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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

When in Rome...Fun at Capitolfest 2018

It's always fun to tell people you're going to Rome...then surprise them further when you reveal it's not actually THE Rome, but rather the small town in central New York. However, the second weekend in August it's the place to be for fans of rare early Hollywood. The weekend festival draws film buffs from many states and Canada, and it was the third time I've attended in 4 years. [Read about my last experience, in 2016, here.]  This year the fabulous and swoonworthy British superstar Ronald Colman took center stage as the 'featured star'. Sadly he's not a household name now, but his films are worth checking out. Perhaps his best known films today are: the wartime romance Random Harvest (1942), a terrific version of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1935), or A Double Life (1947). [He obviously excelled in playing dual roles!]  Of course, Capitolfest gave us the opportunity to see some very rare Colman films, among other little-seen gems.
From Capitol Theatre website
Colman Films
On Friday evening we were treated to the 1924 silent* Romola, (D: Henry King) co-starring both Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and William Powell as the protagonist/villain. I've been wanting to see this one since I developed a particular fondness (!) for Powell back in 2013.  It's a period drama set in Renaissance Florence in which the title character (L. Gish) is torn between her long-time suitor (Colman) and social-climbing opportunist Powell. Some found it long and meandering, but to me it was satisfyingly epic, with the on-location setting in Italy adding an exotic factor. Unfortunately, Colman didn't have too much to do. Powell, despite portraying the villain, got the chance to showcase an undeniable charm that would be his trademark later in his career. Dorothy Gish was fantastic as the poor waif/other woman-- I believe this might be the first film of hers I've seen.  [Below, l to r: Colman and  L. Gish; D. Gish; L. Gish and W. Powell.]

The second Colman film, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934, D: Roy Del Ruth), screened on Saturday--this one a sophisticated sound film.  As Colman had one of the most mellifluous baritones ever combined with a smooth British accent, I believe most of us attending the festival were eagerly awaiting this one.  It ended up ranking as one of my favorites of the weekend, not only because of Colman; this movie, about a murder in post-WWI London, reveled in its simultaneously cheeky, dark, and mysterious tones.  Colman was wonderful as the titular war hero-turned detective who just can't leave well enough alone and saves several potential victims of a dastardly extortion scheme, including the luscious Loretta YoungWarner Oland shows why he was the master of Asian (albeit in yellow face) villains in later films--he's just this side of cartoonish to be truly enjoyable in his menace.  The pace is snappy and I just didn't want it to end. 

Vilma Banky & Colman make an exotic pair
in The Night of Love
The Night of Love (1927, D: George Fitzmaurice) This was another Colman silent screened on Saturday evening, and I must say it was a disappointment to me. If you've ever seen the fun Son of the Sheik with Valentino, made only a year before, the Colman film felt largely like a retread, with a similar exotic/romantic kidnapping plot, the same director (George Fitzmaurice), female star (Vilma Banky), villain (Montagu Love), and occasional comic tone.  Colman and Banky were paired in several films in the silent era, and this one is rarely seen today, so it was a treat for at least that reason (if not for Colman's curly locks!) 

Sunday morning brought the earliest Colman silent of the weekend, Twenty Dollars a Week (1924, D: Harmon Weight). Colman was not yet the big star and was only one in a large cast. Apparently, though, George Arliss was a real star at the time and stood out in the film. This was a comedy of errors and morals, that frankly, I found too convoluted. It involved rival families adopting children and fathers. For those Arliss and Bette Davis fans, you may have seen the remake called The Working Man from 1933. 

The last Colman film closed the festival, The Rescue (1929 D: Herbert Brenon). This one came at the time of conversion to sound films, and like many others at this time, was made in both a silent and a 'talking' version. Like the best films of the late silent era, a good story, fantastic cinematography, and star power propelled this one. It was a stunner. Since the only surviving print of the film, minus one reel, resided at the George Eastman House, we were fortunate indeed to see it on the big screen here at Capitolfest. I hope it gets a DVD release, as it is more than deserving. Based on the Joseph Conrad novel of the same name, the film puts Colman to good use as the seagoing hero out to win over friendly island natives while thwarting attempts of his clueless countrymen to mess up existing relations with them and put their lives in danger. A lovely young Lili (billed as Lily) Damita is the 'damsel in distress' who starts out seeming a femme fatale but ends the film as a foolish young woman who is on her way to a more mature womanhood.  Highly recommended!
Colman is both dashing and conflicted in The Rescue
Other highlights
The UCLA Film & Television Archive is responsible for the restored version of the 1933 gangster melodrama starring Spencer Tracy called The Mad Game. (1933), which screened on Friday afternoon.  I found it quite enjoyable if not Tracy's best performance. It's notable for being one of the first screen appearances of eventual noir queen Claire Trevor -- she was barely recognizable here, at least to this viewer. Judge for yourself in the image below. She blended charm and sass in her role as intrepid reporter with a soft spot for Tracy. I also admired the work of Ralph Morgan (brother of Frank) as an upstanding judge. 
Spencer Tracy & Claire Trevor in The Mad Game (from
One of the reasons to go to a rare film festival is to see gems like The House that Shadows Built, which was a documentary short celebrating Paramount's 20th anniversary in 1931.  A Marx Brothers skit not included in any of their films was seen here, as well as the only surviving clips from a movie that was never completed, director Dorothy Arzner's feature The Stepdaughters of War with Ruth Chatterton. Also on the program were some hard-to-see short comedy films, including some Laurel & Hardys (silent and sound), and the side-splitting Your Technocracy and Mine, with comedian Robert Benchley, in which his attempt to lecture on the topic, including nonsensical visual aids, just goes off the rails. 

At Capitolfest there is always (at least) one film that is completely outrageous but irresistible. This year it was the audience pleaser It's Great to be Alive!, in which Raul Roulien's character, by a happy accident, survives a plague that wipes out all of the male human species. When he returns from exile, he must win over his disgruntled girlfriend (Gloria Stuart) so that the human race can continue.  The film doubled as a musical and featured Edna May Oliver in top comic form as head scientist of the institute confronting the crisis.
Raul Roulien soaks up the love in It's Great to be Alive!
Image from
Perks of Capitolfest
Wendy & Toni 

In addition to the films, Capitolfest abounds with charms. Perhaps the most important, the relaxed atmosphere--there is only one theater, which means no lines and no rushing around.  Popcorn sells for $2.00, and beverages are free once you've purchased your Capitol Theatre mug (I brought mine from 2016).  Most importantly, though, is the opportunity to spend quality time with other film fans, many of whom I know online and/or from the TCM Film Festival -- until next year, guys!
l-r, Wendy, Toni, me, Theresa, Aurora, Alan (author of the selfie)
*All silent films were accompanied by film organists (Dr. Philip Carli, Bernie Anderson, Avery Tunningley) using the in-house vintage (1928) Möller organ.