Silent movies are not silent, at least with Jeff Rapsis around

  • Jeff Rapsis will play music to the silent movie “Straight is the Way” at Red River Theatres on Dec. 9 at 5:30 p.m and 7:30 p.m. The film features fictional ‘Hampton Center, N.H.,’ a small town where a pair of big-city crooks hide out from the law. Courtesy photos

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    Jeff Rapsis will play music to the silent movie "Straight is the Way" at Red River Theatres on Thursday, Dec. 9 at 5:30 p.m and 7:30 p.m. The film features fictional 'Hampton Center, N.H.,' a small town where a pair of big-city crooks hide out from the law. It hasn't played in theaters since its original release in 1921, exactly one century ago. —Courtesy

  • A New Hampshire license plate is visible in a scene from “Straight is the Way” (1921), a comedy/drama set in the Granite State.

  • A vintage print ad promoting 'Straight is the Way' (1921), a comedy/drama set in the Granite State to be shown on Thursday, Dec. 9 at 5:30 p.m and 7:30 p.m. at Red River Theaters, 11 South Main St. in Concord. General admission $12, Red River Theatres members $10; for more info and to purchase advance tickets, visit www.redrivertheatres.org or call (603) 224-4600. Michael A. Dean—Courtesy

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    A vintage "Coming Attraction" slide promoting 'Straight is the Way' (1921), a comedy/drama set in the Granite State to be shown on Thursday, Dec. 9 at 5:30 p.m and 7:30 p.m. at Red River Theaters, 11 South Main St. in Concord. General admission $12, Red River Theatres members $10; for more info and to purchase advance tickets, visit www.redrivertheatres.org or call (603) 224-4600. —Courtesy

  • A vintage promotional ad for 'Straight is the Way' (1921), a comedy/drama set in the Granite State to be shown on Thursday, Dec. 9 at 5:30 p.m and 7:30 p.m. at Red River Theaters, 11 South Main St. in Concord. General admission $12, Red River Theatres members $10; for more info and to purchase advance tickets, visit www.redrivertheatres.org or call (603) 224-4600. Michael A. Dean—Courtesy

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    Silent film composer Jeff Rapsis, who specializes in creating live musical scores for silent film screenings, warms up before a performance during a screening of "Hula" at the Manchester Public Library on Tuesday, Mar. 3, 2015. ELIZABETH FRANTZ

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    Silent film composer Jeff Rapsis gives the audience some background to the movie before a screening of "Hula" at the Manchester Public Library on Tuesday, Mar. 3, 2015. ELIZABETH FRANTZ

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    Silent film composer Jeff Rapsis warms up on his synthesizer keyboard before a screening of "Hula" at the Manchester Public Library on Tuesday, Mar. 3, 2015. ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor columnist
Published: 11/26/2021 5:01:16 PM
Modified: 11/26/2021 5:00:59 PM

Jeff Rapsis plays music on the fly.

His instincts, a unique skill groomed over years in a unique business, take him down paths on his synthesizer that bring the audience into the moment. That’s important, because Rapsis’s music, often improvised, accompanies silent movies, adding body, mood and, essentially, dialogue.

His latest work is coming here, to Red River Theatre, next month, and Rapsis is doubly excited about this project, billing the silent film to be shown on Dec. 8 – “Straight is the Way” – as a lost treasure, viewed at its premier in 1921 and then never seen again.

There was no great urgency to show the movie before anyone else. But the movies’ connection to his home state of New Hampshire – it takes place in tourist-rich Hampton Center – plus Rapsis’s connections in the business set the wheels in motion for Rapsis to reach out and pursue it.

As for the town of Hampton Center, you’re right, it’s fake. It’s the place where two big-city crooks hide in an abandoned mansion and reform their ways after meeting a homeless family already living there.

The screenplay was written by two-time Oscar winner Frances Marion. It’s a legit Hollywood movie, but the original was disrespected after its debut and eventually lost.

“It’s charming,” said Rapsis, who lives in Bedford, “Eighty-five percent is set in a small town in New Hampshire, and it shows what people thought of New Hampshire before Norman Rockwell. It’s a bunch of hicks and yokels and ladies that gossip and incompetent constables and kids hanging out at the swimming hole.”

Rapsis did his homework to prepare for the gig next month. He watches the movie ahead of time, chooses the sound he wants for a certain scene and formulates a plan.

Often, however, Rapsis doesn’t watch the movie first, having no time and leaving him at the mercy of his instinctive nature, built on split-second decision making.

“Sometimes ideas occur right at the keyboard in real time, while the movie is running,” Rapsis said. “If it’s good and seems to work, I’ll stick with it and see where it goes. If it doesn’t work, I’ll stop and go in another direction.”

Emotions like happiness and sadness, fear and anger, are interpreted in Rapsis’s mind in a flash, the message sent to his hands that work the 88 keys, on an instrument more robust than a regular piano.

“You can shift texture by how hard you press the keys,” Rapsis said. “Press hard, and you might add bass and percussion. You can do a good job of recreating a whole orchestra. It’s a big toy box that I get to play with to make films come to life.”

He said the process of creating on the spot has been therapeutic. “I get to sit down, and for a couple of hours at a time, it feels like you have a good cry,” Rapsis explained. “I express big emotions through music, and I would be a menace to society without it.”

He played in bands as a student at Nashua High and in college days, telling me he “played any instrument in the band that was needed.” He favored piano and bass tuba.

Rapsis founded the Manchester-based HippoPress, which he helped lead for 20 years. He doubled as an arts writer and covered music, meeting people in the business along the way.

Now he’s the executive director of the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire in Londonderry.

And, like a vintage Jerry Garcia jam, he improvises his way through about 100 silent movies per year. He’s performed at Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass., and in London and San Francisco.

This movie, the story goes, was shown in the spring of 1921, then never again. Ed Lorusso, known as Maine’ master of silent film restoration, heard that the movie was part of a collection at the Library of Congress. He raised about $5,000 last spring to pay the Library of Congress to digitize “Straight is the Way.”

Now a DVD, Rapsis, who had already met Lorusso, was lured by the movie’s setting and secured the rights to show the film here, for the first time in 100 years.

Demand for the movie was nonexistent, except from the silent film accompanist who will perform next month at Red River.

“It was an average motion picture with no one famous in it, no real call for it to be screened anywhere else,” Rapsis said. “Prior to that, no one was interested in the title or had made any efforts to view or screen it.”

It wasn’t really shot in New Hampshire, Rapsis said. The NH license plates shown on two different cars at two different times in the movie told him that.

That won’t impact what he does next month. He’s ready with a pre-plan that will still require plenty of improvisation and creativity. Silent movies of the day often were accompanied by live music.

In this case, it’s an encore performance, 100 years later.

“The film looks beautiful,” Rapsis said. “The digital print looks sharp and looks as good as it looked in the theater. Hopefully, it will open hearts and minds that films from then have a lot to contribute today.”

“This film seemed of great interest because of the native New Hampshire angle,” Rapsis said. “I thought that would be a great way to remind people that we have Red River and these films should be watched on the big screen with live music. The audience can react to it.”


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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