CINEFEST: RARE FILMS AND A UNIQUE AUDIENCE

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by Leonard Maltin
March 18, 2013 11:06 PM
8 Comments
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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, John.

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. 

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8 Comments

  • Brandy Dean | March 22, 2013 4:05 PMReply

    This was my first Cinefest and I'm totally hooked. It was amazing to meet you and find you so kind as to stand still for my camera for a few minutes. The movies were amazing - I'm with you on the revelation that was "The Pursuit of Happiness"- but the most exhilirating part of the whole experience was the fellow film buffs. Finally I've found my people - and their eyes didn't roll back while I geeked out!

  • Walt Mitchell | March 20, 2013 9:25 AMReply

    GREAT to see you again! The way you conducted the auction was perfect--moving right along without the breakneck pace. I'm so glad that you aren't an auctioneer by profession, or I'd never have been able to understand or keep up with you! Your exhortation when selling that fabulous film collection was very moving, and I was SO glad that it resulted in the lot being sold, even at the $3,000.00 minimum bid!

    I was also relieved to read here that you conked out! So did I, and it was frustrating because it happened to me near the end of the movie I wanted to see more than any other: "Why Bring That Up?"! Fortunately, I woke up before it ended, but I later had to ask Gerry how Charlie Mack wound up in a coma and being taken to the hospital.

    Leonard, I watched the end of that film and was stunned at what I saw! I refer to George Moran bringing Charlie Mack out of a coma by prompting him with something that he knew and could respond to! To think that that fictional scene would be played out in real life decades later by my dear friend Mel Blanc and his doctor--absoutely amazing!

    One last note, so to speak: After the following movie, "The Woman Disputed," I went down to congratulate the pianist for his wonderful accompaniment. I also told him that, as something of a pop music historian, I had been aware that a theme song had been written for the movie, titled, "Woman Disputed (I Love You)," but I had never heard it. I asked him if he had played that during the movie. Without saying a word, he reached into his folder, pulled out the photocopy sheets of that very song for me to see--and then he GAVE them to me! WOW! Between all of that plus fun in the dealers' room, it was a series of memorable events! :-D!

  • Tim | March 19, 2013 11:26 PMReply

    I go to Cinefest mainly for the rare silents--like Behind the Door--but I enjoyed The Pursuit of Happiness more than anything else I saw this year. Clever and charming. The biggest disappointment was The Merry Monarch, which, for an Emil Jennings film, missed the mark by a wide mile.

  • mike schlesinger | March 21, 2013 2:41 AM

    Yes, PURSUIT was a real sleeper, and amazingly subversive for a 1930s studio film. MERRY MONARCH was indeed a train wreck, but in fairness, it's a bastardized English reworking of a French picture, so the Pangloss in me likes to think it might have been better in its original version. And let me second Jon Mirsalis' terrific accompaniment to the splendid WOMAN DISPUTED. It was swell to have him back.

  • Eli Savada | March 19, 2013 11:08 PMReply

    Sorry I missed this year's show, but a family commitment pulled me away. Can't wait till next year. Looking forward to a glimpse of Mike's film, too! Until next March...

  • mike schlesinger | March 19, 2013 7:01 PMReply

    Thanks for the hat-tip, Leonard! But please permit me to add that it wouldn't have been possible without our equally talented crew, most of whom have been in the business for decades. As I like to say, the only amateur on the production was me!

  • Norm | March 19, 2013 3:48 PMReply

    Maybe some of this material will show up on TCM...

  • Robert | March 19, 2013 10:42 AMReply

    Our Gang was one of my favorites growing up. It was probably around fifteen years ago, I was seven or eight years old, when my mom bought my siblings and me a VHS box set of Our Gang. It seems like something that one would have to special order or pay more for at a Barnes and Noble. (Relying on my faded memory) I think she had actually purchased it from kmart or walmart at an outrageously low price. It was a perfect series for such a large family. Eight kids in a small farm house!

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