Tuesday, March 30, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, March 8, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us to silent film comedian Monty Banks. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General admission is $10 per person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire Windsor and Hobart Bosworth in 'Little Church.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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