The Vapors! Swooning, Fainting Women in Film

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The ivory keys stop abruptly as the image of watching Kay Francis looks over in alarmed concern. Jean Muir dramatically passes out at the piano before she can finish her tune. This isn’t the only time nor the only reference to fainting in the PreCode gem, DR. MONICA (1934). Oh sure, Muir’s character Mary turns out to be pregnant. Francis’ character, Dr. Monica is the doctor that diagnosises her. The kicker is that Mary’s under some strain because the baby’s father John (Warren William) is Dr. Monica’s husband.

It got me to thinking. I’ve been stressed plenty in my day. I’ve been pregnant a couple of times. And while I’ve never dealt with Mary’s situation, I’ve never fainted a day in my life. I don’t know a singular example of any women in my life that has fainted. And yet, from watching classic films, it must happen all the time, often with the slightest strain or a shock.

You can see fainting and swooning in silent films and a plethora of classic films. I can’t think of many examples in modern film where this phenomena isn’t the rare scene. And when exactly did this change occur? Was this a reflection of a change in society? Did women truly faint all the time in in real life, even after those Victorian corsets loosed and fade from fashion? Or was this a stereotype only depicted in film?

You might observe that fainting seemed to transition away from celluloid as feminism came into play in society in the seventies. But a couple of interesting factors should be considered. Many PreCode films of the early 1930s as we can see in the before mentioned film, William Keighley/ William Dieterle’s DR. MONICA (1934), show women in more empowered roles like a female doctors and female pilots and yet they couldn’t seem to stop those darn fainting spells.

Then, fast forward to the ‘women’s lib movement’ of the 1970s. As the movies took on more realism, women seemed to be transitioning away from fainting for bell bottoms and car chases. But did the faux feminine stereotype of fainting fully disappear from the screen? My theory is that modern film replaced the markers of unrealistic fainting and swooning spells for unrealistic crying or hysteria in a continued image of the helpless woman.

Luckily, we’ve seen a few stand-outs of women since the seventies that are empowered and not likely to faint, swoon nor cry when the occasion hardly calls for it. Ripley in the ALIEN (1979+)series, Officer Marge Gunderson in FARGO (1996), and Agent Starling in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) come to mind. While I’ve seen a few (emphasis on few) female roles that exhibit physical strength, it still seems a daunting challenge to find a consistency of choice roles that realistically display the emotional fortitude and intelligence of women today. We’ve come a long way baby, but we’ve got a longer way to go…

Here are a few images of those fainting, swooning ladies:

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In MY MAN GODFREY, Carol Lombard makes fake fainting a habit

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Campy SciFi of the 1950s saw a surge of fainting damsels in creature shock

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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.

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’.

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CLASSIC FILM FALL REPORT: Fly in to ‘Fly Over States’

Fields of sunflowers with their friendly faces reaching up to the sky, as rumbles of enormous dark storm clouds approach rapidly. This scene was played out just a couple of days ago in my town and is pretty typical here in the heartland, as we transition from the long, hot days of late summer into cool Autumn. But what may be less known about this part of the country, is the surprising storm of classic film events swiftly advancing in the next few weeks.

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In a fun mix of both silent greats and film noir dark delights, classic film fans can appreciate the multiple offerings in northeastern Kansas and Kansas City metro area.

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FOOTPRINTS presents METROPOLIS:

  • Sunday, 9/20 at 7:30pm
  • Alloy Orchestra live musical accompaniment
  • Lawrence Arts Center, Lawrence, KS
  • cost: $19 + tax
  • Tickets and more info: FOOTPRINTS site

Mick Ranney has been the owner of FOOTPRINTS shoe store for over 35 years, operating out of an old limestone storefront, originally built as a grocery store in the 1870s. Now a successful business with a heavy focus on all things Birkenstock (plus a few other lines to boot), Mick has turned his strong ties to the community combined with his passion of classic film to bring spectacular classic film events to this enchanting small town.

For several years now, he has brought silent masterpieces and recently restored gems such as NOSFERATU (1922), BLACK MAIL (1929), BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925) and the restored classic THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (part of his WW2 Film Festival, which at that time was recently restored and only being shown in 2 venues across the country – the Film Forum in NYC and little Lawrence, KS). Always presented with live musical accompaniment (usually the famous Alloy Orchestra or Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra) in the intimate setting of the 300 seat capacity Lawrence Arts Center. You can find tickets online here, but you may want to hurry before it sells out.

*Mick’s creative skills are playfully expressed in his video clips to promote his screenings. I highly recommend not only attending in person, but also ‘liking’ the Footprints FaceBook page to check out his fun video clips.

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BUSTER KEATON CELEBRATION:

This year’s theme is Buster Keaton & The Marx Brothers: Celebrating American Laughter.  Andy Marx, Groucho’s grandson was originally scheduled to appear but canceled last month. No worries, a great line-up of guest speakers and artists are firmly on board with a full schedule of silver screen comedy treats.

Hosting this annual event since 1993, Iola is short hop from Piqua (pronounced “PICKway”), Buster Keaton’s birthplace. Recent presenters and speakers have included: members of the Keaton and Talmadge family, Oscar and Emmy winning director/producer/silent film extraordinaire Kevin Brownlow, actor and close friend of Buster’s James Karen, comedy legend Steve Allen, film critic Leonard Maltin, film preservationist David Shepard, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and many more.

This is a must for Buster aficionados, comedy and silent film fans, and frankly anyone up for great Autumnal weekend in this quant little town.

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NOIR CITY Kansas City:

  • Friday, 10/2, Saturday 10/3, Sunday 10/4
  • Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet, Kansas City, MO
  • cost: $75 for a passport to all 10 screenings plus nightclub party
  • all the info: NoirCityKC.com 
"Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller, president and founder of the Film Noir Foundation

“Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller, president and founder of the Film Noir Foundation is a modern-day renaissance man of multi talents

Just over the state line on the Missouri side, this is the 2nd annual installment of the Kansas City Film Noir Festival. Presented in part by the Film Noir Foundation, the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller’s ‘baby,’ ushers in 3 days and nights of 10 noir gems. The schedule of films include two 35mm restorations and two 35mm preservations! (Three of these four are fresh from FNF!) A total of ten dark delectables to savor including, of course, The Kansas City Confidential.

Individual screenings are very affordable starting $7 per show. Full beverage and food service is offered at these shows. The Nightclub event gets swinging Friday night, 9pm-2am. With three noir acts to set the retro KC mood with sexy, jazzy and even burlesque tones, Laura Ellis, Evie Lovelle, The Latenight Callers will perform at The Chesterfield.  [NOIR CITY KC TIP: save that Alamo Drafthouse movie tix stub for a $2 drink discount.] Tickets: $10 in advance.

The best Noir City KC tip I can offer is to purchase the passport. It’s a steal for $75 smackers to get into all 10 screenings, the Nightclub and speedier, shorter lines for best seating. For directions and parking options, click HERE.

As you can see, you don’t have to fly out to one of the coasts to experience some amazing classic film events. If you’re not familiar with the Kansas/Missouri/Kansas City area, feel free to contact me for details on logistics and good places to stay and eat. Hope to see you there! Who knows. This might just change your definition of ‘the flyover states.’

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A Reel Journey To My 1st CAPITOLFEST!

As a classic film obsessive, attending a film fest is much more than the joy of screening a wealth of old movies. The joy of seeing a classic flick on that big screen, along with an audience that you just KNOW is enjoying this with equal vigor, is frankly pretty damn good.

Many times, films featured at fests are grouped via a specific theme, or are restored, or rare, or perhaps presented in a whole new light- such as with a newly composed score with live orchestral accompaniment, or introduced by a really cool speaker that has some connection to that film. But for many of us, it’s also chance to connect with those fellow film nerds face to face, in between screenings.

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then… and now

 

 

 

 

 

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I was lucky to attend my ever CapitolFest in Rome, NY last month where I discovered all of these benefits and more. For me, the journey itself was an entertaining adventure from the first yellow brick step to the Big Apple and beyond.

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On the road! (with gal pals Aurora & Annmarie)

I’ve been fortunate to have visited small fests in the Midwest, such as the Kansas Silent Film Festival and the Buster Keaton Celebration in Kansas and the John Wayne Birthday Celebration in Iowa; and of course BIG fests such as Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood. The challenge with having film friends that live all across the country, you really only see them in person at these fests. Knowing I wouldn’t likely see my East coast pals until the next TCMFF, a trip to CapitolFest seemed in order.

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Annmarie @ClassicMovieHub, Aurora @CitizenScreen, Nora @NitrateDiva, Colleen @MiddParent and me (clockwise from top left)

CapitolFest is touted as “a vacation, not a marathon.” In all fairness, I’d say it’s actually both. Seeing nearly thirty films in three days is a thrilling vacation to a passionate Old Movie Weirdo like me. To someone else, it’s more like insane marathon. And that’s fine by me. For us obsessives, we take it all in. For those who prefer to take longer breaks (formal breaks including lunches and dinners are scheduled in) and parcel it out, you can enjoy it at your leisure.

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Either way, this fest is a win-win and let me explain why. It’s hosted at the majestic Capitol Theater originally built in 1928, in a quant little town in central New York. So much of the interior is original that you can smell it like a welcoming antique shop upon entering. I knew I was right at home. One of the impressive features to be found at the Capitol Theater is the original installation, 3-manual, 10-rank Style 70 Moller theatre organ. And what a terrific accompaniment to the silent screenings to hear those full sounds, easily filling the entire theater.

CapitolFest focuses on showing silents and early talkies that are not your typical, run-of-the-mill films. They do their best to show those films that are not necessarily rare (although some are), but rather, ‘rarely shown’. In other words, it may be due to distribution or restoration, but for whatever reason, they look for the non-standard fare. As a gal whose seen more than her fair share of oldies, the most impressive takeaway for me was that I can honestly say that out of the 28 films I watched, all 28 were my first-time screenings.

Each year, they also offer a theme of a particular star. This year’s star was Nancy Carroll. And while many of my purist, die-hard, film nerd pals (you know who you are) may be very familiar with Nancy’s work, I was not. So this was an additional bonus – to discover a glimpse into her filmography for the first time, and I was happily enlightened. Next year’s star? Mr. Gary Cooper. While Cooper is more known for his iconic classics from the Golden era of film, I prefer his early stuff from his silent/early talkie, pretty boy phase. So this fest suits nicely!

An additional perk to this event, is a ‘Dealer’s Room.’ Adjacent to the theater, they reserve space for vendors to come in and sell their classic film wares. DVDs, films on reel, books, lobby cards, sheet music, posters… tons of fun stuff. Needless to say, we were in Old Movie Weirdo heaven. None of us walked away empty-handed and I scored a cool 1958 campy SciFi lithograph for my hubby’s birthday. BOOM. You’re welcome…

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For me, the most anticipated aspect of this adventure was being able to enjoy it with friends. I couldn’t wait to see my East coast friends again plus the opportunity to meet some face to face for the first time. Much of the joy of the journey occured on the five hour car ride from NYC to Rome via gabbing and singing beloved standards at the top of our lungs with Aurora (aka @CitizenScreen) and Annmarie (aka @ClassicMovieHub), and dinners with our pals Colleen (aka @MiddParent) and Nora (aka @NitrateDiva). Plus I finally got to meet twitter pals like Shirley (aka @tosilentfilm), Marc (aka @TheIntertitler), Beth Ann (aka @missbethg), Caren (aka @CarenKayF) and more. Worth the 2400 round trip miles just to see these fun friends!

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Schedule of delightful silents and early talkies:

Friday, Aug. 7: *(all daytime silent films accompaniment by Dr. Philip C. Carli/ post-dinner accompaniment by Bernie Anderson)

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BOBBY’S DAY OUT (d. Rayart, 1926) Silent– Bobby Ray

THE FLYING ACE (d. Richard E. Norman, 1926) Silent – Lawrence Criner, Kathryn Boyd, Boise De Legge

THE BORDER LEGION (Paramount, d. O. Brower & Edwin H Knopf, 1930) Richard Arlen, Fay Wray, Jack Holt, Eugene Pallette

THE AIR MAIL (Paramount, d. Irvin Willat, 1925) Silent – Warner Baxter, Billie Dove, Mary Brian, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

~HEARST METROTONE NEWS, vol. 1, no. 220

THE TALK OF HOLLYWOOD (Prudence/Sono-Art, d. Mark Sandrich, 1929) Nat Carr, Fay Marbe, Hope Sutherland, S. Oliver

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KO-KO NUTS (Red Seal, d. Dave Fleischer, 1925) animated Silent

THE SHOPWORN ANGEL (Paramount, d. Richard Wallace, 1928) Silent– Nancy Carroll, Gary Cooper, Paul Lukas, R. Karns

MILLION DOLLAR RANSOM (Universal, d. Murray Roth, 1934) Phillips Holmes, Edward Arnold, Wini Shaw, Andy Devine

LOVE ME TONIGHT (Paramount, d. R. Mamoulian, 1932) Maurice Chevalier, Jeannette MacDonald, Myrna Loy, Charles Ruggles, C. Butterworth

-> My top picks for Friday’s list: the ‘race film’ THE FLYING ACE was fun romp with a little bit of everything- an all African American cast, mystery, a WWI ace pilot turned detective, a pretty lady in an aviator outfit, bad guys, a dirty cop, suspense, thrills, chase scenes (where you can see the canvas backdrop), and a spectacular amputee actor “Peg” Steve Reynolds that stole every action-packed scene with his creative and impressive ways of chasing down the bad guys with his multi-tasking crutch. Special shout out to prematurely hunky teen Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in the riveting, THE AIR MAIL.

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Saturday, Aug. 8th: *(daytime silent film accompaniment by Bernie Anderson/ post-dinner accompaniment by Avery Tunningley)

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THE WAY OF ALL PESTS (Columbia, d. Arthur Davis, 1941) animated

THE DEVIL’S HOLIDAY (Paramount, d. Edmund Goulding, 1930) Nancy Carroll, Phillips Holmes, J. Kirkwood, H. Bosworth

CARTOONS ON THE BEACH (Edison, d. Raoul Barre, 1915) live action & animated Silent 

CROOKED STREETS (Paramount, d. Paul Powell, 1920) Silent– Ethel Clayton, Jack Holt, Clyde Fillmore, Clarence Geldart

SKINNER STEPS OUT (Universal, d. William James Craft, 1929) Glenn Tyron, Myrna Kennedy, EJ Ratcliffe, Burr McIntosh

~Dawn Of Technicolor Presentation – James Layton, David Pierce

FOLLOW THRU (Paramount, d. L Corrigan, 1930) L. Schwab, Buddy Rogers, Nancy Carroll, Z O’Neal, Jack Haley, Thelma Todd

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DUMB-BELLES (Nathan, d. Al Nathan, 1927) Silent – Victor Potel, Marta Golden, Fred Cummings, Madelynne Fields

RAMONA (Inspiration/UA, d. Edwin Carewe, 1928) Silent – Dolores del Rio, Warner Baxter, Rolan Drew, Vera Lewis

CINDERELLA GOES TO A PARTY (Columbia, d. Alec Geiss, 1942) animated

SILENCE (Paramount, d. LJ Gasnier, 1931) Clive Brook, Marjorie Rambeau, Peggy Shannon, Chas Starrett

-> My top picks for Saturday’s line-up: this day’s offerings were jam-packed with goodies with RAMONA being, hands-down, at the top of the heap. What an incredibly heart-wrenching story of tragedy and a surprisingly sensitive take on Native-American racism. At the heart of this story, Dolores del Rio was simply breath-taking, both in beauty and skilled at her craft. Other highlights from this day include both Nancy Carroll features- THE DEVIL’S HOLIDAY (Carroll well deserved her nomination for Best Actress Oscar for this performance) and the light-hearted, pastel-colored, golf rom-com FOLLOW THRU (which includes a hilarious ladies’ locker room with both Jack Haley and Eugene Pallette in drag.) On the note of funny, DUMB-BELLES had us in stitches, too.

Sunday, Aug. 9: *(silent film accompaniment by Dr. Philip C. Carli)

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THE FAMILY FORD (Warner Brothers, d. Murray Roth, Vitaphone #790, 1929) Jim & Marian Harkins, Hope Eden, Mary Dolan

ILLUSION (Paramount, d. Lothar Mendes, 1929) Nancy Carroll, Buddy Rogers, June Collyer, Kay Francis, Regis Toomey

BLUE JEANS (Metro, d. John H. Collins, 1917) Silent– Viola Dana, Robert Walker, Sally Crute, Clifford Bruce

MR. BRIDE (Roach, d. James Parrott, 1932) Charley Chase, Muriel Evans, Dell Henderson

UNDER-COVER MAN (Paramount, d. James Flood, 1932) George Raft, Nancy Carroll, Lew Cody, Roscoe Karns

~Jack Theakston’s Short Subject Follies

OH MARY, BE CAREFUL (Goldwyn, 1921) Silent – Madge Kennedy, George J Forth, George Stevens, Bernard Thornton

THE DIXIE FLYER (Trem Carr, d. Chas J Hunt, 1926) Silent – Cullen Landes, Eva Novak, Fernand Munier, John Elliott

-> My top picks for Sunday’s line-up: The last film on the last day was an excellent choice to go out with a BANG. THE DIXIE FLYER was a bit slow-paced for the first half, but then picked up plenty of speed. By the climatic ending, it was an exhilarating thrill ride where the leading lady saves the day~ everyone was standing on their feet and cheering! As a Charley Chase fan, MR. BRIDE was a fun treat. Viola Dana kicks ass in an intense ‘saw mill close-call’ in BLUE JEANS. Since being introduced to Nancy Carroll, I became a big fan. Her performance in ILLUSION (where she’s paired up again with a Kansas local and cutie Buddy Rogers) doesn’t disapoint.

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We were fortunate to sit down and chat with the folks that make the magic happen at CapitolFest- Art Pierce and Jack Theakston. They both generously gave their time to discuss the history, the creative process in selecting these 35 mm treasures for this event and fulfilling their visions for an even more beautiful and grander CapitolFests in the years to come. Restorations are already in the works! Jack was also kind enough to let us take a peek in the projection booth and I was tickled pink! (Later he divulged a spooky story about the balcony area where we camped out for the weekend. A cinematic spirit was once captured photobombing in that same area!)

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I whole-heartedly recommend this fest for purists and newbies alike. Dates for next year’s fest are August 12-14th, 2016. Hope to see you (and Gary Cooper) there!

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The Original Sweet Badass Momma of the Silents, Mary Pickford in SPARROWS (1926)

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Get your hankies ready to be soaked. Oh, and postpone that manicure because you’ll nibble off those nails anyway. Whether you’ve never seen it, or it’s one you’ve screened countless times, William Beaudine’s SPARROWS (1926) is a both a tear-jerker and nail-biting thriller to be savored.

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[Warning: SPOILERS will pop up ahead upon reading.]

Deeply hidden in the muddy, quick-sand and alligator-infested swamps of the deep south, there is a baby farm. The perfect setting for what is essentially a suspenseful horror film. Mr. Grimes is the evil man in charge of this nightmare. He, along with his wife/partner in crime and their brat of a son Ambrose, are relentlessly cruel to Molly and the other nine orphan children and baby. Mary Pickford as Molly is a hard-working, sweet-mannered survivor. She’s a spunky optimist who plays the protective mother hen to the other orphans (frankly, this is a character after my own heart.) Molly does everything in her power to keep her fellow inmates hopeful that help will somehow come – from telling religious tales as an explanation to their unanswered questions, to dancing a jig for entertaining baby Ann.

Molly and the children try to sneak a note via a kite, as a desperate plea for help.

Molly and the children try to sneak a note via a kite, as a desperate plea for help.

When they’re not laboring in the fields or hiding from Grimes in the barn, the children are starving and sick. Just as little baby Ann appears to be on death’s door with illness, a new baby arrives in a stormy night to the baby mill. Grimes made a cash deal to take in the new infant inmate, who was kidnapped from her wealthy father as insidious ransom plot. Thrilled to take in this pretty-as-doll baby, thick curls and all plump from her privileged, loving care, Molly is equally heart-broken and helpless to give baby Ann the same care.

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Despite her best efforts and love, soon baby Ann dies in Molly’s arms. A poetic scene follows, as this unjust and tragic moment is explained via a religious vision. As an uneducated yet hopeful girl, young Molly has relied upon Bible stories and her faith as a tool for survival. This heart-wrenching scene exemplifies this in vivid imagery.

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Just when you think your heart can’t take anymore, there’s more. Grimes sees in the newspaper headlines that his wife’s warnings of this new baby bringing them trouble with the law may ring true after all. In a way that only a sadistic monster would conclude, Grimes decides to throw the kidnapped baby into the swamp. Ambrose chooses to cut him to the chase and cruelly hurt Molly by attempting to pitch the baby in the bog-holed swamp himself. Molly thwarts him just in the nick of time, then dad Grimes comes along to finish the job.

Fear not, for this is the last straw for Molly. She’s able to keep him away from the baby. For now. At nightfall, Grimes tries again. But this time, our sweet yet strong Molly has a plan. She and her orphan brood sneak out into the dreaded, dangerous swamp. But it’s their only hope to escape. Grimes rejoices because he’s confident the swamp will do his dirty work for him, that is until his evil cohorts remind him there’s no ransom money with no baby.  Meanwhile, the law is closing in on the kidnappers and Grimes.

What follows is the most gripping, intense, nail-biting scenes of escape… with Molly and these helpless, frail children battling quick-sand-like muddy bogs, as they haphazardly climb tree limbs and barely escape hungry alligators! Grimes’ wife releases their dog to chase the poor orphan crew. To check your score card, this unlikely lot on the lam are being chased by an angry dog, a horde of alligators, Grimes and the kidnappers – all while maternal Molly keeps a close eye on each child in the dangerous swamp in the dark, with a baby strapped to her back!

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Luckily, the police and the kidnapped baby’s father are close on their tails (no, not the alligator tails, the kidnappers’). Molly’s bunch sneak from the swamp to a boat, as a shoot-out exchange between the kidnappers and the police peppers gun fire. Unfortunately, it’s the kidnappers’ boat so Molly and the kiddos aren’t out of harm’s way just yet. It’s a close call, but eventually the police boat is able to catch the kidnappers and bring in Molly’s kids to reunite the father and his kidnapped baby.

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In the end, it’s tough for baby and Molly to be happily separated so the father ensures Mama Molly has a nice, new home for her and the whole orphan congregation.

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This was Mary Pickford’s second to last silent film, and basically her last role as “little Mary.” She tried a few ‘adult’ roles prior to filming SPARROWS (1926) but the public clamored for more of the long ringlets of curls and youthful charm that audiences had grown accustomed. Impressively, she was thirty-four years old when this film was released as she portrayed an older teen girl. I love this Molly character as she epitomizes all that is good in the eternal battle of good vs. evil, almost as much as Grimes represents evil.

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What makes this film so much more than just a simple case for melodrama, is the incredible building of tension in addition to compelling characterizations. This occurs after we are fully invested and sympathetic to Molly and the kiddos’ dire plight. The sets are deceptively authentic (thanks to incredible attention to detail by Art Director Harry Oliver, according to TCM.com). As for the frighteningly realistic shots with the alligators, cinematographer Hal Mohr dismissed any rumors that Pickford and the children were ever actually in any real danger. All the more credit to his talented special effects of photography.

No doubt, SPARROWS (1926) possesses religious themes throughout. But I question whether or not it actually promotes religion in a fully positive light or rather it promotes faith of human spirit as an effective tool of survival when added to action. The film seems to suggest it is her enduring optimism combined with a great deal of courage and hard work. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual’s interpretation. As for me, I remain inspired by Molly’s constant courage, tireless maternal instinct and cheery optimism in the face of even the most grim odds.

*On a personal note, SPARROWS is the first silent film I ever purchased. It’s a 3 reeler on 8 mm, which I bought at the Kansas Silent Film Festival a couple of years ago.

This post was my contribution to the ANTI-DAMSEL BLOGATHON hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In August 15-16, 2015. Be sure to explore their sites for complete lists of participating bloggers.

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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.

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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.

KSFF panel 2015

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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