Monday, February 24, 2020

Notes on Gloria Swanson's 'Manhandled' plus fried pickles at the Kansas Silent Film Festival

Promo art for 'Manhandled' starring Gloria Swanson.

We enjoyed a surprisingly strong turnout for Gloria Swanson in 'Manhandled' (1924) yesterday at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Something like 100 people came to see this rarely screened feature. It was the first time I've accompanied it.

I try to occasionally program lesser-known features just to give them a chance on the big screen, and to see how audiences react.

And 'Manhandled' was of particular interest because it figures quite prominently in an interview Gloria gave to a young Roger Ebert in 1967.

The result? Well, 'Manhandled' generated some laughs and held people's attention throughout. But alas, it's no 'Way Down East.'

Personally, I found it to be pretty weak tea—shop girl Gloria, propelled by misunderstandings with her beau Tom Moore, has misadventures in high society.

Yes, there's some tension between the once-happy couple, but no real drama until the film's final minutes.

And then it amounts to a simple misunderstanding which is promptly cleared up by a simple walk down the hall.

I think the story would have worked better if Gloria and Tom truly broke up at the beginning. Then the misadventures that followed, which enabled both to understand how much they truly meant to each other, would have resulted in a more satisfying experience. But that's just me.

Still, there's a lot to look at: the film was shot at Paramount's studios in Astoria, N.Y. (across the river from Manhattan), and Gloria's opening adventures on the 1920s NYC subway are a highlight.

Gloria's struggles with the subway are a highlight of 'Manhandled.'

Sequences in a big department store where Gloria works have a "look at how they did that!" quality similar to the scenes in Harold Lloyd's 'Safety Last,' made a year earlier. In fact, Gloria does some of the exact same business Lloyd did, such as cutting a garment in two to quell a pair of contentious customers.

But fair is fair: Lloyd's own N.Y.C. subway scenes in 'Speedy' (1928) have much the same feel as Gloria's in 'Manhandled.'

Next up for me: the Kansas Silent Film Festival this weekend in Topeka, Kansas. It's the 21st consecutive year I've attended this gathering, which remains a personal favorite and an annual performance calendar highlight.

Why? Mostly because of the people, I think.

By that, I mean the festival is geared toward the general public rather than the specialized cinema community, although people do travel from faraway places to attend. (Look at me!)

Because it's free, they attracts hundreds of people of all ages, most of whom are local folks ready to enjoy something different. So it's a rare chance to see films designed for the general public shown for exactly that same general audience all these years later. Think of how unusual that is.

But it's also about the people who stage the festival. From that first snowy morning in March 2000 when I wandered into Washburn University's White Concert Hall, I felt welcomed by everyone connected with this festival. Everyone was eager say hello and welcome a stranger, who at the time was thinking about writing a book set during the silent era. (It's something I'm still thinking about.

By the end of the day, I was carrying a pile of 16mm prints in my rental car to the afterglow at the old 'Holidome' on Fairlawn Boulevard.

And then there's this: I came to the Kansas festival at a time when my life was changing. It was a period of transition—a time when I was laying the groundwork to start what would become a successful business. And that became the foundation for a lot of other adventures.

So even now, two decades later, I continue to draw inspiration from visiting Topeka at this time of the year. Films from a century ago somehow kindle and rekindle a sense of future possibilities. And spring is not that far away.

That first year, on my own, I found the Hanover Pancake House in downtown Topeka. On a whim, I had the breaded fried pickle spears, a curious item I'd never had before. It made quite an impression. So the next year, I returned, and had the pickle spears again. And each year thereafter: breaded fried pickle spears.

The iconic Hanover Pancake House in downtown Topeka.

I came to think of it as my personal "Ritual of Creative Renewal." Somehow, breaded fried pickle spears at the Hanover Pancake House in downtown Topeka came to symbolize the promise and limitless possibilities of the future.

Alas, last year (on my 20th consecutive visit), I was crestfallen to find that after all this time and continuity, pickle spears been removed from the menu. Nooooo!

After recovering from the shock, I comforted myself with thoughts about the impermanence of life, and felt glad I still had the hot pickles at Porubsky's (another local delicacy) to carry on my ritual.

And on a larger scale, the Hanover Pancake House itself was the result of the great 1966 tornado that destroyed a large part of downtown Topeka. It, and its parking lot, sprouted from the rubble. How's that for a lesson in impermanence?

Well, this year, whaddaya know? Turns out the Hanover Pancake House has reinstated fried breaded pickle spears. After a one-year hiatus, I can renew my ritual of creative renewal. Hooray!

You know, it's true: sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone. But then that makes it all the sweeter if it returns.

Or, in the case of pickles, all the more sour!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Topeka! Utica! Columbus! Cleveland! Ocala!
But first: 'Manhandled' on 2/23 in Wilton, N.H.

Promotional art for Gloria Swanson in 'Manhandled.'

It's a new one for me: 'Manhandled,' a 1924 Gloria Swanson comedy screening on Sunday, Feb. 23 at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton N.H.

Read more about this rarely shown Allan Dwan-direct title in the press release tacked onto this post.

After that, I hit the road. In the next six weeks, I'll accompany screenings in places ranging from Topeka, Kansas (hometown of actress Annette Bening!) to Utica, N.Y. (hometown of another Annette: Annette Funicello.)

But first, I'd be remiss not to tip my tinfoil hat to everyone at the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, which took place this past Sunday-Monday at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. (They really do encourage tinfoil hats, even to the point of providing a supply of Reynolds Wrap in the lobby.

This year's program included a silent entry: the John Barrymore 'Dr. Jekyll & Hyde' (1920) in honor of the film's 100th anniversary, and I was privileged to provide live accompaniment.

Over the years, I've done music for maybe a half-dozen silents for the sci-fi marathon (now in its 45th year), and it's always one of my favorite gigs. Why? Because you can't beat the audience, which hoots and hollers and talks back to the screen and just generally has a ball.

Example: As Dr. Jekyll, John Barrymore's dramatic pause before consuming his potion goes on for just a tad too long. This prompts audience cries of "Drink it! Drink it!!"

And at the end, the ovation that erupts is like no other. The closest I will ever come to feeling like a rock star is the moment after a silent film's 'The End' title at the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon.

Thanks to everyone for making it a memorable experience. I'm actually starting to get bookings for other sci-fi marathons: I did 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924) last month at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and I'm heading out to the Buckeye State again in March to accompany 'The Lost World' (1925) at the Ohio Sci-Fi Marathon in Columbus.

Ah, but first Gloria Swanson gets 'Manhandled' this weekend in Wilton, N.H. Hope to see you there!

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Next up at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.: Gloria Swanson in the 1924 hit 'Manhandled.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Gloria Swanson to get 'Manhandled' at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 23

Iconic silent star in uproarious society comedy; silent film with live music

WILTON, N.H.—She's one of the few stars from the silent days whose name is still instantly recognized by the movie-going public.

She's Gloria Swanson, who defined an era with memorable performances that ranged from intense drama to flat-out comedy.

Swanson's comedic gifts are on display in 'Manhandled' (1924), a riotous society comedy, to be screened with live music on Sunday, Feb. 23 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The screening will be accompanied with live music by Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free and open to all; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

'Manhandled,' directed by Allan Dwan, tells the story of Tessie McGuire (Swanson), a down-on-her-luck salesgirl who climbs the social ladder by pretending to be a Russian countess.

Tessie is a working class gal who attends a sculptor's party, where her skill with mimicry makes her a hit. She is hired by a fashionable dressmaking establishment to use her acting skills on their customers.

Tessie finds that by impersonating a Russian noblewoman, she has men at her beck and call. But then authentic Russians arrive, with unexpected complications.

"Seeing a Gloria Swanson picture in a theater with live music and an audience is a classic movie experiences," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician and the Town Hall Theatre's resident accompanist.

Rapsis emphasized the value of seeing early cinema as it was originally presented.

"These films were designed for the big screen, live music, and large audiences. If you can put those conditions together again, you get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies," Rapsis said.

'Manhandled' starring Gloria Swanson, will be screened with live music on Sunday, Feb. 23 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to defray expenses.

For more info, visit or call (603) 654-3456.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

A child's laughter = proof of immortality; also, 'The Navigator' on 2/12 in Plymouth, N.H.

Harry Langdon, overgrown child, in 'The Strong Man' (1926).

Harry Langdon's character was essentially that of an overgrown child.

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that four young kids right behind me responded so strongly to 'The Strong Man' (1926), which we screened last night at the Campton (N.H.) Historical Society.

Really! Harry had them right from the start. I think they were hooked at the early scene where Harry knocks over the Ellis Island benches.

And if it wasn't that, it was definitely the scene where Harry brings his unexpected lady friend up a staircase rear-end first.

There was one girl in particular who could not stop her genuine giggling — you know, the kind that can't be faked.

And that got everyone going. And after that, Harry could do no wrong!

This was for an audience who'd never heard of Langdon prior to the film's opening credits. And yet Harry was able to reach across the years and establish a bond with a child born in the second term of the Obama presidency.

Could you ask for better proof of the enduring appeal of the silent comedy greats?

Coming up next: a screening of Buster Keaton's equally timeless classic 'The Navigator' (1924) on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. More info and details are included in the press release I've tacked on at the end of this post.

And now back to the news from Campton, N.H. Last night's pot luck supper was one for the ages. I can't name half the dishes I sampled, but it was all just right on an evening where the temperature at sundown was 9 degrees and falling. Hunger is evidently not a problem in rural N.H.

Alas, attendance at this year's annual silent film screening was down due to everyone in town suffering from a nasty mid-winter cold that's been making the rounds. (I had it all through January, so I sympathize!) And not a single presidential candidate showed up!

Even so, the laughter filled the historical society's meeting and exhibit room, which once served as the community's town hall.

To introduce Langdon, and to show people why his slow pace was such a breath of fresh air, I decided to program something beforehand to show 1920s comedy at its most frenetic.

I chose the ending of 'Play Safe' (1927), a Monty Banks feature, which is a surprisingly hair-raising chase and rescue on a runaway railroad train.

Banks is even more obscure than Langdon today. So audiences simply aren't unprepared for the scale and ambition displayed in this sequence, which takes one's breath away.

A full "snow" moon rising at dusk over snow-bound Campton, N.H. Click to enlarge.

But I think it provided the perfect set-up for Langdon, as it highlighted clearly why he stood out at the time. Slower, smaller, more subtle — off the top of my head, I described it as "comedy in a jewelry store," which isn't a bad way of putting it.

Well, whether or not this way of introducing Langdon made a difference, last night's screening showed that audiences can and will respond to his best work.

Why is that a question? Because years ago, in his book 'The Silent Clowns,' author Walter Kerr described running Keaton's 'The General' to appreciative audiences, but Langdon was greeted with utter silence. So I've always felt that Langdon would be a tough sell.

Well, maybe not. Maybe all he needs is a little perspective. And come to think of it, don't we all?

Okay, below is all the info about Keaton's 'The Navigator.' Hope to see you there!

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Buster Keaton prepares to dive deep in 'The Navigator' (1924).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Classic seafaring silent comedy ‘The Navigator’ (1924) in Plymouth on Wednesday, Feb. 12

Buster Keaton's nautical masterpiece to be screened with live music at Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—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 'The Navigator' (1924), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 S. Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

'The Navigator' is a comedy that follows the adventures of wealthy nitwit Rollo Treadway (Keaton) and his pampered girlfriend, who find themselves adrift alone on a massive ocean liner. Forced to fend for themselves without servants, the pair attempt to cope with day-to-day life, creating classic comedy in the process.

But when the ship runs aground on a remote island inhabited by cannibals, is Buster's resourcefulness enough to save the day?

Filmed at sea on a real ocean liner that Keaton treated as the largest prop in comedy history, 'The Navigator' has been hailed as one of the most original and distinctive movies to come out of silent film's golden era of comedy.

The film is highlighted by underwater scenes, with Keaton in an oversized antique diving suit, that were revolutionary at the time.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts, including some spectacular examples in 'The Navigator.'

The nautical-themed program also includes a Keaton's short comedy, 'The Boat,' as a warm-up to 'The Navigator.'

Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician who accompanies shows at venues across New England, said Keaton's films weren't intended to be shown on television or viewed at home.

In reviving 'The Navigator,' the Flying Monkey hopes to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'The Navigator' leap back to life in ways that audiences still find entertaining."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound. He improvises the complete score in real time during the screening

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

'The Navigator' is the latest in an monthly series of great silent films with live music at the Flying Monkey. Upcoming programs include:

• Wednesday, March 11, 2020: 'Wild Horse Mesa' (1925). Adaptation of Zane Grey novel about a bankrupt rancher who tries trapping wild horses using barbed wire, with unforeseen consequences.

• Thursday, April 9, 2020: 'Ben Hur' (1925). In the Holy Land, a Jewish prince is enslaved by the occupying Romans; one of the great early Bibical epics, just in time for Easter!

• Thursday, May 7, 2020: 'Why Worry?' (1923). Rich hypochondriac Harold Lloyd gets more than he bargained for on a recuperative visit to a banana republic undergoing revolution.

• Thursday, June 18, 2020: Harry Houdini Double Feature. Rare surviving films from the great illusionist's brief movie career: 'Terror Island' (1920) and 'The Man From Beyond' (1922).

'The Navigator' (1924) starring Buster Keaton will be screened with live music on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 S. Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit