Monday, April 21, 2014

Saturday, April 26 at Magdalen College:
A Buster Keaton double feature!

Buster Keaton hangs around with co-star Ernest Torrence in 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), to be shown on Saturday, April 26 at 8 p.m. at Magalen College in Warner, N.H.

Besides the usual round of press releases, I sent out notices to 60 different churches around Concord, N.H., but turnout for our screening of 'King of Kings' (1927) on Good Friday amounted to just 17 people. Hey, what's wrong with you church people? Where are your priorities?

Well, in retrospect, maybe it just wasn't the smartest idea to program a film about the final days of Jesus on what is one of the most solemn days of the Christian calendar. I thought it was, and so did the folks at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., where we screened 'King of Kings' in one of the facility's two large theaters rather than the small screening room where most silents run.

I'll try to resurrect attendance this weekend at Magdalen College, a small liberal arts school up above Warner, N.H. We're doing a Buster Keaton program on Saturday, April 26 at 8 p.m., and the public is welcome. For more details, see the press release below.

And the next day, I'm doing a film that's new to me: the early Fritz Lang fantasy 'Destiny' (1921). It'll run on Sunday, April 27 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. I'm developing new material for this one, as it's unusual enough to merit special attention, and I plan to push the digital synthesizer in some unusual directions.

For now, here's the press release for the Keaton program this weekend at Magdalen College. Come one, come all!

* * *

Buster Keaton's 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) is the featured attraction at Magdalen College in Warner, N.H. on Saturday, April 26 at 8 p.m.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent comedy 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' to be shown
at Magdalen College on Saturday, April 26

Buster Keaton masterpiece to be screened with live music in Warner, N.H.; show open to public

WARNER, N.H.—Silent film with live music returns to the College of Saint Mary Magdalen this month with 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), a classic comedy starring Buster Keaton, one of era's top performers. 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will be revived for one showing only at the college on Saturday, April 26 at 8 p.m.

The screening will allow attendees to experience silent film in the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience. The show is free to Magdalen College students and faculty; admission for the general public is $5 per person at the door.

In 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' Buster plays the bumbling son of a riverboat’s rough captain. When a rival brings a newer boat to the river, the family is forced to face competition, just as Buster is forced to ride out a cyclone threatening to destroy the community. Can Buster save the day and win the hand of his girlfriend, who happens to be daughter of his father's business rival?

The film includes the famous shot of an entire building front collapsing on Keaton, who is miraculously spared by a conveniently placed second-story window.

'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will be proceeded by Keaton's 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924), a shorter film that finds Buster as a movie projectionist and would-be detective who dreams himself into the whodunnit currently playing in the theater where he works.

The silent film presentation at Magdalen College aimes to recreate the era before movies were made with synchronized soundtracks. From about 1900 to 1929, films had no dialogue or recorded soundtracks. Instead, they were accompanied by live music at theaters across the country to around the world. Accompaniment could range from a small ensemble or just a single piano in small towns to full orchestras in big city theaters.

The screening of 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' and 'Sherlock Jr.' will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

Rapsis will create the accompaniment on the spot, making up the music as the movie unfolds to enhance the action on the screen as well respond to audience reactions. He will perform the music on a digital synthesizer, which is capable of producing a wide range of theatre organ and orchestral textures.

"Live music was an integral part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "Because most films at the time weren't released with sheet music or scores, studios depended on local musicians to come up with an effective score that was different in every theater. At its best, this approach created an energy and a connection that added a great deal to a film's impact. That's what I try to recreate," Rapsis said.

Keaton, who grew up performing with the family vaudeville act, was known for never smiling on camera, an important element of his comic identity. A trained acrobat who learned at an early age how to take a fall, Keaton did all his own stunts on camera in the era before post-production special effects.

Critics continue to hail Keaton’s timeless comedy as well as his intuitive filmmaking genius. In 2002, Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton that “in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.”

Keaton, who never attended school, did not think of himself as an artist but as an entertainer using the new medium of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

'Steamboat Bill Jr.' and 'Sherlock Jr.' will be screened on Saturday, April 26 at 8 p.m. at The College of Saint Mary Magdalen, 511 Kearsarge Mountain Road, Warner, N.H. The show is free to Magdalen College students and faculty; admission for the general public is $5 per person at the door. For more info on the music, visit

Friday, April 11, 2014

Adding trombone to 'Our Hospitality'
Plus, 'King of Kings' on Good Friday, April 18

Buster in town after his train journey in 'Our Hospitality.'

At last night's screening of 'Our Hospitality' (1923), I tried something different.

This great Buster Keaton film (one of his best, I think) has an extended sequence on a period-authentic railroad train of the 1830s.

The train's staff includes a top-hatted conductor who sits high atop the last coach. He's equipped with an oversized horn to signal the engineer out in front when needed.

The horn, like so many props in Keaton's films, becomes an object of comedy as the journey progresses, serving to punctuate several disasters that occur en route.

But in such a visually rich sequence, I've always felt the horn gets a little lost in the shuffle.

So, prior to last night's screening at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., I got my old trombone out of the garage, literally dusted it off, and prepared to use it for the "horn" sound during the train sequence.

Which is what I did.

Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaat  Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!

One side effect of this kind of musical multi-tasking is that it forced me to use only my left hand on the keyboard for much of the train scenes. The other hand was needed to hold and manipulate the trombone.

But this turned out to be an advantage, I think, because it prevented me from over-playing during this sequence, which takes place very near the film's opening.

The trombone sound seemed a little harsh and out of place to me—so much so that it risked taking attention away from the film, I thought, rather than pointing up the comedy.

Also, I hit all the cues (six times) in the outbound journey, but I'd forgotten the horn gets blown one more time later in the film and so wasn't ready for that one. Oops!

Afterward, I asked the audience of about 50 folks if it worked, and was surprised to get a resounding YES!

So I'll keep the horn for future screenings, and try to remember that seventh time.

Looking ahead: I also tried something different for a screening of Cecil B. DeMille's epic 'King of Kings' (1927) set for Friday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

The film depicts the last days of Jesus, so I figured it would be appropriate to show it on Good Friday.

But here's where the "something different" comes in. To promote it, I didn't just send out the usual press release to the usual suspects.

I also snail-mailed the release and a cover letter to 60 different churches in or around the Concord area. I pitched the screening as a fresh perspective on the Jesus story as told by Hollywood filmmakers from another era. It's a sermon topic, a great night at the movies, an uplifting experience, and teachable moment all in one! (Well, at 2½ hours, it's hardly a moment.)

I don't know if this hucksterism will result in more attendance, or get me struck down by a bolt of lightning.

But I had to do something because we're running 'King of Kings' in one of Red River's big theaters (instead of the much-smaller screening room, which accomodates 50 people at most) and so I need to fill seats. So come one and come all!

For more info, here's the text of the press release below.

* * *

Jesus presides over the Last Supper in 'King of Kings.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'King of Kings’ to be screened with live music on Friday, April 18 at Red River Theatres

The perfect prelude to Easter: 1927's silent film Biblical blockbuster about the life of Jesus features cast of thousands, giant earthquake

CONCORD, N.H.—It was the original big-screen blockbuster, an epic movie on a grand scale depicting the greatest story of all: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and featuring a cast of thousands, ‘The King of Kings’ (1927) stands as one of the sensations of Hollywood’s early days.

In honor of this year’s Easter season, a restored print of ‘The King of Kings’ will be screened with live music on Friday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

The screening is a chance to experience this landmark film as it was intended to be seen: in a high quality print on the big screen, with live music and with an audience. The screening will take place in the theater's Stonyfield Culture Cinema.

Tickets are $10 per person.

As a movie, ‘The King of Kings’ was designed to push the limits of Hollywood story-telling. Director DeMille, already famous for over-the-top historical epics such as the original ‘Ten Commandments’ (1923), demanded and got a then-astronomical budget of $2 million, which he used to construct massive sets, hire thousands of extras, and stage an enormous earthquake at the film’s climax.

“The monumental devastation unleashed by Christ’s crucifixion dwarfs even the cataclysmic Holy Grail finale of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,’ ” wrote film historian Charles Musser in 1992, observing that “raw material and non-union labor gave more bang for the buck in 1927.”

The film was considered daring as the first mainstream Hollywood picture to depict the actions and life of Jesus on-screen in great detail, paving the way for future generations of filmmakers.

Although the movie’s title cards quote directly from scripture, ‘The King of Kings’ was not a scholarly depiction of scenes from the Bible. Rather, it was created to emphasize drama and conflict, prompting DeMille to change many aspects of the story as traditionally related in the New Testament Gospels. DeMille even spiced things up by including teams of zebras and other exotic non-native creatures in the film.

Because of this, 'The King of Kings' was regarded as blasphemous by some, and proved “as controversial in its day as Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ was in 1988,” Musser wrote. “Although DeMille made his film under the pious supervision of clergy, he managed to titillate audiences with the same heady mixture of sex and moralism that had made...earlier films so successful.”

In just one example, DeMille opens the film with the character of Mary Magdalene leading an orgy, though she is quickly rescued from debauchery by an encounter with Jesus.

Outrage or not, audiences flocked to the 2½-hour epic, which was released in May 1927 and quickly broke box office records for attendance in the U.S. and around the globe. Audiences regarded it as grand entertainment.

The cast included early Hollywood star H.B. Warner as Jesus Christ, winning plaudits for his portrayal of the lead role. (Warner’s later roles included druggist Mr. Gower in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’) Playing Peter is character actor Ernest Torrence, famous as Captain Hook in the original version of ‘Peter Pan’ (1924); the role of Judas is acted by Joseph Schildkraut, already a Hollywood veteran who later went on to play Nicodemus in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ (1965), a much-later Hollywood epic on the same topic.

‘The King of Kings’ was also noted for technical breakthroughs. It featured state-of-the-art movie lighting techniques, including a glowing halo that surrounded Christ whenever he appears on screen. ‘The King of Kings’ was also among the first mainstream Hollywood pictures to use color in several sequences.

To enhance the film’s spiritual underpinnings, during production DeMille arranged for a Catholic Mass to be celebrated each morning before shooting started. In a publicity ploy, DeMille also made his stars enter contracts that prevented them from doing anything “unbiblical” for a five-year period; prohibited activities included attending ball games, playing cards, frequenting night clubs, swimming, and riding in convertibles.

The film’s sets ended up being so massive that they simply weren’t torn down, and so wound up appearing in several other pictures. A giant gate built for ‘The King of Kings’ was later used in 1933’s ‘King Kong.’ Some of the original sets were finally lit ablaze in 1939 for the burning of Atlanta in ‘Gone with the Wind.’

Critics remain impressed by the film’s epic sweep, although they often dismiss how DeMille pandered to a mass audience. “It’s a stupendous exhibition by any standard, though you can practically smell the sawdust and greasepaint,” wrote critic Peter Matthews in 2004. “Despite the baloney (or because of it), ‘The King of Kings’ captures the fervor of na├»ve devotion. On that level, the movie is a genuinely uplifting experience,” Matthews wrote.

'King of Kings' will be screened with live music performed by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Rapsis, who uses original themes to improvise silent film scores, said great silent film dramas such as 'King of Kings' used their lack of dialogue to create stories that concentrated on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them today, especially if they're presented as intended — with a live audience and live music.

"Dramas such as 'King of Kings' were created to be shown on the big screen as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life as their creators intended them to," he said.

Red River Theatres, an independent cinema, is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to screening a diverse program of first-run independent films, cult favorites, classics, local and regional film projects, and foreign films. The member-supported theater’s mission is to present film and the discussion of film as a way to entertain, broaden horizons and deepen appreciation of life for New Hampshire audiences of all ages.

Red River Theatres includes silent film in its programming to give today's audiences a chance to experience the great films of cinema's early years as they were intended: in restored prints, on the big screen, and with live music and an audience.

Upcoming events in Red River's silent film program include:

• Friday, June 13 at 7 p.m.: 'The Iron Horse' (1924). A young John Ford directed this big movie on a big subject: the building of the Transcontinental Railroad following the Civil War. Epic film weaves together several narratives and includes parts for everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Buffalo Bill. Plus great western action sequences that set new standards for cinema!

• Friday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m.: 'The Last Command' (1928). Emil Jannings snagged the first-ever Best Actor Academy Award for his towering portrayal of a Czarist general and patriot forced to contend with the Russian Revolution in this sweeping late silent drama directed by Josef von Sternberg. One of early Hollywood's most creative and challenging looks at World War I.

'King of Kings' will be shown on Friday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 224-4600 or visit For more information about the music, visit

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Coming on Thursday, April 10:
Buster Keaton in 'Our Hospitality' (1923)

Buster doesn't quite fit his steed in this posed still from 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

Next up: a screening of Buster Keaton's miraculous 'Our Hospitality' (1923) on Thursday, April 10 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. Showtime is 6:30 p.m.; tickets are $10. More info in the press release below.

But wait. Why miraculous?

Yes, it's funny. Yes, it holds up well today. But how can a silent comedy film be considered miraculous?

It is, in terms of Buster's rapid growth as a filmmaker. Prior to 'Our Hospitality,' he and his team were producing superb two-reel (20-minute) comedies that are great in their own right and helped cement Buster's reputation as one of top bananas of the silent era.

But a two-reel comedy is one thing, and a full-length feature quite another.

In a short comedy, it can be anything for a laugh, which is a direction Buster often takes in his two-reelers.

But a feature film requires story, character, setting, and so many other elements for it to hold an audience's attention. It's a whole different kettle of fish, or can of film, if you will.

And the miracle is that Buster was able to make the leap so effortlessly from knockabout comedies and all at once to the fully-formed feature film world of 'Our Hospitality,' with its vastly expanded demands and requirements and ways of laying out a story and engaging an audience.

I think it's one of the great transformations in cinema history, and maybe art in general. In just a few years, Keaton went from Fatty Arbuckle's pupil to a highly personal comic style of his own. And then, after just a few years on his own, he catapulted himself into the rankers of the era's great makers of full-length films — starting with 'Our Hospitality.'

There's so much more to say about this film, but there's a time and a place. For now, if you'd like to get into 'Our Hospitality' more, let me point you to a great essay on the picture by Jim Emerson, with plenty of links to follow.

If you just want more details about this week's screening, here's the text of the press release. Hope to see you in Plymouth!

Keaton gets musical with then-wife and co-star Natalie Talmadge in 'Our Hospitality.'

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'Our Hospitality' silent film comedy
Thursday, April 10 at Flying Monkey

Classic Buster Keaton feature-length comedy to be screened on the big screen with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—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 admired for their realistic stories and authentic location shots, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Our Hospitality' (1923), one of Keaton's landmark features, at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center on Thursday, April 10 at 6:30 p.m. The program, the latest in the theater's silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

In reviving the Keaton comedy, the Flying Monkey aims to show silent movies 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 will improvise scores on the spot for each film. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life. They 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.

'Our Hospitality,' a period comedy set in the 1830s, tells the story of a young man (Keaton) raised in New York City but unknowingly at the center of a long-running backwoods family feud. Highlights of the picture include Keaton's extended journey on a vintage train of the era, as well as a dramatic river rescue scene that climaxes the film. The film stars Keaton's then-wife, Natalie Talmadge, as his on-screen love interest; their first child, newborn James Talmadge Keaton, makes a cameo appearance, playing Buster as an infant. Keaton's father also plays a role in the film.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard him 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 didn't think he was an artist, but merely an entertainer trying to use the then-new art of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

Engineer Joe Keaton (Buster's father) mans the primitive locomotive in 'Our Hospitality.'

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 acrobatic stunts at an early age. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.

An entirely intuitive performer, Keaton entered films in 1917 and was quickly fascinated with them. After apprenticing with popular comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Keaton went on to set up his own studio in 1920, making short comedies that established him as a one of the era's leading talents. A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

In 1923, Keaton made the leap into full-length films with 'Our Hospitality,' which proved popular enough for him to continue making features for the rest of the silent era. Although not all of Keaton's films were box office successes, critics later expressed astonishment at the sudden leap Keaton made from short comedies to the complex story and technical demands required for full-length features.

The Flying Monkey usually shows silent films on the second Thursday of each month. Other upcoming films in the Flying Monkey's silent series include:

• Thursday, May 8, 6:30 p.m.: 'Intolerance' (1916). D.W. Griffith's early blockbuster about man's inhumanity to man weaves together four stories spanning four eras of civilization. Filmed an a vast scale, setting a new standard for Hollywood extravagance.

• Thursday, June 12, 6:30 p.m.: "Metropolis" (1927). German director Fritz Lang's amazing epic about a futuristic society where an educated elite enjoys life in a glittering city, all supported by colonies of workers forced to live deep underground. A film that set new standards for visual design and changed movies forever!

‘Our Hospitality’ will be shown on Thursday, April 10 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. For more information about the music, visit

Friday, April 4, 2014

The calm before the storm:
Only a few screenings this month

Buster Keaton prior to the cyclone that concludes 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928).

The month of April, 2014 won't break any records in terms of the number of silent film screenings I do.

Only a handful of events beckon, although they're all worthy films that I'm looking forward to accompanying. I've listed them below for easy reference.

But I'm glad for a slightly relaxed pace this month, as things will start to pick up in May, and then get downright crazy after Memorial Day.

Get this: in June, we're restarting monthly silent film programs (in 35mm) at the wonderful Somerville Theater in Somerville, Mass.

Also, I'll be back to doing monthly screenings up in Brandon, Vt. for the summer season.

On top of that, I'm scheduled for two shows a month at the historic Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine in a series that runs through the Labor Day.

And then, for a special series featuring the great animal stars of the silent film era, we're ramping things up to two shows each month at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

All that adds up to a lot of film.

So I'm taking the time now to work on some keyboard technique, and to develop fresh material that I can use for this summer's glut of screenings.

Ultimately, I'd like to see if I can create a new round of music that pushes my personal vocabulary for acccompaniment to a new level of fluency.

And the only way I know how to do that is how Harold Lloyd used to turn out one-reelers: do it often enough so you can find out what really works, and have it sink into your bones.

So get set for a quiet April, but an exciting time after that.

For now, here's a quick roundup of upcoming screenings to help all of us take care of any needed silent film fixes...

Buster Keaton in 'Our Hospitality' (1923), to be screened on Thursday, April 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

• Thursday, April 10, 2014, 6:30 p.m.: "Our Hospitality" (1923); The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; Buster Keaton's classic comedy/drama about a long-running family feud. Filled with great gags and a timeless story that culminates in a dramatic river rescue where Buster almost lost his life for real! Part of a monthly silent film series at a newly restored moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Admission, $10 per person.

• Friday, April 18, 2014, 7 p.m.: "King of Kings" (1927); Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.; (603) 224-4600; Celebrate Easter weekend with Cecil B. DeMille's legendary adaptation of the story of Christ. An epic movie that served as a model for dozens of Biblical blockbusters to come. Silent film with live music at this popular venue for independent and arthouse cinema in New Hampshire's state capital. Admission $10 per person.

• Saturday, April 26, 2014, 8 p.m. "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928) starring Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence; The College of Saint Mary Magdalen, 511 Kearsarge Mountain Road, Warner, N.H. Silent film program on the campus of Magdalen College. Pampered Buster returns home from college to help his father, a tough riverboat captain, battle to save the business; falling for the archrival's daughter doesn't make things easier. Climaxed by an eye-popping cyclone sequence. Plus companion feature 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) starring Keaton as a movie projectionist and would-be detective who dreams himself into an on-screen whodunnit. Admission is free for Magdalen students and any others with college ID; general public admission is $5 per person.

• Sunday, April 27, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: "Destiny"(1921): Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Years before his classic 'Metropolis,' German director Fritz Lang brought this ground-breaking expressionist fantasy to the big screen. A strange tale in which human lives are each represented by a candle, and a figure representing 'Death' grants a woman three chances to rescue her lover from a premature demise. Part of a monthly silent film series with live music at a theater where movies have been shown since 1912! Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged.