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Cinefest: A Little Slice Of Heaven

Every year, when my wife and I return from the Cinefest in Syracuse, New York, we find ourselves struggling to explain to our non-film-buff friends why we had such a good time in such an unlikely location in the dead of winter. Anyone who’s ever attended knows why we make the trek.

Cinefest 31 was another smash hit, featuring four days of nonstop screenings of rare silent and early-talkie films, several interesting dealer’s rooms, and the fun of reuniting with old friends. Nearly 500 people attended this year’s festivities, and while we’d all like to see some “new blood” amongst the old faces, the presence of students of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House gives us all hope that—

— the torch is being passed to a new generation.

Soviet scientist Sari Maritza vamps Gene Raymond in Forgotten Commandments (1932)

Daily screenings begin at 9a.m., which is a challenge for those of us who have just flown in from the West Coast, but I had to rouse myself on Thursday morning to see a film I’ve always been curious about, Forgotten Commandments (1932). The tone of the story is established by an opening title, which reads, “Russia today, where most of the Ten Commandments have been abolished by government decree.” A naïve couple (Gene Raymond and Marguerite Churchill) arrive in Moscow so he can study with a brilliant scientist (Irving Pichel). Pichel is disdainful of marriage, but when his assistant and lover (Sari Maritza) sets her eyes on Raymond, he becomes jealous just like any bourgeois husband. (As he tells her, “You’re a fever; you’re in my blood, and I don’t know the anti-toxin.”) The depiction of a godless Communist existence is fascinating, with a young, unbilled John Carradine playing a rabble-rousing speaker in one of the film’s first scenes. The movie’s actual raison d’être was to reuse a chunk of footage from Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version of The Ten Commandments. In fact, the main titles declare that the film is “glorified” by this material. What a fascinating curio.

I’ve also waited years to see a complete print of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s operetta Music in the Air (1934), which was made by three prominent German émigrés who’d recently arrived in Hollywood: producer Erich Pommer, director Joe May, and screenwriter Billy (credited here as “Billie”) Wilder, who collaborated with Howard Young. It’s a genial, often clever piece of work, with Gloria Swanson and John Boles well cast as temperamental stage stars and lovers. Al Shean (of Gallagher and Shean fame) plays a composer from a quaint Bavarian village who comes to Munich to sell his latest song (“I’ve Told Every Little Star”); he’s accompanied by village maiden June Lang and her boyfriend, schoolteacher Douglass Montgomery. As much as I admired the ingredients of the picture, I found it too self-conscious in its cleverness and I’m afraid its charm wore thin after a while. Still, it was great to see, at last.

Cinefest is also about discovery, and I saw a number of obscure silent films that can’t qualify as classics, but offer various points of interest. Happiness (1917) stars Enid Bennett as a rich girl who has to live down her reputation as a snob when she goes to college. The highlight in this programmer is the presence of a young John (billed as Jack) Gilbert in a broad comedic role as a campus twit, complete with what William K. Everson called “a Syd Chaplin mustache.” Denny From Ireland (1918), a recent Library of Congress restoration, introduced many of us to a briefly popular Western star named Shorty Hamilton. Lessons in Love (1921) is a romantic comedy starring the engaging Constance Talmadge, with a cute storyline that—like far too many modern-day movies—doesn’t know when to wrap things up. Mannequin (1926) introduced audiences of 1926 to beautiful newcomer Dolores Costello in a Fannie Hurst soap opera (originally published in Cosmopolitan, as indicated in the opening sequence showing the magazine itself). She plays a young woman who was stolen from her parents (Alice Joyce and Warner Baxter) by a simple-minded governess (ZaSu Pitts), then raised as an orphan. Young newspaperman Walter Pidgeon falls in love with her, and she encourages him to pursue his crusade against beautiful women who get away with murder simply because they look glamorous on the witness stand. This, of course, is followed by Costello being implicated in another man’s death in her apartment. Fans of Hollywood’s busiest “dress extra,” Bess Flowers, were delighted to see her playing a chic flapper-style fashion model who befriends Costello.

Yes, those are good old 16mm projectors and they work overtime at Cinefest.

Films like this don’t merit mention in most history books, but each one has value because it reflects the time in which it was made, and the taste of audiences of that era. There are other surprises along the way, such as Karl Brown’s creative camera effects in Mannequin.

On Saturday morning we all traveled to the nearby Palace Theater for a day of 35mm screenings, including The Woman and the Puppet (1920), a rather blatant paraphrase of Carmen with opera star Geraldine Farrar, Burglar by Proxy (1919), a likable light comedy starring Jack Pickford, The Flaming Forest (1926), a melodramatic outdoor adventure yarn about the founding of the Northwest Mounted Police with Antonio Moreno and beautiful Renee Adoree, and Mae Murray in Jazzmania (1923). I’d already seen the Museum of Modern Art’s breathtaking new print of the pre-Code eye-opener The Story of Temple Drake (1933) at last year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, but I watched it again in absolute fascination. Many of us had also seen Paul Fejos’ wonderful late-silent film Lonesome (1928), with has three talking sequences, but it too was well worth revisiting, especially in George Eastman House’s recent restoration, which includes a number of impressive “spot color” effects.

The many silent films were accompanied by New York City-based stalwart Ben Model, and a newcomer to Cinefest, Andrew Simpson, from Washington, D.C. They were to have been joined by another new recruit, Sylvia Moscovitz, from Ottawa, Canada, but a last-minute injury to her arm prevented her from coming. Ben and Andrew stepped up to the plate and divided the open slots between them, providing superior accompaniment throughout the weekend.

Special programs included Ray Faiola’s annual roundup of vintage trailers, including J. Edgar Hoover shilling for the Edward G. Robinson movie I Am The Law…Richard Barrios’ second collection of early-talkie musical clips, inspired by his book A Song in the Dark…and a group of recently-unearthed Vitaphone shorts introduced by Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project. As in other recent showings at UCLA and elsewhere, the hit of the show was Sharps and Flats, featuring Jimmy Conlin and his wife Myrtle Glass. (I’m still trying to figure out the appeal of Mel Klee, who performs a desperately unfunny act in blackface—for no reason at all.)

I can’t detail every film I saw—including shorts, trailers, and feature films—or bear to admit the ones I missed because of exhaustion. I am glad that I got to see Bill Everson’s print of The Biscuit Eater (1940), the newest feature shown at Cinefest and one of the best-received. This model B movie about a boy (Billy Lee) who falls in love with a bird dog who is dismissed as the runt of the litter lived up to its reputation. Former film editor Stuart Heisler directed the modest but well-made production on location in Albany, Georgia. It also features longtime character actor (and later television host) Richard Lane in an unusually fine dramatic performance as Lee’s father, a veteran dog trainer.

Two gifted pianists accompanied the silent films all weekend long: Andrew Simpson, from Washington, D.C. and Ben Model, from New York City. I caught them as they prepared for a long day’s work at the Palace Theater.

As much as Cinefest is dependent on old-fashioned 16mm prints, this year marked a first with the debut of video projection, which enabled us to see some digital restorations from the Library of Congress that don’t (yet) exist in any film format, including the two-color Technicolor finale of The Flaming Forest, surviving excerpts from Flaming Youth, and the Talmadge movie Lessons in Love.

Two of my favorite films of the weekend were screened as part of the “last chance cinema” on Sunday afternoon. James D’Arc of Brigham Young University brought along an IB Technicolor print of Kentucky (1938), a grandly entertaining Darryl F. Zanuck production starring Loretta Young, Richard Greene (whose British accent is explained away by the fact that he’s been living in London for eight years), and Walter Brennan, as a canny old coot who knows more about horseflesh than anyone alive. It’s a “big” performance but not a caricature, and there’s all the difference in the world; this won him his second Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. The Cinefest crowd knows and loves Hollywood’s vast array of character actors and was glad to see such familiar faces as Douglass Dumbrille, Charles Middleton, Moroni Olsen, Russell Hicks, Willard Robertson, Charles Lane, and Eddie Anderson in the supporting cast, not to mention youthful brothers Delmar and Bobs Watson. No one ever bawled quite so well—or quite so much—as Bobs.

The final film of the weekend was both a surprise and a treat, also pulled from the William K. Everson collection that now belongs to New York University, although it is stored at George Eastman House. The Great Barrier (1938) is a British film about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, shot mostly in Canada with an American star, Richard Arlen, and a veteran Hollywood costar, J. Farrell MacDonald (who also appeared in John Ford’s silent classic about the transcontinental railroad, The Iron Horse). It’s a fascinating picture that combines clichés of Western movies and buddy stories with genuinely exciting outdoor footage.You can tell it’s essentially British from its periodic title cards, which are a model of restraint. When the railroad workers are threatening to mutiny, an angry mob ready to burn down their boss’ house because they haven’t been paid, a title informs us, ever so calmly, “The lack of financial support became felt amongst the workers.” (Incidentally, if you want to read Everson’s notes on this and other films, they are posted online at www.nyu.edu. I guess all those years of clipping and filing his ditto-printed program notes was for naught!)

Cinefest offers a wonderful opportunity to see films on a screen that don’t turn up anywhere else. What’s more, you get to watch them with a simpatico audience. That’s why we all go to Syracuse in March, and look forward to next year’s get-together.

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