Monday, April 26, 2021

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

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

Random thoughts as we slowly emerge from the ongoing pandemic. 

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

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

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

Sometimes I talk too much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, hope to see you there!

*  *  *

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

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rapsis, who uses original themes to improvise silent film scores, said great silent film dramas such as 'Sunrise' used their lack of dialogue to create stories that concentrated on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them in the 21st century, especially if they're presented as intended — with a live audience and live music.

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

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

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

Thursday, April 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   * 

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

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

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

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

GREENFIELD, Mass.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Spite Marriage' (1929), Keaton's last silent feature film, on Wednesday, April 21 at 7 p.m. at the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, 361 Main St., Greenfield, Mass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

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

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

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

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

To go exploring!

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

Wait—Douglas who?

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

Fame is fleeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

Rediscover the 'Man with a Million Dollar Smile'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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