Columbus, Gem of the…Movies

As I have many times before, I spent Memorial Day weekend enjoying the glories of one of the cultural capitals of the world.  I refer, of course, to Columbus, Ohio.  The annual Cinevent film convention has been going on for 45 years, and I’ve been a regular attendee for the last 15 of those years.  Columbus has a fair number of good restaurants, and there’s a dealer’s room full of movie memorabilia (and movies) to peruse, but the real reason to go is the search for otherwise unavailable films, projected on a screen (and with live musical accompaniment for the silent films).  Cinevent is actually the most “newbie friendly” of such events, carefully balancing better-known and more readily available titles with otherwise impossible to see gems, and this year was no exception (the full schedule is available on their website: http://www.cinevent.com/).

I’ve written up a few comments about this year’s highlights, and five of my six favorites are impossible to see if you aren’t at a festival or an archive.  Those favorites included:

Crossed Swords (1954) – This was Errol Flynn’s first attempt at an independent production, and while the plot is fairly average, the production itself is pretty jaw-dropping.  They clearly spent a TON of money on costumes and location shooting, and the photography (by Jack Cardiff) is eye-popping.  It really made me wish that I could see the footage from Errol’s late, abortive attempt to make a film version of the story of William Tell.  This film is apparently trapped in “rights hell” given its status as an independent, international production, so it’s almost never screened.

Under Pressure (1935) – This is the film I was most pumped about going in, and director Raoul Walsh and acting duo Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe did not disappoint.  Being a “sandhog” and digging a subway tunnel under the East River is clearly THE most exciting, adventurous job ANYONE could EVER have in the HISTORY OF MANKIND!!!  Floods, fires, the bends, paralysis, brawls with Charles Bickford – you name it, this movie has it.  Enormously entertaining, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t really care.  They apparently find it easier just to leave it in the vault.

The Sea Beast (1926) – O.K., it really wasn’t very good, but it gets at least an honorable mention for sheer chutzpah.  This was basically an “origins” story – for Captain Ahab!  Over half of the film is made up stuff about how Ahab lost both his leg and his beloved Dolores Costello, then we sort of get to the actual Moby Dick part (massively altered to reflect the first hour), and it ends with Ahab in heaven/New Bedford where his lost love is awaiting him.  Kind of has to be seen to be believed, but even then it’s hard to grasp what they were possibly thinking…  The Warner Archive will probably release this eventually, and I believe it may have aired on TCM at some point.  When I was in high school someone had a party to watch John Huston’s version of MOBY DICK in lieu of reading the book, but I can only imagine the essays which would result from trying that with this version…

Pardon My Past (1946) – Fred MacMurray plays a dual role as a just-mustered-out soldier (who plans on starting a mink farm with buddy William Demarest – that’s right, A MINK FARM) who is mistaken for his long-lost, weasely, rich twin brother.  Akim Tamiroff is the highly cultured bookie who initiates the confusion when he tries to get the wrong Fred to pay off a gambling debt.  The wisecracks came fast and furious, and any film where the bad guy is willing to take his pick of first editions from the family library as payment (all the while tutting over their disuse) earns my affection out of the gate.  Harry Davenport also had a hilarious turn as the disgruntled grandfather of the rich Fred, desperately trying to get the bookie to beat some sense into him (literally).  A real gem – and we can only hope that someday Sony/Columbia decides it’s worth giving the world another chance to realize that.

Hold That Co-Ed (1938) – This sort-of, kind-of musical featured George Murphy as the new football coach at “State”, distressed to find that the Governor (John Barrymore) has cut the school’s budget to nothing.  When he marches on the capital with the student body (performing the “Limpy-Dimp” no less) they convince the Gov that there are votes to be had from college athletics, and he immediately promises (and delivers) on the best facilities, team and schedule in the country.  Eventually, the election for Senator of the state becomes a wager between Barrymore and the other candidate over the outcome of a football came.  Daffy, yet completely trenchant, displaying equal amounts of cynicism for higher education, college athletics and politics, this was a real blast.  Not to pile on 20th Century Fox, but I’d buy a dozen copies of this to distribute as gifts if they saw fit to release it.  It was THAT entertaining.

The Mob (1951) – Broderick Crawford starred as a cop who goes undercover to bust organized crime on the docks, and boy, does he.  This was as hard-bitten as it could be, and had an unexpectedly great script, as well as a couple of nice twists, making it a solid, involving piece of work.  Sony is to be commended for getting this out there on DVD, though if you aren’t paying close attention you’ll miss the third film noir box set altogether.

None of these were exactly throw-away productions, and they’re all well worth seeing, so it’s sort of depressing to realize that their audience has been reduced to a few hundred people sitting in the basement ballroom of a hotel in Columbus, but that’s the way this works.  This year there were a few younger people, but that term is relative, and the average age of attendees remains somewhere in the upper fifties.  I can never understand why there aren’t more actual academics at these events, though many academics are clearly a lot more comfortable with the narrow boundaries of received canon than they would publicly admit.  Any of the main film conventions is a clear rebuke of the ridiculous notion that “everything is available on the internet” and they always point up just how much of our own cultural history is hidden from view.  As I said, Cinevent actually does a decent job mixing in better known films (this year’s more relatively common titles included The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T and The Bitter Tea of General Yen), so it’s a good place to get your feet wet before advancing to more “hardcore” venues like Cinesation (http://www.cinephiles.org/).  If you’re at all interested and have never been to such an event give it some thought next year.  It’s a pleasant way to pass a weekend – and you might need a break from the mink farm…

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