Monday, June 25, 2018

Next up: Summer silent series at the seaside, plus Harvard Magazine silent film music story—and chalk up another great escape for Houdini!

Wow! I finally made it into Harvard! The magazine, that is.

Yes, the current issue of Harvard Magazine includes an in-depth look at the art of silent film accompaniment as practiced at the Harvard Film Archive.

In chronicling the "surprisingly diverse ecosystem" of silent film music, writer Sophia Nguyen was nice enough to include comments by yours truly along with accompanists Robert Humphreville and Martin Marks.

All of us accompany silent film programs at the archive—those on the regular schedule, and sometimes for classes that use silent film in their curriculum.

The story is here.

Me, I'm thrilled to see any attention paid to this little corner of the performing and visual arts.

So thank you, Sophia, for such a great job capturing a slice of this sub-set of the Harvard cultural scene, and serving it so artfully to the magazine's audience.

Next up for me: Thursday is opening night at the Leavitt Theatre, a seaside resort moviehouse where films have been shown every summer since 1923.

The fare remains mostly first-run blockbusters. But each summer, the Clayton family brings me in for a series of silent films with live music, both as a novelty and to honor of the theater's roots as a silent moviehouse.

Amazingly, the building remains virtually unchanged since the theater opened in the 1920s. Under each of the wooden seats, you'll find a loop of thick-gauge wire to give gentlemen a place to stow their hats.

For those wondering, yes, the Leavitt did install digital projection a few years ago, although they maintain one of their 35mm projectors in place just in case.

The Leavitt's original 1923 interior, still intact in 2018. The angle doesn't show the steeply-raked floor, which results in near-stadium seating. Notice the proscenium arch is sized for the original silent film 1:1.33 aspect ratio.

Opening night for the 2018 season is Thursday, June 28 with a screening of Buster Keaton's great comedy 'The Navigator' (1924), plus a Buster short or two.

More details about this screening, as well as the rest of the summer's schedule, are in the press release below.

For now: speaking of hats, I wanted to tip mine to Mr. Harry Houdini, who drew an unexpectedly large crowd to the Town Hall Theatre yesterday (Sunday, June 23) for a screening of 'Haldane of the Secret Service,' his 1923 adventure thriller.

I think the gloomy weather (cloudy, sticky, periodic showers) helped. But in speaking with attendees (and many first-timers), there's no doubt 'Houdini' maintains his magnetism.

It's a continuation, no doubt, of his original appeal.

Consider: our program included newsreel footage of Houdini doing escape routines in various cities—wriggling out of straitjackets while suspended by his feet high above the ground.

Each one was accompanied by shots of enormous numbers of people (all the men wearing hats) gawking at Houdini's exploits. Then and now, the man just knew how to draw a crowd!

About 'Haldane': for me, this was yet another example of previewing a picture and wondering how any audience would be able to follow the action, or take it seriously.

But on the screen and in front of an audience, 'Haldane' came together and came to life! It made total sense, and moments that seemed slow and dull when viewed alone were instead full of edge-of-your-seat suspense.

So chalk up another great escape for Houdini: even when imprisoned by a mediocre film, he managed to break out in triumph!

Hope to see you by the sea in Ogunquit this Thursday. Here's the press release:

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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 Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin

OGUNQUIT, Maine—Classics of the silent film era will return to the big screen starting next 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 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 weeknight evenings and will begin on Thursday, June 28 with 'The Navigator' (1924), a classic silent comedy starring Buster Keaton

The series runs through October, concluding with a Halloween screening of F.W. Murnau's chilling silent version of 'Faust' (1926) on Saturday, Oct. 27.

Admission for each screening is $10 per person.

A total of five programs will be offered in the series. Films will include a program of Charlie Chaplin's great short comedies and "Her Sister From Paris" (1925), a sophisticated romantic comedy starring Ronald Colman and Constance Talmadge.

"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 Max Clayton, the Leavitt's manager.

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.

Keaton boils an egg in 'The Navigator' (1924).

First up in the Leavitt's series is Buster Keaton in 'The Navigator' (1924) on Thursday, June 28 at 7 p.m.

Although Keaton never smiled on camera, his comedies rocked theatres with laugher throughout the 1920s.

In 'The Navigator,' Buster sets sail in a comedy about a spoiled rich couple marooned all alone on a drifting ocean liner.

Keaton, famous for visual humor and mechanical gags, acquired a real ocean liner to create 'The Navigator,' turning the vessel into one of the biggest comedy props in movie history.

The film, a smash hit, helped establish Keaton as one of the major comedians and stars of the silent film era.

Other programs in this year's Leavitt silent film series include:

• Wednesday, July 4, 7 p.m.: 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927) starring William Boyd. Two tall ships race from China to Boston to win a lucrative tea contract. Sea-going adventure set in the heyday of the fast "clipper" ships. Starring William Boyd, who would later go on to play beloved sidekick 'Hopalong Cassidy' in innumerable Westerns.

• Wednesday, Aug. 15, 7 p.m. 'Charlie Chaplin's Best Short Comedies.' A selection of classic short comedy films that helped propel the Little Tramp to worldwide fame and rocked the globe with laughter. See the movies that paved the way for Chaplin to go on to make later masterpieces such as 'The Gold Rush' and 'City Lights.'

• Wednesday, Sept. 12, 7 p.m. 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925) starring Ronald Colman, Constance Talmadge. The scene: Europe. The cast: Rich people. Get swept off your feet by not one but two privileged ladies, both played by amazing actress Constance Talmadge, in this effervescent battle-of-the-sexes comedy.

• Saturday, Oct. 27, 7 p.m.: 'Faust' (1926) directed by F.W. Murnau. Just in time for Halloween, our annual "Chiller Theatre" presentation! Oscar-winning actor Emil Jannings stars in F.W. Murnau's terrifying version of the classic tale. A visual tour de force, full of creepy characters and frightening images.

Buster Keaton's 'The Navigator' (1924) will lead off this season's silent film series on Thursday, June 28 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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Harry Houdini adventure film this weekend; plus notes on promotion and the weather

Houdini stars in 'Haldane of the Service Service' (1923), showing Sunday, June 24 at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Next up: a Harry Houdini film I've never accompanied before.

'Haldane of the Secret Service' (1923) will be screened on Sunday, June 24 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

More details in the press release below, but it's supposed to be Harry's best (and best-preserved) full-length adventure. Looking forward to it!

For now: pleasantly surprised by fairly strong turnouts for silent film events this past weekend.

On Saturday night, about 50 people enjoyed a double feature of Buster Keaton's 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928) in the basement of the First Congregational Church in Nashua, N.H.

And on Sunday afternoon, about an equal number were on hand (despite beautiful weather) for Buster's 'College' (1927) at the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass.

Usually good weather means low turnout, especially this time of year. But not this time!

Both shows were highlighted by strong audience reaction. Lots of big laughs!

'College' worked especially well, garnering repeated applause, and not just for the climactic "rescue" sequence.

Even Buster's "complete-somersault-while-holding-a-full-cup-of-coffee-and-saucer-upright" move earned an ovation.

Why the good turnout? I think a key reason is that both venues extensively promoted the screenings to their respective bases, and actively encouraged people to attend.

At the First Church, committee members apparently got out the word in a big way. The screening even won a mention in the church bulletin, and promotion on the day of show included sandwich boards on the front lawn.

And in Natick, they took vintage original posters for 'College' and reworked them into wonderfully handsome promotional pieces for the screening, which is part of a series they're trying to build.

It seems to be working. Our first two screenings drew just a handful of folks. But word-of-mouth, coupled with the promotional efforts (and Buster Keaton, too) helped swell attendance.

From the point of view of an accompanist, I always try to give it everything I've got when the lights go down, regardless of audience size.

But I have to say, it really makes a difference when a room is packed, or even half full, compared to having a lot of empty seats.

Hope you can help fill up the Town Hall Theatre for Harry Houdini in 'Haldane of the Secret Service' (1923) on Sunday, June 24 at 4:30 p.m.

We're supposed to get showers—so the weather's in our favor, if the forecast holds.

* * *

Houdini tied up again in 'Haldane of the Secret Service' (1923).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rare Houdini film 'Haldane of the the Secret Service' at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, June 24

Legendary 'Handcuff King' escape artist returns to the big screen with live music in stunt-filled early silent adventure movie

WILTON, N.H.—He reigned for decades as the legendary "Handcuff King," famous for daring and impossible escapes staged around the world.

But Harry Houdini also had a brief movie career, starring in a series of silent adventure films that showed off his athletic prowess and his talent for illusion, stunts, and escape.

See Houdini back on the big screen in 'Haldane of the Secret Service' (1923), one of his few surviving feature films.

The film will be run on Sunday, June 24 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

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

The rarely screened film will be shown with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer regarded as one of the nation's leading silent film musicians.

Houdini made only a handful of movies in the 1910s and 1920s, and much of his film work is lost.

But enough escaped oblivion to provide a glimpse of the world-renowned escape artist at the peak of his worldwide fame.

In 'Haldane of the Secret Service,' U.S. Government agent Heath Haldane is determined to bring to justice the mysterious Dr. Yu, all-powerful head of the Chinese underworld

Dr. Yu is suspected of international counterfeiting, narcotics smuggling and the murder of Haldane's father.

Haldane soon encounters the beautiful Adele Ormsby, whose family might be connected to Yu's criminal activities.

The pursuit of justice then takes the story from New York to Scotland, London, and Paris.

Time and again, the bad guys trap Haldane in ropes, chains and strongboxes. Each time, our hero wriggles out of his predicaments with the skill of—well, Harry Houdini.

Although Houdini's films were well-received, he eventually abandoned his movie career, preferring live performance.

Houdini, born Erik Weisz, was a Hungarian-born, American-Jewish illusionist and stunt performer noted for his sensational escape acts.

He first attracted notice in vaudeville in the U.S. and then as "Harry Handcuff Houdini" on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up.

Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can with water in it.

In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London's Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for an hour.

Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown.

In 1913, Houdini introduced the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water, holding his breath for more than three minutes. He would go on performing this escape for the rest of his life.

Houdini died prematurely in 1926, at age 52, of peritonitis following a burst appendix that may have been caused by blows received to the abdomen by a visitor backstage at a performance in Montreal.

Following his death, Houdini's reputation as a legendary performer continued to make his name a household world in the decades that followed.

Although not well known as a film actor, Houdini's work in motion pictures was not forgotten. In a posthumous ceremony on Oct. 31, 1975, Houdini was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7001 Hollywood Blvd.

Houdini is one of several "big name" performers featured on this year's silent film schedule at the Town Hall Theatre.

"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."

Harry Houdini in 'Haldane of the Secret Service' (1923) will be shown with live music on Sunday, June 24 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 person to defray expenses.

For more information, visit

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Attending 'College' with Buster Keaton this afternoon (Sunday, 6/17) in Natick, Mass.

Buster and co-star Anne Cornwall in 'College' (1927).

Celebrate graduation season with 'College' (1927), Buster Keaton's take on higher education.

This silent comedy screens today 4 p.m. at the Natick (Mass.) Center for the Arts, with live music by me.

More details in the press release below.

It's also Father's Day, and so it's interesting that 'College' is one of those films where Buster has only one parent—and in 'College,' it's his mother.


Strange: last month on Mother's Day, I did music for Buster's 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre, and that film shows Keaton as only having a father.

I need to better synchronize these things!

But it's odd how in both cases, the missing parent isn't referred to in any way.

In 'College,' Buster may or may not have a father. We just don't know.

In 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' I've always assumed Buster's mother passed away long before the film takes place. But there's really no mention of it. She could be below decks making coffee the whole time, for all I know.

I chalk this up to Buster's instinctive economy as a filmmaker and storyteller. In both cases, the missing parents could have been explained, and it might have been very interesting and absorbing and all that.

But Buster and his team somehow sensed this information wasn't important to the main task, which was setting up a story to focus on Buster's character.

This fits the pattern for what we know about how Buster's films were produced. Buster and his colleagues were known to be ruthless in cutting out material that didn't work.

In 'The Navigator' (1924), an underwater sequence showing Buster directing schools of fish like a traffic cop was shot at great expense.

But when the film was previewed, no one laughed because Buster's girl was in trouble on the ship, and so the timing was all wrong for Buster's antics.

What was once planned to be a highlight of the film was cut prior to release. As Buster explained later, they had no choice.

So one of Keaton's strengths, I think, was what he chose not to put in his films, especially the longer features. They achieve a remarkable balance of story and comedy, in part because they're not weighed down by unnecessary detail.

Also, one thing about 'College' is that it contains the most sister name by a villain in any of Keaton's films: "Jeff."

See what you think this afternoon by attending 'College' at 4 p.m. Details in the press release below.

* * *

A poster for Keaton's 'College' (1927).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton comedy 'College' with live music on Sunday, 6/17 in Natick, Mass.

Cap off graduation season at Center for the Arts with screening of classic send-up of campus life

NATICK, 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, clever visual gags, and amazing stunts, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a graduation-time screening of 'College' (1927), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Sunday, June 17 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 Keaton short comedy. Admission is $10 per person for members; $12 for non-members. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

'College' follows the story of a hopeless university bookworm (Keaton) forced to become a star athlete to win the attention of his dream girl. Can Buster complete the transformation in time to woo her from his rival? And along the way, can he also rescue the campus from sports-related shame?

The film was released in 1927, at the crest of a national fascination with college life. In addition to being a great Keaton comedy, 'College' offers vintage glimpses into what higher education was like nearly a century ago.

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, including some spectacular examples in 'College.'

Buster gets carried away in his campus comedy 'College.'

In reviving Keaton's 'College,' the Center for the Arts aims to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in restored 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 accompany the film. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'College' leap back to life in ways that audiences still find entertaining."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound. He improvises the complete score in real time during the screening.

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

Rapsis encouraged people unfamiliar with silent film to give 'College' a try.

"If you haven't seen a silent film the way it was intended to be shown, then you're missing a unique experience," Rapsis said. "At their best, silent films still do connect with cinema-goers. They retain a tremendous power to cast a spell, engage an audience, tap into elemental emotions, and provoke strong reactions."

Upcoming programs include:

• 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.

Buster Keaton's 'College' (1927) will be screened on Sunday, June 17 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.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Traveling with the silent film time machine, plus Buster Keaton tonight in my hometown

'The Cameraman' (1928) is on the program on Saturday, June 16 at 7 p.m. at the First Church in Nashua, N.H.

Tonight marks a singular occasion: my first-ever silent film gig in my hometown of Nashua, N.H., where I first took piano lessons and sang in church choirs and played sousaphone in the high school marching band.

(Full name: The Nashua High School Royal Purple Panthers Marching Band. Our mascot was the rare and elusive purple panther.)

This evening's program is a Buster Keaton double feature: 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928). Showtime is 7 p.m.—and in the "small world" department, it's at the First Congregational Church, one of the places where I sang as a teenager.

Yes: growing up, I was a choir gypsy, singing with my friends in a Protestant church while serving as a lector at the Catholic parish I grew up in, but which didn't have much of a music program.

So many a Sunday would see me at 9 a.m. Mass at St. Stanislaus Church on Franklin Street, then running up Library Hill to the First Church on Concord Street, often making it just in time for the prelude.

Anyway, here I come again, all these years later. More on tonight's screening in the press release below.

But now let me know skip back to yesterday, when I accompanied a silent film program for one of my favorite recurring gigs: the end-of-the-year assembly at Great Brook Middle School in Antrim, N.H.

This is the eighth year I've done this, which means this year's 8th graders were just starting in public school when this tradition began.

But here we were again: kids scrambling up the stairs and spilling into the auditorium, setting up chairs on the wooden floor while I played piano rag music to help set the mood.

It says something about the energy of middle-schoolers that ragtime serves to actually calm them down.

We've tried different programs over the years, but the kids have made it clear about their favorite: Mr. Buster Keaton.

And so this year's big attraction was 'Our Hospitality' (1923), Buster's film about an old-time family feud set in the 1830s.

This prompted some thought-provoking confusion. We were about to watch a film that was nearly 100 years old, and the film itself was set about 100 years before that.

Mrs. Maryanne Cullinan, a faculty member who organizes the screenings, mentioned this weirdness to the kids so they'd be prepared.

But then I chimed in, telling kids we were about to embark on the closest thing possible to actual time travel.

And that seemed to connect. So I stuck with it, explaining that old cinema itself is like time travel, but then sometimes you get an extra bonus trip when the film is set in an another time.

And the "another time" can be in the past, as with Buster's film. Or it can be in the future, such as in 'Metropolis' (1927)—which could mean we'd be seeing an alternate reality view of today.

The screening went over like gangbusters. In my experience with 'Our Hospitality,' once Buster steps aboard the recreated early train pulled by the Stephenson Rocket, there's no turning back.

Yesterday was no exception: the kids responded strongly, even as much of the comedy was derived from the rather dark predicament of people trying to shoot and kill our hero. (Alas, we live in an era where gun violence is an especially sensitive issue in public schools.)

Afterwards, I kept thinking about time travel. Might that not be another underlying reason for the fascination with (and value of) of early cinema?

WE can time travel. Just attend a silent film screening.

And just your luck, there's one tonight in Nashua, N.H. Details below. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Buster Keaton and friend in 'The Cameraman' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton double feature at Nashua's First Church on Saturday, June 16

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

NASHUA, 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, at the First Church, 1 Concord St., Nashua, N.H. on Saturday, June 16 at 7 p.m.

The program is a fundraising event for First Church; admission $12 adults, $10 seniors. Students are free, and childcare is available for kids 6 and under. Tickets will be available at the door.

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

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?

'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.

Buster romances Marceline Day in unconventional fashion in 'The Cameraman' (1928).

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

Both movies will be screened in the meeting room in the church's lower level.

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, a Nashua native who in high school played sousaphone and baritone under long-time Nashua High School band director Steven Norris. Today, Rapsis uses his keyboard to accompany more than 100 screenings each year at venues around the nation and abroad.

Rapsis, who lives in Bedford, N.H., 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 on Saturday, June 16 at 7 p.m. at the First Church, 1 Concord St., Nashua, N.H. A church fundraising event, tickets at the door are $12 adults, $10 seniors. Students are free, and childcare is available for kids 6 and under.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Drama, comedy, history, ethnic stereotypes: 'The Iron Horse' (Thursday, 6/14) has it all!

Thursday, June 14 is Flag Day, one of those quasi-holidays that doesn't quite meet the "three-day" weekend test.

But at a time of divisiveness, why not use the occasion to celebrate something that helped bring us together as a nation?

I'm thinking of the Transcontinental Railroad, built after the Civil War to link California and the Wild West with the nation's settled East.

And I'm thinking specifically about 'The Iron Horse,' an epic 1924 silent drama that tells its story as only Hollywood (even then) could do.

This movie, directed by a very young John Ford for the Fox Studio, will be screened on Thursday, June 14 at 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

More details in the press release below.

Laying track, with locomotive in wait, in 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

For now, let me just say that 'Iron Horse' is from the P.T. Barnum school of filmmaking: there's a little something (and sometimes a lot) for everyone.

Drama? Check. Slapstick comedy? Check. History and geography? Check. Ethnic stereotypes? Check. Cameo by Abraham Lincoln? Check. Lots of steam engine and train action? Double check!

All this made for a really successful picture in 1924—one that holds up pretty well today, I think, as long as you understand what Ford and his collaborators were going for.

They weren't trying for straight drama, or pure comedy, or really any kind of disciplined genre. Rather, they were celebrating a national achievement that was in living memory of many in the audience at the time. The continent-spanning railroad was something of which most Americans were still quite proud, and justifiably so.

And in the new-fangled movie business, there was a market for this kind of a feel good "parade" film—one that brought to life one of the many true-to-life legends that fed into the American story. 'The Covered Wagon' (1922) was another one.

So not really a documentary, and not completely fiction, either. Instead, 'The Iron Horse' comes off as a refreshingly upbeat and uncynical Valentine to an era when big things seemed possible.

Wow, I think we need films like this more than ever. See you at the Capitol!

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I'll be watching you: a vintage poster promoting 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

John Ford's 'The Iron Horse’ with live music Thursday, June 14 at Capitol Theatre

Building of transcontinental railroad is focus of legendary director's groundbreaking silent film epic

ARLINGTON, Mass.—The battle to complete the transcontinental railroad provides the setting for 'The Iron Horse,' a John Ford-directed silent film epic that mixes history and fiction.

Shot in the wide open spaces of New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, 'The Iron Horse' set new standards for location photography and was a huge hit for Fox Studios when released in 1924.

'The Iron Horse' will be screened with live music on Thursday, June 14 at 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors.

A live musical score will be performed by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

Though based on actual historical events, 'The Iron Horse' weaves fictional story lines into the massive effort to build a railroad across the West, linking California with the rest of the nation.

The project, authorized by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 at the height of the Civil War, was not completed until 1869 with the driving of the Golden Spike in Utah.

Although only a half-century in the past when 'The Iron Horse' was made, the completion of the transcontinental railroad had already taken on a mythic status as part of the nation's story.

The film's narratives includes appearances by iconic historical figures such as Lincoln, Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok.

Director John Ford was just 31, but already a veteran of 35 features and dozens more two-reelers, many of them westerns, when he lobbied William Fox to helm 'The Iron Horse.'

Madge Bellamy and George O'Brien, and horse, on location in 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

For the leading role of Davy Brandon, Ford cast an unknown. George O'Brien had been a stuntman, extra, and camera assistant when Ford, impressed by his screen tests and his pluck, cast him over the studio's reservations.

'The Iron Horse' made O'Brien a western star and his subsequent career included many more Ford films as well as the lead in F.W. Murnau's masterpiece 'Sunrise' (1927).

The female lead was played by Madge Bellamy, a major leading actress of the silent film era.

Taking advantage of the movie camera's flexibility, Ford and his crew shot the film on location in New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. Locations were chosen for wide open spaces and dramatic landscapes.

The production battled snow constantly, and the shooting day often began with the entire company shoveling and sweeping the snow off the streets of the sets.

To add authenticity, Ford brought in real Native Americans to play the "Indians" (they also doubled as Chinese laborers for a few shots) and hired local cowboys for the riding scenes and stunts.

The film opened to rave reviews and became one of Fox's biggest hits of the silent era, earning over $2 million on a negative cost of $250,000.

Yet another vintage poster for 'The Iron Horse' (1924). If nothing else, the flick was well-promoted.

Ford would go on to win a total of four Academy Awards for directing, a record that still stands today. His later films include 'Stage Coach' (1939); 'The Grapes of Wrath' (1940); 'How Green Was My Valley' (1941); and 'The Quiet Man' (1952).

'The Iron Horse' is the latest in a series of monthly silent film screenings at the Capitol Theatre. The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by assembling the elements needed for silent film to be seen at its best: superior films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and a live audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you 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.”

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

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

• 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, Fran├žois 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.

John Ford's 'The Iron Horse' will be shown on Thursday, June 14 at 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors. For more info, call (781) 648-6022 or visit

Below: a vintage newspaper ad promoting 'The Iron Horse' (1924).

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Accompanying 'Chicago' on Sunday, June 10: music ON screen and off, and all that jazz...

It's one of the many cases where people's response is, "There's a silent film version of that?"

The answer is yes, there is a silent film version of 'Chicago' (1927), originally a stage play and later a hit Broadway musical and then a movie musical that won 'Best Picture' in 2002.

And I'll be doing music for a screening of it tomorrow (Sunday, June 10) at 2 p.m. as the latest installment of the "Silents, Please!" series at the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Details about the film and the screening are in the press release at the bottom of this post.

For now, let me point out that in addition to being one of those silent films that people are surprised to hear exists, 'Chicago' is also one of those pictures that's tricky for an accompanist because of the key role that music plays on-screen during the film.

The most notable example (and I'm being vague here so as not to spoil it for anyone) is the player piano in an apartment. Something really terrible happens in that apartment, and when it does, the camera cuts to...the player piano, grinding along as if nothing happened.

It's a powerful visual device. But if the accompanist isn't ready, it won't have the intended impact. So a little preparation is in order to bring the effect to life, I think.

It's especially important for the way I operate, as I generally shy away from the "rinky-tink piano" sound that so many people associate with early cinema.

But in the case of 'Chicago,' it's exactly what's called for, I think, for the scene to work: while big stuff happens off-screen, the piano grinds along mechanically and mindlessly.

Will it all come off successfully? Attend tomorrow's screening and we'll all find out together.

The presentation, by the way, will not be via 35mm print as the Somerville's big "House 1" is currently showing a 70mm print of '2001,' and so we've been bumped to a smaller house.

They CAN run 35mm in our substitute house, but only via platter, so that rules out archival 35mm prints.

So, for this one screening only, we'll be making use of a recently produced DCP version of 'Chicago.'

I understand the value of showing 35mm prints whenever possible, and I support and admire the Somerville's commitment to that practice.

However, in the case of silents, really good prints—prints that show the films off to their best advantage—are often very hard to come by.

So I'm very much looking forward to seeing this restoration of 'Chicago,' as it should look great, and we'd probably not be able to program the title otherwise.

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Phyllis Haver co-stars with a gun in 'Chicago' (1927), the silent film version of the well-known tale.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Original silent film version of 'Chicago' to screen Sunday, June 10 at Somerville Theatre

Popular jazz-age melodrama, long thought lost but then rediscovered, to be shown on the big screen with live music

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—Long before it became a long-running Broadway musical and then 2002's Best Picture, the story of 'Chicago' first achieved worldwide fame as hit silent film.

Noted for its cynical humor and adult themes, early movie-goers loved how the original 'Chicago' captured the anything-goes flavor of the jazz age at its height.

See for yourself when the original 1927 screen version of 'Chicago' is screened at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, June 10 at 2 p.m.

The program, the latest in the Somerville's 'Silents, Please!' series, will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $15 per person, $12 students/seniors.

The film will be presented in DCP format.

'Chicago' tells the jazz age story of gold digger Roxie Hart, a young wife who guns down her older lover and is then put on trial for murder.

With Roxie represented by a publicity-hungry lawyer, and with prosecution the hands of an ambitious district attorney, the courtroom drama hits the spotlight and scandalizes the country as the nation awaits an answer to the question: Is she innocent, or headed for the slammer?

The silent film version of 'Chicago,' based on a hit 1926 stage play, was for many years thought to be one of the many silent films that were completely lost, with no copies surviving in any archive.

But in 2006, a pristine original print of the film was discovered in the archives of iconic director Cecil B. DeMille, who supervised its production.

DeMille personally supervised the shooting of 'Chicago,' but refused to take directorial credit for the lurid melodrama because its message clashed severely with DeMille's high-minded Biblical epic 'King of Kings,' then playing in theaters.

The film stars veteran actors Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart; Victor Varconi as her long-suffering husband; Eugene Pallette as her lover; and Robert Edeson as the lawyer who takes on Roxie's case. Directing credit was given to Frank Urson.

The resurfacing of the original screen version of 'Chicago' after eight decades was regarded as a major cinematic rediscovery.

In reviewing the film, critic Jamie S. Rich of called it a "melodrama that remains fun to watch even 80 years later. It's more than a historical curio or an antiquated prototype for its more famous descendant; DeMille's production is stylishly ambitious and smartly constructed. This loose-limbed crime story is evidence of just how assured cinema had become prior to the advent of sound."

Other critics singled out the performance of Phyllis Haver as the film's highlight.

"Chicago impresses by its modern sensibility; its no-holds-barred look at love, lust, law, social mores, and the media; and especially by its delightfully amoral heroine, played to perfection by former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver," wrote Andre Soares of the Alternative Film Guide.

"All in all, in spite of the moralistic ending Chicago holds up remarkably well as a jaded (or perhaps just plain lucid) take on sex and power in American society, dealing with issues that are as relevant today as they were yesteryear," Soares wrote.

The story was used again in 'Roxie' (1942), a Hollywood remake starring Ginger Rogers, before being reshaped into 'Chicago,' the hit 1975 musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb. A Broadway revival that opened in 1996 is still running, and was the basis for a film version that won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Picture.

In reviving the original 'Chicago,' the Somerville Theatre 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 Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score during the screening. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early cinema leap back to life. They all featured great stories with compelling characters and universal appeal, so it's no surprise that they hold up and we still respond to them."

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

Upcoming programs in the Somerville's silent film series include:

Sunday, July 8: 'The Docks of New York' (1928). Masterful drama about a ship laborer who rescues a beautiful woman from drowning, but then finds his life changed in unexpected ways. A gem from the late silent years. Shown via 35mm print.

Sunday, Aug. 12: a selection of Laurel & Hardy's rarely screened silent comedies, all in 35mm prints from the Library of Congress, including 'Big Business' (1929), 'The Finishing Touch' (1928), 'You're Darn Tootin'' (1928), and 'Call of the Cuckoos' (1927).

‘Chicago' (1927) will be shown on Sunday, June 10 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Tickets are $15 adults, $12 students/seniors. For more information, visit or call (617) 625-4088. For more info on the music, visit

Friday, June 8, 2018

Country accompanist, city accompanist: 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' in the back woods on 6/9, then 'Chicago' at the Somerville Theatre 6/10

Buster Keaton stars in 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), screening on Saturday, June 9 in Brandon, Vt.

This weekend brings silent film screenings in two rather different settings.

On Saturday, June 9, it's up to Brandon, Vt. (about 20 minutes north of Rutland, ayup) to accompany a silent film program featuring Buster Keaton's 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928).

And then on Sunday, June 10, it's down to Somerville, Mass. (about 20 minutes south of Woburn, yessir), where I'll do music for a screening of the silent film version of 'Chicago' (1927) at the Somerville Theatre.

The 'Steamboat Bill' screening is part of an annual silent film series at the Brandon Town Hall. I'm looking forward to it, mostly because I enjoy the audience reactions in Brandon, but also because 'Steamboat' is the first full-length silent film for which I'm writing out and orchestrating a score.

So while Saturday's accompaniment will still be improvised, I'll use themes and ideas that are a little more set in place, so to speak.

Hope to get the score finished later this year. But you don't have to wait to attend this weekend's screening, which is on Saturday, June 9 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall.

More info in the press release. And more info on 'Chicago' in a separate post to come later.

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Weather for Saturday's screening: stormy in the final reels.

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

Silent comedy 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' at Brandon Town Hall on Saturday, June 9

Buster Keaton masterpiece to be screened with live music as Town Hall's annual Silent Film series continues

BRANDON, Vt. — Silent film with live music returns to Brandon Town Hall this month with 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), a classic comedy starring Buster Keaton, one of era's top performers.

'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will be revived for one showing only at Brandon Town Hall on Saturday, June 9 at 7 p.m. Admission is free and the family-friendly program is open to all; free will donations will go to ongoing building renovation and restoration work.

Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

The series allows local movie-goers to experience silent film the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you put the experience back together, you can see why movies caused such excitement," said Dennis Marden, president of the Friends of Brandon Town Hall.

In 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' Buster plays the bumbling son of a riverboat’s rough captain. When a rival brings a newer boat to the river, the family is forced to face competition, just as Buster is forced to ride out a cyclone threatening to destroy the community.

Can Buster save the day and win the hand of his girlfriend, who happens to be daughter of his father's business rival?

The film includes the famous shot of an entire building front collapsing on Keaton, who is miraculously spared by a conveniently placed second-story window.

Buster tries on hats for his on-screen dad, Ernest Torrence, in 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.'

Keaton, who grew up performing with the family vaudeville act, was known for never smiling on camera, an important element of his comic identity. A trained acrobat who learned at an early age how to take falls, Keaton did all his own stunts on camera in the era before post-production special effects.

Critics continue to hail Keaton’s timeless comedy as well as his intuitive filmmaking genius. In 2002, Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton that “in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.”

Keaton, who never attended school, did not think of himself as an artist but as an entertainer using the new medium of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

The screening of 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

Rapsis will create the accompaniment on the spot, improvising music as the movie unfolds to enhance the action on the screen as well respond to audience reactions. He will perform the music on a digital synthesizer 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. "Because most films at the time weren't released with sheet music or scores, studios depended 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.

Also on the bill are two Buster Keaton short comedies. The program is sponsored by Nancy and Gary Meffe.

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

Saturday, June 30: 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed' (1926). Taken from 'The Arabian Nights,' the first full-length animated feature tells the story of a wicked sorcerer who tricks Prince Achmed into mounting a magical flying horse, sending him off to a series of wondrous and romantic adventures. Sponsored by Pam and Steve Douglass.

Saturday, Aug. 11: 'Laurel & Hardy: A Silent Fine Mess.' The beloved comedy team got their start in silent film, and so celebrate their origins with a selection of their funniest short comedies. Get ready to laugh as Stan and Ollie made fine messes out of everything from a day in the country to a night on the town. Sponsored by the Brandon/Forestdale Lions Club.

Saturday, Sept. 8: '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 and performed it more than 1,000 times. Sponsored by Kathy and Bill Mathis, in memory of Maxine Thurston; also an anonymous donor.

Saturday, Oct. 20: Chiller Theatre, 'Der Golem' (1920). In 16th-century Prague, a rabbi creates a giant creature from clay, called the Golem. Using sorcery, he brings the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution, but then complications ensue. Early German fantasy movie anticipates Frankenstein story. Sponsored by Jan Coolidge, Lucy and Dick Rouse, Marc & Arlyn Briere, Dorothy Leyseth and Edward Loedding.

Buster Keaton's classic comedy 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) will be screened on Saturday, June 9 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt. All are welcome to this family-friendly event. Admission is free, with free will donations accepted in support of ongoing Town Hall renovations.

For more information, visit