Monday, March 6, 2023

Yesterday: 'Annie Laurie' and 'Cinderella'; tonight: 'Wings' at Garden Cinema in Greenfield, Mass.

Lillian Gish in 'Annie Laurie' (1927).

Yesterday saw me do music for two films I'd never accompanied before: Lillian Gish in 'Annie Laurie' (1927) and 'Cinderella' (1914), with Mary Pickford in the title role.

Tonight, it's an familiar favorite: 'Wings' (1927), which I'm accompanying at the Garden Cinemas in Greenfield, Mass. Showtime is 6:30 p.m.; more info is in the press release pasted in below.

Yesterday's double bill at the Somerville Theatre was something of an endurance test, and not because of the length of the program, which was nearly three hours.

What I mean is: I recently pulled or strained muscle tissue in my shoulder. In the past couple of weeks, this has made it intermittently painful to use my right arm for typing or, yes, playing keyboard. 

But the show must go on. And I've found if I dose myself with Ibuprofin and Naproxen prior to accompanying a film, I can get through it okay. In the meantime, I'm doing exercises to heal and strengthen the injured area, which I believe happened when I was tossing a tree branch over a fence. (Don't ask.)

I greatly enjoyed doing music for 'Annie Laurie,' a lavishly produced historical romance set among the still-feuding clans of Scotland after the union with England. 

It's full of scenes that naturally lend themselves to broad musical gestures. Big action scenes, even bigger "love" scenes between Gish and Norman Kerry, who came across in the movie as a kind of combination of Douglas Fairbanks and Clark Gable.

Also, the way the film was paced and structured provided ample opportunity to work over the basic melodic ideas I brought to the theater: one theme for the Campbells, one for the MacDonalds, and other subsidiary motifs. 

I know there's an actual Annie Laurie song that goes with the movie, but I came up with my own melody for what's sung on screen. As the film progressed, it actually morphed into a melodic cell that came in handle during battle and action scenes. That's one of the things about improvisational accompaniment: how it unfolds can sometimes surprise even the accompanist.

One challenge was recreating the ambiance of bagpipe music on the keyboard. I found what worked was a drone of open fifths, not too low, and then topped by diatonic melodic material with a hint of flatted 7ths in the scale.

And now my right arm is acting up (as I type), so I'll pack it in and just invite you to experience 'Wings' (1927) on the big screen tonight in Greenfield, Mass.

It's the very first 'Best Picture' winner, and so a great way to get ready for this year's Academy Awards, coming up this weekend.

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Original poster art for 'Wings' (1927).

Epic silent film 'Wings' (1927) on Monday, March 6 at Greenfield's Garden Cinema

Story of U.S. aviators in World War I won first-ever 'Best Picture'; screening to feature live musical accompaniment

GREENFIELD, N.H.—It won 'Best Picture' at the very first Academy Awards, with spectacular midair flying sequences and a dramatic story that still mesmerizes audiences today.

'Wings' (1927), a drama about U.S. pilots in the skies over Europe during World War I, will be shown on Monday, March 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Greenfield Garden Cinema, 361 Main St., Greenfield.

The screening will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

Admission is $10.50 adults, $8:50 for children, seniors, and veterans. Tickets are available online or at the door. The screening is sponsored by Precision Driving School of Greenfield.

The show will allow audiences to experience 'Wings' the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

'Wings,' a blockbuster hit in its original release, recounts the adventures of U.S. pilots flying combat missions behind enemy lines at the height of World War I in Europe. 'Wings' stunned audiences with aerial dogfight footage, vivid and realistic battle scenes, and dramatic love-triangle plot.

'Wings' stars Clara Bow, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, and Richard Arlen. The rarely-seen film also marked one of the first screen appearances of Gary Cooper, who plays a supporting role. Directed by William Wellman, 'Wings' was lauded by critics for its gripping story, superb photography, and technical innovations.

'Wings' is notable as one of the first Hollywood films to take audiences directly into battlefield trenches and vividly depict combat action. Aviation buffs will also enjoy 'Wings' as the film is filled with scenes of vintage aircraft from the early days of flight.

Seen today, the film also allows contemporary audiences a window into the era of World War I, which was fought in Europe from 1914 to 1918.

" 'Wings' is not only a terrific movie, but seeing it on the big screen is also a great chance to appreciate what earlier generations of servicemen and women endured," accompanist Jeff Rapsis said.

"It's a war that has faded somewhat from our collective consciousness, but it defined life in the United States for a big chunk of the 20th century. This film captures how World War I affected the nation, and also shows in detail what it was like to serve one's country a century ago."

Rapsis, a composer who specializes in film music, will create a score for 'Wings' on the spot, improvising the music as the movie unfolds to enhance the on-screen action as well as respond to audience reactions. Rapsis performs the music on a digital synthesizer, which is capable of producing a wide range of theatre organ and orchestral textures.

"Live music was an integral part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "At the time, most films weren't released with sheet music or scores. Studios relied on local musicians to come up with an effective score that was different in every theater. At its best, this approach created an energy and a connection that added a great deal to a film's impact. That's what I try to recreate," Rapsis said.

'Wings' runs about 2½ hours. The film is a family-friendly drama but not suitable for very young children due to its length and intense wartime battle scenes.

‘Wings’ (1927) starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen will be shown with live music on Monday, March 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Greenfield Garden Cinema, 361 Main St., Greenfield, Mass. Admission is $10.50 for adults; $8.50 for children, seniors, and veterans.

Tickets are available online at or at the door. For more information, call the box office at (413) 774-4881.

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