Peter Cottontail's annual trip down the Bunny Trail brings with it the chance to uncork some of the silent era's Biblical epics, and Easter 2016 is no exception.
This year, I'm doing music for two separate screenings of the original silent 'Ben Hur' (1925): on Wednesday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at Merrimack College at North Andover, Mass.; and then again on Sunday, March 27 (that's Easter Sunday, folks!) at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.
Admission to either screening is free, although we actively encourage a donation of $5 per person for the Wilton screenings to help defray expenses. More details about Wednesday night's showing at Merrimack College is below; I'll post Wilton details later in the week.
Before we give ourselves wholly to Holy Week, here's a quick run-down of recent screenings. Some incredible accompaniment experiences filled the past few days, to wit:
• Thursday, March 17: I had to postpone a planned St. Patrick's Day silent film program due to a sudden onset of flu that gave me a temperature that looked like today's high in Phoenix on any given day in July.
But the folks at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H. were kind enough to reschedule the show to one week later, meaning Thursday, March 24 at 6:30 p.m. That's when we'll celebrate the wearing o' the green, instead of my face just being that color.
Highlighting the program is 'Conductor 1492' (1924), an Irish-themed comedy starring Johnny Hines. This is one of those films that surprises everyone, including me, every time it's run.
Why? Because no one today has ever heard of Johnny Hines. And yet this film somehow bonds with audiences, and people end up loving him. He becomes our own little discovery, every time.
I'm sure it'll happen again on Thursday night, so I hope you can join us for the screening. Also on the bill: Buster Keaton's short 'My Wife's Relations.' Admission to the program is $10 per person.
• Friday, March 18: In doing music for a screening of 'The Last Laugh' (1924) at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., I found our show competing with a 'Phantom of the Opera' sing-along in one of the other rooms.
Can you imagine the confusion that would have ensued if we'd somehow programmed the silent version of 'Phantom' at the same time as the sing-a-long? Now that would have been fun!
A modest turnout of about two dozen people took in the Murnau classic, which I love doing because it's another film no one's ever seen but which always provokes a strong reaction.
That was the case on Friday night, but not quite what I expected. In pre-screening remarks, I often encourage audience members to not be shy about reacting to what happens on screen.
"You'll notice we don't run a notice prior to the film saying No Talking," I say. "I encourage you to react any way you like, as that's all part of the experience."
Well, we had a few people on Friday who took that to mean they could talk among themselves throughout the screening, as if it was taking place in their own living room.
Also, they found Emil Jannings to be absolutely hilarious, which he can be in the lead role of a doorman who unexpectedly loses his job. But not all the time.
So here we were, going through some quite serious footage of Jannings first coming to grips that his life has changed, and these folks are just yukking it up big time, not taking the film seriously and seemingly spoiling it for others.
I kept wanting to say: That's not what I meant! But I kept going with the music, thinking I could quiet them down by playing (or not playing) at the keyboard.
Well, I couldn't. It was one long episode of Mystery Science 3000, more or less, and I really had only myself to blame for encouraging people to react.
Eventually the film asserted itself, starting with the fantasy sequence for the Jannings character. And it really isn't always quite so serious, so on the upside, I've never heard 'The Last Laugh' get as many laughs as it did last Friday night.
And by the time the film's "twist of fate" ending came along, Murnau had everyone eating out of his hand.
Despite the distractions, I pushed through with the music, keeping serious-stuff going where appropriate even if I was being drowned out by guffaws nearby. What else could I do?
Even so, I need to change my pitch: yes, react, but no running commentary, please.
• Saturday, March 19 took me to Danbury, N.H., home of the Blazing Star Grange Hall, for a Saturday-night-at-the-movies program that turned out to be one of the highlights of the season so far.
Why? Because somehow word got out, and before we knew what was happening, the relatively small hall was packed to overflowing with kids, parents, grandparents, and everyone's aunt and uncle besides.
They were there for a good time, so there was a tremendous amount of energy to work with. Plus, a packed house always lends an air of excitement to the screening of even the shabbiest film.
But nothing shabby about Saturday night's program: Harold Lloyd in 'Never Weaken' (1921) and 'Grandma's Boy' (1922).
And it was just one of those perfect nights where explosive laughter greeted the first scene, and then never let up.
I kept the intro to a minimum, just introducing Lloyd and explaining how he came by hi place in the 1920s comedy pantheon—by hard work, mostly, which people could relate to.
And off we went. People loved discovering Harold and his world, and I had a blast creating music to help it all come to life and stick to the screen.
It being a Grange Hall, it was a perfect setting for 'Grandma's Boy' in particular, with its rural small-town atmosphere and its depiction of old-time ways.
So it was one of those magic nights where everything comes together, and the sum becomes something greater than the individual parts.
And me? The closest I think I'll ever come to being a rock star is the resounding ovation I got at the Blazing Star Grange Hall. It really took the chill out of the Saturday evening, let me tell you.
• Sunday, March 20: a four-hour drive to the far side of Maine isn't a bad way to spend a Sunday. That's especially true if the weather's clear (which it was) and your destination is the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport, Maine—which for me, it was.
On the program: a 6 p.m. screening of the recently rediscovered original screen adaptation of 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916), which the Alamo was running to kick off its centennial celebration.
I was thrilled to do music for this restoration, which I first saw last year during the 'Mostly Lost' festival at the Library of Congress Packard Center in Culpeper, Va.
Because it was my first time scoring it, and also because it was heavy with possible sound effect cues, I actually sat down and prepared material in advance.
So after making my way through some of the most starkly beautiful countryside in New England (or anywhere, really), I arrived at the Alamo.
The Alamo, turning 100 years old this year, is the exhibition arm of Northeast Historic Film, an archive specializing in motion picture materials and which focuses on film of all types shot in northern New England.
After I set up my keyboard, Amber Bertin of Northeast was kind enough to take me on a tour of the facility, which consists of the vintage building housing the Alamo and a fairly new "archive" wing housing modern vaults, complete with climate control, fire suppression—the works!
It's a fascinating place that does great work. And I hope to return there again soon, because the Alamo itself is a first-class facility for film of all types, including silent film.
And there seems to be an interest. We had probably 40 or 50 people attend the 'Sherlock' screening. It was the kick-off of a series of screenings designed to celebrate cinema throughout the century that Alamo has been in the picture business.
Musically, I thought things started strong, but then went into overdrive as the film progressed. It was one of those occasions where I had just the right themes and materials to work with as the film progressed, and they flexed and bent just enough in the heat of the moment for everything to fit perfectly, one scene after another.
So another rush, making it three nights in a row. As Sherlock hung up his pipe and the film ended, I was greeted by an ovation even louder and more raucous than that from the Grange the night before.
What a privilege to be able to create music to help this rediscovered piece of cinematic history come to life! In a real theater, with real people!
It's weekends like this that remind me why all the work has been worth it so far—that I have developed instincts that are enough to see me through three very different films with three very difference audiences in three different venues, and have them all come out well.
Four, if I hadn't missed St. Patrick's Day due to my fever.
We'll catch up on that one later this week. For now, the next screening is 'Ben Hur' (1925) tomorrow night at the Rogers Center for the Arts at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
Here's a press release with all the details:
MONDAY, MARCH 7, 2016 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Silent film epic ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) at Merrimack College on Wednesday, March 23
Hollywood's original Biblical-era blockbuster to be screened with live music at Rogers Center for the Arts
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—One of early Hollywood's greatest epics returns to the big screen with a showing of 'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) at the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts at Merrimack College on Wednesday, March 23 at 7 p.m.
The program, the latest in the Rogers Center's silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free.
'Ben Hur,' starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, was among the first motion pictures to tell a Biblical-era story on an enormous scale.
The film, which helped establish MGM as a leading Hollywood studio, employed a cast of thousands and boasted action sequences including a large-scale sea battle. The film is highlighted by a spell-binding chariot race that still leaves audiences breathless.
Set in the Holy Land at the time of Christ's birth, 'Ben Hur' tells the story of a Jewish family in Jerusalem whose fortune is confiscated by the Romans and its members jailed.
The enslaved family heir, Judah Ben Hur (played by Novarro, a leading silent-era heartthrob) is inspired by encounters with Christ to pursue justice, which leads him to a series of epic adventures in his quest to find his mother and sister and restore his family fortune.
The film is particularly appropriate for the week leading up to Easter.
The screening is the latest in Rogers Center's series of silent film screenings. The series aims to showcase the best of early Hollywood the way it was intended to be experienced: on the big screen, with live music, and in a theater with an audience.
"Put together those elements, and it's amazing how much power these films still have. You realize why these films caused people to first fall in love with the movies, said accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a full score for the 2½-hour epic.
'Ben Hur,' directed by Fred Niblo, was among the most expensive films of the silent era, taking two years to make and costing between $4 million and $6 million. When released in 1925, it became a huge hit for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.
The chariot race scene in 'Ben Hur,' with Novarro and other cast members driving teams of horses at high speed on a mammoth dirt racetrack in a gigantic replica of a Roman stadium, was among the most complicated and dangerous sequences filmed in the silent era. It remains noted for its tight editing, dramatic sweep, and sheer cinematic excitement.
The chariot race was re-created virtually shot for shot in MGM's 1959 remake, and more recently imitated in the pod race scene in 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.'
Besides Novarro in the title role, the film stars Francis X. Bushman as Messala, the Roman soldier who imprisons the Hur family; Betty Bronson as Mary, mother of Jesus; May McAvoy as Ben Hur's sister Esther; and Claire McDowell as Ben Hur's mother. 'Ben Hur' was based on the best-selling 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace, which interwove the story of Christ's life with the Ben Hur clan, a fictional Jewish merchant family.
Celebrity "extras" in the chariot race scene included stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Lionel Barrymore, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and a very young Clark Gable.
The film was remade by MGM in the 1950s in a color and wide-screen version starring Charleston Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. Some critics believe the original 1925 version offers superior drama and story-telling.
MGM executives at the time, aware of the quality of the original version, attempted to destroy all prints of the 1925 'Ben Hur,' sending the FBI out to confiscate collector copies in the 1950s. However, the studio did preserve the negative of the 1925 version, so the film remains available today.
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.
For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.
Upcoming shows in this year's series include:
'Ben Hur' (1925) will be screened with live music on Wednesday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. The program is free and open to the public. For more information, call the Rogers box office at (978) 837-5355. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.
For info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.