Thursday, March 30, 2023

Thou shalt not miss 'The Ten Commandments' (1923) on Sunday, April 2 in Natick, Mass.

Promotional poster for Cecil B. DeMille's silent version of 'The Ten Commandments.'

What better time of year than Easter to resurrect an original Hollywood Biblical blockbuster?

That's what we'll do on Sunday, April 2, when I accompany the 1923 silent version of 'The Ten Commandments' at the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass.

Showtime is 4 p.m., meaning you'll have plenty of time to attend Mass prior to the show. (I've checked with the Archdiocese of Boston and no, the screening does not count as church.)

The film, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, differs significantly from its 1956 remake. For more info, check out the press release pasted in below.

Road report: I've just completed doing live music for a pair of thrillers the past two nights and all went well.

On Tuesday, March 28, I accompanied Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Lodger' (1927) for an appreciative crowd at the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport, R.I. 

And then on Wednesday, March 29, it was music for 'Nosferatu' (1922) at the University of N.H. in Durham, N.H.

The latter was part of this year's touring 'Cinema Ritrovato' program, which the University hosts each spring. Many thanks to the UNH faculty who organize this and who've brought me in for several years now. 

The audience for 'Nosferatu' was predominantly college students, as you'd expect. Interesting: a show of hands afterwards found that it was the first time that virtually everyone had seen the film.

And that's it for the first quarter of 2023. The performance schedule is a little light for April, but that's good, as I'm nursing a pulled muscle deep in my upper right arm that really needs time to heal.

So pray for me. And what better place to do it than at this Sunday's screening of the original silent film version of 'The Ten Commandments'? See you there!

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Moses (not Charlton Heston, but Theodore Roberts) prepares to part the waters of the Red Sea in the original silent film version of 'The Ten Commandments' (1923).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Original 'Ten Commandments' movie to screen at Natick Center for the Arts

Silent film Biblical blockbuster to be shown on 100th anniversary with live music on Palm Sunday, April 2

NATICK, Mass.—Decades before he directed Charlton Heston as Moses, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille's original silent version of 'The Ten Commandments' (1923) wowed audiences the world over during the early years of cinema.

To celebrate the coming Easter season, DeMille's pioneering Biblical blockbuster will be screened on Sunday, April 2 at the TCAN Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

The 100th anniversary screening, the latest in the Center for the Art'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 for members; $12 for non-members. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

DeMille's original 'Ten Commandments' was among the first Hollywood films to tackle stories from scripture on a grand scale. The picture was a popular hit in its original release, and served as a blueprint for DeMille's later remake in 1956.

Despite the silent original's epic scale, the Moses story takes up only about the first third of the film. After that, the tale changes to a modern-day melodrama about living by the lessons of the Commandments. In the McTavish family, two brothers make opposite decisions: one, John, to follow his mother's teaching of the Ten Commandments and become a poor carpenter, and the other, Danny, to break every one of them and rise to the top. The film shows his unchecked immorality to be momentarily gainful, but ultimately disastrous.

A contrast is made between the carpenter brother and his mother. The mother reads the story of Moses and emphasizes strict obedience and fear of God. The carpenter, however, reads from the New Testament story of Jesus' healing of lepers. His emphasis is on a loving and forgiving God. The film also shows the mother's strict lawful morality to be flawed in comparison to her son's version.

The other brother becomes a corrupt contractor who builds a church with shoddy concrete, pocketing the money saved and becoming very rich. One day, his mother comes to visit him at his work site, but the walls are becoming unstable due to the shaking of heavy trucks on nearby roads. One of the walls collapses, with tragic results. This sends the brother on a downward spiral as he attempts to right his wrongs and clear his conscience.

Throughout the film, the visual motif of the tablets of the Commandments appears in the sets, with a particular Commandment appearing on them when it is relevant to the story.

'The Ten Commandments' boasts an all-star cast of 1920s performers, including Theodore Roberts as Moses; Charles de Rochefort as Rameses; Estelle Taylor as Miriam, the Sister of Moses; Edythe Chapman as Mrs. Martha McTavish; Richard Dix as John McTavish, her son; Rod La Rocque as Dan McTavish, her other son; and Leatrice Joy as Mary Leigh.

The Exodus scenes were filmed at Nipomo Dunes, near Pismo Beach, Calif., in San Luis Obispo County, which is now an archaeological site. The film location was originally chosen because its immense sand dunes provided a superficial resemblance to the Egyptian desert. After the filming was complete, the massive sets — which included four 35-foot-tall Pharaoh statues, 21 sphinxes, and gates reaching a height of 110 feet, which were built by an army of 1,600 workers — were dynamited and buried in the sand. However, the burial location at Nipomo Dunes is exposed to relentless northwesterly gales year-round, and much of what was buried is now exposed to the elements, as the covering sand has been blown away.

The visual effect of keeping the walls of water apart while Moses and the Israelites walked through the Red Sea was accomplished with a slab of gelatin that was sliced in two and filmed close up as it jiggled. This shot was then combined with live-action footage of actors walking into the distance, creating a vivid illusion.

Live music is a key element of each silent film screening, said Jeff Rapsis, accompanist for TCAN's silent film screenings. Silent movies were not shown in silence, but were accompanied by live music made right in each theater. Most films were not released with official scores, so it was up to local musicians to provide the soundtrack, which could vary greatly from theater to theater.

"Because there's no set soundtrack for most silent films, musicians are free to create new music as they see fit, even today," Rapsis said. "In bringing a film to life, I try to create original 'movie score' music that sounds like what you might expect in a theater today, which helps bridge the gap between today's audiences and silent films that are in some cases more than 100 years old."

‘The Ten Commandments’ (1923) will be shown with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Sunday, April 2 at the TCAN Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass. The 100th anniversary screening, the latest in the Center for the Art's silent film series, will feature live music.

Admission is $10 per person for members; $12 for non-members. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

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