Cinecon 2008 Festival Report, Part Two

by HELEN GEIB

Parts one and two of my Cinecon wrap-up might fairly be characterized as “the best” and “the rest” of the festival. But while the first three were the best-made and most enjoyable silent films in the program, each of the succeeding films also had something to offer the enthusiast.

Triumph

Triumph (1917) is a backstage drama wrapped in a cautionary lesson about how a young woman’s chastity is imperiled by life in the theater. Long thought lost, a partial print was recently discovered and restored. The final quarter or so of the film is missing and some of the extant footage showed significant nitrate deterioration. Triumph’s main claim to modern interest is as one of Lon Chaney’s early films. He has a prominent supporting role as a dying critic and would-be playwright whose dreams center on having his play produced. It’s an unsubtle performance, and it steals every scene he’s in. It’s a real shame the found footage did not extend to his final scenes. From the direction the plot was headed, they promised to be quite exciting.

Modern Love

Modern Love (1929) is a part-talkie featuring Charley Chase, a star of comedy shorts through the ‘twenties and ‘thirties. Though unknown to the general audience, he is deservedly popular with silent comedy fans. Chase generates some laughs in Modern Love, but overall it is a rather poor film with a weak story and awkward filmmaking in the talkie portion. Unlike the other part-talkies I’ve seen where sound scenes were interspersed in a silent film, Modern Love is composed of a silent first half and talkie second half. The silent half is comedic and much the better of the two. The film skids uneasily into domestic drama with the transition to sound and never recovers from the change. The film provides an instructive counterpoint to The Home Maker, as Chase’s newlywed husband continually disparages his talented and successful fashion designer wife for wanting to continue working instead of staying at home like a good little wife should. Needless to say, the film ends “happily” when she renounces her career and forfeits a once in a lifetime opportunity to study fashion in Paris for six months.

Sky High

Sky High (1922) is a vehicle for Tom Mix to perform a series of jaw-dropping stunts in the Grand Canyon. Mix rappels down the canyon wall, jumps across a chasm, fights on rocky outcroppings, clambers around on dangerous trails, has himself lowered onto the canyon floor on a rope hanging from a bi-plane, swims the rapids of the Colorado River, etc., etc. There are fights, chases, a wafer thin plot, and a rescue of a damsel in distress. Owing to technical difficulties with the projector, the film was projected at too fast a rate. Ideally problems like that would never happen, but since this one did I’m relieved it coincided with the screening of a superficial action film. Sky High suffered as little as any film could suffer from the indignity of being shown at the wrong speed.

The Devil’s Bait

Triumph was a bit of an oddity, but The Devil’s Bait (1917) is really out there. As I like to say to my festival friend who won’t watch new movies: just because it’s old, that doesn’t mean it’s good. The film tells a story ripped from the pages of serialized popular fiction for women. The “devil’s bait” is precious gems, glittering baubles with the power to lead both men and women to ruin. The hero is a doctor whose wife went wrong after the doctor’s nemesis tempted her with a lot of ostentatious jewelry. The hero’s innocent daughter nearly follows in her mother’s footsteps when the nemesis reappears on the scene some years later. The climactic chase to rescue the girl from the villain’s clutches ends with a title card reading, and I quote exactly, “You saved her from a fate worse than death.” I quite liked the scenes of the devil at work at his subterranean gem forge, conveniently placed next to a window overlooking damned souls half submerged in fire and brimstone, and I would have liked to have seen them in their original red tinting. The rest of the film is a reminder that it’s a good thing they don’t make them like that anymore.

Damon and Pythias

The print of Damon and Pythias (1914) shown at the festival was a work-in-progress restoration by the Library of Congress film archive. The archivist’s introduction supplied the best preservation story of the festival. Like a lot of early features, the film is more interesting as an artifact than enjoyable as an entertainment. Set in Classical Rome, it tells how the friendship between Pythias, a general, and Damon, a senator, was tested and found strong. The production was on a grand scale with lavish sets and costumes and several big crowd scenes, but the filmmaking is mostly tableau style and static. In a further handicap, the dialogue titles are written in faux-antiquity dialect like “go I must,” “thou art a soldier like ourselves,” and “behold me at thy feet.”

The film finally comes to life at the climax in a race against time to save Pythias from being executed at sundown in Damon’s place. The sequence builds suspense through parallel editing, cutting among Pythias at the executioner’s block, Damon rushing to get back to the city, and Damon’s wife charting the progress of the sun in agonized suspense. The best part of the film, it had been ruined in the only known complete print; the entire sequence was re-edited to undo the parallel editing and instead play one sequence completely, then the next, and so on. The reconstruction aims to re-create the original editing, a task complicated by the fact the archive hasn’t been able to obtain a copy of the original shooting script, a need met only partly by recourse to the contemporary novelization.

Rain or Shine

A minor Frank Capra, Rain or Shine (1930) is a circus picture about the owner heroine and manager hero’s efforts to save the financially struggling enterprise from going under and simultaneously foil the ringmaster’s economically misguided takeover plan. It was made as a talkie, but released in the foreign market in an alternate silent version. As a half measure to make it suitable for release in sound-equipped theaters but avoid incurring the cost of dubbing, a synchronized soundtrack was added. The film must be better as a talkie. Dialogue-drive scenes play badly without the dialogue, and the soundtrack is an aggressive mix of repetitive music, intrusive sound effects, simulated crowd noises, and snatches of disembodied speech. I don’t think I would like it all that much more, though. Putting the sound back in wouldn’t make the lead couple sympathetic. He was a jerk, she was an idiot, and the nice young boyfriend she throws over at the end was much better out of it.

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