This past weekend marked my second time attending the Kansas Silent Film Festival in Topeka, Kansas. This was their 20th year of offering a selection of silent films absolutely free to the public. In White Concert Hall on the campus of Washburn University, the gentle whir of a projector brought flickering images to life with live music accompaniment. Being in a room with what appeared to be more than 150 fellow cinema lovers was magic.
This year’s event was three days, starting with a special ticketed evening at the legendary Jayhawk Theatre on Thursday night. Then, Friday night and all day Saturday, admission was free with a non-stop presentation of classics and rare gems. Like last year, I attended the Friday night and Saturday morning segments with my big sister.
Friday night, the evening kicked off with an introduction from film historian Denise Morrison. Then, the lights dimmed and our first flick of the evening was Call of the Cuckoo (1927). This Max Davidson comedy also features the familiar faces of Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charley Chase. I’ve seen this before, several times in fact, and it always makes me laugh. However, it has never been better thanks to the wonderful music of Marvin Faulwell. The main event was an unbelievable presentation of The Thief of Bagdad (1924). A pristine picture was made magical by the music of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. If you ever heard their music, it is even more amazing live. This was my first time watching this Douglas Fairbanks Sr. adventure from beginning to end and I can’t imagine it could get any better.
Saturday morning started early with episode two of the rare retrospective series Hollywood. Graced with the narration of James Mason and interviews with many of the original silent film stars, I highly recommend you track it down. Most episodes are on YouTube or archive.org. This was followed by the Soviet cinema short, Chess Fever (1925). This half-hour comedy featured chess champions of the day and was a unique and highly entertaining comedy that was enhanced by the manic piano work of Rodney Sauer. It deserves more recognition than it gets. The morning main event was the classic Battleship Potemkin (1925). This was another first-time viewing and I must admit, it’s a little dry compared to the other offerings I saw. However, the imagery is stunning considering the era it was made, so definitely worth watching.
The lobby was filled with glass cases of old movie programs and pictures from a bygone era. Standees of legends like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were watching over everyone to bring a smile on our faces. Vendors offered a selection of goodies including DVDs, books and even genuine 16mm films. Above all else, the thrill of watching silent films with live music in a great venue amongst fellow movie lovers with my big sister made for a priceless time.
From humbles beginning in 1997, this event has grown each year and helps continue the legacy of classic silent cinema. If you happen to be in the area the last weekend of February, it is well worth the effort and you can’t beat the price. Guaranteed, I will return in 2017 for the 21st annual event.