My Cinecon 50 Classic Film Festival Review for 2014
Every year I like to spend my Labor Day weekend sitting in the dark watching a marathon of old and rare films screened at the Cinecon Classic Film Festival. This annual festival takes place in Hollywood, California with movie screenings at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. The event begins on the Thursday evening before the weekend and runs all the way into Monday evening on Labor Day, with a chance to watch old movies all day long, if you like! I am a long-time movie buff who has seen the majority of movies (some of them many times) that are shown on channels like Turner Classic Movies, so Cinecon is a great chance for me to see some films I have never seen before as they tend to show mainly rarer titles that are not often available for viewing. I enjoy films from all decades and nearly all genres, but I have a particular love for silent films and have seen hundreds and hundreds of them – luckily at Cinecon, I can see even more (and mostly silents I’ve never seen before!). I saw the majority of the films that were screened this year, here are some highlights:
The opening evening of Cinecon began at 7:00 PM with a screening of a short, Vitaphone Frolics, showcasing four terrific Vaudeville acts. With limber dancers, snappy vocals, and a dancing trio featuring a man wearing a Golliwog head – this short was terrific. I adore these Vaudeville variety shorts, such a great chance to see some of these performers from yesteryear caught on film (would love to see Cinecon show more of these in the future, perhaps a bunch shown together as they did at Cinecon a few years ago).
Up next were two movies, the silent film Paths to Paradise (1925) followed by the forties comedy Hold That Blonde (1945), which is actually a loose remake of the first film. I wasn’t actually aware that these were both based on the same story until the second film started and I started noticing similarities (I never read the program notes until after a movie is shown, so as to not end up reading any spoilers. Actually, I always like to know as little as possible about any movie I am seeing for the first time – just genre and actors is all I need.) The plot of both films revolves around the stealing of an ornate diamond necklace. Paths to Paradise stars Raymond Griffith and Betty Compson as two con artists, the film highlighted by a speedy car chase down a curving coastal road from San Francisco all the way to Mexico, with more and more motorcycle cops giving chase as they pass through each new city. You could really feel the movement on the big screen with first person camera tracking as the auto roars down the winding highway. I actually enjoyed the second film more than the silent. Hold That Blonde stars Eddie Bracken as a kleptomaniac who has been advised by his doctor to cure himself by finding love. He meets gorgeous Veronica Lake after stealing her compact and gets mixed up with the gang of thieves who have recruited her to steal the necklace. Love and comedy to follow. This film features a number of scenes and gags that I found to be laugh out loud funny. There is a particularly amusing scene with the girl and two of the bad guys eating dinner on a hotel room service table while Bracken is hiding underneath, after which he fools them again by posing as a French waiter. Another funny scene features Bracken wrapped in nothing but a towel ending up trying to escape the bad guys by climbing onto the window ledge of his skyscraper apartment. He ends up fighting it out on the ledge with a drunk from the next apartment.
Friday morning was highlighted by the silent film $20 a Week (1924) starring George Arliss. He plays a wealthy steel tycoon who is not happy with his son, the idler. He cuts off his funds and forces the fellow to live on $20 a week and earn the rest of the money he needs himself. And to be fair, he will do the same. Cut to the son’s girlfriend (Edith Roberts) who has just decided to adopt “Little Arthur” from the orphanage even though the brother she lives with hates children. To get even with her, brother decides to adopt a “father” and recruits Arliss, who has taken a job incognito as a clerk at the brother’s rival steel company. He takes his role of father to heart and proceeds to help/interfere with the lives of his newly adopted family. I thought this film was quite entertaining, stolen by George Arliss (love him!) and in a way, the little boy Arthur who sort of smiles his way through all his mischief (not really a brat, simply “energetic”).
This film was followed by a really interesting “then and now” silent film locations slideshow done by John Bengtson (I own all his movie location books and love them). The focus was on locations around L.A. including Venice, Chinatown, and Hollywood which were featured in the silent comedies of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.
One of the film’s shown in the afternoon was Almost a Lady (1926), which I was looking forward to as “the original” Harrison Ford is one of my most favorite silent stars. He was popular in the teens and twenties, mainly in light romantic comedies and bedroom farces – not only is he a very appealing star but I find him oh so handsome and debonair (just my type!). His female co-star in this film is Marie Prevost, an actress he was paired with in six films from 1926 to 1928. This film is standard fare of the romantic-comedy variety, entertaining enough though nothing great – I wish there was more of Harrison Ford to be seen in this (his part is smaller than I would have liked, Marie Prevost really takes the lead in this one).
Friday evening showcased two rare early Mary Pickford movies (yes, she’s another one of my favorite stars). First up, Their First Misunderstanding (1911) in which Mary and real life hubby Owen Moore play a couple bored with marriage after a year. Mary flirts with a long-haired “poet”, hubby offers her a divorce but he’s got a prospect of his own! Interesting to see, the film features typical early claustrophobic room sets. Next was Behind the Scenes (1914), a melodrama that was quite good. Mary plays a chorus girl/actress who gets married, then faces a series of financial ups and downs with her husband. He wants her to give up the stage and live on a farm with him, just when she’s been offered a long desired lead role in an upcoming play. What to do? Mary looks very lovely in this film, her face just full of expression. I always enjoy these sort of very melodramatic teen era silents – and I do love Mary!
Saturday morning started off with a Charlie Chaplin short The Adventurer (1917) in which Charlie plays an escaped convict who rescues Edna Purviance and her Mama from the water at the Venice amusement pier. The ladies befriend their rescuer and bring him to stay at their swanky house. Soon he’s all dressed up in borrowed tux at their afternoon cocktail party with assorted amusing gags to follow. This is a really good short, and it looked so fab on the big screen. With the big picture and clear print I actually saw more in Chaplin’s facial expressions and movements than I usually notice – just increasing my opinion of his talent. Interesting locations too – I love glimpses of the amusement parks of yesteryear! As much as I love watching movies in the quiet of home, in my pajamas, on my trusty and beloved blu-ray player, sometimes it’s nice to view these films on a big, big screen.
In the afternoon there was a screening of the classic film Witness for the Prosecution (1957), a movie I have seen several times but not anytime recently so I had actually forgotten the details of the ending. The film is a courtroom drama/murder mystery starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich. Laughton is a defense barrister and steals every scene he’s in – and when he’s not stealing scenes, his real-life wife (who plays his nurse here) Elsa Lanchester is. This film features some seriously top-notch acting and star power, the story is really involving with a clever plot (this film is based on an Agatha Christie story and play). The print screened looked very nice. Ten stars for this one.
This Saturday I stayed all the way through the last film of the evening (usually at Cinecon I skip the late night movie so that I can try and get enough sleep and for fear of missing the last metro train, but they have late trains now on Friday/Saturday night) because I really wanted to see the Gloria Jean film A Little Bit of Heaven (1940). I really enjoyed this, Gloria Jean sings a number of songs here and her vocal performances are just amazing – she had a really lovely singing voice. In the film, she plays a tenement girl from a big family who gets hired to perform on the radio. The new-found money she gets starts to change her family’s life and not particularly in a good way. In this film, Gloria has a whole bunch of uncles played by former famous silent movie actors including a couple of my personal favorites – Monte Blue and Charles Ray.
Sunday morning I enjoyed a silent film about a racehorse – Kentucky Pride (1926). It’s the tale of a Kentucky born and bred horse they name “Virginia’s Future”, and the film is interesting in that the story is told from the horse’s point of view using first person narration via title cards. The horse tells us about her life from birth to racing to troubles galore, it’s rather a tearjerker (it’s not all oats and racing prizes, more of a “Black Beauty” type of tale). I’ve been to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park many times over the years (my dad used to be obsessed with horse racing, and now my husband has the same obsession), so I was quite interested to see this film. It features some brief glimpses of some famous racehorses of the day, the most famous being the magnificent Man o’ War.
Highlighting the afternoon was a screening of one of my most favorite films Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Now I’ve seen this movie quite a lot of times (let’s see, been a huge movie buff since around 1977, watch this one about once or twice a year, hmmm – maybe 50 times!) – I have never seen it looking so great! On the big screen with an absolutely stunning restored print, this absolutely popped off the screen in Technicolor. Since I have seen this one so many times I didn’t have to concentrate so much on following the plot and was able to notice many little details in this film I have never noticed before (the large, clear print sure helped there). I noticed things in the house decorations and dinner table scene I’ve never noticed, right down to the pattern on the dinner plates. The main thing I was struck by was the details and expense that went into the period costumes, ribbons and lace and fabric patterns I have never really seen before. Just a wow! This was followed by an interview with one of the stars of the film, child star Margaret O’Brien. She was super interesting and it was so neat to see such a big star (and one of my favorites, by the way) from the golden age of film in person.
Monday’s at Cinecon often end up being one of my favorite days of the festival – it seems like there are more movies shown (there were five feature films shown in the afternoon session this year, most of the other days only two features and a short), and often some really interesting and obscure ones turn up each year. This year was no exception and the day was filled with treats of the movie variety. The morning was highlighted by a silent film starring another one of my favorite stars, William S. Hart. He specializes in playing a sort of quiet loner cowboy/bad man with heart of gold who roams the West and often falls in love with a pretty woman in whatever new Wild West town he’s arrived at in the story. The strong silent type, with grizzled face and twinkling blue eyes, he’s often girl shy even though he can shoot plenty straight! The film that was screened was Travelin’ On (1922) and turned out to be quite good, though unfortunately missing a reel in the middle. In this one, Hart rides into town on his beautiful “paint” horse Spots, then gets mixed up with a preacher and his wife, a woman who sells bibles to gamblers and tries to push Hart into reading it. He falls in love with her.
And for the final film of the festival – – As a huge figure skating fan who has been closely following the sport since childhood, when Peggy Fleming won the ’68 Olympics in Grenoble, it was great to see the famous early skater Sonja Henie rock her stuff on the big screen in One in a Million (1936). I haven’t seen this one in quite a few years – it’s a light musical comedy set in an icy Switzerland and is an entertaining bit of musical fluff, featuring several good songs plus fun to watch production numbers on ice. One complaint though – I would have liked to see lots more of the charming and pretty Sonja Henie and a lot less of the Ritz Brothers (sorry, not a fan).
All in all, though this Cinecon wasn’t one of the best, there were still many interesting and entertaining films shown. Unfortunately, there was no real stand-out great silent film this year (and last year there were several), but luckily there was no real dud either. I think my least favorite film of the event was the Jane Withers film, Always in Trouble (1938), which was sort of a muddled and silly B-movie (I usually enjoy her films, but this one was just so-so). I always seem to drowse through one movie every Cinecon (from tiredness, not boredom), this year was during the Ruth Roland serial The Timber Queen (darn it, tried so hard to keep my eyes open!). For anyone interested, I will be posting more detailed plot summaries, ratings (1 to 10 stars) and reviews for the films I saw over the weekend at my silent movie website SilentMovieCrazy.com
For more information on the festival visit the Cinecon official website. Next year’s event Cinecon 51 will be held September 3rd to 7th, 2015.