The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

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The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Mon Sep 30, 2013 3:19 pm

This was the last roundup for Cinesation, which concluded after 23 years as a four-day festival devoted to collectors showing off their treasures and archives showing off their work at restoration and preservation. If not a top festival for silents, compared to some past, it was an excellent one for pre-Codes, with some that lived up to that term's reputation for risqué situations and dialogue but others that simply took dramatic advantage of greater realism about sex and other human characteristics. Which meant, most of all, it was an eclectic trip into our movie past, held in the last surviving Triangle theater and in Lillian and Dorothy Gish's hometown, and the importance of eclecticism in collecting was demonstrated by the tribute to Cinesation co-founder Dennis R. Atkinson by the Library of Congress' George Willeman, which included lengthy segments of three films Atkinson donated to the archive:



Yes, it's a long clip, but you'll see some pretty cool and unexpected things in it, and I'm sure I speak for all who attended Cinesation in past year in thanking the Atkinsons, Terry Hoover, accompanists Ben Model and Phil Carli and everyone else involved for the work it took to put on the festival, and their love of collecting and showing film. Here's what we saw in the last Cinesation, part 1:

THURSDAY

THE FIGHTING LEGION (***)—
Silent versions of talkies are the direst subgenre, except apparently at Universal where they continued to shoot even hybrid westerns for strong visual storytelling (because their small town western theater base was so late in converting to sound that silence was still the primary way they'd be seen). So this 1930 Ken Maynard silent, directed by Harry Joe Brown (who would produce the Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher westerns years later), is unusually fluid for a modest-budget oater of the time, silent or sound, with a neat plot device (Maynard announces he's going to get the bad guy at a certain time and place) that's more "dark and stormy night" than the usual showdown in the street.

A SOLDIER'S PLAYTHING (*1/2) I bailed halfway through this service comedy with Ben Lyons and Harry Langdon, who make Durante and Keaton look like an inspired combination. Actually started as a big budget musical comedy under Michael Curtiz's direction, then scrapped and patched together with titles when musicals started bombing, it's pretty tough to take whenever it's anything other than Langdon alone on camera.

TERROR (**1/2)— No, not that lost early talkie The Terror, but rather Pearl White's last film, shot in France in 1924. The surviving version, about half of the original feature length, is only moderately comprehensible, but at least it's handsomely mounted and there are certainly moments when you see the energy and athleticism that made her a star a decade earlier.

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THE VIRTUOUS HUSBAND (***)— Elliot Nugent wants to marry Jean Arthur, she's frankly eager to enjoy marriage... but he's all wound up by the terrible Victorian advice on women (and everything else) his late mother, an advice columnist named Pansy Pomeroy, left him in a trunk full of letters. Sort of a proto-screwball film, as you might expect for 1931 this doesn't quite have the pace it would have had a few years later, and Nugent is such a wet blanket you wonder what she sees in him at all. But it delivers some laughs (especially from her more modern-thinking parents, Alison Skipworth and J.C. Nugent) and it's pre-Code not in a salacious way, but in a way that's simply realistic about a young bride frustrated at not being able to get what she's ready for. I would have loved to have seen it remade a decade later, by Preston Sturges or somebody, at His Girl Friday speed, but it wouldn't have been as matter of fact as this version.

FRIDAY

MICKEY'S CIRCUS (**1/2)—
Always worth seeing a Technicolor print (to know what they really look like compared to video releases), but this is a kind of tired later Mickey-but-Donald-is-the-real-star short.

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THE SUNDOWN RIDER (***)— The second early 30s B Western of the weekend, this time a 1932 Buck Jones directed by William S. Hart vet Lambert Hillyer and with something of a similar stern bent (when the bad guys pin their cattle rustling on innocent bystander Buck, he winds up getting branded by the mob that catches him), not to mention Ward Bond as an evil henchman.

I skipped Lon Chaney in Mockery, having seen it recently, then:

THE MAD PARADE (***1/2)— It's not often you see something that you've truly never seen before, but this all-female drama (men are only heard or seen anonymously from behind), about women serving as nurses and aid station workers in World War I, is a one-of-a-kind about women in war, and pretty much a great unknown WWI film. The main character, and the most interesting, is Evelyn Brent as a burned-out case straight out of the Lost Generation, and it's very frank about her seeking quick sexual satisfaction to get her mind off death and the fact that she feels ruined for civilian life; others in the excellent cast include Lilyan Tashman, Irene Rich, Louise Fazenda, Marceline Day and Fritzi Ridgeway as the gossipy villainess. There's a little condescension toward women doing man's work at the start, but it doesn't last long, and most of the way this is tough as nails— a bleak, hardbitten drama (pretty obviously from a play) that, again, is a pre-Code that's not really salacious, just frankly realistic.

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I said that there was no other film like The Mad Parade, but actually, at my very first Cinesation they showed a Paramount self-tribute film called The House That Shadows Built which included scenes from upcoming films, some of which were actually shot specifically for the film (because the film wasn't in production yet, I expect). And one of those was a film which looks very much like The Mad Parade, to star Ruth Chatterton and directed by Dorothy Arzner, called Stepdaughters of War, which was apparently canceled when Chatterton signed with Warner Brothers; it looks like Paramount picked up this independent production for release instead as a result.

HOLLYWOULDN'T (***)— Pretty good comedy short from the unknown-to-me John Sinclair; he and his brother try to break into the movies, amusingly satirized, and he and the villain wind up on the top of a building for a Safety Last-like thrill sequence which I almost couldn't watch, knowing that it was surely shot without even Lloyd's minimal protections against dying for a laugh...

THE SECRET GAME (***)— A bit dry, but an absorbing spy drama from William deMille in 1915 with Jack Holt as an American Naval officer, Charles Ogle as a German spy, Florence Vidor as Ogle's plant in Holt's office— and surprise, the real hero is Sessue Hayakawa as a Japanese diplomat who is set to spy on Holt's office to find out where the leaks are coming from. (The Japanese care because they're helping transport American troops, at least in this story.) The mechanics of spycraft are believable for the time, which is a rarity; less of a rarity is the racism toward Hayakawa that turns up at the end, but on the whole this is an unusually solid and well-performed movie for the time which, especially after a couple of other teens Lasky productions later in the festival, showed why the DeMille brothers were tops for their time.

THE FIGHTING 69-1/2 (***)— How had I never seen this Warner Bros. cartoon, about ants at war over a picnic? Inventive and fast paced and, thankfully, completely free of a Peace on Earth-style message.

PALMY DAYS (***) I'm neither an Eddie Cantor fan or hater, but this was fun, total Depression escapism with its fantasy art deco sets and chorus girls (watch for Betty Grable), and fast-paced, not too annoying humor from Cantor, Charlotte Greenwood, and Charles Middleton as a charlatan mystic. Interestingly, this also co-stars Barbara Weeks, seen that morning in The Sundown Rider, an actress I'd never heard of until this weekend, who left Goldwyn for Columbia to escape the casting couch (not that Harry Cohn was apparently an improvement).

SO THIS IS HARRIS (***1/2)— Hang around a festival long enough and they'll listen to your suggestions; this was mine, a wild pre-Code Oscar winner for Best Short full of double entendres and women in see-through skirts. The premise is that Walter Catlett is being driven crazy by the fact that women— and at least one pansy male— are all driven crazy by Phil Harris. Yes, it's just as realistic as The Mad Parade!

PARDON US (***)— I had never seen Laurel and Hardy's first feature, suspecting that it was a slow-paced dud, so I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by how it moves along— and how realistically dark the story of them going to prison for bootlegging turns out to be. I also somehow didn't know that they go in blackface for an extended sequence (it does seem to have been made so it could be cut down to shorts if it bombed, a la The Three Ages).

Eric Grayson brought a program of many obscurities, starting with a focus on industrial films. They were all pretty much from the golden age of the hard sell, and I now know more than I ever needed to about Heinz's distribution system, but Goggles and Gauntlets, a Firestone film about an old car rally heading from Cleveland to the Henry Ford Museum, was fun, and a Stewart-Warner refrigerator film showed Art Carney, at 18, doing an FDR impersonation (!). He ended it with two Puppetoons in pretty Technicolor, Philips Cavalcade (***) (another ad, but much subtler than the ketchup one) and the anti-war film Tulips Shall Grow (***1/2).

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THE WISER SEX (**1/2)— Classy cast and direction of a second-rate play (by Clyde Fitch, who died in 1909, and it kind of shows in the creaky plot). The first half has crusading D.A. Melvyn Douglas set up by the mob for a relative's suicide (a very young Franchot Tone in his debut) over gangster moll Lilyan Tashman; the second half has Claudette Colbert, who was a minor character up to that point, posing as a floozy to get the truth out of Tashman and gangster William (Stage) Boyd. (Douglas Dumbrille has a surprising early role as a chauffeur and henchman, before he got his law degree and did his henchmanning in a courtroom, I guess.) Smart, visually striking direction by Berthold Viertel (The Passing of the Third Floor Back) and Colbert's committed performance in the second half get this past the fact that it's kind of hooey.

More to come...
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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by Jim Roots » Tue Oct 01, 2013 6:10 am

You mean there will be no more Cinesations?

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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by BenModel » Tue Oct 01, 2013 12:02 pm

That's right. This was it. I've enjoyed all 8 of the Cinesations I've attended/accompanied, and will miss this festival.

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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by Jim Roots » Tue Oct 01, 2013 1:11 pm

BenModel wrote:That's right. This was it. I've enjoyed all 8 of the Cinesations I've attended/accompanied, and will miss this festival.

Ben
Dang. Why? I realize the Atkinson clan must be burnt out by now, but was no one else interested in taking over?

Sorry if I seem clueless, but this is the first I've heard of the closing. Don't think it was reported here in advance.

Jim

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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Tue Oct 01, 2013 1:47 pm

The Atkinsons, notably Dennis R. who had a stroke a few years ago, are ready to be done. Others may turn up elsewhere with some other kind of event— there was talk about that. Nothing at all firm, so we'll just wait and see.

Anyway, continuing on...

SATURDAY

5 GRAND AND A GIRL (**1/2)—
Another industrial or promotional film, apparently, though this version seems to have been clipped of brand identification for passing off as a regular comedy short (which wasn't bad); Grady Sutton and Marjorie Reynolds get mixed up with crooks including Tom Kennedy, but new hydraulic brakes and an automatically latching hood play a suspiciously large part in saving the day.

HOLD THAT BLONDE (***)— Preston Sturges-less Eddie Bracken comedies must be a very minor taste out there in comedy fan land, but this one, which looks and feels a lot like Bob Hope comedies of around the same time, was fast, irreverent and pretty enjoyable. Bracken is a rich kleptomaniac who is told he must fall in love to cure his psyche, Veronica Lake is a maid who's the inside man on a jewel robbery job, he falls for her, she thinks he's a pill, at one point he and perennial drunk Jack Norton wind up on a ledge, and if that's not enough silent comedy for you, when he winds up caught in a spotlight you realize this is actually a (rather different) remake of the play that gave Raymond Griffith Paths to Paradise.

THE VICTORIA CROSS (*1/2)— Historians debate the cause of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India, but Lasky in 1916 had the answer: a lecherous rajah with the hots for the white skin of British maid Cleo Ridgely. Can dissolute officer Lou Tellegen regain his former pride and save the day (and the womenfolk) against scheming, glowering mutiny-instigator Sessue Hayakawa? Besides being insulting to history, this just isn't a very well-made film— lots of crowded shots where you can't tell who's who— which, as I said earlier, proves what a gulf there was between the crisp, character-focused direction of the DeMille brothers at Lasky at this time and the crowd-the-screen-and-have-everybody-wave-their-arms school that this film (directed by Edward LeSaint) represented. (I note online that a MoMA screening attributes the film to William DeMille, but the film itself argues strongly against that idea.) Tellegen, not a great actor but a strikingly tall and hawkfaced figure (he had modeled for Rodin), shows how seriously he takes it by doing most of the movie in Indian prince drag for no motivated reason that I could see (but he does look good in it).

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NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (**1/2)— It's a long time since I felt so divided on a movie as it went by, scene to scene. Sometimes the plot— George Raft as a rising nightclub owner who falls hard for society dame Constance Cummings, who in fact grew up in the Park Avenue mansion which is now Raft's nightclub— was one of those things where supposedly savvy people are such simpletons (Raft is a naif about what society dames are really like) that it's exasperating. Then Alison Skipworth or especially Mae West would come on screen and the movie would light up like a Christmas tree; West, in her debut, is of course the only reason you've ever heard of this movie, and it makes you wish she had played more supporting parts as an actual character, not the starring caricature that she became. She and Skipworth have a classic pre-Code scene— after, it appears, they've slept together— where West (who owns beauty parlors) offers Skipworth a job and Skipworth thinks she's offering her a chance to go into prostitution, which allows Skipworth to deliver a lengthy speech on the historical track record of whoring as an aid to civilization! Even the Raft-Cummings story wraps up with surprising dramatic force (something along the lines of Frances Dee in Blood Money) and by the end I would have ranked this at least ***, but I have to remember that there's a long stretch in the middle where the main characters are kind of sentimental dunderheads that I found pretty aggravating.

ROSE OF THE RANCHO (**1/2)— Another mid-teens Lasky production, this time by Cecil B. DeMille; like The Victoria Cross it's still somewhat shot in the large-crowd-on-screen-waving-arms manner, but overall better crafted and more satisfying, if far from major Cecil B. Basically it's kind of Zorro without Zorro; bad gringo settlers are taking land away from the old Spanish families, and government man Jack W. Johnson seeks to protect Bessie Barriscale's family despite the fact that they're too proud/arrogant to protect themselves. The Spanish (who include Jane Darwell as her mom) are not terribly sympathetic, but it's well enough done as, basically, The Lonely Hacienda.

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At this point James Cozart of the Library of Congress introduced the award ceremony in the video in my previous post, and then presented two early shorts: a DeForest Phonofilm singalong called Old Pal Why Don't You Answer Me? and a fairly amusing 1917 Keystone called Haunted By Himself, which involves a guy thought dead, who snoozes under a bag of flour or cement which spills all over him... and guess what they think when he walks in the door at home? Hilarity ensues...

THE OVERLAND LIMITED (**1/2) The railroad silent genre is like the B western one— compact and built on the budget-enhancing effects of outdoor scenery, and the good ones are simple and to the point (there's a boy, there's a girl whose father is usually the president of the railroad, there's a vice president who's secretly paying off the Indians to wreck trains or something and has the hots for the girl, there's a runaway train). This one attempts to be more lavish and complex as drama, but more proves to be less, as it gets caught up in subplots ranging from engineer Ralph Lewis being depressed by his little daughter's illness to bad guy John Miljan's mom being on the train he's sabotaged to a punch-drunk fighter commandeering the train from Lewis (which is just bizarre, the railroad transporting an unsupervised drooling moron who can bench press a boxcar).

After dinner, Ben Model presented a bunch of silent comedies... most of which proved that few silent comedies are as well constructed as a Buster Keaton classic like The Goat (****), always one of my favorites for its dark, Kafkaesque plot. But there was fun to be had in most of them, and Model and Phil Carli (trading off) pounded out the fun on the keyboards. Are Waitresses Safe? (**1/2) was a diverting if nonsensical Sennett comedy with Louise Fazenda as a cook/waitress in a place that seemed to evolve from private home to restaurant over the course of the film, and owed quite a lot to Tillie's Punctured Romance; we got to see the freshly rediscovered Marcel Perez in the manic You're Next (***), which had something to do with being evicted and entertaining your fellow jailbirds on the piano; Number One (***), with Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, was a slight but typically droll sketch about a wife obsessed with husband #1; and A Thrilling Romance (***) was a slapdash but amusing comedy with a female comic, Wanda Wiley (previously talked about here), doing some nice physical comedy around a moving car (which is quite obviously in front of a rolling backrop of trees not a bit like the long shots of an actual car).

50 MILES FROM BROADWAY (**1/2)— This early talkie two-reeler, similar to a Vitaphone short of the time (1929) starts out poorly with a not very appealing dance team talking about going home to their small town, gets better when we get to the small town and two comics (Reginald Merville and Harry Watson, who starred in the Musty Suffer silent comedy series) do a lengthy, and pretty sharp and quick-witted, old country coot routine that includes a couple of musical numbers (again, fine until the female dancer drags them to a halt occasionally). One of those things that makes you kind of scratch your head at who, exactly, this was meant to be entertainment for once, but it was more enjoyable than many (and how often do you see such things in razor-sharp 35mm?)

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HER FIRST MATE (***)— I always enjoy the kind of low key, proto-sitcom small town comedies that turn up at these festivals, gentle little comedy-dramas about real life starring non-glamorous stars like Slim Summerville and Zasu Pitts (as here) or El Brendel (as in The Meanest Man in the World, shown at Cinevent a few years back). Here, Slim is a concessionaire on a boat who dreams of sailing the seven seas, Zasu sees a chance to have his own boat running his own ferry but he won't hear of a ship that travels back and forth every seven minutes... and complications follow. The biggest surprise is that this was actually directed by William Wyler— who had just left Universal but came back to do this for some quick cash before his next film, Counsellor at Law, made him an A-list director.

I called it a night before a second Summerville-Pitts film, Niagara Falls, a Roach Streamliner from 1941.

SUNDAY

THE WILD ENGINE (***)
— We had Pearl White on Friday and here's Helen Holmes in a cutdown film from a chapter or two of The Hazards of Helen; even more than with White you can see why spunk and performing heroics in a man's world made her an early female star.

HIS PICTURE IN THE PAPERS (***1/2)— Only Douglas Fairbanks' third starring film for Triangle, but the one that set the pattern for all his modern comedy-adventure films. He's the renegade member of a family of health food nuts, who sets out to get publicity for the family's product line of ghastly health foods through various stunts, most of which wind up frustrated. You can see why it made him a star after watching so many other Triangle films— his personality leaps off the screen, and you want to see that guy again (unlike, say, Lou Tellegen as a British officer or Jack W. Johnson as a government official in old California).

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KEEP 'EM ROLLING (***)— In 1936 William Wyler and Walter Huston made a classic called Dodsworth. Cinesation is where you get to see BOTH of the films that drove them to it! We saw Wyler's last programmer, Her First Mate, and here's the movie that convinced Huston it was time to go back to Broadway and do the play Dodsworth. To be fair, it's a perfectly effective bit of sentiment, based on a true story, about an Army sergeant who forms a bond with a horse and sees it through World War I and the years of peacetime cutbacks that follow, when there's always some snotty young officer who thinks the old horse and the old sergeant both need to be sent to the glue factory. But I can also see Huston's point that there were bigger things for him to be doing than animal pictures for the whole family.

Regretfully because of timing, I passed on the very last Cinesation film, Tillie and Gus, but again, I thank everyone involved in the 23 years of what seems to me the most charming and interestingly eclectic of old movie festivals, and wish them the best as Cinesation, like the movies it showed, fades into memories.
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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by s.w.a.c. » Tue Oct 01, 2013 3:36 pm

Sounds like Keep 'Em Rolling would be much preferable to Spielberg's Warhorse. Twice as entertaining and half as long.
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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Tue Oct 01, 2013 4:03 pm

Certainly less bombastic. It is quite similar in basic outline.

Although looking for the real story, it looks like it was actually older than I thought (but the movie, as so often in the 1930s, makes it hard to tell when something's happening, with modern dress in what's supposed to be the early 1900s). Rodney the horse was in the "Cuban War" (i.e. the Spanish-American War) and was retired in 1916.
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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by BenModel » Tue Oct 01, 2013 7:02 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:The Atkinsons, notably Dennis R. who had a stroke a few years ago, are ready to be done. Others may turn up elsewhere with some other kind of event— there was talk about that. Nothing at all firm, so we'll just wait and see.
Last year's Cinesation was practically announced as the final one, but it seems Terry Hoover, the Atkinsons et al were able to squeeze one more out. They've been at it for 23 years, and are 23 years older than they were when they started. Hopefully, if the country can use a 4th cine-convention (besides -fest, -con and -vent) perhaps something will come together if there are people to make it happen.

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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by missdupont » Tue Oct 01, 2013 11:10 pm

A THRILLING ROMANCE played at Cinecon, and the scenes you're talking about with the fake trees were shot on Sennett's cyclorama. This was shot all around Hollywood. There are shots looking north from Sunset and Vine with the Famous Players-Lasky Studio to the right, and at Hollywood and Vine intersection the Taft building can be seen. Shots of Cahuenga Produce at Cahuenga and Santa Monica and other shots around Sunset, Hollywood Blvd., etc.

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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by rodney4130 » Wed Oct 02, 2013 2:20 pm

I'd love to participate in starting an event like this, but I lack connections for the most critical things to do so. I am pretty good at marketing though.

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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Wed Oct 02, 2013 3:07 pm

A THRILLING ROMANCE played at Cinecon, and the scenes you're talking about with the fake trees were shot on Sennett's cyclorama. This was shot all around Hollywood. There are shots looking north from Sunset and Vine with the Famous Players-Lasky Studio to the right, and at Hollywood and Vine intersection the Taft building can be seen. Shots of Cahuenga Produce at Cahuenga and Santa Monica and other shots around Sunset, Hollywood Blvd., etc.
Of course, my first thought at any of those shots was "This would be a good one for John Bengtson to do!"
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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Sun Oct 06, 2013 2:41 pm

Hey, somebody, I can't remember who, said that So This is Harris is an extra on some DVD. But I can't find any record of that online. Anyone know?
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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by garymey » Sun Nov 23, 2014 12:16 pm

Is the short ARE WAITRESSES SAFE? available on DVD? Does anyone remember who was the source?
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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by BenModel » Sun Nov 23, 2014 8:02 pm

This program of shorts was all sourced from the Library of Congress. The only titles from that program that are available on DVD are THE GOAT and (early next year) YOU'RE NEXT. I think I may have programmed this slew of shorts, but don't hold me to it (except that I'm sure I pitched the Marcel Perez and Wanda Wiley shorts).

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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by bradleyem » Mon Nov 24, 2014 7:30 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:Hey, somebody, I can't remember who, said that So This is Harris is an extra on some DVD. But I can't find any record of that online. Anyone know?
You know, I was wondering the same thing. I've seen SO THIS IS HARRIS somewhere, maybe at a long-ago Cinesation, but I was thinking it was on a DVD or VHS. Anybody know?

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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by moviepas » Tue Nov 25, 2014 3:16 am

SO THIS IS HARRIS

Yes this was on a DVD from a guy, might have been in the Mid-West somewhere, who called himself RKO Radio Pictures(logo and all) and had most of the RKO shorts on his discs with the exception of a few which he says were from the 1950s and belonged to Warner Bros. Of course if Warners had the RKO shorts library they would have a lot of fodder for their WAC series.

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Re: The Last Sundown for Cinesation: 2013 Fest Report

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Tue Nov 25, 2014 7:00 am

That was Dennis Atkinson, who ran Cinesation.
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