Monday, March 11, 2024

On Friday, 3/15: at the Cleveland Cinematheque to do music for 'The Last Command' (1928)

Original promotional art for Emil Jannings in 'The Last Command' (1928).

Just a few notes prior to heading out to Cleveland to do music this Friday for 'The Last Command' (1928), one of the greatest silents (in my opinion) and which, surprisingly, they've never run at the Cinematheque.

I say surprisingly because the guy who's managed the Cinematheque for nearly 40 years, John Ewing, has an encyclopedic knowledgeable about cinema and often includes silent film programs in the venue's schedule.

Somehow, director Josef von Sternberg's most powerful silent, featuring a towering performance by Emil Jannings that helped him win the very first Academy Award for Best Actor, never made it to the Cinematheque's screen.

Well, that omission will be rectified on Friday, March 15—and just in time, too, as John is retiring this spring after almost four decades of service to Cleveland-area cinephiles. 

It's been my pleasure to accompany Cinematheque programs over the years. And I appreciate the opportunity to head out for one last show during John's storied tenure.

Storied? Indeed—his impending retirement made headline news all over Ohio: here, and here, and here.

Happy trails, John! But not until I head out to Cleveland for one last round-up, which starts at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 15, and which includes not only 'The Last Command' but also a French film I've never heard of before: 'Menilmontant' (1926) from director Dimitri Kirsanoff.

Although it's my last screening under John's watch, it won't be my last visit to Cleveland as an accompanist. I'm already booked to do music on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2025 for 'The Lost World' (1925) at the 50th annual 36-hour sci-fi marathon at Case Western Reserve University, which is just a few blocks down Euclid Ave. from the Cinematheque. 

Okay, see you in Cleveland. But before I leave, a quick glance back at recent screenings, which included a seasonally and locationally appropriate showing of 'Way Down East' (1920) on Wednesday, March 6 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

I saw "seasonally" because the film's climax takes place in New England at this time of year. And "locationally" because the Flying Monkey is not that far from the part of the Connecticut River Valley where the many of the film's exteriors were shot, including the sequence with Lillian Gish adrift on the ice floes.

We showed the 1931 re-release version of the film, which is about 40 minutes shorter than director D.W. Griffith's original cut. People seemed to enjoy it, and cheered when Gish was rescued by Richard Barthelmess just as she was about to go over the falls. 

But somehow, to me it lacked the full-length version's monumental quality. The climax seemed to come too fast. Once again, I'm reminded that Griffith really knew what he was doing.

In other news, a screening of the silent version of 'Peter Pan' (1924) in my hometown on Sunday, March 10 brought familiar faces to the Bedford (N.H.) Public Library. One woman asked me about a weekly column that I used to write for the local paper—which I stopped writing nearly 20 years ago now!

Pre-show remarks at the Blazing Star Grange Hall in Danbury, N.H.

But the real highlight of the past week was my now-annual appearance at the Blazing Star Grange Hall in Danbury, N.H., where a capacity crowd enjoyed Buster Keaton and Ernest Torrence in 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928).

New Hampshire towns are full of former Grange Hall buildings that no longer house Grange chapters. But not Danbury, where the local Grange still maintains its own hall, which I think looks very much like it might have 100 years ago.

Although the programming includes a silent film program each year at about mud season, that doesn't mean new ideas aren't welcome. In that vein, last Saturday night saw the debut of a new "soup and bread supper" option to go along with movie night.

I was busy setting up, and I'd already eaten, so I didn't get downstairs until most of the soup was gone. Here's the impressive line-up:

This one seemed especially ambitious. Or maybe it was just the high tech crockpot used to serve it.

 And if the soup didn't fill you up, a makeshift concessions counter upstairs was ready for movie-goers.

The paper bags contain popcorn, freshly popped. Alas, Grange members sold only a handful of bags—maybe because everyone was full of soup!

And it was a conversation after the screening that gave me confidence that this was one Grange chapter that hadn't lost touch with its agricultural base.

What would happen to the uneaten and unsold popcorn? "The pigs would love it!"

Monday, March 4, 2024

Up next: 'Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) on Monday, 3/4 at Garden Cinemas, Greenfield, Mass.

Maria Falconetti in the title role of 'Joan of Arc' (1928).

From comedy to tragedy!

Yesterday brought howls of laughter at Harold Lloyd's antics in 'Why Worry?' (1923), which I accompanied at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Later today, I expect a very different reaction to 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), which I'll accompany at 6:30 p.m. at the Garden Cinemas in Greenfield, Mass.

It's a case not of Comedy Tonight, but Tragedy Tonight, and Comedy Yesterday Afternoon—with apologies to Stephen Sondheim.

If you're anywhere near Greenfield, Mass., hope you can make it to tonight's screening. 'Passion' is one of those films that really works only on the big screen and with live music.

So if you're in Cleveland, Ohio, Google maps says that's only a 10-hour drive. If you start early enough, there's no excuse!

More information in the press release below. See you there!

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An original poster for 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rediscovered classic 'Joan of Arc' to be shown at Garden Cinemas on Monday, March 4

Groundbreaking drama, long thought lost until a copy was found in Norway, to be screened with live music

GREENFIELD, Mass.—A ground-breaking European feature film—considered lost for decades until a copy surfaced in Oslo, Norway—will return to the big screen in March at the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, 361 Main St., Greenfield, Mass..

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), a film noted for its innovative camera work and an acclaimed performance by actress Maria Falconetti, will be screened on Monday, March 4 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Garden Cinemas' Silent Film Series.

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.

Directed by Denmark's Carl Theodor Dreyer, 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' chronicles the trial of Jeanne d'Arc on charges of heresy, and the efforts of her ecclesiastical jurists to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions.

The film’s courtroom scenes are shot almost exclusively in close-up, situating all the film’s meaning and drama in the slightest movements of its protagonist’s face.

Of Falconetti's performance in the title role, critic Pauline Kael wrote that her portrayal "may be the finest performance ever recorded on film." Her performance was ranked 26th in Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, the highest of any silent performance on the list. Falconetti, a legendary French stage actress, made only two films during her career.

The film has a history of controversy. The premiere of 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' in Paris on Oct. 25, 1928 was delayed because of the longtime efforts of many French nationalists, who objected to the fact that Dreyer was not Catholic and not French and to the then-rumored casting of Lillian Gish as Joan.

Before the premiere, several cuts were made by order of the Archbishop of Paris and by government censors. Dreyer had no say in these cuts and was angry about them. Later that year, a fire at UFA studios in Berlin destroyed the film's original negative and only a few copies of Dreyer's original cut of the film existed. Dreyer was able to patch together a new version of his original cut using alternate takes not initially used. This version was also destroyed in a lab fire in 1929. Over the years it became hard to find copies of Dreyer's second version and even harder to find copies of the original version of the film.

It was banned in Britain for its portrayal of crude English soldiers who mock and torment Joan in scenes that mirror biblical accounts of Christ's mocking at the hands of Roman soldiers. The Archbishop of Paris was also critical, demanding changes be made to the film.

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' was released near the end of the silent film era. About 80 percent of all movies made during that time are now lost due to decomposition, carelessness, fire, or neglect. But copies of "missing" films still occasionally turn up in archives and collections around the world, so researchers and archivists continue to make discoveries.

In the case of 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' the original version of the film was lost for decades after a fire destroyed the master negative. In 1981, an employee of the Kikemark Sykehus mental institution in Oslo, Norway found several film cans in a janitor's closet that were labeled as being The Passion of Joan of Arc.

The cans were sent to the Norwegian Film Institute where they were first stored for three years until finally being examined. It was then discovered that the prints were of Dreyer's original cut of the film before government or church censorship had taken place. No records exist of the film being shipped to Oslo, but film historians believe that the then-director of the institution may have requested a special copy.

For 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' Rapsis will improvise a score from original musical material that he creates beforehand, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of a full orchestra.

"What I try to do," Rapsis said, "is create music that bridges the gap between a film that might be 90 or 100 years old, and the musical expectations of today's audiences."

'The Passion of Joan of Arc'  continues another season of silent films presented with live music at the Garden Cinemas. The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and with an audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Rapsis, accompanist for the screenings.

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' will be shown on Monday, March 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, 361 Main St., Greenfield, Mass.

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

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Thoughts on how we all need a Topeka, plus 'Why Worry?' in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, 3/3

Harold Lloyd has big shoes to fill in 'Why Worry?' (1923).

Today's headlines getting you down? Then see a film from yesterday called 'Why Worry?' (1923), which I'm accompanying on Sunday, March 3 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Lots more info about this Harold Lloyd comedy in the press release pasted in below. With silent film, the audience is an important part of the show, so hope to see you there!

For now, here's a report from this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival, which took place on Friday, Feb. 23 and Saturday, Feb. 24 on the campus of Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. 

This was the 25th consecutive year I've attended this festival, which includes the pandemic year of 2021 when I staged my own version of it, "The Kansas Silent Film Festival in New Hampshire." 

Why have I done this for so many years? Well, besides the films and the people, I think it represents hope and renewed possibilities, at least on a personal level.

Setting up: Larry Stendebach and Brian Sanders hang the banner on the White Concert Hall.

I first attended it quite by random in the year 2000, just prior to co-founding a successful publishing business that's been a big part of my life ever. Something about the accidental nature of it all triggered something in me to move ahead with all this.

And not long afterwards, the Kansas festival prompted me to embark on my own silent film journey—one that's involved creating music for silent film screenings for nearly 20 years now. 

For a lot of us, our life path involves finding our own way to what we become. And for some of us, the path has to include random detours to make it uniquely our own. 

It's one thing to follow a good example and learn from the paths that others have taken, to stand on the shoulders of those who came before you. But it's such a human thing to want to explore and find your own way—to pioneer, to discover, to learn and experience for yourself.

So returning to Topeka once a year in late February has become something of a pilgrimage for me, with its own interior rituals such as fried pickles on Saturday morning at the Hanover Pancake House—itself a symbol of renewal, having risen from the rubble of the F5 tornado that roared through town in June 1966.

(Interesting fact: a local TV reporter in Topeka at the time the tornado hit is credited with saving lives by sternly warning viewers, "For God's sake, take cover!" The reporter was a young Bill Kurtis, today the announcer for NPR's 'Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me.')

And for me, Topeka has become a sort of Midwest version of Brigadoon: a distant community conjured out of the mist just once a year, a place where like-minded people gather to celebrate something most people don't understand or appreciate—and a place where I can pause and ponder what I've done, and what I can still do, to be the best version of myself. 

We all need a Topeka. In my case, it actually happens to be Topeka.


For a comprehensive round-up of this year's films, I point you to a wonderfully detailed write-up by longtime attendee Bruce Calvert of Texas. 

Accompanist Ben Model provides music for 'Mabel's Blunder' (1914), a short Keystone comedy.

For me, among the highlights was getting to hear other accompanists do their stuff for a wide range of films, and with large and appreciative audiences. 

A special treat was to finally meet and hear Donald Sosin, one of the big names in the field, who was making his first appearance in Kansas.

I had the privilege of chauffeuring Donald to the Kansas City Airport (at 5 a.m.!), and we got chatting about a wide range of topics. I was surprised to find Donald was in the audience for my stuff, and he shared some useful observations.

And then just like that, it was over—until next year. 

But until then, I'll continue with my own little circus, including Harold Lloyd's comedy 'Why Worry?' on Sunday, March 3 at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton.

More info below!

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A vintage lobby card promoting Harold Lloyd's comedy 'Why Worry?' (1923).
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent comedy 'Why Worry?' with live music at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, March 3

Harold Lloyd finds himself caught up in south-of-the-border revolutionary hilarity in inventive 1920s farce

WILTON, N.H.— He was the bespectacled young man next door whose road to success was often plagued by 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 'Why Worry?' (1923), one of his top-grossing comedies.

'Why Worry?' will be screened with live music on Sunday, March 3, 2024 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The screening was originally scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 18, but was moved to Sunday, March 3 due to a scheduling conflict.

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.

Lloyd's go-getter character proved immensely popular throughout the 1920s, with fans following him from one adventure to the next.

Lloyd searches for footwear in 'Why Worry?' (1923).
In the political satire 'Why Worry?', Harold plays a wealthy hypochondriac traveling abroad who gets caught up in a local uprising.

Thrown into prison, Harold is forced to use his wits to escape and rescue his nurse from the clutches of a dangerous revolutionary leader.

Regarded as one of Lloyd's most surreal movies, 'Why Worry?' features a cast that includes an actual real-life giant—8-foot-tall John Aasen, discovered in Minnesota during a national talent search.

Rapsis will improvise a musical score for 'Why Worry?' as the film screens. In creating accompaniment for the Lloyd movies and other 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.

'Why Worry?' (1923) will be screened with live music on Sunday, March 3, 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.