June 04--We call them "silent films," but audiences 90 years ago heard thrilling live music when they saw such pictures as "Ben-Hur," "Birth of a Nation" and "Wings."
In the big cities, full orchestras would accompany films, making it easy to forget that the voices of Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow and Buster Keaton were never heard.
But even theaters in smaller towns would have musicians who added drama, pathos and humor to the movies.
Area movie buffs will get a taste of the way things were before the advent of sound films on Saturday, June 8, when New Hampshire composer and organist Jeff Rapsis provides the music at a screening of the 1927 blockbuster "Wings" at the Stratford Theatre.
The event is a fundraiser for the Friends of Square One Theatre, which supports the community theater company in residence at the Stratford Theatre.
"Wings" holds an important position in the history of Hollywood as the first winner of the best picture Oscar of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
"Wings" was released just before the landmark Al Jolson "talkie" "The Jazz Singer," which marked the beginning of the end of silent films. The 1927 hit was the only silent film to win the top Oscar until the French production "The Artist" was named best picture in 2012.
In an interview from his home in New Hampshire last week, Rapsis said he fell in love with silent movies while he was still in junior high school in the 1970s, thanks to a music teacher who used to screen some of the classics.
A decade ago, Rapsis was writing about classical music for a weekly New Hampshire paper when he landed a gig providing the score for a locally produced independent film.
Inspired by that opportunity, the musician and journalist provided the accompaniment for a local showing of the Lon Chaney silent "Phantom of the Opera" and he was off and running.
The mix of film and live music was magical for Rapsis. "It was like chocolate and peanut butter -- two things I enjoy but that are even better when they're put together," he recalled, with a chuckle.
Soon, Rapsis was moonlighting as an advocate and producer of silent film events with live music.
"I realized that if you could show them in a way that was similar to how they were originally designed to be shown -- on a big screen -- they still had a lot of life left in them," he said.
Silent films suffered for many years from improper projection, according to Rapsis. They were shot at a different frame-per-second rate that made them look like "flickers" when shown with sound projection equipment that runs at another speed. The images also would look darker because in the silent era they were projected with very bright carbon arc systems.
Those ongoing technical problems finally were straightened out with the arrival of transfers of film to video and digital projection systems.
While 80 percent of the movies that were produced in the silent era have been lost forever, Rapsis said "some of the best material survived (including such classics as) 'Birth of a Nation' and 'Battleship Potemkin.' "
Rapsis is thrilled to be accompanying the aviation drama "Wings" in Stratford because "this film is an astonishing experience ... one of the peaks of the silent film as an art form. The technical quality is about as good as it gets."
Director William Wellman was an aviator in World War I and was determined to make the flying scenes as realistic as possible. He also cast the biggest female star of that era -- Clara Bow -- as part of a romantic triangle that included two major heartthrobs, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen.
"The film introduced a fellow we all know now -- Gary Cooper -- whose role is small but very noticeable," he said.
Rapsis will be playing his own music on the theater organ, a score which he can change from show to show.
"It's not jazz -- it sounds like movie music -- but a lot of it is created on the spot. A collaboration in real time. I've told my wife I have finally found my niche -- collaborating with dead people," he said, laughing.
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Stratford Theatre, 2422 Main St., Stratford. Saturday, June 8, 4 p.m. $20-$15. 203-385-3855.
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