Tuesday, October 12, 2021

For this Halloween, something old AND new: original music to accompany 'Dracula' (1931)

Ready for the downbeat: Bela Lugosi in 'Dracula' (1931), to be shown with live music by me on Sunday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre.

Most posts on this blog are about what's coming up next on the silent film docket. 

But today I'm skipping ahead all the way to month's end, to Sunday, Oct. 31. That's when I'm doing live music on Halloween night for the classic thriller 'Dracula' (1931). 

The film will be shown in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre, among the best places to see a movie anywhere. More details in the press release pasted in below.

But wait—isn't 'Dracula' a talking picture? With a soundtrack and everything?

Yes. So what am I doing making live music for it?

Well, the thing is, 'Dracula' was released with virtually no musical score. 

This often happened in the early days of talkies. If a film wasn't an actual musical, with singing and dancing on screen, studios would sometimes just not bother with musical underscoring.

After all, music had been left up to local musicians since movies began. Throughout the silent era, the studios regarded music as no different from popcorn: something best made right in the theater.

There were technical reasons for live music, of course. At the time, it wasn't easy to amplify a recording in a way that would work for a large theater. 

But it was also just good box office for music to be done locally, so it could reflect prevailing styles and tastes depending on the location and the theater's audience. 

During the silent era, if a director did use music, it was mostly to have it played on set, to create a mood or to establish a tempo for the performers. 

Which brings us to 'Dracula' and its almost total lack of music. Other than a snatch of Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake' ballet score at the beginning, and a brief scene in an opera house, it's music-less.

Universal released the picture in 1931 without a score, in part because the traditional of a recorded score wasn't fully established at that time, and also to save money on production costs.

This certainly didn't harm the film, which proved a box office hit right from the beginning.

But over the years, various attempts have been made to add music to the film. Most notably, Philip
Glass composed a score for string quartet in 1998, and the Kronos Quartet continues to tour with it to this day.

In my little world, I hadn't considered scoring 'Dracula' until recently, when I programmed a series of Tod Browning silent pictures at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. 

It's currently underway—last Sunday, we screened 'White Tiger' (1923), an entertaining crime drama starring Wallace Beery, Priscilla Dean, and Raymond Griffith.

Browning, who directed 'Dracula,' had a prolific career in the silent era, directing a vast catalog of twisted melodramas, including many of Lon Chaney's greatest titles.

So I had Browning on the brain when the Somerville Theatre proposed a screening of 'Dracula' for Halloween, with me doing live music.

I hadn't considered this before, as I specialize in the unique world of silent cinema. Plus who would dare follow in the musical footsteps of Philip Glass, one of the most remarkable and original musical voices of our time?

But I thought about it: Browning's 'Dracula,' although a talkie, displayed many of Browning's techniques honed over the years in silent cinema. Long stretches unfold with no dialogue at all—sequences where the visuals carried the picture, as they had to in the silent era. 

I decided it would be a worthwhile exercise to take my silent film scoring vocabulary and carry it forward to 'Dracula,' which, after all, was the product of one of the most distinctive silent-era directors.

I understand the Glass score (which I've deliberately avoided listening to since this project) runs pretty much throughout the movie, even during passages with dialogue, and works to create an overall texture.

As much as I admire Glass, my silent film accompaniment methods mean I'll take quite a different approach with 'Dracula.'

For one thing, the music won't be continuous. Instead, it will be broken into sections, and used only when I feel it enhances scenes as only music can. 

Yes, it will at time evoke a general mood. But it will also serve to indicate significant changes in the emotional temperature of the narrative, to add motion to scenes that would benefit from it, and do all the things music can. 

I also hope to preserve those moments where the silence worked so well to create the eerie other-worldly mood that's a big part of the original 'Dracula.'

Will it work? I hope you'll join me on Halloween night at the Somerville, and we'll all find out together! 

 *   *   *

Bela Lugosi as 'Dracula' entertains a friend in the catacombs of Carfax Abbey.


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

Halloween special: Lugosi's 'Dracula' on big screen in 35mm with new live score

Horror classic to be shown at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 31 for one screening only

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Do you dare spend Halloween braving 'Dracula' on the big screen?

That's the question at the Somerville Theatre, where the classic 1931 version of 'Dracula' will run for one showing only on Sunday, Oct. 31.

The movie, starring Bela Lugosi in the title role, will be shown using a 35mm film print from Universal Studios, which released the early horror classic in 1931.

Showtime is 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $15, with senior/student discounts. Tickets are available online at somervilletheatre.com or at the box office.

The screening will feature live music by Jeff Rapsis, the Somerville Theatre's silent film accompanist.

Although 'Dracula' is a talking picture, it was released with virtually no musical score, a common practice during the transition period from silent to sound pictures.

Rapsis will perform original music live during the screening using a digital keyboard to recreate the texture of a full orchestra.

Directed by Tod Browning (at right), 'Dracula' was a sensational box office success and has mesmerized movie audiences ever since with its eerie visuals and Lugosi's iconic performance.

The story opens in far-off Transylvania, where mysterious Count Dracula hypnotizes a British soldier, Renfield (Dwight Frye), into becoming his mindless slave.

Dracula then travels to England and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon the Count begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires.

When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to Dracula's never-ending bloodlust.

Located in Davis Square, the Somerville Theatre is one of the few first-run venues in the region committed to preserving the ability to screen movies using 35mm film prints.

"We feel it's important to show films on actual film when possible, the way classic movies were intended to be shown," said Ian Judge, creative director of the Somerville Theatre.

The Somerville recently reopened after a 17-month hiatus for the pandemic, during which significant renovations were made to the 1914 theater.

The Halloween screening of 'Dracula' will include live music by Jeff Rapsis, a local composer and performer who specializes in creating accompaniment for silent films.  

'Dracula' was released when Hollywood and movie theatres were still undergoing the transition from the silent era to pictures with synchronized sound and dialogue.

During the silent era, studios did not produce official scores for most films. Instead, accompaniment was left up to local musicians, and could vary greatly from one moviehouse to another.

When studios converted to talking pictures, the tradition of recording a musical score was not well established. In the case of 'Dracula,' Universal omitted music in part to save production costs.

As a result, after the opening credits, the 1931 'Dracula' contains no music except for a brief scene in an opera house.

In recent decades, composers have experimented with creating original music for the movie—most notably Philip Glass, who composed a score in 1998 for the Kronos string quartet.

Rapsis sees 'Dracula' as closely linked to the silent-era tradition of films shown with live music.

"Tod Browning was a prolific director of silent films, including many thrillers that anticipate 'Dracula,' " Rapsis said. "So even though 'Dracula' is a talking picture, Browning's filmmaking style is strongly rooted in the silent era, when it was assumed that local musicians would be important collaborators in a picture's effect on an audience."

Unlike the Glass score, which plays almost continuously during the movie, Rapsis will use music only in certain places where he feels it will either enhance the mood, heighten tension, or signify a change in the emotional line of the story.

Although 'Dracula' is not a silent film, there are definitely places where the silence speaks volumes and remains very effective," Rapsis said. "I hope to leave those intact, but enrich other parts of the film in the way that only music can."

Rapsis works largely by improvising as a film plays in the theater, in the tradition of theatre organists of the 1920s.

"There's something very special about the in-the-moment energy of a live improvised performance," Rapsis said. "It's never the same, and at its best it really can help a film connect with an audience and make the whole experience come together."

The original 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi will be shown in 35mm and with live music for one screening only on Halloween night, Sunday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Tickets are $15 per person, with discounts for students and seniors. For more info, call the theater at (617) 625-5700 or visit www.somervilletheatre.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

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