Cinecon 52 in Review: Part 1
September 9, 2016
As per usual, Labor Day weekend 2016 in Los Angeles was warm and (mostly) sunny.
Or so I've been told. I spent a good chunk of my four and a half day weekend indoors, taking in rarity after rarity in the Egyptian Theater at Cinecon 52.
This is the second year I've been able to experience Cinecon. (If you're so inclined, take a look at my wrap-up piece from 2015.) Sadly, this edition of the fest was marked by a strong sense of loss, as longtime Cinecon President Bob Birchard passed away a few months ago. I have a feeling that many of the people who come to the event are longtime friends and attendees, so while the mood was certainly a bit more somber in moments, Cinecon 52 was also a celebration too; the impact of Bob’s legacy, dedication and leadership was on full display, as was the deep adoration and gratitude for him, exemplified by friends and the organization as a whole.
In 2015, I attended only two days of the event, and as I mentioned in my preview post a few weeks ago, my intention was to do the same this year. Well, that plan changed, and I found myself sampling all five days of the festival!
My Cinecon pass and program! (Picture by Kim Luperi)
And boy, did I enjoy being able to choose my selections from the entire program. Though I've never been successful at marathon movie watching, I made sure to attend a few screenings and events each day to make the most of my pass. I tried to stick to my pre-planned personal program (the Thursday and Monday picks here), but I also mixed things up a bit and watched some programs/films that I wouldn't have otherwise chosen. So without further ado, I present you with part 1 of Cinecon 52 in review. Part 2 will be posted in a week or two, so stay tuned!
Looking for Trouble (1934)
I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much from this movie, but it turned out to be quite fun.
Initially, I didn’t think Looking for Trouble was a pre-Code, but one viewing corrected that assumption. Spencer Tracy was (finally) on the cusp of real stardom by the time this picture rolled around, and he’s splendid here - gruff yet charming and immensely likeable. Jack Oakie, who was the subject of a presentation I caught the tail end of before this picture started, played off Tracy’s straight man perfectly; Oakie’s always a welcome breath of fresh air. As for Constance Cummings, I feel like I’ve become an expert on her in the last week, between binge watching her movies on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars marathon and this film. I didn’t know she was part of the cast before I watched this, but with my newfound appreciation of her talents, I was pleasantly surprised to see her name appear in the opening credits.
I got a kick out of Looking for Trouble, my first film of Cinecon 52.
The dialogue was fun and snappy, and the ladies were strong women, you know, as is the standard in a pre-Code. Cummings and Tracy stood toe-to-toe the whole time…up until the end when they literally backed into the marriage license bureau! (William Wellman Jr. introduced the picture and said Tracy and his father got into the first of their eventual four fights while filming this. Perhaps Tracy was rehearsing for a scene where he gets into it with Morgan Conway...)
One reason I enjoyed this movie so much was because it had me in awe during a few scenes. The phone troubleshooting aspect of the plot was one of the points in the synopsis that pulled me in, and for some reason, I found that job - and Tracy and Oakie's partnership - fascinating. There were some great shots along these lines too, like one angled behind an orderly mass of telephone wires in a speakeasy. Along a more absurd line, I must say that the climax is easily one of the most insane I’ve ever witnessed: while trying desperately to prove Cummings’ innocence in a murder case, Tracy tracks down a shady lady (by cold calling 1000 numbers to find her, first) who he believes is the murderer. Then, when an earthquake inconveniently interrupts her confession of the crime, he uses his portable receiver (1934 cell phone with a plug, what?!) to connect to a downed power line – with LIVE wires – and get the Hall of Justice on the phone in time for the woman to deliver her confession. Oh, and time was of the essence because the murderess was hit by falling debris in the earthquake and was about to die. What.....?!
This one was certainly a bit peculiar, but enjoyable nonetheless, mostly for the performances and sometimes inane story. Definitely a movie I’d see again.
The Last Warning (1929)
Aside from So This is Paris (1926), The Last Warning was the picture I was most jazzed to catch at Cinecon this year. When I read the description, I was actually surprised to see that it was a silent picture; after all, on paper it had all the earmarks of a creepy, creaky early talkie, in the vein of The Unholy Night (1929), The Studio Murder Mystery (1929), The Old Dark House (1932) and The Ninth Guest (1934), to name a few. So how was it, you ask?
In a word, bizarre.
What a great promo still of Carrie Daumery from The Last Warning. One look at this image and you could count me in for the movie.
That’s meant in both a good and bad way. Good, because I like – and almost expect – a suspense thriller from this time to be rather kooky. And this sure as hell was, from the inventive camera work and title cards to some seriously eerie visuals to the eccentric crew of characters (looking at you, Torben Meyer). On the negative side, though, this picture seemed a lot of different things to me, and none of those were cohesive.
At the very start, The Last Warning appeared as a ghost of 1919-past; that is, visually it did not look like it was made on the cusp of the fully embraced sound era (which it was; this was one of Universal’s last silent pictures). The overstated acting style was in line with the period – but again, I'm talking a decade or so earlier, when the industry was still firmly entrenched in the ways of silent cinema. Adding to the aged look were some scenes and shots sourced from a print that was extremely grainy and scratched (it looked like it could have been a 16mm print), though I’m assuming these were the best assets available for Universal’s brand new restoration – and I can’t really argue with that, because classic film fans will take whatever we can get!
The plot, which was what initially caught my eye, turned out to be nothing more than a loose springboard for all the uncanny action and frights to freely occur without seeming completely abnormal and random. To be honest, if I came across threatening letters and saw heavy pieces of scenery crash down in that theater like these characters did, I’d be out of there in two seconds, no questions asked. (But I guess that would mean no movie...)
What really pulled me in was the innovative use of effects, starting with the title cards, which became part of the action. The text burst out, retreated back, flashed across the screen, and many times rippled, as the emotion of the scene called for. I was also taken aback at how freely – and daring – the camera operator/cinematographer was. Several times, the camera was placed at very high or very low angles or even on the floor, significantly heightening the tension of specific sequences; for instance, when one character collapses on mark right in front of the camera on the ground, it was hard not to become startled by the action and how unusually it was filmed. Another camera – a smaller one, I’m sure – was also mounted magnificently on a curtain that closes on the show. This method was utilized beautifully again in the thrilling climax, in which the masked murderer swings on a rope over the stage, dragging us into the action whether we liked it or not. Side note: I’d love to see behind the scenes photos from the filming of those sequences!
Just one example of the inventive cinematography in The Last Warning. You can also get a hint of director Paul Leni's German Expressionist roots here.
The accompaniment by Jon Mirsalis was on keyboard, which added another layer of atmosphere, as the instrument allowed for a greater variety of sounds, some even reminiscent of an 80s synth soundtrack (which was not a bad thing, in this case).
I don’t think The Last Warning lived up to the anticipation in my head, but it certainly proved more curious, surprising and innovative than I thought it would be. If I get the chance, I'd love to watch it again.
More Pay – Less Work (1926)
Not on the top of my list, but with Friday now open to me, I was definitely looking forward to this silent comedy. I really don’t think you can get a cuter couple than Buddy Rogers and Mary Brian (pictured below in 1928’s Someone to Love, since I couldn’t find a still of them together in this movie).
However, I must say the movie was a bit of a letdown. The story had its high points; I particularly enjoyed when Rogers tried to give his father's business a makeover, which meant doing away with the “Civil War veterans” and bringing in new legs, er, blood. Rogers' new rules were a riot: working hours scaled back from 8-6 to 10:30-4, employees received 90 vacation days, and the workers also get 10% of the earnings. I’m fairly confident no company could last more than a month with policies like that!
Overall, the whole thing felt like one super long short, stretched out for maximum effect, and the stretching got tiresome rather quickly. I hoped for more from Brian and Rogers, but I guess I can appease my sadness by staring at the picture below.
Mary Brian and Buddy Rogers are too cute for words. But More Pay - Less Work didn't capitalize on either of their talents.
None Shall Escape (1944)
This is the only film I watched at Cinecon this year that I’d seen previously. The reason: Marsha Hunt was there, and this movie is just so damn good (and rare) that I would have been a fool to pass up a free chance to see it again. I would really like to write about this one more in-depth at some point, but I think that would require another viewing, and that’s something that may not happen, or at least it probably won't for a long time. UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Chris Horak introduced the film, noting that out of over 140 war films made during WWII, this was the only one in which characters utter the word ‘Jew,’ and Jewish people are shown being massacred.
It’s a tough picture to watch; for starters, Alexander Knox is so contemptible, deplorable and unbelievably believable as the lead Nazi that it's sickening and maddening. But, this film is also one that is very important, not only for historical purposes but in terms of today’s landscape as well. Henry Travers and to a lesser extent Marsha Hunt provide the voices of reason in trying to stop Knox, but that proves an utter failure. Between Travers’ impassioned speeches imploring peace, acceptance and humanity and Hunt calling Knox and his grown Nazi nephew cowards and blind followers, well, it’s pretty strong stuff. Columbia produced the movie, and here’s hoping Columbia/Sony/whoever owns it will release it on DVD someday. This was a B-picture back in 1944, but it definitely does not look or feel it, as the story, production values and performances are all superb.
Afterwards, Marsha Hunt spoke briefly before she received Cinecon’s Inaugural Legacy Award. Special thanks to Mike Cahill for reserving a front row seat for me for Marsha’s Q&A! If you'd like to watch Chris Horak's intro and Marsha's Q&A, Mike captured it on video and you can watch it here. Confession time: Every time I see Marsha, I want to hug her. She’s the epitome of grace, so incredibly lovely and appreciative. Oh, and she blew me a kiss after all the commotion and photo taking was over.
Marsha Hunt was extremely excited and honored to receive Cinecon's Legacy Award, which was conceived with her in mind. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Was it possible for me to top that Marsha Hunt-blowing-kiss moment during the next three days of the festival? Stay tuned for part 2 of my Cinecon coverage to find out!