Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Accompanying Gloria Swanson in 'Zaza' (1923)—
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray reissue gets good marks

Gloria in a rare introspective moment from 'Zaza.'

Wednesday, June 6 marks the official release of Kino-Lorber's Blu-ray reissue of 'Zaza' (1923). It's a Gloria Swanson vehicle that's been unavailable for home viewing until now.

I recorded a piano score for 'Zaza' earlier this year, and it's gratifying to see comments now coming in as the release gets reviewed.

From Mike Gebert of the Nitrateville vintage film discussion group:
"Jeff Rapsis contributed the piano score, based on the original cue sheets, and it's pretty much ideal, moving adroitly between comedy and tasteful Continental melodrama."
And this is from a review on the Web site:
"The film is accompanied by an entertaining piano music score by Jeff Rapsis."
From Brian Orndorf of
The 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound mix contains a score composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis, and he brings a hearty piano mood to the feature, doing a considerable job supporting onscreen activities. It's a simple track, but clear and commanding, with ideal balance and presence, without any dips in quality.
This is from Matthew Hartman of High-Def Digest:
"With a DTS-HD MA 2.0 piano score from composer Jeff Rapsis that follows the original 1923 cue sheet, this is a pretty fantastic score for the film. The piano work gives the film a nice old-time feel with the right blend of jaunty entertainment and hitting the lower dramatic tones. It never feels overly dramatic or too wild and fits the tone of the film perfectly."
And here's one from
This release features an enthusiastic piano score by Jeff Rapsis, which was adapted from an original 1923 cue sheet. The score makes liberal use of the 18th century French ballad Plaisir d’amour, which the film states is the favorite song of H.B. Warner’s character. Modern viewers will likely be more familiar with Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love, which uses the same melody. Just be assured that everything is quite correct and the movie has not developed Elvis fever.
Let me know if you see any others!

On that last one: I'd forgotten about how similar 'Plaisir d'amour' is to the tune of 'Can't Help Falling In Love,' so I'm glad that got mentioned. I'm not a stickler for period authenticity, but I wouldn't use a signature Elvis tune for a Gloria Swanson film set in post-World War I France!

I'm collecting these here not to toot my own horn (well, maybe a little) but to thank the writers for commenting on the music. Getting feedback of any kind is useful, and it's always great to see the music considered as part of a silent film's total package.

I also want to thank Rob Stone at the Library of Congress and Bret Wood at Kino Lorber for giving me this opportunity.

The Library of Congress has a 35mm print of 'Zaza,' and Rob invited me to accompany a screening of it at the Packard Campus Theatre in 2016.

This led to Rob introducing me to Bret at Kino, who asked me to put together a piano score based on the original cue sheet, which was obtained from the George Eastman archive.

And I would be remiss without mentioning all the efforts of Bill Millios, a filmmaker here in my New Hampshire home base who has been supportive of so many film/music projects.

In this case, Bill graciously gave up a few Saturday mornings to act as engineer in recording the score, which was performed on a Yamaha grand piano in the recital hall of the Manchester Community Music School way back in January. (Brrr!)

And on that note, I need to thank Judy Teehan and Valerie Gentilhomme at the music school for their assistance as well. Thank you, ladies!

Until now, I've focused on live performance as a way to improve my accompaniment technique and develop a working musical vocabulary, if vocabulary is the right word for vocabulary. (What a paradox!)

But I was excited at the chance to lay down a track for such a high profile flick (Gloria Swanson!), and I feel ready to do more.

So we'll see. Part of my capacity to do more depends on my ability to create and edit professional quality sound files, which is sorely lacking.

Changing that was one of my New Year's resolutions, and I'm afraid not much has been done in that direction. But there's always 2018!

Before we get there, however, some good screenings await, including a Buster Keaton program on Thursday, June 1 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth N.H.

The film is 'Seven Chances' (1925), and the start time is 6:30 p.m. Hope to see you there!

Buster and a bevy of would-be brides in 'Seven Chances' (1925). None of them appear to be Gloria Swanson.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Announcing three silent film accompaniment projects for the summer of 2017

'Safety Last' (1923), which a local Dixieland jazz ensemble will help me accompany on Sunday, July 9 at the Somerville Theatre.

Pleased to post about a trio of special silent film events in the coming months.

• Starting on Sunday, June 18, I'm contributing live music to an extensive summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch at the Harvard Film Archive.

• On Sunday, July 9, at a 35mm screening of the great Harold Lloyd comedy 'Safety Last' (1923), I'll be collaborating on the accompaniment with a local Dixieland group, "Sammy and the Late Risers."

• And this weekend marks the first of two visits to Toronto, Ontario for silent film music. First up is Cecil B. DeMille's early shocker 'The Cheat' (1915) at the Revue Cinema.

Then, on Saturday, Aug. 19, it's music for 'Snow White' (1916) at the Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque.

I'll details of these adventures as they come up. But the nice thing is that each of these projects shows an awareness of the importance of live music in the silent film experience.

In the case of the Harvard Film Archive, the Lubitsch "That Certain Feeling" series includes something like 20 silent titles. Programmer David Pendleton has arranged for live music for all of them, using pianists Martin Marks and Robert Humphreville in addition to me.

And if that weren't enough, the Archive is also running a Jean Renoir retrospective this summer that includes about a half-dozen silent titles, with accompaniment duties handled by Bertrand Laurence.

It's quite a heavy load, but David and his colleagues are committed to including live music as an integral part of the silent cinema experience. And it's great that they make use of a variety of musicians with different accompanying styles. Hoping to get down to Cambridge for a few screenings I'm not accompanying so I can take in how others do it.

It's one thing for a university-affiliated archive to program silents with live music. But it's a whole other kettle of fish for a first-run commercial moviehouse to run silent film with live music.

But that's been the case for some years now at the Somerville Theatre, where manage Ian Judge, projectionista David Kornfeld, and the rest of the team program centry-old classics alongside the current season's blockbusters.

I can't imagine it's a huge money-maker for the theater, which isn't part of any chain. But it's a truly distinctive element of its programming, and over the years the "Silent, Please!" series has been running, we've built up something of an audience.

Still, I was gratified to find the Somerville completely in support taking things to a new level, musically, by working with an actual Dixieland Band to do music for 'Safety Last' in July.

Ian Judge didn't even hesitate. The response: Absolutely, with the extra expense not looming as any big concern.

And I'm also indebted to Alicia Fletcher, a great fan of silent cinema who organizes a lot of programming in the Toronto area.

Thanks to her, I've had the chance to accompany films in this terrific city. And I'm looking forward to this summer's visits!

And in the "Small World" department, I first met Alicia when she was visiting Boston and attended a screening of the Able Gance film 'J'Accuse' that I was the Harvard Film Archive!

More updates as it happens. But if you're interest in the Lubitsch films, the complete schedule is online at the Harvard Film Archive's Web site.

And here's a round-up of the screenings I'm accompanying during the series, which runs from June through September.

• Sunday, June 18, 2017, 7 p.m.: "Shoe-Palace Pinkus" (1916) and "Meyer from Berlin" (1919), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. "Meyer From Berlin": one of a series of popular “Jewish comedies” starring Lubitsch himself as a go-getting schlemiel.

• Monday, June 19, 2017, 7 p.m.: "Madame Dubarry" (1919) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. The romance of Emil Jannings’ Louis XV with coquettish commoner Pola Negri leads to the French Revolution in the equally revolutionary epic that launched Lubitsch’s international fame and led to his exodus in Hollywood.

• Monday, June 26, 2017, 7 p.m.: "Kohlhiesel's Daughter" (1920) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. Dual-roled Henny Porten and Emil Jannings replay The Taming of the Shrew in the Bavarian Alps.

• Sunday, July 9, 2017, 7 p.m.: "So This Is Paris" (1926) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. Hilariously over-the-top Modern Dancers Lilyan Tashman and André Beranger are already looking for extracurricular action when in barges jealous, cane-wielding married doctor Monte Blue and the four-way complications begin, resolved in “an astounding Charleston sequence – a kind of cubist nightmare of what 20s people thought they were really like (John Gillett).”

• Friday, Aug. 4, 2017, 7 p.m.: "Anna Boleyn" (1920) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. Emil Jannings’ tour-de-force as Henry VIII highlights the most impressive of Lubitsch’s spectacles, with Henny Porten as the eponymous Anna.

• Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, 7 p.m.: "Die Bergkatze/The Wildcat" or "The Mountain Cat" (1921), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. Amidst delightfully bizarre décor—framed by altering screen shapes—a stalwart bandit chaser falls for bandit’s daughter Pola Negri. Lubitsch’s German comedy masterpiece is "both an anti-militarist satire and a wonderful fairy tale" (John Gillett).

And during all this, I'm juggling several composition projects that I've promised people for performance in the near future. So I'm buckling in for a fast summer!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Tonight: Opening night at Leavitt Theatre
for 2017 summer silent film series

Buster scrubs up for opening night in 'Three Ages.'

Tonight's main attraction at the Leavitt Theatre is a film that came out the same year the Leavitt opened its doors.

The film: 'Three Ages' (1923), Buster Keaton's first foray into feature-length comedies.

And the Leavitt Theatre is a seasonal moviehouse that also debuted in 1923 and has remained virtually the same ever since.

The Leavitt Theatre: exterior.

Buster has stood the test of time, and so has the Leavitt: tonight marks the start of the venue's 94 consecutive season of bringing entertainment to summertime visitors to Ogunquit, Maine, a popular seaside resort.

In recent years, the theater has augmented its first-run movie schedule with classic films, special events, live performances, and more.

I'm honored to do music for the Leavitt's silent film series, which honors the building's roots as a moviehouse from the era when films were made without soundtracks.

Interesting fact about the Leavitt: a good portion of the wooden seats on its steeply raked floor are original to the building. Reach below, and you'll feel a thick gauge wire loop under each seat—that's so gentlemen can stow their hats!

The Leavitt Theatre: interior.

One change in the silent film series this season is that our starting time has moved up an hour, to 7 p.m.

That allows the theatre to schedule another event later in the evening, which is good for everyone.

To find out more about the Leavitt Theatre, visit them online at

And to find out more about this season's silent film series, check out the press release below!

* * *

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit to host summer silent film series with live music

Classic comedies, action-packed dramas highlight schedule; featured stars include W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, and John Barrymore

OGUNQUIT, Maine—Classics of the silent film era will return to the big screen starting this month at Ogunquit's Leavitt Theatre, which will host a season of vintage cinema with live music in the historic facility.

The series gives area film fans a chance to see great movies from the pioneering days of cinema as they were intended to be shown—on the big screen, with an audience, and accompanied by live music.

Most screenings will be on Thursday evenings and will begin on Thursday, May 25 with a Buster Keaton double feature: 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) followed by 'Three Ages' Showtime is 7 p.m.

The series runs through October, concluding with a Halloween screening of the early horror classic 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920), to be shown on Saturday, Oct. 28.

Admission for each screening is $10 per person.

A total of eight programs will be offered in the series. Films will include comedies by Keaton and W.C. Fields as well as the original silent film version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) and the first-ever vampire movie, 'Nosferatu' (1922).

"These are the films that first made people fall in love with the movies, and we're thrilled to present them again on the big screen," said Peter Clayton, the Leavitt's long-time owner.

The Leavitt, a summer-only moviehouse, opened in 1923 at the height of the silent film era, and has been showing movies to summertime visitors for nine decades.

The silent film series honors the theater's long service as a moviehouse that has entertained generations of Seacoast residents and visitors, in good times and in bad.

"These movies were intended to be shown in this kind of environment, and with live music and with an audience," Clayton said. "Put it all together, and you've got great entertainment that still has a lot of power to move people."

Live music for each program will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer and composer who specializes in scoring silent films.

In accompanying silent films live, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. He improvises the music in real time, as the movie is shown.

In scoring a movie, Rapsis creates music to help modern movie-goers accept silent film as a vital art form rather than something antiquated or obsolete.

"Silent film is a timeless art form that still has a unique emotional power, as the recent success of 'The Artist' has shown," Rapsis said.

Buster in the Roman Empire story in 'Three Ages.'

First up in the Leavitt's series is a double helping of Buster Keaton comedy on Thursday, May 25.

In 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924), Keaton plays a small-town movie projectionist who dreams of being a detective. In 'Three Ages' (1923), Keaton spoofs historical dramas by seeking true love in three differing epochs. Great physical comedy plus Buster's deadpan attitude will have you laughing out loud.

Other feature films in this year's series include:

Thursday, June 8: 'Running Wild' (1927) starring W.C. Fields. Long before he entertained movie audiences with his nasal twang, W.C. Fields was a popular leading man in silent film comedies! This one finds Fields as a hen-pecked husband finally driven to make surprising changes in his life.

Thursday, June 29: 'Daredevil Aviation Double Feature.' Join fellow flyboys and flygals for a double feature of vintage silent film featuring 1920s biplane action.

Thursday, July 13: 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) starring Larry Semon. Early silent film version of Frank L. Baum's immortal tales features silent comedian Larry Semon in a slapstick romp that also casts Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. Oz as you've never seen it before!

Thursday, Aug. 17: 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) starring William Gillette. Recently discovered in France after being lost for nearly a century, see this original 1916 adaptation of Sherlock Holmes stories as performed by William Gillette, the actor who created the role on stage.

Thursday, Aug. 24: 'Go West (1925) starring Buster Keaton. Buster's ranch comedy about the stone-faced comedian and his enduring romance with—a cow! Rustle up some belly laughs as Buster must prove himself worthy once again.

Thursday, Oct. 5: 'Nosferatu' (1922). Experience the original silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous 'Dracula' story. Still scary after all these years—and some critics believe this version is not only the best ever done, but has actually become creepier with the passage of time.

Saturday, Oct. 28: 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920) starring John Barrymore; Just in time for Halloween! John Barrymore plays both title roles in the original silent film adaptation of the classic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. A performance that helped establish Barrymore as one of the silent era's top stars.

All programs are at 7 p.m. and admission is $10 per person.

A double bill of Buster Keaton comedies will lead off this season's silent film series on Thursday, May 25 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Fine Arts Theatre, 259 Main St. Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; (207) 646-3123; admission is $10 per person, general seating. For more information, visit For more info on the music, visit

Sunday, May 21, 2017

See Lou Costello as Delores Del Rio's stunt double and other surprises in 'The Trail of '98'

Villainous Harry Carey and a hanger-on in 'The Trail of '98' (1928).

Last Sunday it was music for 'Greed' (1924), the Erich von Stroheim film that centered on mankind's obsession with gold.

Now this Sunday (May 21) it's music for 'The Trail of '98' (1928), another film all know.

Do we have an accidental series going here, or what? I could follow these two with Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925), but the film is unavailable for screenings with live original music. :)

'The Trail of '98' is Sunday, May 21 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre.

Yes, long before he joined Bud Abbott for 'Who's on First?'. a very young Lou Costello plays Dolores Del Rio's stunt double.

More details in the press release below.

'Trail' is an unusual film: it starts out like one of those '70s disaster flicks, in which we meet a variety of people from different walks of life whose paths are destined to intersect at some fateful moment.

In the '70s, it would have been in an earthquake or flaming skyscraper. In 'Trail of '98,' it's the arduous slog overland from Skagway, Alaska to the gold fields in the Yukon.

But once we get over Chilkoot Pass, the film forgets about many of the characters (okay, a few die) and concentrates on only one story in particular.

Fortunately, it's a pretty juicy one, and the film does feature a climactic battle that still has the capacity to astonish.

I won't say anymore than that. But I will say that 'Trail' is one of those films where you need to be careful about what you say to an audience before the screening.

Say too much, either about the plot or the making of the film, and you risk spoiling the impact the moviemakers intended.

It's a real issue. Say the wrong things, and you can spoil the impact of an otherwise amazing movie.

I first encountered this dynamic with Harold Lloyd's building-climbing comedy 'Safety Last' (1923).

Harold Lloyd hanging around in 'Safety Last' (1923).

The climb itself is incredible, and maintains its power over audiences just as it has since first released nearly a century ago.

However, it's even more amazing when you realize that Lloyd did all the stunt work himself, and that he was missing the thumb and index finger from his right hand!

(Lloyd lost the fingers in 1919, when a prop bomb unexpectedly exploded.)

I found that when showing 'Safety Last,' if you mention Lloyd's injury before the screening, it somehow dampens the excitement of his high-altitude antics later on.

Why? I can't put my finger on it. (Sorry, Harold!) But I think the knowledge definitely intrudes on the fantasy that all silent film represents. Instead, it seems more real, and thus more difficult to lose yourself in it.

Bottom line: Tell people about Lloyd's missing fingers, and it's all they can think about during this sequence.

But if an audience doesn't know about Harold's accident, the sequence builds and plays pretty much as intended, I think.

And then, only afterwards, mentioning Lloyd's disability elicits additional gasps, all without spoiling the fun of the picture.

Lloyd himself probably would have preferred this, as he kept the extent of his injury a closely guarded secret for most of his life.

Same thing with the late silent epic 'Noah's Ark' (1928). Should you tell an audience beforehand that extras actually perished in the flood scenes?

Without minimizing the significance of the loss, and the changes it spurred, I think it's better to hold off on that piece of knowledge until after the picture. Otherwise, people get too focused on wondering which extras are the unlucky ones.

Which brings us to 'The Trail of '98,' another late silent in which real life on-location tragedy struck.

What happened? If you really want to know, you can look it up.

Otherwise, you'll find out at our screening this afternoon—but only after the final credits. See you there!

* * *

Original poster for 'The Trail of '98.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Head north with 'Trail of '98' Klondike gold rush drama on Sunday, May 21

Blockbuster silent MGM epic to be screened with live music at Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre

WILTON, N.H. — The epic story of the Klondike Gold Rush is told in 'The Trail of '98,' an equally epic film and among the last big budget silent films released by MGM Studios.

'The Trail of '98' (1928) will be screened with live music on Sunday, May 21 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

The film will be accompanied by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

Directed by Clarence Brown, 'The Trail of '98' capitalized on the dramatic real-life story of the Klondike Gold Rush, which electrified the nation in the final years of the 19th century.

News of the gold strike inspired thousands of adventurers to endure the hardships and danger of the long overland trek to reach the remote mining fields.

'The Trail of '98,' based on a 1910 novel by Canadian poet Robert Service, interweaves a half-dozen stories of hopefuls as they make their way north from Seattle, first by ship, and then overland by trail through the snowy Canadian Rockies.

All dream of striking it rich, but not everyone survives the dangerous journey through the mountains. Those that make it must still endure a perilous raft voyage to remote Dawson City, boomtown of the gold rush.

Once in Dawson City, 'The Trail of '98' focuses on a newly arrived couple forced to make tough choices to survive the elements as well as the human perils of jealously, greed, and infidelity.

Music for 'The Trail of '98' will be created live by Jeff Rapsis, a composer who specializes in creating scores that bridge the gap between an older film and the expectations of today's audiences.

Using a digital synthesizer that recreates the texture of a full orchestra, he improvises scores in real time as a movie unfolds, so that the music for no two screenings is the same.

"It's kind of a high wire act, but it helps create an emotional energy that's part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "It's easier to be in tune with the emotional line of the movie and the audience's reaction when I'm able to follow what's on screen, rather than be buried in sheet music," he said.

Because silent films were designed to be shown to large audiences in theaters with live music, the way to experience them is to recreate the conditions in which they were first shown, Rapsis said.

The large ensemble cast of 'The Trail of '98,' not all of whom will make it to Dawson City.

"Films such as 'The Trail of '98' were created to be shown on the big screen to large audiences as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, silent films come to life in the way their makers intended. Not only are they entertaining, but they give today's audiences a chance to understand what caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

The 'Trail of '98' will be shown on Sunday, May 21 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to help defray expenses. For more info, visit or call (603) 654-3456. For more info on the music, visit

Friday, May 19, 2017

Up in Mascoma Valley, it's 'Comedy Tonight': a Buster Keaton double feature with live music

Buster Keaton in 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924).

Yes, it's Comedy Tonight up at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, but not the song from 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'

It's a pair of silent film comedies starring that most silent of silent film comedies, Buster Keaton.

First up is 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924), and then it's 'The Cameraman' (1928). I like this pairing because both films are about film itself.

The fun starts at 7 p.m. More information in the press release below.

And let me record things I learned from doing live music last night (Thursday, May 18) for the MGM drama 'Speedway' (1929) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

The movie was shot on location at the actual Indy 500 track as it existed in 1929, so it's of great interest to auto racing and antique car enthusiasts.

• Actress Anita Page, who lived to be 98 years old (she died in 2008), was the last known surviving attendee of the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.

• Page also holds the record for the most-delayed comeback. She quit films back in 1936, but then when in her 90s returned to take roles in direct-to-DVD horror films such as 'Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood' (2000) and 'The Crawling Brain' (2002).

• Lacking radios, pit crews and drivers on the track communicated by means of large chalkboards with room for just one or two words. Hence absurdly abbreviated commands such as FASTER. Really?

• Attending last night's screening was Mr. Robert W. Valpey, a soft-spoken gentleman who happens to own a Studebaker Family Team Car that came within a few laps of winning the 1931 Indy 500 before it skidded and wasn't able to continue.

But the car went onto glory, winning the Pike's Peak Challenge that same year and enjoying a solid career at the Indy 500 and other high-profile venues. Long retired from active racing, the car has been maintained ever since. Valpey keeps it in New Hampshire, and recent local appearances have included the Mount Washington Auto Road.

I asked him what it ran on, thinking he would say leaded gas. He said it was originally a mix of gasoline and benzine, but he now uses aircraft fuel.

You never know what to expect at a silent film screening. In this case, I now have an invitation to sit behind the wheel of a former champion race car. Brmmmmm brrrrmmmmmm.

But first, there's Comedy Tonight up at Mascoma Valley Regional High School:

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton double feature at Mascoma High School on Friday, May 19

Classic silent film comedy masterpieces to be screened with live musical accompaniment

CANAAN, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928), two of Keaton's landmark feature films, in the new auditorium of Mascoma Valley Regional High School, 27 Royal Road, Canaan, N.H. on Friday, May 19 at 7 p.m.

The show is free and open to the public; donations will be accepted.

The program will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis.

The silent film show is a great chance for the public to check out the high school building, which recently underwent a $21.5 million renovation and expansion project.

In 'Sherlock Jr.,' Buster plays a small-town movie projectionist who dreams of working as a detective. But then Buster's romantic rival frames him for stealing a watch from his girlfriend's father. Fortunately, the situation mirrors the plot of the movie currently playing at Buster's theater. Inspired by the movie, can Buster find the real thief and win back his girl?

Buster and Marceline Day in 'The Cameraman' (1928).

'The Cameraman' tells the story of a young man (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Marceline Day) by working as a freelance newsreel cameraman. His efforts result in spectacular failure, but then a lucky break gives him an unexpected chance to make his mark. Can Buster parlay the scoop of the year into a secure job and successful romance?

Both films focus on exploring the potentials of the motion picture, then a brand-new medium.

In 'The Cameraman,' Keaton uses the movie business itself to create comedy that plays with the nature of film and reality.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands as one of the three great clowns of the silent screen. Many critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions ranging from sadness to surprise. In an era when movies had few special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

All those talents are on display in 'Sherlock Jr.' and 'The Cameraman,' which was selected in 2005 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

"These films are audience favorites, and people continue to be surprised at how engrossing and exhilarating they can be when shown as they were intended: in a theater, and with live music," said Rapsis, who accompanies more than 100 screenings each year at venues around the nation.

Rapsis improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But for me, the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience."

'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928) will be shown with live music at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, 27 Royal Road, Canaan, N.H. on Friday, May 19 at 7 p.m. Admission is free and the program is open to the public. Donations gratefully accepted.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Notes from 'Greed' at the Somerville Theatre, then 'Speedway' on Thursday in Plymouth, N.H.

'Speedway' (1929) shows auto racers competing at astounding speeds of up of 85 mph!

Next up: music on Thursday, May 18 for 'Speedway' (1929), a vintage auto racing drama.

But first, a few words about 'Greed' (1924), which I had the privilege of scoring on Sunday, May 14 at the Somerville Theatre down in Boston.

This screening, part of the Somerville's 'Silents Please!' series, was a real event: a 35mm print, a big turnout, and a film that really holds the 30-foot-high screen and then some.

Plus, afterwards projectionist David Kornfeld presented a slideshow of scenes cut from the final release print. Everyone stayed, entranced by what they saw.

David had assembled several hundred images, which were projected on the big screen as he talked us through all the plot twists and characters we'd missed.

And it was surprisingly compelling, I think, because we'd all just watched 'Greed,' and there's no better time to show an audience all we didn't see.

Afterwards, I mentioned to David that if movie-going was anything like climbing mountains, then 'Greed' at the Somerville was one of the more worthy summits!

And lots of good discussions afterwards, including at least one comparison of 'Greed' to the 1962 comedy epic 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World.'

It's an apt pairing in more than one way. Both about avarice, and they're both over-long projects that got cut down by their respective studios.

And most amazingly: Zasu Pitts appeared in both pictures. Here she is in 'Greed' playing the lead role of Trina:

And here she is as operator of the Santa Rosita Police Department in 'Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World':

And I can't wrap up this report without including my own joke about the picture, which I claimed was rated highly by none other than actor Michael Douglas.

How? Because Douglas, as Gordon Gekko in 'Wall Street' (1987), proclaimed that "Greed is good!"

About the music: in the world of improv, sometimes I'm not satisfied with what I do, and other times I'm surprised at how well it all works.

On Sunday afternoon, 'Greed' was one of those that fell together really well, I thought. I had some good material to start with, and held back long enough so that really dramatic scenes would stand out that much more.

It was only the second time I'd tackled 'Greed,' the first being back in 2010 at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up my report from that screening, and here's what I found:
I came up with a nice suite of melodic material for this film, I thought: a somewhat stern Beethoven-like main theme for McTeague, a slow tune in 12/8 with shifting major and minor harmonies that helped bring out slowly creeping lunacy; a little chromatic signature that worked really well in the deep bass underneath sustained dissonances in the treble; and my favorite, a dirge-like "eating melody" for when the family pigs out at the wedding (which brought some of the rare laughter we got), and which returned in other depictions of excess; and a whole tone signature for the caged bird images that play a role throughout 'Greed.'
Huh? That was seven years ago, and I have no recollection whatsoever of any of the musical material I used then.

I might have scrawled some notes down somewhere, but I'd have to go hunting.

Still, I was struck by how different my approach was now compared to back then. Going by the 2010 notes, there wasn't one thing in common.

It would be interesting to hear what I was doing then and compare it to now—to see how my accompaniment style has evolved, and what's remained the same.

It would also be comforting, in the sense that it's a little disconcerting to think that everything that happened that night, in a musical sense, has vanished, even from my own head.

And this feeds into my desire to spend more time writing things down. But before that can happen, here comes another screening—this time, in on Thursday, May 18 up at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

It's 'Speedway' (1929), a crackerjack auto racing drama from MGM starting William Haines, Ernest Torrance, and Anita Page. Many scenes were filmed on location at the actual Indianapolis 500 track, showing what it looked like in the 1920s.

Members of a vintage auto group should be on hand, so we won't lack for an audience. If you'd like to join us, more details are in the press release below:

* * *

Original (and French!) promotional art for MGM's auto racing adventure 'Speedway' (1929).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Vintage auto racing thriller to be screened with live music on Thursday, May 18 at Flying Monkey

MGM's late silent drama 'Speedway' (1929) filmed on location at actual Indy 500 track

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—Fasten your seat belts! We mark the traditional Memorial Day running of the Indianapolis 500 with a vintage race car drama filmed right on the famed track—at speeds topping 115 mph!

In honor of this year’s Indy 500, MGM's vintage auto racing drama 'Speedway' will be screened with live music on Thursday, May 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

The screening is a chance to experience this landmark film as it was intended to be seen: in a high quality print on the big screen, with live music and with an audience. Live music will be performed by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

Tickets are $10 per person.

In 'Speedway,' MGM leading man William Haines stars as Bill Whipple, a cocky mechanic/race car driver in town for the "The Indianapolis Speedway" race.

He meets a couple of other participants—Mac (Ernest Torrence), the old-timer with heart trouble who thinks of Bill like a son and has been trying to win this race for 17 years; and Renny, a driver not opposed to using dirty tricks to win.

'Speedway' also stars actress Anita Page in a leading role.

To lend an air of realism to the movie, many scenes were shot on location at the actual Indianapolis 500 track. Today, the footage provides auto racing fans a vivid glimpse of the sport as it was practiced in earlier generations.

Actor William Haines was one of MGM's biggest stars in the late 1920s, often playing the male lead romantic comedies. But off-screen, Haines was gay—and, unusually for the era, did not hide his homosexuality.

This led to friction with his bosses. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, convinced that movie audiences would not accept a gay leading man, urged Haines to keep his long-term relationship with actor Jimmie Shields a secret.

Anita Garvin and William Haines get to know each other in 'Speedway.'

Haines maintained his star status at MGM during the move to talking pictures. But a publicity crisis arose in 1933, when Haines was arrested in a YMCA with a sailor he had met in Los Angeles' Pershing Square.

Mayer then delivered an ultimatum: Haines had to choose between a sham marriage to an MGM actress or giving up his career. Haines refused to submit, choosing to be himself rather than to pretend to be someone he wasn't. Mayer subsequently fired Haines, terminated his contract, and banished him from the industry.

His movie career over, Haines recovered by launching an interior design firm, using his connections to become the most sought-after decorator in the Hollywood movie colony. The business prospered over the decades, with a client list of A-list celebrities as well as political figures such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Haines remained with his partner Shields for the rest of his life. Joan Crawford, who co-starred with Haines in several pictures, described the pair as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." In recent years, Haines has been recognized as a courageous pioneer in gay rights in the early Hollywood community.

'Speedway' was one of the final silent movies released by MGM prior to the studio's conversion to making talking pictures.

The movie will be screened with live music performed by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

'Speedway' is the latest in a monthly series of silent films presented with live music at the Flying Monkey. The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and with an audience.

‘Speedway’ (1929) will be shown on Thursday, May 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit For more info on the music, visit

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Back for another season in Brandon, starting tonight with early 'Our Gang' comedies

Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall, site of a monthly silent film series from now through October.

One of the nice things about doing silent film screenings is that I've been to many places I otherwise wouldn't have visited.

Thus I've gotten acquainted with, say, Bucksport, Maine, home to the Alamo Theatre and Northeast Historic Film, a regional archive.

One place I keep returning to is Brandon, Vt., a town due north from Rutland and birthplace of noted 19th century statesman Stephen Douglas.

It's also home to Brandon Town Hall, where silent films are presented with live music once a month from May to October.

We've been doing this for something like eight years now.

One reason I like going there is the acoustics. Although built in 1860, long before movies existed, the Town Hall nevertheless is a great space for silent films and live music.

But the main reason is the audience. Brandon reliably produces large and enthusiastic crowds, and the engagement they have with silent films is really inspiring.

Also, it seems like a good cross-section of the whole town turns out—everyone from tiny tots to octogenarians, to borrow Walter Kerr's phrase.

So they keep asking me back, and I keep coming. And the calendar says May, so once again it's time to make monthly trips to northern Vermont.

Our first screening of the season is tonight: Saturday, May 13. And we're starting off with a festival of early silent 'Our Gang' comedies.

We've always been fortunate at getting press for the Brandon silent film screenings. This time, we were blessed with a nice feature in the Rutland Herald!

For more information about tonight's screening, and about all the programs in this year's Brandon Town Hall silent film series, check out the press release below.

* * *

A scene from 'Thundering Fleas' (1926), one of the early silent 'Our Gang' comedies we'll screen on Saturday, May 13 at Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall.

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall to host summer silent film series with live music

Schedule leads off on Saturday, May 13 with early films of the 'Little Rascals'; featured stars include Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, and Harry Houdini

BRANDON, Vt.—Classics of the silent film era return to the big screen starting next month in Brandon Town Hall, which will host another season of vintage cinema with live music in the historic facility.

It's the 7th year of the town hall's popular silent film series, which gives residents and visitors a chance to see great movies from the pioneering days of cinema as they were intended to be shown—on the big screen, with an audience, and accompanied by live music.

Screenings are held once a month on Saturday nights starting in May and running through October. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to benefit the Town Hall's ongoing restoration.

Over the years, silent film donations have helped support projects including handicapped access to the 19th century building; renovating the bathrooms; and restoring the structure's original slate roof.

Live music for each silent film program will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer and composer who specializes in scoring silent films.

"It's great to be bringing silent film back to the big screen in Brandon for another series," Rapsis said. "Brandon Town Hall is a wonderful place for these movies to be seen at their best."

In accompanying silent films live, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. He improvises the music in real time, as the movie is shown.

First up in this season's line-up is a festival celebrating the "Little Rascals," the long-running film series that featured child actors and which began in the silent era as "Our Gang" comedies.

First appearing in 1922, the "Our Gang" comedies followed a tribe of neighborhood children and their misadventures. The series proved immediately popular, making the transition to sound in 1929 and continuing through 1944.

The silent "Our Gang" comedies were produced long before the debut of enduringly popular cast members such as Alfalfa, Spanky, and Darlene, who came along much later.

Rather, the earlier films feature a completely different cast, but sporting the same diverse make-up of personalities that was a hallmark of the series.

As the young cast members grew older, they would be rotated out of the line-up and replaced by younger members.

The "Little Rascals" festival in Brandon includes four short comedies released during the silent era. In them, the gang tries its hand at railroading, stages its own version of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' gets in trouble with a flea circus, and forms its own fire department.

"Many of us grew up watching the 'Little Rascals' on television, and so it's fascinating to discover the earlier silent film episodes of the series," Rapsis said.

The silent "Little Rascals" festival is on Saturday, May 13 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall. Admission is free, with donations welcome.

The program is sponsored by Nancy and Gary Meffe.

Other shows in this year's Brandon silent film series include:

• Saturday, June 17: 'Running Wild' (1927) starring W.C. Fields. In one of his best silent roles, Fields plays a hen-pecked husband who lacks the courage to stand up to his domineering wife—until an inadvertent encounter with a hypnotist completely upends the family's domestic status quo. Sponsored by Vermont Country Store.

• Saturday, July 15: A Dare-Devil Aviation Double Feature! In 'The Phantom Flyer' (1928) famous stunt pilot Al Wilson portrays a border patrol aviator who uses his flying skills to save girlfriend Mary (Lillian Gilmore) from cattle rustlers. And in 'The Sky Rider' (1928), join Champion the Wonder Dog as he flies along with his master Dick to foil the plot of a disinherited nephew to get even with—well, it's complicated! Sponsored by Pam and Steve Douglass.

• Saturday, Aug. 12: 'Go West' (1925) starring Buster Keaton. Buster heads out to ranch country, where the stone-faced comedian encounters romance with—a cow! Can he save his love from a trip to the livestock yards? Rustle up some belly laughs as Buster must once again prove himself worthy to all those who doubt him. Sponsored by Brandon/Forestdale Lions Club.

• Saturday, Sept. 16: Harry Houdini Silent Film Double Feature. Rare surviving films from the great illusionist's brief movie career. In 'Terror Island' (1920) Houdini stars as a swashbuckling inventor who steers his high-tech submarine to a forbidden tropical isle to rescue the woman he loves; in 'The Man From Beyond' (1922), Houdini plays a man frozen 100 years in the Arctic who returns to civilization to reclaim his reincarnated love. Sponsored by an Anonymous Donor.

• Saturday, Oct. 21: Chiller Theatre, 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920). John Barrymore plays both title roles in the original silent film adaptation of the classic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. A spook-tacular performance that helped establish Barrymore as one of the silent era's top stars. Sponsored by an Anonymous Donor and Heritage Family Credit Union.

Rapsis said it's currently a new golden age for silent film because so many titles have been restored, and are now available to watch at home or via online streaming.

However, the Brandon series enables film fans to really understand the power of early cinema, which was intended to be shown on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"Put those elements together like we do in Brandon, and films from the silent era spring right back to life in a way that helps you understand why people first fell in love with the movies," Rapsis said.

A program featuring early episodes of the "Our Gang" Little Rascals series will lead off this season's silent film series on Saturday, May 13 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt.

Admission is free; free will donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of the town hall. For more information, visit For more info on the music, visit

Friday, May 12, 2017

Tonight only: Take flight with 'Wings' at Webster (N.H.) Public Library/Town Hall

Original promotional art for 'Wings.'

Very much looking forward to doing music for 'Wings' (1927) tonight (Friday, May 12).

The screening is at yet another small town New Hampshire venue—in Webster, a town due north of Concord, at the local Public Library/Town Hall.

We're starting at 6 p.m. so if you're planning to join us and experience this great film, be sure to have an early dinner and get down to join us.

Many thanks to everyone at the Webster Public Library and Webster Historical Society for including 'Wings' as part of a series of local events marking the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I.

And thanks also to the N.H. Humanities Council for helping underwrite this program. First time that's ever happened for me!

For more details, check out the press release below. See you there!

* * *

Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow, and Richard Arlen in uniform for 'Wings.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Epic silent film 'Wings' (1927) to be shown on Friday, 5/12 at Webster Public Library/Town Hall

Sprawling story of U.S. aviators in World War I won first-ever 'Best Picture'; screening features live musical accompaniment

WEBSTER, N.H.—The Webster Public Library and Webster Historical Society are going Hollywood with a special screening of 'Wings' (1927), an epic adventure film set in World War I that won 'Best Picture' honors at the very first Academy Awards ceremony.

'Wings' will be revived for one showing only on Friday, May 12 at 6 p.m. at Webster Public Library/Town Hall, 947 Battle St. (Route 127) in Webster, N.H.

The program, sponsored by the library and historical society with a grant from the N.H. Humanities Council, is part of a series of local events to commemorate the centennial of the U.S. involvement in World War I.

Admission to the show is free, although donations are accepted. The public is welcome to attend.

The screening will feature live music by New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New England based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

The show will allow audiences to experience silent film the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

'Wings,' a blockbuster hit in its original release, recounts the adventures of U.S. pilots flying combat missions behind enemy lines at the height of World War I in Europe. 'Wings' stunned audiences with its aerial dogfight footage, vivid and realistic battle scenes, and dramatic love-triangle plot.

'Wings' stars Clara Bow, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, and Richard Arlen. The rarely-seen film also marked one of the first screen appearances of Gary Cooper, who plays a supporting role. Directed by William Wellman, 'Wings' was lauded by critics for its gripping story, superb photography, and technical innovations.

'Wings' is notable as one of the first Hollywood films to take audiences directly into battlefield trenches and vividly depict combat action. Aviation buffs will also enjoy 'Wings' as the film is filled with scenes of vintage aircraft from the early days of flight.

Seen today, the film also allows contemporary audiences a window into the era of World War I, which was underway in Europe a century ago. The U.S. entered the war in 1917.

" 'Wings' is not only a terrific movie, but seeing it on the big screen is also a great chance to appreciate what earlier generations of servicemen and women endured," accompanist Jeff Rapsis said.

"It's a war that has faded somewhat from our collective consciousness, but it defined life in the United States for a big chunk of the 20th century. This film captures how World War I affected the nation, and also shows in detail what it was like to serve one's country a century ago."

Rapsis, a composer who specializes in film music, will create a score for 'Wings' on the spot, improvising the music as the movie unfolds to enhance the on-screen action as well as respond to audience reactions. Rapsis performs 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. "At the time, most films weren't released with sheet music or scores. Studios relied on local musicians to come up with an effective score that was 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.

'Wings' is about 2½ hours long. The film is a family-friendly drama but not suitable for very young children due to its length and intense wartime battle scenes. Also, attendees are encouraged to bring cushions to use on the venue's chairs.

The program is part of the "Museums Sharing Experiences" group, which is coordinating activities in many locations around the theme of "Over There, Over Here: World War I and Life in N.H. Communities." For more information, visit

‘Wings’ will be shown with live music on Friday, May 12 at 6 p.m. at Webster Public Library/Town Hall, 947 Battle St. (Route 127) in Webster, N.H. The program, organized by the Webster Public Library and Webster Historical Society, is free and open to the public. For more info, visit For more info about the music, visit

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

From the big city (Boston) to small town New England: Four days, four shows, three states

Gibson Gowland in 'Greed' (1924), to be screened in 35mm with live music on Sunday, May 14 at the Somerville Theatre. Now there's something to make for a memorable Mother's Day!

Heading into a busy performing stretch, with shows every day from Thursday, May 11 through Sunday, May 14.

And it's quite a variety of programs and locations, too.

Films range from one of the biggest (the sprawling WW! aviation drama 'Wings') to comedy short subjects, while the venues go from big city movie palaces (the Somerville Theatre) to rural town halls.

Here's what's on the silent film accompaniment to-do list. Hope you can join in for some or all!

• Thursday, May 11, 7:30 p.m.: "The Winning of Barbara Worth" (1926) starring Gary Cooper, Ronald Coleman, Vilma Banky; The Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass.; (781) 648-6022; Admission $12, $10 student/senior.

The skinny: Epic Western about the settling and irrigation of California's Imperial Valley, once a wasteland but now an agricultural paradise. Shot on location by director Henry King in Nevada's Black Rock desert, one of the first films to take audiences to the wide open spaces of the great American West. With a young Gary Cooper playing a key role. Silent film with live music at a terrific locally owned neighborhood cinema!

• Friday, May 12, 2017, 6 p.m.: "Wings" (1927) starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen; Webster, N.H., Webster Public Library/Town Hall, 947 Battle St., Webster N.H. Sweeping drama about fighter pilots in World War I; one of the great achievements of the silent cinema, winner of "Best Picture" at the first-ever Academy Awards.

The inside track: Compelling story, great performances, battle scenes filmed on an immense scale, and in-air aviation sequences that remain thrilling even today. Presented by the Webster (N.H.) Public Library and the Webster (N.H.) Historical Society as part of a program to commemorate the U.S. entry in World War I. Free admission, all welcome to attend.

• Saturday, May 13, 2017, 7 p.m.: Silent 'Our Gang' Festival; Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.;

The straight dope: Long before Alfalfa and Spanky, an earlier version of "The Little Rascals" had a long run during the silent film era. Take a trip back to the early years of "Our Gang" with some of their most popular comedies. Join us for a series of silent films and live music in a wonderfully restored town hall in Brandon Vt. that features great acoustics. Admission free, donations accepted, with proceeds to help continuing preservation work.

• Sunday, May 14, 2017, 2 p.m.: "Greed" (1924) in 35mm, directed by Erich von Stroheim; Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.;

The deal: Sudden fortune won from a lottery creates such destructive force that it ruins the lives of the three people involved. Legendary director Erich Von Stroheim's great masterpiece brought silent film drama to new heights of intensity. Rare chance to see this film in 35mm on the big screen with live music. Part of a monthly series at the Somerville Theatre, a wonderful 100-year-old moviehouse committed to keeping alive the experience of 35mm film. Featuring outstandingly exacting work of legendary projectionist David Kornfeld. For more info, call the theater box office at (617) 625-5700. Admission $15 per person.

Okay! Each one of these programs has its merits.

On Thursday, 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' is a little-known but terrific Henry King picture that holds up well and really surprises audiences.

On Friday, 'Wings' will be shown as part of a World War I commemoration in the Town Hall/Public Library of Webster, N.H. Big film in a small town!

On Saturday, the 'Our Gang: The Early Years' program will kick off this year's silent film program up in Brandon, Vt. Guaranteed laughs!

On Sunday, a chance to see Von Stroheim's 'Greed' in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre! What more can I add?

But first things first. On Thursday, I'll go down to Boston early for a radio interview that afternoon with Radio BDC, the Boston Globe's streaming audio service and "Internet radio station." I'm there at 3 p.m. and not sure if what we'll do will air live or later, but you'll find it at

And because Thursday night is 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' at the Capitol in Arlington, here's more info via the press release. I'll do the same for the others as we wade through the weekend.

* * *

An original poster for 'The Winning of Barbara Worth.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rip-roaring epic silent Western at Arlington's Capitol Theatre on Thursday, May 11

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), ground-breaking outdoor drama starring Gary Cooper and Ronald Colman, to be screened with live music

ARLINGTON, Mass.—A film that helped create Hollywood's love affair with the American West will continue this season's silent film series at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), a silent drama starring Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, and Vilma Banky, will be shown on Thursday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m. at The Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass.

Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors. Live music will be provided by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New England-based performer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

Directed by Henry King, 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' chronicles the epic story of pioneer settlers who dreamed of irrigating California's parched Imperial Valley in the early 20th century. Filmed on location in Nevada's Black Rock desert, the movie is noted for its extensive use of vast open spaces and wild scenery.

The story centers on a rivalry for the affections of Barbara Worth (Vilma Banky), adopted daughter of a powerful rancher. A local cowboy (Gary Cooper) finds himself competing with a newly arrived engineer (Ronald Colman), who has come to the rural valley to work on plans to harness the Colorado River for irrigation.

Will the local ranchhand prevail over the city slicker engineer? Can citizens of the parched region prevail over nature and transform their lands into an agricultural paradise? Will rumors of shortcuts taken in constructing a massive dam lead to disaster?

All these questions combine to create a film that showed Hollywood and movie-goers the power of a drama set in the rural American west.

Hey! That's not the same guy in the poster above!

The film is also noted for its camerawork by Greg Toland, who would later go on to do principal photography for 'Citizen Kane' in 1941.

For 'The Winning of Barbara Worth,' Rapsis will improvise a score from original musical material that he composes beforehand, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of a full orchestra.

"What I try to do," Rapsis said, "is create music that bridges the gap between a film that might be 80 or 90 years old, and the musical expectations of today's audiences."

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' continues a monthly series of silent films presented with live music at the Capitol. The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and with an audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Rapsis, accompanist for the screenings.

“There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that spirit. At their best, silent films were communal experiences in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

Upcoming shows in the Capitol's 2017 silent film series include:

• Thursday, June 22, 7:30 p.m.: "The Kid" (1921) starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan. Chaplin's landmark comedy/drama about a tramp who raises an infant against all odds.

• Thursday, July 6, 7:30 p.m.: "The Lost World" (1925) starring Wallace Beery, Bessie Love. First-ever movie adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary tale of British explorers who discover pre-historic creatures still thriving atop a remote South American plateau.

• Thursday, Aug. 3, 7:30 p.m.: "Grandma's Boy" (1922) starring Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis. A cowardly young man must learn to conquer his fears before dealing with a larger menace to his community.

Gary Cooper, Vilma Banky, and Ronald Colman star in 'The Winning of Barbara Worth,' to be shown on Thursday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m. at The Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. Admission $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Notes from an April hiatus, and things to come: specifically, a lot more actual composing

In action: Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre back in 2010.

It's suddenly May, and I find I've accompanied only two silent film programs in the past three weeks.

At a pace of 100 shows a year, that doesn't happen too often. But it's given me the chance to reflect on my musical journey so far.

Hence this rather long "about me" post, which is my way of sorting things out. Here goes!

Going forward, I plan on devoting more energy to composing—you know, actually writing music down for others to play, rather than focusing on improv-based silent film accompaniment.

It's time, and I think I'm ready.

So in 2018, I'll throttle back on the number of silent film shows, and instead devote time to putting notes on paper, to conjure a quaint image from the pre-digital era.

Why this shift?

Well, it's been just about 10 years since I began creating live music for silent film screenings. But the desire to compose goes back a lot further.

As a young child, I was drawn to music, and responded to it strongly—especially the Warner Bros. cartoon scores of Carl Stalling. (A major influence to this day.)

Once I started piano lessons, my teenage years were full of intense musical discoveries, mostly about what people call "classical" music.

I was fascinated with the orchestra and all the music that had been created for it.

I devoured scores and paid hefty overdue fines on stacks of LPs I was always bringing home from the public library.

And increasingly, I felt the desire to create my own music: to forge a harmonic language, to carve melodic lines from the silence, to engineer entire new worlds of sound, and to express all that I felt so strongly.

In a word: music! It was everything. I recall getting truly upset with our high school band director because he wouldn't properly recognize March 25, 1981 as the 100th birthday of Bela Bartok.

But when it came time to pick a college, I decided against music. This happened for many reasons, including a presumed lack of talent on my part.

Also, it was a time when university composition departments were dominated by faculty who preached atonalism, serialism, and other "isms" that I somehow knew weren't for me.

Plus I had just encountered the work of author Kurt Vonnegut, a writer who threw my young mind for a loop.

So I decided it was words for me. I read books, majored in English, went into the newspaper business, and learned about writing.

But the music kept coming. Through all these years, I would sit in a meeting, and ideas would come. I'd actually draw out stave lines and jot them down.

Why? I don't know. It was a compulsion. But I thought for me, the musical train had left the station long ago.

Much later, after a couple of decades of misadventures in the newspaper business (where'd the time go?), I wound up writing about music for the arts journal I co-founded.

I found this satisfying, as I was able to draw from a base of knowledge that had never left me. Although I have to say, it did have a kind of "looking through the window glass" quality to it. As a music journalist, I felt my status as an outsider was cemented.

About then, conductor Ken Kiesler, music director of the New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra, suggested I'd be a better music writer if I made music myself.

Good advice! So I started playing keyboard (and tuba, my other instrument) in pit bands for community theater shows, which seemed a suitable outlet.

At the same time, I began singing in the chorus of a local group, Granite State Opera. I'll always be grateful to Phil Lauriat, artistic director of the troupe, for letting me cavort on stage—and in the process, get better acquainted with some of the great opera scores.

Then I got a chance to work with Bill Millios, a New Hampshire-based filmmaker, who let me compose cues for a dramatic feature film, 'Dangerous Crosswinds,' which came out in 2005.

At that point, I still believed I'd missed out on the lifelong journey that most composers take for their work to be—well, worth doing.

Bill helped me realize I could really still do it, if I wanted to. I could create original music, just as I yearned to do as a teenager.

After 'Dangerous Crosswinds' wrapped, I hoped to do more. But in rural New England, directors of feature-length films weren't exactly throwing themselves at me.

By then I'd met someone else who helped me on my way: Dave Stevenson, a local archivist and film collector. Knowing Dave led to my first chance to do live silent film accompaniment: at the first-ever Mirthquake festival in Manchester, N.H. in 2007.

I found it came naturally to me. Looking back, I think the key was that the music was not the focus, but was in support of something else. And that somehow freed my sub-conscious, or disarmed my internal critic, and allowed the music to come naturally.

For me, creating music for vintage film turned out to be like working with chocolate and peanut butter: two things I loved were even better together!

And this led to more silent film gigs—tentatively at first, but building over the years to the point where my calendar is pretty much jammed.

Which brings us to now. And why? Why do all this?

Well—first, because I enjoy it. I joke that it's "my public therapy," and that's actually not far from the truth.

For me, silent film accompaniment became the long-sought-after outlet for all the things I felt so strongly, going back to adolescence. Creating music this way became a kind of ongoing catharsis for me, drawing steadily on the bottled-up sonic aquifer that I carried with me all along.

After awhile, I found myself going to major venues like the Somerville Theatre down in Boston, and making music that I found extremely satisfying personally, and which people seemed to enjoy. Until I began accompanying silent film, I never imagined this could happen, especially in a big city with a vibrant cultural scene. As I said, I believed that train had left the station long ago.

Also: being mostly a self-taught "trial and error" kind of person, I found that the only way I could develop my ability to accompany a film was to do it a lot. That accounts for the heavy schedule of performances I've set up for myself.

And in doing so—in making so much music live and in public—I couldn't help but begin developing my own idiosyncratic musical voice and vocabulary.

I'd find something I liked, and then keep doing it. I'd stumble through something that flopped, and would tend to avoid it.

Little by little, and often subconsciously, I was slowly forging elements of the language I'd dreamed about as a teenager.

Harmonies and melodies with certain characteristics, certain moves and gestures—all were coming increasingly into focus as I improvised my way through evenings of vintage film.

It took a while before I realized this was happening. I first recall being aware of it when, after a screening, a guy came up to me and asked why I'd played the same music that he'd heard before, at an earlier screening.

This surprised me because I hadn't. It was all new material. But then I realized: it sounded similar because of elements of an evolving style.

Increasingly confident that I've developed something of a musical language, in the past couple of years I've become more interested in actually writing things down, as opposed to doing improv. In other words, composing.

This led to an amazing opportunity that I still can't quite explain.

Awhile back, I got a chance climb Mount Kilimanjaro, which I did in January, 2015. And this led to a chance to compose and orchestral score about the experience for the New Hampshire Philharmonic and the group's music director, Mark Latham.

(Mark is from a family of British medical officers with a long history in colonial East Africa, and was himself born in what is now Tanzania, home to Kilimanjaro.)

Mark waited patiently as the Kilimanjaro piece grew from a one-movement "postcard from Africa" into an ambitious four-movement symphonic canvas complete with integrated harmonic material that cycled throughout the score.

Rather than just paint a picture, it explored the question of what meaning a white American could really get from a brief visit to such a place as Kilimanjaro.

The piece was performed earlier this year, at a concert on Jan. 22. And bringing the work together and having it performed was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

It was also an exhilarating confirmation to me that music-making on this scale, and in this way, may not yet be closed off for me. As a composer, I feel I'm about where I wanted to be when I was 18 years old!

Since then, other chances to compose have come my way. And I've been keeping a growing list of my own ideas I hope to work on in the future, too.

Right now, I'm working on a score that involves barbershop quartet music. And there's another piece about dumps, inspired by a gentleman I know who rescues century-old 78 shellac records from a town transfer station.

I want to write an elegy for dead shopping malls. I want to write a suite of music about the islands of New York City, similar to the "Three Places in New England" by Charles Ives.

And all of it, I think, is leading up to some kind of dramatic opera on the Pamela Smart trial, a notorious murder-for-hire case that happened here in New Hampshire in the early 1990s (and which I covered as a reporter).

If there was ever a story that deserved an operatic setting, that's it!

So, speaking of journalism: I'm pleased to report that all the silent film accompaniment work in the past decade has given me something of a musical language, but also the ability and confidence to compose.

And that's what I intend to do.

I'll continue to accompany silent film programs, of course—I really enjoy doing it, but also regular performance provides a fertile environment for developing new material.

However, I'll need to trim back my schedule from the current pace, if only to get the time needed to do more composing.

It's been a remarkable journey so far. All along, I've been helped by many generous people. And I'm blessed with the same excitement that I felt as a teenager, I think.

All in all, not a bad place to be!

Accompanying a program at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library in 2015.