Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cinefest, Part II: The Films

Read Part I here.

Thursday at Cinefest was a warm-up; it didn’t quite feel like a first day at a festival. I spent most of the day traveling, hanging out with my friend Jonas, drinking a gin and tonic and when I had some energy I took in a couple of films. I caught the tail end of The King of the Kongo (1929), Chapter 10. This serial has been restored chapter by chapter and #10 was presented with its original soundtrack and in the best shape possible. In attendance was Cinefest regular Leonard Maltin. This would be the first of many sightings. The only full screening I caught on this day was the Hal Roach short Lucky Beginners (1935). It was comprised of talented unknowns who won a contest to be filmed for this variety show style short. At this point I was feeling the effects of travel fatigue and while I made my bet attempt to watch Janet Gaynor in The Return of Peter Grimm (1926) I realized I needed more than anything.

This was a good call because by Friday I was refreshed and ready to tackle a full day of rare cinematic treasures. In fact, I caught the entire first block, which started with the Vitaphone short Service Stripes (1931), a military comedy with musical numbers. The first feature of the day was the pre-code Men on Call (1931) starring Edmund Lowe, Mae Clarke and William Harrigan. This rarity was so rare that most of the organizers hadn’t seen the film. But just because a movie is rare doesn’t mean it’s good. Men on Call is a morality tale typical of the era. A woman must be punished for her sexuality but when it comes to light that it was all a misunderstanding everything is okay in the world. This was an okay film with a too-neatly wrapped up ending. I love films that showcase a particular job or industry. The Men on Call in this film were coast guards.

Me and the Boys (1929)

I was very eager to watch the next film on top; the jazz short Me and the Boys (1929). It was considered lost for many years. Luckily for us it was unearthed in 2013. Although it usually takes several years for a film to get funding for restoration, there was so much excitement for this two-song treasure that it all came together very quickly thanks to Hugh Hefner, Cinefest and the Vitaphone Project. The UCLA Film & Television Archive had screened it earlier in the week at their own festival and, after a faulty start, all of us at Cinefest got to delight in this rare jazz era wonder.

Cinefest had two Hal Roach shows with shorts and footage from Dick Bann’s personal collection. I caught the first of these two shows. It kicked off with Las Fantasmas (1930), an Our Gang movie in phonetic Spanish. As someone who is fluent in Spanish can tell you, the Spanish was pretty bad. Jackie Cooper’s was the worst. One of the actors seemed to be a native speaker and he’s pretty much the only person I could understand. I loved when one of the Our Gang members exclaimed “y, como!” which is the Spanish translation for “and how!”. We also saw a coming attractions trailer promoting There Goes My Heart (1938), introduced by a very young Ed Sullivan, unedited TV footage from the 1950s of the Hal Roach studio before it was torn down, more unedited footage of the old Our Gang introducing the new generation, a beachside family comedy Dad’s Day (1929) starring Edgar Kennedy and the zany Charley Chase comedy short Crazy Feet (1929) which featured Thelma Todd.

Speaking of Thelma Todd I had the pleasure of meeting Scott, a Cinefest regular and a funder of a variety of Vitaphone shorts. He was wearing a watch once owned by Thelma Todd. It was a present from her comedy partner Patsy Kelly. It was definitely a geek moment to see a treasure like that up close!

Thelma Todd wearing the watch in Top Flat (1935)

After lunch we were all treated to the presentation “The Story of Color in the Movies” hosted by film historian Eric Grayson. We saw examples of a variety of color processes including Pathe stencil (each frame painted by hand), Kinemacolor, 2-strip Technicolor (red and green), Cinecolor, Kodachrome, Eastman Color and 3-Strip Technicolor. The goal with color film was to get the technology right so that the filmmakers had the same ease and functionality of black-and-white filming. There were a lot of failures along the way. Cinecolor couldn’t focus, Eastman color would turn red with age, you couldn’t make negatives, and thus prints, with Kodachrome , 2-strip Technicolor had glue problems and Kinemacolor required expensive equipment and a trained technician. 3-strip Technicolor was considered the best because it ran the full gamut of color but it had issues including color leeching. It was a fascinating presentation. There was a Q&A afterwards and I learned that East of Eden (1955), shot in Warner Color, a version of Eastman Color, aged so poorly that it had to be digitally restored and original negatives are pretty much useless.

Up next was the Fox film The Painted Woman (1932). It’s a drama set in the South Seas and it reminded me of pre-code favorites Red Dust (1932) and Safe in Hell (1931). The Painted Woman, Peggy Shannon, is on the lam and being blackmailed by a ship captain. When she learns he is lost at sea, she marries sea rover Spencer Tracy. This one has a very similar plot line to Safe in Hell but with a much happier ending.

Image via Nitrate Diva

One of the highlights of the festival was the bizarre Warner Bros. film The Second Floor Mystery (1930). Directed by Roy Del Ruth it stars Grant Withers and Loretta Young. I’ve never seen a mystery take so many twists and turn as this one did. It was really quite the head scratcher but enjoyable nonetheless. Loretta Young never looked so beautiful and her meet-cute with Grant Withers (they quibble over strawberries and grapefruits while having breakfast at separate tables) is adorable.

The first screening after Friday’s dinner break was The Bride of Finklestein. This was a new short made in the style of the 1930s. It’s a Jewish Bride of Frankenstein meets Wheeler & Woolsey. It was a bit of a gamble to screen this in front of the Cinefest audience but we all enjoyed it.

One of the highlights for me was Richard Barrios’ A Song in the Dark presentation. I’ve read Barrios’ books A Song in the Dark (the definitive guide to early musicals) and Dangerous Rhythym so I was excited to see what he had to offer. Barrios’ presentation included some great clips including the first ever musical number filmed: the New York Philharmonic playing Tannihauser by Wagner in 1926. There were also clips from Rio Rita (1929), Broadway Melody of 1929, Let’s Go Native (1930), March of Time (which was never released but fragments exist in other films), Golden Dawn (1930), College Humor (1933), The Cuckoos (1930), Glorifying the American Girl (1929), It’s a Pleasure (1945), The Dolly Sisters (1946), She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). I was secretly hoping for the I Want to Be Bad number by Zelma O’Neal from Follow Thru (1930) but no such luck. It was probably shown at a previous Cinefest. I had a blast at Barrios’ presentation. He ended it with a surprise clip, a tribute to Cinefest:

Needless to say everyone got a bit teary eyed. After that epic presentation I had no more energy and had to call it quits for the night. This meant I missed watching Norma Shearer in Lucretia Lombard (1923) but seeing as I had a copy at home I promised myself a private viewing later.

Private viewings are a thing at Cinefest. Many folks bring their own projectors and have invitation only screenings in their hotel rooms.

Annette D'Agostino Lloyd and Jeff Rapsis
The Saturday of Cinefest started off with a bang. I went to the morning screening of Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger (1929). Originally filmed as a silent, it was converted to a talkie to meet the current demand. Most folks know the talkie version and the silent version we saw not quite an original but the best that could be put together, is considered far superior. Prior to the screening there was a presentation by Harold Lloyd historian Annette D’Agostino Lloyd (no relation). She discussed the history of the film and how we came to see the silent film version today. The ever-talented Jeff Rapsis delivered an energetic performance and his musical accompaniment received a standing ovation from the audience. And let me tell you it was well deserved. In fact all of the music performed during the festival was quite a treat to hear. Good music and rare films; Cinefest was spoiling us.

Immediately after we had a lunchtime presentation by James Layton and David Pierce, authors of The Dawn of Technicolor. This presentation is also being held at the TCM Film Festival but that one will be 90 minutes where as the Cinefest presentation was shortened to an hour. They figured the well-schooled audience would be bored by information they already knew. But at the end we all realized we would have liked to have seen the entire 90 minute presentation.They showed clips of It’s a Great Life (1929), Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), Sally (1928), The Doll Shop (1929) and The Show of Shows (1929). I learned that the coming of sound spurred an interest in color in film. Color was used to enhance production value and in really early cinema it wasn’t economical to make a film 100% color. One or two scenes, a grand finale or most of the picture would be filmed in color but at least something would be black-and-white.

There were several book signings at Cinefest. I got my copies of Barrios’ books signed and I also bought a copy of Layton & Pierce’s The Dawn of Technicolor.

After an extended lunch break, I came back to watch Sea Sore (1934), an RKO short and the Fox film My Lips Betray (1933) starring Lilian Harvey and John Boles. Harvey was a star in Europe but an unknown in Hollywood. My Lips Betray was to be her break out film but it didn’t quite do it for her. Harvey plays Lili, a performer who is desperately trying to get a job so she can pay her rent. By chance she gets a ride in “his majesty’s car” and her neighbors start a rumor that she’s the king’s favorite. The King, played by John Boles, is intrigued and falls in love with spirited but confused Lili. The plotline of this film reminded me very much of The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), right down to the beer garten!

Before the big Colleen Moore extravaganza, we all had some fun watching an odd little WWII wonder Tea Making Tips (1941). We quickly discovered we’ve been making tea all wrong!

Joseph Yranski, a friend of Colleen Moore, spoke a few words before that evenining’s special screening. Yranski was instrumental in finding the once lost Syntethic Sin (1929). The film came together when it was discovered that Ron Hutchinson from the Vitaphone Project had the last sound disc and Yranski had the movie from the Milan Archive. Because the film is missing the first 5 sound discs, an accompanist played music for the most of the film and then stopped when the 6th disc played. The film was great fun. Colleen Moore plays Betty Fairfax, a young actress desperate to make it big. She gets a part in a show put on by her love interest Donald (Antonio Moreno) but she lacks the life experience that would make her part believable. So she goes to the city in search of sin. For contemporary fans of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, this silent wonder will be a real treat. It’s ending is a bit of a let down and there is a black-face number that is way too long but otherwise Synthetic Sin was the sinful delight we all expected it to be.

Poster of Synthetic Sin at Cinefest

On the last day of Cinefest, I only had time to catch one movie. The Big Broadcast (1932) brought radio to screen. I thought this one might be more of a variety show but they worked in a plot. The storyline was boring and strange. I just wanted to see the acts! Musical numbers performed by the Boswell Sisters, Kate Smith, Cab Calloway and my personal favorite the Mills Brothers in addition to the main star, crooner Bing Cosby, made this one of the highlights of my trip to Cinefest. I didn’t realize the Mills Brothers were in the film so I squealed with delight when I saw them in the opening credits.

The Mills Brothers

Before we packed it up and called it a day, we stayed for most of the Cinefest auction. It was hosted by film critic Leonard Maltin who did a great job keeping us all entertained even when the items for sale were not that interesting. Items for sale included a James Cagney bookplate, 8mm and 16mm movies, laser disc sets, books, slides, posters and anomalies like a George Burns doll. The big ticket item while I was there was a Gene Autry guitar with case and chord selector. From what I heard afterwards, the also sold all of the projection equipment used for Cinefest. A few items didn’t sell but most objects found new owners.

It was sad to say goodbye to Cinefest, and to Jonas too. I had a wonderful time at this festival and I only wish there was another one to go to. Thanks for the memory Cinefest!

1 comment:

  1. Great write up! At least half of the fun at Cinefest was meeting you and Carlos. Y, Como!


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