Special Report By Andrea Chase
For millions of Americans, the Labor Day weekend means barbecues. But for the few, the proud the fanatical, it means CINECON, a five day celebration of film preservation and history. Now in its thirty-third year, this year's setting for 35mm screenings was the beautifully restored Alex theater, in Glendale, CA. The Alex, is not without its own place in movie history. It was here that MGM first realized he had a star on his hands when a sneak preview audience went ga-ga over Clark Gable in "The Easiest Way" way back in 1930.
My biggest surprise was 1923's "Wild Bill Hickok" starring William S. Hart, he of the fierce visage and vast expanse between nose and lips. It has more in common with spaghetti westerns of the 60s than the white bread and mayonnaise fare brought to us by Hart's successors, Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. Hart and company use four letter words and even engage in a brief but serious discussion on the relative merits of date rape.
And nowhere else could you have seen 1910's Frankenstein from the Edison studios. Considered lost for many years, it shows inventive special effects and a surprising psychological angle. It could well be a long time before this film is again publicly exhibited, unless the current owner, who has had it for over thirty years, has a change of heart about sharing it with the public.
Among the foreign films represented was 1926's "By the Law," a Russian adaptation of the Jack London story featuring astonishing camera work and an Irish character who bears a startling resemblance to Trotsky. I am, alas, unfamiliar with what would have been contemporary politics, and so am unable to speculate on what conclusion, if any, the original audience was meant to draw about that. Also showing impressive camera work was Anthony Asquith's 1928 "Underground" about love and power failures among the English working class. Denmark's "The Parson's Widow" from 1920, is also about love. It's a touching story about piety and religion and making the best of what life hands you.
There was also a mix of deservedly less celebrated silent films. 1929's "Eternal Love" was interesting for casting the urbane John Barrymore as a simple Swiss peasant. The surprise ending is only slightly less unexpected than the dead goats Mr. Barrymore wears through much of the film. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, one wonders just how many of the seemingly unintentional comic touches that pop up in this melodrama are deliberate. "Atlantis," a Danish film from 1913 is remarkable for being not only the worst silent film I have ever seen, but entering the pantheon of all-time bad films in any genre. The character development is oblique, the narrative structure is obtuse, and the continual spotlight on an armless man with strangely prehensile feet is gratuitous. Don't get me started on the spider dance. It's good to be reminded, though, that early filmmakers were making up how to make movies. They didn't all hit the tarmac running.
The film I most anticipated was 1929's "His Glorious Night," starring the divine John Gilbert in his first talkie. This film is most notable not for its rather silly plot or mannequin-like leading lady but rather for destroying Gilbert's career. What happened? His voice, like everyone else's in the film, was subjected to MGM's less than stellar sound recording system and was a bit treble. Even the proud MGM lion's roar sounds more like a seal than the king of the jungle.
Yet, the worst that can be said is that at times he seems to be doing a sincere imitation of the film's director, Lionel Barrymore. His sparkle and devastating charm is there in abundance. Still, rumors abound that Louis B. Mayer, who hated Gilbert for among other things, having knocked him flat a few years earlier, deliberately tampered with the sound of Gilbert's voice in post-production. Mayer was not a man to be trifled with, but I have to wonder if he would sabotage the entire soundtrack just to get Gilbert.
But it doesn't explain Gilbert's decline. His voice was hardly comical and yet a public that had adored him beyond measure heard him speak in a competent if not baritone voice and turned on him quickly, totally and irrevocably. Why were his subsequent screen appearances greeted with jeering and the occasional stray bits of produce? Why would their rejection be so complete? I have only one explanation. They were fools.
© 1997 • Andrea Chase • Air Date: 9/10/97
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