The entertaining 2017 Cinecon Film Festival offered a little something for everyone this year, showcasing over 50 silent films, talkies, television kinescopes, musical shorts, and even documentaries with lovely vintage prints and live accompaniment adding some extra pizzazz. Several of the films offered timely messages about issues that still plague us today, while others continued to entertain with their goofy or physical humor. The festival highlights materials mostly unseen since their original release and unlikely to air on TCM or even be released as DVDs or through streaming, from top rate releases of the day through general programmers screened in small town houses. Fifty-three years young, Cinecon remains the ultimate destination for those seeking out rare, obscure, and typical American film releases starring superstars to mid-level talent to virtually unknown character actors.
While perhaps not an outstanding program, this year’s festival featured some moving and knockout pictures, as well as many engaging ones, in which truth, justice, and the American way always succeeded in the end, unlike that in real life. A smorgasbord of unplanned themes and topics highlighted the films, including cross-dressing, false identities, gambling, underhanded double dealing, working women, potential philandering, financial struggle, judgmental busybodies, and prescient politics. Each day built on the other, with Monday, September 4 featuring the strongest and most memorable pictures.
Hollywood at Play, by Donovan Brandt, Mary Mallory and Stephen X. Sylvester is now on sale.
Norman Lloyd, courtesy of Cinecon.
The Thursday night August 31 opening got things off to a rousing start with tasty food in the toasty Egyptian Theatre courtyard accompanied by violin music before a mad dash to the covered entrance after an unexpected but pleasing rain shower. Living legend Norman Lloyd didn’t disappoint during an informative interview with Stan Taffel, throwing off bon mots and double takes. Comedian Howie Mandel presented Lloyd’s Legacy Award with an emotional and touching speech.
Buster Keaton’s 1928 “Steamboat Bill Jr.” kicked off the screenings, accompanied by the Burbank-based Famous Players Orchestra. While the lovely and easygoing score contained some fine moments, its languid pace slowed down the film and sometimes played over the comic punchlines. The use of a wind machine added a nice touch to the storm scenes.
Spencer Tracy gave one of his last performances at Fox in the 1934 film “Now I’ll Tell,” loosely based on gambler Arnold Rothstein’s life. Proclaiming that winning is the only thing and he intended to be a winner and “great man,” Tracy convincingly and menacingly schemes and plots to win big bets and join the New York elite, as he pushed prostitution, bootlegging, drugs, and crime on his way to the top. Helen Twelvetrees gives emotional heart to the picture as his long-suffering wife, transformed into a WASP bluebood, while Alice Faye vamps it as the gold-digging chanteuse. I missed the last film.
Lon Chaney and the Rex players filming in Angeles National Forest.
I unfortunately missed some of the Friday morning and early afternoon Friday films, including a very early performance by Lon Chaney and a rare non-western role for cowboy William S. Hart. Chaney played a heavy who menaces women both in the Stone Age and in 1914 in “the Lion, The Lamb, and the Man,” a true curiosity piece and one of Chaney’s earliest films to survive. Hart both starred in and directed “Shark Monroe,” a fish out of water tale for him as he plays a rough and tough ship’s captain rather than a mean cowboy. The Universal and Mentone shorts after lunch, while not laugh riots, showcased actual vaudeville and stage acts, revealing the eclecticism of early stage performers.
Carrying on with the Universal theme, the Lois Weber directed “Sensation Seekers” (1927) played mid-afternoon, after playing at the festival just a few years before. The luscious Billie Dove sparkles as the adventure-seeking Egypt, full of vitality and elan who battles gossiping small town do-gooders as she falls in love with the straight arrow but passionate preacher. He saves her from drowning during a terrible storm at sea, but Egypt seems destined to give up her freedom for the sedate life of a preacher’s wife, a moralistic and not at all feminist or happy ending. Frederick Hodges added nice period touches to his score.
The lovingly made parody “Schmo Boat” (2015) ran next, in which Will Ryan and Nick Santa Maria play a pair of hapless comedians trying to lead a showboat’s variety show. The short captures the throw everything at the screen humor of 1930s’ shorts, with vintage comedy gags, tap dancing, singing, and jokes of the period. Producer Michael Schlesinger gives a dryly comic performance speak singing his way through “Old Man River” as a very Jewish Jerome Kern.
I missed the next film, but had seen the thoughtful one woman play “Tea With Lois” earlier in the year (shown on DVD here), in which director Weber describes her filmmaking philosophies and dealing with male film co-workers to the girls who live at the Hollywood Studio Club.
The slightly naughty and zany 1932 short “Boys Will Be Boys” revealed callow Frank Albertson falling in love with flirtatious showgirl Sally Blane, chased after by the likes of Jack Duffy, Richard Carle, and boyfriend Guinn “Big Boy” Williams. Dependable character actor Fred Kelsey plays the dense greeter/bouncer, outwitted by virtually everyone who confronts him. Director George Stevens transplants Roach slapstick behavior on middle of the road Universal.
“The Brat,” courtesy of Cinecon.
Sally O’Neil gives a good performance as a tough but caring waif rescued from poverty by egotistical, oblivious writer Alan Dinehart in the Pre-Code “The Brat” (1931), and ends up teaching the family a thing or two about money, romance, and living a truthful life. William Collier Sr. and J. Farrell McDonald also shine. O’Neil’s thick Irish accent perhaps demonstrates why her career took a nosedive once sound came in. Mystery guest Phillip Sleeman turns up in a small role in a courtroom scene. There is the odd little in-joke about a lion called MGM in the film, an interesting touch.
“Tut Tut King” (1923) was a goofy one-reeler featuring the comedy team Neely Edwards and Bert Roach, who have to dress up as King Tut look-alikes in caskets at a museum when escaping a crowd they pulled a fast one on. The 1920 Constance Talmadge feature “The Perfect Woman” followed, about a pretty young woman who can’t get a job until subterfuge and a disguise as a frump land her a position as a secretary to the mother of a woman-hating capitalist, who also happens to hate Bolsheviks. Connie saves the day and shows the repressed man a thing or two about women and the common people in the workplace, in a story shot on location in New York City. Talmadge and Ned Sparks give fun performances in the Anita Loos and John Emerson penned story. The evening concluded with the engrossing 1935 film “The Black Room,” with Boris Karloff playing a typical Hollywood trope as good/bad twins fulfilling family legend.
Saturday morning opened with a doozy, the Warner Bros. cartoon “The Daffy Doc” (1938) starring the irrepressible Daffy Duck. The more sedate “All American Sweetheart” (1937) followed, a sweet college picture about double dealings in rowing competitions and romance. Opening scenes showed Lake Merritt in Oakland before moving to the Janss steps and the quad at UCLA, along with rowing scenes at Big Bear. Scott Kolk romances the fair coed Patricia Farr as he battles gangsters, race throwing, and broken ribs. Donald Briggs, Universal’s athletic hero Frank Merriwell, fails out of school and causes panic on the rowing team. Light but fun.
For the first time in several years, festival-goers could choose between competing programs several times during the weekend. I chose to attend films at the Egyptian rather than rare music shorts at the Loew’s Hotel. The 1926 film “The Texas Streak” filmed at Lone Pine and which elevated Hoot Gibson to superstar status, was a breezy story about gambling film bit players left behind in a small town who end up impersonating tough cowboys with left over Universal Pictures gear, making the studio part of in-jokes. They battle unscrupulous developers in a water rights’ war (imagine that, in California!), with the lanky Slim Summerville providing comic relief.
The German documentary “Harold Lloyd, Timeless Comedy Genius” (2016) harped on the premise that Lloyd ranked No. 1 among his competitors Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but did it with moving style and pacing. It hit the high points of Lloyd’s life, including clips as well as Los Angeles’ locations from Lloyd’s films, and interviews with such historians and archivists as Suzanne Lloyd, Annette Lloyd, John Bengtson, Richard Bann, Randy Haberkamp, the late Bob Birchard, and Stan Taffel.
“Bell Boy 13,” courtesy of Cinecon.
After lunch, attendees were again forced to pick between programs, with film materials running in the main auditorium and former television kinescopes playing in the small theatre. I was told that “Bellboy 13” (1923) was a solid, light comedy about a man willing to do anything to land his girl. Following it, the rare, hard-hitting “B” “The Accusing Finger” featured an ironically cast Paul Kelly as a crusading district attorney who sends a man to death row and then mysteriously finds himself in the same predicament. Kelly himself had just been released from prison a few years earlier after a manslaughter charge for killing the husband of his married girlfriend. A taut, terrific little story.
I attended the “Kinecon at Cinecon” program which included some hilarious rare clips, outtakes, and shows from the early days of television. “The Bob and Ray Show” showcased the comic team in wry and sardonic pieces shot at Aqueduct Racetrack. Dinah Shore lit up the screen in her self-titled show, “The Dinah Shore Show,” singing several numbers, including the Chevy jingle. An excerpt of a commercial shot on the set of the show “Concentration” demonstrated the wackiness of live TV commercials. Silent film actress Carmel Myers hosted her weekly TV guests, Alex Raymond, creator of “Flash Gordon” and Mr. Gordon himself, Buster Crabbe on “The Carmel Myers Show.” Goofy exchanges, Raymond leaving before the interview is over, Crabbe demonstrating exercise poses, and the Jewish Myers singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are some of the highlights of this episode.
An excerpt from “The Steve Allen Show” highlighted man on the street interviews with Louis Nye, Tom Poston, and Don Knotts as three strange goofballs talking about Laika, the Russian dog who went up in Sputnik. Comic legend Jerry Lewis turns up in a cameo as a dense nerd considering the same thing. A 1958 tour of NBC”s Video Operations headquarters in Burbank showed the wonders of recording live programs and then playing them back in timed intervals across the country. The excerpts from “The Pinky Lee Show” revealed the host singing and then engaging in comic fisticuffs with screen bad man Anthony Caruso. Martha Raye’s “All Star Revue” episode featured Raye and boxer Rocky Graziano joining Cesar Romero and Rise Stevens for dinner, with each couple agreeing ahead of time to copy the other. Plenty of salads were tossed in this one. In the “Sammy Davis Colgate Comedy Hour,” Davis sang and danced his way through an audition skit filmed five days before his car accident, with fleeting glimpses of his father and uncle performing some soft shoe. The last clip featured Dick Van Dyke auditioning for CBS in 1955 at the conclusion of the “Jane Froman Show,” doing some skits if what a new car thinks, a piano thinks, singing, and the like.
Instead of attending the rare animation program, I watched the Hal Roach shorts in the main theatre, all featuring Culver City locations. Charley Chase and Martha Sleeper starred in the 1925 Leo McCarey directed “The Rat’s Knuckles,” about a humane rat trap designer for whom things go wrong. The very funny “Baby Brother” (1927) followed with the original cast of Little Rascals. Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins makes his debut in a short about little rich boy Joe Cobb looking for a baby brother. Anita Garvin and Oliver Hardy make cameo appearances as a romancing couple. Last of the three shorts was the 1932 “The Chimp,” with Charles Gemora in costume as “Ethel,” whom Ollie wins when the circus goes bankrupt. All manner of mayhem ensues when the boys sneak her into Billy Gilbert’s boarding house while he searches for his wife, also named Ethel.
The aptly named Saturday Nitrate Fever program proceeded after dinner, opening with the hilarious Bugs Bunny short “Hare Ribbin’” with its original ending, in which a dog hunts Bugs under water and all manner of things explode.
“Untamed,” the main attraction followed, a subdued Technicolor remake of the Clara Bow “Mantrap.” A pastel vision of the Canadian wilderness lacking the fire of the Bow version, the film showcases radiant Patricia Morison finding herself stranded after marrying kind but schlubby Akim Tamiroff. Handsome man about town New York doctor Ray Milland drops into the village after suffering injuries from a bear attack and the two gradually fall in love as they care for sickly residents, watched over by gossiping small minders like Eily Malyon and others. The 102-year-old Morison was interviewed after, charming and beautiful as ever.
Two nitrate shorts followed, originally intended to be screened in their original format but because of shrinkage scanned to digital. Leon Errol starred in the 1934 “Autobuyography,” suffering the duplicity and scheming of new car dealers, insurance companies, and road service companies like AAA. The 1932 Sennett short, “Speed in the Gay Nineties,” shot in the San Fernando Valley area with a view of Cahuenga Peak, featured inventors “racing” their new-fangled contraptions at the turn of the century. Driving legend Barney Oldfield makes an appearance, as do Sennett regulars Andy Clyde, Heinie Conklin, Bud Jamison, and Delmar Watson. I missed the feature that followed.
Sunday morning kicked off with the fascinating 1930 Universal short “Rolling Along,” in which bickering bus drivers Charlie Murray and George Sidney are assigned to the same route and mayhem ensues. They drive up and down Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard, passing the Gaylord, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, the Brown Derby, and long lost mansions and homes with the Bullock’s Wilshire Tower visible in the distance. Arthur Housman makes an appearance as a soused passenger.
An image from “Captain Blood.”
I missed “Anything Goes,” but caught most of the swashbuckling 1924 “Captain Blood” starring J. Warren Kerrigan. While entertaining, it lacked the punch, verve, and electricity of the later Errol Flynn version as well as the dazzling chemistry of Flynn and DeHavilland. Scamp Kerrigan saves the day for British rule and wins the girl in the process. What survives of the action sequences is exciting rough and tumble. It appeared to be shot off of Catalina and garden sequences reminded me of the Huntington Library in San Marino.
After lunch, five early films from Fort Lee, New Jersey’s Champion Studios screened, featuring performances by Florence Lawrence, Owen Moore, and Irving Cummngs. In “The Indian Land Grab’ conniving whites attempt to take over Indian lands. The filmmaking here was even more primitive for its time, mostly static shots, little props, and titles at the beginning of each scene. “A Daughter of Dixie” showed a Southern belle torn between her brother fighting for the South and her beau supporting the North. “Not Like Other Girls” featured an expressive and active Florence Lawrence, brought in as the potential love interest of Owen Moore to solve the family’s financial problems. All’s well that ends well at the conclusion. In “Flo’s Discipline,” a wayward teacher leads male students in rebellion against woman power and finally gets his comeuppance from Lawrence. Irving Cummings played a conniving rogue in “Marked Cards,” with Lawrence and Moore triumphing in the end.
A triple feature of Universal “B” pictures followed, revealing what audiences in smaller or rural houses would most likely have seen in the 1930s and 1940s. “North to the Klondike” (1942) had its moments, with Andy Devine revealing in flashback how a tough Broderick Crawford saves the day for a farming community suffering under the nefarious dealings of Lon Chaney Jr. and probably shot at the same location as “Untamed.” Chaney and Crawford themselves perform the vicious, drawn out fight between their characters. Jeff Corey appears in a small part and Spade Cooley performs the banjo with a music group in one scene. Renowned actor Keye Luke plays the Harvard educated son of Chinese immigrant Willie Fung, an early vision of immigrants and “Dreamers” showing what they bring to our country.
Hugh Herbert in “La Conga Nights.”
Hugh Herbert plays 7 roles in the funny “La Conga Nights,” including as four sisters and his mother, with little done to make him appear more feminine. The film is a post-modern foreshadowing of “Hellzapoppin,” with one character seen just walking through the film, even the end credits. Evil capitalists attempt to throw a loving and generous family and their residents out of a boarding house, but its adaptation into a nightclub saves the day. Dennis O’Keefe performs some dancing, helped along by someone else, and finds himself dubbed when singing. “Musical moron” Hugh Herbert dances the rhumba, and Eddie Quillan and his bickering wife Sally Payne talk over and battle each other. Thomas Jackson and Frank Faylen make cameo appearances.
“Riders of the Santa Fe” was a paint by numbers western starring Rod Cameron and Fuzzy Knight, where a scheming George Douglas plots to take over a town through shady map drawing and gunslinging. The film once again featured cross-dressing as an important plot element and showcased several songs providing more comic relief. Interestingly, hero Rod favors gun control and talking rather than shooting out.
After dinner, struggling shoe shop owner Andy Clyde promoted the idea of “Share the Wealth” when dealing with scheming and corrupt politicians who ensure income inequality in town. Convinced to run for mayor, Clyde endures all manner of mayhem after he wins. The fire station at Cahuenga and DeLongpre, the El Capitan Theatre, and perhaps Larchmont make an appearance, and popular performers Vernon Dent, Heinie Conklin, and Bud Jamison also appear.
The 1935 Fox feature “Spring Tonic” was a mixed bag, with some funny lines and moments killed off by its episodic nature, uneven pacing, and lackluster performances by Mitchell and Durant. Frustrated Claire Trevor walks out on her bland fiance Lew Ayres and goes looking for adventure. Lion tamer Tala Birell searches out her beloved lion and her two-timing, Latin lover husband Walter King, who flirts with every woman who comes his way, and states, “I don’t trust women who wear pants!” Nosy reporter Jack Haley offers some energy and Zasu Pitts once again plays zany, but Ayres wins his bride after he becomes forceful and takes control.
Ella Hall in “Polly Redhead,” courtesy of Cinecon.
Universal’s 1917 “Polly Redhead” was a pleasing little film with a scene stealing performance by the memorable Mrs. Louise Emmons as a duplicitous housekeeper. Young Ella Hall stars as a young girl forced to work when her guardian becomes ill, trying to keep her antsy brother out of the poor house. William Worthington Jr. plays her little brother, son of actor/director William Worthington, who helmed several Sessue Hayakawa films and established Haworth Films with the Japanese star. Universal intended Hall as their version of Mary Pickford, but she never reached superstar status. I skipped the last film of the evening.
Monday’s films highlighted the festival, full of artistic design and hard-hitting social matters relevant to this day, garnering the most praise for their timely messages of sacrifice, freedom of the press, and ultimately truth. I enjoyed Joseph von Sternberg’s 1925 first film “Salvation Hunters,” a tone poem of desperation and redemption, filled with gorgeous images of light and darkness, a foreshadowing of his artful camera work and style to come. Boyish actor George K. Arthur bankrolled the low-cost film, essaying the role of the timid and optimistic young man who learns to stand up for himself, while Georgia Hale plays the tough and hardened girl.
“Power of the Press” (1943) knocked me out as the most powerful film during the Festival, with Guy Kibbee playing against type in a serious role as a small town publisher attempting to right the sensationalistic and shady practices of a large city newspaper during World War II. With a story and most probably script doctoring by Samuel Fuller, the picture hits topics of vital concern today. Otto Kruger stars as a rich manipulator of the press and radio, swaying and dictating opinions through one-sided diatribes and falsehoods rather than listing facts and both sides of a topic, which Kibbee calls out as “fake news.” Kibbee decries this practice, stating that Kruger is “playing on the prejudices of poor people,” and going on to describe that “freedom of the press is the right to print the truth, not the right to twist the truth.” Ultimately Kruger learns that one who “publishes fake news, perishes by fake news.” The film earned gigantic rounds of applause for many of its hard-hitting lines and subjects.
After lunch, a fascinating 50 year old episode of “Ralph Story’s Los Angeles” (1967) aired, a program dedicated to Mack Sennett. Story, a model for Huell Howser, presented Los Angeles history in his folksy, down-to-earth manner on local television station KNXT, bringing forgotten history back to life. The episode was sponsored by National Van Lines, who assumed their office on Glendale Boulevard was the former home of Sennett’s Edendale Studio after a mistakenly placed plaque was installed by Ralph Edwards and “This Is Your Life.” Story gives the history of Sennett and his impact on the city of Los Angeles, both in Edendale and in Studio City as well as his impact in introducing stars and promoting slapstick humor in the American film industry.
An ad for “The President Vanishes,” courtesy of Cinecon.
William Wellman’s sobering 1934 Paramount film “The President Vanishes” highlighted prescient issues as well, with the President disappearing as Congress appears to be stampeded towards entering a European war, pushed along by “folksy” capitalists like Charley Grapewin who buy off politicians like Edward Arnold and want to form a military industrial complex. They support a fascist group called “the Gray Shirts,” who promulgate violence, racism, and censorship as a way to govern the country in order to “Make America First Again.” The group breaks up free speech rallies and engages in one-sided diatribes to cause mayhem and get people to surrender their rights. Righteous Paul Kelly, Osgood Perkins, Rosalind Russell, Arthur Byron, and Peggy Conklin give thoughtful portrayals and Arnold and Edward Ellis as rabble rousing Gray Shirts leader Lincoln Lee give scenery chewing performances.
The 1920 bland Colleen Moore starrer “When Dawn Came” focused on spiritual uplift and faith changing one’s life for the better, with Moore giving a sensitive performance. Dr. John Brandon cares for the needs of the poor, successfully performing risky surgeries until seduced to join the practice of a wealthy doctor. He falls into degradation after being used by a rich society woman, succumbing to addiction issues and becoming homeless. After riding the rails, he gets off the train in San Juan Capistrano, where he runs into the priest from his old neighborhood and decides to work to regain his life and dignity. He finds inspiration in the life and faith of blind Mary Harrison (Moore), who comes every day to pray for sight in the ruins of the old mission. When dawn comes, his surgery has miraculously restored Moore’s eyesight and his faith in humanity, sealing their love.
The 2017 Festival closed out with the entertaining but hodgepodge 1936 King Vidor film “The Texas Rangers,” which couldn’t decide if it was a comedy, western, or hard-hitting drama. Fred MacMurray and playful Jack Oakie rob stage coaches with partner Lloyd Nolan who finally goes on his way to bigger crimes. They join the Texas Rangers looking for food and shelter but grow to love the esprit de corps and the beauty of Jean Parker, daughter of Edward Ellis’ superior officer. MacMurray, torn between scheming with former partner Nolan or marrying Parker, discovers his inner goodness when dealing with manipulator Fred Kohler and lawman Gabby Hayes and rights all wrongs.
The 2017 Cinecon Film Festival presented classic films as they were meant to be seen, on the big screen in all their glory, highlighting rare and obscure films with messages still relevant today.