Monday, September 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional screenings include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will provide music for all films in the series, improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

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

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

Talk about contrasts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But everyone needs to start somewhere. And one of Wyler's earliest efforts, the silent melodrama 'The Shakedown' (1929) for Universal Pictures, will be screened with live music on Thursday, Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'The Shakedown' (1929) will be shown on  Thursday, Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person general admission. Tickets are available online at flyingmonkeynh.com or at the door. For more information, call the Flying Monkey at (603) 536-2551.