Our first delight of the festival came early. Betty Compson plays a canny conwoman who finds herself outwitted by the even cannier Raymond Griffith. The two are soon in competition to con a wealthy family out of a fabled diamond necklace, resulting in some very funny gags as they attend a fancy party, attempting to distract the family and each other, in order to make the theft. Eventually joining forces, they make a break for the Mexican border, and thus follows a prolonged, hilarious chase through all of Southern California! The story wraps up nicely enough without the missing final reel, although I understand that it has deprived us of a terrific final gag. Keep searching your attic!
$20 A WEEK (1924)
A wealthy industrialist (George Arliss) challenges his spendthrift son (a young and under-used Ronald Colman) to a bet in which they both agree to live on $20 a week. The comic possibilities of this scenario are abandoned in favour of complicated plot which has an incognito Arliss investigating criminal misbehaviour in the rival Reeves steel company, and a dullish subplot about Reeves’ flighty socialite daughter (Edith Roberts) adopting a child. Performances are good and the film itself is OK, but you get the impression it all worked better onstage.
ALMOST A LADY (1926)
Marie Prevost stars in this fun and frothy comedy as a fashion model who is talked into posing as a famous lady novellist as a favour to her boss’s ditzy nouveau riche wife (Trixie Friganza), who hopes to impress a visiting Duke. Little does she know that the handsome stranger (Harrison Ford) is no Duke but a fellow victim of mistaken identity. Friganza is always fun, Prevost looks beautiful in her many close-ups, and the setting allows for a number of gorgeous Art Deco costumes - one of which Prevost ends up losing piece by piece, in the film’s funniest sequence.
BEHIND THE SCENES (1914)
Pickford is a rising stage actress who marries a homebody (James Kirkwood). Just as she receives her big break, he demands that she give up her career in favour of life on the farm. She must decide between her husband and the career that she loves, and in choosing one, she comes to learn the value of the other. Arguably, there is a feminist message struggling to get out, but only arguably. The story is clear, the characterisations good, and the stage scenes interestingly rendered - and yet the film still lacked a certain something.
A few people I spoke to felt that the projection speed was a mite slow, an adjustment that might have made this as enjoyable as it felt it should have been.
Betty Compson is Belle Starr, a Southern renegade whose hatred of the North has transformed her into the feared leader of the meanest bunch of bandits in the land. Northerner Jack Holt manages to infiltrate her gang in an attempt to end her thieving ways, but finds her stealing his heart instead. With a plot like that, this should have been far more exciting than it is, and we know Compson is capable of much more than sitting around looking noble and troubled. Still, as a rare document of Columbia’s transition from the corned-beef-and-cabbage days to major player it remains of interest, and there are moments of inspiration in the cinematography.
The intertitles were a peculiar mishmash of English and Czech, but enough could be understood to easily follow the story.
IF I WERE KING (1920)
This intertitle-heavy historical drama had its moments, but might have been a reel or two shorter. William Farnum plays Francois Villon, a romantic Robin Hood figure who is championing a rebellion against King Louis XI (Fritz Leiber, in an outrageously over-the-top performance). It is not until the fourth reel that the central conceit is revealed when, in an elaborate ruse, the King tricks Francois into spending a week believing he has become the leader of France. As a rare surviving feature by director J. Gordon Edwards, it does give us some impression of what his numerous lost Theda Bara historical epics might have been like.
Source: The Theatre (Australia), 1 January 1922
EAST IS WEST (1922)
Constance Talmadge plays Ming Toy, the daughter of a large Chinese family, who is constantly haunted by the prospect of being sold into marriage. Instead, she is adopted by kindly young missionary Billy Benson (Edward Burns) and brought to San Francisco. While she becomes fascinated by the local taste for jazz and chewing gum, Benson becomes fascinated by her. It’s not until she’s pursued for marriage by the sleazy Charlie Yong (Walter Oland) that matters come to a head.
There really isn’t much more to this than Connie dancing around making cute quips and looking adorable in her Chinese pyjamas, and certainly no grand statements about race aside from a rather cringe-worthy pronouncement that sits uneasily with the film’s ostensible message that ‘East or West, we’re all the same inside’. Some original reviews for the film were surprisingly lukewarm, and I find myself agreeing with them. It’s very pretty but doesn’t add up to much.
There is some significant damage to the first reel, and a few missing scenes towards the end are filled in by intertitles in this high quality restoration from EYE. San Franciscans will love the shots of old Chinatown.
KENTUCKY PRIDE (1925)
The tone of this heartwarming horse racing yarn becomes clear early on, when the horses receive top billing over the humans, and the narration comes from the horsey hero herself, Virginia’s Future. Stud owner H.B. Walthall’s kindly nature masks a gambling problem, plans for her glittering career as a racehorse go awry, and Virginia’s Future finds herself tossed out into a sometimes cruel world. Ford measures out the pathos in careful doses, and before you know it, you’re highly involved in her rousing story. Gertrude Astor is appropriately mean as Walthall’s gold-digging wife, while J. Farrell Macdonald doesn’t overdo the 'Typically Oirish’ in his role as a stablehand turned police officer. Good clean fun.
TRAVELLIN’ ON (1922)
This subdued Western tells the tale of 'Travellin’ On’, an archetypal William S. Hart Good Bad Man, who travels into town believing in nobody but himself - until he meets the wife of a weak-willed preacher whom the ornery locals are determined to run out of town. The film looks beautiful, thanks to quality art direction and unusual chiaroscuro lighting, and Hart’s fine-grained focus on grey morality is intriguing, but the pace is rather leisurely, and much like the film itself, Jon Mirsalis’ score tended to walk when it could have done with the occasional trot or canter. The third reel is missing, but the lack of a driving plot made the gap imperceptible.
THE ETERNAL GRIND (1916)
There was some doubt as to whether we’d get to see this fragment, as the video was late in arriving, but I’m very glad we did. It proved an unusual vehicle for Mary Pickford, and an appropriate film with which to celebrate Labor Day.
Pickford is an impoverished New York garment worker supporting her two sisters - one a flirt, the other chronically ill. John Bowers, the compassionate son of the plant’s harsh owner, chooses to experience the sweatshop conditions firsthand, where he takes a shine to Mary. Meanwhile his dastardly brother is leading the flirt up the garden path, and the third sister’s condition is worsening. The surviving footage concludes about two thirds of the way through the story.
Bob Birchard valiantly stepped in to provide a running translation of the French intertitles, but the lengthy concluding crawl defeated us all, leaving the ending a mystery (Moving Picture World’s review provides some elucidation). In addition to the evocatively realised clothing factory and tenements, there are some great early shots of New York.
Source: Internet Movie Database
THE WICKED DARLING (1919)
Guttersnipe Mary Stevens (Priscilla Dean) and her friend 'Stoop’ (Lon Chaney) are petty street thieves. After stealing a pearl necklace from a socialite (Gertrude Astor), Mary is befriended by the deb’s rejected fiancé Kent (Wellington Playter). She finds herself transformed by his compassion and belief in her innocence, and sets about changing her ways. Can their love survive Kent’s discovery of her past transgression, and 'Stoop’s jealousy?
Though it does mark Lon Chaney’s first appearance under the direction of Tod Browning, this film really belongs to Priscilla Dean, who is entirely convincing as the diamond-in-the-rough Mary. Photoplay’s typically high quality restoration made the best of a damaged source print and filled in some short missing scenes with explanatory titles. To my mind, the best silent of the weekend.
BRONCHO BILLY AND THE BANDIT’S SECRET (2013)
This sweet modern silent, put together by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum to commemorate the centenary of Essanay’s arrival at Niles, finds Bronco Billy (Bruce Cates) seeking inspiration in the exploits of a local criminal gang for his latest film. Cates and Christopher Green Goodwin (The Sheriff) will have a long future in silents if they should so desire it, and a guest appearance by Diana Serra Cary surely boosted that good lady into the Guinness Book of Records. Nice work.
Cinecon 2014 - The Talkie Features
Source: Internet Movie Database
HOLD THAT BLONDE! (1945)
A so-so screwball remake of Paths to Paradise (1925), seen earlier in the weekend. There’s no grey morality here - the suave Raymond Griffith is replaced by the less attractive Eddie Bracken, a dim-witted clinical kleptomaniac who has been prescribed a good marriage as his cure, while Veronica Lake, playing an equally Code-neuteured analogue of Betty Compson’s character, has been tricked into a life of crime via blackmail. Little of the earlier scenario is retained aside from a few isolated gags and the central idea of the theft of a diamond necklace. A lengthy Harold Lloyd style thrill sequence was received with nary a titter, an essay on what works wonderfully in a silent, but just seems vaguely sadistic in a talking picture.
THE BARONESS AND THE BUTLER (1938)
William Powell made a brief sojourn from MGM to 20th Century Fox to launch the American career of Frenchwoman Annabella in this enjoyable curiosity. Powell plays William Porok, butler to the conservative Prime Minister of Hungary (Henry Stephenson), who is unexpectedly elevated to Parliament for a progressive party that opposes everything his master stands for.
Powell must juggle his commitments to the Parliament and the family - and deal with his feelings for their beautiful but spoilt daughter (Annabella). Ironically, the weak link is Annabella herself, who might better have been introduced via a smaller role. Her accent is sometimes hard to understand, and it’s rather incongruous coming from the daughter of an American and Englishman, but it’s a small quibble.
BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN (1940)
This is the sort of film Cinecon does so well - well produced, shamelessly and relentlessly entertaining, very much of its time, and unjustly forgotten. Jack Benny plays radio star Jack Benny, later assuming the self consciously faux-Western persona of Buck Benny as he pursues the lovely but unwilling Joan Cameron (Ellen Drew), a member of the singing Cameron trio, who are working at a fancy desert resort. Benny lets a number of fellow radio stars share in the fun, including Phil Harris and Dennis Day, but it’s Benny’s butler, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson who almost steals the show, particularly when he pairs with Theresa Harris in a great song and dance number. Unrelenting fun.
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE DIVORCE (1942)
This battle of the sexes comedy begins well, with sparkling dialogue and funny situations reminiscent of last year’s wonderful Suddenly It’s Spring, whose plot it superficially resembles. Chauvinist George (Joseph Allen) becomes bothered by his hyper-competent wife Lynn (Lynn Bari). Literally bumping in to the helplessly feminine Lola (Mary Beth Hughes), he finds her subservience more to his liking. The film skids off the rails when Lynn’s new musician lover (Nils Asther, in an all-too-brief cameo), is dispatched for the sake of a rather nasty plot point, which both sides seize upon to further their agendas. Had this incident been better integrated, it would have made for a much better film - though this does not change the baffling matter of why Bari’s character works so hard to win back a husband who remains a complete oaf.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)
Billy Wilder’s courtroom drama not only remains a knockout, but a masterpiece of casting. Each suspect has exactly the right kind of ambiguity for their character - Marlene Dietrich’s mix of ice and fire for Christine; the earnest and yet evasive Leonard (Tyrone Power), while the mighty Charles Laughton anchors the film as the blustery barrister Sir Wilfred, with wife Elsa Lanchester in able comic support. In accordance with the concluding voiceover, I will not divulge the plot, except to say that if you’ve never caught the film and want to see a master at work, find a copy immediately. Ruta Lee, who played a minor role, was in attendance, and had some funny recollections about working with Laughton.
A LITTLE BIT OF HEAVEN (1940)
Young Midge (Gloria Jean, Universal’s intended replacement for Deanna Durbin) is the beloved daughter of a hardscrabble extended family with a big heart. When she crashes a live radio broadcast and proves a hit with the listeners, she’s signed to a contract and the family’s luck changes. Soon, they’re living in a huge mansion with fancy new friends, but Midge begins to suspect that fame and fortune aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. On the basis of Jean’s performance, it’s hard to see why she did not go further, except to say that she occasionally comes across as a little too polished and homogenous. The supporting cast is good, and features Billy Gilbert as comic relief. Of particular interest is Midge’s large coterie of uncles, almost all of whom are played by silent era veterans, including Charles Ray, Maurice Costello, Monte Blue, William Desmond and Noah Beery Sr.
Source: Internet Movie Database
HUMAN CARGO (1936)
I’ve enjoyed the Claire Trevor/Allan Dwan films of the late 30s that have been shown in previous years, and this one did not disappoint - a slam dunk as the best talkie of the festival. Claire Trevor plays a fast-talking society dame who wants a leg-up in the newspaper game. She receives one when she gets a lead on a human trafficking racket, much to the annoyance her rival, ace newspaperman Packy Campbell (Brian Donlevy). The two go undercover and form an uneasy alliance in an attempt to identify the ringleader, stumbling into further danger. Donlevy and Trevor are terrific, an attractive brunette named Rita Cansino shows promise in her short role as a nightclub dancer, but Helen Troy, as a switchboard operator-cum-Greek chorus, almost steals the show. The film whizzes by at a whirlwind clip. Thoroughly entertaining.
MEET ME IN ST LOUIS (1944)
Seeing this perennial favourite on the big screen was treat enough, but to see it in a jaw-droopingly gorgeous new million-dollar restoration was a knockout. The story probably needs no introduction - in any case, it’s one of those films you watch less for the narrative and more to become enveloped in the atmosphere, and this screening only served to remind us of Vincente Minnelli’s mastery on that score. Margaret O'Brien’s post-screening Q&A was quite brief, but contained some insights about performing with Judy Garland. ALWAYS IN TROUBLE (1938)
In this very silly farce, Jane Withers plays the daughter of a newly wealthy family, whose madcap schemes to help out her exhausted Papa see the family and a bewildered interloper stranded on a desert island, tangling with opportunistic crooks, and caught up in a fake kidnapping plot. I suspect that even the kiddies at the Saturday matinee for whom this was designed would have considered it pretty thin stuff.
ONE NIGHT OF LOVE (1934)
Anyone who has read Bob Thomas’ King Cohn will know this film by reputation, with reports of star Grace Moore’s capricious behaviour and fractious relationship with Harry Cohn. There is little trace of these tensions in the completed film, the tale of an aspiring opera star who rises to fame under a prickly Svengali, Monteverdi (Tullio Carminati).
Moore sings beautifully and looks lovely, despite being saddled with some pretty ghastly costumes, and I’m always interested to spot Mona Barrie, whose career began in Australia. The film risks wearing out its welcome as Moore ping-pongs between Monteverdi and the boy-next-door Bill (Lyle Talbot) but the lengthy excerpts from Carmen and Madame Butterfly are a highlight, and there is ultimately much to enjoy about this glossy production.
Cinecon 2014 - The Shorts
Source: Internet Movie Database
VITAPHONE FROLIC (1937)
This short gives the audience a front row ticket to a typical vaudeville show of the era. A peculiar act in which a very flexible man dressed as a life-sized golliwog allows himself to be thrown around like a rag doll is the most memorable of the four acts on display.
BRIDE AND GLOOM (1921)
A great Monty Banks comedy which I found much superior to The Covered Schooner, which we saw at Cinecon in 2012. Monty must scrape together $5,000 to marry his wealthy lady love, so he takes out a personal injury insurance policy. Unlike our typical silent comedy hero, he’s trying his hardest to get hurt - but failing miserably! A cute ending makes Sherlock Jr style fun of the standard fade-out of the time. Good shots of early Los Angeles no doubt provided John Bengston with some homework.
KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE (1914)
It’s only moderately funny, but the fascination here is in seeing ordinary people watching Charlie Chaplin as a complete stranger for the first and last time. In its restored state, the revelation is all the greater. The picture is so sharp that it’s hard to believe that a week has passed since it was filmed, much less a century.
THEIR FIRST MISUNDERSTANDING (1911)
Mary Pickford and real life husband Owen Moore play a newly married but jealous couple who find various ways to rib one another before finally reconciling. Sensationally discovered in an old barn in 2011, it’s unremarkable as a film but intriguing as a historical document. Given that Pickford credited herself with the scenario, you wonder if she already suspected her marriage to Moore would not be smooth sailing. Director Thomas Ince and an unrecognisable Ben Turpin appear as extras, but the real eye-opener was seeing Little Mary pretend to smoke a cigarette!
THE ADVENTURER (1917)
The Adventurer provides a succinct summary of Chaplin’s acrobatics, with which we’re all so familiar - but the restoration allows us also to see the nuances for the very first time. Several times, I spotted Chaplin flick the audience the merest glance as he works his way further into trouble, as if to say ‘Ahem. Bear with me, now …’ To me, the Mutuals remain the purest expression of what Chaplin did best, and kudos once again to all who were involved in their restoration.
In a longer-than-expected break in the program, we had the surprise treat of MOTHER GOOSE IN SWINGTIME (1939), a short of the Mickey’s Gala Premiere celebrity spoof genre which looked great on the big screen in full Technicolor.
SNAPPY SNEEZER (1929)
This is a good example of a short that would have been perfectly charming as a silent, but sometimes feels a little clunky as a talkie, despite the presence of the always likeable Charley Chase. Charley’s got problems with hay fever, and the man he sneezed all over on the streetcar turns out to be the father of the girl he wants to date (Thelma Todd). Needless to say, things don’t go smoothly, as Thelma’s driving lesson turns into a literal roller coaster ride.
This hoot-worthy Laurel and Hardy short has the boys, told by a court to beat it after being charged with vagrancy for sleeping in a park, befriend a wealthy drunk who invites them home. The trouble is, it’s not his home, and the blonde they accidentally get drunk is not his wife!
THE MASQUERADER (1914)
Chaplin plays a rejected actor who attempts to trick his director into giving him another role by returning to set dressed as a flirtatious actress. The main interest in this short is glimpses of the real-life Keystone studio in action. That, and contemplating that Chaplin makes a disturbingly attractive woman.
Cinecon 2014 - Special Programs
Silent locations guru John Bengtson leads a tour group through Hollywood's back streets. Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
JOHN BENGSTON SPECIAL PROGRAM
John once again earned his title as ‘the Kevin Brownlow of film locations’ in this program, which focused on locations at Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, the Pacific Palisades, Chinatown and our favourite Cahuenga Boulevard. Not being as blazingly hot as last year, a large and enthusiastic group accompanied John on his tour of the area around Cahuenga, including descendants of both Harold Lloyd and Chaplin’s cinematographer, Rolly Totheroth. We no doubt baffled onlookers as to our fascination for apparently nondescript alleyways which, as we now know, are parts of cinema history. The picture above shows John standing on the exact corner that Mary Pickford is seen peeking around in the wartime charity short, 100% American (1918).
SILENT SERIAL PROGRAM Silent serials remain a blank spot for many film fans, but Ed Hulse, author of the recently released Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders, aimed to change that, dispelling a number of myths about their production and marketing, and discussing the career of serial queen Ruth Roland. A Pathé promotional reel encouraging showmen to purchase their latest serial, Hands Up!, was of particular interest, while Episode One of The Timber Queen left us on a cliffhanger, as Ruth Roland careened through timber country on the back of a runaway train. It’s a fascinating new area for exploration, and I hope to see some more of these serials in future years.
Earlier in the weekend, were also treated to THE ADVENTURES OF TARZAN, Chapter 3 - 'The Flames of Hate’ Here, we meet a stockier and darker Tarzan (Elmo Lincoln) than the ones we’re used to. Was it an 'electrifying chapter’, as the poster boasts? Perhaps not, but the average cinemagoer would have got a real kick out of observing the menagerie of exotic animals and the concluding sequence of a jungle fire, which is tinted a vivid and effective red.