Monday, January 21, 2013

Coming up next in Boston:
'Faust' on Wednesday, Jan. 23 at the Brattle

The great Emil Jannings in extreme make-up as Mephisto in 'Faust' (1926).

Although I generally favor good over evil, it's my honor to play a part in the Brattle Theatre's ongoing "Dead of Winter: Satan on Screen" series.

To that end, I'll be providing live music for a screening of the great F.W. Murnau film 'Faust' (1926) on Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. Alas, this was just arranged last week, so there hasn't been time for a lot of advance publicity.

Still, Satan always draws a crowd, so I'm looking forward to helping bring the devil to life this week at the Cambridge revival house, which continues to offer great film of all eras all year round on the big screen in a theater.

I'm coming off a recent spurt of silent film activity -- a 10-day period that saw five separate shows in widely varying venues. Here's a summary of what I learned.

- W.C. Fields remains enough of an iconic figure for today's audiences to respond readily to his silent films. A screening of 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925) on Thursday, Jan. 10 in Plymouth, N.H. draw a warm response from a crowd of about 50 people. I think D.W. Griffith's ability to structure a story for maximum audience response was a big help, but Fields himself really carried the picture. People really seemed to like Carol Dempster as well. I found the music for this really fell together nicely.

- A screening of 'Battling Butler' (1926) on Tuesday, Jan. 15 showed that even "lesser" Keaton has the power to hold an audience. I hadn't done this one before (it's the last of Keaton's features that I'd yet to tackle) and I was curious what the reaction would be, as it lacks the usual Keaton all-outdoors climax on a grand scale. Our audience of about 40 people at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library enjoyed it thoroughly, although the opening scenes of Buster ineptly hunting did not create nearly the reaction I thought they would. However, the training sequences in the boxing camp (which I've always thought were pretty routine) produced gales of laughter. Go figure. And, surprise again, Keaton's fight-in-close-quarters climax actually works very well in a theater. I liked the music for this, as I was able to invent a "rah rah" sports march that was useful throughout the score.

- Our encore showing of Fritz Lang's forgotten epic 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) on Wednesday, Jan. 16 attracted about 30 people to the screening room of Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., where a screening on New Year's Eve had been sold out. Musically, I think I had better material on hand this time around, and so it was more satisfying on that score. This film continues to amaze me, and our audience seemed astonished, too. Even after a three-hour movie, we had a lively question-and-answer session.

- On Friday, Jan. 18, I made the trek to one of my favorite events: the annual "Arisia" science fiction and fantasy convention, held at the Westin Hotel in downtown Boston. This four-day event attracts more than 3,000 attendees, many dressed in elaborate costumes, and is diverse enough to include a silent film screening with live music. This year's entry was 'The Lost World' (1925), in the form of a truncated 16mm show-at-home print that still managed to hold the audience of about 50 people in a large conference room that doubled as the convention's film theater. (Four full days of film, much of it in 35mm!) With all the distractions of trying to unload my gear, get it up to the theater, find parking, etc., it was not easy to pull my head together for the score, but I felt it held together well enough. What really made it worthwhile, however, was the crowd reaction: lively from the start, it peaked with applause at the scenes of the dinosaur wreaking havoc on the streets of London. The images are truly iconic, and they've fired my desire to program the fully restored version of this film in future programs.

- Finally, a screening of Paul Leni's 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 20 drew only a lower-than-expected turnout due to football playoffs happening at the same time. I think we had about 40 people (usually we get at least double that) for this picture, which I think has a lot to offer. Alas, I hadn't had much time to prepare for it, and after a week of pushing myself, the score that I came up with was a little random and not very focused, I'm afraid. It was all recycled material, which sometimes happens when I don't have time to ponder a film and let new ideas germinate. I guess given the improvisatory nature of my accompaniment, I need to be careful not to overdo it. Still, people seemed appreciative

One thing I've noticed recently is that if I make time to eat a full and good meal prior to a performance, I seem to do better. I did that for 'Sally' in Plymouth and 'Woman in the Moon' in Concord, and both scores fell together quite well. On the other hand, I was frazzled with a dozen errands and distractions prior to today's screening of 'The Man Who Laughs,' and the music seemed to suffer. So there's definitely a pattern here. Something to keep in mind as I figure out the right balance of too much and not enough to stay in the zone of good silent film scoring.

Alas, on Wednesday, I teach a course in Manchester, N.H. just prior to racing down to Cambridge, Mass for 'Faust,' with just barely enough time to set up before showtime, so I won't have a chance to nourish myself in the big city. Perhaps I'll pack a dinner and eat it in the car on the way down. Ah, the glamour of show biz!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Mid-Winter Big City Tour:
A quartet of silent films in Beantown

In my part of the world, the big city is BOSTON. It's about an hour south of here by car, unless you're driving there during the morning rush, in which case you should budget three hours. (No kidding! Just look at the bus schedules.)

As I've tried to build my proficiency at creating live music for silent films, I've become more eager to get gigs down in Boston, otherwise known to us as Beantown or, more grandly, "the HUB of the UNIVERSE."

Whatever you call it, around here it's the big time—New England's world-class city, a center of finance, culture, education, research, medicine, technology, and hopelessly obsessed sports fans. (And starting last year, non-stop flights to Tokyo on the new 787, when the plane isn't catching fire.)

I've had a few gigs in Boston. But for some reason, recently the stars came together to bring me no less than four screenings in four separate venues in the coming month. A quartet of silent film diversity! And though it wasn't planned this way, I'm thinking of it as my "Mid-Winter Big City Tour," with silent films filling up that dead space in the calendar between MLK Day and Valentines Day.

Truth by told, even if this had actually been planned, it would seem pretty random. But still, I was impressed enough by the synchronicity of the bookings (they just happened!) to send out a press release today to the Boston media that reads like this:

* * *

Bessie Love is menaced by a prehistoric creature in 'The Lost World' (1925), a silent film to be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Friday, Jan. 18 at the Westin Boston Waterfront as part of the 2013 Arisia Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

On the big (and silent) screen: Dinosaurs, Satan, Mars, and Romance

In mid-winter Boston area tour, silent film musical accompanist to bring four rarely seen movies to life

BOSTON—When silent film musician Jeff Rapsis sits down to accompany a feature film, there's a reason he brings no sheet music.

That's because Rapsis improvises complete movie scores from scratch, making up the music on the spot as the film runs. As a result, he's never sure how the music will go until the movie is run in real time with an audience.

"It's a high wire act, but I find that improvising music live adds a special kind of energy and immediacy to a silent film," Rapsis said. "It helps bridge the gap between a film that's eight or nine decades old and today's audiences."

In the coming weeks, Rapsis will take his brand of improvisational silent film scoring to four separate Boston area venues for screenings of a quartet of classics from cinema's silent era. The films include Hollywood's first "dinosaur" feature, an adaptation of the 'Faust' legend from director F.W. Murnau, a Russian science fiction film involving a rebellion on Mars, and a rollicking romantic comedy from Harold Lloyd to be screened on Valentine's Day in 35mm.

"They're four very different movies," Rapsis said. "But having them all available for viewing in the next month is a rare chance for Boston-area film fans to experience the breadth and range of early cinema as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience."

The screenings will take place in four locations as diverse as the films themselves:

• On Friday, Jan. 18 at 10 p.m., Rapsis will accompany the original 1925 silent film version of 'The Lost World,' Arthur Conan Doyle's story of a land where prehistoric animals still roam. The screening is a highlight of the film program at this year's Arisia Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, which runs from Friday, Jan. 18 to Monday, Jan. 21 at the Westin Boston Waterfront.

'The Lost World' will be shown in 16mm in the Weston's Harborside Ballroom 3, which will function as the convention's cinema. The screening is open to registered Arisia attendees; more information can be found at

Emil Jannings stars as Mephisto in 'Faust' (1926), a silent feature directed by F.W. Murnau to be shown with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Wednesday, Jan. 23 as part of the 'Dead of Winter: Satan on Screen' series at the Brattle Cinema, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass.

• On Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m., Rapsis will accompany F.W. Murnau's 'Faust' (1926) at the Brattle Cinema, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. 'Faust,' an ambitious and visually stunning adaptation of the Faust legend, stars Emil Jannings and was the last film that Murnau directed in Germany before moving to Hollywood in 1927.

'Faust,' part of the Brattle's ongoing "Dead of Winter: Satan on Screen" series, will be paired with a screening of 'Witchcraft Through the Ages,' to be shown at 5:15 p.m. and repeated at 9:30 p.m. 'Faust' will be screened from a remastered digital transfer. Admission for the double feature is $12 general admission. For more information, call the Brattle at (617) 876-6837 or visit

• On Sunday, Feb. 10 at 3 p.m., Rapsis will accompany 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924), a Russian science fiction film as part of the 'Cinephile Sunday' series at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. 'Aelita,' directed by Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protazanov, is notable for it constructivist sets; its design influenced pictures ranging from 'Metropolis' (1927) to the Flash Gordon serials.

The program also includes the short French film 'A Trip to the Moon' (1902) by pioneer moviemaker George Méliès. The screenings will take place in Collins Cinema, located in the Davis Museum complex of Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley, Mass. The program is free and open to the public.

Harold Lloyd takes matters into his onw hands in 'Girl Shy' (1924), a silent romantic comedy to be screened in 35mm with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Valentine's Day, Thursday, Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

• On Thursday, Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m., Rapsis will accompany 'Girl Shy' (1924), Harold Lloyd's effervescent romantic comedy, in the main theater of the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. 'Girl Shy,' one of Lloyd's most popular features, will be screened with Lloyd's 'Never Weaken' (1921), a short comedy. Both films will be shown in 35mm. General admission is $15 per person. For more info, call the Somerville at (617) 625-5700 or visit

In accompanying films, Rapsis tries to subvert the stereotype of silent movie music as "rinky-tink" melodies played on an out-of-tune piano. Instead, he uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra, and aims to create music that sounds like what today's audiences expect to hear when they attend a movie.

"I don't limit myself to authentic music of the silent film era," Rapsis said. "Today, we've all grown up hearing movie music by composers such as Bernard Hermann, John Williams and so many others. In bringing a silent film to life for modern audiences, I try to use the full vocabulary of scoring that's developed over time. I think this helps today's audiences really connect with a silent film, instead of regarding it as a museum piece or a mere curiosity of bygone days."

Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H., performs at about 80 screenings each year, mostly around his home base in Northern New England but also at events such as the Kansas Silent Film Festival (February 2013), the Cinefest Vintage Film Festival in Syracuse, N.Y. (March 2013), and the Carnegie Center for the Performing Arts in Covington, Ky. (May 2013).

A lifelong silent film buff, Rapsis believes that the true value of Hollywood's early films can only be appreciated if they're screened as originally intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience present.

"These factors were baked into the films by the people who conceived and created them," Rapsis said. "They weren't designed to be watched alone or on a home entertainment center. They were intended to be communal experiences. The bigger the audience, the better."

Rapsis said his accompaniment experiences have convinced him of how essential all these elements are to silent film.

"And I've seen it happen again and again—a film that seems only mildly interesting when viewed alone just leaps to life on the big screen, with live music and an audience," he said. "Somehow the comedy seems funnier, the drama seems more dramatic, and the action scenes seem more exciting. It was really all part of the experience, which is quite different from what today's movies offer."

Each of the four films being screened in the Boston area —'The Lost World' (1925), 'Faust' (1926), 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924) and 'Girl Shy' (1924) — are proven crowd-pleasers when they're shown they way they were intended, Rapsis said.

"There's still a lot of excitement and power in these early films, if they're shown under the right conditions," Rapsis said. "And it's worth doing because the films are entertaining and in many cases ripe for rediscovery. Also, they provide a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies. Also, with the passage of time, they've become a window to the recent past of a few generations ago — a way to see how much we've changed, and how much we haven't."

Friday, January 11, 2013

Tuesday, Jan. 15 in Manchester, N.H.:
Buster goes for a knockout in 'Battling Butler' (1926)

In planning our monthly silent film series at the Manchester City Library, I realized that over the years I'd done music for all of Buster Keaton's starring silent features except one: his boxing comedy 'Battling Butler' (1926).

What's more, I realized that I somehow hadn't ever had a chance to see it all from start to finish. For some reason, there was always something else to do.

I'd certainly read about it, and was always fascinated with how Buster went for a dramatic fight at close quarters for his ending. And the idea of two guys physically fighting in front of a shocked woman does kind of appeal to the brute in me. :)

I was also intrigued that 'Battling Butler' was Keaton's highest-grossing picture of the 1920s. It earned something like $750,000 in its initial release, far more than acknowledged masterpieces such as 'Our Hospitality' (1923) and 'The General' (1926). I wondered why — boxing was much more "mainstream" and popular in the 1920s, so maybe that had something to do with it.

So I scheduled 'Battling Butler' for Tuesday, Jan. 15 at 6 p.m., looking forward to the opportunity to get to know this one remaining Keaton that was unfamiliar to me.

And sometime last month, I couldn't sleep, so early one morning I wandered down to my home office, picked 'Battling Butler' off the shelf, and popped it into my DVD player for a look-see.

In doing so, I realized that I was in for something that would prove to be a rare experience: my very first exposure to one of the big Keaton silent features, the last one I'd yet to get to know. It was like Beethoven had written a new symphony!

Buster demonstrates his ring stance.

And yes, the film is full of comic ideas that I think hold up quite well on their own, thank you. The opening "outdoorsman" scenes in particular are often laugh-out-loud funny, and I'm really looking forward to doing them with an audience present.

One thing that also struck me (hey, it's a boxing film) was how adept Keaton had become at using film to help tell his story, and especially how he used camera placement and faces. There's a scene where he has to leave his girl behind, but her face remains framed in the rear window of his car as he drives away. And another time, when he's sparring ineptly, he catches his girl's face in the crook of his trainer's elbow — and shows us, the viewer, what he sees. It's quite remarkable filmmaking for any era, not just the silent years.

Because it's a sports film, I'm coming up with a brand new march that I hope can be used to create atmosphere and also underscore the comedy. (Plus, there's a marching band in a key scene.) Scoring the actual fight scenes will be interesting, too. Hope you can join us on Tuesday, Jan. 15 at 6 p.m. (early start!) to see how 'Battling Butler' holds up. More info is in the press release below...

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton's 'Battling Butler'
at Manchester (N.H.) Library on Tuesday, Jan. 15

Classic silent film comedy, fun for entire family, to be screened with live music at historic downtown venue

MANCHESTER, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s. Acclaimed for their originality and clever visual gags, and admired for their realistic stories and authentic location shots, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Battling Butler' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Tuesday, Jan. 15 at 6 p.m. in historic Carpenter Auditorium at Manchester City Library, 405 Pine St. in downtown Manchester, N.H. Admission is free; donations are encouraged to defray expenses. The program will be accompanied by live music performed by New Hampshire composer Jeff Rapsis.

'Battling Butler' tells the story of pampered Alfred Butler (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Sally O'Neil) by pretending to be a championship boxer with same name. The masquerade leads to knockout comedy both in and outside the ring, giving Keaton ample opportunity to display his gift for physical and visual comedy.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Many critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies." But while making films, Keaton never thought he was an artist, but an entertainer trying to use the then-new art of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.

An entirely intuitive artist, Keaton entered films in 1917 and was quickly fascinated. After apprenticing with popular comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Keaton went on to set up his own studio in 1920, making short comedies that established him as a one of the era's leading talents. A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions ranging from sadness to surprise. In an era with no special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

All those talents are on display in 'Battling Butler,' which holds the distinction of being the top-grossing title of Keaton's silent features.

Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician, said the Keaton features were not made to be shown on television or viewed on home entertainment centers. In reviving them at the Manchester Public Library, organizers aim to show silent film as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who improvises accompaniment as a film is screened. "Recreate those conditions, and films of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today. They all featured great stories with compelling characters and universal appeal, so it's no surprise that they hold up and we still respond to them."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Upcoming silent films at the Manchester City Library include:

• Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 6 p.m.: 'Love' (1927), starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert. 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. Tragedy ensues when Vronsky chooses his military career over Anna.

• Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 6 p.m.: 'Conductor 1492' (1924), starring Johnny Hines. 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 son's 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 comedy that helped Charlie Chaplin rocket to stardom in his first year of movie-making.

Buster Keaton's ‘Battling Butler’ will be shown on Tuesday, Jan. 15 at 6 p.m. in Carpenter Memorial Auditorium, Manchester Public Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.; (603) 624-6550. Admission is free. For more info on the music, visit

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Coming up Thursday, Jan. 10 in Plymouth, N.H.:
W.C. Fields as you've never seen him

Fields as 'Eustache McGargle' with Carol Dempster in 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925).

People are often surprised to hear that W.C. Fields was quite successful in silent films. How could his character's charm, so dependent on the distinctive nasal twang of his voice and the inimitable sting of his quips, work without sound?

Well, long before Fields was the lovable ne'er-do-well character we got to know later in his life, he was a vaudeville veteran and headliner specializing in juggling, pantomime, and other forms of visual comedy. He was an all-around actor and performer, and actually quite agile in his younger days.

For Fields, taking roles in silent films of the 1920s was entirely natural, especially if the role called for a middle-aged "frustrated father" figure type. Fields did fine work in several of these pictures.

To get a taste of the "no-talking" Fields, we're running 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), a comedy/melodrama in which he's paired with starlet Carol Dempster. The film was directed by D.W. Griffith, of all people. 'Sally of the Sawdust,' to be shown on Thursday, Jan, 10, 2013, will be our first feature of the New Year at The Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Not sure how I'll score this, but we'll see. It'll be interesting to find a theme that works for Fields, a con man in a circus environment. I'm also curious to see if the Griffith touch, seen so strongly in pictures such as 'Way Down East' (1920) and 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), remains in evidence.

The only way to know for sure is to screen the picture with an audience, which is what we intend to do. Hope you can join us!

Here's the press release with more info.

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Flying Monkey to screen rare silent film starring W.C. Fields

'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), comedy/drama to be screened Thursday, Jan. 10, shows legendary comedian in his earlier prime

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—He was a performer who could be recognized just by the sound of his voice. But prior to reaching iconic fame in talking pictures, comedian W.C. Fields starred successfully in a popular series of silent feature films for Paramount Pictures and other studios in the 1920s.

See the non-talking W.C. Fields for yourself in 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), one of Fields' most highly regarded silent pictures, in a screening on Thursday, Jan. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. General admission is $10 per person.

Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H. and one of the nation's leading silent film musicians.

W.C. Fields remains famous for his comic persona as a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist who remained a sympathetic character despite his snarling contempt for dogs, children and women. Although Fields achieved lasting fame as a movie star in talking pictures of the 1930s, his long career encompassed decades on the vaudeville stage as well as a series of silent film roles.

"People find it hard to think of W.C. Fields in silent films, but he was actually quite successful in them," Rapsis said. "As a vaudeville performer and juggler, Fields cultivated a form of visual comedy and pantomime that transferred well to the silent screen. Also, as a middle-aged man, he was able to play a family father figure—the kind of role that wasn't open to younger comic stars such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

In all, Fields starred in 10 silent features in the mid-1920s. Several of these films are lost; in those that survive, Fields sports a thick mustache, part of his vaudeville costume as a "vagabond juggler" which he dropped in later years.

In 'Sally of the Sawdust,' Fields plays Professor Eustache McGargle, a good-natured circus juggler and con man who finds himself responsible for Sally (Carol Dempster), an orphaned girl whose mother is dead. Raised by McGargle, Sally grows up to become a popular performer in the rough-and-tumble world of the circus. But when the shows arrives in the town where her mother's family now lives, Sally is forced to choose between the man who raised her and the wealthy family that wants to reclaim her as their own.

'Sally of the Sawdust,' based on the 1923 stage musical 'Poppy,' gives Fields ample opportunity to display his juggling talents, a staple of his vaudeville act. The film was directed by D.W. Griffith, a rare detour into light comedy from a filmmaker known for pioneering epic dramas such as 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921).

The Flying Monkey's silent film 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, these films still contain a tremendous amount of excitement," Rapsis said. "By staging these screenings of features from Hollywood's early days, you can see why people first fell in love with the movies."

Upcoming movies include a love story starring silent screen romantic idol Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille's massive original 1923 version of 'The Ten Commandments,' and a spy thriller that was a forunner of all espionage movies to come.

The Flying Monkey originally opened a silent film moviehouse in the 1920s, and showed first-run Hollywood films to generations of area residents until closing several years ago. The theater has since been renovated by Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man restaurants, who created a performance space that hosts a wide variety of music acts.

Movies of all types, however, are still a big part of the Flying Monkey's offerings, and the silent film series is a way for the theater to remain connected to its roots.

Live music is a key element of each silent film screening, Rapsis said. Silent movies 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."

Other upcoming features in the Flying Monkey's silent film series include:

• Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Eagle' (1925). Just in time for Valentine' Day, see silent screen romantic idol Rudolph Valentino put the moves on Vilma Banky in this racy costume drama set in Imperial Russia. An intense romantic drama that heralded Valentino's comeback one year before his untimely death.

• Thursday, March 28, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Ten Commandments' (1923). Long before he directed Charlton Heston as Moses, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille's original silent version wowed audiences the world over. The film that showed Hollywood how to tell stories from scripture on a grand scale, and a great way to celebrate Easter!

• Thursday, April 11, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: 'Dr. Jack' (1922), starring Harold Lloyd. A sparkling comedy starring Harold Lloyd as a country doctor with unorthodox methods that get results! But now comes his toughest case yet: a poor little rich girl (Mildred Davis), bed-ridden with a mysterious condition. Harold's cure is sure to make you smile!

• Thursday, May 9, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: 'Spies' (1928). Director Fritz Lang's tale of espionage was the forerunner of all movie spy sagas, packed with double agents, hi-tech gadgets, beautiful (and dangerous) women, and an evil genius with a plan to take over the world, mwah-ha-ha-ha! A terrificly paced film that set the stage for James Bond and beyond.

• Thursday, June 13, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Gaucho' (1927) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The leader of a band of outlaws in Argentina must help save a religious shrine from being taken over and closed by a corrupt general. Entertaining action-adventure film widely regarded as Fairbanks' darkest role; made at the height of his 1920s stardom.

The next installment in the Flying Monkey's silent film series will be 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), to be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Thursday, Jan. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Tickets are $10 per person. For more information, call (603) 536-2551 or visit For more information about the music, visit

Friday, January 4, 2013

Coming this month: Fields, Keaton
and a repeat of 'Woman in the Moon'

Happy New Year! we all move just a little bit further away from the time when movies came without soundtracks. In fact, so much time has passed since the silent film era that we're now approaching the centennial of some big titles: D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation' (1915) turns 100 in just a couple of years.

But for now, January 2013 brings with it some worthy screenings. We're doing a less-well-known Griffith title, 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925) starring W.C. Fields, of all people, on Thursday, Jan. 10 at the Flying Monkey moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., and then Buster Keaton's underrated (I think) boxing comedy 'Battling Butler' (1926) on Tuesday, Jan. 15 at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library.

I'll post more info on these films a bit closer to their screenings; for now, details are available on the "Upcoming Screenings" calendar page on your right.

What I'm most excited right now about is the screening of Fritz Lang's epic lunar voyage adventure, 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), that we did on New Year's Eve at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. It was a sell-out! People were actually turned away—so we're doing an encore presentation on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m.

I can't tell you how pleased I am by this, because I've been wondering about 'Woman in the Moon' since I first discovered it several years ago. I've had an interest in silent film nearly my whole life, but somehow hadn't heard about this one. A sci-fi adventure to the moon by Fritz Lang? Why wasn't it more well known? What could be wrong with it?

Turns out a lot of things worked against it. 'Woman in the Moon' came at the very end of the silent film era (October, 1929) when all the public wanted were talkies. Like other Murnau epics, it got edited down to versions as short as one hour, making nonsense of the plot. And finally, the Nazis did their best to pull it out of circulation because of all the on-screen rocketry, which had military importance.

So it remained unseen, even as many of its elements filtered down through the wave of sci-fi films starting in the early 1950s with movies such as 'Destination Moon' (1950). Meanwhile, Lang's silent epic 'Metropolis' had achieved cult status, continually shown and embraced by succeeding generations.

And the years rolled by, and we actually went to the moon in 1969, using some of the techniques shown in 'Woman on the Moon' some 40 years later. But the film didn't get much attention even then—perhaps because not enough time had passed for it to become as oddly interesting as I find it today.

But 'Woman in the Moon' wasn't totally forgotten. About 10 years ago, the Murnau Stiftung in Germany undertook a remastering from the best surviving 35mm elements. The result was a pristine-looking restoration available on DVD with an excellent score by silent film accompanist Jon C. Mirsalis.

After reading about the film a few years ago, I was curious about what it was really like, so got myself a copy in the winter of 2010-11. The night I watched it, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was really, really impressive filmmaking about a monumental subject by one of the great silent directors. To me, it was like the sudden discovery of another symphony by Beethoven, or another play by Shakespeare!

Since then, I've waited to program the film, mostly for the right opportunity and also so I felt my musicianship was up to it. But all along, I've been really curious about how 'Woman in the Moon' would play with an audience. Would it hold together as a mind-bending space adventure from a bygone era? Or would it just seem ridiculous, silly, and trivial? Or worse, boring?

You never know. Until you actually show a silent film to an audience in a theater with live music, you just never know.

Well, New Year's Eve is the perfect occasion for a film like this: an excursion into the past to explore a future that would never come to be. And I'm pleased to report that at our screening on Monday, Dec. 31, 'Woman in the Moon' was a complete triumph. The audience loved it!

It held people's attention from the start, with the villain 'Walter Turner' (played by Fritz Rasp sporting an Adolph Hitler haircut) getting a particularly strong reaction during the extended exposition prior to the actual moon voyage.

What surprised everyone, I think, was the amount of comedy that's threaded throughout this ultimately serious film. I'm talking intentional comedy, too—not stuff of the "wink wink, we know better now" variety, but stuff Lang clearly intended as comic relief for the more serious doings.

I tried to bring this out with the music, which I think it helped. Not with funny ha ha music, but just lighter in texture and obviously "different" from the serious elements. Otherwise, I think many folks today would not automatically be sure they should laugh at what they see.

A good example is the pop-eyed neighbor who lets Willy Fritsch use his phone, and then faints dead away at the sight of what Fritsch has done to the plant on his desk.

But 'Woman in the Moon' really takes off (har!) during the extended launch sequence, which is just one great scene after another, all building to the actual blast off, which produced gasps of astonishment.

And then it's back to comedy, with a young stowaway being discovered and then the scenes in zero gravity, which are played for laughs. It was all welcome relief after the intense launch scenes and the equally dramatic landing sequence, which builds quickly. The images of the scientist glued to the window, raising his arms in exultation as the lunar surface races by outside, ought to be one of the master scenes from the silent film era, I think.

And the scene of the crash landing itself produced perhaps the biggest reaction of all—another astonished gasp, with one guy crying "Oooow!" And even when things were at their most serious, such as the decision on who will stay on the surface, Lang would insert light touches such as the kid keeping score with a piece of chalk. And it all worked wonderfully.

So in terms of pacing, Lang and screenwriter (and his soon-to-be-ex-wife) Thea von Harbou really knew what they were doing. We discovered 'Woman in the Moon' to be a film that's full of amazing images and faces that have only grown more interesting with time, and constructed as sturdily as the space ship that's fired off to the moon. It was one of the great silent film experiences I've had, and I'm so pleased to be presenting it again on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. For more info, please visit Hope to see you there!

One postscript: Afterwards, we sang "Auld Lang Syne" to ring in the New Year, and only now do I realize how appropriate that title is, given the director of 'Woman in the Moon.' And last year, we showed 'Metropolis,' so there's a pattern here.

Auld "Fritz Lang" Syne; the director (at right) on the set of 'Woman in the Moon.