It’s been way too long — over a year-and-a-half — since I posted anything new here at Cinedrome. I want to apologize for that. I won’t overstate the concerns and conditions that led me to suspend blogging. Nor will I exaggerate the number of posts I began and never got around to finishing. But there have been some of both.
Be that as it may, I’ve had my necessary vacation and I feel rested, refreshed, and ready to soldier on. So with that, I file the following report on the 48th Annual Cinevent Classic Film Convention in Columbus, Ohio.
This was Cinevent’s second year in its new home, Columbus’s Renaissance Downtown Hotel. The convention’s previous, longtime venue, which had changed hands and names several times over the decades, closed suddenly — and permanently — in February 2015, only three months before that year’s Cinevent. Which, with an undertaking of this scale, qualifies as “at the last minute”. The Cinevent Committee had to scramble madly to find another venue, and by the grace of a merciful Providence the Renaissance was available. Better yet, the new place proved to be a step above the old one. Did I say a step? Actually, the new place is about three flights above the old one: superior accommodations, a better screening room with more comfortable chairs, a bigger dealers’ room, everything centrally located on one floor — and the hotel itself centrally located in a much better neighborhood, one block from the Ohio State House, with plenty of good restaurants nearby.
The Renaissance is now, as I said, Cinevent’s new home — but it wasn’t available for Memorial Day Weekend this year, so the get-together was delayed a week to June 2 – 5. Next year (the contract has already been signed) they’ll be going back to Memorial Day.
Cinevent 2016, Day 1
The first day featured a screening of King Vidor’s classic slice of life The Crowd (1928), one of the greatest pictures of the silent era — and probably one of the top 40 or 50 of all time. The Crowd is readily available on video and pops up regularly on Turner Classic Movies. Much harder to find — incredibly rare, as a matter of fact — was a program of all-but-lost comedy shorts from Fox Film Corp. For me, the highlights of the first day were Melody Cruise, a 1933 comedy starring Charlie Ruggles and Phil Harris (in his movie debut, 30-plus years before voicing Baloo the Bear in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book); and The House of Rothschild (1934), from Darryl F. Zanuck’s fledgling 20th Century Pictures.
And by an astonishing coincidence, those happen to be the two pictures at this year’s Cinevent for which I supplied the program notes. And here they are:
Melody Cruise (1933) With a title like Melody Cruise and a leading man like Phil Harris, you can be forgiven if you expect this picture to be one uninterrupted songfest. Well, it’s not exactly, so you’ll be wise to dial those expectations back a bit so you can join in the fun. It’s not really a musical — a “comedy with songs” would be a better term. But director Mark Sandrich — who was finally, after six years directing shorts for various studios, beginning to graduate once and for all to features — assembles the picture with an intuitive sense of musical rhythm that would come to full bloom in his partnership with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Melody Cruise concerns a trip by sea from New York through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles undertaken by two men, both well-to-do and each with an eye for the ladies: Pete Wells (Charlie Ruggles), a married man best described as a “male flirt”; and Alan Chandler (Phil Harris), a confirmed bachelor who loves to romance the fair sex but is (in the words of one of the movie’s semi-songs) “not the marrying kind.” In order to avoid any possibility of being waylaid into matrimony, Alan dispatches a letter to Pete’s wife in California “to be opened only in the event of my marriage” and detailing all of Pete’s marital indiscretions while husband and wife were on separate coasts; this, Alan figures, will give Pete a vested interest in scotching any shipboard romances that his bachelor pal may fall into.
Ah, but the best-laid plans…No sooner does the ship leave the pier than Alan meets winsome Laurie Marlowe (Helen Mack), and this bachelor suddenly finds himself feeling much less confirmed. Throw in an old flame of Alan’s who is also aboard (Greta Nissen), and a couple of randy party girls from Pete’s bon voyage celebration who linger in his stateroom after the vessel sails (June Brewster, Shirley Chambers), and the ingredients of an old-fashioned farce of misunderstandings and mistaken identity are in place, and the voyage promises to be a busy one for all concered.
The plot of this RKO pre-Code may be tissue-thin, but the execution gives it a gloss of frivolous fun. We can detect the influence of the previous year’s Love Me Tonight (from over at Paramount) right off the bat, as passengers in a shipping office negotiate for their respective cruises in a sort of recitative of rhyming dialogue, while the underlying music suggests a melody for their words that would become a song if anyone wanted to sing (the songs are credited to Val Burton and Will Jason). It happens again later as the ship sets sail, with the activities of the crew carefully choreographed to Max Steiner’s music, and later still as the ladies aboard (look sharp and you’ll catch a glimpse of 16-year-old Betty Grable) gossip about Alan Chandler in “He’s Not the Marrying Kind”. And in the picture’s one full-fledged song, sung by Phil Harris to Helen Mack as their ship waits its turn at the moonlit Panama Canal, both the title (“Isn’t It a Night for Love?”) and the staging are redolent of “Isn’t It Romantic?” from Love Me Tonight.
Making his screen debut here (if you don’t count an uncredited background bit as a nightclub drummer in 1929’s Why Be Good? with Colleen Moore), Phil Harris is younger, sleeker and smoother than the big loveable galoot we all remember from Jack Benny’s radio program and movies like The Wild Blue Yonder (1948) and The High and the Mighty (1954). Later on in 1933, he and director Sandrich would collaborate on the short So This Is Harris!, which would go on to win an Oscar for best comedy short subject.
Melody Cruise got an indulgent recpetion from the critics. Variety’s “Rush” found it “just a well-rehearsed trifle, padded out unmercifully with incidentals, atmosphere and other embroideries”, but allowed that “photography and technical production are better than first class, becoming notable for excellence at many points” — an apparent nod to the many whimsical screen-wipes Sandrich and conematographer Bert Glennon use to transition from scene ot scene. Likewise Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times, who called it “an adroit mixture of nonsense and music which makes for an excellent Summer show…It is, however, not the singing or the clowning that makes this a smart piece of work, but the imaginative direction of Mark Sandrich, who is alert in seizing any opportunity for cinematic stunts. From the viewpoint of direction this production is quite an achievement, for there are moments when it has a foreign aspect and there is some extraordinarily clever photography.”
The House of Rothschild (1934)
At the beginning of 1933, Darryl F. Zanuck was head of production at Warner Bros., the man behind The Jazz Singer
, Little Caesar
, The Public Enemy
, 42nd Street
, and other seminal pictures of Warners’ pre-Code era. On April 15, Zanuck abruptly resigned. As might be expected — especially with Warner Bros. — it was due to a dispute over money. For once, though, it wasn’t Zanuck’s money that was being disputed. Zanuck had reluctantly agreed to be the bearer of the bad news when the brothers imposed temporary studio-wide pay cuts in the wake of FDR’s bank holiday in March ’33. When studio chief Jack Warner decided to extend the cuts beyond the agreed-upon end date, Zanuck felt that he (Warner) had broken his (Zanuck’s) word to the employees. Harsh words flew, and Zanuck took a walk.
Zanuck wasn’t idle long. Three days later he consulted Joseph Schenck, president of United Artists, for advice on some job offers he was considering. Schenck made an offer of his own: the two of them should go into business together. Schenck secured a loan from his brother Nicholas, president of Loew’s Inc., and 20th Century Pictures was born — with Schenck as president, William Goetz (son-in-law of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who also put up some money) as vice president, and Zanuck as production chief.
The new concern hit the ground running. One of Zanuck’s first moves was to sign contracts with stars George Arliss and Loretta Young, whose contracts with Warner Bros. had just recently expired. That must have been a source of grim satisfaction to Zanuck.
It certainly rankled Harry Warner, who filed a protest with Will Hays of the MPPDA complaining that the creation of 20th Century was a deliberate, unethical slap in the face to Warner Bros, financed by loans from MGM’s Nick Schenck and L.B. Mayer and poaching Warners’ empoyees — particularly Arliss and Young. Joe Schenck got wind of Harry’s letter and filed his own rebuttal: neither Arliss nor Young, he wrote, had signed with 20th Century until after their Warners contracts expired. As for where Schenck got his financing, “it is absolutely none of [Harry Warner’s] business.”
Arliss and Young’s first project for 20th Century was The House of Rothschild. Arliss played the dual role of Mayer Rothschild, patriarch of the clan in 1780, and 32 years later, Mayer’s eldest son Nathan, who with his four brothers secured the family’s fabulous wealth by backing the right side in the Napoleonic Wars. Loretta played Nathan’s daughter Julie, who visits consternation on her devoutly Jewish father by falling in love with a Gentile officer in the Duke of Wellington’s army, a young captain played by Robert Young (no relation, of course).
George Arliss was, like his contemporary Marie Dressler, one of the most unusual movie stars of the 1920s and ’30s — neither handsome nor young, but charming and witty, with a twinkling eye that nicely complemented and softened his typically English stiff upper lip. Born Augustus George Andrews in 1868, Arliss cut his teeth as an actor on British provincial stages in the days of Henry Irving and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. He made the transition from stage to screen with remarkable ease, and, thanks to his orotund elocutions, he moved just as easily from silents to talkies when sound came in. His signature stage role was as Queen Victoria’s favorite prime minister in Disraeli, which he filmed twice, as a silent in 1921 and a talkie eight years later (winning an Oscar the second time). Historical figures were a bit of a speciality — Disraeli and Alexander Hamilton before Nathan Rothschild, the Duke of Wellington and Cardinal Richelieu afterward — but, with appropriate changes in costume and hair style, they all semed to look and sound pretty much like George Arliss. That was good enough for audiences in the 1930s, and time hasn’t dimmed the old boy’s charm; it’s good enough for us today.
The House of Rothschild was directed by Alfred Werker, a reliable studio workhorse whose work was generally unobjectionable if undistinguished. According to the IMDb, some scenes were directed by the uncredited (and similarly reliable) Sidney Lanfield, though without combing the studio’s archives there’s no way of knowing which. Oddly enough — or perhaps it’s not so odd at that — both men would have their finest hours in 1939 directing Basil Rathbone’s first two outings as Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles (Lanfield) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Werker). The screen also credits, as “Associate Director”, Maude T. Howell, a member in good standing of Arliss’s informal support group on both stage and screen.
Written by Nunnally Johnson from a play by George Hembert Westley (real name George Hippisley, a humor writer and editor for the Boston Evening Transcript), House of Rothschild has the distinction of being one of the first movies (probably in fact the very first) to deal with the subject of anti-Semitism — this, mind you, just as the Nazis were coming to power in Germany. Nathan and his brothers deal with Jew-haters again and again, epitomized by Boris Karloff as the reptilian Count Ledrantz of Prussia and personified by the rioting mobs Ledrantz sets on the Jews in their ghettos all across Europe — until Napoleon’s escape from Elba puts Nathan once more in the financial driver’s seat. The picture was a powerful argument for tolerance in 1934, and it looks even more powerful today in light of what we now know was to come.
The House of Rothschild was a major hit and a succes d’estime for 20th Century, Oscar-nominated for best picture (it lost to It Happened One Night). Reviewers hailed it as one of the best pictures of George Arliss’s career, maybe even the very best — a judgment that holds up today. Variety’s “Land” called it “one of those occasional 100% smashes which Hollywood achieves.” In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall enthused, “Mr. Arliss outshines any performance he has contributed to the screen, not excepting his expert and highly revealing interpretation of Disraeli.” In The New Yorker, even the perennially sniffy John Mosher concceded, “Mr. Arliss at last condescends to appear in a film of some maturity of purpose. His ‘House of Rothschild’ compares with his ‘Disraeli’ in quality as well as in the basic theme.” However, Mosher couldn’t forbear sniffing that the final scene was “soaked in abominable Technicolor for some mysterious reason.” The print we’re screening includes that scene in true IB Tech, so the Cinevent audience can judge for themselves the justice of Mr. Mosher’s complaint.
The first night was rounded out by Tomorrow at Ten, a British picture from 1962. Robert Shaw — already a veteran of British TV (The Buccaneers) and on the cusp of stardom that would come his way with From Russia With Love (’64) and A Man for All Seasons (’66) — plays Marlowe, a cold-eyed criminal who kidnaps a wealthy man’s little boy and stashes him in an isolated, anonymous rented house with a little “golliwog” doll to keep him company. Then he brazenly walks into the boy’s home and demands 50,000 pounds sterling and free passage to Brazil. Only then will he phone the father and reveal the boy’s location.
Inevitably, the police are called in, but Marlowe is unruffled. His trump card: that golliwog doll is a time bomb, and it’s set to go off the next morning at ten a.m. How all this plays out, especially after Marlowe dies without disclosing the boy’s whereabouts, makes for a nifty little thriller, a rare (for Americans) look at a British B-picture. (This one, unlike most British Bs, got a stateside release in 1965, after Shaw had made a name for himself with U.S. audiences in From Russia With Love, playing a role very similar to Marlowe.) It was a good way to close out the first day of Cinevent.
And the weekend was only beginning.