Cinevent 50 — Day 3 (Part 1)

Saturday morning is always cartoon time at Cinevent. This year, in deference to the presence of Leonard Maltin, animation curator Stewart McKissick selected the program based on comments in Maltin’s seminal book Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. As Maltin himself said in the program notes, there were “no maverick opinions here”, and indeed, it was a morning of tried-and-true excellence (most of this year’s roster is not available on YouTube, so you’ll have to take my word for it). The morning included (among others) Max Fleischer’s Dizzy Dishes (1930), a cartoon cabaret that included the first appearance of Betty Boop when she was a leggy, voluptuous sexpot from the neck down and a sort-of puppy dog from the neck up; Porky Pig’s Feat, a 1943 black-and-white Looney Tune directed by Frank Tashlin, with Porky and Daffy locked in their hotel room until they can pay the bill; Tortoise Wins by a Hare (also 1943), with Bugs Bunny as Aesop’s perennial loser; and Hockey Homicide (1945), one of Walt Disney’s funniest “sports Goofy” shorts. The whole array culminated with two MGM shorts from Tex Avery in his prime: King Size Canary (1947), with a bird, a cat and a mouse constantly one-upping each other by guzzling “Jumbo-Gro” plant food and morphing into monstrous versions of themselves; and Little Rural Riding Hood (’49), another of Avery’s panting, libidinous variations on the famous fairy tale — not quite as woo-hoo!! sexy as Red Hot Riding Hood (’43), maybe, but just as funny.

After the cartoons — and Chapters 7 to 9 of The Masked Marvel — the first feature of the day was The Eyes of Julia Deep (1918), one of the few surviving films of Mary Miles Minter. Over 80 percent of the 54 pictures she made between 1912 and 1923 are considered lost — which, in a way, is emblematic of the cloud this woman lived under for pretty much her whole life. I dealt with poor Mary in some detail in this post; click over to it if you want the sad particulars. For now, suffice it to say that she never really wanted to be an actress, and she appears to have had precious few happy days during her long life (she died at 82 in 1984).

Like the photo reproduced here, The Eyes of Julia Deep gives us an inkling of why, for a while, Mary Miles Minter was considered a credible heiress apparent to Mary Pickford. She plays Julia Deep, a customer service clerk in a department store whose cheerful ways make friends for her wherever she goes. Living in the same boarding house with her is young Terry Hartridge (Allan Forrest), whose reckless lifestyle is fast burning through the fortune he inherited from his wealthy father. The two are not acquainted except by sight as they pass in the hall, but while he’s out frittering away his money on gambling and gold-digging women, Julia, with the landlady’s approval, finds escape from her humdrum shopgirl’s world among the books in his huge library. One night she falls asleep over a book and is still there when Terry comes home. He’s broke, depressed and suicidal; Julia, who’s been cowering in the shadows hoping to be able to sneak out unobserved, sees the pistol in his hand and impulsively pleads with him not to go through with it. From that, a friendship develops, with Julia taking charge of Terry’s finances and helping him straighten out his life. And friendship ripens into romance — until Terry’s irresponsible past comes back to bite them both in the heart. The Eyes of Julia Deep seesaws almost recklessly between comedy and drama, but director Lloyd Ingraham finesses the changing tone rather nicely. And there’s no getting around the fact that Mary Miles Minter really had something. She was never a serious rival to Mary Pickford — and wouldn’t have been, even without the bad luck, scandal and psychological stresses that plagued her. But she definitely had something.

 

After the lunch break came a conversation in the screening room between Scott Eyman and Leonard Maltin. This picture shows (from left) moderator Caroline Breder-Watts, Scott, and Leonard. At the prompting of Ms. Breder-Watts, they spoke about what drew them to movies in the first place, and how they got into writing about them. I took scattered video of the session, and I’ll be posting separately on what they had to say. For now I’ll just say that it was a lively and diverting hour; Scott Eyman and Leonard Maltin, individually, are each excellent and stimulating company; together, they’re pretty tough to beat.

 

From there it was back to the movies, and the next one we saw would have been a highlight of the weekend for me, even if the presentation had been less spectacular than it was. The picture was George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (1953), and before I get into why it was such a particular highlight for me, let me say that the print we saw that afternoon was absolutely flawless — unblemished from first frame to last, with brilliant color that did full justice to George Barnes’s rich Technicolor photography (Barnes, an Oscar winner for 1940’s Rebecca, unfortunately did not live to see this last and best example of his art; he died in May 1953, three months before it was released).

And now my personal War of the Worlds story. It’s a story I recounted in the Cinevent 50th Anniversary commemorative book because it relates to my first visit to Cinevent in 1998.

The War of the Worlds, as it happens, is the subject of one of my earliest and most vivid memories of moviegoing. In December 1953, when I was five, my 23-year-old Uncle Conrad took me and two cousins to see the picture at the Enean Theatre in Pittsburg, Calif. I believe I sat through the first 15 minutes in relative aplomb, but when the lid popped off the top of the mysterious meteor and that weird metallic cobra head emerged, emitting a strange pulsing rattling noise, I felt the first stirrings of unease. And when Paul Birch, Jack Kruschen and Bill Phipps approached waving their sugar-sack white flag, only to be blasted to kingdom come, I became truly alarmed. Still, I held it together manfully (if I can use that word for my five-year-old self) through the first attack by the Martians, even when their sweeping heat ray hit the audience right between the eyes and thousands of soldiers, tanks and artillery were vaporized right before my eyes. To be sure, just as unease had given way to alarm, alarm now gave way to terror, but I was hanging on. Just barely.

And then I absolutely fell apart. It happened as Gene Barry and Ann Robinson were trying to dig their way out of that abandoned farmhouse with a Martian machine hovering outside. First, the sight of that alien periscope slithering down through the broken roof had me pretty close to panic. And when that Martian hand with its three suction-cupped fingers reached out and grabbed Ann Robinson by the shoulder, I lost it completely. I screamed, cried, few into hysterics, wailed at the top of my tiny lungs that I didn’t want to see it anymore. Uncle Conrad was torn, unsure how to handle this sudden outburst. Finally — and I honestly can’t say I blame him — his desire not to miss any of the movie won out, and he threw his windbreaker over my head, where I cowered for the rest of the movie. I sat there helplessly listening to Gene Garvin and Harry Lindgren’s groundbreaking sound effects, whimpering that I didn’t want to hear it either; whether Conrad and my cousins didn’t hear me, or whether they just ignored me, I never knew. Only at the end, as the Martian machines began crashing, did they coax me out from under Conrad’s jacket (“It’s okay, Jimmy, they’re dead now!”), so I did see that same Martian arm creep out on the open hatch and turn green in death.

In the short term, Conrad caught holy hell from the rest of the family for subjecting me to this shattering trauma. But I eventually recovered (to be honest, it took a couple of years), and once I got a firm grasp of the it’s-only-a-movie concept, I couldn’t wait to see it again. It became a staple of Saturday kiddie matinees in my childhood, and I probably saw it three or four more times by the time I was twelve.

Fade out, fade in. It’s 1998, 45 years have passed, and I’m attending Cinevent in Columbus for the first time. In the downstairs lobby, just outside the dealers’ room, I saw none other than Ann Robinson herself, standing at a card table piled high with two stacks of photos — one of a black-and-white glamour shot of her from her days as a Paramount contract player, the other a production still of the Martian periscope looking over her shoulder, just before she turns around and sees it. I found Conrad in the dealers’ room, brought him out, and we introduced ourselves. Conrad took a picture of Ms. Robinson and me (it’s around here somewhere, but damned if I can find it). I told her the story of seeing The War of the Worlds in 1953 — and here’s the thing: She didn’t bat an eye. That’s when it finally dawned on me that I probably wasn’t the only five-year-old boy in 1953 who sat through that movie with his uncle’s coat over his head.

 

I may have lost track of the photo Conrad took of us, but I still have the shot of Ms. Robinson with the Martian periscope; it has an honored place in my collection. The inscription, in case you can’t quite make it out, reads: “Jim, ♥♥ Is that you? Ann Robinson”.

And on that note of personal reminiscence, I’ll close this review of the first part of Day 3. There was more to come.

 

 

To be continued…

Cinevent 50 – Day 2

Day 2 of Cinevent began bright and early with what was probably the most…the most…well, just about the oddest movie of the whole weekend: Night in Paradise (1946). Produced by Walter Wanger for Universal, it was based on George S. Hellman’s novel Peacock’s Feather, and Wanger had been trying to get it produced ever since snapping up the film rights shortly after the book was published in 1931. For a while, according to Richard Barrios’s program notes, he planned to star Ann Harding and Charles Boyer, and to make it the first feature in three-strip Technicolor. For one reason or another, he lost the services of Ann Harding, which — for the time being — sank the whole project (and instead, Becky Sharp became the first full-Technicolor feature in 1935; Wanger ventured into Tech the following year when he produced The Trail of the Lonesome Pine at Paramount).

Wanger got the project rolling again during a stint at Universal (Wanger was incredibly peripatetic, working at studios all over Hollywood, plus his own Walter Wanger Productions). He got the green light after scoring a box-office bullseye with Arabian Nights (1942), an installment in the studio’s Maria Montez/Jon Hall “King and Queen of Technicolor” series of campy adventures. And so it was that Wanger’s long-cherished film of Peacock’s Feather, now titled Night in Paradise, finally saw the light of a projector lamp in 1946.

In place of Montez and Hall, Wanger cast Merle Oberon (left above) and Montez’s frequent co-star Turhan Bey (below). Casting Oberon was definitely a step up from Maria Montez. Turhan Bey was more like a step across. Born Turhan Sahultavy in Vienna to a Turkish Muslim father and a Czechoslovakian Jewish mother, he and his divorced mom fled Austria when Hitler annexed the country, and they wound up in Los Angeles in 1940, when Turhan was 18. When so many of Hollywood’s leading men marched off to World War II, Bey was one of the stay-at-homes who benefited from the manpower shortage. He was a handsome young devil and really not a bad actor, but he somehow managed to be both exotic and bland at the same time. He had the kind of foreign accent that came of speaking English too precisely, and the blandness made him unthreatening; it was a combination that stood him in good stead for the duration of the war.

The Night in Paradise lobby card above may make it look like one of those Arabian Nights fantasias that flourished on the coattails of 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, but the setting was Ancient Greece, not Arabia. It takes place at the court of the money-hungry King Croesus of Lydia (Thomas Gomez), who has jilted the sorceress Atossa (Gale Sondergaard) in order to marry wealthy Princess Delerai of Persia (Oberon). Turhan Bey plays Croesus’s counselor Aesop — yes, that Aesop, the guy with all the fables. Aesop is old, ugly, lame and hunchbacked, but one look at the newly arrived Delerai and he’s instantly smitten. So he decides to visit the princess by night. But here’s the catch: Aesop is in disguise. The ugliness and the hump on his back are a put-on, adopted by him on the theory that no king would look for wise counsel from a handsome young man. It’s the handsome young Aesop who comes to Delerai for the night in paradise that gives the movie its title. (Rumor has it that Turhan and Merle’s love scenes continued off the set, despite her being married and his being involved with Lana Turner. Well, just look at these two; can you blame either one of them?) Meanwhile, the jealous Atossa refuses to take being dumped lying down, and she uses her magic to drive the faithless Croesus even madder than he already is.

Needless to say, if you need to cram for a final exam in Ancient Greek history, you probably want to steer clear of Night in Paradise. You may want to steer clear of it anyway; as opulent and colorful as it is — with lavish sets, dazzling costumes and a supporting cast that includes Ray Collins, Ernest Truex, John Litel, Jerome Cowan and Douglass Dumbrille — the story never quite kicks into gear. At Friday’s screening I was still waiting for something to happen when “The End” appeared on the screen. The movie wasn’t exactly a waste of time — at the very least, it’s surely the best movie ever made about the love life of Aesop — but it seemed all wind-up and no pitch. I have a used copy of George Hellman’s novel on order, and the Web site I ordered it from hints at (ahem!) mature pleasures that may have been nixed by the Breen Office in 1946. (A reproduction of the book’s frontispiece shows the sorceress Atossa appearing to Aesop in full-frontal nudity.) As with Day 1’s Repeat Performance, I may have more to say about the novel and its transition to the screen at some later time. For now, moving right along…

Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937) was an installment in the prolific (51 pictures in eight years) Three Mesquiteers series at Republic Pictures. The trio of genial cowpokes (Robert Livingston, Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Max Terhune) take time off from their duties at the ranch to accompany an archaeological expedition to a lost Indian city and help the young woman leading it (Betty Marsh) learn the fate of her father, who disappeared leading a similar expedition to the same destination. In the process, they investigate a series of murders picking off members of the party one by one. The movie was enjoyable, but it was shot in eight days and it looks it; Republic (only two years old at the time) hadn’t yet found its footing as the most polished of the Poverty Row studios; there’s quite a difference between this specimen of the studio’s output and the Masked Marvel serial only five years later.

A more satisfying western was the 1920 William S. Hart silent The Toll Gate. Hart plays Black Deering, a semi-reformed outlaw on the run who takes refuge with an abandoned frontier wife (Anna Q. Nilsson) and her toddler son (“Master” Richard Headrick). He bonds with them so quickly that when a posse shows up on his trail (fortuitously not knowing what he looks like), she doesn’t hesitate to claim he’s her husband. Actually, it turns out that the husband who ran out on her is none other than the former member of Deering’s gang who ratted him out to the law. Director Lambert Hillyer’s scenario thus establishes the perfect set-up for a double dose of revenge before Deering settles down and makes his reformation complete, Nilsson’s Mary Brown having made an honest man of him. The picture had Hart’s trademark dusty realism, and his interplay with Nilsson and young Headrick had the unpretentious ring of truth. This Headrick kid especially, only three at the time, was a real charmer. He had a busy few years in Hollywood, but his screen career was over by the time he was nine. Still, he lived into the 21st century, dying at 84 in November 2001. “Nobody ever talked to him?” Scott Eyman wondered. Evidently not, and that’s a pity.

Richard Barrios did introductory honors again for The Phantom President (1932), one of the most historic musicals Hollywood ever turned out. It’s historic not because it’s one of the great film musicals (it’s pretty good but not great), but because it gives us a permanent record of George M. Cohan, the legendary force of showbiz nature who virtually single-handedly invented the American musical comedy. Personally, he was an arrogant megalomaniac who made Al Jolson look timorous; he made life hell for everybody on the set, especially those whose jobs he thought he could do better — director Norman Taurog, composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist Lorenz Hart — and he bad-mouthed the picture far and wide after it went into release. It was churlish of him; he never realized the inestimable service The Phantom President did to his legend, giving future generations something to go on besides yellowing press clippings and the dwindling memories of those who saw his performances in person.

Cohan plays Theodore K. Blair, prominent banker and front-runner of an unnamed political party for the presidential nomination. Problem is, he’s also a boring old poot who will lose votes every time he opens his mouth. Fortunately for the party, his handlers stumble across the lookalike Peter Varney (Cohan again), a medicine-show song-and-dance man with all the charm and pizzazz Blair lacks, and Varney is recruited to take the banker’s place on the campaign trail. Complications arise when he also takes Blair’s place at the side of one Felicia Hammond (Claudette Colbert), whom Blair harbors vain hopes of making his wife. She has already rejected him in no uncertain terms, but she takes a shine to Varney — thinking, of course, that he’s the same man.

Cohan’s glory days were well behind him by 1932, but he was still the genuine article. He was 54 but could pass for ten years younger, and his dual performance is nicely modulated (aided by some surprisingly sophisticated visual effects). Also, seeing him in action makes a striking counterpoint to James Cagney’s depiction of him ten years later in Yankee Doodle Dandy (which Cohan lived just long enough to see); we can see how one great performer was able to embody another without completely subsuming his own unique personality. Without The Phantom President, we’d still know that Cagney is brilliant in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but we might not know just how brilliant.

Phantom President does have its drawbacks, mostly thanks to Jimmy Durante as Varney’s sidekick. In those days the Great Schnozzola hadn’t yet mellowed into the loveable ham he would become; a little of him went a long way, and there’s a lot of him in The Phantom President (Cohan griped about that too). But the picture’s biting critique of politics as showbiz still has teeth in it (if anything, now more than ever). And Claudette Colbert looks like a million bucks.

The rest of Day 2 we can cover in a few paragraphs. C.B. DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) presented Gloria Swanson at her sleek-and-smartest as a neglected wife tempted away from her lumpen husband (Elliott Dexter) by a smooth-talking roué (Lew Cody), only to learn that the grass isn’t always greener.

Next, a real oddity: Double Whoopee (1929), one of Laurel and Hardy’s last silent shorts — but not silent. Let me explain. In the late 1960s Hal Roach experimented with a way to market his library of silent comedies. He commissioned this pilot from producer Al Kilgore, who removed the short’s intertitles and added a soundtrack with music, sound effects and voices — and hey presto!, a late silent became an early talkie. (Chuck McCann, who passed away just two months ago, voiced both Stan and Ollie, sounding absolutely authentic. Whoever did Jean Harlow as “Swanky Blonde”, however, didn’t even come close.) The result was actually quite good, but in the long run nothing came of the idea, and the reconstituted Double Whoopee became a one-off.

Finally there was Value for Money, a rather sour British comedy from 1955, about a tight-fisted Yorkshireman (John Gregson) who gets involved with a gold-digging London showgirl (Diana Dors), to the wounded dismay of local newspaper reporter Susan Stephen, who (unaccountably) loves him. The picture had excellent Technicolor photography by Geoffrey Unsworth (and Cinevent’s print did it full justice), and Diana Dors showed herself to be not just a luscious eyeful but a comic actress of wit  and charm. Still, the movie was a sour misfire, mainly because of John Gregson’s character — a clueless, mean-spirited boor who in the end gets much better than is coming to him. Somebody like Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers might have managed to make this unpleasant pill eccentrically endearing, but the worthy Gregson wasn’t that kind of actor. Value for Money has its moments of visual and verbal wit, but it’s weighed down by a flinty, unsympathetic center.

Thus ended Friday of Cinevent 50. The weekend had gotten off to a nice start, but Saturday would take things to a whole new level, an almost uninterrupted parade of highlights. I may have to cover the day in more than one post. We’ll see.

To be continued…

Cinevent 50 – Day 1

The opening day of Cinevent 50 got underway with the first three chapters of Republic Pictures’ 1943 serial The Masked Marvel, all about efforts to break up a ring of saboteurs led by the Japanese master spy Sakima, played by Johnny Arthur. Arthur is more familiar to audiences, then and now, as Darla Hood’s longsuffering father in Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies. Seeing the man who could barely cope with Spanky and Alfalfa turning up as the scourge of America’s war effort was a major credulity stretch, to say the least.

But The Masked Marvel hardly gave us time to pause over that. This was the kind of opus for which the phrase “action-packed” was coined. Every 20-minute episode abounded in fistfights, gunfights, explosions and car crashes, the latter two courtesy of special-effects wizard Howard Lydecker and his older brother Theodore (what those two boys could accomplish on a budget of approximately nothing was amazing; I really must do a post on them someday).

To heighten the mystery, viewers were invited to figure out just who was the Masked Marvel himself. We were told in the first chapter that he was one of four candidates, but frankly, the suspense was undercut by the fact that they were almost impossible to tell apart, with or without masks. They were played by Rod Bacon, Richard Clarke, David Bacon (no relation to Rod) and Bill Healy — and four blander, less charismatic actors would be hard to imagine. 

There’s a grim footnote to all this. By the time the first chapter hit theaters in November 1943, one of the potential Marvels was already dead in real life. On September 12 of that year, David Bacon crashed his car into a beanfield on the then-outskirts of Los Angeles. As a bystander approached, Bacon staggered out of the car and collapsed, hemorrhaging from a knife wound in his back that had pierced his left lung and a lower chamber of his heart. He pleaded weakly for help, then died before he could say who had stabbed him or why. He was 29. The killing was never solved, but while the investigation was ongoing the L.A. papers dubbed it “the Masked Marvel murder”. Whether the moniker was the inspiration of some colorful reporter or a Republic Pictures publicist is probably an unworthy question, so let’s not entertain it, okay?

In his notes for Repeat Performance (1947) in  the Cinevent program, and again in introducting the screening, Richard Barrios described the picture as having the kind of premise that tends to lodge in the memory when the picture itself — even the title — is completely forgotten. I can vouch for that, except for the part about forgetting the title. I saw Repeat Performance during its second life on television, maybe 40 years ago, and it certainly stayed with me. Joan Leslie plays a Broadway star who begins 1947 by shooting her husband dead at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. In an understandable state of shock, she confesses to a poet friend (Richard Basehart in his screen debut), then ruefully wishes she could live the past year over again. Meanwhile, her poet friend — one of those wafty, ethereal types — wishes he’d been the one to have shot her philandering husband (“I would have, you know…”). A moment later she turns around to find the poet is suddenly gone, her clothes are different, and against all reason, it’s New Year’s Eve 1945. The husband she shot (Louis Hayward) is alive and well — though in short order he’ll show himself as a mean, abusive, adulterous drunk who richly deserves killing. Anyhow, the wronged wife’s wish to relive the year has been granted; but will it make any difference?  

Repeat Performance was based on a novel by William O’Farrell, with some major changes in Walter Bullock’s script. I’ve sent for a used copy of the book, just to see for myself. In any case, what made it to the screen under Alfred Werker’s efficient direction is a nifty little melodrama; in a way it’s another example of that odd sub-genre I once dubbed “supernatural noir“, and if it’s not quite as memorable as Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) or Alias Nick Beal (’49), it’s still pretty good in its own right. Richard Barrios described it, tongue in cheek, as “a film noir version of It’s a Wonderful Life“; a film noir version of Groundhog Day might be a better way to put it. I may have more to say about it after I’ve read O’Farrell’s novel; for now, let’s move on.

Just before the dinner break we saw Sweater Girl (1942), an enjoyable little Paramount “B” musical that just happened to feature one of the greatest song hits of the 1940s: “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” by Jule Styne and Frank Loesser. The story goes that Loesser and Styne were working on a musical at Poverty Row’s Monogram Pictures when Styne played the melody for his lyricist partner. “Forget about that,” Loesser said. “We won’t waste it here. We’ll take that one to Paramount.” It’s a terrific story and I hate to rain on it, but there’s no record of either Styne or Loesser ever working at Monogram. They did contribute some stock music to the Judy Canova hillbilly comedy Joan of Ozark at Republic. Maybe it was that. (In fact, they both worked at Republic quite a bit from 1940 to ’42, though apparently not together.) Anyhow, whenever Styne may have come up with the melody, they did wait till they were at Paramount to turn it into a song, and by the time Sweater Girl was released in July ’42 the number was a smash hit, recorded by Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Vaughn Monroe, and Phil Harris’s Orchestra (vocal by Helen Forrest), among others. It was on every singer’s lips and every drugstore jukebox; Irving Berlin said it was the one song he most wished he’d written. (Remarkably, “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” was not nominated for an Academy Award, even though there were ten nominees that year, including such utterly forgotten things as “Pig Foot Pete”, “Pennies for Peppino” and “There’s a Breeze on Lake Louise”. Well, it hardly matters. Nineteen-forty-two was the year of “White Christmas”; they could have nominated another hundred songs and none of them would have stood a chance.)

Aside from showcasing “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” — which it does very adroitly, the boys at Paramount knowing gold when they hear it — Sweater Girl was an amusing hybrid of murder mystery and hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show college musical, a remake of 1935’s College Scandal. It elevated Eddie Bracken from comic support to leading man (albeit in a B picture), preparing him for his apotheosis under Preston Sturges. Between Styne and Loesser’s sprightly songs, Bracken shared detective duties with perky June Preisser, who was winding down from her own apotheosis as the girl who almost wins Mickey Rooney away from Judy Garland in Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike Up the Band (1940). Vocal assignments on the movie’s biggest hit went to nightclub singer Johnny Johnston as the song’s ostensible composer (who gets strangled mid-chorus while demo-ing the song over shortwave radio) and Betty Jane Rhodes as the campus queen. (Rhodes and Johnston would later be teamed in a number of Paramount’s wartime morale-builders, where they were quite popular for a time on the home front.)

These were the highlights of the first day for me — in the screening room, that is. Outside the screening room, there was the Golden Celebration Reception on Thursday evening around the Renaissance Hotel’s pool. The inset on the left shows one of the three cakes for the occasion. In the right inset, my friend Phil Capasso is shown introducing special guest Leonard Maltin. Phil earned this privilege by virtue of being the only person to have attended all fifty Cinevents since the first one way back in 1969. (Phil got the first slice of cake, too.)

After that it was back to the screening room, where Scott Eyman spoke in conjunction with his latest book Hank and Jim: The Fifity-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, then introduced Fonda and Stewart’s episode from On Our Merry Way (1948), an omnibus film produced by and starring Burgess Meredith, their erstwhile roommate from their starving-actor days in New York. The two were teamed as down-at-heels musicians trying to put on a music competition in a podunk town to get their band’s bus out of hock. Directed without credit by George Stevens, the episode is generally recognized as the best part of that rather lackluster feature. Then came Four Around a Woman (1921), an early silent melodrama from German director Fritz Lang; the print shown had German intertitles which were (fortunately!) translated aloud by Glory-June Greiff. Finally, it was the British police procedural The Third Key (UK title The Long Arm; 1956), with Jack Hawkins as a Scotland Yard inspector on the trail of a serial safecracker. And with that tidy little suspenser, we all called it a day.

To be continued…

Cinevent 50 – Prelude

For some years now the Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State campus has offered a film program in conjunction with Cinevent on the Wednesday evening before the convention begins. Usually, my flight has landed me in Columbus too late to attend, but this year was different. I caught a redeye (yes, there is a redeye from Sacramento to Columbus) that got me to town bright and early, so I was able to catch the Wexner Center’s program of two pictures from the First Wave of 3D in the 1950s. Just for fun, I’ve reproduced here a lobby card for the black-and-white The Maze (1953) in color, and an ad for Gog (1954), which was in color, in black and white.

Well, these two movies were certainly something to have seen. The Wexner Center presented both pictures in their recent 4K Blu-ray incarnations, and credit is due to the 3D Film Archive (on The Maze) and archivist Bob Furmanek (Gog) for restoring these near-lost pictures to what audiences saw in the 1950s. That said, the fact remains that it wasn’t just technical and quality-control issues that killed 3D the first time around; much of the problem was that there were too few pictures like House of Wax and Kiss Me, Kate and too many like The Maze and Gog.

First, The Maze. It was directed by that greatest of all cinema production designers, William Cameron Menzies (his swan song as a director), and starred Richard Carlson as the heir to a Scottish castle suddenly and mysteriously called home as he is about to be married. Not to be put off, his fiancée (Veronica Hurst) follows him, only to find him suddenly aged and coldly unwelcoming. She senses that it has something to do with the sinister topiary maze outside the castle, and the fact that her bedroom is locked from the outside every night, and she’s right.

Dan Ullman’s script was based on a 1949 novel by the Swiss fantasist Maurice Sandoz (1892-1958). Sandoz’s German-language Wikipedia page says, “Characteristic of his narrative technique is that the ‘natural’ explanation, which makes the seemingly supernatural rationally comprehensible at the end of a story, is ultimately even more unbelievable than the idea of ghostly powers,” and so it is with The Maze. The picture’s 1953 ads implored, “Please do not reveal the amazing climax to your friends!”, and I’ll honor that request. Suffice it to say that at this amazing climax the Wexner Center rocked with gales of delighted laughter, and all I could think was, “Hello, ma baby/Hello, ma honey/Hello, ma ragtime gal…” (If you’ve seen The Maze, you’ll understand.) It fell to Richard Carlson to make this gobsmacking development “rationally comprehensible” in a post-climactic monologue, which he did with straight-faced aplomb, and to his eternal credit. There ought to be some special Oscar category for that kind of acting.

Gog (which was released in 1954, after the 3D craze had crashed and burned, and played in 3D in only five theaters before going more or less straight to TV) also concerned itself with mysterious goings-on, this time at a remote New Mexico underground installation building the components for an orbital space station. And this time in color. The picture was well-made in its shoestring way, directed by Herbert L. Strock and gamely acted by Richard Egan, Constance Dowling and Herbert Marshall. The problem was producer Ivan Tors’s utter lack of story skills. The same shortcoming plagued his syndicated half-hour series Science Fiction Theatre (1955-57). Some of the greatest s-f short stories of all time were being published during the 1950s in magazines like Analog, Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, just aching to be adapted into 30-minute TV episodes. But Tors, no doubt to save money, insisted on concocting stories of his own, and he was just no damn good at it. He’d then hand a story off to writers (here it was Tom Taggert and Richard G. Taylor) to dress it up with some pseudo-scientific doubletalk. The result was invariably half-baked science and undercooked fiction. Science Fiction Theatre was an idea whose time had come, but it would take The Twilight Zone four years later to deliver the goods. Ivan Tors muffed it, and Gog was a big-screen, 3D dress rehearsal for that blown opportunity.

All in all, despite the less-than-brilliant features on display, the evening at the Wexner Center was in the spirit of Cinevent, presenting Classic Era films as they were meant to be seen. Both The Maze and Gog are available on YouTube, but they are hardly the same experience — not in 3D, of course, and that’s just for starters. As we filed back to the bus to return to the hotel, not one of us doubted that we’d gotten our time-and-money’s worth.

And the fun hadn’t even started yet.

To be continued…

 

Cinevent Turns 50

UPDATE 5/6/18: There are still tickets available for Cinevent50’s Golden Celebration Reception on Thursday, May 24, and for the double bill of 3-D classics Gog and The Maze at the Wexner Center at Ohio State — plus, of course, you can register for Cinevent itself any time. Click here to sign up for your Cinevent package (including any souvenirs you might desire: tees, totes, etc.). Oh, and another thing — although the May 1 deadline has passed for the room block at the Renaissance Downtown, the special Cinevent rate of $129/night (plus taxes and fees) can still be had at the nearby Crowne Plaza Hotel. This rate will be available only until Friday, May 11. You can book your room by calling (877) 283-1700; be sure to request the Cinevent Block (or, if you register online, use Block Code CIN). Hurry, you don’t want to miss the fun!

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Cinedrome readers will remember, I’m sure, that I’m an enthusiastic booster of Cinevent, the Classic Film Convention held every Memorial Day Weekend in Columbus, Ohio. Every year for some time now I’ve reviewed the weekend after the fact, and I will again, but I’m writing about it beforehand because this year Cinevent is celebrating its 50th Anniversary, and I think it’s going to be an occasion not to be missed. Every year I urge readers to check out this friendly, intimate gathering of classic movie lovers. If you’ve been thinking, “Well, maybe one of these years…”, this would be a good time to start.

The convention’s special 2018 guest will be Leonard Maltin, who surely needs no introduction. Mr. Maltin will be there to launch his new book Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom. He’ll also be at the “Golden Celebration Reception” on Thursday evening, May 24 (available for an extra fee to attendees), and will introduce the Saturday afternoon screening of the Jack Benny comedy The Meanest Man in the World (1943).

Leonard Maltin won’t be the only distinguished author in attendance this year. Scott Eyman has long been a Cinevent regular, and he returns this year; his The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930 is the indispensable book on the transition to sound, and his biographies of John Wayne, Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer and John Ford (to name just a few) are the next best thing to having known them personally. Scott’s latest book is Hank & Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, and I plan to ask him to sign a copy for me. (There’s also a tantalizing event on Saturday afternoon’s agenda: “Maltin & Eyman conversation moderated by Caroline Breder-Watts.” I can’t wait to eavesdrop on that little chat.)

Richard Barrios attended his first Cinevent in 2017 and he’ll be back this year, hopefully to become, like Scott Eyman, a regular himself. His books include A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film and Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter, and he’ll introduce the Friday evening screening of George M. Cohan in The Phantom President (1932).  ‘Nuff said.

The film program this year looks awfully tempting too. For starters, I’m pleased to see that my wish last year to see George Pal’s 1953 production of The War of the Worlds has been granted. Not because I wished it, mind you, but because this picture was a particular favorite of the late John A. Stingley (1947-2007), one of Cinevent’s founders. All three founders — the other two being John H. Baker (1909-98) and Steven E. Haynes (1947-2015) — will be saluted this Golden Anniversary year with screenings that would have been to their own especial liking. Steve Haynes’s tribute will be a showing of the 1920 William S. Hart western The Toll Gate. For John Baker, whose greatest enthusiasm was for jazz films, the tribute will be a program of jazz shorts hosted by Columbus radio/TV personality Frederick C. Peerenboom, aka Fritz the Nite Owl.

 

 

Sunday morning will bring Kitty (1945) with Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland. Cinedrome readers will recognize this as one of my own particular favorites — Paulette Goddard’s finest hour, and an elegant piece of cinematic sleight of hand, turning the unfilmable-in-1945 story of a 14-year-old nymphomaniac Cockney hooker into an uncredited adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. (See my 2013 post on Kitty for the juicy details.)

 

 

Late Saturday night it’s Three Little Girls in Blue, 20th Century Fox’s third retread of Three Blind Mice, the tale of a trio of impoverished sisters who pose as a wealthy heiress and her servants, in hopes of landing rich husbands. This one stars June Haver, Vivian Blaine and Vera-Ellen as the golddigging sibs, and it’s probably the best Fox musical that didn’t involve Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Shirley Temple or Rodgers & Hammerstein. (Sorry, you fans of Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Not even in the same league.) Three Little Girls was also the source of two deathless standards that almost everybody knows but almost nobody knows where they came from: “On the Boardwalk (in Atlantic City)” and “You Make Me Feel So Young”.

These are just three highlights for me. There will be, as always, something for every Golden Age movie buff. Besides the titles already mentioned:

♦  Dreamboat (1952), with Clifton Webb as a stuffy college professor trying to live down his days as a silent-screen heartthrob, and Ginger Rogers as the former co-star who won’t let him;

♦  a midnight showing of the 1935 cult curiosity Murder By Television with Bela Lugosi;

♦  C.B. DeMille’s 1919 boudoir comedy Don’t Change Your Husband with Gloria Swanson, Elliott Dexter and Lew Cody;

♦  the supernatural B-western murder mystery Riders of the Whistling Skull;

♦  the Republic serial The Masked Marvel, about the pursuit of Japanese saboteurs in the darkest days of World War II, all 12 chapters strewn here and there throughout the weekend.

And more — including a Wednesday evening-before-the-convention screening at the Wexner Center on the Ohio State campus of the 1953 3-D thrillers The Maze and Gog (like the Thursday evening Golden Celebration Reception, available at an extra charge).

If you’re not already registered for this year’s Cinevent, you’ve missed out on the Early Bird discount — but it’s not too late. Click here to register — and don’t let any grass grow under your feet. The Golden Celebration Reception, 3-D double feature, and special Cinevent room rate at the Renaissance Downtown Columbus Hotel will only be available through Monday, April 30.  I said it before and I’ll say it again: If you’ve read any of my annual posts on Cinevent and thought it might be something you’d like to try sometime, now is the time to take the plunge.

I hope to see you there. Don’t forget to say hi.