Tuesday, November 24, 2020

One movie, two very different plots: showing both versions of 'Varieté' on Sunday, Nov. 29

An original poster for 'Varieté,' renamed 'Variety' for its American release.

Talk about your multi-course meal!

On Sunday, Nov. 29, I'm accompanying 'Varieté' (1925), the silent German drama about love and fidelity among trapeze artists. 

An interesting thing about this one is that for years, the film circulated in a cut-down "American" edition, so named because distributor Paramount heavily edited the movie for U.S. release.

But archivists in Germany have since restored the original version, and what a difference! 

There's an art to trimming a movie: done right, it can improve a picture's overall effect, such as what happened the silent version of Harold Lloyd's 1929 comedy 'Welcome Danger.'

In the case of 'Varieté,' however, Paramount excised so much content that it fundamentally altered the plot, and the artistic point, of the picture.

So to finish off Thanksgiving weekend, on Sunday afternoon we'll explore what happened by seeing parts of the U.S. release of 'Varieté,' followed by the completely restored version.

For more details, check out the press release. Hope to see you this weekend, and happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

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An original poster for the German drama 'Varieté.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

At Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 29: two versions of the same film

German silent drama 'Varieté' (1925), considered risqué, was heavily censored for its American release

WILTON, N.H.—What if censors cut so much from a movie that it completely changed the basic plot?

That's what happened with 'Varieté' (1925), a silent drama from Germany with a risqué story that ran counter to American standards of what was acceptable on movie screens.

So for U.S. distribution, Paramount Pictures heavily edited the film, removing major plot elements and entire characters.

In addition, censors in local communities often trimmed out additional footage, causing surviving prints of 'Varieté' to become further mutilated.

See the difference between the original and censored versions of 'Varieté' when the Town Hall Theatre screens the film with live music on Sunday, Nov. 29 at 2 p.m.

Admission is free and open to all; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

Original music for 'Varieté' will be performed live by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis of Bedford, N.H.

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines, including reduced seating capacity. For complete information about safety protocols, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com

'Varieté,' a drama about love and infidelity among trapeze artists in the European carnival scene, was long recognized for its innovative camera work and intense performances.

The film stars Emil Jannings, a celebrated Swiss/German actor who would soon migrate to Hollywood, winning the very first Best Actor Academy Award in 1929.

For decades, the film circulated in the mutilated American version, which is notably shorter than the original German release prepared by director Ewald André Dupont. Among other changes, Paramount cut the entire first 10 minutes of  'Varieté.'

But in recent years, the original cut of 'Variety' has been reconstituted by scouring archives worldwide in search of the highest quality surviving materials.

Researchers succeeded in putting together a restored version of the film that reflects Dupont's vision.

At the Town Hall Theater, audiences will first see about 15 minutes of the heavily edited U.S. version of 'Varieté.'

Following that, the restored full-length version of 'Varieté' will be shown.

"This will vividly show how censors could completely change important aspects of a film," said Rapsis, the accompanist.

Rapsis said 'Variety' is a good example of the challenge of seeing early cinema in its original state.

"Film is not a permanent medium, and we've lost about three-quarters of all movies produced during the silent era.

"In some cases, often only heavily edited versions of films are available. So we're really fortunate that archivists were able to restore 'Varieté' to its original length."

In addition to its emotional intensity, 'Varieté' continues to receive positive reviews for its technical innovations.

"Impressionistic lighting, lingering expressionist imagery, and giddily mobile camerawork are all pushed to unprecedented extremes," noted Website DVD Beaver in 2017.

The complete restored 'Varieté' plus an excerpt of the U.S. version will be screened with live music on Sunday, Nov. 29 at 2 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 support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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

Monday, November 16, 2020

True confessions: notes on a weekend of making music with Dr. Mabuse at the Town Hall Theatre

Before the show: outside the Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 15.

Well, it didn't seem like 4½ hours.

And that's entirely to the credit of Fritz Lang, director of 'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler' (1922), a sprawling two-part tale of treachery among the decadent Berlin upper class.

Lang thought big, and the Mabuse saga was among his biggest: a whopping 270-minute deep dive into a now-lost world of casinos, crime, and corruption.

And once again, it happened: a century-old movie that seemed tough going when viewed at home snapped to life when shown as intended: in a theater on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience present. (Albeit a small socially-distancing one.)

Lang, somewhat like his counterpart D.W. Griffith in the U.S., had a knack for assembling films that keep viewers watching. Like the title character Dr. Mabuse, Lang was among those directors who knew how to keep an audience spellbound.

That's what happened on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 14 & 15, at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., when we screened (and I accompanied) both parts of Dr. Mabuse. On either day, once the film started, it was hard to stop watching. 

And so I felt privileged to enter into another wing in the great cinematic mansion Fritz Lang built in Germany during the silent era. I've accompanied Lang's 'Metropolis' (1927), 'Spies' (1928), and 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) many times. I've even tackled his two-part adaptation of 'Die Niebelungen' (1925), which I accompanied last spring.

But Dr. Mabuse remained unexplored territory. I'd read about it, but actually never seen it or had a chance to do music for it until the pandemic cleared the Town Hall Theatre's schedule of first-run attractions. So why not uncork Dr. Mabuse and give him a chance? 

By the way: to understand the position of show biz where I live, consider the sign at left, just down the street from the sign promoting our screening. They don't call it the Town Hall Theater for nothing.

Back to Dr. Mabuse. To my delight, I found this was another link in the cinematic chain that Lang was forging all through the 1920s. 

'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler' is full of the director's familiar hallmarks: a fixation with numerals, lots of guys wearing monocles (well, of course, but still distinctive), strange not-quite-Art Deco set design, a penchant for repeated words, henchmen wearing leather jackets and goggles, alarming facial hair, and more.

It took me awhile to get to the point where I felt I could musically do justice to Dr. Mabuse (by the way, pronounced "mah-BOO-zuh). This makes sense, after all, considering how tough it was for the prosecutor to bring Mabuse to justice. Har!

But I deliberately set about creating brand-new musical material specifically for Lang's world of Dr. Mabuse. 

For the not-so-good Dr. himself, I came up a motif of eight notes that traced interlocking augmented fourths over a drone bass. Intended as a leitmotif, or theme for the character, it proved versatile enough to be shaped in various ways to work whenever something nefarious was going on. 

What were the notes? C, then upwards F sharp, G, A flat, then down to D, then up to A flat, A, and B flat. If you wanted, you could keep the pattern going: down to E, then up to B flat, B, C, then down to F sharp, then up to C, C sharp, D.

Dr. Mabuse (a heavily made-up Rudolf Klein-Rogge) casts a spell on Prosecutor Norbert Von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). 

With each four notes, you're outlining most of a dominant seventh chord, but which isn't going to properly resolve, as the next four notes subvert traditional harmony and simply don't allow it. Rather, the next four form another dominant seventh chord, a whole step up, which is also not going to resolve, and so on. 

So the notes just on their own create a great deal of anticipation or tension. If you hold some of the notes through, or harmonize each note with a minor or major triad, or even other chords, all kinds of moods and textures are possible. 

As along as you keep the eight notes in there, it all seemed to hold together. And with 4½ hours, there's plenty of room to try out things and really work with the material. Losing myself in the task of creating live music for an unfolding narrative is my own personal version of nirvana.

For the many casino scenes, I came up with what I think of as "Kurt Weill jazz": a jaunty melody with lots of dotted eighth notes that cavort up and down the minor scale, but with little syncopation. Very German, to my ears. Call it "square" jazz—similar to what Weill came up with for 'The Threepenny Opera.'

But when that music had served its purpose, there was plenty of room (meaning lots of casino scenes) for general Offenbach-like melodies: upbeat diatonic ditties with chromatic runs made up on the spot over a boom-chick bass accompaniment. 

These tunes come from God-knows-where. Think of 'Be Our Guest' from Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast,' or the overture to 'Die Fleidermaus,' which I heard on the radio this morning and brought me right back to Saturday and Sunday in Lang's casinos.

For Prosecutor Von Wenk, it was a descending scale, usually in a minor mode, with a triplet turn in the other direction every fourth beat, and occasionally elsewhere, as warranted. With its steady beat and staccato feel, it made a nice contrast with the Mabuse music.

There was also a "love" theme that was basically held notes over a steady minor-key accompaniment, either big arpeggios or a steady beat of quarter notes as tension either rose or fell. The key here was that the love theme contained within it three rising chromatic notes, same as the Mabuse theme. So this created a lot of possibility for theme transformation on the fly.

Dr. Mabuse, a master of disguise, sorts through his many identities. Gosh, which to use for the high school reunion? 

In terms of special musical effects, 'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler' has two moments. Near the beginning of Part 1, a scene on the stock exchange features multiple glimpses of staffers ringing bells to signal to traders that the market was about to close. So my grandmother's brass school bell came in handy, although overuse at close range kind of killed my hearing for much of the film. (The bell is LOUD.)

And near the end of Part 2, during the climactic gun battle, Prosecutor Von Wenk repeatedly blows a police whistle. So naturally I would use my own whistle—but wait, where is it? About halfway through the film, I realized my referee's whistle wasn't hanging around my neck. Instead, it was still in my carrying crate.

Luckily, the crate was on the floor to one side of the keyboard, just within reach if I leaned over quite far. Alas, it was completely in the dark. And so, while continuing the accompaniment with my right hand, I began playing an elaborate game of "touchy-feely" with my left in an attempt to find the whistle.

This went on for several minutes until I found the lanyard that the whistle hangs from, only to discover it was tangled in several spare extension cords and was not coming loose. I finally pulled it hard enough to snap the lanyard, only to discover it was the wrong whistle.

So back I went, fishing around in the darkness with one hand while the other created music for whatever was happening on screen. (I honestly can't remember.) Eventually found the whistle before audience members concluded I might be having a stroke.

Well, between the music, the bell, and the whistle, it was enough to accompany both parts of Dr. Mabuse, cinema's first true evil genius and criminal mastermind. And a good time was had by all!

Things will quiet down now—just a few screenings left this year, and a pretty blank calendar for 2021 so far due to the ongoing pandemic. 

If this keeps up, I'll have to make a sign: WILL ACCOMPANY SILENT CINEMA FOR FOOD.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Taking a chance on 'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler' at Town Hall Theatre on weekend of Nov. 14-15

Pick a card—or in this case, a headshot, each showing lead actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge in one of the title character's many disguises.

This month I'm taking a gamble by doing music for 'Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler,' the sprawling 1922 crime thriller in which German director Fritz Lang really hit his stride.

Why a gamble? Not because of the film, which is tremendous—some call it a masterpiece.

It's a gamble because I'm asking audiences to take a chance on a rarely screened foreign film from nearly a century ago which almost nobody today has heard of, and which runs 4½ hours. 

It's also a gamble because due to its length, we're running it in two installments: Part 1 on Saturday, Nov. 14 and Part 2 on Sunday, Nov. 15. Both screenings start at 2 p.m.

So I'm asking would-be attendees to basically give up a weekend to immerse themselves in the twisted world of 'Dr. Mabuse.' 

(Which, by the way, I'm told is pronounced "mah-BOO-zeh," which I didn't realize until now. I lead a sheltered life.)

 And all this in the middle of a pandemic that's keeping people away from theaters in droves.

Talk about rolling the dice! 

Rudolf Klein-Rogge, left, as criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse.

But in the spirit of Dr. Mabuse, whose LinkedIn page (if he had one) would include "hypnotism and mind control" among his skills, I am attempting to will audience members to attend.

Look into my eyes. You're feeling sleepy. Verrrrrry sleepy. 

You will attend. You must attend. And you will bring many friends.

Did it work? We'll find out on Saturday, Nov. 14 at 2 p.m., when I accompany Part 1 of 'Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler' to a packed house at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

And it's also a gamble because I'm in the process of developing completely new and original musical material for 'Dr. Mabuse,' which I will use to create an improvised score in real time.

Better hypnotize myself while I'm at it!

For more about the film and our two-part screening, here's the press release. Hope to see you there for this rare chance to see an early cinematic masterpiece in two back-to-back screenings.

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Dr. Mabuse preparing for his next adventure.

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler: 2 Parts Over 2 Days Nov. 14/15

Epic two-part thriller 'Dr. Mabuse' to screen at Town Hall Theatre Nov. 14-15

Pioneering silent drama about criminal mastermind presented over two days with live music

WILTON, N.H.—It's a film so big, it takes two days to show it all.

It's 'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler,' a landmark crime thriller that pushed the boundaries of cinema and story-telling when it hit theaters in 1922.

The rarely screened early masterpiece from German director Fritz Lang will be presented in two parts over two days at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre: Part 1 on Saturday, Nov. 14 at 2 p.m., and Part 2 on Sunday, Nov. 15 at 2 p.m.

Admission for both screenings is free and open to all; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

An original score for both parts will be performed live by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis of Bedford, N.H.

The Town Hall Theatre is observing procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines, including reduced seating capacity. For complete information about safety protocols, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com

'Dr. Mabuse' was a daring project by director Fritz Lang, who would later helm 'Metropolis' (1927) and a host of early screen classics, including two sequels to the Mabuse story.

Based on a contemporary novel by Norbert Jacques, 'Dr. Mabuse' tells the story of a criminal mastermind who uses disguises and hypnosis to defraud and control his wealthy victims.

Oh, the places you'll go! An evening out with Dr. Mabuse.

Set in Germany after World War I, the movie aimed to capture the chaotic and unreal nature of life in Berlin at the time.

It also became the template for the criminal espionage film genre, with its atmosphere of intrigue, treachery and deceit among sophisticated high society.

'Dr. Mabuse' was created at a time when European cinema was not subject to now-accepted constraints of length or scope.

Lang's completed film, designed to be shown in two parts, runs an extraordinary 4½ hours.

The first part, 'The Great Gambler: A Picture of the Time,' introduces Dr. Mabuse and his criminal enterprises, which include extortion, stock market manipulation, and swindling the wealthy elite.

The second part, 'Inferno: A Game for the People of our Age,' continues the story, which includes assassination, a scene of mass hypnosis in a theater, a daring escape through sewers, and a melodramatic climax.

"This is filmmaking on a grand scale," said Rapsis, who has created new musical material to help bring Lang's sprawling story to life. "For movie fans, the rare chance to see Lang's ground-breaking film on the big screen with live music over two days, as he intended, is not to be missed."

'Dr. Mabuse' stars actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge in the title role. Klein-Rogge frequently collaborated with Lang, playing the iconic role of scientist Rotwang in 'Metropolis' and criminal mastermind Haghi in Lang's 'Spies' (1928).

During production, 'Dr. Mabuse' had its share of behind-the-scenes drama. Lang began an affair with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who at the time was married to Klein-Rogge. Her separation from Klein-Rogge was amicable, however, and did not interfere with the film. Ultimately, Lang married von Harbou; the three then worked on several subsequent films.

Upon its release, critics hailed 'Dr. Mabuse' as an example of cinema's story-telling and artistic potential.

The Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung called the first part "the attempt to create an image of our chaotic times" and went on to state that it "will give people fifty or one hundred years from now an idea of an age that they could hardly comprehend without such a document."

Film-Kurier praised Klein-Rogge's "brilliant performance" and Lang's "sensitive yet experienced" direction.

'Dr. Mabuse' wasn't released in the United States until 1927, and then only in an edited-down two-hour version that proved unsuccessful.

Today, contemporary critics recognize the original 'Dr. Mabuse' as Lang's earliest masterpiece and a lasting achievement.

"Mabuse remains memorable for the darkly brooding atmosphere that Lang creates, a disturbing compound of hysteria and fatalistic passivity.”
– John Wakeman, World Film Directors Volume 1

Both parts of 'Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler' (1922) will be shown in separate screenings over two days at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Part 1 will be screened on Saturday, Nov. 14 at 2 p.m., while Part 2 will run on Sunday, Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. Both screenings will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Admission is free for both screenings. A donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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