Capitolfest 11 – a festival recap

I’m just back from Rome, New York, my first visit to the city and the historic theater which hosted the 11th Capitolfest, a celebration of the event’s tenth anniversary.

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There was palpable excitement at noon on Friday, August 9 as the relatively small, but devoted group settled in to the historic Capitol Theater to watch F. Harmon Weight’s, Flaming Waters (1926), the film that kicked off this year’s Capitolfest.  The crowd would swell to several hundred, by my estimation, as the weekend progressed – mostly folks who’d attended the festival every year since it started with a few first-timers (like me) in attendance.  For the most part the patrons were hardcore, silent film enthusiasts who were eager to share their enthusiasm and vast knowledge with whoever showed an interest (like me).

One of my favorite moments of the weekend occurred when I was with a few people discussing the previous day’s program when I mentioned I’d never seen a Charlie Chase film before Capitolfest.  One of the women in the group instantly turned to me, eyebrows raised and asked with due astonishment, “What have you been doing all your life?”  Well, not the right thing, I guess.  I love that kind of passion!   Now I know to watch more of Charlie Chase before next year so I can boast having seen many!

Anyway, I didn’t miss one screening the entire weekend, something I’m very proud of given this was my first such adventure into the world of silent film.  I marveled at both the respect and reverence awarded every single film – as it should be – all the while the festival stayed true to its motto, “A vacation, not a marathon!” with its small-town, laid-back atmosphere that is warm and welcoming.  This is a community that’s proud of what the Capitol Theater offers, and what it offers is a proper home for classic film.

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Capitol Theater humble marquee gives little indication of the sprawling majesty of its interior

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My film highlights

Following are the screenings that stood out as memorable for me, but I enjoyed even the films I deemed “bad” because they were still enjoyable to watch – like one of the Saturday entries, Vin Moore’s, The Cohens and Kellys in Africa (Universal, 1930).  This film was so bad it makes me smile just thinking about it, but I’d heard some about the Cohens and Kellys series and had never seen one so it was a blast to see this in a theater.  The movie is filled with ridiculous gags, absurd chases and is replete with racial stereotypes and several jokes that made me wince.  As I watched I was happy to have grown up watching Abbott and Costello who, by my estimation, perfected a similar style of comedy several years after the Cohens and Kellys series.  All that said, however, the audience at The Capitol enjoyed the film.

Note that my comments on these films are simple and include no factual information.  For more detailed (and professional) notations on each screening and to take a look at the entire schedule of films featured in Capitolfest 11, please visit the Capitolfest site here.

Day 1

F. Harmon Weights’, Flaming Waters (1925) opened the festival, as mentioned above, and was the only film shown in video format the entire weekend.

As the film starts we see a young widow who’s sacrificed everything for her son.  When the boy grows, he goes off to the navy leaving the mother alone to do the best she can to take care of herself and her home.  Upon his return, the sailor finds his mother desolate after having been cheated out of her savings by an oil prospector.  The son vows to avenge his mother’s suffering.

I was impressed by many things in Flaming Waters.  The acting is great by the entire cast with special mention going to Malcolm McGregor who plays the son and Johnny Gough as his best friend.  Also, very impressive is the final scene in the film, which takes place over flaming waters as the son tries to save his mother and sweetheart from a raging fire via a rope that hangs perilously close to waters filled with oil and set aflame by the prospector’s men.  Accompanied by Dr. Philip Carli playing a wonderful score on one of the few surviving, fully-working Möller organs.  My heart pounded (appropriately) as the man struggled his way across that rope.

Dr. Philip C. Carli at the organ just before FLAMING WATERS, which opened the festival

Dr. Philip C. Carli at the organ just before FLAMING WATERS with the music to the film’s theme song, “Danny” at the ready

This is probably a good time to mention that every silent film featured throughout the weekend had organ accompaniment with three maestros doing the honors during different sessions – Dr. Carli, Avery Tunningley and Robert Israel who made his debut at the Capitol this year.  If you’ve never seen a silent film in the theater with live accompaniment I can only tell you it’s a magical experience watching the images as the affecting music fills the house.

Along Came Ruth (1933) – a Vitaphone short starring Ruth Etting.  This short was one of my favorites of the weekend.  The short starts with a really nice montage of Etting, playing Etting, as she goes about a day in her life.  First we see her at Paramount studios filming a scene during which she sings, “Shine on Harvest Moon.”  Next she

Ruth Etting
Ruth Etting

appears on a radio program singing the same song, then she records the song on phonograph and ends the day with a live, on-stage performance.  After the exhausting schedule, the star decides to take some time off by going to a hotel under an assumed name – Ruth Ederling (I believe it was).  Anyway, lo and behold, the hotel is putting on a live show and after the entertainment manager hears Ruth sing he wants her in the show.  Naturally, Ruth joins the show, performing a great rendition of “My Heart’s at Ease” and in the end they find out she’s the famous Etting.  Perhaps this is as hokey a premise as there is, but Along Came Ruth was a lot of fun to watch.  I’d forgotten how great Ruth Etting was.

Casey at the Bat (1923) – A De Forest Phonofilm featuring actor, DeWolf Hopper (later Hedda Hooper’s husband) reciting the famous poem, which he did countless times.  I make a note of this short here because I never imagined I’d be enthralled by a man simply reciting a poem, but there’s nothing simple about this performance.  I was riveted!

For anyone not familiar with De Forest Phonofilms, I can best describe them as recordings of live performances, mostly vaudeville, but not exclusively.  These were sound recordings made (in some cases) many years before sound came to motion pictures.  The Capitolfest program featured many of these shorts throughout the weekend and they were great to see.  I can’t say I enjoyed them all, but it was interesting to see the acts that were popular at the time, a few of which I’d never heard of.

The Affair of Susan (1935) starring ZaSu Pitts and Hugh O’Connell.  A remake of a 1928 silent, Lonesome, The Affair of Susan was shown at Capitolfest in its first public screening in 78 years.

ZaSu Pitts is always a treat to watch and this movie is certainly fun – a series of misadventures, two lonely people, lots of heart and a surprise ending.  I mention it here for a specific reason, however – I ran into an older gentleman during the festival break right after the film and he was beaming after having watched it.  He was beside himself with joy at ZaSu Pitts as the romantic leading lady, a role she didn’t get a chance to play often.  I was so moved by his reaction and wish I’d asked him his name so I can make mention of it here.  In any case, that’s what these festivals are all about.

Lombard and Eddie Quillan in SHOW FOLKS
Lombard and Eddie Quillan in SHOW FOLKS

Carole Lombard – as the festival’s tribute star, seven films that featured Lombard were shown during the weekend.  The complete Friday night schedule was dedicated to her.  The entries that night included a 1928 Mack Sennett comedy, The Campus Vamp, before Carole had the “e” in her name.  Lombard plays the title character, who’s competition for the “good girl” who’s in love with the local hunk.  Carole plays a small role in the film, but the film has a great cast and many memorable scenes.  I enjoyed Vamp better than I did the second Lombard entry of the night, Show Folks also from 1928.  However, Carol, not yet a huge star has some definite star energy in this one, although she doesn’t play the main character.  Show Folks features a familiar story, although I can’t quite place from where, about a vaudeville act that breaks up, one of the team goes on to great success while the other suffers professionally.  They eventually reunite because love conquers all.

Friday night at Capitolfest ended with a newly restored screening of William Wellman’s, Nothing Sacred (1937), which I loved.  But then I loved this one the first few times I saw it too.  Nothing Sacred is great fun, with Lombard and Fredric March nicely matched as romantic adversaries of sorts.  The film features great physical comedy by both actors, a great supporting cast as well as a wonderful script by Ben Hecht.  A must-see.  And the print looked great!

Day 2

The Saturday line-up began on a high note, one of my favorite screenings of the entire weekend, Erle c. Kenton’s, From Hell to Heaven (1933).  From great laughs to murder, From Hell has a lot to offer as entertainment.  The film is about many characters who are staying in a resort hotel called the Lorey Springs (I’m not too sure of the spelling) where “people come and go and nothing ever happens.”  Except that couldn’t be further from the truth.  A lot happens at the Lorey, including a murder as we are shown how the hotel’s many patrons all have varying degrees of interest in a horse race taking place in a hellnearby track.  The result of the race affects each of their lives in a different way.  Nicely done all around.  I have to say I was particularly taken with how this film was shot.  Several scenes at the race track in particular where the camera is used magnificently to either introduce the different characters, their stories and their place during the race or to show the drama of the many lives involved.  Great panning, close-ups, editing and what have you.  Great movie all around!  And Jack Oakie was hilarious.

It’s worth mentioning that a good part of the Saturday afternoon program featured a mini Lon Chaney festival with several of his early films screened, A Mother’s Atonement (1915) and The Place Beyond the Winds (1916), both of which had missing reels, but whose story was aided by the Asst. Manager of the Capitol, Jack Theakston, who filled us in on the missing plot points.  And then they screened Broadway Love (1918), which was a complete film but a story I found a bit confusing.  Not familiar with Lon Chaney aside from the more popular films he made like The Hunchback of Notre dame and The Phantom of the Opera, I found watching him in these films interesting.  Needless to say his was quite the presence.

The Chaney films were followed by another favorite of mine during the weekend, William Fox’, Mr. Lemon of Orange starring El Brendel, who from some of the commentary after the film is either loved or hated by audiences.  Well, I apparently fall into the former category.  Brendel plays a dual role in the film – a simple-minded Swedish store clerk, Oscar Lemon, and a gangster named Silent McGee – and he’s a hoot!  Oscar Lemon who is the spitting image of the gangster is mistaken for him and gets caught up in all sorts of dangerous, if hilarious, situations.  Plenty of enjoyable sight gags abound in this entry.

One note of interest mentioned in the Capitolfest program is that Mr. Lemon of Orange was originally shown at the Capitol Theater on April 17 and 18, 1931 on a double bill with Dracula, which seems a somewhat odd combination, but must have been fantastic for audiences.

Day 3

The Sunday program featured many interesting films, including an odd musical about the French Revolution and the writing of the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise, Captain of the Guard from 1930.  Aside from the film’s lack of historical fact, which everyone seemed to get a kick out of, I was taken by the contrasting acting styles in this film – the natural style of the film’s leading lady, Laura La Plante as Marie Marnay pitted against the over-the-top theatrics of John Boles as Rouget de L’Isle.  Boles was something to behold, offering a different pose every chance he got.

Two shorts featuring Carole Lombard were on the Sunday program as well, a Sennett comedy, The Bicycle Flirt (1928) and It Pays to Advertise (1931), both of which I

May McAvoy, Malcolm McGregor and Ethel Wales in THE BEDROOM WINDOW
May McAvoy, Malcolm McGregor and Ethel Wales in THE BEDROOM WINDOW

enjoyed quite a bit.  But the standout not only for the day, but the film that would be my favorite silent film of the weekend was William de Mille’s, The Bedroom Window (1924), a highly entertaining murder-mystery, which has nothing to do with lewd happenings in a bedroom – a thought that crossed my mind when I saw the film’s title.

The Bedroom Window is about the murder of a wealthy man and the solving of the crime by famous detective novel author, Rufus Rome, whose real name is Matilda Jones, sister-in-law of the deceased.  This film features a fine cast, including Malcolm McGregor who’d starred in Flaming Waters (see how I’m recognizing silent film stars already!?), but the best here is Ethel Wales who as Matilda, does a great job in solving the crime with a resolution that brought my favorite television detective to mind, the great Columbo.  Not to mention Matilda also has a great sense of humor.

And there you have my highlights.  I can’t wait for next year!

Until then, I’m going to make a sincere effort to promote Capitolfest on Twitter and Facebook as announcements for next year’s event are released because not only are the films featured at Capitolfest worthy of attention, but the majestic Capitol Theater, as one of the relative few classic movie houses we have left to enjoy, deserves to be filled.  So, mark your calendars – Capitolfest 2014 is set for August 8, 9 and 10 and the featured tribute star will be William Powell!

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One final note – Capitolfest is not only enjoyable but a bargain.  The pricing for the entire festival or specific sessions is very reasonable, the various eateries in close proximity to the theater fit all budgets and tastes, and there is free parking readily available, which blew my mind.  For a grand, classic film experience, you can’t beat Capitolfest.  Thanks to it I can now say I am a silent film fan!  Please remove your hats!

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16 thoughts

  1. The Capitol kinda resembles the Loews Jersey from the inside. Sounds like seeing a movie there is as good as the Loews too.

    Did you see much of Rome at all?

    1. Yes! It it very similar to the Jersey Loews. Now I can’t decide which is bigger inside so I’ll have to take a look but the Capitol has no grand entrance like the Loews.

      I didn’t mention much of the city of Rome because there’s not much to see. It’s super clean and super dead, as far as comparing it to NYC, for instance. The theater sits on the city’s main street yet aside from the theater activity there was not a soul in sight.

      Aurora

  2. Sounds like a fun time. I haven’t seen any of these, except NOTHING SACRED. I know…”what have I been doing all my life?” What a beautiful theater though. I love those old movie palaces.

    1. I’d never seen any either and in fact, hadn’t even heard of most of the names in the films. You and I may have been doing nothing with our lives at the same time.

  3. Aurora, what a marvelous experience! I was unfamiliar with ALL the films you discussed (and, yes, I have never seen a Charlie Chase movie!). Your photos of the inside of the Capitol were fantastic–indeed, as you wrote, the marquee doesn’t do justice to the splendor inside. Thanks so much for sharing.

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