Cinecon 54 in Review: Day Two, Friday
September 21, 2018
Welcome to my Friday recap from Cinecon 54! Though Friday was the first full day of the festival, I only attended the evening screenings, as I had a nine hour workday to get through first. That meant I unfortunately missed out on the 1933 bonkers sounding sci-fi/comedy/??? pre-Code It’s Great to Be Alive and the discussion with Eva Marie Saint, BUT I was thrilled to catch Colleen Moore’s 1920 silent comedy So Long, Letty. So, it all balanced out.
It's great to be alive, yes, but it was a tragedy to miss this one.
Admittedly, I don’t focus my attention enough on the non-feature length offerings found at Cinecon, which is why the 8pm Mentone Shorts block wasn’t one of my initial picks. Honestly, I had absolutely no idea what the program entailed... and that’s exactly the reason I decided to see them. As much as I try to keep to my schedule, it’s important to occasionally deviate from the plan and let the unexpected in.
During the brief introduction, we learned that studios frequently outsourced their musical variety short subjects. Mentone Productions produced one reelers released through RKO and also, for some reason virtually unknown about until recently, two reel subjects distributed by Universal between roughly 1933 and 1939, which the studio recently let Cinecon share. Save for a known star or two, most of these offerings featured talent whose names are not widely remembered today. We were reminded that these were still very hard-working professionals who we should applaud for their talent and commitment to the craft—and we certainly did.
Roy Smeck, "The Wizard of the Strings," playing for the club-house crowd in Club-House Party.
Club-House Party (1935)
From a Spanish dancing duo; to a trio of tap dancers, one of whom tapped on his toes; to Roy Smeck, “The Wizard of the Strings,” who strummed a guitar like I’ve never seen before, this short was basically a gigantic talent show. Like, the most incredible one I’ve ever witnessed. The one part that was a bit of a downer—and this is a modern critique—was the fact that all of the acts were dressed appropriately for a formal occasion… except the African American tap dancers, who were outfitted in bellhop uniforms, as they were portrayed as employees and not guests even though they exhibited immense aptitude, just like all the other performers. The frustrations of 1930s racism.
At the Mike (1934)
This was another musical talent spectacle with a razor thin plot to pull it together. All the acts were performing on a radio show, and each cast member was introduced by receiving a call to report to the studio at 3pm for rehearsal, which was a unique touch. Talent included Aunt Jemima (unfortunately, the character and the way in which she was dressed denoted more stereotypes) belting out a tune, a hillbilly band, Baby Rose Marie singing songs with a voice and lyrics incredibly advanced for her age, and a drunk lady who happened to be super flexible. The level of ability wasn’t quite as extraordinary as the first film, but the talent was still extremely respectful, and the added comedy and risqué material definitely made this short a hoot.
Hunting Trouble (1933)
I thoroughly got a kick out of Hunting Trouble’s main story—a wife tries to surprise her husband with a dog, but he thinks she’s having an affair with the conman who secretly delivered the pet, and naturally he swears to defend her honor… with another woman sitting on his lap at work! What a plot, right? That said, this comedy was a tad too loud and over the top for my liking—and I usually enjoy screwball and physical humor. The action was constant and relentless, like the studio was trying to get the most bang for the actors’ buck, but it ultimately left me confused. One thing I was not expecting: a bevy of physical gags centering around Louise Beavers! I’ve never seen her in such a purely comedic role, and she was hysterical, as was the rest of the cast.
A cop uniform (with Billy Bevan inside) and a baby carriage: Those should be sufficient to score a free meal, right? Wandering Willies has the answer...
...and it's a no. Not when said baby (Andy Clyde) is actually a full grown, cigar puffing man. Nice try, though.
Wandering Willies (1926)
Wandering Willies, a Mack Sennett comedy, was split into two segments. The first part and a half I really enjoyed—Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde are looking for something to eat, and Bevan ends up impersonating a police officer to elicit free food, while Clyde poses as a baby in a carriage and sneaks bites here and there in the restaurant. Side note: I adore how nuts these shorts could be. A steady succession of hilarious tricks ensue, including pesky “oysters” and a smoking “baby,” (with the title card: “Babies aren’t allowed to smoke in here!”) All would have been fine and dandy for me had the short ended after this lengthy joke, but when it careened and shifted gears outside of the restaurant, it kind of lost me. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the clever sight gags; they reminded me how wily and witty so many of these silent comedies were!
So Long, Letty (1920)
I was so excited that my schedule permitted me to see So Long, Letty, and it certainly delivered in the comically naughty and Colleen Moore departments. Man, for 1920 this film was some sacrilege of marriage! I can’t envision a picture with this story being made after 1934 in America… or even in the pre-Code era, for that matter. I mean, I don’t think many movies would show husbands intentionally “neglecting” their wives to get them to leave because they think they are better suited to their neighbors’ spouses. (Of course, when the ladies catch wind of that plan, they aim to make the men jealous. Game on.)
So Long, Letty’s familiar themes of the grass being greener on the other side and the husbands getting a taste of their own medicine were witty, charming, and, as plotted here, saucy for the time; I actually forgot just how old this picture was (two years shy of 100!) until I witnessed those conservative 1920s bathing suits flooding the screen. Elements like the flirting, the exchanging of keys, and moving in to each other’s homes balanced the humor and thematic risk well in a period that was in some ways even more uninhibited than the pre-Code era. I mean, the central plot point alone of the husbands cohabitating in each other’s houses with their wives—even if the men obviously don’t sleep with the women—would 99.5% be frowned upon a decade later.
My one complaint is that I felt the film lagged near the end after both parties realized life was better with their own spouses. But I overlooked that rather quickly when Moore entered the scene again. Her charm always puts a smile on my face no matter the picture or situation, and as I’ve only watched her later silent films, So Long, Letty is the earliest I’ve seen her. Though the 20-year-old actress had only been on the screen for about four years by this time, Moore had that sweet natured girl next door act down and was visibly developing her comic chops. I could certainly spy the makings of her future flapper-era captivation, which would come three years later in the lost landmark Flaming Youth.
LOOK HOW YOUNG COLLEEN MOORE IS!
A few notes on this title: So Long, Letty was a lost film until fairly recently. How was it found? Ebay, of course. I didn’t catch the man’s name who introduced the movie, but he found a listing for the film online, assuming it was the 1929 adaptation. He was in luck: The seller confirmed it was the 1920 version… and the price escalated quickly. He soon found out he was bidding against a friend, whom he contacted and proposed they go in on the investment together, as he could get the New York Public Library to cover the cost of the initial preservation and they’d each get a 16mm copy. A few years later, the Library of Congress found 35mm footage from the film, and the 16mm print the New York Public Library worked on, which had about 8-10% shrinkage, was handed to them; luckily, the LOC worked some magic, and their team was able to better stabilize the image. I’d say they did a good job—the print we saw looked decent for a 98 year old movie!
The Ape (1940)
I had all the best intentions of staying up late for The Ape, which started around 10:50pm, but a long work day and a faint reminder of the fact that I had to wake up at 6:30am for a flight exhausted me more than I already was. Naturally, I double checked that this Karloff flick was available elsewhere before I made my final decision, though I have no doubt The Ape would have been all the more outlandish viewing it with an audience.
As I mentioned previously, I hopped a flight to northern California Saturday morning for a wedding, which meant I had to sit out Saturday and Sunday at Cinecon. The whole reason I chose to fly instead of drive was so I could make it back in time for Monday afternoon’s screenings at the festival. (Yes, that’s true; I was set to drive north until the Cinecon schedule came out!) Stay tuned for my thoughts on the final day of the fest soon. All I’ll say now is that it was more than worth it to come back early, because: Marsha Hunt.