Friday, June 5, 2015

Runaway trains and William Haines:
A double bill featuring two 35mm prints
on Sunday, June 7 at Somerville Theatre

Next up: a double bill I've been looking forward to for a long time—at least since I found that the Library of Congress had circulating 35mm prints available of both titles.

The two pictures are 'Play Safe' (1927) starring Monty Banks and 'Show People' (1928) directed by King Vidor and starring William Haines and Marion Davies.

The screening is on Sunday, June 7 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission $10 per person. Don't let the great weather keep you away. :)

About the films: I'm very excited about 'Play Safe,' a film I've never scored before. In fact, I've never seen it in its entirety.

We're running it part because of the incredible runaway train sequence that forms the film's climax. This famous footage has been excerpted for decades as a convenient way to demonstrate the power and excitement of silent film at its very best.

But the entire film doesn't often get shown, and I'm not sure why. It could be because leading man Monty Banks never made it into the Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd pantheon of silent clowns. I've heard varying reports of how well the film holds up as a whole.

So we'll just have to see for ourselves, won't we?

I'm also excited about 'Show People' (1928). More than any other silent picture I know, it captures the spirit of life in Hollywood in the 1920s, at least the way the studios wanted the public to think of it.

One of the last silents released by MGM, and directed by King Vidor at the height of his career, 'Show People' stands as a Valentine to an era that was quickly coming to an end even as it was in production.

Hey! There's Charlie Chaplin with William Haines and Marion Davies!

Because it's all about Hollywood, 'Show People' is a very "meta" picture. At one point, Marion Davies (playing a star-struck would-be actress) has a chance encounter with the great Hollywood star...Marion Davies. At another point, a movie theater is screening 'Bardelys the Magnificent,' an earlier picture directed by King Vidor—who just happens to be visible in the audience.

And remember all those star cameos in 'It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World?' The same thing was done 35 years earlier in 'Show People,' with everyone from Douglas Fairbanks to Charlie Chaplin popping up for brief appearances.

At this writing, it's not certain which title we'll run first. Could go either way—so come to the screening and find out!

I'm also excited because both 35mm prints are in pretty good shape. Below are excerpts from a print inspection report from David Kornfeld, the Someville's master projectionist and self-proclaimed "living dinosaur" (for his continuing advocacy of celluloid).
PLAY SAFE (1927). Print is on acetate, from 1990, in virtually new condition! The density is good (not great). It's 1.33 (yay!), except for "The End" title card which, weirdly, is 1.37 with a soundtrack. Go figure. ... Ive never seen this movie, but it has a reputation! Theres a train chase scene at the end which is supposed to be amazing! Come and see for yourself!

It's playing with:

SHOW PEOPLE (1928). Print is on mylar, from 2003, and is in like new condition! Not a splice, not a scratch, not a hint of wear! Density is very good. This one is 1.37, with a soundtrack (which, obviously, I wont be playing). It's marked "long version," so thats probably a good thing. The frame has been properly reduced (for once), so we wont be doing the Movietone crop.

(The comments preserve David's aversion to apostrophes, by the way.)

Okay, for more info about the films, check out the press release below.

Just to try to give it a different angle, the press release played up the fact that William Haines was Hollywood's first-ever openly gay leading man.

They're both terrific films, so don't believe that weather report calling for a perfect late spring day on Sunday. Forecasts, bah! I can say for certain that you'll have a good time at this Sunday's show at the Somerville.

C'mon, who do you trust?

* * *

A Swedish poster for 'Show People' (1928) featuring William Haines.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Somerville Theatre to celebrate Hollywood's first openly gay leading man

William Haines stars in classic silent film comedy 'Show People,' shown in 35mm with live music on Sunday, June 7

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—He was the Tom Hanks of the late 1920s: a leading man with a winning manner and breezy charm who always got the girl.

But the film career of William Haines, one of early Hollywood's brightest stars, was cut short for an unfortunate reason: at a time when sexual preference was a taboo subject, he was openly gay.

See Haines at the peak of his popularity in 'Show People' (1928), an MGM comedy co-starring Marion Davies that spoofs the movie industry, pitting high drama against low comedy.

Showtime for 'Show People' is Sunday, June 7 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

The event also includes a screening of the silent comedy feature 'Play Safe' (1927) starring Monty Banks. Both films will be screened using 35mm prints from the U.S. Library of Congress.

All are welcome to this family-friendly event; admission is $15 per person general admission.

The screening, the latest in the Somerville's "Silents, Please!" series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating scores for silent films.

William Haines was one of MGM's biggest stars in the late 1920s, often playing the male lead in the studio's romantic comedies. But off-screen, Haines was gay—and, unusually for the era, he did not hide his homosexuality.

This led to friction with his bosses. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, convinced that movie audiences would not accept a gay leading man, urged Haines to keep his long-term relationship with actor Jimmie Shields a secret.

Haines maintained his star status at MGM during the transisition to talking pictures in the late 1920s. But a publicity crisis arose in 1933, when Haines was arrested in a YMCA with a sailor he had picked up in Los Angeles' Pershing Square.

Mayer then delivered an ultimatum: Haines had to choose between a sham marriage to an MGM actress to make himself acceptable to Middle America, or give up his career. Haines refused to submit, chosing to be himself rather than to pretend to be someone he wasn't. Mayer subsequently fired Haines, terminated his contract, and banished him from the industry.

His movie career over, Haines recovered by launching an interior design firm, using his connections to become the most sought-after decorator in the Hollywood movie colony. The business prospered over the decades, with a client list of A-list celebrities as well as political figures such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Haines remained with his partner Shields for the rest of his life. Joan Crawford, who co-starred with Haines in several pictures, described the pair as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." In recent years, Haines has been recognized as a courageous pioneer in gay rights in the early Hollywood community.

'Show People,' directed by King Vidor, shows Haines at the height of his leading-man status. The light-hearted story follows Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies), a beauty queen from Georgia trying to break into the movies as a dramatic actress. Haines plays Billy Boone, lead actor of a slapstick comedy studio where Pepper gets her first break.

Can the young actress yearning for drama survive the indignity of pies in the face? When her big break finally comes, will it mean sacrificing her growing friendship with Billy? And can Billy rescue the fun-loving Georgia girl from a studio that aims to invent a whole new persona for her as a serious actress, descended from European royalty?

Can low comedy win out over high drama? In answering that question, 'Show People' pokes fun at Hollywood phoniness and the culture of celebrity worship that had already emerged by the 1920s. 'Show People' also offers rare behind-the-scenes glimpses of movie-making at the very end of the silent period, when studios were rushing to prepare for sound.

"It's like they knew an era was ending, and 'Show People' is kind of a Valentine to the whole silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the screening. "It's a love letter to all the craziness that went into creating the movie business."

Marion Davies graduates to serious roles while William Haines sticks with comedy in 'Show People.'

Set in backstage Hollywood, 'Show People' features cameos by dozens of major stars of the period, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., William S. Hart, and John Gilbert.

In 2003, Show People was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Also on the program is 'Play Safe' (1927), a comedy starring Monty Banks and Virginia Lee Corbin. 'Play Safe' includes an extended sequence set on a runaway train that critics have acclaimed as some of the most exciting filmmaking of the silent film era.

The Somerville Theatre's 'Silents Please!' series aims to recreate the full silent film experience, with restored 35mm prints projected on the big screen, live music, and with a live audience. All these elements are essential to seeing silent films they way they were intended, Rapsis said.

“At their best, silent films were a communal experience very different from today’s movies—one in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions,” Rapsis said.

Other upcoming features in the Somerville's silent film schedule include:

• Sunday, July 5, 2 p.m.: 'The Big Parade' (1925) starring John Gilbert, Renee Adoreé. 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!

‘Show People’ (1928), a classic silent comedy starring William Haines and Marion Davies, and 'Play Safe' (1927), will be shown with live music on Sunday, June 7 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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