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.

Ave Atque Vale, Fairy Princess!

It has come to my attention that Nini Theilade has taken her last bow and made her final exit. Born in 1915 to Danish parents on the Island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), she passed away on February 13, four months shy of her 103rd birthday.

Mlle. Nini’s film career wasn’t nearly as long as her life. A bit role as a dancer in The Big Bluff, a German picture of 1933, followed by another such bit in the Swedish The Song to Her in 1934. Her fourth and final credit was 40 years later, a small role on a Danish TV program in 1974.

But in 1934, some time after her appearance in The Song to Her, she danced and acted the role of “Fairie, Attending Titania” in Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. And the following year, when Reinhardt insisted that she be signed to repeat her performance in Warner Bros.’ screen version of Midsummer, he made her immortal.

It took nearly sixty years for the full measure of that immortality to be widely seen. Her role was almost entirely danced, and when the roadshow version was trimmed by 16 minutes for general release (where it didn’t earn a dime), she was left with little more than a brief scene with Mickey Rooney’s Puck (“Over hill, over dale,/Through bush, through brier…”). Even then, Rooney did most of the talking, and her voice was dubbed for all but eleven words. To add to that, the movie’s credits got her name wrong, calling her “Nina” instead of Nini.

When A Midsummer Night’s Dream was restored to its full length for DVD in 1994, the world could once again see the sublime beauty of Mlle. Theilade’s performance — her ethereal beauty and her lithe and lissom grace, poetry in motion that matches the enchanted poetry of Shakespeare’s verse — and we may thank a merciful Providence that she lived long enough to see it again herself. (The DVD, however, does offer an indignity to match her misspelled name in the credits. Scott MacQueen did a commentary track for the picture, which he clearly loathes, and he insisted throughout on pronouncing her name “Thigh-laid”. “Thay-ih-lah-deh” would be more like it.)

Nini Theilade’s film career may have been brief, but she was seldom idle. From the age of 14 she had been a ballet star in Europe, appearing with the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen and touring the Continent and the U.S. Later in the 1930s she was a prima ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo under Léonide Massine. She spent World War II in Brazil, where she married and had two children. After the war, back in Copenhagen, she enjoyed a thriving career as a choreographer and instructor, eventually establishing the Académie de Ballet Nini Theilade in Lyon, France. She “retired” to Denmark in 1990, but continued to work as a dance instructor until she was 95. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream she is with us forever, always 19 and in the prime of her youth and talent.

I saluted Nini Theilade, Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland at the end of my 2010 post on Midsummer, when they were all still with us. I added an update on the passing of Mickey Rooney, and I’ve added another one now. But as with the Mick, I wanted to acknowledge Nini Theilade’s passing here as well, rather than let readers come across the news by happenstance, perhaps years from now. Ave atque vale, Mlle. Nini: Hail and farewell.

The Return of the King

The Return of the King is at hand.

As you can see from the picture, I’m talking about King of Jazz (1930), the spectacular, groundbreaking revue from Universal Pictures that showcased bandleader Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, the Oscar-winning sets of Herman Rosse, the eye-popping imagination of director John Murray Anderson, and the screen debut of Bing Crosby.

The music-rights issues that kept King of Jazz from a home-video release after NBCUniversal’s unstinting digital restoration in 2016 have been resolved, and this greatest of all early-sound revues will be released on Tuesday, March 27 in a 4K Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection — along with what seems a generous complement of supplements. It’s available for pre-order here at Amazon. (It’s also being issued in a conventional DVD, but I say spring for the 4K; you won’t regret it.)

I shall not mince words. This is a case of buy-this-disc-or-never-dare-to-call-yourself-a-movie-lover-again. I don’t care how many thousands of Blu-rays, DVDs, laserdiscs, videotapes or film prints you may have; if you don’t get this, the first and only authentic King of Jazz, your collection will be forever incomplete.

I wrote about King of Jazz here and here; click over for details of the making, unmaking, disappearance, and rescue of the landmark in Hollywood history. I think I’m safe in saying that never before has a movie so unique and so good lost this much money ($1.2 million in 1930 dollars; multiply by about a hundred to get an idea of that amount today), dropped out of sight for so long, or surfaced (in a 1980s VHS) in more mangled form before finally emerging in a flawless and virtually-complete restoration.

My disc of King of Jazz is on its way. When I’ve had a chance to see it (that is, to see it again, after its screening in Sacramento in February 2017) and to peruse its supplements, I’ll file a report. Until then, movie buffs, get thee to Amazon before the sun sets on another day.