We Had Faces

Lillian Gish in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928)

The title comes from a quote by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), after viewing a silent film that starred her:

Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces. There just aren’t any faces like that anymore. Maybe one—Garbo. Oh, those idiot producers. Those imbeciles. Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them! I’ll be up there again, so help me!

Over the last four days, I have been watching a whole slew of silent films, including both shorts and features, aired by Cinecon from their website at Cinecon.Org.

Originally, I didn’t much care for silent films. They didn’t look sharp on the screen; they were too sentimental; they were too slow; and there were all kinds of problems with the nitrate stock on which they were printed. But I changed my mind, owing primarily to two reasons. First was my friendship with the late John Dorr, who convinced me to give them a second chance. Second was a phenomenal book that came out while I was at UCLA Graduate School, Kevin Brownlow’s The Parades Gone By.

Also, I had the opportunity to see many silent films that were simply phenomenal, and not just fractured flickers. One of them, I just saw a couple of hours ago from Cinecon’s website, Penrod and Sam (1923), directed by William Beaudine for First National Pictures (which morphed into Warner Brothers). It was a gorgeous print, filmed by a director whom I regarded as a nonentity, with no recognizable stars, but so funny withal that my guffaws disturbed Martine, who was napping in the bedroom.

Poster Announcing a Screening of Penrod and Sam

I cannot help but think this film was a major influence on the Our Gang Comedies of the 1930s, which were a major influence on my youth.

Looking back, I think my original feelings about silent films had mostly to do with the hundred or so years that separated me from them. The 1910s and 1920s were a far different time. The population of the country was overwhelmingly white and Protestant. It was, for all intents and purposes, a different America. Now, it no longer bothers me so much viewing these films of a bygone era, one with which I was not altogether in sympathy.

Within a few days, I intend to present a list of the greatest silent films made in the United States, and perhaps follow it up with a similar European list.

Rendezvous with Cinecon

Lynch Mob Scene from The Conquest of Canaan (1921)

Labor Day Weekend. It was Cinecon time once again, where I view old and rare films looking for diamonds in the rough, Like last year, however, this year’s Cinecon meet was changed into an online event because of the Covid-19 resurgence.

I have seen the first two days’ programs and am looking forward to the next two days. So far, I have seen four features:

  • Dynamite Dan (1924), directed by H. Bruce Mitchell, a typical Horatio Alger type story involving boxing
  • Rendezvous with Annie (1946), directed by Allan Dwan, one of the cinema’s most underrated directors, here treating a Preston Sturges-like script
  • Blue Blazes Rawden (1918), directed by and starring William S. Hart, which I had seen before, set in the Pacific Northwest in a lumberjack camp
  • The Conquest of Canaan (1921), directed by Roy William Neill—who gave us the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films

A Brilliant Comedy by an Underrated Filmmaker

By far the best of the four films were The Conquest of Canaan and Rendezvous with Annie. The older film was shot on location in Asheville, NC, and dealt with a community run by a hypocritical judge and newspaper publisher that persecutes a young man and even sends a mob against him—though the young man triumphs in the end. The other film is about a corporal in WW2 London who goes AWOL for a weekend to visit his wife and impregnate her, only to be shocked when he has difficulty proving the child is his.

Allan Dwan had a long, distinguished career directing films from all the way back in 1911 and ending fifty years later in 1961. Perhaps my favorites among his films are Brewster’s Millions (1945), Silver Lode (1954), and his greatest, Slightly Scarlet (1956). To date I have seen only a small sliver of his output: 32 films from the silent and sound eras.

I won’t pretend that the films shown by Cinecon are among the greatest ever made, but they are almost all rarely seen and worthy productions. Each year, there are some great surprises in the pictures screened. For more info, click here. Be sure to check out the schedule page.


A Precursor of King Kong?

Over the last ten years, I have spent much of the Labor Day Weekend in Hollywood watching movies at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater as part of the annual Cinecon festival. This year, because of the coronavirus quarantine, the management of Cinecon decided to make the show available online at no charge—except for several please to donate (which I did).

A Well-Crafted Silent Film

The films typically screened for Cinecon are rarities. One doesn’t encounter the classics with which everyone if familiar. In fact, most of the titles are fairly obscure. The four features that were screened online this year are:

  • The Fourth Commandment (Universal 1926), directed by Emory Johnson
  • Without Pity (Italy 1948), directed by Alberto Lattuada and co-written by Federico Fellini
  • Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour (England 1931), directed by Leslie S. Hiscock
  • Lorraine of the Lions (Universal 1925), directed by Edward Sedgwick

A Decade before Basil Rathbone’s Sleuth

I particularly liked Without Pity, an Italian Neo-Realist film with a very advanced subject: The love between a black G.I. and a blonde Italian woman who has lost everything in the war. It was made in 1948 at a time when no American film would be so daring on the subject of interracial love.

Also shown was a two-hour program of rare kinescopes (“Kinecon on Cinecon”) from the earliest days of television including Jan Murray, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Milton Berle.

A 1948 Italian Film About Interracial Love

In addition, there were the usual silent and early sound shorts with such capable but relatively unknown stars as Billy Bevan, Al Jennings (a train robber become Western star), Edward Everett Horton, Lige Connelly, and Andy Clyde.

I did not see all the short films. After all, life must go on. But what I saw only whetted my appetite to see what they have scheduled for next year.


Everything Changes

Try to Get Your Kids Interested in This!

This year for the first time in many years I have not attended the films at Cinecon. I did, however, go with Martine to the memorabilia dealers’ rooms. In the past, when my friend Norman Witty was alive, Martine enjoyed acting as his assistant; and she made a number of friendships with the other dealers. So while she chatted with her old friends and acquaintances, I found a comfortable chair and read a book. Also I devoted some time to thinking about what was happening to the dealers and members of Cinecon.

In short, they were getting older and passing on. I saw few people under the age of sixty at the dealers’ tables.

Why did I not go to the movies this year? Simply put, I remain an auteurist; and there were few films this year made by the directors whose work I follow. I am not interested in the films of William Seiter, Norman Panama, Archie Mayo, George Archainbaud, Alan Crosland, Alfred L. Werker, and any number of studio hacks who never signed their names to a great film. They were for the most part competent film makers whose work was light and entertaining; but I was after bigger game.

Then I thought,“Wait a sec! How many auteurists are around these days?” The answer is: damned few, and fewer every year. Instead people go to see superhero films intended for very young males, starring powerful guys and gals who like to wear their Underoos over their street clothes. Then there are the numerous independent productions, about the problems of young people who are altogether too full of themselves. What do I care about Hipster man with his man-bun and immaculately trimmed beard and all his digital toys?

Many of my posts have not been kind to the younger generation—mostly because the things they value are nothing to me, and the things I value, nothing to them. For how long will Cinecon be around to commemorate films of the 1920s and 1930s? I mean, people, we are talking about films that are not even in color!

After my generation leaves the scene, many whole worlds will disappear as if in a puff of cosmic dust.


Anything Goes

Poster for Anything Goes

Today was my second day at Cinecon 53 (I skipped Saturday) and came with Martine this time. Today’s highlights were two zany musicals. The first was Anything Goes (1936) with music by Cole Porter and starring Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, Charlie Ruggles, and Ida Lupino (as a blonde no less!). The action takes place on an ocean liner on which Bing is stowing away, because he thinks the lovely Miss Lupino is in danger. Notable is the role of Arthur Treacher as Lord Oakleigh, who is escorting Lupino for what Bing suspects are nefarious purposes. I could describe the plot in more detail, but then it was never intended to make sense. It is merely a rack onto which a number of great Cole Porter tunes are (dis)played to advantage.

Universal’s La Conga Nights (1940)

The other loony movie was a 1940 quickie from Universal called La Conga Nights, with an even more improbable plot. First of all, the star is Hugh Herbert, who plays no less than six roles. Then there’s this boarding house which is laboring under an evacuation order for nonpayment of mortgage. The tenants, a musical set led by Dennis O’Keefe and Constance Moore, decide to turn the place into a nightclub called the Conga Room.

Neither of these films was slated for fame. They came out when Americans attended movie theaters in droves to see the hundreds of films that Hollywood cranked out year after year. Americans felt in their bones that there would be another war: Spain was already a demo zone for weapons from Germany, Italy, and Russia. But we had just survived a terrible depression, and people didn’t mind being a little silly. I wonder if the tendency will return with our having elected a president that is trying, under the rubric of “Make America Great Again,” to turn us into a Third World Country. So let’s laugh while we can!

An Unregenerate Auteurist

Film Critic Andrew Sarris (1928-2012)

Although I never met the man, he has made a lasting impression on my taste in films. It all started around 1964, when I was a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I ran across the Spring 1963 issue of Film Culture magazine. Most of the contents was a 68 page article by Andrew Sarris, then movie reviewer for The Village Voice.  I remember photocopying the entire article while several other students fumed at the time I took to set up every page perfectly. In the end, I had the best survey of the work of American filmmakers then available.

My Original Encounter with the Auteur Theory

By the time I came out to Southern California, Sarris was working the same material into a book to be called The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. The book became my bible, a guide to the real artists of the American cinema, the directors. In both the book and the Film Culture article, Sarris was adapting the work of critics at Cahiers du Cinéma and other French film magazines who were reacting to the French classical cinema and rediscovering American film.

I and my fellow auteurists at the UCLA Film Department ran into heavy opposition from the faculty, especially from my thesis adviser, one Howard Suber, whose idea of film criticism was to do a shot-by-shot analysis of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. I quickly discovered that the people who were most opposed to the auteur theory were not terribly interested in seeing films. In fact, they did not know very much about film. Where my friends and I were viewing upwards of fifteen films a week, I doubt that most of the UCLA professors saw that many in a year.

The Book Version of the 1963 Film Culture Article

Although over the years, my take on films has changed somewhat, I still love the great auteurs such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Charley Chaplin, Josef Von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles, Raoul Walsh, and Budd Boetticher. Now I am willing to admit that, in certain rare cases, the producer could be the main artist of the film. The only example I can think of offhand is Val Lewton, who as producer, created his own style that overrode such excellent directors as Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise.

Yesterday, I attended the Cinecon 53 Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. The very best films were auteur classics: John Ford’s The Brat (1931), George Stevens’s Boys Will Be Boys (1932), and William S. Hart’s Shark Monroe (1918). But where I diverge from the auteurists is my enjoyment of some films by relative nobodies,. most particularly John Blystone’s Woman Chases Man (1937)—which ended up involving three directors and five writers—and Alfred S. Rogell’s No More Women (1934), itself a sequel to auteur director Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), starring the same leading actors.

There are indeed many terrible filmmakers whose work I would think nothing of walking out on. But at shows like Cinecon, there are some wonderful films by people I have never heard of.

Walk Like an Egyptian

Part of the Painted Facade of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood

Part of the Painted Facade of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood

If it’s Labor Day weekend, it’s also time for the 52nd Annual Cinecon Classic Film Festival. So Martine and I invaded Hollywood, parked our chariot at Loew’s Hollywood Hotel, and proceeded to view several newly restored films at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater. These included:

  • An episode of a hokey old serial called Jungle Mystery.
  • Three Laurel & Hardy rareties, including Berth Marks and Come Clean.
  • A silent comedy called More Pay—Less Work from 1926.
  • A Columbia film released during World War Two which uniquely accuses the Nazis of atrocities against the Jews: None Shall Escape (1944) starring a radiant Marsha Hunt and directed by Andre de Toth.

Cinecon has thinned out a bit since last year. President Robert S. Birchard, having served in that capacity since 1998, died of a heart attack in May. Many such as my late friends Norman Witty and Lee Sanders had also passed on. Every year, there are more canes and more geriatric ailments in evidence. The pity of it is that Cinecon has difficulties recruiting younger members, who would consider the restored 1920s and 1930s films as ancient history. The organization would have to move more into the 1950s-1970s to get the attention of Generation Xers, not to mention Millennials.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame

The Hollywood Walk of Fame

Hollywood itself was filled with young tourists of the tattooed and pierced variety who sashayed up and down the street shooting pictures of the commemorative stars on the sidewalk with their cell phones. On holiday weekends, the Boulevard is a big-time crowd scene, with scores of tour buses taking them to see homes of the rich and famous—or whatever it is they show them. Whenever they accost me for a tour, I offer to give it myself, saying “Hey, I live in this dump!”


The Dinosaur and the Flickers

Changing Tastes Affect Whole Media

Changing Tastes Affect Whole Media

Yesterday at Cinecon 51, I had an interesting discussion with a film memorabilia vendor from Philadelphia about the changing tastes of the film audience. Both of us noted that there was a remarkable lack of younger filmgoers—anything under age forty—attending the recently restored films from former decades. In fact, most of the attendees were in their seventies or above.

That set me to thinking: I am happy that I did not achieve my educational goal of becoming a professor of motion picture history and criticism. If I had, I would have had to face the fact that my chosen field was, essentially, ultimately doomed for lack of interest. How many younger people would be interested in silent films, or early talkies in black and white, or even anything that had a more complicated story line. Who would even be able to sit still for The Seven Samurai or Doctor Zhivago or Rules of the Game?

People are clearly becoming more distracted as time goes on. Movie screens have gotten smaller, and home TV screens have grown larger. They haven’t quite met yet, though the tendency continues. One does not need to watch a television with rapt attention, not while one is texting, reading one’s e-mails, or watching YouTube on a smart phone.

So, if I were a professor of film history, I would feel as if I were ramming films down the throats of a younger generation that thought the subject matter was irrelevant.  Who cares about the films of F. W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg, or even Alfred Hitchcock?  (I can just imagine trying to explain Hitch’s Vertigo or Shadow of a Doubt to a restive crowd who were itching to jump onto their smart phones.)

As far as my own tastes are concerned, I will follow them through à l’outrance, to the bitter end. The films I love, I will always love and continue to study, even though it separates me from the following generations. Does that make me a dinosaur? So be it!

The Stairs of Silverlake

One of the Stairs of Silverlake

One of the Stairs of Silverlake

This being Labor Day Weekend, Martine and I attended the Cinecon film restoration show in Hollywood. To me, the highlight of this show was how three comics of the 1930s and 1940s used the stairs of Silverlake, a hilly area just west of today’s Dodger Stadium. The stairways still exist, and I would not be surprised  if hundreds of student films took advantage of their cinematic qualities.

The three films in the so-called “Silverlake Steps Trilogy” were:

  • The Music Box (1932). The best of the three, starring the inimitable Laurel & Hardy, who try to wrestle a player piano up the steps. (See illustration below.)
  • An Ache in Every Stake (1941), with the Three Stooges. Larry, Curly and Moe try to deliver ice blocks on a super-hot day up the steps, only to have them turn into cubes once they get up top. The film ends with the three acting as chefs at a birthday party at the house where they deliver the ice.
  • It’s Your Move (1945), with Edgar Kennedy hefting a wash machine up the steps.

Billy Gilbert with Laurel and Hardy in “The Music Box”

Billy Gilbert with Laurel and Hardy in “The Music Box”

The above films are not only in chronological order, but also in descending order of quality. By the time It’s Your Move was released, the big studios were less interested in short programs, especially as television was looming over the horizon.



Norm at a Cinecon Show in Hollywood

Norm at a Cinecon Show in Hollywood

I knew that I was reaching the endgame, but not until today did I realize the suddenness and the finality with which a life can be snuffed out. Norman Witty has been a friend of mine for almost half a century, ever since he picked me up while I was hitchhiking on Wilshire Boulevard. He was a couple of years older than me, a chain smoker of unfiltered Camels, and—like me—a film freak. At the time I was a grad student in the UCLA film department, and Norm—well, he just watched a lot of movies. I had the feeling he had a trust fund or some other family income source that obviated the need for a job.

After a while, we parted ways for a while. I dropped out of the Masters degree program at UCLA because of faculty politics and went into the computer industry so that I could make a living. Norm, on the other hand, moved back East (he was originally from Massachusetts) and opened a comic book and film poster store in Northampton, Mass.

We re-established our friendship when he started coming out to Los Angeles for the Cinecon shows around Labor Day Weekend. By this time, Norm was fast approaching the point of total deafness. He offered Martine some money to help him interact with potential clients in the Cinecon dealer rooms. Martine and Norm communicated by way of a notepad, and Martine usually took the helm when Norm took a smoking break. This worked out well for both, and for me because I got to see a lot of free old movies at the Egyptian Theater down the street. We would go out to dinner together and have one of our annual food fights: Like many people who know nothing about preparing food, Norm had some curious requirements. He hated the ethnic restaurants I would “drag” him to, and Martine and I hated the white tablecloth joints with mediocre Euro food that he patronized.

This Labor Day, Norm did not come out for Cinecon. I have been in touch with him only by e-mail, and through a joint friend who visited him at his New York cooperative apartment on West 57th Street. Several New Yorkers whom we knew in common were concerned about Norm not seeing any of his friends and acquaintances any more.

Then the bombshell hit when I received an e-mail from Norman’s sister announcing that he had died early this morning of an aortic aneurism. Fortunately, she had been visiting with him and, in fact, was with him when he fell ill last night. He was able to get fast access to the medical care he needed, but his luck had run out.

I’ve written about Norm before, though not by name. You can see my blog from September 4, 2012 entitled “A Prickly Individual,” in which I expressed growing concern about his health.

In truth, Norm was prickly, but he was also generous and funny. He also had a store of knowledge about films which only began to wane as his hearing disappeared. At that point, he switched to silent movies and would buy and sell at the silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy.