The Secret Cinema in Philadelphia has been around since the early 1990′s. Led by the visionary Jay Schwartz, they preserve actual celluloid movie film and sponsor showings in the Philadelphia area. They don’t usually have a schedule, but can be counted on to organize presentations of rare archival films on short notice. Their Christmas shows are legendary and I wish the Prince Music Theater would have them back. They’ve also been active in keeping Philadelphia’s legendary Boyd Theater from being torn down.
Last year I had the opportunity to attend one of their showings at The Trestle Inn. Mr. Shwarz presented a film of a Belgian rock band he has recently acquired with a magnetic sound track. Since it’s impossible to play one of these films on a standard 16mm projector (which uses optical tracks) he copied the soundtrack to a CD and hand synchronized the sound to the film as he ran it. For that feat alone he deserves an oscar.
So naturally I jumped at the chance to see a rare 35mm print of Dark Waters they were presenting. Last evening’s show was in the auditorium of International House, right across the street from the University of Pennsylvania. International House has a long history in the Philly area, having been constructed in the early part of the last century to house visiting foreign students.
Having way too much experience with Philadelphia parking in general and the U of P campus in particular, I left for the show as early as possible. Fortunately, my little Mini Cooper is perfect for urban parking. I found a space right around the corner from International House. However, it had been a few years since I’d spent anytime in that part of Philadelphia. The street parking set-up had changed. Now there are no parking meters. In its infinite wisdom, the city of Philadelphia has installed kiosks in the vicinity. With the help of a few other film attendees, I managed to figure out how the kiosk worked: you put money or a credit card in and bought parking “time” which was spat out in the form of ticket you place behind your windshield. But the kiosk we were using was out of commission. Fortunately, there was another one across the road which did work and we were able to purchase parking tickets. I’m still hoping I didn’t get double charged. Have to check my credit card account tomorrow.
Once inside International House, someone at the desk referred me to the ticket booth where I purchased my ticket for the evening. Next, I was referred to the auditorium, located at on the other side of the building. And, note to self, the bathrooms are strategically placed downstairs in the basement near the mailboxes.
The auditorium for the showing was clean and built on a stadium style. Which meant everyone could see the movie, irregardless of seating. As usual, Mr. Shwartz humbly introduced the movie and shorts we were about to see. His introductions are always brief and to the point, a practice I wish more film presenters would follow.
3 short films from the Secret Cinema archives were shown before the main attraction. The first was a borscht belt comedian presenting a shaggy dog routine, which was filmed for a “soundie” machine. The second was a womens’ marimba performance from a college which just never seemed to end. The third, and best, was the running of the bulls of Pamplona, filmed in glorious color. No coming attractions, but you can’t have everything.
More of a thriller, Dark Waters (1944) was a low-budget B picture by Andre de Toth, the one-eyed director who gave the world House of Wax (1953), still the best 3D movie ever made. The story concerns the plight of Ms. Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon) who has survived a boat torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. One of the few survivors, she travels to Louisiana to stay with an aunt and uncle she’s never seen, her only remaining family. But when she does arrive at the their sugar plantation, she’s greeted not only by her aunt and uncle, but also by Mr. Sydney (Thomas Mitchell, who played Uncle Billie in It’s a Wonderful Life), a family friend who staying with them. She also meets the foreman of the plantation, the creepy Cleeve (Elisha Cook, Jr.) who has too much interest in her. Mr. Sydney also assumes all authority in the house and seems too concerned with keeping her away from the locals. But help arrives in the way of a handsome doctor, who takes her to a Cajun dance party and checks up on her every few days. But she’s still suffering from post-traumatic shock. Then Leslie starts hearing voices calling her name. Is she going nuts or is someone trying to mess with her mind?
The film print was in beautiful black and white, but did show some wear, making me curious as to how old it was. I doubt it was an original print, considering the year of the film’s release. The audience was a local film buff crowd and was respectful of the showing. You have to love any audience where you can hear people talking about auteur directors and the Talking Heads before the show. The break in the arctic air brought out a nice crowd, I estimated 150 souls in the audience.
Philadelphia is blessed to have Secret Cinema. It takes real dedication these days to show physical film and maintain the equipment when the whole world is going digital.