Two weeks ago today I was on my way to what would turn out to be a fantastically rich, three-day movie-going experience, one I’ve made it my mission to promote as much as possible because it remains oddly obscure. That event is Capitolfest in Rome, New York, a three-day classic film festival which celebrated its 13th incarnation this year. And which you should be attending. If you’ve little time to read further I offer the most important feedback up front – MARK YOUR CALENDAR – Capitolfest 14 is scheduled for August 12, 13 and 14, 2016 and I urge you not to miss it! Here’s why…
“The goal of the Capitol Theatre’s film series is to not only showcase vintage films, but to re-create the experience of seeing movies as when they were new. All of the films at the Capitol are shown in 35 mm prints on the theatre’s carbon-arc, variable-speed projectors. Capitolfest prints are provided by such archives as the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Universal Pictures, the George Eastman House, Warner Bros. Pictures, and Sony Pictures, as well as rarer prints from private collections. The festival’s line-up focuses on obscure films that received critical praise in their time, but are now near-impossible to see.” – Capitolfest
…and they deliver!
There’s little doubt – sadly – that screening film on film will be increasingly more difficult as years pass, but if there’s a group that’s willing to go the extra mile to stay true to returning films in their original format to a historic movie palace it’s this group. Those who manage the Capitol Theatre in Rome have an infectious admiration for film and during one weekend in August each year they break the mold. That’s not to say that Capitolfest is the only “happening” at the Capitol. Go here to check out the schedule of events planned throughout the year. But as one of the hundreds who attended this year’s Capitolfest I can at least confirm that what we were treated to was a unique blend of rare silent films and early talkies. It’s the kind of thing that makes a movie fan feel privileged and at the end of the three-day weekend you are richer for the exposure to the films, to the music that emanates from the glorious 1928 Moller and to the atmosphere.
Part of what makes Capitolfest so special is the Capitol Theatre staff and management who couldn’t be nicer or more generous with their time. I must send a special note of thanks to Assistant Manager Jack Theakston who took the time from a very busy schedule during the festival to give several of us a tour of the Capitol, including the projection room, which is always a thrill. I was lucky to be there as Jack prepared for his “Short Subject Follies” presentation, a compilation of drive-in promos and ads he puts together every year to screen during the last day of the festival.
Here are a few of the “close-ups” I took while he spliced some footage… WARNING: geek levels may spike.
As I mentioned in my pre-Capitolfest post this year’s festival featured a dealer’s room, which was a fantastic idea. My problem with this was that there was little time to peruse all the vendor tables. I did get contact information from several of them so I’ll be reaching out and visiting sites in the near future. I also must confess that part of my problem was getting past the Berry Hill Bookshop station. I’ve mentioned Berry Hill and its proprietor Doug Swarthout in the past. Doug puts on a killer display of film books, posters and memorabilia that’s hard to resist – as my co-attendee friends will attest to. And I must also thank Doug for the wonderful gift he presented me, which I’m sort of still in shock about. I don’t need to go into details, but it was incredibly thoughtful. THANK YOU, Doug!
I never consider what I post on this blog a “review,” because I’m a very bad critic. As such I can say that I enjoyed every single screening at Capitolfest this year. Even clunkers like Oh, Mary, Be, Careful (1921) starring Madge Kennedy as a woman with one thing on her mind was worth watching because – when will I ever be presented another opportunity to watch it again? That said, there were some wonderful movies screened this year. Following are some of my favorites…
Friday, August 7-
Two standouts from the entire weekend were screened on opening day. The first is Otto Brower’s The Border Legion from Paramount 1930. This fantastic Western stars Jack Holt, Fay Wray, Richard Arlen and a superb showing by Eugene Pallette as a gunslinging second banana. I believe most festival attendees chose this talkie version of the Zane Grey novel as a top choice for the weekend. I actually thought we would be served the 1924 version starring Antonio Moreno and Helene Chadwick and noted that in my pre-fest write-up. But no complaints because the 1930 movie is terrific! In fact, I liked this movie so much that I am promising to never again say that I am not into Westerns.
The other offering in Friday’s line-up that I loved is Million Dollar Ransom directed by Murray Roth from Universal in 1934. This one is a fantastic “B” gangster flick starring Phillips Holmes, Edward Arnold and Mary Carlisle based on a Damon Runyon story. I loved the unique, creative transitions used in this movie and Edward Arnold is a standout.
I became enamored of a few new-to-me stars this weekend one of them being Phillips Holmes who stars in Million Dollar Ransom as well as in Edmund Goulding’s The Devil’s Holiday screened on Saturday. Holmes appears in The Devil’s Holiday with the weekend’s tribute star, Nancy Carroll. Story-wise Holiday was one of the odder servings of the weekend, in my opinion. I’d describe it as a melodrama with twists of comedy and horror. While it left a few of us scratching our heads, it’s definitely worth a look. Particularly entertaining in Holiday was Paul Lukas whose delivery was especially Lugosi-style Dracula-ish as the Dr. who treats young David Stone (Holmes).
It was also a hoot, by the way, to see Phillips Holmes in a cameo, delivering just one line in Lothar Mendes’ Illusion (1929), which stars Nancy Carroll and Charles “Buddy” Rogers screened on Sunday. And I might mention Nancy Carroll also has a new fan. I thoroughly enjoyed her vibrancy in all the films shown. She was quite the stylish, versatile talent!
Other Nancy Carroll offerings throughout the weekend were:
- The Shopworn Angel (1928) co-starring next year’s featured star, Gary Cooper – and a terrific roster of supporting players.
- Early Technicolor, pre-code gem Follow Thru (1930), which was a crowd favorite features Carroll alongside Buddy Rogers again with such notable supporting players as (a semi-creepy) Jack Haley, a hilarious Eugene Pallette, Zelma O’Neal and Thelma Todd. Follow Thru looks gorgeous in this restoration and the main players – Carroll and Rogers – are perfect specimens to feature in such a production. For my money, however, it was seeing Pallette in a golf outfit in Technicolor that was worth the price of admission for the entire weekend!
- James Flood’s Under-Cover Man (1932) pairs Nancy Carroll with George Raft in a gangster-ish tale that opens with lots of killing. Just the kind of movie my mother would love. I enjoyed this one as well with its newspaper headline features and great dialogue – a can’t miss combination.
Saturday, August 8 –
My favorite screening overall has to be Edwin Carewe’s Ramona (1928), which was magnificent. I may well post a longer write-up on this one because there’s so much to say about the film and the presentation that followed given by George Willeman, Nitrate Vault Manager at the Library of Congress. For now suffice it to say that the film looks great, I enjoyed Warner Baxter’s performance immensely and his chemistry with Dolores Del Rio who plays the title character is wonderful. And, well, Dolores is beyond words in the movie – both her beauty and talent are stunning. Finally, the story is as compelling as ever made more so by the wonderful score written and performed by Avery Tunningley. Mr. Tunningley managed as precise an accompaniment as one could imagine with “The Ramona Waltz” worked in to the fabric of the composition seamlessly throughout so that it was noted each time Ramona was on-screen. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m no master of music by any means, but this was a truly enchanting and affecting performance. Brava!
And…lest you think that I’ve got good taste I also liked the silly romp of a comedy short that preceded Ramona. Dumb-Belles from 1927 directed by Al Nathan stars Buddy Messinger, Henry Roquemore and The Sunkist Bathing Beauties and is part of a series of shorts I’d never heard of. You can bet I’ll be looking into this STAT. While I imagine most of those in attendance would think I’m off kilter naming this short as a standout I have to tell you that I laughed until I cried. But not alone. Three of us laughed until we cried during a hilarious scene where the two guys are massaging two women who are their wives, but neither the wives or the men know it. At one point they use rollers and…well, you have to watch it. Kellee and Coleen agree with me and that’s all that matters.
Sunday, August 9 –
The last day of Capitolfest was upon us all too soon, but there was plenty of classic gold in store. My two favorite screenings of the day are silent gems. The first is from Metro 1917, Blue Jeans directed by John H. Collins. Since my friend Nora already wrote a terrific commentary on Blue Jeans on her site I’ll encourage you to go read that here. A memorable film deserves a memorable write-up.
And the last film I’ll mention is the one that closed Capitolfest to thunderous applause – Charles J. Hunt’s The Dixie Flyer from 1926. Accompanied by Dr. Carli (pictured above) on the Moller the finale built to a wonderful climax and chills permeated the Capitol until the crowd was on its feet – a superb ending with a film I didn’t give a second though to. What do I know!?
…backstories and restoration sagas placing proper emphasis on how much we’ve lost and how worthy an effort it is to support restoration, verbal synopsis of missing reels, the historic Capitol Theatre…
My own Capitolfest experience has grown richer each of the three years I’ve attended. Not only have more friends joined me on the journey to Rome, but I’ve made friends of other attendees whose love and knowledge of early film astound me.
I included everyone’s Twitter tag on the above image so you can peruse timelines for more Capitolfest images and commentary. We were all active on social media throughout the festival.
Five of us sat in Di Castro’s, a favorite Italian eatery in Rome on Sunday evening. Capitolfest had just concluded and we were gloriously weary after the 29-film marathon that included live-action and animated shorts, newsreels and features that ranged from the sublime to the absurd. We regularly tripped over each other’s words, interrupting at breakneck speed. What were we talking about? Next year’s Capitolfest!