Showing posts with label Cinefest. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cinefest. Show all posts

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cinefest, Part II: The Films

Read Part I here.

Thursday at Cinefest was a warm-up; it didn’t quite feel like a first day at a festival. I spent most of the day traveling, hanging out with my friend Jonas, drinking a gin and tonic and when I had some energy I took in a couple of films. I caught the tail end of The King of the Kongo (1929), Chapter 10. This serial has been restored chapter by chapter and #10 was presented with its original soundtrack and in the best shape possible. In attendance was Cinefest regular Leonard Maltin. This would be the first of many sightings. The only full screening I caught on this day was the Hal Roach short Lucky Beginners (1935). It was comprised of talented unknowns who won a contest to be filmed for this variety show style short. At this point I was feeling the effects of travel fatigue and while I made my bet attempt to watch Janet Gaynor in The Return of Peter Grimm (1926) I realized I needed more than anything.

This was a good call because by Friday I was refreshed and ready to tackle a full day of rare cinematic treasures. In fact, I caught the entire first block, which started with the Vitaphone short Service Stripes (1931), a military comedy with musical numbers. The first feature of the day was the pre-code Men on Call (1931) starring Edmund Lowe, Mae Clarke and William Harrigan. This rarity was so rare that most of the organizers hadn’t seen the film. But just because a movie is rare doesn’t mean it’s good. Men on Call is a morality tale typical of the era. A woman must be punished for her sexuality but when it comes to light that it was all a misunderstanding everything is okay in the world. This was an okay film with a too-neatly wrapped up ending. I love films that showcase a particular job or industry. The Men on Call in this film were coast guards.

Me and the Boys (1929)

I was very eager to watch the next film on top; the jazz short Me and the Boys (1929). It was considered lost for many years. Luckily for us it was unearthed in 2013. Although it usually takes several years for a film to get funding for restoration, there was so much excitement for this two-song treasure that it all came together very quickly thanks to Hugh Hefner, Cinefest and the Vitaphone Project. The UCLA Film & Television Archive had screened it earlier in the week at their own festival and, after a faulty start, all of us at Cinefest got to delight in this rare jazz era wonder.

Cinefest had two Hal Roach shows with shorts and footage from Dick Bann’s personal collection. I caught the first of these two shows. It kicked off with Las Fantasmas (1930), an Our Gang movie in phonetic Spanish. As someone who is fluent in Spanish can tell you, the Spanish was pretty bad. Jackie Cooper’s was the worst. One of the actors seemed to be a native speaker and he’s pretty much the only person I could understand. I loved when one of the Our Gang members exclaimed “y, como!” which is the Spanish translation for “and how!”. We also saw a coming attractions trailer promoting There Goes My Heart (1938), introduced by a very young Ed Sullivan, unedited TV footage from the 1950s of the Hal Roach studio before it was torn down, more unedited footage of the old Our Gang introducing the new generation, a beachside family comedy Dad’s Day (1929) starring Edgar Kennedy and the zany Charley Chase comedy short Crazy Feet (1929) which featured Thelma Todd.

Speaking of Thelma Todd I had the pleasure of meeting Scott, a Cinefest regular and a funder of a variety of Vitaphone shorts. He was wearing a watch once owned by Thelma Todd. It was a present from her comedy partner Patsy Kelly. It was definitely a geek moment to see a treasure like that up close!

Thelma Todd wearing the watch in Top Flat (1935)

After lunch we were all treated to the presentation “The Story of Color in the Movies” hosted by film historian Eric Grayson. We saw examples of a variety of color processes including Pathe stencil (each frame painted by hand), Kinemacolor, 2-strip Technicolor (red and green), Cinecolor, Kodachrome, Eastman Color and 3-Strip Technicolor. The goal with color film was to get the technology right so that the filmmakers had the same ease and functionality of black-and-white filming. There were a lot of failures along the way. Cinecolor couldn’t focus, Eastman color would turn red with age, you couldn’t make negatives, and thus prints, with Kodachrome , 2-strip Technicolor had glue problems and Kinemacolor required expensive equipment and a trained technician. 3-strip Technicolor was considered the best because it ran the full gamut of color but it had issues including color leeching. It was a fascinating presentation. There was a Q&A afterwards and I learned that East of Eden (1955), shot in Warner Color, a version of Eastman Color, aged so poorly that it had to be digitally restored and original negatives are pretty much useless.

Up next was the Fox film The Painted Woman (1932). It’s a drama set in the South Seas and it reminded me of pre-code favorites Red Dust (1932) and Safe in Hell (1931). The Painted Woman, Peggy Shannon, is on the lam and being blackmailed by a ship captain. When she learns he is lost at sea, she marries sea rover Spencer Tracy. This one has a very similar plot line to Safe in Hell but with a much happier ending.

Image via Nitrate Diva

One of the highlights of the festival was the bizarre Warner Bros. film The Second Floor Mystery (1930). Directed by Roy Del Ruth it stars Grant Withers and Loretta Young. I’ve never seen a mystery take so many twists and turn as this one did. It was really quite the head scratcher but enjoyable nonetheless. Loretta Young never looked so beautiful and her meet-cute with Grant Withers (they quibble over strawberries and grapefruits while having breakfast at separate tables) is adorable.

The first screening after Friday’s dinner break was The Bride of Finklestein. This was a new short made in the style of the 1930s. It’s a Jewish Bride of Frankenstein meets Wheeler & Woolsey. It was a bit of a gamble to screen this in front of the Cinefest audience but we all enjoyed it.

One of the highlights for me was Richard Barrios’ A Song in the Dark presentation. I’ve read Barrios’ books A Song in the Dark (the definitive guide to early musicals) and Dangerous Rhythym so I was excited to see what he had to offer. Barrios’ presentation included some great clips including the first ever musical number filmed: the New York Philharmonic playing Tannihauser by Wagner in 1926. There were also clips from Rio Rita (1929), Broadway Melody of 1929, Let’s Go Native (1930), March of Time (which was never released but fragments exist in other films), Golden Dawn (1930), College Humor (1933), The Cuckoos (1930), Glorifying the American Girl (1929), It’s a Pleasure (1945), The Dolly Sisters (1946), She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). I was secretly hoping for the I Want to Be Bad number by Zelma O’Neal from Follow Thru (1930) but no such luck. It was probably shown at a previous Cinefest. I had a blast at Barrios’ presentation. He ended it with a surprise clip, a tribute to Cinefest:

Needless to say everyone got a bit teary eyed. After that epic presentation I had no more energy and had to call it quits for the night. This meant I missed watching Norma Shearer in Lucretia Lombard (1923) but seeing as I had a copy at home I promised myself a private viewing later.

Private viewings are a thing at Cinefest. Many folks bring their own projectors and have invitation only screenings in their hotel rooms.

Annette D'Agostino Lloyd and Jeff Rapsis
The Saturday of Cinefest started off with a bang. I went to the morning screening of Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger (1929). Originally filmed as a silent, it was converted to a talkie to meet the current demand. Most folks know the talkie version and the silent version we saw not quite an original but the best that could be put together, is considered far superior. Prior to the screening there was a presentation by Harold Lloyd historian Annette D’Agostino Lloyd (no relation). She discussed the history of the film and how we came to see the silent film version today. The ever-talented Jeff Rapsis delivered an energetic performance and his musical accompaniment received a standing ovation from the audience. And let me tell you it was well deserved. In fact all of the music performed during the festival was quite a treat to hear. Good music and rare films; Cinefest was spoiling us.

Immediately after we had a lunchtime presentation by James Layton and David Pierce, authors of The Dawn of Technicolor. This presentation is also being held at the TCM Film Festival but that one will be 90 minutes where as the Cinefest presentation was shortened to an hour. They figured the well-schooled audience would be bored by information they already knew. But at the end we all realized we would have liked to have seen the entire 90 minute presentation.They showed clips of It’s a Great Life (1929), Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), Sally (1928), The Doll Shop (1929) and The Show of Shows (1929). I learned that the coming of sound spurred an interest in color in film. Color was used to enhance production value and in really early cinema it wasn’t economical to make a film 100% color. One or two scenes, a grand finale or most of the picture would be filmed in color but at least something would be black-and-white.

There were several book signings at Cinefest. I got my copies of Barrios’ books signed and I also bought a copy of Layton & Pierce’s The Dawn of Technicolor.

After an extended lunch break, I came back to watch Sea Sore (1934), an RKO short and the Fox film My Lips Betray (1933) starring Lilian Harvey and John Boles. Harvey was a star in Europe but an unknown in Hollywood. My Lips Betray was to be her break out film but it didn’t quite do it for her. Harvey plays Lili, a performer who is desperately trying to get a job so she can pay her rent. By chance she gets a ride in “his majesty’s car” and her neighbors start a rumor that she’s the king’s favorite. The King, played by John Boles, is intrigued and falls in love with spirited but confused Lili. The plotline of this film reminded me very much of The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), right down to the beer garten!

Before the big Colleen Moore extravaganza, we all had some fun watching an odd little WWII wonder Tea Making Tips (1941). We quickly discovered we’ve been making tea all wrong!

Joseph Yranski, a friend of Colleen Moore, spoke a few words before that evenining’s special screening. Yranski was instrumental in finding the once lost Syntethic Sin (1929). The film came together when it was discovered that Ron Hutchinson from the Vitaphone Project had the last sound disc and Yranski had the movie from the Milan Archive. Because the film is missing the first 5 sound discs, an accompanist played music for the most of the film and then stopped when the 6th disc played. The film was great fun. Colleen Moore plays Betty Fairfax, a young actress desperate to make it big. She gets a part in a show put on by her love interest Donald (Antonio Moreno) but she lacks the life experience that would make her part believable. So she goes to the city in search of sin. For contemporary fans of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, this silent wonder will be a real treat. It’s ending is a bit of a let down and there is a black-face number that is way too long but otherwise Synthetic Sin was the sinful delight we all expected it to be.

Poster of Synthetic Sin at Cinefest

On the last day of Cinefest, I only had time to catch one movie. The Big Broadcast (1932) brought radio to screen. I thought this one might be more of a variety show but they worked in a plot. The storyline was boring and strange. I just wanted to see the acts! Musical numbers performed by the Boswell Sisters, Kate Smith, Cab Calloway and my personal favorite the Mills Brothers in addition to the main star, crooner Bing Cosby, made this one of the highlights of my trip to Cinefest. I didn’t realize the Mills Brothers were in the film so I squealed with delight when I saw them in the opening credits.

The Mills Brothers

Before we packed it up and called it a day, we stayed for most of the Cinefest auction. It was hosted by film critic Leonard Maltin who did a great job keeping us all entertained even when the items for sale were not that interesting. Items for sale included a James Cagney bookplate, 8mm and 16mm movies, laser disc sets, books, slides, posters and anomalies like a George Burns doll. The big ticket item while I was there was a Gene Autry guitar with case and chord selector. From what I heard afterwards, the also sold all of the projection equipment used for Cinefest. A few items didn’t sell but most objects found new owners.

It was sad to say goodbye to Cinefest, and to Jonas too. I had a wonderful time at this festival and I only wish there was another one to go to. Thanks for the memory Cinefest!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cinefest, Part I: The Experience

My Cinefest lanyard and booklet

The grand finale of Cinefest was bittersweet for many. Regulars and newcomers alike felt the pang of sorrow coupled with the excitement of seeing old friends, meeting new ones and being treated to rare cinematic treasures. My trip to Cinefest was my first and last and while I was there I couldn’t help feeling like I had crashed someone else’s family reunion. The bond between the festival-goers who held Cinefest near and dear to their hearts was strong. I got to witness something truly special. And while it was coming to an end there was a lingering hope that a reincarnation was possible sometime in the future.

Cinefest dealer's room

Cinefest has been running for three-and-a-half decades, as long as I’ve been alive, and the final show, Cinefest 35 took place at the Liverpool/Syracuse, NY Holiday Inn. The hotel’s convention center houses Cinefest's screening room, complete with a projectionist stand, a waiting area, a dining room which features an endless supply of free popcorn and two dealer’s rooms. When I arrived at the hub of Cinefest I was met with an overwhelming odor of cigarettes, mold and must that mostly came from the dealer’s rooms. It took some getting used to but it eventually grew on me. Everything here was old from the films, the objects and the souls. During the four days of the festival, dealers sold many different types of goods of varying legality. Bootleg DVDs, CDs, 16mm and 35mm films, used books, posters, magazines and more. Attendees would dip in and out of the dealer’s rooms, exploring the wares and making purchases, all throughout the festival.

Complimentary popcorn

The ladies at the registration table outside the dealer rooms greeted attendees, answered questions and distributed welcome packs. My 4-day pass was $75, $10 off for registering early, and my welcome pack came with a lanyard and name tag, a Cinefest 35 coaster and a booklet complete with the full festival schedule and notes for each screening. I can’t fully express how invaluable a resource that booklet was during my time at Cinefest. I referred to the schedule numerous times, negotiating with myself about what I would see and when I would take breaks. The show notes were written by the organizers, often by the person providing the film for the screening. In some cases the films were so rare and so little was known about them that original newspaper reviews were offered instead.

Projectionist stand

The films screened at Cinefest came in all shapes and sizes and formats. We saw shorts, feature-length films and clips and these were projected in 16mm, 35mm and digital format from a DVD player or computer. Digital projection proved to be the most problematic. Some of those screenings had to be restarted a few times or postponed. This caused some of the attendees to grumble in frustration while others cheered for the triumph of old technology over new.

Another view of the projectionist stand.
We are all applauding the fine work the projectionists did during the festival.

Much of what was shown at Cinefest came from personal collections and from sources like the UCLA Film and Television Archive, MOMA, the Library of Congress and more. The audience members of Cinefest have very discriminating tastes and they’re difficult to please. Many of the attendees had encyclopedia-like knowledge of early cinema and personal libraries that rival some archives. Cinefest regulars want to see something old, something rare and something they’ve never seen before. With an audience that picky the festival organizers really have to dig deep to unearth some treasures to keep the regulars happy.

Gerry Orlando, president of the Syracuse Cinephile Society & head of Cinefest

The majority of folks who attend Cinefest are in the 50+ crowd. One of the reasons the festival is ending is that the audience and the organizers are aging out and there isn’t much interest from the younger generation to keep the festival going. This is a very specialist audience with an interest in rare treasures and old technology.

Cinefest screening room

Having only been to the TCM Classic Film Festival, Cinefest was a whole new world to me and I couldn’t help but compare the two festivals to each other. Although I carried my TCM festival bag proudly, I kept mostly mum about my imminent trip to that festival because I could tell straight off the bat that many Cinefest goers didn’t look to kindly on that other much more lavish festival. In fact one of the presenters, who shall remain nameless, went so far as to say that TCM festival-goers think Humphrey Bogart only made one movie, Casablanca. This presenter was trying to compliment the Cinefest attendees by pointing out how advanced their level of knowledge is compared to your average classic movie fan. But it still hurt to hear. I consider myself a student of film, not quite an expert, with much left to learn and experience. But I'm not ignorant. The two festivals have very different things to offer and I enjoyed both for what they were. While there wasn't much love for TCM's festival here, I did overhear many folks say they loved the other Hollywood classic film festival, Cinecon.

Leonard Maltin at the Cinefest Auction

The 4-day schedule ran from 9 am until midnight with the final day Sunday on a shorter schedule. If you had the mental stamina you could catch everything on offer because there were no conflicts. I didn’t have that kind of stamina so I was a bit more particular of what I gave my energy to. Most festival attendees prioritized their schedules to catch their must-sees and would move in-and-out of screenings. Most of the time the room was packed. Leonard Maltin, a Cinefest regular of many years, could be spotted at various screenings or mingling with the crowd. I also spotted Jan-Christopher Horak of UCLA, Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, author Richard Barrios and other notable figures in the classic film community. I also saw Nora of Nitrate Diva and her mom Colleen as well as Beth Ann of Spellbound by Movies. The last Cinefest included a group of talented silent film accompanists and I got to chat with Jeff Rapsis. He performs a lot in my area and I’ve been to several of his performances.

Line-up of Cinefest's silent film accompanists

The person I was most excited to see however was my good friend Jonas. He’s the main reason I came to Cinefest. Jonas, who blogs at All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!, has been a friend of mine for several years but because I live in the Boston area and he lives in Stockholm, Sweden we had never met in person. Our friendship started when we both posted tributes to Anita Page when she passed away in 2008 and culminated with meeting at the last Cinefest. It was such a delight to be able to spend quality time with him over meals and during screenings. He made attending Cinefest such a blast.

Jonas and Raquel meet for the first time.

As I left Cinefest I realized how many folks didn’t want to let this festival go. At breakfast on the last day, I saw Holiday Inn staff hugging Cinefest folks. As a newbie, I didn’t want to let go of this festival either. My husband chatted with Leonard Maltin and he hinted at a possible continuation of Cinefest. Perhaps it’ll live on in another way.

Me on day two of Cinefest
In part 2 I'll be discussing what films and presentations I saw at Cinefest. Stay tuned!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Upcoming Festival Coverage: Cinefest 35 and TCM Classic Film Festival

Next month I will be attending back-to-back film festivals. I’m starting with Cinefest 35 in upstate New York and then heading out almost immediately to Hollywood for the TCM Classic Film Festival. I’ll be reporting here on this blog about the events I attend at both festivals. I foresee a lot of caffeinated beverages in my future.

Cinefest is a yearly festival celebrating the early days of film history. Most of the films screened are silents or from the early talkie era. This is the last hurrah for Cinefest which is currently in it’s 35th and final year. I couldn’t pass up one final opportunity to attend this festival especially since I’ve heard only good things about it. However, the festival's biggest draw for me is the attendance of my good friend Jonas, aka the Talkie King from All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!. He is coming all the way from Sweden to attend the last Cinfest. It’ll be the first time I get to meet him in person and suffice to say I’m pretty stoked about it. Jonas has been very influential in my discovery of early cinema, especially those first talkie musicals, and thus meeting at Cinefest is very apropos.

Yours truly at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival
(Jerry Lewis Hand & Footprint Ceremony)

I'll have one single day of rest before we fly across the country to attend the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. I've covered the 2013 and 2014 festivals on this blog (read previous coverage here). I can't help but pinch myself because I am so incredibly lucky to be attending the festival once again for this year. TCM's festival has been likened to the Disney World or Comic Con of classic film enthusiasts. And it's true. It's pure ecstasy for anyone who really loves old movies, Hollywood and TCM. Later this week I'll be sharing my methods for budgeting for this festival. It's expensive and for folks who live far away from Hollywood it's even more so. If you can make it happen, it's worth the effort.

Please stay tuned for Cinefest and TCMFF coverage in the coming weeks!

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