Monday, January 17, 2022

Coming Sunday, 1/23: 'Nanook of the North' (1922), plus report from Detroit and Cleveland

'Spies' (1928), which received a memorable screening on Thursday, Jan. 13 at Cinema Detroit.

Just returned to home base in New Hampshire after a road-trip that took me 1,775 miles to performances in Detroit and Cleveland. 

Right now I feel more like a long-haul trucker than a silent film accompanist!

But the trip was well worth it, as each show was successful on several fronts.

Congrats to Cinema Detroit and the Cleveland Cinematheque for bringing their audiences the experience of silent cinema with live music.

And thanks to their audiences for coming out (during the recent pandemic spike, no less) in numbers healthy enough to make the whole effort worthwhile.

In Detroit, an audience of about 40 people turned out for Fritz Lang's espionage epic 'Spies' (1928), which just one person in the group had ever seen before. 

And that one person, a true Lang devotee, had never seen it in a theater with live music. 

So that's why he flew all the way from New York City just to experience it on the big screen, thus easily taking the "traveled the farthest" prize. (Not including the accompanist.)

Paula and Tim Guthat of Cinema Detroit pitched 'Spies' as an alternative to Lang's much-better-known 'Metropolis' (1927), which they feel has frequent screenings has rendered over-familiar, overshadowing his other work of the period.

I think they have a point. And Lang pulled through, with 'Spies' holding the screen for 2½ hours without a single person leaving. 

One reason for this is that 'Metropolis' and 'Spies' and another sprawling Lang late silent, 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), all share a common feature. 

Each is about very different things, but underneath they're all old-fashioned melodramas.

Yes! Despite their surface differences, each is driven by a pot-boiling page-turning barn-burner of a story. And like the D.W. Griffith epics, the narrative pulls the audience through. The story is structured so that you simply must keep watching. You can't help it. 

That's what happened last Thursday night (Jan. 13) at Cinema Detroit. You could tell—people were hooked. That, coupled with Lang's incredible visual story-telling, made for a memorable evening in a darkened theatre.

It went so well, the Guthats are thinking about screening another lesser-known Lang, such as the aforementioned 'Woman in the Moon.' I hope they do! 

Why? Not just because I would love to do music for it (although that's one reason), but also because the Lang pictures are great examples of films that really must be seen in a theatre with an audience for it to have its full effect. 

It was the same thing the next evening (Friday, Jan. 14) in Cleveland. 

Raymond Griffith shows off some dance steps in 'Hands Up!'

At the Cinematheque, a 35mm print of Raymond Griffith's 'Hands Up!' (1926) was greeted with continuous laughter right from the start. As with most silent comedy, being part of an audience that's enjoying the on-screen action gives you permission to laugh as well.

And if all goes well, you might just get that wonderful spontaneous combustion of laughter that's one of the great glories of the silent cinema, even today. 

And that's what we got at the Cinematheque. Once Griffith taught a tribe of Native Americans to forsake their wardance for the Charleston, there was no turning back. 

This was followed by a quieter but no less appreciative response for a screening of Ernst Lubitsch's 'The Marriage Circle' (1924), which I'd never accompanied before. 

In this case, I think audience members don't expect to find this kind of polished and sophisticated society comedy in silent pictures. For most people, silent comedy = Buster Keaton or the Keystone Cops.

But there it was! Long before Hollywood began cranking out so-called "screwball" comedies in the 1930s, it was producing polished society farces in quantity, starring the likes of Ronald Colman or (in 'The Marriage Circle') Adolphe Menjou. 

They just didn't have dialogue. But that didn't stop talented performers such as Colman or Menjou from saying all they needed via facial expressions, gestures, pantomine, and the artfully turned head or raised eyebrow. (And the occasional craftily-written intertitle.)

Both venues, by the way, were closed for 16 months (16 months!) starting in March 2020 at the pandemic's onset. Can you believe it?

That both endured the prolonged closure, and are now riding out the current surge with creative programming that includes silent pictures with live music, gives me a lot of confidence.

In an age where new options such as in-home streaming are gaining in popularity, I feel sure that as long as we have cinema, there will be an audience for motion pictures to be shown in a theater.

By the way, the reason I drove out there (rather than flew) is that for these performances I used my Korg digital synthesizer, which isn't exactly air-travel-friendly even with its sturdy (but monstrously heavy) carrying case.

And there's all the sound equipment and cabling I lug around. It's nothing I can't fit into my Subaru Forester with room to spare, but a LOT to send through the nation's air transport system. 

More to come, including a screening of 'Nanook of the North' later this month at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the film's release. 

The film is showing on Sunday, Jan. 23 at 2 p.m. More info in the press release below. 

And there will be cake! 

*  *  *

A vintage poster for the documentary 'Nanook of the North' (1922).


Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Pioneering documentary 'Nanook of the North' to screen at Wilton Town Hall Theatre

Ground-breaking silent film to be shown with live music on Sunday, Jan. 23 to celebrate 100th anniversary of release

WILTON, N.H.—It's hailed as one of the first films to show the potential of the movie camera to take audiences to distant lands.

It's 'Nanook of the North' (1922), a ground-breaking movie about life among Eskimos above the Arctic Circle, to be screened on Sunday, Jan. 23 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $10 per person to help cover expenses.

The classic silent documentary will be shown with live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Director Robert Flaherty’s film tells the story of Inuit hunter Nanook and his family as they struggle to survive in the harsh conditions of Canada’s Hudson Bay region.

Remarkably matter-of-fact in its depiction of the everyday struggle to stay alive in the Arctic hinterlands of Canada’s Hudson Bay, 'Nanook of the North' shows Flaherty’s interest in his Inuit subjects in each carefully framed shot.

'Nanook' was completed only after film from a previous expedition caught fire and was destroyed. Flaherty had to repeat his entire visit to the frozen north to reshoot the movie.

'Nanook' unfolds as a series of long takes interspersed by occasionally poetic intertitles, all of which serve to highlight seemingly mundane tasks required for survival in the frigid terrain.

Beyond its educational function, though, Flaherty’s profoundly empathetic intimacy with his subjects—the resilient, prodigious seal-and-walrus-hunter Nanook and his weathered clan—heightens what seems on the surface to be merely a dry informational pamphlet.

A scene from 'Nanook of the North' (1922).

To make the film, Flaherty built an ad-hoc film processing lab in the challenging Arctic conditions and trained his Inuit friends to be his technicians.

Immersed in the culture for over two years, Flaherty embraced the new art form as a way to show modern audiences that without all the complications and trappings of modern civilization, lives could be happily lived—even under nature’s harshest conditions.

Enormously popular when released in 1922, 'Nanook of the North' is a cinematic milestone that continues to enchant audiences.

In 1989, 'Nanook of the North' was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

The screening is part of the Town Hall Theatre's ongoing series honoring the 100th anniversary of significant motion pictures that debuted in 1922.

Programs will include all of 1922's five highest-grossing titles, each shown on the big screen with live music, as well as century-old oddities, short films, cartoons, and more.

"Putting these films back on the big screen is a great way to celebrate the 100th anniversaries of some terrific motion pictures," said Rapsis, the silent film accompanist who will create live music for all screenings.

"These are films that set the standard for Hollywood, and still retain their power to entertain, especially when shown in a theater with live music and an audience," Rapsis said.

Upcoming programs in the Town Hall's 100th anniversary series include:

• Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022 at 2 p.m.: Rudolph Valentino in 'Blood and Sand.' Film's 'Latin Lover' in his first starring role, as a sexy bullfighter in this 1922 romantic thriller.

• Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022 at 2 p.m.: 'When Knighthood was in Flower.' Marion Davies goes medieval in this epic big budget costume picture from 1922 that put her on the map as a top Hollywood star.

• Sunday, March 13, 2022 at 2 p.m.: Norma Talmadge in 'Smilin' Through.' In honor of St. Patrick's Day, a 1922 romantic drama set in the Emerald Isle.

• Sunday, March 27, 2022 at 2 p.m.: Douglas Fairbanks in 'Robin Hood.' Celebrate the 100th anniversary of this blockbuster adaptation. Massive sets, great action, and Doug Fairbanks in the lead made this the top grossing film of 1922!

• Sunday, April 3, 2022 at 2 p.m.: Chaney/Houdini Double Feature. In 'Flesh and Blood' (1922), escaped convict Lon Chaney hides out in Chinatown and plots revenge. In 'The Man From Beyond' (1922) illusionist Harry Houdini plays an Arctic adventurer frozen for 100 years!

• Sunday, April 17, 2022 at 2 p.m.: Emil Jannings in 'Othello' The Bard's immortal tragedy brought to the screen in this early German version. Silent Shakespeare in honor of the author's 458th birthday.

Following the screening of 'Nanook of the North,' cake will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

‘Nanook of the North' (1922) will be shown live music on Sunday, Jan. 23 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $10 per person to help defray expenses. For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit

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