Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ben Hur (1925) on Thursday, April 7

Coming up next is the the Biblical Blockbuster 'Ben Hur' (1925), but first a few words about 'Metropolis' (1927), for which I did a score last night at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. Helping bring this film to life was a rewarding experience. We had about 120 people and they seemed absorbed by it all the way through. It's long, but a fantastic film for music—not only does it have science fiction elements, but also heavy religious overtones, with a strong dose of Christian symbolism thrown in.

For 'Metropolis,' I was able to weave together a score using a half-dozen motifs that I created beforehand. I had seen the restored film (with a half-hour of missing footage discovered in Argentina in 2008) in Washington, D.C. last summer and even then was thinking about how to score it.

For a broad theme to tie it all together, I used a chord sequence that cycled between augmented 4ths (i.e. from C major to F# major); a falling minor third was useful for dramatic underscoring and seemed to surface when a character wanted something but couldn't get it; a jaunty nightclub tune was catchy enough for people to say they'd heard it somewhere before, but I swear I just made it up last Saturday; and steady tonic/dominant tread with a flatted 6th thrown in worked well on its own or in counterpoint with the other melodies.

Though I usually stick with orchestral texture, for 'Metropolis' I used some of the Korg's more exotic settings for the scenes in the Machine Hall and for Rotwang's transformation of Maria. It all came together pretty well, I thought, although the last 40 minutes of the film is non-stop action: a triple climax, with the machines being destroyed, then the kids being rescued, and then finally the scene on the roof of the cathedral. Some ending for a science fiction film! After seeing this picture a few times now, I personally think 'Metropolis' is more an exercise in religious allegory, with science fiction serving as a thin veneer at best.

However, as more time passes, the science fiction side of 'Metropolis' gets more interesting as a past vision of a potential future that never was. Afterwards, we had fun picking apart a society that had progressed so far but still had stenographers taking shorthand. My favorite detail is the continuously running elevator visible in Freder's apartment building.

One thing about this film that often gets overlooked is the sheer athleticism of the performances, especially Brigitte Helm. What she does is spectacular, and I'm not just talking about the dance numbers in the nightclub. Throughout the film, she uses her whole body to act the part, especially as the "bad" Maria. It's astonishing to watch.

And an odd grace note about this film that I really like is the way she sometimes half-closes one eye as the "bad" Maria. When that first happens in close-up, and can only mean bad things to come, I was surprised that didn't more of a reaction from Monday night's audience, as it's one of the best moments in the picture, I think.

Show notes: Where I set up in the Palace is down in front but off to stage left, where a portion of two rows of seats have been removed for wheelchair access. It's become such a habit that I'd really forgotten that the reason this space exists is for handicapped people to attend events at the Palace.

So it came as a surprise to see a man in a motorized wheelchair coming up the aisle just before last night's performance, asking an usher where he was supposed to sit, because the handicapped space had the keyboard set up in it.

I felt like a real dolt! I immediately apologized and said that of course he should be able to sit there, and that if I moved my stuff off to one side there would be plenty of room for us both. He went back down front with me, we rearranged things, and it worked! So I had a companion with me for last night's score. :)

Okay, here's the press release for 'Ben Hur.' We're showing it on Thursday, April 7 at 7 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H., and then again on Easter Sunday, April 24 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. As I said to last night's audience for 'Metropolis,' "Instead of going to church, come to 'Ben Hur' and worship at the cathedral of light."

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent epic ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) in Plymouth, N.H. on Thursday, April 7

Biblical blockbuster to be screened with live music at Flying Monkey

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—One of early Hollywood's great epics returns to the big screen with a showing of 'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) on Thursday, April 7 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center in Plymouth, N.H. The screening, accompanied by live music, starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $5 per person.

'Ben Hur' 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.

'Ben Hur,' starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, was among the first pictures to tell a Biblical-era story on a gigantic scale. The film, which helped establish MGM as a leading Hollywood studio, employed a cast of thousands and boasted action sequences that included a large-scale sea battle and a spell-binding chariot race that still leaves audiences breathless.

Set in the Holy Land at the time of Christ's birth, 'Ben Hur' tells the story of a Jewish family in Jerusalem whose fortune is confiscated by the Romans and its members jailed. The enslaved family heir, Judah Ben Hur (played by Novarro, a leading heartthrob of the silent era) is inspired by encounters with Christ to pursue justice, which leads him to a series of epic adventures in his quest to find his mother and sister and restore his family fortune.

'Ben Hur,' directed by Fred Niblo, was among the most expensive films of the silent era, taking two years to make and costing between $4 million and $6 million. When released in 1925, it became a huge hit for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. The film proved so popular, it was successfully re-released in 1931 with a soundtrack, long after talkies had swept away silent film. One reason the film was so expensive to make is because it was partly shot in Italy, where a sea battle scene led to a fire that endangered the many extras on board. No one was hurt, but MGM moved the delay-prone picture back to Hollywood to be finished.

The chariot race scene in 'Ben Hur,' with Novarro and other cast members driving teams of horses at high speed on a mammoth dirt racetrack in a gigantic replica of a Roman stadium, was among the most complicated and dangerous sequences filmed in the silent era. It remains noted for its tight editing, dramatic sweep, and sheer cinematic excitement. The chariot race was re-created virtually shot for shot in MGM's 1959 remake, and more recently imitated in the pod race scene in 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.'

Besides Novarro in the title role, the film stars Francis X. Bushman as Messala, the Roman soldier who imprisons the Hur family; Betty Bronson as Mary, mother of Jesus; May McAvoy as Ben Hur's sister Esther; and Claire McDowell as Ben Hur's mother. 'Ben Hur' was based on the best-selling 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace. Celebrity "extras" in the chariot race scene included stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Lionel Barrymore, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and a very young Clark Gable.

The film was remade by MGM in the 1950s in a color and wide-screen version starring Charleston Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. Some critics, however, believe the original 1925 version offers superior drama and story-telling. MGM executives at the time, aware of the superiority of the original version, attempted to destroy or confiscate all prints of the 1925 'Ben Hur,' sending the FBI out to confiscate collector copies in the 1950s. However, the studio did preserve the negative of the 1925 version.

The original release of 'Ben Hur' included several early technicolor sequences that were converted to black and white for the 1930 re-release. However, an original 1925 print with the color sequences was discovered in the Czech Republic in the 1980s, and these have been incorporated in the restoration being screened at the Flying Monkey.

'Ben Hur' 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 reviving 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.

‘Ben Hur’ will be shown on Thursday, April 7 at 7 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $5 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

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


  1. I really love the version of 1925 - Ramon Novarro is simply gorgeous and acts in a perfect mixture of vulnerable and impassionate. Heston IMHO is a complete miscast in the role of the young (!) and beautiful (!!) Judah ... (see my own review - in german - under http://blomsteraeng.blogspot.com/2008/11/berschtzte-filme-1-ben-hur-1959.html)

  2. Hi Stü!

    Danke schön for your comment, and for the link to your review. Das tut mir leid, meine Deutsch is nicht so gut! I agree with you about Novarro in the role of Ben Hur. What's interesting to me, also, is that in the 1959 remake, there was absolutely no music used in the chariot race, even though the sequence was mirrored quite closely. Keep in touch and please feel free to share any other observations you have about "Stummfilm." Some of the titles from Germany have become my favorites, especially "Der Letzte Mann" and "Frau im Mond."

  3. Hi Jeff!
    Oh, my favourites apart from the one and only "Ben Hur" (I read the book seven million times, approximately) are "Metropolis", of course, and also the russian movies like "Panzerkreuzer Potemkin" (I don't know the english title) - the classic ones, you see (:
    A few years ago there was a public performance of "Metropolis" in the local theatre with live music - absolutely awesome.
    But speaking of NO music: That's why I like Hitchcock's "The birds" - no music at all, just the creepy croak, uhuhuh. I saw it for the first time as a child and couldn't sleep for days!

  4. Thanks again for your thoughts. Sometimes there are indeed times when you're doing music for a silent film that NO music is really effective. It can instantly focus audience attention, as I discovered when we screened 'Ben Hur' at a college last April. The audience was fairly noisy, which is not a problem for me, but I found I was responding by playing busier and louder and more aggressively, as if to say, "Hey, pay attention to this serious movie here." But it caused everyone to just talk louder so as to be heard over the music. But then I found that if I rolled to a stop to punctuate a scene, everyone immediately turned to the film and paid attention. Sometimes less is more.

  5. Hi again,

    you're absolutely right with 'sometimes less is more' - think of modern movies too, there's often a music overkill, nothing has to be imagined, the music tells everything and everytime and even five seconds BEFORE the murderer appears himself. And the audience, oh gosh, sometimes the audience is so loud with talking and popcorn and text messaging (!), it's terrible. I'm 42, not quite an old bugged woman, but in such moments I could go ballistic.

    Did you play the original score of "Ben Hur" or an own composition? U.S. is too far from Germany, otherwise I would come immediately (:

    By the way: Inspired by our conversation I watched the movie this evening. Again.

    The other day I talked to a friend about silent movies and why I like them so much and he said (seriously!) "You know, I would miss the speech". No comment.

    (I hope you understand all my clumsy school english ...?)