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Rare Films Get New Life At Cinefest

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by Leonard Maltin
March 19, 2014 2:42 PM
6 Comments
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Adolphe Menjou and sexy Joan Marsh in "Bachelor’s Affairs."

A little-known 1932 comedy gem starring Adolphe Menjou was the audience favorite at this year’s Cinefest in Syracuse, New York. Bachelor’s Affairs got good notices from Photoplay and The New York Times when it debuted, but it’s been forgotten in the decades since and was never released to television. There’s just one word to describe it: hilarious. UCLA Film and Television Archives provided this and other 16mm prints it happens to have in its vaults. Given the response it received, I suspect it will now be a candidate for full-fledged restoration in 35mm.

As a successful businessman, Menjou (graying at the temples) is a prime patsy for fortune-hunting Minna Gombell, who forces her beautiful but brainless sister (Joan Marsh) on the unmarried millionaire, determined to make a match. It works while they’re enjoying an ocean cruise, but once Menjou returns home, his savvy business partner (Alan Dinehart), loyal secretary (Irene Purcell), and sardonic butler (Herbert Mundin) try to steer him straight. Fox contract director Alfred Werker and staff writers Barry Conners and Philip Klein outdid themselves with this snappy adaptation of a play called Precious by James Forbes. One of its many lines of dialogue—which I hope I’m quoting correctly—is “Every man has a price, and every woman has a figure.”

Other discoveries from this Fox cache include The Sky Hawk (1930), a World War One aviation yarn set in England that hasn’t much to offer in the way of plot or dialogue; in fact, it’s almost a self-parody of stiff-upper-lip British stereotypes. Raw-ther! What makes it memorable is a climactic dramatization of a zeppelin raid over London, done entirely with miniatures and sleight-of-hand. One can’t help but wonder if Fox was inspired to make this to compete with Howard Hughes’ ongoing production of Hell’s Angels, which didn’t show up in theaters until later in 1930.

Another enjoyable discovery (which I missed at UCLA’s Festival of Preservation) is Not Exactly Gentlemen (1931), a remake of John Ford’s wonderful silent feature Three Bad Men starring Victor McLaglen, Lew Cody, and Eddie (billed as Edward) Gribbon. Fay Wray plays the young woman who’s lost her father in an Indian raid on their wagon train; she carries with her the map to a lode of gold, which bad guy Robert Warwick is determined to steal. The early talkie uses stock footage from the 1926 movie to dramatize a massive land rush, and while it’s no match for Three Bad Men it’s still an entertaining picture.

Victor McLaglen, Fay Wray, and David Worth in "Not Exactly Gentlemen"

Every day, from Thursday through Sunday, was packed with short subjects and feature films of interest—more than anyone could possibly take in. Ray Faiola contributed his annual tribute to coming attractions, and Richard Barrios offered another selection of early-talkie musical clips, which are always great fun. Two recent restorations from the Library of Congress were shown digitally. Casey at the Bat (1927) stars Wallace Beery, ZaSu Pitts, and an impossibly young Sterling Holloway. It bears no relation to Ernest Thayer’s famous poem, and even changes the name of Casey’s home town from Mudville to Centerville, for no discernible reason…but it’s an enjoyable comedy nonetheless. Partners in Crime (1928) is one of many late ‘20s films that teamed Beery with Raymond Hatton, and it’s pretty funny, too—especially with George Marion, Jr.’s amusing title cards.

Five—count ‘em, five—talented pianists took turns accompanying the many silent films on this year’s schedule: Jeff Rapsis, Makia Matsumura, first-timer Judith Rosenberg, old friend and Cinephile Jon Mirsalis, and Ben Model, who also delivered an eye-opening illustrated lecture called Undercranking: The Magic Behind the Slapstick. Cinefest programmer Rick Scheckman saw this presentation at the Library of Congress’ Mostly Lost event last year and asked Ben if he would reprise it for us in Syracuse. I’m so glad he did. Experts have debated the issue of proper projection speed for silent films over the years, but Ben shows—through repeated examples using Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd—how the great comedians counted on their films being run faster than they were shot. You can see some of these HERE at Silent Film Speed and hear first-hand how Ben has thought through this concept. As icing on the cake, he discovered an entry on silent film acting written by leading man Milton Sills for the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1929.

He writes, “While the normal speed of the camera in filming a performance is 16 pictures a second, or 60ft. of film per minute, when the picture is projected in a theatre, it is the custom to run it at the rate of 24 pictures per second, or 90ft. per minute. This, together with the fact that the film does not record movement as adequately as the eye, makes it necessary for the actor to adopt a more deliberate tempo than that of the stage or of real life. He must learn to time his action in accordance with the requirements of the camera, making it neither too fast nor too slow – a process of education only to be acquired through experience in the studio. The first mark of a novice is the rapidity and jerkiness of his movements, registered upon the screen as blurred and meaningless streaks. Another essential feature of the screen actor’s technique is a careful spacing of significant items which constitute the sequence of the scene. One thing and one thing only must be done at a time, and this in a clean-cut and distinct style with no distracting, irrelevant or unnecessary movements.” Model goes on to explain that Sills’ only error was in referring to 16fps as “standard,” which a mountain of evidence now shows to be untrue.

Through the final day of Cinefest there were pleasant surprises, like a gorgeous 16mm print of The Devil Horse (1926) starring Yakima Canutt and Rex, King of Wild Horses. What a terrific, action-packed Western. Monty Banks’ Flying Luck (1927) rounded out the long weekend with a briskly-paced farce filled with sight gags and stunts…and a winsome leading lady played by young Jean Arthur.

Several friends were stymied in their efforts to get to Syracuse by a late winter storm. (My wife and I were held up in Chicago because our plane—still in St. Louis—had mechanical problems. We waited it out and arrived in snowy Syracuse at 3 a.m.!) They were missed, as this annual gathering is as much a reunion as it is an occasion for marathon movie-watching. We’re already looking forward to next year, which will mark the 35th anniversary of Cinefest.      

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6 Comments

  • Jessica | March 21, 2014 9:21 PMReply

    I think the overall consensus was that Bachelor's Affairs was the top film but I also really liked the very dark and nasty William S Hart film, The Darkening Trail. Overall Main Street to Broadway was not so good but I LOVED the bit with Tallulah Bankhead callling Leo Durocher in the Giant's dugout and telling to pull the pitcher in the 9th inning.

  • JOHN | March 20, 2014 8:19 PMReply

    The Menjou movie was hilarious. "Casey at the Bat" was good. So was...
    Wait, I enjoyed the entire weekend and can't wait for next year!

  • Lee | March 20, 2014 1:06 AMReply

    STILL no one bringing "The Gravy Train" and Michael Apted's "Stardust" back?! When are they gonna get shown? My mom saw them when they got released, but neither movie got released on video, and they're still not available on DVD.

  • Norm | March 19, 2014 4:01 PMReply

    One can only hope that TCM is listening, as well as watching, and promotes these films to their already over burdened schedule.
    How is that for a title ,LM, "Still in St. Louis..." could be a story there...

  • Karen Snow | March 19, 2014 11:19 AMReply

    Great review Leonard ! The Menjou film was an absolute gem, and I particuarly liked the Elissa Landi and William S. Hart features as favorites.
    As long as you're quoting your favorite talking line of dialogue, here's my nominee for best silent intertitle from "For The Defense", an entertaining melodrama about a man on the run who's really innocent but thinks he isn't -- his confession to the girl he loves was priceless:
    "I have to tell you ...... I murdered a man ....and I love you !"
    They just don't write titles like that anymore.

  • mike schlesinger | March 19, 2014 12:59 PM

    Don't look now, Karen, but they don't write titles AT ALL anymore! :-D

    Leonard, thanks for the swell report. This was the first Cinefest I've missed since 1982 (thanks, airlines) and it sounds like it was another great one.

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