Capitolfest 2015 a tribute to Nancy Carroll, cinematic history

Each August, the historic Capitol Theatre in Rome, N.Y., plays host to Capitolfest, a three-day celebration of early American cinema with a focus on 35mm silent and Pre-Code Hollywood film. “Pre-Code” movies, of course, are early talkies created before the strict enforcement in 1934 of the Motion Picture Production Code.  The “Hays Code,” as it is popularly known, was a reaction against a perceived increase in film of promiscuity, sexual innuendo, glorification of criminals, and other displays of what was judged to be immoral.

Having first opened its doors during this fascinating era, the 1928 Capitol Theatre could not be a more apt venue for the exhibition and study of this early cinematic history.  This year’s Capitolfest included a five-film focus on the now mostly forgotten Academy Award nominated actress, Nancy Carroll.  Among these films was “The Devil’s Holiday,” the 1930 movie that earned Carroll the Academy’s notice, yet 1932’s “Under-Cover Man,” is arguably the best of the five to showcase her talent.  Playing opposite the young and magnificent George Raft in one of his first starring roles, Carroll (as Lora Madigan) joins Raft (Nick Darrow) undercover in an attempt to discover who killed Nick’s father, and possibly also, Lora’s brother.

Also of interest was “Illusion” (1929) starring Carroll and Charles “Buddy” Rogers as a pair of circus-trained magicians (she’s Claire, a mentalist, and he’s Carlee, the duo’s front man) who are looked down upon among the high society types that the latter attempts to pass as.  In one particularly strong scene, a humiliated Carlee taunts the Socialites (who have hired a circus, complete with sideshow tent), barkering “We can’t show you all of the freaks now, but there’ll be lots more inside when you go in.”

This film also supplies one with evidence of the in-your-face innuendo that the Code was created to address, such as this exchange between Carlee and his Socialite love interest, Hilda (June Collyer):

Hilda: [pulling herself close to Carlee] Would you like ME to read your mind?

Carlee: [looking at her suggestively] Can you read it NOW?

Hilda: Ask me something HARDER.

Another festival highlight included 1928’s “Ramona,” an oft-filmed story of racial injustice starring internationally popular Mexican actress, Dolores del Rio (“the female Valentino”).  Tragically, as part of a post-screening discussion, the audience learned that the character of Ramona was based on a real Native American woman whose husband was famously murdered by a white man who was judged not guilty of the crime, and that both this woman, and the killer, later toured as themselves in a traveling carnival.

“Blue Jeans” (1917) is also of interest; at nearly 100 years old, it already attempts to cast conservatives as wholesome, honest and square, while suggesting that liberals are conniving lowlifes attempting to buy elections via the promise of handouts.  Further, a liberal politician who – as a landlord – unjustly evicts a young woman, later secures her boyfriend (the conservative politician) to a moving platform in a saw mill, and then turns on the saw, thus establishing two of the elements that came to be associated with cliché melodrama.  If only someone had also been tied to railroad tracks!

Finally, special mention must be made of the festival’s final film, “Dixie Flyer” from 1926.  This film focused on greed-driven efforts to stir up a labor dispute, and features some terrific stunts in, around, and on top of moving trains.  Actress Eva Novak, who previously achieved fame as love interest to cowboy Tom Mix in as many as 10 films, really impresses here, seemingly performing all of her own stunts.

Capitolfest was presented from August 7-9 in Rome, N.Y.  For further information, go to