Thursday, December 26, 2013

Wrapping up things for 2013:
Thoughts of a year in silent film music

Well, that's all folks. I've done my last silent film score for 2013. And I won't be back at the keyboard until mid-January, when I return from an extended journey to southern India. Wow, a whole month off!

But it's been an amazing year. Let's see...I logged 93 feature film performances, more or less, depending on how you classify them. That's an average of almost two each week! Most were around my home base of northern New England, but I also scored films in far-flung locations including Kansas, Kentucky, New York, and Arkansas.

Highlights included the Kansas Silent Film Festival in February, where I filled in for the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra after they were stranded by a Kansas blizzard; working with Jon Mirsalis and Andrew Simpson at Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y.; accompanying 'The General' in May at the Carnegie Center in Covington, Kentucky (across the river from Cincinnati); being featured accompanist at the annual Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas in September; and doing music in October for the world "re-premiere" of 'Their First Misunderstanding,' a long-lost Mary Pickford drama that was found in a New Hampshire barn.

And what did I learn? Well, among other things, that a sense of drama and timing is just as important as musical technique. Especially when your technique is as limited as mine is. :)

Seriously, I find I can't answer that question without getting into a lot of long explanations and digressions. So on my list of projects to pursue in 2014 is possibly putting together a book about the whole weird subculture of using live music to help bring silent films back to life for modern audiences.

The title? How about this?

"Silent Film Accompaniment for Non-Musicians."

We'll see. For now, signing off for 2013. Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

'Peter Pan' (1924) on Sunday, Dec. 15
in Stratford, Conn. postponed due to snowstorm

Just a quick post to let people know that our screening of 'Peter Pan' (1924) at the Stratford, Conn. public library scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 15 has been postoned due to a snowstorm.

We'll reschedule the program to a weekend in January. Stay tuned!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Looking back at Charlie and Buster,
looking forward to 'Peter Pan' in Connecticut

A handmade sign promoting the evening's entertainment at the Tuscan Opera House in Dixfield, Maine.

Two unusual one-off screenings this past weekend as things wind down to the holiday season lull.

Last Friday night (Dec. 6), I had the pleasure of accompanying a screening of Chaplin's 'The Kid' (1921) for the Media and Design Club of Southern New Hampshire University. It was a pleasure despite lugging my gear in a light snow and the late hour: a 9:30 p.m. start!

But it was the club's sole activity this semester, and I was delighted that they'd decided a silent film with live music was the way to go. The venue: a small lecture hall with rows of bench desks, but it worked well enough.

Thanks to Bill Millios (on the SNHU faculty) for recommending me to the club, and organizer Jennifer Lampro for all her efforts. Lots of good questions afterwards, and also fun with a couple of students fascinated by my aging digital synthesizer. ("Wow, this is damaged and beat up like a road guitar.")

But real adventure was Saturday, where I put in 370 miles up and back to Dixfield, Maine, where high school students staged a silent film show at the town's opera house to benefit the town's historical society.

This part of Maine is unfamiliar to me, so I left home around noon to allow for plenty of time for some Christmas shopping on the way in Littleton, N.H. I then got on Route 2, the great east-west highway of northern New England, and even though I made good time (no lumbering lumber trucks), I just barely made it to Dixfield for the appointed 5:30 p.m. arrival.

One reason was Rumford, Maine, the town just before Dixfield. Route 2 runs right through the middle of this compact community, which is dominated by a truly enormous paper mill. The sun had gone down, and somehow I'd lost the scent of Route 2 through town, instead getting trapped in a small area of narrow one-way streets in Rumford's vintage downtown.

I finally found Route 2 after driving right through a portion of the paper mill, among piles of logs several stories high that awaited their fate. I later discovered that the Rumford Mill is the nation's largest producer of "coated paper" used in magazine publishing. So next time you pick up your copy of "Field & Stream," I may have already seen it in raw form.

The auditorium of the Tuscan Opera House, seen from the front. About a third of the floor space (at right) is taken up by a kitchen that was installed when the place functioned as a restaurant.

Dixfield's "Tuscan Opera House" turned out to be a sprawling multi-floor wood frame relic from another era. Built by the International Order of Odd Fellows in 1905 (on the foundations of a former opera house that burned to the ground), the structure hosted dances, movies, and school graduation ceremonies for generations of town residents.

In more recent years, the place has functioned as an antique shop and a restaurant, with long stretches of inactivity. Changes to the building have resulted in a really unusual layout for the auditorium, which now has about a third of its floor space taken up by a walled-off kitchen. But the stage is intact, and so it's still a good (if slightly lop-sided) place for a show.

A view of the proscenium in the opera house, with handmade movie screen front and center, restaurant kitchen to the left.

These days, building owner Nancy Carpenter is looking for ways to reconnect the Opera House to town life. So when Kurt Rowley, a teacher at the local high school, suggested that his students organize a silent film program to benefit the town's historical society, she was glad to say yes.

So I got the call a few months ago. And the next thing I knew, it was Saturday, Dec. 7, and I was face to face with a large wooden Indian of the "cigar store" type, guarding the main door of the opera house. Inside, the place is an evocative mixture of vintage bric-a-brac, including a massive mechanical cash register that students were using to ring up ticket and concession sales. (That's them "raiding the till" in the photo below.)

Although I had to concentrate on setting up my gear and preparing for the performance, I loved the quirky surroundings and wished I could have spent more time just poking around. (Mrs. Carpenter offered to give me a tour afterwards, but the three-hour drive home beckoned and I had to hit the road.)

One problem with movies at the Tuscan Opera House: it lacks any kind of screen. So, for our program, Mr. Rowley commissioned a homespun version made out of what seemed to be wide strips of cotton crafting fabric sewn together horizontally. It worked brilliantly!

The film program was preceded by music from this excellent student violinist, who made use of an incredible improvised music stand, and whose name I have misplaced. Someone help me!

The program was Buster Keaton's two "junior" films: first 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) to warm things up, and then 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) as the main attraction. We got about 60 people and reaction was what I would call "steady." People really seemed to enjoy both films, but this just wasn't a crowd given to explosive laughter. Maybe interior Maine is just like that, I guess. Ayup. People had some very nice things to say afterwards, however, and I felt I'd hit the mark mostly.

So: a small town I'd never been to, a quirky old auditorium with good acoustics, friendly and polite high school students eager to volunteer, a live audience, and Buster Keaton. What more could a silent film accompanist want?

And that leaves just one more gig before I shut things down for the holiday season: a screening of 'Peter Pan' (1924) at the library down in Stratford, Conn. (A three-hour drive in the other direction.) The fun starts on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. at Stratford Library, 2203 Main St., Stratford, Conn. The screening is free and open to all! That's Betty Bronson, below, in the title role.

I'm looking forward to this, in part because I've done music for 'Peter Pan' twice in the past month, and so I feel like I'm in good shape to help the film come to life. The movie is "in my head," and I have the right musical ideas to go with it, I think. The most problematic part of the exercise will be just getting down there and setting up my gear (disc player, projector, synthesizer, speakers) prior to the show, which always has me worried until everything is hooked up and working.

So I guess that's what a silent film accompanist could want: a tech assistant!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Report from Niles, Calif. silent film museum;
plus, a tale of four local theaters

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in the East Bay area, about an hour's drive outside San Francisco.

This visit was a surprise to me, as I was just making a quick trip to the "left coast" to be with family for the holiday. Silent film wasn't even on the agenda—and besides which, the Niles Museum is only open on weekends, and I was only in town from Wednesday through Friday.

But my 50th birthday is coming up next month, and so it was decided to surprise the family "silent film nerd" with a trip to the Essanay museum. To accomplish that, my brother-in-law somehow persuaded museum guardians Rena and David Kiehn to open the place on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. (The fact that another group had requested a visit at the same time helped seal the deal.)

And so that night I found myself entering the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, which is housed in a vintage 1913 theater that functioned for many years as a warehouse and a portrait studio before being reclaimed for cinematic and historic purposes a few years ago.

It's a very interesting place to which I'd like to return for a more in-depth visit. The collection includes a wide range of silent film memorabilia and equipment, some of it related to the Essanay film company that operated just down the street, and some of it more general. As it was, I thoroughly enjoyed Rena and David's efforts to put the Essanay operation (and all of early cinema) into a general context for a small group of newbies. They do a great job bringing the period to life!

A collection of vintage film cameras and other equipment on display in Niles, including a life-sized Ben Turpin mannequin that sometimes mans the ticket booth.

I did get a chance to talk with them both afterwards. In the now-small world of silent film, many of their regular performers are people I've become acquainted with. Jon Mirsalis performs regularly for their weekend screenings, and Judy Rosenberg (with whom I'm on the bill at Cinevent in Syracuse, N.Y. this coming March) has been there recently. I hope to join in maybe during some future visit, if that's possible. What a privilege it would be to help silent film come to life here!

And fair is fair: I told the Kiehns that if they ever found themselves "back east," they shouldn't hesitate to look me up so I could show them around some of the various theaters where silent films run out here.

Afterwards, I got to thinking: what would I really show them? Truth is, the vintage theater scene in New England is a really mixed bag, with every cinema operating under a different model. For some houses, the recent need to convert to digital to continue running first-run movies has caused a lot of stress and anxiety.

So here's a round-up of some of the theaters in my corner of the world, and how they're coping with a changing movie business.

The Leavitt Theatre, Ogunquit, Maine. The Leavitt, a 600-seat one-screen summer-only (no heat, no A/C even to this day) opened in 1923, and has barely changed since. The wooden seats still carry wire loops underneath to allow gentlemen to stow their hats! Declining attendance and the high price of converting to digital has forced Peter Clayton, owner/operator since 1976, to consider closing the place, but he's soldiered on with a diverse mix of programming (including silent films with live music) to get him through the past couple of seasons.

Upon learning that no 35mm prints at all would be available in 2014, Clayton was ready to pack it in until his family decided to try crowd-funding to raise the needed $60K for a new digital projector. Clayton agreed, and a one-month Kickstarter campaign was launched last month. By the end, the donations had topped $70K, giving the Claytons enough to convert to digital as well as possibly install air conditioning for those sweltering Maine nights. In any event, the theater will remain open in 2014 and beyond, presumably.

Status: With two sons ready to take over from their Dad, the Leavitt's future is bright.

The Ioka Theatre, Exeter, N.H. A one-screen house opened by Louis B. Mayer (who would later head MGM) in 1915 with 'The Birth of a Nation,' this 400-seat theater was a mainstay in downtown Exeter until it closed at the end of 2008, in part because a mandatory upgrade to the fire sprinkler system was cost-prohibitive. Two separate community plans were hatched to convert it into a performing arts center (that would include silent film with live music), and yours truly helped in the fund-raising in the hopes that the theater could reopen.

But the only thing that's happened is that the property was bought at auction two years ago by a local investor who has proven to be somewhat difficult to work with. The most recent effort to save the theater (by a group called the Exeter Theater Co.) raised about $200,000, but recently decided to disband (and return all the money to donors) due to an inability to work out a deal with the new property owner.

There's still hope the building can somehow be reopened as a theater, but it seems likely that this nearly 100-year-old gem will be converted to condos or some other more profitable use. And this is sad because Exeter is a fairly prosperous town (it's home base to prestigious Philips Exeter Academy, for Pete's sake!) and you'd think a rescue effort for a valued part of the town's cultural infrastructure would succeed here.

Status: A sad story of a theater that just couldn't seem to get a break.

Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, Plymouth, N.H. What is now the Flying Monkey was for decades a low-rent downtown moviehouse, originally one screen but at some point bisected down the middle to make two very narrow theaters with much smaller screens. In its final incarnation as the Spinelli Cinema, the place finally closed in 2008, a victim of the recession, poor attendance, and deferred maintenance.

Then native son Alex Ray, unconventional owner of a chain of successful New Hampshire restaurants, stepped in. Always concerned with the built environment, Ray thought it unthinkable that his town's local moviehouse would close, and worse, might possibly get torn down. So he bought the property in 2009, lavishing a thoroughly marvelous makeover on the 400-seat old lady, returning it to one screen and adding considerable catering facilities. Rechristened 'The Flying Monkey,' is was reopened in 2010 as a perfomance center for live music and, yes, movies. (The name comes from 'The Wizard of Oz.')

And so now this former B-grade first-run cinema attracts A-list live entertainers ranging from Paula Poundstone to the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. Plymouth is a college town and in a summer recreation/tousim area, so business at the Flying Monkey has been acceptable, and continues to grow. And yes, it runs a monthly silent film program with live music, which Alex loves because it helps keep the building connected to its roots.

Status: Would have been a hole in the ground if not for a community-minded visionary. One very lucky theater!

The Town Hall Theatre, Wilton, N.H. Named the "best movie theater in New England" by Yankee Magazine, the 250-seat first-run Town Hall Theatre resides in the upper levels of Wilton's sprawling Victorian-era town hall. Movies were first screened here in 1912; the current set-up has been run by owner/operator Dennis Markevarich since 1973. Over the years, the place has thrived by programming unusual first-run films that don't play these parts otherwise; meticulous attention to picture and sound; reasonable admission and concession prices; a quirky movie-centric atmosphere (vintage posters abound); and the best darned popcorn of any movie theater anywhere.

And yes, there's room for classic films (every Saturday afternoon), and I've run a monthly silent film series there since 2008. I've known Dennis since I was in junior high, and I consider the Wilton Town Hall Theatre my "home base" as far as silent film accompaniment goes.

But now the theater stands at a crossroads. Dennis wasn't eager to switch to digital, mostly because of the daunting cust. And until now, he's managed to get every big first-run film he wanted in 35mm. But 2014 really looks to be different, so Dennis is now making an effort to raise funds to help with the expensive conversion. However, he's been very low-key about it so far—putting out jars for contributions and setting up an account at a local bank for donations. Not a lot of hype, and no online crowd-sourcing effort just yet, and maybe not ever.

The thing is, this is a beloved regional institution, and I'm absolutely certain that Dennis would be swamped with contributions if he did an online campaign. But you can't force someone to do something that's not desired. Either way, I hope the effort is successful, because life without the Town Hall Theatre would be unimaginable. I've offered to do a benefit screening in early 2014 to help out; in the meantime, most of the chatter about donations is on the theater's Facebook page. Check it out, and mail in a contribution if you can.

Status: Somehow I feel this one will endure.

There are others, but I'll stop here, as it shows quite a diversity of how small theaters are adapting to changes in tastes and technology. All of them do (or would) make room for silent film with live music, so I'm grateful to everyone who helps keep these places going. Without them, we'd all be much poorer in terms of cinema and quality of life in general, I think.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thanksgiving w/e brings two family films:
'Peter Pan' (1924), 'Thief of Bagdad' (1924)

Following Black Friday this year, we're having a Black AND White Weekend!

Join us for screenings of two great silent films that both offer adventure and escape for the whole family:

• On Saturday, Nov. 30 at 7 p.m., it's 'Peter Pan' (1924), the original screen adaptation of J.M. Barrie's immortal stage play; shown at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St. in Concord, N.H.

• On Sunday, Dec. 1 at 4:30 p.m., 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924), the epic fantasy widely regarded as the masterpiece of screen icon Douglas Fairbanks Sr., will be shown at the Wilton Town Hall Theater, 40 Main St. in Wilton, N.H.

Tickets for 'Peter Pan' at Red River are $10 and I urge you to get them in advance because our show is in the relatively small screening room. Not to sound overly optimistic, but the place seats only about 55 people and it's likely we'll sell out. (In the event we do, I'll try to schedule a follow-up repeat soon after.) For more info or to buy tickets, please visit

'The Thief of Bagdad' is free and open to all, but we do request a donation (suggested $5) to help cover costs. The screening will be in Wilton's main theater, which seats something like 300 people, so I don't expect standing-room-only. Still, if the weather is right (meaning lousy) and everyone gets their shopping done, it might a good crowd. It's a great family movie and I encourage you to see it!

And now that I think of it, my joke about having a "Black AND White" weekend doesn't make much sense because the prints for both films contain original tint colors to brighten up the visuals and help tell the story.

So that, as they say, is a horse of a different color!

Waiting for 'Beau Geste' (1926),
with apologies to Samuel Beckett

Okay, here's a new rule I'm following from now on. It goes like this:

"Henceforth and commencing immediately, I shall not program a silent film for which I do not have a suitable copy in hand."

The reason for this rule is a recent screening I did of 'Beau Geste' (1926), the great Herbert Brenon version of the classic tale of adventure in the French Foreign Legion.

It was an adventure, all right, but mostly due to my inability to find a decent copy of the film as the days ticked down to a long-scheduled screening.

I had put 'Beau Geste' in the November slot at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., where I do a monthly silent film program.

This was scheduled months ago, mostly because I'd never done music for the silent 'Beau Geste' before, and also because the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving would be good for a rousing adventure in an exotic locale.

At the time, copies seemed to be freely available online, so I assumed I could just pick one up. And then, of course, I forgot all about it.

Then last month, I was reviewing my schedule and realized 'Beau Geste' was coming up, and that I'd never gotten a copy.

A quick look online found copies available from resellers on So last last month, I ordered one, thinking I would get it in plenty of time before the screening on Wednesday, Nov. 20.

A scene from Beau Geste (1926) that depicts what it was like waiting for my copy of the film to arrive.

Well, October turned to November (funny how that happens) and at some point I got an e-mail that my order had shipped. Great! Unfortunately, the window of delivered was listed basically as any day up until Wednesday, Nov. 20—the day of the screening! And alas, it had been shipped via U.S. Postal Service, so there was no way to track it.

So I waited, growing just a little more anxious each day that it failed to arrive. Finally, two days before the screening, I couldn't wait any longer and decided to take action. I began calling other distributors to see if anyone had a copy of 'Beau Geste' that could be overnighted to me.

After a day not getting through to anyone, on Tuesday afternoon I finally reached a guy in Maryland. I was in luck, he said, because they were just getting ready to go on vacation in two hours, but he'd be happy to drop 'Beau Geste' off at the post office that afternoon on his way to the airport.

The post office!? Well, it was the only option, so I took it.

And sure enough, the next day (the day of the screening), it arrived at my business office via U.S Postal System's overnight delivery option. Thank God! I brought it home at mid-day and popped it into a DVD player. The guy had described it as "watchable," and it was, though a far cry from the visual quality I would normally shoot for in scheduling a film. But with four hours to go before showtime, I wasn't in a position to complain.

Our audience that night (a less-than-typical turnout of just 24 folks) enjoyed 'Beau Geste,' even though the visual quality was sub-par and I had to play the film cold. ("Uh-oh! He's picking up the trumpet again to play...'Taps' this time!) I had seen the film years ago, but was still surprised at how much music factors into it, including a rousing 'Desert Soldiers' fight song that comes up several times.

And on Friday, two days after the screening, guess what arrived on my doorstep? Yes, the original order of 'Beau Geste' had arrived, two days past the promised date. And yes, it was a better transfer, so I'll probably use it if I ever program the film again.

Now that I have a copy, it's fair game!

But the lesson from this has coalesced into a new rule I intend to observce: never again will I program a film that I don't actually have in hand.

I'd rather join the foreign legion!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Up next: 'Peter Pan' (1924) in 35mm
Sunday, Nov. 17 at the Somerville Theater

Whenever I do music for the silent film version of 'Peter Pan' (1924), I try to conjure up my own reaction to the film when I first saw it.

This happened in 2000 at the Kansas Silent Film Festival in Topeka, Kansas. It was the first time I'd ever gone out there, primarily to hear the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra live. And one of the films they were playing for was the silent version of 'Peter Pan' in 16mm.

I was unfamiliar with the film, but was just beginning to grasp the scale and scope of what silent cinema encompassed. And I remember being beguiled right from the start by the family dog Nana, played by a guy in a cleverly designed dog suit. To me, it perfectly set the tone of fantasy in all that was to follow.

And on that, the film really delivered. It was just one visual surprise after another. Not even the mistaken reverse threading of a reel during the performance (rendering the titles into something that looked like Czech) was enough to break the spell. It really opened my eyes to how rich the silent era was with treasures that were yet unknown to me.

In the past few years, I've done my own music for 'Peter Pan' many times, and for each performance I try to remind myself of that sense of wonder I had when I first encountered it. I think the key to replicating that feeling is to keep things very simple at first—on the level of a nursery rhyme. After all, author J.M. Barrie urges us to think back to when we were children, and music can really help in that regard.

Ususally my accompaniment is heavy on improv. But with 'Peter Pan,' I've developed some music that I think works well, so the score will be a little more structured than usual. Still there's always room for surprises and in any case it's never quite the same way twice no matter how much I plan ahead.

We'll see how things evolve, as I have no less than three separate screenings of 'Peter Pan' to accompany in the next month. There's the 35mm screening at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 1 p.m.; then a showing during Thanksgiving Day weekend at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. on Saturday, Nov. 30 at 7 p.m.; and then a screening at the Statford (Conn.) Library on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4:30 p.m.

More info on the Somerville screening is below in the form of the press release that was sent out to Boston area media. Hope to see you there, as this is a definitely a film where a big audience makes a big difference.

* * *

Hold the peanut butter: Long before the image was used for commercial purposes, Betty Bronson's portrayal of Peter Pan created an enduring image for a world of movie-goers.

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film version of 'Peter Pan'
at Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 17

Matinee of timeless family movie classic in 35mm will feature live musical accompaniment

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—It was the film that introduced movie-goers to visions of flying children, magical fairies, human-like animals and menacing pirates. It was the original silent film adaptation of 'Peter Pan,' a picture personally supervised by author J.M. Barrie. The film became a major hit when released in 1924, with audiences eager to get their first big-screen look at the wonders of Neverland.

Boston-area movie fans can see for themselves when the first 'Peter Pan' (1924) is screened with live music on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 1 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

'Peter Pan' will be screened in the Somerville's main theater using a 35mm film print. The program will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $15 per person, with discounts for seniors and children.

'Peter Pan' is the latest in a monthly series of silent film screenings in 35mm with live music at the Somerville Theatre. The series aims to show the best silent films in the way that caused people to first fall in love with the movies—on the big screen, in a theater, with live music, and with an audience.

"We're thrilled to be presenting this great movie in our main theatre, where familes can come together and experience it in a way that's impossible to duplicate in a home entertainment center," said Ian Judge, manager of the Somerville Theatre. "The original 'Peter Pan' contains enough timeless magic to get everyone in the mood for the coming holidays."

Thought lost for many years, and overshadowed by more recent adaptations, the original silent 'Peter Pan' maintains its freshness and charm more than 80 years after its original release.

In the story, first presented as a stage play in 1904, three children in London are visited one night by Peter Pan, a youth in search of his shadow. Pan shows his new friends how to fly, and then convinces them to join him in a journey to Neverland.

There they encounter Indians, mermaids, and a band of pirates whose leader, Captain Hook, is Pan's sworn enemy. The children are captured by Hook and taken prisoner aboard his pirate ship, setting the stage for an epic battle, the outcome of which will determine if the children may ever return home.

Though the Peter Pan story is well-known today due to subsequent adaptations (and also merchandising that includes a ubiquitous brand of peanut butter), the tale was virtually new when Hollywood first brought it to film in the early 1920s. In England, author Barrie gave his blessing to the adaptation, though he retained control over casting and insisted that any written titles in the film be taken directly from his own text.

After a major talent search, Barrie settled on unknown 18-year-old actress Betty Bronson for the title role, and filming began in 1924. The role of Captain Hook was played by noted character actor Ernest Torrance, who invented the now-iconic villainous priate persona that would become a Hollywood legend.

The film's highlights include special effects that maintain their ability to dazzle even today. The film's memorable images include a group of mermaids entering the sea, a miniature Tinkerbell interacting with full-sized children and adults, and a pirate ship lifting out of the water and taking flight.

'Peter Pan' also includes a cast of animal characters played by humans in costume, including the family dog Nana and an alligator who serves as Hook's nemesis, lending the film a magical quality.

After the film's release, no copies of the original 'Peter Pan' were known to exist, and for many years the film was regarded as lost. However, in the 1950s a single surviving print turned up in the George Eastman Archives in Rochester, N.Y., from which all copies today have descended.

'Peter Pan' will be accompanied by local musician and composer Jeff Rapsis, who has prepared new material to go with the picture. "Silent film was intended to be screened with live music that not only supported the action, but clued in the audience to changing moods and scenes," said Rapsis, a New Hampshire resident. "I hope this new music will help bring to life the film's special qualities of fantasy and child-like wonder."

‘Peter Pan’ will be shown in 35mm and with live music on Sunday, Nov. 17 at at 1 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission is $15 per person. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit For more information about the music, visit

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thoughts on screening 'The Last Command'
at Molloy College: Who is acting? Who is real?

Here I am, picking Emil Jannings' nose, prior to a screening of 'The Last Command' (1928) at Molloy College.

Postponed for an entire year by Hurricane Sandy, a screening of the Josef von Sternberg drama 'The Last Command' (1928) finally took place on Thursday, Nov. 7 in the Hays Theatre at Molloy College.

Let me say right up front that it was not the easiest screening. Tech issues almost prevented the show from going on at all. However, thanks to the efforts of Karl Mischler (a regular at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, but a resident of Glendale, Queens who came out for this program), we were able to get the film going about a half-hour behind schedule.

Karl mentioned later that one reason the film wouldn't play was that the disc we were using had a giant thumbprint on it. He wiped it off, which proved to be a crucial step in allowing the program to proceed. I couldn't help but imagine the apocalyptic reaction of high-strung director von Sternberg to the idea that his film was being held hostage by someone's greasy thumbprint.

Because of all the distractions, by the time the film started, I was in nowhere near the mental state needed to attempt to pull off some of the more ambitious texture changes I had planned. Instead, I simplified to just a standard orchestral setting, which helped me concentrate on the music as music. I must say, though, the first 10 minutes were a rough go.

The only "extra added attraction" that survived was the ringing of a brass bell that I used during the "revolution" scenes in which a character, sure enough, rings a brass bell to get everyone's attention. Prior to the screening, I couldn't remember when this happened in the film, but was able to review this sequence on a computer in the Molloy College Philosophy Department. There! Just after a guy gets hung, a cue that's hard to miss. So I was able to nail it during the performance, and it proved pretty effective, I thought.

My college classmate Michael Russo, now a professor of philosophy at Molloy (and organizer of this screening), was kind enough to send along a few photos of the accompanist in action. Thanks, Mike! However, I'm disappointed that he didn't apply the "handsome" filter that I find is more necessary as time goes by.


Relatively normal shot prior to the performance.

Me mouthing off to students at a seminar earlier in the day. That's a promo poster for Buster Keaton's 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' in the background.

Trying hard not to get my fingers tangled up during a complicated passage.

What I probably look like most of the time I'm behind the keyboard.

Okay, enough of that. But I do want to set down a couple of thoughts about 'The Last Command,' a film that impresses me more every time I encounter it.

SPOILER ALERT: The analysis below will totally spoil the film if you haven't seen it. Beware!

After the movie was over, a couple of folks said they didn't understand the ending. Why would director Lev Andreyev (William Powell) be sympathetic and even respectful to Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), a former Czarist general who stole his girl and unjustly imprisoned him a decade earlier?

The answer, I think, goes to the heart of what 'The Last Command' is all about. Yes, on the surface, it's a story of the Russian Revolution, with a parallel story of a Hollywood movie about the Russian Revolution being made not long after. That alone sets up all kinds of complex possibilities for irony and so on.

But the core drama of 'The Last Command' is one that hinges on personal integrity and character. The film frames it as a question: "Who among us is truly himself, and who is merely acting a role because he or she is ordered to do so?"

'The Last Command' is filled with scenes, both in Russia and Hollywood, of people acting under the orders of others. It's a dynamic that occurs frequently. Soldiers respond to commands. Extras respond to the cattle call. (In a meta sense, the movie itself is the result of a lot of people following orders of director von Sternberg, a notorious tyrant on set.)

By the way, the movie makes no judgment about people in the position of following orders. After all, it's a position that most of humanity finds itself in. It's a natural state of the human experience, rather like the laws of physics. No one is exempt: Even Sergius Alexander (Jannings), at the height of his power over the Russian military, is forced to engage in "play-acting" when the Czar orders ceremonial troop reviews at a time when troops can least be spared from the front. "The show is almost over," he remarks to an underling with an urgent message.

So no matter what's going on, life takes place in a web of relationships in which some people possess power of some sort over others. In 'The Last Command,' this dynamic is visually represented by the act of smoking and lighting matches. Watch for how the etiquette of lighting a cigarette (who does what for whom) appears again and again--at first comically when director Andreyev is greeted by a half-dozen underlings vying to light his cigarette, and then again and again throughout the film as relationships between characters are established and then change. 

But back to the core drama. To be truly yourself, and to be true to yourself, is never easy, and was no less so during the Russian Revolution as depicted in 'The Last Command.' Even so, it's a core component of what in us is noble and worthy of respect. Being true to yourself instead of following orders you don't believe in: one wishes this film would have been more popular in pre-Nazi Germany, where great atrocities would soon occur because people were "just following orders."

Also, what we do with any power we have over others speaks volumes about our character and who we really are. Do we abuse the power for power's sake, or does our use of it reflect our true beliefs? And what is the effect of our power on those who are subject to it? It can be argued that successful navigation of all this--being true to one's self, and not abusing power--is a prerequisite for being a hero.

For Andreyev (Powell), the price of being himself and speaking his mind to Sergius Alexander is getting struck in the face with a whip, having his woman taken from him, and then indefinite imprisonment. But the price of not being himself would perhaps be worse: a betrayal of what he believed in (the Revolution) and a loss of self-respect.

For Sergius Alexander (Jannings), the price of being true to his beliefs about what is right for his people and his nation is even more drastic. The Revolution robs him of everything—his position, his stature, his health, and the woman he stole from the future director. He is reduced to a shell of his former self, living in a rooming house, his swagger transformed into a pathetic nervous head twitch.

So, 10 years later, why should now-all-powerful Hollywood director Lev Andreyev care at all about again Sergius Alexander, who washes up at the studio as an extra? And why should he treat him with something bordering on sympathy?

The way I see it, filming a Hollywood battle scene with Sergius Alexander placed in charge of the troops is arranged as a kind of final exam for the Jannings character. Even after a decade of hardship and humiliation, what is the General made of? What does he truly believe in? Were his actions a decade ago rooted in his character and what he truly believed, or merely an abuse of power for power's sake? The movie set provide Andreyev with a laboratory to settle the question once and for all.

Jannings, by going berzerk, passes the exam with flying colors. During the Revolution, he was not acting after all. And after all was taken away, he could not change what he truly believed (his love for Russia, and that the Revolution was led by traitors), no matter what circumstances he found himself reduced to. (This commitment was symbolized in part, again visually, but the modest medal from the Czar that he continues to wear throughout the film.)

As such, after collapsing on the set, the General earns the reward of being assured, in the arms of the director (by no coincidence, a God-like figure) that he won after all. This is not a very elegant comparison, but to me it's a moment very similar to the ending of the 1971 "Willy Wonka" movie, where Gene Wilder tells young Charlie Bucket that he passed the test (by being honest) and thus won the factory. (Although in 'The Last Command,' his reward is not a candy factory, but a peaceful death.)

All this is handled very poetically, forming a subtext to a film that boils with surface action and tension and dramatic ups and downs. Through it all, we're not hit on the head with any lesson. Instead, it can be seen throughout the movie, if only we are perceptive enough to recognize it for what it is, and what it is adding up to.

If you pick up on the imagery, it enriches the film immensely. When Sergius Alexander stoops to light the cigarette of the young revolutionary Natasha (Evelyn Brent), you know trouble is brewing. So what could have been a fairly pedestrian war story is instead arranged as a great visual study of some fundamental questions that we all face, whether or not we realize it.

What does it mean to have power over another? And who among us is acting? And who is real?

All of this is made clear, I think, in the final intertitles, in which an assistant director observes callously that the Jannings character was a great actor, and Powell replies that he wasn't just a great actor, but "a great man."

Case closed.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

On the road for 'The Last Command'
at Molloy College on Thursday, Nov. 7

Evelyn Brent sports that all-important string of pearls given to her by Emil Jannings in 'The Last Command' (1928).

'The Last Command' (1928) is one of those films that seems to reveal new things about itself, and about life in general, every time I encounter it.

Made at the very end of the silent era, when filmmakers were taking the expressive power of visual story-telling to its highest level, 'The Last Command' (directed by Josef von Sternberg) is a rich treasure trove of allegory, story, irony, drama, and just plain all-around great cinema.

And the work of Emil Jannings as a Czarist general caught up in the Russian Revolution—a towering performance that won him the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actor—remains flat-out amazing, even to modern eyes. It's also a treat to see William Powell in a significant early role, and I don't think I could ever get tired of looking at Evelyn Brent as a flag-waving Russian revolutionary.

I'm reminded of all this because I'm preparing to head down to Molloy College on Long Island to do music for a screening of 'The Last Command' on Thursday, Nov. 7.

I'm looking forward to this one not only because it's 'The Last Command,' but also because the audience is likely to be folks not very familiar with silent drama of this stature. So it's a real rush for me to help bring a film such as 'The Last Command' to life in this kind of situation.

However, there's also some pressure involved. If I have an off night or somehow screw up with the music, I could diminish 'The Last Command,' and by inference all silent film, in front of a lot of people who haven't had much exposure to it.

But this apprehension pales in comparison to my eagerness to share this film with others, come what may. Among its other virtues, the story of 'The Last Command' is driven by big emotions that are at the root of my own attraction to silent film.

True, I may never go through what Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (Jannings) experiences. But as a member of the human race, for better or worse, I feel things. And I think I feel them strongly, at least in terms of my own frame of reference. It might be joy, it might be despair, it might be anything in-between. But I feel. I am not made of stone. Over the years, I've come to terms with this range of emotions (which are not always pleasant) as an important part of what it means to be truly alive.

And silent film, if you let it in, celebrates those kinds of feelings by bringing them out and exploring them in a very direct manner. By its very nature, the visually based story-telling of silent film turned out to be very good at harnessing the big emotions that we all feel in some way, and making use of them to connect with an audience. So, in watching a well-made silent film and letting it get to us, we all collaborate in a kind of emotional catharsis.

And it makes sense that this would be the case, because at its best, silent film deals with emotions that can become so powerful that words would only get in the way. Music, also suited for big emotions, plays a powerful supporting role, or at least can when everything's working. And all this happens in a way to which I respond very strongly, and inspires my desire to introduce and share the experience with others.

I sometimes joke that my way of doing music for silent films is a public form of psychological self-therapy. It helps me cope, and if I didn't have this outlet, this impulse might surface in ways that society finds less acceptable, such as spray-painting bridge abutments.

But when I think of what the people who made 'The Last Command' and 'Wings' and 'The Big Parade' and other great films of the silent era were able to achieve, and how I respond to them, then I realize it's not completely a joke.

So creating music for silent films and helping them connect with modern audiences is my way of spreading the notion that to feel is at the root of what it means to be human. And I think that's important whether it's 1928 or 2013 or 355 B.C.

I think as more time goes by, the best silents will be recognized for how they can show us what's timeless about the human experience. It may be a bit too early for this to be apparent, but I think it's a major strength of silent cinema. We'll see as the years go by, as they inevitably will.

For now, in going down to Long Island to accompany 'The Last Command' and doing other screenings all over the place, I'm a sort of Johnny Appleseed character, spreading not seeds but opportunities for people to let out their emotions.

I should probably work out a sponsorship deal with Kleenex.

While I work on that, here's the text of the press release on 'The Last Command' that has all the details of the screening on Thursday, Nov. 7. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Evelyn Brent and Emil Jannings get to know each other in 'The Last Command' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent epic 'The Last Command' with live music
at Molloy College on Thursday, Nov. 7

War picture from 1928 won 'Best Actor' for Emil Jannings at first-ever Academy Awards

ROCKVILLE CENTRE, N.Y.—'The Last Command' (1928), an intense silent film drama that won Emil Jannings 'Best Actor' honors at the first-ever Academy Awards, will be screened with live music on Thursday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Hays Theatre, Wilbur Arts Center, Molloy College; 1000 Hempstead Ave., Rockville Centre, N.Y.

Admission is free and the event is open to the public.

Live music for the screening will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician recognized as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.

Rapsis will create the film's score live as the movie is shown by improvising music based on original melodies created beforehand.

"Making up the music on the spot is kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But there's nothing like the energy and excitement that comes with improvised live performance, especially when accompanying a silent film."

Rapsis accompanies films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra. He has performed live film scores at events ranging from the Kansas Silent Film Festival to the Cinefest vintage film convention in Syracuse, N.Y., and most recently collaborated with Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow on a silent film program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

'The Last Command,' directed by Josef von Sternberg, tells the sweeping story of a powerful general in Czarist Russia (Jannings) forced to flee his homeland during the Bolshevik revolution. He emigrates to America, where he is reduced to living in poverty.

Finding work as an extra at a Hollywood studio, the former general lands the part of a commanding officer in a movie about the revolution, causing flashbacks to his traumatic experiences. The conflict leads to a spectacular climax and a towering performance that earned Jannings 'Best Actor' honors.

The film takes audiences on a journey through big emotions as well as issues of history, time, power, and especially a man's duty to his country and to his fellow citizens—and what happens when the two obligations diverge.

The film also stars a young William Powell as a Hollywood movie director who crosses paths with the general during the Revolution, and 1920s starlet Evelyn Brent as a seductive Russian revolutionary.

Critic Leonard Maltin hailed 'The Last Command' as "a stunning silent drama...a fascinating story laced with keen observations of life and work in Hollywood." Time Out of London called it "the first Sternberg masterpiece, expertly poised between satire and 'absurd' melodrama. The cast are fully equal to it; Jannings, in particular, turns the characteristic role of the general into an indelible portrait of arrogance, fervour and dementia."

Director Sternberg, a master of lighting and black-and-white photography, created 'The Last Command' as a visual tour de force. The film is often cited as a prime example of the emotional range and visual accomplishment of silent films at their height, just prior to the coming of pictures with recorded soundtracks.

Rapsis said great silent film dramas such as 'The Last Command' told stories that concentrate on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them in the 21st century, especially if they're presented as intended—in a theater on the big screen, with a live audience and live music.

"Dramas such as 'The Last Command' were created to be consumed as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life as their creators intended them to. This screening at Molloy College is a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies."

'The Last Command' (1928) will be screened with live music on Thursday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Hays Theatre, Wilbur Arts Center, Molloy College; 1000 Hempstead Ave., Rockville Centre, N.Y. Admission is free and the screening is open to the public. For more information, visit or contact Prof. Michael Russo at (516) 323-3345. For more information about the music, visit

Monday, October 28, 2013

A 2013 Nosferatu Marathon update:
Sprinting to the finish, in more ways than one

German actor Max Schreck climbs to the top of the back bleachers at Fenway Park.

Last spring, when I worked out a schedule for multiple showings of 'Nosferatu' (1922) leading up to Halloween this year, I didn't expect the Boston Red Sox to be in the World Series. After a disastrous last-place finish in 2012, I don't even think the Red Sox expected to be the World Series.

But they are, and as luck would have it, the game schedule against the St. Louis Cardinals almost exactly matches this latest batch of screenings. Really! Out of five screenings, all five have been (or will be) on game dates. (The first, on Saturday, Oct. 19, was prior to the World Series, but coincided with a Red Sox/Tigers game in the American League Championship Series.)

And yes, as of this writing (Monday, Oct. 28), there will be a Game 6 in Boston, and it'll be Wednesday, Oct. 30—the same night as 'Nosferatu' at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. And if there's a Game 7, it's Thursday, Oct. 31—the same night as 'Nosferatu' at the Flying Monkey Theater in Plymouth, N.H.

You'd think that deep in the heart of Red Sox Nation, this would cut into attendance. But I'm pleased to report that so far it's been the opposite! Of the three 'Nosferatu' screenings I've done, each has drawn capacity crowds, or nearly so. The owner of the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine said our screening on Saturday, Oct. 26 was the highest-attended event he'd had this entire season.

To me, it's a testament to the drawing power of this film, which I think grows creepier and more other-worldly as more time passes. Or maybe it's just that after two World Series championships in the past decade, Red Sox fans aren't as worked up about this. (Yeah, right!) If nothing else, it's given me fodder to include dumb jokes in my intros, such as "Hey, isn't there some kind of sporting match tonight?" or "If you really wanted to be scared, just watch the Red Sox," and so on.

Well, I'm delighted at the full houses and doing my best to bring 'Nosferatu' to life. The one special effect in this score has been a little bell I use for the chime on the small clock that is shown striking midnight at two points in the film. It's tricky, because the clock is only shown chiming a couple of times, but clearly the hands are pointing straight up to 12. So the purist in me, which wants the chime to sound exactly 12 times, needs to start them before the visual, and keep them going after (and keep count, too) to get all dozen in.

I haven't messed up too badly with this. But yesterday's screening at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. marked the second time this year that I've had to do the unthinkable: leave the keyboard in mid-screening to answer the call of nature. It took only a moment, but was very embarrassing and broke the spell that film had cast, at least for a moment.

It's my own fault, of course, for not addressing this inevitability prior to the screening, but I was so caught up in talking with people and then warming up at the keyboard that it just didn't happen. And I thought I could make it, but then the vampire decides to travel by ship, and so we get endless images of waves crashing and water flying and it was all just too much.

So I had to sprint to the theater's employee bathroom. (Either that or borrow someone's popcorn bucket.) It all happened quickly, and I was worried about the effect on the audience. But afterwards, several people told me they were glad I had to go, because the silence pointed out to them how important the music was to the film maintaining their interest. "Without the music, it was like staring at a brick wall," one woman said.

Among the crowds are many "newbies" to silent film, and it's gratifying to hear from a few afterwards who say they the experience was surprising (not just because of my mid-film sprint, presumably) and enjoyable.

For this round of screenings, I decided it was important to point out how fresh and unfamiliar the whole vampire story was to the film's original audience. And I figured the best way to do this was to bring in an example of how the Dracula legend over the years has been cheapened and commercialized.

I first tried to find a hand puppet in the shape of 'The Count,' the Muppet character on Sesame Street who introduced legions of youngsters to the joy of numbers. But when that proved elusive, I got something possibly better: a box of 'Count Chocula' breakfast cereal. It's actually a discontinued product, but I lucked out in that General Mills did a special "retro-run" of the cereal for this Halloween.

So I hold up my box of Count Chocula prior to the screening, and everyone laughs, and I say, "Look what's happened to Dracula! This isn't scary—unless you read the ingredients!"

The point, of course, is to help audiences see 'Nosferatu' as director F.W. Murnau might have expected them to experience it: without a head full of commercialized clutter and images of Bela Lugosi saying "I vant to bite your neck!" and so on. 'Nosferatu' would have been shown without any of the baggage that we bring to the theater today after a lifetime of monster films.

I also point out how director Murnau changed aspects of Bram Stoker's iconic 'Dracula' novel in part to avoid having to get permission from Bram Stoker's widow to use the story. (She sued and won, anyway.) Today, long after the legal issues have been settled, the result of Murnau's decision to disguise the story is a film that does differ enough from Stoker's novel so that it seems seperate and apart from the main run of Dracula kitsch. And that's a good thing, at least in terms of 'Nosferatu' standing as a singular achievement.

Anyway, it's been a fun run so far. One result of yesterday's screening at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre was this very unusual double bill on the main screening room, which we packed for 'Nosferatu.' Really—so many people showed up that owner Dennis Markaverich had to rustle up extra chairs, and about half-way through the show he had to open side doors to balance out the accumulated body heat.

I was particularly pleased to have old friend Ron Duvernay on hand at Sunday's screening. A high school classmate and incredibly gifted pianist, Ron took music a whole lot more seriously than I ever did, and had talent enough to pursue it at Harvard University.

I can't imagine what someone with Ron's background and abilities would make of my musical doodlings, which I've lately taken to describing as "public therapy sessions." But Ron was very generous afterwards, and it was a huge thrill to have him on hand.

Hey, who needs Facebook to track down old friends when I've got silent film screenings?

All this and Count Chocula, too. I'm a blessed man.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Five screenings in four states:
It's a Halloween Nosferatu-a-thon!

Actor Max Schreck would have a hard time accompanying 'Nosferatu' with those fingernails.

Tomorrow I embark on a daunting adventure: doing live music for five separate screenings of 'Nosferatu' (1922) in less than two weeks. And a screening of 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925) is mixed in there for good measure. Can you tell Halloween is coming up?

First, here's a round-up of the where and when, if only to help ME keep track of where I'm supposed to be...

• Saturday, Oct. 19, 7 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922); Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.; Our annual "Chiller Theater" presentation in the as-yet-unheated Brandon Town Hall. Admission free, donations accepted, with proceeds to help continuing preservation work.

• Thursday, Oct. 24, 7 p.m.: "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin; the Putnam Arts Lecture Hall, Keene State College, Keene, N.H. Free and open to the public. Long before Andrew Lloyd Webber created the hit stage musical, this silent film adaptation starring Lon Chaney helped place 'Phantom' firmly in the pantheon of both horror and romance.

• Saturday, Oct. 26, 8 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922); Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St. Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; (207) 646-3123; Admission $10 per person. Another unheated "chiller theater" screening, if only because it's a summer-only cinema in a seaside resort.

• Sunday, Oct. 27, 4:30 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922); Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged. Movies since 1912!

• Wednesday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922); Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. (978) 837-5355. Free admission. Nice modern arts center on college campus north of Boston.

• Thursday, Oct. 31, 6:30 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922); The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; Admission $10 per person. Hoping for a good turnout from students at Plymouth State University, who usually ignore these screenings.

Wow, that's 'Nosferatu' in four different states! The vampire sure gets around. If anyone makes it to all five screenings (besides me), I'll donate a pint of blood to the American Red Cross in your honor.

This will be interesting, and not just in terms of finding my way to theaters all over New England. Because I improvise the score live each time, it'll be intriguing to see how the accompaniment evolves during the performances.

Yes, I do have a few musical ideas in my head that I'll use when I sit down for the first performance, which is tomorrow night up in Brandon, Vt. I've done 'Nosferatu' before, and I have a "vampire" chord sequence that is versatile enough to power most of the score.

But inevitably, new ideas will happen along the way. And those ideas may get carried over to the next screening, where they'll evolve a bit further, and so on. So by the time of the fifth performance in Plymouth, N.H. (on Halloween night!), the score might be totally different from what I did in Brandon 12 days earlier.

The idea that I sit down without any sheet music and create a movie score in real time seems a bit strange to people, but it's really nothing magical. Even if I don't have a idea in my head, all I have to do it play one note, and the score sometimes creates itself from there.

Just play one note and hold it, and you can go in so many directions, depending on what the movie seems to want.

One note, so many possibilities! Just in terms of the mechanics of music, there are so many ways to go. Is it the root of a chord? If not the root, which part of the chord is it? Either way gives it a certain character.

And if not part of a chord,will it want to resolve somehow? Each direction carries its own relevance to what might be happening on screen.

I'm kind of reminded of what I remember reading once in Vonnegut (probably from 'Bluebeard' (1987), one of his later novels), where an abstract artist explained his method by saying that he started by making one mark on a blank canvas, and the canvas would then do at least half the work.

I had a nice guy come up to after a recent screening, a musician who wanted to know if I took on students, as he wanted to know if he could learn more about what I do.

I'm not really part of any school or traditional academic setting, so I don't have pupils, although I'm glad to share anything I can. And I thought about this, and most of what I do can be taught: the methods, the way to transform melodies, the way to create a certain kind of music to bring a film to life.

The only thing that I would be at a loss to teach would be where the melodies come from in the first place. I can make some observations, such as people tend to be attracted to melodies with notes that skip around in a small area, such as the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

But where does a melody come from in the first place?

With me, it just seems to flow naturally out of some place in my brain where scraps of old music (pop songs, cartoon scores, Broadway overtures, brass band marches) are continually playing. Sometimes it seems like several pieces are running at once, all colliding deep down below, like tectonic plates below the earth's surface, breaking up and recombining into something new.

That's where the tunes come from, I think. And we'll see if any keepers emerge during the upcoming Nosferatu-a-thon. It's been my experience that the state of mind I get into when accompanying a film seems to allow me to tap into this inner music more readily.

My self-editing and critical filtering gets turned down, and new melodies of all different types seems to flow more readily. Many times, I'll be sitting there accompanying a movie, and I'll be as surprised as anyone at the music flowing out of my keyboard. Geez, where did that come from?

But then afterwards, sometimes the audience tells me. This past March, after improvising a completely made-up-on-the-spot piano score to Mary Pickford's drama 'The Foundling' (1915) at Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y., a guy came up and said he especially appreciated how I was able to use a melody from Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet.

My witty reply was to say that I thought something sounded fishy. Wow, from channeling Schubert to channeling Henny Youngman!

Well, to channel Groucho Marx: "They can't all be gems, folks."

Monday, October 14, 2013

Scoring Pickford's 'Their First Misunderstanding'
and joining in the first-ever 'Terror-Thon'

My God, what a weekend for silent film in my part of the world! Not one but two special (and high profile) events to which I had the privilege of contributing music.

So, before we begin sprinting to Halloween with multiple screenings of 'Nosferatu' (1922) all over New England, let me take a moment to set down the highlights.

This run of good silent film karma actually began on Sunday, Oct. 5 with a packed screening of 'Safety Last' (1923) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre just outside Boston. Here's a photo borrowed from Raquel Stecher, who blogs about vintage film at

The Somerville's main house prior to 'Safety Last.' Hey, is the accompanist (at far left) sporting a bald spot?

Look at that turnout! I was especially impressed because we had gotten a big goose egg in term of local publicity for this screening. So perhaps we've built up the series to the point where it has critical mass to continue on its own, more or less. We'll see.

Raquel was kind enough to write a detailed blog post that had a lot of nice things to say about the experience. I'm grateful for people who have such a passion for cinema as it should be experienced. Without them and their enthusiasm, none of this would be possible: the big screen, the live music, and (most importantly to me) the shared experience of silent cinema.

Also on hand was Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, who helped out with a brief introduction and had some Harold books for sale afterwards. Her willingness to join in on these escapades at the Somerville Theatre adds a nice touch of respectability to our efforts.

A follow-up screening of 'Safety Last' on Thursday, Oct. 10 at one of my monthly series (in this case, the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.) drew a much smaller but no less enthusiastic crowd.

I was especially psyched by an older couple from Meredith, N.H., first-timers who brought a friend to the screening on a "mystery ride." The friend was a keyboard player and church organist from the old school, and they all came down afterwards to swap stories, ask questions, and just plain revel in that now-familiar 'Safety Last' afterglow.

This takes us to Friday, Oct. 11, and the first-ever modern-day screening of 'Their First Misunderstanding' (1911), an early one-reel drama starring Mary Pickford thought lost until a print surfaced in a New Hampshire barn back in 2006.

The film has since been restored, and Friday's re-premiere at Keene State College in Keene, N.H. (which is shepherding all the discovered films through restoration) was an evening-long event featuring Pickford and also author Christel Schmidt, who hosted the program.

I'd never met Christel before but I'm glad our paths crossed. She's a worthy keeper of the Pickford flame, and perhaps just as much of a hot ticket as Pickford herself must have been.

Our schedules didn't allow for much social time, and she was there to sell books, not chat with yet another silent film musician.

But I stole a few moments with her after the crowds had dispersed, and found a woman with a wonderfully wry sense of humor. And, once she gets talking, she displays the rare gift of being able to take a "tell it like it is" approach to everything and everyone, but somehow make it seem refreshing and even endearing.

Sometimes I think that working in the vintage film community, with its out-sized personalities and fragile egos and no shortage of passionate people with any number of agendas, would make good training for the diplomatic corps. If that were true, then Christel might just be our next Secretary of State.

She did a great job introducing Pickford and her achievements, and from what I see on Facebook, she sold out of copies of her book, "Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies." It's an excellent piece of work and I encourage you to check it out—meaning actually buy it, although checking it out from a library is a worthy alternative.

Christel also gave me another nudge to try swimming more in the Facebook ocean. We'll see.

The program was, for me, one of the highlights of the year. Big crowd, lots of newbies, nice facility, all crackling with the special kind of electricity you get at a one-of-a-kind event. I'm so grateful to Ben Model (the New York-based accompanist who works a lot with Christel) for recommending me for this one. It was a great chance to do my stuff in front of a lot of big names right in my home state, all in the service of making silent film come alive —and silent film with a Granite State connection at that!

Congrats to Larry Benaquist and Peter Condon and everyone at Keene State who played a role in rescuing this film, preserving it, and arranging this event.

The program opened with not one but two Pickford one-reelers from 1911: the long-lost 'Their First Misunderstanding' as well as 'The Dream.' Knowing that we had the heavyweight feature 'Sparrows' (1926) still to come in the second half, I went with straight piano accompaniment for the shorts.

The more I do this, the more I find that shorter silent films of any kind (comedies, dramas, whatever) really don't lend themselves to the palette of the full orchestra. It bogs them down, makes them fraught with consequence, sets expectations maybe a little too high for modern audiences.

Piano for 'Their First Misunderstanding' was light and breezy: starting with scale-like figures drawn from the old Hanon technical exercises to show we're just starting out, and a brief explosion of Mendelssohn's wedding march to set the tone for the couple's departure.

And then there were scenes with a poet/pianist playing grandly away, for which I kept my foot down on the sustain pedal and worked through some portentious arpeggios of the type that I hoped would make Mary swoon. (It worked!)

And the action just went from there. Before I knew it, Mary was alone in a dark room, a fairly daring scene in terms of the technical limitations of early cinema, and which seemed to call for a delicate touch to round things out. Less is more.

So an emerging rule for my approach: save the big stuff for the bigger films—in this case, 'Sparrows.'

'Sparrows' is a GREAT film for music because it's loaded with atmosphere as well as a variety of scenes (including a lot of comedy) that lend themselves to musical settings that can build underneath to create some powerful stuff if it all works.

A great example is the 'baby death' scene, in which the wall of a grim barn attic disappears to reveal Christ tending a flock of sheep in a sunny pasture. Christ enters the barn, takes the expired child, then steps back and the barn wall reappears.

Okay, it's pretty simple-minded imagery. But my job as accompanist, I think, is to help connect the scene to Mary Pickford's character, teenage Molly, who is experiencing (or hallucinating) it. By that point in the film, we've seen enough of Pickford's character to know how important her faith his, even if she gets a lot of the details comically garbled.

But comic details be damned. The core belief underpinning everything, and how important it is and how central it is to her character, comes through so strongly and powerfully in that scene, in one sense it can be regarded as the film's climax, at least spiritually.

And so the music has to show reverence, awe, and respect, but not in a way that parodies religious music, with all trumpets blaring like the opening titles in a Monty Python sequence. Instead, it has to show the strength of Pickford's character, which to me transcends any particular religious iconography.

As Molly, Mary Pickford comically garbles the scriptures, but her underlying beliefs are dead serious.

She could be a Buddhist or a Unitarian Universalist or a complete atheist, but the moment would still be the same. It's not about religion. It's about her own personal experience of witnessing life moving from the now into the eternal.

Am I overthinking this? Maybe while I sit here typing, but not at the time the film was being screened.

During the film, my sense of what works just happens naturally. I felt the need to switch from full orchestra to just low brass to underscore that this was a special moment, and then built up some chords that lent weight to the scene. And yes, there was a bit of a blaze of glory when Christ receded and the wall was restored, but I immediately drew back to give Mary (and the audience) space to let it all sink in.

What follows is about 20 seconds of just Pickford's face (the baby, still in her arms, is out of camera range) reacting to what's happened. I almost didn't want to play any music at all here, because she communicates so much with the smallest gestures: the tilt of her head, her eventual glance upwards.

Is she grateful that the child has been delivered from a terrible situation, that the suffering is ceased? Is it the basis for the resolve she needs to engineer the escape? Something else? Whatever an audience takes away, it's a key moment, and a rich one, and too much music would sufficate it, I think.

So just an example of what goes on underneath the surface of playing music along a silent film, at least in the way I do it. I also had a lot of fun with a special effect: in this case, using an old brass school bell that belonged to my grandmother to make the sound of the bell used to gain entry to the dismal Grimes homestead.

Judging from comments afterwards, the bell was a memorable addition. Usually I wouldn't want to draw that much attention to the "soundtrack," such as it is. But the bell happens only twice, and early in the film, so I felt it was worth doing, especially because the synthesizer just wouldn't have been able to do as good a job, and I knew I wanted underscoring at the same time as the bell. So what the heck?

What was really satisfying for me was the feeling that I'd paced it right, holding back for most of the film and only getting truly frantic for the climactic post-swamps gun fight and then boat chase. It was a fun ride, with things amping up at just the right time, I felt.

And in the final scenes, I even managed to switch back to the low brass for the brief appearance of the hymn 'Shall We Gather at the River,' complete with sheet music on screen! No faking allowed on that one, as it's right at the end and anything else would have spoiled the moment.

I was gratified to find that the blogger (bloggess?) known as "Nitrate Diva" was on hand for the event. I continue to be impressed by her observations, which often give me fresh insight into films that I've known for years. I encourage you to check out her account of the Pickford program.

And then, after all this, come next morning, it was time for me to hightail it down to Somerville, Mass. for a noon-time screening of 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920) at the Somerville Theatre. Too much of a good thing? Well, you know what Mae West said about that. :)

'Cabinet' was the opening flick of the inaugural 'Terror-Thon,' a 12-hour marathon of vintage sci/fi horror flicks, one from each decade from the 1920s to the 1990s, all screened in 35mm in the Somerville's main theater.

This first-ever event, held Saturday, Oct. 12, coincided with 'Honkfest,' a sprawling festival of activist street bands in progress all around Davis Square. So it was quite a different environment from that of the Pickford program the night before.

And the audience was different, too. Rather than the usual silent film fans, it was more of a crowd of hard-core sci-fi geeks, which is another species altogether.

A face only a somnambulist could love.

And 'Caligari,' though a famous and ground-breaking picture, is not an easy go in terms of pacing or story-telling or many other things that die-hard sci-fi fans expect or demand when they're paying $35 per ticket. (One ticket for the whole marathon.)

So I had to really work to hold them and to help this film connect. What I came up with was more bombastic that I usually do, and more angular and arhythmic, in keeping with the film's visual design. Apologies to Mr. Igor Stravinsky for the shameless borrowing of figures and scraps from his immortal ballet score 'Le Sacre du Printemps.' And also to Mr. Bernard Herrmann for any number of purloined film music innovations.

Hey, if you're going to steal, steal from the best!

But I think it worked. I could tell the audience was into the picture, and it got a big hand at the end. So mission accomplished.

By the way, I got to use that same bell in 'Caligari,' as early in the movie, the Dr. rings just such a bell to attract attention to his carnival act. It happens three times, so it wasn't too much to be annoying.

This is similar to 'Sparrows,' a film that was supposedly created with the school of German Expressionism in mind. Up until now, I don't think anyone has identified the "bell" angle. Doctoral thesis, anyone? (I will resist the urge to make some pun about how this should ring a bell.)

Now I get to resume my regular life for a short while, at least until this Saturday, which brings the first of five (count 'em) screenings of 'Nosferatu' (1922) in various venues around New England.

Well, I often joke that I collaborate with dead people. So it shouldn't be surprising that things get especially busy around Halloween.