Cinecon 54 in Review: Day One, Thursday
September 17, 2018
Cinecon 54 was a whirlwind for me, mostly because I attended a wedding in northern California smack in the middle of the event! Despite what turned out to be a pretty jam-packed weekend, I happily fit in six features and five shorts across three days of the festival. I was fortunate enough to catch several rare, must-see pictures that I did not want to miss, all while discovering a few new gems, which is what Cinecon is all about to me.
I’m going to break down my recap by each day I attended the fest: Thursday, Friday, and Monday. First day’s first: Thursday!
The Edison Kinetophone
The evening started with a spectacle: a 1912 demonstration of Edison’s Kinetophone, revealing early sound film potential a good decade and a half before talkies became the norm. Despite the fact that image and sound weren’t originally synchronized in this short, simply hearing the man and observing his own enthusiasm was a trip. When he bellowed that the new technology will enable “actors and singers of today” to “be seen and heard 100 years from now!” the audience actually applauded. I’ve never witnessed that stirring a reaction to an early sound piece. Personally, I was stunned because I never thought that type of foresight was discussed or mused about back then. That leads me to wonder what the pioneers imagined motion pictures to be like 100 years in the future…
Edward Everett Horton, Baby Peggy, and Clara Bow in Helen's Babies.
Cinecon 54’s Opening Night Film: Helen’s Babies (1924)
Picture this: Edward Everett Horton as a child expert. Fake, of course, but in Helen’s Babies Uncle Harry’s (Horton) ‘expertise’ is put to the test when his sister Helen (Claire Adams) asks him to take care of her children, Toddie (Baby Peggy) and Budge (Jeanne Carpenter), while she and her husband are away. Despite what their father says, these two aren’t exactly angels...
Ninety-nine-year-old Baby Peggy was unfortunately unable to attend the screening as planned. However, we were treated to a lovely video introduction with her in which she recalled memories of her co-stars from a mere 94 years ago (!!!), including Horton (working with him was a “vacation”) and Bow (whom she called a “little good girl,” which I found odd... until I saw the film).
I fell down the rabbit role searching for an image of Baby Peggy and have come to the conclusion that she is the most adorable and photogenic child to ever grace this planet.
Helen’s Babies is the first Baby Peggy picture I’ve ever seen. The verdict: I need to seek more out, because I am enamored with this child star. Her natural talent and impeccable comedic timing, at age five, was awe-inspiring. The fact that the film trained its attention on several humorous episodes involving her, including a wrestling match with a box of neck collars and a gag in which she lovingly wipes uncle Horton’s nose by dabbing a kerchief in his mouth while he sleeps, worked in its favor because she transfixes audiences. Her chemistry with Horton, who I never thought I’d see in a ‘parenting’ role, made the movie a joy from start to finish. And Clara Bow! The infamous “It” girl wouldn’t explode onto the scene for another few years; here, she plays the girl next door who is great with Helen’s babies and falls for Horton (yes, you read that right). Sounds unbelievable on paper, but I totally bought it!
I also have to praise the live accompaniment courtesy of the Famous Players Orchestra, conducted by Scott Lasky. Ninety-nine percent of the silent films I watch in theaters are either accompanied by one pianist or a small group of musicians, but the sheer amount (and of course talent) of the musicians contributing to this score definitely spoiled me for future silent picture viewings!
Sweet and Low-Down (1944)
I usually pass on musicals, but I’m glad I stayed for Sweet and Low-Down, a romantic comedy in which Benny Goodman and his Orchestra pick up a new member, Johnny (James Cardwell), who soon finds himself juggling fame and two ladies, singer Pat (Lynn Bari) and Trudy (Linda Darnell).
Names like Goodman, Jack Oakie, Darnell, and Bari I was familiar with but felt like I didn’t come across too often, which was enticing. One star I didn’t recognize was rough and tumble talented tenement kid Cardwell, who reminded me of a young John Garfield. When I looked Cardwell up, I was saddened to read that his path veered rather close to Garfield’s in a way, as both men tragically passed in the 1950s when they were both in their 30s.
Plot-wise, Sweet and Low-Down leaned heavily on the unbelievable side. Really, a newbie trombone player 1. wins a spot in the band after his brother steals Goodman’s clarinet, 2. scores a solo in his first performance, 3. gets Goodman’s band members to jump ship to join his new group, and 4. then Goodman takes them all back when that endeavor flops? OK, sure. But everyone turned in a solid performance, especially the young kids who portrayed a troop of endearing and hilarious junior soldiers. Not to mention, witnessing Goodman’s musical genius is always a treat, and the lighthearted atmosphere made for an enjoyable flick.
Tagline of the year. For 1941, 2018, or any year in between.
Scotland Yard (1941)
What a way to end opening night. Scotland Yard’s synopsis gave me The Mad Game (1933) vibes, but whereas plastic surgery was purposely exploited in that picture, it’s used more so as a twist of fate in this one. To put it (kind of) simply, a robber, Dakin (Henry Wilcoxon), steals a locket from a bickering couple, bank president Sir John (John Loder) and Lady Sandra (Nancy Kelly); escapes the authorities; joins the armed forces, where he honorably serves his country; suffers substantial injuries to his face; and undergoes surgery… to look like the guy in the locket, cause doctors assume that’s him! Oh, and the real Sir John is a POW, so when Dakin returns ‘home’ to his ‘wife,’ he’s a new man—literally. Positive: He’s not a cad like the first hubby, so he and the wife fall in love. Negative: Dakin’s back to his old tricks, which involves planning a robbery—of his own bank.
Full disclosure, I did get a little tired at the midway mark, but it seems like the story kept the absurdities up, because I do recall hearing about some Nazis?! I snapped out of my drowsiness at the end, just in time for Lady Sandra AND crusading inspector Cork (Edmund Gwenn) to admit they were aware of Dakin’s true identity, but because he fought so gallantly for his country he gets a free pass?! My favorite moment involves Cork reminding the lovers that they really need to figure out how they are going to deal with that one obstacle—ahem, the real Sir John. (Cause he’s officially out of this relationship; I guess being a thief and impersonator isn’t as bad as being a louse, according to the moral compass of this picture.)
Now, which husband is this?
Man, that ending still gets me. Can you imagine coming home to—surprise!—a twin, someone who robbed you of your possessions… and now your most prized one, your wife? Yup, Scotland Yard has easily one of the most ridiculous plots I’ve ever witnessed… and I loved it. Seriously, when can I see it again? (I really do enjoy the flagrant chaos many B pictures radiate.) Special shout-out to John Loder, who masterfully played two different characters who looked identical, pre and post Dakin, while he was also tasked with basing the post-Dakin iteration on Wilcoxon’s portrayal of the robber. Just wrapping my head around that scenario confuses me, and I’d be curious to hear how he prepared for that undertaking.
After a full day of work, Cinecon’s opening night reception, and three features, I was more than ready for some shut eye Thursday night. I made it back to the festival after my 9-6 on Friday for another film-filled evening, this time for a round of shorts and my most anticipated Colleen Moore flick of the fest! Check back in a few days for my Friday review from Cinecon 54.