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 email@example.com).
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 Quiet.
The 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
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.