Summer series of rare silent westerns continues

WILTON – It’s a genre as old as the movies.

It’s the Western, and its origins are being explored in a summer-long series of rarely screened silent films at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Next up: on Sunday, June 20 at 2 p.m., ‘Salomy Jane’ (1914), an early Western, plus ‘The Old Oregon Trail’ (1928).

‘Salomy Jane’ (1914), the sole surviving film from the California Motion Picture Corp., tells the story of a gold-mining town in 1852.

The feature was considered lost until a complete print turned up in Australia in 1996, and has since been restored by the U.S. Library of Congress.

In ‘The Old Oregon Trail’ (1928), a farm labor dispute turns on an event that happened many years ago on the Oregon trail.

The film features spectacular location photography in northern Oregon with director Victor Adamson himself playing the role of “Calamity Joe” under the name of “Art Mix.”

Adamson, a rodeo champion in New Zealand, became a busy director and actor in Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” during the silent era.

The screenings are free to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre’s silent film programming.

This summer’s series of silent Westerns ranges from big budget Hollywood epics such as ‘The Covered Wagon’–the top grossing film of 1923–to obscure fare such as a pair of films featuring early cowboy star Yakima Canutt.

All programs will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

“Many of these films are over 100 years old, and so they’re not far removed from the ‘Old West’ depicted in them,” Rapsis said.

Here’s a line-up of upcoming titles:

• Sunday, July 11 at 2 p.m.: ‘The Covered Wagon’ (1923), the first big budget Western epic! Two wagon caravans converge at what is now Kansas City, and combine for the westward push to Oregon. On their quest the pilgrims will experience desert heat, mountain snow, hunger, and attack. To complicate matters further, a love triangle develops, as pretty Molly must choose between Sam, a brute, and Will, the dashing captain of the other caravan. Can Will overcome the skeleton in his closet and win Molly’s heart? The highest-grossing box office hit of 1923!

• Sunday, July 25 at 2 p.m.: Popular cowboy star Yakima Canutt in two of his best silent-era features: in ‘Branded a Bandit’ (1924), Yak is accused of murdering a miner whose family he was trying to aid; in ‘The Iron Rider’ (1926), Yak is cheated in a poker game, and later learns the card sharks are wanted men, prompting a pursuit for justice!

• Sunday, Aug. 8 at 2 p.m.: The first Westerns directed by a young John Ford, these two films feature popular cowboy star Harry Carey as ‘Cheyenne Harry,’ the outlaw with a heart of gold. In ‘Straight Shooting’ (1917), Carey plays a hired gun of cattle rustlers; in ‘Hell Bent’ (1918), Carey rescues a virtuous woman from banditos. A rare chance to see early Ford learning his craft.

• Sunday, Aug. 22 at 2 p.m.: Set in western Canada, ‘Mantrap’ (1926) tells the story of a New York divorce lawyer on a camping vacation to get away from it all, but gets more than he bargained for with Clara Bow, then fast on her way to becoming Hollywood’s ‘It’ girl. Directed by Victor Fleming, who would go on to helm ‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939) and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939).

• Sunday, Aug. 29 at 2 p.m.: Our look at silent-era Westerns concludes with the genre’s lighter side. In ‘Womanhandled’ (1925), Richard Dix tries to win his girlfriend by taking up the rugged cowboy life, only to find it not so rugged. In ‘Go West’ (1925), Buster Keaton sends up the legends of the West with his timeless brand of visual comedy; includes perhaps the most unlikely love story in a mainstream 1920s Hollywood film.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will create musical scores for each film live during its screening, in the manner of theater organists during the height of silent cinema.

“For most silent films, there was never any sheet music and no official score,” Rapsis said. “So creating original music on the spot to help the film’s impact is all part of the experience.”

“That’s one of the special qualities of silent cinema,” Rapsis said. “Although the films themselves are often over a century old, each screening is a unique experience — a combination of the movie, the music, and the audience reaction.”

The series of silent Westerns will kick off with a double bill of ‘The Lady of the Dugout’ (1918) and ‘Hell’s Hinges’ (1918) on Sunday, June 6 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Free admission; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre’s silent film series.

For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456. For more about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.