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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sinatra Out Of The Gate


Step Lively (1944) Is RKO Encore for "The Voice"

RKO in the 30's spent heavily ($255K) to acquire Broadway's hit play, Room Service, then lost money customizing it for the Marx Brothers. There was still the property, at least, to remake as background to song sensation Frank Sinatra, Step Lively an early credit. The play was keyed to run/shout tempo, so success rides upon one's own threshold for that, but songs are good, several to become Sinatra standards. Audiences came to see FS, other cast members just noise between his tuning, their fate not unlike that of performers on Ed Sullivan before and after The Beatles came on. There was trade report of fans tearing down balcony rails in swoon over Sinatra, so management might have wished for less of him and more of co-stars George Murphy and borrowed-from-Metro Gloria DeHaven. RKO used Step Lively to road test a comic duo, Alan Carney and Wally Brown, not yet a pic team, but becoming so in subsequent B's RKO hoped would unseat Abbott and Costello (they didn't). Sinatra's was a gentle presence, the speaking voice a little high, timid around girls, an ideal non-threat for femme fans. Frank's would prove the ideal template for moving teen idol merchandise past parental concern over sex shorthand his songs conveyed, the joke being that 4-F FS was too scrawny to prey upon innocence (wartime cartoons kidded his image mercilessly along these lines). Step Lively has played Warner Instant Archive in vivid HD.




Monday, March 23, 2015

Lorre + Literary + Sternberg


Crime and Punishment (1935) Comes To The Talking Screen

Peter Lorre is so twitchy after committing murder as to alert a dumbest observer of his guilt, but fun's in seeing him march the course toward owning up. How much of this is Dostoevsky? I've not cracked a binding on any Russian novel, let alone impenetrable Fyodor (yes, that's his first name ... did you know? ... I didn't). Direction is Von Sternberg, each shot B/W painterly, and reason to watch even when Lorre outstays patience. I like this actor, perhaps best at lower dosage. He's teamed with Edward Arnold in a way that anticipates later pairings with Sydney Greenstreet at Warner Bros. Did writers there consult Crime and Punishment for ideas?



A C&P Still Taken by von Sternberg
The story's a continuous downer, so be prepared, though fun can be had by taking Lorre less serious. He summons M personage to maniacal effect. Roles like this and a same year's Mad Love might have typecast him fatally had not Mr. Moto come to a rescue. Lorre's lucky he didn't get shunted into horror films for keeps, like fellow import Bela Lugosi. PL may have had smoother way with industry folk who'd cast him more favorably (Lorre buddied up with Bogart and power peers that helped later). He'd have his cult, further underground than for most players ... anyone too into Lorre would have to be a little bent. Confirm of that might be real-life Hillside Stranglers' sparing of PL's daughter they stopped in traffic with initial intent to kill, but relented because of who she turned out to be. Google this for details --- a chilling story. Crime and Punishment turns up on TCM, and the print is lovely.




Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Yellow Stain For Leaving The Besieged Fort ...


Glenn Ford Is The Man From The Alamo (1953) for U-I

Glenn Ford is disgraced for 86'ing Alamo ground just before the siege, makes amend via rescue of a wagon train dogged by Victor Jory and renegade crew. Ford was a moodiest of leading men (onscreen and occasionally off), and a big name for Universal-International to grab for what would otherwise be a boilerplate western. Lure for him was loot that had enriched Jim Stewart, Alan Ladd, Ty Power, others, theirs a lush percentage of U-I net. Ford sat a horse with aplomb; that's really him in vigorous riding inserts comparable names might have shrunk from. Uni oft-auditioned fresh hires in the saddle, thus Dennis Weaver among Alamo defenders, Guy Williams a cavalry officer, etc. The company's westerns as a group are underrated, few exceptional or even cultish (the Stewart/Manns a may-be exception), but all a safe bet for satisfaction and toasty comfort some of us get from outdoor work done pro-like.


Using the fort as backdrop meant instant recognition (and heavy Texas bookings), as everyone knew the Alamo legend. Said place and events were memorialized constant from flicker days plus teaching at schools (is it mentioned in current texts?). A really big Alamo saga had to wait until John Wayne's was ready ... 1960 and maybe too late. In a meantime, there'd been Republic and even Disney (via Davy Crockett) to tend memorials. Universal used the site for narrative liftoff, but once G. Ford departs it, we don't go back. Technicolor was by 1953 standard policy for oater subjects the company released, as showmen liked whatever set merchandise apart from TV, while drive-ins, breeding like rabbits, spoke loudest against black-and-white that was tough to project against a setting sun. The Man From The Alamo, along with others of U-I lineage, has been turning up on Retro Plex in spectacular HD, offering glimpse at last of visual treat these westerns supplied when new.




Monday, March 16, 2015

Republic Turns Down a Dark Alley


City That Never Sleeps (1953) Back From Long Sleep

First off, this has what must be considered a definitive title for a noir thriller. I'm surprised someone hadn't used it prior to 1953 (other than for a 20's silent), or for that matter, since. Close as Republic came to "A" noir, City That Never Sleeps has a good cast, production polish, and a story in quest of something beyond cops and crime. My vote's with anyone who'll cast Chill Wills as Christ figure with a badge, his character not unlike what Ian Hunter played in 1940's Strange Cargo. City is one night in lives of intermingling desperates, Gig Young's badge accumulating tarnish as he pursues quarry barely less corrupt. William Talman represents criminal element at reluctant behest of Edward Arnold, who's got Marie Windsor for a wife, thus assurance of double-crossings and sudden death. Dialogue strives toward poetic amidst gunplay, an odd conceit memorable even when it falters. Variety was more succinct: "too wordy" and "goes overboard" being their not inapt verdict. Difference between then and now is our firmer embrace of noirs that dared to be different, and willingness to forgive missteps. The streets are Chicago, Sleep's premiere there giving the Roosevelt Theatre its best week in two years, according to trades. Skylines are nicely captured and more so for Blu-Ray delivery by Olive, whose release of City That Never Sleeps represents a first time the show has been seen for decades. Noir completists have by now dipped beaks, as should anyone who likes the offbeat among crime thrillers.




Thursday, March 12, 2015

Gets Better Every Time ...


Nothing Guilty About This Pleasure: Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

First of all, when was this "made"?? Ed Woodists (or is it Woodites?) would know. He had precious Lugosi footage to insert with cooked-up afterward narrative, an adroit pasting to prove Ed was no fool. I'll say this so as not to be misunderstood: Plan 9 is to me a richly entertaining film, not at all a "Guilty Pleasure" or "So Bad It's Good." I'd even aver it's well made for the virtual home movie it is. There is camera movement, and hanged if so-called bad acting doesn't seem planned. Did Wood and company anticipate and allow for an emerging late show audience that would laugh more with them than at them? The snark wasn't underway until the 70's and Medved deconstruction, but fun with silly sci-fi had been going on twenty years at least by that time, only it was somehow kinder starting out. Plan 9 was primarily a TV experience in any case, being tube-available almost immediately after, if not before, what little theatre exposure it had.


Could Lugosi's estate have come after Eddie for releasing what amounted to off-cuff footage never intended for placement in a feature? At least I assume Bela wasn't doing anything other than vamping on camera for a project far from set. These final glimpses of him are marvelous; he's "acting" to extent of barely knowing what the heck Wood had in mind, this testament again to Lugosi charisma at the ready even in someone's back yard (in this case, I'm told it was Tor Johnson's front yard). And then, of course, there is Tor, who was a towering presence (how's that for stating the obvious?). I love his dialogue and wish there'd been reams more ... an Inspector Clay series perhaps? What about Tor as Clay in a clinch with Audrey Totter in an Alex Gordon production written and directed by Ed Wood? The mouth waters.


The guy who played "Kelton The Cop" used to show up at autograph fairs still wearing the policeman's uniform ... forty years later. There's grandeur at this level of living in a past. Why didn't I shake his hand and tell him how great he was? There seems no one left of Plan 9's company save Gregory Walcott, who actually lives here in North Carolina, which pleases me for knowing I could drive down and tell him how great he was in Plan 9. The film's making is deathless folklore. I could begin reading today and not get through it all before next week (or month), so perhaps it's better leaving behind-camera detail alone. The Ed Wood rabbit hole is one from which we emerge somehow be-sullied, at the least newly committed not to let such a life as his engulf us. Wood and the world he occupied belong to a seeming million yesterdays ago, or at least it feels that way watching Plan 9 From Outer Space. Maybe that accounts in part for its greatness.




Monday, March 09, 2015

Ladd A Tarnished Knight For Columbia


The Black Knight (1954) Enters a 50's Costumer Contest

Watching this makes you appreciate how good the Errol Flynns were at WB, or ones done by Metro with R.Taylor/S. Granger. There was art to swordplaying, more elusive perhaps than with any other genre. But aesthetic rules did apply: to start with, the armor must fit. When it doesn't, as here with Alan Ladd all but swallowed up by his, the effect is ruinous. Ladd had no business with lance and shields, his a modern persona that might get by in westerns, but beware taking him further back. There's British cast in support, The Black Knight a Warwick Production done by Ladd to dodge US tax. Cheapness came of major bite from budget to pay the star; Knight beside competing Knights Of The Round Table (from MGM) must have been embarrassment for distributing Columbia. They'd feel pinch of gap between Black Knight rentals and money Metro took ... paltry $1.2 million domestic for the first to a whopping $4.5 from the second.


Chief heavy is Peter Cushing, young, eager, athletic; we'd actually prefer his besting a listless Ladd. There's also Andre Morrell as a helpful knight, completing a Hammer troupe before that company came to call. Action is lackluster and that's surprising for vet Tay Garnett directing. Did limited resource waylay his best effort? Ladd regretted the job before arrival at location; he'd already done two for Warwick and judged both as duds. What follow-ups to triumph of Shane --- and on arrival back home, he still got tax-crunched, according to Eric Hoyt's excellent research on Hollywood and The Income Tax, 1929-1955 that appeared in Film History, Volume 22, Number 1 (2010). Stars using Euro shoots as IRS dodge amounted to career gamble, as Ladd found to erosion of following that began with these misbegot Warwicks.




Thursday, March 05, 2015

Expatriating 'Round Euro Hotspots


Tip On A Dead Jockey (1957) Another Cinemascope Minus Color

Ex-combat flyer Robert Taylor at loose ends in Madrid, agrees to fly contraband out of Cairo, trouble ensues. The sort of vehicle Bob and Metro might have teamed on ten years before --- were calendars at Culver going backwards? But wait ... it's adapted by Charles Lederer from a novel by Irwin Shaw, so dialogue is tart and characters believable. Taylor is typically fine making the Lost Generation scene on post-Korean War playgrounds, his languor a better fit than Tyrone Power and a Sun Also Rises cast attempting same during that year for 20th Fox. Jockey borrows further from Hemingway's playbook via elements from The Breaking Point, wherein John Garfield ran risk similar to Taylor's here.


Tip On A Dead Jockey is notable too for being almost directed by Orson Welles, a deal discussed after Touch Of Evil, but scuttled at eleventh hour. Did someone at Universal make a phone call and put the Indian sign on Orson? Richard Thorpe would helm Jockey instead, he of single-takes and some say flat staging. Most of what's today said of Thorpe is derogatory, but there were some good pictures he signed, and Tip On A Dead Jockey is one of them. It's another of those odd ducks in B/W scope ... did this lend cut-rate grandeur or put distance between Jockey and horse that was increasingly television? Said malignant tube was finishing first in any event, a reason among several for Tip On A Dead Jockey losing $818K, despite fairly modest neg cost (for '57) of $1.4 million. Warner Archive's DVD is wide and looks fine.
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