This article was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Silent Film Quarterly, the only magazine dedicated exclusively to silent cinema. More information can also be found on Twitter and on Facebook. Back issues are available for sale on Amazon.
“Silents in Review:
The 2016 Kansas Silent Film Festival”
—by Carrie Pomeroy
Since 1997, the Kansas Silent Film Festival at Washburn University in Topeka has offered programs packed with hard-to-find cinematic gems and old favorites, all accompanied by distinguished live musicians. It’s a festival with a strong sense of community, with many people returning year after year. This year, the Kansas Silent Film Festival celebrated its twentieth anniversary—quite a feat for an all-volunteer operation.
Topeka librarians Jim Rhodes and Jim McShane organized the first Kansas Silent Film Festival as a free, one-day showing at Washburn University’s White Concert Hall; organist Marvin Faulwell accompanied all the movies shown that day. White Concert Hall has remained the festival’s primary venue ever since, and the festival, which is always held the last weekend of February and now stretches over three days, remains free except for a few ticketed special events. Many founding volunteers still work with the festival, including mistress of ceremonies Denise Morrison, accompanist Marvin Faulwell, and the festival’s first assistant projectionist Bill Shaffer (now the festival’s president, treasurer, and all-around goodwill ambassador).
Shaffer acknowledges that putting on a film festival every year for two decades isn’t easy. What keeps Shaffer going are “the people who come every year,” as he puts it, adding, “I get the sweetest, most gracious letters.”
Mistress of ceremonies Denise Morrison has her own take on what makes putting on the festival rewarding: “Turning on people to the films, the personalities, technicians, it's educational and entertaining and I love it all.”
I missed a few films at the festival this year—notably the Soviet-era comedy short Chess Fever and Battleship Potemkin—but I was attending with my ten-year-old daughter and needed to pace myself. I did get to enjoy most of the films screened. Here are capsule reviews of some of the festival’s feature-film highlights.
Length: 72 minutes
Director: Clarence Badger and Josef von Sternburg (uncredited)
Cast: Clara Bow as Betty Lou, Antonio Moreno as Cyrus T. Waltham, William Austin as “Monty” Montgomery, Jacqueline Gadsdon as Adela Van Norman, Gary Cooper as Newspaper Reporter, and Elinor Glyn as Herself.
This year’s festival kicked off with a special Thursday evening showing of Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 short The Immigrant, D. W. Griffith’s 1909 Those Awful Hats, and Clara Bow’s feature film It at Topeka’s historic Jayhawk Theatre. Built in 1926, the Jayhawk Theater closed in the Seventies but is now the focus of a restoration campaign. With its ornate carved Jayhawks symbolizing Kansas’s history as a slavery battleground and a large mural of Demeter representing Kansas’s agricultural heritage, the theater offered festival-goers a rich sense of place. And as mistress of ceremonies Denise Morrison pointed out, we were probably the first audience to watch a silent at the Jayhawk since the end of the silent era.
The plot of It is undeniably flimsy: department store salesgirl Betty Lou (played by Clara Bow) sets her sights on her handsome boss, wins his heart, then almost loses him. Among It’sbiggest charms—besides the magnetic Clara Bow herself—are the snappy, period-perfect title cards by George Marion, Jr. “Hot socks! The new boss!” declares a sales clerk to Bow’s Betty Lou when leading man Antonio Moreno enters the scene. “Sweet Santa Claus, give me him!” sighs Betty Lou. The film’s suggestion that a girl like Betty Lou could have a lusty appreciation for the opposite sex and still be nice was, in its own way, quietly revolutionary.
For my daughter, William Austin’s scene-stealing performance as the boss’s lecherous but ultimately good-hearted society pal Monty was a highlight. Monty’s the one who introduces the concept of “It” into the picture. After reading a magazine article by Elinor Glyn describing “It” as “that quality possessed by some that draws all others with a magnetic force,” Monty assesses himself critically in a mirror, grins, and declares, “Old fruit, you’ve got IT!”
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Length: 154 minutes
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks as The Thief of Bagdad, Snitz Edwards as The Thief’s Associate, Julanne Johnston as The Princess, Sojin Kamiyama as The Mongol Prince, and Anna May Wong as The Mongol Slave.
Douglas Fairbanks’ tale of a thief in love with a princess is one of the most eye-popping spectacles of the silent era, with lavish sets by William Cameron Menzies and dazzling special effects. Douglas Fairbanks definitely brought his beefcake A-game to this film; as MC Denise Morrison joked, “We’re only going to give you a ten-minute intermission because we want to get back to Douglas’s abs—I mean, his acting.” The feature was paired with the Max Davidson comedy short Call of the Cuckoo, with cameos by Laurel and Hardy, James Finlayson, and Charley Chase.
Two of the film’s most enjoyable performances are by supporting players Sojin Kamiyama as the villainous Mongol Prince and Anna May Wong as the slave girl secretly aiding him. Though their roles were stereotypical, both actors managed to imbue the parts with charisma and campy fun. As a fan of character actor Snitz Edwards’ work with Buster Keaton, I also enjoyed seeing Edwards paired with Fairbanks as the thief’s “Evil Associate.”
The film was accompanied by the Colorado-based Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a five-piece chamber ensemble who appear regularly at the TCM Classic Film Festival and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Their Thief of Bagdad score weaves together pieces from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade and Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches with original silent-era “photoplay music” from the quintet’s extensive collection. You can hear that score on the Kino Lorber DVD release of The Thief of Bagdad.
The Cohens and the Kellys (1926)
Length: 80 minutes
Director: Harry A. Pollard
Cast: Charles Murray as Patrick Kelly, George Sidney as Jacob Cohen, Vera Gordon as Mrs. Cohen, Kate Price as Mrs. Kelly, Jason Robards, Sr. as Tim Kelly, and Olive Hasbrouck as Nannie Cohen.
I didn’t go into The Cohens and the Kellys with high hopes, but it turned out to be a festival favorite for me and my daughter. The film tells the story of two feuding Lower East Side families, one Jewish and one Irish. A romance between the Irish family’s oldest son and the Jewish family’s oldest daughter forces the families to make the peace—but only after plenty of sparks fly.
The film’s storyline is quite similar to the plot of the long-running play Abie’s Irish Rose by Anne Nichols; so similar, in fact, that Nichols sued Universal Pictures over The Cohens and the Kellys. The court ruled against Nichols, however, stating that copyright protections didn’t extend to stock characters.
Stock characters the Cohens and the Kellys may be, but the actors playing them brought real commitment and warmth to their portrayals. As Mrs. Cohen, stage actress Vera Gordon was particularly memorable. It was also fun to see longtime Keystone comedian Charlie Murray as the Kellys’ irascible patriarch and George Sidney as Mr. Cohen. Kate Price, known to many silent film fans for her work in Mary Pickford’s Little Lord Fauntleroy and Buster Keaton’s My Wife’s Relations, was a bit under-utilized as Mrs. Kelly, but as likable as always.
Organist Marvin Faulwell and percussionist Bob Keckeisen accompanied the film, blending Jewish folk music themes with Irish tunes to accentuate the cultural differences between the two families. In one especially funny touch, Keckeisen filled in with convincing sound effects when the Cohens’ family dog howled along with a weeping Mr. Cohen.
Though this comedy is rarely shown now and is not currently available on disc, it was so popular in its day, it inspired six sequels, two silent and four sound, with the Cohens and the Kellys leaving their New York tenement behind and taking cinematic forays to Hollywood, France, and Africa, a forerunner of sitcom families like the Ricardos and the Bradys traveling to exotic locales in search of fresh plotlines.
Length: 112 minutes
Director: Jacques Feyder
Cast: Jean Forest as Antoine “Gribiche” Belot, Rolla Norman as Philippe Gavary, Françoise Rosay as Edith Maranet, Cecile Guyon as Anna Belot.
Gribiche tells the story of a working-class Parisian boy named Antoine Belot, nicknamed Gribiche (played by the extraordinary child actor Jean Forest). The plot is set in motion when Gribiche notices an American socialite and do-gooder named Edith Maranet dropping her pocket book in a department store and runs to return it to her. Charmed, Edith Maranet (director Feyder’s wife and creative collaborator Françoise Rosay) offers to adopt Gribiche from his war-widow mother and pay for his education. Gribiche knows his mother wants to marry her boyfriend but that she is hesitating because of how her marriage might affect her son. Wanting his mother to be happy, Gribiche tells her that they have to take advantage of Mademoiselle Maranet’s offer, even though mother and son are secretly heartbroken over parting ways.
Mademoiselle Maranet is a proponent of the “scientific” method of child-rearing in vogue in America in the 1920s, and she puts Gribiche on a rigid routine of exercise, meals, and lessons—a regimen in sharp contrast to the relaxed, open-air life Gribiche once enjoyed with his mother. Not surprisingly, Gribiche rebels, with results that are both funny and touching. Feyder effectively used outdoor Paris locations and fabulously detailed Art Nouveau sets to accentuate the contrast between Gribiche’s two very different worlds. As film preservationist David Shepard pointed out in his introduction to the film, Gribiche may be the only film that gives major screen credit to the people who made the film’s plumbing fixtures!
In his introduction, Shepard also shared the movie’s real-life back story, which in some ways mirrored the story told in Gribiche. Director Jacques Feyder and Françoise Rosay discovered their young star Jean Forest on the streets of Montmartre when they were casting for their film Crainquebille (1922). Since Forest’s parents already had eight other children to feed, they gladly handed Feyder and Rosay their son’s acting services for that film and the 1925 Faces of Children. As David Shepard noted, Forest proved to be an exceptionally natural and engaging child actor. Near the beginning of production on Gribiche, Forest’s biological mother died, and Feyder and Rosay adopted the boy. Luckily, Feyder and Rosay’s real-life arrangement with Forest went much more happily than the adoption depicted in the film.
Beau Geste (1926)
Length: 101 minutes
Director: Herbert Brenon
Cast: Ronald Colman as Michael “Beau” Geste, Neil Hamilton as Digby Geste, Ralph Forbes as John Geste, Alice Joyce as Lady Patricia Brandon, Mary Brian as Isabel Rivers, Noah Beery as Sgt. Lejaune, and William Powell as Boldini
The final evening of the festival featured a showing of Beau Geste with Buster Keaton’s Cops and Louise Fazenda and Ford Sterling in Her Torpedoed Love, as well as rare World War I documentary footage shot by Topeka native Donald Thompson.
Beau Geste begins with a perplexing series of mysteries: A troop of French Legionnaires rides across the desert to aid a French fort they’ve heard is under attack by Tuaregs. They discover an eerily silent fort, with dead Legionnaires propped against the ramparts. A scout goes over the fort’s walls to check out the macabre scene and promptly vanishes. When more Legionnaires go up to investigate, they find the fort’s commander Sergeant Lejaune murdered by one of his own men, and the Legionnaire they assume has killed Lejaune dead beside him. The mysteries only multiply when the two bodies disappear moments later. Via flashback, the film reveals the events that led up to this series of puzzling occurrences. My daughter was hooked by the mystery immediately and gasped with delight as the pieces fell into place in the film’s final moments.
Along with its puzzle-box of a plot, Beau Geste features magnificent scenery, beautifully photographed by J. Roy Hunt, with the sun-bleached deserts outside Yuma, Arizona filling in for the dunes of Arabia. The film also boasts memorable supporting performances, including Noah Beery as one of the most sadistic villains ever to inspire boos and hisses and William Powell as a thieving conniver of a Legionnaire. Unfortunately, the film is not currently available on disc, so if you have a chance to see it screened at a theater, you should jump on the opportunity.
Saturday Night Cinema Dinner
Besides the many free movie showings held during the festival weekend, the Kansas Silent Film Festival also traditionally features a ticketed Saturday night Cinema Dinner. Past guest speakers at the Cinema Dinner have included film historian Annette D’Agostino Lloyd, New Hampshire-based musician and composer Jeff Rapsis, and Melissa Talmadge Cox, granddaughter of Buster Keaton. This year’s Cinema Dinner guest speaker was film preservationist David Shepard, a longtime friend of the festival who has frequently loaned the festival films from his collection at no charge.
Shepard discussed his recent work producing digital versions of the films of Studio Albatros, including the film Gribiche shown earlier that day. Albatros was a highly acclaimed production company set up in France by Russian expatriate filmmakers after the Communist revolution. Headquartered at the glass studio once used by French film pioneer Georges Méliès, Albatros’s “alumni” include directors Alexandre Volkoff, Jacques Feyder, Eugène Lourié, and René Clair. At the Cinema Dinner, Shepard showed clips from several Albatros films, including an excerpt from director Alexandre Volkoff’s The House of Mystery, a 1921-1923 serial. The sequence that Shepard highlighted depicted a wedding celebration shot entirely in silhouette. The ten-part series is available from Flicker Alley on the DVD The House of Mystery (2015).
Shepard also showed excerpts from the 2013 Flicker Alley release French Masterworks: Russian Emigres in Paris 1923-1928, including a mesmerizing dance sequence from Kean, a 1924 biopic of Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean directed by Alexandre Volkoff and starring Ivan Mosjoukine, one of the most important actors in pre-revolution Russia. The Kean clip used rapid-cut edits to striking effect to dramatize Kean’s emotional disintegration. I left the Cinema Dinner with a new appreciation for Albatros and a desire to see more of the studio’s films.
After this year’s festival, I asked MC Denise Morrison what she thought made the Kansas Silent Film Festival special. She responded, “It’s still free. Plain and simple. This allows everyone to come and try it out, so it’s wonderfully satisfying to see young and old, first-timers and old-timers, at the screenings.”
I left this year’s festival grateful to have had such an affordable opportunity to share classic silents with my daughter. We departed Topeka with a list of new-to-me silent films and filmmakers to seek out, a fresh perspective on some old favorites, and great memories of time shared with other silent film fans. Here’s to at least twenty more years of the Kansas Silent Film Festival preserving and celebrating silent cinema!
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