On Sunday, August 10, 2008, I attended day three of Capitolfest 6 at the Capitol Theatre in Rome, N.Y. The festival bills itself as “a vacation -- not a marathon.” The intermissions and breaks provided are generous enough to allow attendees time to explore the 1928 movie palace, network with old friends, and make new ones.
Both Sunday sessions began with restored Vitaphone shorts. The day’s first feature Lets Go Native (1930) starred Jack Oakie as a wise-cracking taxi driver and Jeanette MacDonald as a Broadway star in love with a millionaire’s grandson. Jerry Orlando of the Syracuse Cinephile Society stated in his introduction that Lets Go Native was Leo McCarey’s first film for Paramount after leaving Hal Roach Studios. No kidding, this film was closer in spirit to a Roach short than it was to any of McCarey’s later sophisticated comedies. The silly, rather loose plot involves Miss MacDonald’s Broadway troupe traveling by ocean liner to put on a show in Buenos Aires. Later Miss MacDonald and her party are shipwrecked on a desert island ruled by King Jerry (“Skeets” Gallagher) and inhabited by a bevy of showgirls from Brooklyn. (Hey, I told you it was silly.) There is, however, a bit of sophistication provided by Miss Kay Francis in a small supporting role as an elegant socialite who even performs a romantic duet with Jack Oakie. Now there’s an odd couple!
Show Folks (1928), the second feature shown, was released by Pathé in both sound and silent versions. The silent version was screened accompanied by Bernie Anderson on the Capitol’s magnificent Moller Theatre Organ. Eddie Quillan starred as Eddie Kehoe, an arrogant vaudeville hoofer looking for his big break -- what an absolute jerk he was! Not only does Quillan dump his delightful dancing partner, Rita, played by Miss Lina Basquette, but he also rebuffs a young, stunning Carole Lombard who practically begs Quillan to marry her. To quote Dr. Phil, “What were you thinking?” Miss Basquette’s performance was energetic and sassy; her dancing was exceptionally good, too. My husband remarked that the film had a very authentic feel of what backstage life for vaudevillians might have been like.
In the afternoon session a short from the Screen Snapshots series was shown. “An Informal History of Hollywood” included some fascinating newsreel footage illustrating filmdom’s highlights from 1921 through 1938. I’d list the featured stars, but it would probably be briefer to tell you who was missing.
The plot summary for The Shakedown (1929), on the Capitolfest’s Web site, reads, "The life of a less-than successful professional boxer changes when he takes in an orphan." So I naturally thought this film must be something like The Champ (1931). Oh no, this film is nothing like The Champ. As William Wyler's powerful, gritty drama unfolds we see boxer James Murray struggle with his moral dilemma to be true to the orphan he has taken in while remaining firmly entrenched in a ruthless con job. Murray's performance was terrific, making it even sadder to consider how his bright film career was ruined by alcoholism, and that he would be dead within a few years after this film's release. Murray's supporting cast, Barbara Kent and Jack Hanlon, also contributed fine performances. Hanlon played the orphan without any cuteness or over-sentimentality. Wyler's genius is evident even in this early film. Pardon the pun, but I was absolutely knocked-out by the scenes of Murray working on an oil rig, the breath-taking rescue of the orphan, and of course the boxing sequences. Dr. Phillip C. Carli, George Eastman House's silent film accompanist, provided a magnificent score. The print shown was a 35mm restoration struck from a 16mm print belonging to a private collector. Seeing this film was a marvelous movie experience, but unfortunately subsequent screenings of The Shakedown in a period setting like the Capitol Theatre will be rare indeed.
In closing I just want to recognize the dedicated volunteers who made Capitolfest possible. The festival is a labor of love carried out by a band of very dedicated people with a passion for great classic film.