Sunday, September 10, 2023

Prepare to be alarmed! 'The Fire Brigade' (1926) on Sunday, 9/10 in 35mm at Somerville Theatre

Bert Woodruff answers the call in the action/thriller 'The Fire Brigade' (1926).

It's a murky morning—perfect for indoor activities such as being part of the audience later today for a fantastic and rarely screened action thriller at the Somerville Theatre.

It's 'The Fire Brigade' (1926), a film famous among film buffs for the inclusion of its climax in Kevin Brownlow's 'Hollywood' documentary series to show how exciting silent cinema could be.

You can see for yourself today at 2 p.m., when I'll accompany a restored 35mm print of 'The Fire Brigade' at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

There's a lot more info in the press release below. Me, I'm thrilled to be doing music for this new 35mm print produced by the Library of Congress and the Film Foundation, which includes restored color sequences that were a highlight of the original release prints. 

Prior to this, the film hasn't been easily available other than through archival screenings. My whole life, all I've known is the climactic scenes featured in Brownlow's documentary. So I've been very curious to see the whole film, which we'll all get to do together this afternoon.

I want to thank Ken Winokur of Psychedelic Cinema for loaning me a big mounted bell at the last minute to help out with this screening. I should have realized that any film about firefighters is bound to have a lot of bells in it.

Sure enough, previewing the film via a horrible bootleg DVD (no film should EVER be viewed this way, but you do what you have to do), bells are just about everywhere.

I have a few bells of my own, but nothing like a big clangy bell that's shown again and again in 'The Fire Brigade.' So just the other day, I pinged Ken about borrowing his mounted full-size boxing bell  (complete with miniature metal hammer), knowing that he has a gig at the same time.

Well, Ken came through. And so we'll have a full assortment of bells and whistles (literally) to help bring 'The Fire Brigade' to life for this afternoon's audience.

And that's where you come in. Really—you come into the theater and take a seat for 'The Fire Brigade.'

More info on the film and the screening below. Hope you'll answer the call this afternoon!

That way, if someone yells "Fire!" it'll be in a crowded theater.

*    *    *

Original release poster for 'The Fire Brigade' (1926). In the film Charles Ray actually saves an orphan, not May McAvoy, but this makes for a much better image.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Get alarmed! 'The Fire Brigade' (1926) to screen with live music on Sunday, Sept. 10 at Somerville Theatre

Classic silent firefighting thriller to be shown via newly created 35mm print featuring restored color sequences

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—Early on, the movies recognized the drama in firefighting.

The celebration of firefighters as brave life-saving heroes reached its peak in 'The Fire Brigade' (1926), a big-budget MGM thriller often cited as silent film story-telling at its peak.

See for yourself with a screening of a newly issued version of 'The Fire Brigade,' including restored hand-colored fire sequences, to be shown on Sunday, Sept. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

The film will be shown using a 35mm print on loan from the Library of Congress, which restored 'The Fire Brigade' in 2021 in partnership with the Film Foundation.

'The Fire Brigade' will be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in accompanying silent films.

Charles Ray and May McAvoy in a quieter moment of 'The Fire Brigade' (1926).

MGM’s blockbuster production stars Charles Ray, playing the youngest in a long line of fearless Irish American firefighters, who falls in love with the daughter (May McAvoy) of a crooked building contractor.

The film climaxes with a spectacular sequence in which firefighters must rescue orphans from a burning building in the city's downtown.

Spectacular color effects have been restored to this rip-roaring tale of a tight knit group of firefighters who modestly bear their birthright to heroism.

Moving Picture World’s advance review declared: “The conflagration scene is the most stupendous from the standpoint of realism and proportion that has ever been incorporated in a feature production.”

'The Fire Brigade' enjoys legendary status among film buffs due to its prominent inclusion in film historian Kevin Brownlow's 1980 'Hollywood' documentary series about the silent film era.

"For its professionalism alone it deserves a place in the canon," wrote Brownlow, introducing a screening of the restored version in 2021. "And it wasn’t lurid melodrama; it had an intelligent, socially conscious storyline involving municipal corruption."

To demonstrate silent film at its peak, Brownlow first showed a primitive early film of firefighting, then cut directly to the climax of 'The Fire Brigade.'

"Yes, it was an outrageous thing to do, but I’ll guarantee that that sequence with Charles Ray rescuing a baby from an inferno won us an audience—instantly," Brownlow wrote.

The appearance of both two-color Technicolor, plus a new color process invented by Max Handschiegl for the climactic fire scenes, stunned the film's original audiences.

Trade journals of the day recognized 'The Fire Brigade' as a movie with one aim: to dazzle movie-goers with on-screen spectacle.

A scene from 'The Fire Brigade' (1926).

Variety called the film “an out-and-out hokum thriller of the type mass audiences eat up”; while Photoplay fully endorsed it: “hokum is a quality that cheats you … This film doesn’t cheat. The thrills in it are not only tremendously exciting, but real.”

To drum up publicity for 'The Fire Brigade,' MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer pledged to contribute 25 percent of the movie's profits to a college for the training of firefighters.

In reviving 'The Fire Brigade' and other vintage films, the Somerville Theatre aims 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 Jeff Rapsis, who will accompany the film. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood 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.

The Somerville Theatre's ongoing '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.

All films in the series are shown using 35mm prints, with most on loan from the U.S. Library of Congress.

A roster of upcoming films in the 'Silents, Please!' series includes:

• Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, 2 p.m.: 'Show People' (1928) starring Marion Davies, William Haines. Comedy about a would-be film actress (Davies) who can only find work at studio producing low-budget comedies. Screening plus Q & A and book-signing with Lara Gabrielle, author of 'Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies'

• 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.

'The Fire Brigade' (1926) will be shown on Sunday, Sept. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. The film will be shown in 35mm with live music.

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

With that admission price, a poster for what was probably a special "road show" screening of 'The Fire Brigade' with full orchestra.

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