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

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