Return to Capitolfest with Constance and Joan Bennett
By Susan Doll
In August, all roads lead to Rome. That would be Rome, New York, where classic movie fans flock to attend Capitolfest, a three-day film festival that celebrates movies from the 1920s and 1930s. Twenty feature films and a variety of shorts made up Capitolfest 18, but the charm of this festival is the relaxed atmosphere. Attendees are never rushed between sessions, there are no long lines, and there is ample time to browse the memorabilia room and catch up with fellow cinephiles.
Capitolfest is named after Rome’s 1928 movie palace, the Capitol Theatre, where all the movies are exhibited. The theater was closed during the pandemic, but the folks at the Capitol were not idle. A great deal of restoration work has been completed since the last festival in 2019. The goal is to restore the Capitol to the way it looked in 1939. Watching silent and classic films in a movie palace restored to its original glory makes the experience authentic — like stepping back in time.
In addition to showcasing movies that are rare or were never released for home viewing, Capitolfest pays tribute to a different star each year. Constance and Joan Bennett were given the royal treatment this time around. Four of the feature films starred Constance, and six starred Joan. One of the films starring Joan, Man Hunt, and one starring Constance, Madame Spy, were released in the 1940s. But in keeping with the fest’s agenda of focusing on silent and pre-WWII films, most of the movies with the Bennett Sisters were from early in their careers.
Classic movie lovers know Constance from Topper in which she starred as the fun-loving sophisticate Marian Kerby, wife to the equally exuberant George Kerby, played by Cary Grant. Marian Kerby was one in a long line of Contance’s sophisticated, cultured characters, going back to the silent era. Wandering Fires, which was based on a story by Flaming Youth author Warner Fabian, starred Constance as a woman scandalized by an incident in her past. Released in 1925, the film was only the second time she received top billing. A member of the country club, her character is snubbed by some in her social circle but desired by others. Two actors I had never heard of, George Hackathorne and Wallace MacDonald, represent the men in her life, but Constance stole the film with the naturalness of her acting style combined with an understated glamour. MacDonald in particular gestured wildly and grimaced too much in that silent-film style, while Constance’s subtle movements and natural expressions predicted her future in talking films. In Madame Spy, released 17 years later, her character was not a member of the upper crust, but she still exuded a world-weary sophistication that suited her role as a double agent. Memorable mostly because of Constance’s participation, the film manages to be a solidly crafted programmer in the spy genre, which was all the rage in b-movies during World War II.
Constance’s star image as the cultured sophisticate was constant throughout her career, but Joan Bennett’s image shifted more than once. She is best remembered as the tough brunette in film noir of the postwar era, particularly those films directed by Fritz Lang. She first worked with Lang in 1941 in Man Hunt in which she played a Cockney working girl who helps Walter Pidgeon flee Nazi spies in England. Man Hunt, which kicked off Capitolfest 18 on Thursday night, was not only a terrific thriller but offered a snapshot of the fears and anxieties just months before America’s entry into the war. Hatred for Nazis exuded from the film, which likely reflected Lang’s personal feelings after his escape from Germany in 1933.
Prior to being a brunette and working with such famed directors as Lang, Max Ophuls, and Jean Renoir, Joan Bennett was a youthful blonde ingenue with a sweet, innocent star image. Most of her films at Capitolfest were from this early phase of her career. My favorite film proved to be Joan’s 1934 comedy The Pursuit of Happiness, which was shot just as the Production Code became mandatory by the Hays Office. Set during the American Revolution, The Pursuit of Happiness tells the story of a Hessian soldier, played by the delightful Francis Lederer, who deserts the British Army in order to “pursue the happiness” guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence. For Lederer, that happiness takes the form of villager Joan Bennett. The film unfolds from Lederer’s perspective, so we see the unique customs and quaint lifestyle of colonial America through the eyes of a stranger. The highpoint comes when Lederer is introduced to bundling, a colonial courtship practice in which unmarried adults got in bed together fully clothed. The purpose was either to stay warm while conserving firewood, or to promote intimacy without sex. Lederer can’t believe his ears when the sweet-faced Bennett invites him into bed. The audience knows that nothing will happen because of Bennett’s innocent star image, but the dialogue and set-up tease the limits of the Code, which makes the situation funnier.
The fest also featured a few of Bennett’s early melodramas, including She Wanted a Millionaire from 1932. Making the most of her sweet blonde persona, Bennett plays a small-town beauty contestant who chooses to marry a sleazy millionaire rather than Spencer Tracy, the working class stiff who loves her. Bennett and Tracy worked well together, a bond that resurfaced when they played Elizabeth Taylor’s parents in Father of the Bride.
Other legendary stars from long ago were showcased at Capitolfest 18, giving movie lovers a rare opportunity to see them on the big screen. A charismatic Clara Bow was fun to watch in the talkie comedy Her Wedding Night; William S. Hart offered an intense interpretation of his usual archetype, the “good bad man,” in the silent Blue Blazes Rawden, and Jack Benny played a lovable scoundrel in the 1938 comedy Artists and Models Abroad. The silent features were accompanied by professional organists Philip Carli, David Peckham, and Ben Model, on the Capitol’s 1928 Möeller organ, which helps re-create the original silent film experience.
The short films included comedies starring Chic Sale, Paul Parrott, and Joe Cook. If those names don’t ring a bell, I am not surprised. I didn’t know them either, but part of the fun of Capitolfest is discovering performers who were incredibly popular in their day but have been lost to time. All three were major figures in vaudeville, particularly Sale and Cook. I can’t say I enjoyed all of the shorts, but it was a lesson in how influential vaudeville was on film comedy.
The oddest film was a three-reeler titled So This Is Eden, released in 1927. Produced by the Hoover Company to promote the Hoover vacuum cleaner, this melodrama is the story of a young couple who are struggling financially. The wife, who cooks and cleans all day, is disillusioned with her marriage because it has enslaved her to the home. She is just about to run away with an old beau when a Hoover salesman arrives. The husband has purchased the latest model of vacuum cleaner to ease his wife’s burdens. In an early example of product placement, several minutes are devoted to demonstrating the vacuum, which helps to save the couple’s marriage.
I cannot recommend Capitolfest enough: The films are unique; the staff at the Capitol are terrific; and the attendees are a warm, inviting group. I hope to see you in Rome next August.
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).