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Cinecon 2019 Review: Days 1 and 2

September 5, 2019

Cinecon Classic Film Festival #55 hit two milestones this year: They celebrated 30 consecutive years in LA (prior to that the locations varied) and their 20th anniversary at the American Cinematheque. I’m always amazed at how five days of nonstop cinema race by so fast. My personal schedule for the fest this year was extremely ambitious. How’d I do? Well, to my surprise, I made 17 films/events, a pretty decent number for me—and that includes Friday, because I unexpectedly got the day off work! Below is a recap of Thursday and Friday’s festivities. Saturday, Sunday and Monday’s reviews will be coming soon!

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Bare Knees (1928)

As Cinecon President Stan Taffel told us before the picture, “The film you are going to see cost $15 and was almost junked.” As the story goes, in 1969 a young film collector went to a flea market in New Jersey where a man offered him some film at $5 a reel (which was a lot in those days!). When the collector, Lou Dicrescenzo, found out there weren’t any other prints of the picture around, he gave the film to AFI, who in turned handed it over to the Library of Congress.  


We were lucky enough to watch the world premiere restoration of Bare Knees, and spoiler alert: There were a lot of them. This 60-minute silent and the lovely accompaniment by the Famous Players Orchestra was lively, witty and upbeat. Heck, the film even opened with a title card that read, roughly, that the picture was dedicated to the flapper. “God bless them”—and dress them! Laughter right off the bat; obviously, we were in for a treat.


I’ll watch any movie having to do with carefree young flappers, and in this one, said flapper Billie (Virginia Lee Corbin) comes to live with her straight-laced sister and husband in a quiet town and riles things up, naturally. That riling includes giving her sister a very sheer nightgown at her birthday and spicing up the ladies baseball team’s uniform, resulting in them beating the men’s team 29-0.

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Said baseball uniforms...

Though there’s certainly some dated material in here, a lot of it is also timely today, particularly comments on the way women dress and how men react; I was kind of hoping Billie would tell her sister that what she wears shouldn’t have any bearing on men’s actions, and while she pushed back, it wasn't exactly in that way. Another line later on struck me, too: When faced with having to jump off a burning pier, Billie woefully acknowledges that she never learned to swim; she spent her time posing on the beach instead. As a young woman in the Instagram age, that certainly hit a chord. (Thankfully, I learned how to swim long before social media!)


I always appreciate the snappy, suggestive title cards frequently found in late 20s pictures like this. “Husbands are humans too,” one line read. There’s also some wonderful shots in Bare Knees, including the ones that open the movie, and a juicy little twist with the sister about two-thirds in that I didn’t see coming. Oh, and the climax takes place— where else?—on a burning roller coaster that takes a dive, literally. Pretty nuts, and a pretty fun time all-around.

Trick for Trick (1933)

Mike Schlesinger described Trick for Trick as The Old Dark House (1932) on acid. Yup, that’s about right. This was one of the titles I was most looking forward to, and so were others apparently; Schlesinger said that Cinecon audiences can’t see everything, and many times they’d request to screen a movie again. Well, Trick for Trick is so popular with fans that this was actually the third time it’s played at the fest. “This is 67 minutes of galloping insanity, and that is why we love the movie,” he proclaimed.

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Trick for Trick sure was an oddity.

This quirky B ‘horror’ movie packed a lot into those 67 minutes. There was (random) comedy, coats, creeps, (pre)-Code, cats, (in)coherent plotting... and that’s only the c’s. Within that comedy was a weird scene during a seance in which Ralph Morgan senses there’s a gun in the room… and then everyone turns out to casually have one. It was a funny bit if not a little awkward to see today. Not to mention, as Schlesinger warned, Luis Alberni overacted the heck out of his character. It was warranted, yes, but it was one of the most outrageous characterizations I’ve ever seen.

Trick for Trick also stood out in the design department. The noir-ish lighting and mood ranked among the highlights, the top being the famed William Cameron Menzies’ striking deco sets and stunning special effects. Even considering the CGI we’re used to today, I must say some of the magic tricks were pretty convincing.

Oh, and being from Jersey, I chuckled at this line poking fun at my home state:
“Have you ever been to Jersey?”
“No, but I fell in a ditch once.”

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The Flying Ace (1926)
Not having to go to work on Friday meant I was able to see this film! The Flying Ace is the only surviving title from the Norman Studios, an indie outlet based in Florida that made movies for black audiences. (I figured director Richard Norman was African American, but it turns out he was Caucasian.) I had only really heard about Oscar Micheaux’s films aimed at black moviegoers during the 1920s, so it was nice to uncover another part of film history I never knew about.

Though the story and the filmmaking ability found in The Flying Ace were both a little novice compared to a Hollywood production, I do have to cut this independent picture, which was filmed in Florida, some slack. We were told we’d see some exciting flying scenes, and while those were not what I expected, I did appreciate what they were able to pull off without actually going up in the air; there’s a climactic scene atop a plane (after one man tries to assault a woman in said aircraft, no less) that was thrilling to watch. The acting was also solid, especially considering the cast was a mix of pros and non-actors, and it was refreshing to not see so many stereotypes; really, only one character, the sheriff, was painted as uneducated. Everyone else acted, well, just as regular people would. OK, maybe save for one of the main character’s pals who was a war vet amputee who used a crutch to ride a bike to chase after one of the bad guys. That was pretty awesome.

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It can be hard to fly under the radar when your face is plastered on the cover of the Daily News, as Vittorio Gassman's is in The Glass Wall.

The Glass Wall (1953)

Another reason I’m glad work was called off Friday was that I would have missed this and the effervescent Ann Robinson, whose Q&A I’ll cover at a later date. I’d give the timeliest movie award of Cinecon to The Glass Wall, which opened with a man (Vittorio Gassman) on a ship trying to get into the US as a refugee but being denied. After spending 10 years in camps, he tells the officer that they have to let him in because there’s a clause allowing those who helped the Allied cause, and he saved a American soldier's life during the war. Of course they don’t believe him, but he’s determined, and from there, he starts on a journey to find this man—he only remembers his first name and that he was a clarinet player in NYC—with the help of Gloria Grahame, who is always great to see onscreen. Halfway through, the man he’s trying to find starts looking for him, which is a neat little turn in the tale.


The three main characters’ strength and commitment to help each other was stirring and quite unexpected to me; I thought this would be a dark noir, and while it had noir tinges, it was more an uplifting story than anything. The United Nations push at the end came across as a tad much, but they probably wanted to shed some positive light on the new organization—and the world. Near the end, Gassman delivered a stirring, passionate speech about freedom which should probably be recirculated today, because we are still fighting some of the same battles society faced all those years ago.

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Show Girl (1928)

Show Girl was one of the few movies I thought I’d seen before, but it was actually Show Girl in Hollywood (1930) that I had watched. Whoops. Alice White (Dixie) possessed that Clara Bow vibe and energy, which burst off the screen. That helped in the film’s slower moments—and it helped me swallow the fastest start in show biz that I’ve ever seen. Given its production date, Show Girl was silent but featured some synced sound, effects, and even a song or two near the end, which also added some pizzazz.


Dixie’s rise to fame, and infame, was one aspect of the movie that struck a chord today. Her mother rails against her getting into show business and at one point bemoans that her daughter is at the center of a scandal—and she’s getting things from it! Those offers, the press, the salary increases—if it was like that then, could you imagine what it would be like now?! Celebrity culture has absolutely gone off the deep end with the advent of social media.


Despite the sad similarities to today, Dixie's fame frenzy was fun to watch (to an extent), and the comedic relief Dixie’s family provided, particularly her parents, was another highlight. The amorality and juxtaposition between her life and her family’s was also interesting. I mean, she’s in on her own kidnapping, and her boyfriend basically exploits her for headlines, and neither of them think anything of it—not in the least how it affects her family. That hit home how little there is in the story or moral department here, making it quite obvious that Show Girl was intended for pure entertainment. And that it certainly was.

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There's just a little bit of tension between Dorothy Dell and Victor McLaglen in Wharf Angel. Just a little.

Wharf Angel (1934)
I’ve never heard of star Dorothy Dell before, and there was a reason for that: She died tragically in a car accident the same year this film came out at the age of 19. Wharf Angel was one of the three features she appeared in, all released that year. If I hadn’t been told she was 19, I would have figured she was in her mid-late 20s; she had an edge to her like she’d seen a lot—and as a wharf angle named Toy that characterization was spot on. In the intro, Dell was described as a Mae West-type and I completely saw that; it’s sad her life was cut so short, because I’m sure she would have went on to stardom.


While this late pre-Code boasted some juicy bits (like shirtless sweaty men battling each other with shovels), the story delivered more on the dramatic level. Every main character was fully fleshed out, which was rather startling to see, at least to me, in a 65-minute picture. Not to mention, the transformation Dell and Victor McLaglen’s characters went through in such a short time was astounding—and actually believable. I will say that the finale was a little abrupt, and I was expecting something more intense, but it was satisfying nonetheless. All in all, Wharf Angel ended up being more of a character study than I anticipated, which was a little harder to grapple at such a late hour (well, 10pm), but it was worth it.

Stay tuned for my recap of the next three days of Cinecon, coming next week!

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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