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.
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.
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.
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!