I was at a three-day wake this past weekend – actually it was a four-day wake that started on Thursday but I couldn’t make that part.
No one person died, but an event that has meant much to me and hundreds, perhaps thousands of film fans in the Northeast: Cinefest in Syracuse, NY.
There are all sorts of film festivals and pop culture conventions, but Cinefest was unique for the region. Its premise was pretty simple: prints of rare, sometimes forgotten of mostly American films from the dawn of the medium to the end of the 1940s are screened in a marathon session. The films were from archives, museums and private collectors.
I started going in 1988 and attended religiously until about 2009. I haven’t gone for several years and I regret what I had missed.
And now after 35 years its organizers have decided to end the annual event for a variety of reasons, not the least of which the growing availability of archival material on streaming platforms and on DVD programs from many of the major studios.
For instance cruising around Netflix one day I found “Be Yourself,” an early sound musical starring Fanny Brice – the subject of Barbara Streisand’s “Funny Girl.” Here was a “Cinefest movie” without a doubt.
There are other films on Netflix such as W.C. Fields’s silent comedy/drama “Sally of the Sawdust” that will give film fans the sort of feeling of discovery that Cinefest certainly provided. It’s not a great film by any means, but as a Fields fan it meant a lot to me to have the opportunity of seeing it.
The Warner Instant Archives has a streaming program that has an interesting selection of older films. I’m much more interested in its Pre-Code offerings – those sound films made from 1929 until the Production Code and censorship came into effect in 1934 than some of the service’s other titles. For some reason it has a load of Bowery Boy comedies, for which I’ve never developed a taste.
Fandor is another streaming service with a wide variety of movies, including many silent films, classic animated cartoons and much more.
Taking a look at Oldies.com, my favorite mail order DVD company, one can see there are archival programs from Warner Bros. Universal and Columbia that present films that have never been on DVD or in some cases VHS ever before. Granted these DVD-R discs are made to order and are more expensive than mass-market titles, but for the dedicated fans of a particular film they are now accessible.
All of this has apparently played a role in the decision to end this popular festival.
Now if you think this material strictly appeals to the greybeard set, you are correct to a certain point. While I’ll admit the age of the audience is somewhat advanced – I’m considered at the lower end of the scale – I’m happy to report that more and more genuinely young people were in attendance and obviously enjoying the films.
This speaks to the vitality of the films that were shown and thanks to a greater distribution of films in new ways, there are people who are discovering that older movies are indeed still fun.
This year, I saw a unique silent version of Harold Lloyd’s first sound picture “Welcome Danger” from 1929. Lloyd starred and shot a complete silent film and then decided to scrap it in order to make a sound picture. He also shot a silent version of the sound film to play in theaters that had not yet converted to sound. This was an amazing film to watch and something that certainly added to my appreciation of the great comedian.
I also saw the absolutely insane “The Big Broadcast,” a film from 1932 designed to show audiences the faces of some prominent radio performers. The comedy has a slight plot but features performances from Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway, Vincent Lopez and his orchestra, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Arthur Tracy and Kate Smith – a veritable who’s who of popular music performers from that era. The comedy is fun and to see Cab Calloway performing “Kicking the Gong Around,” a song about cocaine use, was borderline shocking.
And what can I say about seeing “Smoking Guns,” a 1934 B-Western starring Ken Maynard so odd that it ended his career at the major studios? It’s not the first time I saw it, but it’s great to share the experience of re-discovery with a crowd of strangers who are more amazed perhaps than you are.
I will miss Cinefest and the amazing grab bag of movies it presented, but at least there are now sources for vintage films that are well worth discovering.