The Cinecon Classic Film Festival is not for novices. Held over Labor Day weekend mere steps from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Cinecon attendees are more likely to stop and admire the sidewalk stars of Louise Fazenda and Richard Barthelmess than Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. Do you recognize those names of old? Cinecon is an annual gathering of the people who not only recognize, but celebrate, laud, discuss, and admire the oft-forgotten legends of silent and early sound cinema. This year’s five-day festival featured over forty features, shorts, newsreels and other rare celluloid oddities all screened on good old-fashioned 35mm film stock. At the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel (headquarters for traveling out-of-town attendees), room after conference room were lined with vintage movie posters, studio portraits of Golden Age movie stars, lobby cards, and all types of Hollywood ephemera. (My favorite item: lunch menus from the legendary tinseltown eatery The Brown Derby). In keeping with the communal vibe of the festival, silent films featured live piano accompaniment from Phil Carli, veteran of the silent movie circuit.
Indeed, most attendees are veterans–and friends–meeting each other for the second or third festival that year. The atmosphere at Cinecon is one of joyous reunion, of old friends meeting again, exchanging stories of that year’s other silent and classic film festivals, comparing notes on the latest DVD releases, bemoaning the current state of modern film, and just generally having a good time. But that is not to say the community is insular. As a first-timer, Cinecon organizers and attendees were nothing but kind and obliging to me. If anything, Cinecon virgins are encouraged, by the infectious enthusiasm of returning members, to come back again and again to a festival that revels in its close-knit exclusivity.
Is Cinecon for you? Well, that may depend. Have you seen everything ever shown on TCM? How’s your stamina (e.g. Do you mind sitting all day in the same theater chair?) Do you tend to view It Happened One Night within a continuum of mid-1930s overland bus pictures or attribute its success to the singular genius of director Frank Capra and stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert? Even if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you will probably find things to enjoy on any given Cinecon program. At the very least, you get a wonderful sense of a unique time and place in American cinema and culture. If Charlie Chaplin and Gone with the Wind are the exceptions, Cinecon pictures are the rule. They are what most Americans were watching in picture palaces during the crazy Jazz Age and the hard luck days of the Great Depression.
Because of the rarity and inaccessibility of most films shown during Cinecon (prints were dug out of archives and almost none are available on Netflix or Amazon), reviewing the films is a bit of a cruel tease. Instead, I’ve organized the films thematically to give a picture of what it’s like to sample a slice of 1920s-’30s Americana.
Puttin’ On A Show
In an era where genre divisions are so strictly defined that musicals are either a camp oddity (Repo! The Genetic Opera) or an award season prestige picture (Chicago , Sweeney Todd ), a weekend of early sound song and dance pictures is certainly an eye-opener. The musical element seemed inescapable, a buoyant reminder of early cinema’s roots in vaudeville, radio and the still-potent sway of Broadway revues.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is a film called King of Burlesque (Sidney Lanfield, 1936), a backstage musical starring Warner Baxter as Kerry Bolton, a producer of low class burlesque shows starring singer/dancer Pat Moran (played by sex symbol Alice Faye). Bolton changes his tune, however, as soon as a high-class dame played by Mona Barrie sweeps in and reminds him just how uncultured he really is. She convinces Bolton to produce only classy Broadway revues; they are an instant success. Bolton marries his society muse, sending Pat (who had always harbored a crush on Bolton) looking for work. Likewise, all the officer workers and wannabe performers who badgered Bolton for a shot at the big time are out of luck. But this is a movie from the ‘30s, and it’s a musical. What are the chances of an unhappy ending? King of Burlesque isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a lot of fun and the music and performances really charmed me. The grand finale with Bolton scrambling to put on one last nightclub show to stave off bankruptcy is really terrific. The sequence showcases the talents of some amazing performers, including jazz legend Fats Waller, and features a number in which chorus girls swing from the ceiling on giant trapezes while serenading the dining guests below.
Another equally charming backstage musical is Mister Big (Charles Lamont, 1943), one in a series of B-musicals produced by Universal starring Gloria Jean, Peggy Ryan and future Singin’ in the Rain talent Donald O’Connor. The film marks O’Connor’s breakout role and it’s easy to see why—he displays the kind of manic, youthful energy that makes Zac Efron look like Methuselah. In fact, Mister Big is kind of the grandfather of the High School Musical and Step Up franchises. O’Connor and co. attend a high school for the performing arts but instead of focusing on the classics, they sneak out to practice jazz and swing at the local soda jerk’s. They’re the kind of rosy-cheeked, fun-loving youths who can turn a recital of Hamlet into a big, jazzy musical number. But trouble is afoot. The school patron (and Gloria Jean’s aunt) wants them to perform Antigone as the year-end play. But there’s no swing in Sophocles! Mister Big manages to pack in a lot of music into its hour-long run time, often not even bothering to supply a narrative explanation for its impromptu tap dance battles. But who needs plot when your young leads are as irrepressibly and undeniably talented as these? I think this movie really captures a moment in time when cheese was celebrated, when it was cool to sing and dance, when high school kids dressed in suits and skirts and rebellion meant imbibing in “low culture” big bands!
Just Gimme That Ol’ Time Racism
A more unfortunate aspect of Mister Big, and one that stopped me dead when I saw it, is a seriously unfortunate case of racism. As the kids rehearse their big revue—right in the middle of the picture—there’s a blackface number. The sight of a bunch of wholesome white teenagers smearing themselves with greasepaint was shocking and almost killed my enjoyment of the film Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. The scene cuts from inside the theater where the students are performing to outside the theater in the doorway where a crowd of African-American youths are watching them rehearse. Again: white kids in blackface inside, black kids outside watching them. The white kids notice them and invite them inside to perform a number of their own, which the African-American kids just happen to perform on the spot. The performing arts kids offer them a number in the show. Now, I guess this is what passed for equal time and equal rights in 1943—racial harmony through the shared experience of singing and dancing. I suppose there is some credence to that, especially in the context of the 1940s, although the white kids are still appropriating black culture (their number is an “Old Man River” routine) and the black kids still play a supporting role.
This regrettable episode was not an isolated incident at Cinecon. If you’re going to watch films from this time period, you need to contextualize them. Racism and sexism are ingrained in the fabric of the culture and the films reflect that. Even a film like Crooked Streets (Paul Powell, 1920), which was shot with documentary realism on location in Shanghai and featured actual Asian performers (instead of white actors in yellow face), exists in a tradition of late 1910s-early 1920s “yellow peril” films. Sometimes the racism is merely a casual stereotype, like the sassy black maid to Jean Harlow’s spoiled movie star in Bombshell (Victor Fleming, 1933). Sometimes it’s more problematic, as with Fats Waller in King of Burlesque. Waller plays an elevator operator who badgers Bolton for a spot in his show. Fats’ onscreen persona is that of the scatting, wide-eyed, “yessuh, massa” type of African-American: clearly a product of the time. Nevertheless, Waller was a popular stage and screen performers and his appearance in King of Burlesque garnered great applause from the Cinecon audience.
In addition to racist portrayals, sexism was also on full display. In fact, many an otherwise terrific, modern-feeling picture was hampered by an old-fashioned melodramatic romance. You Never Know Women (William Wellman, 1926), fell victim to this fate. It is the moving story of a Russian theater troupe performing in the U.S. and Wellman manages to capture the verve and excitement of the troupe’s frenzied movement throughout the picture. Unfortunately, the film is occasionally mired in a melodramatic love triangle that is where the film got its confusing, and condescending, title.
But the top qualifier for most sexist picture at Cinecon 46 goes to Career Woman (Lewis Seiler, 1936). The film stars Claire Trevor as a recent law school graduate (What?! Women can’t be lawyers!) who returns to her close-minded southern hometown (Southerners are all ignorant hicks!) to defend an old friend (Isabel Jewell) accused of killing her father, even though at the time her father was in the process of beating the snot out of her for talking to a boy (gasp!). That is not to say the picture is terrible, it’s just wildly out of step with every modern notion of social justice. At times, Trevor’s character Carrol is strong and competent, at other times she’s weak and ineffectual. A brash lawyer from the big city (played by Michael Whalen) breezes into town to “help” Carroll win the case—and win her heart in the bargain. This plot line feels like it’s out of a completely different movie. Career Woman tries to marry heartfelt social commentary with loudmouth screwball comedy, with a little hicksploitation thrown in for good measure. The results are not entirely successful, although the film is both fitfully funny and poignant. But the whole thing feels like a movie that wanted to be forward thinking and represent a feisty female protagonist, but either couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver on its promise.
When Comedy Was King
No Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton here, the Cinecon silent clowns are strictly second-tier. But they’re still very, very funny. Shorts included those from Mack Sennett alums Andy Clyde and Charley Chase, forgotten “Comedy King” Larry Semon, and German comedian Max Davidson whose Jewish persona reveals unacknowledged diversity in silent and early sound comedy.
The Charley Chase short, The Real McCoy (Warren Doane, 1930) casts Charley, tall and slim with a dapper pencil-thin mustache, as a hillbilly in disguise, holed up in the mountains to win the hand of a local girl (Thelma Todd). It’s a typical city vs. country theme but Charley is terrific as a smooth con man, adept at deceiving the local yokels when they mistakenly believe he’s an undercover cop after their moonshine. In the best moment, Charley, pretending to be the last of the McCoys, performs an old mountain song on every instrument—banjo, guitar, Jew’s harp—a one-man band! The Real McCoy has lots of funny visual gags, a good structure, and plenty of chemistry between Chase and Edgar Kennedy as the cop helping him con the town.
The Peppery Salt (Del Lord, 1936) is a Columbia sound short featuring veteran comedian Andy Clyde as a dock worker who believes he’s inherited a yacht but it turns out to be merely a lunch counter on the edge of the wharf. Decked out in his admiral uniform, Andy serves coffee and sandwiches to hardened dockhands. But when pirates capture his boss’ daughter, the chase is on. Clyde has a quiet comic persona, more of an unsuspecting victim of fate than a havoc-reeking clown. The Peppery Salt features a string of small but imaginative gags that stack up like dominos for the climactic destruction. The best gag, when Andy accidentally nails his lunch counter to the hull of the pirate’s ship, is reminiscent of the nautical machination of Buster Keaton.
One of the most interesting comedies on the Cinecon bill was a feature length comedy from Mack Sennett studios called Down on the Farm (Erle C. Kenton and Ray Grey, 1920). The fifty-minute film debuted a year before Chaplin’s first foray into features with The Kid and three years before Keaton got into the feature game. In the early days of silent comedy, conventional wisdom said it didn’t pay to make feature films; the money was in shorts. But Mack Sennett was a shrewd businessman and structured Down on the Farm as a series of rural-themed episodes; there isn’t so much a plot as a number of ten or twenty minute gags strung together. Starring Louise Fazenda as the farmer’s daughter and Harry Gribbon as the farm hand who loves her, Down on the Farm is admirable in it’s ambition, but unremarkable in execution. Sequences run overlong, gags drag, and the plot points (a fake inheritance, a series of forged letters, a marriage ceremony with revolving groom) are overly familiar comedy tropes.
The biggest name in comedy present at Cinecon was Harold Lloyd, that bespectacled all-American go-getter, starring in his most famous film, The Freshman (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1925). Ranked during the Silent Era behind only Chaplin in popularity, decades of film criticism has diminished Lloyd’s stature to decidedly third rate, behind the inimitable genius of Chaplin and the visionary modernism of Keaton. Lloyd was an unabashed populist and The Freshman is a crowd-pleasing picture that ushered in a string of imitators with collegiate settings (including Keaton’s own College two years later). Lloyd plays our title hero, an eager young man whose only ambition in life is to become the Campus Hero and win the girl (Jobyna Ralston). Harold goes out for the football team, and in the film’s most amusing sequence, undergoes pummeling after pummeling as the human replacement for the team’s tackling dummy. Harold’s only a water boy but in the championship game of the season and with no uninjured players left, The Freshman gets his chance. The Freshman is a great example of silent comedy and as the only film on the Cinecon festival I had scene before, I definitely recommend giving it a watch. Unlike most of the film shown, it is readily available to rent or buy.
Let’s Do The Time Warp Again
A new feature at this year’s Cinecon was the Saturday at the Bijou program, an attempt to recreate a mid-’30s film going experience. The program included trailers, shorts, newsreels, a serial, and a feature presentation. I really thought this was a fun idea. For many older attendees, Cinecon serves as a nostalgia trip, transporting them to childhoods spent in the old-fashioned picture palaces. Saturday at the Bijou succeeded in conveying that lost tradition. The program was more varied than I could have imagined. It began with a warning: what you are about to see is racist and offensive. Well, having seen the previous films, I was prepared for the worst. The offending shorts in question were two very early talkies produced for Metro Movietone in 1928 starring popular African-American Broadway comedy team Miller & Lyles. Because of the nascent sound technology, these are not so much movies as they are Broadway routines captured on film. The take place on a stage, the camera doesn’t move and the acting style is pure vaudeville. These shorts are so rare, and rarely seen, they don’t even appear on Aubrey Lyle’s or F.E. Miller’s IMDb pages. *
What makes these shorts special is that they catalogue authentic African-American entertainment that was produced by blacks for a black audience. What makes them problematic for white audiences is that Miller & Lyles are in blackface. That’s right, African-Americans in blackface. In the two shorts we saw, The Mayor of Jimtown and Jimtown Cabaret, Miller & Lyles play exaggerated versions of African-American stereotypes. In Jimtown Cabaret they play corrupt government officials who con their constituents out of money and don’t give a damn about the public welfare. This is not only a send-up of the Jim Crow South but of the white power structure generally. What’s more, it’s hilarious. Miller & Lyles have well-honed comic timing, witty repartee and puns to spare. The second short revolves around the duo’s efforts to enter a nightclub. When they’re told they cannot enter with an escort (meaning a female), Lyles dresses in drag so they can enter the club. These shorts are basically extended comedy routines punctuated by song and dance interludes—not out of step with the popular current of white entertainment at the time.
The Bijou program also featured a Fleischer Brothers cartoon called “Down Among the Sugar Cane,” featuring candy canes that grew from planted sugar cubes and a “bouncing ball” sing-a-long song led by Lillian Roth. Another great entry was a newsreel short from Universal Studios called “Hollywood Screen Test” that instructed prospective fame-seekers on how to behave like a star-in-training. This fictionalized account of the Hollywood machine is some of the most amusing hokum you’re likely to see and features the director of the short as himself and a cameo from Universal makeup man Jack Pierce, the man responsible for Boris Karloff’s makeup in Frankenstein
The next item was an entry in “The Green Archer” adventure serial, a staple of matinee entertainment in the 1930s and ‘40s. Out of context, this chapter was hilariously bizarre and disjointed—a Batman meets Robin Hood-style hero fighting masked thugs and none of it too convincing. This boy’s adventure story lead nicely into the program’s feature, a Buck Jones starrer called tantalizingly titled The Thrill Hunter (George B. Seitz, 1933). Buck Jones was a broad-shouldered cowboy actor, stunt rider and racecar driver who gained popularity exhibiting his skills on screen in a number of pictures in the ‘30s. Jones is very charming in the film, poking fun at his onscreen cowboy persona. He plays Buck Crosby, a real-life cowboy who saves an actress (Dorothy Revier) from a runaway horse. But, you see, Buck is the chief proponent of his own legend and while telling tales of his plane-flying, racecar-driving, war hero deeds (all fake), gets himself hired as a stuntman on the actress’ new picture. There’s a lot of great stunt work in the film, especially a prolonged sequence of aerial dips and dives. Buck bluffs his way through the picture but gets entangled in a real life robbery plot when Majorie the actress, is kidnapped by gangsters who are after her mysterious locket. This leads to a cool chase and some heroics from Buck, who we’ve been hoping will turn out to be a good guy after all. Buck Jones has some impressive comic timing and a real honest, “aw, shucks” charm. The Thrill Hunter is an entertaining way to spend and hour and a great capper to a successful Saturday at the Bijou program.
For Future Generations
The overarching theme and message at Cinecon, if there can be a “message” at a film festival, is the paramount importance of film preservation and restoration. Casual cinephiles give lip service to the archival process and sometimes, like in the case of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, rejoice in the successful recovery and restoration of a classic. For the most part, however, film preservation is a thankless, time-consuming labor of love. Only ten years ago, it was estimated that 85-90% of all silent films were lost or damaged; today, that number, according to Cinecon organizers, is down to 77%. This may seem like a slight victory but in the context of tightening studio budgets and the bifurcation of media dollars into theatrical, DVD, Blu-Ray, On Demand, and Internet marketing, the fact that film preservation is actually on the rise is very encouraging.
To wit, the Warner Archive Collection, a co-sponsor of Cinecon 46, gave a presentation on the state of their restored and re-released catalogue of classics. The WAC is a division of Warner Home Video that specializes in releasing the old stuff you can’t find anywhere else. They have been able to survive in a shrinking home video market because they are a direct-to-consumer retailer, which means you buy their products on their website (warnerarchive.com) instead of in stores. Successfully modeled after Amazon, Warner Archive has been able to fill a specific niche in the classic film market. George Feltenstein, head of WAC operations, revealed some of their exciting upcoming releases, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Citizen Kane on Blu-Ray and a release of Orson Welles’ elusive other masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons finally on DVD.
None of those upcoming releases could be possible without the dedication of film archivists and preservationists. It may seem unfathomable, but even lauded works by Orson Welles are often found, if they are found at all, rotting away in an underground bunker or under a foot of dust in someone’s garage. Film preservation is the subject of Keepers of the Frame, an incredibly moving documentary that was probably the highlight of the festival for me. Eschewing voice over narration, Keepers of the Frame compiles interviews with famous names in the film industry including Alan Alda, Debbie Reynolds and Leonard Maltin, and professionals in the film preservation field.
The real draw of the documentary, however, is the rare footage itself; from historical newsreel footage of the Hindenburg disaster to Super 8mm home movies from inside a Japanese internment camp during World War II, the scope and breadth of the rare images presented is overwhelming. To say viewing this documentary was an emotional experience for me would be an understatement. I’m a pretty battle-hardened filmgoer, but I almost cried.
Filmmakers Mark McLaughlin and Randy Gitsch accurately capture the impassioned enthusiasm of cineastes and cinephiles, profiling people like John Harvey, the man who converted his house into a Cinerama theater. Cinerama, a film system that projects three film projectors simultaneously at a curved screen, required that Harvey gut his living room and physically build three projection rooms to house the massive equipment. Instead of theater seating, he has two tiered sofas for guests. Another exceptional figure is Laurence Austin whose Silent Movie Theater became a staple of Los Angeles film culture in the 1990s. At the time, it was the only remaining silent movie theater in the world. The theater is still there, although now they show sound films and only occasionally project silents.
The ultimate irony of seeing this film at Cinecon is that this is practically the only place you can view it. Although it is appropriate to view it on the big screen in 35mm, a documentary as important, entertaining, and informative as , Keepers of the Frame cries out for a DVD release—or even a stint on Hulu or Instant Netflix. How is the message of film preservation ever going to reach a mass audience if it’s cloistered in the cinema community, a community that already appreciates the efforts of those chronicled in the movie? This is the chief frustration of the entire festival: the lack of widespread knowledge and accessibility. Accessibility is key. Most of the films screened were on loan from the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, George Eastman House, or dug out of studio vaults. The entire point of setting a film on the path of restoration is ultimately exhibition, first at film festivals, and then gradually on DVD and home video.
One success in this regard is the much-ballyhooed recent discovery of an unknown Charlie Chaplin film, 1914’s A Thief Catcher , which screened during Cinecon’s film preservation program. The film can’t accurately be called a Chaplin film, although it has been and will continue to be so labeled because of Chaplin’s colossal reputation and the unlikelihood of discovering an uncatalogued performance, because Charlie has about ninety seconds of screen time as a Keystone Cop on the trail of two jewel thieves. Ford Sterling, a Mack Sennett veteran who looks more like a leading man than a believable comedian, is the star. As screened at Cinecon, the film has not yet undergone a restoration and is incomplete. It was screened on DVD. The short will be released in a Mack Sennett 5-DVD box set next year, but at barely six minutes, does not warrant an individual release, Chaplin or no Chaplin.
A Thief Catcher represents an exciting discovery for Chaplin and silent comedy fans but like many Cinecon programs, the background history is more exciting than what’s on the screen. The discovery is more a victory for film collectors and preservationists as proof that there are undiscovered treasure to be found than it is a boon for the casual film viewer. Still, it is a testament to Chaplin’s eternal popularity that less than two minutes of newly-discovered footage will quickly be included on DVD, while many entertaining full length features still wallow in, waiting patiently for the money for restoration, distribution and exhibition to present itself.
*Editor’s Note: These films were part of George Feltenstein’s Warner Archive Program and not shown as part of the Saturday at the Bijou program. They can be more attributed to the film preservation aspect of the festival.
For more on Cinecon, visit the festival’s website here.
For more in-depth coverage of Cinecon films, visit Sales On Film