Posted ~ August 29th, 2016
by Jeff Lundenberger
“I’m going to Rome, New York for a classic film festival.”
Sounds reasonable, right? But how quickly and subtly the facial expression of the person I say this to can change in that brief moment between “Rome” and “New York,” from excitement to…not exactly disappointment, more like indifference. I quickly assure them that I’m just as excited about this trip as I would be if I was going to that other Rome, but they don’t seem to be convinced.
That exchange happened more than once in the weeks leading up to my first trip to Capitolfest, this its 14th year, a film festival devoted to silent films and early talkies held at the Capitol Theatre in the aforementioned city. I’d been encouraged to attend by several TCM Classic Film Festival friends (among them @CitizenScreen, @MiddParent, @NitrateDiva, @ClassicMovieHub, and @IrishJayhawk66). They’d described it as very low-key compared to the TCMFF: one screen in a 1928 movie palace, one movie at a time, with comfortable breaks between. (If you know me you know that I love TCMFF, but picking one screening over another can, at times, be excruciating!) And Rome isn’t all that far from our home in New Jersey: the drive took about the same amount of time as would a flight to Los Angeles. I had mentioned the festival to Ed in the spring and he agreed that it sounded fun, then I just let the ball drop. Imagine my surprise when, for my birthday in June, I received a box from him containing 3 envelopes. In one was a map with our route to Rome, in another confirmation of our festival passes, and in the third, information on the Oak and Ivy, the bed and breakfast he had booked for our stay. To say the least I was thrilled, and impressed by his good sportsmanship, as he’s not as movie-mad as myself, especially when it comes to silents.
The festival was Friday, August 12th through Sunday, August 14th. We drove up on Thursday the 11th, all highway but not unpleasant, through the green hills of upstate New York and along the Mohawk River. We were welcomed at the Oak and Ivy Bed & Breakfast by its owner who, once we were settled, served us tea and scones (as per the website, “A Touch of England in Rome, New York”).
We then walked the few blocks to the theatre to pick up our festival badges and attend the Capitolfest reception where we promptly met other classic film fans from all over, a couple from Chicago, a gentleman from Kansas City, MO, another from Brooklyn, and couple of locals. We saw a few TCMFF friends that night as well (including @QuelleLove, @tosilentfilm, @missbethg, @BBandmoviegal, @zleegaspar, and @alanhait, who generously
supplied movie candy for all) and, after a bite to eat (silly me, wondering if it was safe to walk around Rome after dark) we returned to the Oak and Ivy to rest up for the first day of the festival. We gathered in the dining room with the other guests for breakfast in the morning, all 7 of us in town for the festival. Guess what we talked about? Ed and I then walked to the theatre for the first screening of the day, which was to start at 11:30. We wan-dered up to the balcony and took seats there with a great central view of the screen and, but for two movies, returned to that area throughout the festival, our movie nest, as it were.
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We were welcomed to the festival by Capitol Theatre Executive Director Arthur Pierce (who introduced the films throughout the festival). He introduced the film, “Doomsday,” and organist Dr. Philip C. Carli, who accompanied the film on the theatre’s massive white Möller organ. (All the silent films screened were accompanied by either Dr. Carli, Avery Tunningley, and Bernie Anderson. The Rome Grand Theatre Organ Society is also a sponsor of the festival.)
One of my favorite things about going to TCMFF is seeing a film I’m not familiar with, other than reading the paragraph-long description in the Programming Guide. I’ve discovered real gems this way, including such films as “Went the Day Well?,” “This Is the Night,” “I Am Suzanne,” and “Why Be Good?”. Imagine an entire festival of movies like this! I’d read through the brief descriptions of each film when Ed gave me the schedule in June, but that was 2 months earlier and, well, my memory isn’t what it once was. Add to that the fact that many of the actors were unfamiliar to me as well… I had no expectations, just a rush of joy when the lights went down, the curtains opened, the powerful organ music began, and the Paramount logo began to flicker on the screen, followed by the title, “Doomsday.” Well it wasn’t exactly a flicker, it being the one full-length feature that was screened digitally (as were some of the shorts). But it still looked good and it set the stage for the films that followed: yes, there is a difference between 35mm film and digital projection. (And, as I later learned from festival-goer @theintertitler, the carbon arc projector in use at the Capitol Theatre provides a type of light that enhances the look of the film.)
“Doomsday” stars Gary Cooper, the featured actor of the festival. In it he plays a young farmer, more beautiful than handsome, who falls for a young girl in town, played by Florence Vidor. She falls for Cooper as well but is leading what she considers to be a life of drudgery caring for her ailing father. The richest man in town also has his eye on her, and the life of luxury he offers wins out over a life of cleaning and cooking – for now. Will she be able to win back the affections of the jilted farm boy?
“Linda” followed. Helen Foster plays the title character, the oldest child of 6 with a sickly mother and an abusive father who more or less sells her to a local businessman, played by Noah Beery, in order to get a market for his lumber. I expected the worst from the Beery character but he treats Linda very well, until a misunderstanding (to put it mildly) breaks up their somewhat happy home. Linda gets an education, falls for a doctor played by Warner Baxter, and the ending caught me completely off guard and brought a tear to my eye.
Do we sense a theme here? The wrong girl falling for the wrong boy falling for the wrong girl? How about the next Gary Cooper movie, “Children of Divorce.” It was after the dinner break on Friday (at a nearby Italian restaurant, one of several in the area. When in Rome?) and preceded by a Cooper short, “Lightnin’ Wins,” his co-star a German Shepard, and a minute-long fragment from “Arizona Bound,” his first starring role. Out of the saddle and into a tux and still lovely to look at is Cooper, who co-stars with Clara Bow, Esther Ralston, and Einar Hanson. (The 27-year old actor died in a car accident two months after the film was released.) Cooper loves Ralston who loves Cooper, Hanson loves Bow who loves Hanson but marries Cooper for security, and it doesn’t end well. Several people I spoke to at the end of the festival picked “Children of Divorce” as one of their favorites and I have to agree…if I’m permitted to have 5 or 6 favorites out of the 14 films.
Friday’s festival program finished with two more films with this misguided romance theme, both starring Gary Cooper. “A Man From Wyoming” sounds like a western but it’s a combination war film and romance. Cooper is a man from – guess where? – who becomes a Captain/Engineer at the front during World War I. June Collyer, a society girl and ambulance driver, goes AWOL looking for adventure and finds it in the arms of Cooper. In a scene out of the “Doomsday” playbook Collyer must re-prove her love in order to win back Cooper’s trust. Not the best film at the festival but it had something of a cornball ending, the kind of thing that always makes me sigh in pleasure.
In “Wolf Song,” the last film of the festival, Cooper has to literally crawl on his knees to win back the love of his beloved, played by Lupe Velez. I thought, during all the Cooper films at the festival, how much prettier Cooper was than all his leading ladies, no offense to them as that is some stiff competition! But he finally meets his match in Lupe Velez. Someone told me afterwards that the two were having a real-life affair at the time and I can believe it. They are both gorgeous and there is real chemistry in their romantic scenes together. This was one of my favorites and the perfect film to end the festival.
The movies started at 9:30 Saturday morning with “The Texan.” This was also one of the Gary Cooper films, not exactly a western, also with a romance, but that isn’t the focus of the film. Cooper plays the Llano Kid, a thief who kills a man in a bar fight and is talked into going to South America by a bounder scheming to bilk a widow out of her fortune. The film, based on a story by O. Henry, is full of delightful surprises, including a meal of donuts, pickles, and pie. Fay Wray plays the love interest.
There was a gangster film, the silent “Dressed to Kill,” starring Edmund Lowe and Mary Astor, always lovely with her delicate, fine features. She and Lowe have real chemistry as she leads him on while simultaneously deflecting his advances -– which makes him all the more interested in her. A musical, “Too Much Harmony.” I’ve never been a big musical fan and wasn’t expecting much but this film, starring Bing Crosby, was a real charmer, with a truly odd production number: “Black Harlem.” And an early, silent anthology film, “While New York Sleeps.” The first story, about a suburban home robbery, is a bit silly and the second concerns a young woman in “gay” New York and her love affair with a man of means. The third and most vivid story centers on a working poor, Lower East Side couple and their descent to tragedy.
There were two films that didn’t really work that well but both were worth seeing. “Eleven P.M.” is a 1926 silent race film, directed by and starring Richard Maurice. Race films were movies created by, starring, and marketed to African-Americans and were made until the early 1950’s. It’s fascinating as a historical document but difficult as a motion picture. It relies too heavily on intertitles to tell the story and has no finesse in its editing, which makes the story somewhat confusing. To be fair, it is only the third (and last) film by its director and it contains a crude but extremely effective special effects scene near the end of the film. While “Eleven P.M.,” with its over-reliance on title cards, cries out to be a talking picture, “Up For Murder” feels like a talking picture that longs to be silent. The acting is good, Lew Ayres and Genevieve Tobin in particular, and there are some nice bits of visual storytelling, but it never develops a comfortable pace and the dialog seems to somehow get in the way of the movie. It too has a riveting scene near the end, set in a prison, followed by a too-neatly wrapped up ending.
George Willeman gave an Edison Kinetoscope presentation Friday afternoon, followed by a digital screening of several of those restored films. The sound quality wasn’t great in some of them but they were interesting to see. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to experience the films as the new technology they were at the time of their release, and suddenly thought of myself at home with my iPhone and a cardboard viewer, wandering around the kitchen, looking up, down, around, in awe of virtual reality, now in its early stages. Saturday afternoon there was a Technicolor presentation by James Layton covering early Technicolor musicals, including some never before screened production numbers. Warner Brothers invested heavily in early Technicolor musicals. I thought this ironic as I tend to think of that studio in terms of beautiful black and white.
Finally, the comedies! “Dude Ranch” introduces gangsters to an acting troop at an upscale western resort. It stars Jack Oakie (who was also in “Too Much Harmony”), June Collyer, and a favorite of mine, Eugene Pallette, his deadpan self, even when dressed as an Indian and speaking, in clear Native-American-ese, “HOW.”
“The Poor Rich” had more stars I was familiar with than any of the other films screened at the festival: its two leads, Edward Everett Horton and Edna May Oliver, Andy Devine, Grant Mitchell, Thelma Todd, Una O’Connor, Ward Bond, and Walter Brennan, practically an all-star cast! Horton and Oliver are penniless cousins returning to their broken-down ancestral home, which must be restored so that Horton can be married off to the daughter of an (allegedly) wealthy family. Did I mention that a local goose is murdered? The cast seemed to be having as much fun as the audience.
Last and perhaps least, but deliciously entertaining, was Friday night’s 8:40 screening, 1930’s “Just Imagine” starring El Brendel. A comedy? A musical? It’s set in the future, 1980, and you’ll be glad to know that modern technology has provided flying cars, suspended animation, video phones (they at least got something right), and trips to Mars, where the atmosphere is breathable and every Martian has not only their own twin (one good twin, one evil twin, which is figured out in a true Star Trek moment of brilliance by one of the earthlings) but hideous fashion sense to boot. They do, however, manage to pull together an elaborate Martian production number which includes dancing Oz monkeys, minus the wings. What could make this film better? Only a bat flying around the cavernous theatre, in and out of the projector’s light. Ridiculously brilliant? Brilliantly ridiculous? Busby Berkeley, meet John Waters.
There were also assorted shorts throughout the festival, some silent, some with sound, a few cartoons, a Laurel & Hardy, and even a 1933 newsreel featuring a clip of Joseph Breen discussing the production code, which was booed by the audience.
Time makes some subtle shifts when you spend the bulk of three days inside a theatre watching movies. Faster, slower, is it noon or midnight, lunch or dinner? Your eyes become accustomed to the dark during the day – day for night? Suddenly the last “The End” appears on the screen. The star of next year’s Capitolfest, Fay Wray, is announced, and it’s time to fill out the survey, say goodbye to the new friends you’ve made. Ed and I went to dinner with some of the TCMFF crew, met a few new people there, then headed back to the Oak and Ivy for bed. We still had another breakfast with that group Monday morning, all the better to give the festival one last critique (all positive, I must say) and then packed for our trip back to New Jersey, not before booking the Oak and Ivy for Capitolfest 2017. As I said earlier, Ed isn’t nearly as movie-obsessed as I am but, to my surprise, he attended every screening but one, and he was the first to mention returning to Rome next year. I can’t offer a better Capitolfest testimonial than that.
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