This may surprise some people (even those who know me personally), but I have actually known who Brad Bird was for most of my life, long before I even saw The Iron Giant for the first time. I was first exposed to his name when I was 8 and The Simpsons first came on, for which Brad served as Executive Consultant, and on occasion director for at least two 1st season episodes. My parents have been taking me to the movies since I was a baby, and because my dad worked in the film business, we always stayed for the end credits. Even at an early age I started to recognize names that would show up again and again. Not just big names like Steven Spielberg, but I’d catch on to actors, writers, directors who would frequently show up. I recognized Brad’s name from The Simpsons simply because I thought Brad Bird was kind of a funny name. Over time, I started watching The Simpsons, and Brad was responsible for directing the season 1 classic episode, Krusty Gets Busted, where Krusty the Clown is framed for robbing a convenience store, and it was the introduction to the villainous Sideshow Bob. It’s a funny episode for many reasons, one of them being that once Krusty’s goofiness is behind bars and Sideshow Bob takes over, he turns the show into an overly-intellectual droll literary hour. But it’s a great episode and it got my attention as a kid. After awhile I started to discover more of Brad’s work, eventually seeing Family Dog, the animated short film from Spielberg’s Amazing Stories series, and I began to think, “man, this guy’s pretty good.”
But everything changed for me on August 6th, 1999. It was the day The Iron Giant was released into theaters. I was 17 years old at the time. There was some pretty bland advertising surrounding the film. As most of us know, the film bombed at the Box Office in part because of Warner’s failure to properly market the film. But I didn’t have doubts going in, because I had heard Brad Bird was directing it, and from what I knew of the past works he had done, there was a chance the movie was going to be good. By the time the end credits rolled, the word “good” for this film was an understatement. Even “great” seemed low on the scale for a film like this. At the time when I saw this movie, it was the single most life changing film I had ever seen. It shattered all my expectations of what I thought an animated film should be. It was a film so beautiful, so powerful in its message, story, and animation, that I never looked at animated films the same way again after this. Before this film, I had been a Disneyite. I based much of what I wanted for myself as an animator, like many people, through Disney films. Pixar had not yet established itself, although Toy Story came out before The Iron Giant and I loved that movie. But it was in no way the pinnacle life altering film that The Iron Giant would become for me. Before when I was into Disney movies I had my sights set on becoming an animator and working for Disney as one. After I saw The Iron Giant, I decided I wanted to become a storyteller, a director, and a filmmaker. The thing that attracted me the most to this film were its moments of darkness. The Giants transformation into a killing machine is frightening and real, and it shook me out of my skin when I saw the sequence played out. This was a character that had suddenly lost all hope in himself. This is someone who lost all faith in the world and turned on a murderous spree. True, in the movie, we never see the Giant actually kill anyone because the consequences would be too great and there would be no turning back for him if he actually ended someones life. It’s only Hogarth who manages to stop him and bring him back from the abyss. But what that sequence also showed me was the things you could do in animated films that Disney could not go. There were people who already knew this if you had watched a lot of Japanese Anime, which tackles far more serious adult subjects for animation. But this was the first American animated feature I had seen that was a family film, but took on serious adult themes, with serious consequences attached to the characters actions. The Giant’s nightmarish transformation was unlike anything I had seen in an animated film. It made me want to tackle darker themes in my own work and my own storytelling.
My sense of humor has always been on the dark side, as have been the themes I wanted to explore in films. In a way, it always felt edgy and cool to me because American Animation rarely ever tackled these areas, or at least, they used to until after The Little Mermaid came out, and it’s like it all suddenly stopped because everyone had their eye on animation as a moneymaker, and nobody wanted to do anything that would scare children and families away. What’s interesting is the Iron Giant helped me unlock my love for films I saw growing up as a kid that were filled with dark themes, such as Pinocchio, The Adventures of Mark Twain, The Secret of Nimh. Even films like The Brave Little Toaster had plenty of moments with frightening imagery, and it was great because these movies were never afraid to scare kids. The simple truth is, unlike what most adults want to believe, kids love to be scared. It’s not about always protecting our children, because as kids…the thing is…what frightens us also intrigues us at the same time. Scary images are burned into our skull because it forces us to ask ourselves why the images frighten us. What is it about watching an animated character in serious peril, or being attacked by a giant monster that makes us want to know where that monster inside us comes from. It frightens us because we know that monster exists in all of us, and we see it exposed when we watch a film that traumatizes our minds. I was much older when I saw The Iron Giant, but the killing spree frightened me just the same, knowing that myself or anyone that I loved could become a killer, or could be knocked off course from wanting to be the beautiful soul that they are.
The soul however is the deeper layer to what The Iron Giant is. I watched a seminar once taught by voice actor, Crispin Freeman, entitled Giant Robots and Superheros, which analyzed the mythological aspects and cultural differences where the Japanese like to write stories about Giant Robots and Americans like stories about Superheroes. The Iron Giant brings the best of both worlds and takes it a step farther. Here is the notion of a giant robot having a soul. A machine having a soul and wanting to be more than it’s limitations. It’s interesting because at the same time this film came out, there was another film that examined this aspect, called The Matrix. That was another film combining machines and spirituality, where in that case the machines became self aware and wanted to turn against humanity, and the human, Neo discovers in his avatar form that he can bend the Matrix to his will, and eventually merging with it. The Iron Giant is more family fare than the darker Matrix films, but at the same time the human element finds its way into The Giant. Through his own spiritual journey he finds not only mentorship through a 9 year old boy, he also discovers Superman, and discovers in himself that is what he wants to be, an empowered being who uses his abilities for goodness in a harsh world. The giant instantly relates to Superman because he is also misunderstood by those around him who fear him as a threat. He is conflicted by his machine body, his ego telling him what he really is, which is an engine for destruction. But he finds he doesn’t want to be that at all. He wants to grow beyond everything he was designed for.
There was a story where during the finale of the film when the Giant sacrifices himself to save the town, somebody in a story meeting for the film asked why didn’t the Giant just take one of his rockets and destroy the missle from a safe distance. Brad’s point was that the Giant wouldn’t do that because it would mean turning himself into a gun, which is not what he wants to be. The message, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”, becomes the center of the Giants whole purpose of being. When I heard those words for myself as a teenager, it became the center of my own being as well. They were powerful words I wanted to live by. It led me down a hard road later in college, because I found myself drifting from the Disney animation status that I thought I wanted from the beginning. I discovered that I came into conflict with my own desires as an artist when animation was suddenly not as important to me. I have always had to struggle with my drawing, I couldn’t keep up with my peers at the time, and overall it made it a struggle for me when I felt I wanted a job vs. what I wanted for myself. In a funny way, I could take The Iron Giant as an example of someone going through the same thing, as he was a being that was in conflict with what he was built for vs. the being he wanted to become, in a decision made on his own. He fights and struggles because his body that he was built to be wants to keep him down and conformed, but his “soul”…and his awakening into his own being is the thing that transforms him and makes him the defining hero he always wanted to be.
What I have learned from this film, and what it has taught me has always been about following your guiding light…your intuition and your spirit to become the person you’ve always wanted to be. This includes deciding how you want to approach your career, what you want to contribute to humanity, deciding the people you want to fall in love with, deciding what you want to take a stand for and what is most important to you. It’s never about following a particular crowd or a religion because many times a religion forces you to fall back on your own body. On the one end, its meant to keep you safe and keep you grounded. But it can also keep you afraid an in the dark from the person you always want to become. It can also tell you there is no other way except what is meant to keep you in line and in fear of following your path. They are the voices in your head telling you not to go off into the woods because they are dangerous, they are full of turmoil, and you can damage yourself far greater when you let go of a chosen belief. The conflict comes when you do go out into the woods, and the voices in your head are constantly telling you to come back, that you are putting yourself in danger and that you cannot survive on your own. It’s why in The Iron Giant, when the Giant thinks Hogarth is dead and all is lost that he falls back on his “machine” life and turns into a weapon of destruction. He doesn’t know yet that the choice is always within him, but because he lost Hogarth, there was no one left to make the choices for him accept himself. And that can be a frightening thing. When we hear the words, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”, it is exactly that. There is no fear in deciding on the person you want to become. We can get angry and conflicted when we suddenly find so many voices making the choices for us that we don’t want there anymore, which is what can lead to anger and a need to strike back.
After I saw The Iron Giant, I wrote Brad two letters. The first one I wrote to him because I was about to become an Eagle Scout. I asked him in a letter to send me a congratulatory card with my Eagle Scout packet. When you reach that level as a boy scout, you can ask for congratulatory letters from The President, Senators, or people you admire. Brad’s card was the most important one in there, because for me having accomplished becoming an Eagle Scout, his card defined the person I wanted to become. Brad has always been that symbol in my mind and my hero for all time and I have continued to aspire to be the image of what Brad is to me and the person I want to be. He’s my “Superman” so to speak. Later on I wrote Brad a second letter just asking him about being a director and how to become one, and he returned with a 2 page letter reply talking about schools, and what it’s like to be a filmmaker. He even ended the letter with the simple words, that no matter where you go or where you end up, never forget the sage advice of young Hogarth Hughes, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”.
What is the film that most defines you as a person or as a filmmaker? I think we all have it in us. The Iron Giant was that film for me. It made me want to be more than the sum of what people in everyday life expected from me. I had to have faith in myself first to find that place for me and decide this is what I want. The search continues throughout our lives as we go from one thing to another, working to follow our path until we find the direction that most defines the person we want to be. It’s what we spend our whole lives searching for, choosing to be who we want to be no matter where the world drops us. It’s up to you to decide what is most important for you and whether your own path is guiding you there. If it isn’t, it could be time for a self examination to get yourself on track. If you can do that, however, that you will discover that the universe is putting you in alignment, and the life you always wanted for yourself will have been laid out for you all along.
Today I present a photo tour of Hollywood, with my special guest, Horror Film Historian Jason Andreasson (creator and co-host of the terrific podcast Terror Transmission) and also joining us was his lovely partner, Hutton Dart. We visited several major locations, including the Hollywood Museum, a few famous shooting locations, Protek Film Vaults, George Barris’ Car Shop in Toluca Lake (the man who built the original 60’s Batmobile, K.I.T.T. from Knightrider, and the Munster’s car), and a personal grand tour of the Walt Disney Studios Lot in Burbank! Here we go!
First stop, Jason is standing next to the Hot Dog Show building in Burbank, which can be seen (from the image above) in the 1956 classic horror film, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.
ABOVE: Jason and Hutton are standing in the middle of Protek Film Vaults in Burbank. Protek is a major three vault storage facility for the major studios. Many of the most important and well known films in Hollywood history are stored within these vaults.
BELOW: our visit to the Hollywood Museum next to the corner of Hollywood and Highland.
Max Factor’s Clockwork Orange Beauty Calibration Machine.
Next stop, George Barriss Custom Cars in Toluca Lake. BELOW: I’m standing next to one of (I think 5) of the original Batmobiles built for the 1960’s TV series. (The Black car behind the Batmobile is K.I.T.T. from Knightrider)
And now…we take you on the Backlot of Walt Disney Studios!
It was thrill getting to take Jason and Hutton around to these historical landmarks, as they have always been on my must-see list despite being in my very own backyard! It gives me the perfect excuse to check these places out. This won’t be the last tour I take with my friends, who will definitely be coming back for more Hollywood adventures later on.
To close our trip, Jason has a little farewell for message for you.
Here are all my review for Cinecon 48 all in one place. Cinecon is a classic film festival held every year at the Egyptain Theater in Hollywood on Labor Day weekend.
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!
I saw more great film gems at Day 2 of Cinecon. I had to work in the morning and early afternoon to get a project done, and I didn’t arrive until after 4:15pm. I drove to Hollywood and suddenly remembered I left my day pass at home. So I had to drive all the way back to Van Nuys again to get it. Thankfully, it wasn’t too far, but the annoying part was I missed the first half of the one film I wanted to see which was “Gentle Julia”.
But after seeing the second half of the film, I felt it worth mentioning because I got to see the talents of major child actor of the time, Jane Withers playing the niece of the main character Julia. What I didn’t expect was that most of the films story surrounded the young girls character, and she was the top billing in the end credits. I’m guessing the script was revised to center more on the girl considering she was so popular at the time. In a funny way she made me think of a short, plump version of Judy Garland. It was her voice more than anything that made me think of that. But she would get into some interesting shenanigans. As I came in, there was a scene where she was unleashing lizards and bees on a formal outdoor party, creating chaos. I didn’t see why, but it was amusing. She was cute of course. There’s some scenes here we’ve seen aped in other films before, such as the climax, where the whole town for some reason bands together in a chaotic chase to stop a couple from getting married, because the suave fiance is…well…suave…and only interested in her money. Although the male protagonist we supposedly want her to marry practically threatens to beat her if she doesn’t marry him. Real nice. Of course, I saw the film out of context so I didn’t really know how much he was kidding or what kind of character he was, because 90% of the movie was centered around the girl. But there were some good performances in there, and I’ll have to check it out on Netflix to watch the first half.
Second was the silent feature “Sensation Seekers”. This film started out interestingly enough, but dragged in the middle, with a somewhat exciting action climax over the ocean. The plot centered around a romantic relationship between a young minister and woman, who is unconventional and a bit of a bad girl. But of course, surprise surprise the film takes the moral high ground with the priest always moralizing her behavior, probably because he could never allow himself to be as open with himself as she is. Thankfully, it doesn’t get to preachy, and the story show some interesting moments including a police raid during prohibition at a nightclub. But to be honest, near the end I started falling asleep, and there wasn’t much more going on to really keep my interest. However, one noteworthy thing about this was that it was directed by a woman, Lois Weber, one of the few major women directors during the silent era. In talking with a friend afterwards, the moral stance in this film is generally a common theme in all her films. But she was a woman who had a powerful influence on film at a time the business was strongly dominated by men. The film itself wasn’t great, but it was worthwhile to see her efforts during that time.
The next feature was “Diamond Jim”, starring Edward Arnold as James Buchanan Brady, based on the real life Jim Brady who was an American Business man with ties to the Railroad industry. Overall, it was a terrific film with great performances from several outstanding character actors, such as Caesar Romero, Tully Marshall, William Demarest and Jean Arthur. The screenplay was by Preston Sturges. This was my first real exposure to the great talents of Edward Arnold, who usually played in supporting roles in other films. But he creates a seriously flawed persona out of Brady, who has a serious eating disorder, and has conflicted feelings for the two women in his life. The film is a bit flimsy as a biography, but there’s also a disclaimer in the opening not to take it too seriously…but the best part of the film is that it does play up a lot of laughs as several of the people Brady meets in his life are larger than life characters themselves. It’s the Hollywood touch of course, but its entertaining nonetheless. But while the film carries a light tone for the most part, there is a lot of heavy emotional struggle going on in Brady, which leads to the seriousness of his eating condition, the financial struggles of going broke, and an accident that changes the course of his life…leading to the films dramatic emotional conclusion…and it is powerful. “Diamond Jim” was by far the best film I saw today, which balanced the humor and the drama with a strong emotional undercurrent. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to check out a great classic.
Last film I saw was the silent feature film “Blonde or Brunette”. This is one of those films where the humor is drawn out from an overcomplicated situation. The star of the film was Adolphe Menjou, my first exposure to him, and he is a terrific comic actor. He plays it straight for the most part but somehow finds himself involved in the crazy plot going on around him. In the film, his character gets disgusted with Paris flappers and heads into the country where he meets and falls in love with a much younger girl (the blonde, Greta Nissen), but its the girls grandmother who rejoices in playing matchmaker and hopes the couple will fall in love. And they do. Part of the charm is in the fact that the blonde girl is so young and sheltered in life, making her quite shy and inexperienced in the ways of the outside world. She meets Adolphe’s friend (Arlette Marchal, the Brunette), who is in love with Adolphe but is also very much a manipulator. In a funny scene, right after Adolphe is married to Greta, he’s called away to Morocco on business for a month, and has to put his honeymoon with Greta on hold. Arlette insists she’ll take care of Greta while he’s away. But once he returns she’s influenced Greta to take up smoking, wear short skirts, and become a completely different person! Of course, now she’s not the girl he fell in love with, so what’s he going to do?
Well, here’s where I felt the film started running into problems. It surprised me a little that Adolphe couldn’t see how much Arlette was manipulating the situations, as this somewhat intelligent man doesn’t seem to notice what she’s done to his wife and how she convinces Adolphe to get a divorce and marry her instead. Of course, once he marries her, she’s pretty much a controlling bitch, and Adolphe starts to long for Greta once more. Part of the plot involves Greta not wanting to break the news to her grandmother that she’s gotten a divorce, fearing it will break her heart. Arlette convinces her to write to her grandmother over a 6 month period to make it sound like her and Adolphe are becoming hostile towards each other and are growing apart. When Grandma reads these letters, she insists that Greta and Adolphe come stay with her at her luxury estate to work out their differences. But supposidly she doesn’t know that Greta and Adolphe are divorced. So then Greta, Arlette, and Adolphe hatch a plan to trick the grandmother into thinking him and Greta are still married. This is where I started to have a problem, because it was one thing to have Arlette be the manipulator, but when Adolphe and Greta turned into manipulators as well with how they tried to trick the grandmother, they started to lose my sympathy. The second half of the film is built around this comic premise, but I wasn’t really laughing…and for the most part…the audience wasn’t really either. Which was frustrating because the first half of the film is hilariously funny in places. At the end of the comic chaos, we learn that the grandmother already knew the two were divorced because she hired a private detective to investigate them, and her reasoning for bringing them to her house was to find out if the two of them were still in love despite the divorce. Fair enough I suppose. But I think instead we should have known ahead of time that the grandmother knew they were divorced, and that with the audiences knowledge of this, it might have gotten us to laugh more at how foolish the three of them have become. Because they are fools. That’s clearly the point, but the problem is there’s no one around to comment on the fact that all three main characters were becoming manipulators. But overall, there were some great moments of comedy, and I think if it wasn’t for the fact that I lost sympathy for the main character half way through, this could have been a terrific film.
I can’t wait for tomorrow where I’ll be viewing more Cinecon all day long. In the morning there’s the Harold Lloyd feature “Hot Water”, and the classic, brilliant Laurel and Hardy feature “Way out West”. Tomorrow is going to be an awesome day!
The next feature was “Walk, Don’t Run”. This was the first widescreen and color feature that was shown. It was also Cary Grants last film. Despite some great performances, I have to say I was disappointed in the story. The film revolves around Grant, a knighted englishman in Tokyo during the summer Olympics trying to find a place to stay when every hotel is booked solid. At the British Embassy he sees an ad for an English woman looking for a roommate at her apartment in Tokyo (played by Samantha Eggar). Of course, the woman forgot to specify she was looking for a woman roommate, but of course that doesn’t stop Grant from imposing on her anyway (the heel!). And of course a third male roommate shows up who is a US Olympic contender. While the setup leads to a majority of the comic moments and mishaps during the second act as Eggar puts up with her roommates, the story drags most of the time. The story doesn’t really give us any idea where its going, and I kept wondering what having the film set in Tokyo and the Olympics really had to do with this storyline about three roommates getting along. The Olympics eventually comes into the story by the third act, which ties everything together, but getting there is a chore to sit through. Watching the roommates try to get along has some amusing moments, but there’s no tension or anything really holding this together (For instance, Cary’s wife in England knows he’s staying with a strange woman in Tokyo, and she’s fine with it. Eggar is nervous when she has to introduce her roommates to her visiting friend. But she’s pretty much honest about whats going on.) There’s a lot of comic stuff going on, but nothing really “happens” to the characters, at least until the third act, and by then it feels a little late. But there are a couple of really cool things about this film…one of them being an appearance from George Takei playing a police captain (this film was a year before he started on Star Trek). And it’s a fairly important part too, not just a quick scene. The film is well shot, with some good performances, and a few good gags. It’s just I wish there was more holding the story together.
|Still from John Ford’s previously lost film, “Upstream”|
More great films coming tomorrow as Cinecon continues through to Monday. Something fun I did during the dinner hour, I found on Hollywood Blvd the Snow White Bar/Cafe (yes, Disney’s Snow White, but unofficial!) with paintings of all the characters and scenes decorated around the restaurant. It was really great. The restaurant apparently opened in 1946, and the artwork was done by a Disney artist at the time who did it for the owner as a favor (or something like that). But despite having the Disney owned El Capitan theater right down the street, Disney apparently allowed them to continue displaying the characters because it was done by a former Disney artist who worked on the original film…so I guess someone at the studio considers it a piece of history, and there were no issues regarding licensing of the characters. And they make a pretty good tuna sandwich too! Definitely check it out if you’re ever in the Hollywood area.
And wouldn’t you know it? Carleton Carpenter, who played Hilston, showed up at Cinecon! He shared stories with us about what it was like to work with a lion costar, as well as his career highlights from Broadway to dancing with Debbie Reynolds in his earliest features. I found him to be incredibly attractive in his younger years, and his performance in the film was both funny and emotional. He was very nice in person, and I was pleased to tell him that this film was now my introduction to his career, and told him how I felt about the importance of emotional, sincere family films that “Fearless Fagan” clearly displayed. It was a great experience.
Tomorrow is the last day of Cinecon, where I’ll be checking out a Randolph Scott feature, “Hello, Everybody” (remember Blazing Saddles, anyone? “Rannndoooollphhhh Scoooooottttt!”). There’s also going to be a Max Sennet centennial tribute, a Spencer Tracy pre code drama, and more. Looking forward to it!
|Randolphe Scott (left), Sally Blane (center), Kate Smith (right)|
The next film was “Ladies Night at the Turkish Bath”, starring Jack Mulhall, and one of my all time favorite comic actors, James Finlayson (Finny for short). I had seen this film a little over a year ago, but its still really god damn funny. The premise is that to avoid being pinched in a police raid on a speakeasy, “Speed” (Mulhall), and Pa Slocum (Finny) duck into a Turkish Bath only to discover that its ladies’ night and their wives are there too! (Of course their wives happen to be there 🙂 ) The set up takes time before the riotous second half at the bathhouse, which at the time this film was precode, so there were plenty of shots of ladies not wearing much of anything. But this is a great film, and its loads of fun. Finny’s performance here was a surprise, because it was much more subdued than most of his comic schtick we know from the Laurel and Hardy shorts and features (compare this to Way out West, which I reviewed two days ago, where Finny plays the over the top villain). Finny gets to display his physical comedy antics somewhat in the bathhouse sequence, but it was an interesting change of pace for him, and yet he was still just as entertaining.
|Hollywood comedy producer/legend Mack Sennett with his costar in “The Hollywood Kid”|
After lunch, got treated to several comedy shorts from the Mack Sennett studio, some of which haven’t been theatrically shown in over 80 years, and many of which haven’t been available on video or DVD. The shorts were all great, but the best one was a special surprise short that was screened first, called “The Hollywood Kid”, which was a comic look at how Mack ran his studio, with several cameo appearances from the stars of his films. It was brilliant, as Mack even played himself as the studio head and was out in the open making fun of himself. We saw several Keystone shorts, one of which was a surprise Chaplin short (I can’t remember the name of it). All great stuff.
Next was the feature film “She wanted a Millionaire”, and early talkie starring Joan Bennett and Spencer Tracy. It was a precode film, a mix of comedy and domestic drama, in which Joan Bennett forsakes newspaperman Spencer Tracy for a millionaire (James Kirkwood), and she feels that staying with him will help her give money to take care of her poor family. But of course, the millionaire is a controlling whack job, who spies on her, completely paranoid and looking for any trace that she might try and leave him for someone else. It’s admirable that in the moment she summons the courage to tell him she’s leaving him, she does so without having to cheat on him (by todays standards it probably would have been no big deal if she cheated on him, but back in that time they probably thought the audience would lose sympathy for her if she went behind his back). But this act in turn leads to serious consequences as the millionaire looses himself and she has to struggle for her life. The film had its moments and some good performances, especially from Tracy. But Kirkwood who plays the millionaire, despite a good performance, he’s a little too one dimensional as an antagonist, and the filmmakers and Kirkwood give us plenty of reasons to hate him. But its a little over done at times. Granted again this is 1932 we’re talking about, where antagonists were often one-sided. But even during that time I think some actors who played villains were able to sneak in a little sympathy. Kirkwood tries to do that here, but were hit over the head one too many times with his degrading lines and despicable acts for us to actually have a moment to feel something for him.
The next feature was “Strawberry Roan”, probably the one feature at Cinecon I liked the least. That doesn’t mean it was terrible. It was my introduction to the first cowboy singer in films, Ken Maynard. There were also some terrific stunt sequences, and early use of optical special effects that were surprisingly good for their time. The story centers around Maynard who tells the story of how he attempts to tame a wild horse while rounding up rustlers along the way. The problem though is that plot is incredibly muddled as more time is spent on promoting Maynard’s singing talents as opposed to focusing on the story. The whole second act of the film is like this, as Maynard has the wild Roan captured in the first act, but in the second act we never see him develop any sort of relationship with the horse, until the third act when its already a little late for us to care. Because in the beginning that’s what he tells us the story is going to be about, but its like they never get around to it until the very end of the film. And as for Maynard’s singing talents…well…I don’t quite get his popularity. He’s okay, but certainly not one of the greatest western singers I’ve ever heard. One scene that convinced me of this was when he was in a Saloon, he plays an instrument and starts singing, and everyone in the saloon stops what they’re doing to listen to him sing. His singing in that scene was not great, and I imagined today that some burly cowboy trying to play cards would tell him to shut up! But Ken is the star of course, so naturally everyone has to pay attention. So overall, the film had its moments, but it dragged aimlessly for most of the second act.
For our final feature at Cinecon, we got a mixed bag genre piece called “Love Under Fire”, starring Loretta Young and Don Ameche. Jewel Robbery, foreign intrigue, undercover operatives, and Borrah Minevitch and his Gang of hermonica rascals come together in this screwball-romance-thriller set against the Spanish Civil War. The mix of genre’s is interesting, but the situations the characters get into get pretty contrived after awhile, as for instance, Ameche who is a Scotland Yard detective looking for a criminal in Spain, discovers from his boss that the name of the criminal he’s after is the same woman he happens to meet and fall in love with on a train. In ALL of Spain, she’s right there. The mix of genres also gives the film a bit of a confused tone, as if its not really sure what it wants to be. And while the harmonica rascals have their bit moments, the leader Borrah Minevitch is a little too hammy as a comic actor. He has his schtick which I suppose pleased audiences at the time, but it hasn’t aged well, and the story general has to stop so he can go into his goofy antics. Again, many films were like this where they wanted to display the talents of popular singing groups and talent of the time interspersed in the plot. Sometimes it works okay, but Minevitch isn’t that funny and for the most part I could have done without him. The one thing I will say about his harmonica group that I liked, was that the two featured stars of the group were a midget and a black person, and the black man was not in a subservient position, he was an equal member of the group. And better yet, both men were featured as solo players. So I have to give it to Borrah Minevitch for his tolerance and equality to others during that time. The rest of the cast was very good though despite the convoluted storyline, which also featured John Carradine and Walter Catlett (animation fans will know him as the voice of J. Worthington Fox in Pinocchio), and he steals all his scenes in a great comic performance. Ironically, Harold Huber who plays a spanish Lt. who is after the main couple, he loses his spanish accent after his first few scenes! Oh well. This movie also featured one of my favorite antagonist character actors, Sid Ruman, who was the opera house foil, Gottlieb, for the Marx Bros. in Night at the Opera. He’s a great comic actor, and he’s also a lot of fun in this movie, as he rips into his Spanish Lt. for all of his screw ups. Not the perfect film to end the festival on, but it had its moments of entertainment.
That’s it for my Cinecon coverage! I look forward to next year, and now I have plenty of new stars and films to add to my classic film vocabulary. I look forward to seeing plenty more, and for those of you who have been reading, I thank you for following my coverage!
I’ll be back to regular posts and continuing my other series of posts soon.