I See A Dark Theater's First Cinecon

September 14, 2015

Each year, Cinecon Classic Film Festival takes place at the Egyptian Theater over Labor Day weekend.

 

And each year, I'm out of town.

 

If you know me, I love to travel. Any 3-4 day weekend I get, I've generally already hopped on a plane or am halfway outside LA by car. This year, however, I stayed within a two hour radius of the city the entire holiday weekend. I'm guessing that must be a new record for me!

 

Despite this being Cinecon 51, yes 51, and despite me being an American Cinematheque volunteer for the past three years - Cinecon takes place at the Cinematheque - I sadly never hear or see much marketing for the festival, which is a shame. According to their website: "We specialize in running rare, unusual and unjustly forgotten movies from the silent and early sound era. Most films are screened in 35mm and silent films include live piano accompaniment." Outside the devoted regulars, it seems to me that Cinecon itself is rather rare and unjustly forgotten to potential new attendees.

Cinecon's logo, via their website.

Similar to some of the entries I saw on the schedules of other festivals that advertise rare movies screened on film (in particular Capitolfest in Rome, NY and The Nitrate Picture Show in Rochester, NY. Boy, do I wish I still lived on the east coast for those!), the Cinecon playlist this year featured several movies that I had never heard of. Yesssss. A mix of silents, shorts, B-features, and other rarities commanded the schedule, which also interestingly included John Ford's fantastic They Were Expendable (1945), a film widely available on DVD and shown frequently on TV.

 

I don't know the price point for the east coast festivals I mentioned above, but compared to the glitz and glamour of TCM's annual festival, which counts the Egyptian as one of its several venues, Cinecon comes in at a pretty affordable price, with $25-30 day passes for an average of nine or so screenings daily and $120 for a festival pass. Since it turned out that I couldn't make the entire event, the day pass was the best choice for me for the individual days I ended up attending.

 

With one venue, a packed back to back schedule (which allowed for generous food breaks - thank you), and a memorabilia room that I could have easily spent hours and hundreds in, Cinecon represented in my mind a similar vibe to 1970s and 1980s Comic Con in San Diego with collectors, enthusiasts, and fans coming together for one epic weekend. Note: I never attended those conventions, but I've heard countless stories about them from a number of people.

Proud that I only made one purchase in the memorabilia room: this behind the scenes shot from the climax of one of my favorite films, The Innocents.

And with that, here's what I saw:

 

Two Fisted (1935)

I ran in the theater at about 7:15 (the advertised start time) and the movie had already begun! First lesson of the evening: Cinecon generally gets rolling exactly on time. Or before, maybe. This fast paced comedy stars the always enjoyable Lee Tracy and Roscoe Karns as a boxing manager and washed up fighter, respectively, who find themselves on hard times until a rich drunk (Kent Taylor) takes them in as employees of his home in exchange for boxing lessons to defend his sister (Gail Patrick) from her horrible kidnapper husband. The comedy is largely situational and garnered quite a few laughs, especially the banter between Tracy and Karns (Karns I've seen in supporting roles in a billion movies but apparently never knew it).

 

Adorable Billy Lee, as the baby faced 6 year old son/kidnapping victim, stole the show in many of his scenes, particularly one that took place in a kiddie sized boxing ring. I don't know if you've ever watched a mini-me boxing match before, but it's both the most adorable and the most unnerving and disturbing thing to see children hitting each other (kind of hard!) as the adults simply look and cheer on.

Wild and Woolly (1917)

This silent Douglas Fairbanks comedy was the film I looked forward to most on Thursday evening because of its ridiculous sounding plot. Fairbanks plays the son of a railroad executive who very childishly dreams of living in the Wild West - to the extent that he has a whole western setup in his room AND his office. Kinda crazy. He actually thinks the West still stands as riotously as in the tales of the olden days, so when his father sends him to Arizona on business, the townspeople scramble to turn their now tame town into the Wild West of Fairbanks' dreams. Of course, chaos, hilarity, and some real Western violent antics ensue.

 

For a picture that's almost 100 years old, the comedy still felt very fresh and energetic; I always appreciate fast paced, lively silent films, because they're just easier for me to watch. The highlights of the picture for me mostly involved the story, in particular, how nostalgia for the Wild West was portrayed at the time and all the antics the townspeople went through to turn the clock back, as if they were shooting a movie for just one patron! A subplot involving a real Western bandit was also nicely woven in to add some suspense and of course more humor and heroics for Fairbanks.

Go West, Young Lady (1941)

From the fake West of Wild and Woolly to the real Wild West...well, sort of. I'll watch anything with Glenn Ford, and in this film he stars as a new sheriff, Tex Miller, assigned to a town where a masked man known as Killer Pete keeps, well, killing all the sheriffs. Town head honcho Jim (Charlie Ruggles) awaits the last minute sudden arrival of his nephew Bill, who he wants to take over the role of Sheriff instead of Ford...until Jim finds out that Bill is a nickname for Belinda (Penny Singleton), his niece. Yes, Belinda's gender is an unfortunate surprise, but she definitely displays some sheriff-worthy skills when she teams up with Tex to bring Killer Pete down in a pretty spectacular and unique way.

 

Go West, Young Lady was an early picture for Glenn Ford, and it certainly shows; as much as I like him, his portrayal felt a bit wooden. As for Penny Singleton, most probably know her - if they recognize her at all - from her Blondie days; indeed, she was blonde here, but I'm only familiar with her as the ditzy brunette dancer from After the Thin Man (1936). I didn't hold high hopes for her performance at the beginning, but I quickly warmed up to her as the picture continued. The supporting cast was pretty solid too, from Charlie Ruggles to Ann Miller, who played a dance hall girl named Lola. Miller was largely called upon to sing, dance, and get into a pretty heated girl fight with Belinda, and as usual, she enthusiastically committed to the role in every aspect. (By the way, Belinda also briefly took to the stage for some singing and dancing, but let's be honest, her moves couldn't match as Miss Lola's).  

 

What I liked best about the picture was the traditional gender bending employed; for example, within the first scene it's revealed that Belinda is a much better shot than the new sheriff - yes, sheriff. I also loved the finale in which Belinda uncovers the true identity of Killer Pete and stages his capture with the help of all the women in town...and a whole lot of pots and pans. If you didn't think cookware could help capture a violent criminal, watch this movie - it will definitely change your mind!

The Studio Murder Mystery (1929)

The Studio Murder Mystery is a sort of overcrowded cluttered muddle in the vein of so many early talkie whodunits but mildly enjoyable nonetheless. Womanizing actor Richard Hardell (Fredric March) turns up murdered at Eminent Studios - looking a lot like a well known Hollywood studio that starts with a 'P'- which is no surprise; pretty much every female he sees he flirts with or professes his love for, including Helen (Doris Hill), the daughter of the Night Watchman (Guy Oliver). His actions naturally frustrate and anger his wife Blanche (March's real life spouse Florence Eldridge). So, who's surprised when he turns up dead? No one really, but writer Tony White (Neil Hamilton), who happens to adore Helen, makes it his mission to find the killer.

 

For what feels like a B-picture, this one boasts a pretty solid, talented cast - March, Eldridge, Hamilton, and Warner Oland as the film within the film's director. However, besides Hamilton, it seemed that the majority of the actors phoned in their roles. Fear not, though, for Hamilton's immense energy and spark basically invigorated/held up the whole production. Well, maybe not the entire picture, but it certainly helped. 

Blind Husbands (1919)

Directed, written, and starring the extremely talented Erich von Stroheim, Blind Husbands tells the rather slow silent tale of an Austrian military officer, Erich von Steuben (von Stroheim), who meets Dr. Robert Armstrong (Sam De Gasse) and his younger, semi-bored wife Margaret (Francelia Billington), the latter whom von Steuben sets out to seduce. And guess what? It doesn't turn out well for at least one main character...

 

At 90 minutes in length, Blind Husbands' pacing moved slow enough to feel like 120 minutes to me. However, this film came from the same man behind the (partially) lost epic Greed (1924), so I guess I can be thankful that Blind Husbands clocked in at only 1.5 hours? Thankfully, the pace was helped along a bit by the film's beautiful cinematography and solid performances from the main cast. The story I found only a smidge more likable; in particular, Margaret's decision at the end came as a bit of a shock, considering the trajectory of the plot. One part I really enjoyed, though? The film's climax, set high atop a mountain. The danger was realistically portrayed and the tension was cranked high, partially evidenced by what must have been a battered stunt double in one particular shot.

Daredevil Jack excerpts (1920)

This 15 part serial sadly survives in incomplete form only. Though it originally featured Lon Chaney, all of his sequences are presumably lost, which leaves boxing star Jack Dempsey as the main ringleader of the action. In the parts we watched, Dempsey's role is basically relegated to 1. saving the girl and 2. running from the evil men who keep trying - hilariously - to kill him. The scene that commanded the loudest laughs from the audience involved a football rigged with an explosive. When Dempsey finally figures out that something is wrong with the ball, he hands it to the referee who tosses it aside. BOOM! That's not normal, but apparently it is to everyone on the field, because the ref, not missing a beat, just as casually throws a new ball to Dempsey without ever acknowledging the explosion. No one does, actually, except the bad guys, and that's only to lament their missed opportunity.

Synthetic Sin (1929)

Without a doubt, the main reason I attended Cinecon on Friday was for Synthetic Sin. Long thought lost, a print of the Colleen Moore silent/sound hybrid - the film originally had a soundtrack, but only the last reel survives - was uncovered in the mid 1990s at an Italian archive, along with Moore's 1929 comedy Why Be Good?, with the assistance of film historian Joe Yranksi. (For more info about the discovery and restoration of both, check out Ron Hutchinson's excellent article on the subject here).

 

After missing the LA Restoration Premiere at the Cinefamily because I was out of town, I knew I couldn't pass up the rare opportunity to see Synthetic Sin again, especially since the picture isn't (yet) on DVD; hopefully it will follow in the footsteps of its rediscovery mate Why Be Good? and debut on home video soon. I've written at length about Why Be Good? after watching it at TCMFF this past year, and I would love to do the same for Synthetic Sin if - no WHEN - I get the chance to view it again. Positive thoughts.

 

I had heard that Why Be Good?'s plot mirrored Synthetic Sin in many ways (with modern audiences generally enjoying Synthetic Sin better), and I definitely agree. The narrative in both films finds Colleen Moore - here as Betty Fairfax - a good girl trying to go bad...at least for image and/or experience, only. Compared to her lively performance in Why Be Good?, Moore, a fantastic comedienne, pulled out all the comical stops here as a privileged, na├»ve small town girl with acting aspirations. During her first play, Betty is told that her performance as a sophisticated woman isn't up to par because she hasn't had any life experience. So what does she do? Naturally, Betty heads to New York City and beelines it to the sleaziest (read: only) place she knows - a joint called the Tiger Lily Arms, conveniently filled to the brim with hookers and gangsters. If she and her maid Mandy (Gertrude Howard) can't sin in a place like the Tiger Lily Arms where they are surrounded by murderers, they're hopeless, she exclaims! Betty's adorably hilarious yet earnestly over the top methods of fitting in provide most of the comedy; seriously, if you took a sip of beer every time Betty swears she's sinned and suffered while in NY you'd be drunk within a few minutes. Tops.

Don't mind Betty (Colleen Moore). She's just goofing around with some murderers.

The stakes and the amusement reach epic heights in the final act when Betty overhears her playwright lover Donald (Antonio Moreno) arranging a fake brawl at the Tiger Lily Arms to satisfy her thirst for excitement. Betty hilariously shrugs off the gun play and violence in her room and hallway as fake, even kidding around with the gangsters, until she finds a dead man on her floor and spots blood seeping out from under her closet door. Uh-oh. Things just got real, girl!

 

I could write a lot more about Synthetic Sin - my thoughts on the dialogue alone would fill paragraphs - but I'd like to rewatch the film in order to do it justice. As I mentioned above, fingers crossed that Synthetic Sin will follow the route of Why Be Good? and receive a DVD release soon.

 

 

With eight shorts and features watched over the course of two days, I'd call my first trip to Cinecon a success. Hopefully I'll remember to keep my schedule clear next year to attend again!   

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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