Just recently back after nearly a month tramping around Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, with a little bit of China on the way out and back thanks to day-long layovers in Beijing.
It was a terrific trip, but it's great to be back and great to pick up again on an even longer journey: creating live music for silent film screenings.
I didn't waste time, jumping back on the accompanist bench one day after returning, jet lag notwithstanding. The occasion: one of my favorite gigs on the annual calendar, a vintage dance group that occasionally stages "movie nights" during their summertime get-togethers.
The films are chosen as much for their fashions as anything else; this year we ran 'Show People' (1928) with Marion Davies and William Haines, which I thought was a good match for the group.
Reaction was huge! The picture drew big laughs right from the start, and response never flagged. And for the first time in my experience, an audience actually cheered at the film's seltzer-spraying pie-throwing "come to your senses" climax. What a rush!
So my thanks to all the vintage dance folks for continuing to include silent film with live music in their activities. Looking forward to next time!
Things continued this past weekend with two programs of Laurel & Hardy short comedies: one from DVD in Brandon, Vt. on Saturday, Aug. 11, and another on Sunday, Aug. 12 at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre using 35mm prints from the Library of Congress.
No surprise that Stan & Ollie killed in both shows, with each title producing big laughs at the boys' antics. It'll be interesting to see if the upcoming bio-pic about the team will generate any renewed interest—not that the films themselves need any help. They still work great!
The highlight of both screenings was 'Big Business' (1929), and not just because it's a hilarious comedy. I think there's also something satisfying about seeing this film, with its tale of Christmas tree sales gone awry, in the middle of a hot and humid New England summer.
The Laurel & Hardy comedies, by the way, are great for instilling discipline in an accompanist. More than most comedies, I think the L & H shorts really demand a very simple "nursery rhyme" type approach, at least at the start, in order for them to work with an audience.
In any comedy, I feel if you start off with big energetic circus-type "this is FUNNY" music," you risk hampering the film for a simple reason: audience members can't hear each other laughing.
And if people can't hear each other reacting, then you don't get that spontaneous combustion in which laughter grows and spreads to everyone in the room. Eventually, everyone is laughing, even if it's just because of all the laughter. It becomes impossible to resist!
Once an audience gets going, it's one of the great glories of the silent film experience. And when you reach that point, the accompanist can go big, as long as it's in support of the comedy. But not before, I think.
The Laurel & Hardy silents are prime examples of films that benefit from this approach. They often start small, but then inexorably build to chaos and mayhem in a process that producer Hal Roach dubbed "reciprocal destruction."
So in 'Big Business,' after a suitable "Dance of the Cuckoos" intro (the L & H theme song), I shifted to a simple two-note version of "O Christmas Tree" as the pair make their way hawking Christmas trees through sunny California. Sometimes fast, sometime slow, sometimes in a minor key, sometimes just silence—but never anything big.
It's only when they encounter arch-nemesis James Finlayson, and audience reaction begins to grow, that I felt it was appropriate to ramp up the music a notch—but even then, just a little.
And as the on-screen war escalates, the music can rise to match it, but always with a sense of something in reserve until it's the right moment to let loose.
In 'Big Business,' I like to keep things tightly controlled until the moment when Finlayson causes the car to explode. Once that happens, there's no turning back, and the music can morph into full-scale battle mode, with repeated notes up top and 'O Christmas Tree' snarling through modulations in the bass.
And then there's a moment when Ollie starts swinging a shovel at expensive vases hurled out a window by Stan. Usually I avoid quoting recognizable tunes, but in this case everything's so over the top that shifting in to 'Take Me Out To The Ballgame' really works to sharpen the comic absurdity.
So just a few thoughts from this weekend's time on the bench.
Surprisingly, one short that got a very strong response was 'Do Detectives Think?' (1927), a title early in the series made when Laurel & Hardy still weren't officially a team.
In Brandon, I chose a church organ setting on my keyboard, and played up the "spooky" aspect of the film, which is full of graveyards and shadows and masks.
The laughter was nearly continuous, and I think I found myself a new Halloween short comedy! (I've been hoping for something other than Keaton's 'The Haunted House.')
All this was preparation for a mini-marathon this week: one that finds me accompanying six screenings over five days in four states!
I'll be spending more time on silent film than I will sleeping. I guess that's what they call "living the dream." :)
First up: the summer silent film series returns to the historic Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine with a program of Charlie Chaplin comedies on Wednesday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m.
After that comes screenings in Arlington, Mass; then Townsend, Mass,; then Charlestown, N.H.; then Ludlow, Vt.; and then Somerville, Mass.
Details for the Chaplin program in Ogunquit are below in a press release I've pasted in. Hope to see you at a screening soon!
TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2018 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • email@example.com
Charlie Chaplin short comedies with live music on Wednesday, Aug. 15 at Leavitt Theatre
Program of classic silent films show why the 'Little Tramp' first rocketed to worldwide popularity
OGUNQUIT, Maine—More than a century after he first stepped in front of a movie camera, Charlie Chaplin remains one of the world's most recognizable cinematic icons. But what made him famous in the first place?
See for yourself when a selection of Chaplin's best short comedies are screened on Wednesday, Aug. 15 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. The program will be accompanied by live music performed by New Hampshire composer Jeff Rapsis.
The program of Chaplin's short comedy films is the latest in this season's silent film series at the Leavitt.. The series aims to show the best silent films in the manner that caused people to first fall in love with the movies—on the big screen, in a theater, with live music, and with an audience.
A native of London, Chaplin was touring the U.S. in 1913 as a music hall performer when he agreed to join Mack Sennett's famous Keystone Studio, which specialized in producing fast-paced slapstick comedies. Chaplin first appeared on movie screens in early 1914, and quickly established himself as a distinctive performer.
Based on his growing popularity, in 1916 Chaplin signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corp. to produce 12 short 20-minute screen comedies for the then-astronomical salary of $10,000 per week. In the next 18 months, the dozen films Chaplin produced for Mutual are regarded as his first true masterpieces, and at the time helped cement his position as the king of movie comedy.
As a whole, the films show Chaplin's growing confidence both as a screen performer and film director. At the same time, each one forms a unique comic adventure involving highly different settings, no two alike: a department store, a skating rink, and even a movie studio.
"The Mutual comedies are where Chaplin really comes into his own," said Jeff Rapsis, who will provide live music for the screenings. "These are the films that people think of when they think of Chaplin and slapstick comedy, and they're still as laugh-out-loud funny today as they were when first released so long ago."
The Leavitt program includes four Mutual comedies, which show Chaplin at work during 1916 and 1917, a period that he recalled in his autobiography as "the happiest time of my life." Critics point to the Mutual comedies as a new high point for Chaplin, and audiences responded to the films with worldwide acclaim.
The films show Chaplin creating comedy in settings that vary widely. In 'Behind the Screen,' Chaplin plays a stagehand at a dysfunctional movie studio; 'The Rink' gives Chaplin a chance to display his talent on roller skates; 'Easy Street' finds Charlie taking a job as a policeman in the roughest part of town. In 'The Cure,' Chaplin wreaks havoc at a pretentious health spa.
All the Mutual comedies feature Chaplin's stock company of players, highlighted by female lead Edna Purviance and gargantuan actor Eric Campbell, who portrayed menacing bosses and bullies and was usually Charlie's rival for Edna's affection. Each film is about 20 minutes long, the standard length for a comedy at the time; they'll be shown in groups of three, with an intermission at the mid-point.
The Mutual comedies were so popular that they continued to be rereleased and replayed throughout the silent film era, even after Chaplin began making full-length feature films during the 1920s. They continued to be shown on television and today are popular staples with film collectors and movie buffs.
"The thrill in watching nearly all of the Mutuals comes in the Promethean moment when Chaplin’s inventiveness intersects with his genius and produces cinematic comedy sequences unlike any before," wrote Jeffrey Vance, author of "Chaplin, Genius of the Cinema." (2003) "The Mutuals are Chaplin’s laboratory, offering an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of the mind of a great cinema pioneer."
The popularity of the Mutuals was so pervasive, some critics believe they helped shape the course of cinema.
"The Mutual films were so successful that many other comedians tried to copied them, thus expanding the motion picture medium," Vance wrote. "The popularity of the Chaplin films and the universal appeal of the Tramp character did much to legitimize the new medium in twentieth-century culture."
Other programs in this year's Leavitt silent film series include:
• 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.
A program of Charlie Chaplin's best short comedies will be shown on Wednesday, Aug. 15 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 www.leavittheatre.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.