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

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