Thursday, October 14, 2021

On your marks: My annual Halloween marathon of spooky silent film screenings starts this Sunday

John Barrymore stars in 'Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' (1920) on Sunday, Oct. 17 at the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass.

This weekend marks start of the annual "Silent Film Halloween Marathon"—a spooky steeplechase of screenings that will take us through the end of the month and beyond.

On Sunday, Oct. 17, I'll be in Natick, Mass. to do music for the 1920 version of 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' at the Center for the Arts. Showtime is 4 p.m. and lots more info in the press release below.

After that, it's a dozen screenings of classic silents with live music, most intended to scare up some fun in advance of Halloween. (There's a railroad program in there as well!)

It all culminates in two "big time" gigs in the Boston area: live music for 'Dracula' (1931) at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 31, and then 'Nosferatu' (1922) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

I'll report on the marathon as it progresses. For now, hope to see you at 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' in Natick this Sunday...

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Original artwork promoting the 1920 version of 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.'

THURSDAY, SEPT. 23, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Natick Center for the Arts to screen 1920 silent film version of 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde'

Early adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson classic features John Barrymore in title role; shown with live music on Sunday, Oct. 17

NATICK, Mass.— It was first a best-selling novel, then an immensely popular stage play. So it was just a matter of time before the movies tackled 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of a man tortured by two personalities—one thoroughly good and the other completely evil.


Just in time for Halloween, an early (and eerie) silent film version of the 'Dr. Jeykll & Mr. Hyde' released in 1920 will be shown with live music on Sunday, Oct. 17 at 4 p.m. at the Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.


Tickets are $12; Center for the Arts members $10.

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

Starring iconic actor John Barrymore, the film was a huge early hit for Paramount Pictures. It helped establish the "thriller" genre and showed the potential of the movies to vividly tell disturbing and creepy stories.

Dr. Jekyll, a London physician and philanthropist, becomes fascinated with the dual nature of man after the profligate Sir George Carew exposes him to temptation. When Jekyll invents a potion that separates the good from the evil in a person, he decides to live both roles and names the evil persona Mr. Hyde.

Jekyll is in love with Millicent, the daughter of Sir George; meanwhile, Hyde prowls the poorer districts of London, debases and discards Theresa, a dance hall performer. Jekyll's control over Hyde weakens gradually to the point where his alter ego resorts to murder, forcing Hyde into a showdown to save his loved ones and reign in the evil he himself has spawned.

The film put Barrymore, a noted stage actor, on the cinematic map. Following 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' Barrymore would go on to be one of the biggest stars of early cinema. His handsome visage, dubbed "the great profile," was instantly recognizable to movie-goers of the time, who flocked to see Barrymore in later films such as 'Sherlock Holmes' (1922), 'Don Juan' (1926), and 'The Beloved Rogue' (1927).


Barrymore's performance in 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' is noteworthy in part because, in an era of limited special effects, his portrayal of the early stages of Jekyll's transformation was done using only facial expressions and gestures. Make-up was only used later in the film following the full transformation of the Hyde character.

Stevenson's story has been refilmed many times, including versions in 1931 and 1941, and was most recently remade in 2008 as a TV movie starring Dougray Scott.

In screening the original 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' the Natick Center for the Arts aims to recreate all essential elements of silent film experience: high quality prints shown on a large screen, with live music and an audience.

"These films caused people to fall in love with the movies for a very good reason," said Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score during the screening. "They were unique experiences, and if you can recreate the conditions under which they were shown, they have a great deal of life in them.

"Though they're the ancestors of today's movies, silent film is a very different art form than what you see at the multiplex today, so it's worth checking out as something totally different," Rapsis said.

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

The silent film version of 'Dr. Jeykll & Mr. Hyde' (1920) will be screened with live music on Sunday, Oct. 17 at 4 p.m. at the Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

Tickets are $12; Center for the Arts members $10. 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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

For this Halloween, something old AND new: original music to accompany 'Dracula' (1931)

Ready for the downbeat: Bela Lugosi in 'Dracula' (1931), to be shown with live music by me on Sunday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre.

Most posts on this blog are about what's coming up next on the silent film docket. 

But today I'm skipping ahead all the way to month's end, to Sunday, Oct. 31. That's when I'm doing live music on Halloween night for the classic thriller 'Dracula' (1931). 

The film will be shown in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre, among the best places to see a movie anywhere. More details in the press release pasted in below.

But wait—isn't 'Dracula' a talking picture? With a soundtrack and everything?

Yes. So what am I doing making live music for it?

Well, the thing is, 'Dracula' was released with virtually no musical score. 

This often happened in the early days of talkies. If a film wasn't an actual musical, with singing and dancing on screen, studios would sometimes just not bother with musical underscoring.

After all, music had been left up to local musicians since movies began. Throughout the silent era, the studios regarded music as no different from popcorn: something best made right in the theater.

There were technical reasons for live music, of course. At the time, it wasn't easy to amplify a recording in a way that would work for a large theater. 


But it was also just good box office for music to be done locally, so it could reflect prevailing styles and tastes depending on the location and the theater's audience. 

During the silent era, if a director did use music, it was mostly to have it played on set, to create a mood or to establish a tempo for the performers. 

Which brings us to 'Dracula' and its almost total lack of music. Other than a snatch of Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake' ballet score at the beginning, and a brief scene in an opera house, it's music-less.

Universal released the picture in 1931 without a score, in part because the traditional of a recorded score wasn't fully established at that time, and also to save money on production costs.

This certainly didn't harm the film, which proved a box office hit right from the beginning.

But over the years, various attempts have been made to add music to the film. Most notably, Philip
Glass composed a score for string quartet in 1998, and the Kronos Quartet continues to tour with it to this day.

In my little world, I hadn't considered scoring 'Dracula' until recently, when I programmed a series of Tod Browning silent pictures at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. 

It's currently underway—last Sunday, we screened 'White Tiger' (1923), an entertaining crime drama starring Wallace Beery, Priscilla Dean, and Raymond Griffith.

Browning, who directed 'Dracula,' had a prolific career in the silent era, directing a vast catalog of twisted melodramas, including many of Lon Chaney's greatest titles.

So I had Browning on the brain when the Somerville Theatre proposed a screening of 'Dracula' for Halloween, with me doing live music.

I hadn't considered this before, as I specialize in the unique world of silent cinema. Plus who would dare follow in the musical footsteps of Philip Glass, one of the most remarkable and original musical voices of our time?

But I thought about it: Browning's 'Dracula,' although a talkie, displayed many of Browning's techniques honed over the years in silent cinema. Long stretches unfold with no dialogue at all—sequences where the visuals carried the picture, as they had to in the silent era. 

I decided it would be a worthwhile exercise to take my silent film scoring vocabulary and carry it forward to 'Dracula,' which, after all, was the product of one of the most distinctive silent-era directors.

I understand the Glass score (which I've deliberately avoided listening to since this project) runs pretty much throughout the movie, even during passages with dialogue, and works to create an overall texture.

As much as I admire Glass, my silent film accompaniment methods mean I'll take quite a different approach with 'Dracula.'

For one thing, the music won't be continuous. Instead, it will be broken into sections, and used only when I feel it enhances scenes as only music can. 

Yes, it will at time evoke a general mood. But it will also serve to indicate significant changes in the emotional temperature of the narrative, to add motion to scenes that would benefit from it, and do all the things music can. 

I also hope to preserve those moments where the silence worked so well to create the eerie other-worldly mood that's a big part of the original 'Dracula.'

Will it work? I hope you'll join me on Halloween night at the Somerville, and we'll all find out together! 

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Bela Lugosi as 'Dracula' entertains a friend in the catacombs of Carfax Abbey.

TUESDAY, OCT. 12, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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

Halloween special: Lugosi's 'Dracula' on big screen in 35mm with new live score

Horror classic to be shown at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 31 for one screening only

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Do you dare spend Halloween braving 'Dracula' on the big screen?

That's the question at the Somerville Theatre, where the classic 1931 version of 'Dracula' will run for one showing only on Sunday, Oct. 31.

The movie, starring Bela Lugosi in the title role, will be shown using a 35mm film print from Universal Studios, which released the early horror classic in 1931.

Showtime is 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $15, with senior/student discounts. Tickets are available online at somervilletheatre.com or at the box office.

The screening will feature live music by Jeff Rapsis, the Somerville Theatre's silent film accompanist.

Although 'Dracula' is a talking picture, it was released with virtually no musical score, a common practice during the transition period from silent to sound pictures.

Rapsis will perform original music live during the screening using a digital keyboard to recreate the texture of a full orchestra.

Directed by Tod Browning (at right), 'Dracula' was a sensational box office success and has mesmerized movie audiences ever since with its eerie visuals and Lugosi's iconic performance.

The story opens in far-off Transylvania, where mysterious Count Dracula hypnotizes a British soldier, Renfield (Dwight Frye), into becoming his mindless slave.

Dracula then travels to England and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon the Count begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires.

When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to Dracula's never-ending bloodlust.

Located in Davis Square, the Somerville Theatre is one of the few first-run venues in the region committed to preserving the ability to screen movies using 35mm film prints.

"We feel it's important to show films on actual film when possible, the way classic movies were intended to be shown," said Ian Judge, creative director of the Somerville Theatre.

The Somerville recently reopened after a 17-month hiatus for the pandemic, during which significant renovations were made to the 1914 theater.

The Halloween screening of 'Dracula' will include live music by Jeff Rapsis, a local composer and performer who specializes in creating accompaniment for silent films.  

'Dracula' was released when Hollywood and movie theatres were still undergoing the transition from the silent era to pictures with synchronized sound and dialogue.

During the silent era, studios did not produce official scores for most films. Instead, accompaniment was left up to local musicians, and could vary greatly from one moviehouse to another.

When studios converted to talking pictures, the tradition of recording a musical score was not well established. In the case of 'Dracula,' Universal omitted music in part to save production costs.

As a result, after the opening credits, the 1931 'Dracula' contains no music except for a brief scene in an opera house.

In recent decades, composers have experimented with creating original music for the movie—most notably Philip Glass, who composed a score in 1998 for the Kronos string quartet.

Rapsis sees 'Dracula' as closely linked to the silent-era tradition of films shown with live music.

"Tod Browning was a prolific director of silent films, including many thrillers that anticipate 'Dracula,' " Rapsis said. "So even though 'Dracula' is a talking picture, Browning's filmmaking style is strongly rooted in the silent era, when it was assumed that local musicians would be important collaborators in a picture's effect on an audience."

Unlike the Glass score, which plays almost continuously during the movie, Rapsis will use music only in certain places where he feels it will either enhance the mood, heighten tension, or signify a change in the emotional line of the story.

Although 'Dracula' is not a silent film, there are definitely places where the silence speaks volumes and remains very effective," Rapsis said. "I hope to leave those intact, but enrich other parts of the film in the way that only music can."

Rapsis works largely by improvising as a film plays in the theater, in the tradition of theatre organists of the 1920s.

"There's something very special about the in-the-moment energy of a live improvised performance," Rapsis said. "It's never the same, and at its best it really can help a film connect with an audience and make the whole experience come together."

The original 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi will be shown in 35mm and with live music for one screening only on Halloween night, Sunday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Tickets are $15 per person, with discounts for students and seniors. For more info, call the theater at (617) 625-5700 or visit www.somervilletheatre.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Monday, October 11, 2021

All this and root beer, too! A report from the revived Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas

Proof I made it to Iola, Kansas—taken not at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, but at a long-closed movie theater just off the town's main square.

There's nothing more American than a second act. Buster Keaton certainly enjoyed one, reinventing himself as a TV performer after falling from movie stardom.

So it's only fitting that an annual gathering bearing his name should have a second act as well.

I'm referring to the Buster Keaton Celebration, held each year in late September in the small town of Iola, Kansas, not far from Keaton's rural birthplace.

The annual gathering ground to a halt in 2017 after 24 years. It was good run—but nothing goes on forever, right?

However, this year saw the reemergence of the Keaton Celebration. What's more, organizers intend to resume holding the event on an annual basis.

They also plan to remake the event's format to involve the local community and create more interest among Keaton fans.

Can this be done? That remains to be seen. But for now, here's a report on this year's Celebration, which I attended on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 24 & 25.

As a silent film accompanist, I had been to several past Keaton Celebrations, including what everyone thought was the final one in 2017, where the mood was one of rueful acceptance. 

In 2018, a one-off Keaton program was held in Kansas City. But it really wasn't a continuation of the Iola event. And after that, all was quiet on the Kansas Keaton front, at least publicly.

But behind the scenes, talks were underway to resume Iola's Keaton Celebration. The relaunch might have taken place in 2020 if not for the Covid-19 pandemic.

I didn't know about this until about a year ago (word travels slow from Kansas to New Hampshire), when I learned the event was being revived for 2021. Later, I was thrilled to be invited to accompany some of films, with the prestigious Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra also appearing. 

Along the way, the lingering pandemic nearly torpedoed the 2021 gathering. For a time, organizers considered an all-virtual model. 

But in the end, a hybrid approach was taken, with the Celebration going ahead as scheduled on Friday, Sept. 24 and Saturday, Sept. 25.

The program unfolded at its longtime Iola home, the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. At the same time, all events were streamed and available online for virtual attendees. 

The theme? "Buster Keaton in Changing Times," with a classy logo done as always by the talented Carol Yoho, who has attended every Keaton Celebration since the very first one back in 1993.

What was it like? Here's a brief and idiosyncratic report from the perspective of a piano player invited to accompany some of the silent films on the program. 

First, it was nice to be back. After the "last" Keaton Celebration in 2017, I thought I'd never see Iola again. But here I was, among landmarks such as the town square ("biggest west of the Mississippi River!") and the A&W Restaurant. 

Iola, by the way, is home to an enormous facility that produces Russell Stover candies for shipment all over the nation. So if you've ever wondered where all those boxes of Whitman's Samplers at your local CVS come from, it's likely Iola. 

Iola: Proud origin of Russell Stover candies!

I was eager to meet Dan Kays, director of the Bowlus Center, whose hiring in 2018 was an important step on the road to reviving the Keaton Celebration. Working with many long-time Celebration supporters, Dan has proposed a 10-year plan to help the event thrive and take it in new directions.

When I arrived at the Bowlus late Thursday afternoon, I didn't find Dan, but I did find my way (via an unlocked back door) into the darkened main auditorium, where the Celebration would take place. So I sat down and got reacquainted with the Henry Miller grand piano that lives in the "pit" area. 

I'm glad I did. The Miller is a fine instrument, but its touch is really heavy, or at least heavier than I'm used to, and without the graceful action of a Steinway. So just working with it for a half-hour can go a long way toward calibrating one's playing, of which I would do a lot over the next two days.

Friday morning I arrived before the 9 a.m. start to find Dan up on the podium testing the sound system. Throughout the two days, Dan was a whirlwind of activity, dealing with all aspects of the Keaton program plus the whole online version, which turned out to be a real challenge. 

In the small world department, turns out Dan's wife was recently an administrator at Mary Magdalen College, a small Catholic liberal arts school in Warner, N.H., where I've played for several silent film programs!

I was engaged primarily as the "day" pianist, brought in to provide live music for a grab bag of short comedies on Friday and Saturday. Rodney Sauer and Mont Alto handled the evening programs, although Rodney and I did swap around a bit.

Besides accompanying the movies, I also contributed occasional fill-in music for the program, such as playing "Hail to the Chief" when Iola's mayor took the podium.

Me at the Henry Miller. Photo by Jim Reid.

First up was Keaton's short 'The Playhouse' (1921), in celebration of the 100th anniversary of its release. You never quite know how things will go until a film starts, but I had good material ready and the music came together nicely, I thought. 

What was really interesting, though, was a presentation after by Prof. Frank Scheide, longtime Keaton Celebration participant and chairman of the committee, who walked us all through the actual vaudeville acts that Buster was sending up in 'The Playhouse.'

'The Playhouse,' which I first became acquainted with via a Super-8mm print from Blackhawk Films in the 1970s, is funny on its own terms. But there's so much more to it when you learn about the well-known acts that Buster was parodying in his comedy, and which audiences of the day would have recognized.

Take the "Zouaves" precision marching act that appears in 'The Playhouse.' Totally unknown today, in the 1920s they were a popular vaudeville touring act, descended from a U.S. Civil War regiment that itself was based on French military units in Algeria during the 19th century.

Frank, who is on the University of Arkansas faculty, dug up a film of the original Zouave troupe going through its routines—and astonishingly, they were almost exactly as depicted in Keaton's comedy. (Although in 'The Playhouse,' things soon go disastrously wrong.) 

The film was silent promotional footage, and after it started running, Frank beckoned to me from the stage: "Jeff, do you know any Zouave music?" So I hopped over to the piano and rattled off what I hoped was convincing Zouave music for the rest of the footage. 

Later that morning, I jumped in again when the sound system failed to function for a live on-stage rendition of the famous "Nairobi Trio" routine of Ernie Kovacs. Involving three performers dressed as apes, the pantomime routine is always done to "Solfeggio," a bizarre Robert Maxwell 1950s recording for harp, singers, orchestra, and bongo drums. 

A vintage video clip of the 'Nairobi Trio.'

The performers (wearing ape masks and heavy coats) entered and assumed their positions. But the music didn't happen. It wasn't clear at first what was going on, but after much confused gesturing, the troupe got up and left the stage.

As a lifelong Kovacs fan, I knew the routine well enough, and felt I could find my way on the piano, even without having ever played it before. So I volunteered to do it live, and Dan (who was at the podium) said okay, so off we went.

It didn't quite come out totally right, but was enough to get the players through most of the routine. I can't imagine how it came across to the online audience, but those at the Bowlus seemed to enjoy it.

The other short that morning was 'Backstage' (1919), one of the better Fatty Arbuckle comedies with Keaton in a supporting role. This one is full of dance, all of it played for pure comedy, so on the spur of the moment I started out with the famous 'Swan Lake' theme from Tchaikovsky's well-known ballet score.

I felt it provided a nice ironic introduction to all the wildness to come. And eventually, when thing did get wild, 'Swan Lake' returned in a rag-timey version with jacked-up tempo that I thought was pretty effective.  

Another unexpected task came that afternoon. Rodney Sauer of Mont Alto gave a presentation on silent film scoring, and he asked me to demonstrate an improvised score to a short passage from King Vidor's 'The Patsy' (1928). So I did!

Rodney then ran the same sequence with Mont Alto's compiled score, and then again with a full orchestra taking a very different approach, underlining all the action with musical outbursts that's sometimes called "Mickey Mousing" in the accompaniment world.

Buster, best friend (at left) and mortal enemy in 'Our Hospitality.'

The evening's program was 'Our Hospitality' (1923) with music by Mont Alto. I was surprised to learn many attendees had never seen the film before! I think I've accompanied it four times this year so far, and seen it several other times with other music. It's as familiar to me as my back yard, but it's important to remember how this is definitely not the case for 99.9% of people.

The next day saw two more Keaton shorts in the morning: 'Convict 13' and 'Neighbors,' both from 1920. Both were a lot of fun, with a jazzy underscoring working well for Buster's prison scenes in 'Convict 13.'

A Saturday highlight was lunch with Rodney Sauer and well-known film collector Jim Reid, who came up from Dallas to attend the Celebration. We drove to, yes, the Iola A&W Restaurant, where we enjoyed root beer served in frosted glass mugs.

That evening, I got to do music for the Keaton short 'Cops' (1922), which I felt went okay. I really tried hard to take a "less is more" approach, using the simplest possible texture to start and then build gradually as Buster's misadventures spiral wider and wider. 

Playing for 'Cops' (1922). The sheet music belongs to Rodney Sauer, who would lead Mont Alto in a compiled score for Keaton's 'Three Ages.'

Mont Alto then delivered a crackerjack score for Buster's feature 'Three Ages' (1923), and that was it. The 26th annual Keaton Celebration was in the books—thanks to the pandemic, not exactly what organizers had envisioned, but still revived and back in business. 

But for how long? Dan Kays has spoken of a ten-year plan, and that's probably a good thing, because it takes time for a long-running event to evolve to reflect different needs and changing times. 

So, in an effort to be helpful, here are some uninvited observations.

It's my observation that a lot of what drove the Keaton Celebration for its first 20 years was the special opportunity for attendees, both fans and scholars, to interact with major figures from the entertainment world who knew or worked with Keaton, who died in 1966.

Such folks were still around in quantity when the festival started in 1993. But time has passed, and almost anyone who knew or worked with Buster has now joined him in the great Green Room in the Sky. That direction connection has faded.

Keaton family members also made regular appearances, which was always a special element of the Iola event. This continues: this year was attended in person by Keaton's nephew Harry Keaton Jr., while Buster's daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge and granddaughter Melissa Talmadge Cox attended virtually.

Still, time is passing. Keaton's widow Eleanor attended the event twice in the 1990s before she passed away in 1998. Harry is now past 80. Barbara is 96. It would be great if Keaton family members continue to be involved, but the Celebration can't rely too heavily on that element year after year without it getting to seem a little repetitive.

On screen: Keaton's daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge and her daughter Melissa Talmadge Cox, committee member Hooman Mehran, and emcee Bruce Symes; on stage, from left: Lisa Geisler, daughter of Keaton's nephew Harry Keaton Jr., and Frank Scheide.

At the same time: just as I have to remember that most people have never seen 'Our Hospitality' (1923), most people interested in Keaton have not had a chance to meet any members of his family. It's a rare treat (I remember how thrilled I was to take Melissa out to lunch one day about 10 years ago) and their tradition of being part of the Iola event is a strong card in the Celebration's hand.

So I think here it's really a question of striking the right balance.

One curious element of the Keaton Celebration is that for many years, it was supported financially by the Kansas Humanities Council. This meant it was always been heavy on lectures and talks from visiting academics, and panel discussions among experts—all worthwhile, but not as entertaining as a Keaton comedy on the screen.

As a relative newcomer to the event (first attending in 2012), I felt this need to structure it as  something of a scholarly symposium, or at least to conform to an academic view of the humanities, was a curious way to put together a Buster Keaton Celebration.

Why? Because academic conferences are fine, but they're not ever going to draw or satisfying large general audiences. They really can't be the basis of a popular, well-attended event of this type. In this instance, less could be more.  

However, the presentation by Frank Scheide on the vaudeville routines in 'The Playhouse' was lively and informative and really added value to the event. So there's a balance to be struck here too, it seems.

I was given an unexpected chance to speak during this year's Celebration, and the one point I tried to make was that the event has a future. 

Me yakking from the piano bench. Another photo by Jim Reid. I didn't get a chance to take many photos, other than of the Russell Stover candy plant, so apologies for the lack of images.

Why? Because of Buster. His audience isn't shrinking or fading out. Rather, a century after what's recognized as his best work, his audience seems to be growing.

Really. I accompany more than 100 silent film programs each year, and the Keaton titles are the most frequently requested and the most well-attended.  

Young people (who generally believe any film before 'Star Wars' is pre-history) love Keaton and respond readily to his work. 

In this sense, it was great to see some high school students attend for a brief period on Friday afternoon. I think it would have been much better for them to see one of the Keaton features with live music, which is what young people really respond to, I've found. But it's a start.

So the Keaton Celebration holds another crucial card in its hand: Buster himself. If it can evolve to continue to showcase his work to new generations of fans, the event will thrive and prosper for a long time to come. 

The proximity to his birthplace is great, and can always be used to keep a sense of "pilgrimage" associated with the event. It's a claim that no other event or place can make. 

But more important are the basics: show Buster's films as they were intended to be shown: on a big screen, in the best restored prints, with live music, and—most importantly—an audience. 

When I talked with him, Dan Kays spoke of future Keaton programs that involve the local community more, in keeping with the original mission of the Bowlus to serve as a cultural resource for the region.

So ideas for future Buster Keaton Celebrations include showcasing the work of local filmmakers, involving students from local high schools, and just finding ways for the Iola community to become engaged. 

More of that, and the Keaton Celebration will not just be revived, but reinvented. 

After all, Keaton's motion picture artistry is timeless. Why can't this annual event possess the same quality?

And let's finish off with some A&W root beer served in a frosty cold mug. Wonder if they get this in Pordenone?

Friday, October 1, 2021

Benefit screening of 'Wings' (1927) to land at Manchester's Rex Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 5

Arriving on Tuesday, Oct. 5: the epic Academy Award-winning  drama 'Wings' (1927).

Creating music for silent films is separate from my "day job," which is managing a local non-profit organization.

In that light, I'm a big admirer of the composer Charles Ives (pictured below, at left). A century ago, he worked full-time as partner in a very successful insurance business, while continuing his musical activities on the side.

It was a choice he made early in life, recognizing that his at-times bizarre avant garde compositions were never going to provide an income. And he didn't want his family to "starve on his dissonances," as he said.

However, Ives saw advantages in this double life. He claimed his work in business helped his art, and his work in art helped his business. I subscribe to that outlook, which I've found to be true for me as well.

And the two lives aren't always separate. Occasionally, they overlap. In the case of Ives, he would sometimes try to supply music for insurance industry events, often with mixed results. After all, he wasn't about to write music like the State Farm Insurance "Like a Good Neighbor" jingle, which was actually composed by...Barry Manilow! 

(Manilow, by the way, also composed the "Stuck on Band-Aid" jingle, and, most famously, "You Deserve a Break Today" for McDonalds, but that's is a whole other topic.)

And every now and then, my own two lives collide—such as on Tuesday, Oct. 5, when I'll provide live music for a screening of 'Wings' (1927) to benefit the Aviation Museum of N.H., where I'm executive director. (That's the non-profit I manage.)

For me, it's a nice coincidence that aviation and the movies grew up at roughly the same time, during the first decades of the 20th century. Early cinema is filled with flying stories, especially following Lindbergh's 1927 solo journey across the Atlantic.

So there's a lot of synergy. Over the years, I've done several aviation-themed silent film programs in support of the museum or other organizations. As the first 'Best Picture' in Academy Award history, 'Wings' is far and away the favorite title. 

But other titles include the Al Wilson stunt picture 'The Phantom Flyer' (1928), an airborne melodrama titled 'The Sky Rider' (1928) starring Champion the Dog, and the goofy Monty Banks feature-length comedy 'Flying Luck' (1927). 

Ironically, Ives himself was no fan of either airplanes or the movies. He would famously shake his fist at airplanes that flew overhead, intruding on the rural quiet of his native Connecticut. And he felt movies were a form of dissipation that weakened the collective American spirit.

Well, even if Ives might not approve, 'Wings' is on the bill next Tuesday. If you're in the Manchester area, I invite you to join us. If you've never had a chance to see this picture on the big screen, and with live music, and with an audience—well, it's a flight you don't want to miss.

More details in the press release below. Hope to see you for an on-time departure on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at  p.m.

*   *   *

Another colorful poster for 'Wings' (1927), to be shown with live music on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Rex Theatre in Manchester, N.H.

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

Epic silent film 'Wings' (1927) on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at Manchester's Rex Theatre

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

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

'Wings' (1927), a drama about U.S. pilots in the skies over Europe during World War I, will be shown on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

The screening, part of the Rex Theatre's "Movies for a Cause" program, will benefit the non-profit Aviation Museum of N.H. and the Rex Theatre.

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

The screening will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

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

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

Looking glum: a downcast still from 'Wings' with stars Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow, and Richard Arlen.

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

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

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

" 'Wings' is not only a terrific movie, but seeing it on the big screen is also a great chance to appreciate what earlier generations of servicemen and women endured," accompanist Jeff Rapsis said.

"It's a war that has faded somewhat from our collective consciousness, but it defined life in the United States for a big chunk of the 20th century. This film captures how World War I affected the nation, and also shows in detail what it was like to serve one's country a century ago."

Rapsis, a composer who specializes in film music, will create a score for 'Wings' on the spot, improvising the music as the movie unfolds to enhance the on-screen action as well as respond to audience reactions. Rapsis performs the music on a digital synthesizer, which is capable of producing a wide range of theatre organ and orchestral textures.

"Live music was an integral part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "At the time, most films weren't released with sheet music or scores. Studios relied on local musicians to come up with an effective score that was different in every theater. At its best, this approach created an energy and a connection that added a great deal to a film's impact. That's what I try to recreate," Rapsis said.

Rapsis is executive director of the Aviation Museum of N.H., which is co-sponsoring the screening.

'Wings' will be followed on Wednesday, Oct. 6 with "The McConnell Story" (1955), a Warner Bros. dramatization of the life and career of N.H. native Joseph C. McConnell, a U.S. Air Force pilot who became the top American ace during the Korean War.

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

‘Wings’ (1927) starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen will be shown with live music on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

Tickets $12 adults, general admission. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.palacetheatre.org or call (603) 668-5588.


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Brattle Cinema celebrates National Silent Movie Day on 9/29 with Buster Keaton, Paul Leni

From 'Cat and the Canary' (1927): Tully Marshall may not make it to Silent Movie Day.

Tomorrow marks the first-ever National Silent Movie Day, and to help celebrate I'll be accompanying two films at the legendary Brattle Cinema, just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.

First up at 6 p.m.: Buster Keaton in 'Seven Chances' (1925), a crackerjack comedy that's long been an audience favorite and includes one of the all-time great cinematic chases.

Then at 8 p.m., we switch into "thriller" mode with Paul Leni's 'Cat and the Canary' (1927), a tale of a haunted mansion, a beautiful young heiress, relatives with grudges, and an escaped maniac on the loose. 

Both films are great entertainment, and so are a fine way to make the most of National Silent Movie Day. For specifics on each, check the press release below. (I've just checked the Brattle's website and good seats are available, but act fast.)

The Brattle will keep the party going on Thursday, Sept. 30 with screenings of Chaplin's 'The Kid' (1921) and Fritz Lang's sci-fi epic 'Metropolis' (1927), although with recorded scores rather than live music. 

Still, worth checking out for the chance to see these films as intended: in a theater, with a live audience. These conditions were baked into the films: how they were structured and paced, and how they were experienced. It's something you miss when you watch them online or in your living room.

There's more on National Silent Movie Day online at this website.

Thanks to Ned Hinkle and Ivy Molan at the Brattle (that's the theater above) for continuing to make room for silent film with live music as part of the Brattle's programming. 

Get more insight into the Brattle's approach by checking out a recent a podcast earlier this month titled "Enjoy the Silence."

Even if you're nowhere near Harvard Square, get thee to a theater—any theater—celebrating National Silent Movie Day tomorrow. You'll have a lot to talk about! 

Okay, here's the press release with info about tomorrow's program:

*    *    *

Time for 'National Silent Movie Day: Buster Keaton in 'Seven Chances' (1925).

MONDAY, SEPT. 20, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Brattle Theatre to celebrate first-ever 'National Silent Movie Day' on Wednesday, Sept. 29

Double helping of classic Buster Keaton comedy plus thriller 'Cat and the Canary' to screen with live music

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—To celebrate the first-ever National Silent Film Day, the Brattle Theatre is doubling down

On Wednesday, Sept. 29, the iconic moviehouse will show two rarely screened silent feature films, both with live musical accompaniment.

At 6 p.m., Buster Keaton stars in 'Seven Chances' (1925), a farce in which Buster stands to inherit a fortune if he's married—which he isn't.

At 8 p.m., the Brattle will screen 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927), a spooky haunted house comedy/thriller from visionary director Paul Leni.

Live music will be created for both films by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New England-based performer who specializes in music for silent film screenings.

Admission for each show is $14 per person / $12 students, seniors and Brattle members. Tickets are available online at www.brattlefilm.org.

Each program requires a separate ticket.

Adapted from a stage play, the story of 'Seven Chances' finds Buster learning that he'll inherit $7 million if he's married by 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday—that very day!

Buster's hurried attempts to tie the knot go awry. But then a newspaper story changes the game, creating an avalanche of would-be brides who relentlessly pursue Buster as he searches for his one true love before the deadline.

'Seven Chances' was the first screen adaptation of a now-familiar story, since used in movies ranging from the Three Stooges in 'Brideless Groom' (1947) to Gary Sinyor's 'The Bachelor' (1999), a romantic comedy starring Chris O'Donnell and Renee Zellwinger.

Buster and would-be brides crowd a church in 'Seven Chances' (1925).

'The Cat and the Canary' stands as the original movie thriller—the first picture to feature the reading of a will in a haunted mansion complete with clutching hands, a masked killer, disappearing bodies, and secret passageways.

Silent film starlet Laura LaPlante leads the cast as a young heiress who must spend the night in the creepy old mansion, which is filled with relatives who all have motives to scare her into leaving. Meanwhile, a dangerous escaped lunatic is loose on the grounds. Can she and the others make it through the night?

Created for Universal Pictures by German filmmaker Paul Leni, 'The Cat and the Canary' proved popular enough to inspire several remakes, including one starring Bob Hope. It was also the forbearer of all the great Universal horror classics of the 1930s and '40s.

The two films are being shown on Wednesday, Sept. 29 to celebrate National Silent Film Day. The day was created earlier this year by a group of silent film archivists and scholars.

The date was established to encourage the exhibition and appreciation of the vast amount of cinema produced prior to 1929, before the advent of synchronized soundtracks and dialogue.

"Silent film wasn't just a primitive ancestor of today's motion pictures," said Rapsis, the accompanist. "At its peak, it was a whole different art form that required filmmakers to tell stories visually."

Films were also created from the ground up to be shown under certain specific conditions: in a theater with a large screen, with live music, and with an audience—the larger, the better.

Martha Maddox and Laura LaPlante share a cheerful moment from 'Cat and the Canary' (1927).

"These films weren't intended to be shown at home with just you and your dog watching," Rapsis said. "But when you put them on the big screen, then add live music and an audience, and movies from that era really come to life."

In creating music for silent films, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound.

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand or made up on the spot. 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.

"It's surprising to people today, but during the silent era there was generally no 'official' score to a film," Rapsis said. "What I do is in the tradition of the era's theater organists, creating music live on the fly as the film is shown."

"It's a bit of a high-wire act, but the immediacy of live improvised accompaniment is a big part of the unique experience of silent film," Rapsis said.

The Brattle continues silent film programming on Thursday, Sept. 30 with Charlie Chaplin's 'The Kid' (1921) at 6 p.m. and the sci-fi epic 'Metropolis' (1927) at 8 p.m., both with recorded music scores.

'Seven Chances' (1925) will be screened on Wednesday, Sept. 29 at 6 p.m., followed by 'The Cat and the Canary' at 8 p.m., at the historic Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St. in Harvard Square, Cambridge. Both films will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis.

Admission for each film is $14 per person / $12 students, seniors, and Brattle members. Separate admission required for each show. For tickets and more information, call the theater at (617) 876-6837 or visit www.brattlefilm.org.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Priscilla Dean in 'Drifting' (1923) starts off two-month Tod Browning retrospective with a bang

A scene from Universal's 'Drifting' (1923), which kicked off a Tod Browning retrospective this month at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Lots to catch up on: the start of a Tod Browning series, the reborn Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas, and a whole heap of Halloween screenings on the horizon. Here goes!

Our screening of Tod Browning's crime drama 'Drifting' (1923) on Sunday, Sept. 19 attracted a good-sized audience (for us) of about 40 people.

That was unexpected because a) it was a beautiful sunny day, the last Sunday of summertime, and b) 'Drifting' is a film that most people have never heard of.

Yes, Wallace Beery is in it, and also very young Anna May Wong. Neither are exactly Charlie Chaplin or Gloria Swanson in the name recognition department, so I wasn't anticipating a crowd.

But in putting together the Town Hall Theatre's Tod Browning mini-series (six films over two months, culminating in some rarely screened Lon Chaney titles for Halloween), I wanted to run at least a couple of obscurities to see how his early work holds up on the big screen and with an audience present.

Thus did we program Browning's 'Drifting' (1923), a crime drama set in China about the opium trade, and also 'White Tiger' (1923), another exotic crime tale coming up on Sunday, Oct. 10.

At the time, both films were relatively high profile Universal releases. 'Drifting' boasted a huge budget, which showed on screen in the form of enormous battle scenes staged on a massive scale. 

 


Ambitious two-page spread in an exhibitor's journal promoting 'Drifting.'

It was recognizable as a Browning film by virtue of the exotic setting, criminal story, and intense melodramatic byplay among the characters. And the good news is: it really held the screen!

You could tell: despite the melodrama (or perhaps because of it), the audience was, er, never adrift. Interest was so intense that afterwards, nearly everyone stayed for almost a half-hour of discussion and Q & A, even with the sun still shining outside.

One element that made the film feel surprisingly relevant after nearly a century: if you took the word "opium" and substituted either "Fentanyl" or "OxyContin," you'd have a morality play that could really  resonate today. (For added impact, change some of the character names to "Sackler.")

Getting high marks from everyone was lead female Priscilla Dean. Her "take no shit from anyone" attitude was really impressive. Though not well known today, she frequently worked with Browning, and in fact co-stars in 'White Tiger' up next. If you missed your chance to rediscover Dean, you'll have another chance in October.

 (Actually, you'll have than one chance, because she appears in one of the Chaney films, 'Outside the Law' (1920), which we're screening on Saturday, Oct. 30.)

Finally: my favorite comment was from a gentleman I'd never seen before at any silent film screenings. After the Q & A finished, he came up to me and said: "You know, I enjoyed that a lot more than I thought I would."

High praise! But then I didn't think to inquire about exactly how low his expectations were. 

Okay, this has gone on longer than expected. I'll get to Iola and other things in a follow-up post.

Our Tod Browning series continues on Sunday, Oct. 10 with 'White Tiger' (1923), a crime drama that also has superb comedian/actor Raymond Griffith in the cast. More info in the press release below. And I'll have to save my account of the reborn Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas for another post...

*   *   *

Director Tod Browning at the peak of his career.

THURSDAY, SEPT. 23, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Early work of macabre film director Tod Browning showcased in Town Hall Theatre series

Two-month retrospective continues through Halloween: next up, thriller 'White Tiger' (1923) on Sunday, Oct. 10 with live music

WILTON, N.H.—He's best known as the director of the original 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi and the early cult classic 'Freaks' (1932), a horror film featuring handicapped circus performers.

But long before those macabre masterpieces, director Tod Browning pushed the boundaries of cinema while developing his craft during the silent era.

Browning's early work is being highlighted in a two-month series of rarely screened silent feature films at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. 

The series continues on Sunday, Oct. 10 at 2 p.m. with 'White Tiger' (1923), a crime drama about a gang that uses a chess-playing device to swindle unsuspecting wealthy victims. The film stars Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith, and Wallace Beery.

The screenings are free and open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film programming.

All screenings will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Often collaborating with legendary actor Lon Chaney, Browning specialized in twisted melodramas, gritty crime thrillers, and bizarre stories that drew on his own background as a carnival sideshow entertainer.

"These early pictures from Tod Browning will change your mind about silent cinema," Rapsis said. "When shown in a theater with live music and an audience, the early Browning pictures really leap to life. They're a terrific example of why people first fell in love with the movies."

Additional screenings include:

• Friday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m.: Lon Chaney in 'The Blackbird' (1926). Bizarre melodrama in which Chaney leads a double life as a criminal mastermind of the London slums and also the Bishop, his pious but deformed brother. Will the entrance of a new woman expose his secret?

• Saturday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m.: Twisted Halloween Weekend Double Feature. Lon Chaney stars in a pair of Browning-directed crime melodramas. 'Outside the Law' (1920) features Chaney as a gangster who frames a former rival and turns his young daughter to a life of crime. In 'The Unholy Three' (1925) Chaney is a criminal ventriloquist who runs a pet store that fronts a masterful scheme for fleecing wealthy customers.

• Sunday, Oct. 31 at 2 p.m.: Lon Chaney in 'Where East is East' (1929). Chaney, as "Tiger Haynes," a jaded animal trapper in the jungles of Laos, cares only for his young daughter, Toyo, who plans to marry a circus owner's son. But the couple's happiness is threatened by the appearance of a mysterious woman.

Browning was born in 1880 in Louisville, Kentucky as Charles Albert Browning, Jr. Browning's uncle, baseball star Pete "Louisville Slugger" Browning, gave his nickname to the iconic baseball bat.

As a child, Browning was fascinated by circus and carnival life. Before finishing high school, at age 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to join a traveling circus, from which he never returned.

By 1901, at the age of 21, Browning was performing song and dance routines on riverboats plying the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, as well as acting as a contortionist for the Manhattan Fair and Carnival Company.

Browning developed a live burial act in which he was billed as "The Living Hypnotic Corpse," and performed as a clown with the Ringling Brothers circus. He would later draw on these early experiences in his filmmaking.

During this time he showed his fascination with the macabre by adopting the professional name 'Tod,' after the German word for 'Death.'

Browning began acting in films in 1909, first as a slapstick comedian, eventually working under legendary early director D.W. Griffith. While continuing to perform on camera, he also began directing short films.

In 1915, Browning was severely injured when a car he was driving collided with a railroad locomotive. According to biographers David J. Skal and Elias Savada, the tragic event transformed Browning's creative outlook:

"A distinct pattern had appeared in his post-accident body of work, distinguishing it from the comedy that had been his specialty before 1915. Now his focus was moralistic melodrama, with recurrent themes of crime, culpability and retribution."

Hired to direct by Universal Pictures in 1919, Browning (at right) focused on exotic thrillers often starring popular star Priscilla Dean. Later, at MGM, Browning often worked with legendary actor Lon Chaney in melodramas known for their bizarre stories and emotional intensity.

Although Browning continued to work into the 1930s, alcoholism contributed to his career gradually halting. He retired from motion pictures in 1942, and died a recluse in 1962.

Over time, critics have come to recognize Browning's distinctive contributions to cinema, especially in his silent-era collaborations with Chaney at MGM from 1925 to 1929. Today his films are regarded as a unique body of work that reflect Browning's singular vision and outlook on life.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will provide music for all films in the series, 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."

The two-month retrospective of Tod Browning's early work continues with 'White Tiger' (1923), a exotic crime drama starring Priscilla Dean, to be shown with live music on Sunday, Oct. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

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

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

Monday, September 13, 2021

This weekend: three screenings in three states, including start of two-month Tod Browning series

The exotic Universal crime melodrama 'Drifting' (1923) opens a two-month series exploring the early work of director Tod Browning. The film will be screening on Sunday, Sept. 19 at 2 p.m. in Wilton, N.H.

Let's see—on Friday, it's Rhode Island. On Saturday, it's Vermont. And on Sunday, it's New Hampshire.

Good thing that where I live, the states are small!

Yes, it's a peripatetic weekend coming up, with me accompanying a pair of comedy classics and a crime melodrama I've never done before.

The classics: Harold Lloyd's "Get me to the church on time" comedy 'Girl Shy' (1924) on Friday, Sept. 17 at Slater Park in Pawtucket, R.I., and Harry Langdon in 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926) on Saturday, Sept. 18 at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt.

If you're in need of laughs (and who isn't?), it's worth the drive to either of these screenings. Details are on the "Upcoming Silent Film Screenings" link at the top right of this page.

The crime melodrama is 'Drifting' (1923), an early effort from director Tod Browning starring Priscilla Dean and Wallace Beery. It's the first in a two-month series of screenings exploring Browning's silent features, which rarely get shown.

Well, not in Wilton, N.H., where Dennis Markevich, owner/operator of the Town Hall Theatre, continues to hold off on running first-run pictures until the studios make it financially feasible for a small independent theater to do so. (I know, fat chance.)

In the meantime, alternative programming keeps things going, and that includes a healthy dose of silent cinema with live music. This has provided the chance to engage in some unusual programming, including this upcoming look at Tod Browning's lesser-known titles.

I'm looking forward to this because the Browning films I know are suffused with a kind of bizarre fatalism, and so it'll be interesting to see how strong this thread is in the half-dozen films in our series, most of which are unfamiliar to me.

And with Halloween coming up, we'll of course include a good helping of films starring Browning's favorite on-screen collaborator, Lon Chaney. 

Here's a press release announcing the series, which opens this Sunday. Hope to see you there, and in the weeks to come!

P.S. A special shout-out to the Somerville Theatre, which is finally reopening on Friday, Sept. 17 after being closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic.

If you're in the Boston area, consider attending and supporting this landmark moviehouse, which has undergone renovations and is now ready to resume its rightful place in the Beantown cinematic pantheon.

And mark your calendars: on Sunday, Oct. 31, I'll be performing a live score at the Somerville Theatre to a more familiar Tod Browning picture: the classic 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi.

Although not a silent film, this early talkie was released by Universal without a musical score. So it's not uncommon for musicians today to try adding one.

Philip Glass did it some time ago, and now so will I—and that's really scary!

 *    *    *

I love this photo portrait of Tod Browning, taken during the peak of his directing career. Whoever did this captured the man's essence.

MONDAY, SEPT. 13, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Early work of macabre film director Tod Browning showcased in Town Hall Theatre series

Two-month retrospective runs through Halloween; opens with exotic crime melodrama 'Drifting' (1923) with live music on Sunday, Sept. 19

WILTON, N.H.—He's best known as the director of the original 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi and the early cult classic 'Freaks' (1932), a horror film featuring handicapped circus performers.

But long before those macabre masterpieces, director Tod Browning pushed the boundaries of cinema while developing his craft during the silent era.

Often collaborating with legendary actor Lon Chaney, Browning specialized in twisted melodramas, gritty crime thrillers, and bizarre stories that drew on his own background as a carnival sideshow entertainer.

Browning's early work will be highlighted in a two-month series of rarely screened silent feature films at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.  

The screenings are free and open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film programming.

All screenings will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

"These early pictures from Tod Browning will change your mind about silent cinema," Rapsis said. "When shown in a theater with live music and an audience, the early Browning pictures really leap to life. They're a terrific example of why people first fell in love with the movies."

The series opens on Sunday, Sept. 19 at 2 p.m. with 'Drifting' (1923), an exotic crime drama directed by Browning. The film, a story of opium smugglers and set in a remote Chinese village, stars Priscilla Dean, Wallace Beery, and Anna May Wong.

Additional screenings include:

• Sunday, Oct. 10 at 2 p.m.: 'The White Tiger' (1923). Crime drama about a gang that uses a chess-playing device to swindle unsuspecting wealthy victims. Starring Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith, and Wallace Beery.

• Friday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m.: Lon Chaney in 'The Blackbird' (1926). Bizarre melodrama in which Chaney leads a double life as a criminal mastermind of the London slums and also the Bishop, his pious but deformed brother. Will the entrance of a new woman expose his secret?

• Saturday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m.: Twisted Halloween Weekend Double Feature. Lon Chaney stars in a pair of Browning-directed crime melodramas. 'Outside the Law' (1920) features Chaney as a gangster who frames a former rival and turns his young daughter to a life of crime. In 'The Unholy Three' (1925) Chaney is a criminal ventriloquist who runs a pet store that fronts a masterful scheme for fleecing wealthy customers.

• Sunday, Oct. 31 at 2 p.m.: Lon Chaney in 'Where East is East' (1929). Chaney, as "Tiger Haynes," a jaded animal trapper in the jungles of Laos, cares only for his young daughter, Toyo, who plans to marry a circus owner's son. But the couple's happiness is threatened by the appearance of a mysterious woman.

Browning was born in 1880 in Louisville, Kentucky as Charles Albert Browning, Jr. Browning's uncle, baseball star Pete "Louisville Slugger" Browning, gave his nickname to the iconic baseball bat.

As a child, Browning was fascinated by circus and carnival life. Before finishing high school, at age 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to join a traveling circus, from which he never returned.

By 1901, at the age of 21, Browning was performing song and dance routines on riverboats plying the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, as well as acting as a contortionist for the Manhattan Fair and Carnival Company.

Browning developed a live burial act in which he was billed as "The Living Hypnotic Corpse," and performed as a clown with the Ringling Brothers circus. He would later draw on these early experiences in his filmmaking.

During this time he showed his fascination with the macabre by adopting the professional name 'Tod,' after the German word for 'Death.'

Browning (at right) began acting in films in 1909, first as a slapstick comedian, eventually working under legendary early director D.W. Griffith. While continuing to perform on camera, he also began directing short films.

In 1915, Browning was severely injured when a car he was driving collided with a railroad locomotive. According to biographers David J. Skal and Elias Savada, the tragic event transformed Browning's creative outlook:

"A distinct pattern had appeared in his post-accident body of work, distinguishing it from the comedy that had been his specialty before 1915. Now his focus was moralistic melodrama, with recurrent themes of crime, culpability and retribution."

Hired to direct by Universal Pictures in 1919, Browning focused on exotic thrillers often starring popular star Priscilla Dean. Later, at MGM, Browning often worked with legendary actor Lon Chaney in melodramas known for their bizarre stories and emotional intensity.

Although Browning continued to work into the 1930s, alcoholism contributed to his career gradually halting. He retired from motion pictures in 1942, and died a recluse in 1962.

Over time, critics have come to recognize Browning's distinctive contributions to cinema, especially in his silent-era collaborations with Chaney at MGM from 1925 to 1929. Today his films are regarded as a unique body of work that reflect Browning's singular vision and outlook on life.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will provide music for all films in the series, 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."

The two-month retrospective of Tod Browning's early work will open with 'Drifting' (1923), a exotic crime drama starring Priscilla Dean, to be shown with live music on Sunday, Sept. 19 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

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

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

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

A tale of two performers: James Murray and Barbara Kent in 'The Shakedown' (1929) on Thursday, Sept. 9 in Plymouth, N.H.

A vintage one-sheet promoting 'The Shakedown' (1929).

Talk about contrasts!

In preparing to create music for 'The Shakedown' (1929), a terrific late silent melodrama, I found myself oddly captivated by the fate of its two leading performers.

Think of it. James Murray, following up his acclaimed performance in 'The Crowd' (1928), would in a few years be destitute and reduced to panhandling on the streets of New York.

Barbara Kent, one of the era's most popular starlets, would soon fall out of fashion, making her last screen appearance in 1935.

But then, what different paths fate had in store for either performer.

Murray would die just a year later, in 1936, by drowning in the Hudson River. He was just 35.

Kent, however, would go on to a very long and active life outside the movies, flying her own airplane into her mid-80s. 

 She would live until 2011, passing away at age 103.

That contrast, I think, lends an element of poignancy to 'The Shakedown' when viewed today. 

Although a picture ought to stand by itself, our knowledge of what would later happen to the people in it (in some cases, much later) is something that's hard to forget entirely.

Consider child actor Jack Hanlon, who in 'The Shakedown' delivered a memorable performance as an orphan. See him on screen: he would go on to be a member of 'The Little Rascals' troupe, but then leave show business to serve in World War II, and afterwards worked as a professional mover.

He died in 2012 at age 96. Another long life! Was it well-lived? How can we really know? And in wondering, you can find yourself also asking about your own life. Is it being well-lived?

Equally hard to know, really. But knowing the basic outlines of what would happen to the people captured in movies a century ago is all part of the experience of seeing the films today.To me, it adds a layer of interest that wasn't present in the original release.

I'm accompanying 'The Shakedown' on Thursday, Sept. 9 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. Showtime is 6:30 p.m., and a lot more info is in the press release below.

To generate interest in the film, I decided to focus on director William Wyler (at left, later in life), partly because it's an early work from someone who would go on to a major career during Hollywood's Golden Age. (There I go again, projecting into the future.)

But I was also inspired by something I didn't realize until reading liner notes for the recent reissue of 'The Shakedown' by film writer and historian Nora Fiore, who often blogs and posts online as the Nitrate Diva.

In her notes, Nora pointed out Wyler's brief comic cameo during the climax of 'The Shakedown.' It's a memorable moment, and I had no idea it was the director himself until Nora revealed this. 

So we'll all play "spot the director" on Thursday, Sept. 9 as we screen 'The Shakedown.' Hope to see you there! More info below.

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James Murray and Jack Hanlon in 'The Shakedown' (1929).

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 1, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Gritty boxing melodrama ‘The Shakedown’ (1929) at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Sept. 9

Early effort by legendary director William Wyler to be screened with live music at historic venue

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—He received a dozen nominations for Best Director, more than anyone in Hollywood history.

He was three-time Oscar-winning director William Wyler, whose 50-year Hollywood career included such Golden Age milestones as 'Roman Holiday' (1953) and 'Ben Hur' (1959).

But everyone needs to start somewhere. And one of Wyler's earliest efforts, the silent melodrama 'The Shakedown' (1929) for Universal Pictures, will be screened with live music on Thursday, Sept. 9 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 www.flyinghmonkeynh.org or at the door.

'The Shakedown,' a boxing story about a crooked prizefighter who adopts an orphan, shows a young Wyler already fluent in the language of cinema.

Wyler weaves an on-screen tale that flows deftly from action to suspense, but also includes moments of light-hearted comedy.

Starring James Murray and Barbara Kent, 'The Shakedown' is set in a hard-boiled world of professional swindlers who hustle small-town crowds with fixed boxing matches.

After saving an orphan's life, boxer Dave Roberts is forced to decide whether to continue his low-life ways, or turn the tables and escape those who control him.

As the small-town fighter, actor James Murray was following up his acclaimed performance in King Vidor's 1928 drama 'The Crowd.'

Original poster art promoting 'The Shakedown' (1929).

Murray's promising career as a leading man, however, would soon be undone by alcoholism, which rendered him unemployable.

Murray was reduced to panhandling during the Great Depression, dying at age 35 by drowning in New York City's Hudson River.

Petit starlet Barbara Kent (who stood under five feet tall) peaked in popularity during the transition from silents to talkies, when 'The Shakedown' was released. Afterwards, her career gradually faded.

Making her last screen appearance in 1935, Kent continued with an active life that included flying her own airplane into her mid-80s. She died in 2011 at age 103.

Playing the orphan was noted child actor Jack Hanlon, who would soon become a member of the popular "Little Rascals" troupe.

Hanlon, who would leave show business to serve as a paratrooper in World War II and later worked as a professional mover, died in 2012 at age 96.

Although completed as a silent picture, the huge popularity of movies with talking sequences caused Universal to order Wyler to reshoot parts of the film to create a version that included dialogue.

Wyler embraced the new method of making movies, incorporating speech naturally into his stories, impressing studio bosses with his sure technique and laying the groundwork for his long career.

In 'The Shakedown,' Wyler makes a brief cameo as a comic bungler who holds a 'Round 3' card upside down during the climactic boxing match.

Wyler would go on to play an influential behind-the-scenes role in the cinematic careers of performers ranging from Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn to Laurence Olivier and Barbara Streisand.

The original silent version of 'The Shakedown' will be shown at the Flying Monkey, with live music by New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

In creating music for silent films, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating 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.

'The Shakedown' (1929) will be shown on  Thursday, Sept. 9 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.