I spent five days in L.A. attending Cinecon 48, a film fest dedicated to the screening and ultimately the preservation of classic early films. The fest offers over 40 films and events, capped off by a banquet at which the board gives deserving performers career-achievement awards. This year, the winners were Carleton Carpenter (who you might best remember for dueting with Debbie Reynolds on "Aba Daba Honeymoon"), Richard L. Bare (classic '60s TV director) and Phyllis Coates (the original "Lois Lane" on Adventures of Superman in the '50s). Debbie Reynolds was on hand to give her old co-star "Carp" his award, and her performance at the banquet amounted to a free taste of her bawdy nightclub act.
On the first day, I arrived at the Egyptian (where all the major screenings took place) to take in Always Bridesmaid (1943), an Andrews Sisters flick. I'm not a fan of the in-synch songbirds or of wartime fluff, but I went with my buddy Bryan Cooper from Cinecon, whose uncle—the late, great Billy Gilbert—had a featured part. It was fun enough to see, especially Gilbert's mugging, but overall was a pretty dreary kick-off for me. Hard to believe, but Patty Andrews is still alive somewhere at 94. Harder still to believe, she wouldn't have been the oldest person I encountered on this trip had she shown up.
But more fun was a surprise—Cathie and Nicole Nicholas, the granddaughters of the famous Nicholas Brothers, were on hand (and on feet) to dance along with a clip from the Brothers' oeuvre.
My first full day was much more harmonious. I Metroed from Sherman Oaks to the Loew's in Hollywood where I watched a truly engaging short documentary on an unfairly forgotten early-cinema pioneer, Looking for Mabel Normand. The film really made a strong case for her position as a mentor to Charlie Chaplin and for her unfair fall from grace due to some scandals that didn't even truly involve her. The writer was on hand to take questions, and she really knocked it out of the park—this woman knows everything about Mabel Normand that the rest of the world seems to have forgotten. When I asked her about which of Normand's many lost films she considers the greatest loss, she perkily said she doesn't call films "lost," just "misplaced." Apparently, one just popped up in a Belgian archive and is as pristine as the day it was made.
Next, I went to the Egyptian for Dollars and Sense (1920). This sweet silent—like all the others accompanied by a live pianist—is a plotless romantic comedy about a young woman (Madge Kennedy) who we are led to believe is being pressured into a romantic hook-up with a villainous CEO (Willard Louis). Problem is, she hates men! But that motto weakens when the poverty-stricken woman meets a too-generous baker (Kenneth Harlan) who slips coins into the muffins she buys, allegedly for a hungry dog. The ending is schmaltzy beyond belief, but suffice it to say that Louis's nuanced performance and the charm oozing from the leads elevated this piece into something warmly memorable. It was shocking to see the baker set up a free bread line at the cost of his entire business—definitely a Democrat.
Before the screening, a gentleman who had befriended Kennedy late in her life told charming anecdotes about the aging silent star, who lived well into her nineties. Most touchingly, he recounted the fact that during her lifetime, she was under the impression that none of her films existed anymore. "I'm afraid they've all turned to dust," he quoted her as mournfully saying. In fact, very few survive, which has helped to make Madge Kennedy all but forgotten in spite of her superstar status in the '20s. Unbelievably, this screening marked the first time the man was going to be able to see his old friend in action. I hope he was as pleased with her performance as I think most of the theater was.
Watching old silents—the good ones—can really open your mind to the clever artistry of past generations. Little touches in Dollars and Sense called out to me as modern and fresh to this day, including some funny interplay between Kennedy and her canine accomplice. And the title cards are often filled with hilarious one-liners that make you laugh and push the story succinctly forward brilliantly. You have to marvel.
Immediately after Dollars and Sense was Groovie Movie (1944), a classic short (seen above) about swing dancing with some of the best moves ever committed to film. It's such a slice of life from the era, and far sexier than most traditional movies of the period. Seeing these young people throwing each other around with abandon, it's impossible not to be reminded that the black-and-white figures in old movies were flesh-and-blood human beings with libidos. Or should I say "are," because half the cast members from that 68-year-old short are still alive, including Jean Veloz, who actually showed up for a brief Q&A. She looks amazing (dancers...) and confessed that seeing the film for the first time since its release had her bobbing in her seat.
After lunching with Bryan and my new cinephile pals Ross and Matt and Kieran (who looks 12 yet knows more about silent movies than most people know about talkies), I wandered around the dealer tables over at the Loew's, where one could find cigarette cards, lobby cards, stills, autographs and memorabilia in every shape and size. Seeing so many silent-star autographs was overwhelming, both because of their rarity and because it reminded me of my own age-old conundrum—collecting is infinitely satisfying, but is there an end game, or does your stuff end up being pawed over by the hoi polloi after your lengthy, solitary illness?
I was pleased to bump into famed dancer/choreographer Miriam Nelson, about to turn 90, hawking her memoir My Life Dancing with the Stars. Yes, Miriam, the hat does work.
Next up was a major treat, a screening of Gentle Julia (1936). This cutesy comedy features elegant Marsha Hunt in the title role as a young woman besieged by suitors who has to decide if she'll marry for money (a supposedly rich con man played by a delightfully oily George Meeker) or love (an amiable doofus played by Tom Brown). But the real star of the picture is Jane Withers as Julia's sassy, self-possessed kid sister, whose machinations wind up putting the kibosh on Meeker's grifter but good.
Before the screening (video snippets here), I was happy to see Jane again (she's 86 and still quite the character), assisting her to the theater from her car. She arrived with 86-year-old Carleton Carpenter, who was in town to be honored by Cinecon and to do a Q&A after a screening of one of his own movies. Jane's fave expression when frustrated is "crumb bunnies!", which is funny because the villain's name in the movie is "Crum." They were joined in the lobby by 94-year-old Hunt, still lovely and soon to be the subject of a documentary that will look at her lifelong pacifism and blacklisting during the McCarthy Era.
Hunt is losing her eyesight but mentally sound and a delight to speak with. (See video on aging from her documentary above.) She gamely agreed to sign my program but warned me that due to her eyesight, "It may not look like 'Marsha Hunt' at all!" It did.
Carpenter was a real hoot to speak with. He's still a working stage actor and seems bewildered by Cinecon's reverence of his film work. One fan asked him about a rumor that he'd been considered to be a part of the Disney Davy Crockett series in the '50s and he recalled that Disney—and sponsor Carnation—had rescinded their offer to him after he was seen at Christine Jorgensen's nightclub act! The wily Jorgensen, who'd been pursuing Carpenter to attend, set up a group photo with Carp and his good friend Jan Sterling, among others, then had the photo cropped to make it look like Carp was with Jorgensen on a date. Disney didn't like that. But hey, at least they followed through and paid him.
Before the movie started, 94-year-old voiceover legend June Foray, all 4'11" of her, arrived to sit with the stars.
It was endearing to see Jane and Marsha asked to give bows before the screening. What I love about stuff like Cinecon is that most elderly people in our country get no attention, so at least these elderly people get their due. Recognition is a valuable thing. Though hard work is, too, considering Carpenter and Foray's continuing careers.
The movie was dopey fun elevated by Jane's inimitable brassiness, but the following flick—the silent Sensation Seekers (1927), directed by Lois Weber and starring Billie Dove, was a dud. Boring, overly religion-themed and just dreary to sit through.
At night, unrelated to Cinecon, I snuck over to see a show featuring Liza Minnelli and the late Bea Arthur. Are you surprised to hear it involved men in drag?
After a fabulous brunch at Musso & Frank (I walked past Hal David's star adorned with a memorial wreath), the ancient Hollywood landmark eatery, I high-tailed it to the vendors' tables at the Loew's because I'd realized that Diana Serra Cary—"Baby Peggy" of the silent days—was present and selling her books. I'd already read her fascinating memoir so wanted to meet her and to buy her $38 opus Jackie Coogan: The World's Boy King. Cary, at 93, is among about a dozen human beings still living who ever set foot in a silent film. She holds the distinction of being the last real superstar of the silent era to tread the earth. But more than just being really old, she's really a phenomenal talent. Her writing is beautifully descriptive, breathtakingly impressionistic in passages, and soaked in research and first-hand knowledge of the sparsely documented era of Vaudeville and of a time when movies had to express everything while saying nothing.
She was really sweet to me, talking about her relationship to fellow star Coogan, who was a true superstar after his turn in The Kid opposite Charlie Chaplin, but who died famous as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family. I'm thrilled I got to meet her and have her sign my book, which I've already begun to devour and can heartily recommend.
Over to the Egyptian, I settled in for The Goose Woman (1925), which was billed as a masterpiece of the silent era. And how! I was absolutely enthralled by this beautifully directed (by Clarence Brown) and acted piece with a tour de force performance by Louise Dresser as a faded opera star whose bitterness and poverty drive her to push away the son whose birth robbed her of her voice, and whose desperate need for attention drives her to pretend she knows more about a local murder than she does. Dresser, in what looks to be no makeup at all, is flawless as the goose woman (so named for the flock she raises)—Oscar-worthy before they existed. I kept thinking of Mo'Nique in Precious, though Dresser's goose woman does have a convincingly redemptive transformation.
When her B.S. leads to her own son being fingered for the capital offense, she realizes her pathetic shortcomings and confesses, saved by her eleventh-hour honesty and by a fluke that roots out the real killer. Jack Pickford is affecting as her long-suffering son, and Constance Bennett (who kinda looks like Debra Messing) picture-perfect as his kind-hearted fiancée.
There's even a scene that touches on Cinecon's goal of preservation when the singer loses the one and only link to her former glory.
But what really makes The Goose Woman sing is the set design, which is remarkably realistic and dense. So clearly an art film, and a good art film at that.
Barely recovered from it, I stayed for Walk, Don't Run (1966), the newest film ever screened at Cinecon. This middling screwball comedy is seen as worthwhile for featuring the last screen performance by Cary Grant, but the late Jim Hutton (the father of Timothy, he died of cancer in his forties) and then rising-star Samantha Eggar more than hold their own in what is at times a rather forced and slight confection. Set in Tokyo during the Olympics, the film was pretty good about not being offensive—the Japanese are on equal footing with the stars, especially Miiko Taka's thoroughly modern sidekick Aiko. A small bit featuring George Takei brought excited murmurs of recognition.
After Walk, Don't Run, 73-year-old Eggar appeared for a lengthy Q&A, telling us she was grateful for Cinecon's reverence for the art of acting and the importance of film, and spilling the beans that she'd started filming 19 days after giving birth so had to be bound in order to look fit and keep it together for the more physical scenes. (The son she bore is now almost 50, gulp.)
She was gracious afterward, sticking around to sign autographs and endure questions such as, "Do you own all your movies' soundtracks on CD???"
Sunday was my busiest day. After a wee-small-hours flea market outing with Chexy, with whom I was staying, I arrived at the Egyptian in time to see most of the presentation of some Joe McDoakes subjects.
These shorts, created by honoree Richard L. Bare and starring honoree Phyllis Coates and George O'Hanlon (better known as the voice of "George Jetson"), are broadly comedic, following the tempestuous relationship between a suburban husband and wife with plenty of at-camera asides and absurd plot twists. They weren't really for me, but the Q&A was a hoot.
Coates, 85, and Bare, 99, who'd been married briefly, were reunited on stage and reminisced about the series, about Coates's time on Adventures of Superman ("I left for personal reasons...") and about Bare's direction of TV classics like Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.
When Bare brought out some honeymoon photos to show Coates, she mouthed, "Jesus Christ!" to the audience but politely examined them. He said they'd still been in love when they divorced, and that it had just been one of those youthful things, but her facial expression was harder to read. Still, they had a funny chemistry.
The two signed and posed for pictures after, even kissing for the cameras.
I had to kill time after eating so went to see the short doc Peter Ford: A Little Prince, which was all about the life of the son of Glenn Ford and Eleanor Powell. The film, directed by Alexander Roman, has fabulous home-movie footage showing Powell on movie sets and dancing at home, but my criticism is that nothing was tagged—you'd see something remarkable and be left wondering what year it was from or which film or what the context was. Aside from that, Ford's narration left something to be desired. I was on his side when it came to his descriptions of his dad as almost sociopathologically distant (he paid a minuscule amount of child support, leading to his kid having to eat Hamburger Helper in his 22-room mansion), yet listening to him say that being the child of stars is "the hardest job in the world" for an hour did get boring.
Making matters worse, a...let's just go with "journalist"...who was tape-recording the Q&A after via a large, ancient recorder (that he spoke into loudly while the filmmakers were beginning to talk) kept hammering home the point that Ford, for all his flaws, was a great patriot. Ford's son agreed, saying his dad was a Reaganite hawk who served in the military and volunteered to fight in Vietnam, but I just wanted to blurt out, "Who cares if someone's willing to die for their country when they can't even be a halfway decent father to their only child?"
Kudos to Peter Ford for getting through what sounds like a surprisingly tough childhood, though, and to the filmmaker for documenting the home life of an early Hollywood power couple.
Finally, it was time for the Q&A I most looked forward to, the one with Carleton Carpenter. First, we had to sit through Fearless Fagan (1952), a harmless and at times quite touching tale of a young circus performer (Carp) and the lion he has raised as a sort of gigantic housecat. When he's drafted into the army, the naive private attempts to secretly house the cat in the nearby woods, but that plot is exposed by the less than sympathetic famous singer (Janet Leigh) who arrives on base to entertain the troops.
I found Fagan most interesting for its skirting of sexuality. It's clear that Carpenter's character has a sort of crush on Leigh's, but there's a gay subtext there, too. Leigh tells him, "You're better off with lions than with girls anyway," and much is made about how "queer" it is for a young guy to be "in love with" a lion. (Who is a male, BTW.) It wasn't anything overt or probably even intentional, but it gave the film a little more depth all these years later. Carpenter himself is an endearing screen presence, perfectly cast as a Peter Pan with a furry thumb (if gardeners' are green, what are animal lovers'?). He sounds a bit like Jimmy Stewart in the picture, and his mannerisms are almost exactly those of the late Tom Villard's. He's a wonderful grown-up kid.
In like, Carp is humble and exudes happiness with his life. His Q&A was chockful of interesting tidbits. The story that affected me the most was his remembrance of throwing a party in the '40s and having fellow performer Judy Garland sidle up to him beforehand and remark, "Gee, you didn't invite me to your party," to which he replied, "You'd come?" She came, and with assistance from her accompanist she sang a song he'd written. Then she sang it again with some adlibs that he immediately wrote into the music. Sadly, as he told us, these were the days before tape recorders so, "It lives only in my heart." What a wonderful memory for him, and how sad that none of us will ever be able to eavesdrop on it.
It was also quite moving when he mentioned that all of his leading ladies have passed away (including close friend Jan Sterling). "Except for Debbie, who we'll see later."
Carpenter's versatility as an artist—movie/TV/stage actor, dancer, singer, songwriter—and the diversity of his career choices make him a prime candidate for rediscovery.
Barely had time to get back to Chexy's to change for the banquet at the Loew's.
Chexy and I arrived at 7 on the dot only to encounter William Katt (how is The Greatest American Hero star 60?) escorting his mama Barbara Hale, 90, through a slew of autograph hounds. Got a pic with William and then immediately followed that up with one alongside Julie Newmar, 79. She cuts such an impressive figure still, towering over six feet and battling a muscular disorder that affects her walking.
On the elevator, Newmar was offered and gladly accepted Chexy's arm. Chexy is tall, too, and I think she thought she might be getting lucky until I joked that she was stealing my date. Then, when I asked if she'd ever been to Cinecon before, she immediately replied, "Hell, no!"
She'd arrived with Terry Moore, 83, and onetime child actor (the man was in Humoresque with Joan Crawford!) and character actor Tommy Cook, 82, but she was banking on leaving with Chexy.
That wasn't happening on my watch, so we walked her to where she felt the "good light" was and set her up on a large marble table against the wall, the perfect spot to receive admirers and to be admired. I promised I'd give her Chexy back later on if she so desired and she said, "I'd like that." When I asked if she wanted a picture with him, she said, "I'd like that very much." Done!
While Chexy was getting his ticket (he'd walked in with Julie so hadn't checked in), I saw Debbie Reynolds had appeared. My main goal was to get a picture with her, but she was mobbed and I figured of everyone there she'd be the hardest to grab, so I positioned myself next to her on the inside of the banquet hall. She used a pen of mine to exchange info with Richard Bare (who was chewing her ear off), then told me forcefully, "I want to walk." So I helped by moving in and allowing her her space.
With no Chexy in site and some very shaky-looking Cinecon attendees in the immediate vicinity, I was forced to do the self-photo—my most hated activity!
She politely agreed, then said, "Uh-oh..." when it appeared it hadn't worked. Round two went perfectly and I thanked her after telling her I'd seen her act in NYC and had been thrilled when she teased my partner and me from the stage, incorporating us into her performance. She was a bit glassy-eyed at my gushing but nice enough, and I was happy to have bagged the photo.
With Chexy back in action, we rounded up quite a collection of pic-withs, including shots with "Tea Time Movie Lady" and star of '80s shows like The Duck Factory Teresa Ganzel, 55; stately actress Anne Jeffreys, 89; adorable, tiny-as-a-peck-hello June Foray who was the voice of "Rocky the Squirrel" and who just won a Daytime Emmy for her ongoing voice work; '30s/'40s actress and voice of "Miss Chiquita Banana" Monica Lewis, 90, who gave me a big kiss and urged me to like her on Facebook; Oscar nominee Theodore Bikel, 88; Petticoat Junction babe Linda Kaye Henning, 68; voice of "Judy Jetson" Janet Waldo, 88, but looking 20 years younger in person; the unstoppable Rose Marie, 89; '30s child actress Marilyn Knowlden, 86, who appeared in more Oscar-nominated films of that era than just about anyone; a blonde France Nuyen, 73, who told me, "That's what I'm here for!" when I requested a photo; Barbara Hale, who is hilarious and who shared a very sweet hello-and-good-bye with Debbie Reynolds after the festivities; and vampy Francine York, 74, who from what I'm told does not like having her exploitation movies referred to as exploitation movies.
That's not to mention a photo op with Moore and Cook, who were our tablemates. Cinecon seats at least one star at every table so everyone gets a piece of the pie. And just in case you missed seeing or failed to recognize any of them, each and every star by any definition of the term received an introduction from the stage. Along with all of the above, we also had mentions of singer India Adams (age unknown), scandal-tainted Miracle Worker actor Andrew Prine, 76, who kinda looked like Halston meets James Woods to me, with Battle for the Planet of the Apes actress Heather Lowe, 60; Peter Mark Richman, 85; Richard Anderson, 86, best known for his Six Million-Dollar past but who had a part in Fearless Fagan; Coleen Gray, 90; Adventures of Superman's Jimmy Olsen Jack Larson, 84; silent performer Carla Laemmle, 102; early Emmy winner Peggy Webber, 87; backup "Trixie" Jane Kean, 88; Show Boat singer Annette Warren, approximately 80; Hazel's Lynn Borden, 73, and Paul Smith, 83; producer Stanley Rubin, 94, and his wife, It Came from Outer Space actress Kathleen Hughes, 83. In no particular order!
Someone asked how Mary Carlisle was doing. I hadn't realized she was still alive, but the 100-year-old '30s starlet is apparently not only alive but kicking.
The meal was not so hot, but the company was. Enjoyed getting to know new friends Vincent and Judson and thoroughly enjoyed the program, with hilarious and informative speeches leading up to the awards.
Coates killed when she said, "I live in Sonoma. It's an awful place to live. Unless you're drunk. But I discovered I'm allergic to alcohol." Equally funny was when she was asked by her ex, "How long were we married?" and she made a tiny space with her fingers and blurted out, "This much." Before the potency of that remark even sank in, she did a finger-trigger gesture to him and continued, "But it was interesting!"
Larson gave a somewhat rambling, history-soaked speech about the MGM days, and Henning gave a warm intro to Bare, who continued to sell us on the genius of his McDoakes comedies.
But the highlight of the night and the five days had to be Debbie Reynolds. Her speech presenting the award to Carleton Carpenter was raunchy and self-deprecating and even worked in a brief moment of pathos when she teared up after mentioning her recently auctioned collection of Hollywoodiana. I just love her, and I think part of the reason why is that I feel her—I'm also a packrat. Corporations are not people, but some things are, and Debbie knows that.
Carp's acceptance was down-to-earth and to the point. He seems clueless as to why he would be considered anyone of any import. Lovely man, and a lovely end to a lovely evening.
Yes, it goes on. But not for long! Judson and Vincent persuaded me to come early and see the silent Ladies' Night in a Turkish Bath (1928) starring Dorothy Mackaill, Jack Mulhall, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, James Finlayson and Sylvia Ashton. I'm so glad I came because it was a winner, a neatly performed romp in which Mackaill strikes it rich after working for her family business but is wooed by blue-collar Mulhall. Their oddball pairing is enhanced by the emergence of a wealthy rival, Reed Howes, and by the constant presence of Mulhall's goofy buddy, Williams. The comedy was fresh, as were some of those title cards, and it was pretty funny to see the whole thing unravel in a bath house.
Looking up the stars, it was interesting to see that Mackaill had retired young to care for her mother but came back on some episodes of Hawaii Five-O and that Howes was one of the famous Arrow Collar Men. All the guys were extremely sexy, big, solid and physically impactful. I had previously thought it odd when an attendee gushed to me about his sexual arousal over the late Thelma Todd, but...I get it now.
Of special note was a sequence in which Williams camped it up as a queen to tease Mulhall for being a dress model for his GF, only to be caught by a cop. Instead of acting defensive, Williams simply sauntered over to the cop, still in character and sashayed away. Shockingly subversive, but perhaps not so shocking in that this film was pre-Code so got away with more.
I then caught some of the Mack Sennett shorts, including the best one, which was a reel of outtakes. Imagine...outtakes from the 1910s! It was filled with bathing beauties showing their voluptuous stuff but also had a hysterical scene of girls running into the water on the beach but then breaking character and turning around to protest the cold.
That was it for me. I had a great time wallowing in the nostalgic and rediscovering the timeless artistry (and some timeless lack thereof) present in these films. I'll probably go again. Check it out so you can be there next year.