Cinecon 52 in Review: Part 2
September 20, 2016
Welcome to part 2 of my Cinecon 52 coverage! If you missed my first post a week and a half ago, you can find it right here. Below is a roundup of the films and programs I caught during the last three days of the festival.
Espionage, 1920s style. Diplomacy is a very rare, well-made spy mystery starring Neil Hamilton. "Rare," "Neil Hamilton" and "mystery" were the deciding factors for me.
Blanche Sweet and Neil Hamilton in Diplomacy.
Silent films are not the easiest for me to get through without my eyes fighting to stay open - yes, even in a theater with live musical accompaniment - but the twists and turns in Diplomacy kept my attention in check (also: Neil Hamilton), mainly because I could have missed an important clue to the mystery had I blinked. The villain was revealed long before the end, so the climax wasn't as suspenseful as it could have been, but director Marshall Neilan (husband of star Blanche Sweet) did his best to keep the intrigue heightened throughout, and I dare say it worked. Overall, this was a tightly produced, enjoyable film.
Sitting Pretty (1933)
Despite a solid cast - Ginger Rogers, Jack Oakie, Thelma Todd and Jack Haley - I still wasn't sold on this story or the genre. I'm glad I gave in, though, because this picture was one of the biggest surprises of the fest for me.
The musical side of Sitting Pretty leans heavily on simple tunes sung by Oakie, Haley and Rogers that are interwoven in the tale itself. There's exactly one big number at the very end of the movie crafted in a Busby Berkley style that felt a bit out of place, but in standard pre-Code fashion, it was remarkable to behold. In fact, this sequence instantly recalled a still from the film I had seen in Mark A. Vieira's Sin in Soft Focus years ago. (For a semi not-safe-for-work image of those extremely pre-Code outfits, click here). On the subject of pre-Code, other suggestive lines and situations - including the fact that Rogers and her kid brother live with Oakie and Haley - further identify the film as one of the era.
Not the best image of these costumes, but perhaps the safest to share on this blog.
Rogers is charming but given little to do, and Todd, though appearing briefly, leaves a larger mark on the film as a volatile movie star who hooks Oakie. But it's really Oakie and Haley's picture, and they play off each other well. One of my favorite scenes - and the funniest - must have been choreographed, and it's not even the final number! In this particular sequence, Oakie and Haley finally land an audition with a producer (by pretending to be a manager on the phone, no less). While they play for him, a stream of employees revolve through the office, from a set designer looking for approval to a writer asking for help to Todd complaining about her latest production and then tearing off her outer layer of clothing and shimmying up to Oakie at the piano. The producer tries to manage the chaos, but that doesn't work, and amidst the action, the writer runs outside and moments later we find out he killed himself. What usually would be a bleak moment actually garnered some laughs for the way in which the producer dusted the moment off like it wasn't someone's life. It kind of reminded me how the business works today...
Universal owns Sitting Pretty, and I'm sitting patiently for a DVD release. Do it for the pre-Code fans, Universal!
A Million Bid (1927)
Like Sitting Pretty, I was on the fence about A Million Bid. What finally swayed me was the write-up in the fest program. There, it was mentioned that the only known surviving print had Italian intertitles. Though I've seen English subtitles provided for films with foreign language title cards, Cinecon was screening this film with a live translation.
The story started off slow but eventually gained steam. Prodded by her mother, Dolores Costello marries Warner Oland for money. He's a brut, and a stormy sea takes care of Costello's annoying mother and Oland. Or at least we thought. Now free to marry her true love, brain surgeon Malcolm McGregor, Costello moves on with him, but then McGregor is given the opportunity to restore a patient's memory...and that patient is shipwreck survivor Oland. McGregor is confident in his abilities, which terrifies Costello, as she doesn't want Oland to tear her life apart. The second half of the film is solid and even tense - credit goes to the story and acting there - and the ending is a dramatic, satisfying one.
How's that marriage to Warner Oland working out, Dolores Costello?
Cinecon's own Michael Schlesinger provided the translation and something we usually don't get with silent movies because of the, well, silence: a voice - and emotion with the voice. He did a good job, with only one or two small missteps; I'm guessing it would be hard to pay attention to the screen and keep trying to find your place on the piece of paper with all the translations! As a bonus for me, I tested my Italian skills as he provided the live-read for us, and I was pretty proud that I could identify at least half of the words on each card!
Stan's Grab Bag Cavalcade
Stan Taffel, the new President of Cinecon, originally organized a series of items on 16mm for this grab bag screening, but since the Egyptian's 16mm projector isn't accessible due to construction (for nitrate's entrance!), he compiled some 35mm pieces instead. The result? Mostly breakdowns from Warner Brothers - aka, bloopers - and those are always fun. I particularly enjoyed watching Olivia de Havilland curse EVERY time she flubbed a line, Jimmy Cagney's pure energy, Bette Davis being... exactly how you'd think she'd be and Danny Kaye clowning for the camera whenever it was rolling. We sometimes forget these legendary stars were humans too, and this was a hilarious, oftentimes explicit reminder.
It was a (mostly) silent Sunday for me, as I saw three silent films and took a silent locations walking tour during lunch. Sunday was also a throwback of sorts, because a number of the day's selections were shot in Fort Lee, NJ. As a born and bred Jersey girl, those pictures always catch my eye.
Robin Hood (1912)
I'm not a huge Robin Hood fan. However, this is the earliest surviving Robin Hood film, and it was shot in NJ. Couldn't really pass either of those points up!
Images from the Fort Lee Film Commission's restoration of Robin Hood, produced by Sirk Productions.
The story was a bit hard to follow, but I certainly appreciated it, and the fact that I was still able to see a movie filmed 104 years ago on the big screen. I also totally tried to picture what it was like being on that set - what the camera looked like, how directing was different back then, how they set up shots - you know, the usual questions. It definitely took me back in time!
The Danger Game (1918)
According to the Cinecon program, this is the sole surviving - as of now - of Madge Kennedy's silent pictures, discovered by a Spanish film archive. I believe Jon Mirsalis introduced this film and shared a story relating to the person who uncovered that copy of the movie. Apparently, the man - I forget his name - was keeping the print 'hostage' and only forwarding individual frames - to Jon, I think. Jon eventually told him to send the entire film, and he did, but it was a nitrate print! The movie made it safe and sound, but along the way, it could have blown up any post office it made a pit stop at. (If you're aware of any errors with these facts or names, please feel free to correct me. All of the introductions are starting to melt together at this point.)
As the program also acknowledged, the print was nitrate-damaged, leading it to appear a bit rough during the first scene or two. I also must admit that after a larger breakfast, the food coma was setting in, and that did not bode well for the war I sometimes wage with my eyes during silent movies. I kicked myself afterwards for that because this was one picture I actually was intrigued by; I caught the beginning, specifically the breaking into an unknown home part, and the very end, and I can tell I would have liked Madge Kennedy and her proto-flapper character had I been able to catch the entire movie.
Silent Walking Tour
I've lived in Los Angeles for seven years and have never taken a tour of any part of the city while living here. What better time (and topic) to start with? Plus, I'm in Hollywood several times during the year, and I figured it would be fun to know what corners, streets and alleys Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and the like frequented all those years ago.
John Bengtson helping identify locations on the Silent Walking Tour of Hollywood. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
We journeyed east down Hollywood Blvd and took a right on Cahuenga and ventured down there a bit before returning to the theater. Some of the highlights for me included hearing about the movies shot near Outpost, a bar on Cahuenga my kickball team used to go to after our games, and across the street in what used to be a fire and police station. We also spent considerable time in a small alley off Cahuenga and Cosmo Street, in the parking lot of what is now a Caribbean restaurant. Apparently, the space south on Cahuenga wasn't built up much during the 10s and 20s, so that alley and surrounding area - including the historic bank building on the northeast corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood, the first high rise in town - provided as much of an urban landscape as one could get at the time.
The tour ran a bit long, but it was very informative. The guide, John Bengtson, obviously has spent a substantial amount of time tracking down locations and corresponding photos to help put stills and sequences in their proper historical context, which is no easy task.
The Battle of the Century (1927)
For years, only a small part of the second reel of this short was known to survive. The first reel eventually turned up and was shown on television, but most of the second reel was thought lost - until recently. This past year, Serge Bromberg included the brand new restoration in his "Amazing Film Discoveries" program at TCMFF, but unfortunately, I had to leave that presentation early and missed this particular short.
Nothing to see here. (Part of the epic pie fight in The Battle of the Century.)
Man, I'm glad this second chance rolled around and I took it! Cinecon's Jon Mirsalis, who actually discovered the full second reel, shared the back-story; the print apparently was sitting - unknown - in a private collection that was later split up, and Mirsalis was assisting in the liquidation of one of those collections when he uncovered the second reel, aka the entirety of the infamous pie fight, which involved 3,000 pies and flawless choreography and timing. It was a riot to behold, from the start in the ring to the end on the pie-massacred streets, and even better, I must add, with an audience.
Play Safe (1927)
Somehow, I was under the impression that Play Safe took place entirely on a train. That assumption, coupled with the fact that there were no opening credits - the movie just started with an intertitle introducing the action – seriously had me thinking there was a mistake the first few minutes. But when the film kept on rolling, I figured I was wrong. (And I was.)
I really enjoyed the antics of Italian-born comedian Monty Banks, a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in my mind. I had never heard his name before, and it seems like most of his one and two reels films are now considered lost (and then he worked mainly in Europe starting in the late 20s). That’s a shame, because he was a joy to watch. Oh, and when the train sequences finally came around, well, they delivered. I’m not sure if all of the stunts and locations were real – they certainly looked it – but in between my disbelief at the actions onscreen, all I could think about was how many people were injured back in those days, before strict(er) safety precautions were taken on sets…
Just a sampling of the insane stunts performed in Play Safe.
Jungle Mystery, Chapter 11 (1932)
I wanted to catch at least one chapter of this 12-part serial, and this was the one I saw. Note to self: coming in at 11 out of 12 isn’t the best idea. I got the (poorly acted) point, but that was about it. I will say this: for some reason, I’ve become really interested in the history of movie serials now. How they were shot, how audiences reacted, and so forth. That’s what I was thinking about in between my efforts to figure out the story.
His Marriage Mix-up (1935)
Yes, I woke up early on a holiday to drive to Hollywood for an 18 minute short…and then drove back home for breakfast and to get some work done. Why did I do that? Well, how can one read the short logline for His Marriage Mix-up on IMDb -" Harry's fiancé is the exact double of an escaped axe murderess" - and not be at least a tiny bit curious to see what this is all about? The whole ordeal was very funny and rather ridiculous, especially the scenes with the murderous double. Let’s just say that I’d be convinced Dorothy Granger was a very dangerous lady if I didn't know she was an actress. (Seriously, Granger did not look like she was messing around in those ax-wielding scenes - and there are several of them.)
Ghost Town: The Story of Fort Lee (1935)
Ghost Town made my list because of my aforementioned New Jersey roots and the fact that it was shot in 1935, because we usually don't see docs of this kind from this time period. This short silent piece more closely resembled a somber home movie than anything else, as abandoned, decrepit, and sometimes badly damaged buildings and locations were visited and explored, areas that bustled just two decades prior. One shot captured a plot of land littered with rusted film cans, some definitely full of film, and you can guess how many defeated sighs of disappointment those images elicited from the crowd.
At the end, a title card questioned whether Hollywood would become the ghost town Fort Lee did. Well, sitting in the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood over 80 years later, we all know that didn’t turn out to be the case. As for Fort Lee, I am happy to say that the town eventually did bounce back. The Fort Lee Film Commission seems a very active and passionate group, and Tom Meyers even represented the board at Cinecon for a few days.
One of several studios that set up shop in Fort Lee during the first decade or two of the 20th century.
Thieves Highway (1949)
As my friend Nora pointed out, this was the "newest" movie on the Cinecon schedule, which definitely says a lot! Though Thieves Highway is readily available on DVD, I rarely say no to a film noir, especially one I haven’t seen, and my only reference coming in was the brilliant Criterion cover and director Jules Dassin. Suffice it to say, the fruit hauling storyline isn’t one I’d normally think of when it comes to noir, but the plot worked, and the picture was executed and acted very well. Afterwards, Nora commented that parts of this movie reminded her of Hell Drivers (1957), and I was thinking the same thing, mostly due to the racing trucks, precarious landscapes, and slimy men these guys work for/sell to. Thieves Highway is more of a noir than Hell Drivers but is still a rather atypical outing that boils just below the surface. Definitely recommended for noir fans.
So This is Paris (1926)
So This is Paris was my #1 pick going into Cinecon, and I find it fitting that I closed the festival with this film. Whereas one of Thursday's selections, The Last Warning (1929), felt like it had been produced ten years prior, So This is Paris, filmed three years before The Last Warning, appeared way ahead of its time, but in the same breadth, I find it hard to believe a film like this would be made in the 30s, as it looks and feels strictly like a product of the 20s. (Thanks to Mike Schlesinger for pointing out to me that the film was remade - and by Lubitsch - in 1932 as One Hour with You. Now I need to watch that movie and compare notes.) Though I thought Lubitsch could have picked up the pace in a few scenes, overall So This is Paris sparkles with wit and vibrancy. The trials and tribulations the characters find themselves in are remarkably funny and the results achieved with sophistication and Lubitsch’s signature light touch. The dance sequence montage is visually stunning, and I'm 95% sure that it is the merriest party I’ve ever seen captured on film. I also admire the way in which Patsy Ruth Miller and Monte Blue's relationship transforms at the end, with Miller leveraging her power. This is one movie I'd love to see again, and I think being a Lubitsch movie there would certainly be a market for it. (Wink, wink Warner Bros.)
PARTY! Lubitsch style.
I hope you enjoyed my coverage of Cinecon 52! I'm even more pleased I was able to take ample advantage of the event this time around, because I already know I won't be attending Cinecon 53 - at least, not all of it. That's not exactly my choice, and at least it's for a worthy cause: my best friend is getting married that weekend and I'm co-Maid of Honor. Perhaps I'll be able to make it out next year for a day or two, but I won't know if that's possible until next summer. Here's to hoping it is!
If you attended Cinecon 52, what were your favorite movies?