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

 

 

My TCM Discovery, Colleen Moore in WHY BE GOOD?

Turner Classic Movies channel has acquired a cult-like following of devoted fans who enjoy sharing their retro film nerdiness together via social media and activities like the TCM Film Festival. The network is elevating this social-meets-movie-watching experience for their fandom with the #LetsMovie campaign, as part of their overall strategy to include a broader audience.

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To reflect a slew of social sharing activities this month, such as launching new #LetsMovie emojis, @NitrateDiva joins in on the fun by hosting the TCM DISCOVERIES BLOGATHON on Saturday, 9/19. Today we classic film obsessives weigh in on our shared joy of cinema with family and friends via the blogosphere. So what films and friendships have you discovered through TCM? For me, it’s almost too many to list. But for the sake of simplicity, I’ll give a singular and recent example of William A. Seiter’s WHY BE GOOD? (1929)

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I knew of Colleen Moore, but not that well. She fashioned that same adorable, dark bob like a less sophisticated and less serious version of Louise Brooks. I was fortunate to see her on a big screen with live musical accompaniment in Alfred E. Green’s ELLA CINDERS (1926) at the 2014 Kansas Silent Film Festival. With a hilarious Cinderella aims for Hollywood twist on the ole fairy tale, I was immediately smitten with this plucky, funny lady. My chance to see her again on the big screen came along at the 2015 TCM Film Festival with the screening of WHY BE GOOD?

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[I love the catchy phrase from the poster, “she won him with her pep, but almost lost him with her rep.”]

Introduced by famed author and film historian Cari Beauchamp, I was excited to see this lovingly restored flick featuring Colleen Moore as flapper Pert Kelly. She’s a department store clerk by day and a flirty, energetic party girl by night. Also stars Neil Hamilton as the heir apparent and boss’s son. If you don’t already know Hamilton by his other PreCode roles, perhaps you recognize him as Commissioner Gordon from 1966 TV series Batman. One surprise that Cari provided us was to look out for a cameo of a young Jean Harlow in the background of a scene. Sure enough, there she was; on a bench with a man’s head in her lap.

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The story is straight forward – a working class party girl meets wealthy playboy, they fall for each other but she must prove to his father that she’s good enough for him. But there is SO much more here than what the formula suggests. It’s stylistically a rich, sweet treat to savor with all the costumes and music reflecting the jazz age, with strong nods into scintillating PreCode. What was most surprising about this film was the feminist messages and tones it reveals. Even by today’s standards, the entire audience was clapping and loudly cheering by the empowered messaging expressed by her character.

There’s a tremendous plethora to be enchanted by this film and Colleen Moore’s charming persona. But what takes it to the next level was screening this joyful event as a shared experience, with people just like me. Sitting in that darkened theater that morning in Hollywood on March 28th, 2015, it was a marvelous way to greet the day. Laughing, smiling, cheering… all together. Sure, we may come from different walks of life, work different jobs, live in different parts of the world. But in those shared cinematic moments, we are family.

So go enjoy your #LetsMovie moments. Be moved, laugh, cry, cheer, or even applaud if you feel it. We’re all one in the ‘TCM Tribe’.

Colleen More_WhyBeGood

2015 Kansas Silent Film Festival

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The last weekend of every February brings two things to the northeastern corner of Kansas- the high likelihood of harsh winter weather and the Kansas Silent Film Festival. This year in celebrating its 19th year, the weather was undoubtedly cold but certainly navigable yet another stellar line-up of silent cinema kept the crowds warm at the Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.

KSFF trio 2015

Each year, this event brings film fans from the region and beyond to experience this FREE festival which features guest speakers, panels and a variety of silent films, which are presented with musical accompaniment. And for you film fans fearful to dip your toes into the silent film waters, assuming you’ll find these rare gems intimidating or dull… oh contraire! Delve into early cinema history by experiencing it the way it was intended- on a big screen, with an audience and LIVE MUSIC.

I’ve been attending the Kansas Silent Film Festival since 2011 and this year brought a unique feature with national recognition. Only a few select theaters across the country screened this fest’s featured film, the 100th anniversary of the controversial epic D.W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). Sparking debate even a century later, this film was followed by a panel of speakers that addressed how the film that has been both praised for its technical achievements and blasted for stirring controversary. Based on Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, a story of two families’ (a Northern and a Southern) experiences in Reconstruction era of post-Civil War. The shock comes with Griffith’s 193 minute take on history, showing the Ku Klux Klan as ‘saviors of the South’. (More on this below)

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Speakers, Musicians and Special Guests:

Jon Mirsalis– pianist/digital pianist for silent films for 20+ years, collector and archivist of rare films, trained scientist in his former life and all-around silent film guru. He was the key note speaker at the Cinema Dinner with “Silent Film Survival: How Bad Is It Really?” which was both a depressing yet fascinating look at which and why specific studios destroyed silents as talkies came into fashion. Quite entertaining with Mirsalis’s dry wit and sharp intellect on this topic.

Kevin Willmott– Associate Professor, Film Studies at the University of Kansas, civil and poverty rights activist, award-winning writer and busy filmmaker with a passion for history. He spoke at the THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) panel. This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard him speak and I’m proud to have such an admirable and impressive scholar/filmmaker live in my own town.

Denise Morrison– film historian with a special affinity for the silent era, Director of Collections and Curatorial Services at the Kansas City Museum, and the 2-day emcee. Morrison provides interesting tidbits of trivia and background to each introduction of a film.

Marvin Faulwell– master theater organist for this fest, concerts and other silent film programs across Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota. He performed just last weekend in St. Louis for a screening of first-ever Best Picture Oscar winner WINGS (1927).

Jeff Rapsis– composer/musician and accomplished pianist, hailing from New Hampshire. He’s composed new scores for THE BELLS (1926) and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1916) and he’s a delightful return to KSFF.

Bob Keckeisen– Wichita native, asst. director and principal percussionist of the Topeka Symphony.

Full Schedule:

Friday, 2/27:

GRANDMA’S BOY (1922)

  • 54 mins.
  • produced by Hal Roach
  • directed by Fred C. Newmeyer
  • music by Jon Mirsalis

-starring lovable Harold Lloyd as the sweet coward who gets empowered to tackle the town bully and save the day and win over the pretty girl’s affections (portrayed Mildred Davis- who later married Lloyd), thanks to his loving and scrappy grandmother’s fable of his grandfather’s Civil War days. Noteworthy that 77 year old Anna Townsend who portrayed the Grandma was alive during the Civil War. Sweet and funny flick that laid the foundation for Lloyd’s big hits to come of similar character.

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COLLEGE (1927)

  • 65 mins.
  • featuring Buster Keaton, Ann Cornwell, Harold Goodwin
  • directed by James W. Horne
  • music by Marvin Faulwell, Bob Keckeisen

-following Harold Lloyd’s popular THE FRESHMAN, this film takes on similar suit of this popular collegiate theme of the mid-20’s. Stone face Keaton’s character is the nerdy brainiac that vows to learn how to be athletic (hard to fathom knowing the real-life Buster was the most athletic star of the silent screen) to win over his sweetheart (Ann Cornwell) from the brutish jock (Harold Goodwin) as they begin college. Even the plot sounds pretty familiar, eh? But as formula as this plot goes, the entertainment factor cannot be beat with Keaton’s hilarious physical comedy bits. It climaxes with an jaw-dropping race, including jumping over hedges and leaping into 2nd floor windows via a ladder with a single-bound, that it must be seen to be believed. From what I’ve seen of Keaton’s work, I doubt there was a single spot on his body that wasn’t Olympian-level athletic.

Saturday, 2/28:

*Special Documentary– 60 mins.

KSFF 2015 Laurel and Hardy

THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY (1928)

  • 13 mins.
  • starring Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
  • directed by Clyde Bruckman
  • music by Marvin Faulwell

-this boxing short shows just how things can go wrong when Hardy as Laurel’s fight manager tries to profit on an insurance claim, that he’s taken out on Laurel, and attempts to create accidents to ensure a profit. This film also features real pies for an enormous pie fight at the end. For all you trivia fans, can you name a later film that was an homage to Laurel & Hardy which also featured a mega pie fight? (I’ll give you a hint- it was centered around a ‘race’ and it was ‘great’!) Another interesting tidbit: according to KSFF, the first reel of this two-reeler was thought lost, then found in 1979; but still not fully complete. This version shown was the most complete currently available, with stills used in certain segments.

A MOVIE STAR (1916)

  • 20 mins.
  • starring Mack Swain
  • produced by Mack Sennett
  • directed by Fred “Fishback” Hibbard
  • music by Marvin Faulwell

-this silly flick in true Sennett style pokes fun at the Hollywood system and the movie star ego of the unlikely western hero of Swain. They say Mack Sennett introduced this now commonly known style of self-depricating humor.

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THE LITTLE CHURCH AROUND THE CORNER (1923)

  • 64 mins.
  • starring Claire Windsor, Kenneth Harlan, Hobart Bosworth
  • directed by William Seiter
  • music by Jeff Rapsis

-this is a melodramatic mining town tale set in the Victorian era, depicting the class struggles between owners vs. laborers. Of special interest to me is star Claire Windsor. Very few of her films still exist and she’s a Kansas native! So, it seemed fitting to purchase this three-reeler as there were a small collection of silent films for sale. This is now my second silent film purchase (both standard 8s) at this festival. SO exciting! Not exactly a huge collection compared to true collectors but you have to start somewhere, right?

ALL WET (1924)

  • 12 mins.
  • starring Charley Chase, William Gillespie
  • directed by Leo McCarey
  • music by Jeff Rapsis

-simple premise to this short tale is a slew of zany obstacles that Chase encounters on the way to a train station. Known for his “Jimmy Jump” character, Charley Chase is a natural at tickling the funny bone in all his films. A master at exagerrated expressions and ‘knees up’ physical comedy.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)

  • 193 mins.
  • directed by D.W. Griffith

-as explained above, while this film was considered a technical mastery of its time, its content promotes racist propaganda including a lynching, racial stereotyping, and a depicting of the KKK as ‘heroes.’ Across the country when this film was released, many states banned it because of this. (Kansas held this ban for almost a decade.) Sightings of the KKK and lynchings of African Americans surged across the South following the popularity of the film. I chose to skip this screening yet attend the three speaker panel which followed.

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PANEL DISCUSSION

I found this conversation between Denise Morrison, Jon Mirsalis, and Kevin Willmott very interesting. For the very reasons I did not wish to see THE BIRTH OF A NATION, is exactly why I found the Panel Discussion so fascinating. Some of the best takeaways included Willmott pointing out another classic film that dealt with the KKK and a sympathetic view of the Confederate South, GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), which he cleverly refered to it as ‘racist light,’ for its more glossier and subtle take, such as a scene that refers to a KKK meeting and raid as a “political meeting” and “cleaning up the shanty town.” To this point, it was argued whether almost every film made in the classic era is racist.

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When asked whether the director Griffith, son of a Confederate colonel, and this epic film deserved shunning or accolades due to his racist leanings, Willmott surmised that “Nation” should not be censored. Rather, he said it should be studied to remind us of our place in history and how far we have yet to improve; so that we may never regress again. On the issue of whether such a controversial figure should be honored in namesake (a reference to DGA’s Lifetime Achievement Award dropping Griffith’s name), he also added that someone being a master in their craft (of filmmaking) who utilizes their art to promote and glamorize racism does not discount the fact they shouldn’t be forgiven for their lack of humanity.

MAX LINDER COLLECTION

…A SKATER’S DEBUT (1905), TROUBLES OF A GRASSWIDOWER (1912), MAX AND HIS DOG (1912), MAX JUGGLING FOR LOVE (1912)

  • 25 mins.
  • originated in France
  • music by Jeff Rapsis

-this was a delightful series of snippets of the top hat festooned and ever-debonair star Linder at the height of his international career. It was a treat to see such early cinema.

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THE SEA HAWK (1924)

  • 123 mins.
  • starring Milton Sills, Enid Bennett, Lloyd Hughes, Wallace Beery
  • directed by Frank Lloyd
  • music by Jon Mirsalis

-as someone who had only seen the 1940 Errol Flynn version, this was a real treat! I adore Flynn in all his swashbuckling charm, but I seriously think the compelling narrative in this high seas tale of love and betrayal gives that one a run for its money. A young Beery is the charmer here and the costumes and set design are fabulous. Film historian Morrison stated that for achieving authenticity, director Frank Lloyd spent $200,000 just on the real ships alone. That investment paid off because this film was the highlight sceening of the fest!

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For more information on this outstanding annual film festival, or how you can submit donations to keep this unique event going… www.kssilentfilmfest.org. Hope to see you there in 2016!

Silents In The Cathedral presents: THE BAT (1926)

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On a beautiful Autumn night in Topeka, KS a week prior to Halloween, and for the 17th year, the Grace Cathedral was home of the silent film event, SILENTS IN THE CATHEDRAL. This year’s spooky spectacular included 3 shorts and the main feature, Roland West’s THE BAT (1926). Sponsored by The Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library with the cooperation of the Kansas Silent Film Festival, this was free to the public thanks to funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities.

Inside this beautifully restored and maintained building, we were welcomed by a series of folks thanking the various sponsors. The final speaker was local film historian Denise Morrison. She enlightened the packed house with background stories and trivia on the fun films ahead. These silent delights were accompanied by the musical stylings of Dr. Marvin Faulwell on the Cathedral organ and Bob Keckeisen on Percussion. For a night devoted to silent entertainment, the crowds would ensure that even the amazing music would soon be drowned out further by laughter.

Mickey as Mickey McGuire

Mickey as Mickey McGuire

Our first short, “MICKEY AND THE HAUNTED HOUSE” (1928) was Mickey Rooney’s first on-screen character. Mickey McGuire was his name back then as he literally adopted his popular character. His name soon changed to Mickey Rooney (born Ninian Joseph Yule, Jr. aka Joe Yule, Jr.) following a court dispute over copyrighting conflicts. Mickey’s mom used blackened cork to dye his hair black for this character, and thus a star was born. This short cannot be found in imbd under this title as it’s likely a snippet from a longer feature. But it’s a silly 10 minute romp filled with exaggerated gags, including a plethora of shots of Mickey looking ahead with his hand gobsmacked to the side of his face. Now we know where the HOME ALONE inspiration originated.

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less-than-courageous Charley Chase

Our Gang gangs up on the town Fraidy Cat

Our Gang gangs up on the town Fraidy Cat

Then two Charley Chase shorts followed. In THE FRAIDY CAT (1924), this 12 minute  silly story features Jimmy Jump who is jumpy indeed. Jimmy’s afraid of absolutely everything and everyone, even the neighborhood kids (many immediately recognizable from Our Gang) who bully and tease our resident coward. In the end, he musters up the courage and wins over the sweetheart. The second Chase short INNOCENT HUSBANDS (1925) is a truly funny two-reeler. An overly jealous wife spends an evening micromanaging her husband, which results in hysterical bits, one after the other, even including a séance. The laughs were non-stop.

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the bat signal?

Next up, our main feature, Roland West’s THE BAT (1926) was based on Mary Rogers Reinhardt’s play and is rumored to be Bob Kane’s inspiration for the comic book character Batman. You can see the influence, even down to the ‘bat signal’ in a funnier twist of a moth caught in a headlight. The premise is a who-dunnit of sorts- with mysterious disappearances, murder, robbery, kooky characters, a big creepy house, and of course a ghoulish (but not all that scary) bat. The cast is terrific… such as Mary Pickford’s brother Jack Pickford as the falsely accused beau, Louise Fazenda as the hilarious maid and Emily Fitzroy as the charmingly laid-back aunt.

It was a spooky night in the most fun way. Good, clean, rib-tickling entertainment. For those in the area, you won’t have to wait until next Autumn for big screen silent screenings, the Kansas Silent Film Festival is coming up February 27-28, 2015. Visit their website: www.kssilentfilmfest.org – another free event for silent film fans!

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