Tonight was the premiere of Cinecon 48, which I will try to attend every day through Labor Day. And tonight was off to a great start. The first feature was the Andrews Sisters comedy “Always a Bridesmaid”, which was very enjoyable. I’ve seen the Andrews Sisters as supporting players in most features, and this film isn’t much different, considering the main lovers the film focuses on. But this film at least the Sisters are the headline stars. I enjoyed them as well in the Abbott and Costello feature “Buck Privates”. Here the sisters run a kind of matchmaking agency which they broadcast through the radio. Unlike some of the Laurel and Hardy features, where the boys wind up playing second banana to the bland lovestruck heroes, the lovers in the film are at least tolerable and have their moments. My only real complaint with this film is that while Patty Andrews is undeniably the youngest and most attractive of the trio, and the most razor sharp wit, she gets a lot more lines and attention than her two other sisters, Maxine and Laverne Andrews, who are good looking but aren’t quite as attractive as Patty. Which is a shame because I would have liked to have seen them get the spotlight a little more and be developed as characters as well. Oh well, the bias of Hollywood I suppose. Oh, and my other complaint is the obnoxious “Jivin Jacks and Jills”, a group of dancing teenage brats who boast about their youth and whine about why the old folks can’t seem to get with it. Lame brats need to get run over by a steamroller! But the real star of this film is Billy Gilbert, who steals practically every scene he’s in as a buffoonish restaurant owner. Gilbert has always been hilarious in his supporting roles in the Laurel and Hardy films (In the Music Box he’s especially great). Animation fans will also note him as the voice of Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He’s just a brilliant comic actor, who practically explodes on every emotion (with hilarious effect I might add). Charles Butterworth is also great as Col. who invented a formula for rubber and can’t seem to stop boasting to everyone about it. Its definitely a sign of the times, but the film’s a good romp with a few great musical numbers by The Andrews Sisters.
My favorite film of the night however was “Drums of Jeopardy”, a 1923 silent feature, and a kind of adventure/drama. The story by todays standards is pretty typical mystery plot and has a few predictable moments. But the reason I loved this film was for its level of sophistication in the development of cinema. For a silent film, and as my friend Jim Harwood pointed out, the performances were surprisingly restrained. Most silents of that era would have actors making broad over the top gestures, having to telegraph practically every emotion. Not this film. Here you watch the man and the woman having a normal conversation, and even though there’s no dialogue, you can still feel the chemistry between them in the subtle movements they make. The story structure of the film was also interesting to note, as the male protagonist we’ve been following gets captured halfway through the film, and the focus switches to the woman for the second half as she searches for him, especially after he becomes suspect for murder. This film also features the great Wallace Beery (as the villain of course). There was also a butler character (David Torrence) who was used as great comic relief during the films more tense moments. But the other thing I admired was the lush, beautiful cinematography, costumes, staging, and production design. This was coming from a smaller production company as well, but whatever resources they used they got great milage out of, because the film is just a visual treat. Its got the adventure and mystery aspect, and from what I was told it borrowed some from the serials of the time (from a 21st century viewpoint, it was a little Indiana Jonsish in places as part of the plot involved a supernatural set of drumming figures). The story is one we’ve pretty much seen before, but as a peek into the transition of cinema in the silent era, you could tell this film was trying to take its audience more seriously, because audiences were indeed becoming more sophisticated. This film was remade in 1931, but I doubt the ’23 version is available anywhere else. Which is all the more reason to attend Cinecon, and see the unknown jewels of the silver screen. I will be writing more about the films I see at Cinecon through the weekend. Cinecon runs through Labor Day Monday. Tickets are $30 for the day. If you have the time, come check it out!