Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Was that skunk right after all? Report
from 'The Road to Yesterday' (1925)

It's true—a film can sometimes turn out to be a real stinker.

But last night at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library marked the first time I've ever had a skunk threaten to disrupt a screening!

Yes, an actual skunk: a full-grown adult. And this was not in backwoods New Hampsha, but right in the downtown of Manchester, our state's largest city.

(Okay, that's not saying much. But it weren't the backwoods, neitha.)

What happened was, I had schlepped all my gear from the car to the library theater's basement door, which must be kept open during load-in so it doesn't lock you out.

So there I am, the heavy door propped wide open by my two Roland speakers, and man-handling my Korg keyboard to get it through the opening.

And then I hear noise from the ground cover.

Crunch! Crunch! Crunch!

So I look up, and marching slowing along the base of the building and not 10 feet from me is a very large skunk, coming right at me!

And my arms are full, and the door is open, and Mr. Skunk shows no signs of hesitating.

Crunch! Crunch! Crunch!

I didn't think his presence was a comment on the night's movie, Cecil B. DeMille's time-travel drama (don't ask), 'The Road to Yesterday' (1925).

It was a cold and wet night, so he was probably attracted by the light and heat coming from the open library door. Can't blame him for that.

For a moment I froze, my arms filled with 70 lbs. of keyboard. But then I just laughed out loud at the absurdity of the situation.

Great! Just great! It hadn't been the best day already, and now I've got a skunk about to enter the library. Why not?

But then I moved quickly to get the keyboard in (and out of the rain), and then to get the door shut.

By then, Mr. Skunk had changed his mind about checking out the door, and had turned around and was waddling back from whence he came, soon disappearing around the building's far corner.
Crunch! Crunch. Crunch.
Wow! Close call!

But part of me wanted the skunk to come inside just for the fun of seeing everyone go crazy.

That might have been enough to distract people from 'The Road to Yesterday' (1925) a lesser-known Cecil B. DeMille drama that turned out to be lesser-known for a good reason, I thought.

The story: two 1920s couples suffering marital/engagement strife are caught in a train wreck, which sends them back in time to Elizabethan England!

There, they confront problems in their past lives that are preventing true happiness back in the modern era. Highlights include a torture scene and the burning of a witch, plus comedy relief.

Our audience actually seemed to buy it and enjoyed the film, which surprised me. I found it overblown, incoherent, and absurd.

Plus the plot was hard to follow from the accompanist bench. So maybe the skunk was an omen!

The little bit of skunk slapstick was only the latest example of me getting caught up in real-life silent film schtick.

While setting up for a Chaplin program at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre this past weekend, I leaned down to untangle some audio cables, and when I tried to stand up, I found my necktie was now also tangled in the cords.

This prompted an unplanned tribute to visual comedy, all right in front of about 100 people, thank you very much.

Speaking of Chaplin: this weekend takes me to the grandly named Tuscan Opera House in Dixfield, Maine, where students from Dirigo High School have organized a show featuring the Little Tramp on Saturday, Dec. 5.

It's about a three-hour drive one way for me. But distance matters not to those craving a Chaplin fix, so I wanted to get the info out.

Below is a press release for the Chaplin screening, the latest in a now annual program of silent films organized by the students and their teacher, Kurt Rowley.

So get out your compass and head north. Hope to see you there!

An original poster for 'The Kid' (1921).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Chaplin's 'The Kid' to screen on Saturday, Dec. 5 at Tuscan Opera House

Landmark silent film comedy/drama to be presented with live music at historic venue

DIXFIELD, Maine—A comic icon of cinema's early days will return to the big screen for one night only, as the Tuscan Opera House presents an evening of silent film comedy starring Charlie Chaplin on Saturday, Dec. 5.

The show begins at 7 p.m. and will feature several Chaplin films, highlighted by 'The Kid' (1921), his breakthrough feature-length comedy/drama.

The program, organized by Dirigo High School students as a fund-raiser for the local historical society, is open to the public. Admission is $10 per person.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

Rapsis will also provide background on Chaplin's career as well as introduce each film.

"There's nothing like silent film comedy shown on the big screen with a live audience," said Rapsis, who accompanies silent film screenings at venues around New England.

The Dixfield program is a follow-up to well-received silent film shows held in recent years at the historic four-story opera house.

A still from 'The Kid' (1921) starring Charles Chaplin and Jackie Coogan.

Chaplin was already the world's most popular comedian and filmmaker when he produced 'The Kid,' his first feature-length project. The movie, with its daring mix of intense drama and slapstick comedy, proved an instant sensation and marked one of the high points of Chaplin's long career.

'The Kid' follows the story of a tramp (Chaplin) who attempts to raise an orphaned boy on his own. It includes several classic scenes, and is highlighted by a sequence in which Chaplin battles authorities attempting to return the child to an orphanage.

Co-starring with Chaplin in 'The Kid' is five-year-old Jackie Coogan, who turned in what many critics rank as the best child performance of the entire silent film era. Chaplin himself worked closely with the young Coogan for more than a year to develop the youngster's acting abilities.

Coogan went on to a long career that much later included the role of "Uncle Fester" (at right) in the popular 1960s Addams Family television show.

'The Kid' will be preceded by two of Chaplin's earlier short comedies that helped establish his worldwide popularity: 'The Tramp' (1915) and 'The Vagabond' (1916).

The Chaplin program at the Tuscan Opera House provides local audiences a chance to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in restored prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put pieces of the experience back together again, it's surprising how these films snap back to life," Rapsis said. "By showing the films under the right conditions, you can really get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."

In creating music for silent films, Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Dixfield's Tuscan Opera House is an unusual four-story structure built in the late 19th century as a meeting house for the International Order of Odd Fellows.

Its original configuration included a kitchen and dining room in the basement, theater and dance hall on the ground floor, balcony and dressing rooms on the second floor, and the IOOF Lodge on the third floor, as well as attic space.

The building served as a cultural center for the Dixfield area for several generations, providing a venue for concerts, summer theater, town meetings, dances, motion picture shows, and church services.

Because Dixfield schools had no auditorium before 1970, graduations, plays, prize speaking, proms and all manner of school productions were held at the Opera House. In more recent years, the building became the site of several commercial ventures including an antique store and restaurants.

Dirigo High School students present Charlie Chaplin in 'The Kid' (1921) and other films, all shown with live music, on Saturday, Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Tuscan Opera House, Maine Street, Dixfield. Tickets available at the door; admission is $10 per person, with all proceeds to go to the local historical society.

For more information and advance tickets, please contact Dirigo High School teacher Kurt Rowley at (207) 680-0113.


“Chaplin's first real feature mixes slapstick and sentiment in a winning combination, as the Tramp raises a streetwise orphan. Wonderful film launched Coogan as a major child star, and it's easy to see why.”
— Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

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