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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4 Comments

  1. J. Theakston said,

    Chris,

    You may laugh, but there were SEVERAL follow-up shorts to DINNER AT EIGHT, produced by Rodney Gilliam in Technicolor.

  2. Parallax View » The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of September 10 said,

    […] rundown of the 46th Annual Cinecon Festival, prefaced with an example of cinephelia having real-life utility for once: getting the writer out […]

  3. Donna said,

    While I can appreciate Margaret Livingstone, I’m sorry, Nita is fabulous. The Breaking Point was fun and the plot was absolutely everywhere. Yes, I’ll say ti was a stinker, but any new Nita footage is gold to me. One excruciating closeup aside, Nita looked faboo and wore some great gowns, lovely furs. How can you not love the costume and wig reject from Monsieur Beaucaire? Or is it a leftover from some other wild Paramount production? Nobody knows, but Nita looks a bit bemused by this and would wear similar costumes and wigs in Clothes Make the Pirate.

    • unkvid said,

      Yes, there’s a strange dynamic at work here. Among silent movie buffs, I’ve found that women love Nita Naldi and men are indifferent to her at best. I don’t know why that is. She’s interesting up to a point simply because her look is so unique (I keep wondering if she’s Baby Peggy’s much older sister), and I can definitely appreciate women with curves, but somehow there’s something completely unsexy about Nita Naldi to me. There’s no way to say this without it sounding mean, but she might as well be Julian Eltinge (who also wore a lot of flamboyant costumes). And I’m not anti-vamp; I love Theda Bara. Oh well.

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