A Dispatch from Cinefest 2011, Part II: Unique and Cosmic

Last week we posted an overview of Cinefest and a few of the films on offer. We conclude this week with an extended account of four more Syracuse rarities.

Not many folks seemed to like Stolen Heaven (Paramount, 1931), a shot-in-Astoria doomed romance with Nancy Carroll and Phillips Holmes as a pair of fugitives blowing through stolen bills at a posh resort, but its concentrated intensity (often confused for early talkie stiltedness) is definitely something to be reckoned with. In this respect, it recalls (but does not reach the heights of) its near contemporaries, One Way Passage and After Tomorrow; Stolen Heaven is cut from the same cloth of romantic delirium, with an integrity of time and space (but not necessarily plot) that feels particular to its period. Holmes’s anxious, ex-working stiff (lately of a radio factory) is just boyish and skittish enough to convince us that love and larceny derive from a common and unripe source. Carroll constantly and impressively modulates her dignity and exudes excited awareness of her own sexuality. While the film does not follow through on all of its chilly implications, the result is still attractively spare and effective.

The Phantom President (1932) rounded out the Paramount highlights. Perhaps not as fully realized as Hallelujah I’m a Bum, Rodgers and Hart’s urban operetta of the next year, Phantom President still succeeds as a wonderful film record of a living legend, George M. Cohan, playing the double role of a stuffed-shirt politico and his medicine show lookalike. Simultaneously topical to the point of being mercenary (released on the eve of the ’32 election) and not specific or pointed enough to divulge any partisanship or ideological commitment (beyond showbiz itself, of course), Phantom President nonetheless offers edifying, near quintessential, sketches of a broad swatch of ‘30s potentates and string-pullers, along with a library of au courant phraseology and jabber. (That Hoover would soon offer to install FDR in advance of the inauguration—a literal phantom president!—makes the Cohan Conspiracy look mild indeed.) An extended sequence at the party convention—Cohan flaunting his political wares and ‘sex appeal’ to a gaggle of regional and ethnic caricatures so broadly drawn and played as to suggest a hilarious, monomaniacal reductivism—is so good that one wishes there were more music on whole. (Paramount cut much of it, understandably anxious that singing and dancing pictures had yet to re-prove their box office worth after a spectacular burn-out months before.) An earlier blackface number will probably keep Phantom President out of circulation for a goodly long time, which is silly—no one would ever confuse this for anything but a movie of its narrow, beguiling moment and that’s the best thing about it.

I Can’t Escape (1934), another echt-‘30s piece, proved the most pleasant surprise of this year’s selections. For the handful of people who wandered into the 11:20pm screening on Saturday, it emerged as an object of special devotion. No one came in with any expectations—and how could they when the program book promoted I Can’t Escape on the basis of a pedigree shared with Life Returns, the revival-of-dead-dogs-through-science time-waster that was easily the dog of last year’s Cinefest?

Both films were made seemingly for no other reason than to run out Onslow Stevens’s Universal contract as cheaply and affectlessly as possible. When production wrapped, they were immediately disowned by Universal and thrown out like scrap, Life Returns being the first and only release under the Scienart banner (apparently a front for Universal, too proud to have its name on the picture but not too proud to recoup its investment) while I Can’t Escape went out on a states rights basis without copyright. (The main title carries a notice, but Universal didn’t bother to actually register the property.) Per Variety, I Can’t Escape played a two-day engagement on a double bill at the Stanley in Jersey City in September 1934 and then disappeared.

I Can’t Escape deserved much, much better. Indeed, Variety thought it so good that it could be put over as a single in the smaller markets. But its fatal obscurity is not entirely inappropriate, either.

The first scene scores a topical laugh at Stevens’s expense—finishing up a five-year prison stretch for petty securities fraud, this dabber gent immediately queries a beat cop about the nearest speakeasy. Much has changed since ’29 and most of the first act deals with the exigencies of life in 1934 in startling detail. Beating the pavement for a position, Stevens quickly finds that no one will hire an ex-con, not least one tied up with the banks. That Stevens, a designated fall guy in a plot too technical and consequential to merit this trim movie’s attention, was himself a victim of the banks hardly matters. (If only Stevens could be a Forgotten Man, his name not printed in every newspaper in America in 72-point type…) The closest he can come to the American Dream is a one-bedroom dump that he cohabits with Lila Lee’s sad-eyed prostitute.  No Warners wiseacres here: essentially a serious and earnest enterprise about the free-floating, embittering weariness of the Depression, I Can’t Escape is a movie too whispery and desperate to grasp its own social significance.

Things seem to look up when Stevens finds himself a job at a brokerage house—a cosmically malicious one that hires him on the basis of his prison record, all the better to pin embezzlement charges on him when the partners of the insolvent firm inevitably eventually skip town. (In a nice touch, one of the fat cats spends his afternoons practicing solitaire, always dealt a losing hand.) Meanwhile, Stevens and Lee take on an unsolicited boarder—an unstable Russell Gleason, hunting down the stock broker (the one he read about in the paper!) who drove his father to suicide. Stevens must adopt a new identity to protect himself from this unfortunate case. (Unfortunate indeed; Gleason conveys so much vulnerability that he seems like he might join a John Reed Club one week and tune in to Father Coughlin the next.)

The movie inevitably lunges towards a barely articulated but tremendously Oedipal scenario—Stevens and Lee adopt Gleason as a downtrodden son; Gleason develops a crush on Lee, not realizing that his new father is the figurative slayer of his old one. At 55 minutes, I Can’t Escape simply doesn’t have the patience to tease out who feels what for whom, how sincerely, how kinkily. Nevertheless, the fleet suggestion of a very perverse ménage à trois hangs in the air (the triad walks arm-in-arm back to the bungalow in the final shot), with a complex and confusing set of emotions more felt than explored. Again, this is a movie that isn’t quite sure of what it’s saying, but manages to say it (or mumble it) with more depth and mystery than many of its contemporaries. Sexual and social feelings innocently intermingle, with an inordinate amount of attention aimed at scrutinizing the personal habits of the dispossessed.  That the movie and its characters refuse to explicitly recognize themselves as that dispossessed only adds to its power.

The author at the Cinefest inspection bench. Courtesy of Syracause Cinephile Society

I Can’t Escape doesn’t claim style, per se; it has a crisp, forward-moving sense of storytelling that is unassuming but appealing. Edgar G. Ulmer claimed to have shot second unit or directed the whole thing, depending on which account you read, always keeping in mind the important qualification, “What film did Ulmer not claim to have had a hand in?” As there are thousands of pictures whose appearance on a résumé would prove more readily helpful, perhaps he was telling the truth here. (The director of record is Otto Brower, of Phantom Empire fame.)  The center of the picture, though, is Onslow Stevens, with a totally committed, low frequency performance. In his not-entirely-guiltless striving and struggle, his lanky grandeur, he seems rather like a poor man’s Warren William—which is to say, a poor man’s poor man’s John Barrymore.

Speaking of the poor man, I’ve saved the most contentious—the one that provoked the most righteous walk-outs—for last: Alice in Wonderland—the 1931 Bud Pollard version, not to be (or in any danger of being) confused with the 1933 superproduction from Paramount. This one carries the imprint of Unique-Cosmos and was obviously shot on the smallest of budgets in New Jersey. (The thick accent of Alice’s mother calling from a window announces both the end of the movie and a return to a kind of ethnic-spatial specificity totally absent in Wonderland.)

One cannot help but speculate on its surely singular production and dissemination.  Was Unique-Cosmos just a dreamy name for a tax shelter or something more? Is the Ashley Miller credited with the adaptation the Edison veteran of that name?

Was Ruth Gilbert literally plucked off a Bowery street corner to play in this one? Why does her Alice—with her knee-length, bleach-blonde hair, the forehead-straddling eyelashes, those shadowy lips—look like a straggly teenage hooker? (It’s no small wonder to learn that Gilbert was re-discovered two years later by no less than Eugene O’Neill and cast in the first production of Ah, Wilderness!) Did the actor playing the Cheshire Cat really just mumble and meow his way over a page of forgotten dialogue? Was the poor guy in the Mock Turtle costume selected just for his scaly skin disease?  Why do all the animal masks suggest vaginas thrown together from black felt and cardboard?

A wag might follow this line of questioning and walk away with the verdict that Alice in Wonderland is “so bad it’s good.” This absurd, condescending, and uninsightful conclusion denies Alice its hard-won awe. This is, in no small way, a genuinely avant-garde film—or at least one that’s most productively viewed as that. It commands the same alternate form of attention—the kind that makes you squint and lean forward in your chair, forever attenuating your ear to inaudible noise-talk on the soundtrack. The monologues may be derived from and faithful enough to Carroll as far as it goes, but their delivery recalls a particularly Warholian stupor. There’s a logic and rhythm here too complex to be fully disentangled on one viewing.

There’s also the subject of the camera work. After a few in-camera distortion effects, the style settles into an engagingly rigorous one-take routine. During the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the camera literally swish pans back and forth incoherently between Alice and the Hatter—cross-cutting between them would’ve required one more set-up than Pollard & Co. evidently could have afforded. When viewing movies like this, the standard, “ironic” reaction is that incompetence and poor judgment carried the day; Alice in Wonderland suggests instead a credible and productive mode of non-interference, where the filmmakers have neither the means nor the inclination to temper, control, or direct the performances before the camera. There’s nothing to smooth out or disguise the natural vulnerability of these people—no writerly quality, no attempt to transmute the everyday into art. This film also stands for and in a particular moment, one where the idea of what a talking film for the family crowd should be had not yet been codified, if even contemplated.

According to the AFI’s catalog of feature films, 1931-1940, as well as Eric Grayson’s program note in the Cinefest program book, this Alice was released, perhaps simultaneously, in theatrical and non-theatrical situations—probably to bolster balance sheets after initially lackluster theatrical bookings, combat poor exhibitor word-of-mouth by selling to unsuspecting school/church groups, and seize upon the literally brand-new non-theatrical market for talking pictures. If the sketchy timelines suggested by our sparse notes are correct, Alice in Wonderland was, amazingly, made available in optical-sound 16mm prints before there were even projectors available to show them! (RCA-Victor’s Photophone 16mm PG-38 was not introduced until 1932. Bell and Howell’s ever-popular Filmosound came along a few months later.)  The idea that Alice in Wonderland was among the first sound 16mm features available for sale or lease (a killer app?) beggars belief in an edifying way. Was it given away in a bundle with the projector? How many wealthy children were traumatized when Daddy brought home this freak-film to demonstrate his new toy in the family room? What of the school children who saw it on a rainy day?

The print screened at Cinefest was an original Agfa from 1931—very brittle, splicey, and muddy. Another is known to exist, apparently in a similar state of abuse, back in Fort Lee. Some 35mm nitrate material survives unpreserved at UCLA—did Paramount execs perhaps throw on a reel or two while preparing the 1933 version, leaving the screening room after concluding it posed no competition and offered no lessons? One suspects that a full restoration of this unaccountable film might provoke a salutary, perhaps revolutionizing, despondency on the part of funders and the public at large. I would welcome the day. (KW)

For more information on Cinefest, the Syracuse Cinephile Society, and their weekly Monday night series at the Spaghetti Warehouse (!), please visit their website: http://www.syracusecinephile.com/