Friday, December 18, 2020

One more screening ('Beggars of Life' on 12/27) after which the year 2020 will be in hindsight

Promotional artwork for 'Beggars of Life' (1928).

One more show to go in 2020: a screening of the highly regarded late silent drama 'Beggars of Life' (1928), which I've never accompanied before. 

Directed by William Wellman (fresh off 'Wings' the year before) and thought of by many as Louise Brooks' best film before she decamped to Germany, it's running on Sunday, Dec. 27 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Lots more info below in the press release. And with the theater's capacity reduced by 50 percent (to 108), there's plenty of room to observe social distancing.

And thus ends a year that began in exciting fashion. Really—I think back, and the first 10 weeks of 2020 now seem like some kind of lost golden age. 

Consider just the sci-fi genre: In January, I zipped out to Cleveland to accompany a memorable screening of 'Aelita, Queen of Mars' (1924) at Case Western University's annual 30-hour sci-fi marathon. Then in February, it was the Barrymore 'Jekyll and Hyde' (1920) at the annual Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, one of my favorite recurring gigs.

And in March, I was all set to go back to Ohio, this time to Columbus for the annual 24-Hour Ohio Sci-Fi Marathon, where I was to accompany 'The Lost World' (1925). This would have made me one of very few people to have attended all "big three" sci-fi marathons in a single year. But by then, Covid-19 had shut everything down.

But before that, at the Kansas Silent Film Festival in February, I got to lead a male chorus while accompanying 'The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg' (1926). A first for me! 

The first weekend in March, I did live music for 'Way Down East' (1920) in Boothbay Harbor, Maine; and the next day accompanied 'Mothers of Men' (1917), a suffragette film at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, N.Y. And then that Monday, I got to accompany a touring program of silents restored by Italy's Cinema Ritrovato that was playing at the University of New Hampshire. Wow!

So it was shaping up to be quite a year. Looking ahead: I had programs scheduled at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass.; my debut at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Md.; a weekend at the Cleveland Cinematheque, and visits in May and November to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum out in Fremont, Calif.

But after a Rin Tin double feature screening at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, March 15, it all stopped. (The films were 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925) and 'The Night Cry'; the latter is one of the most entertaining silents I've ever scored. And that's when it ended, at least for a few months.

All I can say is: thank heavens for small independent theaters willing to do creative things to make their cinemas safe, and still find programming that some people will come out for.

Yes, audiences are smaller. But since July, I've been able to keep up a regular schedule of silent film screenings at the Town Hall Theatre and the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, which is up in Plymouth, N.H.

Thanks to the management of both venues for finding a way to keep movies on screen. 

In the case of the Town Hall Theatre, we've actually upped our game, doing screenings at least twice a month, and programming some challenging titles such as Fritz Lang's 'Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler' (1922) in November.

For at least the first half of 2021, we're continuing the pace in Wilton, and even doing a whole week's worth of silent films in January. More about that very soon.

But for now, next up is Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen, and Wallace Beery in 'Beggars of Life,' coming the Sunday after Christmas. Happy holidays and see you at the theater for the final show of 2020!

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Louise Brooks (disguised as a boy) and Richard Arlen in 'Beggars of Life' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Louise Brooks in 'Beggars of Life' at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 27

Iconic 1920s actress plays young woman on the run in silent crime drama with live music

WILTON, N.H.—She had one of the great faces of the movies when cinema was young. And she had a wild streak off screen as well.

She was Louise Brooks, the iconic 1920s actress whose career peaked in the U.S. with 'Beggars of Life,' a silent crime drama released by Paramount in 1928.

Experience Brooks' big screen appeal when the Town Hall Theatre shows a restored version of 'Beggars of Life' on Sunday, Dec. 27 at 2 p.m.

The screening will be accompanied by live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician.

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

'Beggars of Life' stars Brooks as woman fleeing a murder who dresses like a boy to survive among train-hopping hoboes.

After escaping her violent stepfather, Nancy (Brooks) befriends kindly drifter Jim (Richard Arlen).

They ride the rails until an encounter with a rowdy band of hoboes led by the blustery Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) leads to a daring, desperate conflict on top of a moving train.

Based on the 1924 memoir of real-life hobo Jim Tully, 'Beggars of Life' was helmed by William Wellman, one of Hollywood's hottest directors at the time.

Wellman's epic air drama 'Wings' (1927) won the first-ever Best Picture honors at the inaugural Academy Awards.

For Brooks, 'Beggars of Life' was regarded as her best film to date, but she left Hollywood in 1929, dissatisfied with her career.

She went to Germany, starring in three feature films which launched her to international stardom: 'Pandora's Box' (1929), 'Diary of a Lost Girl' (1929), and 'Miss Europe' (1930).

After retiring from acting, Brooks fell upon financial hardship. For the next two decades, she struggled with alcoholism and suicidal tendencies.

Following the rediscovery of her films by cinephiles in the 1950s, a reclusive Brooks began writing articles about her film career.

She published her memoir, 'Lulu in Hollywood,' in 1982. Three years later, she died of a heart attack at age 78.

'Beggars of Life,' like all films of the silent era, was intended to be screened in a theater with live music, and with an audience.

"This was pop culture of its time, and films like 'Beggars of Life' caused people to first fall in love with the movies," said Rapsis, who creates music for more than 100 silent film programs each year.

"If you can put all these elements back together, the art of visual story-telling falls back into place. The result is a movie experience with its own unique and timeless power," Rapsis said.

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

The restored 'Beggars of Life' will be screened with live music on Sunday, Dec. 27 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 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Ranching and boxing and Buster, oh my! Accompanying a Keaton double bill Friday, 12/11

Look out, 2021 is on the horizon! Buster Keaton and Kathleen Myers in 'Go West' (1925), which I'm accompanying on Friday, Dec. 11 in Plymouth, N.H.

Only a handful of shows this month as the holiday season kicks into high gear.

One this weekend has nothing to do with Christmas, but everything to do with our need for a laugh.

It's a double feature of two rarely screened Buster Keaton features: 'Go West' (1925) and 'Battling Butler' (1926).

Although the pandemic continues apace, the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center provides a safe environment: one large enough for audience members to practice social distancing and still enjoy the cinema experience.

For more about the program, check out the press release pasted in below.

After that, it's 'Beggars of Life' (1928) at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Dec. 27, and that's it for 2020.

What will 2021 bring? Darned if I know. But I intend to keep plugging away at silent film accompaniment, learning the craft and developing my own scoring voice and vocabulary.

A lot of screenings are already booked, and I expect more as the next few months unfold, especially if the pandemic starts to subside. 

I would like to put more time and energy into writing things down. I'm carrying around a backlog of ideas and projects, and it's starting to be too much to keep lugging around.

Plus it might be the year I finally write out the answers to the most commonly asked questions about what I do and why I do it. 

But for now, there are films in need of music, including the two Busters this weekend. Hope to see you there!

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Buster Keaton is shown the ropes in 'Battling Butler' (1926), part of a double feature on Friday, Dec. 11.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton silent comedy double feature at Flying Monkey Moviehouse on Friday, Dec. 11

Cowboy comedy 'Go West' and boxing tale 'Battling Butler' to be screened with live musical accompaniment in Covid-safe theater

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 two of Keaton's classic features, 'Go West' and 'Battling Butler,' on Friday, Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 S. Main St., Plymouth.

Admission is $10 per person, general seating.

The family-friendly films 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.

At the Flying Monkey, accommodations are in place to keep patrons safe in the Covid-19 era.

Face-coverings are required to enter the theater, and should remain on at all times until movie-goers take their seats. Capacity is limited to 50 percent; audience members are asked to observe social distancing in choosing seats.

"Films from the silent era were designed to be seen with an audience, and it's totally safe to do so," Rapsis said.

In 'Go West' (1925), Buster heads out to ranch country, where the stone-faced comedian encounters romance with—a cow! Can he save his love from a trip to the livestock yards? Rustle up some belly laughs as Buster must once again prove himself worthy to all those who doubt him.

'Go West' was an unusual film for Keaton. With its portrayal of a down-and-out wanderer who becomes a reluctant hero, 'Go West' could have been a vehicle for Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

The film was praised by critics and did well at the box office.

Co-starring in 'Go West' is a sad-faced cow named Brown Eyes, with whom Keaton worked extensively prior to the filming. Brown Eyes received a credit in the movie, and even got a salary for her acting — $13 a week.

Keaton's female co-star is actress Kathleen Myers. Joe Keaton, the comedian's father and a popular vaudeville performer, appears briefly in a barbershop scene.

Much of 'Go West' was shot on location in Kingman, Ariz., during the summer of 1925, in temperatures approaching 120 degrees.

'Battling Butler' (1926) tells the story of pampered millionaire Alfred Butler (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Sally O'Neil) by pretending to be a championship boxer with same name.

The masquerade leads to knockout comedy both in and outside the ring, giving Keaton ample opportunity to display his gifts for physical and visual comedy.

In the 1920s, boxing rivaled baseball as the nation's most popular sport. Neighborhoods, communities, and ethnic groups all rooted for their favorite fighters, and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey ranked as an international celebrity.

Because of this, boxing stories were popular with early movie audiences as well.

"These films are audience favorites, and people continue to be surprised at how engrossing and exhilarating they can be when shown as they were intended: in a theater, and with live music," said Rapsis, who accompanies more than 100 screenings each year at venues around the nation.

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."

Many critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

But while making films, Keaton never thought he was an artist, but an entertainer trying to use the then-new art of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

Keaton shows off his physique as a gloved warrior in the boxing ring.

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.

Keaton entered films in 1917 and was quickly fascinated. After apprenticing with popular comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Keaton went on to set up his own studio in 1920, making short comedies that established him as a one of the era's leading talents.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions ranging from sadness to surprise. In an era with no special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

Buster Keaton's 'Go West' and ‘Battling Butler’ will be shown on Friday, Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 S. Main St., Plymouth, N.H. General admission $10 per person. For more information, visit or call (603) 536-2551.