Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Valentine's Day reactions to '7th Heaven' (1927); next up, music for 'Joan of Arc' (1928) on 2/21

The scene in '7th Heaven' that prompted shrieks from our audience.

Pleased to report a terrific Valentine's Day screening of '7th Heaven' (1927), the romantic drama starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. About 40 people turned out last Sunday for our show at the Town Hall Theatre, and you could tell the audience was buying it throughout. 

Near the beginning, people actually shrieked when Farrell held a troublesome character over an open manhole. And reactions continued all during the showing. It was a lively, engaged audience—an essential part of the silent film experience. So good job, everyone!

Just as the tagline for Farrell's character is "I'm a remarkable fellow," '7th Heaven' is a remarkable movie. Though nominally set in Paris on the eve of World War I, the idealized set design and the emphasis on big human emotions make it essentially timeless—a story that works today without any footnotes or explanations.

The only aspect that might seem a little incredible to a viewer today is Chico's spacious rooftop Paris flat, which doesn't have running water but which does have a generous floor plan and amazing views. How could a sewer worker afford such digs? But then again, it's a romantic fantasy. 

(Clarification: anyone working in the sewer business in a professional capacity cannot be paid enough for what they do.)

Chico's apartment: perhaps the positive side of all those French union strikes.

The thing about '7th Heaven' is that although it's a serious drama, it's also filled with comedy. This is important, not just because it's fun to laugh (and the comedy does still work), but somehow the mix humanizes everything, and I think is a key to getting an audience to truly care about the characters in under two hours—quite an amazing trick when you think about it.

In the music, I aimed to walk this tightrope, keeping things rooted in a sober frame but letting an audience know it's okay to chuckle at antics such as Chico's street-cleaning efforts or the dilapidated state of Eloise the Taxicab.

Although the film is set in Paris, I avoided trying to make the music sound stereotypically "French" in any way—no accordion licks, for instance. The film is visually French enough, and doesn't need any help from the soundtrack for atmosphere.

Rather, as a kind of sonic signature for Chico, I used a lilting 6/8 melody (to capture his optimism) that sounded more like a Scottish bag pipe tune. And for Diane, the weight was carried by a staccato four-note figure introduced when we see her being whipped by her sister.

Both of these figures, and some other tunes and chords I folded in to have material to work with, were able to be developed and transformed as the movie progressed. And after awhile, it became rather like an evolving Strauss tone poem, with scraps of tunes colliding into each other, all floating on a kind of surging harmonic sea, and all in service (I hope) to the movie's emotional line. 

When scoring a picture live, this state of mind doesn't always coalesce. But when it does, it takes on the feeling of a great shared adventure: one that encompasses those who made the film so long ago and also the audience sitting right behind me, with the music somehow creating the matrix that helps yesterday's stories reach out and touch today's hearts.

And when that happens, there's nothing like it. Creating the score in real time, with the movie playing overhead on the big screen, I get so absorbed, I don't know where the music comes from. At the same time, I'm absolutely present and engaged in the process of getting just the right music as a scene unfolds, keeping in mind what we've just done and what's coming next, and where we are in the overall story arc. Heaven, indeed!

In terms of screenings, what's next? The performance schedule continues to fill in, even during the ongoing pandemic.

This weekend, it's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) down in Natick, Mass. on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 4 p.m. Another serious film, and this time without comedy. But something about the Natick Center for the Arts brings out the dramatist in me—a year ago, we did 'Pandora's Box' (1929) there, and I felt I hit it out of the park. So I'm looking forward to it.

Please join us! Housed in a converted firehouse, the Natick venue is a great place to take in movies. And not far away is Zaftig's Deli, where I can get my reuben knish fix. (There's nothing better on a cold day! Or any day, really.)

See you there, although with one caveat for all Catholics: I've been informed by the Archdiocese of Boston that the screening does not count as going to Mass. In my book, however, a visit to Zaftig's Deli counts as a religious experience.

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Acclaimed stage actress Maria Falconetti in her only film performance, in 'Joan of Arc' (1928).


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

Rediscovered silent religious drama to be shown at Natick Center for the Arts on Sunday, Feb. 21

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), long thought lost until a copy was found in Norway, to be screened with live music

NATICK, Mass.—A ground-breaking European feature film—considered lost for decades until a copy surfaced in Oslo, Norway—will return to the big screen in February at the Center for the Arts in Natick.

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), a film noted for its innovative camera work and an acclaimed performance by actress Maria Falconetti, will be screened on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 4 p.m. as part of the Center for the Arts Silent Film Series.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

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

Directed by Denmark's Carl Theodor Dreyer, 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' chronicles the trial of Jeanne d'Arc on charges of heresy, and the efforts of her ecclesiastical jurists to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions.

The film’s courtroom scenes are shot almost exclusively in close-up, situating all the film’s meaning and drama in the slightest movements of its protagonist’s face.

Of Falconetti's performance in the title role, critic Pauline Kael wrote that her portrayal "may be the finest performance ever recorded on film." Her performance was ranked 26th in Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, the highest of any silent performance on the list. Falconetti, a legendary French stage actress, made only two films during her career.

The film has a history of controversy. The premiere of 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' in Paris on Oct. 25, 1928 was delayed because of the longtime efforts of many French nationalists, who objected to the fact that Dreyer was not Catholic and not French and to the then-rumored casting of Lillian Gish as Joan.

Before the premiere, several cuts were made by order of the Archbishop of Paris and by government censors. Dreyer had no say in these cuts and was angry about them. Later that year, a fire at UFA studios in Berlin destroyed the film's original negative and only a few copies of Dreyer's original cut of the film existed. 

Dreyer was able to patch together a new version of his original cut using alternate takes not initially used. This version was also destroyed in a lab fire in 1929. Over the years it became hard to find copies of Dreyer's second version and even harder to find copies of the original version of the film.

It was banned in Britain for its portrayal of crude English soldiers who mock and torment Joan in scenes that mirror biblical accounts of Christ's mocking at the hands of Roman soldiers. The Archbishop of Paris was also critical, demanding changes be made to the film.

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' was released near the end of the silent film era. About 80 percent of all movies made during that time are now lost due to decomposition, carelessness, fire, or neglect. But copies of "missing" films still occasionally turn up in archives and collections around the world, so researchers and archivists continue to make discoveries.

In the case of 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' the original version of the film was lost for decades after a fire destroyed the master negative. In 1981, an employee of the Kikemark Sykehus mental institution in Oslo, Norway found several film cans in a janitor's closet that were labeled 'The Passion of Joan of Arc.'

The cans were sent to the Norwegian Film Institute where they were first stored for three years until finally being examined. It was then discovered that the prints were of Dreyer's original cut of the film before government or church censorship had taken place. No records exist of the film being shipped to Oslo, but film historians believe that the then-director of the institution may have requested a special copy.

For 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' Rapsis will improvise a score from original musical material that he creates beforehand, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of a full orchestra.

"What I try to do," Rapsis said, "is create music that bridges the gap between a film that might be 90 or 100 years old, and the musical expectations of today's audiences."

'The Passion of Joan of Arc'  continues another season of silent films presented with live music at the Center for the Arts. The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and with an audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Rapsis, accompanist for the screenings.

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 4 p.m. at the Natick Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

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


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