Friday, May 27, 2016

In this corner—a summer of the 'sweet science'
of boxing on the silent screen in Wilton, N.H.

Buster Keaton in 'Battling Butler' (1926).

Even if boxing isn't your bag, I hope you'll join us for a series of silent films this summer that center on the sweet science.

Heck, even if you're not into silent film, I hope you'll check out this series. :)

It's at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre, where we'll run boxing-related dramas, comedies, and love stories in the coming months.

Several heavyweight filmmakers headline the action, with Alfred Hitchcock and Buster Keaton among them.

But the undercard includes many other hopefuls and wanna-bes, all eager for their shot in the ring.

First up is 'Dress Parade' (1927), a Cecil B. DeMille drama starring William Boyd as a prizefighter who falls for the daughter of a West Point Commandant.

Boyd would later go on to lasting fame as cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy. "Dress Parade" was filmed on location at West Point, and so doubles as our annual Memorial Day weekend silent film tribute.

Actually, it's more of a military story than a boxing tale, and so it'll serve as a transition into the boxing flicks.

The screening is Sunday, May 29 at 4:30 p.m, at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Live music is by me.

Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to defray expenses.

A full line-up of the other contenders in our boxing series is found in the press release below.

Taken as a whole, these movies form a time capsule into an era when boxing rivaled baseball as the nation's most popular sport.

That's no longer the case, of course, especially with today's emphasis on safety and injury prevention.

But back in the 1920s, the fight game enjoyed a national popularity that extended right down to the grassroots.

Neighborhoods, ethnic groups, you name it: every town had a fight arena, and just about everyone had a favorite fighter to root for.

And kids idolized champions such as Jack Dempsey, whose "long count" bout with Gene Tunney in 1927 was one of the era's big stories.

This popularity is reflected in the movies of the time. Watch films from the silent era, and you'll find boxing a constant presence.

Consider that all the great silent comedians—Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon—spent time in the prize ring.

Just last night at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., I introduced a screening of Chaplin's 'City Lights' (1931).

Judging from audience reaction, the superbly choreographed boxing scene was the highlight of the evening.

So boxing, and the struggle it symbolized, was regarded as part of everyday life.

Moreover, boxing was visual. Words weren't necessary to tell the story of two men pushed to their physical limits and striving to beat each other into submission.

So moviemakers were naturally inclined to use boxing and its world as a setting for their stories.

By the way, I say "men" because at the time, boxing was completely male-dominated. Female boxing, if it occurred at all, was considered a novelty. In an era of sharply defined gender roles, a woman just didn't do such things as fight in the ring.

Surprisingly, female boxing does show up in some silent films, although usually as a gimmick. One example is Clara Bow's 'Roughhouse Rosie' (1927), in which Bow gets her men "by treating them rough!" It's a film that, alas, no longer survives.

Clara Bow in 'Roughhouse Rosie.'

Filmmakers also sometimes used boxing's raw physicality to punch up the visuals, so to speak.

There's a remarkable night club scene in Fritz Lang's film 'Spies' (1928) where two boxers in a makeshift ring beat each other senseless while a glittering society crowd looks on.

From Fritz Lang's 'Spies' (1928).

When one finally succumbs, a band strikes up, and dancing couples immediately crowd onto the floor to foxtrot. Among them are the protagonist and the mysterious woman he is battling, so I can see where Lang was going.

Well, boxing is no longer mainstream. But the elemental nature of the sport retains its fascination, I think, and also its status as a vivid metaphor for—well, everything.

It's sport reduced to its essence: two competitors facing each other in a battle for victory. What could be simpler?

And it was George Foreman who observed that boxing is "the sport to which all other sports aspire."

It continues to inspire writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, whose "On Boxing" is a minor modern classic, I think.

And it's still with us. Even if you've never set foot in a fight arena, you've used the language and imagery of boxing, which pervades everyday conversation.

Consider: a beautiful woman is a knockout. A supportive friend is in your corner.

To persevere is to go the distance. A setback is a body blow. To give up is to throw in the towel.

All these are boxing phrases.

To do something against the rules is hitting below the belt. And if you want to really hurt someone, the gloves come off.

That last phrase is a strange one. In boxing, the gloves actually allow more damage because they protect a fighter's hands.

I once thought to show someone the ropes was a boxing phrase, but it actually comes from sailing.

Well, whatever phrasing you use...I find that in a complex world of uncertainties and interdependencies and compromises, the direct simplicity of boxing can be refreshing.

I'm no fan of violence, and don't wish a concussion on anyone.

But to me, boxing is a way for us to explore and express the aggressive side of our nature. Just as the simplicity of silent film allows us to reconnect with big primal emotions, boxing allows us to experience being alive in a physical way that's intense and riveting and unlike any other.

The bell rings this weekend with 'Dress Parade' on Sunday, May 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. Below is the press release with info about other films in the series.

On the fight card: Hitchcock's early drama 'The Ring' (1927).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Put up your dukes! Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre to screen series of vintage boxing movies

Bell rings this summer on line-up of silent films spotlighting the fight game; all screened with live musical accompaniment

WILTON, N.H.—Alfred Hitchcock and Buster Keaton are among filmmakers featured in a summer series of vintage boxing movies at the Town Hall Theatre.

The series opens on Memorial Day weekend with a screening on Sunday, May 29 of 'Dress Parade' (1927), a drama filmed on location at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

All movies in the series are from the silent film era, and will be presented with live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

"At the time these films were made, boxing rivaled baseball in mainstream popularity in the United States," Rapsis said. "So early on, filmmakers naturally turned to the boxing world as a great source of drama, action, and visual excitement. In the silent era, it was a popular sub-genre."

The boxing films are part of the Wilton Town Hall Theatre's ongoing monthly silent film series. Admission to the screenings is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested.

The Town Hall Theatre's "Summer Boxing Series" opens on Sunday, May 29 at 4:30 p.m. with 'Dress Parade' (1927).

Produced by Cecil B. Demille and released by MGM, 'Dress Parade' is the story of an amateur boxer who enrolls in West Point, where he must battle for the affection of the Commandant's daughter.

The film stars a young William Boyd, who would later achieve enduring fame as Hopalong Cassidy in countless Hollywood Westerns.

'Dress Parade' includes scenes filmed on location at West Point, which prompted its screening on Memorial Day weekend.

Other titles in the Summer Boxing Series include Alfred Hitchcock's early boxing drama 'The Ring' (1927) on Sunday, July 24.

A scene from Hitchcock's 'The Ring.'

"Hitchcock's drama of two fighters in love with the same woman shows many of the characteristics that would later earn him the nickname 'The Master of Suspense,' " Rapsis said.

The series concludes on Sunday, Aug. 28 with 'Battling Butler' (1926), Buster Keaton's uproarious boxing comedy about a pampered millionaire mistaken for a champion fighter.

The series will also include several vintage boxing-themed short films.

Silent-era boxing dramas are of particular interest to sports buffs because they're filled with scenes of the fight game at the height of its mainstream popularity.

"As an elemental contest between two people, boxing inspired early filmmakers to do some of their best work," Rapsis said. "It's a very visual sport that lends itself to the movies."

All shows in the silent film series start at 4:30 p.m. The Town Hall Theatre's screenings are free and open to the public; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

Each film in the series has been selected for its overall story quality and lasting audience appeal.

"Even if you're not a boxing fan, each of these movies offers a great story told at a fast pace," Rapsis said. "These films were designed to be crowd-pleasers, and they still work today. They're the kind of films that caused audiences to first fall in love with the movies."

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre has been showing films since 1912. In addition to running the best current releases on its two screens, the theater remains committed to alternative programming such as its ongoing series of silent films with live music.

The silent series gives local audiences to experience great work of early cinema as it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The complete line-up of films in this summer's boxing series includes:

• Sunday, May 29, 4:30 p.m.: 'Dress Parade' (1927) starring William Boyd, Bessie Love. An amateur boxing champ visits the U.S. Military Academy and falls for the commandant's daughter. He wins an appointment to the Academy and then begins a rivalry for her affection. Our annual Memorial Day weekend program, filmed on location at West Point!

• Sunday, July 3, 4:30 p.m.: A Boxing Double Feature. A two-fisted pair of vintage silent boxing tales. In 'Battling Bunyan' (1924), a young mechanic turns to the prize ring to earn money to start his auto repair business; in 'The Shock Punch' (1925), a boxer takes a construction job only to find his boss is a former opponent he once defeated in the ring.

ADDITIONAL SHOW! • Sunday, July 17, 4:30 p.m.: Melodramas that Pack a Punch! Up first is 'The Battling Fool' (1924), in which a minister's son takes up boxing. In 'American Pluck' (1925), a cowboy-turned-prizefighter comes to the rescue of a visiting foreign princess.

• Sunday, July 24, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Ring' (1927) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The master of suspense was very young, and still in England, when he made this silent drama about two boxers in love with the same woman. Who will win the fight for her heart? Full of trademark Hitchcock touches even at this early stage in his career.

• Sunday, Aug. 28, 4:30 p.m.: 'Battling Butler' (1926) starring Buster Keaton. Our series of silent boxing movies concludes with Keaton's riotous comedy. Keaton plays Alfred Butler, a pampered rich idler with the same name as a feared boxing champion. When a girl he fancies thinks he's the fighter, Keaton has no choice but to start training.

The Summer Silent Boxing Film Series will begin with a screening of 'Dress Parade' (1927) on Sunday, May 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested.

For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit For more info on the music, visit

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