Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 21, 2013

Rebirth of an era: Silent films on the big screen


The Andover Townsman

---- — Residents can enjoy an unusual movie-going experience that turns back the clock next Wednesday.

The silent film era will return to the big screen at Rogers Center for the Arts on the campus of Merrimack College in North Andover, with the screening of a classic silent comedy and short subjects, all accompanied by live music.

Showtime is Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. All are welcome to this family-friendly event; admission is free and the show is open to the public.

Featured will be a full-length comedy, “Grandma’s Boy,” starring Harold Lloyd, a popular 1920s film star. Comedy short subjects will include “Neighbors” (1920) starring Buster Keaton and “Mighty Like a Moose” (1926) starring Charley Chase.

The screening, the latest in the Rogers Center’s silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating scores for silent films. The program will be proceeded by a discussion of the film starting at 6:30 p.m.

“Grandma’s Boy” tells the story a cowardly young man (Harold Lloyd) who seeks the courage to battle a menacing tramp who terrorizes his small hometown. Audiences loved “Grandma’s Boy” when it was first released, and the picture helped establish Lloyd as a major star for the rest of the silent film era.

Today, “Grandma’s Boy” not only can serve as an introduction to the magic of silent films, but provides a window into small town American life as it was lived a century ago.

Despite his mega-star status in the 1920s, Lloyd is largely unknown to today’s audiences, mostly because he kept control of his films and refused to let them be shown on television.

“People today remember Charlie Chaplin, but the silent era had many popular stars,” Rapsis said. “Harold Lloyd’s ‘average American’ character was immensely popular in the 1920s, not just in the U.S. but around the globe.”

With the release of Lloyd’s films on DVD, audiences are rediscovering his work. The reissue sparked a demand for screenings in theaters, where the Lloyd films continue to cast their spell on audiences, according to a Rogers Center release.

“Times have changed, but people haven’t,” Rapsis said. “The Lloyd films were designed to be shown in a theater with an audience, and to appeal to a worldwide audience, and their universal themes haven’t lost any power.”

Using original themes created beforehand, Rapsis improvises the music live as the films are shown. He has performed music for silent films in venues ranging the Donnell Library in New York City to the Kansas Silent Film Festival.

“When the score gets made up on the spot, it creates a special energy that’s an important part of the silent film experience,” said Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra for the accompaniment.

The Rogers Center for the Arts is located on Walsh Way on the campus of Merrimack College, 315 Turnpike St., North Andover. For more information on this free event, call the Rogers box office at 978-837-5355.