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‘Steamboat Bill Jr.’ comes to life in Brandon on June 9

BRANDON — Silent film with live music returns to Brandon Town Hall on Saturday, June 9, at 7 p.m. with “Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928), a classic comedy starring Buster Keaton, one of the era’s top performers. The series allows local movie-goers to experience silent film the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.
“If you put the experience back together, you can see why movies caused such excitement,” said Dennis Marden, president of the Friends of Brandon Town Hall.
In “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” Keaton plays the bumbling son of a riverboat’s rough captain. When a rival brings a newer boat to the river, the family is forced to face competition, just as Buster is forced to ride out a cyclone threatening to destroy the community. Can Buster save the day and win the hand of his girlfriend, who happens to be daughter of his father’s business rival?
The film includes the famous shot of an entire building front collapsing on Keaton, who is miraculously spared by a conveniently placed second-story window.
Keaton, who grew up performing with the family vaudeville act, was known for never smiling on camera, an important element of his comic identity. A trained acrobat who learned at an early age how to take falls, Keaton did all his own stunts on camera in the era before post-production special effects.
Critics continue to hail Keaton’s timeless comedy as well as his intuitive filmmaking genius. In 2002, Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton that “in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.”
Keaton, who never attended school, did not think of himself as an artist but as an entertainer using the new medium of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.
Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations will provide the accompaniment. Rapsis creates the accompaniment on the spot, improvising music as the movie unfolds to enhance the action on the screen as well respond to audience reactions. He will perform the music on a digital synthesizer capable of producing a wide range of theatre organ and orchestral textures.
“Live music was an integral part of the silent film experience,” Rapsis said. “Because most films at the time weren’t released with sheet music or scores, studios depended on local musicians to come up with an effective score that was different in every theater. At its best, this approach created an energy and a connection that added a great deal to a film’s impact. That’s what I try to recreate.”
Also on the bill are two Buster Keaton short comedies. “Steamboat Bill Jr.” is the second of six silent films in the series that runs once a month through October.
Brandon Town Hall Admission is free and the family-friendly program is open to all; free will donations will go to ongoing building renovation and restoration work.

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