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Facing the music: Clara Bow and Stanley Smith in Love Among the Millionaires.

Out of the Vaults

Film buffs recently made the pilgrimage to central New York for Capitolfest, a festival of extreme rarities in an ideal setting

By Shawn Stone

 

 

Of necessity, most film festivals are dedicated to new films. Which is fine. Nothing wrong with that. The art form can always use fresh ideas and new talent, and festivals are just about the only way for up-and-comers to make a name for themselves.

However, there are literally hundreds of old films that are never shown, anywhere. The archives and studio vaults are full of them. These are movies that have been preserved and are being maintained, either as artifacts of our cultural heritage at public institutions or as plain-and-simple corporate property in a Southern California vault. The overwhelming number of these will likely never be available on video, or, in the promised great digital future of instant entertainment, as downloads.

Most people don’t care. This is perfectly reasonable. Believe it or not, however, there’s a loyal, if not huge, audience for these kind of films. People for whom the prospect of seeing a rare Warner Brothers silent is an exciting occasion. (Only 54 of ’em, out of a couple hundred, survived, after all.) People who gather in places like Syracuse in March (for Cinefest) and Columbus, Ohio in May (for Cinevent) and even good old Hollywood on Labor Day weekend (for Cinecon) every year to see silent films and early talkies.

Capitolfest, the fourth edition of which was just held at the Capitol Theatre in Rome, N.Y., from Aug. 11 to 13, is a newer addition to these classic film fests. It’s different in a few significant ways, too. Except for the Friday-night program (which I missed this year), all films are shown in 35mm prints at the Capitol, a smaller “golden age” movie palace with a 1933 Möller theater organ. Almost all of the prints come from the Library of Congress and UCLA Film and Television Archive, or directly from studios like Sony and Universal.

Capitolfest is pretty strict about not programming stuff from later than the early 1930s. (As a purist, I heartily approve.) The most recent feature film shown this year was a B-movie originally released in 1932; the newest short subject, a musical short featuring the now-forgotten Henry Busse and His Orchestra, was made in 1940—and stuck out for being so “new.” The only film screened that’s remotely well-known is the 1931 comedy Girls About Town, which used to be in the MCA-TV package and has been shown 3 or 4 times over the last decade at Film Forum in New York City (and, as a result, was written about in the Village Voice).

Another great thing about Capitolfest? They solicit requests. (Unfortunately, the year they ran the Rin-Tin-Tin picture I asked for, I couldn’t go.)

If you haven’t guessed, Capitolfest is all about Hollywood. There’s a good reason for this: It can be argued that foreign silent (and yes, early talkie) films are better known and appreciated than the homegrown product. Film professors who rhapsodize about directors like F.W. Murnau and Sergei Eisenstein aren’t often interested in commercial American movies. This is a shame, because some of this year’s obscurities, like William Beaudine’s 1926 rural drama The Canadian, compare favorably to the better-known “art” films.

Every year brings surprises. This year’s pleasant discoveries included the Pygmalion-esque 1926 farce The Caveman and the new Library of Congress restoration of another 1926 comedy, Kiki.

While my expectations were high for both of those films—especially The Caveman, as I’m a fan of star Marie Prevost—the musical comedy Love Among the Millionaires was not one of them. Oddly enough, this film turned out to represent everything I love about festivals like Capitolfest.

It had a lot going against it, however. First, there’s the story. Hollywood has never been able to resist the urge to run a successful idea into the ground, and the plot of Love Among the Millionaires, released in July 1930, is more-or-less the same as two 1929 musicals, Sally and Sunny Side Up: Rich boy from disapproving family falls for poor girl; after much laughter, tears, singing and a climactic confrontation at a jaw-dropping Art Deco mansion, all problems are solved.

So there’s that. The picture also suffers from the technical clunkiness of that moment. Its director, Frank Tuttle, made deft, fast-paced comedies in the silent era, and would make anarchic, fast-paced comedies a few years later, but in early 1930, the new sound technology kept him on a leash. On the other hand, Paramount’s practice of recording all musical numbers live, with an orchestra on set, just out of camera range, was a plus for the performances—even if it must have created techinical nightmares.

That I ended up liking the picture was directly related to two things I didn’t anticipate. The first was the star, Clara Bow, and the supporting cast. Bow was a peerless presence in silent films who had a very rough start in talkies, but she’s very good here, and carries the film. What really knocked me out, however, was the quality of the print.

This 76-year-old film looked like it was released yesterday—the tonal range of the black & white cinematography was better, in fact, than in recent b&w releases like Good Night, and Good Luck.

The astonishing, eye-popping quality of some of these archival prints is a compelling draw. Take The Spider, a 1931 Fox production which was the last film shown Saturday night. It’s a pretty silly mystery that asks the audience to suspend disbelief at a level that’s ballsy, even for Hollywood: A man is shot in the middle of a magic act in a packed, Palace-sized theater by a member of the audience, and no one sitting near the shooter notices. It works, though, because The Spider is all about showy performances, spectacular set designs and the use of the vast theater space itself.

Most of the Fox Film Corporation’s original negatives were incinerated in a vault fire; good copies of anything made before 1937 are hard to find (check out the soft, beat-up look of the Charlie Chan films Fox just released on DVD, for example). But the UCLA restoration—partly financed, as noted in the credits, by Hugh Hefner—is amazing. If The Spider only survived in crappy, beat-up prints, then the beguiling sets and monumental setting wouldn’t register. And the film wouldn’t be so much fun.

At Capitolfest, the short subjects are as much of a draw as the features. Nicely divided between musical and comedy films, they’re usually the biggest crowd-pleasers, too. A 1929 Vitaphone short with Bert Lahr revealed that his Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz barely scratched the surface of Lahr’s capacity for sissy shtick; here, he’s introduced at a sewing machine, making pajamas and singing about wanting to meet a sailor. 1934 Columbia “musical novelty,” Um-Pa, stretched the limits of sanity with its incessant rhyming and dancing nurses in satin and lace. There were comedies with well-known teams like Laurel and Hardy, and forgotten duos like Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts; a chapter of a 1914 serial, The Hazards of Helen, featured a plucky heroine who jumped trains and took on the bandits without any male assistance.

Everyone seemed to go away pleased with this year’s lineup. (I certainly was.) And, happily, the folks at the Rome Grand Theatre Organ Society are already planning for Capitolfest 5 next August. (I already sent in my requests.)

 


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