When asked which silent film is my favorite, I'm sometimes tempted to say 'The Last Command' (1928). For sheer story-telling audacity, there's nothing quite like it.
Plus it's really something to see Emil Jannings go berzerk at the end of this movie. No surprise that he took home the first-ever 'Best Actor' Academy Award that year.
So I'm pleased to say that up next is 'The Last Command' (1928), which I'll be accompanying on Sunday, Jan. 21 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.
More details are in the press release below. For now, here's a report from the New Year's Day screening of Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925) that I accompanied at the Garden Cinemas in Greenfield, Mass.
We've been doing silent films in Greenfield for a couple of years now—enough to build up an audience to the point where we get 50 to 60 people for each screening.
I wasn't sure if the pattern would hold for a screening on New Year's Day, but it did. What's more, they were not shy about reacting. Right from the start, at Chaplin's first entrance, the laughs came easily.
One really cool thing is that after years of fumbling around, I stumbled on a way to effectively accompany the climactic "hanging cabin" sequence.
To my way of thinking, the music should help support suspense and comedy at the same time, similar to what's called for when Harold Lloyd is climbing around the upper floors of that building in 'Safety Last.' What kind of music can communicate these contradictory moods?
Last night, it occurred to me: the well-known "Morning Mood" melody from Grieg's Peer Gynt incidental music. As familiar and hackneyed as it is, it really does fit the scene when Chaplin and then Mack Swain awaken.
It could be that although we are aware of their predicament, they aren't. And so the music carries a double layer of meaning: a normal morning to them,anything but normal to us. The music is instantly ironic commentary.
But then, as Chaplin and Swain gradually discover the peril they're in, the "Morning Mood" melody can be transformed in various ways to continue heightening the tension. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes in the minor key or other mode, sometimes with off notes in the harmony or punctuated with dissonant chords or ominous pedal tones.
And then there's always our good friend silence to really rivet an audience's attention. After which Grieg's melody can reassert itself in even creepier fashion.
All these elements combined to create a really satisfying accompaniment. I felt it augmented how Chaplin presented the sequence. Audience response to this sequence was the strongest that I can recall—for the first time in my experience, the film elicited shrieks and gasps among the laughs.
And the payoff: a hearty cheer (spoiler alert!) when Chaplin leaps from the cabin and lands on solid ground. Yes!
If you'd like to experience this for yourself, I'll be doing 'The Gold Rush' again on Saturday, Feb. 3 at the Campton (N.H.) Historical Society. For more info, check the listings under the 'Upcoming Silent Film Screenings' link on the upper right corner of this page.
The screening, by the way, is part of a pot luck supper—ironic for a film in which so much of the comedy stems from starvation.
But for now, here's all you'll need to catch 'The Last Command' (1928) on Sunday, Jan. 21 in Wilton. See you there!
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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • email@example.com
Silent epic 'The Last Command' with live music at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 21
Josef von Sternberg's groundbreaking psychological drama won 'Best Actor' for Emil Jannings at first-ever Academy Awards
WILTON, N.H.—'The Last Command' (1928), a silent film drama that won Emil Jannings 'Best Actor' honors at the first-ever Academy Awards, will be screened with live music on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024 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 Last Command,' directed by Josef von Sternberg, tells the sweeping story of a powerful general in Czarist Russia (Jannings) forced to flee his homeland during the Bolshevik Revolution. He emigrates to America, where he is reduced to living in poverty.
Finding work as an extra at a Hollywood studio, the former general lands the part of a commanding officer in a movie about the Revolution, causing flashbacks to his traumatic experiences. The conflict leads to a spectacular climax and a towering performance that earned Jannings 'Best Actor' honors.
The film takes audiences on a journey through big emotions as well as issues of history, time, power, and especially a man's duty to his country and to his fellow citizens—and what happens when the two obligations diverge.
'The Last Command' is also one of early Hollywood's most creative and challenging looks at the global conflicts that contributed to World War I.
The film also stars a young William Powell as a Hollywood movie director who crosses paths with the general during the Revolution, and 1920s starlet Evelyn Brent as a seductive Russian revolutionary.
Rapsis, the accompanist, will create the film's score live as the movie is shown.
"Making up the music on the spot is kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But there's nothing like the energy and excitement that comes with improvised live performance, especially when accompanying a silent film."
Critic Leonard Maltin hailed 'The Last Command' as "a stunning silent drama...a fascinating story laced with keen observations of life and work in Hollywood." Time Out of London called it "the first Sternberg masterpiece, expertly poised between satire and 'absurd' melodrama. The cast are fully equal to it; Jannings, in particular, turns the characteristic role of the general into an indelible portrait of arrogance, fervor and dementia."
Director Sternberg, a master of lighting and black-and-white photography, created 'The Last Command' as a visual tour de force. The film is often cited as a prime example of the emotional range and visual accomplishment of silent films at their height, just prior to the coming of pictures with recorded soundtracks.
Rapsis said great silent film dramas such as 'The Last Command' told stories that concentrate on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them in the 21st century, especially if they're presented as intended—in a theater on the big screen, with a live audience and live music.
"Dramas such as 'The Last Command' were created to be consumed as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they come to life as their creators intended them to. This screening at the Town Hall Theatre is a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies."
'The Last Command' (1928) will be screened with live music on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024 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.