Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Opening night at Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine brings Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926)

Buster Keaton and his locomotive costar in 'The General' (1926).

Never mind Memorial Day weekend—a real sign that summer is on its way is Opening Night of this year's silent film series at the historic Leavitt Theatre in downtown Ogunquit, Maine.

And yes, Opening Night is Wednesday, May 29 at 6 p.m., when I'll accompany Buster Keaton's classic Civil War adventure/comedy 'The General' (1926). Admission is $15 per person.

Please note the start time was moved to 6 p.m. due to the possibility of a Celtics playoff game that evening, which the Leavitt would have shown on its big screen. Although the Celtics swept the Pacers in four games, we're sticking with the earlier 6 p.m. show time.

I hope you'll join us for this and other screenings in this year's silent film series at the Leavitt, which is celebrating its 99th year entertaining vacationers and visitors to the Maine coast. 

The theater is a great venue for silent films because silent films are what it was originally built to show. And although the place has been transformed into a night spot with upscale food and drinks now available, the vintage one-screen theater remains virtually intact. 

Rows of original seats sport wire loops underneath so gentlemen may store their hats during the show!

It'll be my privilege to create music for Keaton's 'The General,' which many regard as his masterpiece, including Buster himself. Nearly 100 years after its release, the film continues to show up on lists of the Top 10 Films of any era.

If you're not familiar with Buster or his work, check out this press release about 'The General.' And hope to see you Wednesday night at the Leavitt!

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Buster Keaton stars in 'The General' (1926).

Keaton's 'The General' to launch Leavitt Theatre's 2024 silent film series

Classic silent comedy to screen with live music on Wednesday, May 29 at 6 p.m.

OGUNQUIT, Maine—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.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The General' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, May 29 at 6 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine.

The screening will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $15 per person.

The show marks Opening Night of the Leavitt Theatre's 2024 silent film series, which gives audiences the opportunity to experience early cinema as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

'The General,' set during the U.S. Civil War, tells the story of a southern locomotive engineer (Keaton) whose engine (named 'The General') is hijacked by Northern spies with his girlfriend on board.

Keaton, commandeering another train, races north in pursuit behind enemy lines. Can he rescue his girl? And can he recapture his locomotive and make it back to warn of a coming Northern attack?

Critics call 'The General' Keaton's masterpiece, praising its authentic period detail, ambitious action and battle sequences, and its overall integration of story, drama, and comedy.

It's also regarded as one of Hollywood's great railroad films, with much of the action occurring on or around moving steam locomotives.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

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 in 'The General' and all his other silent-era classics.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will improvise an original musical score for 'The General' live as the movie is shown, as was typically done during the silent film era.

"When the score gets made up on the spot, it creates a special energy that's an important part of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra for the accompaniment.

With the Leavitt Theatres's screening of 'The General,' audiences will get a chance to experience silent film as it was meant to be seen—in a high quality print, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today."

The interior of the Leavitt Theatre, with its proscenium arch still showing the original silent film aspect ratio.

Opened in 1925 as a silent movie house, the Leavitt Theatre has operated continuously for 99 years. Although the venue has been transformed into an entertainment hub featuring upscale food and craft cocktails, the one-screen theater remains virtually unchanged. 

This makes it a great venue to experience silent films in their natural environment, Rapsis said.

"Not many theaters built in the 1920s have survived intact," Rapsis said. "That makes the Leavitt a kind of time capsule for movie fans."

Critics review 'The General':

"The most insistently moving picture ever made, its climax is the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy."
—Walter Kerr, author of 'The Silent Clowns'

"An almost perfect entertainment!"
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

"What makes the film so special is the way the timing, audacity and elegant choreography of its sight gags, acrobatics, pratfalls and dramatic incidents is matched by Buster's directorial artistry, his acute observational skills working alongside the physical élan and sweet subtlety of his own performance."
—Time Out (London)

The Keaton films are a great introduction to silent films for modern audiences, accompanist Rapsis said.

"Keaton's comedy is as fresh today as it was a hundred years ago — maybe more so, because his kind of visual humor is a lost art," Rapsis said.

‘The General’ (1926) starring Buster Keaton will be shown with live music on Wednesday, May 29 at 6 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Ogunquit, Maine.

General admission tickets are $15 at door or in advance online at leavittheatre.com. For more information, call (207) 646-3123.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

If it's May, then it must be time to start showing silent films with live music in Brandon, Vt.

Not-so-elegant dining: A scene from Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925)

...and sure enough, it is!

Join me for Opening Night of the Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall and Community Center's annual Silent Film Series!

The 2024 edition opens on Saturday, May 11 at 7 p.m. (hey, that's tonight!) with Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925), with live music by me.

Lots more info in the press release below, including the entire Brandon schedule now through November.

See you at the movies!

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A German poster promoting Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925).

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

Classic Chaplin comedy 'The Gold Rush' with live music on Saturday, May 11 in Brandon, Vt. 

Brandon Town Hall's 2024 silent film series kicks off with classic comedy featuring the Little Tramp's search for fortune and romance in the Klondike

BRANDON, Vt.—Classics from the silent film era return to the big screen this May at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, which will host another season of vintage cinema with live music.

First up is Charlie Chaplin in 'The Gold Rush' (1925), an epic comedy in which the Little Tramp joins in the Klondike Gold Rush. The film screens on Saturday, May 11 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt.

Admission is free; donations are welcome to help support ongoing Town Hall renovation efforts.

Live music for each silent film program will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer and composer who specializes in scoring and presenting 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.

Improvised foot-warming: Chaplin in 'The Gold Rush' (1925).

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.

'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."
The screening of 'The Gold Rush' 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.

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.

"It's a real treat to return to Brandon for another season of great silent film," Rapsis said. "If you've never seen one of these movies in a theater, check it out. These films were the pop culture of their day, and retain their ability to hold an audience and deliver a great time at the movies."

It's the 13th year of the popular silent film series, which gives residents and visitors a chance to see great movies from the pioneering days of cinema as they were meant to be shown—on the big screen, with an audience, and accompanied by live music.

Screenings are held once a month, generally on Saturday nights starting in May and running through November. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to benefit the Town Hall's ongoing restoration.

Over the years, silent film donations have helped support projects including handicapped access to the 19th century building; renovating the bathrooms; and restoring the structure's original slate roof.

The screening of 'The Gold Rush' is sponsored by Bill and Kathy Mathis in memory of Maxine Thurston

Other films in this year's Brandon Town Hall silent film series include:

• Saturday, June 8, 2024, 7 p.m.: "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Celebrate the 100th anniversary of this eye-popping cinematic spectacle; starring Fairbanks in top form as Arabian adventurer who must complete a series of epic tasks to save his beloved. Timeless tale told imaginatively and on a grand scale, complete with cutting edge special effects.

• Saturday, July 20, 2024, 7 p.m.: "The Cameraman" (1928) starring Buster Keaton. In 'The Cameraman,' Keaton tries to impress the gal of his dreams by working as a newsreel photographer. Can he get a break and get the girl? Classic visual comedy with Keaton at the peak of his creative powers; set in NYC and includes 1920s shots of Midtown Manhattan and the old Yankee Stadium.

• Saturday, Aug. 10, 2024, 7 p.m.: "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino. Sweeping drama of a divided family with members caught up on opposites sides during World War I. Breakthrough film for Rudolph Valentino, introducing the sultry tango and launching him to stardom. The real deal! Shown both in honor of the 110th anniversary of World War I's outbreak and the anniversary of Valentino's untimely death in 1926.

• Saturday, Sept. 21, 2024, 7 p.m.: "Speedy" (1928) starring Harold Lloyd. Harold's final silent feature cis a tribute to New York City, baseball, and the idea that nice guys can indeed finish first, highlighted by one of the most exciting races to the finish in all silent cinema. Complete with an extended cameo from none other than Babe Ruth!

• Saturday, Oct. 19, 2024, 7 p.m.: "Phantom of the Opera" (1925) starring Lon Chaney. Long before Andrew Lloyd Webber created the hit stage musical, this silent film adaptation starring Lon Chaney put 'Phantom' firmly in the pantheon of both horror and romance. Just in time for Halloween!

• Saturday, Nov. 16, 2024, 7 p.m.: "Barbed Wire" (1927) starring Pola Negri, Clive Brook. During World War I, the French government commandeers a family farm for use as a camp for German POWs, setting the local population at each other. Intense drama about forbidden love and the human condition, with a special holiday twist.

See Charlie Chaplin in the 'The Gold Rush' (1925) with live music on Saturday, May 11 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt. All are welcome to this family-friendly event. Admission is free, with free will donations accepted in support of ongoing Town Hall renovations.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Next up: Emil Jannings in 'The Last Laugh' (1924) at Epsilon Spires on Friday, 5/10 in Brattleboro, Vt.

A French language poster for F.W. Murnau's film 'The Last Laugh' (1924).

April showers may bring May flowers, and May brings the start of two season series of silent film screenings. 

On Saturday, May 11, I return to Brandon Town Hall and Community Center in Brandon, Vt. for a 13th year of presenting silent films with live music. First up is Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925).

Later, on Wednesday, May 29, I'll be at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine for the start of another season of silents with live music. First up: Buster Keaton in 'The General' (1926).

All the rest of each series are listed on my "Upcoming Silent Film Screenings" page, which is linked at the top right of this page.

But before any of that takes place, I'll be at Epsilon Spires in Brattleboro, Vt. on Friday, May 10, where I'll accompany F.W. Murnau's 'The Last Laugh' (1924).

More details on that screening in the press release below. Hope to see you there!

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Emil Jannings wearing the uniform that plays such an important role in 'The Last Laugh' (1924)

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

'The Last Laugh' to screen with live music at Epsilon Spires on Friday, May 10

Oscar-winning actor Emil Jannings stars in ground-breaking 1924 silent drama from German director F.W. Murnau

BRATTLEBORO, Vt.—'The Last Laugh' (1924), a German silent film drama about a hotel doorman demoted to washroom attendant, will be screened with live music on Friday, May 10 at 8 p.m. at Epsilon Spires, 190 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt.

Admission is $20 per person. Tickets may be purchased in advance at www.epsilonspires.org or at the door.

The screening will feature live accompaniment on the venue's Estey pipe organ by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician.

In 'The Last Laugh,' regarded as one of German director F.W. Murnau's best pictures, the story is told entirely in visual terms, without the use of title cards.

The film, a character study that chronicles the mental breakdown of an aging man who loses his position of authority, is also noted for its revolutionary use of camera movement.

Playing the lead role is Swiss/German actor Emil Jannings, widely recognized as one of the most versatile actors of early cinema.

Jannings would later move to Hollywood, where he earned the first-ever Best Actor Oscar at the inaugural Academy Awards for his towering performances in 'The Last Command' (1928) and 'The Patriot' (1928).

Critics and film writers regard 'The Last Laugh' as a landmark of early cinema.

" 'The Last Laugh' is a masterpiece of psychological study, perhaps the best ever portrayal of what goes through one man's mind under varying situations ... It is absolutely mind-boggling to see Emil Jannings age at least 10 or 15 years right in front of our eyes in the course of a couple of minutes," wrote author Robert K. Klepner in 'Silent Films' (2005).

Critic David Kehr of the Chicago Reader described 'The Last Laugh' as "the 1924 film in which F.W. Murnau freed his camera from its stationary tripod and took it on a flight of imagination and expression that changed the way movies were made."

The film's director of photography, Karl Freund, set new standards of cinematography in 'The Last Laugh,' setting up the camera to move through corridors and "see" action through a character's eye-view.

Freund's long career later included work in television in the 1950s in Hollywood, when he developed the "three camera" system for the "I Love Lucy" show, which became the standard format for shooting situation comedies.

'The Last Laugh' will be accompanied by live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who performs at venues across the region and beyond.

"Films such as 'The Last Laugh' were created to be shown on the big screen and in a theater as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life in the way their makers intended them to.

'The Last Laugh' (1924) will be screened with live music on Friday, May 10 at 8 p.m. at Epsilon Spires, 190 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt.

Admission is $20 per person. Tickets may be purchased in advance at www.epsilonspires.org or at the door.