Welcome to Capitolfest! Central New York's 35mm Silent and Early Talkie Film Festival

Capitolfest, the Capitol Theatre’s summertime silent and early-talkie film festival, returns Aug. 9-11.Each year Capitolfest has draws viewers from Toronto, Chicago, Rochester, Syracuse, Philadelphia and New York City and even a few people from Europe have been known to visit Rome to see rare and unseen silents and early talkies. Here’s a look at some of the people who attended last year’s Capitolfest 16.

 

The 1,700-seat bijou, which opened Dec. 10, 1928, features 1950s-era carbon-arc, variable-speed film projectors that will thread the weekend’s 35mm schedule, along with a three-manual, 10-rank Moller pipe organ to provide the silents with musical accompaniment. “We also installed a new movie sound system in April,” Pierce said, so expect a crisp and clear sonic experience.

What is Capitolfest? Capitolfest is movies shown in a real movie theater. Not current run movies, but movies that were current run in the 1910’s, 1920’s, and 1930’s. And the movies aren’t shown in a modern day multi-plex cinema, they are shown in a movie palace built in 1928. The movies that comprise Capitolfest are typically shown in 35mm film prints (not digitally), just as they would have been when they were new. Many of these prints come from film archives around the country, such as the UCLA Film & Television Archive in Los Angeles, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y., the Library of Congress in Washington, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

What makes the movies shown at Capitolfest special? Well, for one thing, they are not the movies one would typically see on television, even on cable stations that specialize in “old” movies like Turner Classic Movies. They may be like those movies, but they aren’t those movies specifically. They are, rather, movies that have typically not been seen anywhere for many years, many decades, even. Why not, you may ask, are they bad films, then? No, not at all, many are very good or even great films—wonderfully entertaining movies that have been neglected over time because they were simply not available for appraisal. They didn’t fall out of the public eye because they were bad, they became neglected for any number of reasons. Maybe they were released in the “silent” era, and were considered passé when talkies hit the scene in the late ‘20’s; maybe they were popular enough during their original release, but were then locked away in a vault and, for whatever reason, were not revived when television came onto the scene; maybe because they were printed on highly flammable nitrate film stock (as movies were in the era we are talking about) and were the victims of one of the many studio vault fires that followed the “golden age” of Hollywood, and were only recently re-discovered in a film vault. Whatever the case, the movies for Capitolfest are selected for their rarity, but also for their entertainment value. Those selecting the films to be shown pour over many pages of contemporary film reviews to find titles worthy of inclusion, then work with film archives to dig out these neglected gems.

Capitolfest, it should be understood, is not fly-by-night film festival. The first Capitolfest took place in 2003 and the 2019 show will mark the 17th edition of the event. It started out as a day-and-a-half long show, but has gradually grown to a festival that starts on Friday morning, sees another full day on Saturday, then concludes early Sunday evening. It takes place in Rome, N.Y., a small city of approx. 33,000 inhabitants. Can a town this size support a major festival like Capitolfest? Yes, it can, but only because the attendees come from not just Rome, but (in 2018) from 28 different U.S. states, Canada, and Europe. And what, you may ask, makes the presentations of these movies special? Well, experiencing them as they were seen when they were new, for one thing. There’s nothing quite like seeing a ‘20’s silent movie, for example, in a ‘20’s movie theater accompanied on a 1928 theater organ. When you see a movie like this under these conditions, you can get the feel for what it was like when it was new, and fully appreciate what the film makers were attempting to accomplish. And, let’s face it, the mere fact that you are seeing these images 20 feet high with the aid of vintage movie projection equipment (and, yes, it does look different that in would on a modern projector) in a genuine ‘20s movie house is all somewhat mesmerizing.

Three days of movies? Sounds rather fatiguing. Maybe it is for some people, or even for most people, but the movies are spaced in such a way, with ample intermissions, that it really doesn’t feel like a marathon. (That’s our moto, which regular film festival attendees get, “A vacation, not a marathon!”) Besides, one doesn’t have to attend all three days, or even one full day. The festival is arranged by session, there are two on Friday, three on Saturday, and two more on Sunday. Each session consists more-or-less of a double feature and a couple of short subjects. (Short subjects were entertaining movies of 10-20 minutes that preceded the feature during the “golden age” of Hollywood.) You can get a ticket for all three days if you like and, in fact, most of the out-of-towners who come do just that. But a lot of the locals are not necessarily die-hard “crazy” old movie fans, and they’ll come to a session or two to try out the Capitolfest experience. And, you know what? A lot of people who started coming that way a few years ago now wouldn’t think of missing any part of the festival. The biggest surprise for these folks is that it isn’t fatiguing, and they find themselves caught up in the excitement of discovery of these movies, and of really getting the feeling that they’ve just stepped back into an earlier era.

There is more to Capitolfest than just the movie screenings, by the way, there’s the dealers room, located in a building almost directly behind the theater, in which dealers from around the country sell movie memorabilia, DVDs, blu-rays, films, books, et. al. The dealers room is open throughout the weekend. And there’s a mixer on Thursday night, from 5:30 to 7:30, so the attendees can get to know one another. There’s also a movie Thursday night at 7:30 featuring one of our Tribute Stars, Joel McCrea. (Not a rare one, by any means, but the well-known Sullivan’s Travels [1941].) Both the Thursday night mixer and the movie are free to anyone who has purchased tickets for any part of Capitolfest.

In short, Capitolfest isn’t just a bunch of old movies, it’s an event. But don’t let that scare you—it can be as big or as little an event as you want it to be. In either case, you might be surprised at how much fun you can have experiencing 85-100 year old movies under conditions that duplicate the way they were seen all those years ago!