I’m not the kind of person who’d get up before 10:00 on a weekend if you were giving out free money. For Capitolfest, however, I arose at 7:00 sharp with a smile on my face, breakfasted with a coven of fellow film geeks, and headed to the Capitol Theater for another round of ultra-rare films. Movies are more important than sleep.
My favorite day of the festival, Saturday also afforded my friends and I the chance to tour the Capitol Theater. Ornamented in neo-Moorish style with some later deco embellishments, the movie palace harbors all sorts of redolent treasures. Vintage seats with built-in hat racks line the upper balcony. A patriotic display on the second-floor lobby urges spectators to buy war bonds. A shift schedule from the 1940s hangs from a cabinet in the projection booth. It’s time warp in the best sense.
Although the theater plans to accommodate digital in the future, screening 35mm prints for audiences is a top priority for the Capitol team. Up in the projection booth, Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the theater and general fountain of cinema knowledge, demonstrated the inner workings of the Capitol’s carbon-arc projector. Arc lamps, emitting light from extremely hot carbon electrodes, illuminated motion pictures during projection for the first half of the 20th century. As Theakston explained, “I like the fact that we’re running movies in the format they were originally seen in. We’re a movie theater and an entertainment showcase, but we’re also a museum since we present these films in a historically accurate fashion.”
A visit to the Capitol Theater reveals that the value of film as a tangible thing extends far beyond nostalgia. On the contrary, whenever the screen darkens slightly with a projector mishap or a reel countdown interrupts the story, we’re reminded of the tenuous mixture of art and technology bound up in filmmaking. Not only does 35mm look better, but the materiality behind the images—strips and reels and “cigarette burns” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen—also brings us back to André Bazin’s concept of film as the fingerprint of reality. When I pop a DVD or Blu-Ray into a player or tune into a stream of images online, it’s easy for me to mystify classic Hollywood and avoid thinking of the sheer man hours and effort that went into producing, distributing, and exhibiting old movies. Something about seeing the flicker on a big screen teaches you respect for all that toil and trouble, whether you’re aware of it or not.
Without further ado, here are the features I saw at Capitolfest, part II. Click here to read part I.
The Czar of Broadway (William James Craft, 1930)
On the surface, this Universal gangster drama reheats one of the stalest dishes on the pre-Code menu: a ruthless gangster’s young protégé falls for the boss’s moll (Betty Compson) and ends up betraying his mentor in crime. However, the devil’s in the details—and speaking of devils, Czar‘s titular gangster (John Wray) added a pulpy, deliciously over-the-top idiosyncrasy to his character with bouts of diabolical giggling. This mobster’s so organized that he sells life insurance policies to his victims before he has them whacked. Pretty neat, huh?
A fashion-obsessed gay hit man and the close bond between the gangster and his friend endow the film with unusually upfront homoerotic overtones. Plus, this splendid rarity busts the myth that early talkie cameras couldn’t roam if they wanted to. Numerous restless camera movements and a fantastic shot of a poker game—through the bottom of the card table—distract you from the fact that this movie was probably made for a song on recycled sets.
Bottom Line: A killer-diller entry into the canon of 1930s gangster movies. I wish you all could see it.
High Treason (Maurice Elvey, 1929)
What if an eccentric, monocle-wearing British inventor/politician wrote a futuristic epic as a vehicle for his own singular views on militant pacifism? We don’t have to wonder, actually, because Noël Pemberton-Billing penned the story of this whacky sci-fi drama, set in 1940, about the necessity of stopping future world wars. You can see clips of the original silent High Treason in the excellent documentary Silent Britain, but Capitolfest projected the talkie version, the first all-talking movie shot in Britain.
Now, I’m a sucker for cult movies, so I lapped this up—clunky dialogue, metallic cloche hats, swagged-out jet-cars, and all. Britain’s answer to Lang’s Metropolis, sadly High Treason doesn’t come close in terms of quality. It does, however, feature an extended scene of Benita Hume’s scantily clad ablutions in a Flash Gordon-ish deco bathroom, which ought to keep anyone happy. The anti-war message and an apocalyptic bombing montage struck me as startlingly modern. And, hey, Billing predicted Skype, TV as we know it, and the Chunnel. In fact, during the film’s finest sequence, a nail-biting, Hitchcockian piece of suspense, a hidden bomb planted by terrorists ticks away and finally explodes the underwater train to Kingdom come. Unfortunately, the stilted performances brought the movie right back to the dawn of the talkies. Is this the future? Um, it’s the future of the past.
Bottom Line: Part ludicrous, part prophetic. Imagine the bastard child of Fritz Lang and Ed Wood and you won’t be far off.
Directed by William Desmond Taylor, better known today as a murder victim than as a highly respected filmmaker, Morals won me over with the vivacity of its heroine and the comic stuffiness of its hero. A British orphan raised in a Turkish harem, Carlotta (May McAvoy) flees from an arranged marriage and, through a chance encounter, becomes the ward of Sir Marcus (William Carleton), a curmudgeonly British noble. Vexed by Carlotta’s excitable disposition and her foreign customs, he sniffs, “I don’t believe that her father was a British Vice-Consul. I think he was Satan!”
Before you can say “meet-cute”, Sir Marcus has grown accustomed to Carlotta’s face, but will he have the courage to profess his love before one of his backstabbing friends wrecks their relationship? Puckish McAvoy walks a fine line between adorable and annoying, but carries it off swimmingly, especially with the counterbalance of Carleton’s cynical Sir Marcus. Given William Desmond Taylor’s notorious liaisons with younger women, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he could lend credibility, not to mention humor and tenderness, to a May-December romance onscreen.
Bottom Line: An unanticipated highlight. So many silents—even the ones we haven’t necessarily heard of—are golden.
Steady Company (Edward Ludwig, 1932)
My least favorite movie of the whole weekend, this noncommittal programmer romance set against the world of boxing would take a dive in the first round if not for the miraculous likability of two character actors. As the heroine’s best friend and fellow switchboard operator, Zazu Pitts demonstrates her talent for bone-dry comebacks. Hit on by one of those ubiquitous Depression-era creeps, she drolly replies, “I’m sorry, but your line is out of order,” and turns back to her switchboard. Henry Armetta, the most Italian Italian in the history of Hollywood, steals his share of scenes as a cuddly old cobbler. The unflinching ferocity of the boxing ring scenes stood out, but a saccharine conclusion majorly undercut the movie.
Bottom Line: Didn’t pack enough of a punch for me.
Forgotten Faces (Victor Schertzinger, 1928)
I appreciate and praise all kinds of movies for all kinds of reasons, but movies that blow my mind on pretty much every level come along only once in a blue moon. They are rare. They are precious. This, folks, is one of them. In my opinion, it belongs in the pantheon of great silent movies.
Gentleman thief Harry ‘Heliotrope’ Harlow (Clive Brook) comes home from a heist one night to find his wife Lily (Olga Baclanova) in bed with her lover. Harry shoots the other man and, not wanting his infant daughter to be raised by her wicked mother, secretly entrusts the baby to a rich couple who’d recently lost their child. Leaving his sidekick Froggy (William Powell) to watch over the girl, Harry turns himself in. Fast forward 20 years: Lily discovers her daughter’s new identity and threatens blackmail. After winning release from prison, Harry vows to stop his spouse’s plans at all costs… while keeping his promise to the prison warden not to lay a hand on her.
Though the plot might sound needlessly contrived, Forgotten Faces exemplifies the unrivaled art of silent movies in their final flush. It uses the film medium to the fullest, evoking both the seen and the unseen to draw out the audience’s emotions. Even the lack of sound, theoretically a disadvantage, bends to serve the film’s aesthetic—for instance, a key gunshot, unheard by the audience, lends an eerie stillness to the murder scene. Expressive, fluid camera movements gracefully tell half the story with jaw-dropping long takes that echo the exacting elegance of its protagonist.
I can barely scratch the surface of this movie’s brilliance in a paragraph or three and hope to devote an entire post to it soon. Stay tuned.
Bottom Line: Hey, Criterion Collection—get on this, will ya? Forgotten Faces has been forgotten for too long. Far and away the best of the program.
Laughter in Hell (Edward L. Cahn, 1933)
If I were a little 1930s shop girl or factory worker who toiled ridiculous hours all week, I wouldn’t want to see Pat O’Brien being beaten and whipped on my day off. As much as I’d like to assume the condescending tone of a contemporary highbrow and start whining about how this movie didn’t get the respect it deserved in 1933, I can understand why. My inner mogul shrugs and thinks, well, ambitious as it is, commercial it ain’t.
Laughter in Hell stands as a testament to harsh social criticism that pre-Code movies could pull off. I consider it even more daring and ambiguous than I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, not least of all because our protagonist really is guilty of a double homicide. And, as the film shows, even he doesn’t deserve the inhuman punishment of a southern chain gang. Too strong for its era—and maybe too strong for many people today—a horrific lynching sequence hits you with all the impact of a martyrdom shot in real time, the visual equivalent of “Strange Fruit.”
Bottom Line: It hurts and it should. Concession stand candy will be needed to sooth your nerves.