We could be forgiven for approaching this year’s Cinecon with a sense of trepidation, given the incredibly sad passing of Bob Birchard, longtime steward of the festival. A public memorial was held inside the theatre on Friday evening, drawing a number of speakers, written tributes from Kevin Brownlow and Leonard Maltin amongst others, and a fair share of laughter along with the tears.
Would it be the same? Would it even survive? We came away with a feeling of great optimism for the future. The line-up was incredibly strong, attendance was excellent, and the management team, led by Stan Taffel, assured us at every turn that Cinecon is here to stay. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to go on after this year’s tragedy, but they did it, and did it very well indeed. The best way we can honour Bob is to make sure the next half-century of Cinecon are as great as the first.
Cinecon 2016 - The Talkies
Source: Internet Movie Database.
The Jungle Mystery (1932)
To some, this long-unseen Universal serial is an eloquent essay on montage theory. Exactly how many times can the same piece of stock footage be used? How many different stories can it tell? Why does that same herd of elephants head for the hills at the drop of a hat, every single time? To others - and I fell into this camp - it was a surprisingly entertaining piece of campery.
The story, such as it is, tells of two rival groups seeking a legendary cache of ivory in deepest darkest Africa. One family is also searching for their lost son, and his girlfriend (Cecilia Parker) spends a lot of time wandering into the jungle, getting lost, and being attacked by animals. Then, there’s the Jungle Mystery himself, a sort of half-man, half-ape who turns up at various points, bellowing his signature “EOOOUCH!” The dialogue is dreadful, the ethnic stereotypes are as broad as you’d imagine, and though the performances range from the wooden to the uninspired, The Jungle Mystery never commits the worst of low-budget sins - that of merely being boring.
A hard core of fans watched every episode, but for others, the gong that ended each episode was a signal that it was now safe to enter the theatre. I would happily watch it again, though I admit that the 75 minute feature cutdown might be a bridge too far.
Looking For Trouble (1934)
The festival kicked off in snappy fashion with this fun William Wellman Pre-Code about a pair of mismatched telephone linesmen (Spencer Tracy and the always likeable Jack Oakie, who featured throughout this year’s screenings), who stumble upon a phone-tapping racket in which Tracy’s sweetheart (Constance Cummings) becomes unwittingly involved. There’s some very risque dialogue and Pre-Code situations, and even some interesting insights into how telephone exchanges of the day worked. A topical surprise ending seems to come out of nowhere, but it ties this up into a very entertaining little package.
Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity
Marsha Hunt is a phenomenon - 98 years old, and still a passionate advocate not only of classic film but issues as diverse as homelessness, world hunger, the plight of refugees and gay marriage. This documentary traces her career from Paramount contract actress, to freelancer, to victim of the McCarthy-era blacklist, to a driving force behind the United Nations Association. Many details were new to me, and her achievements are impressive to say the least. There was a general consensus that the documentary ran a little long, but I didn’t mind. I could hardly admire Marsha more, and it was a thrill to see her at that day’s screening of None Shall Escape (1944).
None Shall Escape (1944)
This was shown in honour of Marsha Hunt, who was presented with Cinecon’s inaugural Legacy Award before the screening. Set in a then-theoretical future in which the Allies have won the war and are bringing the perpetrators to trial, it tells the story of two German brothers, one of whom (Eric Rolf) resists the growing political tide, the other of whom (Alexander Knox) embraces the Nazi ideology and rises through the ranks. Marsha Hunt is intensely sympathetic as his former fiancee, and Richard Hale is heartbreaking as a rabbi who attempts to resist his captors.
Whereas even the most audacious films of this time were content to drop hints None Shall Escape represents the first time the atrocities taking place in Europe were depicted in unflinching detail. A sequence in which a train full of Jewish detainees are slaughtered in cold blood is as harrowing a depiction of the Holocaust as you will ever see in a 1944 film. It can’t be said to be a pleasant movie, but it’s a courageous, prescient, and very important one.
Navy Wife (1935)
Claire Trevor plays a nurse in a navy hospital who, having been traumatised by her own parents’ unhappy marriage, is determined not to fall in love. She befriends a handsome new doctor (Ralph Bellamy), a widower whose daughter is recovering from polio, and agrees to marry him on the proviso that it’s a match based not on love but mutual respect. After realising her true feelings, she becomes convinced that he is still obsessed with his late wife and cannot return her affection.
Trevor is as good as always, but you feel that something got lost in the telling here. Several subplots go nowhere, there’s an improbable final-act twist, and a putative message about allegiance to the navy outranking personal concerns is vague at best. Still, there remains something endearing about the sheer offbeat nature of the Trevor/Allan Dwan collaborations Cinecon has showcased over the past few years, and I still look forward to the next one.
Source: Internet Movie Database.
The Fighting Legion (1930)
This Ken Maynard Western is mainly interesting for its status as a very late transitional film, beginning as a silent with sound effects and abruptly shifting to full talkie about halfway through. The handsome Maynard and his sidekick Cloudy (Frank Rice) attempt to clear their names after the murder of a Texas Ranger, and in doing so become involved with the depressed town of Bowen and a pretty local girl (Dorothy Dwan). There’s some good looking scenery, an action-packed bar fight, a timely intervention by Tarzan the horse, and of course, a happy ending.
Sitting Pretty (1933)
Entertainment doesn’t get much slicker and lighter than this slice of angel cake. Jack Oakie and Jack Haley play a songwriting team who, through an improbable misunderstanding, find themselves in Hollywood alongside aspiring actress Dorothy (Ginger Rogers). Oakie’s head and fortunes are temporarily turned by a haughty actress (an under-used Thelma Todd), but this is Hollywood, and there’s no such thing as a sad ending here. So long as you concentrate on the snappy one liners, the great song and dance numbers and forget about the plot, you’ll come away smiling.
Two Plus Fours (1930)
This rare short was discovered along with an unusual home sound-on-disc talkie system many years ago, but reunited with its extant sound track only recently. There is not much to the story, which finds a group of high-spirited students helping their local tailor stay in business, but the appearance of an incredibly young Bing Crosby and his Rhythm Boys makes this an important find.
King of Jazz (1930)
King of Jazz is like an deluxe box of chocolates. Open it up, and there’s all sorts of tempting stuff on offer. Would you sit down and eat them for dinner, expecting a full stomach and a balanced diet? Of course not. Would you luxuriously savour them one by one, knowing that if there’s one you don’t like, there’ll be a better one in the next compartment? Absolutely. And that’s the key to enjoying this cinematic confection. Approach it as high art, and you’ll be disappointed. Sit down, indulge yourself, and you’ll have two hours of pure entertainment.
Less a movie than a Broadway-style revue, some of the segments are more effective than others, but the historical value is undoubtable, the visuals are stunning, and the restoration is top notch. Forget the washed out, fuzzy versions of yore - this looks like it was shot yesterday, the colour bringing home the fact that we’re as close to sitting in the front row of a 1929 floor show as we’ll ever be.
Animal Crackers (1930) The Marx Brothers first thing on a Sunday morning? An alarming prospect. There’s rarely any point in detailing a Marx Brothers plot, but this new restoration, using material from the British Film Institute, adds back some of the more risque lines that were removed in post-Hays Code re-issues (but still fails to answer the question - how did Chico become an Italian?) It surely rates as the team’s best-looking film thanks to classy Moderne sets, which are shown to advantage in this clear-as-a-bell print.
Redheads On Parade (1935)
There’s a strong real-life undercurrent to this wonderful backlot musical. Both an example and a satire of the brief boom in ‘competition’ films of the mid 30s, it also seems to reflect the financial turmoil in which Fox found itself just prior to its merger with Twentieth Century.
Beautician Ginger (Dixie Lee), who has created a foolproof dye for red hair, gives producers Peter and George (Jack Haley and Alan Dinehart) and leading man John (John Boles) the idea to reconceive their troubled production as Redheads on Parade - with the cosmetics company footing the bill and a new craze for red hair expected to result. There’s some amusing complications, including a love triangle and a tangle with the buffoonish bosses of a rival dye company, but the highlight is the terrific production numbers, the most striking of which uses lighting effects to transform the dancers’ outfits from black to white and back again (I wondered how this had been achieved, and found the answer here). I hope this very entertaining feature reaches a wider audience.
Source: Internet Movie Database
Daughter of Shanghai (1937)
Anna May Wong is Lan Ying, the daughter of a San Francisco merchant who falls victim to a sinister gang of people smugglers in this gritty proto-noir. Her fight for justice takes her to the exotic South Seas, where she moonlights as a dancer in a sleazy club whilst seeking the real head of the gang. Philip Ahn is a government agent who is also on the trail of the bad guys, whilst conceiving an affection for the gutsy Lan Ying. The reliably good Robert Florey ensures that the drama of the story is matched by the excitement of the visuals, which look great in this new 35mm restoration from Universal. One of my favourite talkies of the festival, and it’s always great to see Anna May doing more than playing the usual silent Oriental.
Ghost Town: The Story of Fort Lee (1935)
I was sorry to miss the beginning of this early short about the lost film mecca of Fort Lee. It had been only ten years since most of the studios had moved away, but it may have been a hundred, given the state of disrepair into which the facilities had already fallen. Shots of reels and nitrate film sitting outside, exposed to the elements, rightly brought gasps of horror. The Fort Lee Film Commission are doing a great job of bringing this important part of film history to greater attention.
Tin Pan Alley (1940)
The third of our mini Jack Oakie festival, this fictionalised account of the famous songwriting factories of New York also deals with World War I, but through the lens of the second World War. As in Sitting Pretty, Oakie plays one half of a songwriting team who, with partner Skeets (John Payne), use the singing Blane sisters (Alice Faye and Betty Grable) to plug their first big hit. Payne and Faye fall for each other, and there are the standard number of twists and turns before the partners go to war, reconcile with their lady loves, and rekindle their early success. It’s entertaining enough, though undoubtedly a little long. As is so often the case, the Nicholas Brothers’ dance number is worth the price of admission alone.
Thieves’ Highway (1949)
This bleak but engrossing feature from the soon-to-be blacklisted Jules Dassin is a cynical tale of a long-distance trucker (Richard Conte), his partner (Millard Mitchell), and their attempts to survive in an industry where everyone is both the exploiter and the exploited, from the haulers who give immigrants a poor deal for their apples, to the distributors such as the crooked Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) who aren’t beyond roughing people up to get a good deal. Jack Oakie, as a rival trucker, plays one of the few sympathetic characters, while the Italian Valentina Cortese, as a streetwalker who finds herself falling for the trucker, gives the best performance. Taking place mainly over the course of a single night, it’s a slow burner than takes you by the throat gradually, and only momentarily lets go with a Code-mandated soft ending.
Cinecon 2016 - The Silent Films
Source: Internet Movie Database.
The Last Warning (1929) What an absolute gem of a picture. Famous actor John Woodford (D’Arcy Corrigan) is mysteriously killed onstage, the body disappears, and the theatre is shut down. Some years later, an entrepreneur reunites the surviving cast to mount the same production. All are suspects in the still unsolved murder, including beautiful leading lady Doris (Laura La Plante) and her erstwhile lover, the stage manager Richard (John Boles). It seems that someone does not want the show to go on. Could it be John Woodford himself, issuing his last warning from beyond the grave?
Leni’s German Expressionist-inflected visual style is compelling, the story is suspensful and unpredictable, there’s just the right amount of comic relief from Slim Summerville as a stagehand and Carrie Daumery as a nervy older actress, as well as excellent work from Laura La Plante, John Boles, and Margaret Livingstone in a supporting role. The effectiveness of the animated intertitles easily rival those of Sunrise (1927), and if all of this were not enough, Jon Mirsalis provided a wonderfully evocative score. We can only wonder what Leni might have achieved during the great cycle of Universal horror films of the 1930s, if not for his premature death not long after completing this film.
This was not only the best silent of the festival, not only the best film of the festival, but one of the most entertaining silents I have seen in some time. A real knockout in every way. I loved, loved, loved it.
More Pay - Less Work (1926)
Firstly, a shout-out - this curiosity was hooked out of the archives at the behest of Portland’s own Hollywood Theatre, who recently celebrated its 90th birthday by screening this, the same feature that played on opening night. A very young, pre-Wings Buddy Rogers plays the hotshot son of a shipping magnate who has some wacky ideas about how to modernise his father’s company, whilst wooing Mary Brian, daughter of rival company owner Cappy Ricks (Albert Gran). It’s a pleasant but mainly forgettable comedy that moves at a fair clip, and the extensive views of San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Market Street area are a highlight.
Having already seen and enjoyed Ramona at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I skipped this screening, though I returned in time to hear some of Frederick Hodges’ very nice accompaniment. The good news is that a second and slightly superior German print has recently been discovered, complete with its original tints. According to Hugh Munro Neely, an updated restoration is currently in the works.
Having enjoyed last year’s Blanche Sweet vehicle, the battle-of-the-sexes comedy The Deadlier Sex (1920), I was hoping for something similarly effervescent, particularly with Marshall Neilan at the helm. Instead, we got a rather dour drama about a noblewoman (Sweet) who marries a career diplomat (an unusually subdued Neil Hamilton) and falls under suspicion of being a Bolshevik spy. On the plus side, the art direction is excellent, there are some jaw-dropping gowns, and Arlette Marchal is enjoyably vampy as a duplicitous countess.
A Million Bid (1927)
Not a lot happens in this film, and it happens rather slowly. Dolores Costello plays a bored society girl whose mother (a nearly unrecognisable Betty Blythe) wants her to marry a wealthy miner (Walter Oland) rather than the brilliant, penniless brain surgeon in whom she’s interested (Malcolm McGregor). A spectacular shipwreck turns everyone’s plans upside down, and ultimately introduces a new personal and professional complication into the lovers’ lives. Dolores Costello suffers nobly and looks staggeringly beautiful, the shipwreck is well achieved, but it all feels a little empty and predictable. Michael Schlesinger did a great job reading the live translations of the original Italian intertitles
Source: Author's Collection
Sky High (1922)
One of the favourite items from my collection is a programme from August 1922, handed down to me by my great-uncle. The main feature was Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, and the supporting feature was Sky High - hence, I’ve wanted to see this film for many years. The story is lightweight, with Mix playing an immigration patrolman who, while attempting to break up a people-smuggling ring, falls in love with the ringleader’s pretty ward (Eva Novak, well known to Australian silent film scholars as the heroine of For The Term of His Natural Life), but the real appeal is the fact that it was shot on location at the Grand Canyon, shown in all its splendour in a series of spectacular aerial shots.
Robin Hood (1912)
This exceptionally rare film, the earliest surviving screen version of the Robin Hood story, offers few surprises in a story sense, but a good idea of the high production values of Fort Lee’s Eclair Studios, which burnt down only two years after this was made. It’s an ambitious production for its time, with some striking visual effects, elaborate costuming and set decoration, and beautiful tinting which has been preserved in this restoration by Sirk Productions.
The Danger Game (1918)
Only a few years ago, the output of major Broadway and Goldwyn star Madge Kennedy was considered virtually lost, and yet this is the third of her films to be screened at Cinecon. It’s a delight, and so is the irresistible Madge, who plays a flighty society girl who yearns for the bohemian life of Greenwich Village. When her highfalutin novel receives a dreadful review, she goes in pursuit of the reviewer, getting a real taste of the seedy side of life when she is mistaken for underworld figure ‘Powder Nose Annie’. Some decomposition in the first reel necessitated explanatory intertitles, but this was otherwise complete, looking good, and retaining its original tinting. It is also a product of Fort Lee.
Battle of the Century (1927)
The rediscovery of the long-lost second reel of this Laurel and Hardy short is one of the great film tales of recent years. There’s something quite magical about finally filling in the blanks between the images everyone knows via the surviving footage in Robert Youngson’s The Golden Age of Comedy. The sequence itself, in its full glory, is a corker - a classic pieces of escalation comedy. Congratulations to Jon Mirsalis for ensuring that we were finally able to see it.
Play Safe (1922)
For most of its duration, this Monty Banks comedy is a pleasant but unremarkable tale in the Harold Lloyd mould, about a factory worker in love with a wealthy heiress (the gorgeous Virginia Lee Corbin) whose father runs the factory. That is, until a truly hair-raising final sequence set on a runaway train, featuring stunts which make The General look like a stroll in the park. Banks clings on to trains, cars and horses for dear life, and the audience is caught between laughter, sheer terror, and admiration for the risks at which Banks is clearly putting himself.
In Again, Out Again (1917)
If you’ve seen an early Doug Fairbanks film, you know what to expect by now - an optimistic go-getter, a pretty girl, some ludicrous situations, and some effortlessly achieved and impressive stunts. Doug plays a feckless playboy who is jailed for public drunkenness. When he falls in love with the jailer’s daughter (Arline Pretty), life outside doesn’t seem so attractive, so he tries every trick to get back to jail, including impersonating a notorious bomber.
Setting aside a poorly-aged satire of pacifism (a hot-button cause in mid 1917, less than a month after the US entered World War I), it’s a typically cheerful Doug vehicle with a number of chuckle-worthy moments interspersed with his signature devil-may-care stunts.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Girl Shy (1924)
I’m prepared to call it: this tale of a shy young tailor who learns what love is all about is Harold Lloyd’s most perfectly realised feature comedy, the balance of laughs, thrills and sentiment just right. The first count, we can take as a given. On the second count, there’s the climactic final chase sequence, which has Harold riding horses, motorbikes, streetcars and trains to prevent his lady love from marrying. And, in my opinion, the sequence in which Jobyna Ralston walks over a bridge as a lovesick Harold sits unseen in a boat beneath exceeds even the great tree-climbing sequence from The Kid Brother as one of cinema’s best ‘meet cutes’ of all time. Add in Cinecon first-timer Scott Lasky’s excellent accompaniment, and it’s experiences like this that make you proud to be a fan of silent film. A pure delight from beginning to end.
As many know, Bob Birchard was closely associated with Lloyd in his final years and a close friend of Suzanne Lloyd, who has worked tirelessly to perpetuate her grandfather’s legacy, so this was one of the weekend’s most fitting tributes.
So This Is Paris (1926)
Like a glass of champagne, this frothy comedy goes straight to the head, tickles the nose, and may result in uncontrollable giggling. The Noel Cowardesque story involves two couples in mutual flirtations and complications - a Ted Shawnesque oriental dancer (Andre Beranger) his coquettish wife (Lilyan Tashman); romantic Rosalind (Patsy Ruth Miller) and her husband Dr Eisenstein (Monte Blue) - culminating in the respectable Doctor winning a Charleston competition in a riotous Paris cabaret, rendered with the famous Lubitsch Touch abundantly in evidence. A perfectly light and lovely way to end my festival.