Cinefest: UCLA to rescue Laurel & Hardy

Another Cinefest is in the books and this year, besides a lot of classic black and white, silent and sound screenings, there was some news.
The 31st annual gathering of film enthusiasts occurs every March in Liverpool, N.Y., a suburb of Syracuse. I’ve driven through snowmageddons in past years trying to get in and out of this town but this March temperatures reached into the 60s.
The films themselves seldom go that high. Most are based in the ’20s and ’30s. Burglar By Proxy, the main draw at the Palace Theater during Saturday’s 35mm screenings, was made in 1919 and starred Jack Pickford and Gloria Hope. The print came from the Library of Congress and there was live piano and organ accompaniment from one of three excellent keyboard players at the event, Ben Model, Sylvia Moscovitz and Andrew Simpson.
Most of the films are screened in a ballroom at the Liverpool Holiday Inn. Special 16mm projectors are set up on a large riser at the back of the room with extended take up reel contraptions and boosted lighting and audio components. The dudes running the Aiki’s keep everything on time and in focus.
For me the highlight was seeing an audience react to a film that would normally be deemed too popular to be screened at Cinefest: Hellzapoppin’. The 1941 comedy featured Olsen & Johnson, a comedy team that was a sensation in the late ’30s on Broadway. The black and white film, which also featured Martha Raye, Mischa Auer, Hugh Herbert, Jane Frazee and occasional Stooge Shemp Howard, is extra-screwball, moving at a brisk and modern pace. Huge laffs.
A 1940 film about a boy and his dog, The Biscuit Eater, was of interest to me because I used to own the later Disney version of this on 16mm. I found this original natural and moving, very straight ahead storytelling and very colourblind by the standards of the day.
I love shorts, the old one- or two-reelers that used to be part of every movie bill, and one tha jumped out this Cinefest was an edition of Information Please. Spun off a very popular radio show–the Jeopardy! of its day–Information Please featured a panel of well known newspaper columnists, wits and other know-it-alls and the fun was in seeing them buzz in with the correct answers to quiz master Clifton Fadiman’s questions. This 1940 RKO short was part of a series which brought the radio experience into theatres. The guest panelist was Boris Karloff. When regular panelist and noted eccentric Oscar Levant started goofing on Karfloff, Fadiman cooled him off quick with, “careful, Oscar, Boris scares people professionally.”

Another eye-opener was Wolf Song, a 1929 western starring Gary Cooper. One of the joys of Cinefest is discovering, with an audience, what made these early stars so impactful in their day. The young Coop was not just strong and silent but magnetic. The version of the Wolf Song screened at Cinefest was silent but two versions were originally released, one with a partial soundtrack. It was “pre-code,” meaning the strict code of standards imposed by the Hays Office had not yet chilled some of the racier elements out of filmmaking. Coop appears buck naked by the banks of a river in one scene, which probably goosed the box office in the day. Too bad the film is one big fat cowboy cliche.
The big news out of Cinefest came via UCLA, which now owns the original Laurel & Hardy collection. The university is restoring the many shorts and feature films made by the great comedy team. Over the years, the L&H films have been so neglected, transferred from owner to owner, that the original source material has become another fine mess. UCLA has pledged to painstakingly restore the original negative and transfer everything to digital. Ultimately, the Holy Grail of film collecting–L&H on DVD–will become a reality. Benefactors have so far stepped up, with one person donating $100,000 to the cause. Other fans are being urged to contribute. Leonard Maltin, attending his 30th Cinefest, has more on the UCLA drive to rescue L&H here.

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