Hard-to-Find Movies: Commentary on 'Cinesational' Rarities

The Willow Tree Viola DanaAs we're so often told, all good things must indeed come to an end. As yet another year draws to a close, it's with a heavy heart and a wistful eye toward the future that I submit this report for the Fall Cinesation Festival. (Image: Viola Dana in The Willow Tree.)

Hosted by The Great Lakes Cinephiles Society, Cinesation kicked off its 17th season at the vintage Lion's Lincoln Theatre located in the heart of downtown Massillon, Ohio. (Cinesation is something of a last hurrah for cinephiles as it marks the last of the annual film conventions before the cycle restarts with Cinefest in Syracuse, NY, in March.)

This year, Cinesation began on Thursday, Sept. 27, and once again we were treated to four fantastic days of rare vintage films, camaraderie, and a certain Midwestern charm and congeniality that is always very palpable during the course of the weekend.

In fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of Cinesation is its complete lack of pretension. It's a place where people can appreciate a B-grade Poverty Row serial with the same enthusiasm as they might enjoy F.W. Murnau, without ever considering said serial an insult to their intelligence. In other words, Cinesation is just a fun weekend when early-cinema enthusiasts get together, and it's this sort of laid-back, unpretentious atmosphere that makes it an ideal gathering place.

As always, the Cinesation programmers struck a fine balance in the material presented, with a perfect mix of silents and talkies as well as the customary shorts, cartoons, and movie trailers rounding out the program. Additionally, the last five episodes of the 1948 Superman serial were on display.

Kudos must be given to Dennis Atkinson, D.W. Atkinson, Terry and Margaret Hoover, Andy and Lois Eggers, and all of the other unsung heroes who work tirelessly and go above and beyond to make Cinesation such an enjoyable occasion every year.

Praise must also be given to Philip Carli and Ben Model for providing first-rate accompaniment to the silent features and shorts over the weekend. And thanks also to James Cozart, D.J. Turner, and Eric Grayson for their insightful and entertaining introductions to several of the films, and for giving us a peek into the activities of the film archives. And thanks again to Ben Model for showing his collection of glass slides.

Really, the only disappointment of the weekend was the sudden cancellation of the stylish Charlie Chan mystery The Black Camel because the first reel wasn't shipped along with the rest of the film. Luckily, The Black Camel is available on DVD as part of Fox's Charlie Chan box set. Equally lamentable was the discontinuation of the annual “Archive Surprise” feature, which was always a fun component to the event in seasons past. Still, these are minor quibbles and in no way compromised the overall satisfaction brought about by this year's show.

Below are my reviews, some of which may contain spoilers. Proceed at your own risk!

Thursday

The Matrimaniac (1916)
This Douglas Fairbanks Triangle comedy is always a delight and it was a rollicking way to get the weekend started. From a witty Anita Loos and John Emerson scenario, The Matrimaniac is a fast-paced comedy concerning the audacious front-door elopement of a young couple, Jimmy Conroy and Marna Lewis (Douglas Fairbanks, Constance Talmadge), under the watchful eye of Marna's father and her thwarted suitor (Clyde Hopkins), who daddy sees as a much better choice for his daughter.

After a brisk getaway, father races off to obtain an injunction against Jimmy while the couple is pursued by Wally on a train. Later, Jimmy is separated from Marna when he misses the train after hopping off during a stop to obtain a minister.

The rest of the film concerns Jimmy's attempts to reunite with Marna – dragging the poor minister along for the fun – while eluding Marna's father and the authorities trying to serve the injunction against the marriage.

Director Paul Powell handles the situations with a deft directorial hand, keeping the comedy on a constantly moving plane. Doug delivers his trademark exuberance, charisma, and physical dexterity with grace and style. Constance Talmadge, for her part, makes a remarkably appealing heroine. Unlike most of Fairbanks' leading ladies – usually reduced to set decoration – Constance proves herself to be the comedic equal of Doug, throwing herself into the part with aplomb. The rest of the cast is quite pleasing, while the location shots through streets, neighborhoods, and railways evoke an authenticity sense of time and place.

A Rarin' Romeo (1925)
A pleasant Walter Hiers comedy short concerning a small-time theater troupe and its dysfunctional performance of Romeo and Juliet.

Daughters Who Pay (1925)
One of those deliciously evocative silent movie titles that lamentably no one gives to films anymore, Daughters Who Pay offers one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plotlines that only seem to work in silents.

In the opening scenes we meet Margaret Smith (Marguerite de la Motte), a bespectacled young woman who acts as the head of the household on the weekend but during the week leads an entirely different life as Sonia Borisoff, a celebrated Russian dancer. One day, Margaret learns that her brother has embezzled $10,000 from the company where he works, and whose president happens to be the father of the man (John Bowers) Sonia loves – much to the father's chagrin. Margaret appeals to the father about her brother, but is promptly turned away. She returns as Sonia and promises to give up his son if he will help Margaret. From there, we're treated to a subplot involving Russian Communist spies and a planned takeover of the world.

Whether intentionally or not, Daughters Who Pay feels very tongue-in-cheek. Marguerite de la Motte, in particular, turns in a clever performance in the two roles. One point of interest is Bela Lugosi in a small role as a Russian heavy vying for Sonia's affection.

Daughters Who Pay was presented in a beautiful 35mm print, courtesy of the George Eastman House.

City Beneath the Sea (1953)
A team of divers (Robert Ryan, right, and Anthony Quinn) is brought to Jamaica to recover $1,000,000 in gold bullion that had gone down with a freighter. However, the hiring of the divers is a ruse as their employer is actually teamed up with another sea captain so as to keep the gold for themselves.

That's a slight plot that felt somewhat tedious. On the other hand, the film boasts gorgeous IB (dye transfer or imbibition) Technicolor photography, including several breathtaking underwater shots, and an exciting final standoff between the rival factions. And there's lots of steamy romance in the forms of Mala Powers and Suzan Ball.

Friday

Boobley's Baby (1915)
This one-reel Vitagraph comedy concerns a man, Boobley, who is tired of having to give up his seat on the crowded streetcar to women with babies. He decides to strike back by buying a realistic-looking doll that he will carry onto the streetcar in order to secure a seat. At first, everything goes fine. But flaws in the ruse end up leading to a series of wacky situations and misunderstandings.

Boobley's Baby was one of the hits of the weekend. Sidney Drew, a popular comedian in the 1910s, is all but forgotten today for his extant films are hardly ever seen. (Surely, his death in 1919 was a contributing factor to his eventual obscurity.) That is unfortunate, as Drew's light, breezy situational comedies – with their naturalistic settings and low-key performances – were an alternative to the manic, surreal world of knock-em-up slapstick usually associated with the silent screen. Drew deserves to be ranked among the foremost comedians of the era.

Fifty Candles (1921)
Based upon a story by Earl Derr Biggers, the creator of Charlie Chan, this gripping tale begins when a young Chinese man (Bertram Grassby) is saved from deportation from Honolulu when a wealthy gentleman takes him in and forces him to twenty years of servitude. Two decades later, on the Chinese man's fiftieth birthday, his master is murdered.

This isn't the type of action-packed adventure melodrama that director Irvin Willat was most associated with. Instead, Fifty Candles is a moody, atmospheric drama with a fine collection of shady characters to keep the story moving.

The ending is somewhat contrived as it relies upon events and characters until then unknown to the audience. Even so, Fifty Candles remains an absorbing picture, while Bertram Grassby's striking performance imbues the story with both an element of mystery and an intense emotional core.

The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932)
A pre-coder revolving around three gold diggers' attempts to snare rich husbands – even if that means stealing each other's sugar daddies. This comedy, starring Ina Claire, Joan Blondell, and Madge Evans, was hit or miss. For one, the characters were so unlikable that it was difficult to manage any sympathy for them or their predicament. Also, the film could have benefited from defter, snappier direction than that provided by Lowell Sherman.

A nice try at the genre, but not what it would have been at Warner Bros., directed by Roy del Ruth, and perhaps with Dorothy Mackaill or Kay Francis in the Ina Claire part. Claire seemed a bit too refined, while her acid tongue was none too convincing.

Rubber Tires (1927)
Mary Ellen Stack is the sole financial support of her family. When Mary finds herself without a job, she decides to buy a dilapidated automobile from a junk dealer and pack the family off to California in order to pay the back taxes they owe on a property. Unbeknownst to them, the car they're driving is an antique being sought after for $1,000,000.

Rubber Tires is a routine programmer, and a pleasing one at that if you don't have any high expectations. However, it's disappointing that actor-turned-director Alan Hale never moves the film out of its comfort zone. The high points are the charming performances of Bessie Love and Harrison Ford – even though both have turned in better work elsewhere. Once again, Rubber Tires is not a bad film. It's just one anchored in pleasant averageness.

A Night in Paradise (1946)
A beautiful IB Technicolor spectacle with the equally beautiful Merle Oberon and Turhan Bey adding to the lush and exotic backdrop. In the vein of the Arabian Nights fantasies made at Universal in the 1940s, A Night in Paradise is a rather lumbering piece of escapist fluff. Great to look at, but a crashing bore.

The Whistle (1921)
One of the hands-down favorites of the weekend, The Whistle is an atypical William S. Hart vehicle that transplants its star from the American West to a small industrial town torn by a battle between mill workers and their uncharitable boss. While the setting is different, Hart has kept his usual persona: the complex, good-badman conflicted by two opposing and strong emotions. After having warned his boss of the potential danger, Hart's young son is crushed and killed in a machinery accident. In a fit of rage and vengeance, Hart kidnaps his bosss' son and raises him as his orphaned nephew.

Director Lambert Hillyer masterfully directs the emotionally charged script, imbuing it with sharp social observations and symbolisms such as the frequent medium shot of the screeching factory whistle as a punctuation to the workers' daily misery and oppression.

As a plus, Hart's performance is outstanding. His character runs the emotional gamut, riding the dramatic highs and lows with both conviction and a biting intensity. Equally fine is Myrtle Steadman as the grief-stricken wife of the mill owner, while Robert Brownlee is effective as the uncaring (but later repentant) mill owner. Additionally, the film maintains a somber feel thanks to Joseph August's stark cinematography, which lends the story a bleak and downbeat authenticity.

The Whistle is quite the antithesis of the increasingly glamorous and escapist Hollywood product of the 1920s.

If I Were King (1920)
This once-thought lost and little-seen gem was another highlight. The earliest feature-film version of the classic romantic adventure tale about 15th-century poet François Villon (played by William Farnum, left), his love for Katherine de Vaucelles – who happened to be King Louis XI's ward – and his leading France into battle against the upstart Burgundians.

Some complained that If I Were King was too slow, but even though the film lacks the breezy charm, subtle humor, and large-scale production values of its several remakes, it does boast a certain period charm all of its own. True, director J. Gordon Edwards handles the action in a rather stagebound manner, with scenes resembling a series of well-lit tableaux, but If I Were King still manages to sustain a jovial spirit further elevated by William Farnum's grand and charismatic performance.

Fritz Leiber is equally fun as the paranoid Louis XI, anticipating Conrad Veidt's (much more perverse) performance in the same role in the 1927 The Beloved Rogue. Betty Ross Clarke is an appealing if conventional leading lady.

“Eric Grayson Presents” consisted of a collection of little-seen curiosities presented by none other than Eric Grayson. Three of those bits of curio were:

  • “You Can Change the World” (1951)
    A highly didactic pilot to a religious television series hosted by The Christophers leader Father James Keller. The pilot offered an impressive list of some of Hollywood's more conservative stars, including Jack Benny, Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Ann Blyth, Paul Douglas, William Holden, etc. Yet, this show was sort of prescient, considering our current culture wars and issues
    involving extreme religiosity.
  • “Deputy Seraph” (1959)
    Last appearance together of the Marx Brothers in a project that never materialized.
  • Limousine Love (1928)
    In this short, Charley Chase is an anxious groom-to-be on his way to church to get married, yet finding himself confronted with every predicament imaginable. Among these are a jealous husband and a naked woman in the backseat of his car. One of Chase's best.

The Magic Skin (1915)
“No! Silent movies were never like that!” For those of us with a deep and abiding love for the art of the silent cinema, the preceding line is usually our battle cry against any unschooled upstart who dares to claim that silent movies were a model of pedestrian visual compositions and crude acting. But, as The Magic Skin illustrates, sometimes – just sometimes – a few silent movies were indeed pedestrian and crude.

Richard Ridgely's five-reel Edison drama based on a story by Honoré de Balzac feels like a cross between Edgar Allan Poe and The Picture of Dorian Gray. After the death of his father, impoverished artist Richard Valentine goes to Paris where he buys a skin from an antique dealer made up to resemble Satan. With the skin, Valentine can fulfill any wish or desire. However, with every wish the skin shrinks just a little. When the skin is completely gone, it will be time for Valentine to meet his maker.

The Magic Skin is of interest as a historical curiosity, but the film never overcomes Ridgely's uninspired direction and the performers' unbridled acting. The worst offender is leading man Everett Butterfield, who chews the scenery with reckless abandon, offering little insight into the character's darker, baser nature. The Magic Skin desperately needed D.W. Griffith star Henry B. Walthall, who had a flair for playing these types of extreme characters teetering dangerously on the brink of madness or self-destruction.

In its favor, the film does offer some nice double-exposure shots. By the way, the most striking cast member is the little-known Sally Crute, playing a vampish bohemian who helps to drive Valentine into the dark abyss of degradation and self-destruction.

Saturday

Carry on, Sergeant! (1928)
In the more recent Cinesation editions, we've been treated to several fascinating little-seen gems from Canadian film archives. With so much of our film consciousness centered on the American and European industries, films such as Carry on, Sergeant! offer a rare glimpse into the activities of the less heralded film communities around the world.

Carry on, Sergeant! tells the story of a group of men of varying socioeconomic backgrounds who enlist in the Canadian army at the outbreak of World War I. Hailed as the most ambitious and expensive Canadian silent film, Carry on, Sergeant! is an interesting if uneven production that gets off to a rousing start, loses steam in the middle, and comes to life again after a spy subplot – which had been abandoned earlier on – is reintroduced into the story.

Directed by Bruce Bairnsfather (above, right) and with great cinematography by Bert Cann.

Destination Unknown (1933)
When a ship is gripped by a hurricane, it's taken over by a gang of bootleggers smuggling 5,000 cases of liquor. The gangsters rule with an iron fist, controlling the ship's last barrel of water. Help comes in the form of what amounts to be God in the form of Ralph Bellamy. An absorbing, taut actioner which is all but ruined by a wholly anti-climactic finale.

All Lit Up (1920)
Tedious Snub Pollard short

Capital Punishment (1925)
This film's chief interest is the presence of a pre-superstardom Clara Bow (left), who steals the limelight from the nominal leading lady. That said, Capital Punishment is on its own a well-made suspense melodrama.

In order to expose the inhumanity of the death penalty after an innocent man is executed in the electric chair, Gordon Harrington (Elliott Dexter) makes a bet for $10,000 that he can have an innocent man convicted of murder and sent to the chair. He hires a poor newlywed (George Hackathorne) to play the role of the murderer, while the “victim” is Harrington's friend Harry Phillip (Robert Ellis), who will hide out on Harrington's yacht until the truth is to be revealed.

Of course, the drama gets into high gear when Harrington, during an altercation with Phillip over the same woman (Margaret Livingston), inadvertently kills his friend. Harrington then agonizes over whether to tell the truth or let an innocent man pay for his crime.

It's an unlikely premise too reliant on plot clichés and contrivances, while Harrington's ploy, no matter how well intended, come across as a gross abuse of the American justice system. But its flaws notwithstanding, Capital Punishment is a fine little picture with a capable cast of players. Director James P. Hogan effectively maintains a taut mood until the exciting, if predictable, final reel.

Three Wise Girls (1931)
A snappy pre-Code Columbia gem featuring Blonde Bombshell Jean Harlow in a pre-MGM performance, Three Wise Girls follows three young women and their men problems while earning a living in the big city.

Harlow plays Cassie Barnes, a former small-town soda jerk who, after moving to New York, starts working as a clothes model at a fashionable dressmaker's shop. Cassie also becomes involved with a wealthy – and very much married – society gentleman whose wife refuses him a divorce.

In looks, Jean Harlow, with her platinum blond hair and no-nonsense street smarts, is probably miscast as the small-town girl teetering on the thin line between virtue and the primrose path. Still, Harlow displays sincerity and warmth in enough quantity to make her part convincing.

Mae Clarke is excellent as a kept woman madly in love with her wealthy society boyfriend – who ends up marrying another woman. And Marie Prevost lends great support as Cassie's sassy roommate.

Where the North Begins (1923)
This was the first entry in the successful string of films starring Rin Tin Tin. In it, Rinty and his master (Walter McGrail) are up against an unscrupulous store owner with designs on McGrail's fiancee (Claire Adams). In order to rid himself of the competition, he frames McGrail with a fur theft that he himself committed.

Where the North Begins is one of those little gems that make being a film buff such a rewarding vocation. It probably failed to make great waves in 1923 (apart from the fact that it marked Rinty's big-time debut), it has no big names in the cast (once again, apart from Rinty), and it offers no landmark technical innovations or cinematic flourishes.

In other words, Where the North Begins is merely a well-crafted production in which the forces of good and evil are clearly defined, and our intrepid hero triumphs over adversity to save the day. No real moral to impart or any highfalutin preaching about the human condition. Just good old-fashioned fun.

Daughter of the Poor (1917)
Bessie Love plays Rose, a young working-class girl who runs a small shop, is loved by a struggling bohemian artist (George Beranger), and lives with her uncle (Max Davidson), a janitor at a big publishing firm and a lecturer on the oppression of the poor by the rich. One day, Rose meets a wealthy young man whom she mistakes for a working-class boy. The two see each other often, as he continues to allow her to think he's “working class” while refraining from telling her that he's already engaged.

Daughter of the Poor goes through the usual paces, but it is enhanced by the cast's charming performances. Bessie Love does justice to her name: sweet and lovely, she displays both a certain Lillian Gish-like radiance and enough spunk so as not to seem saccharine. Max Davidson, for his part, is delightful as her shiftless uncle.

One of the more curious aspects of Daughter of the Poor – in fact, of many films from the 1910s – is the effective use of exterior locations, which provide a sense of casual authenticity.

Sunday

The Golden Bed (1925)
This is one of Cecil B. DeMille's jaw-dropping morality tales served up with a side of sex and over-the-top decadence. The three protagonists are Admah Holtz, a poor boy who peddles candy, and Flora and Margaret Peake, two sisters who come from a proud but crumbling aristocratic Southern family. Admah loves the beautiful Flora and gives her free candy, while he always charges Margaret no matter how hard she smiles at him.

Years later, in order to help her family, Flora (Lillian Rich) marries a wealthy Marquis while Margaret (Vera Reynolds) goes to work for Admah (Rod La Rocque), who has just set up his own little candy shop. Through her ideas and pointers, Margaret helps Admah build a thriving business. She is also secretly in love with him.

Flora returns after the death of her husband – the Marquis had thrown himself and Flora's lover over a high peak. Still in love with Flora, Admah marries her. Shortly thereafter, she begins to drain him financially as a result of her insatiable hunger for clothes and jewels. The breaking point is when Admah embezzles the company profits in order to throw his wife a lavish Candy Ball.

When Admah is caught, Flora refuses to help. Instead, she runs off with another man. Admah is sent to jail. When he's released, Margaret is waiting for him and has even gotten his business started again.

Though melodramatic, The Golden Bed is done with style. The highlight is the legendary Candy Ball sequence which must be seen to be believed. No words can adequately describe a jazz band clad in peppermint, chocolate-covered slaves wearing candy chains sold to the highest bidder, and scantily clad girls wearing edible clothes that men are allowed to eat right off their bodies.

The cast performs admirably, with perhaps the best performance coming from Vera Reynolds as the faithful Margaret. She's a quiet, serene presence in the midst of all that highly charged melodrama.

The Bashful Suitor (1921)
A follow-up to last year's Hope, The Bashful Suitor is part of Lejaren a'Hiller's film series based on famous paintings, in this case one by Josef Israels. Set in a lace-making village in 19th-century Holland, the film tells the story of a shy young man who vies with the town's girl-chaser for the attentions of the local belle. Things take a somber turn when the shy youth is falsely accused of a crime and is ostracized by the community.

The Bashful Suitor is a well-crafted film, making great use of its (Canadian) exteriors. As a plus, the film offers pleasing performances from the mostly youthful cast.

The Willow Tree (1920)
Perhaps the most visually stunning film of the weekend. The Willow Tree is a sort of retelling of the Madame Butterfly story – which even by 1920 was already well-worn territory – but with a lighter touch.

Metro star Viola Dana plays a Japanese maiden who fakes her own suicide in order to avoid an arranged marriage. She then wanders into the home of a handsome young Englishman who has fled to Japan after a failed romance back home. The two soon fall in love. When World War I breaks out the Englishman refuses to enlist and leave the young maiden.

Rather than let him face social disgrace, she again fakes her suicide allowing him to perform his duty. After the war, the two reunite. Most remarkably, the evocative closing shot confirms that the two will live on happily.

The Willow Tree represents quite a departure from the usual handling of interracial romance in early American cinema, where one of the lovers had to commit suicide (while gaining some self-sacrificing nobility in the process). Directed by Henry Otto and adapted for the screen by June Mathis, The Willow Tree is a charming tale much enhanced by Viola Dana's enchanting performance. As a plus, M.P. Staulcup's art direction and John Arnold's cinematography lend the film an impressive authenticity, fully capturing the look and feel of a Japanese village.

Well, that's my report from the 2007 Fall Cinesation – and what a great time it was. Thanks a lot, guys! I'm already counting down the days until next year.

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