Last Updated: 8/17/17
Friday, September 15, 2017
8:00 pm (doors open 7:00 pm)
Admission: $10 online, $12 at the door.
Eastern State Penitentiary
22nd & Fairmount Streets, Philadelphia
The Secret Cinema is proud to return to Eastern State Penitentiary for our 17th screening there, on Friday, September 15, 2017. As usual, we'll be entertaining our "captive" audience by projecting prison-themed film fare in a screening room complete with real steel bars, echoing the scenes on screen in a unique twist on "3-D" movies. Since the first Secret Cinema/ESP event in 1998, we've presented prison film subgenres ranging from death row drama, women in prison, tough film noir, '70s sexploitation, chilling documentary, and even a prison-set Laurel and Hardy comedy. This year we'll debut a rare old title with a unique angle on the problems of incarceration.
The little-seen 1943 drama City Without Men has the usual quota of prison action, yet differs in that it focuses not on the convicts, but on the difficulties faced by the women they left behind. This group of hard-bitten wives and girlfriends (and one mother) live together, uneasily, in a boarding home across the street from the state penitentiary -- to be closer to the men they love and desperately miss. The film, which stars Linda Darnell, includes a great cast of character players, most notably Edgar Buchanan ("Uncle Joe" on TV's Petticoat Junction) and Margaret Hamilton ("the Wicked Witch" in The Wizard of Oz).
The program will also include surprise short subjects. There will be one complete show, starting at 8:00 pm. Doors open at 7:00 pm. Admission is $10 online, $12 at the door.
A full description of the feature follows.
City Without Men (1943, Dir: Sidney Salkow)
When a ship captain inadvertently helps some Japanese spies at the advent of World War II, he finds himself sentenced to five years in the state pen. There he must deal with the hardships of prison, but the real drama takes place across the street at Mrs. Barton's Boarding House. There his fiancée (Linda Darnell) checks in with a group of lonely, hard-bitten women who take menial jobs and devote their lives to simply being physically near the imprisoned men they love. They pay extra for rooms with a view of the stone walls, and are happy to be able to synchronize their dinner time with the prison meal siren heard through their window.
This tightly-paced b-movie contains the usual, pre-requisite action scenes of a prison film, including a wrongly-accused man turned bitter against the system, prisoner rebellion and a doomed jailbreak. But it's the women's scenes that are the most affecting, thanks to the work of some reliable character actresses, especially Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley) as the stern but empathetic landlady. Comic relief is provided by Margaret "Wicked Witch" Hamilton, as a card-cheating tenant who winds up in a hair-pulling cat-fight! Edgar Buchanan ("Uncle Joe" on TV's Petticoat Junction) was second-billed in the cast, in the role of a once-important, now has-been alcoholic attorney with a chance for redemption.
Producer B.P. Schulberg was a Hollywood veteran who made a star of Clara Bow in the 1920s, but is probably best remembered as the father of Oscar-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront), who co-wrote the story on which City Without Men is based. Director Sidney Salkow had a long career in genre filmmaking, which later included helming the Vincent Price vehicles Twice-Told Tales and The Last Man on Earth.
Eastern State Penitentiary, built in the 1820s, is a world famous historic landmark, which influenced the design of hundreds of other prisons. Closed as a working prison since 1971, the decaying structure, which once housed Al Capone and Willie Sutton, has become a popular tourist attraction and museum over the last two decades. The film will be projected right inside the main prison building in a hallway just outside Capone's cell, surrounded by iron bars and the ghosts of convicts past.
On March 9, 1992, a new idea in repertory cinema began in Philadelphia. That was the day of the very first screening of the Secret Cinema, at the Khyber Pass Pub in Old City. The series was created by Jay Schwartz, almost on a dare.
He had been a collector of 16mm film prints for several years, and he had brought his near-antique Devry projector into local music venues just a few times before, showing vintage musical shorts and cartoons before sets by friends' bands. The Khyber's newly appointed booking agent challenged Schwartz to program a regular series in the club's underused upstairs space. He went for it, and started a bi-weekly series on alternating Monday nights, which lasted for most of 1992.
This was a transitional time for repertory film screenings in Philadelphia. Classic and foreign films were still offered at the Roxy Screening Room, Temple Cinematheque, International House, Villanova University, Chestnut Hill Film Group and David Grossman's Film Forum, but repertory powerhouse TLA Cinema/Theater of the Living Arts had stopped showing film entirely, selling their South Street theater to concentrate on the exploding home video business. And some smaller presenters were basing their "film series" around programming shown entirely from VHS tapes. The Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema did not yet exist (though it would launch later that same year).
Schwartz intended to do things differently. He wanted to have quality film presentations using portable 16mm film equipment, but also wanted to program films that were outside of the scope of traditional repertory cinema. The first year of Secret Cinema relied, like other series, on feature films, but mostly cultish films no longer shown in theaters. As the first printed program calendar for the Khyber series put it, Secret Cinema categories might include "teen exploitation, rock 'n' roll, oddball black comedies, psychedelia, "golden turkeys," "psychotronic," '70s nostalgia and much more. All screenings will also include short films -- guaranteed-unusual fare that will draw on bizarre industrial and educational shorts, as well as rare theatrical shorts and cartoons."
After 1992, the Secret Cinema began to expand its screenings to more venues around the city, including other bars, music nightclubs and coffee houses. Eventually the venue categories grew to include art galleries, college campuses, theaters, libraries, bookstores, museums, and outdoor fields and parks. Secret Cinema programs were added to local film festivals, and Schwartz was soon invited to bring films to places beyond the Philadelphia region. To date, the Secret Cinema has presented films in 112 different venues or festivals, in ten cities and three countries.
Many Secret Cinema screenings after that first season consisted of themed groupings of short films, in every possible category. To make these unique programs possible, the Secret Cinema's private film archive grew exponentially. Initially, the collection fit easily in a small closet. Today, it resides in a large, climate controlled workshop/warehouse, and comprises thousands of reels of 16mm and 35mm film, totaling a few million feet of film (an exact count is not known, though a master inventory is in the works).
Today, the Secret Cinema continues to show a variety of film programs in an assortment of venues, year round. Much has changed in the world of filmgoing, and indeed the world, since we began this project. The internet has reduced or eliminated much of the traditional press upon which we relied, for most of our existence, to reach new audiences. It has also replaced movie theaters and video stores for many movie fans, and all remaining movie theaters have needed to convert either wholly or partially to digital projection. Nearly all of the past presenters of old films noted earlier have ceased operations.
However, the Secret Cinema's mission is unchanged. We still aim to showcase films that audiences would not see if we did not show them, and we still show all of them by showing celluloid film prints. Our records are not complete enough to provide an exact count, but we have probably presented in the neighborhood of 1000 different screenings, each one containing from two to 45 separate films -- and not one of these were shown using video or digital cinema systems.
To celebrate our 25th birthday, through the rest of 2017 we will revive several of our most popular programs, as well as continue presenting brand new programs. Our first anniversary program will happen on Friday, March 10, when we return to the Maas Building to show The Best of Secret Cinema Short Films: The Early Years. This collection of miscellaneous audience favorites will include only films that we presented in our first five years. Other anniversary programs will be announced soon.
Jay Schwartz and the Secret Cinema would like to thank everyone who helped us make it this far: Thanks to everyone in the press who gave us free publicity many hundreds of times (special shout-out to Steven Rea, who gave us our very first press notice, and who just left the Inquirer after 34 years of service to movie fans, as well as the various writers and editors of the City Paper, the 2015 cessation of which dealt a terrible blow to all of the city's arts providers). Thanks to everyone who let us take over their venue for one or more nights, often turning their establishment upside-down for our own purposes (we tried to put things back in place at the end of the night, though!). Thanks to everyone who worked the box office or helped us pack up our considerable amount of equipment (especially my beautiful wife Silvia, who regularly does both). And thanks most of all to every member of our audience, whether they attended once or came back faithfully year after year. We couldn't have done it without you.
Channel 29 news piece on Secret Cinema from 1999!
Joey Ramone, R.I.P.
Secret Cinema 1999 Annual Report
Secret Cinema 1998 Annual Report
Secret Cinema 1997 Annual Report
Information about the 1998 Secret Cinema "Class Trip" to the Syracuse Cinefest