Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Canines and equines and pachyderms, oh my!
3 weeks of silent animal stars in Wilton, N.H.

Leader the Dog stars in 'The Return of Grey Wolf' (1923), showing on Sunday, Aug. 31 at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

Our summer-long series of silent films starring animals will conclude with an unprecedented series of screenings over the next three Sundays!

It's quite a jump from our usual pace of one silent film program each month at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre.

But with great animal performers filling the big screen with amazing feats all summer long, I kinda wanted to do a trick or two myself.

Plus, I unearthed so many great (if unknown) titles that deserved a spot on the program. So we had to add a few extra shows to fit everything in.

And the result is that for the next three Sundays, we're screening no less than eight separate titles, all of which I've never accompanied before.

One reason for so many titles is that the animal films have come down to us in versions that tend to run short: most are well under an hour, so doing three at once isn't too much of a stretch.

The reason they're short, by the way, is that a lot of these obscure titles were sold for home use in 16mm prints that were often edited down from the full-length versions shown in theaters.

In many cases, the 16mm prints are all that survived over the years. The original 35mm prints, produced on highly unstable cellulose nitrate stock, have long since decomposed.

As you may know, something like 80 percent of all silent film is lost forever. So we're fortunate indeed, I think, to be able to see what remains of the work of such yeoman (or yeo-animal) performers as Champion the Dog, Rex the Wonder Horse, Oscar the Elephant, and so many other once-popular box office names.

The fact that many are slightly trimmed makes them even more action-packed than they might have been originally. Yes, they're sometimes a little loopy in the plot department, but probably no more so than they were all along.

One curious semi-local connection: a surprising number of animal films are set in rural Quebec!

One of the strangest is 'Return of the Grey Wolf' (1923), in which we get titles telling us that Leader the Dog and his canine pals are saying "Woof! Woof!" and so on. (That is, until the doggy dialogue is "translated" into English, with lines such as "Gee, great to see the gang!") The film runs on Sunday, Aug. 31.

And let me put in a special plug for Oscar the Elephant, who stars in 'Soul of the Beast' (1923), one of the titles on the Sept. 7 program. I have to say that I've never seen a more bizarre feature film from the silent era. I had never heard of Oscar before I started planning this series, but I'm so glad to finally make his acquaintance in the one picture of his known to have survived.

What's it about? I don't want to spoil the fun other than to say, yes, it takes place in French-speaking Canada. Let's just say it's what might have been the result if cult film director John Waters had come onto the scene about 50 years earlier than he did.

Really looking forward to seeing how an audience responds to this one. I hope you'll be willing to join the fun for 'Soul of the Beast,' and all the films coming up in the three-week finale to our animal series.

For more specific info, here's the press release from earlier this month.

* * *

Looks like early film comedy icons Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are going to the dogs.

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

Going to the dogs — and horses
and monkeys and elephants, too

► Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre announces finale of summer-long 'All-Star Animal Silent Film Extravaganza'

► Venue to run big-screen critter classics on three consecutive Sundays: Aug. 24, Aug. 31, and Sept. 7

WILTON, N.H. — They couldn't speak, but that was no handicap in the silent film era.

They were the great animal stars of early Hollywood: amazing dogs, horses, and even elephants who were as popular as any human performer when the movies were young.

In fast-paced action pictures, they chased down villains, rescued their owners, and saved the day with no dialogue needed.

See for yourself how animal stars helped establish the popularity of motion pictures as the Wilton Town Hall Theatre completes its summer-long retrospective of the great non-human performers of early cinema.

The popular series will conclude with programs on three consecutive Sunday afternoons: Aug. 24, Aug. 31, and Sept. 7.

"Animal pictures were hugely popular during the silent era, and it's easy to see why," said Dennis Markaverich, long-time owner/operator at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. "They're full of action and adventure, and it's been a real thrill to see them back on the big screen this summer."

Live music for all screenings will be performed by Jeff Rapsis of Bedford, N.H., one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.

The three-week finale begins on Sunday, Aug. 24 with three films starring dog performers who were lesser known, but no less talented than big names such as Rin Tin Tin.

• Sunday, Aug. 24, 4:30 p.m.: "More Forgotten Dogs." A trio of films featuring popular canine performers whose stars have faded. In 'Tracked' (1928), Ranger the Dog stands accused of killing sheep and must go on the lam; 'The Sign of the Claw' (1926) features Peter the Great, a German Shepherd star whose career was cut short by a tragic accident; and 'Sky Rider' (1928) finds Champion the Dog taking flight in an airplane drama.

• Sunday, Aug. 31, 4:30 p.m.: "A Triple Feature: Two Dogs and a Horse." Another thrilling triple feature! 'His Master's Voice' (1925) finds Thunder the Dog (that's him at left) helping human co-star George Hackathorne overcome his cowardice on the battlefield; in 'The Return of the Grey Wolf' (1923), Leader the Dog comes to the aid of his master, a fur trapper blinded in an accident; and in 'Guardians of the Wild' (1928), Rex the Wonder Horse returns to help the good guys fight the bad guys over the fate of a pristine patch of wildernessd.

• Sunday, Sept. 7, 4:30 p.m.: "Really Big Stars: An Elephant Double Feature." We finish our look at the silent era's animal stars with a double feature of films with elephants in leading roles! 'Soul of the Beast' (1923) stars Oscar the Elephant, who accompanies a circus runaway fleeing a mean stepfather. Together, they astonish the rustic inhabitants of rural Quebec. In 'Chang' (1927), shot on location in rural Siam (now Thailand), a native family in the back country battles the jungle for survival. Note: the Sept. 7 program was originally scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 17 but was moved to Sunday, Sept. 7 due to a scheduling conflict.

All shows are free and open to the public, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to help defray expenses.

"At their heart, these pictures capitalized on people's love of animals to produce great entertainment," Rapsis said. "They still work, and really do come to life when shown in a theater with live music and an audience. Also, because of the passage of time, they're perhaps even more interesting today than they were when first released."

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 as intended. They were not made to be shown on television, cell phones, or other personal media; in reviving them, the Town Hall Theatre runs them using top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and before a live audience.

The three-week finale to the "All-Star Animal Summer Silent Film Extravaganza" starts on Sunday, Aug. 24 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 www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

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