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!


  1. Great Stuff Jeff!
    I really enjoy reading about the thoughts you have as you are playing live for the films. I'm looking forward to hearing you play at Cinefest again this year!
    Russ Arnold

    1. Russ! Just a quick note to belatedly thank you for the note and also that it was great to meet you at Cinefest. It was a terrific event, especially because of the enthusiastic audience for all the silents that were screened. Thank you for saying hi and chatting, and hope to see you at future screenings. All the best!