September 8 to 11, 2016
I have recently returned from the very first Western New York Movie Expo and Memorabilia Show. It was held in Buffalo, New York from September 8th to 11th, 2016. It was organized by Alex Bartosh and certainly was memorable in many ways.
I drove down with three other film enthusiasts and got there just after the start of the first film. Still, it was something I wanted to see and decided to head into the screening room although I had missed the first 30 of the 72 minute film. Part of the reason I was so late was because I couldn’t find the signage to direct me to where the festival was taking place. When I did finally find it and checked in at the desk, it was kind of quirky that I was taken at my word that I had pre-registered and was asked to fill out my own name tag. And there were no film schedules except for the one posted by the screening room door which was too hard to read due to the poor lighting.
When I entered the screening room, I noticed how the door squeaked. What was even more surprising is that there was such a small audience—mostly film friends I know from other festivals with the majority of them being from my hometown in Toronto. But since I had only found out the day before what films were going to be screened on Thursday night, I figured that there were also a number of people who may not have known about the Thursday night screening and would be arriving the next day. I knew my friend Kyle, who had sent me the film schedule, wouldn’t be arriving until Friday morning.
That first film was THE BIG TIMER (1932), directed by Edward Buzzell and featured Ben Lyon, Constance Cummings and Thelma Todd. It had a boxing theme which is always of interest to me because my son is involved in the sport. While the film was on, there were a few people at the back of the screening room having a conversation. This is a big no-no in any theatre and I took it upon myself to ask them to keep their voices down. I figured that they thought they were far enough away from the audience to talk, but I think there weren’t enough bodies in the audience to muffle the sound. I also mentioned the creaky door to the people at the desk and suggested they ask the hotel staff to oil it—and I was glad to find the next morning that this was done. I think others appreciated someone mentioning these two little distractions so they could be dealt with.
One of the attractions at this film festival was a dealers’ room. Since I had missed about half of THE BIG TIMER, I was happy to find that one of the dealers had a copy of the film which I immediately purchased. Now I can use the pretence of having to show it to my son so I can watch it from beginning to end. I’m not crazy about Ben Lyon, but I never tire of Constance Cummings who has the rather unusual role, besides being the wife, as manager of her boxer husband. She knows her sport!
There were two rooms set up for the screenings which were to run different films continually. I had already decided that I was mainly going to watch full feature films and miss most of the shorts or documentaries. That doesn’t mean they weren’t worthwhile, it just means that knowing myself and fatigue, that I had to take breaks when I could. So I had decided, based on the schedule I was sent, that I would take a break until the next full-featured film was screened in Room B. However, when I wandered over to the room, it was empty, with lights on and nothing being projected. I heard a bit later that the films had been left behind at someone’s home and someone had gone to get them.
The break gave me an opportunity to wander into the dealers’ room and I was very happy to meet up with an old friend, Gare, from Cinefest days. He sells more 60s related music DVDs as well as a number of British films from the 50s and 60s. He mentioned he would be introducing one of his films late Saturday evening. More about that later.
In the meantime, I talked to someone—I don’t remember who—and said that I had hoped to see the film BANJO (1947) which was to be shown in Room B. It was available and the projectionist looped it through the projector. I was interested in this film because it was directed by Richard Fleischer who I had researched when TFS screened So This Is New York (1948) in July 2015. Besides, I had seen quite a number of his films that I had enjoyed such as Armoured Car Robbery (1950), as uncredited director of His Kind of Woman (1951) and The Narrow Margin (1952) to name three Noirs. I’m not sure why he chose to make BANJO.
Maybe he liked dogs and children; maybe because it would only be his second full-length feature film and RKO chose him to direct it; maybe because it was written by screenwriter Lillie Hayward and at the time the subject matter was what the public wanted to see. Please don’t think that I didn’t enjoy it. I did but for a lot of the wrong reasons.
Nowadays, and maybe because we are Canadians, we find it absurd that the reason a nine-year-old girl can’t have a gun is because…there aren’t enough funds to purchase one. Pat Warren (Sharyn Moffett) was this girl who becomes an orphan early on in the story.
There’s never any thought, except by her, to be adopted by the black family she knows and loves headed by Lindy (so nice to see Louise Beavers), her husband Uncle Jasper (Ernest Whitman) and their two sons, Exodus (Theron Jackson) and Genesis (Howard McNeeley).
Instead she has to go live with her maternal aunt Elizabeth (Jacqueline White) who is rich, single-minded and a terrible parent.
Throw in a likeable love interest, Dr. Bob Hartley (Walter Reed) who understands children and dogs and you know you’re going to end up with a ready-made family. And it never hurts to have the quirky Uno O’Connor as the helpful maid Harriet.
But the swamp scenes are kind of cool although the death of a beautiful cougar isn’t. But you understand the tie-in of where the story starts and how it has to finish.
On Friday, I made it to the second screening of the morning, THE BELLS (1926), directed by James Young, featuring Lionel Barrymore, Gustav von Seyffertitz, who had dark hair for a change, but was still sinister and grumpy, and Boris Karloff as The Mesmerist.
I have a copy of this film but have never watched it so was rather excited to get a chance to see it on a big screen. How can you not want to see a story which includes Christmas and Jews?
There were a couple of issues. The big screen in the main screening room was BIG. So big that the people sitting in the first few rows, their heads would create shadows at the bottom of the screen. It’s great to have a big picture, it just means that the screen was too low and too big for the wall. It wasn’t a perfectly smooth screen either but I was okay with that. Another problem that didn’t bother me as much as it did others was the fact that the room was on one side of an outside wall. That meant that without black-out curtains, daylight was coming into the room which caused the image to have much less contrast than it should have.
However, the funniest thing about THE BELLS was that some of the reels were mixed up and although it was possible to follow the story, it took us a bit by surprise to realize that something was suddenly amiss. A few people weren’t sure if there were one or two murders, but suffice to say, there was only one. Jeff Rapsis, our wonderful piano accompanist for the entire festival, did a grand job of keeping up with the action, regardless of where it was taking us.
Despite the fact that it was somewhat out of order, I loved the film and already have it out on my coffee table to watch again. If you’d like to watch it online, click here.
I skipped THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH (1957), not because I couldn’t see it again, but again since I own it have seen it twice before, I chose to take a break. Gare from the dealers’ room, also took a break from his duties and watched it. It’s directed by Basil Dearden who also happens to be the director of the film that Gare was introducing later on in the festival, and he told me he loved it. It’s a film about small theatre owners that I would like to share with my kids (it’s hard to get them to watch “ancient” film) so if that ever happens, that’s when I’ll get to screen it again. It features the husband and wife Born Free (1966) couple, Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers as well as the outstanding Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers. If you haven’t seen it, give yourself a treat!
I came back to watch the creepy THE UNKNOWN (1927), directed by the great Tod Browning, with Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. It’s considered a classic and if you haven’t seen it, you must. It’s the story of a criminal who disguises himself as an amputee, hiding himself in a circus.
There he meets and falls for Nanon (Crawford), who although she feels sorry for him, doesn’t feel the same way about him as he does her but is interested in strong man Malabar (Norman Kerry).
Witnessing a murder without seeing the culprit’s face, puts this damsel in jeopardy. To watch this film online, click here.
Next was MURDER AT 3AM (1953), directed by Francis Searle. This British detective film featured Dennis Price as Inspector Peter Lawton, Peggy Evans as his sister Joan and Philip Saville as her fiancé Edward King. There’s a violent thief going around town in the middle of the night, snatching jewels and money from unsuspecting women. When one or two are murdered in the robberies, Peter starts to suspect it might just be his sister’s mild-mannered fiancé. But is he right? Quite an enjoyable crime mystery.
The next film was supposed to be IN OLD MISSOURI (1940), directed by Frank McDonald. The story sounded like it could be fun about two families who switch identities. It features a young Alan Ladd in the role of a “wastrel son”. Unfortunately, this was switched to STAGECOACH (1939), with the film actually coming from the Merian C. Cooper estate. I decided not to watch this even though it’s a great film and I haven’t seen it many, many years. Again, I have a copy at home although I know it won’t take the place of seeing it on the larger screen.
But the reason I decided to take this break was because I was excited to see the next silent film and wanted to be bright eyed and bushy tailed for it. In the meantime, you might be asking, what was playing in Room B on this Friday? Well, sometimes there was nothing and sometimes there was something. However, mostly there were shorts, TV shows and docu-type of film such as Ed Sullivan’s 10th Anniversary Show (1958) or Vaudeville Varieties. Nothing wrong with these type of selections. But you can’t see everything!
But when I returned, instead of the silent film, VALLEY OF THE GIANTS (1919) being screened, something else was shown in its place. I didn’t make a note of it, so I can’t tell you what it was, but the next film I remember seeing was the truly magnificent THE LOST PATROL (1934) directed by John Ford, with Victor McLaglen, Boris Karloff, Wallace Ford, Reginald Denny, Billy Bevan and Alan Hale. I think devastating dramas are one of my favourite genres. Such a sad story with such a random, significant ending. What I mean by that is that a whole troop of men are first lost while another is saved without their possibly ever realizing it. Hugely significant, and tying the film together from the beginning to the end by showing that one’s separate actions can do or undo the fate of others.
It’s the story of a regiment of soldiers during WWI who are heading for an undisclosed location known by only one solider. Unfortunately, he is shot and instantly killed by invisible Arab snipers without ever passing on this location to his Sergeant (Victor McLaglen). They and their horses are now lost with no idea in which direction to continue in.
Boris Karloff was the very odd duck in this group of British soldiers lost in the desert; a religious zealot who loses his mind, possibly something that had begun even earlier than when desperate times occur.
Unless I missed it, there was a small piece of film missing as we don’t learn the fate of Brown (Reginald Denny). I feel the need to mention that I have always found Reginald Denny attractive. There’s just something about him, even when during his soliloquy he did spout the words that women shouldn’t live past the age of 21. It made me shudder to wonder how young he wanted the mother of his child to be. Okay, I know that’s not what he was thinking about. To watch a lousy print of this film online with what look like Spanish subtitles, click here.
After this film, they were running SAFETY LAST (1923) with Harold Lloyd. I haven’t seen this film in years and had just purchased a Criterion copy. So I decided to skip it because I had learned that VALLEY OF THE GIANTS had been moved to just after the Lloyd film plus there was still one more after that, MADAME RACKETEER (1932) that I had wanted to see. So it would make for a very late night.
I just want to interject here that our silent film accompanist, Jeff Rapsis, impressed me, and I’m sure others, not only by his talent and skill but with the fact that he was able to tirelessly play for more than two silent films back to back! He obviously enjoys what he does and shared how he especially loves to create the score as he goes along for a film he hasn’t seen before. His comments and film knowledge were always interesting.
So back I was for VALLEY OF THE GIANTS, but it wasn’t the 1919 version directed by James Cruze and starring Wallace Reid. I had read that this was the film that began Reid’s demise. He had been injured while doing stunt work and had received morphine injections for the pain, supposedly from a studio physician which, as we all know, started his addiction and which sadly caused his death on January 18, 1923 at the young age of 31.
But this wasn’t the film we were watching. Instead, it was the 1927 version directed by Charles Brabin, featuring the husband and wife team of Milton Sills and Doris Kenyon. And it was fabulous! Charles Sellon played the villain Pennington and there was loads of excitement. Train wrecks, brawls, incredible stunt work on top of moving trains. I have only seen a couple of films with Milton Sills, both with the lovely Dorothy Mackaill, His Captive Woman (1929) (a partial talkie) and Man Trouble (1931), one of his rare full featured talkies, but certainly enough to make me want to see more. Before becoming an actor, Sills was a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of Chicago. Sadly, he died in 1930 at the age of 48 of a heart attack while playing tennis. Married just under three years to Kenyon, they had two small children when he passed away. Doris Kenyon went on to make a dozen or so more films in the 1930s but retired from the screen until returning to play a few roles in three TV series.
I learned a bit earlier that MADAME RACKETEER was being screened in Room B and chose to miss it for VALLEY. Afterwards, Jeff continued to play for some wonderful sounding Charley Chase films, but I had decided it was time to retire for the evening. In hindsight, I should have stayed up to watch them since sleep wasn’t as easily come by as I had hoped.
But in the morning, I made it down to see STAND AND DELIVER (1928), a most entertaining adventure silent directed by Donald Crisp, featuring Rod La Rocque at his most charming, Lupe Velez at her most luminous and Warner Oland at his most villainous.
Lots of wisecracking titles with plenty of action and great stunt work!
La Rocque was made for silent film. His speaking voice never had the range or inflections that would have served him well for the transition, at least in my opinion. He was so great a swashbuckling-type roles and those types of dramas weren’t made much circa 1930 until Errol Flynn came on the scene.
Next up was CRIMINAL LAWYER (1937), directed by Christy Cabanne and an uncredited Edward Killy, featuring Lee Tracy, and a too much underseen Margot Grahame. The film I best know Grahame for is John Ford’s 1935 The Informer starring Victor McLaglen. She is someone I hadn’t recognized but she really was such an interesting actress in CRIMINAL LAWYER. It just makes me want to see more of her. Nor was I the only one who thought so.
CRIMINAL LAWYER was a story written by Louis Stevens who also wrote the story for the 1932 pre-Code STATE’S ATTORNEY. I had seen this film not too long ago and noticed the same story line. Pre-Codes are probably my favourite genre of film, but I enjoyed the 1937 version of the story better this time ‘round. Very different leading men tackled the same role, John Barrymore versus Lee Tracy, but I think Tracy’s personality as the fast talking lawyer, whose clever subterfuge really worked.
Because one is pre-Code and the other is post, the prostitute/secretary role played by both Helen Twelvetrees and Grahame were quite, quite different. Helen never has to become Barrymore’s official “secretary” where of course Grahame does.
But we like her dignity even if Helen is able to give her attorney a “what for” speech that is not said, but more acted upon in this later version.
Afterwards, I started watching the amusing THE BOGGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942) (you can watch it yourself by clicking on the title), directed by Lew Landers with the combination of two great actors who can play odd balls to the hilt, Boris Karloff as Prof. Nathaniel Billings and Peter Lorre as Dr. Arthur Lorencz.
It’s a silly comedy and although the cast was great and story humourous and somewhat on the edge of quirky, I left in the middle to go see THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS (1965), a British television documentary, hosted by Dirk Bogarde, about the aborted 1937 film I Claudius with Charles Laughton and Robert Newton.
I had seen this many years ago in my parents’ wreck room when they used to have screenings with friends, but thought it would be worthwhile to see again. There are interviews with the film’s director Josef Von Sternberg, writer Robert Graves, actors Merle Oberon, Flora Robson, Emlyn Williams and costume designer John Armstrong.
In the end, mine and Tex’s verdict, another film friend, was that this film was probably best not being completed since it looked like it would be a highly expensive all talking, no action box office bomb. Still, it made for a very interesting historical documentary and wonderful to see interview footage of these famous people. To watch it online, click here.
I missed the film, LADY AND GENT (1932), which had started while I was watching the above film and then either skipped the THIEF OF BAGDAD (1939) although I don’t know why because I would have liked to have seen it. Maybe it was shifted to another time? I don’t remember but again, I can watch my copy of it at home. But something that we did get to see, which wasn’t listed in the original schedule (so maybe it replaced THIEF OF BAGDAD?) was GROWING UP WITH HOLLYWOOD. It was well attended and the film maker was there. I think everyone found it very interesting. It included interviews with the grown up child stars Baby Peggy, Tony Dow of Leave It to Beaver, Paul Petersen of The Donna Reed Show, Beverly Washburn of Old Yeller, John Wilder who went from child actor to screenwriter, Tommy Cook as Little Beaver in Adventures of Red Ryder (1940) and Terry Moore of Mighty Joe Young. What made it extra special was the tribute it paid to Bobby Driscoll, the actor who voiced the forever-young Peter Pan in Walt Disney’s animation. What a sad ending for this talented young man. You can read about his life at TFS’s website with regard to his film The Window (1949). You can also watch the trailer for GROWING UP WITH HOLLYWOOD here.
The film, MADAME RACKETEER (1932) was being shown again in the evening in Room B and since I wanted to see it, I returned for 7:00 p.m. In a sense, you could say that the Countess (Alison Skipworth) was a pre-Code femme fatale. Of course she didn’t look like one, but in a sense she acted like one. She was able to swindle pretty much everyone although her behaviour always landed her in jail. She was a talented con artist who had once married Elmer Hicks (Richard Bennett—father of Constance and Joan), gave birth to two daughters, Alice (Evalyn Knapp) and Patsy (Gertrude Messinger) and then skedaddled out of their lives. It’s not until she needs a place to hang out while on parole that she comes back into their lives, never letting her daughters know that she is their mother. Her meek husband agrees, especially since he told the girls she had died in some saintly way.
Despite the fact that the Countess, aka Martha Hicks, is totally out for herself and has know qualms about who she hurts by stealing their money (even if sometimes the culprit deserves it), she makes sure her daughters either get what they want (Alice) or don’t (Patsy) if it’s the best thing for them. Alice and David Butterworth are in love and want to marry but David’s banker father James doesn’t think Alice is good enough for his son. So while the Countess convinces him to let his son marry Alice, she also cons him out of loads of money.
When her teenage daughter Patsy falls for gangster Jack Houston (George Raft), the two crooks immediately recognize each other for what they are and the last thing she’s going to do is let her daughter, who just dropped out of high school, run off with this no-good man. This is even despite the fact that she understands his kisses thrill her daughter and she can remember what that was all about. Patsy is convinced Jack is very rich and will marry her once they hit the big city, but we and the Countess know that’s never going to happen.
One of my favourite character actors, J. Farrell MacDonald, plays Detective John Adams and he can’t help but be charmed by the Countess no matter how many times she plays him for a fool.
Afterwards, some of the people from my group went to see IN THE ZONE WITH ROD SERLING and stayed for some Laurel and Hardy shorts. I don’t know how things went so off schedule, but what I was waiting for was the 11:00 p.m. screening of the British VIOLENT PLAYGROUND (1957), presented by Gare who also supplied the print. It somehow didn’t get screened until 12:30 a.m., but for everyone who stayed up to see it, it was something they won’t forget in a while. How poignant the film is today, about poor, troubled, directionless youth living in government housing. It reminded me of the scenes of black youth in the TV show The Wire. So little has changed except maybe the access to drugs, which there was no mention of in this earlier film. The leader of the gang in this Liverpool housing project is teenager David McCallum’s Johhnie Murphy who, after playing small roles in Billy Budd, Freud and The Great Escape rose to international fame in the TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
In the lead role is Stanley Baker as Detective Sergeant Jack Truman. He’s been investigating mysterious arsons that have been plaguing Liverpool and when he discovers what looks like a skinny piece of metal with a bob at the end, he pockets it, sure it’s a clue of some sort. And that’s when he’s assigned the role of Juvenile Liaison Officer for a newly formed committee, meaning that he has to round up any troubled youth and personally attempt to set them on the right path. How daunting is that, especially for a single man who’s has had no previous interaction with kids? He meets up with the ten-year-old twins, Mary and Patrick Murphy (played by real-life twins Brona and Fergal Boland) after they are caught scamming store clerks. Mary easily wraps Truman around her little finger until her big sister Cathie (Anne Heywood) sets this “bluebottle” straight. If you didn’t know that bluebottle was a derogatory name for the police, you knew when you saw the shock and hurt come over Truman when he’s called that by Cathie. But he proves himself helpful when he follows through, enrolling the twins in after-school programs, helping to keep them off the street until Cathie has a chance to get home from work. Their parents seem to have skedaddled off, so these four sibling are being raised by Cathie, doing the best she can.
Peter Cushing plays the priest, Father Laidlaw. In a scene where he’s trying to understand Johnnie, as well as get Johnnie to begin to understand himself, there is the moment where everything goes wrong. This is when you realize how much one little incident has hindered what you hoped would come next. The incident? Truman’s not knocking on a door but just entering a room where something detrimental is going on.
Chinese outsiders, brother and sister Alexander (Michael Chow) and Primrose (the gorgeous Tsai Chin) are people unable to escape Johnnie and the gang’s radar. And this is especially because Alexander has a job delivering laundry for a dry cleaning company and has access to their truck. Alexander can never be part of the gang, and it’s likely he doesn’t want to, but he’s a minority who knows he can’t escape their intolerance. Even though it may seem typical that he becomes a victim just like many black characters were in Hollywood films, it also makes sense based on Johnnie and Alexander’s motives.
There are a number of devastating scenes in the film, but the first one was the dance scene, where the gang members, all boys, are dancing to Rough, Rough, Rough by Johnny Luck. It’s the theme song for the film, used both at the beginning and the end and it’s a rare event as far as I know, to hear such a rocking song from 1957. Totally cool. The dance scene itself has such a dangerous feel to it. When Johnnie and the sergeant walk up to his flat, all the boys from his gang are dancing while his twin siblings are sitting, with Mary’s arm protectively around her brother, barricaded behind a table, staring with huge, glassy and frightened eyes.
Johnnie takes in the scene, turns up the music and joins in the dance. His moves are different from the other boys, first wild and then threatening. When he glares at Truman, his look and message is very unsettling—violent but also with longing. Jack doesn’t take his eyes off of Johnnie and doesn’t move a facial muscle. Who is Johnnie and what are we supposed to surmise. Is he looking for a friend, a father figure or is he a closeted gay man? He doesn’t seem to have any interest in Meg (Benice Swanson) who’s been fawning over him. But is that because he’s too cool or because he’s not interested in women? Director Basil Dearden made the film Victim (1961) where the main character is homosexual, so it’s not an impossible subtle subplot. To see this scene, click here.
The last important character that needs mentioning is Principal ‘Heaven’ Evans (Clifford Evans). A kind man who he cares deeply about people, you know that his interest in others would have had some influence on some of the children’s lives.
To discover that Basil Dearden, the director and partial director of two films that I love, The Mind Benders (1963) and Dead of Night (1945), also made this intelligent film, left me feeling quite excited. To view VIOLENT PLAYGROUND, click here. Hope you find it just as enthralling as the people who watched it with me late Saturday night did. Afterwards—because there is a spoiler—you can read more about this film on the blog Screenonline.
That was the end of the day for me. On the Sunday, I wouldn’t have minded seeing WATERFRONT LADY (1935), a film featuring Ann Rutherford, J. Farrell MacDonald and Jack La Rue but there was no way I could make it to the screening room for 9:00 a.m. However, I did want to make it for the last scheduled documentary, THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES: RAOUL WALSH (1973), directed by Richard Schickel. And in a way, I wasn’t disappointed when the festival ended the way it had begun. I got there just before the noon screening to catch the last five minutes of BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN (1964), the documentary made by the National Film Board of Canada. When the lights went on, the announcement was made that the festival had come to an end and it was time to go. It was funny and apropos.
Seriously though, I have to say thank you to Alex Bartosh, the projectionists, our silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis and all the dealers who made this event loads of fun. Even if we were a small crowd of attendees, I know the group I was with had a great time. There is room for improvement—better scheduling in particular, a better and darker room, but where else do classic film buffs get to see decent to very good prints of vintage films with a like-minded audience? Now that there is a website where Alex can list the schedule and all related matter for the festival, it will be easier for people to register. If there is a second WNY Movie Expo next September, I plan to be there!