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 www.themirthquake.com.

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; www.manchester.lib.nh.us. 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; http://www.unhm.unh.edu/. 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; www.manchester.lib.nh.us. 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; www.redrivertheatres.org. 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; www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com. 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; http://www.leavittheatre.com/. 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.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Press release for 'The Kid' on Sunday, Aug. 22

And here's a release about a screening that's coming up in Ogunquit, Maine at a theater that's been running movies since 1923...

Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

'The Kid' (1921) to play in Ogunquit with live music on Sunday, Aug. 22

Silent film-era box office hit was Charlie Chaplin's first full-length feature breakthrough

OGUNQUIT, Maine—A local movie theater that opened its doors in the silent film era will once again host the screening of motion pictures made before Hollywood learned to talk.

Charlie Chaplin stars in the silent film blockbuster 'The Kid' (1921), to be screened with live music on Sunday, Aug. 22 at 2 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St./Route 1 in Ogunquit Village, Maine.

Admission is $5 per person. The program, which includes several short silent comedies, will be accompanied by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. Live music was an essential part of the silent film era until talking pictures arrived at the end of the 1920s.

'The Kid,' hailed as Chaplin's first full-length masterpiece, follows the story of a tramp who attempts to raise an orphaned boy on his own. 'The Kid' took the comedian a year and a half to make and attracted huge crowds when finally released. The role of the orphan, played by five-year-old Jackie Coogan and directed by Chaplin, is often cited as one of the top child performances in the history of cinema.

'The Kid,' at the time a daring mixture of comedy and drama, established Chaplin as one of the world's foremost filmmakers, and paved the way for other great comedies of the silent era.

"Chaplin's 'The Kid' is a terrific introduction to silent film for modern-day audiences," said Rapsis, who has frequently accompanied the picture. "It contains some great comedy, but also some emotionally moving scenes that still pack a wallop even today."

The screening at the Leavitt seeks to recreate the conditions that silent film was made for: best-possible quality prints projected on the big screen in a real theater, with supportive live music and a live audience.

"All these elements are important for the films to be seen as they were intended," Rapsis said. "They were designed as communal experiences, to be seen with an audience, and the larger the better. Under the right conditions, silent films such as 'The Kid' can still really come to life in a way that recaptures the magic of the early movies, and which is unlike the experience of watching a contemporary Hollywood picture."

The Leavitt Theatre, a seasonal one-screen moviehouse, opened in 1923 and has remained largely unchanged ever since, a rarity in the movie exhibition business. Economic pressures forced most vintage theaters to close long ago or convert to multi-screen facilities to survive.

But the Leavitt has endured, and continues to show first-run films during Ogunquit’s busy summer season. Though it contains modern projection and sound equipment, much of the facility is unchanged from when the Leavitt opened, including the wooden seats, some of which are complete with wire loops underneath so gentlemen could stow their hats.

The silent film screening is being held in conjunction with the Ogunquit Playhouse production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical 'Sunset Boulevard,' on stage through Saturday, Aug. 14. 'Sunset Boulevard' is based on the classic 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson as a forgotten silent film star.

Holders of ticket stubs from the recent production of 'Sunset Boulevard' will receive two-for-one admission to the Aug. 22 screening.

“With so many people seeing 'Sunset Boulevard' at the Ogunquit Playhouse, we thought audience members might appreciate a chance to see an actual silent film program in a historic theater such as the Leavitt, right here in town,” Rapsis said.

'The Kid' will be screened on Sunday, Aug. 22 at 2 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St./Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine. For more information, call (207) 646-3123 or visit www.leavittheatre.com.


“Chaplin's first real feature mixes slapstick and sentiment in a winning combination, as the Tramp raises a streetwise orphan. Wonderful film launched Coogan as a major child star, and it's easy to see why.”
– Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

"Unless your heart is as stony as a biblical execution, I challenge you to watch unmoved as Charlie Chaplin's heroic vagabond rescues five-year-old Jackie Coogan from being hauled away to the orphan asylum."
– Mark Bourne, DVD Journal

Press release for 'Grandma's Boy' on Thursday, Aug. 12

Here's a release with info about this week's screening at the newly renovated Flying Monkey Movie House and Performing Arts Center in Plymouth, N.H., a facility with one of the coolest names I've encountered yet.


Flying Monkey to launch silent film series on Thursday, Aug. 12

'Grandma's Boy' (1922) with live music first up in monthly screenings at restored Plymouth, N.H. moviehouse

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—The silent film era returns to the big screen at the newly reopened Flying Monkey Movie House and Performing Arts Center in Plymouth, N.H. with the screening of a classic silent comedy and short subjects, all accompanied by live music.

Showtime is Thursday, Aug. 12 at 7 p.m. All are welcome to this family-friendly event; admission is by donation. Proceeds will be used to support programming at the Flying Monkey, formerly known as the Plymouth Theatre prior to its recent refurbishment and reopening.

Featured will be a full-length comedy, 'Grandma's Boy,' starring Harold Lloyd, a popular 1920s film star. Comedy short subjects will include 'Neighbors' (1920) starring Buster Keaton and 'Mighty Like a Moose' (1926) starring Charley Chase.

Live music will be performed by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in scoring silent films and accompanies screenings throughout New England. Using original themes created beforehand, Rapsis improvises the music live as the films are shown.

'Grandma's Boy' tells the story a cowardly young man (Harold Lloyd) who seeks the courage to battle a menacing tramp who terrorizes his small hometown.

The silent film program will showcase the Flying Monkey Movie House and Performing Arts Center, which reopened in July after extensive renovations under the direction of Alex Ray, who purchased the facility at auction last year.

Other silent films with live music are scheduled through December at the Flying Monkey, with screenings scheduled every second Thursday night of the month. Upcoming films include Buster Keaton in 'College' (1927) on Thursday, Sept. 9 and Charlie Chaplin in 'The Kid' (1921) on Thursday, Oct. 14.

Silent film programs will be shown at the Flying Monkey on the second Thursday of each month.

"It's a great resource for the community, and especially Plymouth State University, to have these films available to the public, so they can be experienced as they were intended," said Lisa Lovett, the Flying Monkey's general manager. "It also keeps us in touch with the venue's long history as an active movie theater."

'Grandma's Boy' will be shown on Thursday, Aug. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Performing Arts Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Free admission, donations accepted. For more information, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.thecman.com and click on the "Flying Monkey" links.