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Thursday, January 23, 2020

Huston Fixing One On The Fly

The Mackintosh Man (1973) Is Tired Undercover

Romance was the keynote of one-sheets, but the film underplays Paul Newman's one-night go-round with expressionless Dominique Sanda in this John Huston running man drama his biographers dismiss as "poor." The Mackintosh Man came along at a point when even admirers wondered if Newman or Huston had good pictures left in them, years having passed since either did anything a public or critical community much liked. We had a brick bunker "Cinema" stuck with Mackintosh for an endless week during which management and others of us played cards in the concessions storage room without fear of disturbance by patrons, as there weren't any. This was the kind of dud my populace passed on while waiting for Billy Jack to play again. I looked at The Mackintosh Man as result of TCM tendering it in HD, and as with so much meat with spoiled label, it came over better than figured since forty-seven years ago when I took everyone's word that this was a stinker. Books indicate that Mackintosh was made for low money and to fulfill obligation on the part of director and star. Neither thought much of this property going in or out. What a dispiriting way to embark upon a project. Huston dragged himself through a number of ventures like this from the 60's to nearly an end.

In this case, there was a script with problems he tried to fix as cameras turned. Huston was such a fine writer in youth; he probably could have rescued Mackintosh over a weekend at his old Warners desk. The ending was an issue, as always it seems, and Huston was proud of how they salvaged that. The wind-up reminded me of The Third Man, and I can't help thinking that's where Huston and credited scenarist Walter Hill got inspiration. Anyway, it works. The story has Paul Newman going undercover in a British prison to unmask a gang that breaks felons out of same. There's a chase across Irish moors that Huston stages beautifully. He lived nearby, so knew these locales like a back yard. In fact, natural settings are a major plus of The Mackintosh Man, and the yarn trots along at pleasing pace, even as it betrays cut-paste as they went. High-definition and proper ratio allows us finally to reevaluate shows like The Mackintosh Man that are fragile and in need of any visual bolster they can get. Seeing it to this advantage makes for an enjoyable sit, if little more.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Catching Up To A Good One

The Milky Way (1936) Should Have Been a Harold Lloyd Comeback

A first revelation of 2020, and proof of how you can assume something for almost a lifetime, then find you were utterly wrong. I long mistook The Milky Way for Harold Lloyd in decline, and so ducked it. Then happenstance led to this best of his talkies, (1) a laudatory review by Otis Ferguson from 1936, and (2) a Lou Lumenick link to Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood, a 1960 TV special where the gossip queen visits Lloyd estate "Greenacres." Approach to mansion and grounds is via lengthy and private road, much like Mandalay, 1960 way past capacity of anyone to construct such splendor for themselves. Imagine up-keeping house/grounds by new era of tax and expense that was 60’s run-up to Lloyd’s passing in 1974.  I’ve read the place was headed for seed by then … did HL regret upsize from which he could not downsize?

Top Cartoon Artists Here, Above, Below, Commissioned to Ad-Promote The Milky Way

Paramount In Bed with Borden in a Big Way on Milky Way Behalf

Ferguson, writing for The New Republic (2/26/36), called The Milky Way “up-to-the-minute in construction, the work of many hands, all laid on expertly,” this in contrast to “one-man show” Modern Times he had reviewed one week before. If Ferguson liked The Milky Way so much (“… very near the top for screen comedy”), shouldn’t I at least, and at long last, get out the DVD to watch? Forgot was The Milky Way being PD and so compromised visually. William K. Everson had shown it in 16mm at the New School (6-84), described The Milky Way as a “lost film” for forty years up to that time, “viewable only rarely at one or two archives throughout the world.” Everson maintained Lloyd’s as comedy that needed crowds to click. I’d not disagree, but would add that I laughed plentiful at The Milky Way, despite being alone with it. Help for Harold from a game cast is a first-for-him asset, the star not sole vessel for gags, which by the way are as many verbal as visual, and sharp in the bargain. I lit up wherever Veree Teasdale spoke, her droll commentary on events a plus not typical of vehicles for a star-comedian. Busy scenes have feel of spontaneity the signature of directing Leo McCarey, who did lots for comedy starting out, and kept doing so for a run past forty years.

I’d like to report The Milky Way was a hit, but according to Annette Lloyd in her excellent Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia, the film cost $1,032,798.21 to make, and got back $1,179,192 in worldwide rentals. Resulting loss was $250K. This happened to be the same amount, according to Variety (4/17/35), that Lloyd received up front from Paramount for doing the picture, plus profit participation (none had). The Milky Way was a first occasion in twelve years of Lloyd doing a picture for hire, good for him as this would be Paramount’s risk and not that of his own corporation. Proviso, however: “Paramount will have full supervision,” said Motion Picture Daily (3/16/35). Based on a Broadway play, rights for which Paramount paid $40K, The Milky Way ran to near the expense of Chaplin’s Modern Times, which cost $1.1 million, the two comedies head-to-head in many situations, but unlike his closest rival of silent days, Chaplin leapt to $4.1 million in worldwide rentals, and for a film with no spoken dialogue. Effort on Lloyd’s behalf to freshen his formula would go unrewarded, and never mind how good a picture The Milky Way turned out to be. You had to wonder, as Harold undoubtedly did, if its failure amounted to rejection of his screen self, a public indifferent no matter the quality of Lloyd output. Professor Beware of two years later would drive the nail deeper. It looked like time for Harold Lloyd as a performer to quit.

Such was initial confidence in The Milky Way that Paramount, according to Variety (10/30/35), offered Lloyd another feature on the same terms ($250K with a %), and there was an English company wanting him, plus a vehicle Lloyd had in development for his own shingle. Press and previews were bullish for The Milky Way. Paramount submitted review ads to trades. A deal was set for Lloyd to do what emerged as Professor Beware. Paramount owned the negatives for The Milky Way and Professor Beware, but sold the first to Samuel Goldwyn for a 40’s remake with Danny Kaye. This effectively buried The Milky Way, which did not make it into MCA’s television package of pre-49 Paramounts, since Goldwyn now had custody of the film. “Hollywood anecdotes,” as relayed by the UCLA Film Archive when they restored and ran The Milky Way (3/16/15), said Goldwyn “had the original negative and almost all existing prints of The Milky Way destroyed when he bought the rights to remake the film.” UCLA used Harold Lloyd’s own safety dupe negative “made from his original nitrate print which had been vaulted at the Archive many years before” to do their restoration of The Milky Way. Remarkable how the fate of a major comedy hung on such a slender thread. Imagine if Lloyd’s nitrate had somehow been lost (he had at least one vault fire at Greenacres), leaving The Milky Way to mercy of PD-DVD off 16mm.

Yes, They Brought Women on Stage to Speed-Milk Cows For Cash Reward

I had sampled The Milky Way long ago, its unpromising start, where Harold’s a least competent of milk men gathered before the big boss. I switched off on conviction that Lloyd should never be a mere bumbler. To the contrary, there was no one so adept at putting adversity to rout. It seemed Buster/Elmer from MGM had bled over to a recast Harold, and I wanted none of it, nor him bullied by dumb-ox pugilists, the champ knocked cold by chance for which Harold gets credit. The set-up, then, is Lloyd buffeted by complication he lacks resource to overcome. We must wait for him to act on wits, knowing from twenty years of Harold Lloyd that wherewithal is there, if latent. Nothing was so delicate an instrument as a Great Comedian. To betray a particle of his being is to inflict wound upon him, and more profoundly, us. Too much of that came on wings of sound, or change in fashion that clowns were told to adjust to. The Milky Way was someone else’s creation, more ominously on a stage, so we worry, at least starting off.

Early Trade Ad Sees Great Things for The Milky Way and Lloyd

Harold is pitched as ring challenger to all comers, each a fix by manager Adolphe Menjou, who some said stole Lloyd’s thunder. That isn’t so in hindsight, or maybe it is, and I’m just loyal to Harold despite liking Menjou too. In fact, all the ensemble is fine, and thank goodness HL feels oats by a second act to become his old self again. I read that Lloyd commissioned Leo McCarey to direct, insisted on him to Paramount in fact, but there couldn’t have been much argument, for McCarey had just done Ruggles Of Red Gap for them and triumphed. Four behind that were Belle Of The Nineties, Six Of A Kind, Duck Soup, and The Kid From Spain, three for Paramount, and all outstanding. McCarey was the greatest gift any clown could get in the 30’s, his a crackling pace here. Milky rooms are filled with movement with oft-funnier things on sidelines than what happens center-frame. I’ll bet laughter drowned stuff out that might have gotten bigger laughter, and it isn’t all Lloyd’s bag to carry. As said, Veree Teasdale is quips non-stop, all bulls-eye. When Lloyd gets physical as in yore, it’s reliably a panic. Watch how he and McCarey execute a leap over a hedge, done in seconds, but what a payoff. The ring finish invites comparison with Chaplin, Laurel-Hardy, others, doing the set-piece before, though Lloyd differs for having made himself a publicity showboat and figuring he can lick all comers. This threatens a comeuppance, which I’m glad doesn’t happen. Didn’t Harold take hard enough knocks in the first act? Here it’s victory and he glories in it, the comic in charge and a welcome departure from norm. McCarey ties up with an end title remarkable for suddenness. This picture does not end so much as it stops.

Goldwyn Remakes The Milky Way as The Kid From Brooklyn (1946), with Danny Kaye

Paramount Uses Upbeat Reviews to Boost The Milky Way
Trades reported Lloyd taking the checkered flag out of early screenings. The Milky Way had brought him back! … and yet. What a blow for one whose instincts had been so infallible before. Studio brass used to answer crepe-hangers by saying there was nothing wrong with the industry that good pictures could not fix. That did not always hold true. There were a lot of delightful films that failed for no apparent reason at all. Depression woes might have slowed The Milky Way, what with industry still struggling to its feet from a worst of the Crash. Paramount was yet in receivership, so nothing was sure. Milky’s million in cost was a bit much to pour on  comedy, especially with uncertain draw that was by-then Lloyd. I want to think the letdown was anyone’s fault but his. Heavens, but the man had not aged an hour since The Freshman. Glad he had the Shriners, photography, record collecting, myriad hobbies … each pursued like military campaigns … Lloyd must have been a most motivated individual that ever lived. I’ll let go this linger to reiterate: Do not let The Milky Way evade you as it did me (and whose fault was that?). It is great Lloyd, great McCarey, great everybody involved. I hope the UCLA clean-up will surface, if not from Criterion, then maybe on HD at TCM. The Milky Way needs to be seen wide.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Chills That Don't Need Talk

The Magician (1926) Charts Course For Horrors To Come

Rex Ingram was a silent era director with flair for visuals and design. His legacy suffers because prints don't do justice to beauty original nitrates had. Ingram rode the 20's in a golden chariot after The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse hit huge early in that decade and made him a favorite of Marcus Loew, who later merged with other concerns to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Ingram would be installed there on pretty much his own terms. He disdained oversee by others, an affront to MGM policy, but Loew, and later Nicholas Schenck, protected Ingram from those who would leash him (specifically Louis Mayer). Ingram had enough discipline to keep his output on time and budget, so was not a soft target like Erich Von Stroheim, plus his features did business. Ingram made a leading lady, and eventual wife, of popular Alice Terry, and she'd stay loyal through a row of vehicles that gave security to both. Would that other filmmakers of the period have been so lucky as Rex Ingram. A few of his are available from Warner Archive and turn up occasional at TCM. Others exist but in less wide circulation. The Magician excites modern interest for doing first what horror films in the 30's co-opted as formula. Look at this one and see future that was Frankenstein, Dracula, Doctor X, any number of chillers that worked off Ingram blueprint.

The Magician begins as melodrama that turns full-out horror for a third act that is 1926 preview of a rich cycle to come. Critics found The Magician distasteful because they weren't used to frights so explicit. Paul Wegener of past Golem stalkings is the mad doctor who would extract maiden's blood, via Alice Terry, to create new life, his hilltop lab a blueprint for one Universal later built for Bride Of Frankenstein. There's even a humpback assistant. No way did James Whale miss or ignore The Magician. What Ingram had that Whale and others would not was Euro locations to further authenticate his moody backdrops. The director had decamped from Hollywood to escape prying eyes, MGM permitting the move thanks to Ingram's winning streak. The Magician is to my guess a lot better than London After Midnight would be in event someone found that long-sought one. Barrier might be that nobody thinks of Rex Ingram as a scare director. What with Wegener, the mad science, a Hell segment Ingram salts the first half with, The Magician is very much a must for anyone charting chillers from a silent start. Major spike of the DVD is a terrific score by Robert Israel that utilizes classical themes later to enhance The Black Cat. Israel's accompany puts The Magician all the more solid with horror traditions to come.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Ads Torn From Time

They Might Otherwise Have Lined A Bird Cage

There is a sympathy I have for distressed theatre ads, yellow and torn, seen but fleetingly even when new and passed by quickly as readers made fleet way from page to newspaper page. These were made to be junked or wrap fish. I argued for movie ads as an art form in a 2017 book, but was anyone convinced? Still, I keep finding them, or they find me, in scrapbooks, loose survivor pages --- wonder is, who or why did anyone save such ephemera back in the day? These two got the worst of passing years, one ripped, the other scotch-taped to ruination. Still they are precious to me. Have the movies themselves survived better? Ben-Hur is a DVD extra with the 1959 remake, but not HD. I saw it once in 35mm to orchestral accompany. Dan Mercer was with me and could tell more about that. Suffice to say, it was a high-point in my film-going life. A colossal earner, Ben-Hur still lost money owing to massive costs (the ad blurb says four million, which was very nearly right). Then Metro had to split with the estate of source author Lew Wallace. Re the scotch-tape, I was once guilty of using it to adhere ads, not realizing the stuff turns yellow and leaves residue you can’t get off. Live and learn. To Son Of The Sheik, that one is on Blu-Ray, but source elements are not so great. The first Sheik actually looks better (also Blu-available). I like how part of this ad hangs by a thread … a metaphor for what’s left of our silent era? I’m told there are miles of nitrate still to be preserved, but with what funds? They can’t all be with Valentino, or Clara Bow, or faces at least a few might recognize. Funny thing ... we keep wanting more and more of this stuff, but who's got time to watch plethora of releases that do come out?

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Seeing Browning Out At Metro

Miracles For Sale (1939) Is More Thriller Than Chiller

I think I'd rather have seen Tod Browning credited here as writer than director. He was down in dumps as both by 1939, MGM having signed him off years before as meaningful guide for story and players. How the mighty fell at Culver. At least Browning had funds to ride out retirement and be comfortable for the twenty-three years he had after final work that was Miracles for Sale, a bow-out project that would seem ideal for this veteran of magic and filmic sleight-of-hand. I've a feeling, however, that bosses simply handed him the script, done entirely by others, and said, Shoot it as is, and quick. Miracles for Sale is a B, and nothing's wrong in that, but there's more adherence to conventional whodunit than we'd like, especially considering potential for bizarre touches Browning could bring given stops-out. The lead is Robert Young as a spiritualist de-bunker, that alone promise of good things, but not followed through beyond a handful of shudder moments. Miracles For Sale entertains past norm of workmanlike mystery, just because it's Browning and milieu he knew when checks were blank and he had run of Leo's cage. There's fascinating account of Browning's slide and fall at Metro in David Skal/Elias Savada bio of the director, Dark Carnival.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Ford's New Firm Shoots Self In Foot

Argosy/RKO Lends Artistic Effect to Publicity Stills Prepared for The Fugitive

Argosy Off To Disaster Start With The Fugitive (1947)

A Catholic Boy's Choir For Stage Accompany ... Inspired!
What was John Ford thinking? He and Merian C. Cooper establish an independent company, and right away he makes this turgid thing to land them in a hole from which there's no digging out, despite success of Fort Apache that followed. The Fugitive wound up cross-collateral with Argosy follow-ups (Ford/Cooper's indie label), and so became an anchor to ultimately pull them and creative freedom under. I can but imagine how Cooper, not to mention bankers and RKO, begged Ford not to venture forth with The Fugitive, but JF was famously irascible, and sometimes reason was the last thing he'd listen to. Something about this downer property appealed to him. Well, nobody whacks the ball every time, but for all its fleas, The Fugitive does have moments to awaken us, particularly where high-definition enters play. Being the best of it is visual, amazing visuals, there is at last a square deal for The Fugitive now that we can access it in HD (via Amazon and whenever at TCM). Best, then, to seek it out that way, for here's one that really was made for, and depends upon, pristine presentation.

That was never possible till now, RKO's material being compromised as it was after glories of first-run 35mm nitrate. The Fugitive was never reissued, so a next sighting after 1947 was misery of 16mm on free-vee, these broadcasts a blight on effects Ford and company strove toward on Mexico location. Elements of The Fugitive remind us of The Informer, the giant critical success Ford had in 1935, also for RKO and with producing partner Cooper. The Informer had actually made money with unlikely subject matter, so maybe The Fugitive wasn't so hare-brained after all, at least going in. Ford was ornery enough to maintain this as his favorite film, but I wonder if he actually looked at it again after commercial crash of initial release. Some critics hailed The Fugitive, it being pretension's kind of fare and ideally suited to ones who pitched camp at art houses. Now it is curiosity for Fordists who strive mightily to admire what the master tried to achieve, but would screen Fort Apache ten times for every tortured once of The Fugitive. I'm admittedly of that group, having served my time, and comfortably back at Monument Valley where Ford fun is likelier to be had.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Such Fools As Bought Tickets ...

Bogart Bolsters a "B" --- Men Are Such Fools

Among Warners' declarative titles --- there had been Women Are Like That not long before, and maybe enterprising exhibitors played them together. As things work about, the fools are evenly represented by men and women. Big lunkhead Wayne Morris thinks Priscilla Lane should stay home and be a good wife rather than burn up Madison Avenue with eager ad exec Humphrey Bogart. I'd have preferred her choosing Bogie, but marriage ties under the Code being inviolate, we know status quo will be maintained, however depressing the outcome. Did movies like this keep people chained to rotten home lives? The yarn was based on Faith Baldwin, her stuff generally good for melodrama poured easy (Beauty For Sale, Wife vs. Secretary), but not previously played for so much comedy as here.

Honest treatment of issues was out of the question anyway, what with a baleful PCA. Wed women were often offered better propositions, but wait, it was men generally writing these things, few eager to empower the sex they wanted to remain fair, and compliant (check Loretta Young and Weekend Marriage). Men Are Such Fools was a "B" (negative cost: $348K) produced by David Lewis, who was starting out on WB staff, and directed by Busby Berkeley, whose ritual humbling this was. Lewis later told interviewing James Curtis that lead lady Priscilla Lane was "just a cutie-pie and not a good actress." He also spoke of struggle toward a usable script; we could wonder at what horror he started out with.

Men's main object was to consolidate stardom of Wayne Morris, featured the previous season in Kid Galahad and called swoon-worthy by fan mags. Columnist Jimmy Fidler tagged him "outstanding star discovery of the year," but that wouldn't get WB's job done so long as they bungled Morris via parts ham-fisted and unsympathetic as Men Are Such Fools. Gold, however, is where you find it, and there are nuggets here to ease pain of 69 minutes. Bogart is an obvious best reason to watch, reprising Broadway juveniles his lot pre-Hollywood. Athletic as well, it's pleases when HB does a graceful and headlong dive into a swimming pool with Priscilla Lane, less so where he's served a knuckle sandwich by Wayne Morris. I hadn't mentioned Hugh Herbert. In fact, let's not. Men Are Such Fools lost $180K for Warners in 1938, partly due to microscopic foreign rentals (85K). Guess there were bigger fish to fry beyond borders that year.
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