It Came From Cinecon 

Expensive posters, cheap pinups and celluloid curios at Hollywood's annual cinephile summit

Tuesday, Sep 15 2009

There is something eerie about crossing an empty Hollywood Boulevard at 10 on a Sunday morning, walking past the old Christie Hotel and on to the Egyptian Theater to see Turn to the Right, a marvelous (if minor) silent film the great Rex Ingram made for Metro Pictures Corporation in 1922, right after his big Valentino successes, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Conquering Power. Ingram, who would soon become Hollywood’s highest-paid director (before leaving for Europe and building his own studio in Nice), even stayed at the Christie in the early days. You come up for air at noon, the zoo is in full swing on the boulevard, the rubes are taking pictures of the sidewalks, and it’s 89 degrees on the asphalt. But you keep coming back, on and off for five days, to be shocked by Robert Newton’s black heart in Hatter’s Castle (1942); or dumbfounded by the ferocity of Afraid to Talk (1932), a pre-Code indictment of City Hall corruption, based on future blacklisted writer Albert Maltz’s play, which makes W.R. Burnett or The Wire seem tame by comparison. Then again, the night before, you’d already been dazzled by Sally Eilers and Thelma Todd in Columbia’s 1929 silent romp Trial Marriage, and clobbered by scintillating intertitles like “This little lady will make Salome look like salami.”

Even if you’re a film buff, chances are you’ve never heard of these films, let alone seen them. Welcome to Cinecon, a salutary antidote to Turner Classic Movies’ packaged nostalgia that takes place every year on Labor Day weekend. Most of us, though, haven’t heard of it, either. There is something of the early Christians about these pilgrims, paunchy gents and gals who range from pharmacists to former projectionists and hail from Dallas, New York and Pasadena. Among the attendees, I meet a woman who operates a small museum in Niles, California, where the Essanay studios had its West Coast operation and where Chaplin worked for a year. Eduardo Orenstein, who operates an erotic museum in Buenos Aires and can bend your ear about sex goddess Isabel Sarli or the collection of pubic hair he just bought in Peru, did not attend this year — and was sorely missed. For years now, Cinecon programmers have stubbornly shown a healthy disregard for cultural hierarchies or auteurist manias (unless you mean House of Dracula/House of Frankenstein auteur Erle C.Kenton, or Three Stooges director Jules Fine). If they haven’t seen it, they wanna — it’s as simple as that. They can be a haughty, even cranky bunch, but they know a lot. And what they don’t know, they program.

The organizers are familiar faces; you see them at festivals of preservation, or when UCLA holds one of those Vitaphone novelty nights. Some, like Cinecon President Bob Birchard (a film editor by day and historian by night, author of a respected book on DeMille’s Hollywood and a recent one on Universal City), are active in other local film groups, like the Silent Society, which is dedicated to showing early films at movie-related sites. (The name itself conjures up visions of secret handshakes and sturdy minorities.) And even if part of the grass-roots membership worries about having reached geezerdom and wants to reach out to make up for its dwindling numbers (around 150), Cinecon is not about to open up anytime soon. What would be the point? President Birchard ruefully defends his and his colleagues’ potpourri approach to film culture, a democratic eye that sometimes helps reevaluate film history. Cinecon was among the first to herald pre-Code Hollywood films, which have since become the workhorse of every unimaginative museum and film-society programmer.

click to enlarge STAR FOREMAN - Forties film star Adrian Booth

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Cinecon became a festival only 16 years ago, when it settled more or less in L.A. and started taking place in theaters like the Alex and the Egyptian. Before this, it was an itinerant, mostly Midwestern affair; a yearly swap meet for 8mm film collectors, confined to hotel rooms. Poster- and lobby-card dealers soon joined the fray, and today the “dealers tables” at the Renaissance Hotel (where most members stay) are still a big part of the event, a fun place to cool off and gawk at $20,000 Lon Chaney posters or score a nifty program of The Barker (1928), autographed by its star, Dorothy Mackaill, for 15 bucks. It’s educational, too: Who knew demure Lillian Gish ever posed in the nude? (Taken by K.O. Rahm, Mary Pickford’s personal photographer, it will cost you five grand to own it.)

Organizers admit there are not many walk-ups — you have to know it’s happening. Yet the youngest attendees on Saturday afternoon must have been this tourist couple from Brazil. Rafael is a film student in Rio, and liked Norman Z. McLeod’s The Miracle Man best, “mostly because Sylvia Sidney plays a bad girl at first, not as you see her in all the Fritz Langs.” But who would show up at 9 a.m. to watch a 1932 Paramount film about fake religion and faith? Two hundred people! The 1919 silent version of The Miracle Man launched the career of its three principals: Thom Meighan, Betty Compson, and Chaney, who played Frog, his first in a long line of contortionist parts. The film is lost, and maybe for this reason the remake has always had a bad rep, to the point of causing a rift among Cinecon mavens: Secretary Michael “Read the program notes!” Schlesinger could be overheard saying, “We had to book this one over Bob [Birchard]’s dead body. He’s always said it’s lousy.” Birchard was too busy trying to save his house from the Station fire to put up much of an argument, and the audience seemed to like the flick. Schlesinger, who works at Sony and is a useful friend of the American Cinematheque, pointed out that although he attends many local series and film programs, Cinecon is the only event he works at — passionately. He and Birchard could later be seen speaking amiably enough.

The Miracle Man was a strange assignment for McLeod, who made it between two Marx Brothers pictures. It’s fun to watch Sidney get the Stanwyck treatment, smoking in the bath, showing tit between tub and negligee — only to be converted by a faith healer. Some might find the “inspirational” parts nauseating, but they’re played sincerely, and the film is a fascinating companion piece to Capra’s The Miracle Woman, or Wyler’s great take on small-town scams, The Shakedown. This, along with Turn to the Right, Frank Tuttle’s Only the Brave (a weird, zany Civil War film, starring Gary Cooper), seemed to figure among most attendees’ favorites. Some, however, preferred Paid to Love, a 1927 Fox film in which Howard Hawks tried a few fancy moves under the influence of Murnau — if fancy is the word for villainous William Powell peeling a banana while leering at a girl; or putting his hand in a spittoon, 32 years before Dean Martin in Rio Bravo.

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