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Monday, September 17, 2018

Corman Cashing In On Sputnik

Ads Make Better Satellite War Than Movie

This was cut-rate fruit of the Sputnik craze. Roger Corman claimed that he got it together within mere weeks of the Russian satellite launch, but release date vs. Sputnik circling indicate months between the two, and besides, there was plentiful product to hook actual events with sci-fi at least roughly on point. Pics that caught Sputnik tailwind included MGM's The Invisible Boy and Enemy From Space from United Artists, both out during Fall 1957 when headlines were hottest, War Of The Satellites arriving well after Sputnik re-entry and burnout (January 1958), but distributing Allied Artists pinned a ripe second feature to Satellites which was Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman, since an object of cult immortality. I'll bet in fact that auction sales of posters for 50 Foot Woman have well surpassed total receipts AA collected back in 1958. Sci-fi combos, nearly always black-and-white, did a grab-and-run with whatever could be scooped over a week stand at hardtops or (predominantly) drive-ins. Posters did a heaviest lift, and this double-bill had doozy art for both elements, even if frankly lying as to content (ray-gun brandishing space walker against rocket-in-flight background, the 50 Foot giantess plucking cars off a freeway). Truest auteur behind much of 50's sci-fi may have been Reynold Brown and other artists who created stunner bally for otherwise impoverished weirdies.

Once out of theatres, War Of The Satellites took lumps from television (so brief at 66 minutes that it was actually padded for tube runs). Roger Corman had charge of the negative and licensed War, plus Attack Of The Crab Monsters and Not Of This Earth for a DVD triple from the Shout! Factory. I cropped War Of The Satellites from full-frame to 1.85 projection and got a nice result. Seeing it like this at least helps the film play better, if not so vivid as under a blanket of 1958 stars or amidst butter corned aroma of a matinee, but that era isn't coming back, so this will do. War Of The Satellites is best enjoyed on basis of what remarkable things Roger Corman did with string-bean budget and clocks ticking mightily against him. Being soft for sci-fi helps, and there's sport of ID'ing sound effects and stock footage cribbed from someone else's older movie. A standout visual, shown over, then over, and so on, has elephantine missiles matted behind full-size buildings, a shot too lavish for Corman and staff to have rigged, so I'm wondering where it came from --- looks like pre-dated British sci-fi to me, but would '58 be too soon to borrow from one of the Quatermass thrillers? War Of The Satellites is worth the watch where one ponders such issue, and not half-bad for a yarn it spins of alien interference with our space program. Dialogue warns against letting rival planets dictate space policy, a pointed reference to Soviets maybe using orbit as a combat staging area.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Last Feature Roundup For The Stooges

Larry, Moe, and Joe Out West for The Outlaws Is Coming! (1965)

Fellow fifth graders were surprisingly indifferent to this --- in fact, I don't think any of us caught the Liberty's three-day run. I had borne brunt of earlier Stooge features from Columbia, having been dragged to them by cousins or neighbors, but '65 was a new day, and I considered myself inoculated from further Stooging. This recent view was therefore my first, and hanged if the thing didn't play better than grim anticipation over interceding half-century. The boys had spoofed westerns before, primarily in shorts, though there was a teaming with George O'Brien at feature length. Outlaws at times has an almost hipster spin on genre clich├ęs, future Laugh-In's Henry Gibson applying layers of irony to his Indian support part. The thing looks hardly more lavish than a late Stooge short; kids in theatres must have thought they were looking at a great big TV set for economies observed, but the trio give all, and I'm impressed as ever by their outlasting virtually all Gold Age acts that came before. Indeed, the Stooges might have performed to infinity but for Larry's stroke. To sum up, I didn't laugh at The Outlaws Is Coming!, but did respect it, and could spank myself for passing in 1965. Columbia got respectable returns for minimal outlay: $598K in domestic rentals, and $240K foreign. The Sony Channel's HD displays map of Moe's wrinkles to splendorous effect.

Monday, September 10, 2018

How Far Can A Public Be Uplifted?

Metro Does Good Citizenship With The Magnificent Yankee (1950)

You'll thank us for making it, even if you don't come see it, was seeming Metro message to a public they wished would support The Magnificent Yankee, but hang those gum-poppers who wanted comedies and melodramas and westerns. Still, The Magnificent Yankee could go far arguing that movies had more to offer than empty genre calories. MGM had punted before for prestige sake. Occasionally that had value even over profit. Let The Magnificent Yankee lose $465K so long as Leo's patriotism was burnished, 1950 a time when never enough of that could be had. "A credit to the industry" said Metro marketers to showmen who'd immediately smell fish. They'd seen this dodge before and suffered for taking the bait. "It is just about one of the best, and in playing it and promoting it, you will win for your theatre the gratitude and respect of your community." Such high-minded talk translated quick to: You'll lose your a--, but feel good doing it. 

Trouble was, no matter how cheaply MGM made small pictures (Yankee's negative cost $638K), they'd still wind up in the red. You couldn't blame old timers for saying the company was on fumes. And here came Dore Schary with a film about a Supreme Court Justice back in 1902. Ads had to conceal both the content and the period setting, plus total dearth of names (Louis Calhern the lead). Whole of the campaign would turn on reviews, which were laudatory to a fault, but where's the good when other aspects of The Magnificent Yankee had to be hid? Metro did two trailers, both accessible either at You Tube or as an extra on the Warner Archive DVD. One features Lionel Barrymore pitching for the film, describing Oliver Wendell Holmes as a "rough, tough, sort of man," but also a "genial giant." This came under heading of anything to imply action, which The Magnificent Yankee did not have, unless verbal arguments could be called action. It's easy to imagine East Coast merchandising turning up collective noses at what experience taught them would be a hard sell, and no one drawing checks based on performance liked hard sells. Failure would only invite blame from Culver, as in You Didn't Sell Hard Enough. Movies like The Magnificent Yankee were in the end a no-win game.

Trades reported a May 1950 week that Metro staff and researchers spent in Washington getting Supreme Court background, cooperation assured as The Magnificent Yankee would be a 100% positive depiction of the court and its workings. They'd be back in June to shoot four days of location footage, virtually on heels of the Born Yesterday crew, which had just finished up in Washington. Historical, said Variety, was a percentage deal given Emmet Lavery, author of the play on which The Magnificent Yankee was based, him to also pen a script for the screen adapt. MGM had evidently not cut scribes in on profits before (as it turned out, of course, Lavery got no additional coin, as there were no profits). Metro prided itself on historical clarity and verisimilitude, this tested by exhaustive search for a photo of Fanny Holmes, wife of the title character and played by Ann Harding. Turned out there were no photos in existence of the woman, whereas there was plentiful visual record of her husband. Inquiry revealed that Mrs. Holmes had been sickly before and during their life in Washington, and refused to sit before a camera (her hair was cut very short due to the illness and didn't grow back). I checked Google for possibility of an image turned up in the sixty-eight years since The Magnificent Yankee was made, but nothing. Toward speed and economy, there were ten days of rehearsal for The Magnificent Yankee under direction of John Sturges, to be followed by 22 days of shooting. MGM under Dore Schary was watching out-flow of dollars.

A timely boost came in August 1950 for The Magnificent Yankee. Major segment of the film had Justice Holmes ruling against free speech where it posed a "clear and present danger." The concept was revisited by the 1949-50 court when a group of Communists appealed a decision which said they had no right to espouse the Red cause as that was violation of the Smith Act, which made it a felony to teach and advocate violent overthrow of the U.S. Government. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction and declared the Smith Act constitutional. Yankee's emphasis on the Holmes ruling put Metro foursquare with the Americanism theme pushed hardest by the film, as well as emphasizing the company's opposition to present-day Un-American activities, this another means by which Leo and The Magnificent Yankee could prosper whatever the economic outcome.

Metro began sneak previews of The Magnificent Yankee in October 1950 and realized they had makings of a critical success and possible award winner. There were also "academia" screenings and an unspool for the Supreme Court, to which five Justices showed up. Decision was made to open The Magnificent Yankee in December to qualify for Academy consideration. L.A.'s 4 Star Theatre, recognized as a "sure-seater" (art house) was chosen for the invitational premiere. A special trailer was made for the 4 Star opening, which is still extant and a bonus on the Warner Archive DVD. MGM opted for a "soft-spoken, homey, and 'sincere' approach" for its radio campaign, no hard sell or sound effects for "spot blurbs." The appeal would aim at stations listened to by adults, including classical music outlets. Test of the approach in L.A. would determine viability of a similar policy for national release. Gotham booking was at Radio City Music Hall for January 1951, with a stage extravaganza entitled "Red, White, and Blues," which, said Variety (1-24-51), ran the gamut "from opera to voodoo and swing." Two weeks of "fair," then less, play, saw The Magnificent Yankee out of the Hall.

The trend tended toward strong initial days or weeks at urban sites, then steep or steeper drops. Hinterland stops saw The Magnificent Yankee at tail-end of double bills. Generally, something with action led the bill, like in Chicago where Yankee backed up a Ray Milland thriller out of Britain, Circle Of Danger. None of this would surprise Metro handlers, who knew from disappointment over "offbeat" merchandise. Sales veep William F. Rodgers maintained, however, "that experimentation is necessary, for there can be no formula in anticipating public taste." Rodgers referred to Stars In My Crown, The Next Voice You Hear, and Night Into Morning as others of "different" persuasion, each out of Metro in 1950-51 and all to lose money. Sales staff was instructed "to make any kind of terms ... within reason" once a problem title was recognized. Viewers induced to see The Magnificent Yankee enjoyed it, but there was the rub --- getting them in. The film was safe and civilized to a fault, for Justice Holmes did nothing dramatic beyond dissenting often with other sitting judges, and where was excitement in that, unless you were a legal scholar? Still, it was the sort of output Metro could point to with pride when sourpusses later hung crepe over things like Rogue Cop or Flame and The Flesh that appealed to a baser audience.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Tied Tight To The Movie Habit

Record Crowds Go Boom For Boom Town (1940)

I just adore holdover ads like this. They so reflect the joy of success at exhibiting. You've got a hit --- crow it out! Human impulse is always to go and look at what everyone else is looking at. Why be the wallflower who hasn't seen Boom Town? "Oh Boy!" says the Wilkes-Barre crowd with a rope around an all-star cast. This could be seen coming. The Comerford knew way ahead that Boom Town would be held over --- and over. MGM set terms on that assumption, and they were high. Boom Town was notorious that year for what Leo demanded. Well, take Gable, Tracy, Colbert, and Lamarr or leave them, said the Lion. Boom Town theme was close to distribution philosophy, being of corporate meat-eaters on never-ending prowl for profits. Who says movies were the voice of directors? This one was shout of parent company Leow's Inc. Their rope was around all of showgoers in lush year that was 1940.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Endless Quest For Journey's End

The Great War Drama We Forgot

Atlanta Gets The Live Journey's End Experience
What a downer to know a thing is good, but you can't see it. Journey's End is owned by who-I-don't-know, produced by a company that folded before Prohibition quit. Anyone interested in The Great War should see it, but most won't, and likely never will based on phantom status. There's also issue of length, a long version intended, plus cut ones that misrepresent Journey's End where it has too seldom resurfaced. I was slipped a bootleg that was thankfully intact, but search me as to whether anyone could care enough to fix Journey's End and put it on Blu-ray. Bigger gorilla that was All Quiet On The Western Front took bulk of 1930 laurels, few of even harder core buffs having seen both. I needed two looks at Journey's End to get full into trench-set eyeball of a Lost Generation in the making, and admit to wanting to watch firstly because James Whale directed and Colin Clive starred. That's two endorsements, and frankly enough to justify the sit even if Journey's End weren't special otherwise, but here's the save, it is.

James Whale Directs The Stage Cast

Journey's End had been a play in England, its writer (R.C. Sherriff) having waded war's mud and blood for real. Viewers felt the authenticity, those who had served saying Journey's End was just what they suffered. Word-of-mouth made attendance an almost religious experience. There had been WWI plays, but none so far to capture the hell so vividly. We know men of the second war were reluctant to discuss what they'd seen, and may assume their elders from the first round were even more reticent. Many saw Journey's End through tears. It either resolved a lot of PTSD, or awakened it. England took Journey's End most of all to heart because that country felt more of Allied loss. No man of sufficient age was untouched, ones who saw Journey's End balanced by those who'd stay away for fear they couldn't relive the experience w/o hazard. This, then, was something beyond casual theatre-going. Had James Whale not been taken up by children who'd love his later horror films, he would be best remembered for Journey's End, a property JW saw through live staging in both the UK and US, then for this first feature he would direct.

The story is of men living in a hole. They can only go out to face Germans, or have the Germans pour in. Journey's End as a play is ideal for such confinement, for how many of trenches offered more space than a stage? Advantage served by live performance might be lost in translation to screens, where movement was a must, even in earliest talkies for which a single set was anathema. Here was where James Whale could prove himself equal to the challenge that filming posed, keeping values of a successful play from fate suffered by nascent tries at adaptation by others. James Whale had an instinct for stage-screen translation right from his start. Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein were a next two after Journey's End, and look at assurance of both. We're lately reminded of his skills by 2017's reemergence of The Old Dark House, so there are Blu-Rays now of all Whale chillers. A director's status can rest on preservation/availability of work, and for James Whale at least, there has been much progress. TCM runs Showboat now in HD, and their lease of One More River continues. A Kiss Before The Mirror languishes on substandard DVD, a Universal "On-Demand" that demands more their willingness to re-master it, so far not done. A fix and revival for Journey's End would be a welcome step closer to exalted place this director deserves.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Did We Like Silly With Shrieks?

Faces --- Frightened Faces --- Adorn a Typical Universal Combo Chiller Ad

When Fun Ranked Even With Fright

I'd like knowing just what sort of expectation young people brought to so-called "horror" combos during the early 40's. I say young people for guessing that this was overwhelmingly the age group attending such programs. What appeal could they have had for older patronage? Horror Island in particular seems juvenile to a fault, with comedy far outdistancing what might pass for "thrills." My using quotes around the word isn't as much shorthand for disapproval as recognition that a show like Horror Island gave value and very likely pleased in 1941, as did co-feature Man-Made Monster. Some would claim that viewership wanted scares and were denied them. I'm not so sure. Maybe it was laughs with light chills they preferred, otherwise why hire, let alone bill prominently, Leo Carrillo, Walter Catlett, Fuzzy Knight? These names certainly weren't used because folks didn't enjoy them. Then-censorship held the line in any event --- we can see most of punches pulled in Man-Made Monster. How many would opt for bad dreams a result of too intense movies? Maybe steady nerves were valued more in 1941, so ticket buyers liked preserving theirs. "It's fun to be scared" was a pitch in hundreds of spook show ads. Why spoil fun by truly frightening your crowd?

... and What a Shock Staple This Was Through a Syndicated Era

A Naval Honor Guard for Man-Made Monster? Seeing Is Believing!

I'd propose The Lodger and a few of the Sherlock Holmes as most unsettling of early-to-mid-40's thrillers, and most don't think of these as genre staples. Were it not for the title, Horror Island would be less than obscure. Many a late show sitter found to dismay that this was in fact porridge of "Fortune Hunters" (never a promising premise for shocks), a "Phantom Madman" (not around enough, let alone seen, to be perceived as mad or even a threat), and comics tag-teaming through sixty minutes run-time. The length was pertinent to 1941 bookers, both features done and out in less than two hours. Horror Island and Man-Made Monster amounted to a double feature minus onus of less shows per day, thus lost admissions. Customers wouldn't know they were rooked until wrap of the show and exit back to sidewalks ("This way to the Grand Egress," said Barnumesque showmen). Ads spoke Beware the loudest for ones naive enough to pay heed. Collectors value posters for watered-down horror above most of what came out in that era. Lon Chaney in weird make-up and carrying partially unclad Anne Nagel was vaguely like what went on in Man-Made Monster, but only vaguely. Horror Island at least had atmosphere to back up shadowy faces of its cast in ads. Again it was settings and how they were photographed that made these films effective. Yes, a dark castle could be scary in itself, however dissipated it was by a Fuzzy Knight in frenzied retreat from terrors that don't materialize. In the end, perhaps we'd rather look at print lure like ads here than the features themselves (the one at right took up one-third-of-a-page in Memphis Tennessee's Press-Scimeter dated April 25, 1941). Horror Island and Man-Made Monster are available in splendid transfers with a DVD "Classic Horror" group from Universal.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Brit Trainload Of Hitchcock

The Lady Vanishes (1938) Still Plays Strong

We had an old radio station that became an art gallery, then was given over to model railroaders who built a scale town through which trains ran, their tabletop consuming near-whole of the building. It's a remarkable display, and evidence of what hobbyists can do where given plentiful space to cut loose. How often do personal obsessions have a practical application? The man who cured polio could have answered that, while ones of us gone on old movies and mini-choo-choos must forever wonder if what we do could matter a hoot to posterity. One instance where play toys did serve practical use was Alfred Hitchcock's opening sweep for The Lady Vanishes, his camera travel over mini-rooftops an endearing sleight-of-hand. Someone, or some team, had to build all this time-and-place setting for opening seconds that get The Lady Vanishes underway. There are toy cars that move and even toy people whose arms go up/down. It's clearly fake to us, especially with aid of Blu-Ray, but what marvelous ingenuity! Think of Hitchcock down on the floor making adjustments --- he'd not have delegated this job and missed all the fun. I'll bet AH designed every intricate detail of this built-to-scale set. Imagine having to tear it all down after shooting and discard the lot. Surely he kept a few souvenirs.

Criterion's booklet with The Lady Vanishes has fine essays by Geoffrey O' Brien and Charles Barr. O' Brien mentions that the project was originally set for American director Roy William Neill. How close might his Lady Vanishes have come to the Master's? A possible tip is eight years' later Terror By Night, a Sherlock Holmes thriller set aboard a train and directed by Neill. I watched that one last night for an umpteenth time and realized how foolproof trains are toward detection of murder and mayhem. They are also a best ally to budget filmmaking. Hitchcock was evidently as constrained for The Lady Vanishes as Neill would be with Terror By Night. British Hitchcocks are admired for what he achieved on tight money. O 'Brien quotes Hitchcock recall that his train set was ninety feet long. That's like a really good deck built on back of a ranch-style house. Everything else in The Lady Vanishes was camera trickery, said Hitchcock. Cramped action can work on trains because the setting itself stays in motion, with always a threat that someone can be thrown off or the locomotive will crash. Better filmmakers will suggest movement via passing landscape seen out windows or, as used by Hitchcock, wine glasses that threaten to slide off a table due to oncoming curves.

Hitchcock like any director could not get beyond writing that was misjudged. Weak pictures were made so by weakness in his stories, Hitchcock "touches" but a mask for moments not supported by the whole. There is no Hitchcock that does not have dynamic scenes, plenty more than one in fact. I wonder how much guidance Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat got or needed from Hitchcock. These writers came to him already brilliant. What they'd do later for other directors (Night Train To Munich, Green For Danger) could be compared with the best of Hitchcock. The Lady Vanishes was a spy yarn like most of what Hitchcock had done since breakout of The Man Who Knew Too Much. He was clearly too major a talent for US companies not to steal, each of AH thrillers an audition toward domestic employment. Clipped-Brit-chat was all that kept them at distance from stateside provincials. Otherwise it was clear that Hitchcock could be refined for Yank consumption, his instinct for crowd-pleasing right up our alley.

One-Sheet For United Artists' 1952 Reissue
A stricter-enforced Code had, among other things, replaced our rat-tat gangsters with more civilized villainy. To this fresh policy came ideal timing of Hitchcock, whose thrillers thrilled without overt violence that got US censors in a lather. His heavies could even be good sports when ultimately beaten, as with Paul Lukas in The Lady Vanishes. Humor too could leaven stress of otherwise grim situations AH devised, further delight for domestic viewers who had already taken The Thin Man and other froth mysteries to bosom. The Lady Vanishes and others from Hitchcock were fresh then, different even for being both British and entertaining (anomaly in itself), but they weren't a radical departure from softened crime pursued on American screens. Hitchcock properties could easily have been adapted and remade by US companies with homegrown casts. Stories and smart dialogue were certainly there to warrant effort, and some journeyman could at least try duplicating AH effects. I wonder if this was considered as films like The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes made their splash in the states, for liked as they were, it was mostly by art house dwellers. Imagine what a photo finish of The Lady Vanishes might have done with Yank polish and say, Carole Lombard and William Powell in the leads rather than remote Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. We can be thankful this didn't happen, and that Hitchcock was instead brought over to re-mold us to his notions of thrill-making.

A Janus Standby For Art Houses From The 60's Forward
Hitchcock talked a lot about "McGuffins" and so forth, but what that reflected, I think, was his profound indifference to politics, or at least politics as we are currently bludgeoned by it in movies. His fascination by film was something that matters of state just didn't enter into. Was any director who did this many spy yarns so opaque as to his own convictions? A big reason Hitchcock doesn't date is the fact we never knew, still don't, where the man's sympathies lie. It could be said, and has, that The Lady Vanishes emerged "in the shadow of fascism," but wouldn't AH have given us pretty much the same twists, fascism or no? He would embrace WWII themes, do propaganda for the Allies, but this was beyond politics and a matter of defending his workplace and shores back home. If Hollywood fell, where could Hitchcock go on being the Master Of Suspense? The Lady Vanishes doesn't require context to enjoy. That isn't true of most preparedness thrillers, being why current audiences reject most of them. All of Hitchcock happens in his place of make believe, current events seldom if ever playing into that. Foreign Correspondent, made closer to war's reality, is still spying in the abstract, and I suspect whatever emphasis it put on current events was more the notion of producer Walter Wanger than Hitchcock.
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