Friday, August 2, 2013

This weekend: W.C. Fields in Brandon, Vt.
and Keaton's 'The General' in Somerville, Mass.

Sometimes I feel like I'm in that children's book, "Country Mouse, City Mouse." On Saturday, I go way up to rural Brandon, Vermont to do music for a screening of 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), a silent film that stars W.C. Fields. Then, the next day, it's down to big bad Boston for a screening of Buster Keaton's 'The General' in 35mm at the Somerville Theater.

And if I had to choose which one I'm looking forward to more, I really couldn't.

The Vermont screening of 'Sally of the Sawdust' will be in town hall with wonderful acoustics, and we usually get a large and very appreciative audience right from within the small community. I feel very much at home there and find it's a place where I have a pretty high batting average. Plus it's nice to make the drive through rural New England in mid-summer, with the corn coming in and the Red Sox game on AM radio.

The screening of 'The General' in Somerville, Mass. will happen under completely different circumstances: in an actual movie theater with a huge screen, with first class 35mm film projection, and in the middle of one of the most congested urban areas in our part of the world. The audience will come from around the metro area, and will include a high proportion of students of cinema, both young and not-so-young.

Country or city? I guess I'm blessed that I don't have to choose, but get to experience them both. And so can you: W.C. Fields in rural Vermont on Saturday, Aug. 3 and then Buster Keaton in the big city on Sunday, Aug. 4. I'm pasting in the text of the respective press releases below, but they both promise to be excellent silent film programs, so hope to see you there!

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall to screen rare silent film starring comic icon W.C. Fields

'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), comedy/drama on tap for Saturday, Aug. 3, shows legendary comedian in earlier prime

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

See the non-talking W.C. Fields for yourself in 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), one of Fields' most popular silent pictures, in a screening on Saturday, Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7 in Brandon, Vt.

Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of Brandon Town Hall.

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

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

In 1925's 'Sally of the Sawdust,' Fields plays Professor Eustache McGargle, a good-natured circus juggler and con man who finds himself responsible for Sally (Carol Dempster), an orphaned girl whose mother has died. Raised by McGargle, Sally grows up to become a popular performer in the rough-and-tumble world of the circus. But when the show arrives in the town where her mother's relatives now live, Sally is forced to choose between the man who raised her and the wealthy family that wants to reclaim her as their own.

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

 W.C.Fields and Carol Dempster in 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925).

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

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

The screening of 'Sally of the Sawdust' is sponsored by by Lorraine and Warren Kimble; Frank and Ettie Spezzaro; and Terry and Dottie Kline.

The Brandon Town Hall's silent film series aims to recreate the full silent film experience, with restored prints projected on the big screen, live music, and the presence of an audience. All these elements are essential to seeing silent films they way they were intended, Rapsis said.

"If you can put it all together again, these films still contain a tremendous amount of excitement," Rapsis said. "By staging these screenings of features from Hollywood's early days, you can see why people first fell in love with the movies."

Music is a key element of each silent film screening, Rapsis said. Silent movies were never shown in silence, but were accompanied by live music made right in each theater. Most films were not released with official scores, so it was up to local musicians to provide the soundtrack, which could vary greatly from theater to theater.

"Because there's no set soundtrack for most silent films, musicians are free to create new music as they see fit, even today," Rapsis said. "In bringing a film to life, I try to create original 'movie score' music that sounds like what you might expect in a theater today, which helps bridge the gap between today's audiences and silent films that are in some cases nearly 100 years old."

Other upcoming features in the Brandon Town Hall's silent film series include:

• Saturday, Sept. 14, 7 p.m.: "Lloyd and Keaton: Silent Comedy Double Feature." In 'Dr. Jack' (1922), Harold Lloyd stars as a country doctor with unorthodox methods that get results! But now comes his toughest case yet: a poor little rich girl (Mildred Davis), bed-ridden with a mysterious condition. Harold's cure is sure to make audiences smile! In 'Seven Chances' (1925), Buster will inherit a fortune provided he's a married 7 p.m. today! Classic Keaton comedy, complete with one of the best silent film comedy endings ever. Screening sponsored by Pam and Steve Douglass.

• Saturday, Oct. 19, 7 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922). The annual "Chiller Theater" presentation in the as-yet-unheated Brandon Town Hall. Just in time for Halloween, see the original silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous 'Dracula' story. Still scary after all these years—in fact, some critics believe this version is not only the best ever done, but has actually become creepier with the passage of time. See for yourself, if you dare! Screening sponsored by Heritage Family Credit Union.

The next installment in the Brandon Town Hall's silent film series will be 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), to be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Saturday, Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7 in Brandon, Vt. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of the town hall. For more information, visit For more info on the music, visit

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

Silent film classic 'The General' in 35mm on Sunday, Aug. 4 in Somerville, Mass.

Buster Keaton's comic masterpiece to be screened with live music at historic Somerville Theatre

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

See for yourself with a screening of 'The General' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark features, on Sunday, Aug. 4 at 1 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

'The General' will be screened in 35mm film in the Somerville's main house. The program will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $15 per person.

'The General,' set during the U.S. Civil War, tells the story of a southern locomotive engineer (Keaton) whose engine (named 'The General') is hijacked by Northern spies with his girlfriend onboard. Keaton, stealing another train, races north in pursuit behind enemy lines. Can he rescue his girl? And can he steal his locomotive and make it back to warn of a coming Northern attack?

Although the film includes vivid and realistic battle scenes, 'The General' is family entertainment suitable for all viewers, with the exception of very young children.

Critics have hailed 'The General' Keaton's masterpiece, praising its authentic period detail, ambitious action and battle sequences, and its overall integration of story, drama, and comedy. It's also regarded as one of Hollywood great train films, with much of the action occurring on or around moving steam locomotives.

The screening is the latest in the Somerville Theatre's monthly 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.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who improvise the score on the spot as the films screens. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in surprising ways that can still move audiences today."

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

Buster and his mechanical co-star in 'The General' (1926).

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

While making films, Keaton never thought of himself as an artist, but rather as an entertainer trying to use the then-new art of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do stunts at an early age.

A skilled pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts, including all those in 'The General.'

Critics review 'The General':

"The most insistently moving picture ever made, its climax is the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy.”
—Walter Kerr

"An almost perfect entertainment!"
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

"What makes the film so special is the way the timing, audacity and elegant choreography of its sight gags, acrobatics, pratfalls and dramatic incidents is matched by Buster’s directorial artistry, his acute observational skills working alongside the physical √©lan and sweet subtlety of his own performance."
—Time Out (London)

Upcoming films in the Somerville's 'Silents Please' series include:

• 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.

• Sunday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m.: 'Safety Last' (1923) starring Harold Lloyd. Landmark comic romp that finds go-getter Harold, eager to climb the corporate ladder, instead forced to clamber up the exterior of a towering downtown department store. Hilarious as well as terrifying; one of the great thrill rides of the cinema.

• Sunday, Nov. 17, 1 p.m.: 'Peter Pan' (1924) starring Mary Brian, Betty Bronson, Ernest Torrence. Original silent film adaptation of J.M. Barrie's stage classic, supervised by the author himself, retains its appeal to children of all ages, especially ones who refuse to grow up. Heartfelt acting, imaginative set design, and pioneering special effects combine to create pure visual magic.

Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926) will be shown in 35mm on Sunday, Aug. 4 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

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