Monday, May 26, 2014

Coming up: Two screenings of 'Metropolis,'
in Maine on 6/5 and in N.H. on 6/12

It's back to the future with two screenings of the great sci-fi fantasy 'Metropolis' (1927) coming up in the next couple of weeks.

One is on Thursday, June 5 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine. The other is on Thursday, June 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

If you've never seen this film in a theater with live music and with an audience, then you've got at least two chances in June.

In terms of the music, because 'Metropolis' has a sci-fi vibe to it, I allow myself to go a little wild. By that, I mean augment the traditional orchestra sound I usually use with some special effects the synthesizer can do.

I'll post more on this as we get closer to the showdate. For now, here's the press release from the Leavitt Theatre screening (which comes first) to give you more info. Hope to see you there!

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Mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) introduces his "Machine Man" to industrialist Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel).

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Leavitt Theatre to screen restored 'Metropolis' on Thursday, June 5

Landmark early sci-fi fantasy movie, with half-hour of rediscovered footage, to be shown with live music

OGUNQUIT, Maine—A silent film hailed as the grandfather of all science fiction fantasy movies will be screened with live music on Thursday, June 5 at 8 p.m at the Leavitt Theatre in downtown Ogunquit. Admission is $10 per person.

The screening is opening night of the Leavitt Theatre's summer-long silent film series, which aims to show the best of early cinema the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

Music for 'Metropolis' will be performed live by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer and one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.

'Metropolis' (1927), regarded as German director Fritz Lang's masterpiece, is set in a futuristic city where a privileged elite pursue lives of leisure while the masses toil on vast machines and live deep underground.

The film, with its visions of futuristic factories and flying cars, set new standards for visual design and inspired generations of dystopian fantasies from Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' to Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil.'

The story centers on an upper class young man who falls in love with a woman who works with the poor, and encompasses mad scientists, human-like robots, underground spiritual movements, and industrial espionage, all set in a society divided between haves and have-nots.

The version of 'Metropolis' to be screened at the Leavitt Theatre is a newly restored edition that includes nearly a half-hour of missing footage cut following the film's premiere in 1927. The footage, discovered in 2008 in an archive in Argentina, has since been added to the existing 'Metropolis,' allowing plot threads and characters to be developed more fully.

When first screened in Berlin, Germany on Jan. 10, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes. After its premiere, the film's distributors (including Paramount in the U.S.) drastically shortened 'Metropolis' to maximize the film's commercial potential. By the time it debuted in the U.S. later that year, the film ran about 90 minutes.

Even in its shortened form, 'Metropolis' became a cornerstone of science fiction cinema. Due to its enduring popularity, the film has undergone numerous restorations in the intervening decades in attempts to recover Lang's original vision.

In 1984, the film was reissued with additional footage, color tints, and a pop rock score (but with many of its intertitles removed) by music producer Giorgio Moroder. A more archival restoration was completed in 1987, under the direction of Enno Patalas of the Munich Film Archive, in which missing scenes were represented with title cards and still photographs. More recently, a 2001 restoration combined footage from four archives and ran at a triumphant 124 minutes.

It was widely believed that this would be the most complete version of Lang's film that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see. But, in the summer of 2008, the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine discovered a 16mm dupe negative of 'Metropolis' that was considerably longer than any existing print.

It included not merely a few additional snippets, but 25 minutes of "lost" footage, about a fifth of the film, that had not been seen since its Berlin debut.

Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich) gets a taste of working life in 'Metropolis.'

The discovery of such a significant amount of material called for yet another restoration, a 2½-hour version that debuted in 2010 to widespread acclaim. It's this fully restored edition that will be screened at the Leavitt.

"We felt opening night for the Leavitt's silent film series was a great occasion to screen the restored 'Metropolis,' as it's a film all about the future and things to come," said Jeff Rapsis, who provides live musical accompaniment to silent film screenings throughout New England.

" 'Metropolis' stands as an stunning example of the power of silent film to tell a compelling story without words, and reach across the generations to touch movie-goers from the real future that came to pass, which means us."

To accompany a silent film, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. The score is created live in real time as the movie is screened. Rather than focus exclusively on authentic music of the period, Rapsis creates new music for silent films that draws from movie scoring techniques that today's audiences expect from the cinema.

The restored 'Metropolis' will be shown on Thursday, June 5 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Ogunquit. Admission is $10 per person. For more information, call (207) 646-3123 or visit For more information on the music, visit


“'Metropolis' does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world.”
—Roger Ebert, 2010, The Chicago Sun-Times

“If it comes anywhere near your town, go see it and thank the movie Gods that it even exists. There’s no star rating high enough.”
—Brian Tallerico,

Monday, May 19, 2014

Celebrate Memorial Day weekend with MGM's
'The Big Parade' at Wilton (NH) Town Hall

'The Big Parade' (1925) will be screened in honor of Memorial Day on Sunday, May 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theater.

With Memorial Day approaching, I got to thinking: This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the conflict that became World War I.

It's certainly not an occasion to be celebrated. But neither is it something that should pass without acknowledgement.

So what to do? Well, hoping to do my part for "acknowledgement," this summer seemed like a good time to highlight silent films that somehow have to do with World War I.

There's no shortage, as it was the defining global conflict for the entire silent era.

But for Memorial Day, I thought it would be particularly apt to screen the great MGM release 'The Big Parade' (1925). Set in the time of World War I, it turned into one of the great blockbusters of the era. (And it was World War I, by the way, that gave Hollywood the term 'blockbuster.'

We're screening it on Sunday, May 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. It's one of the great silent film experiences and really one of the great movies of any era, and I encourage you to take it in as it was intended: on a big screen, in a restored print, with live music, and with an audience.

Just one warning: Bring the Kleenex!

If you'd like more info, check out the press release below. Hope to see you at the theater!

John Gilbert (left) stars in 'The Big Parade' (1925), to be screened with live music on Sunday, May 25 at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Memorial Day weekend: movie 'Big Parade' on Sunday, May 25 in Wilton, N.H.

Blockbuster WWI silent film drama changed the way Hollywood depicted on-screen warfare

WILTON, N.H. — It was the 'Saving Private Ryan' of its time—a movie that took audiences deep into the heart of battle as experienced by a soldier whose life is changed forever by the horrors of war.

It was 'The Big Parade' (1925), a sprawling World War I epic and a box office sensation that made MGM into a powerhouse Hollywood studio. A newly restored version of this classic film will be shown with live music on Memorial Day weekend at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

'The Big Parade' will be screened at the Town Hall Theatre one time only on Sunday, May 25 at 4:30 p.m. Admission is free, with suggestion donation of $5 per person.

The screening will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician. Rapsis provides music for the Town Hall Theatre's monthly silent film series, which aims to honor the venue's historic roots as a local moviehouse.

'The Big Parade,' a landmark war film, was chosen to salute all local servicemen and women on the occasion of Memorial Day, and also because the summer 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

Released just a few years after World War I ended in 1918, 'The Big Parade' was hailed by critics as the first Hollywood film to depict the harsh reality of combat and its impact on troops in the trenches and foxholes. Its hellish battle scenes were staged on a massive scale and still retain their ability to shock audiences.

The picture, based on the novel "What Price Glory?", follows the story of a young man (John Gilbert) who rebels against a privileged background by enlisting in the army just before the U.S. enters World War I.

He is shipped out to France, where he falls in love with a local French woman before being transferred to the front. There, he and his squadmates come face to face with the German war machine, where they must face the ultimate tests of duty and honor in a battle they come to see as meaningless.

John Gilbert and co-star Renée Adorée get to know each other a little better in a scene from 'The Big Parade.'

In addition to vivid trench warfare scenes, the film contains a famous dramatic sequence in which the French woman (Renée Adorée) realizes her love for the soldier, and tries to find him to say goodbye as the massive convoy of troops pulls out for the front. Another celebrated sequence depicts the light-hearted first meeting of the soldier and the girl, in which he teaches her how to chew gum.

'The Big Parade' went on to become the top-grossing movie of the entire silent film era, earning $6.4 million domestically and making director King Vidor into the Steven Spielberg of his day. It stood as MGM's biggest single box office hit until the release of 'Gone With the Wind' in 1939.

Music for 'The Big Parade' will be provided by local composer Jeff Rapsis, who is preparing original material for the screening.

In improvising live movie scores, Rapsis tries to bridge the gap between modern audiences and silent film.

"Live music adds an element of energy to a silent film screening that's really something special," Rapsis said. " 'The Big Parade' clocks in at well over two hours, but it's filled with great scenes that lend themselves well to music. It's a real privilege to create a score to help this great picture come back to life," said Rapsis, who made his West Coast performing debut this month at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, Calif.

Movies in the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series were popular when first seen by audiences in the 1920s, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best. They were not made to be shown on television; to revive them, organizers aim to show the films at the Town Hall Theatre as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and before a live audience.

‘The Big Parade’ will be shown on Sunday, May 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.. Admission is free, with a donation of $5 per person suggested to help defray expenses. For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit For more info on the music, visit

Friday, May 16, 2014

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' launches
annual silent film series in Brandon, Vt.

Brandon Town Hall and Community Center in Brandon, Vt., which moonlights as a silent movie theater for six months of the year.

This Saturday marks the start of the annual silent film series in the very nice town of Brandon, Vt., about three hours north of here. (It's 2½ hours if I drive like a maniac, which I sometimes do.)

The half-year festival consists of a monthly silent film program at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, which has become one of my favorite places to do silent film programs.

The festival runs from May through October, or only those months where there's a reasonable expectation of warm weather, because the town hall does not currently have central heating. (They're working on that as part of ongoing renovations.)

And it's a favorite venue because the size is right (about 100 people fills the place), acoustics are great, and the people are fabulous. The organizers are faultlessly friendly and good-natured. And the people who attend are really into it. I don't know exactly why, but silent film is big in Brandon.

So it's a real pleasure to return there once again for another season of silents. The schedule is heavy on the comedy this time around (by popular request) but we're opening this weekend with a drama that I think will go over well with the Brandon crowd.

The film is 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), directed by Henry King.

Vilma Banky and a young Gary Cooper star in 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926).

Why in Brandon? For one thing, it has names that people might still recognize, including Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper, which is always a plus. Great story, great atmosphere, great location shooting, and quite the climax. (The only misfire, I think, is the title, which doesn't quite fit the film, I think.)

But I also selected the film because it's just packed with horses. And that's in honor of Betty Moffett, a long-time Brandon resident and enthusiastic supporter of the silent film series when we first got started a few years ago.

Betty would often say that one of the glories of films from the silent era is that they're full of scenes of great horsemanship, which was much more common back then. And it really gladdened her heart to see such images, and kept her coming back.

She made a playful promise to me that she'd continue to support the series as long as we ran films with a lot of horses. Betty, alas, has since passed away. But I'm keeping my promise regardless, and so we'll have plenty of horses this Saturday night and in the months to come.

Hope to see you there! The press release with more info (and the full season schedule) is below.

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rip-roaring epic silent Western to be shown in Brandon, Vt. on Saturday, May 17

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), ground-breaking outdoor drama, to be screened with live music

BRANDON, Vt.—A film that helped set the stage for Hollywood's love affair with movies set in American West will open this year's silent film series at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt.

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), a silent drama starring Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, and Vilma Banky, will be shown on Saturday, May 17 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center on Route 7, downtown Brandon, Vt.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of Brandon Town Hall.

Directed by Henry King, 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' chronicles the epic story of pioneer settlers who dreamed of irrigating California's parched Imperial Valley in the early 20th century. Filmed on location in Nevada's Black Rock desert, the movie is noted for its extensive use of vast open spaces and wild scenery.

The story centers on a rivalry for the affections of Barbara Worth (Vilma Banky), adopted daughter of a powerful rancher. A local cowboy (Gary Cooper) finds himself competing with a newly arrived engineer (Ronald Colman), who has come to the rural valley to work on plans to harness the Colorado River for irrigation.

Will the local ranchhand prevail over the city slicker engineer? Can citizens of the parched region prevail over nature and transform their lands into an agricultural paradise? Will rumors of shortcuts taken in constructing a massive dam lead to disaster?

All these questions combine to create a film that showed Hollywood and movie-goers the power of a drama set in the rural American west. The film is also noted for its camerawork by Greg Toland, who would later go on to do principal photography for 'Citizen Kane' in 1941.

For 'The Winning of Barbara Worth,' Rapsis will improvise a score from original musical material that he composes 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 Winning of Barbara Worth' opens another season of silent films presented with live music at the Brandon Town Hall. The series provides local audiences the opportunity 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 of the experience 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 really get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."

The screening of 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' is being sponsored by local residents Nancy and Gary Meffe.

Other shows in this year's series include:

• Saturday, June 14, 7 p.m.: "Silent Comedy with Harold Lloyd" See why Harold Lloyd was the most popular performer of the silent film era. Instead of getting ahead, his everyman character (a nice young fellow with horn-rimmed glasses) had a knack for getting into spectacular trouble, often requiring him to overcome amazing odds to win the day. Audiences continue to thrill at Harold's adventures when presented they way they were intended to be shown: on the big screen and with an audience. Screening sponsored by Pam and Steve Douglass.

• Saturday, July 12, 7 p.m.: "Silent Comedy with Buster Keaton" 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, Keaton's movies remain popular crowd-pleasers today. See for yourself with a selection of Keaton's best short and feature-length films! Screening sponsored by the Brandon Artist Guild, Dolores Furnari, and Country Owl Studio.

• Saturday, Aug. 16, 7 p.m.: "Show People" (1928), starring William Haines, Marion Davies. A silent film about the silent film business! Young Peggy Pepper ventures to Hollywood to make her mark in drama, but finds an unexpected (and unwelcome) flair for slapstick comedy. King Vidor directed this entertaining valentine to an art form that would soon be swept aside by talking pictures. Full of cameos of stars ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Sponsored by the Brandon Town Players and Bill & Kathy Mathis In Memory of Maxine Thurston.

• Saturday, Sept. 13, 7 p.m.: "Silent Comedy with Harry Langdon" Silent comedy featuring the unique style of Harry Langdon, whose innocent baby-faced character rocketed to fame late in the silent era on the strength of films directed by a very young Frank Capra. Rediscover Harry's quiet genius the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen and with a live audience. Screening sponsored by the Brandon Artist Guild, Charles Powell and Steve Zorn.

• Saturday, Oct. 18, 7 p.m.: "Chiller Theater Silent Double Feature starring Lon Chaney" The annual "Chiller Theater" presentation in the as-yet-unheated Brandon Town Hall. Just in time for Halloween, two classic silent films that will creep you out. In 'The Unknown' (1927), Lon Chaney plays 'Alonzo the Armless,' a disabled circus performer smitten with Joan Crawford. What he does to prove his love for her makes for an unforgettably twisted tale from director Tod Browning. Plus: Another Lon Chaney feature TBA. Screening sponsored by Lake Sunapee Bank.

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926) will lead off this season's silent film series on Saturday, May 17 at 7 p.m. at 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

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Road report: In life, as in the movies,
things aren't always what they seem to be

The King Richard Condos in Manchester, N.H. More interesting than silent film?

Get out the Ouija board and the crystal ball, folks. Time for a look back and a look ahead.

First, some notes about three recent performances. And then a preview of some shows to come as the busy summer season begins ramping up.

Tuesday, May 6, 'Her Night of Romance' (1925) at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library: I need shows like this to keep me humble.

About 15 minutes prior to the screening, two women and one man I've never seen before shuffle into the library's auditorium, where I'm behind the sythesizer keyboard warming up.

"What is that you're playing? Is that a computer?" asks one of the women, as the group wedges themselves into seats near the front.

"Well, it's kind of like a piano that's attached to a computer," I say, playing all the while.

And so we banter back and forth, with me feeling glad that some people who are new to silent film have decided to give it a chance.

But in life, as in the movies, things are not always as they seem.

After a few more minutes of me explaining how I will be improvising music to tonight's film, the three begin to sport puzzled looks.

"Isn't this the King Richard Condo Association meeting?" she asks.

Instantly my bubble is burst. I resist the urge to say yes, this is the King Richard Condo Association meeting, with live music, just to keep them in place. But honesty prevails.

"Ah, this is library's monthly silent film screening," I reply, still playing, "and you should really stay and check it out."

"No, this is supposed to be the King Richard Condo Association meeting."

"Well it isn't... but this will be a lot better than some old condo meeting," I say, with all my regulars in the audience looking on smiling, as if the evening's entertainment has started early.

"I don't think so," the woman says, as the three rise and begin shuffling out.

"Sure it will!" I say, the P.T. Barnum in me rising to the challenge. "It's a night of romance, adventure, and Old World elegance. You'll come away with memories that will last far longer than any condo meeting."

But they depart, with the woman saying something about how I'd have help her if her condo fees went up, or something like that.

Ah, the glamour of show biz!

'Her Night of Romance' (1925) is a good flick overall, with one especially noteworthy sequence: A scene in which Ronald Colman and Constance Talmadge get her father to fall asleep by plying him with too much wine at dinner so they can get to know each other is done without any titles. Instead, it's all closeups and imagery that allow us to follow the action without needing dialogue.

Consider the elements: A close-up of Daddy's hand putting down a wine glass, and then falling limp. Another close-up of Constance's foot pressing the soft pedal of the piano she's playing (so as not to wake Daddy.) A medium shot of Colman's silhouette moving across the sheet music as he approaches Constance. A medium shot of Constance reacting nervously, as only Constance could do.

It's a remarkable example of how fluent silent films had become of telling a story visually. If anyone needs a short excerpt to show how silent film could tell stories without titles or dialogue of any kind, this is a good candidate. Nothing special, just a very natural example of how it was done.

Thursday, May 8, 'Intolerance' (1916) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.: Big film, small audience. But even with just 16 people on hand, the show must go on. And not long after the opening titles, I lost myself for nearly three hours in D.W. Griffith's over-the-top four-stories-in-one epic, which we ran without a break.

What happened is that I really didn't have time to prepare in advance, although I intended to. But as things worked out, I didn't even have time to preview the film, even on fast forward. So going into it, the second half was all news to me.

However, the day before I worked out a simple "time passing" motif for the scenes of Lillian Gish rocking the cradle that appear throughout the film as a linking device. And I'll be darned if it didn't blossom into the basis for a nearly three-hour-long film score. Sometimes that's how it happens! In general, simple is better.

And I found I had stuff for each of the four settings, which I accompanied with different textures. The "modern" story (1920s California) was straight orchestra; the medieval French story was harpsichord; the Christ story was brass and organ; and the Babylonian tale had an exotic world music patch that I sometimes trot out.

Also, each had their own melodic material that seemed to grow naturally out of the action, and I was somehow able to keep up with it as the film (or films, actually) progressed. Only for the last half-hour, where all four stories reach a climax and the pace of the cutting increases, did things start to blend into each other, but that actually seemed quite natural to me. Anyway, as the pace quickened, I finally had to keep it on just full orchestra, which had the effect of adding a bit to the overall velocity.

And then the film shifts into overdrive, with Griffith taking us to World War I trenches, with characters from the past looking on from above, all preaching a message of peace and tolerance. After nearly three hours of four different stories, this apotheosis, while hopelessly primitive, still comes across as nothing short of mind-blowing in live performance.

Say what you want about Griffith, but 'Intolerance' demonstrated once again that he really did bring the instincts of a master showman to his movies. You simply have to watch. In that sense, it's a distant cousin to a car crash.

A view of the interior of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Edison theater, stolen from Yelp.

Saturday, May 10, 'The Little Duchess' (1917) at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, Calif.: Yes, that California. Mere hours after finishing 'Intolerance,' I strapped myself into a jet-propelled aircraft bound for San Francisco, where I had the chance to sit in as accompanist at the Saturday night silent film series at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

A word about cross-country flights: When I'm dictator, anyone making a coast-to-coast non-stop flight would first have to read at least one book about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Just sayin'.

A word about Niles: While most of the area around Niles is brand new mint condition Silicon Valley exurbia, Niles itself is an authentic old-time town. Settled more than a century ago, its commercial area was isolated by a river, railroad lines, and later by a freeway.

Shielded from development pressure by virtue of its location, Niles endured long enough to become an attraction in itself, so different than the modern strip mall and condo complexes that now surround it. It's kind of like California version of Brugges, the Belgian trading port that silted up in the middle ages, leaving the small city prefectly preserved.

One of the big attractions of early Niles was an Edison Theatre, which lasted only a short time. The building then became a photo studio, a warehouse, and who-knows-what-else over the years, all the while remaining intact, like a lot of Niles itself. Today, it's a film theater again, which the museum uses to run regular silent film programs.

The film: 'The Little Duchess' (1917), a rarely screened picture starring Madge Evans, then age 6. This title was enough of an attraction to bring several area film folks, including accompanist Jon Mirsalis, who I got to have dinner with as part of the deal. So I got to hear him speak of some of old-timers such as Gaylord Carter who were still active when he was starting out.

Prior to the performance, I felt more pressure than usual, not because of the venue, but because of my brother-in-law. A job at Facebook led him to live in the area. And like a lot of people in my life, he's never really understood the silent film thing. No problem, as most people don't. But for Saturday night's show, he'd taken a deep breath and decided to check it out.

Alas, the first half of the show was two Keystone two-reelers from 1914 in fairly well battered 16mm prints: Chaplin's 'Caught in a Cabaret' and Fatty Arbuckle in 'Fatty and Minnie Hee-Haw.' Not the very best intro to the power of silent film, but you play the hand you're dealt, or the films that are programmed.

Seated at the house piano (a sturdy Hamilton upright) so I found myself taking the "keep it lively" approach to both films. The Chaplin short is no great shakes, but the Arbuckle film has enough rudeness in it to be of interest. At one point, the Injuns—sorry—native Americans, celebrate upcoming nuptuals by eating dog meat!

To my surprise, brother-in-law actually enjoyed the first half! With live accompaniment and something of an audience present (about 40 people), it made a lot more sense. Great!

'The Little Duchess' was a fun film to play cold. It was easy enough to follow, and my stock of material seemed to work well in different situations as the film unfolded. The print was apparently an original Kodascope 16mm reduction dating probably from the 1920s, and so looked really great throughout.

Audience reaction was pretty lively, which was great. I felt I kept up with things pretty well, I thought, but was not prepared for a last-reel plot twist that bordered on the surreal, even for a film from 1917. I'll keep it under my hat because 'The Little Duchess' may get shown at a few upcoming festivals, but it made for a mind-bending end to the evening as only silent film can deliver.

And the verdict from my brother-in-law? Not outright dismissal, which I count as a triumph for the art form.

I'm very grateful to all the folks at the Niles Museum for opening a Saturday night for me on their schedule. The Bay area has a lot of fine accompanists, so it was a real honor to sit in. So thanks to Dorothy Bradley and all the crew for their hospitality, and all the work they do to keep the museum going and to keep silent film in front of today's audiences.

Looking ahead, our annual summer silent film series in Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall starts up this weekend. Opening night features 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), a rip-roaring Western starring Ronald Colman, Vilma Banky, and a young Gary Cooper. I'll preview that in a separate post, as this one has gone on long enough already. :)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Light as a feather, then heavy as lead:
From 'Her Night Of Romance' to 'Intolerance'

The two lovers-to-be meet in 'Her Night of Romance.' Is that really Constance Talmadge hiding behind those glasses?

What's life without a little contrast?

That's what I'll experience in the next two days, when I do music for a frothy romantic comedy, followed by one of the heaviest, most frothless pieces of silent cinema around.

And then my West Coast debut this weekend! More about which in a bit.

The whipsawing starts with a screening of 'Her Night of Romance' (1925) on Tuesday, May 6 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library, 405 Pine St. This film is so light, it practically needs to be held down with ropes, like one of those big cartoon balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

But it's full of laughs, too, and also full of the vivacious Constance Talmadge, then at the peak of her career. So there's plenty to look at on screen! (Equal opportunity ogling note: And there's Colman for the ladies, too.)

I never get tired of watching Constance on screen. Though not known as a dramatic (and therefore "serious") actress, to me she has the most expressive face of any silent film actress I know. While Constance rarely overplays, her face gets an amazing workout in every film of hers I've seen.

Her eyes, already huge, carry with us from panic to delight as they roll about in their sockets. She can transform her facial expression from confidence to farcical terror, and back again, in an instant. And on the rare occasions when she gets angry...well, hell hath no fury.

Both Talmadge stars (Constance and her sister Norma) were generally accepted as great beauties, so it's a treat to see Constance disguising herself as a frumpy old maid as 'Her Night' opens. At the time, audiences must have found it especially hilarious. (I don't know what it says about me, but I still find her strangely attractive.)

'Her Night of Romance' is one I've never done before, but in previewing it, there are places where I'm betting the film still gets big laughs. We'll see at the screening, which is tomorrow night as I write this.

Then, two days later, I tackle 'Intolerance' (1916), D.W. Griffith's three-hour heavyweight drama that threads together no less than four separate stories. The "fun" begins on Thursday, May 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center at 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Both films are the result of me trying to challenge myself (and keep up my interest) by programming films that I've never done before. With 'Her Night of Romance,' I've previewed it and I'm pretty sure I know what I'm going to do. But with 'Intolerance,' among the questions I still have to answer are: "Why the heck am I doing this in the first place?"

It's a big film, and yes, contains four different stories. So I'd like the music to reflect these four different epochs so that even if you had your eyes closed, you could tell what time period we're in.

However, with three days to go, I still haven't previewed the film thoroughly, so we'll see what happens. 'Intolerance' is not a film where you want to totally wing it.

If you're interested in seeing this legendary film on the big screen, check out the press release below.

But before that, about my "West Coast Debut." I'll post more on this as it happens, but I wanted to thank all the people associated with the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, Calif. (just across the bay from San Francisco) for inviting me to be guest accompanist for their program on Saturday, May 10. I happen to be heading to San Francisco on a business trip the day before, so it worked out perfectly.

I'll even get to see my brother-in-law, who lives out there and first brought his crazy relative-by-marriage to see the Niles set-up, which is extremely impressive.

More detail on that to come. For now, take a big tall drink of the press release for 'Intolerance,' and hope to see you at the screening!

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

With 'Intolerance,' four stories better than one

Rarely screened landmark silent film epic
to be shown with live music on Thursday, May 8

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—It was a breakthrough that changed the movies forever: a three-hour epic knitting together four sweeping stories spanning 2,500 years, all designed to show the struggle for love throughout human history.

The film was D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance' (1916), which stunned the movie-going public with its vast scope, enormous sets, large cast, and revolutionary editing. Often named to lists of the 100 best films of all times, critics continue to point to 'Intolerance' as one of the most influential and important milestones of early cinema.

See for yourself with a rare screening of a restored version of 'Intolerance' (1916) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center on Thursday, May 8 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 'Intolerance' and other great films of Hollywood's early years, 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 a live score for 'Intolerance' on the spot. "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.

A vintage photo montage promoting the original release of 'Intolerance.'

'Intolerance,' considered one of the great masterpieces of the silent era, intercuts four parallel storylines, each separated by several centuries: A contemporary melodrama of crime and redemption; a Judean story of Christ’s mission and death; a French story about the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572; and a story depicting the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC.

The scenes are linked by shots of a figure representing Eternal Motherhood, rocking a cradle.

Each of the parallel stories are intercut with increasing frequency as the film builds to a climax. The film sets up moral and psychological connections among the different stories.

'Intolerance' was made partly in response to criticism of Griffith's previous film, 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915), which was criticized by the NAACP and other groups as perpetuating racial stereotypes and glorifying the Ku Klux Klan.

One of the unusual characteristics of 'Intolerance' is that many of the characters don't have names. Griffith wished them to be emblematic of human types. Thus, the central female character in the modern story is called The Dear One. Her young husband is called The Boy, and the leader of the local Mafia is called The Musketeer of the Slums.

Because of its four interwined stories, 'Intolerance' does not feature any one performer in a leading role. However, the enormous cast includes many great names from the silent era, including Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Constance Talmadge, Walter Long (a New Hampshire native), and a young Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in an uncredited cameo as a drunken soldier with a monkey.

"This movie was made for the big screen, and this screening at the Flying Monkey is a rare chance to see 'Intolerance' the way it was meant to be seen," Rapsis said.

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

• 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!

‘Intolerance’ will be shown on Thursday, May 8 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, May 2, 2014

A silent film kind of weekend:
Two screenings, two strong reactions

Buster Keaton and Ernest Torrance disagree about hats in 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928)

I expected one to be good, but not both!

And yet two different silent film programs, each vastly different from the other, made strong connections with audiences this past weekend.

So before I leap ahead into May and its increasingly busy schedule of screenings, here's a brief report of this past weekend's activities, with some observations.

• Saturday, April 26: Two Buster Keaton comedies at a small Catholic liberal arts college in the middle of the New Hampshire woods.

I call this my "Junior" program, as it's Keaton's 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) paired with 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928). Silent film programming is a bit like wine selection or meal planning, I imagine, although most of my meal planning experience consists of selecting which drive-thru has the shortest wait.

But which films you choose can really make a difference, and to get it right you have to consider everything from length to content to mood to audience expectations.

With all that in mind, I've found 'Sherlock' and 'Steamboat' to be a really solid match. Both are great films that audiences still respond strongly to. The first is short enough to work well as a warm-up and to introduce Keaton to those unfamiliar with his work. The second has a better developed story and a climax on a much larger scale, so it makes for a nice progression.

And they both offer good examples of how Keaton's early life on stage influenced his work in the cinema. 'Sherlock' is full of live-action illusions (such as Buster jumping through a suitcase and seemingly disappearing) taken from vaudeville, while the cyclone climax of 'Steamboat' includes an eerie episode in theater being destroyed around our hero.

I've done this pairing before, and it always gets a good response. However, the reaction at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in rural Warner, N.H. was surprising for its sheer intensity. From the opening titles in 'Sherlock,' everything in the film was greeted by raucous, uproarious, and absolutely genuine laughter.

Death, played by Bernhard Goetzke, sits outside his wall in 'Destiny' (1921).

• Sunday, April 27: A strange early Fritz Lang film from Germany at a small independent theater in tiny New Hampshire town.

I've wanted to do Lang's 'Destiny' (1921) for a long time, and that time finally came this past weekend with a screening at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

I really wasn't sure about this one. In previewing it prior to the screening, the film seemed slow and creaky. The image quality was less than stellar, and the pacing seemed really drawn out. How would a live audience respond to it?

Well, I needn't have worried. On the big screen and in a theater with about 100 people present, the film surprised me by holding the screen. And then it really surprised me by building to a very intense climactic sequence not unlike the end of Lang's later masterpiece 'Metropolis' (1927).

So it unexpectedly became one of those experiences where the film just swept up everyone (including me!) in an experience that I have trouble finding words to describe. A collective emotional catharsis? A unifying narrative apocalypse? A cinematic group hug?

I really don't know how to describe it other than to say it was a real rush to feel the emotional power of the film spreading out from the screen and taking hold of the audience. And somehow the music seemed to fit exactly, pushing emotions over the edge and helping everyone feel this emotional power, almost as one.

For 'Destiny,' I created a melody and chord sequence that to me sounded like one of those "building block" themes of Brahms—not so much a fully formed tune, but material to work with that was so open-ended as to go anywhere. So it was kind of like the main tune of the first movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 1, with dramatic leaps and a harmony that inevitably resolves to the tonic. Fate? Well, if fate has a sound, that's what I was going for.

And it really seems to fit. No matter what mood was called for, my fate music found a way to wrap its melodic tentacles around the on-screen action and embrace it with abandon. (Wow, did I just write that?)

At the end, I was in tears, and so were others in the the audience. And I stood up and took a few bows, but the applause was not just for the film or the music, but for all of us to have come together and shared something that I think brought out our collective humanity. Surprise! We're still human after all, with the capacity to care and love and actually feel something.

Thanks, Mr. Lang, for helping us remind ourselves that we're not dead yet.