Tuesday, February 28, 2023

About this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival:
Give me more, please!

Denise Morrison at the podium during this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival, held Friday, Feb. 24 and Saturday, Feb. 25 at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.

Is it just me, or is the Kansas Silent Film Festival each time going by faster and faster?

Really—in recent years, it seems like things have just barely gotten started when the musicians get called up for the final end-of-show bows.

It didn't used to be that way. When I began attending the Kansas festival (on a whim back in 2000, and every year ever since), the event was confined to Saturdays only. But with one movie after another, the day seemed to stretch to infinity. 

Now it's two days (and last year was three!), but it still seems to zip by at a more rapid pace every time I head out to Topeka.

My theory about this: it has to do with how we perceive time as time itself goes by. 

As an example: remember those long endless summer days when you were a kid? Now, it seems we're no sooner done with Memorial Day when the Fourth of July whizzes past, and wait—there goes Labor Day, and it's over.

What happened? You got older, which changes your perception of time. When you were young, a single summer was a good percentage of your entire life experience. Now, many years later, a single summer is just one of many you've lived through, and proportionally a much smaller part of your overall life experience.

Familiarity may or may not breed contempt. But certainly breeds acceleration. 

In the same way, attending the Kansas Silent Festival two dozen times in a row means each time is proportionately a smaller part of the whole. And I think as the iterations accumulate, it has an effect on how each additional one is experienced.

And by and large, it seems to speed it up, even if the elapsed time is the same as always. A similar thing happens on a smaller scale when you drive somewhere new. Doesn't the drive home often seem shorter? 

Well, all of this is kind of a backhanded way of giving the Kansas Silent Film Festival a compliment. What I'm saying is, "It's over too fast. I wish there was more!"

And isn't it one of the eternal truths of show business to always leave them wanting more?

And so it is with me. I want more films with live accompaniment by the likes of Ben Model and Marvin Faulwell and Rodney Sauer and Bill Beningfield.

I want to play the White Concert Hall's gorgeous Steinway D concert grand (the best piano I play all year) more, especially as a long feature film unfolds on the big screen and I have time to develop and really work with material. 

I want to do more last-minute collaborations with percussionist Bob Keckeisen such as what we did this year with Douglas MacLean's 'Bell Boy 13,' working a sprightly tune with dingy bell punctuation into the score.

I want more ridiculously friendly Kansas hospitality. I want more breaded fried pickle spears at the Hanover Pancake House. (This year's serving is at right.) I want to browse local real estate listings and laugh at the inexpensive housing. (Compared to New England.) I want to buy more ties at Topeka's many fine thrift stores.

I want to sit in the dark and lose myself in films I've never seen before. (Even after nearly a quarter century — almost as long as the silent era itself — they always program titles I've not seen before.) I want to hear the big audience reaction, such a rare thing to behold these days but an essential element of the silent film experience.

I want to spend more time with the festival volunteers—people I see online all the time, but I actually see just once a year. 

I want to hog the attention of festival guests such as this year's Lara Gabrielle (at left), author of the recently published 'Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies,' which I am now devouring. It's a terrific book.

In this last case, I may get my wish, as Lara is open to coming out to New England for screenings/book signings if we can arrange it. Stay tuned! 

I also want more time to take photos. This time, I managed to only get a handful, in between watching films and chatting with people out front and at the cinema dinner and running on-stage to pound the horse teeth for yet another short comedy or drama. 

It's a good thing that several volunteers never fail to take a huge number of images during the festival. They'll get edited and posted pretty soon at the festival's Web site: http://www.kssilentfilmfest.org/

Am I being selfish to just want more, more, more? (Or just sounding like Daffy Duck?)

Well—lucky for me, and for all of us, they've already set the dates for the next one. Mark your calendars for Friday, Feb. 23 and Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. Only 361 days to go!

Seriously: thanks to everyone at the Kansas Silent Film Festival for making me, a once-a-year blow-in, feel like part of the family. 

There are just too many to name without the risk of leaving someone out. I thank you all for a creating a brief but important ritual that has become a mainstay of my annual calendar.

Which brings us back to where we started: at the end. I've come to think it's unfair, kind of, that only the musicians get to take a bow at the festival's conclusion. 

The dozens and dozens of people who work all year to make this festival possible should all take a bow, too. 

I know that would add time to the festival...but with it flying by so fast, that would suit me just fine!

And in a final nod to time flying, how about something unexpected? I discovered that the Hanover Pancake House had just taken on board its first-ever robotic server. Check out the video:

Thursday, February 23, 2023

From the Kansas Silent Film Festival to gigs at Harvard University, Cinema Ritrovato, and beyond

The Carpenter Center at Harvard University, where I accompanied 'Man With a Movie Camera' (1928) in the basement lecture hall/theater.

Well, at the risk of jinxing it all for us, I'm ready to declare the pandemic officially over.

Why? Because in recent weeks, I've received requests to accompany silent films in the last two places that had suspended activities starting in March 2020, and only now are they resuming.

So this past Tuesday, I went down to the Harvard Film Archive for the first time in four years to do music—in this case for a class screening of Dziga Vertov's 'Man With a Movie Camera' (1928).

And in early March, I'll return to the University of New Hampshire for the first time since the pandemic. On Tuesday, March 7, I'll do music for a film class screening of 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920) at the UNH-Manchester campus (where I used to teach).

And in late March (the date isn't yet set), I'll accompany silent films at the university's main campus in Durham, N.H. for the annual appearance of the travelling 'Cinema Ritrovato' festival of restored films.

In retrospect, the pandemic caused only about four months of total inactivity before a few venues began showing film again in the summer of 2020. 

Since then, it's a been a long, slow climb to back to normal, with some new places being added to the roster along the way, including Epsilon Spires in Brattleboro, Vt., the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport, R.I., and the Greenfield Garden Cinema in Greenfield, Mass.

And then there are long-established traditions, including the annual Kansas Silent Film Festival, the latest edition of which starts...tomorrow! Yes, the 2023 version takes place on Friday, Feb. 24 and Saturday, Feb. 25 at Washburn University in Topeka.

I've attended every Kansas festival since 2000, making this my 24th year in a row.  What keeps me coming back are the people (both with the festival and the general public), the chance to see big films with big audiences, and also the chance to hear some of the best silent film accompanists in the business do their stuff.

It was attending this festival back at the turn of the century that first pointed me in the direction of accompanying silent films. I'll never forget hearing the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra for the first time there, doing music for Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928) and for 'Peter Pan' (1924).

Continued attendance in Kansas was one reason I began accompanying films myself in 2006, and which I found was something I could do. (Some people go to Aruba in February. I go to Topeka.) 

The basement lecture hall for Harvard University's Carpenter Center, which doubles as the screening room for the Harvard Film Archive, where I accompanied 'Man With A Movie Camera' (1928) last Tuesday evening.

Today, I do music for about 120 silent film screenings per year, in places ranging from junior high school all-purpose rooms to Harvard University.  Accompanying films, and creating music to help keep silent-era films before the public, has become a big thing for me. It's my primary creative outlet, other than stilt-walking. (Just kidding. There's nothing creative about stilt-walking. It's all data processing.)

So it's always a pleasure to head out to Kansas each February, as I feel it's like returning to my roots, at least in terms of music and film. As someone who once had aspirations to pursue a career in music (which I didn't), I'm grateful for how the Kansas festival showed me a way to bring out the music I had in me after all.

I'll be thinking of that as I once again make my way to the Sunflower State and a weekend of silent film and live music. Hope to see you there!

Me at the keyboard in Kansas—not in Topeka, but at the Keaton Festival in Iola, Kansas. Photo by  Steve Friedman.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

A few words about films I've never accompanied before, including 'My Best Girl,' today at 2 p.m.

Beneath the marquee this week of the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

The above photo marks probably the first time the William Haines film 'The Smart Set' has been on a marquee since its 1928 release.

And that's kinda too bad, because it turns out 'The Smart Set' is a really fun picture—a slickly made late MGM silent set in the rarefied world of competitive polo.

Yes, polo—the sport where the players ride horses and use oversized mallets to knock balls around. 

Last Wednesday's audience of about 50 people thoroughly enjoyed this light-hearted romp, with star William Haines winning special plaudits for his energetic performance as a conceited-but-redeemable polo player. 

So put that one in the "win" column!

In selecting films to accompany, I make it a point to seek out titles that sound promising but which never get screened. It's worth giving them a chance. You can never tell if a silent film works until you run it in its natural environment: in front of an audience.

Some are duds. But more often than not (such as with 'The Smart Set'), the pictures come to life in a way that continues to surprise me. 

Looking at a film at home by myself, I'll think, "There's no way an audience will buy this." But shown on the big screen with live music and in front of an audience, the movie snaps back to life.

They knew what they were doing. And by and large, these are the films that caused people to first fall in love with the movies. And people wouldn't fall in love with junk.

And this searching-out-rarely-screened titles helps stretch my instincts as a silent film accompanist. I've been doing this for more than 15 years now, and it wouldn't be nearly as interesting if there weren't "new" films to continue to discover. 

I actually keep track of how many different feature films I've scored on this blog. Check it out. I'm getting close to 400, and there's no end in sight of old movies that are new to me—and most of you, too.

Well, there's another first-timer (for me, anyway) coming up this afternoon: Mary Pickford's 'My Best Girl' (1927), a romantic comedy that co-stars Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, who would later become Mr. Mary Pickford after her marriage with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. broke up.

(I can't explain why, but I have always been captivated by Pickford's nickname for Doug: "Duber.")

I have high hopes for this one, of course, as Mary Pickford was pretty much the gold standard for successful film production throughout the silent era. 

We'll see. I encourage you to join in the fun, which starts today at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St. in Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

I don't have a press release for this one. Instead, how about this quote from Pickford biographer Jeffrey Vance?

"What makes My Best Girl special is that it captures the miracle of two people falling in love with each other as their characters do. It is challenging to capture genuine emotion on a cold piece of celluloid, but falling in love is beautifully immortalized in My Best Girl."

So that makes it two Jeffs in a row urging you to check out "My Best Girl." So see you this afternoon in a darkened theater!

Charles 'Buddy' Rogers and Mary Pickford in 'My Best Girl' (1927).

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Up next: William Haines plays polo in 'The Smart Set' (1928) on Wednesday, 2/15 in Plymouth, N.H.

In front of the Jane Pickens Theater last Saturday in Newport, R.I., where I accompanied 'The Temptress' (1926) starring Greta Garbo.

I'm Number 8! I'm Number 8!

Really. I just came across a recent list of the top 25 silent film blogs, and was totally surprised to find that this here blog came in as No. 8.


Yes. I'm positioned right between internationally famous silent film accompanist Ben Model (at #7) and internationally famous silent film location sleuth John Bengtson (#9). 

Wow! Pretty amazing company. Check it out for yourself: https://blog.feedspot.com/silent_movies_blogs/

What's going on, of course, is that the list seems to be one of many at this particular site that's assembled by an algorithm, and which then makes the rounds as a sort of clickbait.

Today it's the top 25 silent film blogs. Tomorrow it might be the top 25 blogs about serial killers. 

Wonder what number I'll turn up on that list?

Before we're likely to find out, I'm heading up to the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., where tonight I'll accompany a silent film set in the high-stakes world of competitive polo.

Yes, polo! The film is 'The Smart Set' (1928), an MGM romantic comedy starring William Haines and Alice Day. I've never done music for it, and I'm curious to see what kind of audience reaction it gets.

And that's where you come in. Join us this evening for a rarely-screened chestnut from the MGM vault that gives you an idea of what the upper class were up to just before the Great Depression.

Showtime is 6:30 p.m. Lots more info in the press release below:

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A vintage lobby card promoting 'The Smart Set' (1928).

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

The lost world of 1920s privilege, ponies and polo captured in MGM's 'The Smart Set'

Romantic comedy featuring silent-era superstar William Haines to be screened with live music on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at Flying Monkey

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—Get ready to ride in a romantic comedy set in the rarefied world of 1920s championship polo.

That's the setting of 'The Smart Set,' a rarely screened film released near the end of Hollywood's silent era—and the end of the Roaring '20s as well.

'The Smart Set,' starring William Haines and Alice Day, will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person, general seating. Live musical scoring will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

William Haines (left) stars with other people and horses in 'The Smart Set' (1928).

In 'The Smart Set,' Arrogant aristocrat Tommy Van Buren (William Haines) calls himself "America's gift to polo," while his female fans think he's the most gorgeous creature on four legs.

The one exception is plucky Polly (Alice Day), who first responds to Tommy's amorous advances by using her car to run him off the road.

Polly has yet more reasons to loathe Tommy when he replaces her father on the polo squad—although after an evening's dalliance, even she yields to the champ's charms.

But when Tommy's alcohol-fueled antics get him tossed from the team, he'll have to stop horsing around to win the big match against England—and Polly's heart.

'The Smart Set' was released by MGM in 1928, the final year of full-scale production of silent films in Hollywood. Spurred by the success of Warner Bros.' 'The Jazz Singer,' studios and theaters were rapidly converting to "talking" pictures.

A year after 'The Smart Set' hit theaters, the stock market crash of October 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, wiping out much of the polo-playing wealthy class.

"'The Smart Set' is a real chestnut from a lost age of privilege, ponies, and polo that flourished in the Roaring '20s," said Jeff Rapsis, the silent film musician who will accompany the screening at the Flying Monkey.

"Taking in a silent romantic comedy with live music is a great way to celebrate Valentine's Day," Rapsis said.

For the music, Rapsis improvises in real time, while the film is running, using a digital synthesizer that allow him to recreate the "movie score" texture of a full orchestra.

"Improvising a score live is a bit of a high-wire act, but it allows me to follow and support the film a lot more effectively than if I was buried in sheet music," Rapsis said.

"Instead, I'm free to follow the film right in the moment. Each time it's different, which lends a certain energy and immediacy and excitement to the experience."

'The Smart Set,' a silent romantic comedy starring William Haines and Alice Day, will be screened with live music on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Admission is $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com.

William Haines recuperates from all the excitement in 'The Smart Set' (1928).

Saturday, February 11, 2023

One film, two endings: Greta Garbo in 'The Temptress' (1926) this afternoon in Newport, R.I.

An original lobby card for MGM's 'The Temptress' (1926) starring Greta Garbo.

What better way to get in the mood for Valentine's Day than watching Greta Garbo lure men to their doom?

That's what you'll get with 'The Temptress' (1926), a relatively unknown MGM drama that I've found plays surprisingly well with contemporary audiences.

I'm doing live music for 'The Temptress' today (Saturday, Feb. 11) at 4:30 p.m. at the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport, R.I. More info about the screening is in the press release pasted in below.

For one thing, 'The Temptress' does what all the best movies do, I think: it transports us to places we would almost never visit on our own. (In this case, it's the rough Argentinian back country, with some Parisian high society thrown in for contrast.)

Plus, it has a great cast, a strong story, and a series of dramatic encounters that sizzle with intensity but don't cross the line into parody. It still works.

And, like some pictures from that era, it has two very different endings. As the story goes, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer wasn't happy with the story's original tragic ending, and so ordered a new one.

Both survive, with the "happy" ending used for release prints in the U.S., while the "tragic" denouement was used in Europe. 

We'll show them both this afternoon so you can decide for yourself. More details below. Hope to see you in Newport!

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Greta Garbo and Antonio Moreno in 'The Temptress' (1926).

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Greta Garbo stars in 'The Temptress' (1926), a film with two endings, on Saturday, Feb. 11 in Newport

Both conclusions to be shown when steamy silent romantic drama is screened with live music at Jane Pickens Theatre; perfect for Valentine's Day

NEWPORT, R.I. — It's a film with two completely different endings: one sad and tragic, and the other uplifting and positive.

It's 'The Temptress' (1926), an MGM romantic drama starring Greta Garbo, then just starting a legendary Hollywood career.

Studio boss Louis B. Mayer found the original ending to 'The Temptress' so depressing, he ordered a second—and much happier—conclusion.

See both endings when 'The Temptress' is screened with live music on Saturday, Feb. 11 at 4:30 p.m. at the Jane Pickens Theatre Film and Event Center, 49 Touro St., Newport, R.I.

The screening, the latest in the venue'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 $15 per person; members $13. Tickets are available online or at the door.

"A silent romantic drama is a great way to celebrate Valentine's Day," Rapsis said. "At their best, these movies celebrated the big emotions, including love, and they still speak to us today."

In 'The Temptress,' Garbo plays Elena, the wife of Monsieur Canterac (Lionel Barrymore) and the mistress of rich Parisian banker Monsieur Fontenoy (Marc MacDermott).

When the banker's friend Robledo (Antonio Moreno), a dynamic young engineer building a massive dam in Argentina, visits Paris, the fickle Elena immediately falls in love with him.

Elena follows Robledo to Argentina, where her presence leads to a whip duel between Robledo and his rival, Manos Duros (Roy D'Arcy).

She then indirectly causes the collapse of Robledo's dam, which is where the two versions of the film diverge.

In the original version, Elena returns to Paris and the movie concludes tragically.

The revised version sees the film end in Argentina on a much happier note.

Both endings will be screened at the Jane Pickens Theatre: first the original "tragic" conclusion, then the more optimistic ending.

Garbo, who first won notice in her native Sweden, came to Hollywood at age 19. 'The Temptress,' her second film for MGM, helped establish her as a major star.

Initially, the director of 'The Temptress' was Garbo's mentor-lover, the brilliant Mauritz Stiller. But he was replaced halfway through by Fred Niblo, giving 'The Temptress' two different styles.

Silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will improvise a musical score to 'The Temptress' in real time as the movie is screened.

In creating music for 'The Temptress' and other vintage classics, Rapsis tries to bridge the gap between silent film and modern audiences.

"Live music adds an element of energy to a silent film screening that's really crucial to the experience," Rapsis said.

The romantic drama ‘The Temptress’ starring Greta Garbo will be shown with live music on Saturday, Feb. 11 at 4:30 p.m. at the Jane Pickens Theatre Film and Event Center, 49 Touro St., Newport, R.I.

Admission is $15 per person; members $13. Tickets are available online at www.janepickens.com or at the door. For more information, call the box office at (401) 846-5474.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Tonight! See Harold Lloyd climb high in 'Safety Last' at the Rex Theatre, Manchester, N.H.

Hanging with Harold: the famous image from 'Safety Last' (1923).

Quick post just to get some details out about tonight's screening of 'Safety Last' in Manchester, N.H.

I'm doing live music for Harold Lloyd's iconic thrill comedy tonight at 7 p.m. at the Rex Theater, 23 Amherst St. Hope to see you there!

Lots more info about the film in the press release, which is pasted in below.

And after tonight's screening, I'll reveal a long-kept secret about Harold that you'll find hard to believe, especially after what you've just seen on the big screen.

Speaking of which, let's check...yes, Harold is still hanging in there. Come to the show to see how it all turns out!

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Harold gets all wound up with a building clock in 'Safety Last' (1923).

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

Hang on! Rex Theatre to celebrate 100th anniversary of silent film classic 'Safety Last'

Thrill comedy climaxed by Harold Lloyd's iconic building climb; screening with live music on Wednesday, Feb. 8

MANCHESTER, N.H.—It's a cinematic image so powerful, people who've never seen the movie instantly recognize it.

The vision of Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a huge clock, from the climax of his silent comedy 'Safety Last,' (1923), has emerged as a symbol of early Hollywood and movie magic.

Celebrate the 100th anniversary of the film's original release with a screening of 'Safety Last' on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 20 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

The screening will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $10 per person.

The show is the latest in the Rex Theatre's silent film series, which gives audiences the opportunity to experience early cinema as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

'Safety Last' follows young go-getter Lloyd to the big city, where he hopes to make his mark in business, then send for his small town sweetheart.

His career at a downtown department store stalls, however, until he gets a chance to pitch a surefire publicity idea—hire a human fly to climb the building's exterior.

But when the human fly has a last-minute run-in with the law, Harold is forced to make the climb himself, floor by floor, with his sweetheart looking on.

The result is an extended sequence filmed without trick photography that blends comedy and terror, holding viewers spellbound.

Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is regarded as one of the silent screen's three great clowns.

Lloyd's character, an ambitious young man ready to struggle to win the day, proved hugely popular in the 1920s.

While Chaplin and Keaton were always favored by the critics, Lloyd's films reigned as the top-grossing comedies throughout the period.

Silent film at the Rex Theatre gives today's audiences the chance to experience early cinema as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"Put the whole experience back together, and you can see why people first fell in love with the movies," said Rapsis, who practices the nearly lost art of live silent film accompaniment.

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound.

"Seeing 'Safety Last' with an audience is one of the great thrill rides of the cinema of any era, silent or sound," Rapsis said. "Harold's iconic building climb, filmed without trick photography, continues to provoke audience responses nearly 100 years after film was first released."

Tributes to the clock-hanging scene have appeared in several contemporary films, most recently in Martin Scorsese's 'Hugo' (2011), which includes clips from 'Safety Last.'

Celebrate the 100th anniversary of Harold Lloyd's iconic thrill comedy 'Safety Last' (1923) with a screening on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 20 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

General admission is $10 per person. Tickets may be purchased online at www.palacetheatre.org, by phone at (603) 668-5588 or at the door.

Friday, February 3, 2023

On Sunday: 'Within Our Gates' (and maybe a second feature) at the Somerville Theatre

From Oscar Micheaux's drama 'Within Our Gates' (1920).

Sunday, Feb. 5 takes me down to Davis Square in Somerville, Mass., for the relaunch of the Somerville Theatre's 'Silents, Please!' series.

I'll accompany 'Within Our Gates' (1920), a "race drama" directed by Oscar Micheaux that's being screened in honor of Black History Month.

Showtime is 2 p.m. More details about the film and the full 'Silents, Please!' schedule are included in a press release pasted in below.

'Within Our Gates' is hailed as something of a breakthrough: it was the first U.S. feature-length film directed by an African-American. 

The movie was intended for "Black Only" movie theaters that flourished in certain parts of the U.S. during the Jim Crow era. 

Much of the product for that market was produced on shoestring budgets by small companies (many in Florida) that often vanished when the rent came due. 

As a young Black filmmaker, race movies were the only outlet open to Micheaux. Despite the limitations, he was aiming for something more, as seen in 'Within Our Gates.'

Unusual for its time, the film tackles head-on the racism that was pervasive in the U.S. at the time. 

A hundred years later, have things changed all that much? See the film, and decide for yourself.

The film will be shown via a 35mm print on loan from our friends at the Library of Congress. 

In shipping 'Within Our Gates,' the LOC included a 35mm print of a second film that we didn't specifically request.

It's 'The Other Woman's Story' (1925), a seemingly routine courtroom drama with absolutely nothing to do with Black History Month.

But then, as Paul Harvey used to say, there's "...the rest of the story." 

Turns out one of the lead actresses in 'The Other Woman's Story,' Helen Lee Worthing would shortly become infamous for...marrying an African-American!

This was at a time when interracial marriage was actually against the law in California and many other states. 

The resulting scandal and ongoing furor in the press not only caused the marriage to break down, but led to Worthing's involuntary commitment to an insane asylum a few years later. She died in 1948, at the young age of 52.

I won't say any more in case the theater does run the film. I hope they do. It's a rare chance to see one of Helen Lee Worthing's few surviving films—and I've never had a chance to do music for it before.

Cross your fingers!

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A scene from 'Within Our Gates' (1920).

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

'Within Our Gates' on Sunday, Feb. 5 opens Somerville Theatre's 2023 'Silents Please!' series

First feature-length film directed by African-American to be screened in 35mm with live music to honor Black History Month

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—They're back where they belong: on the big screen.

Classic motion pictures from Hollywood's early days, shown using 35mm prints and accompanied with live music, mark the return of the Somerville Theatre's 'Silents, Please,' a long-running series at the Davis Square moviehouse.

The 2023 line-up kicks off on Sunday, Feb. 5 at 2 p.m. with a screening of 'Within Our Gates' (1920), the first U.S. feature-length film to be directed by an African-American, Oscar Micheaux.

The movie—a ground-breaking drama that deals directly with racism in the U.S. as experienced a century ago—will be shown in honor of Black History Month.

The plot features an African-American woman who goes North in an effort to raise money for a rural school in the Deep South for poor black children. Her romance with a Black doctor eventually leads to revelations about her family's past and her own mixed-race, European ancestry.

Tickets $16; seniors/children $12. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.somervilletheatre.com or call the box office at (617) 625-5700.

'Within Our Gates' was produced at a time when the mainstream Hollywood film industry was shut off to Black Americans.

Micheaux (at left, in a formal portrait) was able to self-produce 'Within Our Gates' on a shoestring budget and outside the studio system.

'Within Our Gates' portrays the contemporary racial situation in the U.S. during the early 20th century—the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Great Migration of Blacks to cities of the North and Midwest.

At the time, it was part of an emerging genre known as "race films"—pictures intended for segregated Black-only movie theaters that existed primarily in the U.S. south from the 1920s until after World War II.

The film portrays racial violence under white supremacy. It was produced, written and directed by Micheaux.

'Within Our Gates' stirred up considerable controversy during its original release because it contained a scene in which a Black man is lynched by a white mob.

At first the film, which eventually had its premiere in Chicago, was rejected by the Chicago Board of Movie Censors who were afraid the movie could possibly inspire a race riot. However, a second screening of the film by the press, Chicago politicians, and prominent members of the Black community convinced the Censors to grant the film a permit since it addressed horrendous conditions that needed reform.

Not everyone agreed with this assessment, however, and some of the most vigorous protests against the film came from Black activists.

Not surprisingly, white theatre owners in the south who catered to Black patronage were also offended by 'Within Our Gates' and refused to book it. One theatre owner in Shreveport, La., admitted "it was a very dangerous picture to show in the south" and his comment was typical for the region.

Micheaux, no stranger to controversy, refused to compromise his material despite being locked out of numerous distribution channels and went on to tackle other unpopular but equally topical problems in films like 'God's Stepchildren' (1938), in which a light-skinned African-American tries to pass for Caucasian, and 'Birthright' (1939), the story of a Black Harvard graduate who encounters opposition from both whites and members of his own race.

While Micheaux was well aware that audiences wanted to be entertained, he also felt it was his duty to confront challenging issues that would, in his words, "leave an impression" on audiences.

Michaeux died in 1951 at age 67, having independently produced a total of 44 films and earned a reputation as the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century.

For many years, 'Within Our Gates' was regarded as a lost film. However, a single copy turned up in Spain in the 1970s. The version to be screened at the Somerville Theatre descends from this single surviving copy.

The precursor to Black History Month was Black History Week, established in 1926 to coincide with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12 and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 14. Primary emphasis was placed on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of American Blacks in the nation's public schools.

In 1976, the expansion to Black History Month was officially recognized by the U.S. government. At the time, President Gerald Ford urged Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."

Following 'Within Our Gates,' the 'Silents, Please!' schedule features a broad range of titles, from well-known classics to obscure films rarely seen since their release, which in some cases was more than a century ago.

Several programs are double bills on a common theme, such as a July program saluting 'Canada Day' with two films set in the Canadian West. All films in the series will be shown using 35mm prints, with most on loan from the U.S. Library of Congress.

A roster of upcoming films includes:

• Sunday, March 5, 2023, 2 p.m.: 'Annie Laurie' (1927) starring Lillian Gish and 'Cinderella' (1914). Celebrate Women's History Month with a double feature of two films featuring leading ladies of early Hollywood. 'Annie Laurie' (1927), a rarely-screened MGM epic about warring Scottish clans, features silent-era megastar Lillian Gish as leading lady while legions of men in kilts do battle. Plus, an early adaptation of 'Cinderella' (1914) starring film industry pioneer Mary Pickford.

• Sunday, May 7, 2023, 2 p.m.: Buster Keaton 'Boats and Trains' Double Feature! Two Keaton classics in which Buster creates large-scale comedy with big machines. In 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928), Buster plays the effete college-educated son of a rough-hewn riverboat captain who must help his father fight a domineering businessman—who just happens to be the father of Buster's girlfriend. In 'The General' (1926), Buster's Civil War-era masterpiece tells the story of a Confederate railroad engineer whose train is hijacked by Northern spies.

• Sunday, July 9, 2023, 2 p.m.: Salute to Canada Double Feature! To mark "Canada Day" (July 1), we salute our neighbors with a double helping of vintage cinema set north of the border. In 'Mantrap' (1926), silent-era "It" girl Clara Bow stars in a battle-of-the-sexes comedy about a big city divorce lawyer hoping to get away from it all at a Canadian wilderness retreat. 'The Canadian' (1926) stars Thomas Meighan in the tale of a pioneering couple homesteading in Alberta, where they battle bad weather and financial woes.

• Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, 2 p.m.: 'The Fire Brigade' (1926). MGM’s blockbuster production stars Charles Ray as the youngest in a long line of fearless Irish American firefighters. Things get complicated when he falls in love with the daughter (May McEvoy) of a crooked building contractor. Spectacular fire sequences with hand-colored effects included in this recent Library of Congress restoration.

• Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, 2 p.m.: 'The Big Parade' (1925) starring John Gilbert, RenĂ©e Adoree. We salute Veterans Day with this sweeping saga about U.S. doughboys signing up and shipping off to France in 1917, where they face experiences that will change their lives forever—if they return. MGM blockbuster directed by King Vidor; one of the biggest box office triumphs of the silent era.

'Within Our Gates' (1920), a silent drama directed by Oscar Micheaux, will be shown in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Feb. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.  Tickets $16; seniors/children $12. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.somervilletheatre.com or call the box office at (617) 625-5700.