Sunday, January 31, 2021

Thoughts on 'The Freshman': If comedy doesn't have an audience reaction, is it still funny?

Harold Lloyd hangs on in 'The Freshman' (1925), his college football classic.

One of my best silent film memories dates from 1993, long before I began accompanying them, when we were hosting a visitor from Russia for much of that spring and summer. This was just after the Soviet Union collapsed, which had enabled our friend to travel outside the country for the first time.

At one point, we visited the Big Apple (that's New York City for those of you who don't know your urban fruit), and the Film Forum in Greenwich Village happened to be running a Harold Lloyd retrospective in honor of the comedian's 100th birthday year.

Great! This was at a time when seeing a Lloyd feature in any format was a rare privilege—never mind in a theatre running a 35mm print and with live music.

So we bought tickets to a screening of 'The Freshman' (1925), and promptly entered another dimension. Before it started, Mischa had no idea what to expect. But once the lights went down, with live piano music from longtime Film Forum accompanist Steve Sterner, audience reaction was explosive. 

 Really! Our Russian friend was bowled over, and so were we. The laughter proved contagious at first, and finally convulsive, as Lloyd topped one gag with another until people around us were literally gasping for breath. Us, too! You could not resist.

"This would go over great in Russia," Mischa exclaimed, after singing along with another chorus of "Freshie," the tune that Sterner wove throughout the show and then, as I recall, had the audience sing together afterwards. 

It was my first experience with a phenomenon I've since come to know well: the "Harold Lloyd Works Best With A Big Audience" principle that's right up there with the laws of thermodynamics. Again, really. In gearing his films for the big audience experience, Lloyd knew what he was doing, both when he made the films and later, when he kept them off television.

To not see 'The Freshman,' or any other Lloyd feature, in a crowded theater, is to not see the film Lloyd made. It would be like trying to view the Mona Lisa at the bottom of a pool. It's just not the same.

Or to paraphrase the old question about a tree falling in the forest and making a noise: if a comedian slips on a banana peel and no one is there to laugh, is it funny?

I don't know the answer to that question. But I do know we're screening 'The Freshman' on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 7) at the Town Hall Theatre in lovely downtown Wilton, N.H., which is nowhere near Greenwich Village. Kick-off time (for the film) is 2 p.m., which will get you home in plenty of time for the big game. 

So this is where you come in. Don't deprive Harold of the atmosphere he needs to flourish. Make your way to the Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 7 for the 'The Freshman,' and you'll see the latest Russian pop culture phenomenon a terrific and timeless football comedy.

This means you! Press release below. See you there!

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Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston in 'The Freshman.'

Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Supplement Super Bowl Sunday with classic football silent comedy

Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' to screen as pre-game show on Sunday, Feb. 7 at Wilton's Town Hall Theatre

WILTON, N.H.—What happens when a first-year student's dreams of college collide with the realities of campus life?

The result is Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' (1925), one of the most popular comedies of the silent film era. Filled with classic scenes and a great story, 'The Freshman' endures as one of Lloyd's most crowd-pleasing movies.

See for yourself as a pre-game show on Super Bowl Sunday. 'The Freshman' (1925) will be screened with live music on Sunday, Feb. 7 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

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

The program will be shown with live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines.

'The Freshman' follows Lloyd from his small town to Tate College, where he hopes to achieve fame as Big Man on Campus. Instead, his quest for popularity becomes a college-wide joke, with Harold getting tricked by upperclassmen into hosting the school's annual "Fall Frolic" at his own expense.

Realizing he's an outcast, Lloyd decides he can make his mark on the college football team, where he holds the lowly position of waterboy and serves as tackling dummy. On the day of the Big Game, can the bespectacled "freshie" somehow save the day and bring gridiron glory to dear old Tate?

'The Freshman,' the most successful film of Lloyd's career, was an enormous box office smash. Its release sparked a craze for college films that lasted well beyond the 1920s, and even a popular hit song, the collegiate fox trot "Freshie."

For football fans, the film's climactic game sequence was shot on the field at the actual Rose Bowl in 1924. The crowd scenes were shot at halftime at California Memorial Stadium during the November 1924 "Big Game" between UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Other exterior scenes were filmed near the USC campus in Los Angeles.

Also, 'The Freshman' will finish well before the kick-off for Super Bowl LV, which starts at 6:30 p.m.

Beyond its comic appeal, 'The Freshman' today has an additional layer of interest in its depiction of college life in the 1920s—a time of raccoon coats, ukeleles, and many other long-gone fads and fashions.

"It was long before television, the Internet, cellphones, or Facebook," said Rapsis. "To us today, it looks like college on another planet, which I think adds to the appeal of a film like 'The Freshman.' But at its core, 'The Freshman' is still a great story about people, and that's why it remains such an entertaining experience today, especially when shown as Lloyd intended it."

In 1990, 'The Freshman' was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," named in only the second year of voting and one of the first 50 films to receive such an honor.

Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is recognized as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Lloyd's character, a young go-getter ready to struggle to win the day, proved hugely popular in the 1920s. While Chaplin and Keaton were always critical favorites, Lloyd's films reigned as the top-grossing comedies throughout the period.

However, Lloyd's public image faded after his retirement in the 1930s, when he turned his energies to charitable causes such as the Shriners. He retained control over his films, refusing to release them for television and only rarely allowing them to be screened at revivals, fearing modern audiences wouldn't know how to respond to his work or to silent films in general. He died in 1971.

In recent years, Lloyd's family has taken steps to restore Harold's reputation and public image. They've released his work on DVD, and arranged for more frequent screenings of his films in the environment for which they were made: in theaters with live music and a large audience.

Despite the passage of time, audiences continue to respond just as strongly as when the films were new, with features such as 'The Freshman' embraced as timeless achievements from the golden era of silent film comedy.

Critics review 'The Freshman':

"Regarded as the quintessential Harold Lloyd vehicle.”
—TV Guide

"Gag for gag, Lloyd was the funniest screen comic of his time. Passionately recommended. "
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

Head back to school—and the stadium—with Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' (1925), to be shown with live music on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the theater's silent film series. For more info, visit or call (603) 654-3456.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Mid-winter melodrama: Lillian Gish stars in 'Way Down East' on Thursday, 2/4 in Plymouth, N.H.

 A poster for the French release of 'Way Down East' (1920).

This is the one that helped me understand what D.W. Griffith accomplished.

Yes, the film is justly famous for its climactic sequence. But what about all that stuff—more than two hours of antique hokum—leading up to it?

About 10 years ago, I was preparing to score this warhorse for the first time. As I watched it at home, without music, I kept wondering how anyone could take this movie seriously.

The one-dimensional characters. The cornpone humor. The slow pace. 

But at show time, was I ever surprised. We were blessed with a heavy turnout, and the crowd was with it right from the start. 

Really! They were hooting and hollering even during Griffith's moralistic introductory titles, laden as they are with long-outmoded Victorian sentiment.

And it never let up. Long sequences that I felt played at a glacial pace suddenly snapped to life. 

The missing ingredient, of course, was the audience. Griffith knew what he was doing: he knew how to tap into what is essentially mob psychology and engage a large group right from the start. And he knew how to keep everyone watching all the way through.

We may wear different clothes today, and have different gadgets, and be different in a hundred different ways. But we're still human, and in very elemental ways we respond just as humans have for thousands of years. 

Griffith understood that dynamic, and harnessed it to make pictures that would grab an audience's attention and then never let go. That was his big accomplishment!

Why? Because more than anyone in early cinema, I think, Griffith showed that movies could tell tales on a grand scale—tales that could be engineered to keep an audience spellbound for three hours at a time. 

See for yourself when I accompany 'Way Down East' on Thursday, Feb. 4 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. Part of the film was made close by, on the Connecticut River! Details and more information in the press release below.

Hope to see you there!

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Lillian Gish on the Connecticut River near White River Junction, Vt.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film classic 'Way Down East' at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Feb. 4

D.W. Griffith blockbuster starring Lillian Gish, filmed partly in New England, to be screened with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H. — The iconic image of actress Lillian Gish trapped on an ice floe and headed straight for a waterfall will once again fill the big screen when 'Way Down East' (1920) is revived on Thursday, Feb. 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.

The movie, a blockbuster melodrama directed by D.W. Griffith, is set in old-time rural New England, and was partly filmed on location in New Hampshire and Vermont. It stars Gish in an acclaimed performance as a wronged woman trying to make her way in an unforgiving world. Can she find love and redemption, or will she ride to her doom on the raging river's ice floes?

'Way Down East' 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.

In 'Way Down East,' Gish stars as a poor New England country girl who travels to Boston to visit her rich relatives in the hopes of getting financial help. While there, she's dazzled by upper class society and romanced by a rich womanizer (Lowell Sherman) who takes advantage of her innocence by tricking her into bed with a fake marriage ceremony.

Convinced she's found the husband of her dreams, Gish returns home to the country, only to be abandoned. She informs her faux husband she's pregnant; he orders her to get an abortion. Instead, Gish goes into exile to have the baby, finds herself persecuted for giving birth out of wedlock, and flees even further into the country to seek refuge. The film was noteworthy in its time for addressing such topics as abortion and women's rights.

Modern critics hail 'Way Down East' for Gish's performance, which continues to mesmerize audiences nearly a century after the film's release. "Gish provides an abject lesson in screen acting and brings home the importance and effectiveness of seeing a film in a theater with a crowd," wrote Paul Brenner on in 2007. "If you are not moved at the scene of Gish baptizing her dead baby, then you should check the obituaries of your local paper to see if you are listed."

The film also stars silent era heartthrob Richard Barthelmess. In the film's climax, Barthelmess must dash to rescue Gish from being carried away on the ice floes.

Much of the acclaimed ice floe sequence was filmed in March 1920 on location on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire and the White River in Vermont, as the winter pack ice was breaking up. No process shots or post-production special effects were available to filmmakers at the time, so Griffith and his crew had no choice but to stage and shoot it all on a real river, with the players out on the ice. To get the floes to break up and float down the river, Griffith's crew dynamited pack ice upstream.

Gish later said that she suffered frostbite by following director Griffith's command to always keep one hand in the water during the shooting.

Despite such hardships, 'Way Down East' cemented Gish's reputation as one of the silent era's major stars. Gish would continue to work in films and, later, television, until the 1980s. She died in 1993 at age 99.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis specializes in creating music that bridges the gap between an older film and the expectations of today's audiences. Using a digital synthesizer that recreates the texture of a full orchestra, he improvises scores in real time as a movie unfolds, so that the music for no two screenings is the same.

"It's kind of a high wire act, but it helps create an emotional energy that's part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "It's easier to follow the emotional line of the movie and the audience's reaction when I'm able to follow what's on screen, rather than be buried in sheet music," he said.

Because silent films were designed to be shown to large audiences in theaters with live music, the best way to experience them is to recreate the conditions in which they were first shown, Rapsis said.

"Films such as 'Way Down East' were created to be shown on the big screen to large audiences as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, silent films come to life in the way their makers intended. Not only are they entertaining, but they give today's audiences a chance to understand what caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

'Way Down East' was based on a popular stage drama, for which director Griffith paid the then-astounding sum of $175,000 to turn into a movie. The picture proved to be a huge moneymaker, taking in $4.5 million, making it the fourth-highest grossing movie of the silent film era. 'Way Down East' would be the last of Griffith's great blockbusters; tastes changed as the 1920s rolled on and Griffith's Victorian style fell out of favor. Receipts from 'Way Down East' kept Griffith's studio afloat during a subsequent series of box office flops.

"This picture was a monster hit when it was released," Rapsis said, "and it still holds up well today. As a melodrama, it's a great film for an audience to cheer on the good folks and boo and hiss the bad guys. But there's an additional level of interest now because the film captured a way of life that's long since disappeared."

'Way Down East' will be shown on Thursday, Feb. 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 or call (603) 536-2551.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Calling all kids! 'Peter Pan' (1924) with live music on Sunday, 1/24 at Wilton's Town Hall Theatre

Original promotional art for 'Peter Pan' (1924). 

Next up: the original silent film version of 'Peter Pan' (1924), which we're showing with live music on Sunday, Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

I'm big on this one for people (especially families with kids) who aren't regular silent film fans because it makes a great impression. In fact, I vividly recall the first time I experienced it. 

It was in March 2000, and the first time I attended the Kansas Silent Film Festival. I was there to see (and hear) the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra perform, and used a Delta flight pass to journey out there.

'Peter Pan' was the first film they accompanied. Like most people, I had no idea there was a silent film version, and it turned out to be a revelation. From the moment Nana the family St. Bernard came to life in the opening scene, I was a believer.

I've gone back to Kansas every year since, eventually joining their stable of accompanists once I started doing music for silent film screenings. 

So, in an update from the present, I'm sad to report that just yesterday we learned that this year's Kansas festival has been cancelled due to coronavirus. 

Some online presentations might be staged this year to tide us over. But we'll need to wait until February of 2022 for the next Kansas Silent Film Festival, which by default will now become the 25th "annual."

However, our screening of 'Peter Pan' next Sunday is a go. (That's Betty Bronson in the lead role: she was handpicked by author J.M. Barrie to play the part.) 

Our ability to show films during an ongoing pandemic is thanks largely to the Town Hall Theatre's ability to comply with all Covid-19 public health recommendations to keep patrons safe. It's mostly common sense: masks on until seated, social distancing, frequent cleaning and hand sanitizing. 

We've been doing silent films with live music since the theater reopened last July, with no problems so far.

In fact, we've just completed a week-long series, 'The Storytellers,' which included screenings of five big features five days in a row. That's a lot of music, but I enjoy the occasional multi-day marathon as it enables me to get deeply in the accompaniment zone. 

For some reason, after maybe the third day of a run of continuous shows, I begin to be capable of things that I can't explain. Music seems to flow directly from the keyboard—there's a fluency that's otherwise not present. Maybe it's fatigue-induced.

Well, with no screenings this coming week, I should be well rested for 'Peter Pan' on Sunday, Jan. 24. Also, I'm pleased to report that Jordan Rich of WBZ-AM 1030, the all-news radio station in Boston, recently recorded a "New England Weekend" segment promoting our screening. 

You can listen to it here: New England Weekend

For more information and details, check out the press release below. Hope to see all you kids (and kids at heart) who won't grow up on Sunday, Jan. 24 at the Town Hall Theater!

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For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • 

Silent film version of 'Peter Pan' at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 24

Original big-screen adaptation of magical fantasy classic to be shown with live musical score

WILTON, N.H.—It was the film that introduced movie-goers to visions of flying children, magical fairies, human-like animals and menacing pirates.

It was the original silent film adaptation of 'Peter Pan,' a picture personally supervised by author J.M. Barrie. The film was a major hit when released in 1924, with audiences eager to get their first big-screen look at the wonders of Neverland.

Movie fans can see for themselves when the first 'Peter Pan' (1924) is screened on Sunday, Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

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

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

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines, including reduced seating capacity.

Thought lost for many years, and overshadowed by more recent adaptations, the original silent 'Peter Pan' maintains its freshness and charm nearly a century after its original release.

In the story, first presented as a stage play in 1904, three children in London are visited one night by Peter Pan, a youth in search of his shadow. Pan shows his new friends how to fly, and then convinces them to join him in a journey to Neverland.

There they encounter Indians, mermaids, and a band of pirates whose leader, Captain Hook, is Pan's sworn enemy. The children are captured by Hook and taken prisoner aboard his pirate ship, setting the stage for an epic battle, the outcome of which will determine if the children may return home.

Though the Peter Pan story is well-known today due to subsequent adaptations (and also merchandising that includes a ubiquitous brand of peanut butter), the tale was new when Hollywood first brought it to film in the early 1920s.

In England, author Barrie gave his blessing to the first-ever screen adaptation, though he retained control over casting and insisted that any written titles in the film be taken directly from his own text.

After a major talent search, Barrie settled on unknown 18-year-old actress Betty Bronson for the title role, and filming began in 1924. The role of Captain Hook was played by noted character actor Ernest Torrence, who invented the now-iconic villainous pirate persona that would become a Hollywood legend.

The film's highlights include special effects that maintain their ability to dazzle even today. The film's memorable images include a group of mermaids entering the sea, a miniature Tinkerbell interacting with full-sized children and adults, and a pirate ship lifting out of the water and taking flight.

'Peter Pan' also includes a cast of animal characters played by humans in costume, including the family dog Nana and an alligator who serves as Hook's nemesis, lending the film a magical quality.

After the film's release, no copies of the original 'Peter Pan' were known to exist, and for many years the film was regarded as lost. However, in the 1950s a single surviving print turned up in the George Eastman Archives in Rochester, N.Y., from which all copies today have descended.

The show also includes Chapter 2 of "Officer 444" (1926), a weekly serial in which Officer 444 pursues "The Frog," a criminal mastermind with plans to take over the world. Subsequent chapters will be shown at future Town Hall Theatre silent film screenings.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis specializes in creating live musical scores for films made prior to the introduction of recorded sound. Based in New Hampshire, Rapsis specializes in improvising music for silent film screenings at venues ranging from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in San Francisco, Calif.

Rapsis creates film scores in real time, as a movie is running, using a digital synthesizer to reproduce the texture of a full orchestra. He averages about 100 performances per year, and has created music for more than 300 different silent feature films.

"Improvising a movie score is a bit of a high wire act, but it can result in music that fits a film's mood and action better than anything that can be written down in advance," Rapsis said. "It also lends a sense of excitement and adventure to the screening, as no two performances are exactly alike."

'Peter Pan' is the latest in the Town Hall Theatre's series of silent films with live music.

The series gives movie-goers a chance to rediscover the experience of silent cinema presented as it was intended: on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put all the original elements together, the films of early Hollywood still come to life," said Rapsis. "These are the films that caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

Upcoming programs include:

• Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021, 2 p.m.: "The Freshman" (1925). In honor of Super Bowl Sunday, Harold Lloyd's blockbuster hit comedy about a college boy who dreams of success on the gridiron. One of Lloyd's all-time best!

• Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021, 2 p.m.: "Seventh Heaven" (1927) Celebrate Valentine's Day with Frank Borzage's legendary tale of romance on the eve of World War I. Leading lady Janet Gaynor won the very first Academy Award for Best Actress for his work in this moving, emotional tribute to the timeless power of love.

‘Peter Pan’ (1924) will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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

Friday, January 15, 2021

Tonight! Final round of 'The Storytellers' with Buster Keaton starring in 'The Saphead' (1920)

Buster returns from the millinery in 'The Saphead' (1920).

Hi everyone! I feel like I'm reporting from between rounds in a title fight going the distance.

We're nearly through our week-long 'Story Tellers' series at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

And it's been an endurance test because three of the pictures are each about three hours: on Tuesday, it was Griffith's 'Intolerance' (1916); an Wednesday, it was Lang's 'The Spiders' (1919), and last night it was another three-hour Griffith, 'Way Down East' (1920).

So today I feel like I'm entering the later stages of a 12-round bout with Rocky Graziano. But like Jake LaMotta, I'll take the hits and intend to keep on coming.

Fortunately, tonight we finish with 'The Saphead' (1920), a much lighter (and shorter!) movie from 1920 that has the distinction of being the first starring feature role of a very young Buster Keaton.

I included 'The Saphead' as a kind of dessert to the series, and also because it's a good example of how many early full-length pictures were stories adapted from the stage. 

In this case, it was a Wall Street comedy called 'The New Henrietta' that originally starred Douglas Fairbanks Sr. when produced on stage in 1913. Fairbanks also starred in an earlier film version, 'The Lamb' (1915).

But when it was time for a remake retitled 'The Saphead,' Fairbanks wasn't available. To take his role, he suggested Buster Keaton, who until that time had been Fatty Arbuckle's understudy in slapstick mayhem.

Buster turned in a superbly understated performance, quite different from his over-the-top physical comedy antics with Arbuckle. It marked the real start of his career as an independent performer, which would lead to his series of starring features in the 1920s. 

Because it's not an official "Keaton" film, however, it's not screened as often as the others. So here's your chance to see it as intended—on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

And that's where you come in. (Actually, the door is where you come in.) Please join us for this evening's finale to 'The Storytellers.' With silent film—and especially with silent comedy—the more, the merrier!


Saturday, January 9, 2021

Next week: 'The Storytellers,' five days of film that pioneered the full-length motion picture

Showing on Tuesday, Jan. 12: D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance' (1916).

I've known of D.W. Griffith as 'The Father of Film' since at least the 1970s, when I'd eagerly await my monthly Blackhawk Films catalog in the mail.

But for many years, I just didn't understand his work. The films—either the short dramas for Biograph, or the longer features—either weren't interesting, or left me cold. 

Okay, I thought: Griffith is the father of film. But as a teenager, I'd rather run my Super-8 print of Keaton's 'Cops' (1922) for the 80th time rather than sit through 'Way Down East' (1920), the legendary Griffith melodrama. (That's Lillian Gish on the ice floes below, at the climax of 'Way Down East.')

My first sense of what I was missing, however, came thanks to the Kansas Silent Film Festival, which I began attending back in 2000. Every year, they'd run at least one Griffith title (usually one of the Biograph shorts) in honor of his role as an industry pioneer.

So I got to see some of Griffith's work on the big screen, with an audience, and with live music—in other words, the way it was intended to be shown. And I found that under those circumstances, the Griffith films had a certain elemental quality that I hadn't picked up on until then.

By elemental, I mean they could hold a crowd. Through simple, basic stories, they got your attention quickly, and then held it.

Later, when I began accompanying silent film programs, I found a curious thing: the Griffith films—even the famous ones regarding as classics—seemed really lame when viewed in isolation to prepare for a screening. 

But in front of an audience in a theater, they leaped to life. People would hoot and holler at what they saw. They'd stamp their feet, totally engaged in what they were seeing unfold in front of them.

As I learned more about Griffith's background and career, I realized what as going on. Griffith was the father of film, yes, but not for technical innovations such as close-ups and such. It was because of his ability to lay out a story to get an audience's attention right away, and then keep them on the edge of their seats.

That, as demonstrated more or less throughout his work, I feel was Griffith's most valuable contribution to cinema. He showed how full-length feature films could hold an audience's attention throughout an entire evening-long narrative journey.

And he did it so well that the films still work today, if you can show them as intended. 

The big "Ancient Babylon" set for Griffith's 'Intolerance.'

I remember once when we ran 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), Griffith's incredibly racist blockbuster set in post-Civil War America. The film climaxes with the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue,  and I remember of friend of mine saying afterwards, "You're like, 'Yes, ride to the rescue,' and then 'But no, it's the Klan!' " Such was (and is) the elemental narrative power of Griffith's tales.

Of course this is evident only if one experiences the films as intended, of which there are precious few opportunities these days. But not next week, when the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. presents 'The Storytellers,' a five-day festival of early films that still keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

The festival includes two big Griffith films: 'Intolerance' (1916) and 'Way Down East' (1920). We're also running two early films made in Germany by Fritz Lang: 'Destiny' (1921) and 'The Spiders' (1919).

For details, check out this info sheet for the series. 

Or you can peruse the press release below. Either way, I hope you'll join us for some or all of the series. It's a rare chance to see some terrific cinema that still holds up well if you experience it as intended—in a theater, with live music, and with an audience.

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A scene from Fritz Lang's 'Destiny' (1921), being shown Monday, Jan. 11.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Week-long film series at Town Hall Theatre turns spotlight on early directors, great stories

'The Storytellers,' Jan. 11-15, highlights talent of D.W. Griffith, Fritz Lang to mesmerize movie audiences with terrific tales

WILTON, N.H.—Everyone loves a good story.

In early cinema, a talent for story-telling was a key factor in popularizing feature-length movies.

Pioneering directors such as D.W. Griffith in the U.S. and Fritz Lang in Germany helped transform the motion picture from a sideshow novelty into a major art form—and a big business.

See for yourself when the Town Hall Theatre presents a week-long series, 'The Storytellers,' designed to highlight filmmakers who told tales that kept early movie-goers coming back for more.

With programs every evening from Monday, Jan. 11 to Friday, Jan. 15, 'The Storytellers' will showcase five spectacular full-length movies that helped build the audience for feature films.

Two are directed by Griffith: the mega-epic 'Intolerance' (1916) and the melodrama 'Way Down East' (1920). Two are from Lang: the afterlife drama 'Destiny' (1921) and action-adventure film 'The Spiders' (1919).

Although produced in Germany, the Lang films will be shown with titles translated into English.

The series finishes with Wall Street comedy 'The Saphead' (1920), the first feature-length film starring Buster Keaton. (There's a poster at right, although without Buster in it.)

All shows in 'The Storytellers' begin each night at 7:30 p.m. Each screening will be accompanied by live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician.

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

The Town Hall Theatre ordinarily programs the latest first-run feature films. But the ongoing pandemic, plus Hollywood's resistance to releasing new material to theaters, has prompted the highly regarded venue to focus on alternative programming.

The aim of 'The Storytellers' is to highlight a factor in the rapid growth of the movie business that's often overlooked: the power of the narrative.

Early directors such as D.W. Griffith and Fritz Lang are often noted for their technical innovations or sense of visual design, which helped establish the basic grammar of cinema.

But another major factor in audiences returning for more was the story itself.

"In early cinema, the best directors had a knack for laying out a story that could keep people on their edges of their seats for an entire evening," Rapsis said. 

"Up until the mid 1910s, most movies were 10 or 20 minutes long," Rapsis said. "Griffith and Lang were among the directors who led the way to feature-length films, and their stories were the foundation of their success."

'The Storytellers' aims to highlight this enduring quality of the tales that brought cinema from a carnival sideshow attraction to an art form that would dominate the 20th century.

A scene from Fritz Lang's action-adventure 'The Spiders' (1919).

"The films were so well built with audience reaction in mind that they still work when shown as intended: on the big screen, with live music, and in a darkened theatre with other people joining in a shared experience," Rapsis said.

Among early directors, Griffith was uniquely positioned to understand how to engage an audience for an evening of story-telling.

Prior to his motion picture work, Griffith spent two decades directing stage melodramas in small towns across the U.S., where keeping an audience occupied was an essential skill.

"In Griffith's stage experience, if you didn't hook the crowd right away, and keep them hooked, they'd throw things at you—or worse," Rapsis said.

This experience honed his story-telling skills, which became essential when creating movies in studios where no audience was present during the filming and editing.

"Griffith knew in his bones how large crowds would react to a story, and built that into his most popular films," Rapsis said.

"His ability to hold an audience was based on a profound understanding of human nature, and how people react, especially when part of a crowd," Rapsis said. "Because of this, his films still work today when presented as intended, which we'll do at the Town Hall Theatre."

Lang exploited a similar knack for story-telling to expand the scope of full-length movies in his native Germany.

Lang was among the first to exploit the ability of cinema to take viewers to exotic places or to travel in time. This helped him craft stories that showed early audiences the power of cinema. 

A scene from Lang's 'Destiny' (1921), screening on Monday, Jan. 11.

'The Storytellers' will focus on five early feature films. It's a rare chance to experience them as intended: on the big screen, with live music, and in a darkened theater with an audience present:

• Monday, Jan. 11 at 7:30 p.m.: Fritz Lang's 'Destiny' (1921). Years before his classic 'Metropolis,' German director Fritz Lang brought this ground-breaking expressionist fantasy to the big screen. It's a powerful tale in which human lives are each represented by a candle, and a figure representing 'Death' grants a woman three chances to rescue her lover from a premature demise.

• Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 7:30 p.m.: D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance' (1916). D.W. Griffith's early blockbuster about man's inhumanity to man weaves together four stories spanning four eras of civilization. Filmed on a vast scale, setting a new standard for Hollywood extravagance, and new levels of editing fluency in pulling together four story climaxes simultaneously. A movie made for the big screen.

• Wednesday, Jan. 13 at 7:30 p.m.: Fritz Lang's 'Spiders' (1919). Early Lang opus that anticipates Indiana Jones by three generations. An intrepid explorer looking for an Incan diamond must stay ahead of a criminal syndicate known as 'The Spiders,' which seeks it for nefarious purposes.

• Thursday, Jan. 14 at 7:30 p.m.: Griffith's 'Way Down East' (1920). One of the most popular films of the silent era features Lillian Gish as a wronged woman in old-time New England who can't escape her past. Still-thrilling climax on ice floes heading towards the falls was filmed on location on the Connecticut River.

• Friday, Jan. 15 at 7:30 p.m.: Buster Keaton in 'The Saphead' (1920). Buster Keaton's debut in a feature-length picture, although not a Keaton film. Rather, a stage adaptation in which the comedian was hired to play a role originated by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. A rare chance to see this seldom-screened landmark picture on the big screen.

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines, including reduced seating capacity.

For complete information about safety protocols, visit

'The Storytellers,' a five-day series of early motion pictures from directors D.W. Griffith and Fritz Lang, will run from Monday, Jan. 11 through Friday, Jan. 15 at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Screenings start at 7:30 p.m.; live music will accompany each film. Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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

Thursday, January 7, 2021

We all could use a laugh about now. Soooo... Buster Keaton to the rescue on Sunday, 1/10

Original poster art for 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

Considering the news this week, I'm glad this weekend's silent film program is a comedy. At this point, we could all use a laugh.

And what a comedy! It's Buster Keaton's great family feud feature 'Our Hospitality' (1923), which I'm accompanying on Sunday, Jan. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater in Wilton, N.H. 

An incredible film by any measure, 'Our Hospitality' is even more astonishing when you consider it was Keaton's first attempt to create a full-length motion picture spotlighting his character and his style of comedy.

Prior to this, Keaton was turning out short comedies with one emphasis: gags, gag, and more gags. Anything for a laugh! Story and character were often incidental, if present at all.

But all that changed with 'Our Hospitality.' Keaton, who never went to film school (because there weren't any then), instinctively knew he had to take a completely different approach to create a longer movie that would hold an audience for more than an hour.

More story, characters with real relationships, and a compelling setting. 'Our Hospitality' has all of this.

Keaton further pushed the envelope by making it a period piece: the story takes place in the 1830s, with appropriate costumes and settings and props. 

And yet he still got laughs—perhaps deeper, most satisfying laughs because the humor was often driven by the characters and their relationships, as well as the authentic period ambiance. 

Perhaps most surprising: the picture opens with a prologue that's deadly serious. Pretty daring for a comedian making his first feature film! But Keaton and his team understood that by setting the table this way, the comedy feast to come would prove all the more tastier.

Wow—can you tell I skipped dinner this evening?

Buster Keaton is shown the way in 'Our Hospitality.'

A lot more about Sunday's screening is in the press release pasted in below. But I hope you'll join us as we kick off another year of silent film with live music at the Town Hall Theatre.

As an added attraction, we're also running Chapter 1 of 'Officer 444,' a serialized police drama released in 1926 in 10 thrilling installments. 

The serial was produced by "Goodwill Pictures," and apparently the name "Goodwill" had the same connotations then as new,  meaning bargain basement.

Thenceforth, each silent film program at the Town Hall Theatre will open with another exciting episode of "Officer 444." At the rate of two shows per month, we'll get to the grand finale around Memorial Day, provided the theater stays open.

And before sending you to press release land, let me plug 'The Storytellers.' It's a week-long series of silent features with live music (because I'm a masochist) starting Monday, Jan. 11. 

Each night that week, we'll explore a different silent feature chosen for its ability to keep an audience on the edge of its seat, with live music from me. 

Films include D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance' (1916) and 'Way Down East (1921), and Fritz Lang's 'Destiny' (1921) and 'The Spiders' (1919). More details coming soon to a silent film blog near you!

For now, hope to see you at Sunday's screening of 'Our Hospitality.' Buster may never smile on screen, but his timeless routines sure prompt a lot of laughter in the theater.

 *   *   *

Buster Keaton and co-star in 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton stars in 'Our Hospitality' on Sunday, Jan. 10 at Town Hall Theatre

Classic feature-length silent comedy to be screened on the big screen with live music

WILTON, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face."

But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s, and remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Our Hospitality' (1923), one of Keaton's landmark features, at the Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 10 at 2 p.m.

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

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

'Our Hospitality,' a period comedy set in the 1830s, tells the story of a young man (Keaton) raised in New York City but unknowingly at the center of a long-running backwoods family feud.

Highlights of the picture include Keaton's extended journey on a vintage train of the era, as well as a climatic river rescue scene.

Keaton in 'Our Hospitality' with his wife, Natalie Talmadge.

The film stars Keaton's then-wife, Natalie Talmadge, as his on-screen love interest; their first child, newborn James Talmadge Keaton, makes a cameo appearance, playing Buster as an infant. Keaton's father also plays a role in the film.

'Our Hospitality' is part of the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series, which aims to show early movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score for 'Our Hospitality.'

"Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life," he said.

The show also includes Chapter 1 of "Officer 444" (1926), a weekly serial in which Officer 444 pursues "The Frog," a criminal mastermind with plans to take over the world. Subsequent chapters will be shown at future Town Hall Theatre silent film screenings.    

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard him 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."

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

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

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

In 1923, Keaton made the leap into full-length films with 'Our Hospitality,' which proved popular enough for him to continue making features for the rest of the silent era.

Although not all of Keaton's films were box office successes, critics later expressed astonishment at the sudden leap Keaton made from short comedies to the complex story and technical demands required for full-length features.

‘Our Hospitality’ will be shown will be shown with live music on Sunday, Jan. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.  Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

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