Where is CONVENTION CITY HIDING?

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vitaphone

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Where is CONVENTION CITY HIDING?

PostFri Sep 24, 2010 2:09 pm

Hi all. Here is an article I wrote on CONVENTION CITY for an upcoming blog. Hope the Nitrateville crew finds it of interest...

WHERE IS ‘CONVENTION CITY’ HIDING?

by Ron Hutchinson, Founder
The Vitaphone Project


“Me, I was the one. Single-handedly I brought on the whole Code. Yeah. Ask Joe Breen. He’ll tell you. Ask him about Convention City”, boasted Warner Brothers producer Henry Blanke.

More than Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight , Laurel & Hardy’s Hats Off! or a long list of other lost films, Convention City’s apparent complete disappearance from the face of the earth has fueled myths about why it is gone, and just how risque the film really was. As of this writing, not a single print is known to exist.

Archives and studio vaults worldwide have been scoured. Private collectors polled. Foreign collections searched under the film’s French (La Folle Semaine) and Spanish ( Que Semana! ) titles. Nothing. Warner Brothers found that even the trailer for Convention City is among the missing. Tantalizing rumors of a lone nitrate print overseas surface, then dry up.

That not a single copy of this late Pre-Code comedy has turned up anywhere is hard to explain. Other Pre-Codes --- from Baby Face (33) to Safe In Hell (’31) --- were far rawer and more unapologetic. Yet this one title is gone while all the others survive. It appears to be the most recent feature film from a major Hollywood studio that is totally lost. Digging into the “why” has actually given hope that this film might still be found one day.

By all accounts, Convention City was a well made, fast paced A-minus Warner Brothers comedy with a top cast. Jammed into its 69 minute running time were top stars like Adolph Menjou, Mary Astor, Dick Powell, and Joan Blondell, and they were supported by a distillation of the Warner’s comedy stock company: Hugh Herbert, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Ruth Donnelly and Grant Mitchell. In the director’s chair was Archie Mayo, who helmed Svengali (’31), Mae West’s debut in Night After Night (’32), The Mayor of Hell (’33) and The Petrified Forest (’36). His films were well made and tightly paced, perfect for the Pre--Code carousing of Convention City. Robert Lord wrote the screenplay, and was no stranger to crafting Pre-Code stories with bite and sex. The prolific Lord was responsible for Little Caesar, (’31) Big Business Girl (’31), Frisco Jenny (’32) and The Merry Wives Of Reno (’34) (which immediately followed Convention City with a number of the same cast members).

So Convention City was no throw-away B picture. It had a solid $239,000 budget and domestically brought in $522,000 in rentals during its run in the early months of 1934. So why has it disappeared?





THE FILM

In his superb book SIN IN SOFT FOCUS, author Mark A. Viera calls Convention City “a series of indelicate episodes occasioned by a convention of the Honeywell Rubber Company. In one, salesman Ted (Menjou) tries to edge salesman George (Kibbee) out of a promotion by seducing Claire (Patricia Ellis), the boss’s teenage daughter. Salesperson Arline (Astor) disapproves: “Ted, she’s only a child. You want to go to the pen?” “She’s old enough --- almost, anyhow.” laughs Ted. “I remember the year she was born. “

In under 70 minutes, Convention City revels in drunkenness, brothel visits, Blondell’s ample cleavage, endless trysts and a salesman tempting a goat up to his hotel room. Years later, Blondell recalled the film. “That is the raunchiest there has ever been... we had so many hysterically dirty things in it...no dirty words or anything like that, just funny, burlesque-y.”

Viera reports that Convention City averaged 20 cuts per state censor board. The Breen office concluded of the final cut: “While not as rough as the script indicated, it is nevertheless somewhat low-tone entertainment, long on drinking and rowdiness, but is fortunately free from any actual sex situations.”

By the time Convention City ended its run, the new Production Code Administration (PCA) was in full force, having opened on July 11th. The first film submitted for approval was John Ford’s The World Moves On (’34). It was approved with Certificate Number 1. But films that followed for review featured, as Viera notes, “a wife-beater, a kept woman, a fallen woman, and Mae West.” Major cuts on these and other features were required before the essential seal of approval could be attained. After mid-1934, virtually no Hollywood films were released without the PCA’s approval (Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw (’43) is a rare example).

The powerful rise of the PCA not only affected films prior to their release, but also the lucrative market for re-releases of popular features. Before being allowed to re-issue a Pre-Code film, the studio had to make PCA-mandated cuts. This requirement applied to such diverse titles as Dracula, Animal Crackers, Blonde Venus, Love Me Tonight, and Tarzan and His Mate. Unfortunately, certain titles were deemed by the PCA as never to be re-released, even with cuts. These included Baby Face, She Done Him Wrong, The Story of Temple Drake ---- and Convention City. But all of these other “Class I” films exist, while Convention City is nowhere to be found. Why?

THE MYTHOS OF CONVENTION CITY

Being a lost film attracts many tantalizing tales over the years. Rumors of secret screenings, bonfires of burned nitrate film, and worldwide searches for every known print to ensure destruction. In 2009, The Vitaphone Project decided to initiate a structured and comprehensive search into Convention City. This included seeking out relatives of those involved with the film, review of censor board reports, checks of archives worldwide, and whenever possible, debunking the myths so that the truth might be ultimately known.

Mark Viera indicates that

“in 1936, Jack Warner submitted a list of of Class I and II titles to the PCA, hoping for permission to re-release them. One of them was Convention City. On September 3, 1936, Joseph Breen wrote him that no amount of cutting could make these films suitable for re-release. Warner was constantly being pestered by conventioneers who wanted, for obvious reasons, to rent Convention City. He found himself in an awkward position. He could not rent the film without getting into trouble with Breen, but he could not deny he had the film. Of course, if he did not have the film, he could not rent it. His solution was to destroy all prints, the negative, and the fine grain positive of the film which was, if not a work of art, one of the most enjoyable products ever to roll off the Hollywood assembly line”.

Or so the accepted story of Convention City’s fate goes.

But digging deeper suggests that nothing of the kind probably happened. First, some basic debunking of the myth: Warner did not have to destroy every vestige of the film to stay out of trouble with the Breen office. The PCA required no destruction of any film. Jack Warner could just say “no” to rental request, and be done with it.

While the myths allude to complete destruction in 1936, it is now clear that definitely was not the case. The Vitaphone Project uncovered proof that Convention City was still being shown in theatres as the bottom half of double bills at least as late as late 1937. A flyer from that period shows it running with a Charlie Chan picture. So many prints were still being circulated and exhibited long after the alleged destruction and ban by the PCA.

Recently, it was confirmed that foreign prints of Convention City were being exhibited as late as World War II. The August 22, 1942 edition of Madrid’s ABC newspaper shows Que Semana! being screened at the Munoz Seca Theatre. That is nine years after the film’s release and many years after the alleged recall and burning of all prints.

Further proof that the myth does not hold up: Warner Brothers own vault negative records state: “Junked 12/27/48”. This is 12 years after the all copies of the film was allegedly destroyed. And the 1948 ‘junking’ was solely due to nitrate deterioration, which left unchecked can create an explosive mix and major fire hazards. There is also no supporting evidence that all of the circulation copies of Convention City, both in America and overseas, were ever recalled or destroyed. It can be conservatively estimated that during its original worldwide release, there were over 500 35mm prints made.

And yet, right now at least, not one has been found.

A TANTALIZING FRAGMENT

While Convention City the film is still hiding, some tidbits do survive. the George Eastman House has a full key book of over 220 production and publicity still from the feature. They suggest a fun and breezy comedy with an all star cast at the height of their powers.

And while nothing of the theatrical release has yet been located, there is a little film that survives. John Leifert, a member of the Project who works for Getty Images, has the job of screening and categorizing newly acquired film footage. In the mid-1990’s, while screening 35mm film from a collection that included many establishing and background shots from Warner Brothers, his eyes it up. He was watching nearly 20 minutes of pristine, but silent, footage shot in Atlantic City that was intended to be used in Convention City. Extended shots on the boardwalk, signs proclaiming the Rudy Vallee show at the Steel Pier, amusement rides, and much more were included. In addition, there were multiple takes of aerial shots of the train approaching the Atlantic City station. These were likely intended for Convention City’s opening titles or first scenes. There were also multiple takes of staged scenes, including the conventioneers’ arrival at the Atlantic City station with the “Honeywell Rubber Company” banner on the train car’s side. There is even a double for a drunken Hugh Herbert!

THE SEARCH CONTINUES

The Vitaphone Project began in 1991, with a group of 78rpm record collectors and film buffs who decided to seek out the missing 16 inch soundtrack disks that accompanied the otherwise mute 35mm film of early talkies. Unlike the sound-on-film Movietone process, the sound-on-disk Vitaphone process, developed by Bell Labs and adopted by Warner Brothers, synchronized a separate shellac disk turning at 33 1/3 rpm in the projection booth. Over the years one element, picture or sound, was lost for many of the over 2000 shorts and features produced by this method between 1926 and the early thirties. To date, the Project has found over 3,000 soundtrack disks in private hands worldwide, and has worked with UCLA, The Library of Congress, Warner Brothers and many private collectors and funders, to restore over 100 short subjects and feature films.

And discoveries constantly turn up, so there is still hope that a print of Convention City will surface. Somewhere.

In the early 1990’s, The Library of Congress found they had the long-lost (mute) 35mm print of Al Jolson’s first talkie, A Plantation Act (’26) , made a full year before The Jazz Singer. The Project initiated a worldwide search and in less than a year located the only known accompanying soundtrack disk. Cracked in five places, the disk was restored and synchronized to the print by UCLA . Over 80 years later, it is again being exhibited.

Nearly 100 lost US films were found this year in Australia; two Technicolor reels of the otherwise lost Gold Diggers of Broadway (’29) were found in the 1990’s, and an average of 200 soundtrack disks are uncovered every year. With the internet, discoveries are being reported at a much higher frequency to the Project, which can quickly determine if a discovery translates into a restoration possibility.

While Convention City was not made in the Vitaphone sound on disk process, it was released under Warner’s Vitaphone brand and as a studio product is still of interest. So far, the Project has obtained copies of all the censor board notes, and what surfaces is that there were relatively few mandated cuts after all. Certainly far fewer than the other “Class I” Pre-Code features.

In one of her books, Joan Blondell claimed that at parties, she would trot out Convention City and screen it for guests. At the time the film was made, Blondell was married to her co-star in the film, Dick Powell, and had two sons. The Project tracked down both Richard and Norman Powell, who checked and confirmed that no prints of Convention City were anywhere to be found. So far, attempts to track down relatives of cast members, producers, and director Archie May, have been unsuccessful.

Is Convention City totally gone, never to be seen again?

Probably not. The initial myth-debunking indicates there was no mass destruction of every print, that it was a popular film worldwide for years after its release, that there was no real reason to destroy it, and that despite its reputation as a raw and risque picture, it had nothing on dozens of other Pre-Codes. Discoveries of films thought to be lost forever are occurring more and more each year.

So now, we just have to find it!
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Harold Aherne

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PostFri Sep 24, 2010 3:12 pm

How much this affects Convention City, I don't know, but I've long noticed that Warner-First National seems to have the poorest survival rate of any studio for 1929-31. What survives and what doesn't seems arbitrary at times: Golden Dawn and Viennese Nights exist, but Song of the West and Bride of the Regiment don't. Programmers like Dancing Sweeties and Oh, Sailor Behave! are with us while major films like Gold Diggers of Broadway, The Man from Blankely's and Girl of the Golden West are missing or incomplete. None of the other major studios has so many unaccounted-for titles from the early sound period.

Part of the problem may be that there were more WB-FN films in that period to begin with: about 81 films were released under both banners in 1929 and about 77 in 1930 before the two entities became more aligned by 1931 and reduced their output. Yet the proportion of lost WB-FN films is still larger than that for MGM and Paramount in the same years--somewhere around 21 lost WB-FN films in 1930 as opposed to just 1 mostly lost MGM (The Rogue Song).

Something that I've also seen blamed for the mediocre survival rate is the possibility that the soundtrack discs were stored separately from the film elements and that many of the former were simply unavailable when syndication prints were made in the mid-1950s; ergo a number of titles were not preserved. Yet I see a few 1931 Warners titles on the lost talkies list that has circulated here: The Bargain, Children of Dreams, Compromised, Honor of the Family, Woman Hungry. By that time, most of the prints should have been sound-on-film, so it's not clear why these are MIA (with the possible exception of Woman Hungry, which was in Technicolor).

Curioser and curioser.

-Harold
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CoffeeDan

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PostFri Sep 24, 2010 3:41 pm

The review by "Beverly Hills" from the February 3, 1934 issue of Liberty:

* * (out of four) CONVENTION CITY

With no disrespect intended for Warner Brothers' stable of actors, it might be a good notion to farm a few of them out to other companies in the near future. They have been used together so many times that when you see Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, and Frank McHugh cavorting in the convention halls and the hotel rooms of a town which, at a shrewd guess, might have been meant to represent Atlantic City, it is a little hard to overcome the expectation that the chorus of GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 is hiding under the board walk, ready to appear for an old-fashioned Warner Brothers first-night finale.

Aside from this slightly academic defect, CONVENTION CITY is a first-rate comedy, smartly written, neatly directed, and accented by an observant sarcasm in sequences like the one in which a drunk staggers into a large room full of people and oratorically urges that "our merchandise be placed in slot machines on every corner, in case of emergency" before he finds out that he is addressing the wrong convention.

The story is mainly about the president of a rubber company (Grant Mitchell) and three of his hirelings (Adolphe Menjou, Dick Powell, and Guy Kibbee) who hope to be chosen for the job of general manager. Kibbee fails to get it because -- as usually happens when Kibbee gets friendly with a blonde -- Joan Blondell inveigles him into a situation which turns out to be embarrassing when his wife appears. Menjou, a much slicker operator, gets into difficulties of the same sort, and the job finally goes to a befuddled drunk who has had the good fortune to catch Grant Mitchell on the point of paying a visit to a lady exterminator ("Exterminating Done at All Hours, Day and Night").

The picture contains one song which deserves to be remembered -- a paean to the president of the J. B. Honeywell Rubber Company, called "Oh, Honeywell," and sung to the air of "My Maryland."


FWIW: The headline for this article, which also includes reviews of QUEEN CHRISTINA and GOING HOLLYWOOD, reads thusly: "ROYALTY, RADIO, REUNION: Garbo Plays Queen Christina, Mr. Crosby Croons to Miss Davies, and That Gay Warner Gang Gets Together Again."
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moviepas

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Convention City

PostFri Sep 24, 2010 6:23 pm

The trailer doesn't seem to exist which is a little unusual for WB family titles from this period as so many have been used of other films on DVD & Laserdisc, even if almost fragmentary, poor quality. MGM is much the same but with MGM often only the re-issue trailer is used on some discs probably because they utilized the original trailer fore the new one and junked the old after that such as Hallelujah(1929)'s re-release in 1939 which also saw a reel or so in length thrown out the door. One can't take notice of the DVD-R WB Archive series for trailer existence because they are often left out when you know it has been used on other material in the past, particularly, color titles. Very inconsistent.

As for Australia, I assume that it showed here and was probably censored in some form going by the descriptions of the content but may not have been but King Kong was banned & for TV later for some years. Survival rates vary because most prints of films went, in my state, to a certain inner city company for recovery of silver content although MGM did not go there & no-one seemed to know what happened to those discarded prints. I have talked of these matters before at Nitrateville. I told the story of guys each getting a reel from this copy of Reel A and other guy Reel B from another copy of the same film, etc. Then the raids when someone got caught and named names(sounds like his name should have been McCarthy???). Then the wholesale destruction of confiscated footage(and court fines) and then there were the house fires, particularly of a couple of houses that had Fox color musicals from the 1940s. And an open truck exploding near what became my home (from 1957) in the 1940s.

I do know one title that was rare in later years from Canada was destroyed by a man when the heat was on but this did not save him a court appearance and fine later. Foolishly he burned these in a backyard furnace/incinerator. There was apparently some porno of the period amongst the footage burnt there.

The NFSA in Canberra has yielded some good stuff unknown elsewhere but this archive is nowhere near as old as LOC, MOMA, UCLA, of the BFI in UK for example so it relies on stuff been handed in or found in searches for local productions which is their overall policy today, returning stuff back to the producing country and not restoring it like say the BFI's NF&TA. Producers deposit all their materials from a completed film & I used to get information on this regularly until a new boss from an overseas archive took over and all these things stopped including direct selling of material held, giving a few items to a local DVD producer to issue under current guidelines. I used to enjoy going to the local office & shop and getting material & talking to staff when presenting them with stuff I had found. It has been about three years since I have called now. But I did find stuff they did not have or know still existed & got VHS copies of each item on separate tapes. Items put on deposit still belong to the original producers who can call on this material anytime, I believe. A look at the site shows what materials they hold on certain local titles like negs, positives, internegs, VHS, TV tapes(digital or otherwise), trailers etc & paperwork, posters, stills. Most production is independent so gathering up material in one spot is essential & highly necessary. Labs can't hold stuff forever & fees for storage would, surely, apply. Stuff in any kind of storage warehouse are liable for destruction if the owner does not pay the fees or dies and no-one knows it is there.

In my city a lot of self-storage units have been established in recent years and many are in old factories converted for the purpose. It is a growing field which I assume has been the norm in USA for decades. There are many such unit sites around my local area. These developed, I guess, from the ones that were used by suppliers who needed a small lock-up to hold their stock when other areas were unavailable such as a small importer who had no more run at his house or city regulations forbade it.

It seems like a good time for WB to collect up all the existing reels of films that are incomplete and do a DVD-R Archive series or a set of 6-discs or the like.
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dr.giraud

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PostSun Sep 26, 2010 10:40 am

Harold Aherne wrote:
Something that I've also seen blamed for the mediocre survival rate is the possibility that the soundtrack discs were stored separately from the film elements and that many of the former were simply unavailable when syndication prints were made in the mid-1950s; ergo a number of titles were not preserved. Yet I see a few 1931 Warners titles on the lost talkies list that has circulated here: The Bargain, Children of Dreams, Compromised, Honor of the Family, Woman Hungry. By that time, most of the prints should have been sound-on-film, so it's not clear why these are MIA (with the possible exception of Woman Hungry, which was in Technicolor).

Curioser and curioser.

-Harold


Do trailers survive on any of these titles? I have a set of stills for HONOR OF THE FAMILY, which appears to be a Ruritanian sex comedy w/Warren William and Bebe Daniels.
dr. giraud
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Jim Roots

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PostMon Sep 27, 2010 6:41 am

Why would the reviewer give the film only two stars out of four if he calls it "a first-rate comedy"? If it's first-rate, it should merit four stars.


Jim
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boblipton

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PostMon Sep 27, 2010 6:49 am

I'm going to answer your rhetorical question, Jim: it's because only tragedy is important. Comedy is just about audiences having a good time. People shouldn't have a good time. They should be consumed by the injustices of the world and terrified by the possibility that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time; or, to quote Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL:

"If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind. Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental."

Bob
Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.

-- Werner Herzog

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