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Highlights from Cinefest 29

Tue, Mar 24, 2009

Pictured: The Desert Song

This was the 20th anniversary of my first trip to Syracuse’s Cinefest, the annual gathering of cinephiles devoted to sitting in the dark for a weekend and watching rare classic cinema.  I could do an entire post on the glory that is Dinosaur BBQ and the cast of characters that populate Cinefest, but I will limit myself to some of the onscreen highlights from the past weekend.

Gumbasia (Art Clokey, 1955)

A surprisingly elegant and charming short, Gumbasia is the experimental pilot film that Clokey used to sell NBC on what would become the most famous claymated character – Gumby.  The film is a non-narrative exercise demonstrating the possibilities of animating clay set to a great jazz score and in brilliant color.

The Desert Song (Roy Del Ruth, 1929)

A contract dispute kept The Desert Song from being the first all-talking movie musical and the film does display some of the staginess common to films in the early sound era.  But there was much of interest, especially the role by lead John Boles.  Boles plays the milquetoast son of a French general in Arabia charged with keeping native insurgencies in check.  By night, however, Boles dons a mask and cape and becomes The Red Shadow, leader of the Arab uprising.   It’s an interesting precursor to the dual identity characters that would become so common with the popularity of Superman and Batman a decade later.  Myrna Loy (in her 30th screen appearance according to the program) looked amazing as a harem dancer.

The Dancin’ Fool (Sam Wood, 1920)

Any film starring Wallace Reid and Bebe Daniels is worth a look.  The film is about a young man (Reid) who tries to balance his love for “jazz dancing” with his attempts to revitalize his uncle’s jug business with modern marketing techniques.  It was pretty average but there is a brief animated sequence when Reid is contemplating new advertising ideas that I found interesting considering the era in which the film was made.

The Secret Man (Ronald Kinnoch, 1958)

Veteran horror producer and great friend of the Wexner Center Richard Gordon has visited us on two occasions to introduce films such as Fiend without a Face and The Haunted Strangler.  At this year’s Cinefest, Dick introduced what amounted to the U.S. premiere of this 50-year-old film.  The film was originally supposed to be released by MGM on the heels of two other films exec-produced by Dick, The First Man into Space and Corridors of Blood, but it was never released to theaters in this country.  Dick all-but-apologized for the film before it began but it turned out to be a very tightly constructed and thoroughly enjoyable Cold War thriller.  I think Dick was pleased with the warm reception for the film.

Joan Crawford Home Movies

Preserved by the George Eastman House, the program consisted of the famed actresses home movies – Joan playing with her kids by the pool, at a birthday party, etc.  If I’m not mistaken there was at least one shot of Joan sunbathing in the nude, facedown. 

Starbright Diamond and The Bank Swindle (both 1930)

Two more entries in the unintentionally hilarious William J. Burns Detective Mystery shorts.  Imagine Ed Wood directing an episode of Dragnet and you’re in the ballpark.

The Perfect Specimen (Michael Curtiz, 1938)

An entertaining screwball comedy that stars Errol Flynn and Joan Blondell with Flynn starring as a young man from a wealthy family who has been groomed – physically and mentally – to be “the perfect specimen.”  Though produced by Warner Bros, it has been out of circulation because of rights issues.

The Boys from Syracuse (A. Edward Sutherland, 1940)

I’ve wanted to see this film for a long time and was pleasantly surprised.  Adapted from Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors and the successful Rodgers and Hart musical satire, the film is a tale of mistaken identity in the city of Ephesus of ancient Asia Minor.  A lackluster cast (Martha Raye and Alan Mowbray are the big names) but good silly fun.

Other notables:

Enter Madame (1934), starring Cary Grant; A Million Bid (1927), directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Dolores Costello; Twenty Dollars a Week (1924), with George Arliss; and White Gold (1927).

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