For years, I have been trying to attend the Kansas Silent Film Festival. But there were always family obligations or, when the weekend was free, a winter storm decided to roll through the plains. However, 2015 was different and with now being less than 90 minutes away, I finally had a chance to attend part of this years’ 19th annual event.
The Kansas Silent Film Festival is typically held the last weekend of February and admission is always free. Located on the Washburn University campus in the White Concert Hall in Topeka, KS, a variety of films are presented over two nights and a day in 16mm with some presented digitally. For an old school movie buff like me, I love hearing the sound of a projector or seeing the occasional flipping film strip. It adds some authenticity to the experience. Of course, the real highlight though is the music as it is all live, just as the films were originally intended to be presented.
Marvin Faulwell is an accomplished organist from Lee’s Summit, Missouri and has been a part of this event since the first year. He is a cornerstone of the event and his skills are amazing. He was accompanied by percussionist Bob Keckeisen, assistant director of the Topeka Symphony Orchestra. In addition, we were graced with the talents of composer and musician Jeff Rapsis.
Jon Mirsalis from California was a special guest for this year’s festivities. A two-time President of the Society for Cinephiles, he has provided feature film prints for the festival for years. Finally attending the event in person, he played piano for several of the films as well as being the Guest of Honor at the KSFF Cinema Dinner Saturday night. Add to all of this, film historian Denise Morrison and many other talented people behind the scenes and you have what was a very professional and fun event.
With volunteers greeting my sister Barb and I at the door, we were welcomed into the lobby where some vendor tables were set up. T-shirts, books and even 16mm films were for sale. Of course, I couldn’t walk away without a few purchases, one of which included the very rare 1934 Buster Keaton French film Le Roi des Champs-Elysees. Rare newspapers and books were on display in glass cases with standees of such favorites as Laurel and Hardy strategically positioned though out the lobby. I instantly knew that I was home amongst other fans of the cinema.
Friday’s nights selection of films started off with a short subject called Shine ‘Em Up (1922) starring James Parrott, the younger brother of Charley Chase. I had never heard of Parrott before, so getting a chance to see this was a pleasant surprise and a funny start to a fun evening. The main features of the night were a classic comedy double feature with Harold Lloyd’s Grandma’s Boy (1922) in 16mm and Buster Keaton’s College (1927). I had never seen the Lloyd film and only bits and pieces of College. My sister and I were in full agreement that Grandma’s Boy was a classic and quite hilarious, by far the better of the two feature films. This also supported my personal believe that Harold Lloyd’s films are just as relevant today as they ever were. While I enjoyed College, the film was a bit slow at times and not the best example of Buster’s great comedy. But what a fantastic experience and the live music was amazing.
On Saturday morning, with a typical late winter snowstorm beginning to hit the area and a pending birthday celebration for my mother, I knew I was going to have cut things a little short. But that didn’t take away from another great morning of comedy classics. We were all in for a special treat with a rare presentation of the first episode of the classic HBO series Hollywood. If you’ve never seen this incredible series, check it out on YouTube. The interviews with silent film stars now long dead are worth it alone. Next up were two short subjects, the first of which was the partially lost Laurel and Hardy gem The Battle of the Century (1928). Then, we went way back to 1916 for Mack Swain’s A Movie Star. Both were funny and a perfect way to start off another day of films.
Unfortunately, that is where I had to bow out but the rest of the eager audience was in store for a fun day of films, highlighted by a presentation of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and subsequent panel discussion featuring K.U. Associate Professor Kevin Willmott and film collector Jon Mirsalis. In the evening, the final film was The Sea Hawk (1924), capping off a tremendous event.
After years of aborted attempts, I can say I finally made it to the Kansas Silent Film Festival. Now, I cannot wait to attend the 20th annual event next year. With the films and live music, combined with an atmosphere of fellow film lovers, it is something everyone should enjoy. I cannot highly recommend this event enough!