They Had Faces Back Then

An “almost” lost film from 1925 was one of the hits of the 28th annual Cinefest film festival, just concluding today in Syracuse, N.Y.

The Lady, starring Norma Talmadge, was one of nine films presented yesterday in 35mm at the Palace Theatre, a newly restored neighborhood movie house. The Palace still operates as a regular theatre; There Will Be Blood screened there last night. It may have shown The Lady back in the day, as its doors first opened in 1924, the year before the film premiered.
Among the cool artifacts in the lobby of The Palace were a number of large, colourful movie posters, including this amazing, hand painted circus motif for a children’s matinee, a real blast from a bygone era. Another original out near the front doors was for the 1962 epic The Three Stooges in Orbit.
While it is a wonder the theatre survived into the next century, it is a miracle that The Lady made it to 2008. Giant watery splotches, the result of extensive nitrate loss, were visible on screen for much of one reel (each 35mm reel of film lasts about 10 minutes); another reel had decomposed so badly it could not be restored. Fortunately, the lost reel does not really take anything away from the story; I didn’t even know it was missing until later when I read the program notes. Kudos to the folks who do the painstaking restoration work at Eastman House for rescuing these gems.
The film is a tearjerker from start to finish, with Talmadge chewing up the screen as a woman who gets knocked up by a “feckless nobleman” who squanders his fortune, sneaks off with a new babe and dies. Talmadge is reduced to singing at a seedy bar to keep a roof over her head. When the baby arrives, loverboy’s nasty dad arrives to claim the tike. Mom bundles the babe off to a minister and his wife to raise him as a “gentleman.” Years later, mom and son are reunited when her soldier boy nearly dies in her arms. By then every tear had been wrung out of this weeper, but Talmadge emerged with her rep as one of the silent screen’s most effective leading ladies intact.
That is the appeal of Cinefest. Every year, a star or personality you could only otherwise encounter in books comes vividly to life. I never “got” Will Rogers until I saw him featured in several Cinefest offerings a few years ago. He was more than folksy charm, he was conviction on celluloid, a really remarkable performer and incredibly charismatic. Others over the years–Louise Brooks, Conrad Veight, Gloria Swanson, Ronald Coleman, Collen Moore, the Barrymores and many others–can be discovered at Cinefest, one of the few places where you can fully appreciate the full meaning of Swanson’s immortal line from 1950s Sunset Boulevard, “I am big…it’s the pictures that got small.”
Having said that, four or five hours in a row of rare films can test any film buff, especially when they start at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Some rare Vitaphone shorts, primitive talkies from the mid-to late-’20s, were of interest only to those still searching for clues as to why vaudeville died. One of the comedians featured in a 1929 effort, Lou Holtz (not the football coach), would be eaten alive by hecklers today. Some very early colour home movies from the George Eastman House archives were of note mainly for many shots of Thomas Edison in colour out having a smoke in Eastman’s glorious back yard. After 30 or 40 puffs, however, you wanted to go smash some light bulbs. Pretty sure I dozed off during A Philistine in Bohemia (1920), but woke up in time for The Stolen Voice (1915), a remarkably crisp little pot boiler about an opera stud who gets his voice “stolen” through hypnosis by a jealous dude named “Dr. Luigi.” Mama mia!
Pianists Philip Carli, Gabriel Thibaudeau and Makia Matsumura took turns accompanying the silents. All are incredible, providing note perfect reads during chases, love scenes and slapstick, often to films they have never seen before.
Today’s TV showrunners, especially Gilmore Girls’ creator Amy Sherman Palladino, who coughed up the horrible new comedy The Return of Jezebel Jane last Friday night, should be required to attend Cinefest each March just to rediscover how much storytelling can be accomplished without the endless blather of rat-tat-tat dialogue. In the right hands, silents are golden.
Cinefest 29 runs Thursday through Sunday, March 19-22, 2009. For more information, contact the Syracuse Cinefile Society at http://www.picking.com/.

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