Capitolfest 14: Gary Cooper and the Female Gaze

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Mike Gebert
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Capitolfest 14: Gary Cooper and the Female Gaze

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Wed Aug 17, 2016 5:08 pm

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Of the old movie conventions I've been to, I loved the combination that Cinesation had of a small town (in northeastern Ohio), an old theater (a Triangle theater, in fact), and programming which consisted not only of collectors' own prints— which is how all these old movie conventions got started, collectors putting them on with their own scavenged TV prints and old two-reel comedies for the programming. But also films from the film archives themselves, which meant many utterly obscure titles showing off sides of film history I never would have expected to see, certainly never had a chance to see anywhere else.

Cinesation retired three years ago, which led me this year to Capitolfest in Rome, New York— also a small town, also an old theater (a handsome art deco house with a vintage organ installation), and even more than Cinesation, focused on what the archives, including the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA have been preserving and restoring. Capitolfest makes a virtue of the fact that it's not quite as wall to wall morning to night as other conventions, lasting a mere three days, only one of which actually starts at 9:30 and runs close to midnight.

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Still, by any normal person's standard, it's a weekend packed with films— and because the Capitol theater doesn't have DCP in its vintage theater, they actually had the Universal restoration of King of Jazz playing in their modern theater next door, which means that at one point there was literally a small town in upstate New York where two-strip Technicolor could be seen on two screens at once last weekend. (Many caught it during their time here, but I never managed to.) There's some digital projection where that was convenient or the only thing available, but most of the weekend was 35mm, and quite gorgeous, especially when accompanied by the booming organ of Phil Carli or the other accompanists. It was a very solid weekend, lots of films which rated *** and a few which went higher than that.

And of course, the other thing Capitolfest offered was so many people I've met at the other festivals, or met virtually here but not in person until now— nice to see Jack Theakston, Richard Finegan, Agnes, Eric Grayson, Eric Cohen, Eric Stott (aka Frank Fay), Louis Despres, Jessica Rosner, Joe Yranski, my Cinevent driving buddies Irwin Drobny and Susan Korn, Cary Black, Peter Gutzmer, Nitrate Diva (whose tweets on the films popped up in my Twitter feed because Lou Lumenick retweeted them), and others I'll just have to apologize for not remembering to mention now.

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Miller theater organ

One thing that's interesting about Capitolfest's programming is that they focus on a particular star each year. This year the star was Gary Cooper—which meant that we drilled down into all the titles that no one's seen in decades, which constitute the early years of his stardom between a breakout role in Wings and a starmaking role in The Virginian. Here's what I saw:

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FRIDAY

DOOMSDAY (***)
Florence Vidor hates her life as a drudge doing housework for her retired father; she has eyes for WWI soldier turned farmer Gary Cooper, but banker/rich old toad Lawrence Grant has Rear Window-like eyes for her. A Warwick Deeping (Sorrell and Son) novel is apparently strip-mined for a standard love triangle tale, leaving much of the actual book behind, but still retaining some sharp bits of social observation— it really does come down to how much damn housework women had to do back then, not the sort of thing the usual love triangle story paid much attention to, and there's a clear hint that Grant's interest in Vidor is a gay man's Vertigo-like interest in dressing a woman up more than a straight man's interest in bedding her. Speaking of costumes, Vidor is in full Kay Francis mode here, being vaguely depressed and resigned to fate after she marries Grant, while parading in quite an eyecatching assortment of Art Deco frocks. Housework has never been rendered so dramatic as when Dr. Phil Carli accompanies it on the Capitol's organ.

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Jack Theakston in the dealer's room

LINDA (**1/2) When you see Noah Beery's name in the credits, you know he's the lout who's going to force himself on the eponymous Linda, a backwoods Mary Pickford type who hain't got much book larnin' (someone sure taught her about mascara and beestung lips, though), probably while trying to steal somebody's land. Surprisingly, though he is, well, the Noah Beery of the piece, this turns out to be maybe the only time his love was sincere and he gets to do something decent and noble. Helen Foster is Linda, who starts out in the woods and winds up in the big city, through a few too many deus ex machinas in the contrived plot. Even so, it's an effective enough piece, well mounted by Dorothy Davenport (Mrs. Wallace Reid), and surviving in a very nice-looking print (one of the camera operators behind the attractive nature photography was Ernest Laszlo of Stalag 17 and Kiss Me Deadly).

GEORGE WILLEMAN PRESENTATION ON EDISON KINETOPHONES— The Library of Congress's Willeman gave a presentation on their reconstruction of Edison's early (c. 1913) sound film system, which married an acoustic cylinder to a film, followed by examples throughout the weekend. Sometimes they were lucky and had both the film and the cylinder that matched it, other times things weren't so simple, and a reconstruction might be the American version of the film and the European disc retrofitted to it. In any case, there's something especially otherworldly about these films, unmistakably the look of 1913 and then voices coming eerily from them, sometimes bringing that lost age to life, other times giving the impression of 1913 having been dubbed by... 1921. One interesting thing to note is that as many of them were stage sketches brought to life (Arthur Housman, incidentally, figured in a couple of them), they were nearly all filmed from a stage vantage point— which is to say the camera was parked not only at audience distance, but lower than the performers, as the audience would be.

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George Willeman talking Kinetophones

DUDE RANCH (***) A dude ranch run by Stu Erwin is failing until a low-rent acting troupe led by Jack Oakie and Eugene Pallette turns up and is persuaded, a la Fairbanks' Wild and Woolly, to put on some wild west excitement for the guests, including Charles (Mr. Muckle) Sellon and June Collyer. Meanwhile some bank robbers turn up planning to use it as cover for a heist... Very funny 1931 comedy which should be better known among buffs; if you've read that Bob Hope got some of his fast-talking coward act from Oakie, you can really see it here, and there's also some bits with Pallette dressed up as a Sioux Indian ("You no Sioux too?") that plainly inspired the Jack Benny-Mel Blanc routine about the Mexican who gives one word answers ("What's your name?" "Sy." "Sy?" "Si.")

The evening's feature was preceded by two short examples from Gary Cooper's rise to stardom. The first, LIGHTNIN' WINS (**), a watchable two-reeler in which he's the human partner of a heroic police dog, capturing baddies down by the waterfront; shot in two days, it's barely coherent, but he serves it better than it deserves, especially in a fight scene that looks like a real flurry of a brawl. Then it was the only surviving minute of what was said to be Cooper's first starring feature, Arizona Bound. It and he look good, too bad there's no more of it.

CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (****) Doomsday had had a passing reference to Paris as where the rich went for a divorce back then, and that must have been on minds at Paramount then, because here's an entire film about the subculture of children dropped off in convents for education while Ma-ma partied with her new friends, and what happens when they themselves grow older—in the forms of Clara Bow, Esther Ralston, and Gary Cooper. Actually, the latter two seem reasonably well adjusted, but Bow is the problem that ignites this high-octane, stylishly-produced melodrama, which may not really have much to say on its subject (at least, I don't recommend Bow's approach to solving a love triangle) but is a steam-heated, scenery-ripping romantic drama with three charismatic stars, and beautiful print material—you're going to want Flicker Alley's blu-ray/DVD when it comes out later this year. Frank Lloyd is credited as director, but Victor Fleming directed much of it (until Bow left him for Cooper), with Josef von Sternberg doing some reshoots at the end, and it does seem just too good for the often staid Lloyd.

My son and I skipped a late night showing of the infamous Just Imagine, which I've seen before (and think is more fun than its reputation, though the print shown was reportedly poor— the film only survives as a workprint, in any case).

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My son Liam, sampling a local delicacy.

SATURDAY

THE TEXAN (***)
On the heels of The Virginian came this early talkie (1930) with Gary Cooper on the lam as The Llano Kid, who meets sharpster Oscar Apfel (who co-directed The Squaw Man with Cecil B. DeMille) and gets drawn into a scheme to persuade a wealthy South American widow he's her longlost son. The old lady takes to him and he takes to Fay Wray (as her ward, I guess) and starts to have second thoughts about the scam... Rather poky toward the middle, and hurt by the fact that Cooper's character is rather awkward about playing his part as the fake son (which is less fun than if he took to it with gusto), but it has two assets that pay off handsomely in the end— origins in an O. Henry story, so there's an excellent twist, and, as a scripture-quotin' sheriff, an actor named James A. Marcus, unknown to me (though I saw him as Mr. Bumble in the Lon Chaney Oliver Twist), who has a bit of the 19th century barnstormer to his manner and the lived-in conviction of a western movie veteran, which indeed he was for the remainder of his career (he died in 1937).

Oh, and note the set of the Spanish house, you'll be seeing it again...

HIT AND RUM (***1/2) Eric Grayson bought this Leon Errol drunk act RKO short sight unseen from Ebay UK, and it seemed unknown to everybody, but it proved to be a comedy highlight— Errol and Eddie Kane are drunken businessmen who get mixed up with nutty guy Lew Kelly, who likes to think he's a judge—and gets the chance with them.

My son and I skipped an African-American-produced film called Eleven P.M., one of the Library of Congress's contributions to the Pioneers of African-Amercan Cinema set.

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More Kinetophones followed, and then a fascinating presentation by James Layton on his and David Pierce's book The Dawn of Technicolor, containing clips that in some cases had never been seen since initial release. Besides an explanation of the boom and bust of two-strip Technicolor musicals in the early days of sound, we saw a number of clips from things like Follow Thru, Sally, the mostly lost No No Nanette and The Gold Diggers, and the abortive March of Time, and one of the things it demonstrated is that... okay, people didn't prize razor-sharp focus back then like all us digitalheads do, but boy, two-strip Technicolor just was not good at being sharp, in addition to the fact that the color range was rarely that appealing (mostly murky brown, with pink and blue-green popping out). At the end they showed clips from a restored version of Wheeler and Woolsey's The Cuckoos, very careful lab work trying to get the best out of it, and that was more pleasing... yet even then I'm not sure I would have considered that color to be more than a mildly interesting novelty next to the luscious black and white of 42nd Street and Top Hat.

THE POOR RICH (***1/2) I'm always happy to see an Edward Everett Horton comedy on the bill at a fest like this, and this was a fun one in which Horton and Edna May Oliver are descendants of a rich family who are at the end of their money, and try to fix up the family manse to attract Thelma Todd (as an English aristocrat!) to marry Horton. But there are twists to come including John Miljian as a fake swami Oliver was once involved with, and it comes to a climax with a slapstick dinner scene with a roast goose being used as a football, and a riotous sendup of the usual detective-explains-everything scene with Edward Brophy barking out nonsensical solutions to a crime no one understands.

UNDER THE DAISIES (***) A 1913 Vitagraph short, very nicely done for its kind of thing, with a young and impossibly fresh-faced Norma Talmadge as a girl seduced and abandoned by a theater critic; but there's a twist to the obvious fate in store that will come back to haunt her seducer, when a playwright discovers the words she left behind. There were a few films on this theme of young women with bad mating choices, and surprisingly enough, this simple film was one of the more intelligent and poetic ones.

DRESSED TO KILL (***) A Fox silent starring Edmund Lowe as the dapper head of a gang of thugs (he looks very out of place next to the rogues gallery the casting department assembled here); poor thief Mary Astor turns up on his speakeasy doorstep, he recruits her and falls in love, but the other fellas don't trust dis dame being part of the gang all sudden-like, see. Plainly influenced by Underworld, but way more sentimentalized and full of plot conveniences, on that level it's not terribly good. But take it purely on the pleasures that run skin deep, and it's great to look at— Astor in a Louise Brooks bob is drop dead gorgeous, her costumes and the Art Deco set designs are dazzling, and though as I said, Lowe's mob barely seems to belong to the same picture as its chic but perennially lightweight star, the atmospherically Expressionist handling of their knobby mugs and menacing manners by director Irving Cummings is stylish as all hell. The parts of this movie are better than the sum, for sure.

I was tired and skipped Up For Murder, Monta Bell's sound remake of his silent Man, Woman and Sin.

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SUNDAY

We passed on a minor Bing Crosby musical, Too Much Harmony, to check out Fort Stanwix, a Revolutionary War era fort reconstructed just a couple of blocks from the theater, but returned in time for another Fox silent.

WHILE NEW YORK SLEEPS (***) A pretty good anthology film from 1920, each part starring Estelle Taylor and Marc MacDermott, which purports to show different sides of New York (though they could be set anywhere, really). Nevertheless they're generally sharp and well handled (by Charles Brabin), and if nothing else they don't overstay their welcomes. In the first one an upper class wife left alone by her husband due to a work emergency is surprised by a burglar—to whom she was once married, but whom she thought dead; in the second a wealthy man is seduced by an adventuress, but no one is quite who they seem; and in the third, set on the docks, a girl of weak character marries a poor boy in part to take care of his paralytic father, then (just accept this part) winds up hiding a criminal in the house—can Dad, who only communicates with his eyes, warn the son, or the police, or somebody? The first is inconsequential, but the second has some ironic wit and the third plays its "Sorry, Wrong Number"-like premise out to maximum effect, and the stars are plainly having a good time with their diverse roles.

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This title seemed fitting for day 3

A MAN FROM WYOMING (**1/2) Gary Cooper is a bridge builder sent to WWI, he meets WAC nurse June Collyer, who's the niece of a general and basically gets to do whatever she feels like in WWI (this part borders on unaware screwball comedy), but when she reads that he was killed, she has a sudden conversion to Lost Generation libertinism. Cooper, when he does find her whooping it up, understandably thinks she's not really the girl for him after all, a point they then discuss to death (actually, somewhat interestingly and non-judgmentally, rationally agreeing that they simply come from different worlds— and the movie should have ended there instead of coming back for an unconvincing wrap-up). Cooper is excellent in this, and the WWI scenes are well done, but I hated Collyer's character, less because of her character's moral turpitude (c'est la guerre) than because of the actress's whiny performance.

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Jack Theakston's Short Subject Follies— NitrateVillain and Capitol theater assistant manager Jack Theakston showed three 35mm prints from his own collection— a pretty good Betty Boop and Pudgy the Dog cartoon called Ridin' the Rails, Laurel and Hardy in Brats (not their greatest, but plenty of fun, as they play their own kids; it's kind of amazing to think how huge the sets must have been for them to need a ladder to get in an Olympic-sized bathtub), and a Fox Movietone newsreel which even Theakston had not seen yet; it turned out to have Joe Breen talking about the benefits of the newly devised Production Code, which earned enthusiastic boos from this audience!

In any case, the program ended with Jack, who's been involved with restoration projects with Bob Furmanek and others, announcing that he'll be moving on from the Capitol, and we all wished him success in his future endeavors.

WOLF SONG (***1/2) And we ended with another Gary Cooper silent, another one set among the Spanish grandees of old Mexico—and sure enough there's that same hacienda set we saw in The Texan! (Someone suggested that might have been it as the hotel in Dude Ranch, too, but it was too far back in the weekend to be sure.) At the beginning we get Cooper fleeing a shotgun wedding, and he takes up fur trapping with partners Louis Wolheim and Constantine Romanoff, swearing that women ain't for him— till he meets Spanish maiden Lupe Velez. Her father's not interested in her being despoiled by any fur trapper, so they run off together, but the wolf song calls him and he leaves her to go live life in the wild— but he cain't do that with a clear conscience neither.... After The Man From Wyoming you might think I approached yet another Gary Cooper gives in to a gal story with a gimlet eye, yet Victor Fleming directs this one with such vigor (likewise for Dr. Carli's accompaniment), plus it's hot-blooded señorita Lupe Velez we're talking about here, that I found this one great fun even as I didn't believe a whole lot of it. Fleming didn't either, to judge by a few throwaway bits— when Cooper tells Velez he's leaving and loads up his saddlebags, Fleming does everything he can to make it look like he's just reclaimed, um, a sack with two big things dangling in it.

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Dr. Phil Carli, about to hear the song of the wolf

* * *

So the most interesting part of Capitolfest focusing on a single star was that it gave us the opportunity to see so much unseen work of Gary Cooper's earliest period as a star at Paramount— and one thing became clear about Cooper's early days of stardom. Which is that, for all that he was a natural western male star, Paramount plainly thought his appeal was to women (which is certainly true— it's striking that in Doomsday, he gets the silk screen treatment to make him even more gorgeous, while Florence Vidor is filmed relatively naturally).

When he's bathing nude in Wolf Song, it's a clear example of the Female Gaze objectifying the man as a sex object in film, and there's a Cooper formula, which you could say continues in some form until at least A Farewell to Arms and Peter Ibbetson*, in which he's a man's man who falls for a women, has some reason to be separated from her, but in the end either comes crawling back to her (literally by the end of Wolf Song), or forgives her some transgression, but either way pretty much entirely accepts her on her terms, even if his apparent problems which drove him away haven't really been solved by the clinch at the fadeout. One of the films, Children of Divorce, is so female-oriented that it fails a reverse Bechdel test— there's not a scene where two male characters converse about anything other than the women and their issues with them.

Some may think I'm being facetious, and maybe I am a little—but it really is true that women were drivers of the movie audience much more than they are today, and Cooper's early stardom seems to have been tailored to that fact. He seems to be okay with that at this early phase, but whatever he did to move past being mere beefcake (or whatever you call someone who's so tall and skinny at this point), he made wise choices steering his career toward more manly or at least all-audience-appealing vehicles as Mr. Deeds, The Westerner and Sergeant York.

* You could even argue For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which only manly Cooper could have sold all that "I'll be part of you" romantic guff as he plans to stay behind and die blowing up the bridge.

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That's how it was spelled in 1905 and that's good enough for the Capitol. No, I assume they had just run out of Z's by that point.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir

R Michael Pyle
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Re: Capitolfest 14: Gary Cooper and the Female Gaze

Unread post by R Michael Pyle » Thu Aug 18, 2016 6:25 am

Thanks! It looked great; wish I could have been there. I was puzzled for a moment by your description of the Astor silent with Edmund Lowe. I thought you were talking about a silent I recently watched with her called "Romance of the Underworld" (1928) which was nearly a carbon copy of your film - it sounded, anyway... She must have been very busy in 1928 with the underworld...

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Re: Capitolfest 14: Gary Cooper and the Female Gaze

Unread post by Brooksie » Thu Aug 18, 2016 12:37 pm

I'm always glad to read the reports of these festivals. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.

Regarding your observations re Cooper and the female gaze - one prominent Australian publicity man of the 1920s said he had always been taught to market films to women, because when a couple decided to go to the movies, it was usually the woman and not the man who selected the film.

If that theory holds true, there's a good case for Cooper being the perfect movie star - rugged action man for the blokes; eye candy for the ladies.

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Mike Gebert
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Re: Capitolfest 14: Gary Cooper and the Female Gaze

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Thu Aug 18, 2016 2:48 pm

I think that was the old rule— the husband let the wife pick the movie. The new rule is that the boyfriend picks the movie for the girlfriend. Romantic status change reflecting a younger audience.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir

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Re: Capitolfest 14

Unread post by Richard Finegan » Sun Aug 21, 2016 11:45 am

Thanks, Mike for the reviews. It was nice seeing you again. I hope you will consider returning for more. I have attended all 14 Capitolfests and wouldn't miss it!
And, in case anyone missed the announcement, the star of next year's festival will be Fay Wray. So we'll probably be seeing a good assortment of her late silent and early talkie Paramounts that are not often revived, and hopefully one, two or all three of her never shown 1934 Universal features.

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