the music: Clara Bow and Stanley Smith in Love Among
of the Vaults
buffs recently made the pilgrimage to central New York for
Capitolfest, a festival of extreme rarities in an ideal setting
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,
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
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.)