In the mid-1980s when I was a talk show host, I met a local film collector with whom I was a friend for the better part of 10 years. He had been exchanging prints of films with Alex Gordon, the film producer and archivist who at that time was working for his boyhood idol Gene Autry.
When my friend learned Alex was going to be in Syracuse NY for a film festival called “Cinefest,” he rounded several of us up for a day trip to meet Alex.
It should be noted that driving for the better part of four hours, visiting the show for a few hours and then driving back was not a lot of fun, but the trip accomplished two things: it introduced me to one of my favorite events and to the Gordon brothers, Alex and Richard.
Alex was dumbfounded – rightly so – that we had driven all the distance just for a few hours. One of our car mates, a devoted Bela Lugosi fan, once introduced to Alex wanted to know who was a better actor: Boris Karloff or Lugosi. I can’t remember Alex’s answer except at the time I was greatly embarrassed by the pure fanboy-ness of the question.
In the years that followed I tried to go to Cinefest every spring. I know I missed two, but I think I’ve turned up to all of them since 1985 or ’86. The rest of my initial group long since stopped due to shifting interests and friendships.
Unlike Chiller Theater or comic cons, Cinefest is about one thing: watching films, primarily American to British films from the silent days to about 1948. Collector and archivist bring their 16mm prints to be screened and there is a 35mm presentation in an impressive restored film palace in downtown Syracuse.
You simply can’t see some of the films that unreel at Syracuse anywhere else. That’s what makes it so special.
There’s a small dealers area, which despite its size always has some great finds and bargains. Unlike so many conventions that have become niche flea markets, Cinefest holds true to its mission of being about movies.
Occasionally there have been celebrities at the show, aside from Alex and Richard. Director Radley Metzger is a regular as is film historian Leonard Maltin. The late film historian William K. Everson was also at the show every year. However these guys are there just to watch and talk movies and not sign autographs. Unless you know them by sight, you would probably never realize they are there.
There have been a trickle of authors who come to sell a book, but the organizers of Cinefest have always acted as if they sort of don’t know what to do with them.
This year was an exception as former 1930s child star (and a member of Our Gang), Jerry Schatz “Tucker” presented a slide show of his career and one of his best Our Gang short “Hi Neighbor” was shown. Schatz is a very nice guy and it was a pleasure to see him again (I had seen his presentation at a Sons of the Desert meeting back in the 1980s.)
This year Cinefest had its share of neat little discoveries and films I can’t say were particularly good, but were well worth watching. Here’s a run-down:
I Was a Spy: A 1932 WWI spy drama based on the life of Belgian woman who risked her life getting information to the Allies. Despite dumpy Herbert Marshall as the male lead, this film was a treat. Of course I’ll watch almost anything with the accomplished German actor Conrad Veidt who played the German commandant in the film. Veidt could have simply turned in a standard dirty Hun performance, but instead gives it a human quality that gives the film a welcomed complexity.
The best scene in the show is when Madeleine Carroll, playing the spy, accompanies a group of German soldiers out to field for an outdoor mass. She has tipped off the Allies and they bomb the gathering, which included wounded men. Her grief at what she had done mixed with the victory against the Germans portrays the true horrors of war.
Beau Brummel: John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) made a number of big costume dramas for Warner Brothers. They were the prestige productions for the company prior to “The Jazz Singer.” This one tells the story of the rise and fall of, for lack of a better term, a dandy. Brummel sets the fashions of London until he angers the Prince of Wales and he falls from grace. Although impressive in its look and performances, it was a bit of a downer.
White Savage: Now here’s the antidote for a downer. Holy smoke! This cotton candy Technicolor South Seas romance is an amazing example of escapist entertainment, especially considering it was made in 1943 at the height of World War II.
Maria Montez stars as the queen of an island and Jon Hall is the shark fisherman who wants permission to fish in the island’s waters. Naturally there are complications with bad guys and a volcano god! It appears this is the only part of the Pacific not affected by the war. With attractive leads, lush color photography and a very silly plot, this film was a highlight of the show.
Amateur Daddy: Cinefest seems to a have a soft spot for Warner Baxter, the actor best known for playing the director in “42nd Street,” and have a Baxter film almost every year. This year, there was an actually moving, if somewhat improbable, film in which Baxter’s character takes over rearing the kids of a dead co-worker. Baxter puts in a great performance and how could I not like a film with Frankie Darro is a prominent supporting role?
Things to Come: Science Fiction author H G Wells had one foray into filmmaking and this 1936 film featured both social commentary and, for the time, some amazing visuals. I hadn’t seen it since college and the print presented at Cinefest was one edited together from several sources to attempt to show the film was it might have originally looked. The film is actually quite involving until the last segment at which Wells gets onto a rickety soapbox. Still it was very worth watching.
Hal Roach expert Richard Ban showed a number of rarities from the studio that gave us Laurel and Hardy, among others, and while from an academic sense I was happy to see these shorts, many of them were just painful to sit through.
The Harry Langdon short shot in Spanish showed once just how unfunny a 45 year-old man can be while continuing a screen persona that calls for him to be an arrested infant. A Charlie Chase golf short, this one in French, went on and on and on. I had to leave. There was a great Max Davidson short that featured a very young Gordon “Wild Bill” Elliott before his cowboy days and an interesting entry in Roach’s The Boy Friends” series that starred stuntman great David Sharpe.
While Paris Sleeps: This 1932 drama starred a very subdued Victor McLaglen as a French convict who escapes from prison when he receives a letter from his wife shortly before her death imploring him to try to do something to help their daughter. The daughter, by the way, thinks her father dies a hero in WWI. This is a weepie, but one with some pretty hard edges. It was quite good, though.
Once in a Blue Moon: Oh, my, God! One of the best parts of Cinefest is having the opportunity to see a film that is a train wreck, a forgotten failure. This romantic comedy was written, directed and produced by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, titans of the American stage and was one of three films they made on the east coast through the Astoria Studios. The plot involves a group of Russian aristocrats who were attempting to get out of revolution Russia and not be executed by the Communists. They happen upon a traveling clown who has lost his theatrical troupe. He adopts them and they make their way – with some peril – eventually to Paris. Jimmy Savo plays the clown in a manner that would suggest his character was the unholy love child and Harry Langdon and Charles Chapin. It was such a cloying, saccharine mess I couldn’t tear my eyes of the screen. Boy, do I want this on video or DVD for further study!
There were other films I saw (a very funny jack Benny film “Man About Town” and the booze-soaked “The Captain Hates the Sea, among others) and I’m looking forward to next year’s show.
© 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs