Sunday, February 17, 2013

Adventures in silent film accompaniment:
snowbanks, orgies, and missing sustain pedals

Coming off a busy stretch of accompaniment leading up to the Kansas Silent Film Festival later this week. Here's a few snapshots from the life of a silent film accompanist based in northern New England.

• Today's screening of 'Bardelys the Magnificent' (1926) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre went well, except the side entrance that I use to load my equipment in and out was blocked by a large snowbank that had been pushed up against the building, covering the stairs and partially blocking the door. The perils of performing in mid-winter New Hampshire! Seriously, it looked like that scene in 'The Gold Rush' where Chaplin shovels a huge pile snow from one business to another.

A stiff wind and temps in the 20s didn't make things any more pleasant. Fortunately, I wore my sensible winter shoes, so it didn't matter that much when my feet plunged down to mid-thigh while struggling to muscle in my synthesizer. It takes three trips for me to carry everything in, and each time the stiff wind banged shut the outside door, forcing me to go all the way around to the theater's main entrance. Ah, the glamour of the movies!

About 40 people were on hand for my first attempt at 'Bardelys.' I can tell when I'm overscheduled because I start to show up at screenings with nothing really prepared. That, alas, was the case with Bardelys, which offers a lot of potential for music, but I just wasn't in the zone through most of the film. I lucked out with one good melody that came to me on the way in, and that carried most of the picture. A harpsichord setting I used seemed to stomp on any on-screen subtleties, and about two-thirds of the way through I switched over to my fallback orchestral setting.

The music all seemed pretty sloppy to my taste, and I was concerned that audience reaction seemed to die down quite a bit after John Gilbert met Eleanor Boardman. So, near the end, I was pleasantly surprised (and a bit relieved) when the room erupted in cheers during Gilbert's exuberant escape from the gallows. Even theater owner Dennis Markaverich said afterwards he "laughed my ass off" at Gilbert grabbing a curtain and using it as a parachute, something Douglas Fairbanks hadn't thought to do just yet.

• A much more satisfying screening took place on Valentine's Day (Thursday, Feb. 14), when we screened Harold Lloyd's 'Girl Shy' (1924) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. About 100 people turned out for this show, which had Lloyd's short 'Never Weaken' (1921) as an opener. I knew we had them when, in 'Never Weaken,' they laughed uproariously at Lloyd consulting the dictionary to make sure his suicide note is spelled correctly. (It is a very funny scene.) Lloyd's subsequent antics on the steel skeleton of a skyscraper under construction produced shrieks and gasps just as he intended.

For the music, I used just a traditional organ setting for the short, in part to make the full orchestral settings for the feature seem that much more grand by comparison. For 'Never Weaken,' a jaunty tune I've used here and there proved all I needed to carry all the action up until the suicide sequence, which I punched up by turning serious (minor key, repeated notes) and then going silent to underscore his thinking and reactions, which made room for the laughs. And for the skyscraper sequence, I reverted back to the jaunty tune for the rooftop jazz band that gives Harold a rude awakening, but then kept it low for much of his mid-air antics, again to make sure the audience could hear itself react.

It all came together wonderfully, I thought, especially with me plugged into the Somerville's house sound system. I switched to the full orchestra for 'Girl Shy,' but muffed the beginning because it just came up so fast. But it came together nicely, with scene after scene falling into place. A few rough spots happened in the train sequence and when Jobyna Ralston's car breaks down, but by then the film had them and it didn't matter so much.

Things really got fun when Harold returns to the publisher and all the female office staff go crazy over him. What laughter! For underscoring, I just used the main rhythm and melody from the Habanara of Bizet's Carmen, which lent just the right touch of mockery to the scene, I thought. And the reaction was again strong when Harold receives an envelope in the mail that he thinks is a rejection letter, but which we know contains a check. As Harold motions to rip it, people behind me shouted "NO! DON'T DO IT!" When he actually did rip it, he was accompanied not by music, but by groans of anguish that filled the theater.

At this point, the energy never let up. Next thing you know, Harold and his uncle are piecing together the check. $3,000! Hooray! Then Harold looks at the newspaper and sees his sweetheart is getting married that day. Oh no! Then the man's "other wife" wanders in, sees the wedding announcement, and exclaims, "Someone should stop it for the girl's sake!" Guess who that someone is? Hooray again, as Harold dashes from the tailor shop, this time vowing to make it to the church on time.

I just can't describe the excitement in the theater by this time. It had built up to a point where I think it actually worked against some of Harold's gags early on in the chase, because we want him to be making progress. Example: the guy teaching his girl to drive, which causes frustration for Harold as they repeatedly stop and start and go in circles. The audience stopped laughing during this, and I think it's because everyone wanted him to just get going. It's the same reason Keaton cut the "underwater traffic cop" gag from 'The Navigator'—by that part of the story, the audience couldn't tolerate comedy just for comedy's sake, because the gal is in danger.

Harold quickly recovered, and so did the audience. And by the time he was whipping a horse-drawn wagon through downtown, everyone was totally into it. Scoring this was a ball—I was able to keep things relatively light for most of the time, which allowed audience members to hear each other and really helped the overall reaction, I think. For the last few minutes, people were spontaneously shouting at Harold to 'HURRY UP!' It just doesn't get any better than that, folks.

One challenge of 'Girl Shy' is the intercutting between Harold's mad dash and the placid pre-wedding scenes at the church. These happen at various intervals, and I did my best to "feel" them coming and change the music on the fly. (There's one particularly tough place where Harold is on a motorcycle and has gone through a grocery store, and we swap back and forth several times quite rapidly.) But once Harold is on the horse-drawn wagon, the cuts come so frequently that it wouldn't make sense to change the music, so instead I just kept pounding away, working my way up the keyboard with repeated notes in the left hand and Harold's driving melody in the bass. I think it makes for really effective cinema.

I'm pleased to say that after 'Girl Shy' finished, I got a bona fide standing ovation, and in Boston, too! It was totally thrilled and rewarding and gratifying, and I very much appreciated all the folks who came up afterwards to get my card, ask questions, and offer congratulations. One woman even asked if I would consider being part of a burlesque show! (To play music in, not dance.)

Afterwards, I dashed off a note to a friend that made me realize some things about the experience of doing live music like that. Get a load of this:
Wow, about last night. Wish you could have somehow been there. Things really fell into place, with a large audience that really reacted to the experience, and the music seemed to flow out of me so naturally and easily.

So to me, it was like this great communal orgy in which everyone kept their clothes on (as far as I know), but was in the dark and filled with intense physical releases such as laughing and shrieking.

At 'The End,' I finished with a bang as the lights came up, and then got a prolonged standing ovation! Wow, who doesn't want to receive a standing O after such an intimate experience? :)

Afterwards, I had a lot of people come up to say hi, including one woman who asked if I wanted to be in a burlesque show! She meant it in terms of playing music, but you can imagine what this whole conversation did to my already sexed-up imagination.
The only wrong note in the melody was that shortly after the start of 'Girl Shy,' I kicked my sustain pedal into the Somerville's cavernous orchestra pit. I was still attached to the synthesizer, but I had not way to retrieve it, other than ceasing to play and then hoisting it up. I decided I could do without it, and I did, but that's the first time it ever got away from me like that.

• Lots of other things. Our local television station, WMUR-TV Channel 9, is doing a piece on me for their half-hour feature program "New Hampshire Chronicle." This required me to spend four hours in the Wilton Town Hall Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 12 to be interviewed, and for them to get scenes of me in action. I think they shot enough footage so that even Eric von Stroheim would be satisfied! But seriously, I'm looking forward to the segment, which I'm told will air sometime near the end of the month. We'll see how I feel after I said it. We'll see if what veteran CBS News reporter George Herman said about me is true: that I have "a good head for television."

• On Monday, Feb. 11, I had the pleasure of doing 'Metropolis' (1927) for students in a film history course at Southern New Hampshire University taught by my friend and colleague Bill Millios. This took place in a computer lab (all the school's theater-type classrooms were booked) but something about it clicked and it turned into one of the most satsifying scores I've produced in awhile. The students stayed with it from start to finish; one of them said in a note to Bill:
"And thank you for inviting Jeff Rapsis to come in and play live music for "Metropolis"; I've been interested in learning about the history of silent films, but this was the first time I've ever seen a feature-length silent film and I was completely blown away!

I think I was more wrapped up in "Metropolis" than I have ever been with any movie I've seen before; I think the live music really pulled me into the movie and helped draw me into the film's world. Thanks again!"
Wow, I'll have to tell Bill to give that gal an A.

• I had a ball doing music for 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924) at Wellesley College, which was still digging itself out from under the Blizzard of 2013 at the time of our screening on Sunday, Feb. 10. What a crazy film! I would have to say that the last 20 minutes rank as some of the most bizarre filmmaking of the entire silent film era. Best intertitle: "Follow our example, comrades! Form the Federal Socialist Republic of Mars!"

One interesting thing at that screening was that a film print of the newly restored 'A Trip to the Moon' had not arrived due to the storm, so we showed an earlier restoration on the Flicker Alley DVD with recorded music, and then a 16mm print from Blackhawk (missing the full ending) with me doing live music. Never had to accompany the same film after recorded music, but there's a first time for everything, I guess.

• And then prior to that, I did Rudolph Valentino in 'The Eagle' at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H., and Gilbert and Garbo in 'Love' at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library, which was more than enough for Valentine's Day. Next year I think I'll counterprogram with a film like Keaton's 'Spite Marriage' (1929). And before that, there was a Keaton program for which the wife and I drove 300 miles to New York state and back. All that in February, and it's only the 17th. Sheesh!

Friday, February 8, 2013

'Bardelys the Magnificent' returns
to the big screen in Wilton, N.H.

I have a Kansas Silent Film Festival t-shirt that features this very image!

A film thought lost for decades will once again flicker across the silver screen when 'Bardelys the Magnificent' (1926) is shown on Sunday, Feb. 17 at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

I first saw the newly restored picture a few years ago when it was shown at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, accompanied live by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

I had never heard of the novel or the film, but what I saw in Kansas was great cinema.

The print, discovered in a private collection in France and missing Reel 3, was good enough to support a wonderful restoration effort, which was then making the festival rounds.

But it never made it to New England, at least that I know of. So we're screening it in Wilton on Sunday, Feb. 17 to give 'Bardelys' another shot on the big screen.

One interesting thing about 'Bardelys' is that it marked early screen appearances of a young bit player named John Wayne and also future comedian Lou Costello, then working as a stunt double.

I don't know if I could spot them in the picture, but here are some frame captures that supposedly have Wayne in them as one of the soldiers. Can you pick him out?

Well, neither can I. But perhaps we'll have better luck on Sunday, Feb. 17, when we put 'Bardelys the Magnificent' back up on the Wilton Town Hall Theatre's big screen, where it belongs!

See you there. And for more information, check out the text of the press release below...

* * *

Two's company, but three's a crowd, especially when one of them has his head covered by a dark pointy hood thing.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Newly rediscovered silent film swashbuckler
to 're-premier' in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Feb. 17

'Bardelys the Magnificent' (1926), long thought lost until a copy was found in Europe, to be screened with live music

WILTON, N.H.—A major Hollywood feature—oonsidered lost for decades until a copy surfaced in France in 2006—will soon get its New England big screen "re-premier."

'Bardelys the Magnificent' (1926), a big budget MGM release starring John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman, will be screened on Sunday, Feb. 17 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission to the screening is free, with donations accepted.

Based on a novel by prolific Italian/English author Rafael Sabatini, 'Bardelys the Magnificent' is a tale of romance, honor, and derring-do set during the reign of King Louis XIII of France.

The story follows the adventures of French nobleman Bardelys, who assumes the identity of a dead man to be close to the woman he loves. The ruse backfires, however, when it turns out the dead man is wanted for treason against the King. This propels Bardelys into a series of swashbuckling adventures as he must avoid being caught and executed, all the while pursuing his beloved.

The title role is played by legendary leading man John Gilbert, then at the height of his 1920s stardom. Gilbert was popular for his good looks, magnetic personality, and athletic stunts. Actress Eleanor Boardman plays Roxalanne, his love interest; the huge cast includes many silent film-era stars and supporting players.

'Bardelys the Magnificent' was directed by King Vidor, who was responsible for several well-known silent-era classics, including 'The Big Parade' (1925), 'The Crowd' (1928), and 'Show People' (1928).

The picture was a solid hit in its original release, making money and enhancing the reputations of everyone involved. Later, MGM's rights to the Sabatini novel expired in 1936, and the studio destroyed all copies per the licensing agreement. It was only later that archivists released that no other copies of the film were known to have survived anywhere. For six decades, the only footage of 'Bardelys the Magnificent' known to exist was in the form of a brief clip included in a movie theater scene in 'Show People,' another Vidor picture. 'Bardelys' was regarded as a major lost feature film from the silent era.

Then, in 2006, researchers in France discovered an almost complete copy of 'Bardelys the Magnificent' in a private collection. The print was missing about 10 minutes of footage, but was otherwise intact and in excellent condition. The missing footage is replaced with still photos taken on the set, written descriptions, and by footage recovered from a 'Coming attractions' trailer for the film. The story is now easily followed.

Restoration was completed in 2008; the film was subsequently released on DVD, and has since been screened at several festivals around the country, but not not in New England until now.

"With it being the weekend after Valentine's Day, we thought it would be a great time to screen a historical romance," Rapsis said.

Silent films were produced until 1929, when talkies arrived. About 80 percent of all movies made during the silent era are now lost due to decomposition, carelessness, fire, or neglect. But copies of "missing" films still occasionally turn up in archives and collections around the world, so researchers and archivists continue to make discoveries.

For 'Bardelys the Magnificent,' Rapsis will improvise a score using original musical material that he creates beforehand. For a movie score to support 'Bardelys,' Rapsis will use a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of a full orchestra.

"What I try to do," Rapsis said, "is create music that bridges the gap between a film that might be 80 or 90 years old, and the musical expectations of today's audiences."

'Bardelys the Magnificent' is the latest in a monthly series of silent films presented with live music at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put Humpty Dumpty back together again, it's surprising how these films just back to life," Rapsis said. "By showing the films under the right conditions, you can really get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."

Upcoming silent film screenings at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre include:

• Sunday, March 31, 2013, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928). Landmark drama that chronicles the trial of Jeanne d'Arc on charges of heresy, and the efforts of her ecclesiastical jurists to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions. A film regarded as lost until a pristine compete print was discovered in a closet in Oslo, Norway in 1981.

• Sunday, April 28, 2013, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926). Epic Western starring Ronald Coleman, Vilma Banky about the settling and irrigation of California's Imperial Valley, once a wasteland but now an agricultural paradise. With a young Gary Cooper playing a key role. Visually spectacular story filmed largely on location in Nevada's Black Rock desert.

• Sunday, May 26, 2013, 4:30 p.m.: 'Tell It To The Marines' (1926). In honor of Memorial Day: U.S. Marine Sergeant O'Hara (Lon Chaney) has his hands full training raw recruits, one of whom, 'Skeets' Burns, is a particular thorn in his side...especially when it comes to romancing nurse Nora Dale.

'Bardelys the Magnificent' will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 17 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with donations encouraged to defray expenses. For more information, visit; for more information on the music, visit

Monday, February 4, 2013

Warm up for Valentine's Day
with Valentino at the Flying Monkey

Rudolph Valentino and his amazing hat in 'The Eagle,' screening on Thursday, Feb. 7 in Plymouth, N.H.

Wow! February! How'd that happen?

Some very cool screenings coming up in the next few weeks, including three first-time films for me: 'Love' (1927) at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library on Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 6 p.m.; 'The Eagle' (1925) at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth (N.H.) on Thursday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m., and then (and now for something completely different), 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924) at Wellesley College on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 3 p.m.

Not really much time to get into detail about these, but all the crucial info (where, when, how much) can be found by clicking 'Upcoming Silent Film Screenings' to the right.

In the meantime, here's the press release for 'The Eagle' at the Flying Monkey later this week. It's a great picture and an excellent way to begin warming things up for Valentine's Day, hence the suggested headline.

* * *

Vilma Banky and Rudolph Valentino get to know one another a little better.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Warm up for Valentine's Day with Valentino at the Flying Monkey

'The Eagle' (1925), starring silent film icon Rudolph Valentino, to screen on Thursday, Feb. 7 with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—He was the cinema’s first sex symbol, causing hordes of female moviegoers to flock to his pictures throughout the 1920s. He starred in films designed to show off his Latin looks, his smoldering eyes, and his dancer’s body. And his untimely death in 1926 prompted mob scenes at his funeral.

He was Rudolph Valentino, who remains an icon for on-screen passion long after he caused a sensation in the 1920s.

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, one of Valentino’s most acclaimed films will be screened with live music on Thursday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. ‘The Eagle’ (1925), a racy story set in Czarist Russia, proved one of his most popular features and marked a peak in his brief career.

Based on the novel Dubrovsky by Alexander Pushkin, ‘The Eagle’ casts Valentino as a lieutenant and expert horseman in the Russian army who catches the eye of Czarina Catherine II. After he rejects her advances and flees, she puts out a warrant for his arrest, dead or alive. When he learns that his father has been persecuted and killed in his hometown, he dons a black mask and becomes an outlaw, finding unexpected romance along the way.

The screening of ‘The Eagle’ will be accompanied by live music by local composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

An Italian immigrant who arrived penniless at Ellis Island in 1913, Valentino rose to superstar status in a series of silent pictures that enflamed the passions of female movie-goers from coast to coast and around the world. But he was more than a pretty face—during his career, critics praised Valentino as a versatile actor capable of playing a variety of roles; his achievements included popularizing the Argentinian tango in the 1921 drama ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’

‘The Eagle’ was Valentino’s next-to-last film, released the year before his unexpected death at age 31 from complications from peritonitis. Valentino's death in August 1926 occurred at the height of his career, inspiring mourning across the globe and a day-long mob scene at the actor’s New York City funeral.

But Valentino's brief stardom was defined by roles that brought a new level of exotic sexuality to the movies, causing a sensation at the time. In theaters, women openly swooned over Valentino’s on-screen image, especially in pictures such as ‘The Eagle,’ which featured foreign locales and elaborate costumes. At its peak, Valentino's popularity was so immense that it inspired a backlash among many male movie-goers, who decried Valentino’s elegant image and mannerisms as effeminate.

Valentino’s sudden death fueled his status as a legendary romantic icon of the cinema. For years, a mysterious woman dressed in black would visit his grave at the Hollywood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, leaving only a single red rose.

Valentino was aware of his effect on audiences, saying that “Women are not in love with me, but with the picture of me on the screen. I am merely the canvas upon which the women paint their dreams.”

‘The Eagle’ is the latest in a series of monthly silent film screenings at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center. The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by bringing together the elements needed for silent film to be seen at its best: superior films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and a live audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Rapsis, the accompanist for the screenings. “There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that spirit. At their best, silent films were communal experiences in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

Vilma Banky and Valentino in another variation on the theme...

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."

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes he creates beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

‘The Eagle’ will be shown on Thursday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. General admission $10 per person. For more info, visit or call (603) 536-2551.

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

• Thursday, March 21, 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 ‘The Eagle’ (1925), to be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Thursday, Feb. 7 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