There was a lot of complaining about the line-up at Cinecon 2008, held on Labor Day Weekend, which was affected by the Univeral fire and other matters, including the deaths of Rusty Casselton and Bob Nudelman. Still, the films were some of the best I have seen in the Egyptian Theatre in years.
TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914, Keystone) The UCLA restoration of the Charles Chaplin-Marie Dressler feature is interesting, if only to see how many different pre-prints were used to construct it. Still, longer isn't necessarily better, and it's undeniably primitive with far too much of the over-acting Marie Dressler. Tillie's Punctured Romance was my least favorite film of the whole festival.
ACQUITTED (1929, Columbia) Margaret Livingston falls for very cute doctor/convict Lloyd Hughes while in prison (he's innocent of the murder of which he was convicted). To free him, she has to go back to her old partner/gangster Sam Hardy. Interesting premise – and Acquitted was the first talkie for the three stars out on loan to Columbia Pictures. It was almost funny that for Columbia to avoid paying for new music, the characters would play the radio or phonograph with Irving Berlin's recording of “What'll I Do” endlessly.
THE BLOOD SHIP (1927, Columbia) For their own private reasons, Richard Arlen and Hobart Bosworth agree to join the crew of a ship with a reputation for violence and death. The Blood Ship is a good action tale with excellent footage onboard a period sailing vessel, offering lots of blood and guts, and an exciting finale.
MURDER IN TRINIDAD (1934, Fox) Nigel Bruce, in his third American film, plays a peanut-eating detective on the trail of diamond smugglers in the tropics. Murder in Trinidad is very funny and entertaining, while Bruce, in a pre-Watson role, is a delight as the bumbling detective with more upstairs than meets the eye. The film was later remade as a Mr. Moto feature, but without the excellent swamp sequence at the climax. One of my favorites of the weekend.
THE HOME MAKER (1925, Universal) Alice Joyce and Clive Brook are miserable: she is efficient but horrified by the drudgery of housework; he is bored in a dead-end, underpaying job. When he is paralyzed after a fall, she has to get a paying job, while he stays home with their three kids. Joyce turns out to be a much better breadwinner, and Brook a much better househusband and parent. A most unusual film; The Home Maker is very modern in its view of alternative families. A real undiscovered gem directed by King Baggot.
THE TEXAN (1930, Paramount) Withheld for many years due to legal complications, The Texan is a remarkable Gary Cooper Western. On the run for killing a crooked gambler, Cooper agrees to pose as the long missing son of a Spanish grand-dame played by Emma Dunn. His eventual love for the old woman and his “cousin,” Fay Wray, lead him to double cross his partner in crime. Visually stunning, The Texan deserves to be rediscovered.
I CAN'T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, BABY (1940, Universal) Complete goofball comedy, with Public Enemy #2 Broderick Crawford wanting to write songs, teaming up with composer Johnny Downs, and shockingly, becoming a hit songwriter. Jessie Ralph is remarkably funny as the gangster's matriarch. Peggy Moran, as always, is the exceedingly cute love interest. This zany, sidesplitting comedy, projected on the big screen with an audience, was a huge hit.
THE MOLLYCODDLE (1920, Fairbanks/UA) Douglas Fairbanks plays a fop who is descended from a long line of heroes; when smuggler Wallace Beery threatens Doug's girl, his true colors come through. One of Fairbanks' last non-swashbucklers, The Mollycoddle is a lot of fun – and packed with excitement, as well. I've seen it many times before, but in a great 35mm print it was a real treat.
OUTLAWS OF THE ORIENT (1937, Columbia) A typical B-Western, except that it's set in China! Jack Holt has to bring in an oil well in the Gobi desert while Chinese bandits are trying to shut him down. A likable, but routine programmer.
TRIUMPH (1917, Universal) This early Lon Chaney film, discovered by collector George Wagner, has only the first three of its five reels. Even so, Triumph is an interesting backstage story with Dorothy Phillips as a promising actress who wants to “triumph” on the stage, while dissipated writer Chaney provides her with the opportunity in a play called “Triumph.” Interesting for an early Chaney – even in a quasi-romantic role – but by no means can Triumph be called a great film.
MODERN LOVE (1929, Universal) This is Charley Chase's first feature (part-)sound film made as a loan-out to Universal. Charley and Kathryn Crawford want to marry, but since she plans to maintain her career they keep separate apartments and hide their marriage. Modern Love wanders from melodrama to hysterical comedy (a dinner party sequence with Charley giving etiquette tips to Jean Hersholt is a hoot), while the first half is mostly silent and the second half mostly sound. Very enjoyable.
SPEEDY (1928, Paramount) Speedy substituted for a 35mm print of The Freshman, which was booked at three other venues for the weekend. There is very little to say, except that Speedy is my favorite of all of Harold Lloyd's silent feature films. The print quality was exceptional; filmed totally in New York City for four months, it remains a fast and furious example on how great Lloyd could be.
SKY HIGH (1922, Fox) This Tom Mix classic would have been entertaining if we had a nice 35mm film to see, but in the same crummy 16mm dupe we've had for years it was pretty weak. To make matters worse, a projector malfunction had the film running way too fast (calculate about 30 fps). It finished in about 35 min, so the action was ridiculously rushed.
THE POOR NUT (1927, First National) Jack Mulhall is totally cast against type as a bespectacled, tousle-headed bookworm who falls in love with a picture of the college queen at another school, writing her letters about how he's a Big Man on Campus and a track star. Unfortunately, she is so intrigued that she decides to go visit him. Jean Arthur is lovely as the the local girl truly in love with him. The Poor Nut is a real delight and probably my favorite silent of the weekend. It has lots of trackmen in and out of running shorts, and what's more: Jack Mulhall stays in character the whole film as a geek with a good body.
THE NINTH GUEST (1934, Columbia) The ultimate Art Deco murder mystery, in which eight people get invitations to a penthouse party where the ninth guest is … death! One by one, they are killed off. Who is the killer? The Ninth Guest is shockingly similar to (and pre-dates) Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. I'd seen this before at Cinefest, but it was still a great Art Deco treat, especially with that ominous clock built into the wall.
THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933, Paramount) This was the uncut version, with the post-Code censor cuts restored. The Eagle and the Hawk is a good World War I aviator picture with Cary Grant (out of character) as a tough-as-nails gunner and Fredric March as the ace pilot who is starting to crack from the strain of war. Carole Lombard (here her part runs for nearly 8 minutes, instead of the 2 minutes in the truncated version) is the mysterious woman March meets and has a one-night affair while on leave.
OUTLAWS OF THE PRAIRIE (1937, Columbia) Solid B-Western with Charles Starrett as a ranger who disguises himself as an outlaw to smash a stage-holdup gang. Outlaws of the Prairie is nothing special, but it was another beautiful print and a lot of fun.
THE DEVIL'S BAIT (1917, Balboa General Film) An unusual film starring (not directed by) Henry King and Ruth Roland, with the premise that Satan created jewels – a very large ruby, in particular – in order to tempt people to sin. This strategy pretty much works, as characters commit theft, murder, blackmail, infidelity, and other pesky indiscretions to possess the gleaming gem. The print could use a re-restoration as described by Library of Congress' James Cozart before the screening, but The Devil's Bait was still entertaining.
DAMON AND PYTHIAS (1914, Universal) One of the first films produced at Universal City in California, Damon and Pythias is a true gem of restoration by James Cozart and the Library of Congress. Recreated without continuity sheets or a work-print, the entire film was put back together by utilizing the novelization of the Grosset & Dunlap Photoplay book edition, which was released at the time the film came out. Damon and Pythias features high production values and displays remarkable sophistication.
MAMMY (1930, Warner Bros.) Very little needs to be said, except that Mammy is an Al Jolson feature – one with a rather wooden performance by Lois Moran. I only went to see this film because of the UCLA restoration of the two-strip Technicolor sequences, cobbled together from a variety of sources. What made the experience worthwhile was their use of sepia tinting on the black-and-white bits missing their original color footage, a tactic that made the gaps in the color sequences less jarring.
THE MENACE (1932, Columbia) Previously screened at Cinefest, it was fun to see this early Bette Davis film. The British-set murder mystery finds Walter Byron traveling back to his ancestral home after undergoing full facial plastic surgery to discover who really killed his father, a crime for which he had been sentenced to jail. Natalie Moorhead is spectacular as the step-mother, bringing to life a super-stylish Deco villainess.
RAIN OR SHINE (1930, Columbia) The newly discovered silent version of Frank Capra's first talkie is a true gem. You have Joe Cook reprising his Broadway role as a circus headman, forced to perform all the circus acts – aerialist, juggler, etc. – at a performance. Also from the original cast is famous restaurateur Dave Chasen as Joe Cook's half-witted assistant. In many ways the silent version is superior to the talkie, as the silent Rain or Shine moves along at a breakneck pace, in addition to featuring a spectacular burning of the circus tents.
SING, BABY, SING (1936, 20th Century Fox) It is always a treat to see another Alice Faye feature – and Sing, Baby, Sing also happened to be the first film appearance of the Ritz Brothers. The film has a wonderful backstage story, loosely based upon the real-life exploits of John Barrymore and Elaine Barrie, with Adolphe Menjou as the hammy, aging actor, giving perhaps the best performance of the entire weekend. Menjou, in fact, had every Barrymore mannerism down perfectly. Alice Faye was lovely, tuneful, and a joy to behold, as was the rest of the cast: Patsy Kelly, Tony Martin, Ted Healy, and Gregory Ratoff.
A number of shorts were run at Cinecon 2008 as well:
- The Iron Claw (1941, episodes 13-15) finished up the corny serial (the lawyer did it!!);
- The Sign of the Cucumber (1917) was a curious comedy Western about a sheriff and a look-alike outlaw who can only be distinguished by the cucumber birthmark on the sheriff's arm – silly, but fun;
- The Awful Goof (1939) is a long-unseen Charley Chase vehicle in which he keeps finding himself in compromising situations with the wife of a wrestler – it was a very funny remake of an old silent short of his;
- Rootin' Tootin' Tenderfoot (1952) is a Max Baer/Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom short that is a straight rip off of Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy's Way Out West, offering a few funny gags though mostly it was painful;
- Abie Kabibble Outwitted His Rival (1917) is a minor Gregory La Cava cartoon that was the first and last in what was supposed to be a series based upon the comic strips by Harry Hershfeld.
Kudos to Bob Birchard, Michael Schlesinger, and the rest of the volunteers who have been putting on such a wonderful program year after year.
© Joseph Yranski
Joseph Yranski is a film historian and researcher formerly associated with the New York Public Library's Donnell Media Center.