Monday, January 31, 2011

Big reaction to 'Orphans of the Storm'

As old and creaky as they can seem when watching them on your own, there's something about D.W. Griffith's best films that can still rouse an audience, even now, almost a century after they were first released.

I saw this earlier this month, when we screened 'Birth of a Nation' (1915) at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. in honor of Martin Luther King Day. Even with all the blatant racism, people afterwards said the film really held them, especially in the amazing climax of Part 2.

"I was so conflicted," said one audience member, "because of the way the film was structured, my instinct was to root for the klan when they were riding to the rescue, but then I said, 'Wait a minute, no, no! It's the Ku Klux Klan. I can't root for them!" Incredible that Griffith's suspense-building and intercutting still works underneath a miasma of racism. That's some solid technique.

I saw the same thing two years ago, when we screened Griffith's 'Way Down East' (1920) in Wilton, N.H. in January, 2009. I thought a modern audience would find most of the picture quite blah, with only the climactic "rescue at the edge of the waterfall" sequence making it worth it.

To my surprise, the screening drew a large mid-winter audience, and they stayed with it from start to finish, actually hissing the bad characters and really, REALLY cheering Richard Barthelmess when he rescued Lillian in the nick of time. I still rate it as one of the all-time best screenings we've done, in terms of how a film connected with an audience, and how the music came together as well. (Sometimes that happens.)

And so it went with 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), another sprawling melodrama by Griffith, which we screened yesterday (Sunday, Jan. 30) at the Wilton, N.H. Town Hall Theatre. A pretty full house was on hand, and the picture held them from start to finish. We got the same reaction throughout as in 'Way Down East,' including some hisses when Mother Frochard lies to Louise about how her eyesight can be cured, and people actually laughed quite heartily at some of the light stuff Griffith included throughout, such as the wine spilling into a sleeping spectator's mouth.

The music came together pretty nicely, too, I thought: I used a minuet for the two sisters, which was transformable into many shapes and forms, as well as a dark melody for Mother Frochard and her brood and an "love theme" for some of the tender moments with the Lillian Gish character, and elsewhere as well. Throw in other motifs for tension and suspense, and an occasional blast of "La Marseillaise" (but not too much) in the chaos of the revolution scenes, and you've got a movie score.

My one piece of cleverness, I thought, was to use the descending triad in the first phrase of "La Marseillaise" as the motif for the guillotine, played very staccato and fast, and in a minor key. And as big as the film was, it seemed very effective to play the first two-thirds of it entirely on a harpsichord setting, only switching to a full orchestral texture when the scenes of revolution start.

Afterwards, people said they were astonished at the size and scope of the film. Imagine that! Nearly 90 years after its release, people can still be impressed at what Griffith and other silent filmmakers were able to accomplish.

I did what I could to set expectations. Prior to the film, I asked the audience to travel back in time with me, not to the 1780s, when the film takes place (D.W. Griffith would take care of that) but to the 1920s, before 'Gone With the Wind' or 'The Ten Commandments' or 'Gandhi,' when this kind of epic drama was something entirely new.

Imagine having read about the French Revolution in books (if you got that far in school) and maybe seeing pictures and hearing tales of it, but that was all you knew and all you expected to know. Maybe if you were really ambitious, you might try reading 'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens, but that would be it.

And then, imagine going to go to a motion picture that actually showed you all if it happening right before your eyes, with dazzling sets and incredible costumes (the hair of the aristocratic women alone is worth the price of admission) and a real guillotine ready to be used: the French Revolution not only brought to life, but a crucial player in a drama that pulled you in and held you fast!

I think that kind of context helps to get things started, but once a film like 'Orphans of the Storm' starts running, it works its magic all on its own. And one of the reasons it gives people a different kind of satisfaction than a lot of contemporary cinema is because in many cases, the characters (and the stories themselves) are rooted in a kind of simplicity that we find refreshing in a motion picture theater.

Not for D.W. Griffith were complex heros with shades of good and bad in them and internal structures. I think one of the potent strengths of his films, and why they continue to generate emotional responses today, is that many of the main characters truly are thoroughly good or thoroughly bad. They may not wear white or black hats, but you know who to root for.

Of course life isn't like that, but then isn't that what the movies were all about right from the beginning? Escape, and reinventing life as we'd like to imagine it, sometimes, was all part of the magic of the movies.

And it's interesting how a director such as D.W. Griffith understood that right from the start, and not just because he was limited to telling a story in visual terms. Whether or not a film has a soundtrack, the rearrangement of reality is one of the things that keep us coming back to the movies, and to other forms of art as well. Reality reimagined in a way to beguile us, to fulfill our wishes, to make our dreams come true, even if we're not aware that a movie is doing it at the time.

'You Can't Please Everyone' Department: Near the beginning of 'Orphans of the Storm,' there's a moment where none other than Thomas Jefferson makes a cameo appearance while the future revolutionaries discuss their options. Since the topic is revolution, it was the first time I used the melody of "La Marseillaise," although only at a very slow tempo, as if it was only beginning to gather steam.

And then, when I came to the descending triad at the end of the tune's first phrase, it occurred to me that it was the same as the opening notes of the "Star Spangled Banner"—even the rhythm is about the same. So I finished the phrase by morphing it into the first line of the U.S. national anthem, just as Thomas Jefferson was on screen for his small part.

You can probably guess what happened. After the screening, a woman came up and had nice things to say in general, except for the music when Thomas Jefferson appeared.

"That was NOT our national anthem at the time," she lectured, going on about how THAT tune was actually a British drinking song at the time.

Well, what can I say? I appreciate her perspicacity and I was thrilled to speak with an attentive listener who caught the reference. And it's a problem to me when a score calls attention to itself, so I had to wonder. But I also felt the tiny fragment helped establish Jefferson's credentials, especially when balanced off with the Marseillaise.

And I suppose an argument could be made for the Star Spangled Banner being appropriate for the scene in the sense that it helps depict the future promise of America, at least in terms of what the French revolutionaries were aspiring to. But to accept that, you then have to accept that the revolutionaries had no specific idea of what they were getting into.

Having never taken part in a revolution, I'm not sure how common that state of mind is, but as it describes a fair amount of the human condition under any circumstances, I rest my case.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Going from 'Birth' to 'Orphans'

I just realized that I'm in the middle of something of a D.W. Griffith sandwich: Last Monday I did music for a screening of 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), and the next title I'm doing is 'Orphans of the Storm.' So some notes on the former, and then a press release for the latter.

We showed 'Birth' at the wonderful old Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H., which, like the film, dates from 1915. A good crowd of about 80 people showed up for the screening, which took place on Monday, Jan. 17 as a way to mark Martin Luther King Day. (All our Palace screenings are Monday nights, and it just worked out that one of our dates was MLK day, hence the program.)

The film is a wonderful picture for a musician to follow and bring to life. There are many, many places where the effectiveness of the onscreen action can be enhanced by the right kind of music. I'm not talking about the big Civil War battle scenes or, later, the clan's "ride to the rescue." I mean some of the "room" scenes, where you have several people acting out a scene, and what they do to communicate things visually (Griffith used few 'dialogue' intertitles) is often quite subtle.

So I try to make sure that the eye glances and head tilts and the eyebrow movements are, when appropriate, reflected by shifts in the music, the melody or the chords, enough to underscore the flow onscreen. I think it helps a modern audience (and a good number of attendees that night were not regulars, as far as I could tell) absorb and follow and accept a silent film. So I was pleased with that aspect of it.

We received little comment about the racial controversy that has followed 'Birth of a Nation' since its first release. Any film in which the Ku Klux Klan ride to the rescue, and which has black roles played by white actors in blackface, is bound to generate some comments. Our catchphrase in the ads for this one was "Lest We Forget," and at the screening, I tried to briefly provide a little context—that the film was worth screening because it shows how far we've come, and also helps us confront what prejudices we may yet still harbor within ourselves. But everyone I spoke to was glad for the chance to see the film, and didn't see the racism as offensive, but simply astonishing to witness, rather like an auto accident.

So two days later, I was surprised to get a call from a woman who watched the film to its end, and then left sickened and disgusted that we would show such a film, and that she would end up watching it, on MLK Day, of all days. Long story short, she had been invited to go at the last minute and wasn't really familiar with the film's content beforehand, and I guess my talk wasn't enough for it to make sense, and so she really took it the wrong way.

We wound up talking for nearly an hour. It was a good chat, and although she came to understand our intention in showing the film, I believe she felt it was still the wrong thing to do. There you go. So nearly a century after it was released, 'Birth of a Nation' continues to stir strong emotions. Amazing!

Looking ahead, we have a screening of another D.W. Griffith epic, 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), on Sunday, Jan. 30 at 4:30 p.m. in Wilton, N.H. Here's all the info in the form of a press release that's been issued to alert the local media. I'm especially proud of my "tale of two sisters" line, with apologies to Charles Dickens.

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

French Revolution epic comes to Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Jan. 30

Silent film masterpiece 'Orphans of the Storm' tells tale of two sisters

WILTON, N.H.—Warm up a cold winter weekend with the fires of revolution! 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), a sweeping silent film drama set during the uproar of the French Revolution, will be shown with live musical accompaniment on Sunday, Jan. 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. The screening is free to the public, with donations accepted to defray costs.

'Orphans of the Storm,' set in 1780s France, follows the story of two orphaned sisters, one blind, who seek to cure her vision by risking a trip from their country village to Paris. There, they are soon separated by events beyond their control as anarchy erupts, the aristocracy is toppled, the French royal family is executed, and the city is engulfed by the unpredictable chaos of revolution. Will fate reunite the two sisters before the guillotine separates them forever?

'Orphans of the Storm,' directed by legendary silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith, features dramatic mob scenes of revolutionary Paris filmed on a massive scale. Also, the story builds towards a spectacular and fast-moving climax that thrilled audiences in 1921, making 'Orphans of the Storm' one of the year's biggest hits.

The leading roles in 'Orphans of the Storm' are played by two actual sisters, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, both major stars of Hollywood's silent era. Lillian Gish went on to a career that lasted long enough to include an appearance on 'The Love Boat' television series in the 1980s. She died in 1993 at age 99. Younger sister Dorothy Gish also enjoyed a productive career that included stage, film, and television roles into the 1960s; she died in 1968 at age 70.

'Orphans of the Storm' was the last in a string of successful blockbusters helmed by D.W. Griffith, who earlier pioneered large-scale historical epics with films such as 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), 'Intolerance' (1916), and 'Way Down East' (1920). Though he continued making films, Griffith was superseded the 1920s by a new generation of filmmakers willing to take his innovations even further, creating the foundation of the motion picture industry we know today.

Although 'Orphans of the Storm' was released nine decades ago, critics today say Griffith's French Revolution epic holds up well for modern viewers. Leonard Maltin praised the film's "lavish settings and race-to-the-rescue climax," judging it "still dazzling." Critic Jeremy Heilman of wrote "the sheer amount of realized ambition on display in it makes it a sight to behold."

About D.W. Griffith, film historian Kevin Brownlow summarized his genius by writing, "however skillful the other early directors might have been, none of them knew how to project anything but the most basic emotions until Griffith showed them. And it was emotion, rather than close-ups and fade-outs, that made the people of the world fall in love with the moving picture."

The Jan. 30 screening of 'Orphans of the Storm' will be accompanied by a score created and performed live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis achieves a traditional "movie score" sound for silent film screenings by using a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra.

'Orphans of the Storm' will be screened on Sunday, Jan. 30 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!

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

Monday, January 17, 2011

'Birth of a Nation' (1915) on MLK Day

New Hampshire was the last state in the union to make MLK day an official holiday, so perhaps it's fitting that we'll be screening 'Birth of a Nation' at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. to mark this year's observance.

Seen today, nearly 100 years after its release, the picture seems to be from another planet. What else can you say about a film in which black characters are portrayed by white actors in blackface, and which climaxes with hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue?

All this, however, is contained in the framework of cinematic story-telling that, however primitive, remains effective and compelling. The technique is impressive, although the content is at times bizarre.

But it's a film worth seeing, and with live music and on the big screen, especially, and with a little context, too. I've been looking at it recently to prepare music, and in doing so I've noticed many instances where director Griffith managed to get his cast to put in a lot of detail that music can actually help bring out.

There's a scene in a hospital where a security guard and Lillian Gish exchange glances, and I didn't notice it at first, but it's quite special, and I hope the music can help clarify and draw attention to some of those moments.

As for context, I think it's important for a modern audience to try to appreciate the impact this film had when it was first released. Imagine being able to be present in Ford's theater and witness Lincoln's assassination! Imagine being in the room at Lee's surrender to General Grant. Imagine standing on the battlefields with cannons and gunfire and death all around! And the fact that the Civil War was within living memory for many at the time would only heighten the impact.

And then there's the matter of Griffith's canvas. For a half-dozen years, he'd experimented with how to tell a dramatic story with a movie camera, gradually trying out ideas such as close-ups, long shots, irises, cutting back and forth, camera placement, bringing the action outdoors (instead of on a stage or in a studio), and so on. 'Birth of a Nation' is the film in which he put it all together and attempted to use all the things he'd learned to tell a story on a massive scale, both in terms of the narrative and the scenery. It was an amazing "all or nothing" gamble, and knowledge of this helps recapture some of the excitement that the film must have generated when it was first screened.

It's still there, if you look for it and are open to receiving it.

We've gotten above-average press for this one, so let's hope there might be a good house. We were planning to do a panel discussion but with the film itself running close to three hours with no intermission, that didn't seem really wise.

So here's the press release. Hope to see you there!

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‘Birth of a Nation’: Silent film masterpiece or racist artifact?

Landmark movie to be screened with live music on MLK Day, Jan. 17, in Manchester, N.H.

MANCHESTER, N.H.—What if a movie was acclaimed as a masterpiece, but portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes? What if a movie aimed to show the realities of life during the Civil War, and yet used white actors playing roles in blackface? What does it say if a movie was clearly racist, depicting blacks as an inferior sub-species to whites, but was still a box office smash?

Those are among the questions posed by ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915), the ground-breaking epic film from director D.W. Griffith, which continues to inspire controversy nearly 100 years after its initial release.

In honor of Martin Luther King Day this year, a restored print of the film will be screened with live music at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. The screening, part of the Palace Theatre’s silent film series, will take place on Monday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $8 per person.

Organizers of the Palace Theatre’s film series specifically chose Martin Luther King Day to screen ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ long regarded as a masterpiece of early cinema but tarnished by racism and prejudice.

“Although ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has been reviled for its blatant and pervasive racism, it was a huge hit in its day and was accepted as one of the landmarks of early cinema,” said New Hampshire silent film musician Jeff Rapsis, who will perform a live score for the film.

“Screening this compromised classic on Martin Luther King Day is a chance for today’s audiences to appreciate how far we’ve come, and to also ponder how many of the prejudices on display in this film that we may still harbor, even unconsciously,” Rapsis said.

As the first-ever Hollywood “blockbuster,” ‘The Birth of a Nation’ thrilled audiences with its large-scale wartime action sequences, its recreation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and spectacular photography by cameraman G.W. Bitzer.

At the same time, the movie was regarded as monumentally insensitive to issues of race, depicting blacks as a sub-race inferior to whites and portraying Ku Klux Klan members as heroes. Conceived by Griffith, a native Southerner, as a saga of two families caught up in the Civil War and its aftermath, many regarded the film as a prolonged statement of cinematic bigotry.

Seen today, the film abounds with offensive racial comments and imagery both overt and implied. To complicate matters for contemporary audiences, Griffith had all leading roles of black characters played by white actors in blackface; black actors were kept in the background or used only for crowd scenes, which lends the film a surreal quality to modern viewers.

Despite the racism, the film’s innovative and powerful story-telling techniques, as well as its massive scale, opened Hollywood’s eyes to cinema’s full potential, exerting a powerful influence on generations of filmmakers to come.

The film’s pervasive influence extended beyond theaters, at times in unfortunate ways. As an unintended consequence, ’The Birth of a Nation’ inspired a revival of the then-dormant Klan, which flourished anew in the south thorough the 1920s, making extensive use of Griffith’s film for propaganda purposes.

The controversy continues today, with ‘Birth of a Nation’ inspiring passions nearly a century after its release. Has enough time passed for today’s audiences to regard this landmark film as an artifact of its time, or an indication of enduring prejudice? This Martin Luther King’s Day, decide for yourself how far we’ve come with a screening of a restored print of this tarnished American classic the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The film stars Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, and dozens of other silent-era performers. Gish, who died in 1993 at age 99, continued to act in films as late as 1987, when she appeared in ‘The Whales of August.’ Her later work includes an appearance on the TV series ‘The Love Boat’ in 1981.

All movies in the Palace Theatre’s silent film series were popular when first released, 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. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ will be shown on Martin Luther King Day, Monday, Jan. 17, 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.


“...the film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.”
—Roger Ebert, 2003, The Chicago Sun-Times

“If one can put the racial overtones aside, this is quite probably the most accurate celluloid representation of Civil War times to exist. It was made only 50 years after the Civil War ended, when many people who had actually been through the war were still alive to give first hand accounts.”
—Robert K. Klepper, ‘Silent Films,’ (1999)

“More than a hugely successful spectacle, it was a masterpiece—using Griffith’s trademark cinematic techniques and combining emotional intensity and epic sweep—but it was a deeply tainted one. Its racism—consciously intended by the filmmaker or not—makes parts of ‘Birth’ extremely difficult to watch today.”
—Peter Kobel, ‘Silent Movies,’ (2007)

Monday, January 3, 2011

A few notes, and 'Three Ages' on Jan. 13

Happy New Year! It's now 2011, and we grow ever more distant from that very short time when movies, as a rule, were shown publicly without a fixed soundtrack. Increasingly, I look at this as one of those flukes that sometimes happens, with the result being the very brief existence of a unique art form that was actually quite different from what we know as movies today. Not more primitive or less sophisticated or more innocent or less accomplished—not "more" or "less" anything, because the two forms (silent pictures and those with a fixed soundtrack) are so different as to be two separate art forms, especially at this distance, and comparisons on superficial basis are pretty useless.

Which is better, a sculpture or a convenience store? It's the same thing.

More on that as the new year unfolds. For now, there are screenings to talk about and preview. So here's a brief update:

• An impending blizzard led to a smaller-than-expected turnout for Chaplin's 'Modern Times' (1936) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 26, but it was still enough of a turnout to create some excitement. Funny, though: 'Modern Times' didn't generate nearly the laughter that I recall at prior screenings. The one scene I can say for sure comes early on, when Chaplin picks up the fallen flag and behind him marches what looks like the case from "Les Miserables." (And for the first time, I noticed that one of the signs in the crowd reads simply "Svoboda," the Russian word for "Freedom.") In the past this scene has produced gasps of astonished laughter; this time it provoked barely a titter. Was in the snowy forecast? Was it everyone bloated from holiday overindulgence? Who knows? But it was interesting for me because thanks to Chaplin's soundtrack, for once I got to sit out in the audience and munch popcorn instead of flailing away over a hot keyboard. Weird, too: the one short I chose to include (weather-related short program) was 'Easy Street,' regarded as one of the best Chaplin Mutuals, but which I have never seen an audience really react strongly to, including this one. Something about this film keeps the belly laughs from really breaking forth. I saw it once years ago in Northhampton, Mass. with a score by the excellent Alloy Orchestra, and there wasn't much laughter then, something I attributed to the group's sound volume—when you can't hear others around you reacting, it's hard for the audience-wide laughter to build. I have tried to keep this in mind when accompanying comedies, but in this case, 'Easy Street' still seemed to fall relatively flat. Your comments, please.

• Then we had a New Year's Eve screening of Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925) at the Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. (Both of these Chaplin screenings were licensed through Janus Films in New York, by the way. Thanks, guys!) I paired this one with Chaplin's 'The Adventurer' (1917), another highly rated Mutual that really does produce laughs every time it's shown, and Keaton's 'The Frozen North' (1922), a film that doesn't get shown much but I thought would help set the stage for the Gold Rush's Arctic environment. Nice reaction to everything, though for some reason I felt my playing was off the mark. Gold Rush is a great New Year's Eve film, though, with its big scene in the saloon (two men dancing!) intercut with Chaplin in his cabin, which is a very hard sequence to bring off musically, by the way, and not diminish the contrast of emotions on screen. One observation: the scenes that everyone regards as classics (the eating of the shoe, the dance of the rolls) are SO well-known that they seem to produce less-than-expected laughter. But some of the lesser moments (such as Chaplin opening a mind-bogglingly useless map) induce big laughs, leading me to believe that yes, there is a strong connection between comedy and surprise, or at least that familiarity can sometimes dilute comedic impact.

• But enough of that! Next up is 'Three Ages' in at the Plymouth (N.H.) Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center on Thursday, Jan. 13 at 7 p.m. Here's the press release for more info...

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent comedy ‘Three Ages’ (1923) in Plymouth, N.H. on Thursday, Jan. 13

Buster Keaton stars in classic film farce accompanied by live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—Stone-faced silent clown Buster Keaton takes to the big screen again with a showing of his feature film 'Three Ages' (1923) on Thursday, Jan. 13 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center in Plymouth, N.H. The program, accompanied by live music, will also include several Keaton comedy short films released before he made the jump into full-length feature films.

The program starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $5 per person. 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

Keaton, one of the silent film era's great comics, was known for his ingenuity with gags, acrobatic stunts, and his trademark dead-pan manner. In dozens of films made throughout the 1920s, Keaton made audiences around the world laugh while never cracking a smile himself. He was among the first actors and directors to move comedy out of the confines of the stage and use cinema to expand it to a massive scale, using film to do battle with ocean liners, railroad locomotives, cyclones, and hordes of policemen ready to give chase to his hapless everyman character.

Keaton was raised as part of his parents' knockabout vaudeville act, in which he was included shortly after being born in 1895. His birth name was "Joseph," like his father, but Buster earned his nickname at an early age from magician Harry Houdini after the young Keaton fell down a flight of stairs unharmed.

Buster joined the film industry in 1917, when a friend introduced him to Fatty Arbuckle, then one of the nation's top movie comics. Keaton signed on with the Arbuckle troupe, putting his comic and acrobatic skills to use as he learned the then-new art of making motion pictures.

Keaton branched out on his own in 1920, producing a series of popular short comedies that were recognized for their brilliance, originality, and physicality. By 1923, he was ready to take the leap into much riskier feature film production, but hedged his bets by making 'Three Ages' as a kind of test.

'Three Ages,' a loose parody of the then-famous D.W. Griffith drama 'Intolerance' (1916), weaves together similar love stories told in three different epochs: the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and "Modern" (1920s) times. If the feature showed signs of failing at the box office, Keaton could always split it up into three shorter films to be released separately.

But the picture was a success, due primarily to inspired comic touches in all sequences that still shine through to audiences today. 'Three Ages' thus launched Keaton's spectacular run of classic comic features that lasted until the industry's transition to sound pictures in 1929.

After his starring career ended, Keaton continued to work as a sought-after gag man and cameo performer. After successfully battling alcoholism, he emerged in later life as an elder statesman of comedy, performing widely on early television shows and on European and American stage tours. He died in 1966.

'Three Ages' 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 assembling 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 experience. 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.

‘Three Ages’ will be shown on Thursday, Jan. 13 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