- Among the highlights at this year’s Cinesation festival – chiefly devoted to hard-to-find movies from the silent & early talkie eras – were the interracial romantic drama The Willow Tree, starring Viola Dana; the outrageous Cecil B. DeMille soap opera The Golden Bed; and The Whistle, and unusual star vehicle for Clint Eastwood forerunner William S. Hart.
Cinesation rarities: Numerous hard-to-find movies screened at unpretentious & eclectic Ohio festival
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 – 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, New York, next March.
Hosted by The Great Lakes Cinephiles Society, Cinesation kicked off its 17th season on Thursday, Sept. 27, at the vintage Lion’s Lincoln Theatre, located in the heart of downtown Massillon, Ohio. Once again, we were treated to four fantastic days of rare vintage films, camaraderie, and a certain Midwestern charm and congeniality that is 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.
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. Besides, the last five episodes of the 1948 Superman serial were on display.
Kudos to Dennis Atkinson, D.W. Atkinson, Terry and Margaret Hoover, Andy and Lois Eggers, and all of the other unsung heroes who work tirelessly 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.
Lastly, thanks 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.
Nine Cinesation movies
Below is a brief overview of nine – mostly hard-to-find – movies screened at this year’s Cinesation.
The Willow Tree (1920)
Perhaps Cinesation’s most visually stunning film, The Willow Tree is a sort of retelling of the Madame Butterfly story – well-worn territory even by then – but with a lighter touch.
Metro Pictures star Viola Dana plays a Japanese maiden who fakes her own suicide so as to avoid an arranged marriage. She then wanders into the home of a handsome young Englishman (Pell Trenton) 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 as he doesn’t want to leave the young maiden behind. Rather than let her lover face social disgrace, she again fakes her suicide.
After the war, the two reunite. Most remarkably, the evocative closing shot confirms that they will live on happily.
The Willow Tree represents a marked departure from the usual depiction of interracial romance in early American cinema, where one of the lovers had to commit (actual) suicide while gaining some self-sacrificing nobility in the process.
Directed by Henry Otto and adapted for the screen by powerhouse scenarist 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.
The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932)
A Pre-Code comedy revolving around the attempts of three gold diggers (Ina Claire, Joan Blondell, Madge Evans) to snare rich husbands – even if that means stealing each other’s sugar daddies – The Greeks Had a Word for Them was hit-or-miss.
For one, the characters are so unlikable that it’s difficult to manage any sympathy for them or their predicament. Also, the film could have benefited from a defter, snappier approach than what’s provided by actor-turned-director Lowell Sherman.
Things might have worked better had The Greeks Had a Word for Them been made at Warner Bros., directed by Roy Del Ruth, and with Dorothy Mackaill or Kay Francis in the role played by the refined Ina Claire, whose acid tongue is none too convincing.
The Matrimaniac (1916)
Directed by Paul Powell from a witty Anita Loos and John Emerson scenario (itself from a story by Octavus Roy Cohen), The Matrimaniac (a.k.a. The Matrimoniac) is a fast-paced comedy about the audacious front-door elopement of a young couple (Douglas Fairbanks and Constance Talmadge), who are then trailed by the young woman’s father (Wilbur Higby) and her thwarted suitor (Clyde Hopkins) – daddy’s choice for his daughter.
Paul Powell guides the action with a deft hand, keeping the comedy on a constantly moving plane, while Douglas Fairbanks 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 – Talmadge proves herself to be her leading man’s comedic equal, throwing herself into the part with aplomb.
As a plus, the location shots through streets, neighborhoods, and railways evoke an authentic sense of time and place.
The Whistle (1921)
One of the weekend’s hands-down favorites, 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 keeps his usual persona: The conflicted “good badman,” pulled by two strong and opposing moral forces. In this case, after his son is killed in a factory accident, Hart’s laborer kidnaps the boss’ pampered son to raise him as his own.
Director Lambert Hillyer masterfully handles the affecting narrative (credited to May Wilmoth and Olin Lyman), 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 conviction and biting intensity. Equally fine is Myrtle Stedman as the grief-stricken mill owner’s wife, while Robert Brownlee is capable as the uncaring (but later repentant) businessman.
Quite the antithesis of the increasingly glamorous and escapist Hollywood product of the 1920s, The Whistle maintains throughout a somber feel thanks to the stark cinematography by Joseph H. August (The Informer, Portrait of Jennie), which lends bleak authenticity to the story.
If I Were King (1920)
The little-seen, once-thought-lost If I Were King was another hard-to-find gem.
Directed by J. Gordon Edwards and starring William Farnum, it’s the earliest feature film version of Justin Huntly McCarthy’s classic romantic adventure about 15th-century poet François Villon, 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 at Cinesation 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 of its own.
True, J. Gordon Edwards sets up the action in a rather stagebound manner, with scenes resembling a series of well-lit tableaux; yet If I Were King manages to sustain a jovial spirit that is further elevated by William Farnum’s grand, charismatic performance.
Anticipating Conrad Veidt’s (much more perverse) characterization in the 1927 version (retitled The Beloved Rogue), Fritz Leiber is amusing as the paranoid Louis XI, while Betty Ross Clarke is an appealing if conventional leading lady.
Capital Punishment (1925)
The chief interest in James P. Hogan’s Capital Punishment is the presence of a pre-superstardom Clara Bow. That said, the film itself is 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, welfare worker Gordon Harrington (Elliott Dexter) bets $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 revealed.
The drama gets into high gear when, during an altercation with Phillip over a woman (Margaret Livingston), Harrington inadvertently kills his friend. He then agonizes over whether to tell the truth or let an innocent man pay for his crime.
Capital Punishment suffers from an unlikely premise that is too reliant on plot clichés and contrivances, while the welfare worker’s ploy, no matter how well intended, comes across as a gross abuse of the American justice system.
But its flaws notwithstanding, this 1925 effort is a fine little picture with a capable cast of players. Director Hogan effectively maintains a taut mood until the exciting, if predictable, final reel.
Three Wise Girls (1932)
A snappy Pre-Code Columbia gem featuring Blonde Bombshell Jean Harlow in a pre-MGM performance, William Beaudine’s Three Wise Girls chronicles the man problems of three young women earning a living in the big city.
Harlow plays Cassie Barnes, a former small-town soda jerk who, after moving to New York, finds employment as a clothes model at a fashionable dressmaker’s shop while also becoming involved with a wealthy – and married – society gentleman (Walter Byron) whose wife refuses to grant him a divorce.
In terms of appearance – platinum blond hair, no-nonsense street smarts – Harlow is somewhat miscast as the naif teetering on the thin line between virtue and the primrose path. Even so, she displays enough sincerity and warmth to make her portrayal convincing.
In addition, Mae Clarke (Frankenstein) is excellent as a kept woman madly in love with her wealthy society boyfriend (Jameson Thomas), while silent era actress Marie Prevost (The Marriage Circle) lends great support as Cassie’s sassy roommate.
Agnes Christine Johnston adapted Three Wise Girls from Wilson Collison’s story “Blonde Baby.” Frequent Frank Capra collaborator Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) was credited for the dialogue.
A Daughter of the Poor (1917)
In A Daughter of the Poor, popular silent/early talkie era actress Bessie Love (The Broadway Melody) plays Rose, a young working-class girl living with her uncle (Max Davidson), a janitor at a big publishing house and a lecturer on the oppression of the poor.
One day, Rose meets the publisher’s son (Roy Stewart), whom she mistakes for a working-class boy. The two see each other often, as he allows her to think he’s “blue-collar” while also refraining from telling her that he’s already engaged.
Directed by Edward Dillon from an Anita Loos scenario, A Daughter of the Poor goes through the usual paces. On the positive side, the movie – like many others from the 1910s – makes effective use of its exterior locations while being enhanced by the charming performances of its cast.
Bessie Love does justice to her name: Sweet and lovely, she displays 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.
The Golden Bed (1925)
The Golden Bed is one of Cecil B. DeMille’s morality tales served up with a side of jaw-dropping decadence.
The three protagonists are Admah Holtz (Rod La Rocque), a poor boy who peddles candy, and the Peake sisters Flora (Lillian Rich) and Margaret (Vera Reynolds), who come from a proud but crumbling aristocratic Southern family. Admah loves the beautiful Flora and gives her free candy, but he always charges Margaret no matter how hard she smiles at him.
Years later, in order to help their family, Flora marries a wealthy marquis (Theodore Kosloff) while Margaret goes to work for Admah, who has just set up his own little candy shop. Through her pointers, Margaret helps Admah build a thriving business; she is also secretly in love with him.
Things get complicated when, following the death of both her husband and her lover, Flora returns and marries Admah, proceeding to drain him financially thanks to her insatiable hunger for clothes and jewels.
Though over the top, The Golden Bed is done with style. Its highlight is the legendary Candy Ball sequence, which no words can adequately describe: A peppermint-garbed jazz band; chocolate-covered, candy-chain-wearing slaves sold to the highest bidder; scantily clad girls in edible clothes that men are allowed to eat right off their bodies.
The cast performs admirably, with perhaps the best characterization coming from Vera Reynolds (also seen in DeMille’s Feet of Clay and The Road to Yesterday). As the faithful Margaret, she’s a quiet, serene presence amidst all that unbridled melodrama.
“Nine (Mostly) Hard-to-Find Movies” endnotes
“Nine (Mostly) Hard-to-Find Movies Worth Looking For: Ohio Festival Screenings” text © James Bazen; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
Viola Dana The Willow Tree image: Metro Pictures, via the blog His Fame Still Lives.
The Matrimaniac poster: Fine Arts Film | Triangle Film Corporation.
Jean Harlow and Mae Clarke Three Wise Girls image: Columbia Pictures, via Doctormacro.com.
“Nine (Mostly) Hard-to-Find Movies Worth Looking For: Ohio Festival Screenings” last updated in September 2021.