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Cinefest 34: One of the Best Yet!

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Posted: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 12:11 pm

Cinefest 34 was held March 13 to 16, 2014 in Syracuse, New York, and after 33 years the festival continues to maintain its high standard of fun with rare films and good friends. In fact, many of this year’s attendees expressed the opinion that the organizers outdid themselves this time with more and better rare films than usual. The films are provided by most of the country’s major film archives such as The Library of Congress, The George Eastman House, UCLA Film and Television Archives, The Museum of Modern Art and others, as well as some private collectors. Some of this year’s highlights were six rare early talkies from Fox Films provided by UCLA and several silent shorts from The Library of Congress. Despite a major snow storm on Wednesday, March 12, that unfortunately affected some folks’ travel plans, the attendance this year still appeared to be very good, with several first-timers showing up.

The Cinefest dealer rooms are still good places to spend any spare money a film buff may have. A tempting array of films, DVDs, books, posters, stills, and much more movie-related collectibles were on display. The Sunday morning auction hosted by Leonard Maltin is a fun event every year, even if one just wants to sit and listen and not participate.

The film program commenced on Thursday morning with the 1953 independent production MAIN STREET TO BROADWAY which although distributed by MGM, is not shown on television and remains unavailable on video. Out of circulation for many years, the movie is just the kind of rarity that Cinefest attendees love, even if a film from the 1950s is rather new by classic film fest standards. The story concerns the struggles of a young writer and an actress to make good on Broadway, and perhaps its main attraction is the assortment of guest stars, including Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Tallulah Bankhead, Mary Martin, Shirley Booth, Rex Harrison, Lilli Palmer and others.

The 1922 Cecil B. DeMille comedy drama SATURDAY NIGHT starred Leatrice Joy, Conrad Nagel, and Edith Roberts; it featured an impressive apartment fire and one of the most unique Murphy Beds seen in any film—it was hidden inside a piano! Ray Faiola’s trailers compilations are always fun, and this year was no exception. We enjoyed an hour of serial previews, many from some of the most popular serials from Republic and Universal. The 1927 Paramount comedy CASEY AT THE BAT was a lot of fun, with Wallace Beery and Ford Sterling as friendly rivals over ZaSu Pitts, and with a very young Sterling Holloway adding to the fun.

Several very rare silent comedy shorts from the collections of The Library of Congress were presented. A set of five that came to The Library from the Mogull Brothers Collection was presented by Rob Stone and Steve Massa and consisted of A CONVICT’S HAPPY BRIDE (1920, Reelcraft) starring the unjustly forgotten comedienne Alice Howell, THE DUEL (1912, Keystone) a Mack Sennett production with Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, and THE NEW MEMBER (1921, Reelcraft) starring Billy Franey. HER TENDER FEET (1919, Bull’s Eye) starred Harry Mann, and was not only directed by Charles Parrott (Charley Chase) but also included an appearance by Chase. The 1926 Universal comedy NOT GUILTY starring Charles Puffy and directed by Harry Sweet was another with the winning combination of being both rare and quite funny.

The 1930 Pathé Picture SWING HIGH was a musical drama set in a circus. The cast was interesting, helping to put over the film’s ambitious combination of drama, comedy, romance, music and circus acts. Helen Twelvetrees and Fred Scott starred, with support from Dorothy Burgess, John Sheehan, Daphne Pollard, Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin, Clarence Muse, Stepin Fetchit and others. Another silent comedy short, this one from Educational Pictures in 1928, was next. HOUSEHOLD BLUES was one in a series starring the team Monty Collins and Vernon Dent. These two comics were very prolific at many studios over several decades, often supporting other stars, or finding themselves teamed with others in comedy shorts. This time they are hired as interior decorators with predictably disastrous results. Too many Olive Borden films are lost or otherwise unavailable, so it is always a treat when one is shown, and the 1927 Fox Picture THE JOY GIRL was a very enjoyable example of her work and helps explain why she was such a big star. Olive co-starred in this one with Neil Hamilton and Marie Dressler.

Another real treat followed, a Mary Pickford film that had been considered a lost film for many years. FANCHON, THE CRICKET from 1915 was quite enjoyable, yet another of the many Cinefest gems shown this year that were both very rare and very good. This one had the distinction of having been shot almost entirely outdoors, in woods, tall grass, by streams, etc. Mary plays a wild girl, considered an outcast by the people in the village. This film also features Mary’s sister Lottie in a large role and brother Jack in a small one—Mary even gets into a fist fight with Jack. Thanks to La Cinematheque Francaise and The Mary Pickford Foundation for their roles in the presentation of this charming Pickford rarity. Attendees especially appreciated the fact that Cinefest was given the chance to host the film’s premiere American screening since its re-discovery.

Western star William S. Hart’s third feature, THE DARKENING TRAIL (1915) was a very good silent, co-starring Enid Markey and George Fisher. The 1937 British production LOVE FROM A STRANGER was a very absorbing psychological suspense thriller starring Basil Rathbone and Ann Harding supported by a cast of familiar and reliable British players.

As noted earlier, a highlight of this year’s Cinefest schedule was the screening of six early talkie Fox Films from the UCLA Film and Television Archives. Not one of these is in circulation on TV or video, and most have not been shown since their original release. The first of these to be screened was ALWAYS GOODBYE from 1931, a dramatic story of jewel thieves starring Elissa Landi, Lewis Stone, Paul Cavanagh and John Garrick. The 1916 Paramount silent FOR THE DEFENSE starring Fannie Ward and Jack Dean—real life husband and wife—came next, and offered another highly appreciated opportunity to see a rare title with rarely seen stars. Our thanks go to the restoration staff at The Library of Congress for their hard work on the preservation of this one!

Each year The Library of Congress sponsors a workshop called “Mostly Lost” during which unknown, unidentified, or misidentified films are shown to a group of film researchers, experts, and fans who are invited to attend and try to identify anything they can—titles, actors, dates, locations, etc. Some of the films included are from other archives and even from private collectors, but all need something about them identified. The project has proven to be successful with many mystery films finally identified, so at Cinefest this year a “Best of Mostly Lost” program was included, in which four films that were identified at last year’s session were screened. These consisted of a 1919 short that has been identified as SPRING FEVER with baseball star Honus Wagner, and A BRASS BUTTON (1911, Reliance) with James Kirkwood, Mary Alden and Marian Leonard. Also a 1916 Cub Comedy entitled JERRY’S PERFECT DAY with George Ovey, Joseph von Meter and Claire Alexander was presented (although it turned out that the film consisted of only Reel 1 of 2).

One sound short was part of the Mostly Lost program: a 1927 DeForest Phonofilms short starring William Frawley in his Vaudeville act VENTRILOQUIST. Although everyone agreed they had probably never seen Frawley so young in any film before, it was clearly Mr. Frawley. So the performer was not in need of identification, but the film’s title had to be confirmed, and it was hoped that Frawley’s female partner in his act could be named. It is thought that she could be his wife, Edna, but that still needs confirmation. Anyway, it is a very funny short film, with Frawley’s partner hilarious as his ventriloquist dummy. This program at Cinefest concluded with an unidentified silent short film with the audience invited to do their best to figure out what it is. The film turned out to be a stumper, but at least it was agreed that it was from about 1910 and was most likely produced in France. So, research continues on that one.

Silent film speeds have always been a cause for disagreement among fans, collectors and projectionists. Some insist on running silent films too slow, which in the case of comedies, can drag them down from funny to boring. Film historian, collector and expert silent film accompanist Ben Model has prepared a presentation illustrating conclusively why silent comedies were intended to be projected at speeds slightly faster than they were filmed. In his presentation “Undercranking: The Magic Behind Slapstick” Ben shows clips at different speeds to clearly prove how filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd shot certain parts of their films at slower speeds, knowing and expecting that they will be projected at a faster speed, thereby making gags work that would not work at normal or slower speeds.

In the late 1920s at Paramount Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton were teamed in seven comedy features. They made a good team and were very popular. The sixth of these teamings was presented, PARTNERS IN CRIME (1928). This was one of the most popular movies shown this year at Cinefest—a very enjoyable gangster comedy with an outstanding cast. In addition to Beery and Hatton, the beautiful Mary Brian was on hand, along with William Powell, just before he would be graduating to starring roles of his own. Also adding to the fun was the always welcome Arthur Housman.

Another set of slapstick silent comedy shorts from The Library of Congress followed, under the heading “Found and Preserved”, again presented with fine research background by Rob Stone and Steve Massa. Titles in this group were INJUNS (1913, Powers Picture Plays, distributed by Universal) and the truly bizarre BLOW YOUR HORN from 1916, part of a series called “The Misadventures of Musty Suffer” starring the grotesque (but hilarious) character Musty Suffer, played by actor Harry Watson, Jr. These shorts are like wacky cartoons and this one proved to be one of the more popular among the Cinefest comedy fans, many of whom had never seen a Musty Suffer comedy before. Next was the 1916 Vim comedy THE SERENADE with Oliver Hardy and Billy Ruge as the characters “Plump and Runt” and HIS WIFE’S MISTAKE (1916, Keystone), produced by Mack Sennett and starring Roscoe Arbuckle with Minta Durfee, Al St. John, William Jefferson and Betty Gray. QUEEN OF ACES (1925, Century Comedies/Universal) is one of the few surviving films in a series starring the attractive and athletic Wanda Wiley. Another highlight among the comedy shorts was WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD (1923, Quality Productions, Produced by G.M. Anderson). This was a fast and very funny parody of the 1922 Paramount feature WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER. Stan Laurel was the star, with Catherine Bennett as his leading lady. As Rob Stone pointed out, this short certainly proves that Stan Laurel had the stuff to be successful as a solo comedian, even if he had never teamed with Oliver Hardy.

The 1925 German silent romantic comedy EIN WALZERTRAUM (Produced by UFA, and released in the US in 1926 as THE WALTZ DREAM by MGM) was a very pleasant filming of the story that was to be remade by Paramount in 1931 as the talkie musical The Smiling Lieutenant starring Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert.

Author and musical movie authority Richard Barrios presented his latest annual “Song in the Dark” compilation of clips from musical features. These are usually a sampling of good, sometimes very bad, but always interesting musical segments from early talkie musicals. This year Richard expanded his scope to include clips from later musicals, some as late as 1952, in conjunction with his latest book “Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter”. Performers seen and heard in Richard’s program included Harry Downing, Jack Oakie, Skeets Gallagher, Blanche Sweet, Frank Albertson, Inez Courtney, Maurice Chevalier, Fifi D’Orsay, Bing Crosby, Ann Sothern, Virginia O’Brien, Carmen Miranda, Deanna Durbin and Ray Bolger.

Norma Talmadge starred in the next film, a 1919 silent called THE NEW MOON which has no connection to later films bearing that title. This was a Russian Revolution story that also featured Pedro De Cordoba.

Like Olive Borden, Madge Bellamy is another silent actress we don’t get to see often enough. Cinefest 34 helped remedy that situation by programming two Madge Bellamy features this year. In SANDY (1926, Fox Films) we get comedy and dramatics with Madge and co-stars Leslie Fenton, Harrison Ford, Gloria Hope, and Charles Farrell, among others.

Following SANDY we were treated to the Universal wartime comedy BUCK PRIVATES. “Oh, we’ve all seen that,” you say? No, not this one! This was a 1928 silent starring Lya DePutti, Malcolm McGregor, ZaSu Pitts, Eddie Gribbon, Bud Jamison and others. It was a fun comedy set just after the end of World War I in an occupied German village. The big concern here is not only to prevent the soldiers from socializing with the young ladies in town, but also to keep the ladies away from the men. It is declared that any lady caught with a soldier will be punished by having her hair cut off. Well, sure enough, leading lady Lya DePutti soon gets caught and punished—but she still looked good even after her haircut! Perhaps the comedy highlight of the movie was the scene in which ZaSu Pitts eats some of Eddie Gribbon’s chewing tobacco (thinking it is chewing gum) and then goes through a funny series of facial reactions in one long take.

The second of the six Fox early talkie rarities from UCLA was MAN TROUBLE (1930) starring Milton Sills and Dorothy Mackaill, with Sharon Lynn, Roscoe Karns and others in support. This was the story of a tough bootlegger and speakeasy owner (Sills) who gets involved with a singer (Mackaill). With plenty of gangster action, pre-Code dialogue, a few songs, and even a Christmas setting, this movie had a lot going for it and everyone seemed to count it among the festival’s highlights. By the way, this turned out to be Milton Sills’ last film; he died of a heart attack just three weeks after the movie was released.

Last year El Brendel expert and researcher Louie Despres presented a reel of home movies shot by Brendel on the sets of some of his films. There was some amazing rare footage included, and this year Louie was invited to bring another collection of home movies from Brendel. This time, in addition to footage taken on the sets of Brendel’s 1949 movie THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND and his 1952 TV series Cowboy G-Men, we were treated to a reel of Brendel “gags”. These were clips of El trying out gags and tricks with funny props and some trick photography. It was all very funny and clever, but perhaps the funniest was the collection of various hitch-hiking gags. He had himself filmed doing every funny reaction he could think of as he tried to thumb a ride by the side of a road. El Brendel still has not received all the respect and appreciation among movie fans that he deserves, but the more people see these funny and clever gag reels, the more he will be recognized for the talented performer he was.

The third of the six UCLA Fox early talkies came up next, and this was absolutely the highlight of the week-end according to many attendees. BACHELOR’S AFFAIRS (1932) was a delightful and hilarious pre-Code gem starring Adolphe Menjou, Minna Gombell, Joan Marsh, Irene Purcell, Alan Dinehart, and Herbert Mundin, among many others. In this, Minna Gombell schemes to get middle-aged Menjou to marry her dizzy younger sister, played by Marsh. It works with very funny situations for all involved. Herbert Mundin was in top form, and of all people, Alan Dinehart turned in a fine comedy performance. It was felt by some that this movie could be up there with such pictures as Baby Face and Employees’ Entrance as a definitive pre-Code classic—if it could only be seen outside of an archive or a one-time festival screening such as Cinefest!

Another DeMille silent followed, WHAT’S-HIS NAME from Paramount in 1914. This comedy-drama starred real-life couple Max Figman and Lolita Robertson in a backstage story of show business. THE SKY HAWK (1929) was another rare Fox title preserved by UCLA, and was considered the weakest of the six by some viewers. “Just a lot of British actors standing around talking in British accents,” someone said! Among the stars were Helen Chandler, John Garrick, Gilbert Emery, Lennox Pawle, Billy Bevan, Daphne Pollard, and Lumsden Hare. But then all the talking gave way to an exciting finale with airplane vs. Zeppelin battling that I thought actually compared favorably to the similar scenes in the yet-to-be released classic Hell’s Angels (1930).

Madge Bellamy returned to the Cinefest schedule in the 1927 Fox Picture ANKLES PREFERED, a delightful comedy with Madge and her two roommates, Marjorie Beebe and Joyce Compton, dealing with work and romance with all sorts of amusing complications. Among the men in the story were Lawrence Gray, Barry Norton and Arthur Housman. The 1936 RKO/Pioneer Pictures musical comedy THE DANCING PIRATE was shown in a 1940s Cinecolor reissue print—the original Technicolor material no longer survives.

Another silent comedy short was next, this one starring Johnny Arthur in his 1926 Educational comedy HOME CURED. Directed by the great Roscoe Arbuckle, this one was fast and funny and went over well with the crowd. It actually is a one-reel cut-down from its original two reels, but was still very much worth seeing as this is believed to be the only form in which it survives. It also gives us a chance to enjoy the directing talents of the always interesting Mr. Arbuckle. The fifth of UCLA’s Fox rarities was NOT EXACTLY GENTLEMEN (1931), a remake of the 1926 Fox classic Three Bad Men. The three bad men this time were Victor McLaglen, Lew Cody and Eddie Gribbon, with Fay Wray as the lady in the story and Robert Warwick as the main bad guy. The always fun Johnny Hines was the star of the next silent shown, THE LIVE WIRE (1925, First National), a comedy set in a circus. In support were Edmund Breese, Mildred Ryan, J. Barney Sherry, Bradley Barker and Flora Finch.

Olga Baclanova had the title role in the 1929 Paramount African jungle melodrama A DANGEROUS WOMAN. And when a movie has a title like THE WOMAN WHO NEEDED KILLING, which was an alternate title for this one, you know Olga is going to be behaving badly and will most likely come to a bad end. Sure enough—but not quite the way the killer planned! Also in this were Clive Brook, Neil Hamilton, Clyde Cook and Leslie Fenton. DANGER ON THE AIR (1938) was one of Universal’s series of “Crime Club” mysteries. A murder takes place at a radio station in this one, and although nobody liked the victim, everybody tries to figure out who done it. A good cast, good dialogue and clever writing made this one a lot of fun with stars Nan Grey, Donald Woods, Jed Prouty, Berton Churchill, William Lundigan, and many familiar faces in support. The 1935 Twentieth Century-Fox musical comedy THANKS A MILLION has a great cast, excellent songs and a fine comedy plot, and is always a pleasure to see again. The players include Dick Powell, Ann Dvorak, Fred Allen, Patsy Kelly, Raymond Walburn, Paul Whiteman and The Yacht Club Boys.

The annual Justin Herman Shorts program was very enjoyable this year, as all three of the shorts dealt with the entertainment business, mainly radio and recording. These Paramount shorts were written and directed by Justin Herman, with this set of shorts dating from 1948 and 1950. Among those seen and heard in the films were Patti Clayton, Percy Faith, Paul Whiteman, Monica Lewis, Ed Sullivan, Martin Block, Kitty Kallen and Myron McCormick.

A silent western from Hal Roach Studios was up next. THE DEVIL HORSE from 1926 featured Yakima Canutt, Gladys McConnell, Robert Kortman and Rex the horse. It was a very good western, with great photography and exciting stunt work by Yak. WOMEN EVERYWHERE from 1930 was the last of the six Fox rarities from UCLA and it seemed to be trying to be too many things at once, much of it set in Morocco, with the Foreign Legion. There was much operetta style singing from J. Harold Murray, and a fun performance from Fifi D’Orsay. THE CRAB (1917, Triangle Distributing) starred Frank Keenan and Thelma Slater in a heartwarming little story of how a cranky old “crab” changes his ways. Frank Keenan was part of the acting family that included Ed and Keenan Wynn. The final film on Sunday afternoon was the 1927 silent Pathé action comedy FLYING LUCK starring Monty Banks. The leading lady was Jean Arthur, who had already been in films for four years, but was still several more years away from the major stardom she deserved. Others in the cast included Kewpie Morgan, Jack W. Johnson, Eddy Chandler and Louise Carver. This was a fun comedy with some of the intertitles proving particularly amusing.

Cinefest was indeed fortunate to have no less than five accomplished musicians to accompany the silent films. Thank you and “Bravo!” to Makia Matsumura, Jon Mirasalis, Ben Model, Jeff Rapsis, and Judith Rosenberg. A big thank you also must go out to the hard working team responsible for organizing and making Cinefest happen each year. The film archives and good folks representing them and the private collectors who generously provide the films for Cinefest are also much appreciated.

All in all, it was a great show. We’re looking forward to next year’s Cinefest in 2015!