' hadn't ended yet (hey, it pays the bills), so our audience was cooling its heels. This led to little time to set up and do our raffle; in the meantime, Dave Stevenson showed up with another disc with Peter Pan on it, which we chose to use.

Well, unfortunately, about a half-hour into the film, the disc began having troubles—image break-up, then slowdown and stop issues. It cleared up for a bit, but then came back with a vengeance, causing the film to skip around and ahead alarmingly. Finally, when it seemed jammed for good, I had to stop playing and rushed back to the projection booth with the version I had. We resumed, and thankfully the disc played without problems, but the all-important spell had been broken and musically, it's tough to recover the zone after something like that.

Still, people liked it, and all was well, until afterwards, when all the money collected for the raffle (kept in a popcorn bucket at my feet) was missing, as was my cell phone. A search proved fruitless; I was just about to give up when both the money and the phone were discovered in one of the theater's trash barrels! Talk about your last-minute cliff-hanging race-to-the-rescue finishes! Anyway, the day was saved, but not after a certain amount of suspense...

And what was really nice is that for some reason, we had a larger-than-usual group (it seemed to me) of first-timers who came up to me afterwards and said how much they enjoyed the experience. Hope they keep coming back. But thanks to all who attended, and especially to those who helped the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and also to Dave Stevenson for organizing the effort and for Wilton Town Hall Theatre manager Dennis Markaverich for his support of the silent film series.

Monday, November 15, 2010

'Paths to Paradise' (1925) on Saturday, Nov. 20

Got an exciting screening coming up: the Raymond Griffith comedy 'Paths to Paradise' (1925) as part of this weekend's Somewhere North of Boston film festival at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. This festival of independent films, revived this year after being dormant for a bit, is a great event to celebrate the achievements and potential of non-mainstream cinema.

And though 'Paths to Paradise' was hardly a niche film when it was released, today the whole genre of silent film stands as a category that's definitely outside the herd, and organizers were kind enough to offer me a slot.

The basis for showing 'Paths' is two-fold, actually: first, it's hardly ever screened, and then also there's a slight New Hampshire connection, as mentioned in the press release below. Hope to see you at the screening! (By the way, turns out there are individual tickets available on a first-come, first-serve basis, which I didn't know about when I sent out the info below.)


SNOB film festival to highlight forgotten comic with N.H. ties

Silent star Raymond Griffith featured in 'Paths to Paradise' on Saturday, Nov. 20

CONCORD, N.H.—He was a silent film star who really was silent, thanks to a childhood vocal injury. He was Raymond Griffith, the "Silk Hat" comedian, whose popularity in the 1920s rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin. But Griffith's lack of a speaking voice led to an abrupt end to his on-screen career when talkies arrived in 1929. Since then, most of his films have been lost, causing Griffith to be virtual unknown today.

But the elegantly dressed comic, who as a youngster attended St. Anselm Prep School in Goffstown, N.H., will return to the cinematic spotlight once again at the upcoming Somewhere North of Boston film festival. 'Paths to Paradise' (1925), one of his few surviving works, will be shown with live music on Saturday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Red River Theaters, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is by weekend pass or day pass to the festival.

The Somewhere North of Boston film festival is a grassroots effort to showcase and support independent filmmaking. Running from Friday, Nov. 19 through Sunday, Nov. 21 at the Red River Theatre complex in Concord, N.H., it strives to bring films to the area that local audiences might not otherwise see. Proceeds from the SNOB Film Festival will be used to support the arts.

This year, organizers chose to include a vintage silent film to acknowledge the important and today largely unknown achievements of early filmmakers. 'Paths to Paradise,' which has no soundtrack, will be brought to life in the manner it was originally intended: on the big screen, in a good print run at the proper speed, with music performed live and with an audience.

"All those elements are important for silent film to succeed," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician and composer who specializes in accompanying silent film. "These movies weren't designed to be seen at home alone on your TV screen, where they rarely have an impact. However, if you can show them as they were intended, it's surprising how they can come back to life. These are the films that caused our great-grandparents to first fall in love with the movies, and with good reason."

'Paths to Paradise' (1925) stars Griffith as a polished con man who competes with a feisty female jewel thief to steal a heavily guarded diamond necklace. The film, which costars Betty Bronson, finishes with a wild car chase through the California desert. Unfortunately, all existing prints of 'Paths to Paradise' are missing the final 10 minutes, but the film ends at a point that completes the plot and provides a satisfying finish.

"Griffith's character was that of a worldly, shrewd, and quick-thinking gentleman, usually dressed in a top hat and a cape, who enjoyed outwitting con artists and crooks at their own game," said Rapsis, who has composed new material for the screening and will use it to improvise the full score. "It turns out he was very different from Chaplin or Buster Keaton, and so were his films—they seem a bit more cynical and so perhaps more modern. We've shown them before and they hold up well with a live audience today."

Born in Boston in 1895, Griffith injured his vocal cords at an early age, rendering him unable to speak above the level of a hoarse whisper. After appearing in circuses and attending at least one year (1905-06) at St. Anselm Preparatory School in Goffstown, N.H., he went on to serve in the U.S. Navy prior to World War I and in 1915 wound up in Hollywood, where the movie business was already booming.

Early on, Griffith worked at Mack Sennett's Keystone studio, where he developed a reputation as an excellent actor on screen and a superb comedy writer and director. He eventually concentrated on behind-the-camera duties, making him Sennett's right-hand man for a time, but he eventually moved to the then-new Paramount studios in the early 1920s, where he began to appear again in on-camera roles.

Griffith's mastery of character parts made him immediately popular, prompting Paramount to star him in his own movies starting in 1924. In the next few years, he completed a dozen feature films, most of which today are lost due to neglect or improper storage. If not cared for properly, older film stock will decompose and sometimes burst into flames. About 80 percent of all silent film is presumed lost today.

Following the arrival of sound pictures in 1929, Griffith's lack of a speaking voice forced a return to behind-the-camera work, with one notable exception: he played a non-talking role as a dying French soldier in Lewis Milestone's World War I classic 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' (1930) which won that year's Academy Award for Best Picture.

As a producer, Griffith's work included the classic family film 'Heidi' (1937) and 'The Mark of Zorro' (1940). He retired in 1940, and died in 1957 at age 62 after choking at a Los Angeles restaurant.

"Though he's not as well known today as Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Griffith was doing some really good work during the peak of his career," Rapsis said. "It's great that film-goers will get a chance to appreciate Griffith's work as part of this year's SNOB festival."

'Paths to Paradise' will be shown on Saturday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is either by weekend pass ($50), which allows entrance into all films of the three-day festival, or Saturday day pass ($25), which allows entrance to all films on Saturday only. Tickets available at the door or in advance from the Red River box office online at or by calling (603) 224-4600. For more info on the Somewhere North of Boston Film Festival, visit

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween spookiness in Wilton, N.H. on Oct. 31

I'm really looking forward to our upcoming screening of 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927) on Halloween, Sunday, Oct. 31, at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. It's a terrific-looking film, one of the most watchable silents I've ever encountered, and I can't wait to see how it plays with an audience.

We do screenings in Wilton on the last Sunday of every month, and when I saw that this year, our show fell right on Halloween Day, I wanted to do something special. 'The Cat and the Canary' promises to fill the bill: a silent film creep show that served as the inspiration for decades of haunted house thrillers to come, with its lonely hallways, sliding panels, secret passageways, and more.

Also, I consider it both poor form and bad karma to talk too much about music in advance of a screening (because sometimes I change my mind in the process, even during the show) but in this case, I've worked up some good stuff that I hope will help 'The Cat and the Canary' be as effective as possible in a theater. Our shorts include a couple of Halloween-themed films, including one starring our pals Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy. Hope to see you there!

For more info, here's the press release that just went out. It's a little late due to time constraints lately, but we're still hoping to scare up a big crowd on Halloween. There might even be candy! Trick or treat!


'Cat and Canary' (1927) to play Wilton (N.H.) with live music on Sunday, Oct. 31

Haunted house silent film thriller to be shown at sundown on Halloween

WILTON, N.H.—'The Cat and the Canary' (1927), a haunted house thriller from Hollywood’s silent film era, will be screened with live music on Halloween, Sunday, Oct. 31 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

The Halloween screening is free and open to the public, with donations accepted to defray costs.

'The Cat and the Canary' stands as the original movie thriller—the first picture to take audiences to the reading of a will in a haunted mansion that features clutching hands, a masked killer, disappearing bodies, and secret passageways.

Silent film starlet Laura LaPlante leads the cast as a young heiress who must spend the night in the creepy old mansion filled with relatives who all have motives to frighten her out of her wits. Meanwhile, a dangerous escaped lunatic is loose on the grounds. Can she and the others make it through the night?

Created for Universal Pictures by German filmmaker Paul Leni and based on a hit stage play, 'The Cat and the Canary' proved popular enough to inspire several remakes, including one starring Bob Hope. It was also the forbearer of all the great Universal horror classics of the 1930s and '40s.

The Wilton screening will use a fully restored print that shows the film as audiences would have originally experienced it. 'The Cat and the Canary' will be accompanied by live music by New Hampshire composer Jeff Rapsis, who specializes in silent film scoring. Rapsis will improvise the score on the spot during the screening.

"Silent film is all about the audience experience, and this one should be a perfect Halloween crowd-pleaser," Rapsis said. "It has something for everyone—spooky scenes, some good comedy, and it's all fine for the whole family."

Critics praise the original 'Cat and the Canary' for its wild visual design and cutting edge cinematography. Film reviewer Michael Phillips singled out the film for using "a fluidly moving camera and elaborate, expressionist sets and lighting to achieve some of the most memorable shots in silent film, from the amazing tracking shots down the curtain-lined main hallway to the dramatic zooms and pans that accompany the film's shocks."

Leonard Maltin called the original 'Cat and the Canary' a "delightful silent classic, the forerunner of all "old dark house" mysteries.

The program also includes vintage short subjects. One screening only on Sunday, Oct. 31 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre's silent film series gives movie-goers the chance to experience silent films the way they were intended to be seen: in best quality prints on the big screen with live music, and with an audience. See for yourself the pictures that made audiences to first fall in love with the movies!

Admission to 'The Cat and the Canary' is free, with donations accepted to defray costs. For more info, visit or call (603) 654-3456. For more info on the music, visit

Friday, October 22, 2010

The vampire still packs 'em in!

A slightly belated note about our recent double feature of 'Nosferatu' (1922) and 'The Golem' (1920), which took place this past Monday (four days ago) at the Palace Theatre in downtown Manchester, N.H.

First, I was delighted with the relatively heavy turnout for this program. Something like well over 100 people attended, easily the highest number for any Palace screening in the three years we've been showing silents there.

One reason, perhaps, is that word is getting around. Another is that we got lucky with some good publicity in the local media. But mostly, I think 'Nosferatu' itself carried the day. With sunsets coming earlier each evening and Halloween looming at month's end, people were in the mood for a vampire flick, so this caught them just right.

With two films, it was a long program: more than three hours, and we included a brief intermission between the two. 'Nosferatu' went fine, but I think I was too ambitious right from the start and so probably overdid things (special effects, weird sounds) a little too early. Probably should have waited until Hutter was at the castle to start up with the really weird stuff. But 'The Golem' was immensely satisfying.

I'd only looked at the film once (and a lot of that was in FF mode) and so knew how it went generally, though I didn't have any complicated plan. However, the music had a spontaneity that seemed to bring out the best in this picture: not only its spooky parts, but also a lot of humor. Some of the humor might not have been intentional by the film's German makers, but it did help the film, er, come to life. (No pun intended.)

Also helping was a serendipitous "plodding" melody I came up with that evolved into a main theme for the picture. It's actually a small snatch of a larger melody from Bach's "Little Fugue" in G minor, but it came into its own here as a perfect musical representation of steps being taken, either to build the leading man of clay or bring to life or to accompany him marching around the ghetto. Nice!

I also had another melody that I put in a mode with a flatted second so it would sound vaguely Jewish. However, any interest in creating a characteristic sound world for this film was diminished by the filmmaker's depiction of Jews as occultists led by Rabbis who wear pointy sorcerers hats and communicate with the underworld. Sheesh! Still, a remarkable film, and one that (with hindsight) contains many seeds, I think, of the anti-semitism that was to bloom so ferociously in Germany in not too many years hence.

The crowd had MANY new faces, and reaction was palpable when we previewed upcoming films in the series: 'Birth of a Nation' (1915) on Monday, Jan. 17, 2011 (yes, that's Martin Luther King Day) and 'Metropolis' (1927), among others. One thing that helped was a marvelous "coming attractions" slide show created by Dave Stevenson that gave attendees a glimpse of scenes from films to come, and which we ran prior to Monday night's frightfest. Let's hope we keep the crowds coming and that the Palace remains open to showing films there in a way that celebrates early cinema on, well, a palatial scale.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Get scared in 16mm on Saturday, Oct. 16

We just arranged for an afternoon of vintage film screenings (including some silents) at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library, 405 Pine St., in beautiful downtown Manchester. My colleague Dave Stevenson is unlocking his vault of 16mm prints as part of a meeting of the local "tent" of the Sons of the Desert, the Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society. (By the way, Manchester is hosting their international convention in 2012, which we're all excited about. More about that in months to come.)

The screenings on Saturday, Oct. 16, which have a Halloween flavor to them, are in the library's classic downstairs auditorium. They're free and open to the public and will run from 1:30 to 5 p.m. All films will be shown from 16mm prints.

Dave has put together a quick schedule, which I'm copying and pasting below. I'll do live music for the silents. Hope to see you there. Oh, and the chapter's business meeting will take place afterwards at Lala's Hungarian Restaurant not far away on Elm Street. Hope to see you there, too!

The program will consist of memorable cartoons and comedy shorts featuring Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Betty Boop and two stars from this area: Walter Long, who was born in Milford, NH, and Thelma Todd who hailed from Lawrence, Massachusetts. The films will be shown in beautiful 16mm prints on a real projector. Both silent and sound movies will be shown. Silent titles will be screened with keyboard accompaniment by local composer Jeff Rapsis. A fun time is guaranteed for all.

Film Program:

BIMBO'S INITIATION (Fleischer-Paramount; 7-24-1931); Dir. by Dave Fleischer. Betty Boop Series. Bimbo the dog is initiated into a secret society in a sadistic 'fun house'; then Betty Boop (with dog's ears) takes a hand. 10 min.; Sound; B&W.

DO DETECTIVES THINK? (Roach-Pathé; 11-20-1927); Dir. by Fred Guiol. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Noah Young, Viola Richard and Frank Brownlee. An escaped convict is out to kill Judge Foozle (Finlayson) who sentenced him to hang. Two inept detectives (Laurel and Hardy) are hired to guard the judge and his wife. 20 min.; Silent with live accompaniment; B&W.

THE LIVE GHOST (Roach-MGM; 12-8-1934); Dir. by Charley Rogers. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Walter Long, Charlie Hall, Arthur Housman and Mae Busch. A gruff sea captain is having trouble manning his ship because of rumors it's haunted. He inveigles Stanley and Oliver into helping him shanghai a crew from the sailors at a dockside bar. Once aboard, the captain warns them that whoever says the word "ghost" will get his head twisted from north to south. At sea, one of the drunken sailors falls into a trough of whitewash, terrorizing Stanley and Oliver into blurting out "ghost" in front of the enraged captain. 20 min.; Sound; B&W.

THE SCARECROW (Metro Pictures; 12-22-1920); Dir. by Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton. Cast: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Sybil Seely, Al St. John, Joe Keaton and Luke the Dog. Farmhands Keaton and Roberts share a cottage full of mechanical devices for making life easy. They are rivals for the farmer's daughter. Keaton , disguised as a scarecrow, causes troubles for his rival and the farmer. When Keaton stoops to tie his shoe, the girl accepts what she thinks is his kneeling proposal. 20 min.; Silent with live accompaniment; B&W.

SEAL SKINS (Roach-MGM; 2-6-1932); Dir. by Morey Lightfoot and Gil Pratt. Cast: ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd, Billy Gilbert, Charlie Hall and Leo Willis. An old dark house comedy in which the Girls are chasing a stolen "seal" and a big story for the local news. 20 min.; Sound; B&W.


PETER PAN HANDLED (Standard-F.B.O.; 4-26-1925); Dir. by Walter Lantz. Dinky-Doodle series. A turn on the Peter Pan tale with a combination of live action and animation. 10 min.; Silent with live accompaniment; B&W.

PUBLIC GHOST Nº 1 (Roach-MGM; 12-14-1935); Dir. by Harold Law. Cast: Charley Chase, Joyce Compton, Edwin Maxwell, Clarence Wilson and Harry Bowen. Charley Chase is an inventor who is hired to haunt a house. 20 min.; Sound; B&W.

LIBERTY (Roach-MGM; 1-26-1929); Dir. by Leo McCarey and Stan Laurel. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Sam Lufkin, Tom Kennedy and Harry Bernard. Two escaped convicts (Laurel & Hardy) change clothes in the getaway car, but wind up wearing each other's pants. The rest of the film involves their trying to exchange pants, in alleys, in cabs and finally high above the street on the girders of a construction site. 20 min.; Silent with live accompaniment; B&W.

HOT MONEY (Roach-MGM; 11-16-1935); Dir. by James W. Horne. Cast: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, James Burke and Fred Kelsey. A thief on the run dumps some hot money in Thelma and Patsy's lap. Shortly thereafter, his untimely demise turns the story into a murder mystery. 20 min.; Sound; B&W.

TECHNO-CRAZY (Educational-Fox; 3-12-1933); Dir. by Charles Lamont. Cast: Monte Collins, Billy Bevan, Eleanor Hunt and John T. Murray. A weird tale of technological utopia, Bolshevism and love set in the demented mind of Monte Collins. 20 min.; Sound; B&W.


For further info please contact:
Dave Stevenson e-mail:

A pair of nice-looking ads

Here's a look at a couple of print ads that have been running in HippoPress, our local arts newspaper, to promote two upcoming screenings.

The first promotes a double-feature screening of 'Nosferatu' (1922) and 'The Golem' (1920) that we're doing at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. on Monday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. Visually, it's quite striking. We've been running it for the last few weeks and I hope it'll help boost turnout a bit. I love playing for films at the Palace, but we can only do screenings on Monday nights (they're busy at other times) so attendance has been an issue. We'll see.

This next one is a very sharp-looking ad for a screening of 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927), which we're showing at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 31 (hey, that's Halloween!) at 4:30 p.m. I credit myself for the line "In Silent Film, No One Can Hear You Scream," but the ad itself was put together by the crack production team (okay, unfortunate word choice) at HippoPress. I think it's very effective and I'm quite lucky to have such support in our local screenings in the southern New Hampshire area.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Coming soon: 'Nosferatu' (1922) on Oct. 18

Here's the press release for our screening of 'Nosferatu' (1922) and 'The Golem' (1920) at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. on Monday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. Designer Glenn Given did a great job with the black & white poster, which we're putting up all around the town.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film frightfest at Palace Theatre on Monday, Oct. 18

'Nosferatu' (1922) and 'The Golem' (1920) screened with live music in Manchester, N.H.

MANCHESTER, N.H.—Get into the Halloween spirit with a pair of timeless silent horror films to be screened with live music at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. on Monday, Oct. 18. General admission is $8 per person.

'Nosferatu' (1922), the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula,' remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre. Directed by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, 'Nosferatu' was among the first movies to use visual design to contribute to an overall sense of terror. 'The Golem' (1920), a precursor of the Frankenstein films, tells the story of an artificial man made of clay and brought to life to protect Jews from persecution.

To modern viewers, the passage of time has made both these unusual films seem even more strange and otherworldly. It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will try to enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screenings.

In 'Nosferatu,' German actor Max Schreck portrays the title character, a mysterious count from Transylvania who travels to the German city of Bremen to take up residence. A rise in deaths from the plague is attributed to the count's arrival, but only when a young woman reads "The Book of Vampires" does it become clear how to rid the town of this menace.

In 'The Golem,' set in 16th century Prague, a rabbi creates a giant creature from clay, called the Golem. Using sorcery, brings the creature to life in order to protect local Jews from persecution. Like 'Nosferatu,' 'The Golem' is also a German film that uses surrealistic sets and lighting to create an eerie mood. The story is taken from a medieval Jewish legend.

Both films were filmed by legendary German cinematographer Karl Freund, who went on to work on such Hollywood horror classics as 'Dracula' (1931) and 'The Mummy' (1932).

All movies in the Palace Theatre's silent film series were popular when first seen by audiences in the 1920s, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best. They were not made to be shown on television; to revive them, organizers aim to show the films at the Palace as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with a live audience.

Screenings in the Palace Theatre's silent series take place on Mondays at 7 p.m. ‘Nosferatu’ and ‘The Golem’ will be shown on Monday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. the Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St., Manchester, N.H. Admission is $8 per person, general admission seating. Tickets available at the door or in advance by calling the Palace Theatre box office, (603) 668-5588 or online at

The Palace Theatre’s silent film series is sponsored by HippoPress and Looser Than Loose Vintage Entertainment of Manchester.


“Early film version of Dracula is brilliantly eerie, full of imaginative touches that none of the later films quite recaptured.”
—Leonard Maltin

“A masterpiece of the German silent cinema and easily the most effective version of Dracula on record.”
—Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader


“ ‘The Golem,’ a carefully crafted and visually impressive work, has lost little of its power over the decades.”
—TV Guide’s Movie Guide

Report on 'The Last Laugh' (1924)

Yesterday's screening (Sunday, Sept. 26) of 'The Last Laugh' in Wilton, N.H. was a great silent film experience: good crowd, great-looking print, and the right kind of weather (kinda dreary outside). Even the music came together nicely.

For openers, we chose Laurel & Hardy in 'Double Whoopee' (1929)—the one in which they play doormen in a high class hotel, which seemed appropriate as an appetizer for 'The Last Laugh.' 'Whoopee' has never been one of my favorite L&H shorts, and I was surprised at how much laughter it produced. You never know. When it was over and we were waiting for 'Laugh' to come up, I even heard some people in the audience (about 100 people) behind me commenting how it was "just beautiful." And I guess it really was, in how the mayhem builds quite well once it gets going. It's a well constructed film in that sense.

'The Last Laugh' was quite a project for us, especially after a summer of silent film comedy. An all-visual German dramatic allegory, it's one of several silent film masterpieces that director F.W. Murnau produced. In an effort to keep my remarks brief, the one main point I tried to make was that 'Laugh' is unlike most of the Hollywood-produced pics that we usually screen. Instead, it's more of a character study, and in that sense very much a "European" film, so you should bring those expectations to it.

The screening went fine, though I made the mistake (for me) of playing through it earlier in the day. I did this because I wanted to sharpen my sense of the film (which I'd never played before), but it turned out to be a mistake because the morning run-through was just exactly what I wanted. And so what happens is that when it's time to play the film for real, I'm still somewhat under the spell of what I just did, and it really gets in the way. Nothing seems to build as effectively as it did earlier in the day; I often tell my wife afterwards, "I wish they could have all heard how it came out this morning."

On the other hand, when I play a film cold (having never seen it) or after a long absence, there seems to an energy present and it all coalesces in a way that doesn't happen otherwise. I'm reminded of something I read about the pianist Franz Liszt, who would sight-read a piece through for the first time and play it straight, but if he attempted it again, he would invariably embellish it or elaborate on it or "improve" it in some way. I ain't no Franz Liszt, but I sense there's something related to this phenomenon in what happens to me, though in my case I can't ever seem to match what I just did, and instead of improving it I end up "deproving" it, if that's a word.

This seems to be such as well-established pattern at this point that I should really just give in and make it a rule: no same-day run-throughs.

I had a surprising conversation afterwards with a woman who seemed genuinely distraught by Murnau's film. Essentially, she didn't want to be a member of the human race if someone like the Emil Jannings character could be treated as he was in the film. When I realized she wasn't joking (we live in a world of entirely too much irony these days), I tried pointing out that it's only a movie, and that it has a happy ending, but she wasn't hearing any of it, saying the ending was "artificial." Things got a bit confusing when another fan, who happens to be a kind of Christian numerologist, came over and made a case for the film being a parallel to the Jesus story, and that the twist of fate at the end represented Christ's resurrection. So it was an interesting discussion.

I need to put in a word here for my colleague Dave Stevenson, who did a great job putting together a trailer for our upcoming Halloween screening of 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927), which we're screening in Wilton on, yes, Sunday, Oct. 31 at 4:30 p.m. Hope to see you there!

Monday, September 20, 2010

'The Last Man' coming Sunday, Sept. 26

Here's the text of a press release that went out about 'The Last Laugh' (1924), which we're screening at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 26. I'm excited about this one. Who would have thought that cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to shoot the "I Love Lucy" sitcom decades later?

Monday, Sept. 20, 2010 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

'The Last Laugh' (1924) to play Wilton (N.H.) with live music on Sunday, Sept. 26

Emil Jannings stars in ground-breaking silent drama from German director F.W. Murnau

WILTON, N.H.—'The Last Laugh' (1924), a German silent film drama about a hotel doorman demoted to washroom attendant, will be screened with live music on Sunday, Sept. 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

The screening is free and open to the public, with donations accepted to defray costs.

In 'The Last Laugh,' regarded as one of German director F.W. Murnau's best pictures, the story is told entirely in visual terms, without the use of title cards. The film, which follows the mental breakdown of an aging man who loses his position of authority, is also noted for its revolutionary use of camera movement.

The Wilton screening will use a fully restored print that shows the film as audiences would have originally experienced it. 'The Last Laugh' (original German title: 'Der Letzte Mann') will be accompanied by live music by New Hampshire composer Jeff Rapsis, who specializes in silent film scoring. Rapsis will improvise the score on the spot during the screening.

Critics and film writers regard 'The Last Laugh' as a landmark of early cinema.

" 'The Last Laugh' is a masterpiece of psychological study, perhaps the best ever portrayal of what goes through one man's mind under varying situations ... It is absolutely mind-boggling to see Emil Jannings age at least 10 or 15 years right in front of our eyes in the course of a couple of minutes," wrote author Robert K. Klepner in 'Silent Films' (2005).

Critic David Kehr of the Chicago Reader described 'The Last Laugh' as "the 1924 film in which F.W. Murnau freed his camera from its stationary tripod and took it on a flight of imagination and expression that changed the way movies were made."

The film's director of photography, Karl Freund, set new standards of cinematography in 'The Last Laugh,' setting up the camera to move through corridors and "see" action through a character's eye-view. Freud's long career later included work in television in the 1950s in Hollywood, when he developed the "three camera" system for the "I Love Lucy" show, which became the standard format for shooting situation comedies.

The program also includes vintage short subjects. One screening only on Sunday, Sept. 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre's silent film series gives movie-goers the chance to experience silent films the way they were intended to be seen: in best quality prints on the big screen with live music, and with an audience. See for yourself the pictures that made audiences to first fall in love with the movies!

Admission to 'The Last Laugh' is free, with donations accepted to defray costs. For more info, visit or call (603) 654-3456.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Report from 'Robin Hood' on Sept. 13

Last night (Monday, Sept. 13) we showed the Douglas Fairbanks film 'Robin Hood' (1922) to a small but appreciative audience at Manchester's Palace Theatre, and more and more I'm convinced that I do my most effective music in the big spaces of the epic historical costume drama kind of films. I don't know if it's the atmosphere or the situations or just that they're so long and there's room to settle in and relax. But more often than not, once one of these kinds of films is underway, the music seems to flow just so naturally.

I might have one or two melodic ideas in play, and at some point they seem to flow naturally into underscoring that somehow fuses with the action on the screen, punctuating it or extending it or setting it into relief. Often it's quiet stuff, and can be as simple as playing a melody starting on a different step of the scale (so creating a modal effect), which then creates a harmony that allows me to veer off into something where a fragment of the other melody finds its way into the texture.

All this is happening instantaneously, and nearly without thought on my part. (Not that there's much of that in any case.) And I've found this is more likely to happen in the big films with some drama, which allows for a greater deal of freedom to just turn off the "thinking" part of the brain and just produce music from, well, the heart.

This doesn't happen too much in comedies, where timing is so important and I find I never quite stop calculating as the film unspools. With comedy, my radar seems to be always asking the question: "How can I use music to bring out the comedy?" Even in feature comedies, where you'd think there would be room to spread out, it doesn't seem to happen. This doesn't preclude a successful score, but it's definitely a factor in how things go.

'Robin Hood' was a textbook example of how "flow" kicks in. After some suitably mystical music for "let us return to medieval times" opening, and then some rousing stuff for the opening joust, I found things came quite naturally after that. I had a main 'horn call' like melody that could be transformed into many different forms, a nice contrasting countermelody for romance, and a few chord sequences to indicate evil (Prince John) and astonishment. Once I got those under my fingers and settled in, I found myself weaving a score that I felt helped the film come to life.

The high point for me was in the convent, when Robin Hood discovers that Marion is still alive. The music had been pretty busy and loud for some time up until then, and so the contrast (slow, soft) came across as really effective. And with a slow, climbing melody to start, I was able to work in little pieces of other melodies at just the right moment, I felt, to underscore the action on screen. I found myself sitting there watching the film, and having my fingers play stuff that was just coming to me without thinking about it.

Another moment like this was when Fairbanks decides to return to England; for this, I found myself using a little piece of the main melody repeated again and again, rhythmically (it wound up sounding a little like the famous falling arpeggio from Mendelssohn's 'Fingal's Cave' Overture) and it also served to build excitement and anticipation quite naturally, with little help from the thinking part of my brain.

After all this, it was somewhat amusing to be told afterwards that I used the theme from the old TV show 'F Troop' too much. Funny—the main melody I came up with for 'Robin Hood' and the old TV theme (by William Lava. How did I know that?) serve the same purpose emotionally, but I looked at it and the only actual harmony/melody contour that's remotely similar is the part of the F troop theme where the words are "WAR WAS NEAR," as in "The end of the Civil WAR WAS NEAR..." But that little lick was enough to trigger 'F Troop' in the mind of at least one movie-goer.

Sad laughter: One element of 'Robin Hood' that doesn't hold up very well in a theater today is how Fairbanks moves. As Robin Hood, he tends to mince about in a way that some folks are bound to find comical in its own right. I think of it as 'Phantom of the Opera' syndrome, after the reaction provoked by the female lead's overacting in the 1925 Lon Chaney version. Too bad, as this tends to spoil the mood, or at least gets in the way of an audience really buying a film. "If someone's laughing at it, I can't take it that seriously, can I?" One of the pitfalls of resurrecting vintage cinema.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Went up to Plymouth, N.H. last night (Thursday, Sept. 9) for a screening of 'College' (1927) starring Buster Keaton. Only the second show up there in what could eventually be a good series, but it does take time for word to get around and for an audience to build. It's a college town, home to Plymouth State University, which is now back in session, but that didn't seem to result in many audience members—yet.

In terms of music, an okay screening. Preceded by Keaton's 'The Goat' and Chaplin's 'Pawnshop,' which produced good laughs though what I did felt scattered because of some pre-show distractions. It's amazing that what happens before a screening can make so much difference in my ability to concentrate, but I've found it's true. Maybe the mark of a serious performer is that he or she is able to come through no matter what happens, but I find I can't do that just yet. Maybe with time.

The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center is an unusual venue because, unlike most theaters I've played in, it actually offers you the choice of enjoying a full meal with table service during the screening. I'm not so sure how I feel about that, especially if the food continues through the screening—increasingly, I find it's important for the films to be the sole focus, or they just don't work as well. Maybe I'm just being too high-falutin'. Well, the food does bring in people, so in that sense it's a good thing.

Many thanks, by the way, to Manchester artist Peter Noonan for coming along and helping with projection. If you need any artwork done, Peter's the guy. Check out his Web site at

Off to Ogunquit this weekend for another chapter in the 'College' road show, and then it's 'Robin Hood' at the Palace Theatre in Manchester on Monday night. Looking forward to creating music to bring that one to life.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

It's time for 'College'

Starting next week, this adventure takes on the form of a road show of sorts. In two weeks, I'm playing for Buster Keaton's feature 'College' (1927) in three venues, each in a different state.

On Thursday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m., it's the Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. (a college town!); on Sunday, Sept. 12 at 2 p.m., it's the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine; and on Saturday, Sept. 18 at 7 p.m., it's the Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall and Community Center.

What's up with this? I have to admit, it kinda boils down to efficiency. While I love to score films that are new to me, it does take some time to preview them and work up suitable original material to use during the screening.

Yes, I can play a film cold (having not seen it) but for me that's often not the recipe for bringing out the best in a particular silent film, which is what this is all about, nor does it give me the satisfaction of creating effective original stuff in the first place.

In playing for a film, I can always draw from a growing bank of material that I've done for other movies. But that rarely seems to be as effective as developing new tunes and chord sequences specifically for a film -- material that reflects my sense of the film's mood, locale, structure, and so many other elements that somehow fuel the music.

So when you've got three screenings scheduled in a short period of time, it's only smart to focus on one program so you can do it well in all three places, as long as they're different places and not drawing from potentially the same audience pool.

In this case, the venues are relatively far apart, even in as compact an area as northern New England. So there's little overlap likely, hence the same feature, 'College,' as centerpiece of each program. Not only that, but I'm keeping the same shorts (no, not the ones I'm wearing) as well: another Keaton, 'The Goat,' and Chaplin's 'The Pawnshop.' We ran both last week at our regular series in Wilton, N.H. and audience reaction was very strong, so while they're fresh in my head, why not take them on the road, too?

And in the middle of all this, I'm playing for a screening of 'Robin Hood' (1922) on Monday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. More about that later...

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Report from 'The Strong Man' in Wilton, N.H.

What a wonderful time at the movies! On a beautiful Sunday summer afternoon, about 100 people of all ages assembled to share the silent film experience. It was Sunday, Aug. 29 and the place was the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. And this was one of those times when it all fell into place -- the movies were great, the reaction was strong, the music came out well, and I even managed to keep my opening comments somewhat brief!

Really, I can't explain it, but sometimes everything all just comes together. Our first short, Keaton's 'The Goat,' was met with gales of laughter; likewise Chaplin's Mutual short 'The Pawnshop.'

For both I used an organ setting and the music came naturally; the Keaton film is one long chase, but the little islands where the action slows down a bit provide some wonderful opportunities for contrast. Musically, things worked out especially well in the scene where Keaton faces the detective/father over dinner at his girlfriend's house; I was able to build a series of chords over a slowly rising bass that created a great deal of tension. When Keaton finally makes his leap through the transom, the audience erupted with shouts and applause.

The Chaplin film is a great one for music (all the Chaplin Mutuals are, really) because it's full of scenes where good underscoring can really help the comic effect, I think. I'm pleased to say I hit the mark on this one, most satisfyingly in the prolonged "clock" scene, in which a sly little melody over a steady accompaniment traveled through the entire circle of fifths by the time the take was over. (I remember being astonished at the length of this famous take when screening my 8mm print of 'The Pawnshop' as a teenager; it still astounds me today.)

I've never been quite sure what to say about Harry Langdon, but for this screening I finally came up with something that seemed to click. I used to own a German shepard, and when it was a really hot night, the dog would go upstairs into the bathroom and climb in the tub and stare at the faucet, hoping that nice cold water would come out. That's kind of how Harry's character interacted with the world.

Still, reaction to 'The Strong Man' was a bit tentative at first. Things warmed up a bit during the Ellis Island scene, and then really came to life in the 'Harry carries the woman upstairs' scene. After that, the audience was with Harry all the way; when he rubs limburger cheese on his chest, the audience just howled and howled. (Though I have to say, he held that close-up of himself awfully long before we get the "I'm starting to smell" title.)

Materials for this score included a strong-man-type theme I've used in the past, a "feminine" romantic melody for Harry's interaction with Mary Brown, and various takes on 'Onward Christian Soldiers,' the hymn that plays an important part in the action. I was pleased at how it all held together, and I was even able to punctuate all the cannon shots with bass drum/cymbal crashes that were really effective, I thought.

In preparing this, I learned that Langdon himself suggested that the George M. Cohan tune "For It Was Mary" be used as the main theme for 'The Strong Man,' something I don't think works at all. It trivializes the woman's character and undermines the story's overall dramatic impact. Also, a soft lilting melody like that isn't very versatile in terms of being transformed to communicate other motions; no matter what, it can't help being that cute little tune that calls attention to itself.

So I didn't go there, and I think it allowed the film's characters to breathe a bit more freely, and also for the story's drama to boil a little hotter. And yes, the crowd cheered when the saloon proprietor landed in the trash can, and again when the walls came a-tumbling down and "Holy" Joe Brown yelled for the crowd to chase the money-changers from the temple!

Langdon doesn't always produce strong reactions. But we had a strong reaction to 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926) last year, and now again for 'The Strong Man' (1926). So I'm here to testify (in the manner of Holy Joe) that 85 years since they were released, Langdon's starring features can and do stand up as real crowd-pleasers.

Just keep thinking of that German shepherd sitting in the empty bathtub.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

'The Strong Man' coming Sunday, Aug. 29

It's been a crowded week, but time to catch up on a few odds and ends, including the next upcoming screening...

Coming up this weekend is a screening of 'The Strong Man' (1926), the great Harry Langdon film directed by a very young Frank Capra. It's the final installment of our "summer silent comedy" series at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre, and it's Sunday, Aug. 29 at 4:30 p.m. It's a fun film to score, and is one of those pictures where some specific music plays a key role in the picture -- in this case, the hymn 'Onward Christian Soldiers,' so I've had to get that under my fingers to be ready. We also have an eclectic collection of short subjects planned for this screening.

Our now-annual 'Mirthquake' (New England's largest vintage film festival; actually, it's New England's only vintage film festival) took place Aug. 19-21, and I neglected to post any notes, so here goes. Unlike previous incarnations, during our marathon daytime screenings at the Manchester Public Library, I wasn't on hand to pound the horseteeth (meaning the library's wonderful old Steinway), but here are comments on our features.

- Thursday, Aug. 19 featured Eddie Cantor in 'Kid Boots' (1926), a pretty good picture that I'd never seen before. We screened it in the third floor auditorium of UNH-Manchester thanks to Jeff Klenotic, a faculty member there. This was one of those screenings where the lights go down and I realize I can't see the keyboard, but it's too late to do anything about it. As an added obstacle, I was playing the school's Yamaha baby grand, a piano that I'm familiar with (I got my MBA from UNH and spent time between classes playing it) but which has a very tough action. Oh well! I muddled through the shorts, but prior to the Cantor film, I had us stop and Jeff Klenotic went out and found a desk lamp. Still, the lighting and the keyboard were enough to throw me off for the night, so things just didn't gell and I wasn't satisfied with the 'Kid Boots' effort.

- Friday, Aug. 20 found us at the Red River Theatre complex for a screening of Buster Keaton's 'Three Ages.' This one was shaping up fine, with me back on my familiar Korg Triton weighted-action keyboard, until the image popped up and it was being projected as wide screen! (This was entirely my fault, as I should have brought the discs up beforehand and worked that out.) I asked the folks there to fix it, but some behind-the-scenes confusion ensued; long story short, the problem never got corrected, and once again I found myself distracted by something that got in the way of focusing on the music. But the crowd (we had a full house) enjoyed the Keaton short 'Neighbors,' which I've played a lot lately and know quite well; a screening of 'The Boat' was musically off (again, I couldn't get in the zone) but also went over well. Finally, with 'Three Ages,' I was able to settle in and run with the film, as I say: to achieve that state of unselfconsciousness, and to be in the moment but also thinking one step ahead, that makes for a good score.

- Saturday, Aug. 21 brought us to the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, which owner Dennis Markaverich (one of the unsung heroes of film in our part of the world) generously opened up for us to screen a wild collection of obscure films. I usually argue for films that audiences will respond to, rather than rare or obscure films, but Mirthquake allows for a little latitude. The result was screenings of two features that I'd never seen before and scored cold: Larry Semon's World War I comedy 'Spuds' (1927) and the W.C. Fields comedy 'So's Your Old Man.' (1926). Not sure what it is about Wilton but I settle right in and things seem to go well there.

'Spuds' started off with some big battle scenes so I amped it up for that, taking the risk of starting too strong and then having nowhere to go. But I assumed the film would quiet down, and it did, so the gamble paid off. Somehow I came up with a little melodic figure that proved extremely versatile throughout the film, so it all held together quite nicely. The toughest part was the sidebar sequence featuring antics of a platoon of black soldiers that has dated quite badly; I think carefully done music could help set it off and separate it from the main story line, but I didn't realize this until it was over.

The best score of the festival, I felt, was what I pulled out of my hat for 'So's Your Old Man,' and it was largely the result of an accident. As the feature for an afternoon segment that included a large number of obscure shorts (some with W.C. Fields), I assumed it would be run last. So when it came on in the middle of the program, the title of it somehow didn't register and I assumed it was just another short, so I launched into some goofball melody and hoped for the best. (When you don't know what you're doing, confidence is essential.) Only about 10 minutes into it did I realize that we were seeing the Field feature, and so I took stock and recalibrated right then and there. Usually when I do a feature, I plan out the pacing and lay out themes as best I can in the first 10 minutes so that the thing has a chance of working. Here, I hadn't done any of that, so what to do? But even as I was thinking this, I was playing a simple melody that had come out of nowhere and I was using to fill time. And I kept playing it, and kept playing it, and found it had possibilities, and before I knew it, I had something that would really work to make 'So's Your Old Man' come to life. It was one of those accidents that happens sometimes -- and I'll bet it wouldn't have occurred if I had been overthinking the first 10 minutes. There's a lesson there, I think.

We've already got next year's Mirthquake scheduled, so mark your calendars: it's Thursday, Aug. 18 through Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

'The Kid,' Ogunquit, Maine on Sunday, Aug. 22

Aided by rainy weather, we enjoyed a healthy turnout of about 100 people for our first-ever silent film screening at the amazing Leavitt Theatre, a summer-only moviehouse that remains virtually unchanged from the day it opened in 1923. With a light rain falling, some folks found a 2 p.m. matinee more appealing than yet another afternoon on the beach.

The program featured two shorts: Keaton's knockabout 'Neighbors' (1920), and 'Mighty Like a Moose; (1926) with Charley Chase. I've been programming these shorts at many venues this summer because they show two very different kinds of silent film comedy, and also because both are surefire laugh-producers.

Keaton's 'Neighbors' is a surprise because it's not regarded as one of his best shorts: I never thought of it in the same league as, say, 'Cops' or 'One Week.' But when we screened it a couple of years ago, reaction was huge, and so I've continued to use it as a surefire program opener. The situational farce of Chase's 'Moose' comedy makes for a good contrast, and also produces big laughs.

Today's main attraction, Chaplin's 'The Kid' (1921), went really well, with a strong audience reaction including spontaneous applause when Chaplin leaps into the truck to battle the orphanage official. I love doing this film, in part because the dramatic opening sequence lends itself to fairly somber music, which in turn sets up the comedy perfectly. It goes way beyond what could be done in one- or two-reeler, and all this provides for rich opportunities for music to help tell the story.

And the score came together nicely, even in spite of the slight handicap of not being able to see the keyboard in front of me because it was below the lip of the Leavitt's small stage, meaning no ambient light from the screen could find it. Though I try to keep one eye on the screen at all times, passages that include wide skips or other digital derring do (meaning relating to fingers) require me to glance down at the keys. And when I can't do that, it creates some limits to the performance. Gotta remember to bring that piano light!

Nice touch: Following the show, I got my first-ever standing ovation. Well, it was only a partial one, but still nice to see. Thanks, Ogunquit. Our next screening there will be Sunday, Sept. 12, when we'll do a program highlighted by Keaton's feature 'College' (1927).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mirthquake Aug. 19 to 21!

Time for Mirthquake, New England's largest film festival! Running from Thursday, Aug. 19 through Saturday, Aug. 21, we have a great line-up of screenings, most of which are free and open to the public. Please join us! Below is the basic schedule; for more complete info, visit

Thursday, Aug. 19, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.: "Mirthquake" Day One of three-day festival of early silent and sound comedy films. Daytime screenings in auditorium of Manchester Public Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.; (603) 624-6550; Free admission, donations encouraged. (Note break for lunch from noon to 2 p.m.)

• Thursday, Aug. 19, 7 p.m.: "Kid Boots" (1926), starring Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow; UNH-Manchester, third floor auditorium, 400 Commercial St., Manchester, N.H.; (603) 641-4101; Eddie Cantor stars in this rare feature comedy, a marital farce that marked the film debut of Clara Bow. Plus short subjects. Admission free, donations encouraged. Part of the 2010 "Mirthquake" festival.

• Friday, Aug. 20, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.: "Mirthquake" Day Two of three-day festival of early silent and sound comedy films. Daytime screenings in auditorium of Manchester Public Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.; (603) 624-6550; Free admission, donations encouraged. (Note break for lunch from noon to 2 p.m.)

• Friday, Aug. 20, 8 p.m.: "Three Ages" (1923), starring Buster Keaton; Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.; (603) 224-4600; See Buster Keaton make the leap from short subjects into feature-length films in this uproarious comedy. Plus short subjects. Part of the 2010 "Mirthquake" festival. Admission $10.

• Saturday, Aug. 21, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.: "Mirthquake" Day Three of three-day festival of early silent and sound comedy films. Daytime screenings at Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Feature films include Larry Semon in 'Spuds' (1927) at 10 a.m. and W.C. Fields in 'So's Your Old Man' (1926) at 2 p.m. Admission free, donations encouraged. (Saturday evening banquet details TBA.)

AND if that's not enough vintage cinema, I'm also doing a screening on Sunday, Aug. 22 at an historic old summertime moviehouse in the seaside resort village of Ogunquit, Maine:

• Sunday, Aug. 22, 2 p.m.: "The Kid" (1921) starring Charlie Chaplin, and other short comedies; Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; (207) 646-3123; Chaplin's classic tale with "a smile, and perhaps a tear," screened in a completely intact 1923 summer moviehouse (636 seats) in a seaside Maine resort town. Original seats still have wire racks underneath for gentlemen to store their hats! Admission $5 per person.