Monday, June 24, 2013

In which we set sail this summer
with silent sea-faring epics in Wilton, N.H.

'The Seahawk' (1924) will screen on Sunday, July 28 at 4:30 p.m. in Wilton, N.H.

When summer comes in our part of the world, you head to the ocean.

The reason for this is that for three months of the year (from now until about Labor Day), inland New England tries its darndest to become a tropical rain forest, with blazing sun and humid days and monsoon-like rains making it seem more like the Congo. The weeds grow like, well, weeds.

But within ten miles of the coast, a refreshing "sea breeze" keeps things bearable. Hence, our propensity to decamp to the beach. (That, and the excellent fried clams and miniature golf.)

This summer, however, we figured we'd bring the ocean inland, with a series of sea-going silent swashbucklers at the very land-locked Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. So, for June, July, and August, you can feel the salty spray in your face without having to fight the crowds at the beach. Just breathe deep into your popcorn, and you'll get the effect.

The thing is, the silent era was awash in ocean-borne stories, and silent film came along at just the right time to capture some of the natural feel for life on the sea as it was lived prior to diesel engines, radio communication, and satellite navigation. That's true for historical epics as well as "contemporary" films, which are now so far in the past that they seem historical as well.

So we're shipping off to sea this summer, and I hope you'll join us. Here's a recent press release for the series. Plase note that we're adding an extra show in August to augment our usual monthly cadence in Wilton. Hey, the ocean is a big place.

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Buster Keaton in 'The Navigator' (1924), to be screened on Sunday, Aug. 25 at 4:30 p.m. in Wilton, N.H.

Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film series ships out with nautical theme at Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theater

Avast all movie buffs! Gang way for high seas action; ocean-going classics to be screened this summer with live music

WILTON, N.H.—You may not put salt on your popcorn, but you're sure to enjoy all the brine-soaked action on screen this summer as the Wilton Town Hall Theatre launches a series of silent films set on the high seas.

The movies include 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927), an epic drama about the wind-powered sailing ships in the 1840s that raced between China and New England; the original screen adaptation of the historical novel 'The Seahawk' (1924) about a disgraced 16th century English nobleman forced to become a pirate; 'Across to Singapore' (1928), an intense drama of a family of sailors that was almost lost to decomposition; and Buster Keaton's classic ocean-going comedy 'The Navigator' (1924).

All screenings are free and open to the public, with donations encouraged to help defray expenses.

"In warmer weather, many people head to the ocean to cool off," said Jeff Rapsis, who provides musical accompaniment for the Wilton Town Hall Theatre's silent film screenings. "This summer, we figured we'd bring the ocean to our audiences, as we showcase the enduring romance between Hollywood and stories set at sea."

Each of the films offers a different porthole into the rich treasure trove of tales rooted in ocean-going traditions. Each also offers footage of scenes that in some cases are now quite historic, including images of ships and ship-board life that long ago vanished.

• Sunday, June 30, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927). Set sail in the era of the great clipper ships in a thrilling race between American and British vessels speeding from China to Boston, with rival crews using only the wind and their wits to win. Produced by Cecil B. DeMille; gorgeous production filmed at sea for six weeks aboard the 1856 wooden square-rigger Indiana. Starring William Boyd (who later played Hopalong Cassidy), Elinor Fair and Frank Junior Coghlan; watch for character actor Walter Long, a native of Milford, N.H.

• Sunday, July 28, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Seahawk' (1924). Swashbuckling historical adventure on the high seas about an English noble sold into slavery who escapes and turns himself into a pirate king. Based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini; later remade into a talkie starring Errol Flynn. The sea battle action sequences in the original silent version were so good, they were reused decades later in the Errol Flynn remake.

• Sunday, Aug. 11, 4:30 p.m.: "Across to Singapore" (1928) starring Ramon Novarro, Joan Crawford, Ernest Torrence. Captain's daughter loves youngest son of seafaring clan, but then the families betroth her to the boy's gruff older brother while he's in home port. When the brothers set sail for Singapore, a gale stirs up the situation into a full-blown crisis.

• Sunday, Aug. 25, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Navigator' (1924). Set sail with Buster Keaton's classic comedy 'The Navigator,' which finds two wealthy socialites adrift all alone on a giant ocean liner. Chock full of unique visual gags; one of Buster's most popular features and the picture that helped establish the comedian as a top-tier star in the motion picture business.

For each film, Rapsis will improvise a score from original musical material that he creates beforehand, using 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."

The three-month sea-faring program is part of a monthly series of silent films presented with live music at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. The series provides local audiences the chance 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 pieces back together again, it's surprising how these films snap back to life," Rapsis said. "By showing the films under the right conditions, you can get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."

The sea-faring silent film series will launch with a screening of Cecil B. DeMille's 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927) on Sunday, June 30 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

Friday, June 21, 2013

'Mommy, what's that needle for?'
Highlights from a busy week of screenings

Chaplin the Cop sits on the syringe in 'Easy Street' (1917)

The title of this post is what I heard behind me while doing music for Chaplin's comedy 'Easy Street' (1917).

This is the one where Chaplin's gal, Edna Purviance, is menaced by a man who plunges a large syringe into his forearm. ("Say No To Drugs" was far in the future.) The needle is left on a bench, poised upright; Chaplin later sits on it, and the effect on him is similar to the effect of spinach on Popeye. In short order, he routs the bullies and saves Edna.

And in the middle of it all, the voice of a young girl asking, "Mommy, what's that needle for?"

Well, so much for the image of silent comedy as family entertainment. It's more like a mine field, actually, where every now and then something explodes into racism, sexism, or just plain bad taste. Drugs can pop up at any time, even in the most innocent of light comedies.

In 'Get Out and Get Under,' Harold Lloyd's car breaks down in front of an opium den. Harold borrows a syringe from a junkie and injects his recalcitrant engine; the car takes off with renewed energy and Harold must chase it down the road.

And then there's Douglas Fairbanks in 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' (1916) a Sherlock Holmes spoof in which Fairbanks stuffs himself with cocaine throughout the film. Really. His character's name is "Coke Ennyday," and the face of his apartment clock reads only EATS, DRINKS, SLEEPS, and DOPE.

Ah, the good old days!

But doing four screenings in four different states in one week can lend itself to a kind of hallucinatory state. Last night, while loading my gear in car after a screening of 'The General' (1926) at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, I told theater owner Peter Clayton that sometimes my head keeps doing music after the movie's over.

"Just coming out of the theater with my keyboard, I was thinking of a little arpeggio in F major," I said.

Who needs syringes when you have silent film music? And before experiences of the past week get buried by experiences of weeks to come, here's a quick round-up of impressions from four screenings in four different states.

Douglas Fairbanks and his ever-present cigarette in 'The Gaucho.'

NEW HAMPSHIRE: The Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, Plymouth. 'The Gaucho' (1927) on Thursday, June 13. One of the few Fairbanks swashbucklers that I hadn't done before, 'The Gaucho' was well received by a relatively small audience of about 30.

I first saw this picture earlier this year at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, and it didn't do much for me, I think primarily because Fairbanks just shows up as the famous 'Gaucho,' feared by all. Why? To me, it was as though Fairbanks was coasting on the reputation of characters from previous films.

Same thing with "Ruiz the Usurper," played by Gustav von Seyffertitz. Who is this guy, and what is he usurping? We're never told, and Fairbanks seems to be just asking us to take it on faith that Ruiz is even nastier than the Gaucho. (He could have improved the film by borrowing a page from Harold Lloyd's book and having Ruiz do something like throw a stick at a cat, which Lloyd used to define the bully in 'Grandma's Boy.')

And then, in the climax, it's not Fairbanks who saves the day, but a huge herd of stampeding cattle! (Cue the jokes about stock footage.) Oh, for the magic of Fairbanks in 'Zorro' or 'Robin Hood' or 'The Black Pirate,' where he vanquishes hordes of villains single-handedly, without the help of a single steer!

So I was curious to see if music could help mask what I felt were some rough edges of what ought to be a major Fairbanks adventure from the height of the silent film era. What I found was that I couldn't do much for the character issues, other than to make the music for Ruiz and his cronies even more foreboding than that of the Gaucho. But the stampede really did come to life by amping up the accompaniment out of all proportion, which I imagine what a stampede must be like (I've never been near one) and is probably the effect Fairbanks was after.

Though I've never been in the presence of an actual stampede, I've seem them in the movies. And I was very impressed with what Jon Miralis did this past March at Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y.  when he accompanied a climactic stampede in 'Wild Beauty' (1926) not so much with music, but with some very deep and constant rolling and growling in the bass. I asked him about it afterwards, and he just said, "a lotta notes."

To understand what I did for 'The Gaucho,' you first have to understand that at the Flying Monkey, I plug my digital synthesizer into the house sound system, which is designed to handle extremely loud bands that are often booked into the space. So during the silent film sound check we have to take things way down to get the level that works for me. This usually means keeping my master volume at a fairly low level.

And now here comes the stampede, which I accompanied by this low and shifting trud in the bass and percussion. To bring it out, I decided to try something I never do—notch my volume output up just a bit as if to say "movie climax." To my surprise, it was really effective at creating this sense of dread and of powerful forces being unleashed, even as things were just getting started.

So, thinking you can't have too much of a good thing, I touched it up another notch, all the while building the booming accompaniment, which was really filling the hall by that point. And then again, and, as the action warranted, yet again, and also slowing increasing the tempo, too. It was very exciting and clearly had "BIG MOVIE CLIMAX" written all over it as the audience sat there mesmerized. (You can sense this from the keyboard.)

In one of those fortunate freaks of timing, I was able to build the sound up to a competely thundering degree at just the right moment, when the stampede allows the Gaucho and his fellow outlaws to rout Ruiz and his troops. Sitting there doing it, making all that noise as the film built to a climax, was one of those exciting, I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this moments that I love.

So, note for the future: at the finish of 'The Gaucho,' take a cue from the cattle, and don't be afraid to let loose.

Prior to the film, I had one amusing line, I thought. I pointed out how in recent years, parental warnings about the content of contemporary films now include "scenes of characters smoking" as something to watch out for. If smoking is a concern, families with children might want to consider leaving now, I said, as would anyone trying to quit smoking.

Afterwards, a guy said something I thought was funny: "You know, if I could do what Douglas Fairbanks could do with a cigarette, I'd smoke all the time."

One of the joys of watching six Chaplin Mutuals in a row is getting to know Chaplin's "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" stock company, including (from left) Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, and Henry Bergman.

VERMONT: Brandon Town Hall, Brandon. 'Charlie Chaplin Short Comedies' on Saturday, June 15. This was an unexpectedly tough program because one of the backers of this silent film series was tragically killed in a car accident two days before. Maxine Thurston, 81, was a lovely woman who had specifically asked us to do a program of Chaplin's short comedies this season. Her sudden death came as a huge shock to the whole community—and here I was, coming up to do a program of slapstick comedies two days following this horrible news.

In a word, awkward! Should we postpone? Should there be a Plan B? But I credit Dennis Marden, Mei Mei Brown, and all who organize the Brandon series for thoughtfully considering the situation and concluding that going on with the show is what Maxine would have wanted and was best for the community. So we did, with me saying a few words about Maxine's loss prior to the show.

Any thoughts that the program wouldn't be appreciated or appropriate were dispelled by a turnout of over 100 people, who roared at Chaplin's antics in 'Behind the Screen,' 'The Rink,' and 'Easy Street,' all Mutual two-reelers. It was during the latter that I heard the girl ask about the needle. Also, 'Behind the Screen' mocks homosexuality, which I sensed was another unpleasant surprise for some in the audience. Ah, the good old days!

For the program, I had chosen to show Chaplin's last six Mutual comedies, in part to make it easy on those manning the project. Just load them in and off we go! A fun two-hour show. But it took several minues to cue each film, and intermission ran long, and the films themselves are closer to a half-hour each. So the way things worked out, it took well over three hours, and I'm afraid the overall effect of all-night slapstick was like eating nothing but dessert for three hours.

Unlike the stampede in 'The Gaucho,' in Chaplin's slapstick, you really can have too much of a good thing.

One of those "perhaps a tear" moments in 'The Kid' (1921) where you can ramp up the accompaniment.

MASSACHUSETTS: The Somerville Theatre, Somerville. 'The Kid' (1921) on Father's Day, Sunday, June 16. This all-35mm program at the Somerville was a high point, with more than 200 people showing up to laugh at Chaplin's antics in 'The Rink,' gawk at the propganda of 'The Bond,' and let the mastery of 'The Kid' wash all over them. Seeing these films on film and on the big screen, with master projectionist David Kornfeld in the booth, was an experience to be savored.

Musically, the Chaplin Mutuals the night before acted as just the right prelude, so I was able to get quickly into the zone and stay there. I started with organ accompaniment for 'The Rink,' which I think works well, if only because it has a kind of skating-rink feel to it. And the fact that I'd run the film the night before helped me nail much of the comedy, even as the print seemed to be running a bit too fast for my taste at 24 fps.

'The Bond' was a lot of fun, and special in the sense that I don't ever expect to see that film again in 35mm. And 'The Kid' worked well, with me coming in strong with dramatic music in the opening and then trying hard to back off once Chaplin appears. The comedy is on the screen, not in the music, but the right music can help the comedy. But you have to be careful not to overpower the comedy. Too much music, and the audience can't hear each other laugh. And that kills the audience experience, one of the great glories of silent film done right.

But then you can get dramatic when the occasion calls for it. Chaplin called his film a story with "a smile, and perhaps a tear," and the "tear" is when you can broaden the accompaniment into something a bit more robust. In the scene where little Jackie Coogan is being taken away from Chaplin, bound for an orphanage, I amped things up quite a bit, almost too much, I feared, because at the moment when Chaplin jumps into the moving truck to battle the orphanage thugs, there was no audience reaction!

What? Usually, that's when people break into spontaneous cheers. Rats! The moment passed and you have to continue on, but I wondered if I had somehow killed the reaction. I drew back just a bit, allowing the audience a chance to hear each other, and sure enough, we did get the cathartic outburst, a little delayed, when Chaplin scares off the driver of the truck by throwing bricks. Phew! The moment was not lost.

Overall, I felt it went really well. And this is in Boston, mind you—the big city around here, home to some of the world's best musicians and ensembles, from the Boston Symphony Orchestra on down. And here I was, right in the middle of it, doing my stuff in front of a large and appreciative crowd. I wonder...if I had pursued my adolescent desire to study composing at, say, Boston University, would I have ever made this kind of music in this kind of environment, and found it this satisfying?

As Roger Ebert sometimes would write: "I dunno." But I am profoundly grateful to the folks at the Somerville, including David and also manager Ian Judge, for their support of what I've been doing. And I'm really looking forward to doing music for the silent version of 'Ben Hur' (1925) on Sunday, July 14.

A vintage poster for 'The General' (1926), which Peter Clayton of The Leavitt Theater in Ogunquit, Maine went to the trouble of blowing up to actual poster size and putting on sandwich boards in front of his theater.

MAINE: The Leavitt Theatre, Ogunquit. 'The General' (1926) on Thursday, June 20. Opening night of our summer/fall silent film series was a success, with 54 people turning out for Buster's masterpiece. I just love the Leavitt because it's so improbable. Here's Peter Clayton, who's owned the hulking old building for 40 years, still cobbling together a living from renting out the storefronts and running the theater, spending all winter installing vinyl siding on the building's massive three-story north facade, seemingly as large as a football field on its side.

On show nights, he pops the corn, sweeps the lobby, and sits in the theater's tiny booth out front, selling tickets, all the while keeping up a running commentary on his efforts to broaden the theater's offerings as 35mm first-run prints become harder to book. Ogunquit has a big gay community, and so in July, he's worked with a group to book a specialty feature film about 'Bears,' which is the term for gay men who are large and hirsute. Two days later, the comedian Gilbert Gottfried is playing the Leavitt.

But it's still a movie theater, which is why Peter agreed to a silent film series this summer as a way to hedge against thinning first-run bookings. He still gets them, but it's unpredictable for the summer-only theater. He opened in May with 'Quartet,' the Dustin Hoffman film that's been out for something like six months. But then, he was delighted to get a print of the new Superman movie, Man of Steel,' just for weekends. Even so, attendance is sparse at this time of year: our paid admissions of 54 for 'The General' was the biggest audience he'd had so far this season.

Things tend to pick up for the Leavitt in July and August, but ticket sales in recent seasons are nothing like the glory days of the 1980s, when Peter would pack the theater all summer long. Among the culprits: home video, changing tastes, and lousy movies, he says. But still, he perseveres, and I'm glad he does, because I love the place, which in many ways hasn't changed since it opened in 1923. Some of the wooden seats still have wire loops underneath them for gentlemen to store their hats during performances!

For 'The General,' I was off my game for some reason, and had a hard time getting into the zone. Not sure why, as I know the film and I love the way my synth and speakers sounds in the Leavitt, which is all wood from top to bottom and makes the accompaniment sound full and rich at all levels. I like nothing more than just sitting there before the show and playing different chords, enjoying the sheer quality of the sound. Perhaps I overdid it on the warm-up and so was tapped out by the time the film started. Sometimes that happens.

But the film is strong enough and the audience clearly enjoyed it, cheering lustily when Buster's cannon misfires but succeeds in hitting the Northerners on the curve ahead. (I've always been fascinated with that action scene, all captured in a single absolutely gloriously timed shot.)

Afterwards during Q & A, I was surprised to hear a woman say we should all be honored that Buster Keaton was with us tonight in the theater. I wasn't sure what she meant at first, but then I noticed her gesturing to an older gentleman sitting by himself. And then I realized what she must be getting at: that the gentleman's name was actually "Buster Keaton," and it was. (He even had a driver's license to prove it, which he had shown some people before the show.) Amazing! So we all gave him a round of applause and I congratulated him on a nice job. What else can you do?

I later found out that he's a regular presence around Ogunquit, and often attends movies at the Leavitt. So that's another reason to love the place: it's where Buster Keaton himself goes to the movies.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

One on, one off, two on:
Not baseball, but silent film music

 An original poster for 'The Gaucho' (1927).

After a bit of a break, another "three shows in three states in four days" series is looming, with all screenings somewhat far from home base. Sometimes I feel like the Red Sox heading out on a road trip.

But each of the three has something that I'm really looking forward to:

• Thursday, June 13 brings 'The Gaucho' (1927) to the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Showtime is 6:30 p.m. It's the only big Fairbanks swashbuckler that I've yet to tackle, so getting trying to get into a Latin mood in the next couple of days.

• On Saturday, June 15, it's a program of Chaplin Mutual two-reelers (specifically, the last six) at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt. The fun starts at 7 p.m. I'm looking forward to this because it's been a request and the audience reaction is always strong at this venue.

• Then, on Sunday, June 16, it's more Chaplin: a Father's Day program of 'The Kid' (1921) at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. Excited because not only are we showing 'The Kid' in 35mm courtesy David Shepard, but we also have 35mm prints of 'The Rink' (1916) and Chaplin's unusual propaganda film, 'The Bond' (1918).

That last item on 'The Bond' was interesting enough that I actually just sent out a separate press release to alert the media. We'll see if a World War I propaganda film helps fill the seats.

But first things first: for Thursday's showing of 'The Gaucho' (1927), here's the press release that went out for that. I'm curious to see how it plays with an audience, and you can help that by flying up to the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and being on hand to cheer on Doug's brush with spirituality. Hope to see you there, amigos!

P.S. I notice that reviews for contemporary films are now listing "scenes of smoking" in the roster of things that parents should be cautioned about. Wow! If on-screen smoking in the movies bothers you, don't expect to find 'The Gaucho' very enjoyable. :)

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Smoking permitted: Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Lupe Velez in 'The Gaucho' (1927).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'The Gaucho' (1927) to screen with live music
on Thursday, June 13 at Flying Monkey

Douglas Fairbanks stars as legendary outlaw and ladies man in silent adventure film

PLYMOUTH, N.H. — He was the Harrison Ford of his time—an action hero who first entertained movie audiences with thrilling on-screen adventures and feats of derring-do.

He was silent screen idol Douglas Fairbanks Sr., whose best work includes 'The The Gaucho' (1927), a timeless adventure film that features a great story, spectacular settings, and memorable performances.

'The Gaucho' will be shown with live music for one screening only on Thursday, June 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

'The Gaucho' opens in dramatic fashion, with a young girl saved by a miracle after falling from a high cliff in the Argentine Andes. She is blessed with healing powers, causing a shrine to be built on the site. A city grows around it, rich with gold from grateful worshipers.

The wealth eventually catches the eye of bandits, including the Gaucho (Fairbanks), charismatic leader of a legendary band of mountain outlaws. The Gaucho, who spurns religion, makes plans to plunder the treasure.

But then the city is overtaken by Ruiz, an evil and sadistic general, who closes the shrine, confiscates the gold, and brings oppression to the pilgrims. The Gaucho, meanwhile, is handed over to the authorities when a love affair goes sour.

Can the Gaucho and his band ride to the rescue? And can the love of a woman help the Gaucho find meaning and inspiration in good deeds as well as the spirituality he once spurned?

Written by Fairbanks and directed by F. Richard Jones, 'The Gaucho' set new standards for visual design in the movies, with action scenes taking place in stylized mountain passes that looked spectacular on screen.

'The Gaucho' also marked a departure for Fairbanks, who until then had played characters with virtue on their side throughout each film. In 'The Gaucho,' however, Fairbanks portrayed a genuine outlaw who, as the story progresses, must grapple with serious moral questions about his life and his beliefs.

'The Gaucho' is "one of the best, most mature and most interesting films in his career," wrote critic Sean Axmaker following a screening at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2009.

Fairbanks took the role in part because as he entered middle age, he needed to broaden and deepen the complexity of the characters he portrayed.

The film is also highlighted by the screen debut of actress Lupe Velez, playing a mountain girl whom the Gaucho romances. Their spats are "amazing, she all tempestuous, hot-blooded, impulsive, a star-struck fan turned jealous sex-kitten, he the smiling bandit king with a playful spirit and a patronizing attitude that tolerates and even appreciates her tantrums," wrote Axmaker.

Rounding out the cast is actress Eve Southern as the Girl of the Shrine.

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 for 'The Gaucho' will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of the full orchestra.

"'The Gaucho' is a wonderful film for music," said Rapsis, who improvises accompaniment using themes or melodies he composes beforehand. "The dramatic settings, especially the scenes in the South American Andes, lend themselves to some evocative scoring to heighten the drama and tension."

'The Gaucho' is appropriate for family audiences, although it includes intense scenes that may frighten very small children. The film is one-and-a-half hours long.

The screening of 'The Gaucho' is part of the Flying Monkey's monthly silent film series, which gives today's audiences a chance to experience the great films of Hollywood's early years as they were intended: in restored prints, in a theater on the big screen, and with live music and an audience.

"If you've never seen a silent film in a theater with live music and an audience, this is a great way to experience the medium at its best," Rapsis said. "When you put all the elements together, silent film still has an ability to stir up an audience in a way that no other medium can."

Upcoming silent films at the Flying Monkey include:

• Wednesday, July 17, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Gold Rush' (1925) starring Charlie Chaplin. Cool off from mid-summer heat with Chaplin's iconic tale of prospectors in the snowbound Klondike. Instead of finding gold, The Little Tramp stumbles upon something much more precious: love. Timeless silent comedy that speaks across the generations.

• Thursday, Aug. 8, 6:30 p.m.: 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans' (1927) starring Janet Gaynor, George O'Brien. Director F.W. Murnau's fable about love is widely regarded as one of the most moving and beautifully photographed silent pictures ever made, with innovative camerawork that influenced a generation of directors. Warning: Bring plenty of Kleenex. Winner of an Academy Award for "Unique and Artistic Production" at the first-ever ceremony.

• Thursday, Sept. 12, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Last Command' (1928) starring Emil Jannings, William Powell. Jannings snagged the first-ever Best Actor Academy Award for his towering portrayal of a Czarist general and patriot forced to contend with love and the Russian Revolution in this sweeping late silent drama directed by Josef von Sternberg.

'The Gaucho' (1927) will be screened on Thursday, June 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person. For more information, visit or call (603) 536-2551.

The Flying Monkey runs silent film programs with live music each month. For more information about the music, visit

Friday, June 7, 2013

Flying down to Stratford, Conn.
for a screening of 'Wings' (1927) this weekend

Well, actually driving, not flying. Especially because the last part of my route is on Interstate 95. (That could be more like crawling.)

Destination: the Stratford Theatre in Stratford, Conn., where I'm doing music for a screening of 'Wings' (1927) on Saturday, June 8 to benefit the William A. Barry Scholarship.

Basics: The theater is at 2422 Main St., the screening starts at 4 p.m., and tickets start at $15.

I didn't do press materials for this one, but a nice write-up by journalist Joe Meyers appeared last week in a group of weekly papers in the region. It has all the details. Thanks, Joe!

And here's a link to a radio interview I did with a gentleman named Richard Pheneger, who hosts a program called "State of the Arts" on a local station, and also manages the theater. Thanks, Richard!

For anyone in Connecticut new to 'Wings' or silent film in general, welcome to this little corner of the Internet, where I prattle on about my adventures creating live music for silent film screenings around New England and sometimes further afield. (In September, I have the honor of being accompanist at the prestigious annual Buster Keaton Festival out in Iola, Kansas, close to Keaton's birthplace.)

What I do is part show biz and part traveling carnival and part history lecture and part technological geekery, and something I completely enjoy doing for a whole host of reasons. I get to meet nice people, make music, and help bring to life some of the great films that caused people to first fall in love with the movies. (I tell my wife that I've finally found my artistic niche: collaborating with dead people!) Plus, there's a benefit to society, because if this wasn't my creative outlet, I'd probably be spray-painting bridge abutments or something like that.

And in this case, one of the nice people was (and is) Hinda Wolf, whom I met last October at a screening of 'Wings' in Ludlow, Vt. Hinda happened to be in the audience, and enjoyed the experience enough to inquire about me doing something similar at a local theater back home in Stratford. I said of course, and here we are! Let's hear it for total serendipity! But many thanks to Hinda to organizing all the details of this screening and giving me a chance to do my thing in the Nutmeg State.

About 'Wings': the film itself, from the silent era's peak, is one that still makes a strong impact on an audience, and I love doing music for it. Like all the big silent films, it has a little bit (or actually a lot) of everything: drama, adventure, comedy, and an intensity of emotion that's the hallmark of all great silents, I think.

Also, I have a soft spot for this one because my dad was a pilot of the World War II generation, and was 11 years old when this movie hit the screens in his hometown of Nashua, N.H. It was just the right age for him to be swept away by the movie and say, "Wow, that's what I want to do when I grow up!"

Or so I imagine. We lost Dad way back in 1968, when I was just four years old. So there's no way to really know until I someday meet him in heaven, or wherever we go when we're all done here. But something about him seeing 'Wings' at that impressionable pre-teen time feels right to me, and thus I cling to this idea, and it somehow adds a personal layer to this cultural artifact that had such a big impact when it was released.

The film speaks for itself, even if it is silent. But I've found that a few bits of context help today's audiences understand a little about what all the excitement was about.

Remember that in 1927, aviation was brand new. Very few people had even seen an airplane, never mind gone up in one. Back then, a plane flying over a community or (gasp!) landing in someone's field was still big news.

Today, when we think of aviation, what comes to mind are things like crowded airliners and flight delays and endless security lines and baggage fees and lousy food and so on. Air travel has become so familiar (and so unpleasant) that it's lost all the magic that it once had.

Think of it! For eons, mankind dreamt of flying. Now, in just a couple of generations, we've turned it into a mundane experience devoid of wonder. It's now something that must be endured.

 So, to understand how exciting 'Wings' must have been, you have to remember that flight was still brand new, just like the movies. So it must have been amazing to see scenes of mid-air dogfights and scenes shot right from the cockpit of planes swooping and diving over active battlefields. It still is, even to our jaded eyes, but how much more so it must have been to Aunt Matilda in 1927!

And then there's the "World War I" angle. This global conflict (then called 'The Great War' as we weren't expecting another) was the 9/11 of its time. So to its original audiences, 'Wings' had a certain immediacy and urgency that's important to remember. I'm guessing that the feeling must have been close to what we would feel today watching a movie like 'Flight 93,' which dramatized events on one of the hijacked planes.

And then, remember that the motion picture camera could suddenly bring people to places they'd never seen before, and that included the battlefield. For all of human history, the only people who truly knew the horrors of war were those who fought in it. Suddenly, the motion picture could bring anyone (even Aunt Matilda) into the trenches and provide a vivid sense of combat on the front lines—the heroism, yes, but also the wasteful slaughter.

All this was big news to anyone in a movie theater in 1927, and contributed to the immense popularity of 'Wings.'

Even without this context, I've found 'Wings' still holds an audience today, which is a credit to its makers. It does not require the equivalent of the notes that you sometimes need to truly understand something like, say, a play by Shakespeare. (It's coming to that, though: very few of us really know what World War I was about.) However, understanding a little about the era really does help understand a little about why this film was such an event when it was first released, so thanks for bearing with me.

Well, anyway: Keep 'em flying!

Ooops! Anachronism alert! That's a phrase from World War II.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Showing tonight: Constance Talmadge
in 'The Duchess of Buffalo' (1926)

Constance Talmadge all kitted out, and fashionably so, for the Russian winter in 'The Duchess of Buffalo.'

The more I see of Constance Talmadge, the more I like her.

It's not that my opinion was ever low. It's just that most of her films have been unavailable until recent years. And as I've gotten familiar with them, I've discovered an actress with a charm and a flair that comes through quite strongly, even after all these years.

Until the past few years, all I knew of Constance was that she specialized in light romantic comedies, and was the younger sister of the great dramatic actress Norma Talmadge, who tended to overshadow everyone around her. (She was also Buster Keaton's sister-in-law.) But most of Constance's films were lost or just not available for casual viewing.

My acquaintance with Connie began in 2009, when I did music for 'Lessons in Love' (1921), a feature long unavailable but which had recently been restored. The screening, at the now-closed Donnell Library on West 53rd St. in Manhattan, really opened my eyes to an actress whose name I knew, but whose work I didn't. (Many thanks to Joe Yranski of the New York Public Library for bringing me in for this project.)

Then, in 2011, I got a chance to do music for 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925), another Constance Talmadge feature that had been restored and re-released. While I enjoyed 'Lessons in Love,' this one really impressed me: Constance played both a housewife and her nearly identical (but very aristocratic) sister. and you could instantly tell them apart by the slightly different ways she carried herself in either role.

If that wasn't enough, the plot required each to impersonate the other, and Talmadge was able to carry the differing traits through that fun house. Add to this her ability to act "natural" and seem perfectly at home in front of the camera, and I came away with quite a high regard for Connie's talents. (And it didn't hurt that she was quite easy on the eyes.)

And now it's 'The Duchess of Buffalo' (1926), one of Constance's last big pictures and another title that isn't readily available. Some time ago, however, a collector provided me with a digital transfer of a 16mm print of the film. And so tonight (Tuesday, June 4) we get to bring the whole thing back to life during a screening at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library.

Hope to see you there! For more info, here's the press release that went out a little while ago...

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Romantic comedy 'The Duchess of Buffalo' 
(1926) at Manchester (N.H.) City Library 
on Tuesday, June 4

Constance Talmadge stars in rarely screened silent movie feature; film accompanied by live music

MANCHESTER, N.H.—One of Hollywood's most popular actresses of the 1920s returns to the big screen when Constance Talmadge stars in 'The Duchess of Buffalo' (1926). The romantic comedy will be screened on Tuesday, June 4 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.

The picture follows the misadventures of an American dancer (Talmadge) on tour in Imperial Russia, where she falls in love with Vladimir Orloff, a young Army officer (Tullio Carminati). However, the officer's father is the Grand Duke of Russia, and despite being married, he has designs on the girl himself, and refuses to let his son marry her.

'The Duchess of Buffalo' is a prime example of the kind of escapist entertainment that Hollywood was turning out as the silent film era reached its peak in the 1920s: exotic locations, fancy costumes, and a plot filled with equal helpings of romance, adventure, and light comedy.

Actress Constance Talmadge excelled at such roles, and at the time was among the most popular stars in the Hollywood firmament. Her starring role in 'The Duchess of Buffalo' was a high point in her career, so much so that afterwards among family members she often went by the nickname 'Dutch.'

And hers was not just any old family. Talmadge was member of a clan that made up a big part of Hollywood royalty at the time.

Talmadge was sister of Norma Talmadge, a popular dramatic actress in silent films, who was married to Joe Schenck, the powerful producer responsible for Constance's films, including 'The Duchess of Buffalo.' Another Talmadge sister, Natalie, was married to movie comedian Buster Keaton and had appeared as his leading lady in Keaton's 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

Along with her sister Norma, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, Constance Talmadge inaugurated the tradition of placing her footprints in cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theater. She left a trail of five footprints in her slab.

Talmadge retired from the screen in the late 1920s, when Hollywood made the transition to pictures with recorded sound and dialogue. Though still popular, she opted to focus on business investments for the balance of her life. She died in 1973 at age 75.

Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician, said silent movies such as the Constance Talmadge comedies were not made to be shown on television or viewed on home entertainment centers. In reviving them at the Manchester City 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, July 9, 6 p.m.: 'Burn 'Em Up Barnes' (1921) starring Johnny Hines. Son of a wealthy auto manufacturer would rather race cars than join the family business, so leaves home to make his own way. After being robbed, he befriends a group of hobos who show him their carefree lifestyle.

• Tuesday, Aug. 6 at 6 p.m.: 'The Clinging Vine' (1926) starring Leatrice Joy, Tom Moore, Snitz Edwards. Gender-bending comedy in which a high-powered female executive yearns to become more feminine. Surprisingly androgynous performance by Joy, wife of MGM megastar John Gilbert.

• Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 6 p.m.: 'The Tempest' (1928) starring John Barrymore, Camilla Horn. Epic drama in which an officer in the Czar's army (Barrymore) falls hard for a haughty princess (Horn), who spurns him and causes him to be stripped of rank. But the tables are turned with the Russian revolution, which upends the aristocracy and puts the soldier and the princess at the mercy of forces that no one can control.

• Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 6 p.m.: 'The Crackerjack' (1925) starring Johnny Hines. A pickle salesman finds himself in the middle of a South American revolution, impersonating a rebel general and falling for the general's daughter.

Constance Talmadge's romantic comedy ‘The Duchess of Buffalo’ (1925) will be shown on Tuesday, June 4 at 6 p.m. in Carpenter Memorial Auditorium, Manchester City Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.; (603) 624-6550. Admission is free. For more info on the music, visit