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Rare Films Get New Life At Cinefest

Rare Films Get New Life At Cinefest

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.

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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Comments

Jessica

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

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

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

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

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.

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