August 31, 2012

Cinecon 48 -- Day One

Cinecon may be a long haul, but Thursday evening is always a breeze. That's the festival's "half day," a relaxing evening show entree of four films. View the full festival schedule here.

This year, however, Cinecon really started with a bang. If you were to ask most classic film audiences who their crowd-pleasing favorite performers were, chances are you'd get a lot of votes for the Nicholas Brothers. We were treated to a short clip from "The Black Network" (1936), an all African-American short film. This was one of the duo's first Hollywood films. As you can see, they're babies.

But as if a Nicholas Brothers number wasn't enough, then the Cinecon audience got a real treat. Down the theater stairs came Cathy and Nicole Nicholas, Fayard's granddaughters, who perform their famous relatives' routines as the Nicholas Sisters. They took the stage (er...tap floor) for a choreographed performance, recreating Fayard and Howard's rendition of "Lucky Number" step for step. It was a real treat (not to mention a real trip!) to watch two generations of Nicholas dancers tap and shimmy some seventy years apart. An extremely cool way to kick off the festival.

The Stan Kenton Orchestra

If only we could have kept that energy going! The first official film of Cinecon 48 was a rather dreary musical short called Artistry in Rhythm (1944), featuring big band leader Stan Kenton and his Orchestra. It may not have been ol' Stan's fault, but this short, which also featured jazz singer Anita O'Day (perky & scattin') and a trio called The Tailor Maids (stiff & vapid), is pretty dull going. The camera cuts from long shot to medium shot...and back again. For a musical, there's no real movement in the whole thing. There seems to have been little done to transfer the nightclub experience to the big screen. One highlight, though: the unintentionally hilarious crooner Gene Howard, performing "She's Funny That Way." The ballad's opening line, "I'm not much to look at, nothing to see," drew some twitters from the audience; Gene Howard looked a bit like a gangly Fred MacMurray in a suit three sizes too big.

Continuing the theme of mid-'40s Universal musicals, the first feature of the night was  Always a Bridesmaid (1943), a starring vehicle for The Andrews Sisters. Appearing here at the height of their WWII-era fame, the sisters play themselves (basically). They're stars of a radio show called The Lonely Hearts Club, a matchmaking venture which attracts the desperate romantic as well as the con artist. An investigator (Patric Knowles) poses as a lonely bachelor who falls for a woman (Grace McDonald) who may or may not be playing him for a fool. Adding some much needed comic relief are veteran character actors Charles Butterworth as a corrupt colonel, and Billy Gilbert as the love-struck and tongue-tied sponsor of the radio program.

Always a Bridesmaid is a pretty basic "B," but the screenplay by Oscar Brodney (who later wrote Harvey!) does manage to get in a few memorable zingers. Some advice to hesitant lovers: "Getting married is just like learning how to swim--hold your nose and jump in!" When a tramp gets a little too chatty with our romantic couple: "I'm a hobo, not a hermit. I'm gregarious!"

By far the best part of the film, however, is the inclusion of Cinecon favorites, the Jivin' Jacks and Jills. The group of swingin', teenage contract players appeared in several Universal B-movies of the period. Their famous alums include Peggy Ryan and Donald O'Conor. In Always a Bridesmaids, these kids just keep popping up and crashing the adults' party. Good thing, too, as their high-flying dancing and slang-laced insolence keep the rote "sting operation" plot from sinking the ship.

The second film of the night was also the festival's first silent picture, The Drums of Jeopardy (1923). This is your typical silent film melodrama. Boy, what doesn't this movie have? The titular drums are twin emeralds attached to these little statuettes of half-naked Hindus. These Maltese Falcon-like maguffins carry with them--you guessed it!--a terrible history of misfortune, plague, and bloodshed. They caused the deaths of rajas! They brought down Imperialist Russia! Their incessant drumming forecasts imminent doom to whomever possesses them. So, of course the plot concerns everyone and their mother trying to get their hands on them.

Silent film star Elaine Hammerstein

The best part of this ridiculousness is a young Wallace Beery as the villainous Karlov, the Bolshevik bully who travels to America to reclaim the jewels with which he overthrew the Czar. It's clear that Beery, even early in his career, had already mastered the shifty-eyed snarl. I mean, he's one cape-twirl away from caricature here, but he makes it work. In fact, I wish everyone chewed the scenery as well as Beery, and his Russian villainess lover Maude George, who has a penchant for sporting outrageous, spangly headgear.

Our young heroes are played by Jack Mulhall and billed-above-the-title star Elaine Hammerstein (granddaughter of Oscar). Elaine is the free spirit daughter of a rich banker who falls for handsome Jack, but that's before she suspects him of offing her father. Oh, no. Elaine must find out who murdered her dad, who wants the emeralds and why, and then rescue Jack who has gotten himself locked in some kind of dungeon for almost the entire movie. Yes, it's over-the-top, but there's some fun stuff here. The best scene sees Elaine and Maude George pitted in an epic cat fight chock-full of amazing bitchfaces and outrageous outfits. It's like silent-era "Dynasty". Also featured: an imbibing butler, people hanging precariously from windowsills, and Wallace Beery smashing an old man's violin and laughing about it. That big meanie!

The cast of 15 Maiden Lane

Unfortunately, due to public transportation issues, I wasn't able to catch the last feature, 15 Maiden Lane. This is a real bummer because the movie has a lot going for it: directed by Allan Dwan (one of Hollywood's pioneers), starring Claire Trevor (for whom my alma mater's art school is named) and a young Cesar Romero. Young Cesar Romero! Ugh.

But tomorrow the trains will be running late, so watch out, Cinecon. I'm just gettin' started.

August 30, 2012

The Cinecon Drinking Game

The Cinecon Classic Film Festival is a venerable Hollywood institution, celebrating its 48th year as the premiere destination for silent and classic film fans and collectors. Cinecon screens archival prints, rarely-seen or almost-lost features, shorts, and newsreels from the first half of the twentieth century.

So what better way than to celebrate such a significant cinematic event than with an old fashioned drinking game?

I've had the privilege of attending Cinecon the past two years, and within that short span of time, there are certain people, places and themes that recur. You're almost guaranteed, for example, to be treated to at least two Depression-era musicals, some screwball comedy pratfalls, some B-Western oaters, and tons of silent movies starring people you've barely (or never) heard of.

The experience of watching these lost cinema treasures is similar, too. Ensconced in the historic Egyptian theater all Labor Day weekend (Thursday thru Monday, all day long), there are certain survival skills one must adopt. Bring your own water. Maybe a couple baggies of snacks. A jacket. Stretch during breaks. And, be a pal: nudge your neighbor if he nods off.

Without further ado...The Cinecon Drinking Game

Familiar Faces

  • Wallace Beery? 
    • Take 1 drink.
  • John Qualen? 
    • Take 1 drink. 
    • With a Scandinavian accent? Take another drink.
  • Wallace Beery? 
    • Take 1 drink. 
  • Eugene Pallette? 
    • Take 1 drink.
    • Skinny Eugene Pallette? CHUG.
  • Jack Oakie?
    • Take 1 drink.
    • As a football player? Take another drink.
  • One of the great silent clowns--Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon--performs a death-defying stunt? 
    • Applaud wildly and then take a drink. 
  • Cowboy actor does a rope/horse trick?
    • Applaud wildly and then take a drink. 
  • William Wellman, Allan Dwan, or Henry Hathaway?
    • Take a big drink.

Give it Up For the Archives
  • Movies presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, The Eastman House, The Library of Congress, or MoMA?
    • Applaud wildly and toast these wonderful institutions.
  • Spot one of the @WarnerArchive guys?
    • Buy them a drink!

  • Politically incorrect title card?
    • Take 1 drink.
  • Blatant sexist/racist/whatever?
    • Take 2 drinks.
  • White kids performing in blackface?
    • CHUG. Because that is the worst. 

Audience Jollies
  • Silent film nudity?
    • All the guys take a drink.
  • Hunky actor takes his shirt off?
    • All the ladies take a drink.
  • Pre-code sexiness?
    • CHUG. Because everyone loves pre-code sexy. 
  • Someone sitting next to you falls asleep?
    • Take a drink. 
  • Audience boos a bad joke?
    • Take a drink.
  • Audience applauds for an actor and you don't know who they are?
    • Take a drink and feel shame. 

Additional/Optional Rules:
--take a drink whenever the title of the film has nothing to do with the plot

--if the film is set during Prohibition, whisper the speakeasy password ("Swordfish"), then take a drink from your flask

***And of course we here at SalesOnFilm urge you to drink responsibly. And, y'know, this works with popcorn and Coca-Cola, too.

August 22, 2012

Gordon WIllis' New York: BROADWAY DANNY ROSE

Sadder than Manhattan, the elegiac and nostalgic Broadway Danny Rose is perhaps Allen's finest underrated film. Allen and Willis ping-pong from the city's iconic Broadway haunts, where washed-up comedians gather for coffee, to New Jersey, where madcap romance looms in the shape of Mia Farrow's giant, Mob Wives-eque sunglasses. A caper, a comedy, a mournful portrait of success and failure; a beautiful film.

August 21, 2012

Gordon Willis' New York: THE PICK-UP ARTIST

Post-Coppola, post-Allen, Gordon Willis--already immortally associated with THE New York look--is picked up by the '80s. This time, it's James Toback, seeking the visual heft the lightweight story of an NY cad (Robert Downey, pre-Jr.!) so sorely needs. It's all Brat Pack desperately seeking some Gen X relevancy. At least the city looks good.

Final scenes at Atlantic City gives us a glimpse into the neon wasteland of young RDJ's babyfaced cruiser. Romantic and cynical, genuine and scheming, RDJ's/Toback's pick-up artist tries to strike out on his own, but can't quite escape the city's cultural baggage. (RDJ's character lives near Coney Island, just like Woody Allen does in Annie Hall; note the shot below that Willis cribbed from his earlier work in Manhattan.)

Willis does what he's hired to do--remind you of his earlier, better New York pictures. A self-conscious reflection of the city's evolving (devolving?) state. In the '70s, NYC was pitch-black; in Allen's nostalgic black & white, a city of classical beauty; in Toback's Reagen-era city is alternatively washed-out and alive with the colors and spaces of New York City's cinematic past. 

August 20, 2012

Gordon Willis' New York: KLUTE

DP Gordon Willis (left) with director Alan J Pakula

When we talk of Gordon Willis collaborations, everyone focuses on Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola. I mean, why wouldn't they? The Godfather films? Woody's greatest films (Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo) of his greatest decade (1980s)? These are tough creds to ignore.

That Willis' collaboration with Alan J. Pakula (Klute, The Parallax View, All The President's Men) is only his third most notable contribution to American cinema, speaks to the absurd high quality of the man's work and his seminal impact on filmmaking.

All three films deal with paranoia, surveillance and the espionage-as-commonplace themes prevalent during the Nixon years. The message: You Are Being Watched. Who better than Willis, the master of the artistic establishing shot, to capture the individual in the everyday?

Klute is the most formally obscure of the three films. Pakula/Willis shot behind objects in the foreground, between bars, from behind windows. POV is stationary, constant, omnipotent. You are just a figure in the background. We see all.

August 19, 2012

Gordon Willis' New York: THE GODFATHER

Blacks have never been blacker, shadows never so deep. Gordon Willis' starts with a blank, pitch-dark frame and then adds pools of illumination--an arc light here, a reflection in blue-tinted glass there. Minimalism is key. 

Most people forget that for much of its runtime, The Godfather is a Christmas movie. Willis and Coppola capture the crispness of a wintry Manhattan where holiday cheer is put on ice. It's a post-war Christmas, slightly dimmed, slightly less festive. New York wants to celebrate, but there's a darkness in the streets they can't escape.

The objects of the mafioso become objets d'art: the smooth glint of a chrome running board, the burst of fire from a .38 special like a shot in the dark. 

The Godfather would be nothing without its time and place. This is the world of Michael Corleone--all inky pavement and dank alley corners--as thick and dark as Pacino's Brylcreemed hair. 

This is Gordon Willis' New York. All hail The Prince of Darkness.