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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Scorcher On For 1923


Flaming Youth (1923) But a One-Reel Flicker

"Hot" novels were once the thing. As late as early 70's, they'd be snuck into schools and hidden from parents. I remember The Carpetbaggers and certain pages from The Godfather ... but what's left to shock us now? Nothing, it seems, and that's got to be tough on writers and publishers. During the 20's, there were all sorts of barriers to leap. Dubious talent like Elinor Glyn could rise like a phoenix to both print and film-adapt glory. Hers got tongues clucking, plus teens reading. Has even the woman who wrote Harry Potter known such fame as Glyn? So what if posterity dealt harsh? --- junk writers had their fun while here, and for most, that's truest measure of success. Ripe fruit for its day was Flaming Youth, first (of nineteen in a mere eighteen months) printing in 1923, and written by Samuel Hopkins Adams, who'd later pen It Happened One Night plus others made into popular films. Flaming Youth wasn't outright erotica, but dealt "frankly" with sex issues that saw girls give in to urge awakened by jazz and bootleg hootch. That it became a movie was inevitable, but would Colleen Moore indulge as did her literary forebear?


"Pat" is the character's name, underage in opener chapters, but pawed nonetheless by men and boys. Her mother is a libertine who dies early, Dad distant and keeping mistresses. The book is probably accurate as to life among the pampered, Hopkins a stern observer of social abuses (he exposed, for newspapers, public health scandals and phony medicines). "Warner Fabian" was his nom de plume for Flaming Youth and a couple other sizzlers he penned when at rest from crusading. The movie of Flaming Youth, produced in 1923 (no time wasted between book and film) would establish Colleen Moore as flapper divine, the title itself synonymous with her. Had not Clara Bow come along to seize the belt, Moore would be most-remembered 20's darling. Some of her silents, most of which tried to reignite Flaming Youth spark, have turned up lately, at least one, Why Be Good? on DVD, and indeed very good.



Flaming Youth goes largely missing, sad to say, a single reel all that survives, and housed at the Library Of Congress. That's on You Tube, giving glimpse of the whole. Some of what was noted at the time is here, including a wild party and skinny-dip scene. Colleen Moore was appealing but not so sexy as Clara Bow. Still, I'd give much to have more of Moore, as how many jazz babies are here at all? (some lesser names don't have a sample extant) It was fun to read Flaming Youth and then fill in blanks of the LoC reel, like reading hieroglyphics before examining mummies. What a pity so many of these old films are gone, but with more popping up all the time (Internet, thus better/wider communication, a big assist in that), who knows but what Flaming Youth, at least reels of it, may surface. In the meantime, there's still the book, all over E-Bay and Amazon marketplace, thanks to 20's folk sneaking reads when best books were those that sent thermometers highest.






Monday, April 25, 2016

Elvis Early On


King Creole a Safest Wallis Bet For 1958

For much of 1958, and certainly all of 1959, King Creole was so much gold deposit. This was the period in which Elvis Presley served as draftee in the peacetime military, during which there would be no new Elvis movies to feed his ravenous fan base. Four had been generated from onset of stardom to bus-out for basic training, and an arid '59 would see them all re-played into guitar picks. Fortunately for Paramount and producer Hal Wallis, there were two, Loving You and King Creole, enabling a reissue double-bill not unlike the happy circumstance of Warner Bros. with East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause after James Dean died. In the Elvis instance, there would be a return, barring service extend, not a likelihood as there were no hot wars in progress, and the Cold one was (so far) a safe simmer.

L to R: Hal Wallis, Presley, Mike Curtiz, and Dean Jagger

Wallis had made his Elvis vehicles for modest price and realized stunning returns, $3.3 million in domestic rentals for Loving You (helped considerably by being the only one of the four in color), with $2.7 million flowing from King Creole. The $600K difference amounted to lesson learned for the producer: Presley in serious mode was not the selling brand; once mustered from ranks, the singer sensation would be deployed to froth (and G.I. Blues proved Wallis right to tune of $3.8 million in domestic rentals). Fans who longed of better things would have Creole to recall in terms of dramatic opportunity extended, then withdrawn, in favor of juvenilia to be his lot for most of remainder of a screen career.


King Creole had been conceived, not for Elvis, but in terms of an angry young man school of dramaturgy. Names bandied to lead once Wallis bought the Harold Robbins literary source included Paul Newman, John Cassavetes, the inevitable Marlon Brando. The novel had been about a teen boxer with father issues. Wallis dumped the ring angle, but kept Dad. What he couldn't do was relieve melo-lift that might, in fact did, bum out Elvis-crazed teens. Only downer King Creole lacked was their idol dying at the finish, which for a climactic reel's harrowing while, looked as though just that might happen.


Creole was old-fashioned in ways similar to Warner mellers playing TV late nights, that invoked by factory foremen Mike Curtiz laying on noirish composition to mint a juve crowd's John Garfield. But was Elvis here to emote or sing? In King Creole, he was accomplished at both. No personality since Errol Flynn had improved so markedly within so short a time. Presley picked up acting as instinctively as rhythm to a song, but seems not to have had as great an interest in dramatic expression, other than through music. Was he intimidated by "craft" others said he must learn? He'd certainly never look better than in King Creole.


The black-and-white actually enhances sullen Elvis. His hair looks black enough to have been drawn from an ink well. What oceans of dye it must have taken to maintain that affect. I don't see, never did in fact, Presley imitating Brando or Dean the way so many young players did. His work beside others is relaxed and spontaneous. Did experienced actors complain of scenes shared with him? Not that I'm aware of. There is stellar talent in support of Elvis here, and he doesn't once ride their backs. Chemistry with Carolyn Jones may have the best he'd achieve with an actress. What a shame she never made it to top rungs. I wanted these two to have a happy fade in King Creole, but cruel fate of Act Three denied them. Did letdown from this diminish repeat admissions? I suspect a lot of Elvis money derived from kids going twice or more to see his early flicks, but King Creole, unlike Loving You, may have been once-only for intensity and play-for-keeps violence that Wallis would avoid from there on. King Creole has shown up on Retro Plex HD in 1.85, a richer to say the least experience of finally seeing it as 1958-59 audiences did.




Thursday, April 21, 2016

Trading Russian Plowshares For Music


Soviet Salute That Was Song Of Russia --- Part Two

To those who'd ask where was cradle of symphonic music in America during 1944, the answer might come as surprise: It was MGM, and the Lion both knew and touted it. In fact, Leo proclaimed Culver "The World's Capital Of Music." Its studio orchestra had 100 players "on call," and put the lot into Song Of Russia under direction of Russia-born Albert Coates, a big-name conductor-composer who went under contract around a same time as also prestigious Jose Iturbi, these to firmly establish Metro as haven for both serious, and popular, sound. Like name writers lured to West Coast paradise, it was money plus the climate that trumped snobbery toward flickers. Especially money ... which was huge when measured against what musicians got back east or elsewhere. MGM would take the ribbon for popularizing classical music during the war and after. Later in 1944 Music For Millions furthered team advantage, classic melodies also informing the Graysons, Jane Powells, and much of what Arthur Freed produced, a policy to sustain for so long as MGM kept musical primacy (look to example of 1954's Rhapsody late in the cycle).


MGM did make gestures toward authenticity, if not follow-through on finished product. Trades boasted of "over 100 Russian extras" used for "earth-scorching scenes," and yes, refugee wells were deep around studio gates, recent arrivals to US happy to work for minimal pay-per-day plus a box lunch. Outreach beyond shores had been a Metro priority since Pearl --- bouquet to England (incidentally the best by-far foreign market for Yank films) with The White Cliffs Of Dover, and even salute to China that was Dragon Seed. Song Of Russia wound up premiering in Nashville, TN. (there had to be a reason for that, but trades don't reveal it) after Broadway's Capital was delayed thanks to hold-over of A Guy Named Joe. A "Russian Night" in Baltimore stationed "six Russian-American boys and girls in the lobby" to pitch war bonds, and munition plants heard speaker-blare through all shifts encouraging workers to see Song Of Russia. Hollywood meanwhile sent past pics to "Soviet Film Trust" theatres, the first In Old Chicago, dubbed in toto but for Alice Faye's singing. If Reds were our allies, why not let them be customers too?


Two elements beyond music primarily sold Song Of Russia: fact it was Robert Taylor's last for the duration, and intro of Susan Peters as full-blown lead lady, a star not of tomorrow, but right now. MGM got Taylor a deferral to play his patriotic Song; immediately after, he'd go into Naval uniform. That last was major thrust of publicity, though sales advised it be handled with "dignity and restraint," cautioning against "too much flag-waving and whooping it up." Lt. Taylor would testify later that he did Song Of Russia under protest, Bob an open enemy of Communism and eager name-namer before HUAC (big reason he gets latter-day shun from many old-pix fans). Taylor made virtual co-star of cigarettes in much of work, him a close second to Bogey/Bogie for nicotine intake. Did this make Bob noxious to femme partners, or were they as dedicated smoke-stacks? (he'd share cigs on screen, and almost always was accepted) Susan Peters was the hot prospect off standout support in Random Harvest, a next biggest thing in newcomers. This was to consolidate her stardom as much as bolster Russia, and who knows to what fame she'd have risen, if not for ...


Prestige Name Albert Coates Teaches Bob To Conduct
Romance in the US was night life and movie stars. In Russia, it was presumed to be tractors and harvest of wheat. Yanks figured that quaint, were all for Soviets having their farm fun, but found the culture otherwise remote. For so little as we understood of the place, leap to cold warring would come easily after the hot one ended. What madness made Susan Peters' character choose summer plowing over rendezvous with Robert Taylor? --- and yet at pivotal narrative point, she does. Audiences believed because weren't all Russians screwy that way? MGM had to disguise realities of the place to make it palatable, which made it easy to distance themselves from Song Of Russia when postwar conditions heated up. For 1944, however, there'd be ties of the film to Russian war relief, refugees from there, and, of course, Tchaikovsky music, much of that fresh recorded by concert names like Horowitz, Rubinstein, and Toscanini.  Pop composer Jerome Kern even kicked in with a hopeful Hit Parader called "Russia Was Her Name."


For safety's sake, MGM subtitled Song Of Russia as "Adventures Of A Yank In Moscow," a bow to Robert Taylor having previous been A Yank at Oxford. Reviews were warm, perhaps to serve patriotic interest. Broadway's Capitol run was augmented by Lionel Hampton, Buck and Bubbles, The Mills Brothers, in which circumstance almost any feature would evaporate off the screen. Subsequent bookings had advantage of support player John Hodiak having hit big in Lifeboat during interim, a bonus to ad-men, but we could wonder if frightful waste of funnyman Robert Benchley was noted at the time. It certainly glares when watching today. Song Of Russia turns up occasional on TCM, its last airing a new transfer, and a DVD is just out from Warner Archive. The film is seldom considered except as a joke, which it is for being so land-locked in vanished era, but little out of Metro captures so accurately where priorities lay during all-out effort to bolster fighting partners and win the peace.




Monday, April 18, 2016

Leo Hearts All-Things Russian

Robert Taylor and Susan Peters Like What They Learn Of Soviet Russia

Metro Plays Wartime Tune with Song Of Russia (1944) --- Part One

Notorious among few who remember it at all, Song Of Russia began as innocuous pat on allied Russia's back, then became tempest in tea kettle that was HUAC investigation after WWII. Being that this goes back seventy years, who's to care? Political junkies of the period maybe, and those hearty enough to sit 110 minutes Song Of Russia requires. We can't know emotion that drove 1944's public, but record shows this one did profit on $3.7 million in worldwide rentals. But did they turn out for Mother Russia or Bob Taylor in embrace of fastest rising Metro ingénue Susan Peters? Again, tough to tell from this distance, but I'll guess it was the music that sold Song, hence the title, expanded from simpler Russia, which at last moment was deemed too immense for non-epic this was. Everyone said then and agree now that Song Of Russia was gingerbread housing, yet it was constructed by for-sure Russians and émigrés of all stripe huddled behind the camera. In fact, about the only Yanks were ones on view, Taylor re-vamping his "What the heck sort of country is this?" from 1940's Escape, thus standing in effectively for ones of us who understood Russia, let alone Soviet Russia, no better than he did.

The Capitalist Oppressor Life For Me!, Says
Cookout and Pool Host Joe Pasternak

Joe Pasternak referred to himself as a "make-believest." For this producer, reality was a thing to be shunned, another of the school that felt messages should be sent Western Union, never by movies. He lasted thirty years within that fence, doing musicals mostly for Metro, and virtually all at a gain. Pasternak was from Hungary, came the steerage and dish-wash route, and ended up pulling $4K a week from the Lion. His fantasies came lavish, but within reason. Not for him was pretension of a Vincente Minnelli whose costs could and did overrun. Not when a Richard Thorpe or Norman Taurog could deliver as well, or faster, anyway. Song Of Russia was for Pasternak a symphonic musical, lightly seasoned with boogie-woogie (turns out Soviets like our swing and slang). Leftist writers, later to be fried by Congress, nibbled at edges, but Pasternak and higher-up creatives cared less about politics than Tchaikovsky, him the 19th century equivalent of Harry James so far as Pasternak and MGM sales saw it.


Never Make An Audience Think! might have been spoke by anyone on Metro payroll, though it was Pasternak credited with the phrase, which he lived up to by scrubbing product clean of any but feel-good element. For his Song, German troops threaten Russia, but they stay at a distance, talked about, but largely unseen. The challenge is for Robert Taylor to get his fresh bride the hell off scorched Soviet earth before real trouble starts. If 1944 audiences wanted truth of Russia's invasion, let them get it from newsreels. The movie was made in the first place to accommodate US gov't interests. All studios had been asked to kick in for the Soviets, however distasteful this was for many of them. MGM's might have been the only Russian salute to make money (Mission To Moscow from Warner Bros. went into red --- did I say "red"? --- for handshaking the Bear). Louis Mayer would later defend Song Of Russia before HUAC by saying it was a fairy tale that could be set anyplace in Europe with a same romance & music outcome. Inquisitors had to see it his way, for who could locate Commie propaganda in cream cheese that was Song Of Russia?


To direct came Gregory Ratoff, a mad Russian himself, and, as Orson Welles once pointed out, court jester to Zanuck. Ratoff had done mangled English as comic support since beginning of screen talk, had shown he could guide action with dispatch and economy. Greg had his swimming pool, so bother the peasants back in old country getting more remote by the day. Most of émigrés wanted disagreeable pasts behind them. To rock boats and screw with politics was risk against citizenship they all eventually wanted. Consider what Garden Of Eden Hollywood (and especially MGM) represented after privation these people had known in Europe. Could homegrown Americans, most (or at least more) born of relative comfort, have created such visions of paradise? Ratoff and Pasternak present a lap of luxury that Russia could never have been, let alone during a present war --- night clubs, concert halls, village fairs a backlot street down from what Pasternak earlier staged for equally escapist Seven Sweethearts, from which Culver-imagined Europe gave us Kathryn Grayson.


As earlier put, politics don't run deep in Song Of Russia. Invader Germans come off more like Bogeymen crashing Victor Herbert's Toyland than threat real Nazis were. Joe Stalin is actor-portrayed (Michael Visaroff) and speaks on radio of democratic principles he will uphold, while further narration references "freedom" all Soviets crave. Newcomer John Hodiak is a character named "Boris Bulganov," which might interest Bullwinkle fans yet unborn in 1944 (did Jay Ward take note?). In a scene most noted by modern viewers, school-teaching Susan Peters instructs moppets on how best to make Molotov cocktails, while Daryl Hickman delights to find he'll qualify for combat service for having just turned twelve. It's all nutty beyond words, or offense. By the late forties and greater sensitivity toward things pro-Russia, MGM had but to take and keep Song Of Russia out of circulation, a thing they'd do anyway for its being way out of date and had served purpose.  1956 and TV release of "Pre-48 Greats" saw no cause to withhold Song Of Russia, a potato cooled considerable since gavels sounded in Washington.

Part Two of Song Of Russia goes up Thursday.




Thursday, April 14, 2016

A New Tarzan Swings Aboard


Lex Barker's Jungle Debut is Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1947)

Sol Lesser's unveil of a new Tarzan, Lex Barker, still with the broken English, but progressed from Weissmuller, and trimmer in the bargain. Jungles amount still to a backlot and hospitality extended by tropical Southern Cal; you could rent enough animals around town to scrape by. The Dark Continent must have been choked with "lost civilizations": I'm beginning to think they outnumbered the found folk. This time, a fountain of youth is contested goal, but we never see anyone bathe in it, other than Cheetah's fadeout swig played for a laff. In fact, there is surplusage of funny monkeys here, Lesser knowing his audience and aiming (down) for it. Some nice matte work lends stature, effort made to spike the series now that a fresh vine-swinger was aboard. The Tarzans sat top-of-the-bill in most situations; this series wouldn't sink to "B" level until Paramount-poor ones with Mike Henry, and Ron Ely paste-ups from TV. Tarzan's Magic Fountain did a more than respectable $1.8 million in worldwide rentals, its foreign receipts ahead of domestic per custom for these. One reason Tarzan sustained so long was oversea biz a shoo-in, the Ape-Man travelling better than almost any action figure Yanks had developed.




Monday, April 11, 2016

A Priceless Piece Of Vaudeville Still With Us


Conlin and Glass Do Sharps and Flats (1928)

This is a Vitaphone short, one of a couple Jimmy Conlin and Myrtle Glass did for WB between vaude engagements. Conlin and Glass were accomplished at cross talk and rough housing. They had an act called Morning, Noon, and Night that was intro'ed in 1925 and honed to perfection by time of Vitaphoning as Sharps and Flats. These eight minutes have played to convulsed crowds at both UCLA and The Film Forum, and are now part of Warner Archive's first volume of Vita shorts. Certain ancients are immune to time and can light up even after eighty-eight years. Conlin and Glass probably never dreamed they'd be first among small-timers strutting and fretting to 2016 acclaim, but there it is. Sharps and Flats does need an audience, the thing fairly begging for call/response from the mob thanks to repeat bellow of "Whoa!" from Jimmy and offscreen kibitzers. These were hid behind curtains for the vaudeville act as well, seen and unseen comics putting over "Whoa!" as abbreviated catch-phrase contagious now as then. From accounts I've read, departing crowds from recent runs were shouting it back/forth and into streets. When a funny phrase is heard for a first time in generations, it might as well be new.


Before camera Conlin and Glass worked at a same disadvantage that we do when watching their act on TV. No one to play to or react with. What's the fun of yelling "Whoa!" into a mirror? Jimmy Conlin had begun in vaudeville for B.F. Keith in 1906, that being a long time to hone your act to 1928, and Jimmy kept going until 1962 (he's in Anatomy Of A Murder, plus most of the Preston Sturges comedies). Teaming with Myrtle came first on the stage in 1918; they'd marry the same year. Deeper inquiry into long departed acts often puts human face on them: the couple had a daughter, "Bunny," in 1919, then lost her at age six in 1925. Conlin and Glass had built their skits around crossfire conversation, a handy piano, and Jimmy doing falls. Occasionally they'd take a thud, like one time at Riverside, NY, a 1922 hot weather show in a house unaired, with its audience testy. Variety reviewed the mess and noted a barely occupied house. Here was vaudeville at nightmarish pitch old-timers would recall with a shiver. Things got so bad, as in no laughs, that Jimmy finally "chucked up his hands in one scene and said to the (band) leader: Strike up and get me out of this!" The reviewer took dim view, writing that if this was part of the act, it needed to come out. If not, Conlin shouldn't have said it. There was unwritten protocol in vaudeville, and Jimmy had breached it.


Morning, Noon, and Night was introduced in 1925 at fifteen minutes. Reviews spotted "one or two draggy spots" that Conlin and Glass would presumably iron out, but "Whoa!" was there plus Myrtle pummeling Jimmy at the piano. What's interesting is evolution of the act from here to permanent record of Vitaphone's capture. There was a golf-themed song, business with a canoe and Conlin falling out of it, then the finish with Myrtle performing Morning, Noon, and Night to Jimmy's piano accompany. A thing I noted about the review was its mention of a gag idea "also being used by Matthews and Ayres," another vaude team. Trades were a vigilant monitor for stuff being "borrowed" or outright stolen between acts, and would blow a whistle where unfair liberty was taken. What we have in Sharps and Flats is rich sample of seasoned folk laying imprint for all time of comedy they'd spent years developing. Much seems ad-libbed, which it wasn't, being greatness of a routine whittled to perfection by a couple whose work is still filling houses with laughter whenever Sharps and Flats is revived.




Thursday, April 07, 2016

Stooges In The Saddle


Three (Stooge) Reasons to Watch Rockin' In The Rockies (1945)

Were I not inclined toward mercy, I'd call this a real stinkeroony. Again there is deference to Three Stooge historians: Was this a Columbia attempt to launch them in features, as was done successfully by Hal Roach in the 30's with Laurel and Hardy? If so, it's sure enough a botch. The boys aren't tendered as a team, Larry and Curly "vagrants" snookered into a mine scheme by Moe, the latter almost a Groucho played off against Chico/Harpo equivalents. Were Columbia scribes guided by 1940's Go West? Columbia did cheap tunefests along lines similar to Monogram; there's even Tim Ryan from latter in again frustrated mode. The idea was to gather everyone in a room and one or more of them sing. Toward that end comes The Hoosier Hotshots, Spade Cooley, and The Cappy Barra Boys. Rockin' In The Rockies might be more noteworthy as vehicle for them rather than the Stooges. There's better opportunity for the comics in Time Out For Rhythm, where at least routines are sustained and they're working as a team like in shorts. Rockies allows but occasional pass at the trio as they background characters we're less interested in. Columbia did not use the Stooges well in features, but would any other company have used them at all?
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