Monday, April 30, 2018

'Who's supposed to be the hero?' and other questions about Fritz Lang's Nibelungen films

All is not sunny in the lands of the Nibelungen.

After the grim ending of 'Kriemheld's Revenge' (1924), maybe we were all in need of a chuckle.

During the audience Q & A following the film, a young fan got a loud laugh with this simple question.

"Just who is supposed to be the hero in this film?"

I had to say: beats me! With so much treachery, the Nibelungen tales as realized by Fritz Lang in his two-part silent extravaganza don't lend themselves to easy answers.

Probably the best response came later: a guy came up to me afterwards and suggested that perhaps the story's true hero was the dragon, who gets sacrificed in the first 10 minutes of the five-hour saga.

Siegfried bathes in the blood of the just-slain dragon.

Maybe. He's just about the only creature, human or otherwise, who doesn't do anything bad to anyone in the story. He's just there minding his own dragon business, but of course he has to be slain. He's a dragon, after all.

Such were the conversations following this weekend's screening of both parts of Lang's Nibelungen epic: 'Siegfried' (1924) on Saturday, April 28 and 'Kriemheld's Revenge' (1924) on Sunday, April 29.

Both screenings took place at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., which I consider my home field and where we run a monthly series of silent films with live music.

This was quite a challenge to take on. But it would not have happened at all without the support of long-time theater owner/operator Dennis Markaverich. Thanks, Dennis!

Dennis, a life-long film fanatic, is the reason the Town Hall Theater often shows up on lists of New England's best places to see a movie.

Creating music for these two films, which really do add up to about five hours of running time, was a really satisfying experience.

Musically, I tend to go for the big gesture, and the Nibelungen legends and Lang's approach both lend themselves to this approach. There's a reason Wagner turned to the same material for his four-opera Ring cycle!

So for me, the films were a chance to take a set of themes and really work with them over a long narrative arc.

As an example: I came up with a melody associated with Kriemheld that underwent quite a transformation as the story progressed.

In the first film, she's the woman of Siegfried's dreams. In the second film, she's pissed and out for revenge.

So her theme at first was a classic eight-bar "love" melody in the style of Tchaikovsky or Andrew Lloyd Weber.

But later, as things turned dark, the melody turned sour, and then got chopped up and became something of a war cry.

It was still Kriemheld's tune, however, and I think that helped everything hold together.

Overall, I enjoyed the two-part challenge, and received a lot of good comments afterwards. So if Dennis is up for it, we might try some others at the Town Hall Theatre.

Such as?

Well, I think the two Zorro films—'The Mark of Zorro' (1920) and 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925) would make for a good back-to-back screenings over two days.

Same with Valentino's 'The Sheik' (1921) and 'Son of the Sheik' (1926).

In both cases, the first film is a little creaky, while the second is much more polished, which shows how far film technique had come in such a short time.

And if it's more Fritz Lang you want, how about running his also-five-hours-long film 'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler' (1922) in two parts over two days?

Any other ideas?

Looking ahead: next performance for me will be piano accompaniment for 'The Phantom Bullet' (1926), a Universal Western starring Hoot Gibson.

It's screening on Saturday, May 4 at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, Calif., so redeem those frequent flyer miles and join me!

After that, May has a crowded calendar of shows back home here in New England. The schedule is heavy with comedies and Westerns, so hope to see you at an upcoming screening.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Halfway through: 'Siegfried' today, 'Kriemhild's Revenge' tomorrow (4/29) at Town Hall Theatre

A vintage poster for 'Kriemhild's Revenge.'

Fritz Lang's 'Nibelungen' films are packed with magic. But the real miracle today was the audience.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon—one of the first this spring—about 50 people turned up for our screening of 'Siegfried' (1924), the first of Lang's two-part epic.

The second part, 'Kriemhild's Revenge' (1924), runs tomorrow (Sunday, April 29) at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Taken together, the films add up to almost five hours in length. So we're showing them over two days, somewhat like the 'Harry Potter' plays running in London and now New York.

I thought the music for 'Siegfried' came together well. It took me awhile to get into "the zone," but one there it all flowed pretty effectively.

For 'Siegfried,' I borrowed the "leitmotif" technique from composer Richard Wagner, who developed signature melodies for main characters in his 'Ring' operas.

Something like that happened this afternoon. Each character had a tune, or at least a fragment, that helped tell the story as it unfolded on the screen.

Most of the "tunes" were actually short phrases that could be reshaped in many different ways depending on what was going on.

Siegfried, for example, had a simple two-part "call and answer" phrase that was proved really flexible as the movie progressed.

It could communicate triumph, despair, determination, and so much else. It appeared high in the treble, deep in the bass, and sometimes as an inner voice when other things were happening.

The only character to get a full eight-bar melody was Kriemhild, who was represented by a tune that starts out like "My White Night" from 'The Music Man' but quickly goes in other directions.

That same tune will be transformed quite a bit in 'Kriemhild's Revenge,' in which the title character takes her frustrations out on a large scale.

What does that mean? Come to the screening and find out!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Less Wagner, more Carl Stalling: creating music for Lang's two 'Nibelungen' films 4/28 & 4/29

Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in 'What's Opera, Doc?'

This past weekend, I attended a local fund-raiser that was surprisingly successful.

To aid its building restoration fund, the Antrim (N.H.) Grange staged a silent movie program on Saturday night, with me doing live music for a pair of Buster Keaton films.

Admission was free, with donations collected to support ongoing work on the Grange's 200-plus-year-old meeting hall.

There was a glass bowl for contributions, and when I looked at it prior to the show, it already contained a nice accumulation of $1 and $5 bills.

One generous soul had put in a twenty. Nice!

So after the show, it was a surprise when the remaining trustees of a now-closed local church came up front to make a presentation.

They're distributing remaining funds to worthy community groups, and so they wanted to present a check to help the Grange restore its hall.

And so they did, complete with cheesy fanfare from me. Why not?

And the woman from the Grange looked at the check, and for a moment she couldn't seem to find anything to say.

Finally, she said this:

"This is a check for $25,000."

A collective gasp went up from all assembled in Antrim Town Hall. Wow!

It's not every day you get to witness a surprise gift of that amount, especially in a small town. Again, wow!

Who needs reality television? Plain old reality is often entertaining enough.

Okay, what could possibly top that? Well, how about dragons and dwarves and magic swords?

After this weekend's screenings (which also included a very successful 'Peter Pan' (1924) in Natick, Mass.), I'm clearing the decks for an ambitious two-day event at month's end.

An original poster for Lang's 'Nibelungen' films.

On Saturday, April 28 and Sunday, April 29, I'll be doing live music for Fritz Lang's epic two-part 'Nibelungen' films.

Both screenings are at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre, where I've accompanied a monthly silent film series for more than 10 years.

First up is 'Siegfried' (1924) at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 28.

Then, the next day, it's 'Kriemhild's Revenge' (1925) at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 29.

Precursors to Lang's 'Metropolis,' both 'Nibelungen' films were produced on a grand scale and filled with fantastic imagery and action.

The upcoming screenings are a rare chance to see both of Lang's films on the big screen, and back-to-back, and with live music.

Speaking of which: the 'Nibelungen' films are based on the same Teutonic legends used in Wagner's epic "Ring" cycle of four operas.

And yes, the Wagnerian approach and sound world seems to go hand-in-hand with this material. It casts a long shadow over any version of it.

Consider: music such as 'The Ride of the Valkyries' is so ubiquitous that it was even parodied in a Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon, 'What's Opera, Doc?' (1957).

But for the Lang films, I'm crazy enough to embark on working up my own original music.

Why do this? Well, why compose anything new? That's a big question, and I don't quite know how to answer it.

The best quick response is that I respond strongly to a lot of music, current and past. But I sometimes get a sense that there's something missing, or there's more to be said. Or that things can be said in a different way.

I know, kind of simple. But I think it's at the heart of why anyone presumes to do something new—something in their own voice, with their own vision. "Mapping out the sky," as Sondheim put it in 'Sunday in the Park with George.'

Thus less Wagner, and more whatever I come up with. If anything, it might be more Carl Stalling, the musical genius behind the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. Being a complete Philistine, 'What's Opera Doc?' had more influence on me than any of the Ring operas.

(Actually, I just checked, and music on 'What's Opera, Doc?' was handled by Milt Franklyn, a Warner Bros. colleague of Stalling. But Stalling was the pioneer who set the standard for cartoon scoring.)

So nearly six hours of music, all hitched to cinematic fantasy on an immense scale.

It's a lot, but I think I've reached a point where I can pull together material that's versatile enough to support a story over such a long time span.

To that end, for the 'Nibelungen' films I've developed a larger-than-usual number of ideas: themes, chord sequences, and other building blocks to be used to underscore both movies live, in real time.

Will it all come together? Who knows? But my aim is the same as always: to create music to help the story and action connect with a motion picture audience.

That's where you come in. Consider attending one or both parts of this two-day event.

It's not something you get to see every day, or every two days. Also, it sure would be great to have some company on this long journey!

For more details, check out the press release below.

* * *

The title character of 'Siegfried' (1924) bathes in the blood of slain dragon, rendering him invincible.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Tales of dragons, dwarves, and magic swords!

Two-part 'Nibelungen' epic movie fantasy
April 28 & 29 at Town Hall Theatre

One weekend, two films, two screenings: Director Fritz Lang's rarely screened 'Nibelungen' fantasy to be shown on big screen with live music

WILTON, N.H.—Magic swords, enchanted snoods, and powerful amulets abound at a time when the world is populated by dragons, dwarves, and Teutonic heroes.

Before he made the pioneering sci-fi film 'Metropolis' (1927), director Fritz Lang completed a two-part adventure fantasy based on the Germanic 'Nibelungen' legends.

Lang's two films, each an epic in its own right, were released one year apart: 'Siegfried' in 1924, and 'Kriemhild's Revenge' in 1925.

Filled with eye-popping scenic design and special effects, both movies stretched the limits of what cinema could do. They also established Lang as one of the pre-eminent filmmakers of his time, enabling him to make 'Metropolis.'

Lang's pair of rarely screened 'Nibelungen' epics will be shown back-to-back over two days later this month at the Town Hall Theater, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

'Siegfried' will be shown on Saturday, April 28 at 4:30 p.m.; 'Kriemhild's Revenge' will be screened the next day, on Sunday, April 29 at 4:30 p.m.

From 'Siegfried' (1924).

Admission is free and both screenings are open to the public. A donation of $5 per person is requested to help defray expenses.

Both films will feature live musical scores by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who has created original musical material to help bring to life the nearly six hours of the two films.

"This is a rare opportunity to experience these seldom-screened masterpieces as they were meant to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience," Rapsis said.

Rapsis will improvise the live scoring for both films—about six hours of music altogether—on a digital synthesizer that recreates the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's also an opportunity to see these films together, or at least over two days, to get a full sense of the vision of Lang and his collaborators," Rapsis said.

At a time when the Lord of the Rings didn't exist as a film or a book trilogy, Fritz Lang created Die Nibelungen based on the 13th-century poem Die Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs).

The same Germanic tales form the basis of Wagner's four-opera 'Ring' cycle.

'Siegfried' (1924) tells the story of the title character (Paul Richter), a nearly invulnerable warrior prince, who learns of the beauty of Princess Kriemhild (Margarethe Schon) of Burgundy.

Siegfried travels to Burgundy to meet Princess Kriemhild. To impress her brother, King Gunther (Hanna Ralph), Siegfried ventures to Iceland with him, where he helps Gunther win over Brunhild (Theodor Loos).

The appreciative Gunther approves of Siegfried's marriage to Kriemhild. However, hungry for more power, Brunhild spreads lies about Siegfried, leading to a fateful clash.

Margarete Schön as the title character in 'Kriemhild's Revenge' (1925).

'Kriemhild's Revenge' (1925) continues the story, which climaxes with a wedding festival that turns into a massive battle. During the fighting, Kriemhild metes out justice with Siegfried's magic sword.

Although rarely screened, the two Nibelungen films have been hailed by critics as worthy forerunners to 'Metropolis,' Lang's well-known masterpiece.

Critic comments:
"An epic masterpiece...a rich treasure trove of folklore and magic, in which Lang creates a mystical geometric universe where the characters play against vast architectural landscapes."
—Leonard Maltin

"The all-encompassing grandeur and sweep of the story towers over any modern day fantasy. If anything, this remastered edition most closely resembles Star Wars, as pre-imagined by Tolkien."
—Colm McAuliffe
‘Siegfried’ (1924) will be shown on Saturday, April 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre. The follow-up film, 'Kriemhild's Revenge' (1925), will be screened on Sunday, April 29 at 4:30 p.m.

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

The Town Hall Theatre is located at 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. For more information, visit For more about the music, visit

Friday, April 13, 2018

New series starts Sunday, 4/15: 'Peter Pan' (1924) at Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass.

Original poster art for 'Peter Pan' (1924).

Once you've finished your income tax returns, why not enjoy a silent film?

Please join me on Sunday, April 15 at 4 p.m. for 'Peter Pan' (1924), the original big-screen adaptation of the classic stage play by British author J.M. Barrie.

Presented by the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass., 'Peter Pan' is the inaugural screening of a new series of silent films with live music.

The live music is by me, played either on my digital synthesizer or the Center for the Art's absolutely superb Yamaha grand piano:

For 'Peter Pan,' I'll use the digital keyboard. So the set-up will look like it did last October, when I first performed at what's called TCAN:

Just add audience: the screening room at the Natick Center for the Arts.

It's funny: the right instrument can make such a different in how a film score comes out.

There are pianos out there that are a dream to play: the Steinway in Topeka, Kansas, for example. I use them when I can, and find I can do things on them that I didn't think was possible.

And then there are others (I won't mention any specifics here) that don't feel or sound right to me. In these cases, I try use my synth.

TCAN's Yamaha, which I tried out last fall, falls into the "oh my God I want to take this home" category of pianos. It's really that good, and well-maintained to boot!

But that's not going to happen anytime soon, so I'll have to be content using it when a piano score is called for: probably in our next title after 'Peter Pan,' which is Buster Keaton's comedy 'College' (1927) in June.

The whole building is a converted firehouse, by the way, and it's all pretty spectacular. It seems like a great space for cinema, so looking forward to 'Peter Pan' on Sunday and many more screenings to come.

And there's popcorn!

Please join us. More information in the press release below:

* * *

Betty Bronson in the original silent film version of 'Peter Pan' (1924).

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

Silent film version of 'Peter Pan' at Natick (Mass.) Center for the Arts on Sunday, April 15

Original big-screen adaptation of magical fantasy classic to be shown with live musical score

NATICK, Mass.—It was the film that introduced movie-goers to visions of flying children, magical fairies, human-like animals and menacing pirates.

It was the original silent film adaptation of 'Peter Pan,' a picture personally supervised by author J.M. Barrie. The film was a major hit when released in 1924, with audiences eager to get their first big-screen look at the wonders of Neverland.

Movie fans can see for themselves when the first 'Peter Pan' (1924) is screened on Sunday, April 15 at 4 p.m. at the TCAN Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

The program will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, and will include a classic silent comedy short film. Admission is $10 per person for members; $12 for non-members. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

Thought lost for many years, and overshadowed by more recent adaptations, the original silent 'Peter Pan' maintains its freshness and charm 90 years after its original release.

In the story, first presented as a stage play in 1904, three children in London are visited one night by Peter Pan, a youth in search of his shadow. Pan shows his new friends how to fly, and then convinces them to join him in a journey to Neverland.

There they encounter Indians, mermaids, and a band of pirates whose leader, Captain Hook, is Pan's sworn enemy. The children are captured by Hook and taken prisoner aboard his pirate ship, setting the stage for an epic battle, the outcome of which will determine if the children may ever return home.

Though the Peter Pan story is well-known today due to subsequent adaptations (and also merchandising that includes a ubiquitous brand of peanut butter), the tale was virtually new when Hollywood first brought it to film in the early 1920s.

In England, author Barrie gave his blessing to the first-ever screen adaptation, though he retained control over casting and insisted that any written titles in the film be taken directly from his own text.

After a major talent search, Barrie settled on unknown 18-year-old actress Betty Bronson for the title role, and filming began in 1924. The role of Captain Hook was played by noted character actor Ernest Torrence, who invented the now-iconic villainous pirate persona that would become a Hollywood legend.

The film's highlights include special effects that maintain their ability to dazzle even today. The film's memorable images include a group of mermaids entering the sea, a miniature Tinkerbell interacting with full-sized children and adults, and a pirate ship lifting out of the water and taking flight.

'Peter Pan' also includes a cast of animal characters played by humans in costume, including the family dog Nana and an alligator who serves as Hook's nemesis, lending the film a magical quality.

After the film's release, no copies of the original 'Peter Pan' were known to exist, and for many years the film was regarded as lost. However, in the 1950s a single surviving print turned up in the George Eastman Archives in Rochester, N.Y., from which all copies today have descended.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis specializes in creating live musical scores for films made prior to the introduction of recorded sound. Based in New Hampshire, Rapsis specializes in improvising music for silent film screenings at venues ranging from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in San Francisco, Calif.

Rapsis creates film scores in real time, as a movie is running, using a digital synthesizer to reproduce the texture of a full orchestra. He averages about 100 performances per year, and has created music for more than 250 different silent feature films.

"Improvising a movie score is a bit of a high wire act, but it can result in music that fits a film's mood and action better than anything that can be written down in advance," Rapsis said. "It also lends a sense of excitement and adventure to the screening, as no two performances are exactly alike."

'Peter Pan' is the first in a new series of silent films with live music scheduled for this year at the TCAN Center for the Arts.

The series gives movie-goers a chance to rediscover the experience of silent cinema presented as it was intended: on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put all the original elements together, the films of early Hollywood still come to life," said Rapsis, who will accompany all programs in the 2018 season. "These are the films that caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

Upcoming programs include:

• Sunday, June 17 at 4 p.m.: 'College' (1927) starring Buster Keaton. Buster heads off to a college campus to find sports is the only sure-fire route to popularity. One of Keaton's most gag-filled comedies offers priceless visual humor and a look at the silent star's athletic prowess. Plus Buster Keaton short comedy 'Cops' (1922).

• Sunday, Oct. 14 at 4 p.m. 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Eye-popping spectacle starring swashbuckling star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in top form as adventurer in ancient times who must complete a series of epic tasks to save his beloved, all set in a fantastic world of monsters, underwater caves, and flying carpets.

• Sunday, Dec. 9 at 4 p.m. 'Grandma's Boy' (1921) starring Harold Lloyd. A cowardly young man must learn to conquer his fears before dealing with a larger menace to his community. Riotous comedy that helped propel Harold Lloyd into the most popular movie comedian of the 1920s. Plus short comedy, 'There Ain't No Santa Claus' (1926) starring Charley Chase.

‘Peter Pan’ (1924) will be shown on Sunday, April 15 at 4 p.m. at the TCAN Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass. Admission is $10 per person for members; $12 for non-members. Tickets are available online at or at the door. For more information about the music, visit

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Tracking down Buster's replica 'Rocket' train used in 'Our Hospitality,' screening April 14

The replica of Stephenson's 'Rocket' locomotive, piloted by his Buster's father Joe Keaton in 'Our Hospitality.'

I've often wondered about the replica of Robert Stephenson's early "Rocket" railroad engine built for Buster Keaton's film 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

It must have been a kick for Keaton and his team to recreate this engine for their 1830s story. Keaton recalled they chose the "Rocket" because of all the early railroad locomotives, the "Rocket" looked the funniest.

It says something about Keaton's understanding of cinema that he took the trouble of totally recreating a functioning mechanical part of the past for his story—not just for comedy purposes but also to lend authenticity to his story.

The effort paid off in a unique sequence that remains a highlight of 'Our Hospitality' nearly a hundred years after it was made.

See for yourself on Saturday, April 14 at 6:30 p.m., when I'll accompany a screening of 'Our Hospitality' at the Antrim (N.H.) Grange. The screening is a fundraiser for the Granite Building Restoration Fund; there's more info in the press release below.

But when 'Our Hospitality' wrapped, what happened to the Rocket?

It showed up again, a couple of years later, in 'The Iron Mule' (1925), an Al St. John comedy that parodied John Ford's epic drama 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

This made sense, as the comedy was directed by his St. John's uncle, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, the by-then-disgraced comedy star who had earlier been Buster's movie-making mentor. Hey, what's a railroad engine replica among friends?

And after that—well, who knows? I thought I read somewhere that Keaton's replica wound up in the Smithsonian Institution. But a quick check on the always-reliable Internet indicated that's not the case.

Of Keaton's 'Rocket' after 'The Iron Mule,' Wikipedia has this to say:
"The subsequent whereabouts of the replica are unknown. There are, however, at least two other replicas of Rocket in the USA, both built by Robert Stephenson and Hawthorns in 1929; one is at the Henry Ford Museum in the Metro Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, the other at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.
Well, a working railroad locomotive doesn't just evaporate. So if anyone knows the fate of the 'Rocket' used in 'Our Hospitality' and 'The Iron Mule,' let me know.

Okay, below is the press release with info about 'Our Hospitality' on Saturday, April 14. Hope to see you there!

* * *

A Swedish poster for 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton stars in 'Our Hospitality' on Saturday, April 14 at Antrim Grange

Classic feature-length silent comedy to be screened with live music as building restoration fund-raiser

ANTRIM, N.H.—Silent film star Buster Keaton returns to the big screen for a showing of his classic comedy 'Our Hospitality' (1923) with live music on Saturday, April 14 at the Antrim Grange #98, 253 Clinton Road, Antrim.

The show, a fundraiser for the Grange's building restoration, starts at 6:30 p.m. The family-friendly program is open to all.

Admission is a suggested donation of $5 per person, with all proceeds going to support the Grange's building restoration fund.

Live music for the program will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, regarded as one of the nation's foremost silent film accompanists.

Buster gets directions in 'Our Hospitality.'

'Our Hospitality,' a period comedy set in the 1830s, tells the story of a young man (Keaton) raised in New York City but unknowingly at the center of a long-running backwoods family feud.

Highlights of the picture include Keaton's extended journey on a vintage train of the era, as well as a dramatic river rescue scene that climaxes the film.

The film stars Keaton's then-wife, Natalie Talmadge, as his on-screen love interest; their first child, newborn James Talmadge Keaton, makes a cameo appearance, playing Buster as an infant. Keaton's father also plays a role in the film.

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard him 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."

While making films, Keaton didn't think he was an artist, but merely an entertainer trying to use the then-new art of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

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.

An entirely intuitive performer, Keaton entered films in 1917 and was quickly fascinated with them. After apprenticing with popular comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Keaton went on to set up his own studio in 1920, making short comedies that established him as a one of the era's leading talents.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

In 1923, Keaton made the leap into full-length films with 'Our Hospitality,' which proved popular enough for him to continue making features for the rest of the silent era.

Although not all of Keaton's films were box office successes, critics later expressed astonishment at the sudden leap Keaton made from short comedies to the complex story and technical demands required for full-length features.

‘Our Hospitality’ will be shown on Saturday, April 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Antrim Grange #98, 253 Clinton Road, Antrim. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 person to help the Grange's building restoration fund.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr., racism,
and Buster Keaton's silent film 'The General'

Buster with his co-star in 'The General' (1926).

The recent 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (on Wednesday, April 4) got me thinking about race as it relates to Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926).

I'm doing live music for a screening of 'The General' on Thursday, April 12 at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass., so I've been thinking about the film anyway.

Of course any film set during the U.S. Civil War is a potential powder keg when it comes to racism in cinema.

But in the case of 'The General,' I'd like to focus on one particular element that I never quite understood.

Late in his life, Buster would often reminisce about how he and his team went about making pictures during the 1920s.

And one thing he said about 'The General' was something I didn't understand for a long time.

For their Civil War story, Buster and co-director Clyde Bruckman adapted the true-life "Andrews Raid" tale of a Northern railroad engineer whose locomotive was stolen by Southern spies.

But for the film, they turned the tale around: they made the hero a Confederate railroad engineer, while the spies were from the Union.

As Buster later flat-out stated, "You can always make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South."

Okay, but why? Does this notion, which Buster stated so matter-of-factly, reflect some kind of story-telling wisdom that I just didn't understand?

Buster was raised as a child star on the vaudeville stage, so his instincts were pretty solid regarding how an audience would react to a narrative.

Not being a child star myself, I just assumed this was some kind of hard-won story-telling knowledge that Buster just knew, although it didn't make any logical sense to me.

I mean, 'The General' wasn't some kind of 'Gone With the Wind' situation, where the fact that the South lost was an integral part of the story. (And in 'The General,' the South is triumphant, at least for the moment.)

Well, much later, I began learning about the extent of segregation in movie theaters throughout the U.S., and especially in the southern states.

As a white kid growing up in New Hampshire, I had no idea theaters such as this were once commonplace in parts of the nation.

I think this reality, coupled with the fact that the Civil War was within living memory of many people in the 1920s, was what Buster was getting at when he said you can't make a villain out of the South.

If you're going to tell a story, why structure it in a way likely to alienate a large portion of your potential audience?

After all, the North won. So it wasn't such a big deal for them to play the bad guys in a story from the period.

But in the South in the 1920s, portraying the Confederacy as villains would amount to box office poison.

This was especially true in an era when races had their own separate theaters and programming, meaning that below the Mason-Dixon line, 'The General' would be playing to all-white audiences.

So Keaton's "cannot make a villain out of the South" comment was actually more about knowing his audience than anything else, at least as I see it.

It would be interesting to study stage dramas about the Civil War that toured in the late 19th century, to see if the same pattern held. Anyone?

Back in Keaton's world, I believe the same thinking was behind the "A scratch is nothing to a Southern gentleman" motif in a later Keaton film, 'Spite Marriage' (1929). Even the corny stage play within the movie portrays the North as bullying aggressors and the south as innocent victims.

It was a practical decision. To do otherwise might mean bad box office in a big area of the country.

Does this mean Keaton was complicit in the systematic racism that prevailed during the Jim Crow era?

Buster examines the racial divide in the short comedy 'Neighbors.'

I think that's reading too much into the situation. From what I understand, Keaton was no more racist than most other people at the time.

That's reflected in his films, which are largely free of the truly blatant and degrading racism that often shows up in movies of the era.

But every now and then with Keaton, you do get something that's now somewhat cringe-worthy.

One example often cited is the "colored restaurant" sequence in 'College' (1927), in which Keaton makes up in absurdly unconvincing blackface to get work.

But that's not racism on Keaton's part—he's merely using a common institution of the time to get laughs, which is the only thing he always claimed he was trying to do.

I think it falls into the category of "ethnic humor," something a lot more common in that era than today.

A more troubling example mars 'Seven Chances' (1925), when Keaton's desperate search for a bride prompts him to follow a woman from behind as she walks down a street.

When Keaton catches up to her, the view switches so we can see...she's black! Keaton immediately withdraws, a sour expression on his face.

Meant as comedy, it betrays an attitude that a person should be judged by skin color, which I think does cross the line into racism.

Again, I don't hold this against Keaton, who was just going for a laugh in a way that audiences at the time would have accepted.

But is it wrong?

On that question, I must say I was heartened by the response to this sequence when I screened 'Seven Chances' for an audience of middle schoolers awhile back.

They loved the film and right from the start responded strongly to all of Buster's antics.

But when the "black woman" gag came up, instead of laughing, they began hissing. Actual hissing, with some booing mixed in.

Clearly, these kids recognized racism when they saw it, and their rejection of it was spontaneous and genuine.

Curiously, it didn't spoil the experience. After this brief episode, they went right back to laughing at 'Seven Chances.'

So I take heart in the ability of at least one group of middle schoolers to recognize racism, but also demonstrate some understanding of context in which it took place.

There's hope for us after all.

And I hope that would please Dr. King.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

April Fool's Day rewinding, fast forwarding:
Past projects, future possibilities

Recording music last month for videos supporting 'The White Mountain,' a new book by author Dan Szczesny.

Back with a blog post after a long silence.

It's not for lack of material—the month just past has actually been full of projects and performances.

Among the highlights: a last-minute score for 'The Lost World' (1925) at the annual 24-hour Boston Sci-Fi Marathon. (At left is a photo by Tony Joe Stemme of me taking a bow); and music for Nazimova's 'Camille' (1921) at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, for which I channeled my inner Rachmaninoff.

Rather, it's more lack of time. With so much going on, there's rarely a chance to sit down and chronicle it.

But as we finish up the first quarter of 2018, time to look back as well as look at what lies ahead.

In April, highlights include a spate of Buster Keaton performances in mid-month, including 'The General' (1926) at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

And the month ends with a particularly big challenge: doing music for Fritz Lang's two 'Die Nibelungen' films over a single weekend. More on that below.

For now, let me take stock. (Never understood this phrase—what am I, soup?)


In the first three months of this year, I've reduced the pace of live accompaniment performances.

This slowdown has been deliberate. It's not because I don't enjoy doing music for films, but because my schedule was leaving little time for anything else.

For one thing, as part-owner of a publishing business that's branching in new directions, my "day job" is more than enough to keep anyone hopping.

Music does remain a necessary artistic outlet. But I need to balance it with all the other things going on in my life, plus leave room for eating (no problem there!) and sleeping. (Sometimes more troublesome.)

Also, I'm now making a concerted effort (pun!) to write down music so that it might be performed by others.

I had a great time putting together the unexpectedly large-scale 'Kilimanjaro Suite' for orchestra, which was performed last year by the New Hampshire Philharmonic.

I'd like to do more. And I find I'm now ready to take the musical vocabulary I've developed (in part by more than a decade of improv-based silent film accompaniment) and put it to work in written-down music.

In the past year, however, I've found precious few opportunities to make progress on a number of written-down projects.

The only recent non-silent-film music I've done was background scoring for some video work by filmmaker Bill Millios in support of 'The White Mountain,' a new book by author Dan Szczesny.

Filmmaker Bill Millios shoots footage during the 'White Mountain' recording session at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Nashua, N.H.

And although I created what I thought was some effective material for this, I never got a chance to sit down and write out exactly what I wanted.

It ended up as usual—going in on the day (or actually night) of the recording session and improvising based on the melodic and harmonic material I'd put together.

And it went okay, I suppose (I never like it when I'm recorded), but it was frustrating because I think the material would make for a good 20-minute or 30-minute written-out score.

Author Dan Szczesny and me.

And I could do it if I had the time, which I still don't, despite reducing my performance schedule. It's been an unusually intense time for our business and that's been taking me away from day-to-day music.

I have been making an effort to get out. This past month, I went to Symphony Hall to hear the Boston Symphony under Andris Nelsons play the rarely heard Shostakovich Symphony No. 4, which I think is one of the great 20th century scores and which I've always wanted to hear live.

The concert (on Saturday, March 24) didn't disappoint—in fact, it was so worthwhile I actually went down again on Tuesday, March 27 for a repeat performance.


Although recent weeks haven't been too fruitful regarding music, on this Easter Sunday morning I feel a kind of renewed energy. (Maybe it's no coincidence that it's also April Fool's Day?)

You know how sometimes you encounter something at just the right time? This week, I've had that happen not once but twice.

First encounter: It's a magazine piece from 2010, but I just found it now.

Hopelessly behind the curve as usual, I know—but BOY did I need to hear what author Heather MacDonald had to say: that we actually live in a "golden age" for so-called classical music.

Really! Despite financial troubles, declining attendance, and an ossified playlist dominated by dead white guys, it's an amazing time for anyone who cares about music, performers and listeners alike!

I'll let you read it yourself if you want Heather's full low-down. But one thing I got from her piece was the sense that there really is a need for new new music.

I don't agree with her that concert-goers or music directors will be satisfied with mining the archives for forgotten works instead of finding new music that actually connects with audiences and fully expresses the experience of living in our times, now.

Second encounter: This weekend the New York Times ran a profile of Saul Lipshutz, an astonishing violin prodigy who gave up on music at age 16. Fifty years later, the Times tracked him down.

It's a terrific read. And it was especially interesting to me because of what Lipshutz did. Facing the classical music infrastructure at an early age, rejected almost as if by instinct. He said he didn't want to be "a trained monkey."

I felt a shock of recognition. I'm no prodigy, but even as I was sensing a growing passion for music in my high school years, something about pursuing it at the university level put me off.

For one thing, it was lack of confidence in my own talent. Not to make too much of this, but I once heard a high school music teacher, not knowing I was standing behind him, as "That Jeffrey would light the world on fire—if he only had a match!"

Wow! But more significantly, I sensed that with the academic study of music, something was off. Composition departments at schools like Boston University seemed full of teachers and students devoted to atonalism, serialism, and other 'isms' that left me cold.

So I majored in English and went into journalism and publishing, steering clear of the classical music infrastructure that seemed so daunting to Saul Lipshutz, although for other reasons.

And here it is, three decades later, and I've found my own extremely unorthodox path to where I feel I'm ready to do music that I want to do, and I'm just not hearing from anyone else.

Rather than continue to stay away, I've come back to it having never been put through the process of whatever the classical music infrastructure would have done.

It wasn't like I chose the road less traveled. Instead, I've bushwhacked my way through a ragged landscape with no road at all. And with apologies to Robert Frost, will that make any difference?

Time will tell—and I hope to devote more of it to writing things down in the months to come.

But upcoming silent film shows beckon, including a screening of Keaton's 'The General' (1926) on Thursday, April 12 at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.; Keaton's 'Our Hospitality' (1923) on Saturday, April 14 at the Antrim (N.H.) Grange Hall; and then 'Peter Pan' (1924) on Sunday, April 15 at the TCAN Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass.

The 'Peter Pan' screening is the first in a new series of silent films with live music in a terrific arts facility in downtown Natick, Mass. Housed in a former fire station, the Center for the Arts boasts first-class screening facilities plus a terrific grand piano that I hope to make plentiful use of.

But first up is 'The General,' so here's the press release. More about the other screenings as the days roll by.

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton's 'The General' with live music at Capitol Theatre on Thursday, April 12

Civil War railroading adventure film lauded as comic moviemmaker's masterpiece

ARLINGTON, Mass.—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.

Acclaimed for their originality and timeless visual humor, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The General' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Thursday, April 12 at the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass.

Showtime is 8 p.m. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors.

The screening, the latest in the Capitol's silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating scores for silent films.

'The General,' set during the U.S. Civil War, tells the story of a southern locomotive engineer (Keaton) whose engine (named 'The General') is hijacked by Northern spies with his girlfriend onboard.

Keaton, commandeering another train, races north in pursuit behind enemy lines. Can he rescue his girl? And can he recapture his locomotive and make it back to warn of a coming Northern attack?

Critics call 'The General' Keaton's masterpiece, praising its authentic period detail, ambitious action and battle sequences, and its overall integration of story, drama, and comedy.

It's also regarded as one of Hollywood's great railroad films, with much of the action occurring on or around moving steam locomotives.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will improvise an original musical score for 'The General' live as the film is shown.

"When the score gets made up on the spot, it creates a special energy that's an important part of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra for the accompaniment.

With the Capitol's screening of 'The General,' audiences will get a chance to experience silent film as it was meant to be seen—in a high quality print, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today."

Rapsis performs on a digital keyboard that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some 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.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts.

Critics review 'The General':

"The most insistently moving picture ever made, its climax is the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy."
—Walter Kerr

"An almost perfect entertainment!"
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

"What makes the film so special is the way the timing, audacity and elegant choreography of its sight gags, acrobatics, pratfalls and dramatic incidents is matched by Buster's directorial artistry, his acute observational skills working alongside the physical élan and sweet subtlety of his own performance."
—Time Out (London)

Upcoming titles in the Capitol's silent film series include:

• Thursday, May 17, 8 p.m.: 'The Black Pirate' (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The granddaddy of all pirate films, with Fairbanks as an athletic young aristrocrat who seeks revenge by joining the pirate band responsible for his father's death.

• Thursday, June 14, 8 p.m.: 'The Iron Horse' (1924). Young director John Ford's breakthrough film tells the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad through the untamed West.

• Thursday, July 5, 8 p.m.: 'The Beloved Rogue' (1926) starring John Barrymore. Epic costume adventure based on the life of the 15th century French poet, François Villon

• Thursday, Aug. 16, 8 p.m.: 'Her Sister from Paris' (1925) starring Constance Talmadge, Ronald Colman. Talmadge in top form playing two very different sisters in this effervescent battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy.

• Thursday, Sept. 13, 8 p.m.: 'The Last Laugh' (1924). In this ground-breaking character study from director F. W. Murnau, Emil Jannings delivers a tour-de-force performance as a doorman in a swanky Berlin hotel.

• Thursday, Oct 18, 8 p.m.: 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923). Just in time for Halloween: Lon Chaney stars as Quasimodo in this sprawling silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic story.

‘The General’ (1926) starring Buster Keaton will be shown with live music on Thursday, April 12 at 8 p.m. Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors. For more info, call (781) 648-6022 or visit For more information on the music, visit