Sunday, May 29, 2011

Notes on scoring 'Speedway,' plus June preview

Played for a fun 'auto racing' screening this afternoon (Sunday, May 29) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. Films in honor of the 100th running of the Indy 500: Chaplin's 'Kid Auto Races at Venice' (1914), the hyperkinetic Sennett comedy 'Lizzies of the Field' (1924) starring Billy Bevan, and 'Speedway' (1929), the late MGM drama starring William Haines and Anita Page.

Not a huge crowd, but what can you expect in the middle of a beautiful Memorial Day weekend in this part of the world? Better than I thought we'd get. "Greetings, racing fans!" I shouted after the opening fanfare. Why not? by virtue of some press in the local papers, we actually did get a few motorheads who wanted to check out the cars. I was told afterwards that the 'Speedway' scenes filmed at the Indy 500 track are a "priceless record" to those in the know.

I don't know about racecars, but I think 'Speedway' is a good film for music, not only because of all the racetrack (and airplane!) action, but also because I think it can help an audience today read the characters a little more clearly. Music can help convey a sense of the existing relationships in this run-of-the-mill film, which aren't very clear at the start.

For instance, at first you're not quite sure of the William Haines/Ernest Torrance thing -- it is boss/employee or father/son or something else? Warm music underscoring helps this relationship make sense right from the start.

I love the greasy spoon scene where Haines first meets Anita Page, and they end up outside in a frenzied hat exchange. Haines really sells the "conceited ass" character here, and at the same time is engaging enough for Page (and us) to find him likeable despite his antics. For music, I used an innocuous-sounding soft-shoe melody that I hope helped the scene flow, and punctuated the reactions to each other and to the harried waitress, Polly Moran.

The final extended race is a challenge because of the emotional line that's carried through from the start -- the Haines character gets bumped right before the flag, and spends much of the race going through a transformation that eventually puts him in a position to save the day. So you have to alternate from intense track scenes to intense emotional scenes, and do it in a way that keeps it all stoked.

What helped was I had a signature for the Haines character that could take many forms depending on how it's played, and it happened to fit well in the texture of the "exciting race" music, so during the race scenes I was able to weave the Haines theme into it whenever it cut back to him.

One thing I really liked is how they showed the warm-up lap of the race, prior to the official start, with the cars gradually revving up to higher and higher speeds before the flag is waved. What a great chance to start majestically and work gradually up to a faster and faster tempo. Corny, but simple and effective.

In the "I didn't know that!" department, while reading up on 'Speedway,' I learned that Anita Page received several marriage proposals in the mail from Benito Mussolini, and that very late in life (when she was in her 90s!) she returned to the screen in a series of roles in low-budget horror films. Gotta get me some of that!

Looking ahead: June sees a lot of Buster Keaton coming up. Sunday, June 5 at 7 p.m. is 'Our Hospitality' (1923), the first in our summer Keaton series at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre in Davis Square. We're showing it in 35mm, along with the shorts 'One Week' and 'The Scarecrow,' all courtesy Tim Lanza and the Douris Corp. Really looking forward to this! And later, we're screening 'The General' (1926) in Plymouth N.H.; Ogunquit, Maine; and in Brandon, Vermont, where it's part of a day honoring the town's Civil War connection. (It was a big stop on the Underground Railroad, among other things.)

For a full schedule and all the details, check out the "Upcoming Screenings" page on this blog. Thanks!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Vrrrooom! 'Speedway' on Sunday, May 29

My opinion: Auto racing may or not be a sport. But 'Speedway' (1929), filmed on location at the Indy 500 track, is certainly one full-throttle revved-up fasten-your-seat-belts movie.

And as this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500, why not pay homage to this great American tradition by screening a silent film that showcases the event in all its vintage glory?

And that's what we'll do on Sunday, May 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. Hope you can join us, though apparently the screening is scheduled for right smack in the middle of when this year's race will be in progress. Ooops! Hey, but you can Tivo that, right?

This film is a wonderful look at a sport that's changed quite a bit in the ensuing 80 years, but still boils down to "men and machines battling for glory," to quote the film's tag line.

I do hesitate to think of auto racing a "sport." To me, a sport is something that requires you to exert yourself physically in more overt ways than sitting behind the wheel. Yes, I know driving 500 miles on a track is a supreme test of endurance, but to my mind it lacks the man-on-the-field simplicity that makes for great athletics. My attitude has always been that driving a race car is as much a sport as, say, running a convenience store.

But you don't have to love racing to enjoy 'Speedway,' a real rip-roaring blast from the past. Plus it has airplanes in it, too! Those movie folks, what will they think of next?

Here's the press release...

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Wilton Town Hall Theatre celebrates Indy 500 with vintage racecar drama

Silent film 'Speedway' (1929) to be screened with live music on Sunday, May 29

WILTON, N.H.—Fasten your seat belts! The Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theater celebrates this year's 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 by screening a vintage racecar drama. 'Speedway,' a 1929 movie starring William Haines and Anita Page, was filmed on location on the Indy 500 track more than 80 years ago. The picture, promoted as “men and machines battling for glory at 115 mph,” is filled with scenes of vintage racecars and cameo appearances by the top drivers of the era.

The silent film will be shown with original music performed live by accompanist Jeff Rapsis. The screening is at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, May 29 at 4:30 p.m. Admission is free; donations are accepted.

"We felt this was a great way to pay homage to a great American tradition," said Dennis Markaverich of the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. "This film is a real hoot, featuring great historic scenes of the Indy 500 track. Showing this rarely seen movie on the big screen and with live music will bring it back to life for today's audiences, which is what our silent film series is all about."

The Indianapolis 500, one of auto racing's oldest traditions, was first run in 1911, when the automobile was still in its infancy. By the 1920s, the race had already been enshrined as an annual highlight of the auto calendar, with drivers and manufacturers showcasing their talents in what had become the nation's premier automotive endurance race.

That excitement is captured in 'Speedway' (1929), one of the last silent films released by MGM. 'Speedyway' is the story of a racecar mechanic (Haines) who woos Anita Page, the daughter of an airplane manufacturer, and eventually gets the chance to drive a racecar himself in the Indianapolis 500. The film features exciting location footage shot at the real Indy 500 and numerous cameos of racing stars of the day.

Haines was a famous star of the silent screen and early talkie period who was near the peak of his commercial popularity here; soon he would be named the No. 1 male box-office draw in the country. Haines was getting bored with acting, however, and was already starting to transition to a new career as an interior decorator, a field in which he would find lasting success and a fame equal to that of his stardom. Haines went on to decorate homes of many top Hollywood figures including numerous movie stars.

Haines, a homosexual, left acting in 1934 for good when he refused studio orders to marry a woman to improve his public image. He was among the first gay actors to stand up to immense studio pressure to lead a life deemed acceptable to the movie-going public, a stand which cost him his big screen career.

'Speedway' is the latest in a series of monthly silent film screenings at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. 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 large audience.

“These films are exciting experiences if you can show them as they were intended 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 experiences, designed from the ground up to be seen in theaters with live music and a big audience, which intensifies everyone's reactions.”

For each film, Rapsis improvises a musical 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.

‘Speedway’ will be shown on Sunday, May 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H. N.Admission is free, with donations accepted to defray costs. For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit

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

Sunday, May 22, 2011

'Rin Tin Tin' does the trick in Brandon, Vt.

Well, he did many tricks, chief of which was to get a crowd of about 50 people hooting and hollering for him as he saved the day in not one but two separate films.

The audience was on hand at Brandon Town Hall, home to a monthly summertime silent film series that kicked off on Saturday, May 21 with a Rinty double feature: 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925) and 'Lighthouse by the Sea,' both action-packed dog dramas that show the silent screen's canine hero at his best. That's a picture of organizers Dennis Marden and Mei Mei Brown outside the town hall.

Dennis and Mei Mei, and so many others in Brandon, work to keep the town hall activity calendar filled, and the aim is to continue to restore this landmark building so that it becomes a full participant in the town's cultural life. This year is the building's 150th birthday, and it's also the 250th anniversary of the town's founding. So it's a big year for the community, and I'm so glad that silent film is a part of what's happening.

Saturday's Rin Tin Tin double feature was an unusual screening for me because of something that happened earlier. Before the show, Nina Keck of Vermont Public Radio came by to interview me and record some music for a piece she's working on. (Thank you!) She's a very nice person and I enjoyed talking with her. But for some reason, I couldn't put together brief and cogent answers to her questions, and instead rambled on and got sidetracked with subpoints and so on. Well, sometimes that happened.

And when it came time for the music part of the interview, I really couldn't get it together. It's something to do with not having an onscreen image to play for, I think, and also because what happens cold is not the same as what happens 90 minutes into a film, when I'm deep in my movie score trance. But I was also just nervous because I knew it was being recorded, and also I knew I had two films to play in just a little while, so my mind was a little preoccupied.

Anyway, the point is, the whole experience threw me. (Nina, if you come across this, don't worry--it wasn't you.) So the music for 'Clash of the Wolves' didn't jell except sporadically, and for 'Lighthouse by the Sea,' I pretty much went dry, trying out different themes and discarding them as we went.

We got through the films and people seemed to enjoy them, but for me it was the same pattern. In screenings where I can concentrate on the music, it seems to come together. But with those where there's some unexpected distraction (and that's more often than not, alas), it really seem to affect the process. I think it's a peculiarity with me, and I wish I could overcome it. With so many issues to consider, more often than not some kind of troubleshooting is necessary. I'll just have to keep working on it.

I think the lesson is that if I need to do interviews, it really shouldn't be right before a screening. Afterwards, maybe. (Sometimes I'm even less coherent after finishing a program.) Off-day, sure. But right before, it just doesn't seem to work.

On the plus side, there were quite a few good moments in both films, and the audience did not hesitate to cheer on Rin Tin Tin and his various human allies at their big moments. Amazing, the magic these films still have. I really look forward to the next films we're doing in Brandon: Keaton's 'The General' (1926) in June to coincide with the town's 'Civil War Days,' and then in July a double bill of 'Tol'able David' (1921) and 'Hell's Hinges' (1918), a William S. Hart western.

See you in Brandon!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Updates, updates!

Been a busy week and haven't had a chance to update until now. So let's catch up...

• Thursday, May 12: Screened Rin Tin Tin double feature of 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925) and 'Lighthouse by the Sea' (1924) at Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center. Small audience, but big reaction. Not hard to understand the appeal of Rin Tin Tin, who often seems more alert and capable than the goofy stock characters that surround him. But both films have some wonderful action sequences that hold up well, and Rinty's antics lend themselves to musical heroics. Lots of fun to play these films, and looking forward to this double bill in a few other venues this summer.

• Monday, May 16: Did music for a Gloria Swanson tribute at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. Two films: 'Teddy at the Throttle' (1916), the surprisingly entertaining Sennett two-reeler in a copy supplied by Dave Stevenson; and the feature 'Sadie Thompson' (1928). Special guest was Dick Backus, a local guy who as a young actor worked with Ms. Swanson in a stage production of 'Butterflies Are Free' in the early 1970s. Dick was of stories and recollections, and really helped connect Gloria to the present—not an easy thing to do this far along, but then again silent movies weren't that long ago, even though we look at them today as ancient. And everyone knows Gloria from 'Sunset Boulevard,' but her big vehicles from the '20s almost never get screened, so I wanted to do this so we could all see what the fuss was about. 'Teddy' starts shakily but the last reel had everyone roaring; 'Sadie' was a real stunner. I tried to evoke the constant rain in musical terms, and had some versatile chords for the Lionel Barrymore character. It all built nicely, with me holding back until the last 15 minutes, including the restored last reel, where things reach a climax. Kind of like a Tennessee Williams play, I thought, but still a very effective silent drama and very much susceptible to music intensifying the drama. Afterwards, signed not one but two autographs, including a paperback copy of Gloria's best-seller 'Swanson on Swanson.' Hope she didn't mind, wherever she is... Thanks to Dick Backus for taking part, answering questions, and even bringing along a poster autographed by Gloria Swanson.

Thursday, May 19: Did a Buster Keaton program for the kids at Great Brook Middle School in Antrim, N.H. For this, I set up in the caverous upstairs auditorium in the historic town hall, and the kids trouped down from the school for an hour-and-a-half "reward" program for all the enrichment work they've done. Though finding and setting up the projector involved some last-minute legerdemain, the kids really seemed to enjoy Keaton in 'One Week' and then 'Sherlock Jr.' The hall has wonderful acoustics, which helps, but the real energy came from the audience reaction. Once again, it shows how silent film really was intended to be consumed by a live audience, the bigger the better. The kids from Great Brook couldn't have been better collaborators and I thank them and their excellent faculty and chaperones for organizing this terrific event. Hope to see them all again next year!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Look out! It's Rin Tin Tin this month!

Coming up this month is the first in my silent film "road show" programs, where I take a film or two and go around to theaters in northern New England. First up is Rin Tin Tin, in a double feature made up of 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925) and 'Lighthouse by the Sea' (1924). I'm playing this program on Thursday, May 12 in Plymouth, N.H. (see press release below), and then later this month in Brandon, Vt. and possibly at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, if the summer-only theater is indeed open by then.

These action-packed films are fun to play for. I already have a main 'Rin Tin Tin' melody, so we'll be hearing that quite a bit, plus some other stuff for each film. The 'Lighthouse' film is set in a kind of idealized coastal Maine, so I'm looking forward to see how that plays in Ogunquit.

Press release? I'm glad you asked! Here it is for the double feature set for Thursday, May 12 at 7 p.m. the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center at Plymouth, N.H.

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rin Tin Tin returns to the big screen on Thursday, May 12

Canine stars in double feature of silent adventure classics at Flying Monkey

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—He was Hollywood's original canine hero, a photogenic German shepherd who rose to big screen fame in the 1920s. He not only rescued his human co-actors, but his pictures proved so successful they rescued Warner Bros. studios as well. He was Rin Tin Tin, and two of his best starring silent pictures will be shown in a double feature on Thursday, May 12 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. The show, accompanied by live music, starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $5 per person.

The two Rin Tin Tin films, 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925) and 'Lighthouse by the Sea' (1924) 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

Rin Tin Tin was in the vanguard of canine motion picture megastars whose exploits thrilled early movie-goers. The original Rin Tin Tin was a puppy who in 1918 was rescued from a bombed-out kennel in Germany. He was named for a puppet called 'Rin Tin Tin' that French children gave to American soldiers for good luck.

U.S. Army Corporal Lee Duncan brought Rin Tin Tin to America and trained him, then got him into the then-new field of motion pictures. Rin Tin Tin, with his dashing looks, athletic prowess, and acting talents, starred in a total of 26 adventure films for Warner Bros.

Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, but his offspring continued to star in films and television shows for several generations.

The two films programmed at the Flying Monkey's double feature show the original Rin Tin Tin at the height of his popularity. They also show the dog's versatility, as they take place in two very different settings, and each makes unique demands on the canine star.

'Clash of the Wolves' (1925), set in the old West, has Rin Tin Tin portraying Lobo, a half-wolf and untamed leader of a wild pack menacing a small town. When Rin Tin Tin is injured and then rescued by a stranger, the stage is set for a dramatic showdown with the townspeople and a run-in with a claim jumper. 'Lighthouse by the Sea' (1924) sees Rin Tin Tin playing a castaway from a shipwreck off the coast of Maine who gets washed ashore, where he plays a key role in an aging and nearly blind lighthouse keeper's battle to keep his job, and in foiling efforts of rumrunners offshore.

Both films are packed with action and adventure and were made at a time when the movies were first learning to tell stories in cinematic terms. They hold up surprisingly well today, especially if the right conditions are present for silent film to be seen at its best: good restored prints shown at the correct speed, a big screen, live music, and an audience.

The Rin Tin Tin 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 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.

‘Clash of the Wolves’ (1925) and 'Lighthouse by the Sea' (1924) will be shown on Thursday, May 12 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 For information on the music, visit

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

'Ben Hur' (1925) in an honest-to-God church!

Well, that's one way of putting it. But yes, on Thursday, April 28, I had the privilege to do music for a screening of the original silent 'Ben Hur' (1925) the Chapel of Mary at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., a liberal arts college just south of Boston.

Screening a film in a Catholic church opens up a whole new level of potential faux pas, even with seven years of altar boy experience way back when. F'rinstance, suggesting that we set up the projector on the altar led to a discussion about sacrilege, so I demurred. With so many variables present at a silent film screening, you don't want God against you.

The screening was organized by a freshman, Dan Tierney, Class of 2014 (what?) as part of an honors project to bring cultural events to the campus. Dan and several classmates were there when I arrived, all eager to help with set up. Because my vintage half-century-old screen looked so small in the chapel, they rustled up a much larger (and newer) one from the church's AV equipment that really made a difference. Thanks!

Here's a picture of us after the screening. From left, it's Gabrielle Cole, me, Kristen Devoid, Daniel Tierney, and Victoria Sidoti. They're all freshmen, Class of 2014, while I claim membership in Fordham University's now-prehistoric Class of 1986. (That's the altar behind the screen there.)

Try as I might to avoid offending God, for the first time ever I could not get the digital projector to read a signal from the DVD player. Worked it over and over and could not get a picture! Finally, with 20 minutes to showtime, I sent one of Dan's friends to find an alternate DVD player to see if that might cure things.

While that was happening, I realized that the last time we used this projector, the input was from a house system, and so the usual input settings had been messed with. As soon as I switched the input back, the picture came right up, thus preventing me from having to act out the 'Ben Hur' story on my own.

At that point, few people were on hand. Even Dan and a couple of his pals had to go to band practice, and would miss the beginning of the film. So I expected a small turnout and was just looking forward to bringing the picture to life. I sat down and improvised some church-y stuff to warm up, and got so absorbed that I didn't notice that people were arriving behind me.

By the time I finished, I got up and turned around to find a fairly sizable crowd on hand—maybe about 60 people, mostly students but some full-fledged adults, too. "Wow, there's an audience!" I exclaimed. With the film running two-and-a-half hours, we got started right away.

And the audience itself was really interesting. A show of hands revealed that most had never seen a silent film before, and absolutely no one had ever seen 'Ben Hur.' So there was an adjustment period, where I imagine some of what was on screen was so foreign to a young person's sensibilities that the only natural response would be laughter. And we got a lot of that.

At first I was worried it might kill the film and prevent it from being taken seriously or casting its spell. And though the "laughter" reaction never really disappeared, it gradually morphed into a completely engaged audience. It was one that made a lot of noise throughout the film, which I didn't have a problem with, but which almost led me down some wrong paths musically as I tried to work with this.

To wit: One mistake I discovered I was making was to try to enhance the film's gravity by pouring on the volume and complexity. But I found that only caused the chatter to increase. But when I quieted down or even stopped to punctuate a dramatic moment, it had the effect of stopping the chatter and galvanizing the audience. Interesting dynamic to play with.

Scoring the scenes with Jesus (where we don't see him but only his hands, and people's reactions to him) was especially challenging because there was a component of the audience that found all of these scenes totally hilarious. I did my best to keep it grounded, but still, it was nice to see a little skepticism at a Catholic campus.

In the end, what made it for me was that genuine emotion was present at key moments, especially the chariot race and also when the family is reunited right near the end. The film got a big chorus of cheers at both points, and it felt cathartic and the music just flowed so naturally through it all, riding the wave of emotion that bounced through the room. Nice!

Thanks very much to all the folks at Stonehill College for a wonderfully vibrant silent film experience. It was an honor to present 'Ben Hur' and I hope we can do more films there very soon! Can you imagine Keaton's 'College' or Lloyd's 'The Freshman' in such a setting?