Charlie Chaplin and Scraps from Chaplin’s short film, “It’s a Dog’s Life.”
By Stephen Seitz
BRANDON – Silent film returns to Brandon Town Hall this coming Saturday night, May 2, when several of Charlie Chaplin’s legendary short silent comedies will be shown, accompanied by live, improvised music by Jeff Rapsis. The show begins at 7 p.m.
Rapsis has brought silent film to Brandon’s audiences for several years. He said the experience is like no other for the filmgoer.
“These films were meant to be experienced as part of an audience listening to live music,” he said. “A hundred years ago, films were made by theatre people used to performing for crowds. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they didn’t know the experience was like this. I brought these films to Brandon two years ago, and they were so popular I had to do it again.”
It is no exaggeration to say that Charlie Chaplin had more influence than just about anyone over the development of cinema. Chaplin became the world’s first superstar, and his Little Tramp character is recognized everywhere. His career as a feature film director is lined with classics: “City Lights,” “The Great Dictator,” “Modern Times,” and “The Gold Rush” all immediately leap to mind.
But every career has to start somewhere, and Chaplin cut his teeth in the knockabout slapstick comedies of producer Mack Sennett, who created the Keystone Kops. He left Keystone in 1914 and made 15 short films for the Essanay Co., followed by a period at First National. After that. Chaplin founded his own studio, and, along with director D.W. Griffith and stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., founded United Artists in 1919.
“Chaplin was the first,” Rapsis said. “He is justifiably famous for his features, but the short films he made when he was starting out are often overlooked. Chaplin said he was happiest during that period, when they were making things up and experimenting. He was much more than just a pie in the face.”
Rapsis said the silent season is starting a little earlier than usual because Brandon’s town hall theatre is so busy.
“It’s a real credit for the people who rehabilitated the facility,” he said.
Rapsis uses a synthesizer to recreate the feel of a live orchestra as the film plays. He said maintaining the proper mood takes care, discipline and skill.
“Live accompaniment is part of the experience,” he said. “I don’t prepare sheet music or plan ahead of time. The idea is to stay in the moment, bringing out what the film is doing. If the film isn’t performing as it should, I’ll tone the music down so that people can hear each other laughing.”
Modern restoration technology has brought about new interest in silent film. Old titles thought to be beyond hope have been restored, and the cinema world was abuzz recently with the discovery of a print of “Sherlock Holmes,” starring William Gillette, the first actor to become a star in the part. Many silent films are available on home video and can be streamed online.
The Brandon series films are screened on Saturdays and run from May through October.
June 20 brings the 1925 thriller “The Lost World,” a dramatization of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel following Prof. Challenger on a quest to find dinosaurs in modern times. (Before the film’s release, Conan Doyle pranked his friend Harry Houdini by showing some of the dinosaur footage to a magicians’ convention and pretending it was real.)
July 11 brings “Hands Up!” to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Comedian Raymond Griffith plays a Southern spy trying to prevent a shipment of gold from getting to the Union. Laurel and Hardy short films will also be shown.
Aug. 5 brings Buster Keaton’s feature comedy “Three Ages,” which has Keaton following the evolution of humanity from the Stone Age to the Roman Empire to early 20th-century Los Angeles. Keaton’s first feature.
On Sept. 12, Tarzan of the Apes comes to Brandon in “Tarzan and the Golden Lion.” Tarzan was one of the 20th century’s most popular action heroes, and features like this one spawned films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” later.
Finally, Alfred Hitchcock’s silent thriller “The Lodger” arrives to get everyone in the mood for Halloween. In this, the film which established Hitchcock’s early reputation, a woman has to wonder if the mysterious man renting the room upstairs might be Jack the Ripper.
Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. For more information, visit www.brandtowntownhall.org, and to learn more about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.