Tuesday, February 20, 2024

A big audience for a big celebration—plus some embarrassing confessions in a local newspaper

The audience for a screening of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H. 

Wow! A screening of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' on Sunday, Feb. 18 was blessed with a very large and thoroughly engaged audience.

From the reaction to the film, you could tell you were intent on having a good time.

And that shouldn't be a surprise, as the screening was to celebrate the 100th birthday of venue: the Colonial Theatre in downtown Keene, N.H.

Depression, war, television, Tiny Tim, the Internet—nothing in the past century succeeded in darkening the marquee of the Colonial.

This makes it a rare survivor: a single screen downtown movie theater from the silent era that survives in its original configuration, and which is today thriving as the anchor of a performing arts center.

To celebrate, the decision was made to repeat the film that opened the Colonial in January 2024: Lon Chaney in the silent version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.'

And celebrate we did, with a steady stream of booing and cheering coming from the audience as the film screened.

One thing to note: I've never heard an audience cheer so lustily at the sequence where the peasants break into the aristocrat ball. Yaaah! Stick it to the callous oppressors!

Also, in my introductory remarks, I found myself recounting a personal experience I had in this same theater in 1971, when I was seven years old. We were spending our summers in Harrisville, a small nearby town, where our family had a lake cottage with a well but no running water.

So one Saturday my mother drove us all into town, where she dropped me and my older brother off at the Colonial for what she thought was a kiddie matinee while she visited a laundromat.

It WAS a kiddie matinee, except it really wasn't. It was the Gene Wilder version of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' in its original release, and I found it nothing short of terrifying. 

When Augustus Gloop falls into the chocolate river and gets stuck in a clear plastic pipe, it was more than I could stand. I ran up the aisle to escape. My brother found me hiding in a stall in the ladies' bathroom.

August Gloop stuck in the pipe.

Assuring me that it was just a movie, we returned to the theater just in time to see the Violet character turn into a giant human blueberry and get rolled off to "the juicing room."

Once again I ran up the aisle, this time through the lobby and outside into broad daylight, my brother this time in hot pursuit. I recall we spent the rest of the time on a park bench, with me inconsolable and hyperventilating. Thanks, Roald Dahl!

So I related this childhood anecdote to the audience for Hunckback, earned a few chuckles, and then moved on. What I didn't know was that a reporter for the local newspaper, the Keene Sentinel, was in attendance. And so this afternoon I found out that my Willy Wonka story made Page 2 of today's paper.

So my traumatic experience was newsworthy after all!

Next up for me: on Thursday, I head out to the Heartland to attend this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival, which takes place Friday and Saturday.

As I joke: Some people get to go to Aruba in February. I got to Topeka.

But looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones. If you're in the vicinity of Washburn University (where the festival is held), I encourage you to take in some or all of the films. 

Complete info available at the Kansas Silent Film Festival website. See you there!

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Sunday, Feb. 18: Celebrate a theater's 100th anniversary with 'Hunchback of Notre Dame'

Patsy Ruth Miller and Lon Chaney prepare to party, sort of, in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923).

Okay, let's try that again!

Last month's 100th anniversary celebration for the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H. was upstaged by snow.

So this weekend brings the rescheduled "Party Like It's 1924," complete with cake and champagne. The fun, which is free and open to all, is on Sunday, Feb. 18 at 2 p.m.

The star of the show this time will not be Old Man Winter, but Lon Chaney playing the title role in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923).

It's the film that opened the theater back in January 1924, so they're rerunning the timeless film (with live music by me) to honor the equally timeless theater.

And it IS a rare survivor—a single screen downtown theater built originally as a silent-era moviehouse and vaudeville venue that remains pretty much intact.

Really! Check it out:

 Come join the fun! More details about the film, the theater, and the celebration are in the press release below.

*  *  *

An original poster promoting 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Chaney as Quasimodo in 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' on Sunday, Feb. 18 in Keene, N.H.

Postponed from January: Celebrate Colonial Theatre's 100th anniversary with free screening of classic film that opened theater in 1924

KEENE, N.H.—It was a spectacular combination: Lon Chaney, the actor known as the "Man of 1,000 Faces," and Universal's big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's sprawling tale of the tortured Quasimodo.

The result was the classic silent film version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) — a movie so popular that it was chosen as the opening program at Keene's Colonial Theatre when it first opened to the public on Jan. 29, 1924.

Now, 100 years later, the Colonial will once again screen 'Hunchback' as part of a centennial celebration.

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' starring Lon Chaney will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H. Admission is free, but attendees are asked to RSVP online in advance at www.thecolonial.org.

The program was originally planned for January but was postponed due to inclement weather.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

The program includes cake and champagne afterwards.

Lon Chaney post-whipping and Patsy Ruth Miller in 'Hunchback.'

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' is based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, and is notable for the grand sets that recall 15th century Paris as well as for Chaney's performance and make-up as the tortured hunchback Quasimodo.

The film elevated Chaney, already a well-known character actor, to full star status in Hollywood, and also helped set a standard for many later horror films, including Chaney's 'The Phantom of the Opera' in 1925.

While Quasimodo is but one of many interconnecting characters in the original Hugo novel, he dominates the narrative of this lavish Universal production.

In the story, Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the evil brother of the archdeacon, lusts after a Gypsy named Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) and commands the hunchback Quasimodo (Chaney) to capture her.

Military captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry) also loves Esmeralda and rescues her, but the Gypsy is not unsympathetic to Quasimodo's condition, and an unlikely bond forms between them.

After vengeful Jehan frames Esmeralda for the attempted murder of Phoebus, Quasimodo's feelings are put to the test in a spectacular climax set in and around the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

As the hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo, Chaney adorned himself with a special device that made his cheeks jut out grotesquely; a contact lens that blanked out one of his eyes; and, most painfully, a huge rubber hump covered with coarse animal fur and weighing anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds.

Chaney deeply identified with Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral who was deafened by his work. Chaney was raised by deaf parents and did a lot of his communication through pantomime.

“The idea of doing the picture was an old one of mine and I had studied Quasimodo until I knew him like a brother, knew every ghoulish impulse of his heart and all the inarticulate miseries of his soul,” Chaney told an interviewer with Movie Weekly magazine in 1923.

“Quasimodo and I lived together—we became one. At least so it has since seemed to me. When I played him, I forgot my own identity completely and for the time being lived and suffered with the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

The film was a major box office hit for Universal Studios, and Chaney's performance continues to win accolades.

A scene from 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923).

"An awe-inspiring achievement, featuring magnificent sets (built on the Universal backlot), the proverbial cast of thousands (the crowd scenes are mesmerizing) and an opportunity to catch Lon Chaney at his most commanding," wrote critic Matt Brunson of Creative Loafing in 2014.

The famous cathedral, a symbol of Paris and France, was severely damaged by fire in 2019. After a long period of rebuilding, the Cathedral is scheduled to reopen to the public in December 2024.

Screening this classic version of 'Hunchback' provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in restored prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put pieces of the experience back together again, it's surprising how these films snap back to life," said Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who creates music for silent film screenings at venues around the country.

"By showing the films as they were intended, you can really get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."

In creating music for silent films, Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) starring Lon Chaney, will be screened with live music on Sunday, Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H. Admission is free, but attendees are asked to RVSP online in advance at www.thecolonial.org.


Sunday, February 11, 2024

This Valentine's Day, fall in love with silent film by seeing 'Speedy' (1928) in Manchester, N.H.

An original poster for 'Speedy' (1928).

Doing anything for Valentine's Day?

If you have plans, cancel them and see 'Speedy' (1928) instead. I'm accompanying Harold Lloyd's final silent feature on Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Rex Theatre in downtown Manchester, N.H.

More details in the press release pasted in below.

Even if you don't have a sweetie to bring along, 'Speedy' will help you fall in love—with silent film!

One of the great things about 'Speedy' is that much of it was filmed on location in New York City. So it's a great way to see what life was like in the Big Apple a century ago, at the height of the Roaring '20s.

And baseball fans will love it for the vintage shots of Yankee Stadium, and an extended cameo by none other than Babe Ruth. 

And insurance adjusters will have a great time seeing all the rides in action during scenes filmed at Coney Island.

So: something for everyone! So see you on Valentine's Day. Details below.  

But before we go...a couple of photos from a screening of Buster Keaton's 'The Navigator' (1924), with music by me, on Saturday, Feb. 10 at the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport, R.I.

First, me in front of the theater's custom poster...

...and then me inside the theater, actually on the stage in front of the screen setting up my speakers. I looked up to see my name behind me, so snapped a quick selfie.

*    *    *

An original lobby card promoting 'Speedy' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Classic Harold Lloyd comedy 'Speedy' on Wednesday, Feb. 14 at Rex Theatre

Valentine's Day screening features live music; 1920s rom-com filmed on location in NYC with cameo by Babe Ruth

MANCHESTER, N.H.—He was the bespectacled boy next door whose road to success was often paved with perilous detours.

He was Harold Lloyd, whose fast-paced comedies made him the most popular movie star of Hollywood's silent film era.

See for yourself why Lloyd was the top box office attraction of the 1920s in a revival of 'Speedy' (1928), one of his most popular comedies.

The film, shot on location in New York City, will be shown on Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

General admission is $10 per person; tickets are available at the door or online at www.palacetheatre.org.

 Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Harold Lloyd and girlfriend Barbara Kent ride the subway in 'Speedy' (1928).

'Speedy,' Lloyd's final silent feature before the transition to talkies, finds Harold as a baseball-crazed youth who must rescue the city's last horse-drawn streetcar from gangsters bent on running it out of business.

Filmed almost entirely on location in New York, 'Speedy' features remarkable glimpses of the city at the end of the 1920s, including footage of Coney Island and the original Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

The latter scenes include an extended appearance by Babe Ruth, then at the height of his career during the team's storied 1927 season.

"In 'Speedy,' New York City is practically a part of the cast," Rapsis said. "In filming it on location, Lloyd knew scenes of New York would give the picture added interest to audiences across the nation and around the world.

"But what he didn't anticipate was that today, the location shots now provide a fascinating record of how life was lived in the Big Apple in the 1920s," Rapsis said.

Rapsis will improvise a musical score for 'Speedy' as the film is screened. In creating accompaniment for vintage classics, Rapsis tries to bridge the gap between silent film and modern audiences.

"Creating the music on the spot is a bit of a high-wire act, but it contributes a level of energy that's really crucial to the silent film experience," Rapsis said.

'Speedy' (1928) will be screened with live music on Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

General admission is $10 per person; tickets are available at the door or online at www.palacetheatre.org

For more information, call (603) 668-5588.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

A weekend of 100th anniversaries with Buster Keaton in Newport, R.I. and Peter Pan in Somerville, Mass.

Buster Keaton cooks up some well-timed comedy in 'The Navigator' (1924).

Never mind the Superbowl—I'm attending a pair of 100th birthday parties this weekend!

This afternoon (Saturday, Feb. 10), it's Buster Keaton's 'The Navigator' (1924), which I'm accompanying at 4:30 p.m. at the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport, R.I. More info in the press release pasted in below.

Then tomorrow (Sunday, Feb. 11), it's the original big screen adaptation of 'Peter Pan' (1924), for which I'll do music at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. I've pasted that press release in below as well.

I think the Keaton screening is intended as a warm-up to Valentine's Day, while 'Peter Pan' is clearly family counterpoint to the Superbowl, which takes place later that day. 

Well, whatever reason works for you, hope you can join us and take in one or both screenings this week. Besides being the date of this year's Superbowl, Sunday also happens to be National Guitar Day and also National Autism Day. 

I don't know about you, but I can't think of better reasons to celebrate with a silent film screening!

See you at the movies!

*    *    *

Dressed for diving: Buster Keaton in 'The Navigator' (1924).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Classic silent seafaring farce ‘The Navigator’ (1924) at Jane Pickens Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 10

Buster Keaton's nautical masterpiece to be screened with live music at historic venue in downtown Newport, R.I.

NEWPORT, R.I.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

Acclaimed for their originality and clever visual gags, and also admired for their authentic location shots and amazing stunts, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The Navigator' (1924), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Saturday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Jane Pickens Theatre Film and Event Center, 49 Touro St., Newport, R.I.

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.

Admission is $16 per person. Tickets available online at https://janepickens.com or at the door.

'The Navigator' is a comedy that follows the adventures of wealthy nitwit Rollo Treadway (Keaton) and his pampered girlfriend, who find themselves adrift alone on a massive ocean liner. Forced to fend for themselves without servants, the pair attempt to cope with day-to-day life, creating classic comedy in the process.

But when the ship runs aground on a remote island inhabited by cannibals, is Buster's resourcefulness enough to save the day?

Filmed at sea on a real ocean liner that Keaton treated as the largest prop in comedy history, 'The Navigator' has been hailed as one of the most original and distinctive movies to come out of silent film's golden era of comedy.

The film is highlighted by underwater scenes, with Keaton in an oversized antique diving suit, that were revolutionary at the time.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts, including some spectacular examples in 'The Navigator.'

Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician who accompanies shows at venues across New England, said Keaton's films weren't intended to be shown on television or viewed at home.

In reviving 'The Navigator' at the Jane Pickens Theatre, organizers aim to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'The Navigator' 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 Navigator' (1924) starring Buster Keaton will be screened with live music on Saturday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Jane Pickens Theatre Film and Event Center, 49 Touro St., Newport, R.I.

Admission is $16 per person. Tickets available online at https://janepickens.com or at the door. For more information, call the box office at (401) 846-5474.

Critic comments on 'The Navigator':

"The Navigator looks and feels like it could be one of today's summer mega-blockbusters. It has a great, simple premise that includes the destroying of a huge set. It's endlessly imaginative, funny, inventive, etc. It's one of the greatest movies I have ever seen."
—Jeffrey Anderson, Combustible Celluloid, 2001

"His comic timing is brilliant. He says more in his face than most actors today do with their face and voices. It's a very funny story with dozens of very memorable comic scenes. A true classic."
—James Higgins, Turner Classic Movies, 2011

*    *    *

An original release poster for 'Peter Pan' (1924).

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Rarely seen silent film version of 'Peter Pan' at Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 11

Original big-screen adaptation of magical fantasy classic, a major 1924 hit, to be shown in 35mm with live musical score

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—It was the film that introduced movie-goers to visions of flying children, magical fairies, human-like animals and menacing pirates.

It was the original silent film adaptation of 'Peter Pan,' a picture personally supervised by author J.M. Barrie. The film was a major hit when released in 1924, with audiences eager to get their first big-screen look at the wonders of Neverland.

Movie fans can see for themselves when the first 'Peter Pan' (1924) is screened in 35mm on Sunday, Feb. 11 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville.

The program will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission tickets are $16 per person; seniors/children $12; tickets available online at www.somervilletheatre.com or at the door.

Thought lost for many years, and overshadowed by more recent adaptations, the original silent 'Peter Pan' maintains its freshness and charm nearly a century after its original release.

In the story, first presented as a stage play in 1904, three children in London are visited one night by Peter Pan, a youth in search of his shadow. Pan shows his new friends how to fly, and then convinces them to join him in a journey to Neverland.

There they encounter Indians, mermaids, and a band of pirates whose leader, Captain Hook, is Pan's sworn enemy. The children are captured by Hook and taken prisoner aboard his pirate ship, setting the stage for an epic battle, the outcome of which will determine if the children may ever return home.

Though the Peter Pan story is well-known today due to subsequent adaptations (and also merchandising that includes a ubiquitous brand of peanut butter), the tale was virtually new when Hollywood first brought it to film in the early 1920s.

In England, author Barrie gave his blessing to the first-ever screen adaptation, though he retained control over casting and insisted that any written titles in the film be taken directly from his own text.

After a major talent search, Barrie settled on unknown 18-year-old actress Betty Bronson for the title role, and filming began in 1924. The role of Captain Hook was played by noted character actor Ernest Torrence, who invented the now-iconic villainous pirate persona that would become a Hollywood legend.

The film's highlights include special effects that maintain their ability to dazzle even today. The film's memorable images include a group of mermaids entering the sea, a miniature Tinkerbell interacting with full-sized children and adults, and a pirate ship lifting out of the water and taking flight.

'Peter Pan' also includes a cast of animal characters played by humans in costume, including the family dog Nana and an alligator who serves as Hook's nemesis, lending the film a magical quality.

After the film's release, no copies of the original 'Peter Pan' were known to exist, and for many years the film was regarded as lost. However, in the 1950s a single surviving print turned up in the George Eastman Archives in Rochester, N.Y., from which all copies today have descended.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis specializes in creating live musical scores for films made prior to the introduction of recorded sound. Rapsis creates film scores in real time, as a movie is running, using a digital synthesizer to reproduce the texture of a full orchestra. He averages about 120 performances per year, and has created music for more than 380 different silent feature films.

"Improvising a movie score is a bit of a high wire act, but it can result in music that fits a film's mood and action better than anything that can be written down in advance," Rapsis said. "It also lends a sense of excitement and adventure to the screening, as no two performances are exactly alike."

'Peter Pan' is the latest in the Somerville Theatre's 'Silents, Please' series.

The series gives movie-goers a chance to rediscover the experience of silent cinema presented as it was intended: on the big screen using 35mm prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put all the original elements together, the films of early Hollywood still come to life," said Rapsis. "These are the films that caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

‘Peter Pan’ (1924) will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 11 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission $16 per person; seniors/children $12. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.somervilletheatre.com or call the box office at (617) 625-5700.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

On Thursday, Feb. 8: 'The Flying Ace' (1926) for Black History Month at Aviation Museum of N.H.

Kathryn Boyd and Laurence Criner star in 'The Flying Ace' (1926).

Up next, it's 'The Flying Ace' (1926), an aviation thriller with an all-Black cast that I'm accompanying at the Aviation Museum of N.H. for Black History Month.

Lots more about the film and details about the screening are in the press release pasted in below.

It's an unusual one for me because when I'm not accompanying silent films, I work as executive director of, yes, the Aviation Museum of N.H.!

People sometimes ask how I get booked to accompany screenings. In this case, I know someone on the inside.

Actually, because aviation was an exciting new thing in the 1920s, there are quite a few films that feature pilots and adventure. And newsreels of the time were full of mid-air stunts staged for the cameras.

So once in awhile, I bring my traveling circus/dog-and-pony show/silent film music addiction to the museum. Over the years, we've screened well-known films such as 'Wings' (1927) and not-so-well-known films such as 'The Flying Fleet' (1929) starring Ramon Novarro or the Monty Banks comedy 'Flying Luck' (1927).

I first encountered 'The Flying Ace' when it was included in "Pioneers of African-American Cinema," a collection issued in  2016 by Kino-Lorber.

I've since accompanied it many times, but I've been waiting to program it at the Aviation Museum of N.H. as a way to honor Black History Month.

This year seemed right. So on Thursday, Feb. 8, I hope you'll join us to experience one of the very films that survive from a time when film production was segregated—just like the cinemas themselves. 

*    *    *

An original poster for 'The Flying Ace' (1926).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Honoring Black History Month
Aviation Museum of N.H. to screen rare vintage aviation thriller with all-Black cast

'The Flying Ace' (1926), recently added to U.S. National Film Registry, to be shown with live music on Thursday, Feb. 8

LONDONDERRY, N.H. — Would discrimination exist in an America where everyone is Black?

That's among the questions posted by 'The Flying Ace' (1926), a rare surviving example of movies produced early in the 20th century for Black audiences in segregated cinemas.

'The Flying Ace,' recently named to the U.S. National Film Registry, will be screened in honor of Black History Month on Thursday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Aviation Museum of N.H., 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, N.H.

General admission is $10 per person. Member discounts do not apply to this event.

The screening will feature live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist and the museum's executive director.

'The Flying Ace' was produced by Norman Studios in Jacksonville, Fla., using professionals such as Laurence Criner, a veteran of Harlem’s prestigious all-black theater troupe the Lafayette Players, but also many non-professionals for minor roles.

Kathryn Boyd and Laurence Criner star in 'The Flying Ace.'

In 'The Flying Ace,' Criner plays Capt. Billy Stokes, a World War I fighter pilot known as "The Flying Ace" because of his downing of seven enemy aircraft in France.

Returning home to resume his former job as a railroad detective, he's assigned to locate a stationmaster who's gone missing along with the $25,000 company payroll.

While investigating, Stokes begins romancing the stationmaster's daughter Ruth (Kathryn Boyd), causing a rivalry with another suitor which leads to a break in the case.

With Ruth's safety now at risk, Stokes' dogged pursuit of the suspects leads to climax highlighted by a dramatic airborne chase which calls upon his piloting prowess.

Films such as 'The Flying Ace' were shown specifically to African-American audiences in areas of the U.S. where theaters were segregated.

Norman Studios was among the nation's top film production companies making feature length and short films for this market from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Featuring all-Black casts in stories meant to inspire and uplift, such films were popular with African-American audiences at the time. In Norman Studios films, the stories often took place in a world without the racial barriers that existed at the time.

In 'The Flying Ace,' Capt. Stokes is a pilot returning home from serving honorably in World War I—but Blacks were not allowed to fly aircraft in the U.S. military until 1940.

In an essay for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, critic Megan Pugh wrote that Capt. Billy Stokes "...is a model for the ideals of racial uplift, fulfilling aspirations that Black Americans were not yet allowed to achieve."

"At a time when Hollywood employed white actors in blackface to play shuffling servants and mammies, the Norman Film Manufacturing Company...hired all-black casts to play dignified roles."

"Instead of tackling discrimination head-on in his films, Norman created a kind of segregated dream world where whites—and consequently, racism—didn’t even exist," Pugh wrote.

"While it’s impossible to measure the influence The Flying Ace had on its viewers, it is reasonable to assume that audiences found its lead character inspirational. Billy Stokes was a black male hero who would have never made it onscreen in a Hollywood movie of the time," Pugh wrote.

Filmed in the Arlington area of Jacksonville, Fla., 'The Flying Ace' is an unusual aviation melodrama in that no airplanes in the movie actually leave the ground. The mid-air scenes were filmed in a studio in front of neutral backdrops.

Although 'The Flying Ace' may appear crudely made to modern audiences, in 2021 the movie was named to the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Of films produced for Black-only audiences in segregated theaters, very few survive. 'The Flying Ace' is unusual in that it survives complete, and in pristine condition. The film was included in 'Pioneers of African American Cinema," a DVD collection released in 2016 by Kino-Lorber.

A live musical score for 'The Flying Ace' will be created by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer who specializes in music for silent film presentations.

Rapsis, who is also executive director of the Aviation Museum, said the screening is a rare chance to see the film as it was meant to be experienced—on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The Aviation Museum is open Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $10 age 13 and up; $5 age 6-12, seniors 65 and over, and veterans/active military; kids 5 and under free.

The Aviation Museum of N.H., located at 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, N.H., is a non-profit 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization dedicated to celebrating New Hampshire’s role in aviation history and inspiring tomorrow’s aerospace professionals.

Named “Best Place to Take Kids” in southern New Hampshire in the 2023 HippoPress Readers Poll, the Aviation Museum of N.H. was recently awarded the prestigious ‘Non-Profit Impact Award’ by the Center for N.H. Non-Profits.

'The Flying Ace' (1926), a silent aviation melodrama with an all-Black cast, will be shown with live music in honor of Black History Month on Thursday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Aviation Museum of N.H., 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, N.H.

Tickets are $10 per person at the door. Member discounts do not apply. Advance tickets are available by phone at (603) 669-4877.

For more information, visit www.aviationmuseumofnh.org or call (603) 669-4820. Follow the Aviation Museum on social media at www.facebook.com/nhahs.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Warm up for Valentine's Day with Garbo and Gilbert in 'Flesh and the Devil' on Monday, 2/5

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in 'Flesh and the Devil' (1926).

Next up: it's 'Flesh and the Devil' (1926), a romantic thriller starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. I'm accompanying the film on Monday, Feb. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Garden Cinemas in Greenfield, Mass.

 A massive success that cemented Garbo's career, the film features love scenes that were not faked, as the two stars were involved in a heated affair during filming. Director Clarence Brown later said he just had to start the cameras and then stand back!

Lots more info in the press release below. But first, a few notes about last night's screening at the Campton (N.H.) Historical Society, an annual event that includes a pot luck supper and a considerable amount of small-town charm.

For example: announcements prior to my introduction included an upcoming Antique Snowmobile Meet sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce.  

When I got up to speak, I made the usual lame jokes (including one about the peanut brittle on the dessert table, which I said four out of five dentists recommended because it's so good for business), but then I realized something about the evening.

The scene prior to Saturday night's screening at the Campton Historical Society.

I found myself saying that as a silent film accompanist, it's been my privilege to be invited to perform in such far-flung and glamorous show-biz meccas as Topeka, Kansas, where I'll perform later this month at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, and Cleveland, Ohio, where I get to accompany films in March.

But, I said, despite the romance of these exotic places, it was unlikely that any of them would include announcements about the Chamber of Commerce hosting antique snowmobile meets. 

So the annual Pot Luck Supper / Silent Film Screening at the Campton Historical Society, traditionally held in the dead of winter, was special to me because it was home, or at least the small part of the world that was really familiar to me.

Dig in! The 'Pot Luck Supper' portion of last night's program.

Last night's screening was not without its celebrity guests, however. Prior the the show, when I was warming up at the keyboard, a woman came up to me and began chatting.

Her name was Danielle Freund-Buckman, and turn out she was the granddaughter legendary cinematographer Karl Freund's borther! That made her, let's see...Karl Freund's grand-niece, I think. 

So I introduced her to the audience, members of which of course would have no idea who Karl Freund was. I explained he was not related to Sigmund Freud, whose name was different anyway, but he was a cinematographer for many influential films in the 1920s, including F.W. Murnau's 'The Last Laugh' (1924) and Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' (1927).

I probably would have made a bigger impression by mentioning that Freund photographed 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi, and also directed Boris Karloff in 'The Mummy' (1932), and also an obscure picture called 'Moonlight and Pretzels' (1933) that is my FAVORITE 1930s musical, based on a single screening I saw at a long-ago Cinefest celebration in Syracuse, N.Y. (Another show biz capital!)

Instead, I mentioned the one thing that I knew would hit home: later in his career Freund developed the three-camera system used to shoot episodes of 'I Love Lucy' in the 1950s, and hundreds of sitcoms in the years since. Everyone perked up at that, and Mrs. Freund-Buckman was duly showered with applause.

The film was Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925), in the original version, which I've been played for multiple times in the past year after not accompanying it all for about a decade. 

In recent screenings, I've learned how to do music for the final cliff-hanging sequence (literally!) in a way that I think heightens the tension and the resulting laughs.

Take innocent music and keep it light and airy, with lots of pauses, as Chaplin and Mack Swain slowly discover their predicament. Only when Chaplin swings out the door do and everything becomes clear to the characters (although the audience has known what's going on all along) do you begin to amp up the music—in this case by taking the same music and boosting the tempo a bit, and maybe putting phrases in a minor key, but still keeping the texture as simple as possible.

In due course, you can ramp things up and get really big, but only right at the end, when Swain has escaped and found his mountain of gold, but Charlie is still trapped in the teetering cabin. 

And even then you have to cut out at the moment Swain finally peers back into the cabin, and a still-trapped Chaplin wiggles his finger to indicate he's still awaiting rescue. Why? Because if the big music continued, it would step on the moment. But with near silence, the moment produces an explosive laugh.

I followed this prescription last night. I'm not sure if the music really had anything to do with it, but audience reaction was huge, with people gasping and shrieking as the sequence unfolded, and then topped with a lusty cheer when Chaplin popped out just in the nick of time.

Less is more!

See you at 'Flesh and the Devil' on Monday night in Greenfield, Mass.—yet another showbiz capital! (By virtue of it being the hometown of Penn Gillette of 'Penn & Teller' fame, and who once worked at the Garden Cinema.)

*    *    *

Original poster art for MGM's 'Flesh and the Devil' (1926).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Garbo, Gilbert heat up the big screen in 'Flesh and the Devil' at Garden Cinemas

Celebrity couple fell passionately in love during filming of legendary silent classic, to be shown with live music on Monday, Feb. 5 in Greenfleld, Mass.

GREENFIELD, Mass. - Rediscover the passionate romance between early superstars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in 'Flesh and the Devil' (1926), the classic MGM silent melodrama that first brought the legendary Hollywood couple together.

'Flesh and the Devil' will be shown on Monday, Feb. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, 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 students. Tickets are available online or at the door.

Set in Germany, 'Flesh and the Devil' tells the story of a love triangle between two boyhood friends (Gilbert and Lars Hansen) and the amoral seductress (Garbo) who comes between them.

The two men are eventually forced into a violent struggle over the woman, who marries one but carries on an affair with the other.

During the shooting, Garbo and Gilbert developed their own highly charged off-screen romantic affair, the passion of which director Clarence Brown delighted in capturing on camera.

Though Garbo and Gilbert eventually went their separate ways, 'Flesh and the Devil' marked the very public beginning of one of the legendary romances of early Hollywood.

 A close-up in more ways than one: Garbo and Gilbert in 'Flesh and the Devil' (1926).
'Flesh and the Devil' is the latest installment of a monthly series of silent film screenings at the Garden Cinemas. 

The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by bringing crucial elements needed for silent film to work: classic films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and a live audience.

"These films are still moving and intense experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened," said Jeff Rapsis, who provides musical accompaniment for the screenings. 

"There's a reason people first fell in love with the movies. At their best, they were communal experiences in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone's reactions."

The appeal of 'Flesh and the Devil' has withstood the test of time. In 2006, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Reviewers have continued to praise the picture's many good qualities, often singling out Garbo's performance as particularly memorable.

"Pulsatingly romantic, beautifully filmed, probably the best Garbo-Gilbert love match," wrote critic Leonard Maltin, while David Parkinson of Empire Magazine wrote that "Garbo is mesmerizing in this wild and heated romance..." Carol Cling of the Las Vegas Review proclaimed 'Flesh and the Devil' as "Garbo & Gilbert at their steamy, sultry silent peak."

Upcoming titles in the Garden Cinema's silent film series include:

• Monday, March 4 at 6:30 p.m.: 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928). Danish director Carl Dreyer's intense recreation of the trial of Joan of Arc set new standards for cinematography and expanded the language of film in new directions.

• Monday, April 1 at 6:30 p.m.: 'Safety Last' (1923). The iconic image of Harold Lloyd dangling from the hands of a downtown clock is just one scene of a remarkable thrill comedy that has lost none of its power over audiences.

'Flesh and the Devil' will be shown with live music  on Monday, Feb. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, 361 Main St., Greenfield.

Admission is $10.50 adults, $8:50 for children, seniors, and students. Tickets at the door; advance tickets are available at www.gardencinemas.net. For more information, call the box office at (413) 774-4881.