Cinecon 47

Cinecon is a five-day celebration of film featuring screenings, celebrity guests, and movie memorabilia dealers. It is usually held in Hollywood over the Labor Day weekend. Since I am often at the World Science Fiction Convention or otherwise occupied over Labor Day, this year was the first time I braved a “monkey-butt” (from long hours of sitting) to attend Cinecon.

Cinecon specializes in rare, unusual, and forgotten films that were produced before 1960. You won’t see most of these films on TCM. Most films are screened in 35mm, and silent films include live piano accompaniment. Screenings are at the beautifully renovated Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. The memorabilia show is at the nearby Renaissance Hollywood Hotel on Highland Ave.

This year’s festival, Cinecon 47, paid tribute to the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) with screenings of two recent NFPF-funded projects, The Active Life of Dolly the Dailies, Episode 5, The Chinese Fan, produced by Thomas A. Edison, Inc. in 1914; and Stronger than Death, released in 1920 by Metro Pictures.

The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies, Chapter 5, The Chinese Fan (1914), starred Mary Fuller as plucky ace reporter Dolly Desmond. It was a beautifully restored print from an archive in New Zealand. In this episode Dolly sets out to review a new play in Chinatown and then gets mixed up with the kidnappers of an heiress. It was interesting to see Dolly treated with respect by her colleagues at the newspaper where she worked. Early films obviously had no problems with strong female protagonists; where did they disappear to for the next 50 years! It’s too bad the other episodes of this serial have been lost, but this one is a must-see for any student of film history.

Stronger Than Death (1920), starred legendary Russian actress Alla Nazimova. It depicted a period of the British occupation of India that looked fairly accurate. The half-Indian/half-British character was treated with scorn by both the Indians and the British, despite him being the wealthiest person in the region. Unfortunately, it was clear that the actor was simply a white man with dark make-up. The plot was full of melodrama: the governing British colonel was depicted as an alcoholic wife beater, his son was a selfless Army doctor trying to save a village from cholera, the washed-up actress/dancer (Nazimova) fell in love, all while the half-breed was inciting the locals to riot. Nevertheless, I found it to be slow and not terribly interesting. The actors emoted and the sets looked like they were recycled back lots. The film restoration did look good.

Other Highlights

The Open Track (1916), was an episode of a serial that starred Helen Gibson as a young woman who worked at a train depot and got involved with a federal investigation of some counterfeiters. At one point Helen must chase down and stop a runaway locomotive to save the lives of two T-men. This sequence is full of thrills that stands up even today. Helen’s jump from a speeding motorcycle to the train is spectacular. Once again, we see an early female protagonist in the movies. The restored print of this film was excellent. I don’t know if other episodes in this serial exist, but this is one that film buffs should seek out.

Moon Over Her Shoulder (1941) starred Lynn Bari, John Sutton, Dan Dailey, and Alan Mowbray. I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the kind of movie I normally would see, especially with the kind of short synopsis it would undoubtedly get in a plot summary. But it was funny and very well received by the Cinecon audience. The performances were excellent, and although the plot was definitely contrived, it made sense in the context of the movie. Basically, it’s a love triangle with lots of misunderstandings, the kind of movie plot that has been around since time immemorial. The ending was a bit of a surprise, too. I hope that this gets a wider distribution, either on DVD or on TCM, because it is worth viewing.

Cinerama Adventure (2002) documented the origins and development of the Cinerama film format. Producer Randy Gitsch and producer/writer/director David Strohmaier introduced the film. I was fascinated by the engineering development of Cinerama from its beginnings as a gunnery trainer for the U.S. air corps in WWII (in a real sense, the first first-person-shooter video game) to a portable road show. One of the main points of the documentary was that Cinerama’s imitators paved the way for wide-screen single-camera pictures that have been the standard since the late 1950s. The interviews and archival footage created a historic record that was interesting and entertaining. Gitsch and Strohmaier announced after the showing that they are working on home video versions of several Cinerama titles, the first two to be available soon. These will be in their “Smile-Box” format that recreates the Cinerama effect on flat screens. They also announced that a Cinerama festival would be held, with restored prints, in September 2012 at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.

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