Passionate vintage film fans are ready to make their yearly trek to the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood this week for the Cinecon 54 Classic Film Festival. The five-day fest has become widely known for screening rare and obscure films and shorts from the silent era and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
This year’s fest, which kicks off Thursday, is no exception, featuring such rarely seen films as 1924’s “Helen’s Babies,” 1937’s “Blonde Trouble” and director William Wyler’s 1929 treat “The Shakedown.”
But the show nearly didn’t go on two years ago. Robert S. Birchard, the film historian and longtime Cinecon president, had expressed a desire to stop the festival because he wasn’t feeling well. It turned out he had heart issues that led to his death.
“I started to get people to give us money, so I had money to work with [for the festival],” said Stan Taffel, a TV and film historian who took over as president of Cinecon in 2016. Visiting him in the hospital before his death, he told Birchard, “ ‘Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take it from here.’ ”
He barely had time to mourn. Taffel had three months to make Cinecon 52 a reality.
“I wanted to make sure that everybody understood that it’s going to be taken care of,” said Taffel. “I am going to continue the good traditions that we established, but I wanted to make the festival work better.”
So he started calling his friends who shared his passion for films. “Instead of just Bob and me and [current vice-president] Jim Harwood doing the festival, I established a team of 12 amazing people. And each one I put in charge of a certain faction of the festival. Within 85 days we put the festival back on its feet. We got through that first festival, and what was wonderful was that we had a memorial for Bob.”
Taffel wanted to increase the scope of Cinecon, so he added things he was passionate about, like kinescopes. “Those television films from live TV before the advent of videotape,” he noted. “I have a substantial collection of them.”
To show these kinescope films, Taffel last year added “Kinecon” to Cinecon, showing at the smaller Spielberg Theater at the Egyptian. “I didn’t want anyone to say, ‘Oh, you took away movie time in the big theater,’ ” he explained.
This year, Kinecon will focus on comedians such as Jackie Gleason, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny and Sid Caesar and also show one-of-a-kind prints of episodes of such ’50s-era kiddie shows as “The Pinky Lee Show" and “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.”
Also a big success last year was “Saturday Nitrate Fever,” which showcases a nitrate feature and short subject. (Films with a nitrate base were made in the early part of the 20th century to 1952. They are highly unstable, so special equipment is needed to show them.) This year, Cinecon is screening the 1937 Merrie Melodies cartoon “September in the Rain” and the 1933 Stu Erwin comedy “He Learned About Women.”
The festival itself opens with the Library of Congress restoration of the 1924 comedy “Helen’s Babies,” starring Diana Serra Cary, then known as the massively popular child star Baby Peggy, Edward Everett Horton and a young Clara Bow.
“’Helen’s Babies’ survived, but not well,” said Taffel. “The Library of Congress found new material and a longer version of the film with other sequences. So, they restored it and are allowing me to run it as the premiere of the restoration. And I have Scott Lasky and the Famous Players Orchestra accompanying the film. Scott has a score that he’s assembled from original silent-film music and has spent the better part of the year putting it together.”
Cary, who will be 100 in the fall, may attend, depending on her health. Definitely scheduled to appear is 91-year-old former child star Cora Sue Collins. She will do a Q&A Saturday after the screening of her first film, 1932’s “The Unexpected Father” with Slim Summerville and Zasu Pitts.
Taffel explained that “for 20 years, at every event and festival Cora Sue goes to, she asked, ‘Does anybody have or know the whereabouts of my first movie?’ So, I made a phone call to somebody over at Universal who said, ‘We actually have it, and we’ve made a new print.’ ’’
Taffel said Collins cried when she learned that not only did the film survive, but that it was booked at Cinecon. “We'd like you to honor us by bringing your family to come see it at the Egyptian,” Taffel told the actress.
Oscar-winning actress Eva Marie Saint (“On the Waterfront”) will also be doing a Q&A Friday with a screening of “That Certain Feeling,” a 1956 comedy she made with Bob Hope.
Taffel noted that while watching the 94-year-old actress at the Oscars this year, “I just thought, ‘One of the greatest actresses, one of my favorites. I would love to honor her.’ But I didn’t want to honor her by running ‘On the Waterfront’ or ‘North by Northwest.’ If you want to go to the TCM [Classic Film Festival], you go to see ‘North by Northwest.' We found out that there was a movie that she has long wanted to see. It was ‘That Certain Feeling.’ We called over to Paramount, and they pulled their prints. We inspected them, and we’re going to run the film for Eva.”
Cinecon 54 is also honoring the legacy of film preservationist Robert Nudelman, who died a decade ago, with a screening Monday morning of the classic 1932 W.C. Fields-Jack Oakie comedy “Million Dollar Legs.”
“Cinecon was built by friends who loved this stuff,” said Taffel. “Robert Nudelman was a big champion of preservation in Hollywood. For years, he kept asking Bob to run a W.C.Fields film, and Bob would say, ‘It’s too common. We’re not going to do it.’ But one year he did, and Robert was thrilled, and the audience went nuts. So on this sad 10th anniversary I wanted to put W.C. Fields on the Cinecon screen.”
Aug. 30 — Sept. 3 — various times
Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (Two programs will take place at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, 1755 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
Admission for five-day pass is $200 and daily passes are $40-$55
For more information go to https://www.cinecon.org