Thursday, October 18, 2012

'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) in Boston
on real honest-to-God 35mm film!

Coming up: 'The Phantom' on real film!

Yes—the original Lon Chaney version of 'Phantom of the Opera' will be shown in actual 35mm with live music on a big screen in a real theatre. Specifically, it's the wonderful Somerville Theatre, where we'll screen a collector print of this great flick on Sunday, Oct. 21 at 2 p.m. Admission is $15 per person—a bargain for the great (and increasingly rare) experience of seeing a film as it was intended to be shown.

I'm thrilled to be returning to the Somerville, where I did music for several screenings in 2010: a 1916 version of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" for a science fiction marathon, and then three programs of Buster Keaton features, all in 35mm. It's a pleasure to work with people so committed to maintaining the authentic movie-going experience, even as the industry demands conversion to digital.

I especially want to single out two people there who have really gone out of their way to keep the movie-going experience intact. Ian Judge, the theater's manager, is that rare kind of person who can operate a complex business entity (he actually manages more than one theater) but do it while also understanding the value of things that don't immediately translate to the bottom line. (Silent film as a whole fits into the latter category.)

Even before the industry began the transition to digital, Ian worked tirelessly for years to transform the Somerville from a second-run house to a place where the movie-going experience could be celebrated. It took a lot of polishing, and work continues even today, but the place is a real gem.

And then there's projectionist David Kornfeld, whose fanatical devotion to his craft is unlike anything I've seen anywhere. Projecting a film properly involves a great many technical variables, especially when handling older prints in all the various formats that have been used over the years.

David cares so much and so deeply about the art of getting a movie on the big screen, and is so knowledgeable about how it ought to be done, that he's capable of getting really, really angry when things don't measure up to his high standards. And I love that. I think the world would be a much better place if more people were as passionate about things as David is about what he does.

(For more on David, I recommend this excellent in-depth profile that ran recently in The Boston Phoenix.)

So, even when given dreck to work with, David does his best to make it look as good as possible on the Somerville's big screen. He has some issues, for example, with the 35mm print of 'Phantom' that we've obtained, but I'm sure he'll make it look great at showtime.

And showtime? Again, it's Sunday, Oct. 21 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. For more details, I've pasted in copy from the press release that went out awhile back. Hope to see you there!

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'Phantom of the Opera'
at Somerville on Sunday, Oct. 21

Classic silent horror film starring Lon Chaney to screen in 35mm with live music

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—It was cinema's first real shocker—a movie so frightening that its original audiences would shriek in terror and even faint. It was 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the silent horror film starring legendary actor Lon Chaney. The classic tale of the mad musician who lurks in the shadows of the Paris Opera House will be revived with live music on Sunday, Oct. 21 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

The screening will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating live scores for silent films. Admission is $15 per person.

For this screening of 'The Phantom of the Opera,' the Somerville has obtained use of a collector's 35mm print widely regarded to be among the best in existence.

Adapted from a 19th century novel by French author Gaston Leroux, the film features Lon Chaney as the deformed Phantom, a mysterious figure who haunts the depths of the opera house. Seen only in shadows, the Phantom creates terror when he attempts to force the opera's management to make the woman he loves into a star.

The film is most famous for Lon Chaney's intentionally horrific, self-applied make-up, which was kept a studio secret until the film's premiere. Chaney transformed his face by painting his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom.

Chaney's disfigured face is kept covered in the film until the now-famous unmasking scene, which caused audiences to shriek in terror.

"No one had ever seen anything like this before," said Rapsis, who will accompany the film. "Chaney, with his portrayal of 'The Phantom,' really pushed the boundaries of what movies could do."

Chaney, known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his versatility with make-up, also played Quasimodo in the silent 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and circus performer 'Alonzo the Armless' in Tod Browning's 'The Unknown' (1927).

The large cast of 'Phantom of the Opera' includes Mary Philbin as Christine Daaé, as the Phantom's love interest; character actor Snitz Edwards; and many other stars of the silent period.

Despite its reputation for scariness, 'The Phantom of the Opera' proved so popular in its original release and again in a 1930 reissue that it led Universal Studios to embark on a series of horror films, many of which are also regarded as true classics of the genre, including Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932).

The silent film version of 'Phantom' also paved the way for numerous other adaptations, up to and including the wildly successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical from 1986 that continues to run on Broadway and in productions around the world.

The original silent 'Phantom' featured lavish production values, including a large theater set the Paris Opera House scenes. The set was never torn down and continues in use today as part of Universal's Stage 28; it was seen most recently in 2011's 'The Muppet Movie' as the abandoned Muppet Show theater.

The Somerville Theatre’s commitment to 35mm film presentation in both contemporary and classic movies means a rare chance to see 'Phantom' in its original format.

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

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

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

Organizers say the original silent film version of 'The Phantom of the Opera' is a great way for families to get into the Halloween spirit.

"Remember—in silent film, no one can hear you scream," Rapsis said.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925), the classic silent horror film starring Lon Chaney, will be shown on Sunday, Oct. 21 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission is $15 adults, general admission seating. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit For more info on the music, visit

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