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SCREENING ROOM

Where Rarities Are Common

Cinecon 36, starting today, includes seldom-seen silents, talkies and a documentary on Mary Pickford's actor brother, Jack.

August 31, 2000|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cinecon 36, the annual convention of the Society of Cinephiles, will take over the Egyptian today through Monday for its 36th presentation of rare silents and talkies, tributes and related events. Cinecon's movie memorabilia dealers will display their wares in banquet rooms at the nearby Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

Cinecon's vital contribution to the preservation and restoration of film grows each year, as does its calling attention to individuals whose contributions to cinema are neglected or overlooked.

Film buffs will be able to see the world premiere of the restored version of "The Devil" (1920), the first film of British actor George Arliss (1868-1946), who followed great success on Broadway with even greater triumphs on the silver screen when he was well into middle age. Arliss first appeared onstage in this satiric Ferenc Molnar drama, adapted to the screen by Edmund Goulding (eventually a major director himself) for director James Young, husband of pioneer star Clara Kimball Young.

It screens Sunday at 8:30 p.m.

Other tantalizing fare includes two obscure items from the '30s: "It Happened in Hollywood" (1937), in which Richard Dix plays a cowboy star whose career is blighted by the advent of sound, while his leading lady, Fay Wray, flourishes in the new medium (Sunday at 9:30 p.m.); and "Attorney for the Defense" (1932), starring Edmund Lowe and Evelyn Brent and apparently unseen, even on TV, since its original release (Sunday at 10:45 p.m).

Among the more famous films screening are Paramount's splendid 1926 silent version of "Beau Geste" (Friday at 8:20 p.m.) and Erich Von Stroheim's 1922 "Foolish Wives" (Sunday at 10:10 a.m.). All silents will be presented with musical accompaniment, mostly live.

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This year Cinecon not only presents "Behind the Scenes" (Saturday at 7:55 p.m.), made in 1914 just after the movies had made Mary Pickford the most famous woman in the world, but also "Tom Sawyer" (1917), which stars Jack Pickford, Mary's talented but ill-fated younger brother. It screens Sunday at 2:30 p.m., preceded at 1:30 by Elaina Archer and Michael Yakaitis' illuminating and poignant "In Mary's Shadow: The Story of Jack Pickford."

Directed by James Kirkwood, who adapted "Behind the Scenes" from a popular play, the Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount) production co-stars Kirkwood as the nephew of a wealthy rancher who arrives in Manhattan with $10,000 and an introduction, by his host, a college pal (Lowell Sherman), to a Broadway chorus girl and aspiring actress (Pickford). They fall in love, and Kirkwood's uncle falls mortally ill, leaving Mary to twiddle her thumbs while her new husband oversees harvesting his wheat. Bored, Mary grabs a chance to return to the stage in a starring vehicle.

Pickford gives the marriage-versus-career conflict an honest reading, and the actress' longing for the footlights is treated sympathetically. "Behind the Scenes" makes the larger point of newlyweds, blind to each other's needs, who have no idea of the responsibilities of marriage.

"Behind the Scenes" was discovered in the vaults of Eastman House in the nick of time, for deterioration had set in, marring seriously some 500 feet of the film, illustrating the UCLA Film Archive's slogan: "Nitrate Won't Wait."

Some of us have been lucky enough to see "Exit Smiling" (1926), a sparkling, timeless comedy that teamed Jack Pickford with Beatrice Lillie, but he is mainly known by name only to film buffs. The actor was a hard-drinking playboy whose 1917 marriage to Ziegfeld Follies beauty Olive Thomas ended tragically in Paris in 1920 with her agonizingly slow death from mercury poisoning.

It's uncertain if she overdosed on a popular medicine for venereal disease or was attempting suicide. Pickford married two more Ziegfeld beauties, the first being Broadway musical comedy star Marilyn Miller, but he never recovered from Thomas' death. He died depressed and alcoholic at 36 in 1933--in the same Paris hospital where Thomas died and the year his sister retired from the screen at 40.

Archer and Yakaitis fill in the familiar outline with an amazing array of clips from the films of Jack Pickford, handsome and slim to the end. He managed to make some 70 pictures and was regarded by Mary as a better actor than she. Clearly he was gifted, possibly his loving sister's equal, and at ease in a variety of roles. He is wonderful in the title role of "Tom Sawyer," restored and re-released by Yakaitis' Library of Moving Images.

Directed by William Desmond Taylor (whose own scandal-tinged murder in 1922 would become one of Hollywood's enduring mysteries), "Tom Sawyer" is steeped in authentic atmosphere and mischievous charm.

At only 44 minutes, it's a tab version of the Mark Twain classic but had a sequel, "Huck and Tom," now lost.

According to the late Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and others, Jack Pickford had difficulty forging his own sense of identity in the light of the overwhelming fame of his sister, who opened doors for him right and left. That he was worthy of the opportunities she made possible was seemingly of little solace to him. But Archer and Yakaitis have made it clear why D.W. Griffith once declared Jack Pickford "the most talented young actor on the lot."

For more information: (800) 411-0455.

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