Saturday, February 20, 2016

Somerville's "Silents, Please!" restarts with
Keaton's 'Steamboat'' (1928) on Sunday, 2/21

Pay no attention to the weather—come see 'Steamboat Bill' on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre.

Of all the regular gigs I hold down, the monthly series at the Somerville Theatre ranks as perhaps the most authentic.

Why? Well, for starters, the films are shown in an actual vintage theater that remains largely unchanged from the 1920s.

Also, the series uses only 35mm prints, with projection handled expertly by David Kornfeld.

Also, because the theater is right in the middle of metro Boston, it's not unusual for more than 100 people to turn up for a screening.

So the experience comes pretty close, I think, to what it was like when these films were in original release.

It's also a bit special for me because it's Boston, after all.
Imagine: me doing film accompaniment in a world-class city that's home to some of most highly regarded music schools and institutions—and musicians—anywhere! Yo-Yo Ma, anyone?

I know—I can't believe it either. I keep thinking some mistake must have been made along the way.

Me at the keyboard (lower left) for 'Himmelskibet' (1918) during this year's Boston Sci-Fi 24-Hour Marathon at the Somerville Theatre.

But until I'm told to stop, I'll continue trekking down to the Somerville each month for a silent film program. And the next one is tomorrow!

Yes, the theater's 'Silents, Please!' series, dormant over the holidays, reboots with 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928), Buster Keaton's legendary riverboat comedy.

'Steamboat' is so well-known, you almost don't have to include the film's title to get people to turn out.

My accompanist colleague Ben Model in New York, who's also playing for 'Steamboat' this weekend, described it this way on Facebook:
The one where the house falls on him. Tomorrow Sat 2/20 at 7pm w/me on pipe organ in Westchester.
Yes, the one where the house falls on him. Of course!

We're running 'Steamboat' on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 2 p.m. More info in the press release pasted in below.

The thing about 'Steamboat' is that it was Keaton's final independent feature—the last film he made on his own, with financing by his brother-in-law, Joseph Schenk.

With Keaton in charge, it was a team that produced a run of titles that no less a critic than Roger Ebert regarded as some of the best and most courageous filmmaking of any era.

After 'Steamboat,' Keaton signed with MGM, becoming just another MGM superstar, with little control over his films.

In hindsight, Keaton called it the worst mistake of his life. And knowing that, I think, colors my perception of 'Steamboat' just a little.

Buster and Ernest Torrence on deck in 'Steamboat.'

No one knew it when the film was being planned, but 'Steamboat' marked the end of an incredibly fertile kind of filmmaking.

It was a world where Buster, supported by Schenk's money, was free to take his time, improvise, experiment, and just keep trying things until he got what he was after.

Did it work? Well, it was a method that produced great one-of-a-kind films such as 'The Navigator' (1924) and 'The General' (1927).

Other filmmakers of the era, including Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, employed a similar system. So I think it was an essential ingredient in how their movies emerged as they did.

I think there's a lot we could gain by studying how filmmakers of the 1920s went about creating new worlds, both on screen but also in the organization of their studio.

Someone should do a study. Whether or not anyone ever does, we can still enjoy 'Steamboat Bill Jr.', so I hope you'll join us tomorrow (Sunday, Feb. 21) at the Somerville to see it in 35mm!

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent comedy 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' to be shown in 35mm at Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 21

Somerville's 'Silents Please!' series resumes with Buster Keaton masterpiece screened with live music

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—Silent film with live music returns to the Somerville Theatre this month with 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), a classic comedy starring Buster Keaton, one of the era's top performers.

'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will be revived for one showing only on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 2 p.m. General admission is $15 per person.

With 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' the Somerville Theatre resumes its popular 'Silents Please!' series, which gives movie-goers the chance to experience silent film in the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, using 35mm prints, with live music, and with an audience.

In 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' Buster plays the bumbling son of a riverboat’s rough captain. When a rival brings a newer boat to the river, the family is forced to face competition, just as Buster is forced to ride out a cyclone threatening to destroy the community.

Can Buster save the day and win the hand of his girlfriend? And will it matter that the girl just happens to be daughter of his father's business rival?

The film includes the famous shot of an entire building front collapsing on Keaton, who is miraculously spared by a conveniently placed second-story window.

The screening of 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

Rapsis will create the accompaniment on the spot, making up the music as the movie unfolds to enhance the action on the screen as well respond to audience reactions. He will perform the music on a digital synthesizer, which is capable of producing a wide range of theatre organ and orchestral textures.

"Live music was an integral part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "Because most films at the time weren't released with sheet music or scores, studios depended on local musicians to come up with an effective score that would be different in every theater. At its best, this approach created an energy and a connection that added a great deal to a film's impact. That's what I try to recreate," Rapsis said.

Keaton, who grew up performing with the family vaudeville act, was known for never smiling on camera, an important element of his comic identity. A trained acrobat who learned at an early age how to take a fall, Keaton did all his own stunts on camera in the era before post-production special effects.

Critics continue to hail Keaton’s timeless comedy as well as his intuitive filmmaking genius. In 2002, Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton that “in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.”

Keaton, who never attended school, did not think of himself as an artist but as an entertainer using the new medium of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

Upcoming screenings in the Somerville Theatre's 'Silents Please!' series include:

• Sunday, April 3: 'Intolerance' (1916). Nothing succeeds like excess as D.W. Griffith's massive four-stories-in-one spectacle celebrates its centennial.

• Sunday, May 15: 'Paths to Paradise' (1925). Rediscover the beguiling talents of Boston-born silent comic Raymond Griffith, who stars in this jewel-heist caper, one of his best surviving films.

• Sunday, June 5: 'Flesh and the Devil' (1926). The MGM drama that put budding megastars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert on the map as the screen's hottest couple.

• Sunday, July 10: 'So's Your Old Man' (1926) and 'It's the Old Army Game' (1926). A pair of vintage W.C. Fields silent feature comedies; program hosted by the great man's granddaughter, Dr. Harriet Fields.

'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will be screened in 35mm on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission to the screening is $15 or $12 seniors/students. For more info, call (617) 625-5700 or visit For more info on the music, visit

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