Doug Fairbanks is even more manic than usual in this extremely entertaining comedy about a city boy driven batty by his obsession over a romanticised version of the Old West. When he’s sent to Arizona to seal a deal for his railroader father, the townspeople plan an elaborate ruse, transforming their prosperous modern town into the frontier settlement of Doug’s dreams, complete with cowpokes, covered wagons, and even a simulated train hold-up. A real-life crook complicates matters, but I think you can guess who sorts them out and wins the girl (Eileen Percy). Certainly one of Doug’s best early efforts.
CALL OF THE WILD (1923)
The great outdoors formed a major theme of this year’s Cinecon, and its majesty was abundantly evident in this adaptation of the Jack London classic. While it is far more faithful to the original tale than 20th Century’s 1935 version, this rendition sometimes struggles to achieve the requisite pathos. The always appealing Jack Mulhall is well cast as canine hero Buck’s most compassionate master, Thornton, but the handling of the animal scenes lack a certain something, and Adam Swanson’s accompaniment was a mite too jaunty for this sombre tale about the thin line between civilisation and savagery.
BLIND HUSBANDS (1919)
Erich von Stroheim’s directorial debut incorporates much of his trademark grotesquerie and a decent level of moral complexity. Von Stroheim plays an unlikely lothario who haunts a luxurious Italian resort, preying on women whose husbands are blind to their need for love and attention. Lovely Francelia Billington looks likely to become his latest victim until her neglectful husband joins von Stroheim in a perilous mountain climbing expedition. Time has dulled its impact somewhat, but in the wake of such misogynistic confections as A Fool There Was (1914), you can see why audiences of 1919 considered the psychological realism of Blind Husbands revolutionary.
Source: Photoplay, January 1929
SYNTHETIC SIN (1929)
Colleen Moore plays an impossibly naive flapper who is convinced of her great dramatic ability. Somehow, she convinces handsome playwright Donald (Antonio Moreno) to give her a major role in his latest play, with predictably dire results. Somehow, she decides that spending time in the seedy end of town will make her a better actress. Somehow, she gets the impression that the sordid events she observes there are a Wild and Woolly-style ruse. Somehow - I honestly can’t remember how - she ends up in the arms of the handsome playwright, and it all ends happily.
When ‘somehow’ is the connective tissue of your plot, you don’t end up with much of a film. Synthetic Sin’s flimsy story leaves too little room for Moore’s charm and too much for her less attractive tendency towards frenetic cutesy-poo. The lovely and perpetually under-used Kathryn Macguire makes a brief appearance, while Antonio Moreno doesn’t make much of an impression as Colleen’s love interest. Frederick Hodges did a good job of recreating the mostly lost Vitaphone score, the one surviving disc of which played over the final reel. It’s an unremarkable exemplar of its period, complete with a repetitive name-of-the-girl theme song which remained lodged in my head for days.
The film certainly looks good and the DCP is top notch, but all of this is wasted on a film that feels maddeningly contrived and, well, synthetic.
BLIND WIVES (1920)
Flighty Estelle Taylor is sending her husband Marc Macdermott broke with her extravagant purchases from fashion designer Harry Southern. After dreaming four different stories about the hard work that goes into the making of an expensive dress, she realises the error of her ways.
Originally (and more accurately) entitled My Lady’s Dress, the film initially errs in dedicating the longest time to the least interesting of the stories, about the feckless fiancee of a silkworm farmer who sells her future in pursuit of a pretty bauble, but recovers its momentum in the subsequent tales of a fur trapper dealing with a faithless wife; a put-upon silk weaver with a kindly friend, and a weary fashion model - each enacted Sherlock Jr style by the same cast. Though some felt the film dragged on, I found the cumulative effect of the various tales unexpectedly moving.
This DCP was newly struck from an unrestored and unpreviewed 35mm Mary Pickford Foundation print, which unfortunately proved to be assembled in tinting order rather than viewing order. The plot, so far as it could be ascertained, is not much of an advance on The Schoolteacher and the Waif, the recently rediscovered 1912 Biograph short on which it is based, which tells the story of a neglected urchin rescued by the care of a kindly school teacher. Whether it de-emphasised the icky notion of a subsequent romance between the student and teacher is not clear, though the story looks to have been bulked out with the addition of a subplot that has the teacher wrongly accused of murder. Pickford appears radiant in some moments, but I couldn’t tell you much more without seeing it in the correct order.
Source: Screenland, December 1927.
THE VALLEY OF THE GIANTS (1927)
Having visited this beautiful part of the world in the past fortnight, I was looking forward to this film. Second generation timber magnate Milton Sills is back home to assume management of the family business from his ailing father. The attractive woman he encounters on the train (Doris Kenyon, Sills’ real-life wife), proves to be the daughter of a rival timber concern who are willing to play dirty to win control of the area.
Milton Sills is at his most rugged, there’s some harrowing fight scenes with the sinister foreman of the rival company (Paul Hurst), while a climactic chase on a runaway timber train is an action highlight - also giving you some idea of how Wallace Reid sustained the injury that got him addicted to painkillers when filming the 1919 version of the same story.
The majestic California Redwoods appear in all their glory, and though it can be extremely disconcerting to see large and ancient chunks of them disappearing into a timber mill, it is heartening to know that efforts towards their preservation were already underway and were possibly even advanced by this film, a location shoot such as this being relatively uncommon in 1927.
Thrills, spills, mills and Sills - what more could you want? A real delight, and my favourite silent of the weekend.
THE ROUND UP (1920)
The most unexpected thing about Roscoe 'Fatty’ Arbuckle’s debut feature is that it’s not really a comedy, and he’s not really the star. You might compare the situation to Disney’s Aladdin (1992): the genie is neither central to the story nor the cast, and yet Robin Williams is the whole show. This is clearly what’s intended withThe Round Up, though this would have been more evident to its original audiences, familiar with the famous play on which the film was based.
Arbuckle is the portly sheriff of a frontier town, where two cowpokes are in love with the same girl. There’s much to-ing and fro-ing between the lovers, one of whom is presumed to be dead for much of the film, and a distinctly downbeat ending, as the more morally ambiguous man ends up with the girl, and Arbuckle laments that 'nobody loves a fat man’.
Also of interest is the appearance of Eddie Sutherland (Mr Louise Brooks) as one of the love rivals and Jean Acker (briefly Mrs Rudolph Valentino) as Arbuckle’s erstwhile sweetheart - as well as a certain familiar Arbuckle sidekick in a blink-and-miss-it cameo. This restoration by Paul Gierucki was hot off the press and looked terrific, aside from a few digital artefacts that will certainly be ironed out ahead of its TCM premiere in October.
THE KID BROTHER (1927)
In what you might call Lloyd’s answer to the folksy Tol'able David, Harold plays the shy youngest scion of a powerful rural family. When a medicine show arrives in town, he falls in love with its proprietor, lovely Mary (Jobyna Ralston), and in defending her from charges of theft and locating the real culprit, he finds his own self-confidence.
Though it’s not my favourite Harold Lloyd, it’s probably the most feelgood of his works, with a perfect balance of comedy and drama and some wonderful set pieces, including one of the sweetest love scenes in silent film, as Harold clambers up a tree, unable to bear the idea of seeing his crush disappear over the horizon. As always, Harold is an absolute treat to watch with an appreciative audience. This was preceded by a very interesting presentation of photos from the Lloyd estate that documented deleted sequences from Harold’s films, hosted by family friend Richard Simonton.
THE DEADLIER SEX (1920)
I already saw this very enjoyable battle-of-the-sexes comedy at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and have little to add except to say that its reception was considerably more subdued here. Perhaps the Castro was more receptive to its gender-defying anti-capitalist message?
Cinecon 2016 - The Silent Shorts
Source: Internet Movie Database.
RED SAUNDERS’ SACRIFICE (1912)
This Lubin short, set in exactly the West that Wild and Woolly gently satirises, deals with an outlaw who sacrifices his own freedom in order to find a doctor for his sweetheart’s ailing mother. The mother turns out to be the local sheriff’s first love, and the outlaw is set on the path to redemption. There’s a lot of arm acting from leading lady Clara Williams; Edgar Jones is more subtle as the title character.
DAREDEVIL JACK (1920)
This highlight reel from a now-lost serial starring Jack Dempsey demonstrates that the champion boxer, while no great shakes as an actor, might have made a personable action star. The plot appears to have been a typically absurd affair about a woman whose bracelet contains a map to buried treasure. An exploding football which barely elicits a shrug from our hero is amongst the many methods a criminal gang uses to locate the loot. Lon Chaney appeared in the original serial but is unfortunately not seen in the surviving footage.
THE DARLING OF THE CSA(1912)
Presumably part of the flood of 50th anniversary Civil War films of 1911-1912, this short includes some visually interesting battle scenes and an early appearance by Anna Q. Nilsson as a cross-dressing Southern spy. THE SON’S RETURN (1909)
The plot is no more sophisticated than any other Biograph of this period, with a young man who has made good in the city attempting to trick his parents by returning home in disguise, but the attraction of this showing was its source - an exceptionally rare surviving camera negative. You will simply never see a film this old looking so crystal clear. It’s difficult to believe that a day has passed since it was filmed, much less 106 years. Mary Pickford doesn’t get much to do, but looks very pretty doing it.
THE BELLBOY (1918) and THE GARAGE (1920) were shown in support of Arbuckle’s feature THE ROUND UP (1920). Multiple sources, including newly discovered footage, were painstakingly compiled into a more complete form than has been seen since their original release. Congratulations to Paul Gierucki on a great job.
THE ADVENTURES OF TARZAN - The Hidden Arrows (1921)
Another episode of the same series shown last year with Ed Hulse’s talk on silent-era serials, this one was the first half of The Hidden Arrow. The true star here was Elmo Lincoln’s impressive pectorals. HER FIRST KISS (1919)
This zany comedy is a rare surviving product of the Fox Sunshine Comedy unit. Production values are high and there’s some complicated and expensive looking stunts; leading lady Ethel Teare, resembling a cross between Louise Fazenda and Lucille Ball, makes an agreeably madcap heroine, but the belly laughs are few and far between.
Cinecon 2015 - The Talkie Features
Source: Internet Movie Database
TWO FISTED (1935)
This amusing programmer begins as a boxing picture but ends up a domestic comedy, with a washed-up boxer (Roscoe Karns) and his manager (Lee Tracy) posing as butler and valet to a rich couple ensconced in a custody dispute over their young son. There are a number of funny one-liners, Gail Patrick appears in a series of fetching gowns, and a general sense of agreeable mayhem made this a good if unchallenging way to open Cinecon for 2015. You’d never guess that the director is James Cruze, of The Covered Wagon fame. THE STUDIO MURDER MYSTERY (1929)
This above-average early talkie features imaginative use of sound, some striking visuals, and an attractive setting of the actual Paramount Pictures - or ‘Eminent Pictures’ as we see emblazoned on the famous Bronson Gate. Dissolute actor Richard Hardell (Frederic March) is juggling a young lover, a temperamental director and a suspicious wife, all of whom have clear motives when he is found stabbed. The central mystery is well achieved, while Neil Hamilton, as a laconic gagman, is the MVP of a strong cast that also includes Florence Eldridge, Chester Conklin, Eugene Pallette and Walter Oland, all of whom handle the demand of sound performance with élan. If you’re hoping to see evidence of early talkies in production, you’re out of luck - of the two films we see being made, one appears to be a silent and the other a sound short.
SONG AND DANCE MAN (1936)
In the latest of Cinecon’s series of late 30s Claire Trevor/Allan Dwan programmers, Trevor plays Julia, a vaudeville hoofer who refuses to abandon dance partner and mentor Hap Farrell (Paul Kelly), despite his alcoholism and obvious lack of talent. When Julia’s career is boosted by a rich producer (Michael Whelan), Hap finds himself on the way down.
The casting of two performers who could hardly be described as triple threats is not the only thing that makes this an oddity. Nobody’s motivations are particularly clear, Trevor seems disinterested, and while it had the potential to be a bittersweet showbiz tale in the same vein asThe Entertainer (1960), the whole thing never quite gels. A bright spot comes from Helen Troy, reprising the hilarious switchboard-girl routine that brought down the house during last year’s Human Cargo and elicited spontaneous applause this year.
The consensus amongst hardcore Laurel and Hardy fans was that this relic of the poorly regarded 20th Century Fox period could have been worse. For the rest of us, it’s an agreeable wartime-era romp. Some retooling is evident in the plot, with the attractive idea of the pair as a travelling two-man swing band swiftly abandoned when they team up with a double-crossing film flam man (Bob Bailey) to retrieve the inheritance of a lovely ingenue (Vivian Blaine, sporting a series of impressively architectural hairstyles). Though not up to their best work, production values are high and the boys have fun impersonating a Southern gentleman and his (female!) accomplice.
DANCING ON A DIME (1940)
This amiable backstage musical deals with a theatrical troupe put out of business by a lack of funding. Its three leading men seek refuge in the now-abandoned theatre, thanks to kindly caretaker Mac (William Frawley, probably the most well-known face in the cast). A lovely singer and dancer arrives to disrupt the idyll, while the discovery of a cache of money puts the company’s production back on track - though not without some complications. This low-budget musical makes the most of its theatrical setting and remains diverting for exactly long as it needs to be.
MYRT AND MARGE (1933)
Those expecting a Three Stooges slapfest instead found a snappy Pre-Code backstage musical, based on a popular radio serial. Vaudeville veteran (Myrtle Vail) takes new talent Marge (Donna Damerel, Vail’s real-life daughter) under her wing, helping to defend her from a lecherous producer (Thomas Jackson) and bring her revue to Broadway. Ted Healy and his Stooges provide more subdued comic relief than you might expect, there’s some good lines from the outrageously camp Clarence (Ray Hedges), and enjoyable appearances from Eddie Foy Jr and Trixie Friganza.
After an eye-catching Footlights Parade-on-a-Universal-budget musical number, we cross to a radio studio where, it is implied, we have just finished listening to a recording of the radio show on which the film is based. Given that both Ted Healy and Donna Damerel died young and in tragic circumstances, there’s a strange poignance to the way the actors break the fourth wall to acknowledge the audience as they file out.
I LOVE THAT MAN (1933)
Edmund Lowe is a confidence trickster who tries to scam innocent charity worker Nancy Carroll. Carroll instead falls in love, and unquestioningly follows him through a series of other scams, his chronic gambling, his attempts to go straight, and his last, tragic plan, which goes horribly wrong and leads to a bleak denouement. The idea that unconditional love should always prevail doesn’t wash, particularly when it is used to handwave Carroll’s complicity in her husband’s misdeeds. While you can admire the film’s Pre-Code tendency to refuse to tie events into a neat happily-every-after bundle, the characters are too morally ambiguous to care much about their fate.
Source: Internet Movie Database
LIMEHOUSE BLUES (1934)
George Raft stretches his not-too-impressive range in this role as the sinister half-Asian proprietor of a London night club. As in the superior Dangerous To Know (1938), Anna May Wong plays a solemn, self-sacrificing Oriental, who is upset when Raft’s character falls in love with Toni, (Jean Parker, who quickly abandons attempts at a cockney accent), the mistreated daughter of a rival.
Toni is soon torn between the 'white’ and 'yellow’ worlds, with the conventions of the time dictating which side wins out. The misty camerawork, underworld setting and multiple appearances of the titular jazz standard give it a noirish feel, but you still wish that Anna May had more to do than sulk, suffer, and spout pseudo-Confucian aphorisms. Billy Bevan is a welcome presence as Raft’s genial sidekick.
AND THE ANGELS SING (1944)
Fred MacMurray plays against type as shiftless band leader Happy Marshall, who has a bad habit of gambling away his band’s profits. Enter the Angel Sisters, a reluctant singing quartet whose papa wants to start a soybean farm. Bubbly Betty Hutton is duped into surrendering the proceeds of a winning streak to Happy, but his eyes soon stray to her sister, played by Dorothy Lamour, and a humorous love triangle ensues, along with some sparkling musical numbers. There’s much talk about war shortages, factory girls and ration books, and yet the Angel Sisters are never without a new outfit or an elaborate stage costume. An enjoyable slice of World War II-era escapism.
LADIES IN LOVE (1936)
Three young residents of a Budapest apartment share their romantic travails. Model and good-time girl Connie Bennett is refusing to admit to herself that Paul Lukas is more than just her latest sugar daddy, chorine Loretta Young is smitten with a handsome nobleman who is above her station (an impossibly young Tyrone Power), and penniless gamine Janet Gaynor is juggling her commitments to a country doctor (Don Ameche) and a vain stage magician (Alan Mowbray).
When Simone Simon turns up as a bratty schoolgirl with a crush on Lukas, you suspect that this apartment-bound Grand Hotel has gained one plot too many - until you realise that it’s part of a twist that turns what might have been a by-the-numbers romantic comedy into a work of greater complexity and emotional subtlety. With its stellar cast and bittersweet ending, this was a winner. The best talkie of this year’s festival for my money.
YOU’RE MY EVERYTHING (1949)
You might describe this as 20th Century Fox’s answer to MGM’s Singin’ In The Rain - if it hadn’t appeared a full three years earlier. Anne Baxter plays a starstruck young socialite who becomes silent Hollywood’s latest It Girl, while her song-and-dance-man husband (Dan Dailey) experiences various changes of fortune as sound arrives and screen musicals enjoy a brief vogue. When their daughter also becomes a star, it could be the thing that finally tears the close-knit couple apart.
The filmmakers certainly did their homework, with shot-for-shot recreations of several famous silent sequences and a better-than-average dedication to historical veracity, including a portrait of the transition to sound that is actually more accurate and nuanced than MGM’s. The cast is good without being a knockout - Anne Baxter does an admirable Clara Bow impersonation, and character actress Anne Revere is enjoyable as her starchy aunt. This Technicolor restoration looks good but has the misfortune of showing off some deeply unfortunate choices of decor. A regrettable blackface sequence may preclude this from wide release - but if it doesn’t, make an effort to see it.
Cinecon 2015 - The Talkie Shorts
Source: Internet Movie Database
THE GREAT SHOWMAN (1953)
Cinecon opened appropriately with this 1950 tribute to veteran showman Sid Grauman, with testimonials from the likes of Joe Schenck, Jack Warner, Mack Sennett, Daryl F. Zanuck, Jack Benny, and a nearly unrecognisable Ginger Rogers. And wouldn’t Sid be proud to think of us watching this in his own Egyptian Theatre, 93 years after it showed its first film? IT’S YOUR MOVE (1945)
A down-on-their-luck family gets into the secondhand furniture business to save themselves from eviction. The fun starts when Edgar Kennedy and his son lug an unwieldy washing machine up and down a huge set of stairs as they deal with a daffy lady who needs to post a letter. If this scenario rings a bell, it’s because it’s a partial remake of the legendary lost Laurel and Hardy short Hats Off (1927), and the first of a so-called ‘Silverlake Stairs Trilogy’ shown at this year’s Cinecon. Aside from the familiar theme and an amusing fourth-wall breaking moment with the garrulous Florence Rice (also seen in Two Fisted), this is a pretty routine short. THE MUSIC BOX (1932)
Very few in the audience would have been seeing this film for the first time, but what a delight to watch it with an audience, and in a sterling restoration from the original camera negative as part of UCLA’s ongoing Laurel and Hardy restoration project. For those who have not seen it, the plot is simple - the boys convey a new piano up a steep set of stairs, with hilarious results. You’ll never see this all-time classic short looking better, and it’s just as funny as ever - a masterpiece of what might be termed 'frustration comedy’.
AN ACHE IN EVERY STAKE (1941) The third and last entry in the 'Silverlake Stairs’ trilogy finds the Stooges unsuccessfully attempting to carry a large block of ice up the stairs, before making a comically awful meal for the householder’s birthday. As always, the Stooges are the Stooges, and take from that what you will.
SO THIS IS HARRIS! (1933)
This short, in which baffled Walter Catlett puzzles over the world going nuts for crooner Phil Harris, is interesting mainly for its shots of the Cocoanut Grove, its early use of novelty transitions, and some very Pre-Code moments. Yes, apparently a transparent skirt is exactly the thing to wear on the golf course.
IMITATION OF WIFE (2015)
Biffle and Shooster are back, and this time they’ve got a girl - and by the end they gain another (of sorts) when Biffle’s forced to go in drag to make dinner for his pal’s boss. This splendidly named spoof of classic-era comedy shorts owes a certain debt to An Ache in Every Stake, but the fact that the old guys in front of me who arrived late spent some time debating who the stars were and whether it was a Columbia product suggests that director Michael Schlesinger has hit his target fair and square.
Cinecon 2015 - Special Programs
'The Wizard of Oz' (1932)
STEVE STANCHFIELD ANIMATION PROGRAM
This showcase of current restoration projects being overseen by Steve Stanchfield was a mixed but interesting bag. For me, the most memorable were the well-animated but completely bizarre Columbia short A Boy And His Dog, which has a naughty little bub having a bizarre dream about his pet pup; and the 1932 animated Wizard of Oz. Commissioned by Technicolor in order to convince Walt Disney of the value of their product and then suppressed for years, it looks tip-top in this restoration and shows us exactly where MGM derived the idea of contrasting a black and white Kansas with a Technicolor Oz.
THE CHAMPION (2015)
This documentary originally sought to promote the preservation of Fort Lee’s Champion Studios, believed to be the oldest film studio building in America. Instead, it became its requiem, the historic building being unceremoniously demolished in December 2013. The documentary details Fort Lee’s status as America’s earliest film mecca, home to such studios as World Pictures, the Victor Film Company, and Alice Guy Blache’s Solax studio, and location for many early films.
The Fort Lee Film Commission are to be congratulated on their efforts, which were very highly regarded by the audience. Keep your eyes peeled for this documentary at other festivals and its imminent release on DVD by Milestone Films. It’s well worth your time.
JOHN BENGTSON PROGRAM
Presentations by silent film location guru John Bengtson are always a revelation, and this year’s was no exception, with a focus on a number of films seen during the festival including Fairbanks’ Wild and Woolly and Arbuckle’s The Garage, part of which proves to have been shot at Culver City, just across the road from the ‘Laurel and Hardy block’ of Main Street. There was also further information on John’s discoveries regarding the two different versions of Keaton’s The Blacksmith, including the fact that the standing set fromRobin Hood (1922), being shot at the nearby Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, can be glimpsed in the background of some shots.
Another terrific find was the location of the legendary tree-climbing scene from Lloyd’s The Kid Brother, closely followed by the discovery of an on-camera glimpse of the Edison Theatre in Niles, California - home of the Niles Essanay Film Museum. As John pointed out, how amazing to think that we can watch a century-old film and catch sight of the same century-old theatre in which we’re sitting!