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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nice Brit Crime Thriller Lately Out


The Counterfeit Plan Is Warner Back-Up For 1957

Co-produced by Richard Gordon in England, before he'd concentrate on horror/sci-fi subjects. The Counterfeit Plan was good enough for Warners to pick up for distribution in the US, their only Brit buy for that year other than two Hammers that would play wide/gross big: The Curse Of Frankenstein and X --- The Unknown. The Counterfeit Plan was of a sort trades called good for duals and action housing, being crime-centered with faces familiar to Yank market. These were Zachary Scott and Peggie Castle, the former paid $25K for his trip across the pond, according to Tom Weaver's book survey of Richard Gordon's producing career (excellent and highly recommended). The Counterfeit Plan has Scott and cohorts printing funny money on an English estate, flooding London with fake fivers. Warners needed fare like this to support '57's Untamed Youth, Shoot-Out At Medicine Bend, others that couldn't hold up singly. For L.A. saturation of Jack Webb's The D.I., for instance, The Counterfeit Plan rode back seat and had probably a largest audience for the couple weeks it played in five theatres and seven drive-ins. Afterward, there'd be spotty television and belated release to DVD by Warner Archive, where The Counterfeit Plan can be enjoyed for a brisk and enjoyable thriller long obscure till now.




Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Precode Plunge From Way Up High


Skyscraper Souls (1932) Has 102 Floors of Deco and Decadence

When there are taller skyscrapers to be built, MGM will build them. We're shown the "Dwight Building" at a beginning and throughout Skyscraper Souls. It reaches higher than the Empire State that stands alongside, another instance where movies could go reality one better. The Empire State had only lately been completed, a marvel of its age. Only natural, then, that Hollywood would climb higher. In this instance, a convincing matte canvas makes us wonder if there really was a Dwight Building there in 1932, and taken down since. Anyway, this is a more imposing structure on the inside than I'd presume the Empire to have been. Maybe inspired by ultimate statement on modernity that was the Empire State, MGM creates art deco heaven on earth, or 102 floors above it (their inspiration had 103). Warren William's "David Dwight," who of course masterminds the miracle, loathes to calculate a number of men who fell to deaths from scaffolding, and right away we think of Edward G. Robinson in Two Seconds, or John Gilbert and pal Robert Armstrong as Fast Workers, all welding/wisecracking way up during a same year. It seemed as of '32 that best of life was to be experienced nearest to sky. Certainly things seemed bleaker at street level.


The Dwight Building is where rich and poor work, or play, tightest together. Bank teller Norman Foster gets $50 a week at ground floor while bank owner Warren William juggles millions upstairs. Wage slaves are packed aboard elevators as WW rides his in privacy. Something's got to give, of course, Warren pulling one two many cheats, then shot down in his penthouse not unlike King Kong a year later. To reach a skyscraper top meant having no place to go but ... well, that was OK by audiences who thought such men (or gorillas) had scaled too close to God. Was there religious significance to price paid by those rising above all humanity? A public so recently out of horse/carriage must have sensed the unnatural in buildings that challenged the atmosphere. And all those lost souls jumping off! One thing we could rely on with any drama set high was characters playing swan to resolve one or more plot thread. The real thing was happening often enough in concrete jungles. Imagine anyone hitting pavement from 102 stories up. Could one ever rid the mind of such horrific sight? --- and yet New Yorkers by thousands saw it happen during the Depression, some more than once.

Both Want Maureen: Will Either Have Her?

Skyscraper Souls warns of how greed can ruin you. Worship of fast money from the stock market is strictly no-win, a Code preached even by pre-Codes. As banker Dwight manipulates the market upstairs, all of chumps below him put life saving into shares he plans to render worthless by closing bell. Movies continually told us we weren't smart enough to beat that system. They still do. Better to earn honest wage and spend modestly, like on Bijou tickets with the family. Had Hollywood deduced that richest folks didn't bother much going to picture shows? (a step further: How many wolves of Wall Street have ever read Greenbriar?). Hollywood's message to any Average Joe purchasing stock: Don't. Better to shoot dice or play cards for tainted cash, and lose it quicker. Millionaires in movies usually stayed well in a background, so as not to remind us that sometimes money does buy happiness. Ones viewed up close had to end badly as admonishment against wanting too much from life. That's partial letdown of Skyscraper Souls --- we don't want Warren William taking a penalty, even as status quo, maintained too during precode, deems that he must.


William is at least a fittest among plutocrats, being an only Turkish bather not 50-100 pounds overweight. His party guests, aged rou├ęs preying on young flesh, are welcome (for us) victims of WW double-cross to come. We'll accept the latter's defile of Maureen O'Sullivan so long as corpulent and corrupt George Barbier doesn't get her, it being settled that one of them will. But what prospects has Maureen from her own working class, big-mouth and pushy Norman Foster forcing attentions with constant leap to wrong conclusion when Maureen parties at William's penthouse or lunches with him. Foster is no vote for the common man, Souls' end amounting to a sad one when O'Sullivan yields to him out of seeming sheer exhaustion. One precode breath-taker to note is her non-verbal and very visible response to a forced kiss from Foster part way into Skyscraper Souls, a startler that definitely wasn't scripted and I've seen no other (mainstream) movie duplicate.


Skyscraper concept was off Grand Hotel's rack, being multi-character and story-split among many. Adapted from a Faith Baldwin novel, there were changes, and probably improvement, made. I can see daily consult with Irving Thalberg as the script was cobbled, this a sort of project where tips from a mind like his could smooth wrinkles and make silk from burlap. As "all-star" successor to Grand Hotel, Skyscraper Souls is watered gin, but we'd not want others elbowing Warren William, whose vehicle this very much is, or should be, but for cutaways to crisis among less engaging Wallace Ford, Anita Page, Jean Hersholt, others. Page and O'Sullivan would pass each other in this Metro revolver door, Maureen just off the first Tarzan and bearer of a contract and build-up, as Page, thanks to refusal of Louis Mayer come-on (she said), was exit bound to poverty row. Skyscraper Souls would be her next-to-last for Leo. Luxury appointment of Skyscraper's setting made these monoliths seem like 30's equivalent of Disneyland. Did tourists to Gotham put the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings on must-sight-see lists? Just hanging about a lobby like one depicted in Skyscraper Souls would have been a day's vacation for me. But then old pic fans could say as much about any NYC setting from that more attractive time.

Old Goats and Young Flesh Was A Precode Cocktail Often Poured

Did Warren William ever wish he could be Warren William? Cary Grant would later confess an envy of his own screen persona. William was ruthless and unstoppable, qualities 98% of men would covet. His characters were antidote to poverty and despair that was Depression's signature. William could beat back wolves of want and make it seem simple as a next raw deal he'll puts across. Watching him must have been opiate in 1932. It certainly is today with action and speech so severely proscribed by unwrit Production Code more limiting than that enforced from mid-'34. William is one old star who can reach across generations and make us wish we could be his kind of winner-whatever-the-means. In scared rabbit age that is now, he's something like superhuman. And yet the man was mere actor, meekly accepting of roles assigned and able to play even milquetoast if put to that task. He got and stayed married for whole of a screen career, none of pic perfidy rubbing off on private habits or inclination. The man obviously had firm grip of difference between fantasy and reality. Lesser thesps might have been straightaway swallowed up by sorts of screen work William engaged (and seemed so much to enjoy), not unlike a Ronald Colman made mad by overdose of Othello in A Double Life.




Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A "Money Isn't Everything" Noir


Max Ophul's Caught (1949) On Blu-Ray

Of that category labeled Bummer Noir, Caught may be a weakest of Max Ophuls pics lensed in the US, though like all his done stateside, it's offbeat and never less than compelling. Reviews missed the point and called it "rusty, creaky melodramatic machinery," which sounds near right. Modern observers supply redress by citing a Euro director's trenchant observe of Yank materialism on most destructive setting, and so voila, Caught's a classic. Fact is, it sunk like stone in '49 and pleased nobody, domestic rentals a lowly $511K, the sorriest number on Metro books that year except for Tension, a cheapie noir done in-house. These were dimmest candles on the lion's 25th Anniversary cake. Releasing Caught was a favor done by Leo for David Loew, indie producer, family connected, and talent/money behind Enterprise Pictures, would-be oasis for film artists who wanted off studio treadmills. By fall '48, Enterprise was broke and floundering, Caught their last before giving up rented space at Harry Sherman's Hollywood lot.


Enterprise would need a big bank hypo, as in $300K, to keep making movies, but lenders wanted to wait and see how a final three from them would perform at wickets, optimism a keynote since MGM was distributing No Minor Vices, Force Of Evil, and finally, Caught. All three tanked, and so went Enterprise.  Caught had been most expensive of the trio, its negative cost $1.5 million. Loew's selling arm was flummoxed on how to push such a narrative: Poor girl marries rich, is miserable, meets medico James Mason, ties up loose ends by, among other things, still-borning a child to pave way for happy end, a sour note Caught still sounds. Since when were dead babies occasion for smiles and fresh beginning? Parents particularly would have found this off-putting, only they were down streets watching Metro fare with greater promise: Little Women (the company's silver jubilee selection), Command Decision, and Take Me Out To The Ball Game, each with longer reach for grosses.


Merchandising led with its chin, but how could effective ads derive from such an unpromising premise? Waitress Marries Millionaire! shouted one, You Think She's Lucky --- She Wants To Be A Waitress Again!. This was like peddling Joan Crawford's shopgirl again, only that stock had sat on shelves since the early 30's and patronage was, by 1949, lots choosier. James Mason, lately in from Britain to try America luck, offered faint hope for marquees, and Barbara Bel Geddes was untried beyond a few at RKO that weren't vehicles for her. Delegates at the 2/49 anniversary sales meet were "admonished" (Variety) by both Louis Mayer and distrib chief William F. Rogers to "be aggressive" and get MGM product into "new territories," this a tall enough order where there was good currency, which Leo's competitor's certainly had, most more negotiable than Caught. Mayer never-minded that: "We're going to make pictures. It's up to you boys to sell them." Loew's east coast division, which Rogers headed, ID'ed quick a dog with fleas, and was known to deep-six stuff that emitted smell. To their practiced minds, all of Enterprise barked, and was for putting down. No Minor Vices, Force Of Evil, and Caught weren't really even MGM productions, after all.


Caught is on Blu-Ray after years gone begging for home release (there was a Region Two DVD as part of an Ophuls group). Quality is upgraded from listless 16mm that was tough to locate even in that compromised state. Caught takes swipes at Howard Hughes via nutsy tycoon clearly suggested by him, played by Robert Ryan. Hughes was said to have vetted the mimicry and let same pass, which makes him either thick-skinned or tone deaf to slam this certainly was. Ryan's "Smith Ohlrig" is neurotic, hypochondriac, and a control freak at cosmic level, these aspects of Hughes not so known beyond insiders during the 40's, but decided catnip for 70's and afterward bio/tell-alls. That Ryan could be a nasty piece of work on screen was understood after Crossfire. Of disturbed types he'd essay after the war, Caught may be a most disturbing. Ophuls lets Bel Geddes be less sympathetic by selling herself to such a tyrant, a deal she'll close for pure sake of cash and luxuries. The Money Won't Buy Happiness song as composed by Hollywood (not practiced by them, but preached to us) was never louder sung than here. Did critics and indifferent trade sense a false note?




Monday, December 15, 2014

Something New Has Been Dug Up

Ted Healy Gives His Stooges The Customary Treatment

Missing Stooge Link Hello, Pop! (1933) Is On DVD

What goes more viral than a thought-lost movie turning up? Hello Pop! was found in a garden shed by an Australian collector who'd come between the 35mm print and oblivion most film faced when outback runs were finished. Word was that Hello Pop! had been lost in an MGM vault fire back in 1967 (along with London After Midnight, many others), but there's been suggestion that the negative was junked before that. It had never been shown on television or made available to rent. There probably weren't a handful of people who saw Hello, Pop! since 1933. Being that it features the Three Stooges at early stage, the short assumes greater interest than most any that ravage of time could give up. Lots would rather this surface than Magnificent Ambersons uncut, Stooge enthusiasm not having cooled as seems case with other comics. The five or so other MGM shorts w/Stooges have been TCM-shown and doled here and there on video. Most are low on laughs, but off the chart as curiosities, being best a reflection of misguided missiles Leo aimed at theatres as support for features more carefully thought out.

Ed Brophy Tries To Reason with "Children" That Are Larry, Curley, Moe

Dancing Drop-In From Another, and Unfinished, Film
How many drove hours or rode subways from a horizon to see Hello Pop! when it re-premiered at the Film Forum last year? And now there's Volume Three of Warner Archive's Classic Shorts From The Dream Factory to wrap rest of MGM Stooge subjects around this one resurrected from among rakes and weed eater. How to account for treasure kept in out-sheds? And yet that's where I came across 35mm during college-age search, old-timers storing nitrate alongside chickens laying, or corn in cribs (you wonder if it affected taste of the stuff when served). Hello Pop! is a little banged, but seems all there, amazing in itself for those eighty inclement years. Such rediscovery renders meaningless the question, Is Hello Pop! funny?. Fans will take what's there and levitate accordingly, as surely I would if that uncut Ambersons turned up.


My attraction to Hello Pop! is more Ted Healy than the Stooges. To these eyes, the man was a panic and all-time least people person of funny folk, not excluding W.C. Fields. Larry, Moe, Curly had been along to crab Ted's act, the three a definition of "stooge" as practiced by vaudeville. Healy held liquor badly and didn't pull slaps. I expect most relationships in the man's life went way of crack-up with the Stooges, but there's not sense he gave much of a damn. Healy reached apex as surly sidekick, the always-vinegar served with music and more mainstream comedy. Hello Pop! is easily confused (at least by me) with Hey, Pop!, a Roscoe Arbuckle Vitaphone comedy released but months before (were showmen and their patrons as puzzled?). Hello Pop! has impurities, not just those Healy-imposed, but music numbers scraped off floor that was The March Of Time, a Technicolor revue MGM had blown wads on and couldn't release for the thing being so incoherent. They'd write off waste by using what numbers were finished as "highlights" of otherwise frugal two-reelers like Hello Pop!. You can see a good chunk from The March Of Time by sit through the six shorts on a disc otherwise best recognized as altar upon which Ted Healy may be worshipped, but be warned, he doesn't like wise guys, and always leads with a slap.




Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Most Anticipated Show Of Its Year


For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943) Teams Cooper and Bergman

A wartime's big one that few remember anymore. What made interest slack? Part of trouble may be support players, all with accent, turned loose as "colorful" characters out of Hemingway; did he mean for them to come across like vaudevillians? The author was said to have been overall displeased. I'd have been too in the face of overlength alone: this runs close to three hours. Paramount cut Bells after opener engagements, then further for a 1958 reissue. Some of footage got lost and had to be culled from survivor prints for a 90's restoration. An overture was also rescued. Extensive location work took crew and cast into snowy region, all of which stuns in Technicolor and gave roadshow patronage their money's worth. Romance is favored over politics: we never understand what these resistors are resisting, or why (that was part of Hemingway's beef). The Robert Jordan lead was novel-writ for Gary Cooper, so he's ideally placed, if necessarily low-key in the face of bombast in support (is there a more annoying movie presence than Akim Tamiroff?). Once we get in the mountains, we're stuck there, whatever majesty of same. Love scenes were daring for the day, especially a sleep bag seemingly shared by Coop and Ingrid Bergman. She wanted the Maria role desperately, little realizing the show done just before (Casablanca) would be her legacy. Tolls was the most anticipated US film since Gone With The Wind, first-run tickets for it selling higher even, but that was then and oh, how we've forgot since. Still, there are many good things here, especially in HD as on Netflix currently.




Saturday, December 13, 2014

Jim and Sam Fill Oversea Carts Again


Unearthly Stranger (1964) Gets Welcome Return On Blu-Ray

Saturation Booking In/Around Pittsburgh
American-International was on a non-stop shopper trip through Europe for all of the 60's. They'd handle more foreign stuff in the US than art pic purveyors. Since most of theirs were genre-based, no one gave Jim/Sam credit for quality they'd import, most titles needing years to gain cult, let alone, critical, foothold here. But look what we'd have missed but for AIP: the best of Mario Bava, a final costume spectacular from Fritz Lang, many peplums, some of better Tohos w/ Godzilla and co., and backwash from Hammer that major distribs didn't want. Arkoff/Nicholson were champions of imagi-films (was that how FJA put it?), even if only for bucks. Unearthly Stranger was bought for presumed change in late-'63 as B/W support to features with more promise. There were dates through 1964 with The Last Man On Earth, then as backup for Masque Of The Red Death. Unearthly Stranger was in stateside circulation for a year and a half before Variety reviewed it, the "well-written" and ably-acted Brit film by then (September 1965) serving as second-feature to Godzilla vs. The Thing. This would also be the month that Unearthly Stranger came available to syndication, in AIP's "Amazing '66" package of sci-fi titles. By time of final accounting, it had realized  $72K in domestic rentals from 2,341 theatre/drive-in bookings, but compensation would be had from the TV sale, which more and more represented the real dollar value of genre features. Unearthly Stranger is newly available on Region Two Blu-Ray in an excellent 1.85 transfer. Fans who've waited a past fifty years to see, or revisit, this low-key and effective thriller will be well pleased with quality offered here.




Friday, December 12, 2014

Perils Of A Peacetime Draft


The Girl He Left Behind (1956) Again Teams Tab and Nat

Pampered Tab Hunter drafted into the peacetime army after college grades slip. So staying in school was how to stay out of uniform in 1956? The device would work, at least for a while, into the Vietnam era. 50's conscription hung over boys through latter part of that decade, this after threat Korea had posed. Even Elvis got the compulsory invite. Being no war was on, Tab has to show mettle saving pals from errant grenades and maneuvers gone wrong. He's a wiseacre no real army would have tolerated, insolent to officers and going roughshod over drill instructors. Jack Webb in a following year's The D.I. would have had him busted out before end of a first reel. So The Girl He Left Behind must be a comedy, as pressed by narrating Daws Butler, who I'll bet was added to cue laughs not otherwise forthcoming. Underlying story, but not the script, was by Marion Hargrove, who'd done close to a same thing for MGM during WWII. Cooperation was Army-extended, Fort Ord a location site. Tab Hunter plays surly against dream teen grain in anticipation of good work he'd do in Gunman's Walk, Natalie Wood in thankless title role. These two were what love teaming had come to at Warners by 1956.


Jack Warner told director David Butler to pick a young cast "from stock" and weed out ones that didn't click. Salary to these was $75-150 per week, so risk was slight. Butler preferred new-signed James Garner to Hunter for a lead, but J.L. was sold on another Tab-Nat to follow The Burning Hills. Garner plainly had presence the star lacked. I wonder if his part might have been shaved to protect Hunter, as was Martha Vickers in deference to less exciting Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep. Eagle eyes may spot other hopefuls in khaki; one I noted was future Fly-head model Brett Halsey. Again on Jack Webb topic, I wonder if his D.I. was part-riposte to service insult that was The Girl He Left Behind. Both addressed peacetime defense after singular fashion, Webb's being at least his idea of semi-doc treatment. Each now play like off-rail time capsules, which doesn't in any way reduce their fun potential.


The cloudy image at left, from going-on sixty years ago, is Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood at peak of shared fame, appearing with The Burning Hills at the Chicago theatre, from which fire escape they greeted  "teener" throng. The Girl He Left Behind would open at the Windy City's State-Lake a few months later to "shaky" boxoffice, taking half in its second week of what Giant realized in an eighth at the Chicago Theatre. Elvis and Love Me Tender was trumping Tab-Nat at the Oriental. Overall for The Girl He Left Behind showed less than half of profit realized by The Burning Hills, WB wrapping the Hunter-Wood parlays with these. Competition for teen allowance had become fierce by late '56. Along with new-arrived Elvis and what footage was left of James Dean, there were rock and roll pics by increased number and cheap chillers aimed downwind to kids (that same Chicago week saw Curucu, Beast Of The Amazon and The Mole People also licking The Girl He Left Behind). As with The Burning Hills, WB sold Girl with sex emphasis, "The Boy With The Barracks Bag and The Girl With The Overnight Case," though here it's inferred that the couple do spend a night together, judging by a hotel room embrace that dissolves to the pair drinking orange juice a next morning, that device borrowed from The Caine Mutiny of a couple years before. Warner Archive has The Girl He Left Behind available on DVD.
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