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May 30, 2007

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Cinevent 2007 Festival Report

by HELEN GEIB

Beau Geste 053007

This year was the 39th annual Cinevent festival, a silent and early sound film festival held over Memorial Day weekend in Columbus, Ohio.

Cinevent is half movie festival, half movie memorabilia show. It’s not an ideal forum for watching movies. The films are screened in a conference room in the basement of an interstate interchange hotel, with the memorabilia show in the next room; the chairs are hideously uncomfortable and the temperature more years than not frigid (this year was not an exception), and the size of the screen is modest. But the movies are projected from film, the silents have live piano accompaniment, the programs are varied and interesting and the registration charge is negligible. I’d pay a whole lot more just to see the silent program.

I’m fortunate to live a reasonable three-hour drive from Columbus and have been attending Cinevent for ten years. In the early years I watched almost every movie. My tolerance for those chairs has decreased over time, and now I watch the silents and one or two of the sound films. The film slate this year was a typical Cinevent year. Nearly all the films were rarities (I had only seen one before, and that at another festival). Given the paucity of silent film television screening and DVD releases, rare doesn’t necessarily equal obscure, and the festival highlight was the major classic Beau Geste. The rest of the program was a mix of the good, the bad and the ordinary, and was split pretty much evenly between major and minor releases.

The Grand Duchess and the Waiter (1926) (accompaniment by David Drazin)

The Cinevent programmers have some favorite performers whose films show up regularly at the festival. One of those is Adolphe Menjou, who starred in a number of mid-level silent films in the ‘twenties. In The Grand Duchess and the Waiter, he plays his usual role of a sophisticated man about town who lives for love, and also as usual, effortlessly charms. The story is nonsense about a White Russian countess and her entourage living on her jewels in Paris, and Menjou’s playboy character who masquerades as a waiter to romance her. There’s a little bit of good comedy based in Menjou’s ineptitude as a waiter, a few amusing moments supplied by the supporting cast of comic character actors and one clever title card (spoken to the countess upon discovering her in Menjou’s embrace: “How could you with a waiter! And such a very bad waiter!”). As a whole, though, the movie lacked the wit and light touch necessary to overcome the stupidity. Drazin’s accompaniment was weak, never finding the right tone; like the film, it needed a lighter touch.

Beau Geste (1926) (acc. Phil Carli)

I occasionally make a day trip to Chicago to see a theatrical showing of a special silent film. I would drive to Chicago to see Beau Geste for a second time. P.C. Wren was reputedly delighted with this adaptation of his grand adventure novel, and no wonder. Everything about the film is perfect. The terrific ensemble cast is headed by Ronald Colman and filled out with a raft of familiar faces, including Noah Beery and William Powell. Colman gives a wonderful and very generous performance. He could easily have out-acted his co-leads, but instead modulates his performance to serve the story. Carli’s accompaniment was magnificent. I’ve had the great pleasure of hearing Carli accompany many films and this was one of his most impressive performances, enhancing the excitement of the action and suspense sequences and beautifully drawing out the pathos of the tender, emotion-filled conclusion.

The Bargain (1914) (acc. Carli)

A William S. Hart film is always a treat for a fan like myself, and The Bargain is a good one. One of his early features, it shows the Hart persona, plot framework of his films and his preferred, non-glamorous depiction of western life already well established. It offers the pleasures of a carefully made film and a delightful, unexpected plot twist. From a technical perspective, this is a transition film between the pre-feature and feature era. The direction is for the most part like a well-made pre-feature, with relatively long scenes composed primarily of medium and long shots, but there is one astonishing 360 degree circular pan, a marvelous establishing shot of a border town saloon and casino. The film retains one of the most irritating traits of pre-features, title cards that announce the action before it happens (fortunately there are only a few of those). The excellent performances, on the other hand, are entirely forward looking, with the subtlety and expressiveness of the feature-era acting style.

The most striking part of the film may be the singular opening credit sequence. Each actor appears full-figure in formal dress and bows to the audience; there is then a (seamless) dissolve and the actor rises from the bow in costume and in character. It’s a fascinating sequence, establishing the respectability of the actors and by extension the moving picture business, showing off the wonderful technical capabilities of the medium and creating audience anticipation by introducing the colorful cast of characters.

Mockery (1927) (acc. Drazin)

The artistic low point of the program, Mockery is a Lon Chaney vehicle, one of a few non-freak starring roles in his ‘twenties work. Although he isn’t in makeup or prosthetics for this one, it’s still largely a standard Chaney movie plot, with him as the never had a ghost of a chance of getting the girl third point in a romantic triangle, mixed in with an imperiled virginity melodrama. Nothing about the story is any good, and the big dramatic scenes in the melo plot are unintentionally farcical, but what really makes the movie terrible is the Russian Revolution backdrop. It was never pretty when silent-era Hollywood took on the Revolution. Chaney’s performance is skillful in a ridiculous part (the title cards assure the audience multiple times that his character is a very stupid man, and that is indeed the only thing that makes the story remotely credible). Barbara Bedford plays the female lead, stiffly, and Ricardo Cortez has a few inconsequential scenes as Chaney’s successful rival in love.

The River (1929) (original recorded score)

One of the consequences of the low survival rate of silent films is that it can be really exciting to see incomplete movies. The only known copy of The River is missing its first and last reel, but despite that is an impressive and artistically successful film. Ironically, it may well be a stronger film in its current incarnation. The River is a romantic drama, and as is opens with the lovers’ first meeting and closes at a satisfying emotional climax. It’s not a typical melodramatic Hollywood finish, but is none the worse for that. Add a title sequence at the start and a less abrupt fadeout at the end, and you’d never know it was an incomplete film. Moreover, the missing reels contained talkie sequences; experience with other dialogue sequences interpolated into silent films in 1928 and 1929 teaches that the ones in The River were almost certainly painfully bad mood killers.

Charley’s Aunt (1930)

My talkie for this year was the second movie adaptation, and first talkie version, of that great stage farce Charley’s Aunt, starring a very funny Charlie Ruggles in the titular part. The film suffers a bit from early talkie stiffness, but not too much, and the material is a guaranteed laugh-getter.

The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) (acc. Carlie)

I didn’t much care for The Winning of Barbara Worth, an adaptation of a hugely successful ‘teens novel by the once popular and now deservedly forgotten Harold Bell Wright. Admittedly, I expected to not like it. The novel is absolutely dreadful (I read it, or more accurately skimmed it, a few years ago out of curiosity). While the movie is a huge improvement on the book, losing in translation Wright’s wretched prose style and dialogue, it retains the hackneyed story and characterizations. It aggressively and repetitively celebrates diverting water from the Colorado River to irrigate arid Western desert regions, an environmental issue I happen to feel particularly strongly about, and I was further annoyed by the simpleminded populism of the plot. The movie has two things going for it: Ronald Colman’s charismatic performance and the superb climactic action sequence, a mad race across the valley floor to escape a flash flood. I enjoyed those aspects, and it was interesting to see Gary Cooper in a significant supporting role from very early in his career.

Little Johnny Jones (1923) (acc. Drazin)

Little Johnny Jones was the ordinary of the festival program. A loose adaptation of a George Cohan Broadway musical, it is silly, sometimes amusing, sometimes dull and instantly forgettable. It stars Johnny Hines, a minor and forgotten comic leading man with a pleasant screen manner. The best parts of the film are short comedy sequences that could easily be excerpted to make a one reel comedy short. Don’t believe it if someone tells you Hollywood doesn’t make ‘em like they used to. Hollywood is still making inconsequential comedies just like this one. The movie wouldn’t have been as funny even as it was without Drazin’s lively accompaniment.

Lupino Lane shorts: Hello Sailor (1927); Roaming Romeo (1928); Goodnight Nurse (1929)

It’s a practice at Cinevent to feature a silent movie comedian who made one and two reelers at each festival, showing a sampling of his films before some of the features. The spotlight this year was on Lupino Lane, an obscure comedian popular in the 1920s. Comedy shorts devotees occupy a world unto themselves that I generally stare into from the fringes, bemusedly. (I’ll never understand someone who walks out after the short, missing Beau Geste. Never.) However, in this case, I agree with the program writer that Lane is someone who deserves to be better remembered. He was a funny guy and a great physical comedian, and these are well-paced shorts filled with good gags.

Note: I wasn’t able to stay for the last two silents, Running Wild and You Are Guilty (per the program, a crime story programmer). Running Wild, the one film I’d seen before, is an amusing W.C. Fields vehicle in which hypnotism transforms him from mouse into man.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mike Gebert
    Sep 19 2007

    Just came across this, it was interesting to read your reactions– I thought very much the same about The River, for instance. Mine are here:

    http://tinyurl.com/ywk63x

  2. Helen
    Sep 20 2007

    Mike, thanks for your comment. I liked your take on Little Johnny Jones. You might be interested to know that I’m well on the young side of the Cinevent audience, and actually bring my parents with me (not the other way around!). It’s my hope that more people will become interested in silent cinema, and that the much increased availability of silent films on dvd will prove an encouragement to that interest.

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