Monday, February 24, 2020

Notes on Gloria Swanson's 'Manhandled' plus fried pickles at the Kansas Silent Film Festival

Promo art for 'Manhandled' starring Gloria Swanson.

We enjoyed a surprisingly strong turnout for Gloria Swanson in 'Manhandled' (1924) yesterday at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Something like 100 people came to see this rarely screened feature. It was the first time I've accompanied it.

I try to occasionally program lesser-known features just to give them a chance on the big screen, and to see how audiences react.

And 'Manhandled' was of particular interest because it figures quite prominently in an interview Gloria gave to a young Roger Ebert in 1967.

The result? Well, 'Manhandled' generated some laughs and held people's attention throughout. But alas, it's no 'Way Down East.'

Personally, I found it to be pretty weak tea—shop girl Gloria, propelled by misunderstandings with her beau Tom Moore, has misadventures in high society.

Yes, there's some tension between the once-happy couple, but no real drama until the film's final minutes.

And then it amounts to a simple misunderstanding which is promptly cleared up by a simple walk down the hall.

I think the story would have worked better if Gloria and Tom truly broke up at the beginning. Then the misadventures that followed, which enabled both to understand how much they truly meant to each other, would have resulted in a more satisfying experience. But that's just me.

Still, there's a lot to look at: the film was shot at Paramount's studios in Astoria, N.Y. (across the river from Manhattan), and Gloria's opening adventures on the 1920s NYC subway are a highlight.

Gloria's struggles with the subway are a highlight of 'Manhandled.'

Sequences in a big department store where Gloria works have a "look at how they did that!" quality similar to the scenes in Harold Lloyd's 'Safety Last,' made a year earlier. In fact, Gloria does some of the exact same business Lloyd did, such as cutting a garment in two to quell a pair of contentious customers.

But fair is fair: Lloyd's own N.Y.C. subway scenes in 'Speedy' (1928) have much the same feel as Gloria's in 'Manhandled.'

Next up for me: the Kansas Silent Film Festival this weekend in Topeka, Kansas. It's the 21st consecutive year I've attended this gathering, which remains a personal favorite and an annual performance calendar highlight.

Why? Mostly because of the people, I think.

By that, I mean the festival is geared toward the general public rather than the specialized cinema community, although people do travel from faraway places to attend. (Look at me!)

Because it's free, they attracts hundreds of people of all ages, most of whom are local folks ready to enjoy something different. So it's a rare chance to see films designed for the general public shown for exactly that same general audience all these years later. Think of how unusual that is.

But it's also about the people who stage the festival. From that first snowy morning in March 2000 when I wandered into Washburn University's White Concert Hall, I felt welcomed by everyone connected with this festival. Everyone was eager say hello and welcome a stranger, who at the time was thinking about writing a book set during the silent era. (It's something I'm still thinking about.

By the end of the day, I was carrying a pile of 16mm prints in my rental car to the afterglow at the old 'Holidome' on Fairlawn Boulevard.

And then there's this: I came to the Kansas festival at a time when my life was changing. It was a period of transition—a time when I was laying the groundwork to start what would become a successful business. And that became the foundation for a lot of other adventures.

So even now, two decades later, I continue to draw inspiration from visiting Topeka at this time of the year. Films from a century ago somehow kindle and rekindle a sense of future possibilities. And spring is not that far away.

That first year, on my own, I found the Hanover Pancake House in downtown Topeka. On a whim, I had the breaded fried pickle spears, a curious item I'd never had before. It made quite an impression. So the next year, I returned, and had the pickle spears again. And each year thereafter: breaded fried pickle spears.

The iconic Hanover Pancake House in downtown Topeka.

I came to think of it as my personal "Ritual of Creative Renewal." Somehow, breaded fried pickle spears at the Hanover Pancake House in downtown Topeka came to symbolize the promise and limitless possibilities of the future.

Alas, last year (on my 20th consecutive visit), I was crestfallen to find that after all this time and continuity, pickle spears been removed from the menu. Nooooo!

After recovering from the shock, I comforted myself with thoughts about the impermanence of life, and felt glad I still had the hot pickles at Porubsky's (another local delicacy) to carry on my ritual.

And on a larger scale, the Hanover Pancake House itself was the result of the great 1966 tornado that destroyed a large part of downtown Topeka. It, and its parking lot, sprouted from the rubble. How's that for a lesson in impermanence?

Well, this year, whaddaya know? Turns out the Hanover Pancake House has reinstated fried breaded pickle spears. After a one-year hiatus, I can renew my ritual of creative renewal. Hooray!

You know, it's true: sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone. But then that makes it all the sweeter if it returns.

Or, in the case of pickles, all the more sour!

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