Monday, July 13, 2015

Coming up: a double bill of Harold Lloyd's
'Why Worry?' (1923), 'Speedy' (1928) in 35mm

A poster for our double-feature on Sunday, Aug. 2, which includes 'Why Worry?' (1923).

Phew! Just completed a four-day mini-marathon of silent film screenings that ended yesterday with a bang.

Or actually, many bangs, as there was plenty of gunfire in 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926), a Tom Mix action adventure and the latest installment of this summer's "train melodrama" series at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

I don't know what it is about these railroad films, but they've been packing them in. We must have had 100 people at Sunday afternoon's screening—amazing considering it was an unusual date (we're usually the last Sunday of each month) and it was totally gorgeous mid-summer weather in these parts.

Even in the form of a somewhat blurry transfer (the best available), people were primed to cheer on Mix and Tony the Wonder Horse as they battled the evil gang bent on robbing the K & A.

It's not the longest film ever made (at 53 minutes, I'm thinking it must be descended from a Kodascope show-at-home print or something similar) but still holds the screen very effectively.

And it's a great film for music, too. I had some good basic train material, a fanfare/march for Tom and Tony, a love theme, and some "bad guys" music, all of which come together really well, I thought.

One reason attendance has been strong could be that I've reached out to non-silent-film people by posting info about the series on railfan messageboards.

And I have seen some new faces at these screenings, including a couple who came up to me after Sunday afternoon's screening to say how much they enjoyed it.

They'd never been before, but came because "we love trains," the woman said. And their unsolicited comment was music to my ears: "We forgot there was someone playing the music," she said.

I hope I have an easier time abroad than Harold in 'Why Worry?'

Looking ahead: I'm traveling out of the country for the rest of the month, but will return in time for a double bill of Harold Lloyd features on Sunday, Aug. 2 at the Somerville Theatre.

In a program that starts at 2 p.m., we're screening 'Why Worry?' (1923) and 'Speedy' (1928), using 35mm prints from the Harold Lloyd Trust.

More than most, I think, the Lloyd pictures are tooled to work with a large audience. Because we tend to get upwards of 150 people for comedy programs at the Somerville, I'm really looking forward to the Aug. 2 program.

It's a great chance to experience Lloyd's work as his original audiences did: in a theater, on the big screen, and surrounded by people all reacting together.

It makes a huge difference. Must be something about crowd psychology loosening up and intensifying our own reactions. Anyone doing a doctoral research program on this?

And I'm especially excited by 'Speedy' because I've just seen where silent film location detective John Bengston identified an appearance of Lou Gehrig in the scenes with Babe Ruth shot outside the original Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Look! There's Lou Gehrig in Babe Ruth's 'Speedy' cameo. (Enlargement of detail on right.)

Bengston posted info about this a few years back, but I came across it only recently. Makes you wonder what else might be lurking in films that we think of as familiar.

Well, come see if you can spot any more members of the 1927 Yankees on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville.

More info is in the press release pasted in below. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Harold rides the NYC Subway.

Contact Jeff Rapsis at (603) 236-9237 • e-mail

Somerville Theatre to screen back-to-back Harold Lloyd silent comedies in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Aug. 2

Program includes political satire 'Why Worry' (1923) and 'Speedy' (1928), shot on location in 1920s NYC featuring extended Babe Ruth cameo

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — He was the bespectacled boy next door whose road to success was often paved with perilous detours.

He was Harold Lloyd, whose fast-paced comedies made him the most popular movie star of Hollywood's silent film era.

See for yourself why Lloyd was the top box office attraction of the 1920s in a double feature revival of two of his best movies: 'Why Worry?' (1923) and 'Speedy' (1928).

Both films will be screened using archival 35mm prints on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. General admission is $15; seniors/students $12.

Live music will be provided by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New England-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

The 35mm prints are on loan from the Harold Lloyd Trust of Los Angeles, Calif.

"The Harold Lloyd program continues our commitment to screening movies using real film whenever possible," said Ian Judge, the Somerville's general manager. "This format is how these pictures were designed to be shown, and as time goes by, finding good 35mm prints and a theater with the know-how to handle them is getting harder to do."

Lloyd's go-getter character proved immensely popular throughout the 1920s, with fans following him from one adventure to the next. Designed for a large audience, Lloyd's pictures—with their potent mix of comedy, sentiment, and thrills—are legendary for their ability to stir an audience in a theater even today.

Lloyd and his 8-foot-tall co-star John Aasen in 'Why Worry?'

In the political satire 'Why Worry?', Harold plays a wealthy hypochondriac traveling abroad for his health who gets caught up in a local uprising. Thrown into prison, Harold is forced to use his wits to escape and rescue his nurse from the clutches of an evil Revolutionary.

Regarded as one of Lloyd's most surreal movies, 'Why Worry?' features a cast that includes an actual real-life giant—8-foot-tall John Aasen, discovered in Minnesota during a national talent search.

'Speedy,' Lloyd's final silent feature before the transition to talkies, finds Harold as a baseball-crazed youth who must rescue the city's last horse-drawn streetcar from gangsters bent on running it out of business.

Filmed almost entirely on location in New York, 'Speedy' features remarkable glimpses of the city at the end of the 1920s, including footage of Coney Island and the original Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Lloyd with former Red Sox pitcher and then-current Yankee Babe Ruth in 'Speedy' (1928).

The latter scenes include an extended appearance by Babe Ruth, then at the height of his career during the team's storied 1927 season.

"In 'Speedy,' New York City is practically a part of the cast," Rapsis said. "In filming it on location, Lloyd knew scenes of New York would give the picture added interest to audiences across the nation and around the world. But what he didn't anticipate was that today, the location shots now provide a fascinating record of how life was lived in 1920s urban America."

Rapsis will improvise a musical score for both films as they're screened. In creating accompaniment for the Lloyd movies and other vintage classics, Rapsis tries to bridge the gap between silent film and modern audiences.

"Creating the music on the spot is a bit of a high-wire act, but it contributes a level of energy that's really crucial to the silent film experience," Rapsis said.

Other upcoming features in the Somerville's "Silents, Please" series include:

• Sunday, Sept. 13, 2 p.m.: 'The Matrimaniac' (1916) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. An unusual program that contrasts this early Fairbanks marital farce with another picture released by the same studio after Fairbanks had moved on, but which uses material from the Fairbanks film to support an entirely different story.

• Sunday, Oct. 4, 2 p.m.: 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926) starring Harry Langdon, Joan Crawford. The great silent film comedian Harry Langdon returns to the Somerville's big screen, this time with a very young Joan Crawford playing his love interest! His debut feature finds Harry entering a cross-country walking race to save the family business and impress the girl of his dreams.

• Sunday, Nov. 22, 2 p.m.: 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino. Sweeping drama of a divided family with members caught up on opposites sides during World War I. Breakthrough film for Rudolph Valentino, introducing the sultry tango and launching him to stardom.

All entries in the Somerville's silent film series are shown using 35mm prints, the native film format that few theaters are now equipped to run following Hollywood's transition to digital formats.

Harold Lloyd's ‘Why Worry?’ and 'Speedy' will be shown in 35mm and with live music on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m. at 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

Friday, July 10, 2015

Tonight: 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921) —
but first, thoughts on humans beyond all help

A vintage promotional slide for 'Orphans of the Storm.'
Tonight it's time to tip our chapeaux to Bastille Day and the French Revolution, in the form of a screening of 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), the great D.W. Griffith epic that stars the Gish sisters, a giant guillotine, and yes, a cast of thousands.

But first, a few thoughts about last night's uproarious screening of a pair of silent films that starred two different dogs—one still obscure, and one still famous.

The obscure dog was 'Peter the Great,' a German Shepherd who started out as a stunt double for other movie dogs before becoming a movie star in his own right. At the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. last night, we screened his only surviving feature, a crime thriller called 'The Sign of the Claw' (1926).

And people loved it! So Peter, if you're up there beyond the Rainbow Bridge, you live on here through your one remaining flick.

The still-famous dog was none other than 'Rin Tin Tin,' whose name echoes across the generations. We screened one of Rinty's lesser-known features, 'The Night Cry' (1926), in which our canine hero does battle with an enormous buzzard billed as a "California condor," but I have my doubts.

(Okay, an update from the always-reliable IMDB: "The trained condor who appears in the film, known as "Bozo," was the only condor in captivity at the time." That's him in the Scandinavian poster at right.)

But our audience of about 60 people had no doubts at all. They absolutely loved 'The Night Cry.' It was one of those full-throated audience engagements that you always hope for when screening a silent film: people shrieked at the action, laughed at the plot twists, applauded the good guys, and booed the villains. (Yes, they gave the bird the bird.)

And the conclusion of 'The Night Cry,' with its "triple climax" structure, drew an especially strong reaction. People were gasping and cheering and shouting (and yes, barking) so much, it drowned out the accompaniment. (No complaints from me on that!)

I don't want to spoil 'The Night Cry' for anyone, so let me just say this modest film features an absurd plot, but underneath lies a structure ingeniously built to fake out an audience.

Just when everyone senses the story has reached its big climax and we're ready for the big embrace and 'The End,' something ELSE happens to then drive the action to new heights.

And then, it happens AGAIN!

I've scored 'The Night Cry' a few times now, and the reaction is always big. And so I'm beginning to think there's more than one level as to why these films were so popular, and why they still work so well today.

First, there's the animal thing. Yes, everyone loved Rin Tin Tin, because everyone loves animals. That's something that hasn't changed in the past 100 years, and perhaps not in 10,000 years.

But also, the Rin Tin Tin films are designed to show off the dog's talents. And to do that requires a story populated by a human cast that's essentially helpless—the kind of people who get themselves into situations that only a dog could solve.

This inverts our relationship that we at the top of the food chain have with our animals. Dogs smarter than people! And somehow, we respond quite strongly to the idea that our faithful four-footed companions are capable of tremendous feats of intelligence and bravery—look, it's right there on the screen!

Either that, or we just get a kick out of people doing really dumb things and needing a dog to rescue them.

In any case, it speaks (woof!) to what I have come to believe whole-heartedly: that the audience is an essential part of the silent film experience.

The films of the silent era, good or bad, were designed from the ground up to be shown to a large audience. To view them any other way is to rob them of a good portion of their effect—no different as if you were to screen them without music.

It's that important, because being part of a crowd allows us to experience all manner of intensified emotions that just aren't possible when we're at home in the basement, alone with our entertainment center.

So thanks to everyone at the Flying Monkey last night for collaborating on what was for me a great and memorable experience. Having an audience respond like that even once in awhile makes it all worth it.

Okay, on to Revolution. Please join us this evening (Friday, July 10) for 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), screening at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Tickets are $10 per person. More info in the press release below:

* * *

Lillian and Dorothy Gish star in 'Orphans of the Storm.'

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

French Revolution epic comes to Red River Theatres on Friday, July 10

D.W. Griffith's silent film masterpiece 'Orphans of the Storm' tells thrilling tale of sisters separated during political upheaval

CONCORD, N.H.—Heat up Bastille Day this year with the fires of revolution! 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), a sweeping silent film drama set during the uproar of the French Revolution, will be shown with live music on Friday, July 10 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person. The movie will be accompanied by live music performed by New Hampshire silent film composer Jeff Rapsis.

'Orphans of the Storm,' set in 1780s France, follows the story of two sisters, one blind, who seek to cure her vision by risking a trip from their country village to Paris. There, they are soon separated as anarchy erupts, the aristocracy is toppled, and the city is engulfed by the unpredictable chaos of revolution. Will fate reunite the two sisters before the guillotine separates them forever?

The film, part of Red River's silent film series, is being shown in part to mark Bastille Day (July 14), a holiday in France known as La Fête Nationale that celebrates the storming of the notorious Bastille prison in Paris in 1789 as a symbol of the French Revolution.

'Orphans of the Storm,' directed by legendary silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith, features dramatic mob scenes of revolutionary Paris filmed on a massive scale. Also, the story builds towards a spectacular and fast-moving race-to-the-rescue climax that wowed audiences in 1921, making 'Orphans of the Storm' one of the year's biggest hits.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish in costume for 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921).

Leading roles in 'Orphans of the Storm' are played by two actual sisters, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, both major stars of Hollywood's silent era. Lillian Gish, an iconic actress of the silent era, went on to a career that lasted long enough to include an appearance on 'The Love Boat' television series in the 1980s. She died in 1993 at age 99.

Younger sister Dorothy Gish also enjoyed a productive career that included stage, film, and television roles into the 1960s; she died in 1968 at age 70.

'Orphans of the Storm' was the last in a string of successful blockbusters helmed by Griffith, who pioneered large-scale historical epics with films such as 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), 'Intolerance' (1916), and 'Way Down East' (1920). Though he continued making films, Griffith was superseded the 1920s by a new generation of filmmakers willing to take his innovations even further, creating the foundation of the motion picture industry we know today.

Although 'Orphans of the Storm' was released nine decades ago, critics today say Griffith's French Revolution epic holds up well for modern viewers. Leonard Maltin praised the film's "lavish settings and race-to-the-rescue climax," judging it "still dazzling." Critic Jeremy Heilman of wrote "the sheer amount of realized ambition on display in it makes it a sight to behold."

The guillotine is ready for its close-up in 'Orphans of the Storm.'

About D.W. Griffith, film historian Kevin Brownlow summarized his genius by writing, "however skillful the other early directors might have been, none of them knew how to project anything but the most basic emotions until Griffith showed them. And it was emotion, rather than close-ups and fade-outs, that made the people of the world fall in love with the moving picture."

The screening of 'Orphans of the Storm' will be accompanied by an improvised score created live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis achieves a traditional "movie score" sound for silent film screenings by using a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra.

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

Other dates and titles in the Red River silent film series include:

• Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Cameraman' (1928) starring Buster Keaton. To impress the girl of his dreams, mild-mannered portrait photographer Buster takes up the glamorous profession of newsreel cameraman. One of the best comedies of the silent era.

• Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Lodger' (1927). A serial killer is on the loose in fog-bound London. Will the murderer be caught before yet another victim is claimed? Just in time for Halloween, suspenseful British thriller directed by a very young Alfred Hitchcock.

Red River Theatres' 2015 Silent Film Series will continue with a screening of 'Orphans of the Storm’ (1921) on Friday, July 10 at 7 p.m. in the Jaclyn Simchik Screening Room at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 224-4600 or visit For more information about the music, visit

Monday, July 6, 2015

Dogs, the French revolution, spies, and trains: Accompanying four feature films in four days

Rin Tin Tin proves way smarter than his human co-stars in 'The Night Cry' (1926), coming up on Thursday, July 9 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

I'm revving up for what amounts to a home stretch of silent film accompaniment prior to taking some time away from the keyboard for the rest of the month.

That means four films in four days, and in four different theaters, too. It's the silent film equivalent of hitting for the cycle, I guess.

But before getting into the details, let me address yesterday's screening of 'The Big Parade' (1925) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

An original poster for 'The Big Parade' (1925).

We had a pretty strong turnout for the last day of a three-day holiday weekend—and for a matinee on a beautiful summer day at that. It wasn't too long ago when Davis Square was all but shut down, the streets clogged with four feet of snow.

But they came to see 'The Big Parade,' in the form of a great 35mm print on an enormous screen in a big old movie theater. (And unlike all the 4th of July parades this year in my home state of New Hampshire, there was nary a presidential candidate to be seen.)

It's a familiar film to me that I love accompanying. And because it's one of the big ones, it's worth reviewing prior to a screening just to make sure all the cues and cuts are fresh in your head.

This is especially important with my referee's whistle, which I match to the half-dozen times a whistle gets blown on screen as a key part of the action: the police who break up the fight in Champillon, the mail call scene, and several other points.

I think it adds a nice burst of sonic realism, but of course it has to be right on the money if it's going to work and not draw attention to itself. So it's worth getting to know those points of the film extremely well.

Same with the bugle calls, of which 'The Big Parade' has several. And on that score, not all bugle calls are alike. The purist in me, for instance, knows you really shouldn't play "Reveille" when the troops are being called to chow, as happens in 'The Big Parade.'

Instead, you should play "Mess Call," which goes like this:

Likewise, when a bugle is played calling the troops to assemble and move out, you ought to play "To Arms," which sounds like this:

Most people at a screening wouldn't know the difference. But for those who might, it's one more thing done "right" that doesn't break the mood and thus keeps the spell of silent film intact.

As you may know, all bugle calls are based on a simple triad, or the notes in a major chord. Because of that, it makes them easy to fit around other material—including the big love theme I was using in yesterday's score.

So this all works out really well in the big "moving out" sequence in 'The Big Parade,' where repeated shots of a bugler alternate with scenes of the troops assembling, and then footage of John Gilbert and Renee Adorée frantically searching for each other amid the chaos.

I was able to mix "To Arms" with the love theme pretty fluently, modulating all over the place and sometimes even playing the love theme using the rhythms of the bugle call just to add to the chaos.

Renee Adorée and John Gilbert providing reason for a "love theme" in 'The Big Parade' score.

But the most important thing about 'The Big Parade' is to HOLD BACK. As powerful as many of its scenes are, it's crucial to save something for the climactic battle scene, which Vidor cut together with the rhythm of a good 4th of July fireworks show.

At the battle's true climax, the screen is filled with a blinding series of rapid explosions that lasts only just a few seconds, but it's enough—any more would have probably been excessive. And it's only THEN that you hold nothing back, musically, I think.


Tom O'Brien, John Gilbert, and Karl Dane prepare for the climactic battle.

At the end, it was gratifying to hear such strong applause for this 90-year-old picture that still plays so well. It's a great honor to do music for it, especially on a 4th of July weekend, and I hope to play for it again very soon.

Okay, here's a brief round-up of the four upcoming screenings. I'll post detailed press releases later as we get closer. If nothing else, this is just to help me keep them all straight.

I had no idea that dog star Peter the Great started out as a stunt double for fellow canines Strongheart and Thunder the Wonder Dog.

• Thursday, July 9, 2015, 6:30 p.m.: "A Dog Double Feature" spotlighting silent-era canine stars Peter the Great and Rin Tin Tin; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; . In 'The Sign of the Claw,' a police dog helps solve a crime wave. The only surviving film of Peter the Great, a popular German shepherd performer. 'The Night Cry' (1926) finds iconic dog superstar Rin Tin Tin accused of killing sheep. Can he find the real bandit and clear his name? Part of a monthly silent film series at a newly restored moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Admission, $10 per person.

With hair like that, no wonder there was a revolution.

• Friday, July 10, 2015, 7 p.m.: "Orphans of the Storm" (1921); Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.; (603) 224-4600; Just in time for Bastille Day, D.W. Griffith's sweeping story of two sisters (Lillian and Dorothy Gish) caught up in the throes of the French revolution. Griffith's last major box office success fills the screen with a succession of iconic images. Silent film with live music at this popular venue for independent and arthouse cinema in New Hampshire's state capital. Admission $10 per person.

In my favorite scene from 'Hands Up!' (1926), Raymond Griffith teaches his Native American captors the latest dance moves.

• Saturday, July 11, 2015, 7 p.m.: "Hands Up!" (1926) starring Raymond Griffith; Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.; We mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War with this uproarious Raymond Griffith comedy. A southern spy must work every angle to prevent a shipment of western gold from reaching Union forces. Plus Laurel & Hardy comedy shorts! Join us for series silent films and live music in a wonderfully restored town hall in Brandon Vt. that features great acoustics. Admission free, donations accepted, with proceeds to help continuing preservation work.

Looking for big-screen thrills and spills? With 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926), even this poster is action-packed.

• Sunday, July 12, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: "The Great K & A Train Robbery" (1926) starring Tom Mix; Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Treachery on the rails as our hero goes undercover to learn who is tipping the bandits. One of the best Tom Mix films, with plenty of action and some fantastic stunt work. Part of a series of silent films with live music at a theater where movies have been shown since 1912! Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged.

Hope to see you at one or more of these screenings. And if anyone makes it to all four, I'll buy you lunch at the nearest White Castle. (Transportation not included. By the way, it's in the Bronx.)