Assume the Position

September 29, 2010 at 2:41 am (One Lil' Picture)

If Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian aren’t careful, they’ll develop a reputation around M-G-M for being… what’s the word… limber. That’s it. Limber.

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The Mad Scientist of Make-Up

September 25, 2010 at 11:48 pm (Photo Gallery)

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Did sinister science lurk behind Hollywood’s glamorous beauties? Was it a dark, twisted genius that created their make-up? Were horrors of agony the price of a lovely face? The answer in each case is… no. Not really.  But there was a certain science to the art of Hollywood make-up. Weird science.

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It was all so simple in the early days. Here, Betty Compson (right) shows off her make-up kit to Marceline Day, between scenes of Lon Chaney’s The Big City. 1927.

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From Modern Mechanix, January 1933.

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From Modern Mechanix, January 1935.

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Chemists at the Max Factor lab in Hollywood test a new lipstick on the shaved stomach of a guinea pig. “The under skin of the baby pigs is ten times as sensitive as that of the human being and is used to test all [of] Factor’s makeups.” January 1939.

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From Mechanix Illustrated, April 1947.

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– – – Christopher Snowden

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Crate Expectations

September 24, 2010 at 4:36 am (One Lil' Picture)

The plan was to get himself delivered to the studio, pop out of the box, charm everyone with a snappy tap dance, and get himself a movie contract. It seemed like a good idea at the time. June 1929. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

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The Ol’ Innocent Look

September 22, 2010 at 2:01 am (One Lil' Picture)

Doing their best to prove that Hollywood isn’t actually a dissolute swamp of moral corruption are Louise Brooks, Nancy Phillips, James Hall, Doris Hill and Josephine Dunn, somewhere on the Paramount back lot in 1927.

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Hard Times

September 19, 2010 at 9:10 pm (General blather)

A vamp reels in another victim. Virginia Pearson in Sister Against Sister (1917).

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This post is so relentlessly depressing that I’ve put off writing it for weeks now. Here goes.

Hollywood wasn’t completely a land of make-believe, and success in the movie business was no guarantee of financial security. Here are a few examples of silent stars who eventually found themselves “up against it.”

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In spite of having fairly busy acting careers, Sheldon Lewis and his wife Virginia Pearson were forced to declare bankruptcy in 1924.

Poor investments weren’t to blame, or too much high living. Virginia had been badly hurt in an automobile accident, and the bills that followed overwhelmed their finances to the tune of $9,920, forcing them into bankruptcy court.

(Motion Picture, July 1924, page 65.)

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Today it’s lost and nearly forgotten, but Over the Hill to the Poor House was one of the most acclaimed films (and biggest hits) of 1920. Mary Carr was its heart.

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A melancholy poem of 1872 entitled “Over the Hill to the Poor House” inspired a popular folk song and a William Fox production of 1920. This tale of a hard-working mother of six, who sacrifices for her children only to be abandoned by them and consigned to a poorhouse, was a smash hit with audiences. The mother was played by Mary Carr (coincidentally a mother of six herself), who would enact similar roles for many years thereafter.

Hard times struck in 1931.  A friend needed to borrow money, and Mary co-signed a note. The friend defaulted on the debt, and the lender went after them both.

Mary hadn’t found much work since talkies arrived. With little money saved and more creditors hounding her, she had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.

Against liabilities of $13,000, her meager assets included a wedding ring valued at five dollars, clothes valued at forty dollars, and similar items.

(Motion Picture Classic, July 1931, page 32.)

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Mary Nolan, about the time she was appearing in such films as John Gilbert’s Desert Nights (1929) and Lon Chaney’s West of Zanzibar (1928).

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Mary Nolan, former Follies girl and 1920s film actress, ran into a lot of trouble in 1932, much of it financial. She and her husband had established the Mary Nolan Gown Shop in the Los Angeles area, but the venture failed completely. As she later testified, the store took in sales of only $75 in several weeks of operation. The shop closed, and lawsuits followed from suppliers and employees who hadn’t been paid.

Nolan confessed in court on April 14, 1932, that her assets amounted to exactly fifteen cents, noting that she and her husband were living entirely on the charity of friends and upon the patience of her landlord, to whom she owed seven weeks’ rent on their $17.50-per-week apartment.

Legal trouble also followed, as she was found guilty of violating the wage claims law and sentenced to thirty days in jail. She jumped bail, and later that year she was arrested in New York over another complaint involving a bounced check for a Minneapolis hotel bill of $304.48.

(Los Angeles Times)

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Betty Blythe in her greatest role (1921).

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Betty Blythe, a statuesque star of the early 1920s, was playing bit roles a decade later. Asked by a reporter how she felt about the comedown, she replied:

“I don’t want to think about it. What is the use, anyway? I’ve had my share of good luck in pictures, and I’ve had my run of bad fortune– perhaps more than I deserved. But I don’t complain about it, because I know the laws that govern actors and actresses too well. You can’t be up too many years without a sudden, jarring fall. I’m experiencing that fall now and am quite resigned to it.”

(“Ex-Favorites Pocket Pride to Get Work,” Los Angeles Times, 8/20/33.)

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Maurice Costello had been one of the biggest stars of the nickelodeon era, placing thirteenth in a 1913 poll of favorite film stars (in which he gathered more votes than Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge combined).

However, his stardom was over by the end of World War I. In the 1930s, the sixtyish actor was dependent upon his family for his income.

He supplemented that with whatever work he could find as a Hollywood extra, and the former matinee idol was literally just another face in the crowd, milling about in the background of new stars’ films. In 1940, for example, he earned just $12.50 a day as an extra for 20th Century-Fox’s Tin Pan Alley.

When he died in 1950, his entire estate consisted of an old car valued at $50, and $41.55 in a bank account.

(Bob Birchard, “Maurice Costello,” in Hollywood Heritage Inc. Newsletter, Winter-Spring 2001, pages 9-10.)

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Actually, neither of the figures depicted on this poster are Maurice Costello, but the image is too cool not to use! Forgive me, Maurice, wherever you are. Incidentally, his great-granddaughter is Drew Barrymore.

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– – – Christopher Snowden

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Naughty with a Noggin

September 17, 2010 at 4:39 am (One Lil' Picture)

Nothing jazzes up a glamour photo like a severed head, as Sennett beauty Kathryn Stanley demonstrates. Photo by Edwin Bower Hesser.

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Poster After Midnight

September 15, 2010 at 4:49 am (One Lil' Picture)

The last known print of Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927) was destroyed in a vault fire 45 years ago. Just as rare is the original one-sheet poster for the film. No copies have ever turned up, even though Chaney was a top star at the time and the film was widely exhibited. The only large poster known to exist is this one from the Argentinian release. It sold at auction for over $41,000.

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– – – Christopher Snowden

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Nothing But Ads

September 12, 2010 at 4:31 am (Photo Gallery)

Because nothing says beauty like milkweed.

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Several years later. The gum may be fine, but it looks like someone’s using too much Ingram’s Rouge.

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It must be true. Why would a cigarette company lie?

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And if your little girl does shoot herself, your six dollars will be cheerfully refunded.

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The subtle approach.

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Mailed in a plain package, so the mailman won’t laugh at you.

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Big Dick has never been more affordable!

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– – – Christopher Snowden


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Faux Bow

September 9, 2010 at 1:56 am (One Lil' Picture)

Marilyn Monroe as Clara Bow. Photo by Richard Avedon.

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Rose McGowan as Clara Bow. Nice dress, but… $3637?

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Cinecon 46 Review

September 6, 2010 at 7:41 am (Film Reviews)

Like a Mucha painting brought to life, here’s Jobyna Ralston. Photo by Gene Kornman.

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Last week I was called in for jury duty. There were about 150 of us in the jury pool, and we were all there for the same case, sitting in a big courtroom listening to a weary judge give us the lowdown. Long story short, a number of children had made allegations that were duly investigated, and the result was that a guy was up on multiple charges of lewd and lascivious conduct involving children. Two of the kids were his own 10-year-old and 4-year-old daughters.

At one table up in front sat an assistant district attorney. At an adjoining table sat the defendant, with his lawyer. They all turned around to wish us good morning. I took an intuitive dislike to two of them.

I was ready to render my verdict right then and there, but I was only a potential juror. The judge advised that the case was expected to take two weeks. If selected for the jury, I’d miss Cinecon altogether. The bailiffs passed out application forms to those of us who wanted to be excused from being jurors, which was virtually all of us.

I explained on my application that I had already paid my registration fee for an annual convention that was to be held the next week.

It worked. I was excused, and got to attend Cinecon. The moral of this story is clear: it pays to pre-register. (Also, you probably don’t want me on your jury.)

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I got to Hollywood Thursday afternoon.  Apart from Cinecon, the hotel was hosting something called the National Sexual Assault Conference (insert insensitive joke here), and the elevators were always packed. Surprisingly, the Sexual Assault people were a livelier crowd than the Cinephiles, though we probably had a better dealers’ room.

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Dinner at Eight (1934) – Opening night kicked off with a weird educational Technicolor short set entirely in the kitchen of a Depression-era housewife, a kitchen that was fully equipped with all sorts of futuristic appliances that probably nobody actually owned. The phone rings, and her husband announces that he’s bringing over half a dozen people for dinner. With an eerily expressionless face, our Stepford housewife puts together a colossal banquet, and somehow she does it all in less than an hour, without making any messes and without bitching about her inconsiderate husband.  The downside of this miracle is that every dish she prepares looks hideous. Even the cake is gruesome, and no wonder, since she’d poured a can of Campbell’s tomato soup into the batter. I don’t think these folks stayed married long enough for there to be a sequel.   ***

King of Burlesque (20th Cent-Fox, 1936) – This was pretty good. The story and execution were nothing special, but the performances put it over, especially Jack Oakie’s. From the very opening musical number, you expect it to be all about Alice Faye, but it’s mostly about a gruff, hard-charging but ultimately clueless theatrical impresario played by Warner Baxter. This movie owed a lot to the much superior Footlight Parade, but it was still good fun. The highlight was a performance by Fats Waller and His Rhythm, and I’d have gladly traded all of the film’s many tap-dancing numbers for another chorus from Fats.   ***

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Down on the Farm (Sennett, 1920) – I’d been cautioned beforehand not to get my hopes up for this. Like all of Sennett’s early features, it’s a disjointed mess, but it’s such a fast-moving mess that you don’t mind, and there’s no complicated plot or extraneous romantic subplots to bog down the farce. It’s slapstick from start to finish, and often quite funny. I suspect it would’ve been better had it been trimmed down to two or three really strong reels, but it’s fine as it is, apart from a painful-to-watch scene involving some aggressive geese and a very young and very frightened John Henry Jr.    ***

The Voice of Hollywood (Tiffany, 1929) – This evening there were a pair of shorts from a cheapie series that nevertheless had some great footage here and there. We see Mary Pickford at an event toasting a comically taciturn Calvin Coolidge; Norma Talmadge at some sort of party with Gilbert Roland (so much for keeping the affair discreet); a dance number from (of all people) serial queen Ruth Roland, and more. The films were choppy, but at least they survive.   **1/2

Tennessee’s Pardner (Lasky, 1916) – I’m sorry. I love silent movies in general, but I find feature films of the mid-1910s pretty tough to sit through. In my opinion they tend to be slow and stodgy, a long series of scenes in which people just talk at each other in cramped rooms, rolling their eyes and waving their arms. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but Tennessee’s Pardner is pretty close to my caricature. It’s based on the Bret Harte story, and there’s some nice location work and a decent action climax. But the teenage heroine is played by Fannie Ward, who’s 42 years old and looks like every minute of it. That, plus lots of theatrical staging and a boatload of dialogue intertitles kept this one from ever taking flight. Gorgeous print, though.   *1/2

The Peppery Salt (Columbia, 1935) – I love Andy Clyde the way everybody else loves the Three Stooges, who were making their own two-reelers elsewhere on the Columbia lot while Andy was making his. They aren’t necessarily laugh riots, but there’s a certain humanity in Andy Clyde that you don’t see in most short subject comedians, and I love his voice. So I was bound to enjoy this film, and everyone else seemed to like it pretty well too. Sennett veteran Del Lord directed this with silent comedy conventions in mind (specifically, some gags stolen from Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother, and he’s lucky he didn’t get sued).   ***

The Freshman (Lloyd, 1925) – The best film I saw all weekend was one I’d seen before. I guess we’d all seen it before, and the crowd was surprisingly a bit thin for this. I began watching it critically, studying the pacing and Harold Lloyd’s technique. But it was more fun to just watch it the way it was meant to be seen, with a grin and an open heart, and after a while I just let the film take me where it wanted to go. It makes perfect sense that Lloyd was an amateur magician, because as a filmmaker he creates wonders but he does so in very deft ways that disguise the mechanics of it. He has no interest in making a statement, in creating dynamic visuals or in expressing his mind and ego. He’s completely focused on executing the effect he wants to achieve, and he does it so well that you don’t realize it’s an illusion. Lloyd makes us believe in Harold, no matter how impossibly innocent, guileless and earnest the boy is, and we relate to his longing and his idealism, sensing a bit of that purity still alive within ourselves. That’s a tough trick to pull off.   ****

The Grocery Clerk (Vitagraph, 1919) – Having just watched Harold Lloyd’s exquisitely-produced comedy put me at a disadvantage for appreciating a mindless Larry Semon slapstick bash. Semon’s stuff is good, it’s just differently good, and it gets stale easily. As long as the pace doesn’t sag, and the scale of the mayhem gets steadily bigger and broader, he’s fine, and this two-reeler was a pretty good show. The stunts and the explosions are great as eye candy, but the best gag in the film was a simple, cute one: a cat walking across a countertop with flypaper on his paws. Semon ultimately painted himself into a corner, because when you make a lot of films about guys getting pitched into mud puddles, or falling into open barrels marked FLOUR, your audience feels cheated if it doesn’t keep getting that stuff, even though they’re no longer laughing at it. Next stop, oblivion.   ***

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Now that‘s a devastating woman. Where are the Daughters of Livingston?

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The Way of the Strong (Columbia, 1928) – This was a sharp little gangster drama from Frank Capra, sharp at least so far as the characterizations went. The plot was bad pulp, not even plausible enough for a Lon Chaney-Tod Browning picture, but its strengths overcame its shortcomings. With Margaret Livingston at her vampy best, and her name atop the cast list, you’d expect it to be her film, but it actually revolves around a plug-ugly gangster played by Mitchell Lewis. The gangster is ashamed of his looks, a point that Capra underlines a couple of times too often by having Lewis repetitively run his fingertips over his face while grimacing in dismay. Lewis falls in love with a blind street musician (Alice Day), but he’s afraid she’ll be disgusted if she knows he’s ugly. So he tricks her into touching the face of a more handsome guy (Theodore Von Eltz) and lets her think that face is his own. I know, it sounds stupid. And it is. But the filmmaking is so slick, and the performances are so rich, that we play along with it. Von Eltz loves her too, and since one of these guys is bound to die in the end, Alice is going to be shocked to discover that the handsome face doesn’t belong to the voice she’s been hearing all along, and that they both belong to guys who’ve been deceiving her. Conveniently enough, that moment occurs at some point after the final fade-out. I thought this film had the best Phil Carli score of the weekend.   ***

You Never Know Women (Paramount, 1926) – Here was a vehicle for a silent star nobody ever talks about much, Florence Vidor, who did a fine job in a Norma Talmadge sort of role, and looked lovely doing it.  William Wellman directed, and he did a fine job of stretching some mighty thin material. Ultimately the film amounted to two reels of acrobats, two reels of plot and two reels of padding, with some good moody photography. The leading man here was Clive Brook, and I like him, but he only has two expressions and one of them is a dark scowl. We got a whole lot of the scowl in this film.   ***

Jimtown Cabaret (1929) – I didn’t intend to show up for the Warner Archive Collection program, but like all the other Q&A programs, it ran really late, and I got to see the short that closed the program. It’s an obscurity featuring a pair of blackface comics, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. They weren’t especially good or bad, but I love outrageous stuff like this, as long as there’s nothing mean about it, and the audience enjoyed it too. Insensitive racial stereotypes were all over the place at Cinecon, but the only thing that really stung was a moment in King of Burlesque when Fats Waller’s character, a jolly and fully-grown elevator operator, is dismissed as an “elevator boy.” Anyway, Jimtown Cabaret was enlivened by some hot jazz music and dancing by actual African-Americans who seemed to be having a great time in this little film.   ***

“Saturday at the Bijou” Program – This was a new experiment for Cinecon, and it worked out very well. First up was a Max Fleischer sing-along cartoon featuring footage of Lillian Roth at her most adorable. Next was an irresistible two-reel talkie from Universal that follows a starlet’s progress at the studio as she goes through an audition, wardrobe test, make-up, rehearsals, etc. Director S. Sylvan Simon coaches her through the process, and tries hard to appear the patient professional, but there’s just something oily and devious about him somehow. We’re introduced to Universal’s make-up wizard Jack Pierce, who grunts with annoyance when Frankenstein is mentioned, and Cesar Romero is on hand to perform a screen test with our girl. Romero’s vastly more sinister than Simon, though he tries even harder to appear warm and friendly, and our wide-eyed starlet gushes her thanks and admiration. She’s not much of an actress and you just know she’s on a one-way track to somebody’s casting couch, so it’s a good thing the National  Sexual Assault Conference is in town. After a mundane serial chapter (Columbia’s The Green Archer), we got Buck Jones in The Thrill Hunter (Columbia, 1933). I love Buck, but somehow this film didn’t work for me as well as I expected. There are some good action sequences, but the film sags a bit between them. There was also a raffle between films, which would’ve worked out better if the house lights had come up enough for people like me to read the numbers on our raffle tickets. But this interlude contained my absolute favorite moment of the entire weekend, when host Stan Taffel and his assistant, a black guy on the theater staff, spontaneously broke into an hilarious imitation of Miller and Lyles from Jimtown Cabaret. Overall, I really enjoyed this program, and I hope it becomes a regular attraction at future Cinecons.   ***1/2

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Colleen Moore goes flapper.

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Film Preservation Program – Here was another good innovation, possibly inspired by similar presentations at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. That’s where I’d first seen the surviving snippets of Colleen Moore’s Flaming Youth (1923), but it was good to see them again, and Jon Mirsalis turned in my favorite of his scores of the weekend. The documentary Keepers of the Frame (1998) was an interesting appeal for film preservation, a cause that was an easy sell for this audience. Ironically, all of the vintage film clips in the documentary looked awful, and not just the footage ravaged by decomposition. Next up was the main attraction, the rediscovered Keystone comedy A Thief Catcher (1914), which includes a Charlie Chaplin cameo. The film is a showcase for Ford Sterling, who can be very funny, but he wasn’t much good in this. Worse, Chaplin doesn’t get to do anything in particular, and the final scene (which includes him) is very choppy and suddenly stops. At least that’s how it is in this print, the only one known to exist. But it’s a mind-blower to see a forgotten Chaplin film.   ***

The Case of Becky (Lasky, 1915) – Here was another of those mid-1910s features, another gorgeous print but a film that didn’t work very well for me. It’s a tour de force for Blanche Sweet, who plays a woman with a split personality. But that’s the result of some silly hocus-pocus performed by an evil hypnotist, rather than an actual psychological condition. You know she’s slipping into her second personality because she unbuttons her blouse partway and starts scowling like Clive Brook. The film might still have been hokey good fun, but like so many features of this era, it just crawls along and most of it consists of conversations. (A few years before, filmmakers had to tell a story in just one or two reels; now they tell the same story in five or six, and the extra footage is wasted on padding and intertitles.) I don’t mean to sound as if I hated the film. I didn’t, and Sweet did a decent job, but I was glad when this was over and I could get out of the theater.   **1/2

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Willilam S. Hart and Richard Headrick in The Testing Block (1920).

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The Testing Block (Paramount, 1920) – Cinecon runs a lot of William S. Hart films, which will draw no complaints from me (though I’d like to see a Hoot Gibson sometime). This one came from Hart’s best period, and a year that also included The Toll Gate and Sand. Once again he’s his archetypal hero who starts out as an outlaw, but is transformed by the influence of a good woman. Happily, Hart gets all of that out of the way in the first couple of reels, moving along to an engrossing plot involving a truly evil former co-hort. This was a solid picture, with some unexpected turns, a clever jailbreak, good performances and beautiful scenery. (The film is set in the Sierras, but it was clearly filmed in redwood country, since the landscape is littered with tree stumps bigger than my car.) Westerns just don’t appeal to some people, no matter how good they may be, but I thought the audience liked this one as well as I did.   ***1/2

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Ruth Taylor and a cucumber. I can’t tell what she’s thinking, and I’m not sure I want to know.

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The College Coquette (Columbia, 1929) – I really wanted to see this, but it was slotted for 11:00 at night and I was dying to get out to Mel’s for a late dinner. I haven’t seen a lot of 1929 talkies that I liked, but I wanted to give this one a chance, mainly because it starred Ruth Taylor and Jobyna Ralston. Taylor was a promising starlet in 1928-1929 after apparently doing very well in the lost film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928). Here she plays the title role of a very spoiled, very ditzy and very annoying freshman. The script wants to portray her as flirtatious and cute, but instead she comes off as the campus mattress, and if this were a Dwain Esper film she’d be syphilitic and pregnant by the second reel. Inevitably the script will straighten her out, and oddly enough it happens at the expense of her sweet roommate Jobyna Ralston, whose own romantic troubles are abruptly eclipsed by bigger problems when she steps into an open elevator shaft and later dies. The film finally salvages something close to a happy ending, in which Taylor is bounced out of college and she settles down with the hunky football coach who had heretofore been as irritated by her as the audience had been. In fairness to Taylor, her performance isn’t bad, and I blame the scriptwriter and director more than her. It was good to see Jobyna Ralston, though at this point she’s a little too old for her role, and I suspect she got the job on the strength of her connection to Harold Lloyd’s hit The Freshman. Come to think of it, Harold was a little old for his own role in that film, but I’ve complained enough already. The College Coquette was fun, and I’m always a little fascinated by these films about rich college kids on the eve of the Great Depression, who have no idea what’s about to hit them.   ***

Do Detectives Think? (Roach, 1927) – Cinecon ran lots of shorts this year, which was a great thing. This one was an early Laurel and Hardy comedy. We’ve all seen it before, and some of us know it by heart, but it was great to see it with an audience in 35mm.   ***

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A pompadour? Really? Nita Naldi in The Breaking Point.

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The Breaking Point (Paramount, 1924) – Here was another rarity, a Nita Naldi film without Valentino or John Barrymore in it. This one was hotly anticipated by the Daughters of Naldi, and it was moved up in the schedule for them, from the Monday ghetto to a prime Sunday timeslot. The program book warned us that contemporary reviews weren’t very positive, with Naldi’s girth a particular point of criticism. Well, there was one unfortunate close-up in which she appears to have three chins, but apart from that she didn’t look fat. She just looked curvy, and curvy ain’t bad. But the bitter truth is that I’ve never found her to be very attractive, much less irresistibly alluring, and I’ve never known a guy who thought she was hot stuff. The Breaking Point gives her almost nothing to do but stand around for a little while every couple of reels. The other characters do all the narrative heavy lifting, and the female second lead is played by the far more attractive Patsy Ruth Miller. The story involves amnesia, so you know right away it’s going to be implausible, and it is, convoluted and frequently dull as well. Director Herbert Brenon could do terrific work, but he could also crank out turkeys like this one and Pola Negri’s The Spanish Dancer (1923).  *1/2

Other than a Max Davidson short after lunch, there wasn’t anything else on the schedule that interested me that day, and while the Monday line-up looked better, staying for it would’ve put me in Labor Day traffic hell all the way home. So I hit the road and my Cinecon was over.

It was a very good Cinecon. The only really great film was one I’d already seen, but there were a lot of other films that were well worth discovering. Apart from the documentary, there was only one feature from the post-WWII era, and very few that were post-1930s. I appreciated the move to show more shorts and a few surprises. I was also glad to meet a few new friends, like Brittany Jane Valente and Paul Gierucki, besides all the old friends I got to see again. And the blueberry pie at Mel’s was so good that I ordered it three times.

Thumbs up for Cinecon 46, and my thanks to the officers and volunteers who made it all happen.

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– – – Christopher Snowden


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