Another Capitolfest is in the books and it was a wonderful immersive weekend of watching rare silent and early talkies and hanging out with a great group of classic movie fans (and friends) at the Rome Capitol Theatre in Rome, N.Y.
Nearly 30 shorts and feature films were shown, and I had not seen one of them previously. I heard the same from many others and I know that pleases organizers who go to great lengths to provide a program of rarely seen films.
Again this year, the Capitolfest audience was one of the first groups to see some of the films in many decades or in their restored versions.
In the case of “Sally, Irene and Mary,” an uneven 1925 silent starring Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford and Sally O’Neil, Capitolfest was only the second screening of the new restoration.
The delightful Alice Howell two-reeler “Her Lucky Day” (1920) was being shown to a movie theater audience for only the second time since the 1920s. The first time? Last November at the American Film Institute, putting Capitolfest in esteemed company.
The Library of Congress restoration of “Helen’s Babies” (1924), a Baby Peggy silent comedy, opened Capitolfest. At the end of the movie, we were treated to a 3-minute alternate sequence created from a nitrate print from Cineteca Italiana where the filmmakers simply had Baby Peggy play with a “collar box” without giving her direction. It was adorably hilarious. This was the first time I saw Baby Peggy on film and I fell in love with her expressive face.
It would be unwieldy for me to give my thoughts on every short and feature I saw at Capitolfest (which was all of them). Instead, here are some films that stood out to me. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed them all (two were so grim, they were depressing), but they resonated with me. I’m also giving a few highlights of some of the Capitolfest guests.
Star struck moment
Before I talk more about the movies, there was a once-in-lifetime magical moment at Capitolfest that lingered with everyone.
Peter McCrea, the youngest son of Capitolfest 2019 spotlight stars Frances Dee and Joel McCrea, introduced his mother’s film “Caught.” The gasp in the audience was extraordinary when he walked out looking every bit like his father. I loved how we all looked at each other in disbelief – and with big smiles. You could hear whispered variations of “I’m looking at Joel McCrea!” throughout the audience. (Yes, me too.) He was incredibly nice to everyone and shared wonderful, detailed stories about his parents. Other film festivals, including Turner Classic Movies, should book Peter so he can share his stories with a wider audience.
We also heard from Victoria Riskin – the daughter of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin – who returned to Capitolfest, and former child actress Cora Sue Collins. More on all of the guests will be found throughout this story.
On the first day, there were two films that explored dark, family dynamics. They weren’t enjoyable (I wonder if I would have finished watching them at home), but they had powerful performances and cut through to your heart.
The harsh “Rich Man’s Folly” (1931), from director John Cromwell, starred George Bancroft as a father so consumed with the need for a son to carry on his shipbuilding legacy that he destroys his entire family in the process. Francis Dee played his adult daughter, who possessed an unwavering love for her father. It was difficult to watch as the father emotionally shut down his daughter at every moment. A scene where she overhears her father wishing her dead drew audible gasps from the audience.
“The Strange Case of Clara Deane” (1932) was also difficult to watch. In this case, a talented seamstress and designer (played by Wynne Gibson) marries the wrong guy and spends 15 years in jail, wrongly accused of being his accomplice in a robbery. When she is released, she tirelessly works to find her little girl (played by Capitolfest guest Cora Sue Collins), despite any personal toll it takes on her.
An early scene where she is forced to say goodbye to her daughter is gut-wrenching as the child runs crying and screaming alongside a fence separating the two. Just thinking about it as I write this is unsettling. When an audience member later asked Cora Sue how she did that scene, she told us this story. Two policemen came to the set and took her mother away. Little Cora Sue kept yelling “Bring my mother back” and they refused. She finally said “If you want me to cry, just bring my mother back.” (She clearly was much older than her years.)
It was the first time Cora Sue saw “Clara Deane” and she told us “I loved it. I didn’t figure out the ending.”
I was excited to see the restored 1924 silent version of “Captain Blood” with musical accompaniment by Dr. Philip C. Carli. Ultimately, the 110-minute movie dragged a bit for me in some spots. Others didn’t feel that way and fully enjoyed it. (I know many were Googling star J. Warren Kerrigan afterward.)
George Willeman, the nitrate vault manager at the Library of Congress (is that the greatest job title ever?) discussed the restoration and explained that for many years the only available prints were missing key action scenes (some were removed for the 1935 remake!). Willeman said it was “a big deal” when they found scenes from various sources (including a 9.5mm print), especially “the money shot” – an amazing sequence of the tall ships sinking.
There is still more work they want to do with tinting and the color scheme, with plans to show a fully restored version of “Captain Blood” in 2020. Still, it was a treat to see this “restoration in the works.”
I would like a do-over on “The Unseen” (1945, directed by Lewis Allen). I had read in several places that the film was a sequel or a follow-up to one of my favorite movies “The Uninvited.” If I hadn’t gone in with those expectations, I would have enjoyed “The Unseen.” Instead, I was so geared up to see a continuation of the story that when I realized that the two films were not related, I was so bummed out that I couldn’t enjoy “The Unseen.”
Talking with others afterward, I realized I actually enjoyed the film more than I thought. A young governess (Gail Russell) takes a job watching two children (whose father is played by Joel McCrea) and notices mysterious things happening around her. An opening murder, the recurring sight of a light moving between two buildings and a boy repeatedly talking to an unknown person on the phone, built up the suspense quite nicely. On that merit, “The Unseen” was a good mystery thriller. But its quick-to-resolve happy ending made it feel like someone on the set yelled “it’s a wrap, we’re out of money.” I am definitely trying to find “The Unseen” to watch it again with fresh eyes.
“Internes Can’t Take Money” (1937) was a highlight. Considered the first in the Dr. Kildare series, it starred Joel McCrea who did a great job as the caring Kildare. Barbara Stanwyck is luminous as the female patient who makes a big impact on his life. The supporting cast is amazing – especially a young Lloyd Nolan who plays a surprisingly multidimensional gangster. The film also has a mother desperately trying to find her child – clearly a theme in movies of the time.
“The Men in Her Life” (1931) was one of the most talked about films at the festival. The consensus was that it was a wonderful movie with an awful title. (The title was so bad, everyone kept forgetting it.) Charles Bickford played a bootlegger who pays a woman (played by Lois Moran) to teach him how to become a gentleman. Yes, it’s the “Pygmalion” story in reverse, and I liked that. On the surface it would seem odd to cast Bickford as a romantic lead, but that’s exactly why it worked. His wiry hair is always a mess, he’s gruff and does not possess “matinee idol looks,” but I felt – and fell -for him watching how hard he tried to become a better man.
“The Curse of a Broken Heart” was an unexpected delight and a definite Capitolfest fan favorite. This 1933 spoof of old-time melodrama was so on-key it could have been spoofing movies today. The hissing, moustache-twirling villain quickly recalls the dastardly Snidely Whiplash of decades later. The hero – True Blue Harold – is a hoot, primping to the point he grooms his eyebrows. The short had not been made available by Columbia since its original release, but Capitolfest was able to obtain a print.
Some quotes from Capitolfest
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the Capitolfest guests.
Cora Sue Collins on Pat O’Brien: “He was the most wonderful man, the sweetest dearest man. They kept casting him as a gangster and murderer, but he was the antithesis. I called him Uncle Pat and his wife Aunt Eloise all my life.
Victorian Riskin on her father, Robert Riskin: “My dad felt if people fell in love with American movies, they would fall in love with America and that turned out to be true.”
Peter McCrea on the 57-year marriage of his parents Frances Dee and Joel McCrea: “They had a rocky, wild marriage, it wasn’t smooth. They used to joke the divorce didn’t work out. They credited living on the ranch and Christian Science for keeping them together.”
Cora Sue Collins on Louis B. Mayer: “When Mr. Mayer issues you an invitation, it’s not an invitation, it’s a command performance.”
Victoria Riskin about her father’s writing: “A hallmark of his writing was that he cared about his characters, women are smart and most people are good. Humor is good but it’s best to avoid it if it’s at someone’s expense.”
Peter McCrea on his father, Joel: “Pops said he never liked to be higher off the ground than on a horse.”
Cora Sue Collins on her 1932 film debut in “The Unexpected Father” with Zasu Pitts: “We were walking down the street and a car came up and asked, ‘Would you like to be in pictures.’ … At casting, they lined up all the girls – they were looking for the smallest appearing child with a memory. In three days, I had my first starring role.”
Victoria Riskin on what drew her mother, Fay Wray, to writers, including her father Robert Riskin: “They were the smartest, most interesting and intellectual people. And she was very, very smart. She could finish a New York Times crossword puzzle in 20 minutes.”
The next Capitolfest
Capitolfest 18 is set for Aug.14 to 18, 2020 and showcases spotlight stars and sisters Constance and Joan Bennett. Watch the festival’s Facebook page for ticket availability and more details.