Showing posts with label Somerville Theatre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Somerville Theatre. Show all posts

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Ten Commandments (1923) with Jeff Rapsis at the Somerville Theatre

What's Easter without a good Biblical epic? When Jeff Rapsis told me he'd be performing at a screening of The Ten Commandments (1923) on Easter Sunday I knew I had to be there. I've been studying Cecil B. DeMille's life and work recently and was really curious about his part-historical part-modern take on the ten commandments story. And as Rapsis often reminds us seeing a silent on the big screen with live music was the best way to watch it.

This screening was one of several in the ongoing Silents, Please! series at the historic Somerville Theatre. There were about 50 in attendance on Easter Sunday. I overheard someone say that seeing a silent film with live music was something on his "bucket list". This intrigued me especially since I've been spoiled by many silent film screenings with live music and I forget that there are people out there who haven't had the pleasure of the experience yet. It's good to remember what a treasure it is to have talented musicians who love to perform alongside silent films and how we are blessed with the availability of many films from the past.

David and Jeff Rapsis at the Somerville Theatre

David, the theatre's projectionist, gave a brief talk before the start of the film. He  told us that Cecil B. DeMille's success with Biblical epics made him a household name. Audiences back then wanted to see a DeMille movie not because of the acting but because of what David called "that peculiar DeMille touch." DeMille knew how to do lavish productions and this was reflected in his work. David also went into DeMille's conservative politics and his involvement in blacklisting during the McCarthy era. I didn't understand why this was brought up except to give some context to DeMille's penchant for Biblical stories. DeMille also really liked to put sex in his films (Cleopatra and The Sign of the Cross anyone?) but that's a story for another time.

The Egyptian set from The Ten Commandments (1923)

The sets used in The Ten Commandments were full scale and not miniatures as Jeff Rapsis explained in his intro the film.  They were built in the Guadalupe Sand Dunes in California, quite a ways away from Hollywood. Since they couldn't bring back the sets to the lot and DeMille was hesitant to have them used for other films, they were bulldozed, covered in sand and hidden for decades. Ninety years later archaeologists found them and are keeping themselves busy digging up the sets to restore them for public display.

Carlos and I right before the film started
The Ten Commandments (1923) is almost two-and-a-half hours long. The story of Moses and ancient Egypt takes up the first hour of the film and is followed by a contemporary morality tale. We essentially get the history of the ten commandments followed by their significance in a post-WWI world.

As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and it's easy for us to judge the past. We can point our fingers at this film and make fun of it or we can chose to appreciate it for what it is: a fine melodrama with a religious message. I found myself happily lost in DeMille's style of dramatics, visuals and symbolism. I knew about the shift from the distant past to the "modern day" 1920s which helped because otherwise a viewer might be caught off guard.

I was intrigued by the film's consistent use of quotes from Exodus (and Numbers) for the title sequences in the first part. Those larger-than-life Egyptian sets are a feast for the eyes. The special effects used in the parting of the Red Sea will seem a bit hokey to contemporary eyes. To get the effect, the filmed water flowing over blue gelatin backwards. When you see it you can spot the gelatin right away.

The modern story in the film was used to convey several themes and storylines: the breaking of the ten commandments, the moral conflict between older and younger generations during the roaring twenties, a love triangle, sibling rivalry, good versus evil, corporate corruption, etc. They even managed to put leprosy into the contemporary tale.

This is the first film I've seen featuring actress Nita Naldi. She plays the French-Chinese seductress Sally Lung. Her character escapes from a leprosy colony on a shipping vessel and wreaks havoc on the life of Danny McTavish played by Rod La Rocque. Naldi's curvaceous figure and smoldering stare makes her the perfect choice for a silent screen temptress. I was quite mesmerized by her scenes and now I want to see more of her work.

As always Jeff Rapsis did a fine job with the musical accompaniment. I'm not sure how he can keep his energy ip through longer films but he does. I love tapping my feet to the music and am always excited to hear the dramatic music he plays during climactic scenes. He'll be performing again throughout the year at the Somerville Theatre and I hope to catch a few of his upcoming performances.

What film did you watch this Easter?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Peter Pan (1924) with Live Musical Accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis


On November 17th, Carlos and I headed to the Somerville Theatre to watch the silent film Peter Pan (1924) on the big screen with live music performed by my favorite accompanist, the talented and tireless Jeff Rapsis.

Watching this film was a treat considering how special it is. Peter Pan (1924) was the first film adaptation of J.M. Barrie's famous play by the same name. The play was also adapted by Barrie into a full-length novel which I listened to as an audio book before I attended this screening. I wanted the original story to be fresh in my mind while I watched the film. (You can check out my review of the novel on my book blog.)

Betty Bronson as Peter Pan

Author J.M. Barrie was directly involved in the production of this film. All of the inter titles are taken directly from the play's text, Barrie had approval of the actress who would play Peter Pan (it went to Betty Bronson after a very lengthy audition process) and because of his involvement the story stays as true to the original as possible. All of the special effects are done with as much creativity and ingenuity as possible in a time well before computers became a part of filmmaking. The children fly with the aid of wires that are virtually invisible, close-ups of Tinker Bell were filmed with actress Virginia Brown Faire alongside larger-than-life props and Nana the dog comes to life with the help of stage actor George Eli and a custom dog suit. If you are familiar with the original story, Nana the dog has remarkable abilities. She can bathe the children, feed them, tuck them in and otherwise care for them. It would not have been possible to accurate portray Nana with a real dog. However, a trained actor in a very elaborate dog suit will do just the trick. The costume comes complete moving eyes and mouth and a wagging tail. There are other animal/animal-like costumes in the film too, most notably the crocodile. The costumes are creepy by contemporary standards and they take some getting used to. The audience at the screening nervously laughed when Nana the dog made her first appearance. But once we all came to accept the weird looking dog, the other weird looking costumes seemed to fit in just fine. Legendary Edith Head is listed as an uncredited textile designer for this film. I wonder if she worked on the animal costumes?

This film is stunning in what it could achieve with costumes, camera tricks, props and clever set design.

George Eli in costume with Philippe De Lacy

There were two versions of the film made: an Americanized one and a British one. Even though the original story is absolutely British, the filmmakers thought an edited version would be more welcomed by an American audience. The term "British Gentleman' is swapped out for "American Gentleman" and there is an American flag and a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner is performed.

The cast is made up of actors who are relatively obscure today. The most recognizable name is that of Anna May Wong who plays Tiger Lily. Actresses Betty Bronson (Peter Pan) and Mary Brian (Wendy) and actor Jack Murphy (John Darling) got their start with this film.

The most bizarre and tragic trivia fact about the movie is related to the two young actors who play the Twins, real life twin brothers Winston Doty and Weston Doty. Not only were they born on the same day, they also DIED on the same day. The Doty Twins were victims of the New Year Flood of 1934 and perished at the tender age of 20. So sad!

There is another interesting bit of trivia which had the makings of a tragedy but eventually achieved a happy ending. Disney made Peter Pan into an animated feature film and released it in 1953 (J.M. Barrie died in 1937). And in one of those stories that make us all shake our fists at the mass media corporation, Disney sought to destroy all copies of Peter Pan (1924) so there would be nothing to compete with their film. And for many years everyone thought they had mostly succeeded with there only being some defective copies available. In the 1990s, one original copy, in good condition, was discovered at the George Eastman House. It was restored and all existing copies of this film are from that one original.

Now onto the screening! Jeff Rapsis gave a very informative introduction before the film. A lot of the information I shared in this post came from both this introduction and his posts about the film on his blog. Rapsis gives us much needed context which has proven to be crucial for a contemporary audience to be able to understand and appreciate a film from so long ago. Rapsis is passionate about the films he screens, always very personable and approachable, loves to interact with his audience and always very creative with his music. The music during this screening was excellent. I loved how Rapsis did variations of the Pirate Song (Yo ho ho and a bottle o' rum) during the climactic scene which features a face-off between Captain Hook and his band of pirates and Peter Pan, the Darlings and the Lost Boys. 

Carlos and I had a lot of fun at the screening. It was a great film, great music and incidentally the popcorn so delicious we devoured it all in a couple of minutes. Note to local fans of the Somerville Theatre, they are celebrating their 100th anniversary next year. The celebration will include lots of classic movies, including some silents with live music performed by Jeff Rapsis! I'll be attending as many of those screenings as I possibly can.

Peter Pan (1924) is available on DVD from Kino Lorber. It's also in the public domain and available to watch in it's entirety on YouTube. I included the movie below. Enjoy!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Safety Last (1923) with Live Musical Accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis

Last Sunday, Carlos, a few friends and I went to the Somerville Theatre to watch Harold Lloyd's Safety Last (1923) on the big screen with live music performed by my favorite accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis has been performing alongside numerous silent films throughout the Summer and Fall for the Somerville Theatre. The last one I went to was Ben Hur (1925) (you can read about that experience here). Jeff's performances are always top-notch and you are guaranteed to have a good time. He honors the silent films by showing them in the best way possible: in their original format if possible, on the big screen in a proper theatre and with live music. It's the way these films should be seen and makes for the most enjoyable experience. Jeff improvises his music paying close attention to what's happening on the screen and how the live audience is reacting to the film. He's a marvel, passionate about what he does and his performances are growing in popularity. I commend the Somerville Theatre for taking a chance and hosting these events.

Before each screening, Jeff Rapsis always plays some music to entertain the audience as they find their seats and wait for the show.

I was so pleasantly surprised as to how many people showed up for this event! Jeff Rapsis always brings in a good crowd but this is the first time I've been to one of his performances where the house was packed. It made me really happy to see this.

I brought friends to this screening. New friend RJ and my film loving friends Kevin and Lisa attended. As I mentioned before, my husband Carlos was there. I can always count on Carlos to support me in pretty much any of my classic film adventures. If he's free, he's willing to go with me no matter what film is showing. I think it's really important to have supportive friends and family who are willing to try something different because they see how much passion you have for it. A big thanks to RJ, Kevin, Lisa and Carlos for attending.

Jeff Rapsis had performed music for other Harold Lloyd films in his series for the Somerville Theatre. The Freshman (1925) screening had been a big hit (I wish I had attended!) and a lot of patrons came back for Safety Last. This screening was introduced by Annette D'Agostino Lloyd (no relation) who is a Harold Lloyd expert and has written a biography on him. She discussed the film and gave people some background on Harold Lloyd and two other stars in the film Bill Strother and Lloyd's wife Mildred Davis. 

Then it was time for the show! It has been quite a few years since I've seen Safety Last (1923) so it almost felt like I was watching it for the first time. And what an experience it was. We all laughed so much. This film is so exquisitely funny, has great comedic timing and I found myself slapping my forehead a few times at some of the hilarious situations the characters get themselves in. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Harold Lloyd plays a young man who is engaged to a girl. He sets out to the city to make a good living so that he can marry his love. He gets stuck in a dead end job at a department store and uses all of the money to send back his girl trinkets to make her think he's doing better than he is. His buddy (Bill Strother) helps him out of a bind when Lloyd has to pull off a big publicity stunt to get his department store lots of new business. The stunt? Climbing the department store's building, freehand! His buddy was supposed to do it for him but was otherwise engaged in a chase with an angry police man with whom he had a previous encounter. There was no other options for Lloyd except to do it himself. And of course, hilarity ensues.

All of my friends enjoyed it and Kevin even told me it was a new favorite film for him. The biggest surprise for me was Carlos who was laughing so hard throughout the whole film. Lloyd's character works in the department that sells fabric to ladies who want to make their own dresses. A lot of hilarious moments in the film come from Lloyd's interaction with his lady customers. Then it hit me! No wonder Carlos is cracking up. He works at a men's clothing shop and also has to deal with customers and their crazy demands. The film was resonating with him because of that connection. Huzzah! This made me so happy.

Carlos trying to mimic Harold Lloyd climbing up a building. Davis Square, Somerville, MA
The music performed by Jeff Rapsis was spectacular as always. There was one scene in which the Department store is having a sale and Harold Lloyd's counter is overwhelmed by frantic customers. A big lady stands in the back and pushes her way through the crowd. Rapsis gave her special music to both complement her and her actions. I laughed! It was so funny. Rapsis told me later that at one point he even stopped playing music for a few second so that the audience could enjoy their laughter. His music was great. It really complements the film and the live experience. I feel like each performance is customized for us but also to glorify the film. At the end, Rapsis got a huge round of applause and he always takes a moment to honor the film and to thank the audience. If you want to learn more about Rapsis' scoring of Safety Last and his previous experiences with the film and its music, check out his blog post.

Rapsis makes time after each screening to talk to any of the audience members one-on-one. He always recognizes me and gives me a big hug when I see him. So many people attend his performances so I feel special that he remembers who I am. He told me about his upcoming Peter Pan (1924) screening in November and I definitely plan to go to that one. It'll be close to my birthday so perhaps I can work it into a birthday celebration of some sort.

A big thank you to Jeff Rapsis and the Somerville Theatre for hosting such a wonderful event!

If you are interested in attending these screenings, check out the Somerville Theatre website or Jeff Rapsis' blog for upcoming shows. They are special event priced at $15 and are a great time!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Triple Ben-Hur Extravaganza!

Up until recently I had never seen any film version of Ben-Hur. Last Sunday I watched three in one day! Am I crazy? Maybe a little. But I thrive on challenges especially fun ones like this.

 It all started with the screening of Ben-Hur (1925) at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, MA. I went with my good friend Kevin.

Silent Film Accompanist Jeff Rapsis performed. (Read my previous interview with him here). Before Ben-Hur (1925) was screened, they brought out a projector and showed a rare 16mm print of Ben-Hur (1907). Yes 1907!  A gentleman (I didn't catch his name) came out to introduce the film to us. He made it very clear that he thought the film was silly and gave us permission to laugh. I take film history a bit more seriously and let's just say I wasn't amused.

Ben-Hur (1907) is a 9 minute long one-reeler. How did they get the entire plot of Ben-Hur into a 9 minute film? They didn't. This short film only shows a few key scenes from the story for example the tile falling on the governor and the chariot race. It was filmed on a very small budget and on Coney Island. Jeff Rapsis explained later on that the story of Ben-Hur had been so wildly popular that audiences then already knew the story very well. It's a landmark film because it was the first time filmmakers were sued for copyright infringement. Movies were so new that there wasn't any language in copyright law about adapting copyrighted works into movies. The publisher (Harper) and the estate of Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace sued the filmmakers and won. Filmmakers have had to pay for film rights for adaptations ever since!

Not knowing much about the story of Ben-Hur, I was a bit lost watching the 1907 version. I definitely appreciated being able to see a piece of history on the big screen like that!

After Ben-Hur (1907), Jeff Rapsis gave an introduction to Ben-Hur (1925), which was shown on 35mm. Rapsis pointed out that by comparing the 1907 and 1925 versions of Ben-Hur we can see
how rapidly the technology of making movies developed during that time. The 1925 version still stands up well today in terms of cinematography and story telling. The novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace was first published in 1880. It became a cultural phenomenon and a best-seller and one of the reasons it was such a hit was because it took a fictional story and placed it in the familiar context of the Bible and story of Jesus Christ. Before the movie adaptations, Ben-Hur was a hit on stage and theater productions of the story were common.

Rapsis also made note that filmmakers very gingerly approached showing Jesus. In the 1925 version, you only see Jesus' hand or in one see his outline at the Last Supper. He didn't mention this but the 1959 version obscures Jesus' face but the 1927 version of The King of Kings does not attempt to obscure Jesus at all. Director William Wyler decided to obscure Jesus' face in the 1959 version. Perhaps he was influenced by the 1925 version that he worked on as a young assistant director?

It took 2 years to make Ben-Hur (1925) and it is considered to be the most expensive silent film ever made. It was shot in black-and-white and in two-strip Technicolor. There are also some tinted scenes. Rapsis mentioned that during that era it was very difficult to shoot movies at night. Nighttime was often shown with a dark blue tint to give the sense that it was late in the evening.

I was quite impressed with the 1925 version of Ben-Hur. It clocks in at around 2-1/2 hours which is about an hour less than the 1959 version but I didn't feel anything was rushed or left out. I very much enjoyed watching Ramon Novarro in the role of Judah Ben-Hur. The audience at the Somerville Theatre was respectful and they only laughed at a couple of the romantic scenes. Jeff Rapsis did a tremendous job playing for 2-1/2 straight hours without stopping.

Later that evening, I decided to watch Ben-Hur (1959) at home. I had a copy of the Blu-Ray which was part of a larger boxed set of Blu-Rays that I own. The quality of the visuals on the Blu-Ray were so stunning. It may not have been fair to watch the 1959 version immediately after watching the previous one because I kept comparing them both to each other. In fact, I enjoyed the 1925 version so much that I kept trying to hold the 1959 to it's standards.

Both films were excellent feats of cinematography especially the chariot race scenes. The 1925 version seemed to be more focused on sharing the entire story of Ben-Hur while the 1959 version cut out several plot points in order to linger more on other ones. I thought the difference between how the two films portrayed Jesus was particularly interesting. As I mentioned before, Jesus' face was obscured in both films and in the 1925 version you only get a hand and one instance of a silhouette and in the 1959 version you see more of Jesus' form. There isn't much time spent on the Passion of Jesus and his crucifixion in the 1925 version but it's explored a lot more thoroughly in the 1959. I always, ALWAYS cry watching depictions of Passion and the Crucifixion. The King of Kings (1927) and (1961) both make me weep and I definitely found myself teary-eyed watching Ben-Hur (1959). Both Ben-Hurs depicted Jesus in slightly different ways but drove home the same essentials of his story. (Editor's note: I'm not religious nor am I pushing any religion here. These are just my observations of the story lines!)

I enjoyed both Ramon Novarro and Charlton Heston in their roles as Judah Ben-Hur. I can't pick a favorite out of the two, they both played their roles adeptly.

Watching three Ben-Hurs in one day was tiring but a worthy endeavor. I'm glad I tackled these classics and now have at least two new favorite epic movies!

The 1925 version is on DVD but might not be for sale individually. You can rent it on Netflix and TCM will be showing it on August 8th which is the Summer Under the Stars day for Ramon Novarro. Ben-Hur (1959) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. There is a 4-Disc Collector's Set which has Ben-Hur (1959) which has the 1925 version.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Phantom of the Opera (1925) with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis

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:

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