Cinecon 2019 Review: Days 3‒5
September 13, 2019
This year, I had the opportunity to attend all five days of Cinecon, which is always exhilarating... and very tiring. Last week I shared my recap of the first two days, which you can read here. Now it's time to wrap this review up with the final three days of the fest, Saturday-Monday.
Burglar By Proxy (1919)
The poster for Burglar By Proxy sold me. See: above. Oh, and the story too: Who wouldn’t be interested in the tale of an innocent boy next door with a toothache who just wants to romance a nice girl... and ends up getting tangled in a web of burglary, with him somehow being looked upon as an expert in the field! This silent comedy was fun and zany, so much so that I really didn’t think the main character could break free from the mess he spun himself into. After all, getting caught stealing more than once, even if egged on by a criminal who won’t stop following you around, is undeniably hard to explain to a potential mate.
As I’m not a seasoned silent film viewer, both leads, Jack Pickford and Gloria Hope, were new names to me. Pickford, Mary’s younger brother, had an adorable baby face that lent well to his emphasizing the foolishness and innocence of the role he played. (Sadly, his personal life wasn’t so angelic, and he died less than 15 years after this film came out.) As for Gloria Hope, we had the honor of watching this picture with her daughter, who told us that her mother was discovered sitting on a doorstep. For a girl plucked out of a yard for stardom, I’d say she did a lovely job here. Also, how amazing would it be to see your mom on the big screen in a movie she appeared in 100 YEARS AGO?! Unreal.
The great Ernie Kovacs.
Kinecon at Cinecon
For the past several years, Cinecon has presented programs of rare archival television kinescopes, usually in the smaller Spielberg theater. This year, the action moved to the larger (main) Rigler theater, which meant it could be enjoyed by many more people.
I’ve heard of kinescopes, but I think I’ve only seen one or two before. Basically, they are recordings of early TV programs taken before the advent of videotapes. The rarities we were treated to at Cinecon dated from the 1950s and ranged in content, from kids programs to game shows to a celebration of Ernie Kovacs in honor of his centennial and more.
Some of my favorites included the surprise segment that opened the presentation, a Star of the Family snippet featuring Nat King Cole and his wife; a kids show called Juvenile Jury, in which a 4 year old basically revealed the show was rigged; a vintage episode of The Price is Right with some far-out lawn furniture; a crazy tense spelling bee; an Ernie Kovacs episode in which he hilariously spoofed game shows; and Jack Benny’s first live broadcast in 1950. Seeing these gems made me realize how special the early years of broadcast TV were—and how we need to work hard to preserve this history through kinescopes and any other means we have.
Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1957)
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Oh, what a cast! Best ensemble performance of the fest definitely goes to this crew, which included David Niven, Ginger Rogers, Dan Dailey, Barbara Rush, and Tony Randall—all having a ball, and a very contentious one, at that. The film was staged similar to a play, with key scenes taking place in one setting. Plot-wise, I knew this would be a little quirky, as it had to do with a psychiatrist in the 1950s (Niven), his patients (Rogers and Randall), his fiancée (Rush), and those connected to the proceedings/probably should also be a patient (Dailey).
Everyone turned in solid performances, but I was most taken with Rush, who was on hand for a Q&A, and Randall. I’ve only seen a few Rush films, and though she’s accomplished in the drama department, it was a delight watching her bring some uptight comedy into the mix. And Randall, boy. This was his feature debut (!!!), and he blew it out of the water. His timing, mannerisms, and sheer comedic talent were amazing to watch.
On the more dramatic side of things, I thought this picture presented an interesting conversation on marriage, highlighted very well in one exchange Rogers and Dailey had at the end discussing her unhappiness with their union. That type of dialogue rang as very honest, with candor and emotional depth I wasn’t as familiar seeing on the subject of marriage during this time period in Hollywood history.
Night of Mystery (1937)
Cinecon’s Saturday Nitrate Fever opened with the 1936 short Cobweb Hotel, followed by a lovely print of Night of Mystery. This entry in the well-known Philo Vance series starred Grant Richards. I’ve watched Warren William and William Powell as Philo Vance, but never Richards. He portrayed the detective well in a story that presented challenges, mainly in the story department.
The plot revolves around a wealthy family whose members are being killed off one by one (kinda scary, right?!), and those involved in the case for some reason don’t seem as concerned as I was as a viewer. I’ve always been a fan of whodunnits, which kept me entertained and constantly trying to figure out who the guilty party was; I kept going back and forth on who I thought the murderer was, but I did figure out one of the twists in the tale early on. That said, I definitely did not understand how Richards solved the murder, because the explanation was complex, convoluted, and to be honest, I really don’t think it could have been discerned by the audience. That's OK, though. Most of the time with B movies like this I don’t expect to fully understand, but I sure was enthralled.
What a gorgeous Swedish poster for Come Across.
Come Across (1929)
Speaking of outrageous stories, here’s another one. In Come Across, Lina Basquette, who I’ve heard of but never seen before, conducts ‘experiments’ to see how others (read: lower classes) live and then tries to ‘save’ people and gets tied up with a band of crooks who plan to break into her aunts’ house.
I won’t lie, it was late and my brain probably didn’t fully comprehend this plot, but that’s what I got out of it. The whole story was a little far out, especially one of the reveals at the end with one of the male criminals, which I found a little too convenient. That said, Basquette was fantastic; I definitely need to seek out more of her movies. Oh, and one of the outfits she and several chorus girls wore early on in a nightclub scene would rival costumes found in any pre-Code—we're talking silky, skimpy bra tops and high-waisted shorts laced up the side. I was flabbergasted when I saw those. Sometimes, I actually am amazed at what Hollywood got away with!
The Delicious Little Devil (1919)
I really meant to make it to Cinecon Sunday morning for Quiet Please, Murder (1942), the only film in the fest that I’d seen before, and The Shamrock Handicap (1926). But my body had other ideas, mainly sleeping in.
So my first picture of the day was the silent comedy The Delicious Little Devil starring another new name to me, Mae Murray. (I really need to watch more silent movies!) Murray was a delight to watch. The whole time I kept thinking she resembled a young Madonna—or vice versa—and I was in awe of her facial expressions, especially those pursed lips. (I did find out afterwards that one of her nicknames was “The Girl with the Bee Stung Lips.”)
The one familiar name in this picture was Rudolph Valentino, and to think of it, I’m actually pretty sure that this was the first Valentino film I’ve seen. This was one of his first substantial roles, and he performed with ease. Though I know a little bit about the legend, it was still exciting to see him on the big screen; he didn’t get that Latin Lover nickname for nothing!
Mills of the Gods (1934)
On opening night, we were told that Cinecon audiences frequently ask for movies to be screened again. This year, the team decided to replay some of the most popular requests, and this was one of them.
Based on the description, I knew Mills of the Gods would be a heavy tale going in. That it was, but there were heartwarming, touching and even some comical moments. My main takeaway was that May Robson was a badass. As the President of the mill her deceased husband left her, she imbued her character with the right mix of bullheadedness and heart to come across as strong and compassionate. Within the first few minutes, we see her singlehandedly closing a deal that her male employees couldn’t do themselves. Round of applause, please. Right off the bat, I was immediately awe and impressed with her character and performance.
The story centered around Robson’s greedy, inconsiderate family. They are basically the richest family in town (and the biggest employer), though her kids and grandkids don’t seem to care at all about the townspeople and the hardships they are going to go through with the mill’s imminent closure due to the events following the stock market crash. It was remarked that this film was particularly appropriate to play on Labor Day weekend, and it sure was.
I found the family’s utter ignorance and heartlessness reminiscent of the divide between the rich and working classes today; it was insane—and maddening—to me how much the family in this picture, particularly the son, could not fathom the problems of those he was overseeing. I was also pleased with how blunt Robson’s character was regarding her family’s selfishness. She did not mince words but rather gave it to them straight.
Other than Robson, the name that caught my attention was Fay Wray, who played Robson's granddaughter. Wray started off as a really unlikeable character, just like the rest, but through her relationship with one of the mill workers (Victor Jory) she changed her tune—a little too sharply and too quickly for me to believe, but it’s a nice thought, that one can change their mindset and attitude when introduced to another viewpoint and experience. (I actually did find her relationship with Jory incredibly sweet; despite some implausibility, they shared a lovely chemistry.)
For Heaven's Sake (1950)
I’d say that this picture probably ranked among the oddest plots found in the Cinecon lineup this year. The story focuses on an unborn baby (Gigi Perreau) who is waiting to be born to a showbiz couple (Robert Cummings and Joan Bennett) with the help of two angels (Edmund Gwenn and Clifton Webb), one of whom, Webb, comes to Earth to try to influence events in Perreau's favor. Yes, that is the storyline. Unique, huh? The 50s produced some wild tales!
Like Oh, Men! Oh, Women! this was another ensemble drama boasting a strong cast. I was especially blown away by Webb, who always seems to surprise me. (I’ve really only seen him in Cheaper by the Dozen; he only appeared in 27 pictures.) Whenever I see him on screen, I always forget how hilarious he is. Hands down, he walked away with the movie. I will say, though, that Perreau and the little boy, played by Tommy Rettig, were adorable too. They were both born in the same year, but you wouldn’t think it based on how much taller Perreau looked!
The one thing that really didn’t sit well with me was actually part of the main crux of the story: I honestly didn’t believe in Cummings and Bennett’s marriage—or that they would be good parents together, for that matter, as Perreau keeps insisting. In particular, Cummings seemed so wrapped up in his productions and so incredibly ignorant to his wife’s pleas that his 180 at the end was simply unrealistic to me. Despite that implausible plot point, I did enjoy For Heaven’s Sake’s unique story and Webb’s masterful performance. Perreau's Q&A at the end was a delight too. I'll be sharing more from that conversation at a later date.
Lionel Barrymore, Marguerite De La Motte, and Johnnie Walker in Children of the Whirlwind.
Children of the Whirlwind (1925)
This silent picture pumped up the drama—between the gangs, a stool pigeon, double crosses and all that, it could sometimes be hard to keep all the action straight! Children of the Whirlwind was an independent production out of New York, and I was pleasantly surprised by the production values; there seemed to be a big leap from the 1910s to 20s simply in filmmaking skill and quality that is definitely on display here.
What brought me to this title was Lionel Barrymore. I was looking forward to seeing a young-ish Barrymore (he was almost 50), and while I certainly did see him, Barrymore really didn’t have much to do. In fact, after the movie I heard other attendees comment that he had one look, and it wasn’t a happy one! 'Tis true.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed stars Johnnie Walker and Marguerite De La Motte, both of whom I hadn’t heard of. I found it an interesting change of pace to see the leading lady as a crook and the leading man, formerly a crook, trying to go straight (and with such police corruption and his former gang working against him, that was a big struggle). That change in tone really lent to the heightened drama the film impressively pulled off.
Hit Parade of 1941 (1940)
Musicals aren’t usually my cup of tea, but this little Republic number hit the spot. The impressive supporting cast of character actors (Patsy Kelly, Hugh Herbert, Mary Boland and many more) provided ample comedy while the musical acts, especially Ann Miller and Francis Langford, stunned. Though I was familiar with Miller, I didn’t know Langford at all, and her brand of wholesomeness and soulful pipes shined in this picture.
The story was a little light and all over the place; I mean, how Herbert’s character could ever be in charge of any type of business is beyond me, and obviously it’s something that you can’t take seriously. But let’s be real, the plot was really second fiddle to the music and dancing, which was lovely and lively. In particular, Miller wowed in a South American themed number that put her front and center. How she got those legs and feet to move that fast I don’t understand—and I’m a gymnast with some dancing training, so I know a little, just a little, about this kind of stuff!
Crooked Streets (1920)
For me, this fest was all about discovering silent leading ladies, and Ethel Clayton certainly makes that list. In the intro, it was said that she toured parts of Asia before this picture was made, and opportunistic publicists reported that some of the footage in this movie was actually shot while she was vacationing. Spoiler alert: That isn’t true. Nevertheless, the crew did a good job dressing those particular scenes to look like they were actually in China.
I had some trouble figuring out the story because at certain points, the action seemed to really hone in on select events, and I wasn’t quite sure why it did that. Basically, the tale involved Clayton working for a professor and his wife who are buying rare artifacts in China to bring back to the US—or are they? The film was a little bit different than I anticipated going in, which probably resulted in some of the confusion, but there was a twist near the end that was awesome, and that helped clear up some confusing parts of the plot for me. Clayton came across as incredibly tough and independent throughout the picture, and even more so in the end! It’s always refreshing seeing strong women on screen, especially in pictures filmed almost a century ago.
And that's a wrap on Cinecon 2019. If you attended the festival, feel free to share your favorite movies below!