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.

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