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Buried Treasure Unearthed at Cinefest—Part One

Buried Treasure Unearthed at Cinefest—Part One

The weather was unseasonably warm, but it scarcely mattered to the hundreds of diehard film buffs who gathered just outside Syracuse, New York last weekend for the 38th annual Cinefest. Inside the Holiday Inn in Liverpool there were rare short subjects and features, including two “re-premieres” of movies unseen in their original form since 1929 and 1930, His Captive Woman and Mamba.

Mamba’s survival is the result of a chance discovery in Australia and the technical savvy of a man in Sweden. Mamba was an ambitious, two-strip Technicolor feature for the short-lived Tiffany studio. While it was reissued in black & white, no one has laid eyes on a complete color print since its original release. Paul Brennan, who works for the Greater Union theater chain Down Under learned that one of the last of the “picture show men,” who used to travel around the country with portable projection equipment putting on movie shows, had a silent 35mm copy in their collection, in remarkably good condition. A digital copy was struck. Then Paul contacted Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, who put him in touch with Todd Wiener at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which had the accompanying soundtrack discs. Once a dub of the track was executed, technical wizard Jonas Nordin went to work in Sweden, laboriously synchronizing every shot of every reel until it was perfect (in spite of occasional black frames and splices, which would have ordinarily thrown a disc-type soundtrack way off base).

Although elaborately mounted, Mamba is not what one would call a subtle movie. But its florid tale of conflicting loyalties in German East Africa in the days preceding World War One—and the foul actions of a piggish, self-styled emperor, played with gusto by Jean Hersholt—is told at a lively pace one seldom finds in early talkies. The movie opens with a long, sinuous tracking shot that takes us into the village where most of the action takes place, through gatherings of colorful natives, merchants, and soldiers. This virtuoso sequence lasts more than two minutes! (Film historian Richard Koszarski thinks there is a cut point in the middle, and he may be right, but it’s still impressive.) One doesn’t associate B-moviemaker Albert Rogell with such innovations, but it’s a knockout by any standards. Eleanor Boardman, with her hair apparently dyed red (to show off two-strip Technicolor), plays the unfortunate German woman who is affianced to Hersholt, while Ralph Forbes is a German officer dispatched to the African outpost, where he becomes her protector.

This is rip-roaring melodrama with all the stops out; at one point, Hersholt even takes out his bullwhip to punish his wife, but Forbes intercedes in the nick of time. (A crucial scene of the couple’s wedding night, on board a ship taking them from Germany to Africa, was censored by the Aussies back in 1930, but the soundtrack survives, thank goodness, so we know what’s going on.)

I’ve never seen a two-color feature as richly saturated as this one, but Brennan told me that the original print is even better. Whether anyone will be able to find the (considerable) funding to properly restore the film is a matter of concern, but I hope, in time, more people will be able to see this fascinating early talkie. While watching it I had no idea where the picture was filmed, though I doubted it was actually Africa. My wife Alice said, “Look—there’s the Universal mountain!” You know what? She was right! Much of the film was shot on the Universal back lot.

His Captive Woman, presented as a work in progress, was also a collaborative effort between the Library of Congress (which had the original picture negative) and UCLA (which had the Vitaphone soundtrack discs). This far-fetched but entertaining yarn is a fine showcase for the beautiful Dorothy Mackaill (best known today as the leading lady in the sordid pre-Code drama Safe in Hell) and virile leading man Milton Sills. It’s one of those odd part-talkies from the transitional period from silent films to sound, but it plays smoothly for two reasons: all the present-day material takes place during a courtroom trial, where the actors speak their dialogue. As each witness recalls past events, the film becomes silent—but the entire feature is scored, so the transitions aren’t jarring, as they are in other hybrid films of the period like Lonesome.

Mackaill plays a chorus girl who murders her no-account sugar daddy and escapes to the South Seas, where she is tracked by a no-nonsense New York City cop. When their tramp steamer goes aground in a storm, they are stranded on a deserted island and nature takes it course. Mackaill is a great beauty, and this movie shows off her face and figure to full advantage; she even wears a Josephine Baker-type banana skirt in one nightclub number. Sills fares better in the silent scenes than in the talking portion of the film, where he seems a bit stiff, but they make a good couple onscreen, and the picture moves at a brisk clip. The island scenes were actually shot in Hawaii, and it shows. George Fitzmaurice directed and the great Lee Garmes photographed the picture, from a script by Carey Wilson. Some attendees grumbled about Cinefest giving in to the digital medium (as they did last year) but as co-chairman Gerry Orlando emphasized, that was the only way we could have seen these two rarities, which don’t exist in print form at this time. The bulk of the screenings were in 16mm, as always, with a field trip to the Palace Theater on Saturday for a full day of 35mm prints from various archives. (Incidentally, the Palace is one of the last facilities in Syracuse with 35mm equipment in place. Who could have predicted, just a few years ago, that this standard of movie presentation would become nearly-obsolete so rapidly?) More news and notes from Cinefest tomorrow.

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