A fascinating look at what middle America saw at the movies from the 1910s through the 1950s, the 54th Annual Cinecon Classic Film Festival provided an excellent slate of films running the gamut from silents to sound, musicals to westerns, revealing how films can unite audiences rather than create walls.
While no major finds rose to the top, overall the entire program provided solid entertainment and featured such recurring motifs as odd wards entrusted with children, mad writers, sardines, a financially struggling population, immigration, and an “arrogance of power.” Favorite actors unexpectedly popped up multiple times, from Walter Brennan, Andy Devine, Monty Woolley, Zasu Pitts, J. Carroll Naish, T. Roy Barnes, Walter Catlett, Louise Fazenda, Luis Alberni, John George, and Allison Skipworth, and such stars as Colleen Moore and Jack Oakie, received multiple opportunities to shine.
Festivities kicked off Thursday night with a 1913 Kinetophone short following the reception. A primitive early attempt at uniting picture and sound, the experiment failed because of multiple technical issues. This short demonstrated that, a prelude to the “Singin’ In the Rain” scene where unctuous Julius Tannen overenunciates to emphasize that this is a talking picture.
Mary Mallory’s “Living With Grace” is now on sale.
Thanks to David Stenn, the restored 1924 “Helen’s Babies” popped off the screen, with the inimitable Edward Everett Horton ironically playing a child specialist who actually detests kids having to babysit his nieces Budge (Jeanne Carpenter) and Toddie (Baby Peggy) while falling in love with young neighbor Clara Bow, as potential disaster and charges of child neglect ensue. Featuring John George as King of the Gypsies, the film shot around Universal and Cahuenga Peak to pleasing effect. The Famous Players Orchestra directed by Scott Lasky accompanied the film, providing a pretty soundtrack which sometimes played over the comedy.
A lighthearted, swinging “Sweet and Low Down” (1944) followed, providing a toe-tapping opportunity to enjoy Benny Goodman and his band riffing and playing their way through gigs. A struggling trombone player finds his way into the band through the sneaky antics of his brother, “Citizen Kane’s” Sonny Bupp, before stealing the heart of striking Linda Darnell. Awkward teenager Dickie Moore plays a pint-sized general leading his student troops while Jack Oakie successfully hams his way through the production. A fun way to enjoy the evening.
I skipped the last film Thursday and missed Friday morning and early afternoon films because of work. The Mentone shorts that opened Friday night’s program showcased a little bit of everything, providing a vaudeville type entertainment augmenting Universal features produced by an outside production company. The first, “At the Mike,” was a zany look at a radio show taping, featuring the droll Ford Bond as master of ceremonies introducing the brassy young Rose Marie, Kathleen Howard as a very limber but sleepy acrobat, Tess Gardella as Aunt Jemina, and a hodge podge of other performers. Rose Marie sings a sensual number as she musses the hair of the easygoing Bond. A little strange but fun.
“Club House Party” (1935) looked at the myriad performers who popped up at a Club House evening, with Ray Perkins introducing to the various acts. Roy Smeck provided string expertise on the Hawaiian guitar, ukulele, and fiddle, while Ford, Bowie and Daley provided some hot to trot tap dancing. Pearce and Cathay provided a sensual Spanish dance number while an odd comedian kept Russian dancing through everything. Mildly amusing.
“Hunting Trouble,” a 1933 Universal short written by future director George Stevens, played a little flat, though it featured usually reliable humorous performers like Shaw and Lee, Walter Catlett, Louise Fazenda, and Louise Beavers. Fazenda has bought a dog for Catlett’s upcoming birthday, but miscommunication makes Catlett think she’s carrying on an affair. Some Pre-Code elements added a little flair, but otherwise it was all mad chases, slamming doors, and Louise Beavers sliding down the stairs and into the bathtub.
Mack Sennett’s “Wandering Willies” (1926) followed, a typical all-over-the-place Sennett with chases, impersonations, silly police, slapstick, and non-stop series of sight gags. We got nice shots around Echo Park Lake, Sennett studio, Edendale, and Glendale Boulevard. Andy Clyde and Billy Bevan are desperate for food, and do a little bit of everything from impersonating a policeman and baby to working in a restaurant to eat before funny business ensues. While not hilarious, it had its moments.
A more sedate Al Christie lighthearted comedy followed, the 1920 “So Long Letty” co-starring Colleen Moore and Walter Hiers. The story was a tad risque for the time, as two young possibly mismatched couples living in adjacent Santa Monica bungalows undergo “Wife Swap,” 1920 style. Sport T. Roy Barnes and regular family man Hiers chafe at the actions of their total opposite wives Colleen Moore and Grace Darmond. Unknownst to the women, the men conspire to exchange partners but the wives get the last laugh. We get the Long Beach pier and Santa Monica along with fine performances from the quartet. Hiers is very sympathetic and Moore more sedate than usual, while Darmond gets the flashy role. Frederick Hodges kept things light and bouncy, matching emotion and tempo.
I skipped the final film of the night to be fresh for Saturday. The day kicked off with screenings of new newly restored Laurel and Hardy shorts by UCLA, “Brats” and “Hog Wild.” L & H play themselves and their like-minded offspring in the former, with the kids causing a flood in the process. “Hog Wild” provides great shots of Culver City, from Main Street, the Culver Hotel, Culver Boulevard, and the Baldwin Hills dotted with oil derricks, to a half empty neighborhood. Trying to install a radio antenna on the roof, L & H injure themselves, the house, and the car, falling off the roof multiple times. A laugh riot.
Color footage from the 1942 Hollywood Victory Caravan in a Philadelphia appearance screened next, shot in Kodachrome by a young GI on leave. Such great performers as Claudette Colbert, Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Groucho Marx, James Cagney, L & H, and Olivia DeHavilland sing songs, perform skits, dance, and raise money. Cagney closes out proceedings by performing the conclusion of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in costume as Uncle Sam. Frederick Hodges provided great accompaniment, dropping in period and film appropriate references like “Thanks for the Memory,” “Hollywood Party,” “Cuban Pete,” “God Bless America,” and Gershwin bits.
Universal’s take on Nancy Drew followed, a middling mystery called “Four Days Wonder” (1936) based on a book by Winnie the Pooh author A. A. Milne starring Jeanne Dante as a crime solving young woman mixed up in a murder. Martha Sleeper finds herself with little to do, Walter Catlett is as incompetent as usual, Victor Potel, Harry Davenport, and Arthur Hoyt make small appearances, but Alan Mowbray steals the show as a self-involved mystery writer who faints at the sight of blood. Stanley Cortez shot some beautiful camerawork in the film, framing a couple of shots through a pipe and creating some excellent mood lighting.
Just before lunch, “Naughty Baby” (1928), my favorite of the silent films, screened. Hot little mama Alice White meets cute with millionaire Jack Mulhall and decides to get her man. Thelma Todd plays a scheming love interest to Mulhall, while George E. Stone, Andy Devine, and Benny Rubin humorously play White’s Three Musketeer supporters and Fairy Godfathers, providing her suitable transportation, costume, and dough. Jack and Alice flash some gams in their bathing suits. Though set in New York, the film was shot on location all around the Los Angeles area, including Griffith Park, the Santa Monica beach with views of the Casa del Mar hotel, Palisades, and the entrance to the Talmadge Apartments on Wilshire. Hodges played some sweet, saucy jazz to enliven proceedings.
“The Musical Blacksmiths” (1913) played after lunch, another Edison kinetophone featuring the four part harmony blacksmiths and the sweet reaction of little Leonie Flugrath, soon to change her name to Shirley Mason.
This afternoon we had the choice of kinescopes or films and I chose the movies. Jack Oakie got the chance to yuk it up in the afternoon, as the dim-brained member of a vaudeville trio (wisecracking Aline McMahon, straight man Russell Hopton), deciding to crash Hollywood in the film adaptation of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s “Once in a Lifetime” (1932) satirizing Hollywood. The inexperienced trio sell themselves as expert elocutioners and convince studio head Gregory Ratoff to hire them to train his silent stars to speak. Not everything goes to plan but hilarious hi-jinks follow. McMahon almost steals the film in her film acting debut, Onslow Stevens does a perfect slow burn as an always waiting screenwriter, Robert McWade hilariously verbally decimates California, and Pitts as usual plays the scatter-brained receptionist. We get nice shots of Universal and Lankershim, some snappy zingers, and Walter Brennan in a cameo. There’s a nice jab at Oakie remaking a 1910 Biograph at the conclusion.
A gorgeous restoration of the nice silent programmer “The Desert Bride” (1928) screened next, featuring the luminous, expressive Betty Compson as the sweetheart of stalwart Allan Forrest (Mr. Lottie Pickford), who both find themselves kidnapped by Arabs tired of the white man’s oppression. Manly soldier Roscoe Karns of all people saves the day. There were some romantic exteriors shot at the dunes in Santa Maria. Dr. Jon Mirsalis provided an appropriately rousing and sensual score.
The afternoon concluded with the sweet Universal 1932 film “The Unexpected Father,” featuring special guest Cora Sue Collins who had never seen it. Doe-eyed Collins plays an abused child who attaches herself to rich bachelor Slim Summerville, finding happiness along the way. Alison Skipworth almost steals proceedings with her hooch-selling harridan, while Pitts plays a simple but kindly nurse. Brennan makes a cameo when the film shoots down at the El Segundo harbor. There are driving scenes in what looks like small town Glendale or Burbank as well.
For the second year in a row, Saturday Nitrate Fever brought the screening of a rare nitrate short and feature. The gorgeous little Warner Bros. Technicolor cartoon “September in the Rain” kicked off the evening, a lovely trip to a grocery store featuring Al Jolson singing the title song as we see parody versions of such popular products and their logo/mascots as Arm & Hammer baking powder, Morton’s Salt, and Camel cigarettes dancing and performing.
The fun “He Learned About Women” (1933) screened next, a simple story of shy, hermit-like multi-millionaire Stuart Erwin forced to confront the world. Stumbling into an auction for unemployed workers during the Great Depression, he wins the services of Susan Fleming (future wife of Harpo Marx) and her “mother” Alison Skipworth. Working to pull a fast one with the likes of Grant Mitchell, the two eventually learn the errors of their ways and happiness ensues. Sydney Toler plays the straight gentleman’s gentleman to Erwin. The interior of L.A.’s historic Philharmonic Auditorium stands in for the theatre interior and Central Park, later Pershing Square, plays New York’s Central Park.
Newly restored footage of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake followed. The Miles Brothers, a well known documentary company of the time, recreated their short shot just before the 1906 earthquake with another trip down Market Street to the Ferry Building, showing destruction and desolation but people determined to overcome it. The moving footage stands as a reminder of the many people who lost their lives in the disaster.
I skipped the last film of the evening and missed Sunday morning’s films because I was volunteering. I had seen the restored 1921 Universal film “Outside the Law,” a rollicking crime story of San Francisco’s old Chinatown with Lon Chaney as lead heavy (and Chinese servant) and Priscilla Dean as a smart gun moll turned straight thanks to the love of boyfriend Wheeler Oakman and a sweet young boy who shares their building. While mostly shot on the Universal lot, there are some establishing shots made in and around San Francisco’s Chinatown with views of the harbor seen out of a window.
After lunch, the short “The Infernal Triangle” launched the afternoon, a 1935 Roach two-reeler with some clever shenanigans that doesn’t completely come off. We see versions of a husband discovering his wife ’s infidelity, shot as if in the style of differing countries like the good old USA, England, France, and Russia. Ethnic stereotyping abounds, with such fun moments as fake snow thrown at actors, a wacky Apache dance in France, the English husband and cuckholding tennis player going off together, and passionate murder suicide in Russia.
The wacky, but didn’t hold together “Infernal Machine” followed, a 1933 Fox Pre-Code romantic comedy set on a ticking time bomb of a cruise ship. Charming rogue Chester Morris meets cute with glamorous Genevieve Tobin when their cars collide in Paris. Smitten, he follows her onboard, where the upper class finds they might only have hours to live. Mischa Auer and J. Carroll Naish praise the proletariat as Bolshevik anarchists, Victor Jory plays a sleazy, duplicitous gangster, and Edward Van Sloan plays a mad scientist. We see the “arrogance of power” in many disguises, but the Pre-Code elements can’t save the hodge podge.
Lewis Milestone’s directorial debut, “Seven Sinners” (1925) came next, a fast-moving caper about 7 sneaky burglars who separately follow each other into a Long Island mansion intent on absconding with jewels. Marie Prevost steals the show with her jaunty performance, and exhibits fine chemistry with solid Clive Brook. Heinie Conklin gets his comeuppance as a dim-witted gangster, and Fred Kelsey keeps the peace in spite of himself. Mirsalis provided a snazzy score to match the jaunty film.
Concluding the afternoon, the Spanish language “Asegure a Su Mujer! (Insure Your Wife!)” (1935) hit on all cylinders, the highlight of the Festival for me. Snappy, fast-moving, with zippy one-liners, fine sub-titles, and musical interludes, the film told the story of a lothario consultant who figures out how to save a struggling insurance company, sell infidelity insurance to husbands in case their wives cheat. Not a Spanish version of an American film but a stand-alone Spanish by Fox, the film featured a winning performance by Raul Roulien, an energetic one from often stiff Antonio Moreno (perhaps his native Spanish brought him alive), and an over-the top performance from Luis Alberni. Such Warner Bros. showgirls as Toby Wing make a cameo appearance, with lingerie clad beauties chasing Roulien through a hotel.
From the pen of future director George Stevens, “The Trial of Vince Barnett” (1933) featured performances by such favorite character actors as Barnett, Max Davidson, Bert Roach, Sterling Holloway, Jack La Rue, Kelsey, and Henry Armetta in their onscreen personas and real names, in a story of mistaken identity and infidelity. Barnett goes on trial for the destruction of gigolo La Rue’s apartment, and hilarity ensues. A touch too long, Pre-Code touches and funny performances make this a hit. Oh vey!
Though Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow starred in the 1931 Fox film “Goldie,” it still dragged, perhaps from too much dim wit Warren Hymer. A remake of the silent “A Girl In Every Port,” Tracy and fellow sailor/competitor Hymer battle over dames in every port they hit, before they meet their match with vibrant Harlow. With some scenes filmed in Busch Gardens and at the harbor, the film plays flat, but an uncredited performance by George Raft standing in a crowd helped alleviate boredom.
The one-reeler “Syd’s Long Count” (1930) featured Syd Saylor and William Irving in situations stolen from Laurel and Hardy, but not as funny. A terrible boxer and his manager fall on hard times and start selling reducing machines, demonstrating them door to door, a la Laurel and Hardy’s “Hat’s Off.” They shot around the Edendale area, setting up a sight gag at a steep staircase and hill in the area.
Once again, I skipped the last two films and missed Monday morning screenings because of volunteering. I had seen “The Shakedown” (1929), an entertaining early silent from William Wyler about a shady boxer (James Murray) who finds redemption and love with little Barbara Kent.
That afternoon, Marsha Hunt made an appearance at the screening of the first film she appeared in, “The Virginia Judge.” The B-picture starred Grace Kelly’s uncle Walter as a judge with a wayward son (Robert Cummings) who causes all kinds of trouble for his family and his erstwhile girlfriend Hunt. She gives a breezy performance, Charles Middleton plays normal, and Stepin Fetchit has some comic if stereotypical moments. A solid programmer, it eased into its moral conclusion.
While it had some interesting concepts, the 1948 oddball “Miss Tatlock’s Millions” didn’t quite come off. Featuring nice cameos by Mitchell Leisen and Ray Milland and the Paramount lot, the film reveals the story of stuntman John Lund who impersonates simple-minded pyromaniac Schuyler Tatlock for the reading of his grandparents’ wills, where he begins falling for his “sister” (Wanda Hendrix). Monty Woolley and Ilka chase play greedy, arrogant relatives to the hilt, while director Richard Haydn gives himself a nice oddball cameo. Filmed around Santa Barbara and at the Doheny and Jewett estates, one wonders how some of this got past the Production Code.
There was a slight mix-up with our concluding film. Instead of ending the Festival with the musical “On the Avenue,” a solid, thoughtful World War II escape film “The Pied Piper” directed by actor Irving Pichel played instead, as the studio had put the wrong film in the cans. A subdued Englishman Woolley goes fishing in France as the Nazis invade, and gets drafted to shepherd two children to safety in England. Enduring all manner of danger and transportation to cross France on the journey to the Channel, Woolley unintentionally collects more children along the way, including the half-Jewish niece of Nazi Otto Preminger. Anne Baxter, Preminger, and J. Carroll Naish give sound performances in oddly au courant subject matter. When Preminger asks Woolley if America will shelter migrant Jewish children, Woolley decries that “America accepts children, regardless of race, creed, or color, which garnered a large round of applause.
The 54th Annual Cinecon Film Festival provided an entertaining slice of life showing features a typical middle-America audience would have seen, good solid entertainment with subtle political messages and moral lessons. Its films showed a struggling middle class uniting around ethics, values, taking care of each other, accepting others, qualities that often seem to be missing in today’s self-absorbed, hateful, and fearing world.