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...