The weather outside was frightful even for mid-March when Cinefest 34, the annual confab of rarely seen flicks presented by the Syracuse Cinephile Society, returned to Liverpool’s Holiday Inn from March 13 to 16. For the dealers who traveled here to set up shop, the snowy conditions during move-in day, Wednesday, March 12, led to unexpected delays for several purveyors of rare stills, books and 16mm prints.
Most dealers eventually straggled in over the weekend, but the shows still went on. Several noted personalities could be glimpsed in the audience, including longtime New York Times critic Dave Kehr (now with the Museum of Modern Art) and Syracuse International Film Festival honchos Owen Shapiro and Mike Massurin. Leonard Maltin kept the crowd in stitches during the annual auction of unusual bric-a-brac, held Sunday, March 16.
Cinefest is the place to savor stuff that’s hard to see, like the digital presentation of the 1927 silent comedy Casey at the Bat, with Wallace Beery as a junkman turned New York Giants slugger who can crack one-handed homers while still holding a pitcher of beer in his other hand, not to mention belting pop flies a quarter-mile away. Sterling Holloway, in one of his earliest features, makes a weaselly double-crosser, ditto Ford Sterling as a Giants manager who tries to put the kibosh on Casey’s romance with a plain Jane (ZaSu Pitts): “You’ll forget that tank town Tillie when you see the Broadway beauties,” he promises. The movie manages to incorporate the downbeat climax to Ernest Thayer’s 1888 poem yet still find room for a happy ending, resulting in an hour or so of solid slapstick fun.
Many short subjects punctuated the weekend, such as the truly wacky A Convict’s Happy Bride (1920), with Alice Howell and Phil Dunham as a couple who attempts to placate a burly repo man (Frank Coleman) but eventually the hubby gets railroaded to the hoosegow–which is directly across the street from their home. Sight gags include the family getting stuck in a slamming Murphy bed and Howell running atop a spinning dining-room table. Also on the nutty side: 1926’s Not Guilty, a courtroom comedy with Charley Puffy, a corpulent comic similar to Fatty Arbuckle. And 1923’s When Knights Were Cold, an uproarious spoof of swashbucklers, offers leading man Stan Laurel (sans Oliver Hardy) the opportunity for more on-screen smooches than in his entire career.
This year’s annual trio of shorts from writer-director Justin Herman focused on now-forgotten vocalists and how they got their starts. Musical Miracle (1948) traced the rise of songbird Patti Clayton, with manufactured drama coming from her supposed “physical handicap,” while Make Mine Monica (1948) provided a similar bio for Monica Lewis, with a cameo by Ed Sullivan and off-screen narration by young Lewis fan Marilyn Ozer. Sing Me Goodbye (1950) told the Kitty Kallen story in about eight minutes, with grizzled character actor Myron McCormick on hand as a Tin Pan Alley starmaker.
Rex the Wonder Horse headlined 1926’s The Devil Horse, a fast-paced Yakima Canutt western with a thunderous piano accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, while The Live Wire (1925) offered staggering slapstick stunts with star Johnny Hines. Cinefest also screened a batch of early 20th Century Fox features. A packed house enjoyed 1931’s Not Exactly Gentlemen, a breezy 58-minute talkie redo of John Ford’s silent Three Bad Men, with Victor McLaglen, Lew Cody and Eddie Gribbon providing the necessary chemistry. And 1930’s Women Everywhere, a hybrid collision of the musical and adventure genres, with booming baritone J. Harold Murray romancing chanteuse Fifi D’Orsay. Some of these Fox titles even had old-school exit music attached to their final reels.
Not everything at Cinefest is a solid-gold rediscovery, however. The 1929 Paramount melodrama A Dangerous Woman is still a stodgy talkie, in which Clive Brook attempts to stop his hotsy wife Olga Baclanova from seducing his naïve brother (Neil Hamilton) in English-controlled Africa. It’s a bungle in the jungle, all right, but chances are you’ll never see it anywhere else but Cinefest.