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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Capitolfest 2019 - A feast of extremely rare early films

Frances Dee and Joel McCrea
For the fourth time I ventured to Rome, NY for the annual 'Capitolfest' film festival this past weekend. I love it for two main reasons. First, it's a virtually stress-free environment to see friends and bond over a mutual love of old films. Second, the films are so rare and/or have not been seen by the public since they were originally released, watching them makes you feel like you're inhabiting an alternative-reality universe!

Peter McCrea on stage at the
Capitol Theatre Aug 2019
Held at the unique movie palace venue, The Capitol Theatre, this year the festival featured both Frances Dee and Joel McCrea, who were married in real life, and were stars from the early 'talkie' era. Both are appealing, 'girl- or guy-next door types' with enough acting talent to carry many a film. McCrea is probably best known today for his work in Westerns later in his career, or his star turn in Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges) from the 1940s. Dee is less well known as she mostly retired from acting in the 1950s to raise their family.

Speaking of family, a highlight of the festival was the personal appearance of Peter McCrea, Joel and Frances' son. He addressed the crowd not once, but twice, and took questions. When he first walked out on stage, I almost fell out of my seat, as he resembles his famous dad so much. He talked about how his parent's shared faith in Christian Science drew them closer and helped them through the rough patches in their marriage. When asked who McCrea's favorite directors were, he mentioned both Sturges and George Stevens. He also shared that his mom was content to let her husband be the star later in their lives, and that McCrea 'relaxed' into familiar Western roles later in his career.

Unlike in previous years where the films from featured stars were both of the silent and 'talkie' variety, this year the only films with either of the two featured stars were talkies from the 1930s and 1940s. Of particular interest to me was The Unseen, starring McCrea, Gail Russell, and Herbert Marshall. By Capitolfest standards this was a recent film, having been made in 1945. As a big fan of Herbert Marshall, I loved watching him on the big screen, and he didn't disappoint. The film itself is a somewhat minor suspense entry, but worth checking out. Gail Russell was one of those talented actors who succumbed at an early age to her demons and the pressures of Hollywood, so it's a thrill to see what little work she left us.

The excellent selection of rare silent shorts and features were screened with expert pipe organ accompaniment by Dr. Philip C. Carli, Ben Model, and Avery Tunningley. I was particularly fascinated by the first entry in the series of shorts about the life of President Lincoln (The Son of Democracy/The Lincoln Cycle1917), written by and starring Benjamin Chapin. Chapin was a Lincoln devotee and was inspired to create a series about his life when the U.S. entered WWI. In the first installment, "My Mother", we learn how Lincoln as a boy learned from and was devoted to his mother, who sadly died young. Chapin portrayed Thomas Lincoln, and Charlie Jackson was credited as portraying the boy Abraham and Madelyn Clare portrayed Nancy Hanks Lincoln. All were wonderful in this little gem, and I really want to see the remaining extant episodes in the 10-part series.

Another very different silent was the backstage melodrama Sally, Irene, and Mary (1925with young Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford, and Sally O'Neil. At a crisp 58 minutes, the film transported us to a time when flappers lived the good life but often choices presented in life complicate the happiness of all involved. This film isn't available on DVD, and we saw the print loaned from the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.
Bennett, Crawford, and Hines in Sally, Irene, and Mary
(Photo from

My favorite film of the weekend was the second-to-last one on the program, This Reckless Age. Frances Dee was in this one, along with Charlie Ruggles, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Peggy Shannon, Frances Starr, and Richard Bennett (father of actors Constance and Joan). Directed by Frank Tuttle and with a script by Joseph Mankiewicz (adapted from a play by Lewis Beach), it was released by Paramount in 1932. As a faced-paced family 'dramedy', it portrayed an upper class middle-aged couple wrestling with the irresponsible, selfish behavior of their college-age son and daughter as they come home for Christmas. The film is well-acted and the script is snappy, if easily tagged as having theater origins. All characters were three-dimensional and believeable, and the narrative kept us in suspense with refreshing unpredictability. I felt warmth and affection for nearly all the main characters, although not at the same time(!) While the film was apparently considered a 'B' picture when released, as its stars were no longer at the top of the movie universe, I felt it was a true gem and I wish more people would see it.

It was a blast to see many Turner Classic Movie festival friends this year - it seems that more and more TCM devotees are taking the plunge into Capitolfest, and all seem to have greatly enjoyed it. (Thanks to Aurora (@CitizenScreen) for the group selfies below!)
Toni, me, Aurora, and Alan on Friday when we
were still fairly rested.
Boston TCM Backlot member Kay
and I meet in person
for the first time
TCM gang dinner at the festival's conclusion.

Toni, Beth Ann and I talked about our
experiences running TCM local Backlot chapters over an
al fresco lunch. (Thanks to @NitrateDiva for the photo!)
Next year, Capitolfest will feature both Constance and Joan Bennett. Can't wait!