It's one thing to watch a silent film but it's quite another to watch it on the big screen with a performer playing live music to go with the film. The movie just comes alive in a way that it doesn't with prerecorded music. Jeff Rapsis is a very talented silent film accompanist and on Sunday October 21st a few friends, my husband and I got to see Jeff perform his live improvised music alongside a screening of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). It was a great way to celebrate Halloween, live music and classic film.
Carlos doesn't know how to smile for the camera.
Lisa, Frank and Diane.
Kevin and I
And I brought Cranberry Pecan Muffins for my friends!
Jeff Rapsis improvises his music. He comes up with some musical material ahead of time but nothing is written down. He reacts to the film, gets energy and inspiration from the audience's reaction and that's how the magic happens.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is one of the earliest horror films. The Phantom, Erik, as portrayed by Lon Chaney is truly evil. Whatever sympathy you have for him because of his unfortunately terrifying visage and his status as an outcast from society, is annulled by witnessing his selfish and greedy behavior. He desires Christine (Mary Philbin) and there is nothing that will stop him from obtaining her.
Fun fact about The Phantom of the Opera (1925): Carla Laemmle, niece of Universal Studios mogul Carl Laemmle, appears in a bit part as a prima ballerina in the film. She is still alive today (as of October 2012) and just recently celebrated her 103rd birthday.
The substantial gap in time from the present and when this film was made puts contemporary audiences at a bit of a disadvantage. It's hard for some of us to appreciate the over-the-top theatrics, especially those displayed by Mary Philbin's Christine as she expresses fear of the Phantom and Lon Chaney's hand and arm motions as he expresses terror as the Phantom. However, what I believe keeps modern viewers coming back to the film is it's historical importance, it's striking visuals and the various critical themes in the story including isolation, oppression, jealousy, manipulation, death, revelry, love, greed and mob mentality. The one theme I think is the most interesting is the mob mentality (spoiler ahead). The people of the town and the workers of the opera house are sick and tired of being held in a state of fear by this shadowy figure. They all get together and chase him out of the opera house and physically express their hatred upon his mortal body. Years of oppression and the kidnapping of Christine pushed them all over the edge.
The audience at the Somerville Theater laughed a lot at some of the more overly dramatic theatrics and at some of the title cards but overall I felt they were very respectful of the movie. Many people came up to Jeff Rapsis at the end of the show to thank him and to express their gratitude for the experience. It was a packed house too. I figured at least over a hundred people were in attendance!
Jeff Rapsis did a wonderful job accompanying his style of improvised music to the screening of The Phantom of the Opera. This time he used the theater's speakers rather than his own so it was pretty loud but not too loud for us not to be able to enjoy it. I kept tapping my foot and my hands to various beats of the music. It's hard to put into words just how special an experience like this is especially when it's orchestrated by someone as talented as Jeff Rapsis.
The version of the film showed was a 35mm print with color plates that Jeff borrowed from a collector in California. The color is amazing especially in the big party scene where the Phantom makes appearance dressed as the "Red Death". Jeff Rapsis plays on a digital synthesizer which reproduces the sounds of a full orchestra. He makes a point of never letting the music overpower the movie.
It has been quite a while since I've seen a classic movie at the Somerville Theater. Jeff Rapsis explained to me that the theater had been upgrading to a digital screening method in order to be able to show more first run movies. Their 35mm projector had to be put aside for the time being. However, recently they finished their upgrade and restored their projector so they can show both digital and 35mm film. For the future, this means more classic movies and more appearances by Jeff Rapsis including a Valentine's Day themed one in February for Harold Lloyd's silent comedy Girl Shy (1924).
Thanks again Jeff Rapsis for a wonderful experience!
Posts about Jeff Rapsis and his performances: