Wednesday, July 25, 2012

This weekend: Douglas Fairbanks
takes flight in 'The Thief of Bagdad'

Our summer tribute to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. continues this coming Sunday, July 29, with a screening of 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924), the picture that Fairbanks himself felt was his favorite.

Looking at this movie nearly nine decades later, it's not hard to see why. Fairbanks, secure in his "swashbuckling adventure hero" mode, was firing on all cylinders in a film that fills the screen with one memorable sequence after another.

And I agree with Doug. I've seen and accompanied pretty much all of the big Fairbanks features from his 1920s peak, and this is the one where he put it all together. And the only way to experience its full effect is to see it as it was intended — in a theater, with live music, and with an audience!

That's just what we'll do on Sunday, July 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in lovely downtown Wilton, N.H. And I hope you'll join us in bringing this terrific film back to life. Here's the press release with all the details...

* * *

'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) to screen
with live music on July 29 in Wilton, N.H.

Epic silent film fantasy stars Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Hollywood's original action hero

WILTON, N.H. — He was the Harrison Ford of his time—an action hero who first entertained movie audiences with thrilling adventures and feats of derring-do.

He was silent screen idol Douglas Fairbanks Sr., whose best work includes 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924), a timeless fantasy that features a great story, spectacular sets, and magical special effects.

'The Thief of Bagdad' will be screened on Sunday, July 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with donations accepted to help defray expenses.

In 'The Thief of Bagdad,' a bare-chested Fairbanks plays a crafty rogue who can easily steal anything his heart desires—everything, that is, except the love of a beautiful princess, daughter of the powerful Caliph of Bagdad. To win her hand, he must not only change his ways, but also convince her of his worthiness over many other highly placed suitors.

In making the film, Fairbanks spared no expense for what some critics still regard as the most lavish fantasy movie ever made, a show-stopping adaptation of the traditional "A Thousand and One Nights" story in which rides on a flying carpet are but one of many eye-popping sights that astounded movies audiences at the time.

Fairbanks, swaggering through massive marketplace sets and cavernous throne rooms as an incorrigible pickpocket, scales towering walls (with the help of a magic rope) and leads merry chases through crowded bazaars in his pursuit of loot—until he falls in love with the princess and vows to win her heart.

The jaunty opening is a preamble to the film's spectacular second half. To win the hand of the princess, three powerful kings scour the globe to retrieve the rarest treasures known to man. Meanwhile, the repentant thief embarks on his own odyssey through caverns of fire, underwater caves, and even outer space. The special effects range from a smoke-belching dragon to a magical flying horse, and still glow with a timeless sense of wonder from the early days of movies.

William Cameron Menzies's sets were among the largest ever created for a motion picture. Especially noteworthy is his design for a mythical Bagdad, a unique combination of Art Deco and Islamic elements—a dream city formed from a coalescence of illustrations from story books.

'The Thief of Bagdad' is the next feature in the Wilton Town Hall Theatre's ongoing summer-long Fairbanks salute.

Fairbanks, one of the most popular stars of the 1920s, was the inspiration for the character of George Valentin in the recent Oscar-winning Best Picture 'The Artist' (2011). Fairbanks was known for films that used the then-new medium of motion pictures to transport audiences to historical time periods for great stories, grand adventures, and athletic stunts. He's often referred to as "Douglas Fairbanks Sr." to avoid confusion with his son, the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Live music for 'The Thief of Bagdad' will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesize to recreate the sound and texture of the full orchestra.

"This is one of the great silent films for music," said Rapsis, who improvises accompaniment using themes or melodies he composes beforehand. "The exotic settings and all the special effects provide a lot of places where music can really add to the atmosphere, and gives you a chance to do some unusual stuff," he said.

Nearly 90 nears after its premiere, critics continue to hold 'The Thief of Bagdad' in high regard. In 1996, the film was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Fairbanks himself considered 'The Thief of Bagdad' to be his personal favorite of all of his films.

Consistent with his moralistic concepts, Fairbanks meant the picture to convey a message of inspiration and hope. "Our hero," he wrote, "must be every young man of this age and any age who believes that happiness is a quantity that can be stolen, who is selfish, at odds with the world and rebellious toward conventions on which comfortable human relations are based." This, Fairbanks believed, was a deception that must be exposed.

'The Thief of Bagdad' is appropriate for family audiences, though some sequences may be frightening for very small children. The film runs 2 hours and 34 minutes.

The ongoing Fairbanks salute is part of the Wilton Town Hall Theatre's monthly silent film series, which gives today's audiences a chance to experience the great films of Hollywood's early years as they were intended: in restored prints, on the big screen, and with live music and an audience.

"If you've never seen a silent film in a theater with live music and an audience, the Fairbanks pictures are a great way to experience the medium at its best," Rapsis said. "When you put all the elements together, silent film still has an ability to stir up an audience in a way that no other medium can."

More information on upcoming titles in the Fairbanks series:

• Sunday, Aug. 26 at 4:30 p.m. brings 'The Iron Mask' (1929), an adventure set in 18th century France and the last film that Fairbanks released before talking pictures swept silence aside. Directed by Allan Dwan, 'The Iron Mask' was released as a part-talkie, with Fairbanks featured in several spoken interludes where he addresses the audience directly. The version to be screened at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre will include these original talking sequences.

In 'The Iron Mask,' Fairbanks reprises his role as d'Artangan from his earlier version of 'The Three Musketeers' (1921), only now as an older swordsmanship instructor to King Louis XIV of France. The long-secret existence of a twin brother of the king, separated at birth, leads to a plot to kidnap the now-grown king and usurp the monarchy, causing the true king to be imprisoned in an iron mask so that he can't be recognized. Fairbanks, as the king's protector and patriot of France, is left to save the day—but only if he can reunite the long-disbanded Three Musketeers.

The Fairbanks Summer Series continues with 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) on Sunday, July 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with donations accepted to defray expenses. For more information, visit or call (603) 654-3456.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What I said about 'The Gold Rush,'
plus notes on three days of silent film comedy

• Last night (Saturday, July 21), I was gratified to received an enthusiastic and prolonged ovation after doing music for Chaplin's go-for-it-all film, 'The Gold Rush,' which we screened at the Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt. as the latest installment in our monthly silent film series there.

But what I'm thinking about today is what I said to the audience (about 100 people) before the film started. In most cases, I'm usually obliged to say a few words about a picture prior to the start, and so off I go, doing my best Robert Osborne imitation.

The problem, however, is that sometimes I've fumbled the spoken intro pretty badly. Maybe it has something to do with my brain already going into "Silent Film Music Improv Land," which tends to degrade my verbal facility. (Really! Try holding a conversation with me after a long, absorbing film.)

With practice, I've gotten better at introducing movies, but it's still not something I naturally do well. So I've been trying to work on it. And the guiding prinicple that's emerged is "Less Is More." People are there to see a silent film, not for someone to go on and on. So keep it short.

Here's another rule: "Context Is King." Names such as Harry Langdon might not need an introduction to hard-core cinema buffs, but most of the people in my audiences are not film scholars. So in the limited time I have, it's important to provide some context. What do they need to know to get the most out of what they're about to see?

Sometimes it involves reminding an audience what Prohibition was and how it worked. Sometimes it involves explaining why someone was popular. In the case of Langdon, it's usually enough to point out that he became popular in part because he was so different from most other silent film comedians. His star rose in response to other clowns, as what he did seemed fresh and original at the time. Hard for an audience to get that on its own. So I say something.

How about this rule? "Don't Give Away the Plot." Okay, it's common sense not to spoil anyone's surprise. But there's a very important corollary to that rule: "Don't Provide Distracting Details." Don't point out trivia, no matter now amazing it might be, if it could distract an audience from coming under a film's spell.

So, for the film 'Noah's Ark' (1928), I avoided pointing out how legend has it that several extras drowned during the flood scenes, because once you mention that, it's all an audience can think of. Same thing with Harold Lloyd's two missing fingers — if you're showing 'Safety Last' (1923), don't say anything about it before the film because it's all that people will look for.

Finally, I try to say something that bridges the gap between the time when the films were made and today. For 'The Gold Rush,' I pointed out how Chaplin was able to balance comedy and pathos in a way where each seems to enhance the other, and that the whole film was a neat metaphor for what we all do in life. "Aren't we all prospecting for gold in one way or another? And aren't we sometimes surprised when we discover something else — something we weren't even looking for?"

And that's it. There's an art to knowing when to shut up, and I'm slowly getting better at it. Need to remember: they may be silent films, but they can still speak for themselves.

• Also, this past weekend saw the biannual convention of 'The Sons of the Desert,' the international Laurel & Hardy appreciation society, in my home base of Manchester, N.H. The confab's packed schedule included three days of silent film comedy shorts in 16mm and 35mm at the "William K. Everson Theatre," which our downtown library's auditorium was redubbed for the occasion.

And because live music is such an important element of silent film, I volunteered as accompanist for what turned out to be 14hours of film over three sessions. I say the music was "live" but by the time it was over, the accompanist was half-dead.

Well, not really. But it is an awful lot of film to improvise music to. And what I like about it is that after awhile, I get into this supercharged state where the music starts flow almost automatically, with very little conscious effort on my part.

I especially felt this way on Thursday and Friday afternoon, nearing the end of five hours of accompaniment with a lunch break in the middle. I found myself finding melodies that came from nowhere and were sometimes quite catchy and versatile — often enough to build a lively score right on the spot.

On the other end of the scale, I can't vouch for the quality of the accompaniment when it comes out in a continous stream like that. In fact, I can barely remember any of the films! It's like what happens when I don't have a lot of time for the Sunday paper but try to skim through it anyway. Five minutes after I'm done, I can't remember anything. And so it went with hours and hours of short comedies, one after another.

A few films stood out, however. Many of the Larry Semon two-reelers were fun to watch as well as accompany, and because they always end in a frantic and spectacular chase, you can count on building up a lot of momentum before the finish. I think my favorite film of all was the sole feature of the program: 'No Man's Law,' a 1927 Western drama from Hal Roach Studios starring Oliver Hardy, Jimmy Finlayson, and Rex the Wonder Horse. Something clicked immediately with this one, and it never let up — five reels of real music, rather than just bouncy accompaniment to comic antics. And the crowd loved it! Thanks to film archivest Bruce Lawton, one of the projectionists, for bringing his 16mm print of this rare curiosity.

Here's our improvised dual-gauge projection set-up — 35mm and 16mm, ready to go!

The other projectionist, Eric Grayson, came all the way from Indianapolis with his pair of "portable" 35mm projectors. Yes, they were indeed portable, but in the same way that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse could also be moved. They're heavy pieces of industrial equipment, with greasy parts that are the enemy of any dress shirt, as I found out.

And here's a rare photo of our projectionists, who do their best work in the dark. Seriously, Eric Grayson (left) and Bruce Lawton are the best in the business and we were fortunate to have them on hand!

In looking over all the pieces, I felt like Eric planned to assemble not a pair of 35mm projectors, but some kind of small piece of World War II field artillery. I wasn't even sure they ran on electricity, jokingly asking Eric who would shovel the coal needed to keep them running.

• Another highlight of the 'Sons of the Desert' convention was supplying live music to a screening of Laurel & Hardy's silent comedy 'That's My Wife' (1929) as part of a vaudeville/variety show staged on Friday, July 20 at the Palace Theatre in downtown Manchester, N.H.

The show was headlined by comedian Emo Philips, whom I had sort of forgotten about since his 1980s peak. But Emo is still performing, and I had no idea he does such great stuff. It's kind of a mix of Bill Maher and Steven Wright. A lot of it mocks organized religion, and it's so refreshing to hear a comedian do intelligent and provoking stuff.

And some of it is just plain funny. A paraphrase: "I used to live in New York City. Whenever I get nostalgic for it, I just fill my humidifier with urine."

So it was a thrill to come up on stage after doing the music, shake Emo's hand, and share a moment with him. Who says silent film accompanists don't rub elbows with the best and the brightest?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Riding the wave of accompanying
a three-day silent film marathon

Stan & Ollie interact with character actor Walter Long, who originally hailed from nearby Milford, N.H.

The 2012 Olympics may be about to start in London, but here in New Hampshire my own personal endurance event is about to commence. I'm talking about the multi-day all-day festival of silent short comedies that seems to happen around here every every year about this time.

In recent years, it's taken the name "Mirthquake," but this time around it's part of the biannual convention of the Sons of the Desert (the international Laurel & Hardy appreciation society), which is taking place this weekend in Manchester, N.H., of all places.

So, as part of the convention activities, we're doing three full days of silent comedies, most with some connection to Stan and/or Ollie, starting tomorrow morning (Thursday, July 19) and running through Saturday afternoon. About 300 people have registered from all over the U.S. and several European countries, so that bodes well for at least some kind of audience.

The venue is the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library, 405 Pine St. It's one of the convention events that's free and open to the public, so come on in. All told, it's about 15 hours of film with live music, all of it provided by me. It's a lot to look at, and the offerings include a dozen 35mm prints on loan from the Library of Congress.

And though it seems insane, I look at this as a kind of challenge rooted in my own style of accompaniment. When a film program starts, it usually takes me a little while to settle in and "lose myself" in creating live music. I find the more I do, the "better" I get, or at least the easier things come to me. It seems to build on itself. So this marathon offers an unprecedented chance to ride that wave in a big way.

And I have to say, by the time I'm done with this sort of a bout, there's a natural facility to it all that isn't there when I start. (Maybe it's just the result of complete mental exhaustion!) And that's a key thing because on Saturday afternoon, directly after we finish in Manchester, I'll be high-tailing it up to Brandon, Vt. to do yet more music for a silent film screening that evening, and I'm eager to see how it all comes together. (And also which hospital I'll wind up in if it doesn't.)

So the endurance test of the next three days, I view it as sort of the "ultra racing" of silent film accompaniment. It's good to push yourself once in awhile, and 16 hours of music for century-old films that I've never seen before is one way of doing that.

And to add variety to the whole project, tomorrow night I'm joining the Sons on the M.S. Mount Washington for a Lake Winnipesaukee cruise, on which I'll accompany singers performing such L & H standards as "Honolulu Baby" and other novelty songs, including "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," for which I only just today got the sheet music.

The whole event will be climaxed, I predict, by a rendition of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," with me accompanying the singer "oompah-pah" style on the bass tuba in the manner of Stan Laurel accompanying Oliver Hardy's serenade of the same song in "Swiss Miss" (1938).

All I can say is that I hope that Lake Winnipesaukee is not populated by a fresh water species of whale. If it is, once I start playing the tuba, they will all no doubt rise en masse tomorrow night and swamp the boat.

Check the 11 o'clock news to see what happens.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Thoughts on scoring 'Orphans of the Storm'

This past Saturday (July 14) was Bastille Day, and what better way to mark the occasion than screening 'Orphans of the Storm?' Director D.W. Griffith's 1921 melodrama, starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish and set during the outbreak of the French revolution, is the next best thing to reading "A Tale of Two Cities" on the flight to Paris. (Or speed reading, if you hope to finish before landing.)

And our enthusiastic audience at the Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. seemed to agree, even laughing at my lame joke about celebrating by eating French toast for breakfast.

I haven't done 'Orphans' in a couple of years, but the original music I did for it in early 2010 was notable for including a faux 18th century minuet that wound up being perfect to sing to a young dog we had just adopted. What started as being the 'Orphans of the Storm' minuet lived on as the "puppy play care song," with suitable lyrics:
Puppy play care,
Puppy play care,
It's not day care,
It's where puppies play
And so on. But this past weekend, it returned to its roots, once again accompanying the Girard sisters as they made their innocent way to Paris, and then being worked into the score in one form or another in dozens of places.

Besides occasional use of the opening of "La Marseillaise," I couldn't recall any other music I'd used or created for this film. So I had to dip into the well, and that's when interesting things can happen.

For instance: Without any preparation at all, I launched into the film's prologue with a busy sequence that contained a seven-note kernel that I wound up using throughout the film as my "things are happening" theme.

And just prior to the screening, I imagined a musical signature for the evil 'Mother Fourchard' character: a simple motif alternating between C minor and Ab minor, but easy to incorporate into all sorts of musical textures. (Incidentally, I just discovered that the actress who plays Mm. Fourchard, Lucille La Verne, would go on to supply the voice of the Wicked Queen in Walt Disney's 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' in 1937.)

As the film ran, I came up with some maestoso 4/4 music for the aristocratic scenes that even now I don't think I could recreate, but which was in the air for me right then. And its rhythms stayed with me throughout as well, enriching the texture of scenes for the remainder of the film. (Oh, I just remembered how it goes: ya, dum-da-daaaa, ya, dum-da-daaaa, ya dum-da da-da-da, ya dum-da-daaaa. Geez, I gotta get with posting sound files as part of this effort.)

And some nice love music came to me when needed, mostly based on the dissonance of a suspended note above a minor chord, and having it resolved. Very handy. Need some more tension? Move it up a minor third. That sort of thing.

So after 30 minutes of 'Orphans,' I really had more than enough material to create a film score that I think helped tell the story and bring out the emotions and keep an audience in its spell. As I went for the final cadence, I thought it came out pretty successfully.

And that would have been that, until our after-film Q & A turned to the music. A woman paid me the compliment of saying that it sounded "so emotional," which was certainly high praise. I've heard that before, and of course it's mostly the film that the person is reacting to, with the music helping enable the emotion. I like to think I have enough tricks in my bag, plus an insistence on some kind of melody as part of my technique, that it does help unlock the emotional power of some of these older films.

I was further flattered when someone wanted to know if I've recorded any of these scores I do, but I had to reply that I generally don't record because the idea of making my music permanent somehow seems to make me too self-conscious to be effective. I get the occasional recording project, and I always drag my feet and never feel satisfied, even though I'd like to get over this.

But for now, I make art that lives primarily in the moment, and it's never the same way twice, and I think that freedom is an important element to me losing myself in the moment, of getting in the zone and creating live music that has enough emotion in it to help an older film spring to life.

Afterwards, I thought: Why? Why not record? Why don't I feel the need to? Why don't I want to do that? And I think the answer lies in the "emotion" that sometimes people hear in the music. And that's all related to why I find creating silent film music so satisfying in the first place.

I am a person of strong emotions. I feel things deeply. I am easily moved. Love. Hate. Joy. Envy. There's this whole opera going on inside me.

I've learned to control and channel these emotions as I've moved through life, but they remain within me, strong as ever as I near age 50. And I think with silent film music, I've lucked into a medium that's exactly the right canvas for me to take my somewhat limited musical abilities and use them to express some of the emotion that I've always had within me.

Maybe we all possess emotions like this, at some level. If so, I'm truly fortunate to have found a way to express mine in this way - through music created on the spot, in public, and as a subordinate part of a larger experience,which reduces the personal risk involved.

The process of creating music live is so absorbing that it alone divorces me from all the self-critical barriers that anyone inevitably erects around one's self. And because the film is not mine, it reduces the risk, which further frees me from self-consciousness. It's a very safe place for me to let loose, and that's where some of the best stuff seems to come from.

Each score I do, then, is sort of a mini-catharsis in which I forget myself and all the restraints and filters that I place on my emotions to get through life, and instead allows me to tap deeply into the well of energy and excitement and breathless wonder that's somewhere in there struggling to get out. Another bonus, which I often joke about, is that I'm collaborating with dead people, so you don't have to worry about egos and can just concentrate on doing the best you know how to do.

So silent film in live performance (with me in the dark, no less) turns out to be an excellent way I can give voice to my emotions and express them in public. It's a kind of self-therapy in which I allow myself to explore intense emotions in a way that I otherwise couldn't, short of psychoanalysis. And that's something I'll never know because it's against my middle-class religion.

So that's an element, anyway, of why I've yet to become excited about recording. Something about knowing that what I'm doing will be permanent really makes me self-conscious, and that's a big barrier into tapping where all the magic is — the stuff that I think comes across to audiences as "emotional."

Wow. You know, I'm reflecting on this, and I think I'm about to cry. Someone get me a Kleenex!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A revolutionary film: D.W. Griffith's
'Orphans of the Storm' on Bastille Day

Lillian Gish mingles with the aristocracy in 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), a silent film epic set during the French Revolution.

As seen above: The hairstyles alone are worth the price of admission!

I'm speaking of 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), the French Revolution epic that was pioneering director D.W. Griffith's last big popular hit. In honor of Bastille Day, we're putting it up on the big screen on Saturday, July 14 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person, which is less than the price of a haircut. And I don't mean the kind given by a guillotine.

I got behind on updating things here during my recent mid-summer break, but this screening should be a good one so I wanted to get at least some info posted. So here's the text of a press release that went out earlier this week.

Hope to see you at Red River on Saturday!


French Revolution epic comes to Red River Theatres on Saturday, July 14: Bastille Day

D.W. Griffith's silent film masterpiece 'Orphans of the Storm' tells tale of two sisters separated during political upheaval

CONCORD, N.H.—Heat up your Bastille Day this year 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 music on Saturday, July 14 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord. Admission is $10 per person.

'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 race-to-the-rescue climax that wowed audiences in 1921, making 'Orphans of the Storm' one of the year's biggest hits.

"We're thrilled to continue to present silent film with live music at Red River," said Shelly Hudson, the theater's executive director. "It's a great example of how we're fulfilling our mission to bring cinematic experiences to our audiences that can't be found elsewhere, and which aren't possible to create in the home."

In showing silent film, Red River aims to recreate the conditions in which they were intended to be shown: restored archival prints shown on the big screen, with live music and an audience.

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 Griffith, who 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 July 14 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. Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician, was recently named among the state's top musical performers in New Hampshire Magazine's recent "Best Of" edition.

Red River Theatres, an independent cinema, is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to screening a diverse program of first-run independent films, cult favorites, classics, local and regional film projects, and foreign films. The member-supported theater’s mission is to present film and the discussion of film as a way to entertain, broaden horizons and deepen appreciation of life for New Hampshire audiences of all ages.

'Orphans of the Storm' will be screened on Saturday, July 14 at 7 p.m. in the screening room of Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Tickets $10 per person. For more information, visit or call (603) 224-4600. For more information on the music, visit

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Back in action, screenings galore:
A convention, a new series, and more!

Hey, that rhymes!

And that wasn't planned. But, after a brief mid-summer performance hiatus, a lot of silent film is planned for the coming weeks. Highlights include a Bastille Day showing of D.W. Griffith's French Revolution epic, 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921) on Saturday, July 14; three days of continuous silent film short comedies from Thursday, July 19 through Saturday, July 21 as part of the biannual convention of the 'Sons of the Desert,' the Laurel & Hardy appreciation society (happening this year in Manchester, N.H., of all places!) and a new series of silent film presentations at the Rogers Center for the Arts at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

Get out your calendars, block out the dates! Here's a run-down of it all, starting with Clara Bow in 'It'...

• Thursday, July 12, 2012, 6:30 p.m.: "It" (1927) starring Clara Bow; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; See the film that helped make Clara Bow the "It" girl of the Roaring '20s. A perky comedy/romance that will leave you smiling! Part of a monthly silent film series at a newly restored moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Admission, $10 per person.

• Saturday, July 14, 2012, 7 p.m.: "Orphans of the Storm" (1921), starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish; Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.; (603) 224-4600; We mark Bastille Day with D.W. Griffith's silent blockbuster set during the French Revolution. The story: Country girl Lillian Gish accompanies her blind sister Dorothy to Paris for an operation to restore her sight. Separated and then swept up in events beyond their control, they each must fight to survive amidst chaos that threatens to destroy the nation. Admission, $10 per person.

• Thursday, July 19 through Saturday, July 21, 2012: Silent Film Short Comedies with live music at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, with a break for lunch (and sore fingers). The public is invited to three days of vintage silent short comedies, including about a dozen 35mm prints on loan from the Library of Congress, as part of the biannual convention of the "Sons of the Desert," the international Laurel & Hardy appreciation society, being held this year right in Manchester, N.H.! Free admission, come and go as you please. Carpenter Memorial Auditorium, Manchester Public Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.; (603) 624-6550.

• Saturday, July 21, 2012, 7 p.m.: "The Gold Rush" (1925); Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.; Cool off from mid-summer heat with Chaplin's iconic tale of prospectors in the snowbound Klondike. Timeless silent comedy that speaks across the generations, as delightful as ever. Part of a summer series of silent film and live music in a wonderfully restored town hall in Brandon Vt. that features great acoustics. Admission free, donations accepted, with proceeds to help continuing preservation work.

• Sunday, July 29, 2012, 4:30 p.m.: "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924); Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Eye-popping spectacle starring swashbuckling star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in top form as adventurer who must complete a series of epic tasks to save his beloved. Part of a monthly silent film series with live music. Admission free, donations encouraged.

• Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, 7 p.m.: "Queen Kelly" (1929), starring Gloria Swanson; Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. (978) 837-5000. Erich Von Stroheim's troubled masterpiece about forbidden love, a masterpiece that was never released in the United States. Silent film on the campus of Merrimack College; program hosted by noted author Christopher DiGrazia, who hosts a pre-screening discussion at 6:30 p.m. Free admission. For more information, visit the Rogers Center online.

• Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012, 6 p.m.: "Four Sons" (1928); Carpenter Memorial Auditorium, Manchester Public Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.; (603) 624-6550. Director John Ford's drama about four brothers from Bavaria who become embroiled in World War I—but not on the same side! Interesting period drama set in Europe, carried by great story but with plenty of historical interest as well. Monthly series of rarely screened silent films presented with live music in 1913 auditorium. Admission free, donations encouraged.

• Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, 6:30 p.m.: "The Cameraman" (1928); The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; Portrait photographer Buster exchanges his still camera for a movie camera in an effort to break into the newsreel business and win the attention of a special gal. Spectacular Keaton comedy filled with great stunts filmed on a grand scale. Part of a monthly silent film series at a newly restored moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Admission, $10 per person.

• Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012, 7 p.m.: "Wings" (1927); Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.; Sprawling saga of American flyboys caught up in World War I was winner of the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture. Part of a summer series of silent film and live music in a wonderfully restored town hall in Brandon Vt. that features great acoustics. Admission free, donations accepted, with proceeds to help continuing preservation work.

• Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, 7 p.m.: "The Kid" (1921) starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan; Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. (978) 837-5000. Chaplin's breakthrough feature, a story with "a smile, and perhaps a tear," blends comedy and pathos in equal measures; five-year-old Coogan delivers one of the most remarkable child performances in all of cinema. Silent film on the campus of Merrimack College; program hosted by noted author Christopher DiGrazia, who hosts a pre-screening discussion at 6:30 p.m. Free admission. For more information, visit the Rogers Center online.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Unexpected reactions to two films:
'Robin Hood' and 'Spite Marriage'

So last weekend saw the last screenings before my mid-summer late June/early July silent film lull. On Sunday, June 24, we screened 'Robin Hood' (1922), the famous Douglas Fairbanks blockbuster. Then, on Tuesday, June 26, we screened 'Spite Marriage' (1929), Buster Keaton's rarely seen final silent feature. Guess which one worked?

Well, the fact that I'm bringing up the question should make it obvious: the Fairbanks film produced only a mild reaction at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre, while the Keaton film produced gales of laughter and applause at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library. What's the deal?

Well, for starters, I think the music was a factor. I specialize in improvised live scores, and sometimes things just don't click. You never know. With 'Robin Hood,' I had prepared several big themes to use to build the score on, but it never seemed to come together effectively.

For 'Spite Marriage,' I didn't have time to create original material beforehand, but came up with a few simple themes on the spot and it all fell together wonderfully! I've noticed that's the case with me: when I overprepare, I seem to set myself up for failure, but when I play something cold, good things seem to happen more often.

Plus, with 'Robin Hood,' I made the mistake of starting too strong, which leaves you with nowhere to go, especially for a film that's nearly two-and-a-half hours long. The Keaton score, however, built organically from a goofy little diatonic tune that I riffed on and developed as the film unspooled.

But other factors played a part, too. For one thing, the Fairbanks picture takes a lot of time just showing us the Middle Ages in all its glory, which was big news to movie-goers of the 1920s but not so much to us in the we've-seen-it-all age. For a film about a well known legend such as Robin Hood, we expect it to start right in with the robbing-from-the-rich, and Fairbanks takes about 90 minutes before introducing even the idea of Robin Hood.

Buster's film, however, is a contemporary comedy, and as such just gets right to things, with a non-legendary story unhampered by audience expectations. He just makes us laugh, and then even the flimsiest plot (which 'Spite Marriage' has) doesn't seem to matter that much as long as the laughs keep coming, which they did at our screening.

Another strike against 'Robin Hood' is more basic: the way the Merry Men prance about the wilderness, alas, seems unintentionally comic to today's sensibilities. It kinda takes away from the magic spell that a good silent film can weave. But Keaton's dead-pan approach has worn pretty well over the years -- perhaps it's okay to call it timeless? One style gets in the way of the spell, while another enhances it.

I must say I knew what we were getting into with 'Robin Hood.' I've run it before, and it's not the most rousing of the Fairbanks swashbucklers, despite the gigantic castle sets. But I'd never had a chance to run 'Spite Marriage,' nor had I ever seen it with an audience, so I was curious to see what kind of reaction that "lesser" Keaton would get.

I was pleasantly surprised! Scene after scene was greeted with delighted laughter, so much so that I really backed off the accompaniment to let the reaction cross-pollinate and build and grow as naturally as it could. Once again, a picture that seems mildly amusing when watched alone became an absolute riot when shown with an audience.

The highlight for me was the sequence in which Keaton tried to get a passed-out Dorothy Sebastian into bed. It's always been called a classic, and Keaton used the routine quite a bit later in life, but I've never thought it was that terrific.

But audience last Tuesday night rewarded it with constant, astonished laughter, including a spontaneous round of applause when Keaton places a chair under Sebastian and gets her into a sitting position. It was one of those great moments when, sitting there at the keyboard in the darkness, I felt a powerful sense of joy at what we were all doing.

And one final thought about music. 'Spite Marriage' was released with a recorded soundtrack, and I imagine purists would insist that this be used in any screenings. But to me the recorded track sounds antique and a little hyperactive, actually, and serves to place the film in a "yesterday" box.

But by doing fresh music and doing it live, I like to think we helped bridge the gap between yesterday and today for our audience, making 'Spite Marriage' less of a museum piece and more immediate and compelling and easier to lose oneself in.

Thanks to all for a great first half of 2012. And to top it all off, I just found out that I was recently included in New Hampshire Magazine's annual "Best of N.H." survey, for which I'm profoundly grateful.

I'm really looking forward to the second part of the year, which includes more performances of the Moving Panorama in Saco, Maine; a program with Kevin Brownlow at the University of Arkansas, and screenings galore in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and elsewhere. See you at the movies!

Accompanying a "slow motion" picture

Last weekend I had the privilege of accompanying an unusual ancestor to motion pictures. It was a moving picture, yes, but one that was created back in 1851, or about a half-century before movies as we know them came about. And rather than the usual rate of 24 frames per second, this one was shown at a rate that was closer to 24 frames per hour. Call it a "slow motion" picture.

This amazing artifact, presented after years of restoration, was the "Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress," an 800-foot-long painting that depicted scenes from John Bunyan's classic book. With images eight feet high and designed by noted artist Frederic Edwin Church and others, the massive stage-filling panorama was designed to be scrolled from left to right as a narrator described the story.

So it was a movie from the time before movies. And yes, there was music, although no one seems to know exactly what might have been played for a panorama presentation 150 years ago. So we settled for an improvised accompaniment done in the style of American composers of the period, with an emphasis on Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

And so the 'Pilgrim's Progress' moving panorama, restored over the past few years by the Saco (Maine) Museum, received its world re-premiere (and its first known presentation in at least 140 years) on Saturday, June 23 at Saco Town Hall.

About 100 people were on hand for the show, which included a narrator in period costume and yours truly doing the music live.

So much about this presentation amazed me, it's hard to know where to begin. How about the panoramas image's, which are vivid and colorful illustrations that look like something you'd see on a church ceiling? How about the way the story leapt to life when you put all the pieces in place -- the images, the narration, the audience, and the music? (It's very much like silent film in that sense.)

How about the incredible home-built mechanism used to present the panorama, which resembled a giant two-story film camera made of plywood? And how about the improbable survival of this particular panorama, which lay forgotten in storage for more than a century prior to rediscovery? (Most original panoramas are long gone.)

The reason I was on hand was that the Saco Museum had commissioned a video presentation of the panorama as part of its exhibition, and filmmaker Bill Millios asked me to provide music for that. No problem! Bill did a great job, and the result is online at the museum's Web site.

And I thought that was that. But then museum director Jessica Skwire Routhier asked if I could do the music live for the panorama's "re-premiere" at Saco Town Hall. Up until then, I didn't realize they were actually going to attempt to show the thing to an audience. But of course -- just a film does not exist when sitting in a can, a panorama does not truly come to life unless it is actually presented.

One obstacle was that they couldn't show the now-delicate 19th century original. But as part of the restoration, the museum had every bit of the panorama photographed at high resolution. These images were then brilliantly transferred to a new roll of fabric and -- hey presto! -- a working "print" of the panorama was ready for the rigors of showtime.

But how to show it? Panoramas were in vogue for only a short time prior to the Civil War, and remarkably little info exists about the mechanics of presenting them. Entrepreneurs would commission a panorama on some popular or significant story, then haul it around the countryside, staging shows at town halls or churches. But how?

Well, without anything to go on, a volunteer crew led by an energetic gentleman named Peter Morelli instead used a heavy dose of Yankee ingenuity to construct a remarkable wood-framed (and very low tech) contraption that presented the panorama in the same way a traditional camera moves film. With its heavy wooden timber framing, it wouldn't have looked out of place in some of Bunyan's medieval visions.

The panorama would be rolled up onto a giant reel, which would then be hung vertically. The fabric would then be threaded through the viewing panel, which kept it stretched taut so it looked good while on display. It would then be fed onto a take-up reel on the other end. At showtime, the panorama could be moved one scene at a time as the story progressed!

It was an ingenious home-brewed solution, but not without limitations. For one thing, it was big and heavy, and could not easily be moved, leaving me to still wonder how the original panorama presenters did it. (One theory I heard was that the original panoramas hung by rings from a rail, which I think of as the 'shower curtain' theory.) Also, the rolled panorama was too big to fit on the take-up reels, and so had to be presented in two parts, which necessitated an intermission.

And also, like anything new and untried, the "panorama presentation engine" in practice was prone to glitches and jamming, so much so that tinkering went on right up until curtain time. Thankfully, the show went off without a hitch, though I was prepared to improvise for as long it took to get the thing literally back on track.

About 100 people turned out for the first showing, and I immediately felt that "live performance" vibe you get when something special is happening and it's not in a home entertainment center. We were all collaborating on something special, to bring to life something that hadn't been truly seen as intended for more than a century.

And it worked! Narrator Dean Smalley, dressed in period costume and elegant top hat, did a great job. The panorama rolled from scene to scene without a glitch. And I developed a way of sneaking in music underneath Dean's narration so that when it came time for the scene to change (a process that might take 15 seconds), I could grow it into a musical transition that seemed to fit naturally.

I built extensively on some "walking music" I had created (in the style of Gottschalk) for the video, and also through in a lot of passages from some of the composer's salon works. The virtuoso pieces such as "Bamboula" are beyond me, and need a real grand piano anyway to sound right, I think.

The only big adjustment we had to make was that I had to really back off during the narration so as not to cover it. But still, there was an excitement and energy in the air that you get when everything comes together, and it certainly did for the first showing of "Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress" in more than a century.

What was interesting to me, as an outsider showing up at the last minute, was the sense of pre-show jitters that was palpable on the part of everyone involved, some of whom had been working on this for months and even years. It was the equal of any pre-opening night Broadway nerves, as there was truly no way to know if it would work until you actually did it.

Museum director Jessica Skwire Routhier (left) chats with a panorama aficionado following last Saturday's live presentation.

I was so pleased that all their efforts were rewarded with an immensely successful show! You could see how something like a panorama would have been an extremely popular way to tell a story with pictures and music, especially at a time when not everyone was literate.

At our performance, the audience was so intrigued that virtually everyone went backstage to view the mechanism for showing it. Peter Morelli was like a proud papa, explaining to everyone how things worked backstage.

And yes, things went so well that two additional showings of the moving panorama have been scheduled: on Friday, Aug. 3 and again on Friday, Aug. 31, both at 6:30 p.m. at the handsome Saco Town Hall, which looks like this:

If you're interested in vintage cinema or popular culture (or even just history in general), I urge you to attend one of these rare live performances of this vanished form of popular art.

And the restored original panorama itself, all 800 feet of it, is currently on display for public viewing through Nov. 10. A portion is at the Saco Museum, but the majority of it is hung at the sprawling Pepperell Mill Campus in Saco, which has enough wall space for this massive artifact. For more information, visit the museum online at

I haven't seen the real thing yet, but I'm looking forward to it, especially after last week's live performance. Like all good museum exhibits, it makes one think. In this day of viewing movies on cell phones, could massive moving panoramas come back into vogue? Wouldn't it be great to commission panoramas on more contemporary themes, such as Watergate, the Gulf War, or Bernie Madoff? (Or, more seriously, 9/11?)

As someone who works a lot with silent film, I often see how what's old can seem completely new. Stranger things have happened.