Kansas Silent Film Fest Celebrates Women Pioneers

“Half of all the films copyrighted between 1911 and 1925 were written by women.” Noted author Cari Beauchamp’s words to a sold-out ballroom on the Washburn University campus at the 22nd annual Kansas Silent Film Festival stuck with me long after the fest’s last screening. As keynote speaker at the fest’s Cinema Dinner, Beauchamp went on to explain more shocking reveals that painted a very different Hollywood landscape for women of the silent era than of today. Women were even more plentiful behind the scenes in a myriad of roles than in front of the camera, then the entire system changed with the advent of sound. But not in a positive way for women.

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Before the transition to talkies, small teams produced hundreds of films. Today, a single film takes dozens of writers, producers, and techs to create an overly inflated budget buster but the women are scant. What happened? Beauchamp illustrated the evolution of women filmmakers from the glorious silent hey days to their decline via talkies (with a studio system and investors dominated by men) through the examples of Frances Marion and other female film pioneers. After her presentation was complete, my husband noted, “this was the best speaker we’ve seen at these Cinema Dinners.” I was too busy gushing praise via standing ovations to disagree.

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This was a highlight of so many fabulous moments and screenings at this year’s installment of the Kansas Silent Film Festival. Every February, silent film fans travel near and far to experience this FREE two day film festival of speakers and screenings in the nation’s heartland of Topeka, Kansas. The only exception for any expense is the Cinema Dinner. For $40 you get a delicious meal and an outstanding guest speaker. Our only minor complaint for these dinners is the Kansas tradition of Prohibition rearing its ugly head, but I think we can manage an otherwise perfect evening without a glass of Chardonnay. I’ve attended this fest for many years but I was especially excited for this year’s theme, “Women In Silent Film.”

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Every screening was introduced with fascinating trivia tidbits by film historian, Denise Morrison. For example, in her intro to Gale Henry’s 1919 short, THE DETECTRESS, she shared that Henry made 238 films between 1915 and 1933, and had her own production unit after only three years in the business. But the most interesting trivia nugget about Henry was in her secondary career as a dog trainer to Hollywood. Her most famous kennel alum? None other than “Skippy” himself- aka “Mr. Smith of THE AWFUL TRUTH and “Asta” of THE THIN MAN series. Other than the uncomfortably racially-insensitive depiction of Chinatown, THE DETECTRESS was a fun platform for Henry’s physical comic skills.

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Another unique asset to this fest is the live musical accompaniment for all of their screenings. We enjoyed music by organists Marvin Faulwell and Bill Beningfield, percussionist Bob Keckeisen, pianist Jeff Rapsis, and the famed Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. I have been fortunate enough to see a screening of Colleen Moore in WHY BE GOOD? (1929), introduced by Cari Beauchamp at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. It was equally delightful to see it this time with Beauchamp’s insightful intro, now further enhanced with Mont Alto’s talents.

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Two of my favorite screenings included a hilariously low-budget special effects 1915 feature, FILIBUS starring Christine Ruspoli, and a manless future of flappers in THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1924). The joys of FILIBUS went beyond an airbus armed with a 6,000 foot rope to commit crime hijinks, as it also featured a cross-dressing female lead who was as smart as she was crafty. THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is loosely based on a 1826 Mary Shelly novel and its entirety from concept to costumes was solid, man-starved entertainment. The film was a rare print on loan from the MOMA. Apparently the future U.S. government, with “flip-flapper” Senators that fashion steam-punk lingerie, will be man-free but the President (named Pratt!) houses dozens of cats roaming the White House. If you haven’t seen these films yet, you will thank me later when you do.

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From the talented lineup of works from female film legends like Mary Pickford, Alice Guy-Blache, and Frances Marion, tearful dramas like Nazimova in CAMILLE (1921), laugh-out-loud comedies like a fox-trotting Mr. and Mrs. Drew, and the always captivating author Cari Beauchamp*, plus so much more, the 2018 KSFF was a classic film lover’s heaven. It’s no wonder that each year I see more friends from out-of-state return, and get to meet new ones, too.

KSFF 2018 Program:

Friday, 2/23, 2018:

Overture and Opening Titles, music by Marvin Faulwell
Welcome and Intros by Denise Morrison, Film Historian
(1919)
with Louise Fazenda
Music by Jeff Rapsis on piano
(1920)
with Alice Howell
Music by 
Bill Beningfield, organ
(1919)
with Gale Henry
Music by 
Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion

Feature introduced by Denise Morrison, Film Historian

(1929)
with Colleen Moore
Music score byThe Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Saturday, 2/24:

Film Documentary
60 min.
A special presentation by KSFF
(1913)
directed & produced by Alice Guy-Blaché
Music by Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion
Suspense
10 min.
(1913)
with Lois Weber
Music by 
Bill Beningfield, organ 
(1919)
with Nell Shipman
Music by Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion

Overature & Short Opening Titles by Jeff Rapsis
Welcome and Intros by Denise MorrisonFilm Historian

(1913)
with Dorothy Gish
Music by 
Jeff Rapsis
(1920)
with Arline Pretty
Music by Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion
Filibus
69 min.
(1915)
with Christine Ruspoli
Music by 
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Book signing in the lobby by Cari Beauchamp


Short Overature by Rodney Sauer
Intros by Denise MorrisonFilm Historian 

(1912)
with Mabel Normand
Music by Rodney Sauer, piano
(1915)
with Mr. Sidney Drew & Mrs. Lucile McVey Drew
Music by Jeff Rapsis, piano
Camille
70 min.
(1921)
with Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino
Music byJeff Rapsis, piano


Overture
 and Opening Titles by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Welcome and Intros by Denise MorrisonFilm Historian

(1918)
with Mary Pickford, written by Frances Marion
Music by 
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
(1924)
with Earle Foxe, loosely based on Mary Shelley‘s 1826 novel The Last Man
Film Print from the Museum of Modern Art 
—Music by Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion

For more information on the Kansas Silent Film Festival, you can follow them on social media: Facebook, Twitter @kssilentfilm, Instagram, YouTube, and their KSFF site at www.kssilentfilmfest.org.

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*Cari Beauchamp is an award-winning, American author, historian, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. She authored the biography Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood which was later made into a documentary film. She also serves as resident scholar of the Mary Pickford Foundation. Twitter: @caribeauchamp and site: CariBeauchamp.com

 

 

Zasu Pitts, Funny Lady with a Funny Name

 

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First things first. Before I can gush on about this distinctively funny lady with the fluttering hands that stole every scene, one must learn how to say her name correctly. Oh sure, many of my ‘old movie weirdo’ friends may know, but it’s a common mistake. To honor her properly, let’s begin with this lesson, provided via Thelma Todd and ZaSu herself:

YouTube: ZaSu Pitts: Learn My Name!

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Now that we all know how say “Say-zoo,” a name which is a combo of her aunts Eliza and Susan, let’s explore the memorable ways this distinctive lady who began life not too far from me in Parsons, Kansas, became one of the most recognized faces in Hollywood.

Her most notable characters were the woeful worrywarts. Physically, her appearance was defined by delicate, thin lines and a frequent focus on her ever- waving, fidgeting fingers. Her tiny mouth was shaped like a kewpie doll with the corners often turned down. Her large, soft eyes were doe-like and she usually looked upward. Her voice had a distinctive mumbling of melancholic concern, often with an “oh dear…” muttering to herself. She gained the reputation of stealing every scene.

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ZaSu’s signature characterizations were such a fan favorite she was parodied in cartoons, a reflection that she was immersed in pop culture. If you’ve seen Olive Oyl from Max Fleischer’s Popeye the Sailor cartoons, you are already familiar with the signature ZaSu Pitts tone and voice. She was also featured in Looney Tunes, in Hollywood-ribbing toons like “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood.”

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Pitts often faced the challenge of looking too similar to Lillian Gish. Here, with Mary Pickford, THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1917).

Born Eliza Susan Pitts on January 3rd, 1894 (her 124th birthday is next month), the family moved to Santa Cruz, California seeking sunnier opportunities. Despite her shy demeanor and bird-like qualities, Pitts was a natural performing on stage and moved to LA by age twenty-one. Working a small part with icon Mary Pickford, A LITTLE PRINCESS (1917) was her first break on the big screen.

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Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece GREED 

Soon, she was starring in one-reelers and feature films, working with greats like directors King Vidor and Eric Von Stroheim (i.e. the silent masterpiece, GREED)- in a range of parts from tragedy to comedy to drama. Her popularity increased in the 1930s, with a demand for her in character roles in comedies. She was partnered in series with Thelma Todd (Hal Roach promoted the two as a female Laurel and Hardy) and with Slim Summerville.

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mastering comedy with Thelma Todd

The 1940s brought her success to radio, vaudeville and Broadway, working with the biggest names in entertainment. She transitioned easily to television in the 1950s, in popular roles like cruise ship beautician Elvira Nugent on “The Gale Storm Show.” But this decade also introduced ill health, with a cancer diagnosis. As a fitting tribute to her own career, her last role would be in the epic ensemble of comic legends, in IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963). Even with health battles, she continued working until her death at the age of sixty-nine on June 7, 1963.

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Pitts’ last role in IT’s A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD

ZaSu Pitts was a true wallflower success story. She proved that a shy girl from Kansas, with more matronly than cover-girl looks, could be a huge star as a character actress. She worked from the silents to the sixties, in every entertainment medium (film, radio, vaudeville, television and on Broadway), from dramatic roles to comedy, and she worked with some of the biggest stars and filmmakers in Hollywood’s heydays.

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The more ZaSu films I watch, the more I am thoroughly charmed by her. And to see her range from tragic epic dramatic roles like GREED to super silly shorts with Thelma Todd, I am also in awe of her talent. What a character!

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This article on character acting legend ZaSu Pitts is my contribution to the 6th annual WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and yours truly. You can read the other entries on character actors from this blogathon from days one, two and three:

It’s here! 6th Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon: Day One

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The anticipation is over! Today we bring you the first day of the 6th annual What A Character Blogathon, hosted by yours truly and my fellow co-hosts, the classic film loving ladies: Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club @Paula_Guthat and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen @CitizenScreenings.

As promised, this annual event celebrates the character actors. Quirky and silly roles in the service industry like the frustrated hotel manager or the reliable and sharp-witted maid, a supportive sidekick, the best friend… in so many ways, the character role is often our favorite scene-stealing performances of a film. We invite bloggers to scribe on their favorite characters. Now let’s begin!

Ruth of Silver Screenings brings us THE BEAUTIFUL REFUGEES OF CASABLANCA . She focuses on the lesser-known players in the iconic film in stunning imagery.

Real Weegie Midget Reviews talks about IAN MCSHANE whom he describes as “always been there in movies, on TV and now making his God-like presence known… from cheeky British Chappie to “Dallas” to God-like parts.”

Jack Deth, as guest blogger on Paula’s Cinema Club, describes the “wise ass to the stars” DANIEL STERN, “creating multiple personae for cinema and television, while holding on tightly to his gift of dry, wry. sarcastic and occasional wise-ass humor.”

Steve Bailey of Movie Movie Blog Blog offers a glimpse into “one of those actors whom most people probably wouldn’t recognize by name, but as soon as they see him on-screen, they say, “Yeah, I’ve seen that guy before.”  BRUCE ALTMAN, UNHERALDED SUPPORTING ACTOR.

Wolffian Classics Movies Digest explores EUGENE PALLETTE, “simply a marvelous actor in any role.”

Chris of Blog Of The Darned profiles CHARLES LANE, “Specializing in crabby authority figures, Charles Lane was the go-to guy when film or TV producers needed a mean miserly lawyer, judge, tax collector, banker, or landlord.”

Paddy of Caftan Woman hears the “full, rich baritone – a round voice, a pleasing voice – a voice in control of itself” of JOHN ALEXANDER We know that voice!

Annette of Hometowns To Hollywood road trips via Minnesota to review CLINTON SUNDBERG 

Quiggy of The Midnite Drive-In takes us on a ROAD TO MADNESS, exploring the many character roles of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

A Person In The Dark reviews “a real pro” who worked both stage and screen, from the silents to the sixties, REGINALD DENNY.

Movie Mom provides her take on THELMA RITTER For her, “Ritter is the very essence of the character actor, creating vitally real, relatable characters who made the world around the stars real and illuminate the story’s themes.”

Thoughts All Sorts shows love for A Strong Character in MARK STRONG.

More to come! Return back here throughout the day for more entries.  As our weekend of What A Character! Blogathon continues, explore Day Two with Aurora at ONCE UPON A SCREEN and Day Three with Paula at PAULA’S CINEMA CLUB.

 

Clara Bow is “IT”(1927)

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Elinor Glyn’s novel “It” may be a different story than the film adaption, but the concept of “It” remains the same. What exactly is “It”? To claim it simply meant sex or sex appeal is selling it short. According to Clarence Badger’s/Josef von Sternberg’s IT (1927), “Self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not – and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold. That’s ‘It’!”

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To be more specific, “It” was sex appeal enhanced with this description and the film’s star Clara Bow was ‘It’ in spades. She was the definition of the ‘It girl’ and it defined her for her entire career.

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In the film, Clara Bow portrays the beautiful, young, department store clerk, Betty Lou Spence who exudes an air of confidence and a bubbly zest for life. Betty has her sights set on the boss and son of the company, Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno). But it’s his pal Monty (William Austin) that first sets his sights on her. Monty has read about a new book by Elinor Glyn referring to “It.” He discussed his intentions of finding a girl with “It” with his friend Cyrus as they walk the sales floor. Monty sees Betty and knows he’s discovered ‘It’! He asks her out and she insists on going to the fanciest restaurant in town, The Ritz.

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There’s a charming scene when she prepares her limited wardrobe for this event. Her friend helps her transform her basic black dress with a lace collar (appropriate for work but not The Ritz) into a cocktail dress. Later at dinner, she takes joy in adapting to high-end society life. She spies her conquest, Cyrus Waltham, who is seated at a nearby table along with his steady date. Playfully, she offers Monty a wishbone and with her winning end of the bone she prophetically claims, “I am going to get my wish” as she looks over sensually at Waltham.

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Cyrus’s date, blue blood Adela Van Norman (Jacqueline Gadsdon) is guarded because she assumes she will be Mrs. Waltham someday. Author Elinor Glyn (playing herself) walks in. Cyrus motions her over and asks her to explain “It” from her novel creating all the buzz (see her definition above.) Adela, completely lacking in ‘It,’ should be worried by now. Betty strategically forces a ‘bump in’ with Cyrus  in the lobby. The flirting and attraction is immediate and strong. Betty makes a bet with him that he won’t recognize her the next time he sees her. He takes the bet assuming his draw to her would make that impossible.

The next day at work, Betty is calling out a dishonest shopper, who chronically returns items she’s worn for six months then returns. Her manager sends her up to Cyrus’s office to be scolded. He finally looks up and serendipitously realizes he’s just lost their bet from the night before. She suggests a date at the beach “Fun House” (Coney Island?) will square their deal.

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After a delightful evening of fun, Cyrus sneaks in a kiss as he drops her off at her place. She slaps him for his presumptive action, “so you’re a Minute Man! The minute you know a girl you think you can kiss her!” She takes her stuffed toy souvenir and marches into her building. But inside she playfully smiles as she happily ponders her evening. She’s hooked and so is he.

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Later on, trouble has exploded back at her apartment. Betty shares a place with her friend and her friend’s little baby. But some meddling neighbors are trying to take her baby away from her. Her friend has been ill and unable to work so they assume she has no means to take care of the baby. The entire neighborhood rushes to the scene, including a young reporter (Gary Cooper) who takes notes as the drama unfolds. Betty and Monty arrive in time for Betty to claim the baby is her own to protect her friend.

Monty is alarmed to discover Betty is a fatherless mother. He shows up the next day to reveal the bad news to Cyrus with the newspaper article in hand. Not fully satisfied,  the snooping ladies arrive at Waltham’s office to confirm her employment. Monty acknowledges that the fatherless mother is the same as his target of affections, Betty. Cyrus is crushed. When bonus checks are passed out to staff, Cyrus is unable to even look at her face.

She sneaks a moment alone in his office. She flirts but is surprised by the cooler response. Assuming he’s upset by her slap, he instead offers a “left-hand arrangment” of bling and other materialistic offerings. She’s justifiably and visibly upset. He says, “I’m crazy about you, isn’t that enough?” She barks back, “is that what men like you call love?” Her pride prompts her to quit her job.

Monty later arrives at her place with enormous baskets of flowers and edible treats. “I’ve come to forgive you,” he proclaims. In a few exchanges the whole baby’s rightful mother confusion is cleared up. They laugh it off and Monty mentions that he told Cyrus the wrong baby story. Betty’s furious that Cyrus never gave her benefit of the doubt.

She forces Monty to take her as his mysterious ‘plus one’ on Cyrus’s yacht cruise. (Along with buying her a whole new wardrobe appropriate to high seas with high society.) Thirsty for payback, she plans to use her ‘It skills’ to manipulate Cyrus into proposing to her just to laugh in his face in rejection.

On board, Monty is visibly nervous and distressed in being placed in this awkward scene that is soon to unfold. Cyrus senses something is up. Monty only divulges, “I feel so low old chap that I could get on stilts and walk under a dachshund.” Then his mystery date enters the room on cue. Cyrus is a conflicted mix of excitement and pain in seeing her.

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Betty plays the part well. She acts coy knowing she has Cyrus’s full attention. Adela recognizes this woman looks familiar but can’t place her as the socialite she pretends to be. Regardless, she knows she’s a direct threat. And the games continue.

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In a moment alone, Betty gives him a look. She has him in her hooks now. He proposes on the spot. She laughs in his face and walks off. Immediately, she cries with regret. The payback didn’t feel as funny or sweet as she planned. She loves him.

Meanwhile, Monty breaks his secret to Cyrus, explaining the whole baby mix-up.  He runs after her, leaving Monty at the ship’s helm. Distracted Monty collides the boat with another. Both Adela and Betty go flying off the deck and into the waters.

Despite all that expensive education and breeding, somehow swim lessons were not covered because Adela appears to be struggling to swim or stay afloat. Betty attempts to rescue her. Adela’s jealousy bubbles up just as she repeatedly tries to push Betty underwater. Street smart Betty knocks Adela out cold then holds her head up. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to save a swimmer when they’re not busy trying to drown you.

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The fellas finally join the party: Cyrus swimming with a life-preserver and Monty in a row-boat. Adela is pulled into Monty’s boat so Cyrus can swim after Betty. She swims off stating she’s “going home.” Cyrus pursues and catches up with her at the hoisted anchor. They embrace in a kiss. As defeated and deflated Adela looks on, she knows she’s been licked. And Monty looks on to Adela announcing that they, the ‘non-Its’ should stick together.

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IT (1927) is a fun, sweet little romantic comedy. The premise and central characterization reminds me of Colleen Moore in William A Seiter’s WHY BE GOOD? (1929). The supporting cast does a fine job, especially William Austin as Monty with his heavy eye liner and comedic expressions. Or, at least that’s all it would be if it were not for Clara Bow. Wise casting placed Bow as THE flapper girl of the Jazz Age who embodied her era. In addition to a rocketing rise to mega stardom after this film’s performance, Bow also has the distinction of starring in the first ever Oscar winning Best Picture,  William A Wellman’s WINGS (1927), released the same year.

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Clara Bow’s real life was a complete nightmare. To say someone has “daddy issues” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. So to see her perform with such illuminating energy, such radiant beauty, confidence, and well… “It” is even more impressive. From everything we know about Clara Bow’s personal life (the tragic details need to be detailed in another post), she was likely happiest throwing herself into her work. And it shows.

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circa 1925: American silent film actress Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), the original ‘It girl’, gives a wink and a smile for the camera. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This post was written expressly for the SEX! (now that I have your attention) Blogathon, hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog June 19-21, 2016. Look back to each day’s list of bloggers for sexy contributions. I chose to write about Clara Bow in IT because not only did her performance define sex for that entire era, and launched her career to mega star status, the film describes sex in a way that seems applicable to any era. Yet only the rare examples could compete with Bow’s level of on-screen self-assured confidence, effervescent presence and sexual magnetism in the decades following her reign.

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Buster Keaton in COLLEGE (1927)

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Buster Keaton was at his best in the years prior to leaving for MGM. During this time in the mid to late twenties, anything collegiate was all the style rage. Although Harold Lloyd tackled the topic first in THE FRESHMAN (1925), Keaton ‘took a run’ at it in his lesser known classic, COLLEGE (1927).

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In this story, scholarly nerd Ronald (Buster Keaton) starts off on a bad foot with his valedictorian address to his high school classmates. He condenscendingly insults the jocks and sports fans by praising academics over the pursuit of athletics. His gal Mary (Anne Cornwall) is not impressed. She thinks young men should be more athletic like Jeff (Harold Goodwin).

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With a fresh start in college, Ronald is determined to win her back by attempting to learn how to become the jock of her dreams. He scrambles to balance his studies with training on a variety of sports, and pursuing a couple of part-time jobs, too. If anyone is the master at juggling physicality, it’s Buster. Which is exactly why this character is so hilariously ironic. Buster Keaton was hands-down the most athletically fit of any comedian in history. And for anyone looking for some Buster eye candy, this film shows off his physique quite nicely.

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While pursuing some part-time gigs, he hides from his girl (he assumes Mary frowns upon a working man) as both a soda jerk and briefly in a racy scene as a waiter in blackface. The soda jerk scene is ironic again as he attempts miserably to keep up with the stylish skills of the current expert, mixing masterfully at the counter. (Behind the scenes you wonder if the teacher and student were flipped.) I found a personal thrill watching this scene as the role of a real soda jerk was my real job at the age of fourteen at an old-fashioned counter. As for the scene when he attempts to disguise himself when a restaurant is hiring African American servers, it’s incredibly clever and funny. But any blackface scene makes me squirm with awkward discomfort.

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With each sport and team he pursues, he fails in hilarious results. In a last-minute intervene of ‘fate’ Ronald subs as the coxswain for the crew team and manages to overcome his bumbling clutzy self on the “Damfino” (a nod to Buster’s earlier 1921 film, THE BOAT) then the “Old Iron Bottom” rowing team boats by strapping an impromptu rudder to his back and edges out the competition to win the race.

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Expecting to finally impress his gal after leading his team’s victory, she was no where to be seen. As we all suspected, Jeff is a cad. He’s trapped her in the dorm room in an attempt to force her hand otherwise be scandalously shamed and thereby kicked out of the ‘no boys allowed’ residence.

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In an impressive ending, Ronald rushes to her rescue by showing off all those skills he’s been in training (track, shot-put, discus, javelin, and even pole-vaulting) were honed after all. He just needed a little romantic, chivalrous push… and the athletic skills that only the great Buster Keaton could muster. Full disclosure: the pole-vaulting scene where he nabs a make-shift pole from a neighboring clothesline and leaps into a 2nd story window is one of the very few (some say only) stunts he didn’t do himself. He later said this was due to the fact he simply had never pole-vaulted before and didn’t want to waste months learning the skill. Something tells me if he had, he would’ve been the first actor to learn pole-vaulting and shortly become an Olympian at the sport even as a novice.

COLLEGE (1927) may not be as well known or as celebrated as Buster Keaton’s other classics such as STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. or as THE GENERAL, but it delivers impressive physical comedy and solid entertainment as only a brilliant Buster Keaton film can.

*This article was my contribution to THE SILENT CINEMA BLOGATHON, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin. Please explore their blogs for a full roster of talented contributors.

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Producer: Joseph M. Schenck

Director: James W. Horne/Buster Keaton (uncredited, but Keaton claimed he did all the directing)

Screenplay: Bryan Foy, Carl Harbaugh
Cinematography: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings
Film Editing: Sherman Kell
Cast: Buster Keaton (Ronald), Anne Cornwall (The Girl, Mary), Flora Bramley (Her Friend), Harold Goodwin (A rival), Snitz Edwards (The Dean), Carl Harbaugh (Crew Coach).
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Dolores Del Rio in RAMONA (1928)

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“Take care of your inner, spiritual beauty. That will reflect in your face.” … Dolores Del Rio

Of his romance with her, Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman I’ve ever met.” Her friend Marlene Dietrich thought she was, “the most beautiful woman in Hollywood.” As impressive as that sounds, Dolores Del Rio was all of this and so much more.

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Drawn to the shimmering opportunities of the silent era motion picture industry, Dolores Del Rio came to Hollywood from her homeland of Mexico to soon be hailed the ‘female Rudolf Valentino.’ After a successful film career in Tinsel Town by the age of thirty-seven (when many leading ladies would be forced into retirement by Hollywood standards), Del Rio launched into a second phase of success back in Mexico. Ushering in what was called the Golden Era of Mexican Cinema, she flourished as an international film star, but now in her native language. She continued a bountiful career in film, television and theater, with her last film at the ripe age of seventy-four.

How did I not know anything about this dazzling international star and beauty? That all changed when I screened Edwin Carewe’s RAMONA (1928) at CapitolFest this summer.

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Based on Helen Hunt Jackson’s bestselling 1884 novel, RAMONA is a dramatic tale of heartbreak and racism. Adapted into film four times, with a stage production (Ramona Bowl Amphitheater in Hemet, California) that has been running annually since 1923, this story was ahead of its time and continues to appeal to audiences. The 1928 film version is a journeyed melodrama in itself. Considered a lost film for many decades, it was discovered in a vault in Prague. The good folks at the Library of Congress went through the painstaking process of restoring and transferring the nitrate film and meticulously translating intertitles from Czech into English. Since its restoration world premiere in March, 2014, I felt like the winner of the golden ticket to be one of the lucky to screen this rare silent gem.

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Dolores Del Rio portrays Ramona, a young woman of mixed ethnicities (Native American and caucasian) adopted and raised by Senora Moreno (Vera Lewis) in southern California. Senora Moreno owns an affluent sheep ranch, along with her son Felipe (Roland Drew). Ramona and Felipe are very close. The problem is, Felipe doesn’t view her as an adopted sister, he’s in love with her. The other problem is Senora Moreno’s poor treatment of Ramona. She wants Ramona to conform tightly to her upper class world but constantly treats her differently than Felipe; a reminder that she’s the beautiful black sheep of the family.

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When shearing season comes along, Native American Alessandro (Warner Baxter) and his work crew arrive at the ranch. Soon Ramona and Alessandro fall in love. Elitist Senora Morena snobbishly objects, claiming he’s beneath her class. She also takes this opportunity to express her racist bias in the discussion that her real mother was Indian. Alessandro and Ramona escape to the mountains and elope. Years go by and they have a child, living in a nearby Indian village. She has finally found true happiness. No longer living as an outsider, she finds her place in the world with a deeper connection to her Indian roots.

The joy doesn’t last for long. Tragedy after tragedy follows in horrific detail. The racist experiences are shocking and transparent on the screen. You feel such an invested commitment to her character that when unjust horrors unfold, we as an audience are devastated too. Dolores Del Rio as Ramona is stunningly beautiful and full of life. She is strong and charismatic. Her portrayal is sincere and real and I can assure the tears welling in my eyes were equally genuine.

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Of her many talents, Dolores Del Rio was a magnificent singer. Here’s an audio clip of a beautiful RAMONA song for your listening pleasure…

The stars of this film were not of Native American background, but the director was. Born Jay Fox from Texas, Edwin Carewe’s heritage is from the Chickasaw tribe. He and two of his brothers were all very successful in Hollywood as filmmakers/producers/screenwriters. His brother Finis wrote the screenplay and created the intertitles for RAMONA. Edwin Carewe was a rather fascinating and prolific filmmaker in early Hollywood. He often made a point to feature women and focus on the ‘underdog’ of a story in his films. I believe his background was ideally suited to bring out the compassionate heart to this film adaption that it deserves. Carewe is also credited as bringing Dolores Del Rio to Hollywood. (In addition to discovering Del Rio, he is also known for discovering Wallace Beery, Warner Baxter, and Gary Cooper.)

If you’re more familiar with the technicolor 1936 version (and fourth film adaption) of RAMONA which stars Loretta Young and Don Ameche as the Indian romantic leads (because they look perfectly the Indigenous part, right??), please do yourself a favor and figure out a way to see the 1928 version instead. With all apologies to the lovely and talented Loretta, Dolores was simply born to play this role.

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*This post is my proud contribution to Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN. I am grateful to Aurora for originally introducing me to Dolores Del Rio. Be sure to read all of the fellow participants’ contributions for a wondrous celebration of hispanic artists of the silver screen.

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