Tuesday, May 4, 2021

This Sunday's silent '20,000 Leagues' in Wilton, NH possibly playing host to steampunk flash mob?

Promotional artwork for the original silent film version of Jules Verne's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1916).

Today I received this nice note from Johnathan Vail, a silent film fan from Nashua, N.H.:

Hi Jeff,

We have been enjoying your accompaniment for many years and look forward to more.

Anyway with the Jules Verne coming up I thought it would be a fine time to do some steampunk as I was kind of thinking of doing a steampunk photo shoot and Wilton is a pretty good location for it. 

So mostly a heads up if there's some new people next week in costume.  And an opportunity if you have a pair of goggles and and top hat...

Wow! Nothing like a little steampunk to liven up rural New Hampshire. 

Let's hope this goes viral and downtown Wilton, N.H. (all one block of it) is overrun by people from the past's version of the future.  

Who knows? The show is attracting more notice than usual. Check out this extensive story in "Elf," the lifestyle magazine of the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel. (And thanks to writer Nicole Colson for a great job!)

All of this is in response to the upcoming screening of the original silent film version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1916). Showtime is Sunday, May 9 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

More info is in the press release below. 

I first encountered the silent '20,000 Leagues' a decade ago, when I accompanied it for the annual 24-Hour Boston Science Fiction Marathon. 

At the time, I recall thinking: "Wow, is there a silent film version of everything?"

I've since come to realize that...yes, there is. There's a silent Wizard of Oz. There's a silent Ben Hur and a silent Ten Commandments. There's even a silent 'Risky Business,' although the 1925 version starring Vera Ralston is about as far away from the Tom Cruise edition as the earth is from the moon.

Which brings us back to Jules Verne.The silent version of '20,000 Leagues' is in some ways a salute to that other Verne classic, 'From the Earth to the Moon,' because seeing it today is like visiting another planet. 

Let's hope the steampunk contingent turns out in force to lend an other-worldly feel to the whole enterprise. See you there on Sunday!

*  *  *

Aboard (and astride) the Nautilus in '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1916).
 

TUESDAY, APRIL 27, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Town Hall Theatre to screen original 1916 silent film version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'

Early adaptation of Jules Verne classic pioneered underwater photography; shown with live music on Sunday, May 9

WILTON, N.H.—The original silent film version of the Jules Verne classic '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1916) will be shown with live music on Sunday, May 9 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

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

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines. Capacity is limited to 50 percent; patrons are required to maintain social distance and wear masks until seated.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

In production for more than two years by Universal, the original silent film version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' is an epic retelling of the classic Jules Verne novel, and with elements from other Verne stories mixed in.

Allen Holubar stars as the domineering Captain Nemo, who rescues the passengers of an American naval vessel after ramming them with his iron-clad steampunk submarine, The Nautilus.

Incorporating material from Verne’s 'Mysterious Island,' the film also follows the adventures of a group of Civil War soldiers whose hot-air balloon crash lands on an exotic island, where they encounter the untamed “Child of Nature” (Jane Gail).

Calling itself “The First Submarine Photoplay Ever Filmed,” the film is highlighted by pioneering underwater photography, including an underwater funeral and a deep sea diver’s battle with a giant cephalopod.

The film, directed by Stuart Paton, was filmed largely in the Bahamas to take advantage of shallow seas and bright sunshine. 

Several methods were devised to capture scenes underwater, including a sort of "reverse periscope lens" that used mirrors in long tubes to enable a camera onboard ship to film below the surface. 

The film has little in common with a later adaption released in 1954 by Walt Disney Studios and starring James Mason. (At left is the dust jacket for the novelization of the movie, which itself was adapted from Verne's novel. Are we all clear on that?)

In honor of extraordinary technical and artistic achievement, the silent version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will create a musical score for '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' live during the screening, in the manner of theater organists during the height of silent cinema.

"For most silent films, including '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,' there was never any sheet music and no official score," Rapsis said. "So creating original music on the spot to help the film's impact is all part of the experience of silent cinema."

"That's one of the special qualities of silent cinema," Rapsis said. "Although the film itself is well over a century old, each screening is a unique experience — a combination of the movie, the music, and the audience reaction."

The original silent film version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1916) will be screened with live music on Sunday, May 9 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Free admission; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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

 




Monday, April 26, 2021

At the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass.: 'Sunrise' in late afternoon on Sunday, May 2; plus, the 'real' mystery of Paul Leni's 'The Last Warning'

George O'Brien and 'The Other Woman' in 'Sunrise' (1927).

Random thoughts as we slowly emerge from the ongoing pandemic. 

- At a screening of 'The Last Warning' (1928) today in Wilton, N.H., I made my usual remarks about how we'll all putting the silent film experience back together: the theater, the big screen, the live music, and the audience. 

But then I added this thought, which only just occurred to me: the last major pandemic we endured was during the silent era, so we've got that going for us, too.

Well, so we do. We also have a booming stock market, so there's that, too. All we have to do now is ban alcohol and the atmosphere will be complete.

Sometimes I talk too much.

- 'The Last Warning' was our choice for the "half-way to Halloween" screening. Hey, they celebrate Christmas in July, so why not Halloween in late April? 

It was the first time I've done music for 'The Last Warning,' which was certainly worth running. The last film of director Paul Leni before his untimely death, it's filled with startling images and memorable sequences.

However...the restoration Universal did in 2016 seems to be missing material that would better explain the plot. 

An actor is murdered during a play and the body disappears. The theater is then closed for five years and considered haunted. Okay, I'm with you so far.

But then suddenly the theater is being opened and the cast members are rounded up for a reenactment. Great, but it's just not clear how this all comes about, why its being done, and what's at stake. 

Carrie Daumery's close encounter with cobwebs makes for a memorable image in 'The Last Warning.'

Why do all the performers return to a theater when they're clearly all terrified to be there? How is it possible for the producer to be someone no one has ever heard of? And how do the detectives force the production to go on when the theater owners would clearly object? And so on.

Running times for 'The Last Warning' are listed as long as 89 minutes. The Universal restoration clocks in at 78 minutes. I know length is subject to variables such as projection speed. But from what we saw on screen this afternoon, clearly there's footage missing that might answer some of the questions.

Where it is? Perhaps that's the real mystery of 'The Last Warning.'

- I'm pleased to announce that starting in July, I'll be accompanying a new series of silent films with live music at the Rex Theatre in Downtown Manchester, N.H. 

And this past week I was invited to accompany films at the recently relaunched 'Buster Keaton Celebration' next September in Iola, Kansas.

And this summer will see reinstated series (all canceled last year) at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine; at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt., and other venues.

So maybe this whole pandemic thing really is loosening up. I get my follow-up Moderna shot on Thursday, May 6 but will observe precautions as long as the CDC guidance calls for it. Hope everyone stays healthy.

- Random rant: why, why, WHY does no Web site ever "remember me" despite me always checking the box when I enter my password and type in the authentication code and recite the Hebrew alphabet backwards to prove who I am?

- Next up: 'Sunrise' (1927) at the Natick Center for the Performing Arts, which I'm accompanying on Sunday, May 2 at 4 p.m. More details in the press release below.

I did this film some years ago, and the screening was attended by a friend who had somehow mixed it up with 'Metropolis,' I think. Afterwards, he asked me what kind of futuristic city has an amusement park where pigs slide down a chute?

You can see those same pigs, and a whole lot more, by seeing 'Sunrise' at the somewhat counter-intuitive time of 4 p.m. It's like showing 'London After Midnight' at high noon.

Anyway, hope to see you there!

*  *  *

Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien in 'Sunrise' (1927).

MONDAY, APRIL 19, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Academy Award-winning drama 'Sunrise' to be screened on Sunday, May 2 at Center for the Arts in Natick

Silent film won three honors at first-ever Academy Awards, including 'Best Actress'; show features live musical accompaniment

NATICK, Mass.—Silent film on the big screen with live music returns to the Center for the Arts in Natick with the Academy Award-winning romantic drama 'Sunrise' (1927) on Sunday, May 2 at 4 p.m.

The screening of 'Sunrise,' starring Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien, will feature music by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis, who will accompany the film live at the venue, which is located at 14 Summer St., Natick.

Tickets are $18; Center for the Arts members $15, with limited seating due to Covid-19 capacity restrictions.

Gaynor, a popular female star of the silent film era, won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in 'Sunrise.' The movie took top honors in cinematography and was also recognized for "Unique and Artistic Production" at the inaugural awards.

"It's a great way to follow the annual Academy Awards, which take place the week before on Sunday, April 25," said Rapsis, who creates live original scores for TCAN's silent film series. "If you've never experienced silent film with live music in a theater, 'Sunrise' is a good opportunity to check it out."

'Sunrise' tells the story of a young country couple (played by Gaynor and O'Brien) whose marriage is threatened by the presence of a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) who convinces the man to abandon his wife. Will the young husband go through with a plan to kill his wife? Will true love overcome the obstacles of temptation and the promise of short-term pleasure?

'Sunrise' was made by F. W. Murnau, a German director and one of the leading figures in German Expressionism, a style that uses distorted art design for symbolic effect. 'Sunrise' was made when Murnau was invited by studio chief William Fox to make an Expressionist film in Hollywood.

The resulting movie features enormous stylized sets that create an exaggerated, fairy-tale world. The city street set alone reportedly cost over $200,000 to build, a huge sum at the time. Much of the exterior shooting was done at Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

Full of cinematic innovations, the groundbreaking cinematography (by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss) featured moving cameras and impressive tracking shots. Titles appear sparingly, with long sequences of pure action and most of the story told in Murnau's signature visual style. The extensive use of forced perspective is striking, particularly in a shot of the city with normal-sized people and sets in the foreground and smaller figures in the background by much smaller sets.

The story of 'Sunrise' is told as a visual allegory with few specific details. The characters have no names, and the setting is not named in order to make the tale more universal and symbolic.

With a full title of 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,' the film is regarded as one of the high points of the silent cinema. In 1988, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress for films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The Sight and Sound poll of 2012 for the British Film Institute named 'Sunrise' the fifth-best film in the history of motion pictures by critics, and 22nd by directors.

Critics continue to hail 'Sunrise' as one of the best films of all time.

"F.W. Murnau's 'Sunrise' conquered time and gravity with a freedom that was startling to its first audiences," wrote Roger Ebert in 2004. "To see it today is to be astonished by the boldness of its visual experimentation.

Rapsis, who uses original themes to improvise silent film scores, said great silent film dramas such as 'Sunrise' used their lack of dialogue to create stories that concentrated 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 — with a live audience and live music.

"Dramas such as 'Sunrise' were created to be shown on the big screen as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life as their creators intended them to. So the screenings at Natick's Center for the Arts are a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies," he said.

'Sunrise' will be shown on Sunday, May 2 at 4 p.m. at the Natick Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

Admission is $18, Center for the Arts members $15. Tickets must be purchased in advance online at www.natickarts.org. For more information, call the Center box office at (508) 647-0097 or visit www.natickarts.org.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Why is that set familiar? And other aspects of 'The Last Warning' (1928), to be screened with live music on Sunday, 4/25 in Wilton, N.H

A pretty drab two-color poster promoting 'The Last Warning' (1928).

This Sunday, I get a special treat — a chance to do music for a highly regarded silent film I've never accompanied before.

The film: 'The Last Warning' (1928), a late silent thriller for Universal and the last picture completed by director Paul Leni before his untimely death. 

It's a bigger occasion than most, as Leni's two other surviving films are masterpieces of visual design that influenced horror films to come.

Leni's 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927) was the original "bunch of people who stay overnight in a creepy mansion while a maniac is on the loose" picture, while 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928) brought the Victor Hugo novel to the screen in memorable fashion with Conrad Veidt in the title role. 

So what about 'The Last Warning?' Like many pictures at the time, it was released in more than one version: one completely silent one for theaters not equipped for soundtracks, and another with recorded music and sound effects.

Laura La Plante serves as eye candy in 'The Last Warning' (1928). 

Only the silent version survived, but for many years prints weren't available to be screened or seen. You could get "copy of a copy of a copy" versions of 'The Last Warning' that floated around. But a restored first generation version simply didn't exist.

That is, until a few years ago, until Universal collected the best surviving material, which was held by the Cinémathèque Française and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. 

And 2016, 'The Last Warning' was released on DVD and BluRay for modern audiences to appreciate. 

And I have to say: the magnanimous move on the part of Universal almost makes up for the studio's recent demolition of the long-standing "theater" set built in 1925 for 'The Phantom of the Opera.' 

The massive set, used by many other pictures over the decades, was torn down a few years ago to expand parking for the Universal Studios tour. (Boooooo!)

And one of those pictures was...'The Last Warning.' So for Phantom fans — if some of the settings of 'The Last Warning' look familiar, there's a reason.

For more info about this Sunday's screening, check out the press release below!

*   *   *

Another less-than-compelling promotional effort for 'The Last Warning.' Don't say you weren't warned!

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 14, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Town Hall Theatre to screen spooky silent thriller on Sunday, April 25

Wilton moviehouse to screen 'The Last Warning' (1928) with live music; whodunnit filmed on 'Phantom of the Opera' set

WILTON, N.H.—It's a murder committed in full view of a Broadway audience. And the culprit can only be identified by literally re-enacting the crime—on the same stage it happened.

It's 'The Last Warning' (1928), a late silent film thriller to be screened on Sunday, April 25 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

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

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines. Capacity is limited to 50 percent; patrons are required to maintain social distance and wear masks until seated.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.


'The Last Warning' stars  Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, and Margaret Livingston. The plot follows a New York producer's attempt to re-stage a play five years after one of the original cast members was murdered.

'The Last Warning' was the final film directed by Paul Leni, a German expressionist director who came to Hollywood in the late 1920s to work for Universal Pictures.

At Universal, Leni directed several innovative films, including 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927) and 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928), both of which created the creepy visual style that would prevail in Universal horror classics such as 'Frankenstein' (1931) and 'Dracula' (1931).

In 'The Last Warning,' Leni employs unusual camera angles and extreme lighting to create a sinister and unnerving atmosphere. The film was made using the massive theater set left over from Universal's megahit 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925).

Oh, what a tangled web we weave — from 'The Last Warning.'

Before he could continue his promising career, however, Leni died of sepsis brought on by an untreated tooth infection only eight months after 'The Last Warning' was released. He was 44.

'The Last Warning' was successful enough at the box office to inspire a remake, 'The House of Fear' (1939).

Produced during Hollywood's transition from silent to talking pictures, 'The Last Warning' was released in two versions: one completely silent, and another with recorded music and sound effects for theaters that could play them.

Only the silent version of 'The Last Warning' survives intact. Long unavailable, the film was restored and reissued in 2016 by Universal.

Critics today find much to admire in Leni's films, which pushed the boundaries of what was possible in commercial cinema.

About 'The Last Warning,' film historian Graham Petrie wrote in 2002 that Leni and cinematographer Hal Mohr "handle the camera with the utmost possible freedom, culminating in a scene in which the camera swings on a rope with the villain from one part of the theater to another.

"Along the way, Leni revels in the shadows, cobwebs, tilted angles, subtly distorted perspectives, ominously confined spaces, and clutching hands that had by now become his trademark," Petrie wrote.

In 2021, critic Ralph McLean wrote in the Irish Times that "La Plante may be the star name on the posters but it's Leni's skill that draws you in here. ... Leni's camera never stops moving, offering cutaways and inventive trick shots at every opportunity. We see endless furtive close-ups of possible suspects and witness cast members fade into the surroundings of the darkened theatre setting with remorseless regularity."

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will create a musical score for 'The Last Warning' live during the screening, in the manner of theater organists during the heyday of silent cinema.

"For most silent films, including 'The Last Warning,' there was never any sheet music and no official score," Rapsis said. "So creating original music on the spot to help the film's impact is all part of the experience of silent cinema."

"That's one of the special qualities of silent cinema," Rapsis said. "Although the film itself may be nearly a century old, each screening is a unique experience — a combination of the movie, the music, and the audience reaction."

'The Last Warning' (1928), directed by Paul Leni, will be screened with live music on Sunday, April 25 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Free admission; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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

Monday, April 19, 2021

Celebrating a birthday with Buster Keaton on Wednesday, April 21 in Greenfield, Mass.

A bearded Buster seems wary of Dorothy Sebastian in 'Spite Marriage' (1929).

I'm on the road again (someone ought to write a song about that!), heading over to Greenfield, Mass. this week for a special occaision: the 92nd birthday of one of New England's surviving downtown movie palaces.

It's the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, where I'll be accompanying Buster Keaton's comedy 'Spite Marriage' (1929) on Wednesday, April 21 at 7 p.m. 

'Spite Marriage,' Keaton's last silent feature, was released in 1929, the same year the Garden opened its doors as the most opulent movie venue the Pioneer Valley had ever seen.

It was the final year of silent pictures, but the Garden still came equipped with a massive theater organ to accompany the action on the screen. Talkies soon prevailed, and the Garden began a long process of adapting to changing tastes (and economics) that continues today.

The Garden Cinemas today, its big sidewalk-overhanging marquee re-engineered to accommodate the seven screens inside.

The organ survives, with its console now on display in the lobby. But although the theater has endured, the fact that the name is now the "Garden Cinemas" indicates a significant change.

Like so many movie palaces, the Garden was "multi-plexed" some years ago. More screens equals more movies which equals more seats filled more of the time, generally. 

And so the Garden's grand auditorium and balcony were filled with walls and partitions and smaller screens and projection spaces. What had once been one house became pluralized: it was now seven theaters. 

But it's still the Garden, and movies are still shown there, and its survival in the face of so many challenges over the decades (most recently, the pandemic that saw it forced shut for months) is something worth celebrating. 

And so we will. Join us on Wednesday night for a screening of 'Spite Marriage' with live music. We're not exactly sure if Buster's comedy was ever screened at the Garden in its original release, and we're also not sure what the opening night program was, either.

 But until we find out, Buster will be our birthday boy! Press release below has more info about the film, the theater, and the screening. See you there!

*   *   * 

A vintage lobby card promoting 'Spite Marriage' (1929).

TUESDAY, APRIL 6, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Classic Buster Keaton farce 'Spite Marriage' at Garden Cinemas on Wednesday, April 21

Comedian's final silent feature film to be screened with live music to celebrate theater's 92nd birthday

GREENFIELD, Mass.—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 'Spite Marriage' (1929), Keaton's last silent feature film, on Wednesday, April 21 at 7 p.m. at the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, 361 Main St., Greenfield, Mass.

The screening honors the 92nd birthday of the Garden Cinema, which opened at the end of the silent era and has been showing movies to Greenfield and Pioneer Valley residents ever since.


Admission is $9.50 per person, $8.50 for children, students, and seniors

The program will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis.

The Garden was built in 1928-29 to a design by Mowll & Rand of Boston for the Goldstein family, which owned a theater chain across western Massachusetts.

The theater has had only three owners in its nearly century-long history. Most recently, the Garden was taken over in 2019 by Isaac and Angela Mass.

'Spite Marriage' finds the poker-faced comic smitten by stage actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian)—so much so that he joins the cast of her current production, a Civil War melodrama.

The fun begins when she unexpectedly asks Buster to marry her, but only to get even with an old flame. Complications with gangsters lead to a climax at sea, making for a classic Keaton comedy full of memorable routines.

Going south: Buster bumbles through a Civil War stage melodrama.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands as one of the three great comics of the silent screen.

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."

"Buster Keaton was the stone-faced comic who never smiled on camera, so he's sometimes thought of as the most silent of the silent clowns," Rapsis said.

"But seen today, his films are remarkable for their effective stories, their innovative cinematography, and their ability to still produce gales of laughter," Rapsis said. "A chance to see a Keaton film as originally presented—in a theater, with live music and an audience—is not to be missed."

Rapsis said it's currently a new golden age for silent film because so many titles have been restored, and are now available to watch at home or via online streaming.

However, the birthday screening at the Garden Cinemas enables film fans to really understand the power of early cinema, which was intended to be shown on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"Put those elements together, and films from the silent era spring right back to life in a way that helps you understand why people first fell in love with the movies," Rapsis said.

Buster Keaton's comedy 'Spite Marriage' will be shown on Wednesday, April 21 at 7 p.m. at the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, 361 Main St., Greenfield, Mass. Admission $9.50 per person, $8.50 for children, students, and seniors. For more info, call (413) 773-9260 or visit www.gardencinemas.net.

 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Meet the 'Man with the Million Dollar Smile' on Sunday, 4/11 at Town Hall Theater, Wilton, N.H.

Douglas MacLean works on that million dollar smile in 'One A Minute' (1921).

It's a great privilege to create music for the great classic silent comedies that audiences like to see again and again. 

But it's also fun to venture off and poke around the enormous quantity of lesser-known material that's out there in silent film land.

To go exploring!

And that's what we'll do on Sunday, April 11, when I accompany a double feature of comedies starring the "Man With The Million Dollar Smile," Mr. Douglas MacLean.

Wait—Douglas who?

Well, if you haven't heard of him, you're not alone. MacLean, a popular performer a century ago, is today no longer exactly on the tip of anyone's tongue.

Fame is fleeting.

But this weekend, for one afternoon at the Town Hall Theater, he'll be back on the big screen, thanks in large part to my silent film accompaniment colleague Ben Model and our friends at the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress has several of MacLean's titles preserved via 35mm prints in their archives. (Now that's a use of my tax dollars worth supporting!) But preserving the prints doesn't mean showing them, and that's where Ben came in.

A few years ago, Ben launched a Kickstarter campaign to have two MacLean films scanned to digital media and, for the first time in 100 years, make them available to the viewing public. 

Douglas MacLean (left) in the romantic comedy 'Bell Boy 13.' 

The campaign was successful; as a result, two of MacLean's features, 'One a Minute' (1921) and 'Bell Boy 13' (1923), are featured on "The Douglas MacLean Collection," a DVD produced by Ben's Undercrank Productions label.

And so we're able to present a pair of Mr. MacLean's films they way they were made to be shown: in a theater, on the big screen, with live music, and—most importantly—with an audience.

And that's where you come in. (Besides through the lobby, that is.) 

I've actually done one of the films before: I accompanied 'Bell Boy 13' when a 16mm print of it was shown about 10 years ago at the Cinefest vintage film convention in Syracuse, N.Y.

I recall it got a strong reaction. So we may be in for a treat on Sunday. As I've learned from poking around the odd corners of silent film, just because a film is forgotten doesn't mean it's no good.

And if nothing else, the visual quality of 'One a Minute' is stunning. As I say in the press release (below), it looks like it was filmed yesterday.

So it's a great chance to see the kind of on-screen quality that audiences of the 1920s expected. They wouldn't have been satisfied with scratchy recopied prints. And neither should the cinema of that period be judged that way.

More info in the press release below. It went out a bit late (like just now), so please make an extra effort to join us for this one. Do it for Doug! Wherever he is now, let's give him a reason to show that Million Dollar Smile once again.

*   *   *

Douglas MacLean (left) stars in 'One A Minute' (1921).

TUESDAY, APRIL 6, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Rediscover the 'Man with a Million Dollar Smile'

Forgotten silent film comic Douglas MacLean featured in rare screenings at Town Hall Theater on Sunday, April 11

WILTON, N.H.—His fans never heard his voice. But he still made them laugh throughout his 1920s heyday.

He was Douglas MacLean, a silent film comedian who charmed audiences with his "million dollar smile" a century ago, when the movies were a brand new form of entertainment.

MacLean, almost entirely forgotten today, returns to the silver screen with a rare showing of two of his most popular comedies, to be shown with live music on Sunday, April 11 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

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

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines. Capacity is limited to 50 percent; patrons are required to maintain social distance and wear masks until seated.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

MacLean, originally a stage actor, entered films in 1914, playing small roles at first but gradually winning recognition and larger parts and becoming a popular contract player at the Thomas H. Ince studios.

Douglas MacLean (seated) in 'Bell Boy 13' (1923).

From 1922 to 1929, MacLean starred in 14 other features for Paramount and First National, all maintaining the standard light romantic comedy formula that continued to prove successful for him.

During his film career, MacLean was often billed as "The Man With the Million Dollar Smile." He frequently played energetic and industrious young men, very much like his contemporary Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

The Town Hall program features two of MacLean's most popular surviving films.

'One a Minute' (1921), a satire on the patent medicine business, finds drug store owner MacLean unexpectedly inventing a cure-all for virtually every malady known to man, with unexpected results.

In 'Bell Boy 13' (1923), MacLean plays a promising college graduate ready to marry over his rich uncle's objections, but forced to take a menial job in hotel after being disinherited.

Preserved by the Library of Congress, both films were recently made available for public viewing by silent film accompanist and historian Ben Model via Undercrank Productions.

MacLean retired from acting in 1929, at the end of the silent era. He later worked behind the scenes in Hollywood as a writer and producer, dying in 1967 at age 77.

"MacLean's films are rarely shown today, but this is a chance to see his work as it was meant to be seen: in a theater, with live music, and an audience," said accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise musical scores for both MacLean features.

" 'One a Minute' is particularly interesting because it shows what the consumer drug business was like a century ago, and also because the surviving print is in a remarkable state of preservation," Rapsis said. "It looks like it was filmed yesterday."

The goal of Sunday's rare screenings is to see if MacLean's work still holds up.

"You really can't tell how good a silent film is until you put it up on the screen with an audience," Rapsis said. "So in a sense, we'll all be collaborators in bringing MacLean's work back to life."

'One a Minute' (1921) and 'Bell Boy 13' (1923) starring Douglas MacLean will be screened with live music on Sunday, April 11 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Free admission; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Easter's on it's way, so is 'Ben Hur': silent epic with live music Thursday, 4/1 at Flying Monkey

I'm accompanying the great silent epic 'Ben Hur' (1925) on April Fool's Day, and that's no joke!

Just look at this poster, put together by graphic artist Lisa Landry:

So get thee up to the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. for a screening of this major hunk of cinema (and I don't mean just Ramon Novarro) seen the way it was intended — on the big screen, in a theater, with live music, and with a (socially distanced) audience.

Here's the press release with a lot more information. 

And I've corrected the spelling of "Charleton Heston," who was listed as "Charleston Heston" in the original release. 

But I'm sure he was a good dancer...

*  *  *

From the original silent version of 'Ben Hur' (1925).

MONDAY, MARCH 22, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film epic ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) at Flying Monkey on Thursday, April 1

Prelude to Easter: Hollywood's original Biblical-era blockbuster to be screened with live music at historic venue

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—One of early Hollywood's greatest epics returns to the big screen with a showing of 'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) on Thursday, April 1 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth.

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

Admission is $10 per person, general admission. Tickets are available online at flyinghmonkeynh.com or at the door.

'Ben Hur,' starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, was among the first motion pictures to tell a Biblical-era story on a large scale.

The film, which helped establish MGM as a leading Hollywood studio, employed a cast of thousands and boasted action sequences including a large-scale sea battle.

The film is highlighted by a spell-binding chariot race that still leaves audiences breathless.

Set in the Holy Land at the time of Christ's birth, 'Ben Hur' tells the story of a Jewish family in Jerusalem whose fortune is confiscated by the Romans and its members jailed.

The enslaved family heir, Judah Ben Hur (played by Novarro, a leading silent-era heartthrob) is inspired by encounters with Christ to pursue justice. This leads him to a series of epic adventures in his quest to find his mother and sister and restore his family fortune.

The film is particularly appropriate for the weeks leading up to Easter, which is celebrated on Sunday, April 4. (Orthodox Easter falls on Sunday, May 2 in 2021.)

'Ben Hur,' directed by Fred Niblo, was among the most expensive films of the silent era, taking two years to make and costing between $4 million and $6 million. When released in 1925, it became a huge hit for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.


The chariot race scene in 'Ben Hur,' with Novarro and other cast members driving teams of horses at high speed on a mammoth dirt racetrack in a gigantic replica of a Roman stadium, was among the most complicated and dangerous sequences filmed in the silent era. It remains noted for its tight editing, dramatic sweep, and sheer cinematic excitement.

The chariot race was re-created virtually shot for shot in MGM's 1959 remake, and more recently imitated in the pod race scene in 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.'

Besides Novarro in the title role, the film stars Francis X. Bushman as Messala, the Roman soldier who imprisons the Hur family; Betty Bronson as Mary, mother of Jesus; May McAvoy as Ben Hur's sister Esther; and Claire McDowell as Ben Hur's mother.

'Ben Hur' was based on the best-selling 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace, which interwove the story of Christ's life with the Ben Hur clan, a fictional Jewish merchant family.

Celebrity "extras" in the chariot race scene included stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Lionel Barrymore, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and a very young Clark Gable.

The film was remade by MGM in the 1950s in a color and wide-screen version starring Charleton Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. Some critics believe the original 1925 version offers superior drama and story-telling.

In creating music for silent films, accompanist Jeff Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand. No music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

A scene from 'Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ.'

'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) will be shown on Thursday, April 1 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person general admission. Tickets are available online at flyingmonkeynh.com or at the door. For more information, call the Flying Monkey at (603) 536-2551.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Biblical epic 'Noah's Ark' sails into Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, March 28

The ark under construction in 'Noah's Ark' (1928).

With 'Noah's Ark' (1928), we encounter the problem of how much to tell an audience beforehand. 

(And if you don't want to know anything, please skip to the press release below...)

For instance: should you tell people that extras drowned during the film's production? Do you mention this before, after—or not at all?

I'm thinking about this because I'm accompanying 'Noah's Ark' on Sunday, March 28. It's a sprawling late silent Biblical blockbuster, and just the thing to get you in the mood for Easter.

There's a lot more info in the press release (below), including how it's a part-talkie, and how we'll run the film with the recorded sound portions intact. 

But about the question of how much to tell an audience...

Some say a film should stand on its own merits. It should speak for itself—even a silent! It shouldn't need someone to "explain" it.

But for silents, I've found it really helps to give people some background. For many folks, it's such an unfamiliar experience—the stars, the studios, the story-telling conventions.

So I usually try to say a few things, with the emphasis on "few," as people have come to see a silent movie, not hear some guy go on and on.

I think Denise Morrison of the Kansas Silent Film Festival gets the balance just right: she gives audiences just enough to illuminate the world of the film and the people who created it. 

But in the case of 'Noah's Ark,' what about the purported drowning of three extras? 

Mention it beforehand, and it's all people think about when watching the film. And I don't think that's good, nor is it fair to the filmmakers.

Don't believe me? Consider the case of Harold Lloyd. 

Prior to a screening of his thrill comedy 'Safety Last' (1923), if you mention that Lloyd was missing two fingers from one hand, people can't forget that. 

And later, it greatly changes how an audience experiences the scenes of him hanging from cornices and clock hands high above Los Angeles. It serves to drain away any possibility of being swept away by the story or the characters or the moment. 

 Why? Because we can't forget those two missing fingers.

So in my introduction to 'Noah's Ark,' I won't mention the drownings. Let the audience discover the picture on its own terms. Afterwards, 

And for those of you reading this, I've already spoiled it. But come anyway. It's a big sprawling Biblical epic that will sweep you away...no, wait—let me rephrase that.

*  *  *

 

Dolores Costello and George O'Brien in 'Noah's Ark' (1928).

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 17, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Celebrate Easter season at Town Hall Theatre with spectacular Biblical epic 'Noah's Ark'

Recreation of legendary flood highlights classic silent film with live music — one show only on Sunday, March 28

WILTON, N.H.—It was the last of the silent epics—released so late in the era that Warner Bros. added two brief talking sequences to it. It was 'Noah's Ark' (1928), an adaptation of the classic Biblical tale on a massive scale as only Hollywood could do.

To celebrate the Easter season, a restored print of 'Noah's Ark' will be screened with live music on Sunday, March 28 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

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

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines. Capacity is limited to 50 percent; patrons are required to maintain social distance and wear masks until seated.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

A cost of thousands—most of whom made it through the production.

'Noah's Ark' actually combines two stories: the ancient tale of the flood is framed by a parallel "modern" story set during World War II.

The contemporary story plays out across war-torn Europe; 'Noah's Ark' seeks to apply the lessons of scripture via flashback to the Biblical tale of Noah building an ark to survive God's wrath and the great flood.

'Noah's Ark' was directed by Michael CUrtiz, who would later helm such Warner Bros. classics as 'Casablanca' (1942). It stars George O'Brien, Dolores Costello, and Noah Beery, who all play dual roles in both the Biblical and modern story.

'Noah's Ark' is highlighted by its spectacular flood scenes, which were staged on such a massive scale that several extras drowned during the production. The incident, which the studio kept out of the press, led to increased safety rules in the motion picture industry.

In an era when movie budgets rarely exceeded $250,000, 'Noah's Ark' cost Warner Bros. the then-unheard-of sum of $1 million to make. However, it earned more than $2 million worldwide, making it a triumph for the studio.

At the Town Hall Theatre, the version of 'Noah's Ark' will include the original talking sequences, which total about 20 minutes. The remainder of the film will be presented as silent with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis.

From 'Noah's Ark' (1928), a part-talking picture from Warner Bros.

"Because it's a part-talking picture, 'Noah's Ark' is an interesting hybrid in which you get to hear the actual voices of performers who are otherwise silent, with dialogue conveyed by title cards," Rapsis said. "It captures Hollywood in the midst of the chaotic changeover from silent to sound movies, which took place over two years starting in 1927."

Rapsis improvises scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's a bit  of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience."

"These films were intended to be shown this way: in a theater, on the big screen, with an audience, and with live music. If you can put it all back together, you get a real sense of why people first fell in love with the movies," Rapsis said.

The silent Biblical epic 'Noah's Ark' will be screened with live music on Sunday, March 28 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Free admission; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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



Monday, March 8, 2021

Sure'n it's time for a St. Paddy's tribute: 'The Bride's Play' on Sunday, 3/14 in Wilton, N.H.

Marion Davies in 'The Bride's Play' (1922), a film set in Ireland. 

There's no silent film equivalent to 'It's A Wonderful Life' (1946), so Christmas is kind of a bust for silent film programming.

But for St. Patrick's Day, we can choose from several films that are as Irish as my great-grandfather from County Cork.

There's intense drama, such as 'Hangman's House' (1928), a dark film set in Ireland and directed by a young John Ford.

And there's comedy: Johnny Hines in 'Conductor 1492' (1924) is full of Irish ethnic humor popular at the time.

This year, for something in-between, I'm accompanying 'The Bride's Play' (1922), a costume drama starring Marion Davies. It's set in Ireland, both modern (meaning 1920s) and medieval, giving Davies a chance to play scenes (and wear outfits) from both eras.

We're screening 'The Bride's Play' on Sunday, March 14 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. Lots more info in the press release, pasted in below.

But the fact that we're able to show the film at all is due to a gentleman in Maine who has taken on the task of getting the work of Davies out of the archives and making her films available for modern audiences to see.

His name is Ed Lorusso, and he's recently been in the news for his work. Check out this recent article from a Maine newspaper that explores his work. It's great that he's doing this.

For a look at specifically how 'The Bride's Play' went from the film vaults of the Library of Congress and back onto the screen, check out this blog post from silent film accompanist Ben Model, who was commissioned to create a recorded score to go with Lorusso's restoration.

From left, that's me, volunteer Larry Stendebach, and Ben Model at the Kansas Silent Film Festival in 2017. 

Speaking of music: Ben does great work, and has been especially active doing virtual live shows during the pandemic. Check out his weekly 'Silent Comedy Watch Party.' But I'll be doing my own music live for our screening next Sunday of 'The Bride's Play.' 

It's surprising to many people, but most silent films do not have one "official" score, then or now. Rather, it was up to local theater musicians to come up with accompaniment that helped a film work. So the music for a film would usually be completely different from one theater to the next. 

Thus is it possible for someone like Ben, or me, to create new music nearly a century after the film was released, when people who made it are long gone. But it works, I think, as long as an accompanist does what musicians back in the day would have done—try to support the film and help it work with an audience. 

That's what I do. And because it implies the presence of an audience, it's what you do as well. Join me on Sunday, March 14 for 'The Bride's Play' and we'll all get in the mood for St. Patrick's Day.

And if 'The Bride's Play' doesn't work, there's always green beer.

*   *   *

A vintage lobby card promoting Marion Davies in 'The Bride's Play.'
 
SUNDAY, MARCH 7, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Celebrate St. Patrick's Day at Town Hall Theatre with classic drama set in Ireland

'The Bride's Play,' classic silent film romance starring Marion Davies, to screen with live music on Sunday, March 14

WILTON, N.H.—The ancient Irish custom of interrogating all male wedding guests highlights 'The Bride's Play' (1922), a silent romantic drama starring Marion Davies and set in the Emerald Isle.

To celebrate St. Patrick's Day, a restored print of 'The Bride's Play' will be screened with live music on Sunday, March 14 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

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

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines. Capacity is limited to 50 percent; patrons are required to maintain social distance and wear masks until seated.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

'The Bride's Play' gives Marion Davies two roles to play: contemporary Irish lass Aileen Barrett and her distant ancestor from medieval times, the noble Lady Enid of Cashel.

On their wedding day, both carry out the Irish custom of 'The Bride's Play,' which calls for the bride to make the rounds of all male guests, asking each in turn if he is the one she loves best, until she reaches the groom.

In medieval times, this honored custom led to a scandal at Lady Enid's elaborate marriage ceremony. Now, centuries later, Aileen Barrett faces trouble with her own impending nuptials.

Carried out at her ceremony, will the ancient custom of 'The Bride's Play' reveal the identity of her true love? And will it be the man everyone expects?

'The Bride's Play' was one of a series of lavishly produced costume dramas made by studio Cosmopolitan Pictures and financed by Davies' long-time lover, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

The film, shot on the California coast, was noted for its massive medieval castle set designed by John Urban. Directed by George Terwilliger, 'The Bride's Play' was released through Paramount Pictures.

Cosmopolitan, founded by Hearst, heavily promoted the career of Davies, who appeared in 29 silent and 17 talking films with the company.

The story for 'The Bride's Play,' like many Cosmopolitan Pictures, was originally published in Hearst's well-read newspapers and magazines.

Though popular at the box office, Davies' films were often dismissed by critics as Hearst vanity projects intended to showcase his lover in exotic tales and elaborate costumes.

Long unavailable for public viewing, in recent years, her silent films have been rediscovered as well-produced vehicles for Davies' acting talent and big screen appeal.

"Davies had an on-screen magnetism that still comes through today, a century after her career was in full swing," said Rapsis, the Town Hall Theatre's silent film accompanist. "To see a film like 'The Bride's Play' on the big screen is to understand why she was so popular."

"Plus, it's set in Ireland, so it's a fun—and Covid-19-safe—way to get in the mood for St. Patrick's Day," Rapsis said.

Rapsis improvises 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."

Irish romantic drama 'The Bride's Play' will be screened with live music on Sunday, March 14 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Free admission; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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

Thursday, March 4, 2021

From here to obscurity: silent film comedian Monty Banks and composer Moritz Moszkowski

A poster for 'Flying Luck' (1927), to be screened with live music on Thursday, March 4 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center.

Coming up tonight: I'm doing live music for two films starring forgotten 1920s comic star Monty Banks. They're both transportation related (hence the title "Planes and Trains and Monty Banks") and the fun begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center. 

More details in the press release below. But to put the work of silent film comedian Monty Banks into perspective, indulge me in a little exercise in musical comparison.

For better or worse, for a long time now the concert hall has been dominated by the "three B's," meaning Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Their music gets played all the time, and mostly because it's really good stuff. 

But what about the many composers who wrote music that never gets played? Their numbers are legion, but one comes to mind: Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925), who often shows up on lists of "most neglected composers."(Here's one example.)

I have a soft spot for Moszkowski (left) because I've had a book of his "Spanish Dances" arranged for four hands that's been kicking around my piano bench since high school. At the time, I was trying valiantly to play the lower "No. 2" part while my brilliant classmate Jared Holland sailed through the flashy upper "No. 1" part. 

Back home after our first year in college, Jared gave me the book, inscribing it memorably: "Always remember, never forget!" I also noted that the day (May 25, 1983) marked the release of 'Return of the Jedi,' which is funny because Jared actually went by "Jed." But I digress. 

I still look through the Spanish Dances, and it's really good stuff—at least equal to a lot of better-known 19th century music. And there's so much else, such as his acclaimed Piano Concerto. So why doesn't Moszkowski get more air time?

Which brings us to silent film comedian Monty Banks. 

Whoa! "Abrupt Transition City, all change." But the same dynamic seems to apply here: in silent film, the "Big Three" get screened all the time, while the work of others languishes. 

Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd continue to be shown and known and loved the world over. But Banks? Monty who?

Maybe we should chalk it up to human nature. We love hierarchies, and the "rule of three" seems to be a convenient way of organizing and categorizing things. Maybe this principle is reflected in how the business world shakes out, too: Ford, GM, and Chrysler, anyone? American, Delta, United?

So Monty Banks (at left) didn't become part of silent film comedy's Big Three. But, like Moszkowski, he still did a lot of great stuff worth rediscovering, and that's what we'll be doing tonight (Thursday, March 4) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

And like all comedians, Monty Banks requires an audience, and that's where you come in. See you tonight at 6:30 p.m. for a rare look at a once-popular but forgotten comedian. Here's the press release.

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Original promotional art for 'Play Safe' (1927) starring Monty Banks.

TUESDAY, FEB. 16, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

'Planes and Trains and Monty Banks' at Flying Monkey on Thursday, March 4

Rediscover forgotten silent film comedian Monty Banks; two vintage movies screened with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H. — His real name was "Mario Bianchi," but on screen he was "Monty Banks."

But both names are now forgotten, as are the films he starred in during the golden age of silent film comedy.

Rediscover the unique comic style of Monty Banks with a screening of two of his surviving films on Thursday, March 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

General admission is $10 per person.

On the bill: an excerpt from 'Play Safe' (1927) featuring a hair-raising rescue aboard an out-of-control train; and the feature film 'Flying Luck' (1927), an aviation comedy inspired by Lindbergh's successful solo flight across the Atlantic earlier that year.

Monty Banks and a young Jean Arthur in 'Flying Luck' (1927).

Both films will be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

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.

Monty Banks was a short, stocky but somehow debonair Italian-born comic actor, later also writer and director.

In the U.S. from 1914, he first appeared on stage in musical comedy and cabaret. By 1917 he was working as a dancer in New York's Dominguez Cafe.

After this he turned to films, acting and doing stunt work at Keystone, Universal and other studios.

Banks appeared in many short comedies until the mid-1920s, when he formed his own production company to make feature films.

Although successful, Banks never achieved the popularity of silent comedy superstars Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd.

In the late 1920s, he moved to England; after the transition to talkies, he stopped acting in films and instead concentrated on directing.

Later in life, Banks donated money to build several children's hospitals in his native Italy, which are still operational.

Banks has faded into obscurity in part because most of his starring films are lost or unavailable.

The two films being shown at the Flying Monkey are among the best surviving examples of his work.

Monty Banks prepares to go aloft in 'Flying Luck' (1927).

In featured attraction 'Flying Luck,' (1927), hapless aviator Monty is so inspired by Lindbergh's solo Atlantic flight that he joins the U.S. Army Air Corps, where it's one comical disaster after another.

Co-starring with Banks in 'Flying Luck' is young actress Jean Arthur, who would later appear in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1939) and 'Shane' (1953).

The feature will be preceded by an excerpt from 'Play Safe' (1927), which includes a hair-raising chase sequence set aboard an out-of-control freight train barreling through the California countryside.

"Monty Banks was once a popular star, but that was a long time ago," said Rapsis, who will create live improvised musical accompaniment for both pictures.

"So it's a real treat to screen these films and rediscover a gifted performer and visual comedian with a style uniquely his own."

The feature-length 'Flying Luck' (1927) and an excerpt from 'Play Safe' (1927), both starring Monty Banks, will be shown on Thursday, March 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H. General admission is $10 per person. For more info, visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com or call (603) 536-2551.
 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Not in Kansas anymore, at least this one time: the Kansas Silent Film Festival in New Hampshire

Last Sunday afternoon at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., prior to the silent 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925). Photo by Karl Mischler.

Like Dorothy, we weren't in Kansas. But instead of a cyclone, it was a pandemic that transported to another realm—in this case, not Oz but New Hampshire.

Still, last weekend we managed to conjure up a respectable version of the Kansas Silent Film Festival out here in the far-away Granite State, complete with hot pickles from Porubsky's Deli and much of my wardrobe coming from Topeka's fine thrift stores.

While acknowledging that the whole affair was definitely one of those "you had to be there" events (in-person screenings were the whole point of doing it), here's a brief report of what transpired for those of you unable to attend or who would like to relive favorite moments. 

To begin with: thanks to everyone at the Kansas Silent Film Festival for all their help in bringing about our ersatz version some 1,500 miles away. With their own festival going online this year due to the pandemic (thus me at home instead of in Topeka), organizers could not have been more supportive of our tribute. 

Just to name a few Sunflower State heroes: Denise Morrison for providing fantastic recorded introductions to all our films; Bill Shaffer for working with Denise and others to get the intros on disc and sending them to us; to Carol Yoho for doing a special "New Hampshire" version of the Kansas festival logo; to Bill again for taking the trouble to pack and ship two containers of the aforementioned hot pickles all the way to the Granite State. 

A special tip of the derby hat to Karl Mischler, who each year plays a major role in the Kansas festival, and who this year came up from New York to take photos, greet guests, and help recreate the spirit of the White Concert Hall at Washburn University in Topeka, where silent films are shown each February, except not this year. Thank you, Karl!

And thanks to everyone connected with the Kansas festival for being supportive of our crazy idea, which was truthfully just another extension of my ongoing silent film accompaniment self-therapy sessions. I'm getting better—really, I am. :)

We ran three double-feature programs, one each on Friday night, Saturday night, and then Sunday afternoon. The first two shows were lightly attended, but the Sunday afternoon program (featuring the silent 'Wizard of Oz' and Keaton's 'The Navigator') attracted about 60 people—the Town Hall Theatre's largest audience of any show since the pandemic settled in nearly a year ago.

It being an event for which we had appropriated the name and image and reputation of a highly regarded film festival, I dressed in my Sunday-go-to-meeting suit throughout. However, for each screening I sported a different tie from a spiffy selection I purchased for $3 at one of Topeka's thrift stores. I also unearthed a fur-lined raincoat I bought out there one year for $5 when I didn't bring an appropriate jacket for cold weather.

 Denise delivers a remote recorded intro on the Town Hall Theatre's big screen.

I kept my own pre-film remarks brief so as to give Denise the spotlight with her on-screen intros. More than anything else, the sound of her voice and her cadence as she walked us through the background on each of the films made what we were doing seem like the real thing. If it's Denise, it must be the Kansas Silent Film Festival. Close your eyes and you really could believe you were at Washburn University.

Our intermission feature was sample-sized portions of Porubsky's hot pickles, which met with general approval as far as I could tell. Unlike in the documentary made about the venerable neighborhood deli, there were no scenes of people spitting them out, at least openly. Maybe the winter here has been longer and colder than I thought.

One of the things we didn't have is anyone to review the films like long-time Kansas attendee Bruce Calvert (from Texas) usually does. So here's my attempt to record impressions from my viewpoint: below the screen, in front of the audience, and behind the keyboard.

Claire Windsor and Hobart Bosworth in 'Little Church.'

• Friday, Feb. 26: The Little Church Around the Corner (1923): a so-so transfer of a 16mm print of this early Warner Bros. melodrama held the screen well enough, generating genuine sympathy and suspense, and not just because of the jumpy splices. Starring Kansas-born Claire Windsor and featuring an appearance by New Hampshire-born tough guy Walter Long. I based the score on a simple diatonic tune that could be transformed into a hymn-like cadence when needed. Best part (for me) was during the extended underground rescue sequence, when the music fell into a nice steady build, using shifting chords over a steady and slow rhythm to build suspense, which became one of those "wow, I can't believe how well this is working" moments at the keyboard.

• Friday, Feb. 26: The Round-Up (1920) starring Kansas-born Fatty Arbuckle in a non-slapstick role left a lot of people scratching their heads. The print looked fantastic, full of distant vistas rendered in subtle grays. But the convoluted plot and the film's attempt-for-pathos ending ("Nobody loves a fat man") generated actual complaints afterwards from bewildered or disappointed viewers. Music was mostly faux Aaron Copland, with some faux Stephen Foster mixed in, plus faux Mussorgsky for the Injun scenes and a stock "bad guy" theme for Wallace Beery's bizarre Mexican half-breed character. Programmed because I'd never done music for it before; alas, unlikely to uncork this one again. Sorry, Roscoe! 

• Saturday, Feb. 27: The Showoff (1926), a comedy/drama starred Keystone veteran Ford Sterling without his old comic make-up, was a rewarding and delightful: characters that resonated, a fun story, and some good scenes that generated a lot of laughter even among our small audience. (And great location scenes of downtown Philadelphia, too!) Shown as a way to include Kansas native Louise Brooks (above right, in a supporting role), I took a different approach with the music, sticking with a "light orchestra" setting (no percussion or brass) for the entire film. Using a pair of melodic scraps, I just sort of bounced along with the action when it was upbeat, then shifted to a more somber mode when things got serious. All along, made use of a small piece of Julius Fucik's 'Entrance of the Gladiators' (the famous circus march) to underscore the bluster of Ford Sterling's character. To me, the most musically satisfying film of our program.

• Saturday, Feb. 27: Risky Business (1925), another comedy/drama, this time starring Vera Reynolds with Kansas-born Zasu Pitts in a supporting role. I had high hopes for this one, which I'd never encountered before but I think is one of those "why isn't this film better known?" titles that you sometimes come across, especially because of an unexpected twist that ties it all together. And it did generate a pretty good audience reaction—at least on par with 'The Showoff,' which preceded it. But musically, it might have been a case of me trying too hard, as I felt I couldn't settle down and kept shifting material mid-way through scenes, which took away from the film's effectiveness. The continual interaction with society girl Vera and a young girl who wants her to read the same book again and again has a lot of comic potential, and I felt I muffed it. Also, played too much (and too fast and busy) during the "party of dissipated wealthy people" scenes. So the one that got away, at least this time, but I'll program it elsewhere and try to bring better material to help make the case.

Larry, Dorothy, and Ollie in 'The Wizard of Oz.'

• Sunday, Feb. 28: The Wizard of Oz (1925), Larry Semon's very loose adaptation of L. Frank Baum's stories and characters, which are repurposed into reasons for people to fall into mudbaths, make leaps from tall towers, and other Semon trademarks. This film, included because of its Kansas setting, has a reputation for being just plain awful. But I've found that people actually come to see it, which is more than you can say for most silent titles. Also, if given the proper context (it does not star Judy Garland—setting expectations is so important!), people seem to enjoy it, not in spite of the film's disjointed nature but perhaps because of it. Whatever the cause, Larry's 'Wizard' (shown in the beautifully restored version included with a recent re-issue of the 1939 MGM classic) delivered once again: the laughs started early and kept coming, give or take a few shaky sequences. The music was based mostly on a child-like theme that underpinned all of Semon's on-screen efforts, either as the aged toy-maker or as the farmhand/scarecrow, plus some stock "evil guy" music for the Oz villains, although keeping it always light. 

• Sunday, Feb. 28: The Navigator (1924), our comic grand finale, ended things on a high note. Some thoughts: Buster Keaton's comedy style transcends its era, with today's audiences responding readily to his actions, antics, and attitudes. And with Keaton in top form in 'The Navigator,' it's really a question of how strong the audience reaction will be. Sunday afternoon's screening had the flavor of the full silent film experience: an audience responding together as the story and the gags unfold. 'The Navigator' contains two "moments of no return"—places where the response will indicate how the rest of the screening will go. The first is when he takes a limousine across the street to visit his would-be bride; the second is when the spooky picture hands outside his porthole. Both cases produced strong reaction, which continued throughout the film. For music, all Keaton for me is an exercise in "less is more," as you don't want to overpower the comedy or any other moments on screen. Hence my tendency to employ fairly simple "nursery rhyme" textures for long stretches of Keaton, as opposed to something like hot jazz or overly "comic" music. But you do want the music to point the audience in the right direction, if possible, by helping set up the laugh moments, which requires concentration on what the music is doing to support what's one screen. Less playing, more thinking. And sometimes that means just dropping out, as stopping the music can help cue audience laughter. Not that Keaton needs my help for his stuff to work, but music can make a difference, especially if it stays out of the way.

So, as Denise said each time in her "good night" message, there you have it. A good time was had by all, except a few people who had higher expectations for 'The Roundup' on Friday night. We'll have to program some Arbuckle two-reelers to make up for it and restore everyone's faith. 

Meanwhile, out in Kansas, this year's virtual edition features a lot of great stuff posted over two days. It'll remain up for a little while, so get thee over to their Vimeo site and check out the program. Among other highlights, it's probably the best place on the Internet to see pictures of Karl Mischler standing in a snowbank wearing only shorts. (That's Karl, above left, ceremonially opening the Aviation Museum of N.H. on Saturday morning during his visit.)

They already have dates for the 2022 festival, by the way: if you're keeping track, it's 359 days until showtime. But they keep saying "hopefully" they'll return to films shown on screen with an audience and live accompaniment. 

Hopefully? Hopefully? Wow. At that point, if we're still all social distancing and staying home, there won't be a New Hampshire version of the Kansas Silent Film Festival in 2022, because by then I'll be living in a reed hut in the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River (somewhere north of Mandalay) smoking cheroots and with a pet iguana for company. 

Photo by Karl Mischler, who like Diane Arbus has a gift for using his lens to capture the essence of a subject's personality, which in this case appears to be a mix of Jerry Colonna, Emmett Kelly, and Chico Marx. If this pandemic keeps up any longer, cloth face masks worn under the chin could replace the bow tie as a fashion accessory.