Sunday, September 30, 2012

At the Buster Keaton Celebration
in Iola, Kansas: Meeting the Family

Me with Harry Keaton, Jr., Buster's nephew.

For me, the highlight of this year's Buster Keaton Celebration was hearing stories from Buster's daughter-in-law, granddaughter, and nephew. All three were guests of honor at the celebration (the 20th annual), held on Friday, Sept. 28 and Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012 at the Bowlus Arts Center in Iola, Kansas.

Why Iola? Because in 1895, Keaton was born just a few miles to the west in Piqua (pronounced "pick way"), a village that was tiny then and even tinier now. And thus Iola, the nearest burg of any size (population 5,700), became the logical place to honor Keaton with a now-annual get-together of scholars, film buffs, and the just plain curious.

And why go there from New England? (One attendee described it affectionately as "two and a half hours from any damned airport.") Well, because the Keatons aren't coming to New Hampshire anytime soon. And also the chance to hear from film preservation icons Kevin Brownlow and David Shepard, who also attended, plus to hear the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra do live scores to 'Our Hospitality' (1923) and 'The General' (1926).

The vivid memories of the Keaton family came as a true surprise. Sitting onstage together on Saturday afternoon, they recalled incidents that went into significant detail that I'd never heard before. A lot of it was the kind of stuff that every family winds up talking about, but in this case, it's Buster's family.

I'd met Melissa Talmadge Cox, Buster's granddaughter, once before. It was at the 2010 Kansas Silent Film Festival, at which my wife and I got to take her to lunch at Bradley's Corner Cafe in North Topeka, the colorful "bad" part of town. We had a nice chat, but it wasn't the time and place to probe family history in detail.

Well, this weekend's Keaton Celebration brought not only Melissa, but also her mother Barbara Talmadge and Harry Keaton Jr., the son of Buster's brother Harry "Jingles" Keaton. And when they all sat down on stage to reminisce, the stories started coming.

Melissa opened things with a family photo album to provide some context, capped with a wonderful shot of her as a young girl with a stone-faced "Grandpa Buster" in a child's inflatable swimming pool. Great stuff! It nicely augmented what I recalled from her 2010 presentation and helped introduce the other family members.

Then Barbara and Harry began swapping stories, and what I heard was fascinating. Both are a bit older than Melissa (Barbara is a spry 87), and both had a seemingly endless treasure trove of first-hand tales involving Buster going back as far as the 1940s.

Barbara recounted in astounding detail the time her husband (Jim Talmadge, Buster's first son) brought her to meet his dad. Buster had long been estranged from his two boys following his divorce from their mother, Natalie Talmadge. And so not only had he not met his son's wife (Barbara), but he didn't know he'd become a grandfather. To me, that lack of communication spoke volumes (ironically) and helped fill in a key piece of Buster's life at the time.

Another tale: Buster's sister Louise, who never married, had wished to be buried with her mother, Myra Keaton, who had died in 1955. When Louise died in 1981, confusion first ensued when her body went missing for several days, having wound up at a Los Angeles mortuary that had no information about her identity.

When that was cleared up, the family interpreted her wish by first cremating her, then going out to Myra Keaton's cemetery plot and auguring a narrow hole all the way down to the casket, apparently. The family then used a funnel to get the ashes down to their final destination. "True story," Harry Keaton averred, as everyone in the place broke up.

I managed to speak a bit with Harry, now retired after a long career with the phone company in California. These days, he enjoys the role of family representative at the various Keaton tributes, and has a lot of interesting recollections. After all, he was part of the household when the Keatons were all living together in the 1940s, and he saw it all first-hand.

And Barbara Talmadge, now participating in Keaton events after being reticent for most of her life (presumably out of respect for her husband, who died in 2007), seems to be a particularly rich resource of first-hand recollections and accounts of Buster from World War II onward.

I didn't get a chance to talk with her but someone should, at length, and write it all down. I find it amazing that in 2012, we can still get fresh first-hand accounts of a significant time in Buster's life.

It was also interesting to get Kevin Brownlow's perspective on issues ranging from Raymond Rohauer (one glance of his during a panel said it all) and the difficultly of presenting vintage film in a way that does justice to it. Quoth Kevin: "Showing a film as if it's viewed out of the bottom of a champagne bottle is a cultural crime of the first order." (At least that's what I recall him saying.) Hear, hear, Mr. Brownlow.

Other highlights of the festival, in addition to seeing film friends, were learning that the town of Peculiar, Missouri has one of only two three-legged water towers in the entire Show-Me state; that the Wal-Mart Super Center in Iola is actually the second smallest such establishment in the entire United States; and that my wife is a dead-ringer for the mother of a friend of a server at Iola's B & B Country Cafe.

Yes, traveling is broadening! Especially so after sampling the B & B Country Cafe's fried chicken platter.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Up next: 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924)
on Sept. 26 at Concord's Red River Theatres

Wow! The schedule is so packed lately that there's barely time to post screenings in advance. Tonight's showing of 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) is a good example. I mean, the show is tonight at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., and I'm only just getting info about it on this front page right now.

Well, time for a few thoughts. I've long admired 'The Thief of Bagdad' for all the usual reasons: the eye-popping sets, the absorbing story, the energetic performance of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and the film's overall aura of exoticism. It really is one of the high points of Hollywood's silent film era.

But it's only in the past year that I've finally understood a key element of what Fairbanks was going for. In the past, I would sometimes offer mild apologies for his on-screen approach in 'Thief,' which to me seemed to hint of the comical "silent film overacting" syndrome that you sometimes see.

But now, after reading Jeffrey Vance's biography of the actor and his films, I realize that Fairbanks conceived 'Thief' as a kind of ballet. He wanted his performance to be thought of as a dancer, and fashioned it accordingly. Seen in that light, his broad gestures and big reactions make perfect sense. (So do the diaphanous costumes.)

Don't misunderstand me—I think the film holds up stunningly just on its own, with no explanation needed. As a work of fantasy, you could argue that it seems even more fantastical and exotic now than it did when silent film was simply everywhere.

But knowing a little bit about what Fairbanks was after really helps you appreciate 'The Thief of Bagdad' even more fully, I think. And knowing the "ballet" part of it really helps influence the kind of music that I'll do to support the picture.

So even though it's short notice, I hope you'll join me this evening (Wednesday, Sept. 26) at 7 p.m. for a screening of 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) in Concord, N.H. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., and help celebrate their fifth anniversary.

More info is on the press release below...

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Red River to screen 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924)
with live music on Sept. 26

Epic silent film fantasy to be shown in Concord, N.H. to kick off theater's 'Cheers to Five Years' anniversary celebration

CONCORD, N.H. — He was the Harrison Ford of his time—the first action hero to entertain movie audiences with thrilling on-screen 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 boasts a great story, spectacular sets, and magical special effects.

'The Thief of Bagdad' will be screened on Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theaters, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

The screening will open Red River's 5th anniversary celebration. Dubbed "Cheers to Five Years," the theater is marking five years of bringing independent films, documentaries, and cultural events to the Capital region and central New Hampshire.

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 a flying carpet is 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, in which the repentant thief embarks on an 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.

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 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 synthesizer to create a traditional full orchestra "movie score" sound. Rapsis, a Granite State musician, was recently named among the state's top musical performers in New Hampshire Magazine's recent "Best Of" edition.

Nearly 90 nears after its premiere, 'The Thief of Bagdad' continues to be held 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.

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

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.

Red River Theatres includes silent film in its programming to give 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 emotions in a way that no other medium can."

'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) will be screened on Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person. For more information on the screening or other events for the theater's 5th anniversary, visit or call (603) 224-4600. For more information on the music, visit

Monday, September 24, 2012

Shedding some light on 'Spies' (1928)

It was no secret that we screened Fritz Lang's espionage thriller 'Spies' (1928) this afternoon, as you can see by the signs outside the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre, and even on nearby Route 101:

Alas, the weather was wonderful, as you can also see in the pictures—the first full day of autumn boasted sparkling sun, blue sky, a light breeze, and dry air.

So you might conclude that attendance was low, and you would be right.

I think we had maybe 40 folks show up, a much lower turnout than usual. Not sure if it really was the weather, or because 'Spies' just isn't a draw, or something else. I think the film is a terrific piece of work, and a fun film for music, and it did get a good reaction from those who were on hand. But I would still like to see it in a truly crowded theater, so it remains on my list to do elsewhere and see what happens.

Speaking of what happens, I was pleased to see Dennis Markavarich, long-time owner/operator of the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, go on the record this past week with his plans to keep the theater open even as Hollywood converts its first-run output to digital media. You can read the full story in the Milford Cabinet, a local paper.

The Town Hall Theatre, which Dennis has run since 1972, is my favorite movie theater anywhere, and that's not because Dennis lets us run a monthly silent film program there. For first-run movies, Dennis takes pride in running shows in which the focus and the bulb brightness and all the details of presentation are always taken care of. He even has a red curtain that he opens and closes, in a nod to a practice that was once standard. The popcorn is great and not overpriced. His seats are big and comfy, with some rescued from old movie palaces that are no more. Also, movies have been shown there since 1912, so the place has a kind of vibe that you somehow don't get in your local multiplex.

In one nod to changing times, the theater does have a Facebook page. On it, someone described the Wilton Town Hall Theatre as the "red castle of celluloid dreams," and I can't think of a more magical way of putting it. It really does look like a castle, too. Here's a snapshot of the exterior I took prior to our screening of 'Spies,' with the building lit up by the late afternoon sun:

We're entering our fourth year of screening silents at Wilton, and I do hope we can continue to go on indefinitely. I think of it as my "home base," and nowhere else do I feel quite as comfortable as the Town Hall Theatre.

Dennis, of course, goes to a lot of trouble to make the place comfortable. New Hampshire summers can get pretty hot and sticky, and the building was erected in 1886, long before central air. So Dennis gets by the warmer months with a battery of wall units augmented by a collection of fans that get deployed throughout the warmer months.

So you know summer is truly over when Dennis hauls out all the fans and preps them for cold storage. Hence this shot of me after 'Spies' surrounded by, yes, some of fans:

We do get regulars, but each screening also brings a few new faces. Because 'Spies' was preceded by a 2 p.m. screening of the new film 'The Master,' we had to wait around the lobby for it to end before I could go in and set up my stuff. While standing there chatting with the usual suspects, I noticed some new folks, but didn't get a chance to speak to them.

To my delight, one of the newbies came up afterwards and introduced herself as a woman from England who was visiting our corner of the world and staying in Hancock. We chatted for a few moments, but I was my usual completely brain-dead self just after doing a film score (and a long one at that), so I can't recall anything else. So: Hey, English gal roistering in Hancock! If you're out there, please get in touch with me at

I was also delighted when a woman came up afterwards with her two sons, who were aged maybe 9 and 11. I had seen them coming in and wondered what they'd make of this film, which is unusual fare even for die-hard silent film fans. Turns out it was their first-ever silent film, and they loved it! And that alone made the whole effort worth it, with the English gal with the charming accent a wonderful bonus.

Coming up next is another biggie—a screening of 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) on Wednesday, Sept. 26 at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. as part of the theater's fifth anniversary. More on that in a separate post. But it's one of my favorite silents and I do hope we fill the 55-seat screening room.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sunday, Sept. 23: 'Spies' (1928) in Wilton, N.H.;
Fritz Lang's ground-breaking espionage epic

Our print ad for a screening of 'Spies' (1928) on Sunday, Sept. 23.
I'm thrilled to be doing music this weekend for 'Spies' (1928), a film that I didn't know at all until the Kansas Silent Film Festival this past February. The movie, presented there in its shortened version, was Fritz Lang's follow-up to 'Metropolis' (1927), and after seeing it I just had to do it. And so we will—the long version, all 2½ hours of it—at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 23 at 4:30 p.m.

It's amazing to me that 'Spies' pretty much invented the espionage genre all in one go. It's all there: the beautiful but dangerous woman, the high-tech gadgets, the evil criminal, the government agent who is a master of disguise. 'Spies' contains the DNA of every spy thriller for decades to come, and is a template for many of James Bond's adventures. Pretty impressive.

But I find the same thing is true with 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), Lang's voyage-to-the-moon drama and his last silent film. This picture contains the DNA of every trashy sci-fi epic—the ethnic scientist, the female scientist and her two handsome rivals, the little boy who stows away on the space craft. So score another genre for Lang.

More info on 'Spies' is in the press release, the text of which I'm pasting in below...

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603)
'Spies' (1928) to screen with live music on Sunday, Sept. 23 in Wilton, N.H.
Silent film was model for James Bond, called "granddaddy" of all espionage movies

WILTON, N.H. — It was the movie that pioneered the espionage genre, complete with secret documents, hi-tech gadgets, an evil mastermind, and a beautiful but dangerous woman. It was 'Spies' (1928), an action-packed silent thiller, and will be shown with live music for one screening only on Sunday, Sept. 23 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main Street, Wilton N.H.

Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with donations accepted to help defray expenses.

'Spies,' made by German director Fritz Lang at the end of the silent era, served as a blueprint for decades of espionage story-telling to come in movies and, later, on television. It is especially notable for the many ways it anticipated the James Bond films, in which a government's secret agent must match wits with a criminal mastermind.

Newly restored to its original length, 'Spies' is a flawlessly constructed labyrinthine spy thriller. Hugely influential, Lang's passion for meticulous detail combines with masterful storytelling and editing skills to form a relentless story of intrigue, espionage, and blackmail.

An international spy ring, headed by Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), uses technology, threats, and murder to obtain government secrets. As master spy and president of a bank, Haghi leads several lives using instruments of modern technology to spearhead a mad rush for secrets — secrets that assert his power over others.

Battling Haghi is the government's Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), himself a master of disguise. Can Agent 326 stop Haghi's plot before it disrupts the world's balance of power?

Putting on the screen for the first time many elements of the modern spy thriller, Spione remains remarkably fresh and captivating over 80 years since its first release. Lang carefully reveals the elaborate methods of the spies as they move through his unknown city, no doubt creating a mirror of troubled Weimar Germany, where the film was shot.

Made by Lang's own production company and, like the classic films 'M' (1931) and Metropolis (1927), written by Lang with his wife Thea von Harbou, 'Spies' is "the granddaddy of decades of intrigue epics. In its rigorous austerity it remains the most modern of the bunch," wrote Elliott Stein of The Village Voice.

'Spies' features many of the same performers featured in 'Metropolis,' Lang's famous futuristic fantasy, including Klein-Rogge, who portrayed the scientist 'Rotwang' in the earlier movie. 'Spies' also stars Austrian actress Gerda Maurus as the mysterious woman who could prove to be the undoing of Agent 326.

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

"'Spies' is a wonderful film for music," said Rapsis, who improvises accompaniment using themes or melodies he composes beforehand. "In addition to telling great stories, Lang's films are also visually interesting, and so they lend themselves to music to heighten the drama and tension," Rapsis said.

'Spies' is appropriate for family audiences, although it includes intense scenes that may frighten very small children. The film is two-and-a-half hours long.

The screening of 'Spies' 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, in a theater 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, this is 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."

Upcoming silent films at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre include:

• Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, 4:30 p.m.: "The Hands of Orlac" (1924). A concert pianist, Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt), loses his hands in a railway accident. Replacement hands are transplanted onto him in an experimental procedure, but the hands are those of a recently-executed murderer. The pianist is then tortured by panic attacks and irrational fears. Admission free, donations encouraged.

• Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, 4:30 p.m.: Silent film comedy. Cap off Thanksgiving Day weekend with a program of sure-fire hits from comedy's golden era! Belly-laugh at the antics of Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, and a few masters you may never have heard of. What better way to work off those holiday pounds? Admission free, donations encouraged.

'Spies' (1928) will be screened on Sunday, Sept. 23 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.

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre runs silent film programs with live music the last Sunday of every month. For more information about the music, visit

Monday, September 17, 2012

'Pandora's Box' on Thursday, Sept. 20:
A different kind of silent feature

Ah, that face! Louise Brooks in 'Pandora's Box' (1929)

Can you really promote a silent film in rural New Hampshire by promoting it as an "erotic thriller?" We'll find out this week when I do music for 'Pandora's Box' (1929) at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H.

Yes, the film was made in Europe, not Hollywood, and even then that made quite a difference. 'Pandora's Box' deals with "adult" topics such as extramarital sex and lesbianism in a way that's very unlike most mainstream American features of the time.

And here's the odd thing. I think that enough time has passed to make the mainstream pictures (where the hero wears white) seem more unusual today than the complex stuff that director G.W. Pabst has going on 'Pandora's Box.'

Really. For modern audiences not used to silent films, the traditional Hollywood approach of the period is part of what makes them seem refreshing today. The story-telling, the implied morality, the lack of ambiguity: it all somehow captures an innocence that's one of its special qualities.

A film like 'Pandora's Box,' with its frank handling of such less-than-innocent topics as extra-marital sex, doesn't fit into that, er, box. It challenges our notions of morality, shows us humans at their most revealing, and basically does things that a contemporary film is expected to do.

Good for it! But then, will it have the same kind of impact on a theater audience as, say, the much more idealized and upstanding swashbuckling of Douglas Fairbanks in 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925).

The only way to find out is to show the film, which is what we'll do on Thursday, Sept. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey. Below is the press release, highlighted by the words 'Erotic Thriller' in the headline. Do your bit and be part of the audience!

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Erotic thriller 'Pandora's Box'
at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Sept. 20

Classic silent film drama to be screened with live music; latest in theatre's monthly series

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—The rise and fall of an amoral but naive young woman who inspires lust and violence is the story of 'Pandora's Box' (1929), a silent film drama to be screened with live music on Thursday, Sept. 20 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. The program, the latest in the Flying Monkey's monthly silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by New Hampshire composer Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $10 per person.

'Pandora's Box' stars the iconic actress Louise Brooks in what many consider her finest role ever—as Lulu, a hedonistic young dancer and prostitute who uses her eroticism to manipulate older men to get what she wants. The film, made in Germany by director G.W. Pabst, leaves Lulu's character open to interpretation. Does she manipulate men on purpose without regard for the consequences, or is she unaware of the damage she causes to those who are attracted to her?

The film is highlighted by the cool, calculated performance of Brooks, an American actress who worked in Germany in the late 1920s. Her portrayal of a seductive, thoughtless young woman whose raw sexuality and uninhibited nature bring ruin to herself and those who love her, although initially unappreciated, eventually made the actress a star.

The title is a reference to Pandora of Greek mythology, who upon opening a box given to her by the gods released all evils into the world, leaving only hope behind. 'Pandora's Box' is also notable for its lesbian subplot in the attraction of Countess Augusta Geschwitz to Lulu.

As a foreign film released at the very end of the silent era, 'Pandora's Box' did disappointing business at the box office. The film was re-discovered in the 1950s by critics, who acclaimed it greatly. Modern critics now praise the film as one of the classics of Weimar Germany's cinema, along with 'The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari,' 'Metropolis,' and 'The Last Laugh.'

Film critic Roger Ebert reviewed the film in 1998 with great praise, and remarked of Brooks' presence, "she regards us from the screen as if the screen were not there; she casts away the artifice of film and invites us to play with her".

"Brooks' face is fixed forever: the bangs cut low over the eyes (``One of the 10 haircuts that changed the world,'' according to InStyle magazine); the eyebrows rich and level, parallel to the bangs; the deep dark eyes; the mouth often caught in a pout or a tease; the porcelain skin; the perfect regularity of features that made her almost a cartoon," Ebert wrote.

The Flying Monkey's monthly silent film series aims to honor the recently renovated venue's historic roots as a local moviehouse.

Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician, said 'Pandora's Box' was not made to be shown on television or viewed on home entertainment centers. In reviving silent films, the Flying Monkey aims to show them 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 improvises accompaniment as a film is screened. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today. 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.

‘Pandora's Box’ will be shown on Thursday, Sept. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South 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

Friday, September 7, 2012

Notes on scoring 'The Bells' (1926)
for reissue by Reel Classic DVD

I recently got to do music for a new release of 'The Bells' (1926), an obscure melodrama with a cast featuring Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff, of all people. (There they are together in a frame capture!) The film, a feature from Chadwick Pictures (Slogan: Each Production an Accomplishment), was transferred from a 16mm print and just reissued by Mark Roth under his "" label.

By the way, Mark's extensive catalog of public domain releases is worth browsing at, with a lot of interesting titles you won't find elsewhere. I have film scholar/archivist Bruce Lawton to thank for recommending me to Mark, who was great to work with. It was a fun project, and now that it's out, here are a few notes on the process of developing a score for 'The Bells.'

First, the obvious: Yes, I used bells in it. :)

About the film, which is set in 19th century Europe: Barrymore is great as a debt-laden small town businessman tempted to commit murder. But I was especially intrigued by Karloff as "the Mesmerizer," a creepy carnival hypnotist who gets drawn into the case. His role resonated with me because hypnosis (of a sort) plays an important role in silent film music, I think—at least the way I do it. So 'The Bells' was an especially appropriate picture for me to tackle.

The thing is, I have a very hard time with recording music. I'm much more of a "do it live" kind of guy. One barrier is practical: I just don't have a set-up that allows me to record anything conveniently or easily, and so must to rely on the indulgence of friends and acquaintances to lay down any tracks.

Also, I just don't do well when I know I'm being recorded. It leads to self-consciousness that's very difficult for me to overcome, and that makes it tough to do music that I think "sticks to the screen."

It's not like I'm nervous in front of people: I have no problem performing live for audiences, the bigger the better. Rather, the act of recording, or the knowledge that I'm being recorded, somehow short-circuits the process by which I get into a trance-like state that's conducive to effective scoring, at least with me.

I find that in doing music for films, I do my best work while "in the moment" improvising during a live performance. If all goes well, I get so absorbed by translating the film's action into music that my usual self-consciousness fades away, and the process of creating music flows naturally and without hesitation.

When I'm doing it, it almost seems like I stop thinking. Perhaps that's because there's just no time for thinking. Whatever the cause, when I'm "in the zone," it all becomes second nature, and that's when I find that the good stuff happens. Of course there is a lot of thinking going on, but it's all happening under the spell of the creative, artistic part of my mind that's in the driver's seat.

This state cannot be switched on and off. Rather, it is achieved by immersion, meaning that it takes awhile for me to settle down and reach it. It's kind of like a self-imposed trance. Hence my interest in the Karloff character in 'The Bells.'

On the other hand, when I'm recording something, I can't help but think of all the equipment around me and how something could go wrong, or I'm worried I'll mess up, or I'm wondering about synchronization, or just concerned about a dozen different things that might happen. It's times like this when I'd like to have someone like Karloff's "Mesmerizer" on hand to just put me under. After all, hypnosis was how a young Rachmaninoff got over the debacle of his first symphony. I'm no Rachmaninoff (my hair is too long), but if it worked for him...

Well, anyway, I keep saying yes to recording projects, in part because I hope I'll get accustomed to the process if I do it more, and also because I feel I should be able to handle it. Plus, it never hurts to have your name on a few commercial discs.

So when Mark first approached me back in January with 'The Bells,' I didn't hesitate. At the time, I prepping for a busy calendar of shows in February and March, so it would have to wait a bit. Then, at the end of March, my mother injured herself in a fall and that sort of took over things for awhile.

The next thing I knew, it was July, and Bruce Lawton was in town as guest projectionist for the 2012 Sons of the Desert international convention, held this year in Manchester, N.H. Bruce mentioned that Mark was still waiting but about ready to give up on me, which prompted me to make arrangements to finally get this done.

Without access to a recording studio, the best way I have to record anything in a useable format is to enlist the services of Bill Millios, a local independent filmmaker (Back Lot Films is his company) with whom I've worked in the past. Bill has a digital motion picture camera that allows for direct input of sound, which makes things easy: just hook it up to my Korg synthesizer and we're ready to go. (To record a sound file, the camera must be running, so somewhere there's a visual record of me playing the keyboard, which was yet another distraction.)

Bill is a busy guy, and so am I, so it worked out that we had only a single afternoon in August to get this done for Mark. Our date—Tuesday, Aug. 14—turned out to be hot and sticky, which was too bad for us, for we were recording in my non-air-conditioned home office. Because I need to hear myself, we couldn't run any fans, either, so it was pretty much sweat city right from the beginning.

I had watched 'The Bells' a couple of times—once back in January when I first got the work disc from Mark, and then again more recently to remind myself how it went. In terms of themes, I hadn't prepared anything elaborate, but the old "Dies Irae" melody from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead seemed to keep coming to me while watching it, so I would go with that.

As for texture, Mark had suggested some special underscoring involving bells, obviously a key element. I could do this easily enough on the synthesizer, but only for a few important sequences. For the balance of the film, I needed a sound that would contrast with the bells but also be versatile enough to evoke moods ranging from heavy drama to light comedy. I chose 'Romantic Piano,' which is mostly a resonant piano keyboard sound, but with strings underneath it that come out behind any sustained notes.

Then, the day before the recording session, I went through 'The Bells' on fast forward, just to note when I'd switch settings. I'd start with the bells over the main titles, but then go with piano until much later, when strange things start happening and Lionel Barrymore begins hearing the eponymous bells. I counted about a half-dozen spots where bells would be appropriate, each of them in a fairly obvious place, so I didn't feel the need to write anything down.

And that was it. Bill came over on Tuesday afternoon and we set things up. I popped the work disc in my small office player, and Bill turned his camera on, and off we went. Mark's work disc included a "countdown" to a tone signal, which he would use to synchronize the sound file to the video. Once that happened, there was no turning back. I knew that the only way I could get it done and not get bogged down with endless retakes and overthinking was just to do it in one gulp, just like a live performance, and hope for the best.

I have to admit, at first I was not very satisfied with what I was doing. My timing was off, the score wasn't setting right, and the music for another film seemed to be coming out of me. Plus, with our improvised recording set-up, it was hard for me to hear myself, even without a fan running. A couple of times I was close to stopping for a "Take 2," but I pressed on, with both Bill and I literally sweating it out while Lionel Barrymore did battle with his wife and creditors.

The usual process eventually kicked in, and after about 20 minutes I thought I was keeping up with 'The Bells' (1926) pretty well. A little motif of running eighth notes that I used right at the start proved versatile enough to show up again and again, signaling everything from foreboding to (in a major key) rural tranquility. And the Dies Irae fit nicely under a lot of other music as an internal harmony or a bass line.

And so it went, the intensity ramping up when Barrymore faces temptation that could change his life. I don't want to spoil it, so I'll leave it at that. The climax is a surreal dream sequence that sports a daring visual style, especially for a poverty row silent feature.

I've been doing this enough so that I think I have pretty reliable instincts about when to hold back, when to push, and when to pull out all the stops. 'The Bells' followed a pretty standard arc, and by the final scenes, I thought I had something that held together.

And so I finished with a dramatic flourish, playing a little long (after 'The End') to allow for a music credit, and then came the final chord. I then recorded another track for a companion short, 'Having Their Picture Took,' and that was that.

That night, Bill posted the .wav files on his Web site for downloading, which Mark did. And lo and behold, several weeks later, the films were in his online catalog and a copy of the DVD was in my mailbox.

I tend to avoid listening to recordings of music I do for the same reason I avoid making them. It's just not the same as doing it live. The permanence of it disturbs me—every time I hear something that sounds off, I regret the inability to do anything about it. But of course I was curious how 'The Bells' turned out, and the analytical side of my brain does realize that I can really learn a lot from hearing myself.

So in went the disc, and I was surprised when out came a score that worked pretty well, I thought. I did that? Even at the beginning, it held together and followed the exposition without being cloying. Nice! And it really did seem to get better as the film progressed. What was funny, too, was that even though I had recorded it only a few weeks earlier, I sometimes would have absolutely no recollection of playing the music that I was now hearing. Sometimes, knowing my instincts, I could anticipate what would come next. But I was often wrong!

It wasn't all peaches and cream, however. Throughout the film, I could clearly hear one bad habit that I need to work on. When in the middle of an idea that I'm working out in real time, I have a tendency to think ahead to where the phrase or melody will go next, which is all part of the process. However, that causes my fingers to rush what I'm playing, as if I've figured it out and so let's get this over with, shall we? This was really noticeable, and I need to work on it.

Also, I need to reacquaint myself with simple power of a single note, which can do so much to bring a scene to life. The music doesn't always have to be dense and moving, which seems to be my default mode. So many scenes would work effectively with spare accompaniment; as a bonus, it provides a nice contrast to when things really do get busy.

Finally, repeated notes. I use a lot of them, and some in 'The Bells' were rhythmically quite sloppy. So back to basics on that. I'll use Mr. Bean's synthesizer performance at the 2012 London Olympics as motivation.

But overall, the score for 'The Bells' turned out a lot better than I was prepared to expect. So thanks to Mark Roth for giving me the chance to work on something that not only turned out well, but helped me learn about stuff that will benefit what I do, I hope. I'd love to get your thoughts, so please hop on over to and order your copy today!