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Thursday, June 03, 2010

Swingin' On A Cinevent Rainbow

So I'm back from Columbus and had a great time as always. It's liberating to attend shows minus compulsion to vacuum the dealer's room of everything that's good in posters and 16mm. Years past were spent at that, plus staking the lobby for a first look at everyone's sales/trade list. For this recovering collector, it's more relaxed and social. Now there's time to visit with people I used to rush past in search of plunder. But the pace of Cinevent can be frenzied even for those not hunting/gathering. Movies shown oft-represent once-in-lifetime opportunity to see titles inaccessible on television and DVD. There are among Cinevent-ers stalwarts who submit to upwards of a half-dozen features in a day, plus shorts and cartoons to pry apart eyelids surely drooping by nightfall. One curiosity that lured me was Swingin' On A Rainbow, which I'll bet a merest handful have seen since Republic's initial release in 1945. Why care? There's argument many would advance that everything, no matter how minor, deserves an airing. Even better is when such films actually entertain, as Swingin' On A Rainbow clearly did the hundred or two that watched. They were largely there to see Harry Langdon in his final feature appearance, completed barely months before his death. For all we knew, this might have been the last 16mm print extant. Just that lends Cinevent screenings distinction, answering a decided yes as to whether my Ohio trip was worth it.

I sort of carried home fascination with Swingin' On A Rainbow and have dug around since for more info. First off, the images thing. There are virtually none around on this show. My cabinets were bare, though I did locate the trade ad shown here. Republic was hard-charging that year of 1945, a near peak for movie revenue generally and their ripest moment to seize a chunk of the first-run market. Trouble was competing with bigger studio salesfolk and higher profile merchandise they offered. I searched for any theatre ad featuring Swingin' On A Rainbow and came up zilch. Who played this humble piece? Perhaps small towns or venues conducting burial at bottom of crowded bills ... anyhow, it deserved better. Researching some titles is like cold case files, or better put, inquiry after missing persons. Life really was a struggle for humble Republic. (Certain) theatres liked their westerns and serials, but larger houses couldn't be bothered with that company's ongoing effort to break into big times. Seems to me a salesman for Republic needed the hide of a rhinoceros for constant rejection he'd know. Ancillary markets must have been as impenetrable. There are sprightly songs in Swingin' On A Rainbow, but I found no Hit Parade links to them. It would appear none charted, even modestly so. Wrap Your Troubles In A Rainbow pleased Cinevent-ers, but had zero effect on 1945 juke junkies (a tune called Swingin' On A Rainbow would later be recorded by Frankie Avalon, but bore no relation to Republic's melody). There was a Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams ... even Sinatra took a whirl at that one ... but Republic's similarly titled ditty, penned by a Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, got nowheres. Life is not fair for struggling composers and moviemakers (but here was a shock ... Gannon and Kent earlier teamed on the immortal I'll Be Home For Christmas, a 1943 standard we'll never stop hearing).

And then there's Harry Langdon. It took me a moment to recognize him. No longer baby-faced by 1944 (when Rainbow was shot), he's mustachioed, settled into character acting mode and darn good at it, facility only to be expected from this most accomplished comedian. What a performing treasure Harry was and how sadly was he wasted in those final years! Yet I don't buy the notion he was a tragic cast-off adrift upon misery's shore. For one thing, the man worked near constantly right to the end (HL died 12/22/44), and never looks unhappy in on-set stills I've seen. There are several of those from the period he gag wrote at Hal Roach, around 1939-40 (above). Harry certainly doesn't dress the part of a broken man. If anything, I'd call him the Beau Brummell of Culver City, what with ascots and sport jackets anyone then would be pleased to don. I think Langdon, like Buster, was gratified just to be working in a field he'd always loved, and circumstances some of us call reduced indeed may not have struck him as such. Certainly Swingin' On A Rainbow shows HL seizing opportunity and running well past goal posts with it (a routine with swinging doors is typical of genius he routinely applies). This man would have been a dream member of Preston Sturges' ensemble. Oh, why didn't someone introduce them? Well, for that matter, Harry could have much enhanced Frank Capra's feature comedies, though for obvious personal reasons, I guess that wasn't going to happen. Swingin' On A Rainbow is 72 delightfully spent minutes of what-ifs for Langdon-philes, of which I'm proudly one.
Maybe someone could locate a bootleg DVD of Swingin' On A Rainbow (I haven't), and perhaps they'd half enjoy it alone at home, but no chance they'd experience there a deathless moment like we encountered at Cinevent's screening. The beginning of Reel Two hit an unexpected snag. Chattering gears and a quick shut-off followed as the operator (heroes all!) went to work in pitch darkness. A crowd long inured to vagaries of 16mm exhibition sat patiently without a murmur. Where but a vintage film show would patrons display such forbearance? I looked behind and observed the projectionist resorting to a tiny flashlight he used to switch reels from one recalcitrant machine to another more accommodating, all the while balancing the torch between his teeth. Here was trapeze walking common among those experienced with equipment our larger culture has long since abandoned, a virtuoso program rescue that will soon enough become a lost art (how many youths are out there training to be 16mm projectionists?). There then is a moment I'll savor from Swingin' On A Rainbow at Cinevent 2010 ... one among many that made for this happy Memorial Day weekend.
Richard Roberts was provider of the (ultra) rare Swingin' On A Rainbow print (and wrote excellent notes for the Columbus program). He'd run it at Slapsticon in 2007 and that was a first at any film con I'm aware of. You could say 2007 was its roadshow and Cinevent general release. Too bad the buck stops with those. Swingin' On A Rainbow really needs to be seen by everyone vested not only in Langdon, but comedy in general. It's an obscurity for which the little information extant is nearly always inaccurate. People who've presumed to talk about Swingin' On A Rainbow clearly haven't seen it. Well, how could they? I checked television availability over decades subsequent to 1945 and found it barely represented. There was mid-50's release to syndication through Republic's Hollywood Television Service, with continuing access to stations through 1975, those latter years via distributor National Telefilm Associates. As of 1977, Swingin' On A Rainbow could only be had in a Spanish language package Republic handled, TV prints including English dialogue but Spanish superimposed subtitles. Canadian viewers might encounter it, but you wonder how many stations north of our border bothered running Swingin' On A Rainbow after initial 50's vid-dates. The person who'd have known a great deal more about the film's history is unfortunately no longer here to share it. Jack Mathis was the Republic scholar who gave his life's effort to a complete accounting of that studio's legacy, and left three books of a proposed series unfortunately not completed prior to his death in 2005. All these are amazing works, and highly recommended to anyone interested in Republic Pictures.

Antiquated machinery, vinegar 16mm and lobby cards priced to high heaven --- these I'd want to last forever, or at least so long as I'm able to make the yearly trek to Cinevent. Another magnificent obsessive stood back of his dealer table for the entire show repairing projectors, one after another with precision and dexterity you'd not find outside neurosurgery. Bring by your ailing Bell and Howell and he'd fix it while you wait. I observed this wizard of drive belts and circuit boards and vowed to next year haul up my own first B&H acquired in 1972 for a much needed tune-up. The thrill of Cinevent-ing will neither go nor diminish so long as ambassadors of a Golden Collecting Age keep showing up to ply their trade. I love talking to folks who still chase film in spite of digital's takeover. Whatever corner you pass, they are huddled over unspoolment of some rarity or another, be it a Silly Symphony on IB Technicolor stock (which all of us know can never be faithfully duplicated on disc format) or a black-and-white Kodak of a Buck Jones western we'll not see on TV again. Those of you still in 20's and 30's need to lay down your remotes and book passage to Cinevent 2011. We'd welcome a younger generation to take up the banner. For a meantime, and I hope a lot longer time, regulars who've attended these forty-two years will continue doing so and rightfully call Cinevent the friendliest film con by a mile.


Anonymous Rodney Bowcock said...

Well said, and at 31, I'm glad that Cinevent is still here, and seems to be continuing to see good attendance. Too many events like this are seeing their audience age and inevitably go away. This fest is a treasure.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I'd like to have seen SWINGIN' ON A RAINBOW for male lead Brad Taylor, who for me will always be Stanley Brown from innumerable Columbia Bs, shorts, and serials. RAINBOW appears to be Republic's final attempt to market "Brad" as an exciting new leading man. How did he go over with the Cinevent house, John?

I think the CBN network may have run SWINGIN' ON A RAINBOW in the early 1980s. They had some of the NTA Republics (HITCHHIKE TO HAPPINESS comes to mind offhand).

11:55 AM  
Anonymous sjack said...

Do me a favor please? Next year would you mention some really rare films being shown at Cinevent before it starts? I was only able to attend one day this year and chose Sunday to see a Louise Brooks film, a choice I regretted. Her films are pretty easy to come by plus, more than half of the exhibitors were gone by then. Had I known the significance are rareness of this film I'd probably would have made a point to see it. See you next year.

1:56 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a good suggestion, sjack. Next year I'll try to do at least a preview of films being shown at Cinevent that I particualrly like, though all of them have to much to recommend. Cinevent organizers really do make good choices for that show ...

2:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson e-mails with some observations about Harry Langdon:

Just when I get my holy grail list down to realistic proportions, you turn up another item like this . . .

On the Langdon Lost & Found DVD set, one of the commentators threw out a suggestion that Capra's real feud was with Langdon's first wife. Later somebody offered the theory that the angel Clarence in "Wonderful Life" was written with Langdon in mind. They made no mention of "Rainbow", instead showing clips from a Bowery Boys-type flick where he played a not-too-evil banker.

Footnote: Langdon's comedy was built around very, very deliberate timing. His son achieved great success a still photographer -- perhaps a logical extension of his father's film instincts.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Do me a favor, John-- look for me next year because I looked for you all weekend and never did spot you! Richard Roberts offered to introduce us if he ever saw us in the same place, but it didn't happen. --Mike Gebert, NitrateVille

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are all the films at Cinevent 16mm?

Call me a snob, but I would find a festival of only 16mm films to be very hard on the eyes.

Are the films shown in a movie theatre?

I second the request that you give enough advance notice about Cinevent 2011 to allow people to plan to attend. Are the dates for 2011 known? Is there a host hotel?

11:16 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

well doggonnit!Now I wanna see Swingin' On A Rainbow..

1:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Michael, I had that same conversation with Richard where he promised to get us together, but I ended up leaving on Sunday morning about 9:30 before he really had a chance. Maybe I should stick around next year till Monday. In any case, I will be sure to track you down.

As to the reader's question about 16mm at Cinevent ... yes, the films are projected in 16mm ... but in many cases, they are only accessable that way, and Cinevent does have xenon lamp projection with resulting high-quality presentations. i don't find their shows hard on the eyes. As to next year, I will certainly make an effort to post a preview with titles scheduled and what info and recommendations I'd have. For the meantime, I can only say once again that Cinevent is a marvelous show and a really good time for anyone who loves rare and vintage film. Those who've not attended before should consider a 2011 trip to Columbus for Memorial Day weekend next ...

9:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A note to sjack. To get a preview of upcoming Cinevents, go to there is always plenty of advance notice as to the film schedule, registration, convention rates, etc. Also, the best days in the dealers rooms are Friday and Saturday. By Sunday, things to tend to thin out.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'v always liked 1940's B-musicals, especially the early-to-mid-1940's Universals, and just about anything from Republic, and so had always wanted to see "Swingin' On a Rainbow" as it looked like it would be just my style. There was Jane Frazee as the star, familiar from so many Universals. Also being a Langdon fan, and having several stills and lobby cards from the movie, I knew I'd like it. And I certainly was not disappointed after seeing it at Slapsticon 2007.

I'm glad you got to see it, John, and I enjoyed you very interesting and observant comments, as always.

3:44 PM  
Anonymous Yair S. said...

I was able to catch "Swingin' on a Rainbow" at Slapsticon a few years ago and it went over really well with the audience. It caught me somewhat off-guard since it was a rather charming musical-comedy whereas I had expected to see a sad footnote to Langdon's brilliant career, and the film was anything but. (All which goes to show that film history was meant to be re-written.) Langdon, in particular, was terrific, and his performance certainly proves that he could have developed into a great character actor later in the '40 and '50s had he lived.

Great piece on "Swingin' on a Rainbow," John...hope to see you at Slapsticon this summer.

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Samantha said...

Hi there!
I agree with your comments about Cinevent being a great place to see rare films, but also to socialize. It is the highlight of my year and has been since I began attending in 2007 (at the ripe old age of 20).
Unfortunately, I did not see this film. I was too busy foraging through the dealer room for Dick Powell items. But that's just the nature of the game I guess.
Next year, I'll try to spot you in the crowd. Great job on the blog!

6:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

CINEVENT was a pleasure, as usual. I had not only the opportunity to bring two friends for the day on Friday, but to finally meet you, John.

Although it is a different dealer experience from the old days of all film, the dvd selection was excellent. I especially liked the very low cost ($4) poster reproductions in one room on the 6th floor, as well as the plentiful supply of lobby cards at reasonable prices. There's truly something for every enthusiast and every budget.


5:02 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Samantha's right; I started going to Cinevent in 1998 for the movies and the dealers' rooms, and I still do. (Boy, do I ever!) But it didn't take long before I was going there to see the people again too; they're a grand bunch, and I look forward to rubbing elbows with them all year.

4:08 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

I think I mentioned this before but for what it's worth, I'll say it again. Allan Hersholt, who should have known as well as anyone (since he was there, and he knew the man), once told me that Langdon, in reality, was almost exactly like his screen character. I'll leave it to the rest of you to decide.

Kim Gannon worked with my grandfather on the songs "I Go For You" and "So Dumb But So Beautiful" written for "Shine On Harvest Moon".


11:03 AM  

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