Sunday, November 4, 2018

'Wings' and other silent films set in WWI:
often the drama is about returning home

The silent film 'Wings' is all about airplanes.

So it's fitting that I'm posting this preview of the film (which I'm accompanying this week in Concord, N.H.) from an eastbound JetBlue Airbus 321 somewhere high above Nebraska.

Actually, the altitude is now exactly 34,793 feet, according the readout on the seatback video screen in front of me.

I'm heading home after accompanying a William S. Hart drama, 'The Cradle of Courage' (1920), last night at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, Calif.

Before I get to 'Wings,' a few thoughts about the Hart drama, which was unusual. Unlike so many of his features, it's not a Western. Instead, it's about doughboys returning home to city life (in this case, San Francisco) after World War I.

And with the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day coming up next weekend, I was glad for the chance to see this rarely screened Hart opus, in which our hero gives up his pre-war occupation as a crook to become a policeman instead. And the 16mm print at the Niles Museum was a stunner: sharp, with great tonal values throughout.

'The Cradle of Courage' offers a strong dose of life as it was lived in the nation's cities a century ago. The settings are real and grim, including many exterior shots filmed on location in the city by the Bay. Dialogue in the intertitles is filled with antique argot and colorful tough-guy slang.

A not-so-young soldier William S. Hart (he was over 50 at the time) wanders the streets of old San Francisco after returning home in 'Cradle of Courage.'

But it's especially powerful as a reminder that those who served in what we now call World War I often faced fresh battles upon returning home. And that's worth remembering as we approach the centennial of the day the guns went silent.

You can see that same dynamic in other World War I movies of the silent era. It's in 'Wings' (1927), which I'm accompanying this Wednesday, and also 'The Big Parade' (1925), which I'm doing music for on Sunday, Nov. 11 at the Somerville Theatre. Both have powerful and bittersweet "returning home" scenes.

My own homecoming later today will involve mostly getting licked by two dogs. So as centennial of Armistice Day approaches, it's worth remembering how so many did not have it so easy.

And one way to remember those who served, and to honor their sacrifices, is to take in a movie such as 'Wings.' I think a mainstream film aimed at a general audience captures some of the excitement and also the dread of the war in a manner quite different from any history book or documentary.

Well, this week, you can see for yourself. More info about our screening of 'Wings' at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. is in the press release below. Hope to see you there!

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Epic silent film 'Wings' (1927) on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Red River Theatres

Story of U.S. aviators in World War I won first-ever 'Best Picture'; screening to feature live musical accompaniment

CONCORD, N.H.—It won 'Best Picture' at the very first Academy Awards, with spectacular airborne sequences and a dramatic story that still mesmerizes audiences today.

'Wings' (1927), a drama about U.S. aviators in the skies over Europe during World War I, will be shown on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

The screening is in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, which ended the "Great War" and which led to our modern observance of Veterans Day.

Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 per person, general admission.

The screening, the latest in Red River's silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

The show will allow audiences to experience 'Wings' the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

'Wings,' a blockbuster hit in its original release, recounts the adventures of U.S. pilots flying combat missions behind enemy lines at the height of World War I in Europe. 'Wings' stunned audiences with its aerial dogfight footage, vivid and realistic battle scenes, and dramatic love-triangle plot.

'Wings' stars Clara Bow, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, and Richard Arlen. The rarely-seen film also marked one of the first screen appearances of Gary Cooper, who plays a supporting role. Directed by William Wellman, 'Wings' was lauded by critics for its gripping story, superb photography, and technical innovations.

'Wings' is notable as one of the first Hollywood films to take audiences directly into battlefield trenches and vividly depict combat action. Aviation buffs will also enjoy 'Wings' as the film is filled with scenes of vintage aircraft from the early days of flight.

Seen today, the film also allows contemporary audiences a window into the era of World War I, which was underway in Europe a century ago.

" 'Wings' is not only a terrific movie, but seeing it on the big screen is also a great chance to appreciate what earlier generations of servicemen and women endured," accompanist Jeff Rapsis said. "It's a war that has faded somewhat from our collective consciousness, but it defined life in the United States for a big chunk of the 20th century. This film captures how World War I affected the nation, and also shows in detail what it was like to serve one's country a century ago."

Rapsis, a composer who specializes in film music, will create a score for 'Wings' on the spot, improvising the music as the movie unfolds to enhance the on-screen action as well as respond to audience reactions. Rapsis performs the music on a digital synthesizer, which is 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. "At the time, most films weren't released with sheet music or scores. Studios relied 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.

'Wings' is about 2½ hours long. The film is a family-friendly drama but not suitable for very young children due to its length and intense wartime battle scenes.

‘Wings’ (1927) starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

Tickets $12 adults, general admission. For more info, visit or call (603) 224-4600.

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