Monday, November 26, 2012

'Trail of '98' on Tuesday, Dec. 4:
Adventure with something for everyone

I'm really looking forward to our screening of 'The Trail of '98' (1928), an adventure film directed by Clarence Brown, intended as a blockbuster by MGM, and released at the very end of the silent era.

For one thing, it features a ship named the "Topeka," which reminds me of the Kansas Silent Film Festival, held every February on the campus of Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. (The next one is Friday and Saturday, Feb. 22 & 23, 2013.)

But more interestingly, I think, is that the film seems to me to be a template for many of the "disaster" movies that Hollywood churned out in the 1970s, most famously by producer Irwin Allen.

The standard method in those pictures was to lay out maybe a half-dozen stories featuring a variety of character types: the headstrong young man, the woman he loves, the ailing child who needs a transplant, the shortcut-taking businessman, the engineer who predicts disaster, the cute elderly couple, and so on.

We get to know them a little, and then BAM! They all get caught in whatever disaster is the real star of the movie. Pick one: an earthquake, a flaming skyscraper, a capsized cruise ship, a plane doomed to crash—even a swarm of bees.

No kidding! There was not only Irwin Allen's big screen epic 'The Swarm' (1978), but a made-for-TV movie from 1974, 'Killer Bees,' that featured one of the last performances of no less than Gloria Swanson.

Speaking of made-for-TV, I can boast of one small personal connection to the golden age of 1970s disaster movies. One of the lesser entries was 'Smash-Up on Interstate 5' (1976), a made-for-TV movie based on a novel called 'Expressway.'

I can vaguely recall it being broadcast with much fanfare back when there were just three networks. A quick Internet search finds the cast included the likes of Robert Conrad and Buddy Ebsen. Wow, James T. West and Jed Clampett in the same movie! Well, doggie!

Now fast-forward to the early 1990s. I am employed as a reporter at the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, and one of my colleagues was a guy named Philip Price. And it turned out that Philip's father was the guy who adapted 'Expressway' into the script for 'Smash-Up on Interstate 5' so long ago.

Wow, brush with fame! I know, but hey, we take what we can up here in glamour-starved New Hampshire.

So what does all this have to do with 'The Trail of '98'? Well, it's a picture about a BIG subject—in this case, the Alaskan Gold Rush of 1898, but also the larger matter of human greed in general.

How to tackle these topics but make a good movie? It seems to me that the film's structure is very much like the formula I remember from the disaster-movie era: take a bunch of people of varying types, get to know them, and then fling them together and put them through some kind of ordeal. In this case, the ordeal is the demanding challenge of getting through the snowbound wilderness of the great North in search of untold riches.

This technique itself seems to be a variant of the formula of exploring a "big" topic by telling stories in various eras, a technique pioneered by D.W. Griffith in 'Intolerance' (1916) and familiar enough to be parodied by Buster Keaton in 'The Three Ages' (1923).

But 'The Trail of '98' seems a lot closer in spirit to, say, 'The Towering Inferno' (1975), so it's interesting from that perspective.

It's also interesting because it's one of those pictures released right when silent film was quickly going the way of the dodo bird. As such, it just didn't get a lot of attention, and never seems to have been taken seriously by scholars, authors, or researchers.

That's a shame, because I think 'The Trail of '98' is an important example of silent-era filmmaking and storytelling at its full maturity. MGM lavished nearly $2 million on the film, and it took director Clarence Brown forever to finish, delaying its release practically to the bitter end of the silent era, which I think obscured its prominence.

Alas, it has no big-name stars (even in cameos) to rescue it from oblivion, although silent era buffs will enjoy such mainstays as Dolores Del Rio and Karl Dane. (It does have a young Lou Costello—long before he teamed with Bud Abbott—credited as Delores Del Rio's stunt double, which must rank as one of the oddest film production credits of any era.)

But the cast is able, if not famous, and the story has something for everyone, so I'm looking forward to seeing how 'The Trail of '98' plays for an audience when we screen it on Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library.

I kinda hope we'll have some snow by then, as it'll add to the atmosphere. But I'd settle for a packed theater, so please put it on your calendar. For more information, I'm tacking on below a recent press release about the screening as well as the library's silent film schedule for the next few months. Hope to see you there!

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Manchester (N.H.) City Library announces winter/spring silent film series

Monthly showings to present restored cinema classics on the big screen with live music; free admission

MANCHESTER, N.H.—Comedy, adventure, and romance are all on tap as the Manchester (N.H.) City Library announces its winter/spring series of silent films presented with live music.

The screenings take place in the library's Carpenter Auditorium, 405 Pine St., and are free and open to the public. Music is provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H. and one of the nation's leading silent film musicians.

Screenings generally occur once a month, and take place on Tuesdays starting at 6 p.m.

The series aims to recreate the full silent film experience, with restored prints projected on the big screen, live music, and the presence of an audience. All these elements are essential to seeing silent films they way they were intended, Rapsis said.

"If you can put it all together again, many of these films still contain a tremendous amount of excitement," Rapsis said. "By staging these screenings of features from Hollywood's early days, it's possible to see why people first fell in love with the movies."

Upcoming films in the library's series include an outdoor adventure set in the Yukon gold rush of 1898; a wild Buster Keaton boxing comedy; a sprawling adaptation of Tolstoy's novel 'Anna Karenina,'; Charlie Chaplin's very first full-length picture; and rarely screened features starring lesser-known comedians Harry Langdon and Johnny Hines.

Live music is a key element of each screening, Rapsis said. Silent films were never shown in silence, but were accompanied by live music made right in each theater. Most films were not released with official scores, so it was up to local musicians to provide the soundtrack, which could vary greatly from theater to theater.

"Because there's no set soundtrack for most silent films, musicians are free to create new music as they see fit, even today," Rapsis said. "In bringing a film to life, I try to create original 'movie score' music that sounds like what you might expect in a theater today, which helps bridge the gap between today's audiences and silent films that are in some cases nearly 100 years old."

The first film in the winter/spring series will be 'The Trail of '98,' a drama set in the days of the Yukon gold rush, which will be shown on Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 6 p.m. Directed by Clarence Brown and starring Dolores Costello, this 1928 adventure film offers outdoorsy silent drama on a grand scale. Fortune hunters from all over the country rush to the Klondike to seek their fortunes in the gold, and are tested by hardships of the journey.

"This was one of the last great silent epics released before talking pictures took over completely in 1929, and stands as a great example of silent film at the peak of its story-telling power," Rapsis said. "With its multiple unrelated story lines interwoven around one big event, 'The Trail of '98' actually formed a template for Hollywood's later disaster movies such as 'Earthquake' and 'The Towering Inferno.'

Other upcoming features in the Manchester City Library's silent film series include:

• Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, 6 p.m.: 'Battling Butler' (1926). Silent film funnyman Buster Keaton's rarely screened boxing comedy gives the star a chance to be even more physical than usual. Rich and pampered Buster reluctantly takes up the Sweet Science to impress his girl, leading to knockout comedy both in and outside the ring.

• Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 6 p.m.: 'Love' (1927). Starring real-life lovers John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. In a story taken from Tolstoy's novel set in Czarist Russia, Anna Karenina falls in love with the dashing military officer Count Vronsky and abandons her husband and child to become Vronsky's mistress. Just in time for Valentine's Day!

• Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 6 p.m.: 'Conductor 1492' (1924). In honor of St. Patrick's Day, join obscure comic Johnny Hines in a fast-paced romp about a young lad from the Emerald Isle who comes to "Americky" to make his fortune—but the fun really begins when dear old dad arrives from the Old Sod to help fight his battles.

• Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 6 p.m.: 'Tillie's Punctured Romance' (1914). Starring Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler. See the unusual (and unusually crude) feature-length Keystone comedy that helped Charlie Chaplin rocket to stardom in his first year of movie-making. An all-star cast of Keystone players, full of slapstick and mayhem.

• Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 6 p.m.: 'The Chaser' (1928). Strange late comedy from Harry Langdon, once considered Chaplin's rival. Carousing Harry is ordered by a judge to swap domestic duties (and clothing!) with his wife. One of Langdon's last feature films and a real curiosity from the final days of silent film.

All screenings are free and open to the public, and take place in the library's historic Carpenter Auditorium, on the lower level of the library, 405 Pine St.

The next installment in the library's silent film series will be 'The Trail of '98' (1928), to be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 6 p.m. in the Carpenter Auditorium of the Manchester City Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H. For more information, call (603) 624-6550. For more information about the music, visit

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Burn off those calories with laughter
with silent comedies on Sunday, Nov. 25

A bevy of great silent short comedies with live music will form the cinematic after-dinner mint, so to speak, of your upcokming food-centric Thanksgiving Day weekend, if you choose to attend our show on Sunday, Nov. 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

The program will emphasize great comedies from silent era that we've somehow neglected to bring to the big screen in the five years we've been showing early cinema in Wilton. (Movies have been shown in Wilton since 1912, so I can't say for sure these films have never been shown there.)

Sunday's menu hasn't quite been decided yet. But the comedy feast will definitely include the following morsels, all of them so far unscreened in Wilton, at least in the modern age. So come on along for the taste of laughter:

The Immigrant (1916): One of Chaplin's better "Mutual" comedies, the two-reelers made during 1916-17 in which his artistry truly blossomed. Highlighted by Charlie's antics on a rocking ship as well as an extended scene in an on-shore restaurant with Eric Campbell as the scariest waiter you're ever likely to encounter.

The Love Nest (1923): A bizarre Buster Keaton short comedy finds our hero, rejected by his girl, taking to the high seas, where he drifts (literally) from one improbable misadventure to another. I hadn't looked at this film in years, and I can't wait to see how it plays with an audience.

Call of the Cuckoos (1927): Obscure comedian Max Davidson stars in this Hal Roach comedy short highlighted by cameos from two comic actors who only recently had been formed into a team: Mr. Stan Laurel and Mr. Oliver Hardy. Noted silent film comedians Charley Chase and James Finlayson make appearances as well!

All this, and probably a half-dozen other comedy shorts, all free! So cap off your Thanksgiving Day weekend with an extra helping of laughter.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chaplin: silent film's gateway drug
(See for yourself on Thursday, Nov. 15...)

A couple of Chaplin programs coming up this month, so a few thoughts about how his comedies are often the way that folks first get curious about silent film.

That was the case with me. My first exposure to silent film was Chaplin's two-reeler 'One A.M.,' a Mutual comedy from 1916, which was shown in a 7th grade study hall by a music teacher who was also a film buff.

It was a 16mm print from Blackhawk films, and I was entranced. Mr. Salvo, the music teacher, explained that this one was noteworthy because Mr. Chaplin was entirely alone, except for a brief appearance early on by Mr. Albert Austin as a taxi driver.

Even then, something in me was marching to the beat of a different drummer. While my classmates dozed, I couldn't get enough of the antique antics I was seeing. I was especially taken by the idea of Chaplin carrying a movie all by himself.

I had heard of Chaplin (Who knows how exactly? Perhaps watching Lucille Ball imitate him?) of course, and somehow knew he was considered the greatest of the great. But here he was actually doing the stuff that made that reputation. To my 7th grade mind, it was like finding the source to the Nile.

Mr. Salvo (after all these years, I still can't bring myself to refer to him as anything else) brought in other prints from his film collection, and eventually invited a small group of us to his home for screenings -- a very big deal in the days before home video.

He had what seemed to be an immense film collection, as well as a projector set up in a closet. The image was thrown via two mirrors to a large screen mounted on an outside rooftop deck high above the streets of Nashua, N.H. With the canopy of trees, it had a kind of Swiss Family Robinson feel to it.

And that led to the Blackhawk film catalog, and soon I was saving up for Super 8mm prints of Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and more. And that, in turn, led to the library and Walter Kerr's 'The Silent Clowns,' a book so packed with analysis and observation that I am still finding new things in it, all these years later.

So watch out, unsuspecting film-goers! Our upcoming Chaplin programs may hook you in the same way I became hooked back in 7th grade. And I wouldn't be happier.

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Get your Chaplin fix on Thursday, Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; A collection of comedy short films that trace Chaplin's rise from unknown comedian to the most popular star in all of early cinema. Get ready to laugh, as they don't make 'em like this anymore! Part of a monthly silent film series at a newly restored moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Admission, $10 per person.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Postponed: 'The Last Command' (1928)
on Thursday, Nov. 8 at Molloy College

NOTE: Due to continuing recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy, our screening of 'The Last Command' on Thursday, Nov. 8 at Molloy College in Rockville Center, Long Island has been postponed. I'll update this when we get rescheduling details.

With Halloween over, things quiet down a bit on the silent film music front for the next couple of months. Relatively light duty until we get through the holidays, but still some good gigs coming up.

Of special interest is 'The Last Command' (1928) on Thursday, Nov. 8 at Molloy College in Rockville Center, N.Y. If you're in the area, come by and check it out! (There's more info on the "Upcoming Screenings" page at right.)

One of the great scenes in all silent cinema is in this picture, when Emil Jannings finally goes berserk. (It was enough to get him the "Best Actor" at the first-ever Academy Awards.)

Let's hope the good folks of Molloy College are okay after the recent storm that battered Long Island. For now, let me round up a few thoughts from the recent busy run-up to Halloween, culminating in three films in the past four days.

• 'The Hands of Orlac' (1924) is not one of those films that leaps to life on the big screen. At least that's what we found at a screening in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Oct. 28.

Because the main character is a concert pianist losing his mind, it's a fun film to do music for. One of the main themes turned out to be a weirdly harmonized version of the melody of an "easy listening" pop tune from the 1960s—one I can't remember the name of but goes "DAH DAH DAH...da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da: DAH DAH DAH da-da-da-da-da-, da-da-da-da-da. (I know that's not too effective written out in a blog like this.) It turned out to be versatile figure that lent itself to being stripped down to just its rhythm, or even weirder alternate harmonies as the film progressed.

But overall, 'The Hands of Orlac' moves at too slow a pace to cast any kind of a spell. One comment from a regular: "There was nothing you could have done to save that film." So sorry, Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt! Probably won't be scheduling that one anytime soon again.

• However, 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920) is one of those films that seems to gain a certain energy and presence on the big screen. At our screening in Manchester, N.H. on Tuesday, Oct. 30, it seemed to move right along, and the audience stayed with it the whole way.

Somehow the music fell together, too, with scraps of the "Dies Irae" mixed in with little cells borrowed from Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring.' It all contributed to a powerful experience. I'd love do the film again, especially as it's one of the most frequently requested of all silent movie titles.

• Our Halloween screening of 'Phantom of the Opera' at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. was a hoot. However, for future screenings, I've got to get there earlier to set things up. It's my own fault, but once again I wound up without enough light on the keyboard, so didn't have the flexibility (or accuracy) that I usually have at my disposal. End result is the folks got a slightly-more-atonal-than-intended score, which was okay for a picture like 'Phantom,' but would have been a problem for, say, Rin Tin Tin in 'Clash of the Wolves.' (also 1925).

• And speaking of 'Phantom,' I've just learned of an excellent blog post describing our screening of that film at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. on Sunday, Oct. 21. Raquel Stecher writes about classic film on her blog, "From Out of the Past," and she really did a nice job recounting what the Somerville experience was like in this post. Thanks, Raquel!

• Okay, that's about it. Next local screening will be a program of Chaplin short comedies on Thursday, Nov. 15 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Hope to see you there!