The 2013 Toronto Film Society weekend at Eastman House was marked by two significant events, a new slate of officers for the Canadian group and the presentation of one of the most outstanding silent melodramas of all time. Surprisingly, it wasn’t The Scarlet Letter but rather the German-made Warning Shadows. Dr. Phil Carli was his usual outstanding self for the silent, outnumbering the talkies by one, with no shorts as is the usual custom. The screenings were held August 4-5, 2013 at the Rochester, NY show-place.
The Board of Directors of Toronto Film Society, some continuing, some new, are: Barry Chapman, President; Caren Feldman, VP/Treasurer; Graham Petrie, Eastman Coordinator; Brandy Dean, Programming; David Burgess, Secretary/Publicity; Terri Lipton, membership; Frances Blau, Program Notes; Hanna Miller, Editor; Christina Stewart, House Manager/May Weekend Coordinator; David Faris, Brochure Design; George Hoskins, Auditor; with the latter two considered to be Volunteers.
A reception was held on Saturday, August 3 at The Old Toad, a British pub near East Avenue Inn, where the committee and guests stayed. Caren and sister Ronda were in evidence, as was Graham. Also making appearances: Barry, Terri (and daughter Evie, a lawyer), Frances and David (Faris).
On Sunday (4), Graham Petrie made opening remarks and the screenings got underway with one of the most maligned films of the early sound era: Reaching For the Moon (UA 1930 Edmund Goulding) was Douglas Fairbanks’ second of five talkies, his most major opportunity at sound stardom and generally regarded as a failure. Irving Berlin wrote the story, of a Wall Street broker going broke–at the beginning of The Depression–as he pursues his first real love; and provided six original songs. Since the musical craze was ending, only one remained in the release print, but it was one of Berlin’s most exuberant, “When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down”, sung by a young (27) Bing Crosby, with his original hair–the hair piece came later.
This was the first Fairanks film in modern dress since The Nut (1921), Doug as athletic as ever at 47. Despite years as a star, Bebe Daniels is billed under the title, since it’s a Fairbanks starrer. She’s Doug’s equal despite her billing, she and newcomer June MacCloy handling female wiles admirably. Jack Mulhall, co-starring, had been Bebe’s leading man in You Never Can Tell (1920), her first starring film. But, Edward Everett Horton takes supporting honors as the ever faithful valet, and has a touching moment by placing an overcoat on a desolate Doug’s shoulders on the fogbound boat deck. The 1917 Reaching For the Moon was a Fairbanks in modern dress, a Ruritanian romance; this Moon is brighter. Splendid in support are Walter Walker as Daniels’ dad, Claud Allister as her titled fiancé and Helen Jerome Eddy as Doug’s secretary (Sunshine). Dennis O’Keefe and Bill Elliott can be seen on deck in the “Low Down” number.
The Scarlet Letter (MGM 1926 Victor Seastrom) is the finest of the many versions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 classic, primarily because of the work of Lillian Gish and Lars Hansen. The Swedish-born Hansen as the straying Reverend Dimmesdale tends to overshadow the American legend’s delicate playing of adulteress Hester Prynne in Puritanical New England. Henry B. Walthall, Gish’s Griffith co-star, resembles Shylock in a sinister, belated and impressive appearance as the long missing husband, Roger Chillingworth. Karl Dane, an actual Dane (born in Copenhagen), supplies necessary comedy relief, with Joyce Coad as daughter Pearl, Marcelle Corday and an unbilled Polly Moran and Chief Yowlachie in evidence. Seastrom/Sjöström, also Swedish, later directed Gish in The Wind (1928); his effectiveness here is greatly enhanced by the photography of Hendrik Sartov (another Dane), and by the art direction-sets of Cedric Gibbons and Sidney Ullman.
The Scarlet Letter (Kinemacolor Company 1913 David Miles) is in Kinemacolor, one of the earliest versions of the Hawthorne tale, and the first in color. Linda (Arvidson) Griffith and Charles Perley (who resembles Niles Welch) star, with Murdock MacQuarrie as Chillingworth. Originally ten minutes, the print is so fragmented that it actually has a happy ending.
Life’s Harmony (American-Mutual 1916 Frank Borzage & Lorimer Johnston), a 3-reeler, from Flying A Productions, is the fourth film made by Borzage, later the director of such classics and semi-classics as Humoresque (1920), Seventh Heaven (1927), Bad Girl (1931), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Strange Cargo (1940) and the moody Moonrise (1948). With friend Spencer Tracy, he made Young America (1932), Man’s Castle (1933), Big City (1937) and Mannequin (1938). Vivian Rich and George Periolat are father and daughter in Life’s Harmony, he as an aging church organist forced to retire when youthful Albert Vosburgh (later called Gayne Whitman, of the marvelous voice) takes his place. Seen as an orphan is Antrim Short, later a casting director and agent. Involved, but entertaining.
The Beasts of the Jungle (Solax 1913 Edward Warren) a 31-minute piece, produced and written by the once famed Alice Guy-Blanché and by Warren, in appealing tints. Fanciful to the point of ridiculousness, it stars Vinnie Burns as a rather childish young lady who travels to Africa and brings home a Bengal tiger which she names Princess (played by herself). Darwin Karr is the railroad building father who has to burn down his home to save his family from a lion that has the habit of walking right into camera range. Silly, but fun, which probably wasn’t what was originally intended.
An American Romance (MGM 1944 King Vidor), in beautiful Technicolor, was designed for Spencer Tracy, then recast with Brian Donlevy, already a star but not in Tracy’s league. As an epic of the auto industry, it completed Vidor’s trilogy that included The Big Parade (1925), for War, and Our Daily Bread (1934), representing Wheat, while An American Romance was the Steel portion. Donlevy is a Czech immigrant who becomes a major success in both Chicago and Detroit, after marrying Irish teacher-tutor Ann Richards (who was Australian), having a daughter (Mary McLeod) and sons whom he names after U.S. Presidents, Lincoln (Fred Brady), Washington (Robert Lowell) and Teddy Roosevelt (Horace-Stephen-McNally, also narrator). The huge cast includes Walter Abel, John Qualen, Donlevy’s six-week old daughter Judith Ann (as baby Tina) and, as a streetwalker, Barbara Pepper, the seductress of Our Daily Bread. Despite the film’s effectiveness, showing American industry for the first time in color to many members of the public, it wasn’t a major success, being released in the same year as Wilson, which was also a failure at the box office.
I Dood It (MGM 1943 Vincente Minnelli) is a hybrid: Red Skelton in one of his first major efforts for his home studio, Eleanor Powell’s last starrer for the same, and director Minnelli’s second feature. It’s also a remake of sorts of Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage (1929) with Buster providing some advice on the comedy sequences. It incorporates two of Powell’s dance numbers from earlier pix: the hula of Honolulu (1939) and a major routine from Born To Dance (1936). Costarring are John Hodiak, Thurston Hall, Sam Levene, Patricia Dane, Richard Ainley and Lena Horne from Minnelli’s previous, and first film, Cabin in the Sky. Latter appears in a great number with keyboardist Hazel Scott. For the hepcats: Jimmy Dorsey and Orchestra, Helen O’Connell and Bob Eberly singing “Star Eyes”–and Dorsey’s brother Tommy making a gag appearance.
The musical comedy has Powell performing a cowgirl number, jumping through huge rope hoops, and emulating Dorothy Sebastian in a Spite Marriage bit with a chair, showing how agile and talented she really was. Plot has Red as a pants presser for Levene, borrowing tuxes to see Eleanor perform in a Civil War show, “Dixie Lou”, while its costar, Hodiak, is a Nazi saboteur assigned to blow up war-related storage next to the theatre building. In a supreme example of cleverness, Minnelli has Skelton and Hodiak fight in a cabin set suspended on ropes, high above the theatre floor; literally, it’s a Cabin in the Sky.
Appropriately, Cabin in the Sky was on next. Vincente Minnelli directed this MGM classic in 1943, as his first film. With an all-black (then referred to as Negro) cast, in pleasing Sepiatone, the musical fantasy was based on the 1940 show by Lynn Root, a Hollywood scripter since the mid-30s (Lloyd’s The Milky Way, several Jane Withers vehicles), stars Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram repeating their roles from stage to screen. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, in his only Hollywood starring film, replaces Dooley (Sam) Wilson, with Lena Horne as temptress (Sweet) Georgia Brown and such talent as Mantan Moreland, Butterfly McQueen, Louis Armstrong, John W. Sublett (Bubbles) and partner Ford Washington (Buck), Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, Willie Best, The Hall Johnson Choir and actor Kenneth Spencer (doubling as the Heavenly General and Reverend Green).
The score, mainly by Vernon Duke and John Latouche, has Waters declaring that “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe”, as she tries to save the soul of her not-so-worthless husband, Anderson. Horne does her share in keeping them apart with help from Ingram (De Lawd of The Green Pastures, 1936, also with Anderson). One sexy scene has Lena briefly in her black bra, as she dresses for seduction, in her mainstream movie debut (her first, The Duke Is Tops (1938), was made for the theatres patronized by black Americans). Many (including me) fell that she was the most beautiful black woman ever born, Halle Berry and Dorothy Dandridge being a close second. A favorite song, “Taking a Chance on Love” (Ted Fetter also working on lyrics with Latouche), is featured.
Monday (6th) began with the outstanding:
Warning Shadows/Schatten-Ein Nächtliche Halluzination (German; PAN Film 1923 Dr. Arthur Robison). Starring Fritz Kortner and Lilli Herder, it is a great example of Expressionism as practiced in Germany, following the impact of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Robison and Rudolf Schneider wrote the fascinating screenplay, told without intertitles, with Alexander Granach virtually inventing motion pictures as a Shadow Player whose lantern-like apparatus projects cutouts which move on a screen.
Kortner is the jealous Count whose Diana-dressed wife attracts a trio of visiting Cavaliers and a lover in Gustav von Wangenheim. Nearly insane, he forces the Cavaliers to draw their swords and kill the distressed Herder on the dining room table, one of the greatest scenes in silent history. (Sid Caesar in his 1950s prime could’ve done a magnificent spoof.) It comes to an unexpected ending, with Metropolis‘ Rudolf Klein-Rogge in a Caligari-like appearance. Variety’s review from London (12-03-24) called Warning Shadows “a magical and magnificent film”. It is.
Tension (MGM 1949 John Berry) titles this excellent crime noir drama, presented in a new nitrate print. Its virtual all star cast is headed by Richard Basehart, although Barry Sullivan dominates in the latter half as narrator/co-star. Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Lloyd Gough, William Conrad and Tom D’Andrea are also important to the plot, a story by John Klorer adapted by Allen Rivkin about murder and adultery. Director John Berry, who later did John Garfield’s finale, He Ran All the Way (1951), proves to be a fine noir-maker, prior to his blacklisting, forcing him to move to France to continue his career.
Basehart acted more deviously, previously, in the great noir He Walked by Night (1948). Now, he’s the bespectacled, mild mannered husband of tough Audrey Totter and the manager of a 24-hour pharmacy/restaurant. He plans to murder Lloyd Gough, Malibu-based, his wife’s lover, by creating a new identity. In so doing, he meets photographer Charisse and begins falling in love with her. When Bassehart decides not to kill Gough–tart Totter just isn’t worth it–he’s murdered anyway, by her. Police Lt. Sullivan and partner Lt. William Conrad, younger but not thinner than he was as TV’s “Cannon”, a fat detective, think that Basehart is guilty. Charisse, in a rare non-musical role, is incredibly drab looking (Jack Dawn’s makeup may be at fault) before she became one of the screen’s sexiest dancers. Sullivan, always a tough hero and a tougher villain, has a most interesting part–his Lt. Collier Bonnabel is hands on, especially in romancing Totter, and could’ve had a film or TV series based on his character.
Monday, Aug 5, last afternoon of screenings, began with:
The Flapper (Selznick/Select 1920 Alan Crosland) stars the tragic Olive Thomas in her last film and features glimpses of Norma Shearer in her first. Frances Marion’s screenplay ranges from Dobbs Ferry, NY to Florida, with pleasant photography in both places, and shots of NYC. Attending Marcia Harris’ boarding school, Thomas encounters older William P. Carlton and thieves Katherine Johnston and Arthur Housman (he’s the Eel), while dealing with boyish boy friend Theodore Westman Jr., a military school student.
Olive Thomas, born in Charleroi, PA in 1894, first married as a teen and was a model and Ziegfeld Follies star before she was 20. Marrying Mary Pickford’s irresponsible brother Jack was a disaster; he was unfaithful, a disease-ridden addict who infected her with syphilis. An overdose of mercury bichloride caused her death, possibly accidentally, in Paris on Sept. 10, 1920, just four months after The Flapper‘s release. The film has several references to death and suicide–Olive comically tries to hang herself–and intertitles feature a drawing of a tombstone. The title helped popularize the term flapper, a young woman of unconventional dress and manner, as she was.
Gribouille/Heart of Paris (Couer de Paris) (French; Tri-National/Columbia 1937 Marc Allegret) with English titles. Character star RAimu and instant star Michele Morgan have the leads in this intriguing drama, he a juror who helps acquit a young Russian woman (Morgan) of killing her lover. Raimu later takes her into his home over his bicycle shop, hiding her identity; then his son Gilbert Gil falls in love with Michele and threatens to repeat her history. This was the first film Morgan made under that name, having debuted as Simone Roussel, her real name, in 1935, at only 15. After becoming Jean Gabin’s costar, she worked in Hollywood (Bogart’s Passage to Marseille, 1944) and England (The Fallen Idol, 1948). Heart of Paris was this film’s US title, its distributor Columbia remaking it as The Lady in Question (1940), in a more lighthearted vein. Brian Aherne starred and it was the first teaming of Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. A Gribouille is a soft hearted man, described as “a man who jumps into water to keep from getting wet”, a French concept.
The Whistle (William S. Hart/Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount 1921 Lambert Hillyer), postponed from last year, is an intense melodrama (with Hart in a non-Western role as the progressive foreman of a steel mill run by miserly Frank Brownlee. When faulty machinery claims the life of Hart’s little son Will Jim Hatton, he vows revenge, causing distress for Brownlee’s wife, Myrtle Stedman. It’s a difficult film to fully appreciate.
Sincere thanks to old friend Paula Smith of Rochester, who helped me throughout the film-filled weekend.
by John Cocchi, August 2013