Tuesday, July 30, 2013

In which I go to Harvard University
to accompany Hitchcock without the bodies

Next up: a chance to do music for one of the Hitchcock silents recently restored by the British Film Institute. The film is 'Champagne' (1928), a rare Hitchcock attempt at comedy. I'll be at Harvard Film Institute's Yamaha baby grand for the screening (in 35mm) on Thursday, Aug. 1 at 7 p.m.

By "comedy," I don't mean kick-in-the-pants silent film slapstick. And I don't mean the kind of black comedy Hitchcock was later to do in movies such as 'The Trouble With Harry' (1955). Rather, 'Champagne' is a society comedy, and a light and fizzy concoction at that—very much like the beverage of the title. Unusual for Hitchcock, no bodies anywhere.

Looking back on the film many years later, Hitchcock was displeased, recalling that the film didn't really have a story to tell. Previewing it on YouTube, I can see what he meant. However, it's always a mistake to make judgments about a movie after watching it online in that format, so I encourage you to check it out as Hitchcock intended: on the big screen and in a theater. Me, I'm waiting until Thursday to see how an audience responds.

Whatever misgivings Hitchcock might have had, 'Champagne' is well worth drinking in because you can see how many of the hallmarks of Hitchcock's visual style are already coming together. The camerawork is quite creative in places, Hitchcock having absorbed the vocabulary of German expressionism and well along in the process of making it his own. You can see him developing and fashioning the cinematic language that would later come to full flower in his later masterpieces.

And yes, there are a few moments that promise laugh-out-loud hilarity. We'll see.

So I'm eager to help bring this picture to life at my Harvard debut, which itself contains an element of backstage comedy. The chief reason I'm appearing at the Harvard Film Archive as part of this prestigious series is because (drum roll please)...no one else was available! Yes, none of the theater's regular accompanists could be scheduled, and so yours truly got the call! Thus do I get an opportunity to crash the Ivy League!

Seriously, I'm grateful to the folks at the Harvard Film Archive for a chance to contribute live music to this important project. Let's just hope the comedy doesn't extend to audience members hurling anything at the pianist.

If you'd like to check out 'Champagne,' or any of the Harvard Film Archive's other Hitchcock screenings, more info can be found at http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/

And while we're talking Beantown (what the locals sometimes call Boston), let me put in a plug for our next silent film screening the next town over at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, Mass.

On Sunday, Aug. 4, we're screening a 35mm print of Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926), the next installment of the "Silents Please" series. There's nothing quite like seeing one of the great silent comedies in a big theater with an audience and live music, so come one, come all. The show starts at 1 p.m. and tickets are $15 per person. For more info, visit the Somerville Theatre's Web site at www.somervilletheatreonline.com.

Friday, July 26, 2013

New book: 'Hollywood of the Rockies'
plus 'The Seahawk' (1924) in Wilton, N.H.

Last night's silent film program at the Leavitt Theater in Ogunquit, Maine allowed me to make the acquaintance of Michael J. Spencer, a filmmaker and author who happened to be in attendance. Michael has just published a book that sounds very interesting: "Hollywood of the Rockies."

It's about the movie-making that happened in the mountains of the American West during the early years of the 20th century (mostly in Colorado, I gather) before the cinema pioneers decided on southern California as the place to settle.

I know close to nothing about this period of non-Hollywood filmmaking, except that Jacksonville, Fla. was another place that for a time was popular with early filmmakers. So I'm looking forward to reading Michael's book, which seems like piece of good work judging by the excerpt on Amazon. Check it out!

This weekend brings several silent film programs, including a pair of screenings at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. and the latest installment of our summer series of silent sea-faring swashbucklers at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

In Wilton, it's 'The Seahawk' (1924), a great adventure film that I've done before and I think holds up really well. Hoping for a good crowd to help it all come to life. Showtime is on Sunday, July 28 at 4:30 p.m. If you'd like more info, here's the press release that went out earlier this month...

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A scene from the silent version of 'The Sea Hawk' (1924)

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Swashbuckler ‘The Seahawk’ (1924) in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, July 28

Classic silent adventure film to be screened with live music at Town Hall Theatre

WILTON, N.H.—It was among the first feature films to take movie audiences both out to sea and back in time. ‘The Seahawk,’ a motion picture brimming over with vintage sailing ships, pirates, action, and romance, set the stage for generations of swashbuckling adventure films to come.

'The Seahawk' (1924) will be shown with live musical accompaniment on Sunday, July 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St. in Wilton, N.H. THe show is free and open to the public. It's the latest installment in the Town Hall Theatre's summer-long series of sea-faring silent films.

"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're bringin the ocean to our audiences, as we showcase the enduring romance between Hollywood and stories set at sea."

The 1924 silent version of ‘The Sea Hawk,’ based on a 1915 novel by Rafael Sabatini, follows the 1580s adventures of English nobleman Oliver Tressilian, forced by fate and honor from his upper class life and sold into slavery as a galley oarsman. After escaping, Tressilian gets revenge by assuming control of ‘The Sea Hawk,’ a pirate ship that terrorizes the Spanish armada, all the while trying to regain his lady love.

Cast in the lead role of Oliver Tressilian is Milton Sills, a popular actor of the silent film era who is relatively unknown today; the ‘Seahawk’ is ranked among Sills’ finest performances. Also in the cast is longtime Hollywood character actor Wallace Beery, who plays the role of Captain Jasper Leigh.

The movie is considered a landmark of realism due to producer/director Frank Lloyd’s decision to not use models or miniatures, but to stage all ocean-going scenes on recreated sailing ships off the California coast. This enabled Lloyd to line the decks with cutlass-waving actors and to convincingly depict the oaring of a slave-powered galleon, scenes which thrilled audiences of the time.

The battle scenes were regarded as so successful that they were used intact for the later sound remake in 1940 starring Errol Flynn.

Music for 'The Sea Hawk' will be created live by Rapsis, an accompanist who specializes in improvising scores to classic silent films in live performance. For each film, Rapsis improvises a score from original musical material composed 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."

Each of the silent films on this summer's Town Hall Theatre schedule 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 vanished long ago. With so many great sea-faring films to choose from, an additional screening has been added in August.

Upcoming screenings of silent film with a salty flavor at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre include:

• Sunday, Aug. 11, 4:30 p.m. 'Across to Singapore' (1928). Intense drama of romantic rivalry among brothers in a tight-knit ocean-going family. Starring Ramon Navarro, Ernest Torrence, and a very young Joan Crawford. A rare film that was nearly lost to decomposition but was rescued just in time.

• 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.

This summer's nautical-themed movies are 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 restored prints, with live music, and with an audience.

The series will continue with a screening of 'The Sea Hawk' (1924) on Sunday, July 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with donations of $5 per person encouraged to defray expenses. For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com; for more information on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Recalling a couple of dog costumes:
Silent films as related to biology and gravity

In 1992, as his 30-year tenure as 'Tonight Show' host was coming to a close, Johnny Carson would show clips from old broadcasts. One was a comedy sketch where he wore a very elaborate dog costume. After watching the clip, Carson said he had absolutely no recollection of doing that skit or wearing that costume.

After several thousand shows, I'm not surprised. But at the time it struck me as odd, for dressing up as a dog would be something I'd probably remember.

But then I recently got a taste of what Carson meant when I read the results of an interview I did way back last December. On my own, I would have remembered very little of what I said. But there it all was, staring me in the face. There I was, wearing that dog costume that I'd forgotten about.

The interview was conducted by Damon Griffin, a young writer and filmmaker who at the time was working on a book-length project. After a screening of 'The Trail of '98' last December at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library, we walked over to the Red Arrow Diner on Lowell Street and started gabbing about film and music and history.

I'm glad he was there, because he captured two thoughts that I had at the time, but which I'd since forgotten. Not one but two dog costumes here!

Both thoughts were part of a single paragraph in the interview, which went like this: (The "he" is me.)
He looked down at his plate. He scraped some salad around. “It’s like biology,” he said. “We can’t allow one species to go extinct.”

His memory jogged, Jeff sat up. “Actually, filming reality is almost incidental,” he said. “I had the good fortune to live in Tokyo. It was one of the few places where I didn’t know where the ground was. And when a movie denies you that, it’s disorienting. When you watch a great film, you know where the ground is.”
The first point, about extinction, was in answer to this question: Why put time and energy into preserving and showing old film? And the answer I came up with that evening, taken from biology, strikes me as a good one.

Here's the first part: Biologists argue that it's important to keep species from extinction in part because we may have no idea of their future value. Today's snail darter could be tomorrow's cure for cancer.

Ergo: In terms of vintage cinema, we have no idea today how valuable a recorded moving image will have in times to come. Just by accident, an ordinary domestic comedy from the 1920s contains a wealth of information about how people really lived during a certain time: the clothes, the furniture, the front yard, the pets, and so on. Never mind the story: look at the backgrounds!

And imagine how valuable it would be, say, to have the same kind of images from Shakespeare's time. Or during the Crusades. Or from the French Revolution. Or the time of Christ, or the Romans! So even the most worthless Grade Z program-fillers may provide future generations a wealth of information about us in ways that we can't even begin to imagine. But they can't if the films don't exist, and they won't exist if we don't make some kind of effort to keep them unforgotten in our own times.

So there's one reason to support vintage film. Kinda long-winded, but I think it's a worthy perspective that I don't often hear, even among the vintage film community. So thanks to Damon Griffin for reminding me.

The other thought relates to Tokyo. Yes, I lived in Tokyo for a time (working at the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper), and one night I took the subway to the Shibuya area. I thought I was travelling underground, but when I stepped off the train and onto the Shibuya platform, it was actually part of an open-air maze of bridges and platforms extending in all directions.

Below me, another train was pulling into a different station. Looking up, a highway viaduct soared overhead. Stores were below me, a shopping complex was up and to the right, and the local roadways were a nest of ramps and spirals. Where was the actual street level?

What I felt, I think, was something that all humans instinctively crave, as we are all subject to gravity and spend most of our lives walking upright (most of us, anyway) on the surface of our planet. We want to know where the ground is. And we don't realize how much we crave this "anchoring" until the rare moments when it's taken away from us. This is what happened to me, unexpectedly, in Shibuya.

How does this relate to silent film? Well, filmmakers then had little in the way of digital post-production special effects. Instead, if they wanted something to show up in their movie, they had to actually film something real in front of a camera. In the early days, I think this helped establish much of the excitement of the movies: that what you saw on screen actually happened.

In 'The General' (1926), Buster Keaton went to the trouble of dropping an actual steam locomotive through an actual bridge into an actual river. Whatever else you want to say about it, that's an exciting this to watch. And audiences knew it actually happened!

Train + bridge + gravity = excitement.

But now, the amazing flexibility of digital tools mean whole sequences can be constructed on a server with little or nothing actually happening in front of any kind of camera. Even the laws of gravity don't have to be obeyed, as you see in any number of super-hero films in which climactic battles take place with characters able to fly up and down in any direction, without regard to the laws of gravity. They'd be right at home in Shibuya!

This is to take nothing away from all the hard work that goes into creating a modern blockbuster superhit movie. However, the lack of fidelity to reality means the films are not limited to functioning according to the laws of gravity. Yes, this can be liberating. But at the same time, in some ways they don't reflect that age-old desire for people to know where the ground is. And remember, it's something you only really notice when it's missing.

So I think this is something we can learn from older films. Maybe there's a value in building a film out of things that can actually be photographed in front of a camera. Maybe it's an essential element of why people responded to movies so strongly when they were new. I don't know for sure, but I think there's something to this.

So thanks for Damon Griffin for getting not one but two dog costumes in that interview last December. If you'd like to read it in its entirety, it's online at http://lightreade.blogspot.com/p/meet-your-makers.html.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Now appearing at the Leavitt Theatre:
D.W. Griffith and... Gilbert Gottfried!

D.W. Griffith's 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921) and Gilbert Gottfried on the same marquee: a billing not likely to be repeated. Apologies for the time/date stamps on these images.

Three epics in four days has me wiped out. That, plus a nice case of poison ivy and (I kid you not) a sprained left pinkie finger, adds up to one spent accompanist.

But still, the show must go on, and so it did: 'Orphans of the Storm' last Thursday in Maine and then again on Saturday in Vermont, and then the original 'Ben Hur' on Sunday in Massachusetts.And that's following a screening of the Johnny Hines comedy 'Burn 'Em Up Barnes' (1921) in Manchester on the Tuesday before.

One thing I enjoy about playing at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine is that owner Peter Clayton keeps alive many of film exhibitor traditions that were abandoned long ago elsewhere.

Not only does he actively update his marquee, but he goes to the trouble to find and/or reproduce original posters for films, which he then displays on oversized sandwich boards on the sidewalk in front of the lobby. I never expected to see a full-sized poster for 'Orphans of the Storm,' but there it was, out on the sidewalk this past Thursday night, beckoning the curious.

Then there's the cramped ticket booth (visible above), which is straight out of Buster Keaton's film 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924). I've had to man it prior to my own shows, and it's a real throwback to the PDE. (That's "Pre-Digital Era.") Patrons are given numbered tickets, and nightly attendance is tracked by noting the "start" number and the "end" number, and subtracting one from the other.

Last Thursday night, it was nice to return to the theater at 7:30 p.m. (a half-hour before showtime) and find an actual line of people waiting to see D.W. Griffith's French Revolution epic. Because Ogunquit draws a lot of visitors from the French-speaking Canadian provice of Quebec, I had thought the film might resonate as a tribute to Bastille Day (on July 14), but the crowd was more cinema buff than French patriot.

The film takes awhile to get to the events of the actual Revolution, so I paced myself in terms of texture. For the pre-revolutionary action, I stuck with harpsichord settings for the upper class and plain strings for the oppressed. Then, when revolution finally erupts in the streets, the switch to a fuller orchestra palette helped underscore the importance.

This strategy worked well enough for me to repeat it on Saturday night for a screening in Brandon, Vt., another one of my favorite places to do music for silent film. (So is the Somerville Theatre, so it was a good stretch in terms of venues.) Unfortunately, we had to compete with the local bluegrass festival, so attendance was a little off. Next year I'll have to see about doing some kind of co-programming such as 'Tol'able David' (1921) or Harold Lloyd's 'The Kid Brother' (1927).

Sunday's 'Ben Hur' screening was notable in part because we ran a 16mm print of the 1907 Kalem one-reel version prior to the full-length epic. What a vivid way to show how far and fast cinema had come in less than two decades!

For the Kalem version, I used a simple organ setting and just winged it. Then, after speaking a bit to introduce 'Ben Hur,' I sat down and started the music before the lights went down. After a short while, they did, and I deepened the intensity, which seemed really dramatic and effective. Then the curtains parted and the MGM lion appeared (in 35mm), and again I notched things up a bit more.

By the time the 'Ben Hur' title appeared on screen, I had reached a natural peak that to me felt just right and said to the audience: YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEE SOMETHING IMPORTANT. You couldn't ask for a better start to a big epic!

The interior of the Somerville's 'Main House,' where they can still screen 35mm film. I set up my gear in the area just below the stage lip.

For 'Ben Hur,' I have a wide Richard-Strauss-like fanfare figure that I use as a leit motif for Judah, and also for triumph in general. There was also a five-note up-the-scale little motif that was the basis for any music concerning Esther, the main love interest. But other than that, the cupboard was pretty bare going into Sunday's screening, if only for lack of preparation time.

So I was especially blessed when a figure for the Romans (and oppression in general) came to me right at the start, when a title refers to their "clanking" armies. Perfect! And perfectly adaptable—mild for when we first meet Messala, and menacing and soulless for subsequent scenes.

And from those materials I was able to build out a full score that I felt supported the film very well in some scenes. Some of the scenes with Esther worked out particularly well, with the music weaving itself into intensity as things heated up on screen.

Things got a little out of hand during the big sea battle and chariot race—the film's two big showpiece sequences—but that was all part of the excitement, I thought. The area that I should have prepared for a little more was in the synchronization of those big drum beats that drive the galley scenes. They're not steady, and every time you try to match them, by the next cut, you're off. It can be done but it requires a little more familiarity with the scene, I think.

Nice reaction from the crowd, including a silent film newbie who said she never expected it to be so good. Moments like that make this all worthwhile!

Now I just have to rest that left pinkie...

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Coming soon (like this afternoon)...
'Ben Hur' (1925) at the Somerville Theatre

If you're checking out this blog either in advance of or just after the screening of 'Ben Hur' (1925) at the Somerville Theatre, welcome! It's been a busy week for me, so I'm afraid I don't have a lot of specific info about the show or the film other than to say I'm really looking forward to it.

If you're considering joining us today, please do! It's a one-of-a-kind program (including an earlier one-reel version of the story produced in 1907) and a chance to see one of the great films of early cinema on film and on the big screen with live music and an audience -- the way it was intended to be experienced.

And if you've just seen it, thanks for coming and I would love to get your thoughts and opinions on the movie, the music, or the overall experience, thumbs up or down. You can comment on this blog or reach me via e-mail at jeffrapsis@gmail.com. Feedback is really helpful because I often have no idea what it's like out in the audience.

If you're seeking info about additional screenings, just click on "Upcoming Silent Film Screenings" at the upper right, and you'll see a list of my engagements. A simple search online will lead you to many other silent film screenings as well.

For more info about the screening and the film, I'm pasting in the text of the most recent press release that we sent out. Here goes....

* * *
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Somerville Theatre unearths early 1907 15-minute version of 'Ben Hur' story

Ultra-short version, filmed in NYC, to precede screening of epic full-length ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) on Sunday, July 14

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—One of early Hollywood's greatest epics returns to the big screen with a showing of 'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) on Sunday, July 14 at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. The screening, in 35mm with live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, starts at 1 p.m. Admission is $15 per person.

This week, the Somerville announced a special added attraction to the July 14 program. Preceding the blockbuster 1925 version of 'Ben Hur' will be a rare one-reel adaptation produced in 1907 by the Kalem Film Co. of New York City. The earlier version, which runs just 15 minutes, was filmed on location in and around New York City, with Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn substituting for the Holy Land.

The Kalem one-reel edition is highlighted by an early screen appearance of actor William S. Hart, who had toured for many years in a stage version of 'Ben Hur' in the key role of Messala. Hart would later turn his attention full-time to Hollywood, where he pioneered the western genre during the silent era.

The 1907 'Ben Hur' will be shown via a rare 16mm print as a warm-up for the MGM's 1925 version of 'Ben Hur,' which will be screened in 35mm. Live music for both films will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

"This earlier version of 'Ben Hur' is a real find," said Ian Judge, Somerville Theatre manager. "It's very unusual to get a chance to see it on the big screen, and we're thrilled to include it with the MGM version of 'Ben Hur' as part of our 'Silents, Please' series."

The one-reel version of 'Ben Hur' was not without controversy. The film was made without obtaining the rights to the story, the usual procedure in the industry at the time, and Kalem was sued by the estate of author Lew Wallace, who had published the immensely popular 'Ben Hur' novel in 1880.

The parties reached an out-of-court settlement in 1911, in which Kalem paid the estate $25,000—an extremely large amount for the time. The action helped to establish the necessity of film studios obtaining motion picture rights to the properties they used for their stories.

The main attraction for the screening on Sunday, July 14 remains the MGM version of 'Ben Hur,' starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. Among the first motion pictures to tell a Biblical-era story on an enormous scale, the film helped establish MGM as a leading Hollywood studio, employed a cast of thousands and boasted action sequences that included a large-scale sea battle.

The 1925 'Ben Hur' is highlighted by a spell-binding chariot race sequence that broke new ground in film editing and still leaves audiences breathless.

Set in the Holy Land at the time of Christ's birth, 'Ben Hur' tells the story of a Jewish family in Jerusalem whose fortune is confiscated by the Romans and its members jailed. The enslaved family heir, Judah Ben Hur (played by Novarro, a leading silent-era heartthrob) is inspired by encounters with Christ to pursue justice, which leads him to a series of epic adventures in his quest to find his mother and sister and restore his family fortune.

The screening is the latest in the Somerville Theatre's monthly series of silent film screenings. Dubbed 'Silents, Please,' the series aims to showcase the best of early Hollywood the way it was intended to be experienced: in 35mm prints, on the big screen, with live music, and in a theater with an audience.

"Put together those elements, and it's amazing how much power these films still have. You realize why these films caused people to first fall in love with the movies, said accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a full score for the 2½-hour epic.

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created 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.

'Ben Hur,' directed by Fred Niblo, was among the most expensive films of the silent era, taking two years to make and costing between $4 million and $6 million. When released in 1925, it became a huge hit for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.

The film was remade by MGM in the 1950s in a color and wide-screen version starring Charleston Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. Some critics believe the original 1925 version offers superior drama and story-telling. MGM executives at the time, aware of the quality of the original version, attempted to destroy all prints of the 1925 'Ben Hur,' sending the FBI out to confiscate collector copies in the 1950s. However, the studio did preserve the negative of the 1925 version, so the film remains available today.

"We encourage people to attend, as it's a rare chance to see the original 'Ben Hur' from a studio 35mm print," said accompanist Rapsis. "Also, people should come because silent films were communal experience—one in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions. If you've never attended a silent film with live music, this one is worth checking out.”

Upcoming films in the Somerville's silent series include:

• Sunday, Aug. 4, 1 p.m.: 'The General' (1927) starring Buster Keaton. Stone-faced Buster's cinematic masterpiece, set during the U.S. Civil War, finds Keaton playing a Confederate train engineer forced to pursue his locomotive when it's hijacked by Union spies. One of the grandest adventure/comedy films of all time.

• Sunday, Sept. 8, 1 p.m.: 'The Freshman' (1925) starring Harold Lloyd. Get in a back-to-school mood with Lloyd's genre-defining comedy about a young man's climb to social prominence via the college football squad. Great story aided by top-rate silent film comedy.

Both silent version of ‘Ben Hur’ will be shown on Sunday, July 14 at 1 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission is $15 per person. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit http://www.somervilletheatreonline.com.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

And the three best silent films ever made are...

...Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925), Murnau's 'Sunrise' (1927), and D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance' (1916).

Or so sayeth 'Entertainment Weekly' magazine, which this week published a piece headlined "100 Greatest Movies of All Time."

I was glad to see at least a few silents on the list, and with two quite high up: 'Gold Rush' was No. 8, and 'Sunrise' was No. 30. 'Intolerance' placed mid-pack at No. 50, still pretty impressive for a film from 1916 and the oldest flick on the list.

Three out of 100 ain't too bad in a pop culture magazine survey that I expected to be loaded up with films from the past 20 years. It was actually a good, well-rounded mix of films from all eras of cinema, and had room for 'ferrin' films, too.

A college friend of mine, a classic film buff who now teaches philosophy, despairs of talking cinema with students today because many believe that movies started with 'Star Wars' (1977), and that anything prior to that is not to be taken seriously, especially if it's in black and white.

I'm not sure how widespread that attitude is. My own encounters with college students (I teach writing at the University of New Hampshire) has found them a little more well rounded and open-minded as well. Still, people of any age won't develop an interest in past cinema if they never have a chance to be exposed to it.

That's what happened with me, courtesy a junior high music teacher who would bring in 16mm prints of the Chaplin Mutuals and run them during study hall. And I hope the same thing happens at some of the screenings I do here and there.

And of course it helps when a mainstream magazine like Entertainment Weekly includes silent films and other classics in its surveys. Bravo to them!

Here's a link to the results online: http://www.filmsite.org/ew100-2013.html. Apparently there's been some shifting around of silents over the years, with 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925) and 'Nosferatu' (1922) having appeared in prior years.

Okay, after a lull, it's back to the keyboard this week with four screenings in four states in six days. On the calendar:

• Tuesday, July 9, 6 p.m.: 'Burn 'Em Up Barnes' (1921), a Johnny Hines comedy at the Manchester City Library in Manchester, N.H.

• Thursday, July 11, 8 p.m.: 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), D.W. Griffith's French Revolution epic starring the Gish sisters, at the Leavitt Theater in Ogunquit, Maine.

• Saturday, July 13, 7 p.m.: 'Orphans of the Storm' again, this time at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center in Brandon, Vt.

• Sunday, July 14, 1 p.m.: 'Ben Hur' (1925), the big epic on the big screen in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Detailed info about each screening can be found on the "Upcoming Screeenings" page. Just click on the link at the upper right of this page.

Me, I'm excited by all of them. 'Burn 'Em Up Barnes' is a follow-up to another Johnny Hines comedy, 'Conductor 1492' (1924), which got big laughs when we ran it this past March to mark St. Patrick's Day. We'll see if Hines was a flash in the pan or if he has any staying power with 21st century audiences.

'Orphans of the Storm' is a Griffith epic that you simply must experience with an audience and in a theater to get the full impact of Griffith's story-telling abilities. No one knew better how to structure a story to stir up a crowd, and for sheer excitement, the race-to-the-guillotine finish of 'Orphans' rivals the climaxes of 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Way Down East' (1920).

And with 'Ben Hur' (1925), not only will it be a great to see it in 35mm on the Somerville's big screen, but as a prelude we're also running a 16mm print of the 1907 Kalem version of 'Ben Hur.' It runs all of one reel and features parts of Brooklyn as the Holy Land.

Well, to some Dodgers fans, Brooklyn still is the Holy Land.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The 'Perception Gap' shows up during
a screening of 'Yankee Clipper' in Wilton, N.H.

Long before he played Hopalong Cassidy, actor William Boyd (far right) played leading roles such as Captain Hal Winslow in 'The Yankee Clipper.'

Good turnout last Sunday (June 30th) for the first in our series of nautical silent film adventures at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre this summer. About 80 people were on deck to take in 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927), a fun high seas adventure with two local connections.

Local Connection No. 1: The film centered on a race between two 1840s clipper sailing ships from China to Boston, which is our big city here in New England. (Modest local nickname: 'The Hub of the Universe.')

Local Connection no. 2: Playing 'Portugese Joe' was none other than character actor Walter Long, who is a native of Milford, N.H., the town right next to Wilton.

I actually forgot to say anything about the Walter Long connection before the movie, so it was only afterwards that I mentioned he was a local boy. It was enough to earn Walter Long a healthy round of applause!

And afterwards, I was approached by two women who wanted to talk more about Long. One of them was a member of the Fitch family, which has run a dairy farm at "Fitch's Corner" in Milford since probably about the mid 18th century.

The gals thought they might have known Long's family. But I had the sad task of informing them that Dave Stevenson, noted film archivist in Manchester, N.H., had already probed the town records following the year of Walter's birth (1879), and apparently the family was only in town a short while before moving on to who-knows-where.

And that was that, although I'd love to hear from people who might have some knowledge of the family. In the years I've been doing silent film in this part of the world, among the people who've turned up at screenings were director William Wellman's daughter (a New Hampshire resident), a guy who appeared on stage with Gloria Swanson in the 1970s, the niece of pop-eyed Hal Roach comic Jimmy Finlayson, and a woman who claimed to be the daughter of Jackie Coogan's stunt double in 'The Kid' (1921).

There was no way to prove or disprove this last claim, but she earned a round of applause, too.

So if you know about Walter Long's New Hampshire origins, please be in touch. Right now, the Long story is pretty short.

And geez, just now I went and looked at Wikipedia, and it has Walter Long being born in Nashua, N.H., a mill city a bit further east.

As for the music: I had trouble settling into 'Yankee Clipper' in part due to external factors. On the drive to the theater, I got a phone call with news that a long-time friend's mother had just passed away. And while mowing the lawn the day before, I had jammed my right thumb onto a twig, embedding a painful splinter deep under the skin. Ouch! Also, I had hoped to preview the film at least one more time in order to arrange for some exotic settings for some of the sequences in China, but it didn't happen.

So I was a little distracted going in, and showing Buster Keaton's excellent comedy short 'The Boat' (1921) didn't help. I don't know what it is about that Keaton short, but it never gets the laughs I think it should. And that always throws me a bit, further destabilizing my frame of mind going into the main feature.

For 'Yankee Clipper,' I had what a thought was a sturdy 6/8 "nautical" tune that could really anchor (har!) the score. But every time I launched the theme, it never seem to go anywhere and didn't seem to fit the picture very well, either. I did finally produce some effective music during the shipboard scenes: nice rolling arpeggios underneath sustained notes that cycled through patterns that worked well with the on-screen intrigue.

But things got really loose and sloppy during the big storm scene that followed, and the score never seemed to jell after that. I did the best I could to create some excitement during several action sequences that followed. But as the film headed for the conclusion, I was far from satisfied.

What I thought was an uneven performance met with a nice round of applause, but then the house lights failed to come up. It was just one of those afternoons, I guess.

So I wasn't prepared when several people, including some first-timers, to come up afterwards and rave about the score and how it brought the movie to life. Really? I was gratified to hear this, of course, and thanked them for their kind comments. I've learned to refrain from bringing up what I happen to think, as it often doesn't correspond to the impression that an audience takes away.

This happens often enough for me to have a name for it: I call it the "perception gap." Maybe I'm too close to the music, or perhaps too aware of what I'd hoped to do instead of what I just did. But it's often the case that people say they've really enjoyed something that I thought was clearly sub-par.

Well, it goes back to cardinal rule of showbiz: Never apologize. And so far, no one has thrown anything, so I take that as a good sign.

Next up: a screening of a rare Johnny Hines comedy, 'Burn 'Em Up Barnes' (1921) at the Manchester City Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H. on Tuesday, July 9 at 6:30 p.m. Admission free. Hope to see you there!