See silent film pioneers on screen in Brandon

A VINTAGE POSTER for Monty Banks in “Flying Luck” (1927), which will be screened accompanied by live music on Saturday, July 17 at Brandon Town Hall.

BRANDON — After a year in virtual isolation it feels good to take part in an activity with a group. One activity that you could do alone is watch an old silent movie. But it is so much more fun to watch the black-and-white film spiel out in a theater with the shared reactions of others in the audience.

Add live music to the experience and you are now talking about an evening of fun.

The Brandon Town Hall and Community Center is offering the group watching experience this summer with the resumption of its annual silent film series.

Classics from the silent film era are projected on a big screen in the historic performance hall while Jeff Rapsis, a true film aficionado and excellent musician, plays along on an organ or piano. Rapsis offer learned historical background and commentary on the films before every screening.

This year’s offerings include classic comedy from Monty Banks as well as a steamy performance from Greta Garbo.

It’s the 10th year of the town hall’s popular silent film series, which gives residents and visitors a chance to see great movies from the pioneering days of cinema as they were meant to be shown — on the big screen, with an audience, and accompanied by live music.

Screenings are held once a month on Saturday nights and run through October. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to benefit the Town Hall’s ongoing restoration.

Over the years, silent film donations have helped support projects including handicapped access to the 19th century building; renovating the bathrooms; and restoring the structure’s original slate roof.

In accompanying films live, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. He improvises the music in real time, as the movie is shown.

“It’s a real treat to return to Brandon for another season of great silent film,” Rapsis said. “If you’ve never seen one of these movies in a theater, take a chance and check it out. You might be surprised.”

On Saturday, July 17, at 7 p.m. Brandon Town Hall will host a program titled “Planes, Trains and Monty Banks.”

Banks’s real name was “Mario Bianchi,” but on screen he was “Monty Banks.” But both names are now forgotten, and so are most of the films he starred in during the golden age of silent film comedy.

Rediscover the unique comic style of Monty Banks with a screening of two of his surviving films. On the bill are an excerpt from “Play Safe” (1927) featuring a hair-raising rescue aboard an out-of-control train, and the feature film “Flying Luck” (1927), an aviation comedy inspired by Lindbergh’s successful solo flight across the Atlantic earlier that year.

In “Flying Luck” hapless aviator Monty is so inspired by Lindbergh’s solo Atlantic flight that he joins the U.S. Army Air Corps, where it’s one comical disaster after another. Co-starring is young actress Jean Arthur, who would later appear in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and “Shane” (1953).

“Play Safe” includes a hair-raising chase sequence set aboard an out-of-control freight train barreling through the California countryside.

Monty Banks was a short, stocky but somehow debonair Italian-born comic actor, later also writer and director. Banks has faded into obscurity in part because most of his starring films are lost or unavailable.

“Monty Banks was once a popular star, but that was a long time ago,” said Rapsis. “So it’s a real treat to screen these films and rediscover a gifted performer and visual comedian with a style uniquely his own.”

Emigrating from Italy to the U.S. in 1914, Banks first appeared on stage in musical comedy and cabaret. By 1917 he was working as a dancer in New York’s Dominguez Cafe.

After this he turned to films, acting and doing stunt work at Keystone, Universal and other studios.

Banks appeared in many short comedies until the mid-1920s, when he formed his own production company to make feature films.

Although successful, Banks never achieved the popularity of silent comedy superstars Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd.

In the late 1920s, he moved to England; after the transition to talkies, he stopped acting in films and instead concentrated on directing.

Later in life, Banks donated money to build several children’s hospitals in his native Italy, which are still operational.

Other upcoming programs in the Brandon Town Hall silent film series include:

• Saturday, Aug. 7, 7 p.m.: “Wild Orchids” (1928) starring Greta Garbo. Steamy romantic thriller just in time for the humid doldrums of summer.

• Saturday, Sept. 18, 7 p.m.: “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” (1926) starring Harry Langdon. Rediscover forgotten comedian Harry Langdon in riotous visual comedy about a cross-country foot race.

• Saturday, Oct. 23, 7 p.m.: “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923) starring Lon Chaney. Victor Hugo’s classic novel about a deformed bell ringer in medieval Paris, filled with classic scenes and capped with a thrilling climax.

• Saturday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m.: “College” (1927) starring Buster Keaton. Head back to school with Buster, a bumbling freshman who discovers sports is the only sure-fire route to popularity.

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