Sunday, August 14, 2016

Next up at the Somerville Theatre:
'Stella Maris' in 35mm on Sunday, Aug. 14

Conway Tearle and Mary Pickford in 'Stella Maris' (1918).

Very excited for the Boston Globe (our region's biggest newspaper) to publish a preview about our screening of Mary Pickford's 'Stella Maris' (1918) on Sunday, Aug. 14 at 2 p.m.

Writer Loren King put together a nice piece on the film and on my approach to accompanying it.

It's online here, although you may need to be a subscriber to see the whole thing.

I've also posted it as a separate page under the "More Information" area to the right. Check it out!

I'm behind on postings and previews due to a heavy performance schedule in the past week.

Got back this past Monday from our stay in Rome, Italy, and then it was a silent film screening every single night for the rest of the week!

Tuesday, Aug. 9 was 'Desert Nights' (1929), a late MGM silent with John Gilbert, Mary Nolan, and Ernest Torrance battling to survive in the Kalahari Desert.

I love these end-of-the-road silents because they were generally overlooked when first released, and often contain some really good stuff.

'Desert Nights' was a prime example: a big MGM production with a strong cast and technically quite accomplished, and a film I'd never heard of or accompanied before.

Audience reaction at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library was strong. 'Desert Nights' still holds up. So it's one to file in the "unknown but surprisingly good" category.

The entrance to the Biltmore ballroom, site of a 1925 "world premiere."

Wednesday, Aug. 10 brought an unusual gig at the vintage Biltmore Hotel in downtown Providence, R.I.

I accompanied the great 1925 comedy 'Her Sister From Paris' in a ballroom packed with people dressed as vacationers from the 1890s through the 1920s.

This was part of a week-long "seaside vacation" experience run by "Moments in Time," a Connecticut-based group dedicated to reviving vintage holiday-making, with an emphasis on period dress and dance.

The events attract people from all over the nation: at the pre-show dinner, among my tablemates were a couple from North Carolina who clearly enjoyed the chance to visit a bygone era, sartorially and otherwise.

Showing a silent film with live music was a new wrinkle in this group's activities, and I'm pleased to report it was a smash hit.

Really! You know you're in for a good time when even the open titles generate raucous laughter.

But this turned out to be one of those great, great nights, where the film clicks right from the start and audience response is non-stop.

Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman and a ballroom full of people dressed in vintage clothing. What's not to like?

Backstage at the Biltmore: what employees see when exiting any of the three service elevators, one of which is reserved exclusively for room service.

Because it was in an upstairs ballroom in an actual working hotel, I myself had the unusual experience of having to load-in not through the lobby, but "back stage" through the loading dock and service elevators.

It being a humid night with temps in the 90s, I have renewed respect and sympathy for the people who delivery room service. And I appreciated the "Smile, You're About to Go On Stage" reminders (in English and Spanish) in the employee elevators.

But everyone could not have been nicer and more helpful. So here's hoping there's room for more silent film screenings in future "Moments in Time" activities.

The Clayton family (owners of the Leavitt Theatre) always outdo themselves in producing large-format "sandwich board" sidewalk placards, even for obscure films.

Thursday, Aug. 11 saw me returning to the historic Leavitt Theatre (opened in 1923 and virtually unchanged since) in Ogunquit, Maine for "Silent Comedy Night" featuring Harry Langdon in 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926).

Prior to the show, I polled the audience to see if any Langdon groupies were on hand. Surprisingly, some were!

With a modest turnout of about 50 people (and another warm night) one took a while to get going.

But no matter what else happens, it always comes to life when Harry winds up literally hanging by a thread over a cliffside. And that's what happened on Thursday night, and it was smooth sailing (and much laughter) from that point on.

A one-sheet promo for 'The Yankee Clipper.'

Friday, Aug. 12 brought me to Concord's Red River Theatres and 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927) starring William Boyd, known today mostly for his later work as "Hopalong Cassidy" in innumerable Westerns.

It was the latest installment of our monthly silent film program.

In summer, turnout for this series is sometimes anemic. But not the case this time: we nearly filled the small screening room with a crowd pumped for adventure on the high seas.

To try to stir up appropriate excitement, I opened my introduction like this:

Me: "Okay, how many Hopalong Cassidy fans do we have here tonight?"

Crowd: Yay!

Me: "And how many people here are fans of those great sailing vessels, the tall ships and the clipper ships?"

Crowd: Bigger Yay!

Me: "And how many fans do we have of U.S. President Zachary Taylor?!"

Crowd: Biggest yay of all, but possibly ironic.

But they really, really enjoyed the flick, a Cecil B. DeMille production that really holds up well. The fact that it's set in the 1840s gives it a timeless quality and a "history comes to life" kind of appeal similar to Buster Keaton's 'The General.'

As an added bonus, 'The Yankee Clipper' cast includes New Hampshire native Walter Long in yet another "tough guy" role, in this case "Ironhead Joe" who meets his requisite end only after having tobacco "chaw" being spit in his face by Junior Coughlin.

Long's appearance shouldn't be a surprise, though, as he seems to have appeared in about 70 percent of all films made during the silent era.

Someone should write a book about this interesting guy, who acted in everything from 'The Birth of a Nation' and 'Intolerance' to Laurel and Hardy comedies.

If they do, here's a working title: "Witness to Hollywood."

And that brings us up to today, when I'll head down to Beantown (otherwise known as Boston) and do music for 'Stella Maris' at the Somerville Theatre.

Not only does the cast include Mary Pickford playing two roles, but also features the legendary actor Gustav Von Seyffertitz (who would later play the evil "baby farm" owner in Pickford's 'Sparrows' in 1926) and Teddy the Dog, on loan from Mack Sennett's studio, where he routinely rescued damsels in distress. (Here he gets to experience more lasting satisfaction.)

Showtime is 2 p.m. The print is 35mm. What are you waiting for?

For more info, check out the press release I've pasted in below.

And for even more info, here's a great write-up from a Pickford blog-a-thon from a few years ago.

And here's a different perspective (and somewhat less charitable) from a paper in Asheville, N.C. prior to a recent screening.

For a film that's nearly a century old, 'Stella Maris' still gets a lot of press!

See you there!

* * *

The wonders of 1918 split-screen photography bring us Mary Pickford and Mary Pickford playing two lead roles in 'Stella Maris.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Somerville Theatre to show rare silent feature film starring Mary Pickford

Intense melodrama 'Stella Maris' (1918) to be screened in 35mm and with live music

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—She was a pioneering figure in early cinema, and all the more remarkable because she worked in an otherwise male-dominated industry.

She was Mary Pickford, one of biggest superstars of the silent film era, as well as a major force behind the cameras during her long career.

Rediscover Pickford's unique appeal with a screening of 'Stella Maris' (1918), a melodrama starring Pickford, which will be shown with live music on Sunday, Aug. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

The film will be screened using a 35mm print from the U.S. Library of Congress. General admission to program is $15 per person.

Pickford was a screen veteran with nearly 10 years of experience and already a major star when she made 'Stella Maris,' a melodrama in which she played two roles.

Stella Maris (Mary Pickford), paralyzed since birth, lives in an opulent mansion and has virtually no knowledge of the outside world. She adores her frequent visitor John Risca (Conway Tearle), a journalist stuck in a loveless marriage to Louise (Marcia Manon).

After Louise viciously beats her maid Unity Blake (also Pickford), she is jailed, and Unity too falls in love with John. The two young women are hopelessly enamored of the same man, and after Louise's release something has to give.

'Stella Maris' is a classic example of the kind of emotionally charged melodrama that was immensely popular during the silent era, and which still holds up today when screened as intended—with live music, in a theater, and with an audience.

The film was directed by Marshall Neilan, a frequent Pickford collaborator.

Pickford, a pioneering film superstar, was a major force in early Hollywood, helping establish the United Artists studio and serving as a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which to this day bestows the annual Oscar awards.

However, Pickford's films receive comparatively little attention today, in part due to the myth that Pickford often played wholesome and traditional female characters that conformed with society's expectations at the time.

In truth, Pickford's best movies often featured her in roles that required her to take action, challenge authority, and play strong roles uncommon for a woman of the era.

Pickford would go on to make many successful films throughout the silent period, and further cemented her status as Hollywood royalty by marrying swashbuckling adventure icon Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in 1920.

The Pickford program is the latest installment of the Somerville Theatre's monthly "Silents, Please!" series, designed to showcase the silent era's best feature films the way they were intended to be shown—using actual 35mm film prints projected on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put all these elements together, the films come to life in a way that's surprising to modern audiences," said Ian Judge, the Somerville's general manager. "Our silent film series has been very successful at attracting an audience, we're thrilled to continue it on a monthly basis."

'Stella Maris' will be accompanied by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician and composer.

For silent film, Rapsis improvises music in real time, while the film is running, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the "movie score" texture of a full orchestra.

"Making up a score live is a bit of a high-wire act, but it allows me to follow and support the film a lot more effectively than if I was buried in sheet music," Rapsis said. "Instead, I'm free to follow the film right in the moment. Each time it's different, which lends a certain energy and immediacy and excitement to the experience."

'Stella Maris,' a silent melodrama starring Mary Pickford, will be screened in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Aug. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theater, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission is $15 adults, $12 students/seniors; general admission seating. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit For more info on the music, visit

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