Wharf Angel (1934) at Cinecon

I just returned from California and the highlight of my trip was attending Cincon 55 at the Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in the heart of Hollywood.

The festival began with a reception on the outdoor patio of the theatre where I met two of the guests being honoured at Cinecon, Ann Robinson and Gigi Perreau.

Gigi Perreau, Ann Robinson and my friend

I was also fortunate to hear Cora Sue Collins being interviewed at both Captiolfest just a month ago and again at Cinecon, with a chance to speak with her afterward.  All three were very lovely ladies!

Cora Sue Collins

The one honouree that I missed meeting was Barbara Rush although I did attend her interview.

Barbara Rush

This five-day festival was chock full of films from morning until late evening and I missed very few.  The films that were screened featuring the honourees were:

The Glass Wall (1953) directed by Maxwell Shane with Ann Robinson, Vittorio Gassman, Gloria Grahame and Jerry Paris.  If you haven’t seen this powerful film of an Auschwitz survivor who stows away on a ship headed to New York and his race again time to find the one man who can save him from being deported back to Europe, you are in for an emotional ride.  With the United Nations building having been completed only the previous year, 1952, it’s one of the stars of the film.  This final scene showcases what this building represented, and still should, to many displaced people throughout the world.  Vittorio Gassman was exceptional in his role but I was interested to see how our guest, in a supporting role, faired.  Miss Robinson was very interesting in her interpretation of a woman who has been waiting for five long years to marry her sweetheart, a jazz musician who had just come back from fighting in the war.  Without giving anything away, and whether in the end she gets what she wants, you could see the decision she had to make was momentarily not an easy one for her because she knows deep down that another person’s life is at stake.

Ann Robinson

The film chosen to showcase Barbara Rush was the comedy Oh Men! Oh Women! (1957) directed (with the screenplay written) by Nunnally Johnson, also featuring Dan Dailey, Ginger Rogers, David Niven and Tony Randall in his first credited role.

I only caught the last 30 minutes of the film, but what I saw was quite entertaining and has made me feel that I would like to see the full film at some point.  The reason I missed it was that we were given two choices during this screening and I was too intrigued to see the 1923 film The Untameable, directed by Herbert Blaché about a woman with dual personalities. The actress, Gladys Walton, was especially beautiful when she played the completely narcissistic (or possibly just plain evil) Edna. 

Gigi Perreau was a child when she first started acting in the film business.  We watched, along with her and her family, a delightful film she made in 1950, For Heaven’s Sake, directed by George Seaton with a stellar cast of actors–Clifton Webb, Joan Bennett, Robert Cummings, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Blondell and Jack La Rue.  Clifton Webb was hilarious as an angel who materializes on earth in the form of a rancher, bad accent and all, to assist Item (Perreau) to be born to a Broadway couple.  Based on the play by Dorothy and Harry Segall, the writing was fast-paced with lots of snappy, funny dialogue.

Gigi Perreau, Edmund Gwenn and Clifton Webb

Cora Sue Collins gave interviews at both Capitolfest earlier in August and here at Cineon.  The majority of her films were made before she was a teenager, however, we were treated to one when she was 15 years old, Get Hep to Love (1942), directed by Charles Lamont, starring Gloria Jean, Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan.  In Get Hep she plays mean girl Elaine Sterling, who all the boys are smitten with including Donald.  But he’s the love interest of runaway singer Gloria Jean (Universal’s hoped-for replacement of grown-up Deanna Durbin).  Cora Sue Collins, in her pre-screen interview, informed us that only her mother and studio head believed she could sing, and was told by her husband that she couldn’t carry a tune.  So it was interesting to hear, during the singing contest, that Elaine had this deep, melodic voice–in my opinion, more lovely than the star’s, Gloria Jean.  I gathered from what Cora Sue said, that this wasn’t her voice but had been dubbed in by someone else.  Who, I wonder?  If I misunderstood, and she was either being modest or didn’t know that her voice was so good, then what can I say but that you’ll be surprised to hear her sing.

There is lots of dancing and singing in this film, with great mugging and dancing from the irrepressible Peggy Ryan, but surprisingly none, dancing that is, from the always watchable, and amazingly talented Donald O’Connor.  Possibly, it’s the only disappointment in this film.

Gloria Jean, Donald O’Connor and Cora Sue Collins

At Capitolfest we saw her as a child in The Strange Case of Clara Deane (1932) where she grows up to become Frances Dee.  Her pivotal scene, being left in an orphanage by her mother, was searing!

Wynne Gibson and Cora Sue Collins

I met Stan Taffel, the president of Cinecon, at the Library of Congress’s Mostly Lost event back in June and he asked me if I would present one of their films.  I chose Wharf Angel (1934), a film I had never seen but was intrigued by, and here’s what I said:

I chose to introduce Wharf Angel because pre-Code is one of my favourite genres, and Victor McLaglen is an actor I am fond of.

Although film buffs know that William Cameron Menzies was a fine director of movies, I think we know him best as an excellent Art Director.

But who was George Somnes, the co-director along with Menzies of Wharf Angel?  Born in Newcastle, Maine on July 7th, 1887, after his short stint in Hollywood, he became known as an American theatre director and producer.  In 1936, he married heiress and actress, Helen Bonfils, who went under the stage name of Gertrude Barton when acting in Broadway productions.  Somnes died of liver failure on February 8th, 1956 at the age of 68.

Interestingly, he never directed a film on his own, and Wharf Angel was his fourth and last.  He co-directed his first three films all in 1933, The Girl in 419, Midnight Club and the best-known Torch Singer featuring Claudette Colbert, all alongside Alexander Hall.

In February 17, 1934 the Motion Picture Herald, under the column “The Cutting Room”, called this Paramount Picture The Man Who Broke His Heart.  It was based on a story by Frederick Schlick and although the story isn’t credited on IMDb with this alternate title, perhaps that’s the original title the author first gave it.  Perhaps a meaning to consider while watching the film.

Preston Foster, Dorothy Dell and Victor McLaglen

Just as this was George Somnes last picture of four, this was Dorothy Dell’s debut, the first of only three films and one short that she acted in.  Her most well-known role would have been Bangles Carson in Shirley Temple’s first starring film, Little Miss Marker, which incidentally, was directed by Alexander Hall, Somnes’ other co-director.  Born on January 30, 1915, Dorothy was crowned Miss Universe in 1930, moved to New York and began appearing in The Ziegfeld Follies.  Wharf Angel earned her, although not the film itself, rave reviews and it was predicted she would do well as a film actress.  But the reason Miss Dell’s career was cut short was due to a tragic car accident on June 8th, 1934, dying at the tender age of 19.

Victor McLaglen, who began his career in British films in 1920, moving to Hollywood in 1925, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1935 for his role in John Ford’s The Informer, was well-liked.  He was born in England, most probably in London on December 10, 1886, was one of ten siblings with only one sister in the pack, and whose father was a Protestant Bishop, originating from South Africa.  Four of his brothers became actors.

There’s an interesting aside with regard to one of his brothers, Leopold McLaglan, who changed the “e” to an “a” of his last name to differentiate himself from his actor brothers.  He was a self-proclaimed world jiu-jitsu expert, winning the world’s championship in 1907, along with publishing four books instructing readers in jiu-jitsu, bayonet warfare and hand-to-hand combat.  With Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany in 1933, fascism took a hold in the US, giving Leopold the opportunity to use these “fine” skills to teach Nazis and White Russians how to kill.  A small anti-fascist spy ring discovered and foiled Leopold’s assassination plans of many famous members of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League by not realizing that the person he was confiding his diabolical plans to was Chuck Slocombe, the spy who had infiltrated his fascist circles.

Leopold went to trial on February 28, 1938, was found guilty of attempted extortion rather than attempted murder and was sentenced to five years in prison but granted probation on the condition he take the first ship back to England and never again set foot on American soil.  Victor, anxious to be rid of Leopold, paid the $500 fine along with his ocean-liner ticket back to Liverpool.  Families!

Back to the film; a contemporary review in The Hollywood Reporter claims that Wharf Angel will not appeal to any type of audience, that art directors Hans Dreier and John Goodman dressed the picture with more care than it deserved, and that the cinematography by Victor Milner is the best thing about the film.  Reviews from eight major newspapers weren’t much better, however, Dorothy Dell’s debut performance is singled out as striking, with my favourite mention as her being a “wistful Mae West” by The Journal.  But, as many of us have observed, contemporary reviews are many-a-time inconsistent with how we view a vintage film today, and since all of you sitting here must be like me, none of what they wrote is going to influence us from seeing this rare film with our own eyes.

Sourced from Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America by Steven J. Ross (2017)

I have to say now, after viewing the film, that it was far from poor and uninteresting and the people I spoke with found it rather compelling.  Dell was lovely and earnest, Foster handsome and good, while McLaglen didn’t disappoint in a role that foreshadows the one he was given an Oscar for.  As well, there were fine scenes with two favourite character actors, supportive, straightforward Alison Skipworth and oily Mischa Auer.

There were many other films, most of which I had never seen, during these great five days!  I love vintage film festivals and attended many this season–Toronto Silent Film Festival in April; Cinevent in Columbus, Ohio in May; Mostly Lost in Culpeper, Virginia in June; Western New York Movie Expo in Buffalo and Capitolfest in Rome, New York in August; and Cinecon in Los Angeles in August/September.  I know just how much work goes into organizing these wonderful events–so thank you all!

And until festival season starts again for me in 2020, there’s our screenings at Toronto Film Society that will keep me content over the upcoming cold winter months.

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