When people ask why my wife and I travel to wintry Syracuse,
New York every March—and celebrate our wedding anniversary there—I try to
explain that Cinefest is more than just a four-day marathon of truly rare
silent and early-talkie films. It’s also a “gathering of the clan,” a reunion
of old friends with whom we’ve spent quality time over the past four decades.
Not only is it fun to watch movies with this group, it’s educational: in the
audience are professional authors, archivists, and world-class specialists in
everything from silent comedy to copyright law. When I couldn’t remember the
name of a familiar character actor who turned up, younger than I’d ever seen
him, in the 1929 feature Why Bring That Up?, I turned to John Cocchi—who
can identify almost any actor in a vintage film, no matter how obscure—and he
replied, “Selmer Jackson…but I’ve never seen him without gray hair.” Thanks,
This year’s bill of fare was as varied as ever. Newcomers to film buffery who watch only classic silent movies get a distorted view of that era. For every Phantom of the Opera there were at least ten undistinguished, bread-and-butter pictures to meet the demand of entertainment-hungry audiences. On Friday, for instance, we watched an enjoyable 1926 programmer called Wild Beauty starring Rex the Wonder Horse, with some clever title cards and well-staged outdoor action, followed by Maurice Tourneur’s deliciously ripe, stage-derived melodrama The Whip (1917), which featured a train wreck that was staged just as we saw it—without any special effects. Rob Stone brought along a selection of silent comedy shorts featuring mostly-forgotten comedians from the Library of Congress, chosen in conjunction with historian Steve Massa. One of them featured Billy West, the most famous of Charlie Chaplin imitators; he had the costume, makeup and even some of the great man’s mannerisms down pat. The only missing ingredient was humor, at least in this example, Dough-Nuts (1917). Even the presence of Oliver Hardy and onetime Chaplin colleague Leo White added nothing to the film. On the other hand, a second show of comic rarities included an amazing artifact from 1915 in which comedienne Dot Farley goes so crazy for Charlie Chaplin at her local theater (where the familiar life-sized standee is posted outside the entrance) that she makes her boyfriend (Sammy Burns) wildly jealous. His only recourse is to try to pretend to be the Little Tramp! Unfortunately, the surviving print of this film is missing the conclusion, but it’s still an incredible find that bears witness to Chaplin’s extraordinary popularity after just one year on the screen.
Elaina Archer, from the Mary Pickford Foundation, introduced two rarities showcasing the beloved silent star: a 1912 Biograph short directed by D.W. Griffith, So Near, Yet So Far, with fleeting cameo appearances by the entire Biograph stock company (including Harry Carey, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian and Dorothy Gish), followed by the rarely-seen 1916 feature The Foundling, written by Pickford’s friend and collaborator Frances Marion. Its story of an abandoned child who suffers a life of drudgery at an orphanage and then in servitude to an unsympathetic landlady was copied, expanded and refined in several later Pickford vehicles, but it was interesting to see this early effort, mainly because it’s such a pleasure to watch Mary at work.
Other major silent stars were represented by little-seen starring vehicles, including Jackie Coogan in My Boy, made the same year Charlie Chaplin introduced him to the world in The Kid. This heart-tugging story showed that it wasn’t just Chaplin who knew how to showcase the adorable youngster…although the film was co-directed by Chaplin colleague Albert Austin. (The main title also proclaimed that it was “supervised” by Jack Coogan, Sr.)
The delightful Colleen Moore was featured in Come On Over!, a crowd-pleasing 1922 feature which was part of our 35mm screening program at the Palace Theater. Another film built on tried-and-true depictions of Irish immigrants in New York City, it won over the Syracuse audience much as it must have when it was first released, with such familiar faces as J. Farrell MacDonald and Kate Price filling their expected costarring parts.
We also witnessed the first public showing of film buff Michael Schlesinger’s faux 1938 comedy short It’s a Frame-Up, written, directed and staged to resemble a lower-tier comedy team at work. This is easier said than done, but Schlesinger and his talented cast managed to pull it off surprisingly well.
One of the unexpected highlights of Cinefest was a showing of home movies taken by comedian El Brendel on movie sets and locations in the early 1940s. It’s rare to find genuinely spontaneous footage of actors and directors at work—not to mention ordinary working stiffs walking to the commissary and killing time between scenes. I’d always heard that actor-turned-director David Butler had a bubbly personality on the set: now I could see it for myself. Two-reel comedy veteran Jules White was also known as a ham, and Brendel’s footage proved it. Glimpses of Bing Crosby, Gloria Jean, Curly Howard, and such comedy short-subject favorites as Dorothy Appleby, Christine McIntyre, and Vernon Dent got appreciative response from the Cinefest crowd.
One of my favorite discoveries of the weekend was a 1934 Paramount feature, The Pursuit of Happiness. This charming, witty romantic comedy is set against the backdrop of Colonial America and deals with the customs of the period regarding courtship. Francis Lederer plays a European musician who is shanghaied along with other Hessians who are forced to fight for the British cause—until George Washington lures them away with a better deal. Lederer escapes and falls in love with Joan Bennett at first sight. Her parents are played by Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland in fine comic form. What a treat to encounter a film from my favorite period of Hollywood that I’d never even heard of before.
The nonstop feature films—with exceptional piano accompaniment for the silents by pianists Jon Mirsalis, Andrew Simpson, and Jeff Rapsis—were punctuated by a number of rarely-seen short subjects. In The Fuller Gush Man (1934) main titles are replaced by Walter Catlett greeting writer-director Al Boasberg on the set and verbally introducing the costars and even the crew! Camp Meetin’ (1936) contrived a story around the beautiful vocal harmonies of the Hall Johnson Choir. And there were a pair of 1931 two-reelers directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle—the best I’ve ever seen of his work behind the camera—Queenie of Hollywood, featuring the un-charismatic “Hollywood Girls,” and Honeymoon Trio, a fast-paced sight-gag comedy starring Arbuckle’s nephew Al St. John, with Walter Catlett and Dorothy Granger.
No one would nominate Why Bring That Up? (1929) as a great movie, but I am consistently impressed by the creativity of legendary theater man George Abbott’s direction in his handful of early-talkie features. This vehicle for the popular blackface comedy team Moran and Mack is a vividly atmospheric backstage tale in which Abbott pays great attention to detail, with his roving camera and use of ambient sound, to give us an unvarnished look behind the scenes of show business…from his depiction of a theatrical boarding house to glimpses of how chorus girls rehearse and get ready for a Broadway opening.
I can’t go into detail about everything we saw—and I conked out periodically, causing me to miss some of the goodies—but suffice it to say that Cinefest offered a feast of unusual and rewarding films. A restored Our Gang silent played just before the recently-rescued Potash and Perlmutter comedy, Partners Again, found in an 8mm copy in the UCLA Film and Television Archive vaults.
Everyone who attends this wintry weekend event is grateful to all the volunteers from the Syracuse Cinephile Society who put on such a good show--at the expense enjoying it themselves.
If you have a large appetite for movies of the silent and early-talkie period, I encourage you to attend Cinefest next year. You’ll see one-of-a-kind prints that won’t ever turn up on DVD…or anywhere else. And if you get to meet some of the savvy people in the audience, you’ll have an even better time.