Sunday, November 12, 2023

Coming up: Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' on Thanksgiving weekend, then a reduced performing schedule starting in 2024

A poster for 'The Gold Rush' (1925) starring Charlie Chaplin.

Just finished a busy weekend of accompanying four shows in three days, including two separate screenings of 'The Big Parade' (1925) and also 'Wings' (1927)—both big gulps.

With Halloween and now Veterans Day in the rear-view mirror, the performance schedule quiets down, with just a few screenings between now and New Year's Day.

And it's likely to stay quiet in 2024, as I cut back on my live performance commitments in order to focus on my day job and other creative pursuits. More on that as things take shape.

In the meantime, next up is Charlie Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925), which I'm accompanying on Thanksgiving weekend (on Sunday, Nov. 26 at 2 p.m.) at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

More on that screening in the press release below.

And now, a few notes on this past weekend's shows.

'Wings' was screened Friday night at the Epsilon Spires venue in Brattleboro, Vt., where I got to play their Etsey pipe organ. (It's a former Baptist church and the organ came with it.) Small turnout but attentive movie-goers, judging from the reactions throughout.

Afterwards, a couple told me they attended only because the husband likes vintage planes, and didn't expect to stay more than a half-hour because, you know, those "silent movies."

But the experience was nothing like what they expected, and they ended up staying for the whole thing. So, small audience, but at least one small victory for the form.

Saturday found me navigating unexpectedly closed roads over mountain passes to get to the Residences at Otter Creek, a retirement and assisted living community in Middlebury, Vt.

I made it just in time to present a 2 p.m. Veterans Day program of silent film comedies: 'A Sailor-Made Man' (1921) starring Harold Lloyd and Chaplin's 'Shoulder Arms' (1918). 

Alas, another small turnout. Interestingly, although the average age of those in the room was well above 80, nobody had heard of Harold Lloyd. Nobody! 

I guess not everyone has attended Pordenone or the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. (Neither have I, for that matter.)

The screenings were enjoyed by all, it seems, including the gentleman who decided to get up and walk right in front of the keyboard during the Lloyd film, getting his shoes caught up in my cables and nearly falling down before I stopped playing to help untangle him. 

I'm guessing this doesn't happen too often at Pordenone or the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. But it's the world I work in—all part of bringing silent film to life for people outside the big venues.

Speaking of which: I then drove down Route 7 to Brandon (birthplace of Stephen Douglas, the "Little Giant," who debated Abraham Lincoln), where we ended the 2023 Brandon Town Hall Silent Film Series with a Veterans Day screening of 'The Big Parade' (1925).

The screening almost didn't happen because yours truly didn't realize 'The Big Parade' was on a Blu-ray disc, and I hadn't put the Blu-ray player in the traveling crate. Ooops!

But a call to Dennis Marsden of the town hall produced a work-around (using their own disc player and projector) kept me from having to haul ass down to Rutland in hopes of finding a Blu-ray player with RCA connectors to use for the show. 

Knowing that I would accompany a 35mm print of the 'The Big Parade' in Boston the next day, I thought of the Brandon screening as my opportunity to reacquaint myself with the film, which I hadn't accompanied in some time.

A whimsical moment from 'The Big Parade' (1925).

Funny thing, though—despite a complete lack of preparation, music for the Brandon screening fell together just perfectly, I thought. I had good stuff for almost every scene and sequence, and material I used early was enough to hold the score together for the remainder of the movie. 

And the audience (about 60 people) was into it! Laughs at all the right places; open-mouthed silence at other moments. 

By the time we finished our 2½-hour journey together, everyone was spent, including me. The film received a huge ovation. Afterwards, more than one person told me they couldn't believe the movie was 2½ hours long.

Neither could I. When accompanying, once you get into "the zone," time seems to be suspended, or something happens to you perception of it passing.

So that got me ready for 'The Big Parade' on Sunday, Nov. 12 at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. Right?

Well, wrong. As sometimes happens, for whatever reason, this time the score didn't fall together naturally. It went okay, yes, but not like the night before, when I felt I was hitting every moment just right.

Maybe it was fatigue. You don't play 10 hours of film in three days and not start to get—well, a little fuzzy sometimes, especially in hours 9 and 10.

And, unlike in Brandon, the audience was very quiet. Of the nearly 100 people who attended, utterly no laughs in places where there should be, and little reaction of any kind evident.

Example: there's that incredible sustained take (about five minutes, I think) in which John Gilbert shows Renée Adorée how to chew gum. In Brandon, it produced an increasing amount of laughter as it progressed. In Somerville, nothing.

Why? Beats me. 

It wasn't because I was overplaying or stepping on the film. In both cases, I kept the underscoring as light as a feather, frequently using actual silence to punctuate moments when either character registered confusion or incomprehension. 

(That's what I hear accompanists do at places like Pordenone or San Francisco. For us folks working the provinces, it's in our tool kit, too.)

Well, that's that. 

And now, details on 'The Gold Rush' (1925), coming on Sunday, Nov. 26 at 2 p.m. to a theater near you, if you happen to live near the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H....

*   *   *

Thanksgiving Dinner, anyone? Charlie Chaplin in 'The Gold Rush' (1925).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Charlie Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Nov. 26

Family fun on Thanksgiving weekend: Little Tramp's silent film comedy classic set in the frozen Arctic to be screened with live music

WILTON, N.H. — Classic silent film comedy returns to the big screen this month in Wilton with 'The Gold Rush' (1925), a classic comedy starring Charlie Chaplin.

The screening will take place on Sunday, Nov. 26 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free; donations are accepted, with $10 per person suggested to defray expenses.

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.

'The Gold Rush,' a landmark comedy and one of the top-grossing films of the silent era, finds Chaplin's iconic 'Little Tramp' character journeying to the frozen wastelands of the Yukon. There as a prospector, the Tramp's search for gold turns into a pursuit of romance, but with plenty of laughs along the way.

The film contains several famous scenes, both comic and dramatic, including a starving Chaplin forced to eat his shoe for Thanksgiving dinner and a heart-breaking New Year's Eve celebration.

As a comedian, Chaplin emerged as the first superstar in the early days of cinema. From humble beginnings as a musical hall entertainer in England, he came to Hollywood and used his talents to quickly rise to the pinnacle of stardom in the then-new medium of motion pictures. His popularity never waned, and his image remains recognized around the world to this day.

Chaplin warms up his feet in 'The Gold Rush' (1925).

'The Gold Rush,' regarded by many critics as Chaplin's best film, is a prime example of his unique talent for combining slapstick comedy and intense dramatic emotion.

" 'The Gold Rush' is still an effective tear-jerker," wrote critic Eric Kohn of indieWIRE. "In the YouTube era, audiences — myself included — often anoint the latest sneezing panda phenomenon as comedic gold. Unless I’m missing something, however, nothing online has come close to matching the mixture of affectionate fragility and seamless comedic inspiration perfected by the Tramp."

Rapsis, who uses original themes to improvise silent film scores, said the best silent film comedies often used visual humor to create laughter out of simple situations. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them in the 21st century, especially if they're presented as intended — with an audience and live music.

"These comedies were created to be shown on the big screen as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life as their creators intended them to. So this screening is a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies," he said.

Rapsis achieves a traditional movie score sound for silent film screenings by using a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra.

'The Gold Rush' will be screened on Sunday, Nov. 26 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free; donations are accepted, with $10 per person suggested to defray expenses. For more information, call the theater at (603) 654-3456.

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