Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Not in Kansas anymore, at least this one time: the Kansas Silent Film Festival in New Hampshire

Last Sunday afternoon at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., prior to the silent 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925). Photo by Karl Mischler.

Like Dorothy, we weren't in Kansas. But instead of a cyclone, it was a pandemic that transported to another realm—in this case, not Oz but New Hampshire.

Still, last weekend we managed to conjure up a respectable version of the Kansas Silent Film Festival out here in the far-away Granite State, complete with hot pickles from Porubsky's Deli and much of my wardrobe coming from Topeka's fine thrift stores.

While acknowledging that the whole affair was definitely one of those "you had to be there" events (in-person screenings were the whole point of doing it), here's a brief report of what transpired for those of you unable to attend or who would like to relive favorite moments. 

To begin with: thanks to everyone at the Kansas Silent Film Festival for all their help in bringing about our ersatz version some 1,500 miles away. With their own festival going online this year due to the pandemic (thus me at home instead of in Topeka), organizers could not have been more supportive of our tribute. 

Just to name a few Sunflower State heroes: Denise Morrison for providing fantastic recorded introductions to all our films; Bill Shaffer for working with Denise and others to get the intros on disc and sending them to us; to Carol Yoho for doing a special "New Hampshire" version of the Kansas festival logo; to Bill again for taking the trouble to pack and ship two containers of the aforementioned hot pickles all the way to the Granite State. 

A special tip of the derby hat to Karl Mischler, who each year plays a major role in the Kansas festival, and who this year came up from New York to take photos, greet guests, and help recreate the spirit of the White Concert Hall at Washburn University in Topeka, where silent films are shown each February, except not this year. Thank you, Karl!

And thanks to everyone connected with the Kansas festival for being supportive of our crazy idea, which was truthfully just another extension of my ongoing silent film accompaniment self-therapy sessions. I'm getting better—really, I am. :)

We ran three double-feature programs, one each on Friday night, Saturday night, and then Sunday afternoon. The first two shows were lightly attended, but the Sunday afternoon program (featuring the silent 'Wizard of Oz' and Keaton's 'The Navigator') attracted about 60 people—the Town Hall Theatre's largest audience of any show since the pandemic settled in nearly a year ago.

It being an event for which we had appropriated the name and image and reputation of a highly regarded film festival, I dressed in my Sunday-go-to-meeting suit throughout. However, for each screening I sported a different tie from a spiffy selection I purchased for $3 at one of Topeka's thrift stores. I also unearthed a fur-lined raincoat I bought out there one year for $5 when I didn't bring an appropriate jacket for cold weather.

 Denise delivers a remote recorded intro on the Town Hall Theatre's big screen.

I kept my own pre-film remarks brief so as to give Denise the spotlight with her on-screen intros. More than anything else, the sound of her voice and her cadence as she walked us through the background on each of the films made what we were doing seem like the real thing. If it's Denise, it must be the Kansas Silent Film Festival. Close your eyes and you really could believe you were at Washburn University.

Our intermission feature was sample-sized portions of Porubsky's hot pickles, which met with general approval as far as I could tell. Unlike in the documentary made about the venerable neighborhood deli, there were no scenes of people spitting them out, at least openly. Maybe the winter here has been longer and colder than I thought.

One of the things we didn't have is anyone to review the films like long-time Kansas attendee Bruce Calvert (from Texas) usually does. So here's my attempt to record impressions from my viewpoint: below the screen, in front of the audience, and behind the keyboard.

Claire Windsor and Hobart Bosworth in 'Little Church.'

• Friday, Feb. 26: The Little Church Around the Corner (1923): a so-so transfer of a 16mm print of this early Warner Bros. melodrama held the screen well enough, generating genuine sympathy and suspense, and not just because of the jumpy splices. Starring Kansas-born Claire Windsor and featuring an appearance by New Hampshire-born tough guy Walter Long. I based the score on a simple diatonic tune that could be transformed into a hymn-like cadence when needed. Best part (for me) was during the extended underground rescue sequence, when the music fell into a nice steady build, using shifting chords over a steady and slow rhythm to build suspense, which became one of those "wow, I can't believe how well this is working" moments at the keyboard.

• Friday, Feb. 26: The Round-Up (1920) starring Kansas-born Fatty Arbuckle in a non-slapstick role left a lot of people scratching their heads. The print looked fantastic, full of distant vistas rendered in subtle grays. But the convoluted plot and the film's attempt-for-pathos ending ("Nobody loves a fat man") generated actual complaints afterwards from bewildered or disappointed viewers. Music was mostly faux Aaron Copland, with some faux Stephen Foster mixed in, plus faux Mussorgsky for the Injun scenes and a stock "bad guy" theme for Wallace Beery's bizarre Mexican half-breed character. Programmed because I'd never done music for it before; alas, unlikely to uncork this one again. Sorry, Roscoe! 

• Saturday, Feb. 27: The Showoff (1926), a comedy/drama starred Keystone veteran Ford Sterling without his old comic make-up, was a rewarding and delightful: characters that resonated, a fun story, and some good scenes that generated a lot of laughter even among our small audience. (And great location scenes of downtown Philadelphia, too!) Shown as a way to include Kansas native Louise Brooks (above right, in a supporting role), I took a different approach with the music, sticking with a "light orchestra" setting (no percussion or brass) for the entire film. Using a pair of melodic scraps, I just sort of bounced along with the action when it was upbeat, then shifted to a more somber mode when things got serious. All along, made use of a small piece of Julius Fucik's 'Entrance of the Gladiators' (the famous circus march) to underscore the bluster of Ford Sterling's character. To me, the most musically satisfying film of our program.

• Saturday, Feb. 27: Risky Business (1925), another comedy/drama, this time starring Vera Reynolds with Kansas-born Zasu Pitts in a supporting role. I had high hopes for this one, which I'd never encountered before but I think is one of those "why isn't this film better known?" titles that you sometimes come across, especially because of an unexpected twist that ties it all together. And it did generate a pretty good audience reaction—at least on par with 'The Showoff,' which preceded it. But musically, it might have been a case of me trying too hard, as I felt I couldn't settle down and kept shifting material mid-way through scenes, which took away from the film's effectiveness. The continual interaction with society girl Vera and a young girl who wants her to read the same book again and again has a lot of comic potential, and I felt I muffed it. Also, played too much (and too fast and busy) during the "party of dissipated wealthy people" scenes. So the one that got away, at least this time, but I'll program it elsewhere and try to bring better material to help make the case.

Larry, Dorothy, and Ollie in 'The Wizard of Oz.'

• Sunday, Feb. 28: The Wizard of Oz (1925), Larry Semon's very loose adaptation of L. Frank Baum's stories and characters, which are repurposed into reasons for people to fall into mudbaths, make leaps from tall towers, and other Semon trademarks. This film, included because of its Kansas setting, has a reputation for being just plain awful. But I've found that people actually come to see it, which is more than you can say for most silent titles. Also, if given the proper context (it does not star Judy Garland—setting expectations is so important!), people seem to enjoy it, not in spite of the film's disjointed nature but perhaps because of it. Whatever the cause, Larry's 'Wizard' (shown in the beautifully restored version included with a recent re-issue of the 1939 MGM classic) delivered once again: the laughs started early and kept coming, give or take a few shaky sequences. The music was based mostly on a child-like theme that underpinned all of Semon's on-screen efforts, either as the aged toy-maker or as the farmhand/scarecrow, plus some stock "evil guy" music for the Oz villains, although keeping it always light. 

• Sunday, Feb. 28: The Navigator (1924), our comic grand finale, ended things on a high note. Some thoughts: Buster Keaton's comedy style transcends its era, with today's audiences responding readily to his actions, antics, and attitudes. And with Keaton in top form in 'The Navigator,' it's really a question of how strong the audience reaction will be. Sunday afternoon's screening had the flavor of the full silent film experience: an audience responding together as the story and the gags unfold. 'The Navigator' contains two "moments of no return"—places where the response will indicate how the rest of the screening will go. The first is when he takes a limousine across the street to visit his would-be bride; the second is when the spooky picture lands outside his porthole. Both cases produced strong reaction, which continued throughout the film. For music, all Keaton for me is an exercise in "less is more," as you don't want to overpower the comedy or any other moments on screen. Hence my tendency to employ fairly simple "nursery rhyme" textures for long stretches of Keaton, as opposed to something like hot jazz or overly "comic" music. But you do want the music to point the audience in the right direction, if possible, by helping set up the laugh moments, which requires concentration on what the music is doing to support what's on screen. Less playing, more thinking. And sometimes that means just dropping out, as stopping the music can help cue audience laughter. Not that Keaton needs my help for his stuff to work, but music can make a difference, especially if it stays out of the way.

So, as Denise said each time in her "good night" message, there you have it. A good time was had by all, except a few people who had higher expectations for 'The Roundup' on Friday night. We'll have to program some Arbuckle two-reelers to make up for it and restore everyone's faith. 

Meanwhile, out in Kansas, this year's virtual edition features a lot of great stuff posted over two days. It'll remain up for a little while, so get thee over to their Vimeo site and check out the program. Among other highlights, it's probably the best place on the Internet to see pictures of Karl Mischler standing in a snowbank wearing only shorts. (That's Karl, above left, ceremonially opening the Aviation Museum of N.H. on Saturday morning during his visit.)

They already have dates for the 2022 festival, by the way: if you're keeping track, it's 359 days until showtime. But they keep saying "hopefully" they'll return to films shown on screen with an audience and live accompaniment. 

Hopefully? Hopefully? Wow. At that point, if we're still all social distancing and staying home, there won't be a New Hampshire version of the Kansas Silent Film Festival in 2022, because by then I'll be living in a reed hut in the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River (somewhere north of Mandalay) smoking cheroots and with a pet iguana for company. 

Photo by Karl Mischler, who like Diane Arbus has a gift for using his lens to capture the essence of a subject's personality, which in this case appears to be a mix of Jerry Colonna, Emmett Kelly, and Chico Marx. If this pandemic keeps up any longer, cloth face masks worn under the chin could replace the bow tie as a fashion accessory.

1 comment:

  1. Jeff,
    Thanks for amazing weekend of Silent Films. You made me feel as if we where at the KSFF this weekend but, with a East Coast Vibe..Looking forward already to next year in Kansas. Keep up the great working bring these great Silent Films to the people..