Binging on Movies—And Loving It

George O’Brien and a young Humphrey Bogart in A Holy Terror.

I meant to write up this year’s Cinefest sooner, but frankly, I’ve been recovering…from four jam-packed days of screenings, chats with old friends, exchanging of movie-buff gossip, and browsing through four separate dealer’s rooms. This marked the 30th year that old-movie buffs have gathered in Syracuse, New York in the dead of winter, proof positive that love conquers all. In this case, it’s love of silent films and early talkies that brings hundreds of the faithful—including authors, scholars, and representatives from America’s leading film archives—to a Holiday Inn in Liverpool, New York for a veritable feast of cinematic rarities. (My wife and I start out with a handicap our East Coast friends don’t have to contend with—jet lag—from flying in from California the night before the convention begins. That makes the day-long screening schedule, from 9 a.m. till the wee hours,—

—more than we can handle, but we still manage to see a lot.)

The bill of fare this year was as varied as ever; from a program of trailers for movies with music by Max Steiner to a rarely-seen Edgar Kennedy comedy short from the first season of his long-running series, from a chapter of Pearl White’s 1916 serial Pearl of the Army to the rarely-screened World War Two flag-waver Winged Victory. Three talented pianists—Dr. Phil Carli, Ben Model, and Makia Matsumura—provided melodically rich, emotionally supportive scores for the silent films, mostly improvised on the spot. Theirs is a unique and wondrous gift.

For some buffs, the chance to view a newly-unearthed Charley Chase two-reeler from 1927 (The Sting of Stings) was a highlight of the weekend. For others, it was seeing Paul Muni in his talkie debut, The Valiant (1929). A film like that, with its early, expository scenes on the streets of New York, provides a wonderful window to the past, with kids playing on the sidewalk, delighting at an organ grinder and his monkey …and an Irish police officer (what else?) advising a priest who’s parked his car illegally to look out for the cop on the next corner, warning, “He’s not one of us.”

Young Lon Chaney, in cap, has a jaunty part in the 1916 drama The Grasp of Greed. (photographed off the Capitol screen)

Someone of today’s generation, accustomed to the ongoing influx of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East, might be surprised to discover the ethnic stereotypes (benign and otherwise) of the early 20th century that were so prevalent in films of that period. The quintessential Jewish figure of the late 1920s—bearded, squinty-eyed Max Davidson—was showcased in a pleasant but unremarkable feature, Pleasure Before Business (1927) that only proved how much he benefited from the comedic knowhow of the Hal Roach studio, where he made his hilarious two-reel shorts.

Many of the prints screened at Cinefest are unique, in many cases the sole surviving 16mm or 35mm copies of a given title. James D’Arc of Brigham Young University brought along Merian C. Cooper’s personal print of the John Ford feature The Lost Patrol (1934), containing footage that was cut for the reissue version that has circulated ever since. It was screened before at Cinefest in 2001, and it may not survive much longer. We were fortunate to show a number of 16mm prints from the late William K. Everson’s collection, donated to New York University and housed at the George Eastman House. The 1932 Fox feature A Holy Terror, starring George O’Brien, seems to have been copied from a 35mm work print, as it contains titles that read “Fade In” and “Fade Out” at different points.

One of its major assets is the presence of a young Humphrey Bogart as its chief villain, an ill-tempered foreman working for a mysterious ranch owner. Bogart didn’t make the grade during this early sojourn to California, and happily returned to the New York stage, but he’s excellent in this part, and seems completely comfortable in his Western garb. One could consult reviews of this performance from the time, or read second-hand opinions of his early screen work by biographers who haven’t screened the pictures. Actually getting to see a young Bogie and decide for yourself is the best option.

A student of special effects would have had a field day with this year’s lineup, starting with the 1917 silent film Girl Without a Soul, in which Viola Dana’s scenes as identical-twin sisters were seamlessly executed, and continuing through a series of early disaster movies. There’s a vivid sequence of a mine cave-in in The Church Around the Corner (1923), which William K. Everson thought was comparable to John Ford’s later depiction in How Green Was My Valley, and a blazing forest fire for Harry Carey to drive a train through in Roaring Rails (1924), but the real showpiece was The White Desert (1925), a lavish production about a camp of “rock-pigs” digging a six-mile railroad tunnel through the Continental Divide in Colorado when an avalanche cuts them off from civilization, and sends their supplies over a cliff. It’s not just the ambitious special effects that make the movie interesting, but the dramatic depiction of survival against the odds. The surrounding storyline, a love triangle in which a cocky mining engineer and a dedicated crew foreman vie for the railroad owner’s daughter, reveals that disaster movies have followed the same exact template from the silent era right through Roland Emmerich’s 2012.

An even earlier film from 1915, The Doll House Mystery, directed by Sidney and Chester Franklin, confirms the influence that D.W. Griffith had on his contemporaries. In this simple, straightforward short subject, the effective (and impressive) intercutting of wide overhead shots, revealing the geography of a scene, with telling closeups, showing the emotions of the characters, make for first-rate storytelling. (Another of Griffith’s followers, John H. Collins, directed his wife Viola Dana in the aforementioned Girl Without a Soul.)

Walter Huston and Claudette Colbert in the early talkie The Lady Lies

At the same time, a so-called primitive early talkie, The Lady Lies (1929), proves that not every actor was stiff or declamatory when first confronted with the microphone on a movie set. Walter Huston and Claudette Colbert star in this interesting drama, based on a stage play about sophisticated relationships among the well-to-do. Both stars give compelling, naturalistic performances and reaffirm what great talents they were. (Director Hobart Henley tries to treat sound in an equally natural fashion, capturing ambient music and conversation while moving his camera through a department store, and later, a tea room, but the technicians’ inability to modulate the sound mix results in cacophony. Rouben Mamoulian is widely credited for his aural innovations in Applause, but this film came out several months earlier, and was also a product of Paramount’s Astoria, New York studio. Clearly, it wasn’t just Mamoulian who was thinking about the best way to make use of sound.)

Amateur movies of two different eras provided a change of pace from the usual bill of fare. The George Eastman House provided a print of Fly Low Jack and the Game (1927), a romantic adventure yarn written and directed by Marion Gleason, an employee of George Eastman’s who was chosen to demonstrate the way ordinary people—like her—could make narrative films using Kodak 16mm cameras. Gleason employed members of the Rochester Community Players for her cast, and put together a simple, enjoyable film that wasn’t far removed from many of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter features of the period. (Prints of the feature toured the country to encourage Americans to take up the home-movie hobby.)

Some forty years later, film buff Lou McMahon spent a number of years crafting a loving parody of Republic Pictures serials called Captain Celluloid vs. the Film Pirates, featuring such notables as William K. Everson, Alan Barbour and Al Kilgore in the cast. While this has been screened for appreciative audiences ever since, Cinefest debuted a new version of the serial, expertly scored from original Republic music tracks by the estimable Ray Faiola, with some effective sound effects thrown in for good measure. I hope this entertaining, surprisingly well-made “home movie” reaches a larger audience in the years to come.

The interior of the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York.

Richard Barrios, who recently updated his knowledgeable chronicle of early-talkie musicals, A Song in the Dark (Oxford University Press), presented a delightful compendium of clips from those films, including some old favorites and genuine rarities. There was a two-color excerpt from MGM’s unreleased The March of Time that I’d never seen before, and many more goodies featuring everyone from Winnie Lightner to Eddie Cantor. (Most of these excerpts were great fun, in sharp contrast to Sunday’s screening of the threadbare British musical Cheer Up! with Stanley Lupino, which boasts possibly the worst production number finale I’ve ever seen. Ever.)

On Saturday we made a field trip to Rome, New York to enjoy 35mm films, with organ accompaniment, at the enormous Capitol Theater, now run by member Art Pierce. Seeing vintage films on a gigantic screen is especially exciting, and I couldn’t resist snapping a few images off that screen—including young Lon Chaney in a recently-discovered Universal feature from 1916, The Grasp of Greed, and Buster Keaton playing an Indian chief in his pal Al St. John’s hilarious 1925 comedy short The Iron Mule, directed by their mutual friend Roscoe Arbuckle. The Museum of Modern Art acquired a stunning, razor-sharp 35mm print of this short from the Czech Film Archive, and it runs a bit longer than most circulating copies.

MoMA also provided one of the weekend’s best films, East Side, West Side (1927), a saga of one young man’s odyssey in New York City, directed by Allan Dwan, who also adapted the best-selling novel by Felix Riesenberg. George O’Brien made this ambitious, well-mounted feature immediately after completing Sunrise, and it’s an ideal vehicle for his natural charm and physicality. It also includes some eye-opening shots taken on location, including a descent from street level down several stories to the construction site of the 6th Avenue subway!

Organist John Paul at the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York, where we screened rare 35mm films.

An additional treat came our way courtesy of Warner Bros., which recently restored an MGM short from 1934 starring a vaudeville team that’s been rediscovered in just the past few years—thanks to the Vitaphone Project—called Shaw and Lee. They made just one two-reeler for MGM, and it didn’t lead to an encore, but Gentleman of Polish is a “find” all the same, as it makes use of discarded footage from the feature film Hollywood Party—including a Rodgers and Hart waltz the team later incorporated into the score of their stage musical Jumbo as “Over and Over Again.”

As always, it isn’t possible to chronicle every film screened over the four days of Cinefest—and I skipped some titles in order to linger in the dealers’ rooms or take catnaps. But I won’t soon forget seeing Wallace Beery as a Chinese tong leader in A Tale of Two Worlds (1921), or character actor Russell Simpson in two early films (in 1917’s Girl With No Soul and 1922’s Human Hearts) that were templates for virtually every role he played the rest of his long life, or little Frankie Darro doing a high-energy acrobatic dance routine in the Eddie Dowling musical Rainbow Man (1929). And it was nice to revisit the charming Colleen Moore comedy Orchids and Ermine (1927), which features some neat Manhattan location footage, as well as Mickey Rooney’s screen debut—playing a dapper midget.

I can’t say enough about the hard-working men and women of the Syracuse Cinephile Society who put on this event every year and haven’t lost a step since the sad demise of their leader, and our great friend, Phil Serling. It takes a great deal of effort to mount a weekend as ambitious as this and all of us who attend are grateful. Every year, on Sunday morning, I host an auction of movie memorabilia (having inherited the job from another late friend, Herb Graff) and in recent times, a number of people have decided to donate their proceeds to the Society. I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate our enthusiasm for this singular event. Now if we can just recruit some youthful film buffs to join the ranks of us “old-timers” we’ll be all set!

To see some of my Cinefest snapshots, click HERE.

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June 2024