The good news: there are more quality classic films out there than even I suspected. The bad news? Well, let’s just say they can be mighty elusive.
But, hold on, there’s still more good news, because each year a cozy festival in Rome, New York screens some of the rarest films on the planet. A small, but passionate crowd of spectators settles into the seats of a vast 1928 movie palace, the lights go down, and films unseen for decades flicker up on a huge screen.
Out of the 17 features on the festival’s roster, I was familiar with only two of them. Nearly all of the obscure films surpassed my expectations. From zany curios to one bona fide masterpiece, the program showcased a range of stimulating movies that renewed my faith in early Hollywood’s ability to surprise and delight me (not that I ever really doubted it). Capitolfest confirmed that I’ve only been chipping away at a single vein of classic cinema: commercially available movies. Meanwhile, there’s a whole cache of obscure, but exceptional films waiting to be to rediscovered.
This year marked my first pilgrimage to Captolfest. Needless to say, I’m hoping it won’t be my last.
I had the good fortune to share the experience with two wonderful bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Annmarie of Classic Movie Hub, as well as my extraordinarily understanding mother (@MiddParent on Twitter). I also got to meet Beth of Spellbound by Movies, who flew in from San Francisco for the festival, and Shirley and Mark of the Toronto Silent Film Festival. You really ought to check out their respective blogs and sites, if you haven’t already.
As I struggled to condense my opinions about Capitolfest, it occurred to me that all of the movies deserved at least a few lines. I couldn’t stop myself from writing a mini-review of each. One of my favorite aspects of the program, the abundance of short subjects almost made me believe that I really was sitting in a movie theater circa 1930, gearing up for the big feature or double bill. However, if I wrote about every newsreel or Vitaphone morsel that I saw, you’d be reading a three-volume treatise instead of a blog post (although I realize that, with me, it can be hard to tell the difference).
So, with a heavy heart, I’m confining myself to the feature films and decided to split my festival recap into three parts. Here’s what I saw on the first day of Capitolfest…
Partners of the Sunset (Robert H. Townley, 1922)
Oh, 2014, you think you’re so cutting-edge. When a woman proposes to a man in the movies nowadays, critics and fans alike lavish praise on the clever gender inversion. Well, then, how are we to respond to a movie that did the same thing almost 100 years ago? In this obscure Western, two impoverished sisters—one in love with nature, the other enamored of high society—inherit a ranch in Texas and decide to claim it. When a greedy local landowner tries to force them out, the rugged Patricia joins forces with a windmill engineer to face down the baddies and defend her new home.
The little-remembered Allene Ray, catapulted into the limelight after winning the 1920 Fame and Fortune Contest, grew up on a Texas ranch in real life and earned a reputation for doing her own daring stunts in Westerns. In Partners of the Sunset, she imbues the strong female protagonist with an earthy, almost elfin spunk. Whether frolicking barefoot by a river or pulling a pistol on her would-be captors, Ray acquits herself as one hell of a boss lady. Inspiring outdoor long shots and refreshing action sequences helped this film launch Capitolfest in style.
Bottom Line: Go west, young woman and kick some serious butt! My favorite from the first day.
Derelict (Rowland V. Lee, 1930)
Two ships’ officers (George Brent and Jed Graves) wage a war of petty one-upmanship—until one steals the other’s girl and the rivalry turns potentially lethal. This tough, grimy little pre-Code drama impressed me with the realism of its scenes at sea. The artful simulation of its hurricane sequence proved thrilling, violent, and remarkably convincing. Amazing what you could do with industrial fans, water tanks, and camera angles as opposed to CGI, huh?
The script also crackled with some enjoyable tough-guy banter. Reduced to working on a banana boat, Brent calls out the captain’s cowardice by snarling, “You’ve been carrying bananas so long you’ve turned their color!” At the end, once the old enemies have buried the hatchet and Brent’s walking off to the altar, the pair can’t resist a final jab:
Brent: You can be the best man.
Graves: I always was.
Plus, I relished the chance to watch Jessie Royce Landis, Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest, play a tempting nightclub singer.
Bottom Line: Testosterone in celluloid form. Snappy, economical, and well worth its short runtime.
Horse Play (Edward Sedgwick, 1933)
I can’t remember the last time I cackled so loudly in a movie theater. I kept expecting a surly usherette to escort my rowdy companions and me from the premises. When a lovelorn hick from Montana strikes it rich, he and his pal Andy gatecrash the British aristocracy in search of Slim’s sweetheart. Slim Summerville, whom I like to think of as Gary Cooper redesigned by a five-year-old, delivers the goods in terms of belly laughs.
The mixture of crude yokels and snooty nobles brewed up a broadly comic variation on the traditional comedy of manners. For instance, in perhaps the film’s funniest scene, Slim and Andy invite two curious grande dames to their hotel room at the Ritz for a little drink. CUT TO: the aforementioned scions of the aristocracy swigging whisky, firing rodeo pistols, and suggestively saddling up furniture. As one of the ladies who lets her hair down with the cowboys, Una O’Connor looks more primly sexy than you might imagine she could—and demonstrates that her comic chops extended far beyond that famous paint-peeling shriek of hers.
This film milked its gags for maximum screen time. Nows, sometimes that works brilliantly. If you push a gag past the funny mark, it gets unfunny, but it turns out there’s a sweet spot just past unfunny where a gag becomes absurdly funny again. For instance, Slim and Andy have a slap-happy fight with collapsible top hats that lasts about five minutes, and I never wanted it to end. Other times one had the distinct impression that a dead horse was being beaten.
Bottom Line: Uneven as a whole, but the side-splitting antics of Slim and company made you forget its failings.
The Bright Shawl (John S. Robinson, 1923)
One could argue that this fine historical thriller runs too long, but if the movie needed that much time to cram Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish, William Powell, Mary Astor, Jetta Goudal, and, yes, even Edward G. Robinson into one movie, you won’t hear me complaining! An ambiance of tropical sultriness and wide-open spaces confer a special vibe of authenticity on the film, since the cast and crew travelled to Cuba to shoot exterior scenes on location.
In this adaptation Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel, a naïve American visits Cuba with his resistance leader friend and joins the movement himself after witnessing the cruelty of the Spanish oppressors. However, in the end, our hero escapes with the girl he loves only by the grace of a foe’s merciful whim. And who else to play that gallant, sympathetic villain but William Powell in his fourth movie appearance! Even without the advantage of his voice, Powell displays the insouciant, dandyish charm that would serve him throughout his career. Everybody else does their darndest, too: Barthelmess is earnest and indignant, Gish is naughty but nice, Astor is pure but feisty, Goudal is slinky and sinister, and Robinson is full of mighty rage and grief as a bereft father.
Bottom Line: A dream cast in a handsome production, albeit one that feels too much like a filmed novel at times.
Ladies’ Man (Lothar Mendes, 1931)
Get in the queue, girls, ’cause William Powell makes one dapper gigolo! Interestingly enough, Ladies’ Man presents a gender-flipped version of the fallen woman sagas that 1930s audiences ate up with such gusto. As Powell’s character explains, “I look at women the way women look at men”—that is, as meal tickets. The difference is, the hookers and courtesans played by the likes of Garbo, Crawford, and Stanwyck often got their chances at redemption. When a man prostitutes himself, though, the penalty is death. How’s that for a double standard?
Elegant escort for a rich society lady, Jamie Darricott also indulges in a liaison with her wild daughter (Carole Lombard). As if that weren’t awkward enough, a mysterious woman from out of town (Kay Francis) wins his heart and convinces him to leave his sordid occupation. Unfortunately, Jamie’s powerful paramour and her jealous husband won’t let him escape their world unpunished.
In a distinctly amoral role, Powell oozes savoir-faire and never falls into the trap of sanctimoniously renouncing his, ahem, profession. The actor supposedly disliked this part, believing himself too unattractive to pull it off. (Yeah, right, Bill.) You’d never know it, though, from the confidence and breeding he projects in even the most embarrassing situations. Herman Mankiewicz’s sophisticated dialogue, spoken by Powell’s velvety baritone, likewise boosts the value of what could have been a tawdry melodrama.
Do I wish that Powell, Lombard, and Francis had been drafted into, say, a Lubitsch comedy instead of this? Well, yes. But I can still appreciate the film for its luscious Travis Banton gowns and its stars’ vivid performances.
Bottom Line: An unapologetic yet occasionally heart-rending portrait of a man who lived and died beyond his means.
Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933)
Call it politically incorrect, trashy, or flat-out goofy, but first try to stop laughing. One of the more famous films on the Capitolfest program, this trippy pre-Code musical centers on a sweet-natured loser from the corrupt modern town of West Rome. Magically transported back to ancient Rome, he finagles to save an imprisoned princess—and his own skin.
Easily sustaining the pace of a big-budget musical extravaganza, Eddie ‘Banjo Eyes’ Cantor jumps around like a bunny on speed, singing, dancing, cracking wise, and offending pretty much every possible demographic. Busby Berkeley arranged some of his weirdest musical numbers for this film, including a hymn of hope sung by evicted families in the streets and the infamous slave market sequence.
I’d seen clips of the cult classic before, but the dazzling quality of the 35mm print left me breathless. Say what you will about Sam Goldwyn, but the man sure could harness star power. If I’d been around in ’33, this piece of box-office bait would have reeled me into the theater for repeat viewings.
Oh, and whenever a certain young platinum blonde popped into the frame, knowing individuals in the Capitol audience burst into spontaneous ovations. The blonde in question would be a very young Lucille Ball. If you ever get to savor this nutty confection, keep an eye out for her.
Bottom Line: This movie has all the good taste of a gladiator fight. Fortunately, my tastes aren’t much better. By all means, bring on the bread and circuses!