Thursday, September 27, 2018

From Russia to Chicago: a geographically diverse double-header of silents this weekend

Let's hear it for cartographical diversity!

On Saturday, I'll accompany 'The Last Command' (1928), a Russian Revolution drama, at fitting venue: the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass. (More about that in a bit.) Showtime is at 2 p.m.; the press release with more info is pasted in below.

And then on Sunday, it's the original silent film version of 'Chicago' (1927), which is this month's silent film show at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

For this one, I plan on using the theater's acoustic piano for some important scenes in which a player piano cranks along in the background. For the rest of the score, it'll be the usual full orchestra texture from the digital synthesizer. But in the "live effects" department, I'll also use jingly bells at a few points where they play a significant on-screen role.

Showtime for 'Chicago' is 4:30 p.m. and admission is free, with donations kindly accepted.

As different as these films are, I'm looking forward to both. 'The Last Command,' with a towering performance from Emil Jannings, is one of the best films of any period. it's always a thrill to accompany it, but it's especially cool to be doing so at the Museum of Russian Icons.

What is the Museum of Russian Icons, you may ask? Well, even if you didn't, let me tell you: it's a wonderful museum in an old mill building that houses a spectacular assemblage of Russian icons, the core of which was assembled by a local collector, as well as many other things.

They run a wide range of programming, and that includes movies. Earlier this year, I was approached by an Icon Museum staffer who asked about doing a silent film with live music. We got talking about the "Russian Revolution" sub-genre of silent dramas, romantic and otherwise, and here we are.

And what's great about this, I think, is that the audience is likely to be people who have never seen or experienced this film, or any silent film of any kind. What an introduction to the timeless power and eloquence of this art form!

Phyllis Haver tears up the screen—and the room—in 'Chicago.'

And then 'Chicago'—well, that's just going to be a hoot and a half. In this case, it's a story that most people know already from the long-running Broadway musical or the 2002 movie, which won 'Best Picture.'

So what a surprise to find that there's a silent film version of the story, and that it's a crackerjack ripped-from-the-headlines adaptation of the original play that started it all! What's more, it was made right in the era the story is set, so it has an unmatched immediacy and authenticity that's still palpable even today.

Hope to see you at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre on Sunday at 4:30 p.m.

And if you'd like more info on 'The Last Command' at the Museum of Russian Icons, here's the press release.

* * *

Emil Jannings won the first-ever 'Best Actor' Academy Award in part for his performance in 'The Last Command.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent epic 'The Last Command' with live music at Museum of Russian Icons on Saturday, Sept. 29

Russian Revolution picture from 1928 won 'Best Actor' for Emil Jannings at first-ever Academy Awards

CLINTON, Mass.—'The Last Command' (1928), a silent film drama that won Emil Jannings 'Best Actor' honors at the first-ever Academy Awards, will be screened with live music on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Russian Icons, 203 Union St., Clinton, Mass.

Admission is $12 for members, $18 for non-members. Register by calling (978) 598-5000 ext. 121 or pay at the door.

'The Last Command,' directed by Josef von Sternberg, tells the sweeping story of a powerful general in Czarist Russia (Jannings) forced to flee his homeland during the Bolshevik Revolution. He emigrates to America, where he is reduced to living in poverty.

Evelyn Brent and Emil Jannings in 'The Last Command,' the 'Before' picture...

Finding work as an extra at a Hollywood studio, the former general lands the part of a commanding officer in a movie about the Revolution, causing flashbacks to his traumatic experiences. The conflict leads to a spectacular climax and a towering performance that earned Jannings 'Best Actor' honors.

The film takes audiences on a journey through big emotions as well as issues of history, time, power, and especially a man's duty to his country and to his fellow citizens—and what happens when the two obligations diverge.

...and now, the 'After' picture.

'The Last Command' is also one of early Hollywood's most creative and challenging looks at the global conflicts that contributed to World War I, which ended 100 years ago this fall.

The film also stars a young William Powell as a Hollywood movie director who crosses paths with the general during the Revolution, and 1920s starlet Evelyn Brent as a seductive Russian revolutionary.

Live music for the screening will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician recognized as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.

Rapsis will create the film's score live as the movie is shown by improvising music based on original melodies created beforehand.

"Making up the music on the spot is kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But there's nothing like the energy and excitement that comes with improvised live performance, especially when accompanying a silent film."

Rapsis accompanies films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra.

Critic Leonard Maltin hailed 'The Last Command' as "a stunning silent drama...a fascinating story laced with keen observations of life and work in Hollywood." Time Out of London called it "the first Sternberg masterpiece, expertly poised between satire and 'absurd' melodrama. The cast are fully equal to it; Jannings, in particular, turns the characteristic role of the general into an indelible portrait of arrogance, fervour and dementia."

Director Sternberg, a master of lighting and black-and-white photography, created 'The Last Command' as a visual tour de force. The film is often cited as a prime example of the emotional range and visual accomplishment of silent films at their height, just prior to the coming of pictures with recorded soundtracks.

Rapsis said great silent film dramas such as 'The Last Command' told stories that concentrate on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them in the 21st century, especially if they're presented as intended—in a theater on the big screen, with a live audience and live music.

"Dramas such as 'The Last Command' were created to be consumed as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they come to life as their creators intended them to. This screening at the Museum of Russian Icons is a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies."

'The Last Command' (1928) will be screened with live music on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Russian Icons, 203 Union St., Clinton, Mass. Admission is members $12, non-members $18. Register by calling (978) 598-5000 ext. 121 or pay at the door. For more info, visit visit For more information about the music, visit

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Blisters and ciphers and stops, oh my! The exhilaration of accompanying 'Wings' on the Orpheum's Mighty Wurlitzer in Sioux City, Iowa

'Wings' on the Orpheum's big screen, with tiny me playing the mighty Wurlitzer. (Click to enlarge.) Photo by Dave Gross.

Last weekend I had the privilege of playing an enormous Wurlitzer theatre organ in Sioux City, Iowa. But that's not all!

I also ran 6.2 miles in North Sioux City, South Dakota, thus bagging No. 38 in my quest to run at least 10K in all 50 states.

You can read about that project here.

But about the organ: what a thrill to return to the beautifully restored Orpheum Theatre as part of the Sioux City International Film Festival.

The annual festival is focused on new and emerging filmmakers from all around the world.

But in recent years, they've included a silent film/live music component. This is in part, I gather, because the Orpheum and its Wurlitzer pipe organ are just too special to be left out.

Checking out the Wurlitzer prior to the show.

And I would agree. Not many communities can boast of a restored 1927 movie palace AND a working theatre organ in its original installation.

But the Orpheum can. And one of the reasons for this is a dedicated community of supporters that keeps the organ playable.

As you can imagine, anything with thousands of moving parts all in need of constant calibration is bound to need some regular attention.

This is mind-numbing to me. I mean, I can't keep up with maintaining my lawnmower!

So Sioux City is blessed with some folks who look after the Wurlitzer year in and year out, which enables people such as me to drop into town and play it.

One is Rick Darrow, whose company Darrow Pipe & Organ maintains church organs all over the Midwest.

Rick lives right in Sioux City, and seems to have adopted the Orpheum's Wurlitzer. He and his son Tom maintain it, tune it, and keep it in working order.

You can tell Rick is the organ go-to guy. When I sat down at the console and pulled out one of the "trays" with arrays of control buttons on them, I found a piece of ornate molding painted in gold, with a note addressed to Rick that it was a piece of trim that somehow got loose and fell off a side of the bench.

Rick Darrow at the console of the Orpheum's Mighty Wurlitzer.

Rick was kind enough to show me around the console when I first came out to Sioux City last year. And Tom was on hand last time to pull any ciphers (meaning pipes that get stuck in the open position) and troubleshoot during the performance.

This time around, I came in Sunday prior to the show. Sure enough, a big low D flat in a bass pipe got stuck open. I called Tom and he said he'd be right over, but then Orpheum manager Tim went into the pipe chamber and fixed it. That's a well-loved organ with a lot of people looking out for it!

Inside the Orpheum: the organ and the screen.

And then there's Dave Solberg, a local guy who's played the organ for 63 years and is still going strong. Dave, who knows the Wurlitzer inside out, showed me his custom settings, which I used during the performance.

And how about Irving Jensen, a local businessman and philanthropist whose financial contributions have kept the Orpheum and its Wurlitzer in tip-top shape?

I had the privilege to meet Mr. Jensen, a delightful gentleman who takes great pride in seeing the theater and organ in action, as it was last Sunday.

A hasty selfie threesome of me, Irving Jensen, and Dave Solberg.

For me, last Sunday was a chance to use this wonderful instrument to create live music to accompany 'Wings' (1927), the 2½-hour long winner of 'Best Picture' at the first-ever Academy Awards.

I know the film pretty well, and I've developed some solid musical material to go with it. So I was able to concentrate on what Rick Darrow calls the "orchestration," finding the right stop combos and volume levels and settings, and managing so many other variables to create a satisfying musical score.

A couple of hours isn't enough time to even begin to assimilate everything a big theatre organ can do. But once the film started, I found I was able to anticipate key scenes in 'Wings' and make use of some of the Wurlitzer's capabilities.

I attempt to blend in with Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers.

For instance: in the scenes where it's important that Clara Bow's dress truly sparkles, I was able to set up the solo keyboard (the top of three) so it played all the "tinkly bell" stops such as glockenspiel, etc.

And in the medal-pinning scene, I made use of the Wurlitzer's snare drum effect, which is triggered by a separate foot pedal way off to the right.

Speaking of pedals: I'm still fairly new to playing theatre organ, and so I still have to really think about what my feet are doing down there with all the pedals.

What happened Sunday was surprising: after 2½ hours of continuous playing, plus several hours of warming up, I developed unexpected blisters on the top of my smaller toes on my left foot.

Occupational hazard? I think it was mostly a function of wearing the wrong socks and shoes, and also from not stretching beforehand. Duly noted.

And it wasn't that serious, as after a couple of hours, I was able to get out on the road and run those 6.2 miles.

But the best part of the whole experience was what happened afterwards. Dozens of people, mostly families with kids, came down to the console to learn more about the instrument and ask questions.

And it reminded me how unearthly bizarre and complex an organ console looks like to most people: a cross section between the cockpit of a 747 and a carnival midway. People are genuinely in awe!

A future organist checks out the Wurlitzer.

It's times like these that really bring home to me how privileged I am to be able to work with such a great instrument—a direct physical link to the entertainment era that produced art that has a lot to teach us, now more than ever. I think.

A few brave folks climbed up on the bench to try out the organ, playing impromptu duets and perhaps sparking an interest that might bloom into music lessons or more. And I couldn't be happier.

Another young organist, with me trying not to be too much like Lon Chaney.

Many thanks to Rick Mullin and everyone with the Sioux City International Film Festival for their hospitality, and all the work that made this year's festival a great success.

Hope to see everyone next year!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In this corner, 'Her Sister From Paris,' then later a true heavyweight: 'The Last Laugh'

Ronald Colman proves no match for Constance Talmadge in 'Her Sister From Paris.'

If silent films were classified like boxers, the next two evenings will see action in the lightweight and heavyweight divisions.

• On Wednesday, Sept. 12, I'll accompany a screening of 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925), a frothy society comedy starring Ronald Colman and Constance Talmadge.

Although both stars are in peak form, I'd say the fluffy nature of the story puts the film squarely in the lightweight division.

However, it's often described as a "battle of the sexes" comedy, so expect lots of quick action and fancy footwork—typical of the lighter weight classes.

The screening starts at 7 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Ogunquit, Maine. Admission $10 per person.

For more info, visit the Leavitt Theatre online.

Emil Jannings ponders his fate in 'The Last Laugh' (1924).

• Then, on Thursday, Sept. 13, it's down to Arlington, Mass. for a true heavyweight experience: Emil Jannings in F.W. Murnau's 'The Last Laugh' (1924).

In a silent film "main event," Murnau takes a simple situation and uses the then-new medium of cinema to depict a man's emotional journey with immense power.

I'll accompany Jannings as he does battle with a formidable opponent: his own sense of self-worth.

Showtime is 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass.

An original 'Wings' poster featuring Clara Bow.

• And then this weekend brings me to the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa, where I'll accompany a screening of the great WWI classic 'Wings' (1927) on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

It's part of the annual Sioux City International Film Festival, and I'm thrilled to be going out again to do live music in this incredible venue.

Showtime for this one is Sunday, Sept. 16 at noon. For more info, visit the Sioux City International Film Festival online.

More screenings at the end of the month, including Josef von Sternberg's amazing 'The Last Command' (1928) at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass. and the original silent film version of 'Chicago' (1927).

Stay tuned, or check the schedule: there's a link at the top right of every page!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Back to the beginning: the original 'Sherlock Holmes' on Friday, 9/7 in Brandon, Vt.

Nothing like the original: William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes.

Next up: creating live music for the original 'Sherlock Holmes' movie, made in 1916 with legendary stage actor William Gillette in the title role.

The first-ever 'Sherlock' will run on Friday, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt. Admission is free, with any donations used to aid ongoing restoration work.

(Please note that the Friday night screening is different from our usual Saturday night date for silent film programs in Brandon.)

Since its rediscovery a few years ago (after being missing for nearly a century), the original 'Sherlock' has enjoyed many screenings across the country and around the globe.

Not only is it the first time Holmes was depicted on the big screen, but it's the only film appearance by Gillette, who created the role of Sherlock on stage for more than 30 years.

The performance of Gillette, who worked directly with creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to bring Holmes to life, is about as close to the original source that Holmes buffs can ever hope to get.

I've had the good fortune of accompanying 'Sherlock' several times, and I'm of two minds. I'm thrilled that the film was discovered in the Cinematheque Francais after all these years, and the restoration was done with taste and sensitivity. Nice!

I just wish it was a better film.

And by that, I wish it was better in terms of what a contemporary audience expects when it goes into a movie theater.

Some silents do indeed rise to that challenge. Later this month, I'm accompanying Josef von Sternberg's 'The Last Command' (1928) at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., and I'm sure most people who attend will be bowled over by it. It's that good.

But 'Sherlock' came too early—an Essanay drama from the mid-teens, I think parts of it are rough enough to reinforce certain stereotypes about silent cinema: that it's technically primitive, that it can be hard to follow, that it suffers from static camera placement, and so on.

Whether or not that's the case, I try to create music that helps convey the narrative line, shows the changing emotional temperature of each scene, and generally helps an audience stay with the picture.

Although the musical score on Friday night will be improvised, I do have a theme I developed for Holmes that I'll probably employ throughout, transforming it as the story unfolds and things happen to the Holmes and other characters.

Despite my misgivings about the film itself, every 'Sherlock' screening I've been involved with is carried by the sheer energy of audience interest and excitement, both from silent film fans, Holmes aficionados, and the general public. If it's enough to generate interest in later screenings, then what more could you wish for!

So if you're within driving distance of Brandon, Vt., please join us on Friday night and see something no one was able to watch for nearly a whole century.

Below is a press release with more info. See you at the movies!

* * *

The lighting of the pipe. Gillette began using a calabash pipe for Holmes on stage so that audiences could see his face.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

It's elementary! Rediscovered 'Sherlock Holmes' movie at Brandon Town Hall on Friday, Sept. 7

Original film adaptation, missing for nearly a century, on the big screen with live musical accompaniment

BRANDON, Vt.—The first-ever movie adaptation of 'Sherlock Holmes,' a silent film released in 1916 and recently rediscovered, will screen next month at Brandon Town Hall

The original 'Sherlock Holmes' will be shown with live music on Friday, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall, Route 7, Brandon, Vt.

The program is free and open to the public. Free will donations are encouraged, with all proceeds to aid ongoing Town Hall restoration efforts.

Please note that the screening of 'Sherlock Holmes' will take place on a Friday night instead of the usual Saturday night date for silent film programs at Brandon Town Hall.

Like many films from the silent era, the 'Sherlock Holmes' movie was long considered lost until a nearly complete copy was discovered in 2014 at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.

The film has since been restored, allowing movie-goers to again see the only screen appearance of stage actor William Gillette.

Gillette originated the role of Sherlock Holmes in a popular stage adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of the legendary British detective.

Gillette performed as the brilliant Holmes more than 1,300 times over three decades, touring the nation and popularizing Conan Doyle's sleuth.

A popular stage actor, Gillette made no other known movie appearances. But his interpretation of the Holmes character laid the groundwork for all actors who would later play the role, including Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Set in Victorian-era London, the original 'Sherlock Holmes' is an episodic crime drama that incorporates the plots of several Conan Doyle tales.

Running about 90 minutes, it features all major characters of the Holmes stories, including companion Dr. Watson and nemesis/rival Prof. Moriarty.

It was filmed in 1915 in the Chicago studios of the Essanay Film Co., with exterior shots of the Windy City doubling for Victorian London.

The restoration was premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The screening at Brandon Town Hall will be the first time the restoration has been shown in Vermont.

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.

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."

The program is sponsored by Sponsored by Kathy and Bill Mathis, in memory of Maxine Thurston; also an anonymous donor.

Upcoming titles in Brandon Town Hall's summer silent film series include:

• 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.

The original ‘Sherlock Holmes' (1916), starring William Gillette in the title role, will be shown with live music on Friday, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of the town hall. For more information, visit For more info on the music, visit

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Traveling through the centuries: film music at screenings in Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo

Just back from a mini-tour that took me silent film screenings to Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

And in terms of time travel, I created music for movies set in the 1500s, the 1600s, the 1800s, and the 1900s.

(Sorry, 1700s—maybe next time!)

But really, I'm grateful for the chance to do film accompaniment in so many places, and for so many periods, too. Here's a round-up:

Opening title for 'When Knighthood Was In Flower' (1922).

Wednesday, Aug. 29: Cinema Detroit. First time at this nifty independent theater. Local residents Paula and Tim Guthat opened Cinema Detroit five years ago, and have built it into a valuable cultural resource for the city. Housed in the back of a former furniture store, the cinema's two screening rooms offer a wide range of titles seven days a week.

It was a real honor to work with Tim and Paula on Cinema Detroit's first-ever program of silent film with live music. The movie: Marion Davies in 'When Knighthood Was In Flower' (1922), shown via DCP courtesy of Undercrank Productions and Ben Model, who was responsible for the film's recent restoration and re-release. Thanks, Ben!

For a first attempt, no one was sure how it would go, but interest turned out to be surprisingly strong. By showtime, Cinema Detroit's main screening room was about half-filled, which far exceeded expectations for a mid-week experiment. And audience response was strong throughout the film, showing that Marion can still hold the screen.

Paula speaks before the show.

And audience response was strong throughout 'Knighthood,' which is a real treat for an accompanist: many good scenes with characters interacting in ways that light underscoring can help sharpen, and also several well-staged swordfights and chases. And the final climax and chase builds during a storm, so there's a lot for an accompanist to work with.

Although 'Knighthood' is set during the reign of Henry VIII, I didn't play much "Middle Ages"-sounding music. I kept it light and breezy, which I felt help make it more Marion's film—one in which she was being her usual bubbly self, but which happened to be set during the 1500s.

So the keyboard was set for just standard orchestra (rather than something period-sounding like harpsichord), changing to a different texture only for one scene in which a guitar gets played on camera to accompany dancing. Overall, the improvised music was what I would call "classical neutral"—light opera stuff, but flexible enough to respond to the changing needs of the film's narrative.

It all seemed to work really well, with nearly everyone staying afterwards for a prolonged Q & A about the film, the music, and what might be next for silent film at Cinema Detroit. And afterwards I was taken to a great late night place, the Green Dot, that serves in sliders unlike any I've had at, say, White Castle.

Thanks very much to Paula and Tim for taking a chance on silent film and a silent film accompanist. I hope it's possible for Cinema Detroit to run more silent film/live music programs, and for us to work together again soon!

Lillian Gish and 'The Scarlet Letter' on the cover of this summer's Cleveland Cinematheque schedule.

Thursday, Aug. 30: Cleveland Cinematheque. For its ongoing "Second Look" series, the Cinematheque included MGM's 'The Scarlet Letter' (1926) starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, and directed by Victor Seastrom—the same team that would strike cinematic gold in 'The Wind' two years later.

But 'Scarlet Letter' is no slouch. It's filled with strong performances as well as arresting visuals and creative camerawork, so I was thrilled to do music for the Cinematheque's screening of a 35mm print supplied by UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The film is an adaptation, of course, of Nathanial Hawthorne's novel about adultery in Puritanical Boston of the 1600s. Hawthorne's novel is deadly serious, so what's surprising about MGM's 'Scarlet' is how much comedy is in it. As I mentioned to the Cinematheque audience prior to the screening, any film with Karl Dane in the cast is bound to have a quotient of goofball humor from MGM's go-to guy for comedy relief.

I think it's an example of a studio hedging its bets on a big-budget high-profile picture by ensuring it had a little something for everyone, whether or not that fit with the original author's vision. So we get the 'Scarlet Letter' story, yes, but also some yuks at the expense of those Puritans and their wacky ideas about courtship.

For this film, I did go with a harpsichord setting, which I think fit the production's design and feel, and helped convey the period without drawing attention to itself. It just seemed to fit. And I lucked out by having several effective melodic "hooks" (meaning groups of just a few notes) that I felt helped convey the changing emotional temperature of the story as I worked with them.

The 35mm print from UCLA.

I felt the big musical challenge was how the film opens with all the townspeople being called to Sunday service. So the first five or six minutes is interspersed with shots of church bells ringing, implying that they're being heard throughout the sequence.

To evoke that, I used two brass handbells I travel with. Holding them both in my right hand, I rang them continuously from the opening titles all the way through to when the service starts and we see the bellringers stop pulling down on their ropes. It produced a nice "clangy" bell sound—nothing like a big cathedral bell, but close enough to evoke a colonial church service, I felt.

While ringing the bells, I tried to be aware of how the film was cutting between different locations in the town. Sometimes loud, sometimes soft, depending on the action and how far different people seemed to be from the church. As Hester Prynne, Lillian Gish is first seen chasing a songbird out into the woods, so the bells get faint at that point.

So that left my left hand for the keyboard, which was enough to do hymn-like cadences and other music to establish mood and get the film going. I wasn't sure how it came off, but afterwards people told me they didn't realize I was actually ringing actual bells as the movie got started. So it worked. Nice!

John Ewing and pianist George Foley give me a taste of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells.

Audience response was strong here, too. Despite the comedy, 'The Scarlet Letter' gives Gish and Hanson ample opportunity to amp up the drama. For these moments, although I kept the harpsichord setting, I broke out of period-sounding music and went with more a more intense language that film scoring has developed since the silent era: some dissonance, some repeated notes, some dramatic silences.

Another great Q & A followed, with lots of interesting queries. Long-time Cinematheque director John Ewing was kind enough to comment on how he thought the music effectively tracked and underscored the film, which is high praise indeed! Thanks so much, John, for continuing to include silent film with live music in the Cinematheque's programming, and all you and your team have done to bring great cinema to Cleveland for more than three decades!

John Ewing checks the roster of digital titles in the booth of the Cinematheque as projectionist Mike Glazer looks on.

And afterwards, a late supper at L'Albatross, a nearby French restaurant that's to die for. We joke that the Albatross is the reason I actually visit Cleveland, and the screenings at the Cinematheque merely support my habit.

16mm prints of vintage films ready for their close-up.

Friday, Aug. 31 through Monday, Sept. 3: Western N.Y. Film Expo, Buffalo. My third year as accompanist for this festival found me doing music for silent features that ranged from well-known to unknown.

Among the well-known: Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore in 'Sadie Thompson' (1928); Harold Lloyd in 'The Kid Brother' (1927); Buster Keaton in 'Battling Butler' (1926), and another Keaton, 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924), run as a last-minute substitute when Eddie Cantor's 'Special Delivery' (1927) didn't show. We should have paid for special delivery, har!

As for the unknown: not one but two Rod Larocque features that I'd never heard of before: 1925's 'Braveheart,' which I gathered was not the film with Mel Gibson in it, and 'The Coming of Amos,' also from 1925.

Both were screened via original 16mm Kodascope prints that showed some wear but maintained excellent visual quality, and so were a real treat to see. This, plus the sound of the 16mm projectors clacking away in the back, is one reason that festivals such as this are worth attending. It's a great atmosphere for vintage cinema.

A projectionist's view in the Western N.Y. Film Expo's screening room.

As you might expect, the Larocque films were pure hokum. 'Bravehart' starts out with Our Hero as a member of a Native American tribe battling western settlers over fishing rights.

The tribe's strategy: send him East to attend law school and then fight the White Oppressor on his own turf, in court.

But then for the next 30 minutes, 'Braveheart' becomes a college football film! Really—suddenly it's Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman,' but without Lloyd. Rah, rah! Go team!

That required the music to shift gears, and it made for an unusual mix: native American modal chord progressions mixed with college fight songs.

'The Coming of Amos' was less mind-bending, but no less loopy. Our Hero starts out in rough-and-tumble Australian sheep country, but then he's brought to the sophisticated French Riviera due to an inheritance, where romance blooms with a mysterious Russian princess.

Noah Beery then shows up as a truly nasty villain whose plot to kidnap the princess includes forcing her to wear an oversized clown head so they can escape unnoticed during the annual carnival.

And the climax takes place on an enormous castle set that I found surprisingly impressive until someone afterwards pointed out the same exact set was used in 'Stand and Deliver,' another Rod Larocque picture we screened last year.

Doing music for so many films in rapid succession has its challenges. But with me, one good thing it does is break down all inhibitions and self-doubt and anything else that holds back the creative energy or blocks the place the music seems to come from.

So after awhile, it gets to the point where the music flows quite fluently and naturally.

At the Western New York Expo, this happened most notably for me when it was time to rattle off music for some short silent comedies I'd never seen before. For each, I hit on a melodic hook right away and stayed with it throughout, transforming it as needed to follow the story, set up the situation, punctuate the comedy, and amp up the excitement when needed.

I have no idea where these tunes came from, and can't recall them even now. But they were there when I needed them, and serve the films well. And for a short comedy, often that's all you need. As accompanist Jon Mirsalis has said, it's not what you play, but it's how you play it.

Of all the films, it's no surprise that Lloyd's 'The Kid Brother' got the strongest reaction, with people cheering and applauding at the climax. Lloyd's films were designed to work with an audience, and they still work: even with diehard film fans who've probably seen it any number of times already. That's pretty impressive!

Speaking of which: once again I was impressed by everyone who works to put this event together: the projectionists, the dealers, the film fans, and especially organizer Alex Bartosh. Thanks to everyone for a weekend well spent in the dark!

Up next: the restored 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) on Friday, Sept. 7 in Brandon, Vt., and then I go out to Sioux City, Iowa to play the Orpheum Theatre's mighty Wurlitzer to accompany 'Wings' (1927) as part of the Sioux City International Film Festival.

More on those later this week!