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!
Day 3 of Cinecon was my first full day. Well, almost full anyway, I missed the last feature because I got tired, and 1 or 2 films I started dozing off and didn’t pick up on enough of the film to really talk about it). But it was a great day. Today I met Samantha Eggar, who costarred as the lead female character in Cary Grant’s final feature “Walk, Don’t Run”. She was wonderful. It was kind of amusing, because she seemed to star in a lot of films that were swan songs for famous actors, including Rex Harrison in Dr. Doolittle. But I had some exposure to her from television as she played Captain Picards sister in law in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Family”, one of my favorite TNG episodes. I was proud to tell her that, and she had a terrific time as well working with Patrick Stewart.
But on with the show though. Today there were quite a few silent films, at least one drama, “The Goose Woman”, which looked fascinating, but unfortunately was one of the films I started dozing off in. It wasn’t because the film was boring, far from it, but we saw it after lunch and my caffeine buzz was wearing off at that point. I’ll have to catch it another time and talk about it because it did have some extraordinary performances. But I looked forward today because there were some GREAT comedies that were shown.
The first feature was the Harold Lloyd comedy, “Hot Water”. Terrific film. Harold Lloyd is one of the few comic actors of the silent era that can be listed along the top greats including Keaton and Chaplin. His films have great style and structure, and Lloyd is most definitely a comedy genius. A couple of great sequences had Lloyd trying to make his way home covered in groceries, and add to that a live prized turkey he wins by chance (not a dummy turkey, it’s real and alive) that crawls all over him as he walks through traffic and onto a trolley. But the film has a terrific build and climax as Lloyd thinks he’s killed his mother-in-law, who also happens to be prone to sleepwalking, and as this happens to her, he thinks she’s come back from the dead to come after him. I have seen Lloyd in some great shorts, and personally I think its a little unfair to compare him to Keaton or Chaplin, because what made him great was that his character had its own persona as a kind of happy go lucky, gullible guy who always has trouble follow him. This ones a classic.
Speaking of classics, the next film was the one I was most looking forward to, the Laurel and Hardy comedy feature, “Way Out West”. I had seen this film for the first time about a year ago, but this is one of the duo’s best. And to top it all off, it casts one of my favorite comic actors, James Finlyason as the villain. I think Laurel and Hardy features worked so much better when the villains were so over the top, as it was with their greatest nemesis Barnaby from March of the Wooden Soldiers (played by Henry Brandon). But Finny is great in this. The boys find themselves in the old west with a deed to a gold mine they’re supposed to deliver to a young woman, whose grandfather owned the mine and now she’s inherited it after his death. Of course, Finny and his wife find out about the mine and plot to steal the deed. The only thing this film could have used was a little more development on the granddaughter, who appears when she’s needed, but isn’t really given much to do in the story. But it’s a simple setup for the boys to get themselves into deeper trouble, and the gags are abound in this great comedy. Looking at many of these films over the past few days, the one thing I love is that there aren’t any morals or messages plugged in these comedies, forcing the main characters to have to “learn something” from their experiences. This is pure entertainment. And watching characters get into situations and how we see them get out of them (or at least try to get out of them) says everything we need to know about them…which is all the truth we really need. A film can still be about something without having to say a word regarding what its about. This is one of my favorite films, and I was glad to finally see it on a large screen.
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.
After dinner, the next feature was the hilarious Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, Hips Hips Hooray, also costarring the gorgeous and funny Thelma Todd! I had seen this film a little over a year ago at my friend Stan’s house, but it’s a terrific pre code RKO comedy, as there’s plenty of scenes with half dressed women (some practically nude), and the two main characters are just complete shysters. There’s also some memorable songs, such as the great “Keep on Doi’n what you’re Do’in”. This is a hilarious, risque, and sexy. It’s great classic film I recommend anyone to check out. Here’s a clip below of the films signature song and dance number:
Last film for the night was a REAL TREAT. John Ford’s 1927 silent feature was lost until it was found in 2010 and preserved by New Zealand film laboratories. It’s probably considered the least John Fordian of all his films. But it is a great comedy about a boarding house full of vaudeville actors, and centers around one actor, who is terrible actor, but is asked to play Hamlet in London because of his family’s respected name in the theatrical industry. He gets training from an old acting master at the boarding house, but once his performance becomes a success and he achieves fame, the man he once was becomes corrupted. He becomes completely self absorbed and lacks in all humility for those who helped him achieve his success in the first place. The great (and tragic) thing about the ending is that the man doesn’t change despite visiting the boarding house after his success and after his acting mentor gives him cutting words about the truth of what he’s become. I suppose I found something truthful in this, having thought of some people I went to Cal Arts with who achieved some success in the film industry (after only working on one film), and watching a person became self absorbed and unfriendly…especially for some who could be really condescending to their fans. The man in “Upstream” is no exception as he rises to fame based on one production, only to believe his new position came from himself without the help of others. And as one of my favorite characters on Six Feet Under put it…”And so it all begins. With the first success, corruption.” I think this film says it perfectly.
|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.
I got to the show a little later in the morning today, so I missed the first feature. But I saw at least one film today that I absolutely fell in love with, which I’ll get to momentarily. But not only did I have a great day, I met a classic star, and I made friends with a very prominent film historian! Lets get on with the show, shall we?
First thing I saw when I arrived was a series of shorts from the Joe McDoakes series. There were some other shorts shown throughout Cinecon, which I should have mentioned more of. But Joe McDoakes was a great series, which starred George O’Hanlon and Phyllis Coates (who made an appearance after the screening with director Richard L. Bare (who was also there, and went on to direct 166 episodes of Green Acres for television!) The shorts were very funny, and had a lot of broad range in the kind of comedy they did. For instance, in one episode they showed, the couple was introduced to us not as their normal selves, but as hideously ugly and buck toothed. The wife decides to get facial surgery to make herself beautiful, as does the husband, but neither of them knows what the other has done. Later, the two of them meet coincidently at a bar and neither of them recognizes each other, and the husband and wife unknowingly start hitting on each other! The second short involved Joe trying to become a maestro piano player in less than three weeks, when his wife becomes obsessed with a virtuoso piano player next door, and comic hi jinx ensue. It was a great series of shorts, and I look forward to seeing more when I can. If you’re an animation lover or grew up watching classic Hanna Barbara like I did, its interesting to note that George O’Hanlon who played Joe was also the voice of George Jetson!
The first feature I saw was a silent film from 1914 called The Circus Man. It was an interesting film for sure, with some great use of lighting and cinematography. The story felt a little muddled and convoluted, which I had some difficulty trying to follow. At first we follow the main character who is being accused of murder, which is what I presumed the story was going to be about. But this gets resolved fairly soon, and the film seems like it makes a left turn as it starts following plot lines of the other characters in the film. It was interesting in how they tried to structure it in the film considering it was based on a novel, but it did start to get a little confusing for me after awhile. But there was some strong filmmaking in here, and it was a great opportunity to check out this rarely seen film.
The next film for me was the highlight of the whole day, a wonderful, funny, and emotional story called “Fearless Fagan”. Some of you may know I have an affinity for strong family films, because I feel a majority of family films (at least today) tend to talk down to their audience, especially to children. There was a sincerity to this friendship between Floyd Hilston and his circus lion that really became the beating heart of the whole film. The plot revolves around Hilston, a 21 year old clown and lion tamer at a circus who gets drafted into the army during WW2, but he doesn’t know what to do with his ever faithful lion companion from the circus while he’s away. He’s afraid to leave him with the circus’ other lion trainer, who is far more harsh and strict in training his lion performers. He also doesn’t want to sell him to a zoo, or give him away out of fear of the lions own unhappiness that might lead him to become hostile, which does become an important point in the film. He meets Janet Leigh’s character, a performer who sings for the army men. As you can see in the photo above, that’s not a stunt man, thats Carleton Carpenter who played Hilston, and he performed practically all his scenes live with his costar lion Fagan, and in many cases he was on the ground wrestle with the lion, and we also watch as the lion practically jumps all over him like a puppy dog. There were no special effects, and no CGI lions back then. Everything was real. Fagan the lion puts on an incredible performance, and there were a few serious moments where I teared up when I thought the film was about to go into Old Yeller territory! But it shows how much I cared about this relationship between this kid and his lion. I would put this up there with my top family films of all time. It’s an absolutely wonderful film you should not miss.
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!
Today was the final day of Cinecon, and I’m saddened that its over so soon! What an unbelievable and educational experience it was for me, as I was introduced to several huge stars I had never known (and even got to meet a few of them), discovered some incredible films from the golden age of cinema, and I even made some wonderful new friends. I can’t begin to tell you what being at this festival has meant to me, and how incredibly entertaining and fun it was too. I swear, if you are a student of film or a filmmaker of any kind, it’s seriously in your best interest to attend this festival next year for Cinecon 49. You will be blown away.
Todays batch of films were excellent. The last two features at the end were decent, but I had some story and pacing issues with them. But in the morning, and what we were treated to right after lunch…incredible! Read on!
|Randolphe Scott (left), Sally Blane (center), Kate Smith (right)
I arrived just in time for the first feature, which was a terrific film, called “Hello, Everybody!”, starring the amazing Kate Smith. Because of her size, it might be surprising to some that she was such a huge star in the 1930’s (no pun intended). But what an incredible voice! And also the warmth of her persona was just beautiful. She was 26 when she made this film in 1933 having become a sensation on the radio, and while this film had a plot, it was designed to exploit her popularity. Some may know her from her most famous recording of “God Bless America”. The film also starred Randolphe Scott (“RANDOLPHE SCOTT!!”…sorry, Blazing Saddles joke 🙂 ) The biggest surprise in the film was when she was singing on the radio, after she was done and the orchestra continued, she broke into a wild dance number that brought the house down in the theater. The audience went apeshit! It was terrific. And while this was part of promoting her image, there was also a scene where she sang a special song to all the black orphans out there. It might sound a little silly considering it was part of her image…but at that time especially to show a non descriminatory stance with black people in the 1930’s, it made me fall in love with her as person all the more. She was incredible. Highly recommended.
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.