By Christopher P. Jacobs
Movies Editor, High Plains Reader
MASSILLON, OH -- Film buffs from around the country and Canada gathered for the 16th annual Fall Cinesation, held in the quaint old Ohio town of Massillon, where movie legends Lillian and Dorothy Gish once lived. From Thursday night, Sept. 28 through Sunday afternoon, Oct. 1, the historic 1915 Lincoln Theatre took a break from its usual second-run Hollywood fare to present rare and/or classic films from the past: 16 features from 1915 through 1936, interspersed with 25 shorts from 1914 through 1958, plus the second five episodes of the 1948 “Superman” serial.
The program was a mix of obscure one-of-a-kind collector prints, little-seen rarities once common in early television film libraries, a number of recently restored films from various film archives, as well as a few familiar classics. In fact, several of the films on this year's schedule are available on DVD.
However, it is a far more impressive experience to see James Whale's classics “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) and “The Old Dark House” (1932) projected from new 35mm prints restored by the Library of Congress from the original negatives, especially in a classic old theatre with an appreciative audience. Friday-Saturday was a mini-Whale festival, including his personal favorite and possibly his best film, “Remember Last Night?” (1935), a combination screwball comedy and murder mystery starring Robert Young, Constance Cummings, and a cast packed with great character actors, which occasionally turns up on cable TV channels and is long overdue for an official DVD release.
Several lesser-known titles were also major crowd-pleasers over the weekend. One was the final production and possibly best film by pioneering woman writer-producer-star Nell Shipman, “The Grub-Stake” (1923). Newly restored by the Library and Archives of Canada, this near-epic melodrama follows a young woman's adventures up in the Yukon during the gold rush years. It features spectacular outdoor location photography with a deftly plotted series of interlocking events and characters.
Another was the thoroughly delightful and very rare “Madcap Madge” (1917), restored by the George Eastman House and one of the few surviving examples of the all-but-forgotten Olive Thomas. She was a former model and showgirl known as “the most beautiful girl in the world” whose promising film career was cut short by her tragic and mysterious death in 1920. Here she steals the show with her performance as the vivacious title character in an otherwise typical romantic comedy of social climbers and mistaken identity. One can only hope that this film and her equally rare and entertaining “Betty Takes a Hand” (screened last month at the Hollywood Cinecon) might eventually join “The Flapper” in another Olive Thomas collection DVD release.
Another fun silent feature was the Library of Congress' newly restored and partially reconstructed Norma Talmadge version of “Kiki” (1926), which also played at the Hollywood Cinecon three weeks ago but somehow seemed much funnier this time.
Among the most enjoyable sound features was the Cary Grant-Joan Bennett screwball comedy “Wedding Present” (1936), a fast-paced, fast-talking newspaper reporter romance with more than a few similarities to Grant's later and better known “His Girl Friday” (1940). Luckily this relatively obscure movie is due on DVD this fall as part of a Cary Grant box set.
It was great to have the opportunity to view some rarely shown pre-1920 features, such as the impressive Edison production “The Cossack Whip” (1916), restored by the Eastman House from three different surviving prints. John Collins' well-photographed and skillfully edited romantic melodrama of a girl (Viola Dana) vowing vengeance after her sister is whipped to death, has a strongly pro-revolutionary point of view two years before the Russian revolution, including scenes and filmmaking techniques that suggest post-revolutionary Soviet cinema and an epic sense prefiguring “Dr. Zhivago.”
“A Mormon Maid” (1917) is another well-constructed and strikingly photographed epic melodrama of vengeance, this time incorporating a romance, and with the image surviving in almost perfect condition. The Robert Z. Leonard film stars his future wife Mae Murray, future director Frank Borzage, Noah Beery, and Hobart Bosworth.
“The Moonstone” (1915) is an ambitious if sometimes slow-moving mystery thriller based on a popular 1868 novel that helped inaugurate the genre of detective fiction. The print restored by the Eastman House beautifully preserves the sharp image quality and evocative color tints. Both it and “The Cossack Whip” are notable for including camera tracking shots, years before they became common.
René Clair's “The Italian Straw Hat” (1927) may be a classic sophisticated sex farce, but was disappointing at first. The film is a bit confusing and even annoying until about half-way through, when things picked up for a highly entertaining last third or so. The 35mm print was gorgeous.
A couple of segments in the schedule were devoted to shorts relating to a theme. One included four silent-era animated cartoons that incorporated live action with the animation. The best of these was Walter Lanz's “Dinky Doodle and Red Riding Hood” (1925). The other showcased five industrial documentaries on five different types of color film stock. The most interesting was “Showdown at Ulcer Gulch” (1958), a Saturday Evening Post promo for potential advertisers that featured cameo appearances by Groucho and Chico Marx, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Ernie Kovacs, and other famous stars. The most entertaining was the George Pal Puppetoon produced to advertise Philips radios.
Other memorable shorts over the weekend included a theatrical Puppetoon, “Jasper's Jam” (1946), the newly restored domestic comedy “Her Anniversaries” (1917) starring Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew (ancestors of Drew Barrymore), the two-reel comedy “Can You Beat It?” (1919) by the obscure director/star Marcel Perez sometimes billed as Tweedledum, the weird Western farce featurette “Sign of the Cucumber” (1917), a 1929 film of Eddie Cantor's standup act at Flo Ziegfeld's roof garden, and several old 35mm prints of classic cartoons with the likes of Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny, and Donald Duck.
All in all, the entire weekend program was an intensive yet strangely relaxing four-day virtual time travel back to the days when movies were the major form of mass entertainment.
Here is a quick rundown of all the titles with capsule ratings:
Hero on Horseback (1927) ** ½ fun Hoot Gibson western
Bars of Hate (1935) ** odd but entertaining action-mystery
Hope (1922) ** ½ interesting but only a so-so blowup from 28mm
Gentlemen of Nerve (1914) ** ½ Keystone all-star in very nice 35mm print
The Show (1922) ** ½ Larry Semon Vitagraph with Oliver Hardy as villain
The Grocery Clerk (1920) ** ½ Larry Semon Vitagraph
The Mormon Maid (1917) *** good melodrama
Superman (1948) ** ½ solid, if juvenile, serial
Their Big Moment (1934) ** pleasant
Lonesome Luke's Lively Life (1917) * ½ lesser Harold Lloyd
Madcap Madge (1917) *** ½ a delight
Bolero (1934) *** good but not great
Down Where the Limburger Blows (1917) ** ok Katzenjammer Kids cartoon
The Cossack Whip (1916) *** dolly in & out; wipes to hide violence
Arms and the Gringo (1914) * ½ 30min watchable
Sign of the Cucumber (1917) ** 35min odd western
Can You Beat It? (1919) *** 25min peculiar but fun
Jasper's Jam (1946) *** ½ jazz Puppetoon
Hare Ribbin (1944) *** Bugs Bunny
Remember Last Night (1935) *** ½ maybe even ****
The Grub Stake (1923) *** ½ great fun high melodrama up north, with animal interlude
Showdown at Ulcer Gulch (1958) ** ½ faded Eastmancolor Sat.Eve.Post promo
Technicolor for Industrial Films (ca. 1948) ** ½ I.B. Technicolor
Philips Cavalcade (ca. 1939) *** Agfa copy of Technicolor
Copenhagen, Gay Capital of Denmark (1955) ** Kodachrome
Beauty Secrets With Constance Bennett (1937) ** new Eastman dupe of Cinecolor
Her Anniversaries (1917) *** Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew
The Moonstone (1915) ** ½ ambitious plot; lateral tracking shots in house
Eddie Cantor at Ziegfeld's Roof Garden (1929) ** ½ fun nightclub act
The Old Dark House (1932) *** ½ stunningly beautiful print of a great film
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) **** likewise, though printed perhaps a hair too dark
A.W.O.L. (1920) ** longish postwar propaganda cartoon
The Cartoon Factory (1924) ** ½ surreal Fleischer
Dinky Doodle and Red Riding Hood (1925) *** deserves to be on a DVD
Felix Saves the Day (1922) ** baseball cartoon
Ko-Ko Nuts (1925) ** ½ yes, he is!
The Old Man of the Mountain (1932) *** ½ one of the best Boops in the best picture quality ever.
Wedding Present (1936) *** not perfect but an underrated gem
Kiki (1926) *** much better the second time around, largely due to score and crowd reaction
Blame it on the Samba (1948) *** Disney characters in South America
Bella Donna (1934) ** a bit of a drag at times, but strangely hypnotic as well
The Italian Straw Hat (1927) *** worth seeing