Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Grand Finale of Cinefest

Thad Komorowski, David Gerstein, and Steve Stanchfield
watching polished cartoons
It is funny the way time goes by when you're at a convention. While living it, you're aware of time the same as any other day. You get hungry for meals and tired generally around the same times as you normally would. But when it is all over and you stop to reflect on events, they all run together into one continuous day. The spare hours spent sleeping and showering (or in some cases, just sleeping) melt away and sometimes the only way to differentiate Thursday from Saturday is the film schedule.

The first movie I watched was The Last Man on Earth. This is a quaint sci-fi story set in the future which gets lots of giggles in the beginning but overstays its welcome. If you enjoyed Just Imagine, you’ll love this. Elmer is a man with eyes for only one girl, but she cannot see his merit and no one else can seem to either. Her decisive rejection of him pushes him away so strongly that he becomes a hermit in the forest, and it is a good thing for him because an outbreak of “masculitis”, a disease which eradicates
Buying books from Doug Swarthout, a total of 18
males over 14 years old, gives him the coveted spot of the last man on earth. Hundreds of sex-starved women in outrageous and shockingly risqué dresses (who are they flaunting their bodies for?) impatiently wait for the pre-teen boys to come of age, searching the globe for any sign of a surviving man. They find Elmer and bring him back to civilization only to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, then confiscated by the government and given away to the winner of a boxing match. The movie is only 70 minutes long and the beginning is tightly edited but it begins to peter out at the end once the novelty wears off. With that being said, the novelty is pretty fun. Compare the short hoop skirts (which when pressed against, such as when dancing, flips up to completely expose a pair of bloomers) with the more demure and utilitarian styles of the actual 1940s. Imagine the endless jokes that could arise from such a story, many of which are alluded to in the discreet way that movies restricted by censorship regulations cleverly did. I recently bought a book called Mr. Adam published in the 1940s with a similar plot and I’m curious to read it and compare it with this film.

Martin Grams hard at work
My friend Rich Finegan saw The Road Back prior to Cinefest and described it as the sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. I find WWI to be a fascinating and often neglected time in history and it is less common to get the German perspective so I naturally was interested in this film. It left something to be desired. Although it is about German soldiers after the armistice, no attempt was made to authentically portray Germans. The characters have German names, but they mispronounce them (Ernsts is “Earnst” instead of “Airnst”) and make no attempt at accents. The casting is totally inappropriate. (Andy Devine as a German? Really?) Leading man John King was especially wooden. About 45 minutes in, I began to wonder where exactly the story was going and whether or not it would ever end, which was I’m sure exacerbated by sitting for too long in those chairs and knowing there were so many people in the dealer’s room to talk to. Finally it began to draw to a close, and what a finale! Some people found the final speech, which outlined the hypocrisy of a nationalistic government urging youth to go off to war and kill men they do not know and then punishing them for using aggression against men who wrong them in peacetime, to be preachy and off-putting, but I was impressed by the passion behind it and the message which rings true in modern times. 

Meeting Leonard Maltin with my friend Keaton
It Pays to Be Ignorant was a cute game show that moved quickly and got a lot of laughs. It was scripted, but the actors were adept enough to make it look natural and candid.

The Return of Peter Grimm was based on a story by David Belasco, so of course it is pure melodrama. I saw the later talkie version with Lionel Barrymore years ago and enjoyed it. It is comparable to this version which moved quickly and had a good cast, including Janet Gaynor who is always pleasant.

I was in the theater for Me and the Boys but the projectionists were having trouble with the digital presentation (there was no sound) so they ended up moving it to after the Hal Roach Show. Since my friend needed a ride over to the hotel I left before they screened it. This was the first of many digital mishaps that plagued the show. 

Little Wheezer taunting Jackie in Spanish
Dick Bann's Hal Roach Show part one was one of the big highlights of the program for me. I became interested in Hollywood history and black and white movies because of the Our Gang series. I watched them over and over as a child, wishing I had the freedom those kids did to roam the streets and use their imaginations to make something wonderful without a dime in their pockets. Those shorts are and will always be affixed to my heart (which was why it was such a thrill to get my Little Rascals book signed by both authors at the show). Naturally I was excited to see Fantasmas (AKA the Spanish version of When the Wind Blows) because I never saw it, but also because it featured Wheezer, my favorite rascal, speaking Spanish (telling Petey, AKA Pepe to sic Jackie AKA Juanito). The movie was basically the same outside of a few cast changes, including Chubby's new very ethnic parents. Next we saw some newsreel footage of the gang when the Reunion in Rhythm short was filmed. Silent cast members in their early 20s visited the kids and posed next
Meeting Richard W. Bann
to their "replacements." I've seen clips from this footage in a documentary but it was fun to see how many times they filmed Alfalfa's painful singing and poor Jackie Condon having to attentively listen to it. Third was Crazy Feet, an early and rare Charley Chase comedy with several pre-code elements including a racist song title and very flamboyant male dancers. The comedy started out very strong with Charley, Thelma Todd, and another man wrestling each other in a tiny automobile. It lost steam when Charley went onstage and swung around on a rope for a prolonged period of time, but overall it was enjoyable. Last was Edgar Kennedy in Dad's Day. I have watched Kennedy in many films over the years, but I never saw a short where he was the star. This was my first and he went over well. The opening scenes where his family took advantage of him made me wonder why he didn't just haul off and slap them, but as the short progressed it got funnier, especially the bit where he tries to fight the bathing suit rental clerk and loses miserably. 

The Vitagraph Varieties presentation which was laid out in the program book was different than what they showed because of another problem with the digital medium. I do not recall which films they did show, but none of the four stood out as being particularly good.

When I saw in the opening credits of The Second Floor Mystery that the movie was based on The Agony Column by Derr Earl Biggers, I got even more excited than I previously was to see this early Loretta Young film. I loved the book so much I read it in one day but I didn’t realize there was a film version, so I was naturally very disappointed when about 10-15 minutes into the movie it shut off and restarted from the beginning. The projectionist tried several times to fast-forward it back to the correct moment, but it shut off again. By this time I was frustrated and since my friends were waiting for me to go to dinner, I decided to leave. They did show the rest of the movie and I heard it was quite good, so I will try to track down a copy to watch at home.

Gary Sloan running movies after hours

We got back from dinner too late to watch The Bride of Finklestein, which was a film by my friend Michael Schlesinger. He got good reviews from the crowd and I hope someday to see a Biffle and Shooster comedy.

I love Harold Lloyd features. Because of the kind of everyman character he played and the city locations, his movies captured a slice of history that costume dramas and horror movies never did. Match that with top-notch comedy and you’ve got the makings for a wonderful movie, and the silent version of Welcome Danger is no exception. Annette D'Agostino Lloyd introduced the movie and asked the crowd who had watched the sound version. Then she asked how many liked it, and the amount of raised hands significantly decreased. She laughed and promised the silent version was vastly superior, and judging by audience reaction, she was right. The images were polished, the comedy was truly funny and the story was entertaining. This was definitely the best feature I saw at Cinefest. Now I want to give the talkie version a shot to see how it compares.

With El Brendel expert Louie Despres
My Lips Betray has El Brendel, and that was all I knew about it prior to watching it. The movie is missing a reel, and you notice which one is gone because the romance abruptly evolves from something new and innocent to something fairly well established. Lilian Harvey was an adorable little comedienne, but her singing and dancing were not up to par. John Boles was very handsome as the leading man. This movie had the look of a much later film and reminded me of Fox musicals of the late 30s and early 40s. Unfortunately, El's part was so small it is hard to say much about it.

Tess of the Storm Country was introduced by a representative who worked on the restoration and his enthusiasm and sense of humor were refreshing, though his talk went a bit longer than was probably appropriate considering how delayed the schedule already was. To make matters worse, the digital presentation was in the wrong aspect ratio, so after 5 or 10 minutes of watching, they stopped the movie and said they would show it at a later time. Fortunately, I didn't miss the re-screening, although the movie was disappointing overall. Die-hard Mary Pickford fans like me will find contrasting this with the 1922 remake entertaining, but the later version is vastly superior. This 1914 original suffers from antiquated film making including heavy use of title cards to advance the story and lots of full length shots of the actors which encouraged more stagy acting from the auxiliary cast.

The final thing I watched in the screening room was Dick Bann's Hal Roach Show part two, and it was disappointing. The first short was an overly lengthy drama about a farmer who submits an autobiographical story to a studio and wins a trip to Hollywood only to be cast in the movie because of his prowess milking cows. It would have been better if it had been edited a bit more, but as it stands it felt like a short/feature hybrid. Next came an episode of the Gale Storm show where Gale and Zasu Pitts sneak away from quarantine on a cruise ship to visit the Hal Roach studios where they get mixed up in a doppelganger case with Boris Karloff. It was entertaining enough but nothing special.

Reunion with the Kukowskis: Keaton, Sharon, Steve & David
I heard the most raves about two films I did not see: Out All Night (because I was driving in) and The Synthetic Sin (because I was busy gabbing). 

So what did I learn? Digital may be the way of the future, but sometimes the old-fashioned way is best. Since I do not have a projector of my own, hearing the whirr of real film running through the machine is something I associate with film conventions and taking that away detracts a bit from the experience.

Let me say I had a great time, as I knew I would. I met people in person who I had only known online, saw familiar faces, and made new friends. Truly it is the people who make conventions worthwhile, which was brought home recently for me with the deaths of two convention regulars. It is true that the films are what bring us together and the organizers do a great job of offering rare attractions, but just as we savor the films we should also savor the moments together because they are fleeting. 
With Adam Williams

I hope the predictions that conventions will become a thing of the past are wrong, and that Cinefest attendees will still gather together. For those who have attended Cinefest but never Cinevent, let me encourage you to check it out. They are very similar in setup and crowd, although Cinevent has more dealers and a wider range of films. I consider my Cinefest trip to be the appetizer to the meal, and what a satisfying meal it is!

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