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Grand Finale For Cinefest

After 35 years, the Cinefest in Syracuse, New York has come to an end, following a grand finale this past weekend. Four days of nonstop screenings, browsing the dealer’s rooms, and hanging out with old friends made it worth traveling to Central New York in the dead of winter.

Naturally, it was a bittersweet occasion for me and other longtime attendees. We’ve looked forward to this movie binge every year, but the “boys and girls” of the Syracuse Cinephile Society are entitled to rest on their laurels after working so hard to entertain us all these years.

As usual, the bill of fare was wide and varied, including one-of-a-kind 16mm prints from private collectors (including the late, great William K. Everson) and brand-new digital restorations from the world’s leading archives. Ironically, the only projection problems arose with the newest technology, while the old-fashioned projectors behaved impeccably. With live piano scores by eight (count ‘em) expert silent-film accompanists; we enjoyed the communal experience that screening a disc at home can never duplicate.

Few, if any, of the silent and early-talkie titles we saw could be called classics, but rarities are catnip to this crowd. Where else could you see bread-and-butter films like Heart to Heart (1928) with Mary Astor or The New Klondike (1926) with Thomas Meighan? Heart to Heart features a beautiful performance by Louise Fazenda as Astor’s small-town aunt “who wears the key to her heart” in plain view. In a
scene where she thinks her husband may be flirting with another woman, she expresses her shock and upset in a beautiful piece of silent-film acting.

Fazenda went on to play many caricatured matrons in the 1930s, but this film shows what a fine, honest actress she could be. The New Klondike runs out of steam sooner than it should, but offers an interesting perspective on the Florida land boom of the 1920s. Every
film reflects its time in a variety of ways.

I was especially pleased to see some rare Hal Roach talkie shorts provided by my friend Dick Bann. Crazy Feet (1929) with Charley Chase and Thelma Todd and Dad’s Day (1929) with Edgar Kennedy haven’t been screened for an audience since they were new! I also enjoyed the Spanish-language version of Our Gang’s When the Wind Blows, with Edgar Kennedy and his youthful costars mouthing their dialogue phonetically. (By the
way, Pete the Pup is called Pepe in this Latin iteration.) Rob Stone brought a number of equally scarce silent comedies from the Library of Congress, including several that were recently identified in the annual “Mostly Lost” festival held at the Library’s headquarters in Culpepper, Virginia every
summer. (For more information, write to mostlylost@loc.gov).
One of the “finds,” a Snub Pollard short from 1921 called Fifteen Minutes, is a virtual catalog of emblematic slapstick gags. The very same Snub Pollard turned up unbilled in a 1959 episode of The Gale Storm Show “Oh Susanna!” that features a tour of the Hal Roach lot in Culver City. What must it have been like for Pollard, who once headlined at that studio, to be working there as a day player nearly forty years later?

I hadn’t seen The Road Back (1937) since Bill Everson screened it at his Theodore Huff Film Society decades ago, and I’m glad I had a chance to revisit it. Little noted or remembered, unavailable on television or home video, it is an ambitious sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, directed by the great James Whale. The story begins on the day of Armistice in 1918 and follows the young German warriors as they return home to political unrest and family members who can’t comprehend the hellish lives they have
lived on the front lines. The film may not have star value, but leading man John King is quite good and Slim Summerville reprises his role as the long-suffering soldier from All QuietThe Road Back is uneven and ultimately undone by too much speechifying,
but it remains an impressive piece of work. It has the elaborate camerawork and art direction one associates with Whale and the anti-war sentiments one would expect from author Erich Maria Remarque. The plight of soldiers returning to civilian life is still as relevant as ever in the age of American Sniper and just as poignant. That a film with this pedigree and significance should languish in a studio vault is a crime.

David Pierce and James Layton offered a wonderful presentation on the history of Technicolor, to tie in with their new book The Dawn of Technicolor, and screened some early-talkie musical clips that were just discovered at the BFI and transferred to the digital medium at a high resolution. (They will be reprising this show at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood later this week.) Veteran film
collector and archivist Eric Grayson offered his own equally interesting history of color in the movies, with some great examples of various processes including the much-lamented Kodachrome.

Richard Barrios assembled another compilation of musical excerpts, starting with the earliest days of sound and ending in the 1960s. And Ray Faiola regaled us with an hour’s worth of coming-attractions prevues from RKO Radio Pictures; I’m a sucker for old trailers and never tire of them.

Chris Horak and the UCLA Film and Television Archive provided a handful of 16mm prints from its collection of rare Fox titles from the early 1930s. I even watched one I’d seen before—The Painted Woman(1932) with Spencer Tracy and Peggy Shannon—because it’s so likable. Tracy makes any film worthwhile but I have a new appreciation for Shannon, whose career never took off as it should have.
Hollywood did give a big build-up to European star Lillian Harvey, but My Lips Betray (1933) didn’t do her any particular favors. It also serves as proof, if any is needed, that movies with Lubitsch-like qualities couldn’t measure up without Lubitsch himself at the helm. (another glitch: UCLA’s surviving 16mm print is missing Reel Six.)

Ron Hutchinson and the Vitaphone Project deserved more than one round of applause for locating the missing discs to complete preservation of films we saw this weekend, including the Colleen Moore vehicle Synthetic Sin (1928). But the highlight, for me and many others, was a one-reel short called Me and the Boys (1929) that features a lineup of future jazz stars including Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Jimmy McPartland, and Ray Bauduc. What a treat!

I refuse to be sad about the demise of Cinefest. I have too many happy memories associated with it and its late founder, Phil Serling. Whenever I think of my annual trek to Syracuse, I’ll smile…and that’s the way it ought to be.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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