Old movies take center stage during Cinefest 31’s celebration of celluloid
Last year’s Cinefest 30 was winding down and everyone was in a good mood. It was a well-attended affair for the hardy movie confab, with visitors coming in from across the country. And amazingly, Gerry Orlando, one of Cinefest’s longtime gurus, was already fielding requests from movie memorabilia dealers who were delighted with the turnout and wanted in on the 2011 edition.
So Cinefest 31, running from Thursday, March 17, through Sunday, March 20, is ready for its close-up. There are some new wrinkles, including a different tag team of keyboard accompanists and recent renovations to the festival’s usual stomping grounds at Liverpool’s Holiday Inn, 441 Electronics Parkway. Yet the old components will also be returning, such as the annual Sunday-morning auction of celluloid-related paraphernalia, with film historian and critic (and stand-up comic for the occasion) Leonard Maltin serving as auctioneer. And there will be plenty of 16mm film screenings of long-forgotten flicks at the hotel’s convention center, with a side trip to Eastwood’s Palace Theatre, 2384 James St., on Saturday, March 19, for an eight-hour block of 35mm lost treasures.
Maltin’s just a reg’lar guy during his Salt City stay and you just might bump into him amid the dealers’ rooms, along with other folks such as octogenarian movie producer Richard Gordon (Fiend Without a Face, Horror Hospital). And sometimes there’s a story that goes along with certain screenings. Last year one of the grandsons of filmmaker Justin Herman was in attendance, and it was nice to hear that during the family holidays his granddad would pull out the 16mm projector and screen some of his comedy shorts. Impromptu reminisces like that always punctuate the long weekend at Cinefest, and indeed such homespun personal touches would likely get lost at a big-city cinema convention.
Thursday, March 17, kicks off with the abbreviated arias of Bizet’s Carmen in the 1932 short subject The Idol of Seville (9 a.m.), part of a brief series of heavily condensed operas commissioned by the shoestring studio Educational Pictures (billed as “the spice of the program”). Another 1932 entry, Paramount’s Forgotten Commandments (9:25 a.m.), is noteworthy for its reuse of stock footage from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1925 religious epic The Ten Commandments. The Red Sea meets the Red Menace, however, as DeMille’s biblical cinema is pressed into service for an anti-communism screed, with a Soviet scientist (Irving Pichel) rewriting the commandments to conform to the Russian dogma: “Covet thy neighbor’s wife. She is free, if she chooses, to come to thee.” Director Louis Gasnier would later helm the marijuana masterpiece Reefer Madness.
The hubba-hubba charms of Dolores Costello are front and center for Warner Brothers’ 1928 romantic history lesson Glorious Betsy (10:40 a.m.), with Costello as a Baltimore gal who is wooed by Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother (Conrad Nagel). Released in some big-city markets as a part-talkie following the success of The Jazz Singer, the chatting scenes reportedly resulted in some ridicule when silent star Costello’s voice was finally heard.
Following a lunch break will be the third annual batch of old coming attractions (1 p.m.) presented by host Ray Faiola, this year focusing on 30 years of Columbia Pictures trailers.
Movies don’t get much more obscure than the 1917 silent offering Happiness (2 p.m.), with Enid Bennett as a wealthy orphan unfairly tagged as a snob; naturally, she finds true romance with a hard-working chap (Charles Gunn) at a coed college.
In apparent honor of St. Patrick’s Day, the afternoon also includes western star Shorty Anderson in the 1918 silent Denny from Ireland (3:10 p.m.), which globetrots from the old sod to Arizona in its saga of wronged men, robbery and redemption. Andrew Arbuckle fans will rejoice, since the actor has roles in both Denny and Happiness. And The Quiet Man scene-stealer Victor McLaglen headlines What Price Glory? (3:55 p.m.), the popular 1926 Fox silent that mixes action and comedy under Raoul Walsh’s energetic direction. It’s the first of several Quirt-and-Flagg works starring Edmund Lowe and McLaglen, respectively, who play squabbling Marines carousing about France’s countryside during World War I. And while it’s a silent, lip readers in the audience always get a special charge whenever Lowe and McLaglen fire off volleys of obscenities during their frequent on-screen donnybrooks.
The evening’s flicks include a trio of short subjects: Panama, The Peculiar Prodigy (8 p.m.), a 1920s-era relic intended to spur interest in cruise liners; America’s Little Lamb (8:10 p.m.), a 1928 title-tells-all item that ewe either will love or skip; and 1929’s silent The Newlyweds’ Past (9:50 p.m.), based on a comic strip by Bringing Up Father creator George McManus, and starring then 5-yearold Sunny Jim McKeen as the precocious Snookums. Sandwiched between the shorts is the 1934 Fox musical comedy Music In the Air (8:25 p.m.), a box-office bust at the time yet there are too many pleasures to ignore, including a Hammerstein-Kern score, singing and comedy from Gloria Swanson and a script adaptation co-written by Billy Wilder.
Dolores Costello again pops up at Cinefest 31 for Mannequin (10 p.m.), Paramount’s 1926 melodrama based on a Fannie Hurst story. Capping the night is Universal’s Hellzapoppin (11:20 p.m.), the movie adaptation of the riotous Broadway variety show with vaudeville veterans Chic Johnson and Ole Olsen.
The morning slate for Friday, March 18, commences with the 1941 RKO short Information Please (9 a.m.), based on the popular NBC radio game show hosted by Clifton Fadiman. This edition features Boris Karloff, then appearing in Broadway’s Arsenic and Old Lace. An equally rare short subject, Paramount’s 1929 He Was Her Man (9:10 a.m.) from avant-garde filmmaker Dudley Murphy, offers another cinematic riff on the “Frankie and Johnny” ballad.
The Biscuit Eater (9:35 a.m.) is a 1940 two-boys-and-a-dog yarn that became a boxoffice sleeper for Paramount, and it’s still capable of conjuring four-hanky reactions to its simple pleasures. It’s followed by Stolen Heaven (11 a.m.), a 1931 Paramount item pairing Nancy Carroll as a pavement princess with Phillips Holmes as a thief, both with stolen money to burn.
Afternoon flicks begin with a brief runthrough of silent-movie trailers (1 p.m.), followed by the 1922 comedy silent Westward Whoa (1:10 p.m.) with comedian Bert Roach. The 1919 antique The Hushed Hour (1:25 p.m.) offers an unusual premise: a quartet of grown children, all morally corrupt in some fashion, honor the final request of their dead dad, a judge, to each spend an hour in contemplation next to his coffin.
Also in the afternoon is 1932’s Fox drama Devil’s Lottery (2:35 p.m.), with author-actress Elissa Landi as the leading lady and Victor McLaglen as a prizefighter. Boyish leading man Gary Cooper (in the buff!) and cultish fave Lupe Velez are the main attractions for the 1929 Paramount silent The Wolf Song (3:40 p.m.), director Victor Fleming’s rousing chronicle about a mountain man and his hotsy Spanish seniorita. And there’s a 1931 soundie version of Alice in Wonderland (5 p.m.), with its low budget in painful evidence.
The nighttime lineup commences with the much-anticipated annual screening of a William J. Burns detective short, 1931’s Foiled (8 p.m.), a so-bad-it’s-good mystery produced by Educational Pictures that practically every Cinefester in attendance will be sure to see. Next is another “A Song in the Dark” program (8:10 p.m.) hosted by Richard Barrios, with even more excerpts and deleted musical numbers from early sound musicals.
The 1916 silent comedy Sunshine Dad (9:45 p.m.) is as interesting for its behind-the-scenes personnel (including D.W. Griffith and Tod Browning) as it is for its cast, with stage star DeWolf Hopper (best known for his lead in the same year’s Casey at the Bat) plus ethnic comic Max Davidson and scene-stealer Eugene Palette. William Hopper, son of DeWolf and gossip columnist Hedda, can be glimpsed in a baby carriage some 40 years before he started playing Paul Drake on TV’s Perry Mason. Wrapping the night is RKO Radio Pictures’ 1930 Love Comes Along (10:50 p.m.), a quasimusical featuring kissable Bebe Daniels and hissable heavy Montagu Love.
On Saturday, March 19, Eastwood’s Palace Theatre takes center stage for the screenings of 35mm movies. The roster, which starts at 8:30 a.m., includes the once-considered-lost silent film Jazzmania with Mae Murray directed by her husband Robert Z. Leonard; the little-seen 1919 flick Burglar by Proxy; Universal’s 1928 part-talkie boy-meets-girl tear-jerker Lonesome with Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon; Miriam Hopkins in Paramount’s 1933 The Story of Temple Drake, a still-racy drama (based on William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary) that received a splashy screening at last year’s Turner Classic Movies Festival; Conrad Nagel has the lead for Universal’s 1928 silent adaptation of Rex Beach’s The Michigan Kid, an Alaska-based tale of love, adventure and forest fires in Sarah Palin’s back yard; and the 1920 silent The Woman and the Puppet, with New York City’s Metropolitan Opera star Geraldine Farrar and her then-husband Lou Tellegen.
The evening’s moving pictures start with a quartet of Warner Brothers-Vitaphone shorts (8:10 p.m.) featuring vaudeville stars such as Harry Fox, Carlena Diamond and Jimmy Conlin. The 1913 comedy short Poor Jake’s Demise (8:55 p.m.) offers an early glimpse of a young Lon Chaney, while fleeting fragments of the 1923 flapper flick Flaming Youth (9:15 p.m.), with Colleen Moore in her star-making turn, demonstrates the continuing need for film preservation. Actress Constance Talmadge produces and stars in the 1921 silent Lessons in Love (9:30 p.m.), a frothy romantic-comedy. More vaudevillians parade through a trio of Vitaphone shorts (10:45 p.m.), and the Saturday nightcap offers 1934’s I Can’t Escape (11:20 p.m.), a crime-never-pays potboiler with Onslow Stevens, whose offscreen addictions reportedly included alcoholism and nudism.
Before the 10:30 a.m. auction commences on Sunday, March 20, Cinefest threads up Paramount’s 1932 musical-comedy The Phantom President (9 a.m.), a hard-to-see item with Jimmy Durante and Claudette Colbert flanking its famous Broadway star, George M. Cohan. After the auction will be the third annual noontime salute to Justin Herman, the Peabody Award-winning writer-director behind three comedy shorts from Paramount’s Topper and Pacemaker series: 1949’s Neighbors in the Night, 1950’s Country Cop and 1955’s You’re a Trooper. Cinefesters will get to see Herman’s own prints of these rarities.
Technicolor enthusiasts will line up for 20th Century Fox’s 1938 horse-racing saga Kentucky (12:35 p.m.), with contract player/ heartthrob Richard Greene romancing Loretta Young and Walter Brennan copping a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Then comes a pair of silent productions under the category “Hardy as Heavy” (2:25 p.m.) that depicts some villainous aspects of Oliver “Babe” Hardy prior to his lighthearted screen teaming with Stan Laurel. The Fall Guy is a 1921 slapstick western short with Larry Semon in the lead and Ollie as a comical bad guy. And the 1927 horse opera No Man’s Law headlines Rex the Wonder Horse, with Hal Roach regulars Hardy and James Finlayson in relatively serious roles and Lonesome’s Barbara Kent as a damsel in distress. Cinefest 31 concludes with the 1937 British action drama The Great Barrier (3:30 p.m.), one of star Richard Arlen’s best vehicles.
Returning once more with piano accompaniments on the silents will be Ben Model, with newbies Sylvia Moscovitz and Andrew Simpson joining in for the fun. Authors and film historians who will also be attending Cinefest include the aforementioned Richard Barrios (A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film), Edward Hulse (the silent cliffhanger serials tome Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders), Martin Grams Jr. and Terry Salomonson (the 816-page history of The Green Hornet), and Antonia and Luke Colella, with a new book on Auburn inventor Theodore Case and his cinematic contributions to synchronized sound.
Admission for all four days is $75, with daily ducats fetching $25. A $25 fee will also be charged for the Palace’s Saturday screenings. The dealers’ room, chockablock with all kinds of stills, posters, videos and books, is available to festival attendees, and will also be open to the public on Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a $5 admission, which will be applied toward any dealer purchase. For Cinefest information, visit www.syracusecinefest.com; for Holiday Inn details, call 457-1122.
Golden oldies: Rare treats such as The Phantom President (left, with Jimmy Durante, George M. Cohan and Claudette Colbert) and the Olsen-Johnson laugh fest Hellzapoppin (right) will be Cinefest 31 highlights.
Poster peeker: Hollywood memorabilia abounds at this weekend’s Cinefest.