Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sunday, March 29: Cecile B. DeMille's silent
version of 'The Ten Commandments' (1923)

To paraphrase the Commandments themselves:


And your chance to see it on the big screen is Sunday, March 29, when we run Cecil B. DeMille's original silent film version of 'The Ten Commandments' (1923) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

The service (on Palm Sunday, no less) begins at 4:30 p.m. Minister of Music is me. Admission is free, but anything you can put into the collection plate (i.e. donation jar) would be appreciated.

This is the film where Cecil B. DeMille really started becoming the Cecil B. DeMille worthy of his name: demanding, dismissive of budgets, super-confident, dealing with scripture and New York money men with equal imperiousness. (That's him at at left, about the time of 'The Ten Commandments.')

Really. I've been reading a 'Empire of Dreams: The Life of Cecil B. DeMille' (2010) by Scott Eyeman, and the off-screen drama connected with the original 'Ten Commandments' was equal to anything that made it into the picture.

The film, by the way, is quite different from the more-familiar 1956 remake starring Charlton Heston as Moses. For one thing, a big chunk of the silent version takes place in "modern" times, meaning 1920s California. So be prepared for some time travel.

But, yes, there's still the parting of the Red Sea, a special effect that was accomplished largely with Jell-O. It's pretty cutting edge for 1923.

It's also a film with a weird connection to the present. To film the Biblical scenes, DeMille used the remote Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes in northern Santa Barbara County. Afterwards, the massive sets were not taken down. DeMille, worried that rival filmmakers might poach his massive set pieces, instead had them buried right there in the desert sands.

Fast forward to 2012, and archaeologists found large components of the sets still in place under the surface of the desert where DeMille filmed. Since then, there's been an ongoing effort to excavate the site for its unique link to early Hollywood history.

Excavating a silent-era sphinx, courtesy

For recent developments, check out this Los Angeles Times story about the unearthing of an intact Sphinx.

But you don't have to do any digging to see the original 'Ten Commandments' on the big screen. Below is the text of a press release with all the info you'll need to join us.

P.S. I'll be doing the same film on Easter Sunday, April 5 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, Somerville, Mass., where we'll be screening a 35mm print from the U.S. Library of Congress. More on that next week!

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Original 'Ten Commandments' movie to screen at Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre

Silent film Biblical blockbuster to be shown with live music on Palm Sunday, March 29

WILTON, N.H.—Decades before he directed Charlton Heston as Moses, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille's original silent version of 'The Ten Commandments' (1923) wowed audiences the world over during the early years of cinema.

To celebrate the coming Easter season, DeMille's pioneering Biblical blockbuster will be screened on Sunday, March 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The silent ‘The Ten Commandments’ will be shown with live music played in the theater by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a $5 donation suggested per person.

DeMille's original 'Ten Commandments' was among the first Hollywood films to tackle stories from scripture on a grand scale. The picture was a popular hit in original release, and served as a blueprint for DeMille's later remake in 1956.

Despite the silent original's epic scale, the Moses story takes up only about the first third of the film. After that, the tale changes to a modern-day melodrama about living by the lessons of the Commandments. In the McTavish family, two brothers make opposite decisions: one, John, to follow his mother's teaching of the Ten Commandments and become a poor carpenter, and the other, Danny, to break every one of them and rise to the top. The film shows his unchecked immorality to be momentarily gainful, but ultimately disastrous.

A contrast is made between the carpenter brother and his mother. The mother reads the story of Moses and emphasizes strict obedience and fear of God. The carpenter, however, reads from the New Testament story of Jesus' healing of lepers. His emphasis is on a loving and forgiving God. The film also shows the mother's strict lawful morality to be flawed in comparison to her son's version.

The other brother becomes a corrupt contractor who builds a church with shoddy concrete, pocketing the money saved and becoming very rich. One day, his mother comes to visit him at his work site, but the walls are becoming unstable due to the shaking of heavy trucks on nearby roads. One of the walls collapses, with tragic results. This sends the brother on a downward spiral as he attempts to right his wrongs and clear his conscience.

Throughout the film, the visual motif of the tablets of the Commandments appears in the sets, with a particular Commandment appearing on them when it is relevant to the story.

That's not Charlton Heston, but silent-era actor Theodore Roberts as Moses.

'The Ten Commandments' boasts an all-star cast of 1920s performers, including Theodore Roberts as Moses; Charles de Rochefort as Rameses; Estelle Taylor as Miriam, the Sister of Moses; Edythe Chapman as Mrs. Martha McTavish; Richard Dix as John McTavish, her son; Rod La Rocque as Dan McTavish, her other son; and Leatrice Joy as Mary Leigh.

The Exodus scenes were filmed at Nipomo Dunes, near Pismo Beach, California, in San Luis Obispo County, which is now an archaeological site. The film location was originally chosen because its immense sand dunes provided a superficial resemblance to the Egyptian desert. After the filming was complete, the massive sets — which included four 35-foot-tall Pharaoh statues, 21 sphinxes, and gates reaching a height of 110 feet, which were built by an army of 1,600 workers — were dynamited and buried in the sand. However, the burial location at Nipomo Dunes is exposed to relentless northwesterly gales year-round, and much of what was buried is now exposed to the elements, as the covering sand has been blown away.

The visual effect of keeping the walls of water apart while Moses and the Israelites walked through the Red Sea was accomplished with a slab of gelatin that was sliced in two and filmed close up as it jiggled. This shot was then combined with live-action footage of actors walking across the dry seabed, creating a vivid illusion.

‘The Ten Commandments’ is the latest in a series of monthly silent film screenings at the Town Hall Theatre. The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by bringing together the elements needed for silent film to be seen at its best: superior films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and a live audience.

“These films remain exciting experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Rapsis, the accompanist. “There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that spirit. At their best, silent films were communal experiences in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre originally opened as a silent film moviehouse in 1912, and has shown first-run Hollywood films to generations of area residents. Classic movies of all types, however, are still a big part of the Town Hall Theatre's offerings, and the silent film series is a way for the theater to remain connected to its roots.

Live 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."

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes he creates beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

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

• Sunday, April 26, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: 'Silent Comedy and the Civil War' with Raymond Griffith, Buster Keaton. Confederate spy Raymond Griffith outwits Northern foes in 'Hands Up!' (1926), while Buster Keaton plays a Confederate train engineer in his masterpiece, 'The General' (1926).

• Sunday, May 24, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) starring Lillian Gish. Director D.W. Griffith's controversial Civil War epic reaches a major milestone. Flawed by overt racism that many find offensive even today, the picture nonetheless showed the world the potential of the then-new medium of film.

‘The Ten Commandments’ (1923) will be shown with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Sunday, March 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with a $5 donation suggested per person. For more info, visit or call (603) 654-3456. For more information about the music, visit

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