Silents are golden at Kansas Film Festival


Last weekend, as the attendees of the Kansas Silent Film Festival milled about in White Concert Hall, the oldest figure present watched from a strange perspective: a little golden man behind a plastic glass case.

This, an Oscar that predates the nickname, is from the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, awarded to commemorate the distinguished achievement and adaptation of Seventh Heaven by Benjamin Glazer, one of the writers.

“That was when [the Oscar] was called an ‘Academy Award figurine’,” said Denise Morrison, the film historian from Kansas City who was charged with installing the figurine in its plastic glass covering.

This year’s film festival took its theme from the installation of the figurine, and all the films shown were Academy Award winners, with the only exception of “A Thief Catcher,” which was played because it was a film thought to be lost, and the only known print was discovered last year at an antique sale.

In all the years that the festival has taken place, this is the first year that there has been a theme, said Bill Shaffer, a director and producer at KTWU, who has directed 13 of the 15 festivals.

“This has been one of the best audience responses that we’ve probably ever had,” said Shaffer. Though they may try to stick with a theme in the future, it worked out especially well this year as a way to celebrate the 15th KSFF.

The KSFF is always a unique event, however, with the majority of the films being shown on actual reel instead of DVD or VHS. Also, the films are accompanied by live music, as they were back in their heydays.

“Everybody, when they think silent movies they think ‘Dead silence? How much fun is that going to be to watch?’ But no, they don’t work that way, they always had musical accompaniment,” said Shaffer. This year the Mont Alto Orchestra as well as other local musicians from the Topeka and Kansas City area provided the accompaniment for the pictures.

Friday night, comedy night, kicked off the three-day festival with “Speedy,” the last silent film done by comedian Harold Lloyd. Annette D’Agostino Lloyd, a biographer of the comic icon and a New York native, said that although this is her first KSFF, it wouldn’t be her last.

“I love being around people who appreciate these classic films as much as I do,” said Lloyd. “It’s marvelous, too, to be able to speak to them because it allows me to share my passion for Harold and silent film. It’s tremendous that Washburn University has done this and hosts it and allows us to traipse around and be immersed in the 20s for a few days.”

Lloyd said that one of her favorite things about film is that it is like a time capsule, preserving images of fashions, cars and cultures that don’t exist anymore.

“Preserving [that time] and remembering it is what makes it dear to us and keeps it alive,” said Lloyd. “You can hear people laughing at something that happened 80 years ago and that’s great, that’s cool.”

Shaffer said that generally, the films that draw the biggest crowds are the comedies, but that this year they had quite a few dramas that had made an impact as well.

One, “The Last Command,” made a particular impression that Shaffer said set the tone for the feature film of the evening, “Seventh Heaven.”

” [‘The Last Command’] is a picture that draws you in, it just pulls you into it, and toward the very end, the film broke,” said Shaffer, a rare occurrence that had the festival directors on their toes. “But that audience didn’t go away. They held on until the last minutes of the show came on and finally they got to finish it.”

As “Seventh Heaven” played, attendees from New York to California silenced their cell phones and wrapped themselves in the film, introduced by David Shepard, a film preservationist and voting member of the academy who worked on the restoration of the film 10 or 15 years ago.

“I will tell you that in the hands of some other director, this film could have been really awful,” said Shepard of the film’s highly dramatic plot. “But in the hands of [‘Seventh Heaven’ director Frank] Borzage, the piece of equipment you are going to require to enjoy this film is a very absorbent handkerchief.”

The festival lasted through Sunday, another KSFF first, and came to a close with the playing of “Wings,” the story of a WWI fighter pilot and his love, which was the first Best Picture Academy Award winner.

As the festival continues to grow in popularity, both locally and nationally, Shaffer said he looks forward to future years of sharing what has become a deep passion for he and the volunteers who assist with the festival every year.

“It’s just fascinating to share the era with people and to show them these movies that are still good still vibrant still funny still alive and still important in this day and age.”