Monday, July 9, 2018

In which we start with 'Peter Pan' (1924)
and end nearly 100 years in the future
on a miniature golf course in Cambodia

An original poster for 'Peter Pan' (1924).

Just one more screening to go before I embark on an extended journey to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

I'll accompany the silent film version of 'Peter Pan' (1924) on Wednesday, July 11 at 7 p.m. at the Groton Public Library, 99 Main St., Groton, Mass.

Very excited as it's a new venue for me, and everyone's been very helpful in making it happen. Admission is free and hope you can make it!

And then the next day, I'll board a self-propelled heavier-than-air machine that will fling itself down a long paved strip at a place called JFK airport.

Thanks to physics, it will rise into the air. And thanks to people smarter than me (and liquid biomatter pumped from deep underground), it will head due north, up the Hudson River Valley and keep going right up over the North Pole, and then down to Beijing, China.

There, we'll board another heaver-than-air machine that will carry us to Bangkok, Thailand. All in less than one day!

Science fiction? I don't need to read it, as I feel like it surrounds me all the time.

Here's an observation: spending a lot of time with movies from a century ago can really help preserve a sense of wonder about the current age we live in, which is 100 years in the future!

And now, a word about recent audiences.

I don't know what it is, but the past month brought healthy attendance, and great reactions, at silent film screenings around the region.

Selfie outside the Somerville Theatre.

Just yesterday, we enjoyed a strong turnout for 'The Docks of New York' (1928) at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre, despite a spectacular mid-summer Sunday afternoon.

And last night, a good crowd at the Aeronaut Brewery (also in Somerville) hooted and hollered through a double feature of William S. Hart in 'Hell's Hinges' and Buster Keaton's 'Go West.'

And earlier this week, 'The Beloved Rogue' got a big reaction at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington. I forgot how funny that film is!

On the marquee of the Capitol: right up there with 'The Ant and the Wasp.'

And at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, a group of hardy film fans forsook getting good advance spots for the local 4th of July fireworks in favor of taking in 'The Yankee Clipper.'

'Yankee Clipper,' by the way, turned out to be a great flick for Independence Day, with its 1850s American-vs.-British clipper ship race from China to Boston.

The thread running through each of these screenings was audience reaction. Each produced a noticeably strong response from those in attendance.

I don't know if it's fatigue from current events or fallout from global warming or something science has not yet uncovered.

But for some people, lately there's definite need for the silent film experience, at least from the reactions I've been witnessing.

So, although it'll be nice to be away from the keyboard for a spell, I'm already looking forward to jumping back on the silent film merry-go-round when I get back next month. See you then!

The ultimate goal of my journey: to play miniature golf at Angkor Wat. Talk about 'Peter Pan'!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Live music for three films in a single day: 'Docks' and 'Hell's Hinges' and 'Go West,' oh my!

Betty Compson and George Bancroft in 'The Docks of New York' (1928), directed by Josef von Sternberg.

It's one of the very best films from the silent era. And I get to do live music for it tomorrow.

It's 'The Docks of New York' (1928), a drama running in 35mm at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre on Sunday, July 8 at 2 p.m.

More details about the movie and the screening in the press release pasted in below.

It's the latest installment of the Somerville's 'Silents, Please!' series, and I've been looking forward to this one for awhile.

Why? Because it's a late silent (one of the last from Paramount) that shows the medium at the height of its power and eloquence.

Directed by Josef von Sternberg, the movie uses light and shadow, camera placement and atmosphere, and features a cast of great faces: George Bancroft, Betty Compson, Clive Cook, Olga Baclanova, and Gustav von Seffertitz, among others.

Extras seem to have been chosen in a kind of reverse beauty pageant, and the whole run-down waterfront saloon atmosphere and its ballet of light and shadow is captured in masterful black & white by cinematographer Harold Rosson, who would go on to win an Academy Award a decade later for his work on MGM's 'The Wizard of Oz' (1939).

To add to the anticipation, legendary Somerville Theatre projectionist David Kornfeld reports that the print (from the UCLA Archive) looks fantastic.

To quote David:
"We have a gorgeous print, with ravishing density, courtesy of our friends at UCLA. I ran it last night & it will blow you away!
Well, you can't get better marks than that.

So if you think movies from the silent era were all primitive "flickahs" accompanied by rinky-tink piano music, please attend.

(Weirdly, there are two long sequences in 'Docks' that really do call for rinky-tink piano music. But it's in the context of a run-down waterfront saloon.)

Later the same day, I'm at the Aeronaut Brewing Co. (also in Somerville), where we're screening a Western double feature that's half drama and half comedy.

For drama, it's the deadly serious 'Hell's Hinges' (1916), an early William S. Hart effort.

And for comedy, it's 'Go West' (1925), Buster Keaton's send-up of the genre.

I've wanted to try something like this for a long time—to see if running a serious film first, and then a parody after it, makes any difference in the comedy.

A lot of silent film comedy consists of sending up popular films of the period. So, after John Barrymore's 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' came out, Stan Laurel starred in 'Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride.'

To audiences at the time, the comedy was playing off a popular film that most people had recently seen.

But to us today, it's hard to recreate that context unless you show both films. And that's a problematic thing to do.

Why? Because the comedy/parody is usually 20 minutes or less, while the film it mocks is often a full-length feature.

So if you show the comedy first (the usual position in a program), the audience hasn't yet seen the feature.

But if you show the comedy after the feature...well, a short film doesn't seem like the way to end a program, does it?

My solution was to take two relatively short features (both are about one hour) and run them back-to-back.

So on Sunday, night, Hart's 'Hell's Hinges' will function as the set-up, while Keaton's 'Go West' will be the pay off.

Will it work? Join us and find out. In addition to the press release for 'Docks of New York,' I'm also pasting in the press release for the Aeronaut screening as well.

See you at one, the other, or both!

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Cinematic masterpiece 'Docks of New York' to screen Sunday, July 8 at Somerville Theatre

Josef von Sternberg's silent working class drama to be shown in 35mm on the big screen with live music

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—It's a rare chance to see a masterpiece of early cinema presented as intended: via 35mm film, on the big screen, with live music and in an actual theater.

It's 'The Docks of New York' (1928), a working class drama directed by Josef Von Sternberg, to be shown at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, July 8 at 2 p.m.

Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $15 per person, $12 students/seniors.

It's the latest installment of the Somerville's 'Silents, Please!' series, which gives movie-goers a chance to experience great pictures of the silent era as originally presented.

"Seeing these great pictures on actual 35mm film and in a theater with live music is an opportunity that's increasingly rare," said Ian Judge, manager of the Somerville Theatre.

"But it's the only way to really understand why people first fell in love with movies, and why these pictures were so popular in their day."

Betty Compson and George Bancroft in 'The Docks of New York' (1928).

'The Docks of New York,' one of the last silent films released by Paramount Pictures, explores the lives and loves of lower-class waterfront denizens.

Roughneck stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) falls for Mae (Betty Compson), a wise and weary dance-hall girl. But the relationship changes Roberts' hard-luck life in unexpected ways.

Fog-shrouded cinematography by Harold Rosson ('The Wizard of Oz'), expressionist set design by Hans Dreier ('Sunset Boulevard'), and sensual performances by Bancroft and Compson make this one of the legendary director Joseph von Sternberg’s finest works.

The film was daring for a Hollywood picture at the time for its realism: the unflinching and unromantic portrayal of working class people, and its refusal to rely on traditional story formulas and outcomes.

Unlike many early movie directors, von Sternberg emphasized the visual quality of his pictures, using lighting and scene composition in new and innovative ways.

Working as a studio director for Paramount, the native Austrian was aided by the increasing ability of black-and-white film stock by the mid-1920s to capture light and shadows.

The result was a series of ground-breaking dramas at the very end of the silent era, including 'Underworld' (1927) and 'The Last Command' (1928), the latter which helped Emil Jannings win "Best Actor" at the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony.

After the transition to talking pictures, von Sternberg discovered German actress Marlene Dietrich, inviting her to Hollywood to make a series of highly successful pictures under his direction.

With their moody lighting and extensive use of shadows, von Sternberg's films are widely acknowledged as paving the way for the "film noir" look that took hold in Hollywood in subsequent decades.

Although von Sternberg's directing career faded in the 1950s, his legacy continues today in surprising places—including the field of early rock music.

Between 1959 and 1963, Sternberg taught a course on film aesthetics at the University of California at Los Angeles, based on his own works. His students included Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, who went on to form the rock group The Doors.

The group recorded songs referring to Sternberg. Manzarek has described Sternberg as "perhaps the greatest single influence on The Doors."

'Docks of New York' was released at the very end of the silent era, causing it to be overlooked by critics at the time.

Previewed by the New York City press during the same week that saw the fanfare opening of Al Jolson’s 'The Singing Fool,' Sternberg’s film was ignored in the excitement over competing talking pictures.

Film critic Andrew Sarris lamented that Sternberg’s film “quickly vanished in undeserved oblivion...confirm[ing] Chaplin’s observation that the silent movies learned their craft just about the time they went out of business.”

Museum of Modern Art film curator Charles Silver ranked The Docks of New York as “probably the last genuinely great silent film made in Hollywood [rivaling] Chaplin’s masterpieces of the 1930s.”

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

• 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).

‘The Docks of New York' (1928) will be shown on Sunday, July 8 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.

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And here's a release for the Aeronaut double feature...

Buster and his co-star Brown Eyes in 'Go West' (1925).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'Go West' with Buster Keaton at Aeronaut Brewing Co. on Sunday, July 8

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

SOMERVILLE, 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.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Go West' (1925), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Sunday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St., Somerville, Mass. Admission $10 per person, limited seating. Tickets available through


The 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.

The program will include an early western, 'Hell's Hinges' (1916), starring William S. Hart.

The screening is part of the Aeronaut's commitment to give local artists and audiences a chance to connect in the brewery's performance space.

In 'Go West,' Buster heads out to ranch country, where the stone-faced comedian encounters romance with—a cow! Can he save his love from a trip to the livestock yards? Rustle up some belly laughs as Buster must once again prove himself worthy to all those who doubt him.

Buster Keaton heeds the title in 'Go West.'

'Go West' was an unusual film for Keaton. With its portrayal of a down-and-out wanderer who becomes a reluctant hero, 'Go West' could have been a vehicle for Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

The film was praised by critics and did well at the box office, but today is lesser known than Keaton classics such as 'The Navigator' (1924) and 'The General' (1926).

Co-starring in 'Go West' is a mourn-faced cow named Brown Eyes, with whom Keaton worked extensively prior to the filming. Brown Eyes received a credit in the movie, and even got a salary of $13 a week for her acting.

Keaton's female co-star is actress Kathleen Myers. Joe Keaton, the comedian's father and a popular vaudeville performer, appears briefly in a barbershop scene.

Much of 'Go West' was shot on location in Kingman, Ariz., during the summer of 1925, in temperatures approaching 120 degrees.

"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."

‘Go West' (1925) starring Buster Keaton will be shown with live music on Sunday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St., Somerville, Mass. Admission $10 per person, limited seating; tickets available through


For more information, visit

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

A mad dash of silent film accompaniment, plus working Curly Howard into a press release

Tonight at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine: tall ships on the big screen!

Happy 4th of July! A few notes before breaking into a silent film accompaniment sprint in the next week: five performances prior to departing for Laos and Cambodia.

The mad musical dash begins today with a screening of 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927) at the venerable Leavitt Theatre in downtown Ogunquit, Maine.

Looking forward to this (showtime 7 p.m.) because the old all-wood Leavitt Theatre sort of reminds me of one of those old all-wood tall ships. They're both grand contraptions from another era.

Also, Ogunquit is on the Maine coast, which means it'll be about 20 degrees cooler than inland New Hampshire today.

We're enduring a week-long heat wave in New England, which may be good training for Laos and Cambodia (and for global warming in general) but that doesn't make it pleasant.

Last night's bike ride in particular felt less like New Hampshire and more like Death Valley, with added humidity.

Even at 7 p.m., temps were stuck near 100 and the air was not moving. It was like bicyling through a giant oven. So Ogunquit will be a relief, I hope.

Plus, I'm going out a bit early to avoid traffic, and also to make a pilgrimage to what I consider the finest run-down clam shack on the East Coast.

(Everyone knows that the best fried seafood comes from run-down shacks within view of the Atlantic—the more run-down, the better. I think it's the same dynamic at work as not ever cleaning a frying pan but letting it become "seasoned" over time.)

It's Ceal's Clam Shack in Seabrook, N.H. Open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day, it's my Holy Shrine of Fried Food I Should Not Eat. But once or twice a year, I don't care.

A view from 2016. They update the painted date every season.

And about tonight's screening: I think 'Yankee Clipper' is a great choice to celebrate Independence Day, and not because it has 'Yankee' in the title.

Rather, it depicts a time when the young United States was first making waves on the world stage: specifically, the lucrative China tea trade in the 1850s.

So it harks back to a time long past, which makes it easy to forget today's troubles and relive the good old days, with their slavery and disease and cruelty and...wait, never mind.

Still, it's a great flick because it stars leading man William Boyd (long before he aged into the "Hop-along Cassidy sidekick role in innumerable Westerns) and, most importantly, it'll get out before the Ogunquit fireworks start.

See you there tonight!

Then tomorrow night it's John Barrymore in 'The Beloved Rogue' (1927), a film well-suited for heat wave relief because it's set in mid-winter medieval Paris.

It's running on Thursday, July 5 at 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass. More details in the press release below.

But this is an under-rated picture with great performances from Barrymore, Conrad Veidt, and Marceline Day. Worth checking it out as a kind of pre-Bastille Day experience.

And then it's a two-fer on Sunday, July 8: a 35mm print of 'Docks of New York' (1928) at the Somerville Theatre at 2 p.m., and then a Western-themed silent double feature at the Aeronaut Brewery (also in Somerville, Mass.) at 7:30 p.m.

With the latter, we're running William S. Hart's ultra-serious 'Hell's Hinges' (1916) followed by Buster Keaton's Western send-up 'Go West' (1925). The Hart film is the set-up, with Keaton the punchline.

More on these two programs a bit later this week, but both are really worth catching.

And then I cross the finish line on Wednesday, July 11 with a screening of 'Peter Pan' (1924) at the Groton (Mass.) Public Library, a new venue for me. Looking forward to this one, too!

Then it's throw the toothbrush and malaria tablets in a bag, and off we go!

For now, though, consider taking in William Boyd tonight in 'The Yankee Clipper' (1927) tonight at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, and John Barrymore in 'The Beloved Rogue' tomorrow night at the Capitol in Arlington.

A press release for the latter is pasted in below. And I'm particularly proud of this one, as I was able to work in references to beloved stooge Curly Howard. (They're both beloved rogues of a sort.) Check it out!

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Forget the heat wave and lose yourself in frozen mid-winter Paris courtesy 'The Beloved Rogue.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

John Barrymore's 'The Beloved Rogue’ with live music Thursday, July 5 at Capitol Theatre

Exploits of 'Poet, Pickpocket, Patriot' of medieval France captured in spectacular silent film epic

ARLINGTON, Mass.—See Drew Barrymore's grandfather in one of his most celebrated performances!

It's legendary actor John Barrymore in 'The Beloved Rogue' (1927), an epic about the exploits of Francois Villon, the legendary "poet, pickpocket, patriot" of medieval France.

See this rarely screened silent adventure flick on Thursday, July 5 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 for the movie will be performed by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

John Barrymore swashbuckles in 'The Beloved Rogue' (1927).

'The Beloved Rogue' follows the life of Francois Villon, beloved by the citizens of medieval Paris but banished from the city by King Louis XI for impudence.

But when the king is threatened by a rival, dark horse Villon emerges as the only hope of winning the day. Can Villon save the monarchy, and also win the hand of the aristocratic Charlotte de Vauxcelles?

In one of his most colorful, energetic performances. Barrymore—known during the silent era as "The Great Profile"—stars as Villon,

German actor Conrad Veidt delivers a memorable performance as the superstitious King Louis XI, while Marceline Day plays Villon's love interest, Charlotte de Vauxcelles.

Of special note: an appearance by diminutive character actor Angelo Rossitto, a dwarf. 'The Beloved Rogue' was his first film in a long career that spanned all the way to 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome' (1985).

Set in a snowbound wintertime Paris, a highlight of 'The Beloved Rogue' are imaginative sets created by legendary art director William Cameron Menzies.

Critics continue to cite 'The Beloved Rogue' as one of Barrymore's strongest performances.

"Not history, just an eye-filling, spirited, tongue-in-cheek costume tale with Barrymore in great form," wrote Leonard Maltin.

Barrymore was a member of a legendary acting clan that included film actor Lionel Barrymore and stage actress Ethel Barrymore. Among his John Barrymore's descendants are actress Drew Barrymore, his granddaughter.

Barrymore's trademark "profile" was immortalized by comic Curly Howard in 'Movie Maniacs' (1936) when he turns sideways to the camera and asks, "Ain't I gettin' to look more and more like Barrymore?"

Produced and released by United Artists, 'The Beloved Rogue' was lost for some 40 years until a copy was discovered in the late 1960s in the collection of film pioneer Mary Pickford.

Pickford, an early champion of film preservation, tried saving all things "United Artists", the production company she co-founded.

'The Beloved Rogue' 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 an 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, 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 Beloved Rogue' will be shown on Thursday, July 5 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