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 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

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 www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

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 www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

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 www.redrivertheatres.org or by calling (603) 224-4600. For more info on the Somewhere North of Boston Film Festival, visit www.snobfilmfestival.com.