- Cinecon overview: Film historian Joseph Yranski provides a brief look at an eclectic array of movies – both silents and talkies – presented at this year’s Hollywood-based festival of mostly rare, decades-old releases.
- Among those mentioned in the text: Jean Arthur, Alice Faye, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, Fay Wray, Fredric March, Alice Joyce, Clive Brook, Bette Davis, Marie Dressler, Al Jolson, Frank Lloyd, and Charles Chaplin.
Cinecon overview: Amusing discoveries & rediscoveries among eclectic selection of mostly hard-to-find silents & talkies
Note from the Editor: In this article, New York City-based film historian and researcher Joseph Yranski, formerly associated with the New York Public Library’s Donnell Media Center, offers a brief overview of various movies screened at this year’s Cinecon.
Held on Labor Day Weekend at the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, Cinecon is a film festival focused on decades-old, mostly hard-to-find U.S. releases.
The movies below are listed in alphabetical order.
Featuring an interesting premise, Acquitted (1929, Columbia) was the first talkie for three stars out on loan to Columbia Pictures. Margaret Livingston falls for 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. For Columbia to avoid paying for new music, the characters endlessly play the radio or phonograph with Irving Berlin’s recording of “What’ll I Do.” Director: Frank R. Strayer.
The Blood Ship
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 (1927, Columbia) is a good action tale with excellent footage onboard a period sailing vessel, while offering lots of blood and guts, and an exciting finale. Also in the cast: Jacqueline Logan. Director: George B. Seitz.
Damon and Pythias
One of the first films produced at Universal City in California, Damon and Pythias (1914, Universal) is a true gem of a 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 movie came out. Directed by Otis Turner, Damon and Pythias features high production values and displays remarkable sophistication. In the cast: William Worthington as Damon and Herbert Rawlinson as Pythias, plus Cleo Madison, Ann Little, Harry Davenport, and future two-time Best Director Academy Award winner Frank Lloyd (The Divine Lady, 1928–29; Cavalcade, 1932–33).
The Devil’s Bait
An unusual film starring Ruth Roland and future two-time Best Director Oscar nominee Henry King (The Song of Bernadette, 1943; Wilson, 1944), The Devil’s Bait (1917, Balboa General Film) revolves around 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. As explained by Library of Congress’ James Cozart before the screening, the print could use a re-restoration – even so, The Devil’s Bait was still entertaining. Also in the cast: William Conklin. Director: Harry Harvey.
The Eagle and the Hawk
This was the uncut version of The Eagle and the Hawk (1933, Paramount), with the post-Production Code censored scenes restored. In this good World War I aviator picture, Cary Grant (out of character) plays a tough-as-nails gunner while Fredric March is the ace pilot who is starting to crack from the strain of war. Carole Lombard (here her part runs for nearly eight minutes, instead of the two minutes in the truncated version) is the mysterious woman March meets and has a one-night affair while on leave. Also in the cast: Jack Oakie. Director: Stuart Walker (with an uncredited Mitchell Leisen handling the new aerial footage – and, reportedly, other scenes as well).
The Home Maker
Alice Joyce and Clive Brook are miserable: She is efficient but horrified by the drudgery of housework; he is bored in an underpaying, dead-end job. When he becomes immobilized 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 (1925, Universal) is notably modern in its view of alternative families. A real rediscovered gem directed by 1910s star King Baggot (Ivanhoe).
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby (1940, Universal) is a complete goofball comedy, with Public Enemy no. 2 Broderick Crawford wanting to write songs, teaming up with composer Johnny Downs, and shockingly, becoming a hit songwriter. Jessie Ralph is especially funny as the gangster’s mother. 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. Also in the cast: Gertrude Michael. Director: Albert S. Rogell.
Very little needs to be said about Mammy (1930, Warner Bros.), except that it’s an Al Jolson feature – one with a rather wooden performance by Lois Moran. I went to see this film only 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. Also in the cast: Lowell Sherman, Best Actress Academy Award nominee Louise Dresser (A Ship Comes In, 1927–28), and Hobart Bosworth. Director: Future Oscar winner Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, 1943).
It was fun to see The Menace (1932, Columbia), an early Bette Davis film that had been previously screened at Cinefest. Directed by Roy William Neill, this 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 stepmother, bringing to life a super-stylish Deco villainess. Also in the cast: Future Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee H.B. Warner (Lost Horizon, 1937).
Made as a loan-out to Universal, Modern Love (1929, Universal) is Charley Chase’s – very enjoyable – first (part-)sound feature. Chase and Kathryn Crawford want to marry, but since she plans to maintain her career they keep separate apartments and hide their marriage. The movie wanders from melodrama to hysterical comedy – a dinner party sequence with Chase giving etiquette tips to Jean Hersholt is a hoot – with its first half mostly silent and its second half mostly with sound. Director: Arch Heath.
Douglas Fairbanks plays a fop who is descended from a long line of heroes; when smuggler Wallace Beery threatens Fairbanks’ girl, his true colors come through. One of the star’s last non-swashbucklers, The Mollycoddle (1920, Fairbanks | United Artists) 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. Directed by future Oscar winner Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind, 1939).
Murder in Trinidad
In his third American film and in a pre-Dr. Watson role, Nigel Bruce plays a peanut-eating detective on the trail of diamond smugglers in the tropics. Murder in Trinidad (1934, Fox) is very funny, while Bruce is a delight as the bumbling detective with more upstairs than meets the eye. Five years later, the film was remade as a Mr. Moto feature (Mr. Moto in Danger Island), but without the excellent swamp sequence at the climax. This was one of my favorites of the Cinecon weekend. Also in the cast: Heather Angel and Victory Jory. Director: Louis King.
The 9th Guest
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 9th Guest (1934, Columbia) 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. In the cast: Donald Cook, Genevieve Tobin, and Hardie Albright. Director: Roy William Neill (see The Menace up above).
Outlaws of the Orient
Outlaws of the Orient (1937, Columbia) is 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. It’s a likable but routine programmer. Also in the cast: Mae Clarke. Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack.
Outlaws of the Prairie
Outlaws of the Prairie (1937, Columbia) is a solid B Western with Charles Starrett as a ranger who disguises himself as an outlaw to smash a stage-holdup gang. The movie is nothing “special,” but it was another beautiful print and a lot of fun. Director: Sam Nelson.
The Poor Nut
Jack Mulhall is 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. Unfortunately, she is so intrigued that she decides to go visit him. Future Best Actress Oscar nominee Jean Arthur (The More the Merrier, 1943) is lovely as the the local girl truly in love with him. Directed by Richard Wallace, The Poor Nut (1927, First National) is a real delight and probably my favorite silent at this year’s Cinecon. 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. Also in the cast: Charles Murray, Jane Winton, and Glenn Tryon. Remade as Local Boys Makes Good (1931), starring Joe E. Brown.
Rain or Shine
The newly discovered silent version (made for the international market) of Rain or Shine (1930, Columbia), notable as one of Frank Capra’s first talkies, is a true gem. Joe Cook reprises his Broadway role as a circus headman who at one point is forced to perform every single act – aerialist, juggler, etc. – on the show. Also from the original cast is restaurateur Dave Chasen as Cook’s half-witted assistant. In many ways the dialogue-less version is superior to the talkie, as it moves along at a breakneck pace, in addition to featuring a spectacular burning of the circus tents. Also in the cast: Louise Fazenda, Joan Peers, and William Collier Jr.
Sing, Baby, Sing
It’s always a treat to see another Alice Faye feature – and Sing, Baby, Sing (1936, 20th Century Fox) also happened to be the first film appearance of the Ritz Brothers. The movie has a wonderful backstage story, loosely based on the real-life exploits of John Barrymore and actress-wife Elaine Barrie [the couple were married in 1936], with Adolphe Menjou cast as the aging, hammy actor. Giving perhaps the best performance of this year’s Cinecon, Menjou has every Barrymore mannerism down perfectly. Alice Faye is lovely, tuneful, and a joy to behold, as is the rest of the cast: Patsy Kelly, Tony Martin, Ted Healy, and Gregory Ratoff. Director: Sidney Lanfield.
The Tom Mix classic Sky High (1922, Fox) would have been entertaining if we had a nice 35mm print, 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 minutes, so the action was ridiculously rushed. Also in the cast: Eva Novak. Director: Lynn Reynolds.
This replaced a 35mm print of another Harold Lloyd comedy, The Freshman, which was booked at three other venues for the weekend. There is very little to say, except that Speedy (1928, Paramount) is my favorite among Lloyd’s silent features. 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. Also in the cast: Ann Christy. Directed by Ted Wilde, who received an Academy Award nomination in the short-lived Best Comedy Direction category.
Withheld for many years due to legal complications, The Texan (1930, Paramount) 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. Director: John Cromwell.
Tillie’s Punctured Romance
The UCLA restoration of the Charles Chaplin-Marie Dressler feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914, Keystone) is interesting, if only to see how many different pre-prints were used to construct it. Still, longer isn’t necessarily better; the comedy is undeniably primitive while the movie has far too much of the overacting Dressler (future Best Actress Academy Award winner for Min and Bill, 1930–31). Tillie’s Punctured Romance was my least favorite film of the whole festival. Also in the cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, and Chester Conklin. Director: Mack Sennett.
This early Lon Chaney film, rediscovered by collector George Wagner, has only the first three of its five reels. Even so, Triumph (1917, Universal) is an intriguing 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. Curious as an early Chaney – in a quasi-romantic role – but by no means can Triumph be called a great film. Also in the cast: William Stowell. Director: Joseph De Grasse.
Short movies: Early Gregory La Cava + Charley Chase
A number of shorts were run at Cinecon as well. Below are listed five titles, in alphabetical order.
- Abie Kabibble Outwitted His Rival (1917) is a minor cartoon directed by future two-time Academy Award nominee Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey, 1936; Stage Door, 1937). It was the first and last in what was supposed to be a series based upon the comic strips by Harry Hershfeld.
- 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. The short is a funny remake of the 1928 silent Chase short Limousine Love.
- The Iron Claw (1941). Episodes 13–15 finished up the corny serial. (The lawyer did it!!) Cast: Charles Quigley and Joyce Bryant. Director: James W. Horne.
- Rootin’ Tootin’ Tenderfeet (1952) is a Max Baer & Maxie Rosenbloom short that is a straight rip-off of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s Way Out West. It offers a few funny gags, but mostly it was painful. Director: Jules White.
- The Sign of the Cucumber (1917) is 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. Cast: Robert McKenzie and Eva Novak. Director: Richard Smith.
“Cinecon Overview: Festival of Rare Movies’ Eclectic Line-Up” review text © Joseph Yranski; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Cinecon Capsule Reviews” endnotes
Thought lost until fairly recently, Joseph De Grasse’s Triumph and George B. Seitz’s The Blood Ship were screened as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ “Lost and Found” series in October 2007.
Al Jolson and Lois Moran Mammy movie image: Warner Bros.
Fredric March and Carole Lombard The Eagle and the Hawk movie image: Paramount Pictures.
Jack Mulhall and Jean Arthur The Poor Nut movie image: First National.
Mabel Normand, Charles Chaplin, and Marie Dressler Tillie’s Punctured Romance movie image: Mutual Film.
“Cinecon Overview: Festival of Rare Movies’ Eclectic Line-Up” last updated in December 2021.