By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin March 21, 2012 at 8:31PM
Cinefest is a feast of rare silent and early-talkie pictures, with three rotating pianists (all of them gifted) providing accompaniment. If the only surviving print of a film is incomplete, like the appealing Clara Bow-Buddy Rogers romantic comedy Get Your Man (1927), directed by Dorothy Arzner, we’re happy to see what remains. If the only way to watch an early silent feature from theatrical producers Klaw and Erlanger is in a 16mm version copied from a paper print (originally deposited at the Library of Congress for copyright purposes), we’re curious. That particular film, Classmates (1914), turned out to be an interesting one, too, featuring Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Marshall Neilan, and Lionel Barrymore.
Today’s movies show off their visual effects, but back in 1920 director Emmett Lynn used a simple device to enhance the storytelling in his Tom Mix Western The Untamed. A bad guy and his henchmen are sleeping around a campfire; in a series of simple superimposed shots, we see what each man is dreaming about (killing Mix’s horse, conquering Tom’s girlfriend, etc.). This was an “adult western” in every sense of the term, and not nearly as flamboyant and kid-friendly as Mix’s later starring vehicles.
Content is also king in Hail the Woman! (1921), one of several films produced by Thomas Ince that were part of the weekend lineup, to tie in with Brian Taves’ newly-published biography of the movie pioneer. Not only does the story, written by the prolific C. Gardner Sullivan, attack religious hypocrisy, but it goes to great lengths to show how women are oppressed in our patriarchal society. At one point, beleaguered heroine Florence Vidor wonders aloud, “I wonder what God has against women?” and a sympathetic male friend replies, “Perhaps he blames them for filling the world with men.”
A special guest this year was the former curator of motion pictures for the Museum of Modern Art, Eileen Bowser, whose interest in silent comedies was underscored throughout the weekend with screenings of rare one and two-reel shorts featuring everyone from Stan Laurel to Paul Parrott. The Laurel short, The Pest, was shown in 35mm, which enabled us to read the signage on the streets of Los Angeles where it was filmed, in a newly-built neighborhood filled with young trees and Craftsman-style houses. (Side note for comedy buffs: Florence Vidor’s oafish suitor inHail the Woman is played by that stalwart of two-reelers Vernon Dent!)
MoMA’s Katie Trainor brought along a reel of tantalizing Clara Bow sequences the archive just acquired. It was apparently assembled decades ago by a projectionist who had access to prints, as many of the films represented are now lost! Katie agreed with my assessment of this as a “Clara Bow fetish reel.”
For the fourth year in a row, Ray Faiola compiled an enjoyable hour of coming attractions previews—although some of the programmers they touted looked notably uninviting. And for the third year, Richard Barrios (author of A Song in the Dark) presented musical numbers from a variety of mostly-obscure early talkies. What fun! I was humming “Never Swat a Fly” the rest of the weekend.
It would be impractical to discuss every title on the program, and I had to take periodic breaks for “power naps” to keep up as best I could. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Mack Sennett short Matchmaking Mamma (1928) with radiant young Carole Lombard and Sally Eilers, including a scene in two-strip Technicolor…a demonstration reel of the Multicolor process produced by Howard Hughes…an interesting Paramount feature, The Street of Forgotten Men (1926), featuring Percy Marmont as a successful beggar who uses a Lon Chaney-like device to pretend he is missing one arm…the 1940 version of Gene Stratton Porter’s bucolic novel Laddie featuring Tim Holt and a fine supporting cast (which raises the question, where is the 1935 version directed by George Stevens?)…and an amazing new find, in 35mm, featuring the Three Stooges in 1937 promoting a Pillsbury cardboard “movie projector” premium to be given out “in this theater.” (If only…)
The delightful Douglas Fairbanks feature Mr. Fix-It (1918) was just as good in a second viewing as it was when the George Eastman House restoration made its debut at last year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. And having not seen it since I was a kid, I sat through the sensationally awkward 1933 musical Moonlight and Pretzels. If you’re ever tempted to take Busby Berkeley’s production numbers for granted, check out this New York-made feature (directed by master cinematographer Karl Freund, of all people) and note the awkward dance moves and unattractive costuming of its poor chorus girls.
Even if a film isn’t great, or even good, it may have redeeming qualities, like the “swell modernistic house” where Sylvia Sidney and her sorority sisters live in the silly Confessions of a Co-Ed (1931). Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys make a brief appearance in a party scene, and the rest of the film features strains of such current songs as “My Ideal,” “Just One More Chance,” and “When I Take My Sugar to Tea.”
Being in a belt-tightening mode these days I didn’t buy as much as I have in past years in the dealers’ rooms, but there’s no charge for browsing, and there was the usual assortment of posters, books, stills, DVDs,16mm prints, and assorted memorabilia. More of the same turned up in the Sunday morning auction, which I conduct, including two unlikely pieces that led to spirited bidding: a box of miscellaneous 16mm shorts, and a Bolex 16mm camera in its original case.
Cinefest 33 will be held next March, and if I’ve piqued your interest, you really ought to come. It’s a wonderful way to escape from the daily grind and see movies you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. I can’t say enough about the Syracuse Cinephile Society, whose members put in so much time and effort (securing and shipping prints, booking the hotel and buses to take us to the Palace Theatre, arranging for a box lunch there, manning the registration tables, and more). They deserve praise and thanks for everything they do. For more information, and to sign up for an e-mail list, click HERE.