Picture Show 2022 — Prelude
I’m back from Columbus, where Memorial Day Weekend was always Cinevent Weekend until 2019, when Cinevent Chair Michael Haynes announced that Cinevent 52 in 2020 would be the last — but that the tradition of a Memorial Day classic movie convention in Ohio’s capital would continue under a new name (to be determined) and new management (albeit with many familiar faces performing the same volunteer services as before).
Then, like so much else intended for 2020, Cinevent 52 didn’t happen — until Halloween Weekend 2021, 17 months late. By then, the TBD name for Cinevent’s successor had been chosen, The Columbus Moving Picture Show, and this above is their new logo. You’ll find it here on their Web site, and if you’re on Facebook (who isn’t?), on their FB page as well. You can also follow them on Twitter and Instagram if you’re of a mind.
Last October brought the final installment of Cinevent, presented in conjunction with the fledgling Columbus Moving Picture Show. Cinevent’s Michael Haynes passed the torch to Samantha Glasser (right), who stepped up from Dealers Coordinator to Chair, overseeing the activities of a cadre of dedicated Cinevent volunteers, who elected (unanimously, as far as I could tell) to continue under the new banner.
So for Memorial Day Weekend 2022, and moving forward, it’s The Columbus Moving Picture Show from now on. (Michael Haynes was there, however, as a dealer, seeking new homes for the extensive — nay, mind-boggling — collections of books, films and videos of his late father Steven, one of Cinevent’s original founders. I suspect Michael will be back next year too; he still has plenty of things to offer for sale.)
One thing more before I embark on my coverage of The Columbus Moving Picture Show 1; that is, to find a useful shorthand term to refer to the four-day event, whose full name, for all its stateliness and retro-nostalgic charm, can be a little cumbersome if used too frequently. In covering Cinevent 52 last October, I often referred to “CMPS”, but I found that to be a bit unsatisfactory; to me it sounded like the acronym of a non-governmental organization, or some disease requiring a rolling oxygen tank. Instead, in present and future posts, once the full name is established, I’ll just shorten it to “The Picture Show”; please take it as given that the location is Columbus and the Pictures are Moving.
Picture Show Eve at the Wexner
This year marked the return of a night-before tradition at Cinevent/The Picture Show: A double-feature screening at the Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State University campus, in conjunction with the weekend’s events downtown. The theme for this year’s Wednesday evening was “Pre-Code at 20th Century Fox”.
Ahem. Did you catch the glaring blooper in that theme? That’s right: There’s no such thing as Pre-Code 20th Century Fox; 20th Century Fox didn’t exist during the Pre-Code Era, which ended a year before Darryl Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures merged with (read “gobbled up”) the moribund Fox Film Corporation. The theme should properly have been “Pre-Code at Fox”, and the folks at the Wexner Center should have known as much. (Then again, maybe they did. Maybe they were afraid they’d incur the wrath of angry leftists unable to grasp that the Fox Film Corp. — which ceased to exist in 1935 — has nothing to do with the Fox News Channel — which didn’t exist until 1996. That seems to be the motivation for the Disney Corporation, once they in turn gobbled up 20th Century Fox, changing the studio’s name back to 20th Century Pictures — which was a pity, because it banished the name of William Fox from the movie industry he did so much to create.)
Well, whether the Wexner Center admitted it or not, Pre-Code at Fox is what we got, starting with Me and My Gal (1932, not to be confused with For Me and My Gal, the Judy Garland/Gene Kelly MGM musical of ten years later). This one was an urban melo-dramedy directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett. The story wasn’t much. Tracy played Danny Dolan, a happy-go-lucky waterfront cop who takes a shine to Helen (Bennett), a waitress in a greasy spoon on his beat. Meanwhile, her sister Kate (Marion Burns), though married to an adoring nice-guy dork, can’t resist her gangster ex-boyfriend Duke (George Walsh), who has her wrapped around (phallic symbol alert!) his little finger. While hubby is away in the merchant marine, Duke breaks out of prison and Kate hides him in the attic of the apartment she shares with her father-in-law, who is mute and wheelchair-bound from a stroke.
Got that? Now you can forget it, because it’s all beside the point. Marion Burns was a bland presence whose career would be pretty much over in another three years, and no wonder; she can’t even carry a subplot. On the other hand, it is nice to see George Walsh (Raoul’s younger brother) in a substantial role; his career never recovered from getting canned from the silent Ben-Hur in 1924 before even walking onto the chaotic set (see here for details about George’s short-circuited career). Still, the real fun of Me and My Gal is the wise-crackling courtship between Tracy’s Danny and Bennett’s Helen. In a couple of decades, they would be the middle-aged, staid, almost stodgy Bankses in Father of the Bride (1950) and Father’s Little Dividend (1951), but what a difference 18 years makes: Here they are sassy, sexy, and full of piss and vinegar, sparring jauntily with slangy dialogue at a lively pace set by director Walsh. The image on the poster here is, for once, taken directly from the movie, as the two of them snuggle cozily on her living-room sofa. Danny tells Helen about a movie he saw last night, “Strange Inner Tube or something like that” — and suddenly the scene segues into a witty parody of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, the movie of which was just then in theaters. The scene is not only an amusing send-up, but also a clever moment of character exposition:
Helen: “I saw that. That’s the one where the actors say one thing, and then a minute later say out loud what they really think.”
Danny: “Yeah. Y’know, you remind me an awful lot of the leadin’ lady — good lookin’ and a swell figure.” (Voice-over: “That oughta hold you for a while, baby.”)
Helen: “Say, come to think of it, you remind me of the leading man — so big and strong.” (“Probably won’t be able to get into that derby now.”)
Danny: “Gee, what a squawk your old man’d put up if he come in and found us like this, huh?” (“If he does it’s every man for himself.”)
Helen: “Well, wouldn’t be anything to squawk about.” (“Not much! If he walked in here and saw me like this they’d have to put you under ether to extract his foot, that’s all.”)
. . .
Danny: “Y’know, I feel as though I’ve known you a long, long time.” (“I think I better slip this dame a little kiss before the old man gets here.”)
Helen: (“Oh! He kissed me. I’m so thrilled. But I’ll pretend I’m mad.”) “How dare you!”
That’s just a sample of the banter. The picture has other things going for it besides two stars in the peppery bloom of youth: reliable old J. Farrell MacDonald as Helen and Kate’s father; Henry B. Walthall, D.W. Griffith’s first leading man, as Kate’s disabled father-in-law, still conveying profound emotion without uttering a sound; Raoul Walsh’s feel for the unpretentiousness of working-class life. (On the other hand, there’s Bert Hanlon as a drunken fisherman hanging out in Helen’s diner, quickly wearing out his welcome with her — and even more quickly with us.)
Then — getting back to the movie’s assets — there’s this fellow here. He plays Al, Danny Dolan’s partner/sidekick, a good fellow but a little slow on the uptake, very much in Danny’s shadow. I spent the whole picture trying to figure out where I’d seen this guy before. Then, during the intermission before the next movie, it hit me. It wasn’t where I’d seen him before, but who he reminded me of: John Candy. He had the same look, the same voice, the same physical and vocal mannerisms. It was remarkable, even a little eerie.
Then again, delving further, I found out that I had seen him before, in a lot of famous movies, usually in small roles, often uncredited: ‘G’ Men (1935); The Petrified Forest (’36); Angels with Dirty Faces (’38); Union Pacific and Rose of Washington Square (both ’39); The Grapes of Wrath, Castle on the Hudson and Christmas in July (all ’40).
His name was Adrian Morris, scion of a distinguished showbiz family; his father was the William Morris (of the William Morris Agency), his older brother was the actor Chester Morris. In his 10-year career, he racked up 79 screen appearances — 15 in 1939 and 14 in 1940 alone. Here he is (at right, below) in one of his most instantly memorable bits, in Gone With the Wind as the sidewalk carpetbagger in postwar Atlanta, promising Freedmen 40 acres and a mule (“…because we’re your friends. And you’re gonna be voters. And you’re gonna vote the way your friends vote…”). He’s on screen for only 13 seconds of a four-hour movie, but everybody remembers him.
Still ahead for Adrian Morris were Penny Serenade, Blood and Sand, The Big Store and Belle Starr (all ’41). He might have continued in that vein for decades and hundreds more titles, but a cerebral hemorrhage carried him off in November 1941 at the obscenely young age of 34.
If you care to check out Me and My Gal — and I recommend it — it’s available to rent or buy on Amazon. Or you can watch it for free on YouTube (click on Settings to turn off the intrusive Portuguese subtitles). As The New Yorker’s blogger Richard Brody says, the point of Me and My Gal isn’t the drama; the point is the spice.
The evening’s other feature, alas, isn’t so readily available. This was The Warrior’s Husband (1933), a title that sounded more of an oxymoron at the time than it does now. It’s too bad it’s not easy to get to see, because it is hands-down one of the great what-the-hell-is-this??? movies of the 1930s. The Wexner Center presented it in a sparkling brand-new 4K digital transfer, so there may be hope for a DVD or streaming option sometime in the future. If it does happen, you really want to take a gander at this thing.
The Warrior’s Husband began as a 1924 play by pharmaceutical executive and amateur playwright Julian F. Thompson. It opened and closed on May 6, 1924; even in those days of shorter Broadway runs, one performance counted as an unmistakable flop. A 1932 revival fared better, running a more respectable two months. This production showcased a newcomer named Katharine Hepburn as Antiope, sister to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. The attention earned her a trip to Hollywood for her screen debut in A Bill of Divorcement with John Barrymore.
Later that year, when Fox purchased the movie rights to the play, Hepburn was otherwise engaged, so her role went to Fox’s new contract discovery Elissa Landi. And no kidding, in the finished film Landi looks like nothing so much as — wait for it — Katharine Hepburn. This was understandable, since Hepburn was the current Big Thing, and Fox had plans to make Landi the next Big Thing. She had already made an impression on loan to Paramount and Cecil B. DeMille for The Sign of the Cross. Her timorous Christian damsel in that Roman spectacle pales beside her swaggering pagan Antiope; if The Warrior’s Husband were as widely available as The Sign of the Cross, this might be the picture she’s best remembered for today. Here are dueling Antiopes, Landi’s from the movie beside Hepburn’s from the stage; it’s not easy to tell them apart.
The conceit of Thompson’s play, and the screenplay that Sonya Levien, Ralph Spence and director Walter Lang made of it, was that in the land of the Amazons, women are the warriors and breadwinners while a man’s place is in the home, barefoot and — well, not pregnant, obviously, but confined to knitting, cooking, and running the house. Queen Hippolyta (Marjorie Rambeau) rules in her capital city of Pontus by virtue of the power vested in the Sacred Girdle of Diana. There’s a subversive legend about a mythical race called “Greeks” where the gender roles are shockingly reversed, men in charge and women subservient, but this is widely dismissed as an old husbands’ tale to frighten girls. Then two actual Greeks show up at Hippolyta’s court, the handsome soldier Theseus (David Manners) and the poet Homer (Lionel Belmore), followed by Hercules (Stanley “Tiny” Sanford). Despite his terror of the mighty Amazons, Hercules is determined to fulfill the ninth of his twelve labors — to steal the Girdle of Diana from Hippolyta. (Quasi-historical note: In the ancient myth, Hercules kills Hippolyta to get it, but that detail is happily fudged here.) This not only removes the Amazons’ invincibility in battle, it makes them vulnerable to the masculine charms of the handsome Greek soldiers under Theseus’s command — and especially Antiope vis-à-vis Theseus himself.
It also gives Hippolyta’s spouse Sapiens (Ernest Truex) ideas above his station. Sapiens (or “Sap”) shares with Theseus the “warrior’s husband” designation of the title, and his newfound assertiveness makes him an ancient advocate of men’s liberation (I guess you’d call him an early “masculist”).
If you wanted to find an actor to make Marjorie Rambeau, Elissa Landi, and every other woman on the Fox lot look macho, you could hardly do better than Ernest Truex; his spit-curl hair and ringleted beard complete The Warrior’s Husband‘s plunge into deep “woo-woo” territory.
The picture has some pretty spectacular production values — massive sets, elaborate clashes of Amazons and Greeks that are half battle, half orgy, and a convincing simulation of a cast of thousands. This, mind you, at a time when Fox was reeling from years of financial losses and ripe for takeover (even as The Warrior’s Husband was hitting screens, there were rumors that Warner Bros. was about to buy the studio up; in time, of course, it would be 20th Century that did the deed). At the same time, there’s a subversive, transgressive approach to gender roles that’s pretty startling for a movie from the depths of the Great Depression. True, in the end the Amazons all yield to the invading Greek men and Theseus carries Antiope off to marriage with her enthusiastic consent, so things resolve themselves in a manner quite comfortable to mainstream audiences of 1933. But for much of its 75 minutes, The Warrior’s Husband pokes wicked fun at those gender-role conventions, as if to say, “How would you like it if…”
As the lights came up in the Wexner Center, a gentleman sitting near me turned to David Drazin (one of The Picture Show’s silent-movie accompanists) in the row behind us and said, “Well, that was just about the queerest movie I’ve ever seen.” This prompted a question in my mind, which I kept to myself: In what sense? Almost immediately, I had my answer: Take your pick. I kept that to myself too.
So much for The Picture Show’s night-before appetizer, appetizingly served by the Wexner Center. The main event would begin the next day.