Monday, February 12, 2018

Swanson and Keaton and Jerry Herman, and 'Metropolis' Thurs., 2/15 at Merrimack College

An iconic scene from 'Metropolis' (1927), which I'm accompanying on Thursday, Feb. 15.

In 'Mack & Mabel,' Jerry Herman's 1974 musical comedy about film pioneer Mack Sennett, there's a lyric that goes like this:
And Swanson and Keaton and Dressler and William S. Hart
No one pretended that what we were doing was art

One of these days, I'll put a "Mack & Mabel" silent film program together that includes all four of those names.

For now, I'll have to be satisfied with this past weekend, when a pair of pre-Valentine's Day screenings brought together the first two stars on Herman's list; Swanson on Saturday, Feb. 10, and Keaton on Sunday, Feb. 11.

Gloria Swanson was the featured star in a program at the Campton (N.H.) Historical Society, which for a few years now has doing its part to fight off cabin fever by running a pot-luck-and-silent-movie-night in the dead of winter.

This year I accompanied 'Zaza' (1923), Gloria's recently re-released drama that I scored last year for Kino-Lorber, preceded by Gloria's early Mack Sennett short 'Teddy at the Throttle' (1916).

With the Sennett comedies, I never know what to expect. They're sometimes so random, and if the mood isn't right, all the frantic goings-on generate nothing more than dead silence.

In this case, however, the reaction was explosive—right from the start, everything on screen was greeted by raucous laughter.

Never mind Jerry Herman—this would have given old Mack something to really sing about. Wonder if it was something they served at the pot luck supper?

More likely it's because some uninhibited soul began laughing early, and it caught on, soon spreading throughout the room. Nice!

Gloria Swanson in 'Zaza.'

Reaction to 'Zaza' was more muted but no less intense. You could tell people bought into Gloria's character and were along for the ride. Really generous ovation at the end!

For the recorded score, I used an acoustic grand piano. But for this screening, I used a piano sound with strings that could be sustained depending on how you struck and held the notes. It added a warmth that I think helped the film seem less over-the-top and allowed people to more naturally buy into Gloria's state of mind.

Sunday actually brought two showings: Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928) at the Aeronaut Brewing Co. down in Somerville, Mass., but also a matinee screening of Greta Garbo in 'Wild Orchids' (1929) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

The Garbo film is a stunner. It's one of those late MGMs in which the technique of telling a story visually is so smooth and fluid and second-nature to all involved.

But it's also a tightly coiled drama about a love triangle that spans the globe, but stays focused on the three main characters, and it topped by a climax that's genuinely surprising and thrilling.

Perhaps not the ideal choice for a pre-Valentine's Day program, but what the heck?

Original promotional art for 'Wild Orchids' (1929).

The music came together very well, I felt. Using only a small cell-like signature of three notes, I was able to stitch together a score that I thought kept up with the film's ever-rising temperature.

Highlights included faux Javanese dance music (thanks to the synthesizer's library of "World Music" patches) and, for some reason, part of the melody of Bach's "Little Fugue" in G minor for organ, which for some reason seemed to perfectly capture the squareness of Garbo's much-older businessman-husband.

Later that same day, it was immensely satisfying to do music for Keaton's 'Cameraman' before a modest turnout (school night, anyone?) at the Aeronaut, where the commitment to the performing arts extends to silent film with live accompaniment.

(And where my race from rural New Hampshire to downtown Boston was something out of the Keystone Cops playbook.)

It being the big city, the Aeronaut can draw quite an eclectic turnout. Last night's attendees included familiar faces, curious newbies, and a tourist from Spain.

We all joined Buster for his onscreen adventures behind the newsreel camera, and in front of Marceline Day.

Poster for 'The Cameraman' (1928).

Having done three screenings in the past three days (including the Garbo one that afternoon), the music came fluently and effortlessly. After a big crashing start during the opening titles and then brief montage depicting adventures of newsreel cameramen, I quickly dialed it down to nursery rhyme texture for Keaton and his antics.

It all seemed to fall together, as things sometimes do. Keaton's film was greeted by generous laughter throughout, and sober silence in the moments when things don't go quite his way.

So Swanson and Keaton, but not Dressler nor William S. Hart.

But as usual, I did my very best to live up the follow-up lyric: "No one pretended that what we were doing was art."

Looking ahead: it's an interesting week.

Tomorrow (Tuesday, Feb. 13), I take a break from setting up a wholesale food distribution business (that's currently my day job as our newspaper publishing company expands in new direction) to visit with students at Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro, N.H.

They're rehearsing a home-grown theater production about the silent film era. It goes up in March, and as part of the process of learning about the era, I've been invited to present a program of silent film with live music. My choice: Keaton's 'Seven Chances' (1925), which in my experience seems to go over particularly well with teens and the high school crowd.

Thursday, Feb. 15 brings the big gulp of 'Metropolis' (1927) at the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts in North Andover, Mass. More info is in the press release tacked on at the end of this post; start time is 7 p.m. and admission is free.

On Saturday, Feb. 17, I have the honor of doing music for Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1927), which is being shown as part of a surprise anniversary party for a silent-film-loving couple. As it's a surprise, I can't get into too many details, but will report how it went afterwards.

And then, on Sunday, Feb. 18, I get to make the long strange trip to the annual Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, a 24-hour binge-watching nerd/geek fest held every President's Day weekend at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre.

Every other year or so, organizer Garen Daly throws a vintage silent sci-fi flick into the line-up, and since 2011 it's been my privilege to be bought in to do live music.

It's always a hoot because the audience of 500 to 700 people do not attend to just sit there passively. They really get into it. And they react.

Prior years have seen the original 1916 '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'; the Danish trip-to-Mars allegory "Himmelskibit' (1918); and even 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1919).

Emil Jannings plots to take over a cardboard world in 'Algol' (1920).

This year it's 'Algol: Tragedy of Power' (1920), a recently rediscovered German sci-fi melodrama starring Emil Jannings, of all people.

'Algol' is slated to screen around dinner time on Sunday night, about six hours into the 24-hour event. Cross your fingers!

For a dose of celebrated silent sci-fi, check out 'Metropolis' (1927) on Thursday, Feb. 15 at the Rogers Center in North Andover, Mass.

Here's the press release:

* * *

Original poster for Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis.'

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

Restored classic film 'Metropolis' to screen at Rogers Center on Thursday, Feb. 15

Landmark early sci-fi fantasy epic, with half-hour of rediscovered footage, to be shown with live music

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—A silent film hailed as the grandfather of all science fiction fantasy movies will be screened with live music this month at the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts.

'Metropolis' (1927), an epic adventure set in a futuristic world, will be shown on Thursday, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. as part of the Rogers Center's Tambakos Film Series.

The screening is open to the public and admission is free.

Original music for 'Metropolis' will be performed live by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer and silent film accompanist who performs at venues around the nation.

The Rogers Center is located on Walsh Way on the campus of Merrimack College, 315 Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass.

'Metropolis' (1927), regarded as German director Fritz Lang's masterpiece, is set in a society where a privileged elite pursue lives of leisure while the masses toil on vast machines and live in poverty.

The film, with its visions of futuristic factories and underground cities, set new standards for visual design and inspired generations of dystopian fantasies from Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' to Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil.'

In reviving 'Metropolis' and other great films of cinema's early years, the Rogers Center aims to show silent movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will improvise an original live score for 'Metropolis' on the spot. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early cinema leap back to life."

In 'Metropolis,' the story centers on an upper class young man who falls in love with a woman who works with the poor. The tale encompasses mad scientists, human-like robots, underground spiritual movements, and industrial espionage, all set in a society divided between haves and have-nots.

Inventor Rotwang shows off his machine man to industrialist Frederson in 'Metropolis.'

The version of 'Metropolis' to be screened at the Rogers Center is a newly restored edition that includes nearly a half-hour of missing footage cut following the film's premiere in 1927. The lost footage, discovered in 2008 in an archive in Argentina, has since been added to the existing 'Metropolis,' allowing plot threads and characters to be developed more fully.

When first screened in Berlin, Germany on Jan. 10, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes. After its premiere, the film's distributors (including Paramount in the U.S.) drastically shortened 'Metropolis' to maximize the film's commercial potential. By the time it debuted in the U.S. later that year, the film was only about 90 minutes long.

Even in its shortened form, 'Metropolis' became a cornerstone of science fiction cinema. Due to its enduring popularity, the film has undergone numerous restorations in the intervening decades in attempts to recover Lang's original vision.

In 1984, the film was reissued with additional footage, color tints, and a pop rock score (but with many of its intertitles removed) by music producer Giorgio Moroder. A more archival restoration was completed in 1987, under the direction of Enno Patalas of the Munich Film Archive, in which missing scenes were represented with title cards and still photographs. More recently, a 2001 restoration combined footage from four archives and ran 124 minutes.

It was widely believed that this would be the most complete version of Lang's film that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see. But, in the summer of 2008, the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine discovered a 16mm dupe negative of 'Metropolis' that was considerably longer than any existing print.

It included not merely a few additional snippets, but 25 minutes of "lost" footage, about a fifth of the film, that had not been seen since its Berlin debut.

The discovery of such a significant amount of material called for yet another restoration, a 2½-hour version that debuted in 2010 to widespread acclaim. It's this fully restored edition that will be screened at the Rogers Center.

" 'Metropolis' stands as an stunning example of the power of silent film to tell a compelling story without words, and reach across the generations to touch movie-goers from the real future, which means us," said accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who provides live music for silent film screenings throughout New England.

To accompany a silent film, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. The score is created live in real time as the movie is screened. Rather than focus exclusively on authentic music of the period, Rapsis creates new music for silent films that draws from movie scoring techniques that today's audiences expect from the cinema.

The restored 'Metropolis' will be shown on Thursday, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts. The Rogers Center is located on Walsh Way on the campus of Merrimack College, 315 Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. Admission to the program is free. For more information, call the Rogers box office at (978) 837-5355.

For more information on the music, visit


“'Metropolis' does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world.”
—Roger Ebert, 2010, The Chicago Sun-Times

“If it comes anywhere near your town, go see it and thank the movie Gods that it even exists. There’s no star rating high enough.”
—Brian Tallerico,

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