Saturday, November 13, 2021

Tonight: Keaton's 'College' in Brandon, Vt., plus thoughts on 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse'

The Colonial Theatre's new 'Showroom" venue in Keene, N.H.

Tonight it's back to comedy, with Buster Keaton's 'College' (1927) at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center in Brandon, Vt. And just in time, as we could all use a laugh. 

More details in the press release below. For now, a few notes about two gargantuan back-to-back screenings I did music for in honor of Veterans Day.

On Wednesday, Nov. 10 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., I accompanied 'The Big Parade' (1925), King Vidor's sweeping drama following John Gilbert's journey through World War I. 

And then on Thursday, Nov. 11 in the new "Showroom" venue of the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H., I accompanied Rudolph Valentino tangoing his way through 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921), another sweeping drama.

That's a lot of sweeping in two days!

But that's the point: both films clock in at about 2½ hours, which gives an accompanist a lot of room to develop material and work with it as the film unfolds. To me, it's the best of all possible worlds: I get to lose myself in these long movies, so much so that the music ends up coming from I-know-not-where.

I've done both films before, and know their basic story arcs, but don't have any special material set aside for either of them. So in both cases, it was "sit down and see what happens."

What happened Wednesday with 'The Big Parade' was effective enough, I thought. 

The comic scenes in the first half of the film failed to produce much real laughter, which was disappointing. But for the big transition scene, where the troops are finally called to the front, I was able to use a "love theme" to whip up quite a bit of drama. 

Specifically, the tune featured a falling fifth, which I found relatively easy to transform to fit other needs: in this case, fear, anxiety, encroaching terror, and ultimately all the overwhelming emotions that cause Melisande to desperately keep holding onto the transport truck taking Johnny to the front. 

But the real high point for me came with 'Four Horsemen.' You have to get quite far into the film before meeting the minor but key character of 'Tchernoff' (played by Nigel De Brulier), a kind of mystic who introduces the idea of the 'Horsemen.'

That's Nigel De Brulier hovering up left in 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.' 

I hadn't thought about how to handle him, but when he first appears, it just came to me: four chords that I felt perfectly captured his role in the movie. It's really a quite simple cycle: e minor / C Major / F# Major / B Major. (And then back to e minor, if you want.) 

Depending on how you lay out the chords on the keyboard, the progression creates a sense of great power: either hidden and held back if played as a chorale, or great power unleashed if used to support energetic rhythms or busy melodic figurations swirling about.

But I found it most effective with more notes in the bass than is usually done: including small intervals in the right hand lent a kind of weight to each chord that really helped what was happening on screen, I thought. 

So that was a keeper! So simple, but I'm liable to completely forget about it after a few more films, so I wrote it down in a notebook as a reminder. (I certainly don't expect to use it tonight with Buster Keaton, or tomorrow for a screening of Harold Lloyd's domestic comedy 'Hot Water,' although perhaps it might work for Harold's mother-in-law.)

The Colonial's new 'Showroom' venue (so named because it housed an auto dealership in the 1920s) was a delight to work in. They've already scheduled some screenings in 2022 and I look forward to returning!

But before any of that happens, it's Buster Keaton tonight in Brandon, Vt. With the foliage mostly gone and the sun now setting well before 5 p.m., what better place to be than a movie screening with a lot of other people in need of a laugh. See you there!

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Buster Keaton on campus in 'College' (1927). 

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton comedy 'College' with live music on Saturday, 11/13 at Brandon Town Hall

2021 silent film series concludes with screening of timeless classic send-up of campus life

BRANDON, Vt.—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.

Acclaimed for their originality, clever visual gags, and amazing stunts, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'College' (1927), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Conant Square/Route 7 in Brandon, Vt.

The program will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with all proceeds supporting ongoing restoration of the Town Hall.

'College' follows the story of a hapless university bookworm (Keaton) forced to become a star athlete to win the attention of his dream girl. Can Buster complete the transformation in time to woo her from his rival? And along the way, can he also rescue the campus from sports-related shame?

The film was released in 1927, at the crest of a national fascination with college life. In addition to being a great Keaton comedy, 'College' offers vintage glimpses into what higher education was like nearly a century ago.

Buster Keaton and Anne Cornwall in 'College' (1927).

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some 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."

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts, including some spectacular examples in 'College.'

The screening is sponsored by local residents Lucy and Dick Rouse, Edward Loedding and Dorothy Leysath, Sam and Sharon Glaser, Peter and Louise Kelley, and Bar Harbor Bank and Trust.

In reviving Keaton's 'College,' the Brandon Town Hall to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the film. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'College' leap back to life in ways that audiences still find entertaining."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound. He improvises the complete score in real time during the screening.

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

Rapsis encouraged people unfamiliar with silent film to give 'College' a try.

"If you haven't seen a silent film the way it was intended to be shown, then you're missing a unique experience," Rapsis said. "At their best, silent films still do connect with cinema-goers. They retain a tremendous power to cast a spell, engage an audience, tap into elemental emotions, and provoke strong reactions."

Buster Keaton's 'College' (1927) will be screened on Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Conant Square/Route 7 in Brandon, Vt. The program will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with all proceeds supporting ongoing restoration of the Town Hall.

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