West Orange Classic Film Festival returns, with focus on comedy

west orange classic films

Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot.”

Isn’t it time you saw a great movie?

Isn’t it time you had a good laugh?

Well, the West Orange Classic Film Festival is on the way to help you out with both.

Starting on Jan. 30, and running through March 13 at the Essex Green AMC in West Orange, the fest will spotlight six great comedies, starting with the Stephen Sondheim musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Each program comes with a guest speaker, too. (Full disclosure: I will be the host for two films, “Young Frankenstein” on Feb. 27 and “Some Like It Hot” on March 6.)

“After the drama of the last two years, we thought we all needed to laugh a little bit,” says John Chasse, one of the local volunteers who help make the festival happen. “Of course, then we had to sit down and draw up the schedule; comedy is so subjective, if you put 10 people in a room, you’ll get 15 suggestions. But we’re pretty happy with the way it all turned out.”

The lineup includes a few rarities, like the expanded, 197-minute version of the all-star slapstick epic, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” scheduled for Feb. 6. And there will be some familiar, and semi-famous, names among the critics and historians on hand to talk about the pictures; for example, Joe Gilford, son of “Forum” co-star Jack Gilford, will drop by on opening day to answer questions about his father and the film.

“They shot the picture in Spain, but when they got there, sunny Spain was not so sunny,” Gilford says. “It was just weeks of rain. But ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ and all these sword-and-sandal pictures had been shot there, and there were all these Roman sets left over. Still, if you look you can see how cloudy the skies were.”

As Gilford will explain at the screening, there were a few personal rain clouds hanging over the production as well.

From left, Jack Gilford, Buster Keaton and Zero Mostel in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

“Zero Mostel … well, he was a great performer, but he was an impossible person, totally undisciplined,” he says. “He drove my father crazy when they did ‘Forum’ together on Broadway and, I tell you, all these guys held grudges. I used to say, my father got his first hernia from all the grudges he carried! But they’re wonderful together in the film.”

Presented by the West Orange Film Society (part of the West Orange Arts Council), the festival is also co-sponsored this year by the West Orange Recreation Department. This is its 16th lineup, although technically it has been around for 17 years; last year, unfortunately, COVID put everything on hiatus.

This year, however, everyone is eager to get back.

“People are excited about attending again,” Chasse says. “Some folks expressed a little trepidation about being back in a theater — ‘Oh my gosh, there’s COVID, people are going to be laughing, how’s that going to work with masks?’ But mostly there’s a real positive buzz. And of course we’re going to be following all the theater’s protocols on safe attendance.”

The low-key film festival draws upwards of 100 attendees to its afternoon screenings, some of whom bring children, or grandchildren, along for the fun. I’ve been a regular speaker for a half-dozen years, and it’s always an enjoyable afternoon, with lively discussion sessions after the screening and a convenient matinee schedule that gets you home in time for dinner.

The whole homegrown project is a sort of can-do festival, with the presiding local film buffs adding a neighborly touch. The series’ home in West Orange — American cinema’s birthplace, thanks to Thomas Edison — is a nice little extra, too. “We’re very proud of New Jersey’s place in movie history,” Chasse says. “We shout it from the mountaintops.”

Screenings are on Sundays at 2 (except Feb. 13, when they take a break, to avoid competing with the Super Bowl). Tickets are $14. (Other films in the program include the screwball classic “Bringing Up Baby” on Feb. 20, and the Abbott-and-Costello farce “Buck Privates” on March 13.)

Of course, if you’re not a devoted movie fan, you might wonder why you should leave the house to go see a film right now, even a classic comedy. Aren’t all of these movies already on DVD, or streaming somewhere? Couldn’t you stay on your couch and watch them alone, for free?

Sure you could.

Just like you could also watch the Devils on TV, instead of going to Prudential Center. Just like you could play a CD, instead of going to a concert. Just like you could order dinner from Door Dash instead of getting together with friends and going out to a steakhouse.

If we’ve been missing anything in abundance lately, it’s community — and nowhere is there more communal joy than in a movie theater, where we’re all watching, and laughing, together, as Cary Grant chases after a leopard named Baby or Jersey boys Abbott and Costello trot out their classic comedy routines.

“You can sit and watch ‘Young Frankenstein’ by yourself or you can see it in a theater and laugh with people,” Chasse says. “It just enhances the experience. The first time I saw ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on the big screen it was for the festival’s 15th anniversary, and it was everything. Sure, there are other ways you can watch a film. But I’d sure rather see ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ in a theater than on my phone.”

Tickets will be sold via eventbrite.com, and not at the AMC box office. For information, email wofilmsociety@aol.com or join the West Orange Classic Film Festival Facebook page.

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