Where is Convention City Hiding?
Film mythology tells us that the 1933 Warner Brothers Vitaphone Pre-Code feature Convention City was so hot and so outrageous that after its initial run, Jack Warner recalled every print and burned them. To this day, not a single copy of the film, or even its coming attractions trailers, is known to survive. So the myth sounds like it could be true.
But it isn’t.
1933 Ad for Convention City.
“Me, I was the one. Single-handedly I brought on the whole Code,” boasted Warner Bros producer Henry Blanke. “Yeah. Ask Joe Breen. He’ll tell you. Ask him about Convention City.” Blanke produced the film for an economical $239,000 despite its impressive cast. And it was extremely popular at the box office. It was distributed throughout the world, with foreign versions translating the title to mean “what a week”. In Spanish speaking countries, it was Que Semana! and in France, La Folle Semaine. Dubbed or sub-titled versions were also made for Denmark and Sweden. In all, there were likely 500-800 35mm prints of Convention City upon its release.
And yet, not a single copy is currently known to exist.
So, where did it go? The myth that Jack Warner recalled and burned every copy makes a great story, but there is no truth to it. Warner Bros maintained voluminous records of virtually every bit of studio correspondence, and nothing exists to back up the tale. More importantly, it would be physically impossible to recall EVERY copy of Convention City, considering the number of prints, spread all over the world, that existed. And no such action was alleged for any of the drastically racier Pre-Code features that the studio made. Further putting this myth to bed is the fact that the studios’ own records show they had a print of Convention City in their vaults as late as 1948. At that time, a routine inspection indicated that the sole print had already begun to decompose, and it was destroyed. For safety, not lewdness.
Another permutation of the disappearance tale says that Jack Warner was concerned that the many requests he got from real conventioneers to show the film could get him in trouble with the Motion Picture Producers Association, as Convention City was on the list of films not allowed to be shown publicly anymore. In 1936, Jack Warner submitted a list of titles to the PCA’s censor head, hoping for permission to re-release them. One of them was Convention City. On September 3, 1936, Joseph Breen wrote him that no amount of cutting could make these films suitable for re-release. Recent research has proven conclusively that the studio’s film exchanges were still (contrary to the Code) renting out Convention City to theatres as late as 1937. Ads in Chicago and other big city newspapers show it being paired on double bills and heralded as a return of a beloved all-star comedy.
Digging further into the mystique of Convention City’s disappearance, we have learned it was shown in a Madrid theatre in 1942. That same year, a British soldier noted in his diary that he had seen it at a military film program. This tidbit supports the belief that 16mm copies of Convention City, and many other Hollywood productions, were made for the military. This would mean even hundreds more prints were in circulation.
Because the lone Warner Bros print of Convention City was gone by 1948, it was never released to television. As with many other “lost” films, like Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight or Laurel & Hardy’s Hats Off (both 1927) rumors of sightings constantly surface, but never pan out.
Cast member Joan Blondell mentions in her autobiography that for laughs she would screen Dick Powell’s print of Convention City for guests. All leads, including her two sons, have been pursued. Nothing.
So, do I believe Convention City will be found one day? Absolutely! Lost films are being found every year. And considering the sheer number of circulating prints — easily over 1000 when both 35mm and 16mm are considered —- one would think at least one will eventually turn up.
And when it does, it is not likely to disappoint. Consider the cast, the typical Warners fast pace, quick cutting, and racy plot. New York’s Film Forum has presented Convention City twice with seasoned Broadway actors performing from the original script. The venue’s Repertory Director, Bruce Goldstein, carefully selected each actor, with particular success for the Guy Kibbee and Mary Astor roles. He decided to take on the drunken Frank McHugh part himself, relishing every line and the McHugh signature laugh.
The Vitaphone Project has spent nearly thirty years trying to find Convention City. Circa 1994, we were contacted by the late Phil Serling, who founded and ran the annual Cinefest film event in Syracuse, NY. He told me a person in Italy had a subtitled nitrate print but was concerned about how to ship the flammable material. This, of course, is done all the time, following stringent packaging and labeling protocols. But the trail quickly went cold and Phil died soon after. Virtually every surviving relative of the film’s cast and production members have been contacted. Still nothing. Every archive has been checked, under both Convention City and foreign release titles. While nothing has turned up, it is not unheard of for an archive to have a film misfiled or not recorded in a database.
Window Card for Convention City.
Eighty-five years after its release, and seventy years since that last known print decomposed in the Warner vaults, the most likely scenario for re-discovery is for a 16mm military or 35mm theatrical print to be found in a far-flung part of the world. Australia has yielded many lost films in recent years. Prints sent there were too expensive to return, so they stayed there.
For more details on the quest to find Convention City, you can read my essay at Jazz Age.
Meanwhile, please keep your eyes peeled for this most sought-after of all lost sound films!
– Ron Hutchinson, Founder of The Vitaphone Project, for Classic Movie Hub
Ron is widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost film historians, with special emphasis on the period covering the transition to sound (1925-30) and early attempts to add sound to film. As the founder of The Vitaphone Project, he has worked with Warner Brothers, UCLA, LOC and private collectors worldwide to find previously lost soundtrack discs and restore early sound shorts. Ron’s unique knowledge has been sourced in over 25 books as well as documentaries for PBS and TCM, and commentary for “The Jazz Singer” DVD boxed set. He was awarded the National Society of Film Critics “Film Heritage Honor” for his work in film preservation and discoveries, and was the presenter of rare Vitaphone shorts at the 2016 TCM Film Festival. For more information you can visit the Vitaphone Project website or Facebook Group.
And, if you’re interested in exploring some of these newly discovered shorts and rarities, you can pick them up on DVD via amazon: