Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sunday, May 3: Keaton's 'The Cameraman'
in 35mm at Somerville Theatre in Davis Square

Buster's 'The Cameraman' (1928) will be screened in 35mm on Sunday, May 3 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre.

Wow! After following a frantic pace for the first four months of 2015, I find myself looking at a calendar that's far less packed with silent film screenings, at least for now.

I do a couple shows this weekend, then a small gig on Tuesday, May 5. And then, after that, nothing for 10 whole days!

That's the longest stretch of unbroken accompaniment-free days since January, when I was clambering about the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Well, speaking of which: I intend to use the break to finally put together an account of the Kilimanjaro journey, which was amazing on many levels.

But for now, the big deal is a screening of Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Showtime is Sunday, May 3 at 2 p.m. More info is in the press release below.

But a few words from me: I really have to give the Somerville credit for continuing to run 35mm programs in an era when everyone else seems so focused on digital.

Actual physical film has been the native format for motion pictures since the beginning, and to abandon it so quickly and without recognizing its unique qualities does seem rather short-sighted.

So bravo to the Somerville for keeping their 35mm projection systems in place, and for cultivating the booth expertise to screen film to its best advantage.

Yes, I know some film prints can be scratched or faded or have any number of problems, and that digital offers an experience that's touted as free of these short-comings.

Maybe I'm getting old, but I do feel there should be more appreciation for the 35mm format, since it was what the creators of movies had in mind for the past century.

And then there's the audience experience. Virtually all films made until recently were designed to be shown in a theater with an audience present. Taking that out of the equation can rob a film of a big part of its impact—especially older films.

So if motion pictures were indeed the art form of the 20th century, I see a place like the Somerville as kind of a Museum of Fine Arts for cinema. They're making an effort to screen great pictures in the way their creators intended them to be seen: on film, in a theater, with an audience—and, in the case of silent films, with live music.

Alas, it pains me to say that attendance of late hasn't been spectacular. Maybe it was the brutal winter, which we're still emerging from around here.

Or maybe it's just that people don't feel the film/theater/audience experience is worth it. We're becoming so accustomed to seeing what we want on demand, and when we want to see it (at home alone with our parakeet) that the audience experience has been devalued.

Of course I feel differently. And I believe you'd agree with me if you can come to our screening of 'The Cameraman' (1928) this Sunday at the Somerville Theatre. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Buster Keaton and Eddie Gribbon in MGM's 'The Cameraman' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton's 'Cameraman' in 35mm at Somerville Theater on Sunday, May 3

Classic silent film comedy masterpiece to be shown on big screen using real film with live musical accompaniment

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies still rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The Cameraman' (1928), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Sunday, May 3 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission to the screening is $15 or $12 seniors/students.

'The Cameraman' tells the story of a young man (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Marceline Day) by working as a freelance newsreel cameraman. His efforts result in spectacular failure, but then a lucky break gives him an unexpected chance to make his mark. Can he parlay the scoop of the year into a secure job and successful romance?

Music for will 'The Cameraman' will be performed live by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire composer regarded as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.

The program is the latest in the Somerville Theatre's 'Silents, Please!' series, which aims to recapture the magic of early Hollywood by presenting silent films as they were intended to be shown: in 35mm prints, in a theater on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put together those elements, it's surprising how much entertainment value these films still have," said Rapsis, who improvises live music for silent film screenings throughout New England and beyond. "You realize why these films caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

In 'The Cameraman,' Keaton uses the newsreel business to create comedy that plays with the nature of film and reality. The movie contains classic sequences often cited as among Keaton's best, including a scene where Keaton and a large man both struggle to change into swimsuits in a tiny dressing room. The scene, which runs several minutes long, was filmed in one take.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands as one of the three great clowns of the silent screen. Many 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."

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.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions ranging from sadness to surprise. In an era when movies had few special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

All those talents are on display in 'The Cameraman,' which was selected in 2005 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Rapsis said the Keaton movies, like all silent films, were made to be shown not only with live music, but also on the big screen to large audiences.

"They weren't intended to be watched on a home entertainment center by, say, just you and your dog," Rapsis said. "However, if you can put all the elements back together, the films really do spring back to life."

Rapsis improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But for me, the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience."

• Sunday, June 7, 2 p.m.: 'Play Safe' (1927) and 'Show People' (1928). A double feature of two comedies from the silent era's peak. 'Play Safe' includes one of most hair-raising train chase sequences ever filmed, while 'Show People' is director King Vidor's sly and self-referential valentine to the era of silent movie-making.

• Sunday, July 5, 2 p.m.: 'The Big Parade' (1925) starring John Gilbert, Renee AdoreĆ©. Director King Vidor's intense drama about U.S. doughboys sent to World War I France, where the horror of trench warfare changes their lives forever. Among the first Hollywood films to depict realistic battlefield action; still maintains its power to shock.

• Sunday, Aug. 2, 2 p.m.: 'Speedy' (1928) starring Harold Lloyd. Can Harold New York City's last horsedrawn streetcar line from the clutches of a greedy transport tycoon? The Big Apple co-stars in one of Harold's great silent comic masterpieces. Plus an extended cameo appearance from none other than Babe Ruth!

Buster Keaton's ‘The Cameraman’ will be shown in 35mm on Sunday, May 3 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission to the screening is $15 or $12 seniors/students; general admission seating. For more info, call (617) 625-5700 or visit For more info on the music, visit

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