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Classic Hollywood: Rare films on display at Cinecon 46

The Cinecon Classic Film Festival is not for movie softies. It's for hard-core film buffs and historians who don't want to see the usual vintage fare that pops up on Turner Classic Movies or at revival theaters. So if you're looking to see "Casablanca," "Citizen Kane" or " It's a Wonderful Life," Cinecon isn't the festival for you.

"Most of the films have not been seen since their original release or have not been seen since the early days of television," says film and TV archivist/historian Stan Taffel, who is vice president of Cinecon.

The 46th edition of Cinecon takes place Thursday through Monday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The festival offers a memorabilia and collectibles show at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, along with seminars. Oscar-nominated actor Don Murray will be receiving the Cinecon Career Achievement Award at a banquet at the hotel on Sunday evening.

Cinecon began rather humbly in 1965 at a Holiday Inn in Indiana, Pa., the hometown of Jimmy Stewart. The Society for Cinephiles Ltd. met in a small room at the hotel and showed 8-millimeter silent films from their collection.

"Little by little, people started to find rare films and it became a festival," Taffel says. Now called Cinecon, it has been in Los Angeles since the 1990s.

"We have been able to generate really good relationships with all the studios," Taffel says. "I would say one of my favorite aspects about the entire thing is that we have become personal friends with people who work at the studios in film preservation. A few of them will say, 'What do we have that we should be preserving or what you like to see be preserved?' Those of us on the board, including Cinecon President Bob Birchard, have films we would love to see, things we have never seen before."

Taffel's favorite "cause" these days is a silent and sound comedian named Charley Chase, who besides acting in film also directed movies. "He was involved in some 400 films in various capacities," he says. "I have spent most of my life tracking down as many films of his that he either worked in front of or behind the camera."

For this festival, he's running a 1937 Charley Chase comedy, "From Bad to Worse," that hasn't been screened in 73 years. "It's one of his first Columbia shorts. We are delighted. It's a brand-new print that has been struck from original elements."

Other rarities being screened include a 1928 Frank Capra gangster drama, "The Way of the Strong" and a 1930 version of Jack London's "The Sea Wolf," starring acclaimed actor Milton Sills, who died shortly after its release at the age of 48.

But the biggest draw of Cinecon is the re-premiere Saturday of the 1914 Keystone comedy "A Thief Catcher," which features Charlie Chaplin in one of his first screen appearances and in a non-Tramp role.

"I don't think any film is lost," Taffel says. "My rule is no film is lost, they are just MIA."

"A Thief Catcher" was discovered last November at an antiques show in Taylor, Mich., by filmmaker and film historian Paul E. Gierucki.

"I travel all around the world searching for classic films, trying to restore them, release them on DVD and put them on Turner Classic Movies," Gierucki says. "I have found things like Harry Langdon's home movies, some Buster Keaton work prints and Laurel and Hardy trailers."

He went to the antiques show just for fun when his eyes caught a vintage streamer trunk. "I flipped open the top and inside there was a large stack of 16mm films. Nothing was marked or labeled, so I sat down on the floor in the middle of the antiques show just trying to go through all the films."

The majority of the films weren't worth noting, but he bought about five of the films, including one called 'His Regular Job," which he recognized as a reissue of a Keystone Kops silent comedy. He took them home where they sat on a shelf while he worked on another project.

Months later, he final got to cleaning the print of the comedy and put it on his projector. "I started watching it and realized it was a reissue print of 'A Thief Catcher.' This was a lost title that starred Ford Sterling … and then about midway through a scene, two cops wander in from the right side and one of them looked a whole heck of a lot like Chaplin. He was dressed as a cop, but the movement, the face … I had to stop the projector and run it back.

"I must have watched it four times before it dawned on me, it was Chaplin in an undocumented film appearance. It's a very funny segment. Ford Sterling is fantastic, but no question that Chaplin comes in and steals the show. Chaplin's career is so thoroughly documented, so to find something like this is as rare as they come."

For the schedule and more information about Cinecon 46, go to http://www.cinecon.org.

susan.king@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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