Over the Labor Day weekend I attended the annual Cinecon Classic Film festival at Graumans Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, California for the first time. Fans of classic film have been gathering for 48 years to view rare and unusual silents, talkies and shorts, some of which have not seen the light of day since their initial release. It’s also a great opportunity to meet other fans of early film, as well as the people who work so hard behind the scenes to find and restore these pictures, and also several actors and directors who worked in that era.
We gathered under the Egyptian’s wonderful 1922 ceiling to view over 40 different programmes, all of them interesting and many of them plain wonderful!
Cinecon 2012 - The Silent Features
Source: Exhibitor's Herald, 14 February 1920
DRUMS OF JEOPARDY (1923)
If you’re prepared to take the supernatural elements with a huge grain of salt, this is an enjoyable hunk of cheese. Wallace Beery is a leering Russian aristocrat pursuing two valuable but cursed emeralds known as the Drums of Jeopardy. Jack Mulhall is effective as the hero who helps retrieve the gems for the good guys, but he goes missing for most of the film. There’s some nice expressionistic camerawork in the later scenes, and some eye-popping costumes for heroine Elaine Hammerstein and Maude George, as Beery’s vampy accomplice.
DOLLARS AND SENSE (1920)
Out-of-luck chorus girl Madge Kennedy finds a job with a kindly baker (Kenneth Harlan), whose philanthropic zeal threatens to destroy his business. There are no surprises in the plot, but Kennedy is cute as a button. Though a big star of stage and screen in the 1910s and 20s, very few of her pictures survive, and this one gives at least some impression of why she was so beloved. Introduced with a sweet personal reminiscence of Kennedy in later life; she sounded like a real card.
WILD BILL HICKOCK (1923)
Neither Hart nor the plot resemble anything from history; even Hart admits as much in a humorous disclaimer. This Hickock is a reluctant gunfighter and a softie at heart; in fact, not very ‘wild’ at all. Ethel Terry Grey’s Calamity Jane is also disappointingly subdued. Perhaps the charismatic Hart could not bring himself to play the bad guy, but it’s an odd artistic decision which neuters what should be an action-packed scenario. It was shot around Hart’s own rural property, which is open to the public today.
SENSATION SEEKERS (1927)
Gorgeous Billie Dove plays party girl 'Egypt’ Hagan in this picture directed by Lois Weber. After being caught up in a speakeasy raid, she becomes disillusioned with hedonism and is attracted to a pure-minded young preacher (Raymond Bloomer), who feels the same way about her. Can she be a preacher’s wife? I didn’t begrudge Dove becoming good, but I would have liked to see a little more of her being bad! It sags in the middle and ran about 15 minutes long, but a well-realised shipwreck sequence at the conclusion makes up for it, and Dove herself is terrific.
BLONDE OR BRUNETTE (1927)
Featherlight Paramount comedy has diplomat Adolphe Menjou, sick of fast-living city girls, marrying innocent small-town blonde Greta Nissen, much to the disappointment of lovelorn brunette Arlette Marchou. Greta learns to be a jazz brat while Menjou’s on assignment, and he reluctantly takes up with Arlette instead. The plot thickens when the three go to stay with Greta’s fragile granny and try to keep the switcheroo under wraps. Unremarkable but enjoyable fluff, with some nice costumes for Frenchwoman Marchou.
HOT WATER (1924)
Harold Lloyd is a put-upon family man who takes his clan out in his brand new car, with disastrous results. This session was a great reminder of two things - one, that when it comes to laughs-per-foot, Lloyd really is the king. Two, crowds are where his pictures come to life. Gag expertly builds upon gag; the laughter sets off a chain reaction, and you’re literally rolling in the aisles. It’s something that can’t be replicated at home, and thus, so wonderful to see it on the big screen. Frederick Hodges’ accompaniment was particularly good.
THE GOOSE WOMAN (1925)
Louise Dressler plays the anti-Stella Dallas, a former opera singer turned shambolic drunk who resents her son (Jack Pickford) for ending her career. She returns to the limelight when a murder is committed near her property - but will she sacrifice her son’s freedom for fame? Terrific performance by Dressler, and probably the most sympathetic role Jack Pickford ever had. Interesting also to see a very young Constance Bennett as Jack’s sweetheart.
There was an effective choice in the accompaniment, which had a genuine phonograph recording play when Dressler listens to a recording of her own voice.
I’m a big fan of the backstage genre, and this one didn’t disappoint. Eric Brashingham (Earle Foxe) is the weakest link in a Barrymoresque theatrical family. He finally makes his big break when he’s asked to play Hamlet, but forgets the little people who got him there. Foxe is good but this is really an ensemble picture; director John Ford - many years before his masculine cowboy epics - does a great job creating the atmosphere of the impoverished theatre boarding house and its denizens. Nancy Nash is adorable as the actress he leaves behind, a shame she appears not to have done much else. My only quibble is that the ending seemed a little abrupt, and I would have liked to see Brashingham receive a harsher comeupance.
THE BEDROOM WINDOW (1924)
This starts slowly, but the minute the wonderful Ethel Wales appears, it’s a delight. Wales is feisty crime-writer Matilda Jones (aka Rufus Roms) who decides a sloppy police investigation into her brother-in-law’s murder warrants some amateur sleuthing. Its central mystery is cleverly plotted and well directed by William de Mille. The supporting cast, including May McAvoy and Ricardo Cortez, are fine, but this is Wales’ movie, and you can easily have imagined it becoming the beginning of a series. Pure entertainment and for me, the most enjoyable film of the festival.
THE CIRCUS MAN (1914)
More visually interesting than the average 1914 film and with a quite modern-looking credit sequence, this was, for the first two thirds, a moderately satisfying tale of a man who hides out in a circus after being wrongly accused of murder. The plot veers off wildly in the final third, and I don’t know anyone who was able to follow it to the end. Acting is reasonably naturalistic for the time, with the exception of two outrageously mugging villains.
THE BLUFF (1915)
Strange little tale of two wacky Dutchmen (vaudeville team Clarence Kolb and Max Dill) who convince a young investor that they have the chemical formula for producing gold. Knowing that the formula is rubbish, the three bluff their way to the top, before finding out that they have in fact stumbled upon the priceless formula for puncture-proof rubber. I know Kolb and Dill were well regarded in their time, but I didn’t find this essential viewing, though the illustrated title cards were a nice touch.
LADIES NIGHT IN A TURKISH BATH (1928)
Rivetter Jack Mulhall is in love with Dorothy Mackaill, whose long-suffering father and neurotic mother (James Finlayson and Sylvia Ashton) move uptown, only to find anxiety where they expected to find a better class of son-in-law. As the title suggests, there are a lot of risque elements, with Mulhall’s pal Guinn 'Big Boy’ Williams sprung by a policeman who spots him putting on a pansy act to tease Mulhall (“Hello, Sweetheart!” he later greets him), a riotous visit to a strip club which culminates in Mulhall and Finlayson crashing the Turkish Bath of the title, and the aged Ashton hilariously accused of being a hooch dancer! A great all-round cast, and Edward Cline’s direction betrays all the pep we know from his work with Buster Keaton. Lots of fun.
Cinecon 2012 - The Silent Shorts
Photo by Camille Scaysbrook
YOU’RE NEXT (1919)
Wonderfully surreal short from the little-known comic Marcel Perez. Kicked out of home, he sets up house in the middle of the street and later, in a jail cell. He helps a pretty fellow evictee find a career in movies, and there’s a great chase through the studio and onto the sets of various pictures being shot there. I’d love to see more of the acrobatic Perez, and early glimpses of movie sets are always welcome.
BILLY AND HIS PAL (1910)
Rather peculiar early short has an obviously female Edith Storey playing a young male cowpoke who rescues his pal from bandits. The recently restored print looked great for a century-old picture. Film historian Frank Thompson, whose excellent The Commentary Track podcast is well worth checking out if you haven’t done so already, is to be congratulated for stumping up the money for this restoration.
THE COVERED SCHOONER (1923)
Mildly entertaining short starring forgotten comic Monty Banks. Interesting for a brief sequence of early animation
MACK SENNETT CENTENNIAL TRIBUTE
This was preceded by Joe Rinaudo’s new restoration of the enjoyable The Hollywood Kid, elements of which have appeared in many compilations but much of which is long unseen and has been compiled from various different sources. Presumably based on the rise of Jackie Coogan, it tells the tale of a young mite who is elevated to movie fame, and his starstruck parents who come along for the ride. There are fascinating glimpses of Sennett’s own studio, including the rotating cyclorama used to film chase scenes.
The program continued with a small sampling of Paul Gierucki’s mighty centennial restoration project, which will see all of Sennett’s extant films re-released.
Though it was exciting to see restored shorts, including Mabel Normand's A Dash Through the Clouds, A Fishy Affair, Bangville Police and Syd Chaplin's The Submarine Pirate - which proved that Syd was almost the match of his brother when it came to physical comedy - the undoubted highlight was some out-take footage, including Mabel Normand attempting several high dives, a coterie of Bathing Girls squealing as they rush into a cold surf, and Keystone personnel making an appearance at a pageant at Venice Beach. Amazing stuff!
Some of these out-takes will be featured in the upcoming Mack Sennett Centenary Box Set, which I believe is being released later in the year. TCM is also featuring the restored pictures every Thursday for the next few months. I’m particularly looking forward to the restoration of Sennett’s 1918 feature, Mickey, which I’m proud to say I provided a teeny tiny amount of assistance on.
I headed over to Echo Park, where many of these early shorts were shot, but alas it is a pile of dirt at the moment; the lake is being dredged, and there are no park benches at which Chaplinesque antics can be pictured. Visiting the steps used by Laurel and Hardy in their classic short ‘The Music Box’ (1932) provided some consolation.
Cinecon 2012 - The Talkie Features
Source: Internet Movie Database
ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID (1943)
A cobweb-thin plot has the Andrews Sisters starring on a lonely hearts radio program, and Patric Knowles and Grace Macdonald as dueling private investigators intent on rooting out scheisters taking advantage of rich lonelyhearts. A cute scene in which Knowles’ romantic declaration to Macdonald is repeatedly interrupted by a parade of oddballs in a city park shows how this could have been lifted out of B territory. The Jivin’ Jacks and Jills appear at random intervals to provide some jitterbugging relief.
15 MAIDEN LANE (1936)
A comedy-cum-drama-cum-thriller about good girl (or is she?) Claire Trevor and charming jewel thief (or is he?) Cesar Romero. Implicated in a jewel robbery, Claire decides to do some of her own detective work (or does she?) but proves so talented at the art of theft that the besotted (or is he?) Romero takes her on as an accomplice (or does he?) I think I’ve given some impression of the twisty-turny nature of the picture. The changes in tone from screwball to crime drama are deftly handled by Allan Dwan, who brings it all to a satisfying ending. Romero and Trevor both do great work.
DANGEROUS TO KNOW (1938)
A highlight of the festival. The complex tale of Stephen Recka (Akim Tamiroff), a corrupt city official whose brutality defies a love of music and poetry. The enigmatic Lan Ying (Anna May Wong) is described as his ‘hostess’, but their relationship clearly has a long, storied history. Recka becomes infatuated with a pretty socialite (Gail Patrick) whom he believes can bring him the old-money respectability he craves, and will stop at nothing to win her. Lan Ying, the only one who can still love what was once beautiful about the monstrous Recka, forms a devastating plan to bring him to justice. A beautifully subtle performance from Wong, who looks gorgeous; and noirish camerawork.
GENTLE JULIA (1936)
If you like Jane Withers, you’ll like this film, which gives the strong impression that huge swathes of plot development were swept aside to incorporate extra Withers antics. What slender story remains is the pleasant tale of small-town belle Julia (an appealing Marsha Hunt), torn between a rich newspaperman and hapless local boy Noble Dill (a nice performance from Tom Brown). Hunt and Withers were both in attendance - quite amazing for a film from 1936!
Source: Internet Movie Database
DIAMOND JIM (1935)
The lengthy opening scroll made me fear a plodding biopic, but with a script by Preston Sturges, I need not have worried. Anyone else might have tried to iron out the idiosyncrasies of the maverick self-made millionaire industrialist’s life, but for Sturges, they’re the whole story, and as the saying goes, if he didn’t exist, Sturges probably would have invented him. Edward Arnold invests Gilded Age icon 'Diamond Jim’ Brady with just the right mixture of naive ambition, nous and blind enthusiasm, while a decision to have Jean Arthur play both Jim’s first and last loves is slightly odd but ultimately not too distracting. The accumulative effect is quite powerful, and this became one of my favourites of the festival.
WAY OUT WEST (1937) - This Laurel and Hardy classic is familiar to most, but it was an absolute treat to see the boys in a beautiful looking print (restored in 2007) and before an appreciative crowd. UCLA are currently working on a project to restore all of Laurel and Hardy’s features, so there will be plenty more to come for fans in the next few years.
HIPS, HIPS, HOORAY! (1934) - Plenty to like for Wheeler and Woolsey fans, and for everyone else there’s naughty Pre-Code humor, gorgeous 1930s costumes, scantily clad chorus girls, a funny faux-ballet sequence with Thelma Todd hamming it up, plus I’ve STILL got that damn catchy theme song stuck in my head. Keep on, doin’ what you’re doin’ … it’s kept on doing it all right! Like the other comedies, this one went over wonderfully with the crowd.
FEARLESS FAGAN (1952) - Read over the plot and it sounds like pure B-material. Following a true story, naive circus boy Floyd (Carleton Carpenter) is drafted into the army, but cannot bear to leave his only friend in the world, Fearless Fagan, the lion he has reared from birth. He smuggles Fagan onto the barracks, but after his cover is blown by a visiting actress (Janet Leigh) he realises the situation can’t continue, and has to decide how to make the best life for the lion.
Carpenter’s sincere performance and Stanley Donen’s sensitive direction ensure a potentially absurd story remains touching and real without ever straying into treacly sentiment or silliness. It just shows how material is rewarded by quality personnel, and I enjoyed this a great deal.
Carleton Carpenter gave an entertaining Q&A afterwards about working with the lion (actually a lioness in 'drag’!) and the real man on which the story was based. I had no idea Carpenter was so multi-talented - at 86, he is still appearing onstage in New York, is a published author, a songwriter, and librettist.
HELLO, EVERYBODY! (1933) - A very loose retelling of singer Kate Smith’s rise to fame is wrapped around a stock standard saving-the-farm tale, with Sally Blane and Randolph Scott providing romantic interest. You forget all of that as soon as Smith first opens her mouth to sing, which does not happen until quite a while into the picture. Though she has a cheerful screen presence, Smith was no actor, and I can understand why she stuck to radio.
SHE WANTED A MILLIONAIRE (1932) - Dewy beauty contest winner Joan Bennett marries millionaire pageant judge Roger Norton (James Kirkwood) in order to support her family. A standard Pre-Code? Not for long. All of a sudden we’re in a Universal horror film, complete with lightning-struck castle, crazed caretaker (a shell-shocked former monk) and a depraved husband who wants to literally throw Joan to the dogs! A very young Spencer Tracy appears as the poor railwayman whom Joan really loves, and Una Merkel as a sassy journalist gets the best lines. Enjoyably weird.
Cinecon 2013 - The Talkie Shorts
Photo by Camille Scaysbrook
GROOVIE MOVIE (1944) Fun Pete Smith dance how-to short, featuring some high-energy jiving by Jean Veloz (pictured) who was in attendance and, at 88, is still jitterbugging! Go Jean
ARTISTRY IN RHYTHM (1944)
Stan Kenton musical short distinguished by two gutsy numbers from Anita O'Day, and Kenton’s gorgeous Art Deco piano.
JUST AROUND THE CORNER (1934)
General Electric advertising short which has a young Bette Davis gritting her teeth and pretending to like housework. Interesting glimpses of time-saving appliances of the day. Who knew they had electric dishwashers in 1934? Joan Blondell also makes a brief appearance.
Photo by Camille Scaysbrook
BACKSTAGE ON BROADWAY (1930)
A few cute music numbers and an appearance from George Gershwin in this musical short, but unfortunately, a much-mooted glimpse of Fred and Adele Astaire dancing together was a disappointment. They were part of a three-person kickline shot from the side. If Fred didn’t have such a distinctively shaped head, you’d never have picked them.
SCREEN SNAPSHOTS 25TH ANNIVERSARY - REVISITED
The ‘handsomest man in Hollywood’, whose name and handsome face I’ve completely forgotten, takes us on a slightly morbid clip show of early Hollywood. Probably most interesting for showing how these stars were perceived in the 1950s, as relics in which to be only politely interested.
SO YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT JOE McDOAKES
Two hilarious McDoakes shorts opened this session - So You Want To Be Beautiful, and So You Want To Play The Piano. They have a freshness an air of absurdity that have travelled extremely well. A great Q&A followed, with star Phyllis Coates and director Richard L. Bare (pictured), also the brain behind Green Acres and 77 Sunset Strip amongst other productions. The pair, whose brief marriage probably came as news to most, had a terrific chemistry, and Bare is still completely sharp and witty at the age of 99!
HOLLYWOOD ON PARADE (1933)
With shades of The Playhouse, a modern Buster Keaton banters with a 1903 version of himself, the two debating the various merits of their times in some funny doggerel. Lewis Lewyn was the producer of this series, and Marion Mack of The Generalwas his wife and occasional co-writer, so I’m betting this job was a kind favor to a post What, No Beer? Buster - who looks and sounds as good as ever, by the way.
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