Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Forecast: Heavy dose of Buster Keaton to hit area

A look at the calendar shows not one but two big Buster Keaton screenings coming up. On Sunday, July 31 at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre, I'm accompanying 'Our Hospitality' (1923) as part of our "Summer Love" series exploring the films of the Talmadge sisters. 'Our Hospitality' is the only film to feature Natalie Talmadge, Buster's wife, in a leading role, so including it was a natural. We're also running two Keaton shorts that I've never played in Wilton: 'The Playhouse' (1921) and 'My Wife's Relations' (1921). Showtime is 4:30 p.m. and admission is by donation; hope to see you there!

Then, a week later, it's a 35mm print of 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square down in Somerville, Mass. The show is on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 7 p.m., and also includes 35mm prints of 'The High Sign' (1920) and 'Cops' (1922). I've just sent out press materials for this one, which has an admission charge of $12 for adults, but it's a small price to pay for seeing a silent film in 35mm on the big screen and with live music. Hope to see you there, too.

If you'd like more info, here's the press release...


Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton silent film comedy series continues at Somerville Theatre

All-35mm program on Sunday, Aug. 7 includes feature ‘Steamboat Bill Jr.’ (1928) with live music

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—Silent film returns to the big screen at the Somerville Theatre in August with a program of classic Buster Keaton comedies accompanied by live music.

The screening, on Sunday, Aug. at 7 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass., will include Keaton’s classic feature film ‘Steamboat Bill Jr.’ (1928) as well as two short comedies, ‘The High Sign’ and ‘Cops.’ General admission is $12 per person, $8 for students/seniors.

All movies will be shown in rare 35mm prints and with live music provided by New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

'Steamboat Bill Jr.' finds Buster cast as the bumbling son of a rundown riverboat’s rough captain. When a rival brings a newer boat to town, the family is forced to face competition, just as Buster is forced to ride out a cyclone threatening to destroy the community. The film includes the famous shot of an entire building front collapsing on Keaton, who is spared by a conveniently placed second-story window.

'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' widely regarded as one of Buster's best, was the comedian's last independent feature before signing with MGM studios, where he lost creative control over his work and his filmmaking career began a long decline.

‘The High Sign’ (1921) and ‘Cops’ (1922) rank among Keaton’s best short comedies, made shortly before he made the leap into full-length feature film production. Both films are highlighted by extensive physical stunt work by Keaton, with ‘Cops’ often singled out as a masterpiece of short film comedy.

Keaton, who grew up performing with the family vaudeville act, was known for never smiling on camera, an important element of his comic identity. A trained acrobat who learned at an early age how to take a fall, Keaton was also famous for doing all his own stunts on camera in the era before post-production special effects became common.

Critics continue to hail Keaton’s timeless comedy as well as his intuitive filmmaking genius. In 2002, Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton that “in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.” Keaton, who never attended school, did not think of himself as an artist but as an entertainer using the new medium of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

The Somerville Theatre’s commitment to 35mm film presentation in both contemporary and classic movies means a rare chance to see Keaton’s work in its original format, in the best available prints.

“This show is a great opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown -- on the big screen, in high-quality prints, with live music and with an audience,” said Ian Judge, the Somerville Theatre’s general manager. “With so many theaters converting to digital, we’re pleased to continue to present films in 35mm, the standard format for more than a century. There’s nothing like it, and that’s especially true for films of the silent era.”

Music for the Keaton screenings will be performed by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician who accompanies silent film screenings at venues across New England. Rapsis works without sheet music, instead creating an improvised score on the spot. He uses a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound and helping link today’s audiences to films of the silent era.

In creating an improvised score, Rapsis tries to use music to amplify audience reaction, a key element of the silent film experience.

“These films were not meant to be seen by people alone or at home,” Rapsis said. “They were created to be experienced by large crowds in a theater like the Somerville, and getting swept up in the audience reaction is one of the great things about silent film. When it happens, either in a comedy or drama or any kind of film, it can be almost cathartic.”

‘Steamboat Bill Jr.’ and Keaton short comedies will be shown on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 7 p.m. the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. (617) 625-5700. Admission is $12 adults, $8 students/seniors, general admission seating. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit For more info on the music, visit

Monday, July 25, 2011

The perils of multiple soundtracks

Had something happen at a screening in Ogunquit, Maine yesterday (Sunday, July 24) that showed the perils of live performance. We'd just finished 'Tol'able David' (1921) and were now into the first part of 'Hell's Hinges' (1916), which opens in a church, or a mission, really, and I was playing organ music. Each time I'd stop to start a new phrase, I heard what sounded like an ice cream truck in the distance. Strange. Then I realized what was going on: the film's piano soundtrack was playing softly through the house speakers. 'Tol'able David' had no soundtrack, so no one noticed that the DVD player's sound was on until 'Hell's Hinges' was popped in.

So I was sitting there, playing church music and wondering what to do, when loud pop music starts playing. It was coming from the sushi place underneath us, where the staff was cranking some tunes while doing evening prep. Sheesh! Not just two competing soundtracks, but three! Never had that before. Figuring it couldn't get any sillier, I kept playing, wondering what Charles Ives would have made of the cacophony.

Finally, at a scene change, I stopped playing, stood up, and called back to the projectionist to cut the sound, which he did. In the meantime, he had run down to the sushi place to ask them to tone it down, so it all got straightened out pretty fast. Luckily, it was only at the beginning of the film, not at some key moment, so 'Hell's Hinges' was able to reestablish its momentum.

Another variable with live screenings is the weather. Bad weather is good, and good weather is bad. The really hot weather we've had for the past week in this part of the world (+100 degrees) has been tough on silent film attendance, especially because neither of the two venues I played this past weekend have air conditioning. So we had about 40 people at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt. (down significantly from screenings earlier this season) and a grand total of 11 people at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

Looking forward to this weekend's screening of Buster Keaton in 'Our Hospitality' (1923) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, July 31 at 4:30 p.m., and then a 35mm Keaton program featuring a great print of 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928) on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, just outside Boston, Mass.

The projectionist there, David Kornfeld, sends out advance notes about the quality of archival prints that the theater is scheduled to run, and he's already got the Keaton prints. Here's an excerpt so you'll have some idea what to expect. (He also had something nice to say about the accompaniment, which is very flattering!)

KEATON FILMS. The last of this series (though there may be others soon --- fingers crossed) accompanied by Jeff Rapsis. Two shorts & a feature, all 1.33 (again). Yay.
COPS. Print from 1969, back when they knew how to print B&W. Excellent density, looks great on the bench, BUT: emulsion scratches (which may show), lots of repairs, and a goodly number of splices. One of Keaton's most famous shorts: well worth watching.
THE HIGH SIGN. Print from 1971. No scratches on this, but some splices and repairs. Density is quite good. A little contrasty, but they may be from the source material.
STEAMBOAT BILL JR. The last feature Keaton made independently, before his disastrous move to MGM, and it contains some of the most amazing stunt work of his career, including what is likely the most dangerous gag of his life. This is on 3M stock, something most of you wont know about, but 3M produced some of the most silver-rich B&W stock Ive ever seen, & this one is no exception: incredible density, will blow your sneakers off. No scratches, but some repairs & splices in reels 4 & 2, fewer in reels 1 & 3.
You should definitely make it a point to see these: again: they rarely show, rarely get shown on film, are rarely projected correctly, and rarely have music as good as Jeff's.
Running on 7 August, @ 7pm. Be here!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sunday, July 31: 'Our Hospitality' and two shorts

This month's 'Summer Romance' screening at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre is 'Our Hospitality' (1923), Keaton's great family feud feature. We're showing it on Sunday, July 31 at 4:30 p.m. (More info is in the release below.)

'Our Hospitality' was a natural for this, as it's the only film to include Keaton's wife Natalie in a major role, and it's bookended in this series with films starring her two more famous sisters. Last month, we ran Constance Talmadge in 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925), a delightful comic romance, and in August we'll screen 'Kiki' (1926), the one light role from Norma Talmadge, who's more well known for her dramatic roles. Many thanks to Tim Lanza of Douris Corp. for giving us permission to screen all three of these wonderful pictures.

I accompanied 'Our Hospitality' last month at the Somerville Theatre in Boston, and was very pleased with how it all came together. Every time I see this film, I come away more impressed with how Buster made the transition from short films to features with such assurance. Take the film's beginning: it was Keaton's masterstroke to stage the 'Our Hospitality' prologue completely straight, without even a hint of comedy. As he later said, a real story was necessary to sustain a full-length feature, and in opening 'Our Hospitality' the way he did, he set the stage for a strong tale that held the interest of an audience, but also supported much Keaton comic business along the way.

Also, I think the period authenticity of this picture (it's set in the 1830s) is so well done that it's almost overlooked by viewers today. It's an old movie, so no surprise that it looks, well, old. But back in the 1920s, when it was made, I imagine Keaton and his team had to work hard to get it to look like it was the 1830s -- just as hard as they would work a few years later to recreate the Civil War period in 'The General.' In 'Our Hospitality,' they went so far as to build a working replica of Stephenson's early railroad locomotive, 'The Rocket' for the scenes in which Buster journeys to collect his interitance. But there are many smaller touches, such as the crude pipes that men smoke, and the many Dutch names in the "New York" scenes, all included without comment. And all those period firearms!

The two Keaton shorts we're running also have a strong "romantic" angle. 'The Playhouse' (1921) has Keaton exploring his feelings for identical twins, while 'My Wife's Relations' (1922) is a wild farce in which Buster is mistakenly married to...well, come see for yourself. Some critics believe the film, made shortly after his marriage to Natalie, was a not-so-veiled expression of how Keaton felt about the powerful Talmadge clan that he'd married into, but there's really no way to truly know. Buster would say he was just trying to get laughs, and I have a feeling he'll get them when we run this picture.

Here's the press release for the screening, which went out last week. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'Our Hospitality' silent film Sunday, July 31 at Wilton Town Hall Theater

Classic Buster Keaton feature-length comedy to be screened on the big screen with live music

WILTON, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s. Acclaimed for their originality and clever visual gags, and admired for their realistic stories and authentic location shots, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Our Hospitality' (1923), one of Keaton's landmark features, at Wilton Town Hall Theater on Sunday, July 31 at 4:30 p.m. The program, the latest in the theater's "Summer Romance" silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with donations welcome.

The program includes two classic short comedies completed by Keaton before he moved up to features: 'The Playhouse' (1921) and 'My Wife's Relations' (1922).

In reviving the Keaton films, the Wilton Town Hall Theater aims to show silent movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will improvise scores on the spot for each film. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life. They all featured great stories with compelling characters and universal appeal, so it's no surprise that they hold up and we still respond to them."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

'Our Hospitality,' a period comedy set in the 1830s, tells the story of a young man (Keaton) raised in New York City but unknowingly at the center of a long-running backwoods family feud. Highlights of the picture include Keaton's extended journey on a vintage train of the era, as well as a dramatic river rescue scene that climaxes the film. The film stars Keaton's then-wife, Natalie Talmadge, as his on-screen love interest; their first child, newborn James Talmadge Keaton, makes a cameo appearance, playing Buster as an infant. Keaton's father also plays a role in the film.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard him as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies." While making films, Keaton didn't think he was an artist, but merely an entertainer trying to use the then-new art of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.

An entirely intuitive performer, Keaton entered films in 1917 and was quickly fascinated with them. After apprenticing with popular comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Keaton went on to set up his own studio in 1920, making short comedies that established him as a one of the era's leading talents. A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

In 1923, Keaton made the leap into full-length films with 'Our Hospitality,' which proved popular enough for him to continue making features for the rest of the silent era. Although not all of Keaton's films were box office successes, critics later expressed astonishment at the sudden leap Keaton made from short comedies to the complex story and technical demands required for full-length features.

‘Our Hospitality’ will be shown on Sunday, July 31 at 4:30 p.m. the Wilton Town Hall Theater, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456. Free admission; donations encouraged. For more information, visit For more info on the music, visit

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Scoring 'A Throw of Dice' (1929) in Wilton, N.H.

We ran the proto-Bollywood silent epic 'A Throw of Dice' (1929) this afternoon for an audience of about 50 people at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. First time I've done this film, but won't be the last, as it holds up very well and has a lot of interest for contemporary audiences, I think.

The score was built out of materials that I hoped help tell the story and signal shifts in mood or "between the lines" stuff. (That's a funny term to use for a silent film, but I can't think of a better way to put it.) So I had a two-part fanfare (statement and response style) for the good prince, a minor key melody for the bad prince, a tune for the gal they both loved, and a motif for gambling, which itself plays a big role in the story. (Not surprising, given the film's title.)

Other stuff happened here and there for other characters, and a scene that features "jugglers" (the film's all-purpose term for court entertainers) resulted in some unplanned carnival-like music that stood in stark contrast to the mostly-Asian-sounding scales I used otherwise. I actually liked this, as it seemed refreshing and came just when the film needed it.

The strategy to use music to help the audience tell the princes apart (outlined in an earlier post) seems to have worked. But I was a little late on some cues and several things didn't work as planned. Funny the stuff that people remember, though. One of the synthesizer settings I used a lot is a mix that includes bird tweeting sounds to give it an "untamed jungle" flavor. I happened to be using it at the very end, and afterwards several people complemented me on the use of the bird calls for the final shot. I guess that's the kind of thing that sticks with people.

Taking a breather now before hitting the road this weekend with 'Tol'able David' and 'Hell's Hinges' in Brandon, Vt. and Ogunquit, Maine. Will brush up Thursday or Friday, just to make sure I handle the cross-cutting in 'David' so that the film's finale holds together like it should. Otherwise, it's off to the movies!

Oh, got a request this afternoon to screen 'Pandora's Box' (1928), the Louise Brooks film directed by G.W. Pabst. It's on my list -- we'll see when we can get to it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dramas and westerns and epics, oh my!

Entering a busy stretch of accompanying some very different types of silent film, and here's a few notes.

• Screened double feature of 'Tol'able David' (1921) and 'Hell's Hinges' (1916) last night at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Small mid-summer turnout, mostly because of competing events, including a big music festival. But those on hand saw a terrific pair of movies.

Spoiler alert! Of the two films, 'David' is the tougher to score at the climax, primarily because of the frequent cross-cutting that takes place between the battle in the cabin and scenes at the town store where people are innocently waiting for the mail hack. The sequence has the potential for immense power if the music is on top of the cuts. But if it's off even just a little, it draws attention to itself and the whole thing collapses, I think. The task is complicated further when Esther arrives in town and a posse starts forming. This means the town music needs to then start stirring up its own drama, but it needs to be separate from the music that follows David's battle out in the cabin and then his courageous ride into town. And then it all has to come together when David arrives. It worked okay last night, but I'm looking forward to other chances to do this film later this month, in Brandon, Vt. and Ogunquit, Maine.

'Hell's Hinges' is a real "what you see is what you get" film, meaning there's not a lot of layers or subtlely to it, so scoring can be pretty straightforward. The movie produced five themes: a religious hymn associated with the pastor, a "love" melody for his sister, a syncopated signature for the saloon owner (and for general debauchery), a motif for William S. Hart, and some seductive music for the gal who preys upon the minister. And that was enough to build a film score in real time -- one that I thought helped bring it to life in a way that surprised even me.

What happened was as the film played, I found all of the themes combining in unexpected ways that helped move the drama forward. For instance, the minister and his sister riding the stagecoach to his new post worked well with a rhythmic "horse trot" version of the religious hymn. Their arrival is the first time William S. Hart lays eyes on the sister, and so both those themes got worked in, even as the religous hymn's chord structure was still underneath. And then the reaction of the crowd made use of the saloon owner's syncopation, which broke apart as they realized that Hart wasn't going to scare the bejesus out of the newcomers. All that in just a small sequence!

Another part that came together really well was near the end, when the town's religious people flee into the country and meet with Hart, returning from afar. They tell him what's happened, and the look on Hart's face is amazing. He then leaps onto his horse in fine early movie fashion and rides off the to the rescue. The mixture of desperation and heroic action, using primarily the religious hymn and Hart's motif, helped the sequence jump to life in the same way Hart did on the screen!

• I have an interesting challenge this Sunday, July 17 in doing music for 'A Throw of Dice' (1929), a rare epic silent film from India that we're showing at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre at 4:30 p.m. (If you're in the area, please come!) It's interesting because the main characters (two princes competing for the woman) look very much alike to me, so much so that I had trouble following the plot when I first watched it. Not sure what that says about my cultural sensitivity, but I have to assume others will have the same problem. The solution? Music! I plan to use completely different textures for each of the two guys, which I hope will eliminate any potential confusion, as long as I can keep the characters straight myself.

Will it work? Come by and see for yourself. Should be a fun screening of a rarely seen film that looks fantastic in the restoration we have. The story of the film's making, and how it contributed to the foundation for today's massive Bollywood industry, is equally interesting, and my colleague Dan Szczesny will be on hand to talk a bit about that.

And finally, as an added treat for the screening on Sunday, July 17, we have an unannounced film that's a good example of Hollywood's depiction of the Indian subcontinent in the 1920s. Guess I shouldn't worry too much about my own cultural sensitivity, but you'll see. All I can say is thank God it's a comedy and you're supposed to laugh.

• Finally, a review of our screening of 'Seven Chances' (1925) at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre on Sunday, July 10 has been posted online. Writer Jay Seaver covered it in two gulps. His blog has a write-up of the shorts, while the Web site has a longer analysis of 'Seven Chances' with some insights I hadn't seen before. Thanks, Jay!

Monday, July 11, 2011

This month: 'Tol'able David' and 'Hell's Hinges'

Next up is a pair of silent dramas that I think make a good double feature: 'Tol'able David' (1921) starring Richard Barthelmess and 'Hell's Hinges' (1916) starring William S. Hart. They're both films that can generate a surprising amount of dramatic intensity, and because they're both rural dramas filmed largely on location, they have the added dimension of showing today's audiences what ordinary life looked like a century ago or more.

The 'or more' part is especially relevant in the case of 'Tol'able David,' which was filmed in a remote and rural Virginia valley not far from where director Henry King grew up. In the film, the place looks like life hadn't changed much since colonial days. It's a landscape full of split rail fences, horse-drawn hacks and buggies, subsistence and tenant farming, and brush-like fans (or fan-like brushes) used at dinner time to keep flies off the food. All of it adds a layer of interest that probably wasn't there in 1921, and is one reason silent film is worth watching today, I think.

'Hell's Hinges,' though a little creakier, is like a well-made mousetrap. Once it lures you in, there's no escaping, and you're carried along to the climax of this film, which can be so intense as to be unbelieveable. I first saw this film at the Kansas Silent Film Festival some years ago, and was surprised to find such power in a movie from 1916, which is still relatively early.

I'm looking forward to doing music for both of these. The challenge will be to create two different scores in one evening, without borrowing from each other. I think I'll try to do a "strings only" texture for 'Tol'able David,' which will fit nicely with the open country old-timey rural feel of the movie. And then we'll amp things up to the full orchestral palette for 'Hell's Hinges,' and maybe uncork some snarling brass for the big ending.

I'll do the program on Thursday, July 14 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., then on Saturday, July 23 at Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall, then on Sunday, July 24 at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine. For details, check out the "Upcoming Silent Film Screenings" page at right.

I'm also working up music for 'A Throw of Dice' (1929), a fascinating silent feature from India that's a distant ancestor of today's vibrant Bollywood film industry. We're screening it on Sunday, July 17 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. More on that in a bit. For now, here's the press release about this month's touring program. Hope to see you at a screening!

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film double feature, live music at Flying Monkey on Thursday, July 14

Backwoods drama 'Tol'able David' paired with gritty Western 'Hell's Hinges'

PLYMOUTH, N.H. — The countryside of rural America a century ago will return to life when the silent film 'Tol'able David' (1921), one of the top movies of its era, is revived the big screen on Thursday, July 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person.

The movie, part of silent film double feature, will be paired with a gritty early Western, 'Hell's Hinges' (1916), starring William S. Hart. Hart was credited with popularizing Westerns in Hollywood's early days; his stoic 'tough guy' persona was a forerunner of characters played later by John Wayne and other actors.

Both films will be screened with live music played by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who performs at venues across New England. Rapsis provides music for the Flying Monkey's monthly silent film series, which aims to honor the recently renovated venue's historic roots as a local moviehouse.

"These films were created to be shown on the big screen to large audiences as a sort of communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they come to life in the way their makers intended them to. The Flying Monkey screenings are a great chance for people to experience films that first caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

In 'Tol'able David,' actor Richard Barthelmess plays the title role, an adolescent eager for a chance to prove to his town that he's an adult and a man. His big chance arrives when three shady escapees from jail set up shop in the community and menace the local residents. When push comes to shove, who will emerge on top?

Barthelmess, one of the silent era's superstars, won praise for his realistic portrayal of a 15-year-old, although he was 25 at the time the film was made. The cast also features actor Ernest Torrence, playing what some critics have called the most sinister villian in all of cinema.

For 'Tol'able David,' director Henry King insisted the film be shot on location in rural Virginia, where the story was set and where he grew up in the 1890s. Much of 'Tol'able David' was filmed in the countryside within a few miles of the director's boyhood home in Staunton, Virginia, and the movie infused with the spirit and details of a vanishing way of life that King knew well.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis has written new musical material to help capture the film's rural atmosphere and also bring out the dramatic power of the story.

"This picture was a big hit when it was released, and it still holds up well today," Rapsis said. "But there's an additional level of interest now because the film captured a way of life that's long since disappeared. With the passage of time, it's now almost like a historical photograph come to life. Plus, it's a great film with a powerful climax."

'Hell's Hinges,' set in a lawless frontier town, stars Hart as a loner with a bad reputation who falls for the sister of a new and untested preacher. Will Hart's tender feelings be enough for him to renounce his past and take on the town's injustices? What price will be paid to rid the town of lawlessness and immorality?

The film, shot almost entirely on location, caused a sensation when it was first released, and is now widely regarded as Hart's masterpiece. Viewers today are still mesmerized by the intensity of the film's climactic scenes.

'Tol'able David' and 'Hell's Hinges' will be shown on Thursday, July 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit For more info on the music, visit

• Review of 'Tol'able David':
"Beautifully crafted...the finale is a rip-roaring piece of movie story-telling."
—Leonard Maltin

In 2007, 'Tol'able David' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

• Review of 'Hell's Hinges':
"...perhaps the finest movie Western made before John Ford's 1939 'Stagecoach' emotionally powerful as any American film of the teens, except for the masterpieces of D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim."
—Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribute, 1994

In 1994, 'Hell's Hinges' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

One of the best screenings ever!

Well, I can say this about too much of a good thing—it doesn't seem to be doing me any harm.

That's what I thought last night (Sunday, July 10), while doing music for a Buster Keaton program in 35mm at the Somerville (Mass.) Theater, in Davis Square just outside downtown Boston. It was really that good.

The Somerville stages these monthly events in their main venue, a vintage 1914 theater with a balcony, real curtains, and a huge screen. It's a great place to watch a movie, especially an older movie, because they're dedicated to the 35mm format, and they take incredible pains to do it right.

Consider this excerpt from an e-mail prior to the show from David Kornfeld, the theater's head projectionist and an absolute fanatic about his craft:
"KEATON MOVIES. Continuing our silent series with live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, we'll be running two shorts & a feature. Just got through inspecting these, and, great news, they are all 1.33 prints. Wow.
NEIGHBORS. This is a gob-smacking print: just gorgeous. Terrific density, sharp as a pin. Best print of this I've ever seen, and I've run many.
THE GOAT. Not quite as good. This is a more recently struck print, and has more contrast & less tonal range than the other. In excellent shape, though, and should look good on screen.
SEVEN CHANCES. Even more recently struck, with the problems inherent in B&W processing these days. The density varies: at times good, & at times okay; but it is thinner than it should be overall. There are abrasion scratches on the emulsion side, which might show (maybe not). There are also a fair number of splices; surprising on a mylar print.

How's that for attention to detail? David does other things like amp up the brightness of his bulbs to mirror the kind of light produced by carbon arc projectors back in the early days. And the results really show on screen: after two 35mm Keaton programs at the Somerville, I can say I've never seen these films look like this. They're absolutely luminescent, a delight to look at. And they probably come closer to what our great-grandparents actually saw than anything we're likely to encounter elsewhere.

Really, the more I think about it, the more I realize how the passing of time has made so much of the silent film experience difficult or impossible to recreate. The films themselves are either lost or decomposed. But even if you have a blindingly beautiful original tinted 35mm print, there are issues of aspect ratios, lighting, live music, and so on. For silent film it's a real puzzle to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

But it's possible, and when it happens, there's nothing like it. And that's what happened last night. All three films looked great (despite David's misgivings), and audience reaction was huge—gales of laughter for the two shorts and throughout the feature, and audible astonishment as 'Seven Chances' built toward the rockslide climax. I later found we had under 100 people, but from the sound of the crowd it might have been 1,000. What a complete rush to be helping this piece of pop art from another time rise from the past and do what it was designed to do, more than 85 years after it was made!

As for the music, I did something unusual. For these kinds of programs, I like to use organ accompaniment for the short films and then switch to full orchestra for the feature, if nothing else to signal the shift in the program and give the feature a little oomph to get things started.

Last night, I did organ for 'Neighbors,' and had fun with it. But then, for some reason, as 'Neighbors' ended and 'The Goat' started almost immediately, I switched to full orchestra. I still don't know why, but at the time it felt really necessary. And yes, within a minute or so I already regretted it, because I felt it was too much for this comedy, to the point of sounding too overdone, etc., no matter how light a touch I tried for.

still, I stuck with it, and the reaction was as strong as you could want, so perhaps my fears were unfounded. But still, at the beginning of the feature, I did miss that moment when the "new" full-orchestra sound landscape gets introduced, which I think helps weave the magic spell that the best silent films can still cast over us.

In 'Seven Chances,' the sequence that's most fun to score is when Buster wakes to find a church full of would-be brides, and shortly afterwards, when he marches down a Los Angeles street with an increasingly sizeable army of of women in wedding dresses behind him. I actually made a lot of use of the old 'Here Comes the Bride' melody, or at least the opening of it, with a descending scale underneath to make it kind of an inexorable march, and shifting keys and modes (lots of minor key variations) to build up tension as the brides spill from the side streets.

There's also that wonderful scene where Keaton's business partner sees Keaton coming from the left (but the audience doesn't), and so starts running (and the camera stays on him) to be up to speed when Keaton catches up to him. A traveling camera is used, and the whole thing is wonderfully cinematic and kinetic.

It's hard to believe that Keaton himself disliked 'Seven Chances,' but that really was the case. All I can think is that he remained torqued that the story was foisted on him by producer Joe Schenk without consultation, and that colored his whole view of the project, even though it turned out splendidly. And if Keaton felt so strongly about that, you can only imagine what he must have felt when, only a few years later, the folks at MGM really started to screw with his creative independence.

Many great comments afterwards. Thanks to everyone who attended and hope to see you at our next Somerville Theatre screening: on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 7 p.m., when the featured attraction is Keaton's 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Keaton's 'Seven Chances' July 10 in Somerville

Oh my God, it's finally happened. I've stooped so low as to put out a press release about...myself. But I felt it was time to do something to try to stir up some excitement for our 35mm screenings of Keaton features this summer at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. They're terrific chances to see Keaton's films in the best 35mm prints available, and in a theater where they really know how to handle 35mm black-and-white on the big screen. I'd probably be going down even if I weren't doing the music. But for now, despite this self-serving release, let me assure everyone that it's still all about supporting great films, not about me. Really. Really!

Here's the press release...

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

New England silent film musician improvises whole movie scores on the spot

Somerville Theatre's silent film series spotlights energy, excitement of lost art of improvisational scoring

Next screenings: Buster Keaton's 'Seven Chances' (1925) in 35mm on Sunday, July 10 at 7 p.m. and 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928) in 35mm on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 7 p.m.

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Taking his place to play the score for a classic silent film, there's a reason accompanist Jeff Rapsis has no sheet music on his keyboard. It's because he's making up the music right there on the spot.

And it's not rinky-tink piano accompaniment, either. Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician and composer, uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra, complete with pounding drums and clashing cymbals, all produced in real time by a traditional keyboard with 88 keys.

The goal is to create a movie score that brings to life classics from Hollywood's silent era—the films that caused audiences to first fall in love with the movies.

"These films retain a lot of their magic over audiences if you show them under the right conditions," said Rapsis, 47, of Bedford, N.H. "Good restored prints projected on the big screen, with a large audience and with live music—all those elements contribute to making silent film a unique experience, and different from anything you're likely to see in a multiplex today."

Rapsis currently provides the music for the monthly silent film series at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, which this summer is showcasings the timeless work of comedian Buster Keaton. All films are shown in the best available 35mm prints, increasingly a rarity as many theaters convert to digital projection. The next screening in the series is Keaton's feature 'Seven Chances' (1925), to be shown on Sunday, July 10 at 7 p.m. Admission to the show, which includes two Keaton comedy shorts, is $12 adults / $8 students/seniors.

Based on a Broadway play, 'Seven Chances' finds Keaton with just seven hours to get married or lose an inherited fortune. For the music, Rapsis will draw from material he's developed for prior screenings of the film—a main melody and several chord sequences useful in telling the story, plus familiar wedding music to underscore the comedy. But the score itself will come only at showtime, when the lights go down and the opening titles appear.

"It's kind of a high wire act to do the music this way. But it provides an energy and excitement that contributes to the experience," said Rapsis, who prepares minimally for each screening. "For a film I don't know, I'll run through it once or twice on DVD prior to the public screening, to make sure I understand the story's arc and any big moments. Any more than that, and I find a movie begins to get too familiar, and I find I start to overthink the film or anticipate things during the screening, and that gets in the way of things flowing in the theater."

Once a film is underway, Rapsis plays continuously, providing music that underscores what's onscreen—not just the action, but emotional shifts and plot twists that can often build to powerful climaxes. He provides full orchestral scores for dramas, westerns, action/adventure films, and horror flicks, all of which first became popular as the silent film era peaked in the 1920s.

"Comedies are often the hardest to do well because timing is so important, and often less is more," Rapsis said. "It's important not to overpower what's on the screen, which can keep audience members from hearing each other react. These films were built for audience reaction, and being swept along by the crowd is one of the great things about silent film. And I find I can best go with that flow if I'm with them and responding to the film, and not buried in sheet music."

Silent film programs can last anywhere from one to three hours in length. Rapsis finds that after the first 10 or 20 minutes, he sinks into a state of mind where he is completely absorbed by the process of scoring the movie, and the music sometimes seems to weave itself as he responds to the film in real time.

"At it's best, creating music in real time is a grand journey into the subconscious," he said. "Once I get 'in the zone,' I'm not aware of time passing, though part of me is always conscious of what's on screen, what's likely to happen next, and what the audience reaction may be. And I adjust as I go—to help a film 'grab' a restless audience at a big moment, sometimes it helps to stop playing for a bit, which really punctuates the drama."

Rapsis, a newspaper publisher by day, is a lifelong silent film fan who studied classical piano separately. He began to accompany silent film screenings only in 2005, after composing the score for an independent feature film, 'Dangerous Crosswinds,' directed by New Hampshire filmmaker Bill Millios.

"It's kind of a lost art, but once I tried doing it, I found I could naturally come up with music that helped silent films come to life," Rapsis said. "And I really enjoyed the process because it combined two things I really loved: silent film and music. For me, it was like putting chocolate and peanut butter together. And I never had time to prepare anything elaborate in advance, so that led me down the improv path."

Improvisation was once a key element of music, not just in silent film scores but also in many other eras. Composers such as Beethoven and Mozart would often improvise cadenzas to their piano concertos, and would sometimes pit their keyboard virtuosity against other performers in concerts. Today, improvisation is being reintroduced to classical music as a way to bring new life to the field.

Although he uses a modern digital synthesizer, Rapsis creates music that maintains a traditional "movie score" orchestral sound. His music, however, differs from what audiences might have heard in the 1920s.

"You have to remember that audiences today have several generations of film music in their head," Rapsis said. "There's that shower scene in Hitchcock's 'Psycho,' for example, with composer Bernard Herrmann's dissonant high strings squealing away to create a sense of terror. So while I maintain a traditional sound, I try to use that wide-ranging musical vocabulary to help make silent films work for modern audiences."

In recent years, Rapsis has pursued his silent film music passion at screenings throughout New England and beyond. In addition to his work at the Somerville Theatre, he's currently supplying music for monthly screenings at theaters in Wilton and Plymouth, N.H.; Brandon, Vt., and Ogunquit, Maine. He has accompanied silent films at the New York Public Library and the Kansas Silent Film Festival; in 2012, he's been invited to play music at Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y., one of the nation's most prestigious vintage film festivals.

At each performance, he actively solicits audience input, both for feedback on his work and for ideas of what films people would like to see.

"I have comment cards and they're very useful in evaluating how I'm doing," he said. "The comments range from very supportive to curt remarks such as 'Music Too Loud,' which is actually important for me to know because during a performance, I'm never quite sure how it's coming across."

After a screening of Keaton's feature 'Our Hospitality' at the Somerville Theatre in June, critic Jay Seaver of wrote of Rapsis: "He was really impressive tonight—his music for the prologue to 'Our Hospitality' was especially terrific, and I'm sure my musical brothers will tell me that playing to fast-paced movies for two hours straight (no break between films), at least partly improvising, is difficult, and he did an excellent job."

Though silent film music isn't exactly a growth business, Rapsis takes a great deal of satisfaction in helping audiences connect with great films from Hollywood's early days.

"I joke that I've finally found my artistic niche—collaborating with dead people," he says.

Following 'Seven Chances' on Sunday, July 10, the Somerville's next silent screening will be Keaton's classic feature comedy 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928) on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 7 p.m.

Admission for all silent film screenings in the series is $12 adults, $8 students/seniors. The Somervillle Theater is located at 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit

For more information on Rapsis and a current list of upcoming screenings, visit