A DVD of “None Shall Escape,” listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $12.75.
Offering both something for the esoteric cineaste as well as the general film fan, the 52nd Cinecon Film Festival just concluded at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre with an entertaining selection of films over its 4 1/2 days. Switching out between silent and sound films, the festival features excellent live accompaniment, special guests, and even some bonus material thrown in to spice things up. While there is never a general theme planned, some unexpectedly show up, such as the many films about breaking into the movie business and little mini salutes to John Boles, Jack Haley, and Jack Oakie.
Opening day Thursday, September 1 began with a Dean Martin Roast segment beloved by the former Cinecon President, Robert S. Birchard, who recently passed away. New President Stan Taffel saluted Birchard as he praised the past and announced changes bringing new life to the festival before Jack Oakie Foundation Chairman David Sonne offered an hilarious tribute to Oakie as well as generous support to the festival.
“Did You Ever See a Dream Walking,” from “Sitting Pretty,” listed on EBay for $4.99.
The twelve part 1932 Universal serial “Jungle Mystery” kicked off proceedings, a hokey but fun story set in the wilds of the jungle and Zanzibar, which aren’t really near each other, as a family searched for their lost son after running into the girl’s former boyfriend and his sidekick. Joining forces with the plotting guide George Coutlass, everybody’s “friend,” to hunt ivory as they hunt the missing man, the group endures shark tanks, animal attacks, threatening caves, and kidnappings to finally save the day. Organizers wisely ran the full serial as bumpers pre and post meal breaks throughout the weekend for those who only wanted a taste. Future Captain Marvel Tom Tyler joined the “Rockford Files” Noah Beery Jr., former silent star William Desmond, and over acting Philo McCullough in the wacky proceedings, along with scene stealing work by sexy silent actress Carmelita Geraghty and uncredited narration by future Screen Actors’ Guild President Ralph Morgan. Such locations as Bronson Canyon and Caves, the old Los Angeles Zoo, the Selig Zoo, Universal’s back lot, and bucket loads of animal stock shots pop up throughout the so bad it’s good serial.
The Twentieth Century feature “Looking For Trouble” starring Spencer Tracy and Oakie played next, a fascinating little Pre-Code melodrama set in Los Angeles and featuring stock footage of the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake. Director William Wellman’s son William Wellman Jr. introduced the movie of two telephone repairmen who find themselves mixed up in trying to solve a murder case. Tenacious Tracy earns a promotion for all his hard work, to the chagrin of his angry girlfriend Constance Cummings who endures one broken date after another. Tracy turns down the promotion and ends up working with jokester Oakie from Azusa, who Azusas himself into the good graces of Cummings’ friend Arline Judge. They deal with a plotting co-worker and solve both a crime and murder mystery, all thanks to phone taps and hard work. Such fun supporting players as Joe Sawyer, Charles Lane, Paul Porcasi, and Bradley Page turn up, as does former silent screen idol Bryant Washburn. The film also includes real location shots of vintage Long Beach apartments and hotels that still line the beachfront area.
The recently restored silent Universal film “The Last Warning” scared up excitement as a former theatrical troupe returns to the scene of a murder to reenact the same play and perhaps catch a killer. Attractive stars Laura La Plante and John Boles offer some nice eye candy as such silent film scene stealers as Roy D’Arcy, Mack Swain, Bert Roach, Fred Kelsey, and Slim Summerville bring moments of levity. Director Paul Leni reveals some lovely art deco and avant garde flourishes in the beginning of the film.
A massive grand piano opens to reveal an orchestra in “The King of Jazz.”
I missed the last film of the evening, the hard to see 1930 Gary Cooper feature “the Spoilers,” a remake of the 1914 Selig movie set in the Klondike.
Karie Bible and I signed some books Friday morning in the dealers’ rooms along with other writers like John Bengtson, Thomas Gladysz, and Preston Jones as well as a screening of the emotional documentary “Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity” and a showing of rare musical shorts by Mark Cantor. I missed Friday’s early afternoon screenings of rare Laurel and Hardy shorts and “More Pay, Less Work,” a silent film starring Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Mary Brian and shot around San Francisco Harbor and Los Angeles Harbor.
Star Marsha Hunt took part in a question and answer session following the moving and powerful “None Shall Escape,” a rarely screened 1944 Columbia feature about war crimes for Nazi villains after the conclusion of World War II. The hard hitting film sadly mirrors some of the same issues seen today of those easily swayed by absolute tyrants, as a former schoolteacher who sees himself being left behind by current society joins the Nazis and rises to power practicing their policies of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and bullying. The framing device of a war trial traces in flashback Alexander Knox’s growing amorality and hatred. The Columbia Ranch between Pass Avenue and Hollywood Way stands in for Poland, with one shot of Cahuenga Peak and Mount Lee with a small part of the Don Lee Radio Station prominently visible in one shot. Writers Lester Cole and Alfred Neumann get in some pointed comments about weighing political choices and serving society, aided by the dramatic compositions of director Andre de Toth. Hunt gives a powerful performance of a woman standing up for strong moral principles, supported by the loyal town priest Henry Travers.
A still from “Ramona,” listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $30.99.
After the dinner break, the Birchard Memorial, and a chapter of “Jungle Mystery,” the recently restored 1928 movie “Ramona” played to an attentive house. Based on the fantasy California romance of the Old West and mission days, “Ramona” showcased a gorgeous Dolores Del Rio attempting to fit in with her adopted family of Vera Lewis and Roland Drew while falling in love with fellow Indian Warner Baxter. The film shows the tragic consequences of xenophobia, racism, and vigilantism by punishing and destroying the “other,” the native Americans, all under the able hands of Native American Edwin Carewe. Del Rio is filmed lovingly along with stunning vistas of Utah mountains and forests. Marc Wanamaker stated at a screening last year that the home of Vera Lewis and Del Rio in the film was actually an office building on the Raleigh Studios lot and still stands. While the romance and story seemed stilted at times, gorgeous camerawork and fine acting really helped put the film across. Vera Lewis plays her patented role of screen villain, while Drew seems lackadaisical and out of place. Mathilde Comont gives an energetic turn to a resentful family maid. Baxter and Del Rio possess good chemistry and Baxter gives one of his most relaxed and natural performances.
I missed “Navy Wife” and an episode of “Jungle Mystery” to catch up on my sleep.
Ken Maynard starred in Saturday morning’s first feature “The Fighting Legion” (Universal, 1930), an entertaining B western silent/sound hybrid, in which he and his sidekick Cloudy take the place of a murdered ranger to uncover the villain and wipe out shadiness in a small town. While Maynard only had a few stunts to perform, his smart horse “Tarzan” saved the day multiple times with his bravery. It was fun to hear Maynard and silent actress Dorothy Dwan’s actual speaking voices, though I wished she had done more than just stand around and watch Maynard fight it out with the villain. Featuring the scenic vistas of the Lone Pine Alabama hills, the film displayed really nice compositions and moving camera work by director Harry Joe Brown.
Paramount’s 1926 silent film “Diplomacy” directed by Marshall Neilan and starring a bland Blanche Sweet, Earl Williams, pre-Batman Neil Hamilton, Matt Moore and his little American friend Mr. Colt, contained scene stealing work by uber villain Gustav von Seyffertitz and his arched eyebrow and sneer, Japanese actor Sojin, and feisty Arlette Marchal, setting everything in play in a spy thriller about papers regarding world peace. Multi-talented Donald Biddle Keyes stepped away from his job as head of Paramount’s stills photography department to serve as cameraman for the picture.
A poster from “The King of Jazz,” listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $19.98.
Harry Joe Brown directed the very entertaining 1935 Paramount musical “Sitting Pretty” starring Oakie and Jack Haley as a pair of songwriters attempting to get a break in Hollywood. They meet with gas station owner Ginger Rogers in a small town, who joins them in their Hollywood bungalow court to seek her fortune in the movie business. Brown once again shows some nifty camerawork in Busby Berkeley style dance numbers and excellent songs like “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” The film plays up the Paramount connection, shooting out of the actual executive building and looking at what is known as the Valentino building as well as shots on the top of a stage and around the lot. Stills of Paramount stars decorate office walls. Thelma Todd is a manipulative blond hottie who sets Oakie on the road to ruin before everything is resolved.
Warner’s 1927 silent “A Million Bid” followed, a somewhat odd little story that doesn’t quite come off, especially since female star Dolores Costello has little to do but stand around and looked stunned. Basically sold off to a gambling tycoon and brutal boor (Warner Oland) by her greedy, amoral mother (Betty Blythe), Costello marries her childhood sweetheart Malcolm McGregor while worrying if long thought dead husband Oland will awaken from his amnesia and reveal all. The film contains some gorgeous dream/nightmare sequences along with William Demarest as a cigarette holder smoker. Cinecon Board member Michael Schlesinger added some spot-on character readings of the titles, translated from Italian.
Stan Taffel offered a melange of grab bag items such as hilarious Warner Bros. breakdown reels showing stars missing their marks and screwing up lines.
After dinner audience members received a musical and visual treat with the eye catching bon bon “King of Jazz” (Universal, 1930). Preceded by a rediscovered short featuring a very young Bing Crosby and his Rhythm Boys and college age friends dealing with a Jewish tailor fighting to keep his shop from oily landlord Edgar Dearing. A teenage Spec O’Donnell struts around in his suit as he plays a smarty college boy.
Gorgeous and breathtaking, Universal’s “King of Jazz” is director John Murray Anderson’s eye-popping salute to the King of Jazz himself Paul Whiteman and his orchestra in a musical/blackout comedy revue. Whiteman shows a nice sense of humor as he interacts with his band and cast members. Universal lovingly restored the two-strip Technicolor film back to its original 1930 release length, filled with skits by such actors as Laura La Plante, Slim Summerville, Walter Brennan, Glenn Tryon, and Grace Hayes, and singing by such stars as a heart throb John Boles, and Bing Crosby and his Rhythm Boys. Costume, set, and lighting design steal the show in this light as air extravaganza.
A lobby card from “Redheads on Parade,” listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $65.
Tom Mix and his faithful friend Tony save the day and the girl from a group smuggling Chinese immigrants through the Grand Canyon, with gorgeous vistas often stealing the spotlight from the physically talented Mix.
Cinecon opened Sunday with a screening of a gorgeous British print of the Marx Bros. 1930 Paramount film “Animal Crackers,” a foreign version untouched by U.S. censors. “Hooray for Captain Spaulding!”
I missed the 1912 “Robin Hood” and most of the 1918 Goldwyn feature “The Danger Game” shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and introduced by Tom Meyers of the Fort Lee Film Commission. “The Danger Game” showcased young Madge Kennedy as a shy young woman who believes she’s written the great American novel and finds herself involved with crime and house robbery. Art Director and uncredited director Hugo Ballin fashions a gorgeous looking film with some lovely compositions and funny business by Tom Moore and Kennedy.
The 1935 Fox musical “Redheads on Parade” contained some funny business as it focused on Jack Haley, Alan Dinehart, and John Boles plot to break into showbiz with a film funded by a tycoon with a popular red hair dye. Boles sings romantic ballads and breakup songs with the first Mrs. Bing Crosby Dixie Lee, and Jack Haley warbles some comedy numbers, while people like Raymond Walburn, William Austin, Irving Bacon, William B. Davidson, Francis McDonald, Mary McLaren, and Bess Flowers add some nice flavor and bits. Director Norman Z. McLeod adds some nice panache to proceedings.
Cinecon saw the premiere of a CineMuseum special, the restored version of “The Great Comedians” episode of Paul Killiam’s “Silents Please” TV special, showcasing the work of such Hollywood Crown Princes as Ben Turpin, Larry Semon, Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Billy West, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charley Chaplin. It was followed by a presentation of the recently re-discovered and restored “The Battle of the Century,” a long lost Laurel and Hardy two-reeler featuring the biggest onscreen pie fight in history. Musician Jon Mirsalis discovered the footage among a film collection he purchased, while Scott Lasky tickled the ivories for the screening.
Recently restored itself, Monty Banks starred in a funny and thrilling comedy called “Play Safe” in which he attempts to rescue his love (Virginia Lee Corbin) from a villainous group that includes Bud Jamison. Banks shows amazing derring-do and stunt work scrambling over the top and hanging off a out of control train in the hills around Santa Clarita and downtown Los Angeles. Banks’ apartment is located on the alley housing the Chinese American Museum and looks at the Plaza, while featuring a chase along Los Angeles’ downtown train tracks.
Anna May Wong showed strong pluck and attitude in the 1937 Paramount film “Daughter of Shanghai” as a young woman out to revenge her father’s death by human smugglers by infiltrating the gang. She and co-star Philip Ahn receive ample opportunity to shine as risk taking, smart as nails agents in a tight, smartly composed film by director Robert Florey. Such reliable character actors as Charles Bickford, Cecil Cunningham, Buster Crabbel, and J. Carrol Naish chew the scenery, while silent performers Evelyn Brent, Fred Kohler, and Gino Corrado find little to do. A young Anthony Quinn and Crabbe play amoral villains in a story reminiscent of toady’s thugs in the Middle East and Syria sending young families to their deaths as they flee the hellish fighting in Syria, Iraq, and the like.
A lobby card from “Thieves’ Highway,” listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $3.99.
Douglas Fairbanks steals the show with his winning smile, physical antics, and sharp way with comedy playing the dashing romantic hero in “In Again, Out Again” (Douglas Fairbanks Pictures, 1917). Thrown into jail for drunkenness, Fairbanks falls in love with the sheriff’s daughter, and plots to get himself arrested to be reunited with her upon release, coinciding with bombings of munitions factories by an anarchist. Fairbanks demonstrates his great agility with amazing stunts like lassoing a telegraph pole while running across a roof, swinging onto a wagon, and then sliding into a coal chute. While the romance is sweet and the comedy hilarious, the movie also brings chills with its depictions of lone terrorist blowing up buildings, causing destruction to others as well as injuries to innocent victims, a sad coincidence with today.
I missed “City of Chance” Sunday night as well as the Monday morning films “His Marriage Mix-Up,” “Tin Pan Alley,” and “Girl Shy,” all of which brought huge laughs and loud applause from attendees.
“Ghost Town: The Story of Fort Lee” (1935, Theodore Huff) played after lunch Monday afternoon, a sad and moving documentary about the disappearing or destroyed silent film studios of Fort Lee, a metaphor for the Great Depression and the United States’ financial collapse. Beautiful but depressing images of deteriorating and demolished studios and abandoned films and associated elements reveal the 1930s’ film industry’s attempts at erasing silent film history as antiquated and irrelevant.
The powerful film noir “Thieves’ Highway” revealed the dirty behind-the-scenes shenanigans of low-level racketeers in the San Francisco produce market, out to gyp immigrants out of their rightful rewards. War vet Richard Conte returns home to find his truck driver father crippled after delivering tomatoes and determines to bring down the mob. Buying an army truck and joining forces with two-faced Millard Mitchell, he brings a truckload of Golden Delicious apples to market while dealing with truck problems, slimy gangsters, plotting fellow truck drivers, low level criminals, and a slick streetwalker. Conte plays one of his few heroic roles as a risk taking moralist in over his head who ends up falling in love with the streetwalker who first works to help rob him before saving both he and his fruit. Lee J. Cobb plays another of his hot head corrupt merchants, while Jack Oakie brings a little sensitivity to a fast-talking but chagrined fellow truck driver. Director Jules Dassin creates a nightmarish world of blind alleys, abandoned streets, and grizzled workers, along with such gorgeous images as apples spilling down a hillside after a crash. Real locations like San Francisco’s produce market and Ferry Building dot the film.
All three accompanists brought generous life to the silent films. Frederick Hodges brought in rollicking authentic cues and sounds of the period to add a bouncing touch to the films he accompanied. Jon Mirsalis provided both energetic improvisation and dramatic undertones to the films he played for, including “Play Safe.” Scott Lasky added a wistful, emotional score to the Fort Lee “Ghost Town” film. Live accompaniment really makes the silents sing, so thankful to hear such fine players.
I missed the last two films of the festival to take a needed break and rest, but enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow filmgoers enjoying some entertaining movies and rarities. The new Cinecon Board did themselves proud with a fine selection of films and new procedures and structures, boding well for the future. Here’s to more adventure and fellowship at the movies!