Silent Film Festival brings robust classics to the present

Matthew L. Self

The 2020 Kansas Silent Film Festival is returning for its 24th annual showing at Washburn in White Concert Hall Feb. 28 and 29. The event is free to Washburn students and others who wish to see it, with the exception of a special presentation Feb. 29.

The festival will feature a variety of classic silent films, mostly from the 1920s, with unique music to accompany each film as it is presented. This is a great opportunity for film students to learn more about their field, and also for other Washburn students to witness a selection of truly timeless motion pictures.

“Each film has its own unique accompaniments,” said Bill Shaffer, a festival organizer. “We often mix and match any film with any individual musician, but this isn’t always so. Some music groups only do specific films. Films like Robin Hood will have brand new scores attached to them that will be heard for the first time this year.”

The festival begins Feb. 28 on a comedy night with restorations of some D. W. Griffith short films made between 1908 and 1913. The first viewing will be of  “A Smoked Husband”, which is recognized as a comedic show, and will have live music to accompany it from Jeff Rapsis, who is a major fan of the festival.

The next film to be shown on Friday is “Why Worry?” starring Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston. It is regarded as one of Lloyd’s least known yet funniest feature films. The plot follows Harold as a hypochondriac who seeks rest in a tropical county where revolution is brewing. His partner in crime, a character played by Johan Aasen, is a man of giant proportions who creates hilarious scenes with Harold. Marvin Faulwell, a veteran musician of the festival, will be providing the live music accompanying the film.

Friday night’s schedule carries on with the D. W. Griffith short film, “Mr. Jones at the Ball.” John Cumpson, a famous silent film comedian, takes up the role of the character Mr. Jones as he navigates a society ball where he loses his pants and gets into all sorts of shenanigans, and is seemingly unable to be inconspicuous. Music will be provided for the show by Bill Beningfield on the White Concert Hall organ.

The next feature will be “Leap Year” starring Roscoe Arbuckle — a film that was never theatrically released in the U.S. due to a scandal involving Arbuckle and a murderous accusation, of which he was innocent. The film, being shown in honor of the current leap year, will be introduced by Denise Morrison who will explain the events that led to the end of Arbuckle’s comedic career. Morrison will be introducing some of the other films over the course of the night and into Saturday.

Saturday begins at 9 a.m. with a special documentary, “The Adventures of Dollie,” Griffith’s film debut at American Mutoscope and the Biograph Co. While the festival has shown this film in the past, a new restoration project will make the film appear better than ever. Music will be supplied by Beningfield. A second Griffith short, “A Child’s Impulse” featuring Mary Pickford and Charles West, will be accompanied again by Beningfield.

The Saturday morning feature will be “Soul of the Beast” with Madge Bellamy and Noah Beery. The film tells the story of an orphan girl who escapes a lecherous circus owner with her best friend, an elephant, in tow. Music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis and percussionist, Bob Keckeisen. A lunch break shall follow.

Saturday afternoon’s schedule will resume with “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg” starring Ramon Novarro. The director, Ernst Lubitsch, is said to have a keen eye for comedy, while the leading lady, Norma Shearer, lends classic romance to the story.

“I’m most looking forward to The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg,” said Shaffer. “It was crafted by a master director who made silent films like no one else. He made a film full of subtleties that were woven into the story, and the entire film is seamless from start to finish. It’s a great, great movie. I can’t think of too many I like better.”

A short afternoon book signing during an intermission break will feature special guest Tracey Goessel, author of the 2016 epic biography “The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks.” Books will be available for purchase.

After a brief break, the afternoon film showings recommence with the next feature titled “Underworld” starring Evelyn Brent, Clive Brook and George Bancroft. The director, Josef von Sternberg, made his American debut film about gangsters, their molls and their rivals. The movie is widely credited with starting the gangster film genre, and the music score will be played by Faulwell and Keckeisen.

Saturday’s Cinema Dinner will continue a 12-year tradition with a great meal and Goessel returning as a guest speaker. Goessel will describe her work with the Griffith Biograph films now being restored. This will be the only part of the film festival where a fee is charged and reservations will be required.

Saturday evening will proceed with a short comedy restored by the Library of Congress: “The Rivals” with Slim Summerville and Bobby Dunn in competition for Esther Ralston. Music will be supplied by Jeff Rapsis. Next up is “We Faw Down” with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy where the main characters sneak out on their wives to play poker and get into some thick trouble. Music will again be provided by the duo, Faulwell and Keckeisen.

Finally, the festival will conclude with the adventure classic, “Robin Hood” starring Douglas Fairbanks. This film is credited as the beginning of “swashbuckling” cinema. A unique music accompaniment will be provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra out of Boulder, Colorado.

“I think everyone should attend the festival. Particularly if they’re a student of film, it should be required,” said Morrison, host of the festival. “You see the beginnings of so much in these early films. I think anyone would be interested if they love movies and good filmmaking. There’s a variety of styles and music on display and, at the end of the day, it’s free entertainment.”

Edited by Adam White, Hannah Alleyne, Jason Morrison