Cinecon 54 in Review: Day Five, Monday
September 26, 2018
I’ve done some crazy things for classic movies, but taking an early morning flight back home hours after a wedding probably tops my list. And while a Paramount B-picture usually wouldn’t be worth the effort, the entire event I was racing to on the final day of Cinecon 54 certainly was.
The Virginia Judge (1935)
Seconds after I realized Marsha Hunt’s film debut, the rarely screened The Virginia Judge, was programed Monday afternoon at Cinecon—at a time I could possibly swing—I started researching ways I could make the screening. And I’m glad I did. Not only did Hunt speak before the picture (I knew she was scheduled to appear, but I wasn’t aware she was going to partake in a short Q&A) and share stories I’ve never heard in the countless times I’ve seen her live, but we all got to enjoy her film debut with her, a mere 83 years after she had probably last seen it herself.
Now, The Virginia Judge was certainly a product of its time. The film centers around a respected provincial Judge (Walter C. Kelly) who has a rocky relationship with his stepson Jim (Robert Cummings). Jim has his eyes set on the pretty girl next door, Mary Lee (Hunt), who is torn between him and Bob (Johnny Downs), and as such, your typical small-town B-movie shenanigans ensue.
Marsha Hunt landed in the middle of a love triangle with Robert Cummings (left) and Johnny Downs (right) in her film debut.
As a southern-set film with a stable of black actors, The Virginia Judge features some hefty stereotyping, and a portion of that actually comes from 2nd billed Stepin Fetchit, who plays a bumbling and slow-witted frequent visitor in front of the Judge’s bench in a few scenes that are rather painful to watch today. (Many of the townspeople we see the Judge prosecute are African Americans.) That said, I was pleased that at least one moment of genuine compassion was extended to a homeless character of color who was trying to find a way to visit his daughter. Interestingly, one of the only (if not the only) white men the Judge rules on, his stepson, made for a pretty damning observation on racism and the judicial system at the end of the movie. Though he initially hands down a light prison sentence to Jim, Bob quickly intervenes to admit that he’s partly to blame for what Jim did to him—and then the Judge switches the ruling to probation! Considering how strict he was with the other cases (made up of mostly black characters), that’s not exactly a fair and unbiased judgement…
As for the rest of the personalities, Cummings appeared very childlike, both physically and emotionally. Though he was in his mid 20s, he looked like a teenager, and he carried the attitude to match it. His character was so entitled that he actually started to get a little ingratiating; I much preferred Downs as the other man Hunt was caught between, though to be honest, he didn’t have to do much other than stand there, act nice, and look handsome. And speaking of the legend herself, who imitated her southern accent during her introduction (taught to her by Margaret Sullavan, no less), I was pleasantly surprised! As she reminded us, this picture was the very first time she was ever paid to act—and in a starring role, to boot! Though she didn’t appear onscreen as much as I would have thought (or liked!), Hunt still exhibited that same natural, genuine quality she imbued in all her roles. I actually haven’t seen many of her early movies just because they are not as widely available, but it greatly pleased me to see in her the same sincerity that I enjoyed in her later outings. Another thing I could glean from The Virginia Judge was the reason why she grew unhappy with her parts at Paramount. Despite being assigned nothing but leading roles, most of her characters were cut from the same good girl mold, The Virginia Judge’s Mary Lee included, and you could tell the talent inside her was boiling up and just waiting to be released.
Hunt in an early Paramount publicity photo.
Richard Adkins, co-writer of Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity, interviewed the centenarian before the film started. Hunt shared stories of visiting the MGM lot during the late 1920s when she was young, including one humorous episode that occurred when she toured the still gallery. After saying goodbye to legendary photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull, she pushed open the door to leave—and almost smacked Greta Garbo in the face! “That was one of the great moments of my life,” she joked. Luckily, Garbo didn’t recall the incident when Hunt was sent to show the legend a hairstyle in her dressing room years later.
Hunt also regaled the audience with stories from the making of this picture, which we were all excited to enjoy with her. She said she had the honor of observing Stepin Fetchit in action, adding that everyone adored him and enjoyed his work. She also revealed an amusing tale about one of her leading men, Robert Cummings, that I had never heard before. She explained that during the mid-1930s, British performers were all the rage in Hollywood. So, Cummings went to England and came home with a new name: Blade Stanhope Conway. To “prove” that he was busy performing while overseas, Cummings toured the country, and whenever he found a closed theater, he’d pull out the letters of his adopted English name, bribe the manager to put his name up in lights, and snapped away! He came back to America with a “fistful of photos,” and Hunt stated: “He arrived as somebody! Nobody had ever heard of him… but they read about him.” Man, what a story—and what a memory!
Me with the legendary Marsha Hunt. Thanks to Michael Cahill for capturing this picture.
Marsha Hunt usually sticks around after screenings, and when I said hi to the director of her documentary, Roger C. Memos, afterwards, he quickly ushered me over so I could get a picture with her—I told him a few weeks prior that of all the times I’ve spoken to Hunt, I’ve never gotten a photo with her. I was actually not expecting to see either him or her (I was in line for concessions when I spotted them!), so it was lovely that I got to briefly say hi to her again and take a few pictures. Special thanks to Roger, Michael Cahill, and Sean Savage for coordinating and capturing this brief photo op!
Miss Tatlock’s Millions (1948)
Those moments and pictures I shared with Marsha Hunt meant, however, that I was late to the next picture, which made Miss Tatlock’s Millions a bit of a challenge to get in to, as I missed a key component of the film early on. You know, the fact that one of the family members is dead and a stuntman is hired to impersonate him to score his inheritance. No big deal. (I went back and watched the first few scenes online, which helped everything fall into place… after the fact. It was completely worth it, though!)
This was another rarity that I was excited for, but it ended up being quite different than I expected. Cinecon’s website touted the picture as: “A tale of crime, romance and switched identities… just like Scotland Yard, but this time played for laughs.” That was true to an extent: After Miss Tatlock dies, her family assembles for the reading of her will, which brings together an eccentric group—some schemers, some actually good-hearted humans, and the aforementioned impersonator. When I say this film wasn’t what I expected, I don’t mean that in a bad way; it was simply unlike most classic comedies I’ve seen. (If I had to choose a movie for comparison, I’d say 1944's Arsenic and Old Lace, which shared a similar absurdity and offbeat, eccentric characters.) However, Miss Tatlock’s family members were more scathing; some of the implied sexuality was stronger than I would have thought; and the tone, dialogue, and storyline were a bit more ludicrous than what I'd expect from 1948. Honestly, with missing the beginning and a deep exhaustion kicking in from waking up at 6:30am, I think I would have enjoyed Miss Tatlock’s Millions with a more refreshed mind and body, which is why I flagged this comedy for a repeat viewing—in full, this time.
That’s a wrap on my Cinecon 54 coverage. Here’s hoping that none of my friends are planning a Labor Day wedding next year, because my calendar is already reserved for Cinecon 55!