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Sunday, December 04, 2016

When Movies On TV Went Bottoms Up

It Needed a Stiff Drink To Get Through 85 Minutes That
Channel 8 Allotted to The Lost Weekend in 1966

More Memories Of Television as Butcher Stall

Me at Age 12 After WGHP Chopped My Classic
I used to non-stop whine where it came to movies being abused by TV. Extreme instance: Channel 8 in High Point ran The Lost Weekend one evening from 6:00 to 7:25, wedged between the Bowery Boys and weather preceding ABC news. This was 1966, before "Let's Movie" meant showing them complete and uninterrupted. The Lost Weekend got 8's flit-gun treatment via Milland binge shortened by thirty minutes at least. Mine was righteous rage as only a twelve-year-old could express, choice of words in written complaint to include "butchery" and "senseless chopping," epithets scrawled with Bic pen on Blue Horse paper. Ch. 8 reply was lesson in tact a wiser head might have profited by. Broadcasters were cautious with complaints, any of which might CC to the FCC, thus soft pencil applied to reply of viewer mail.

Academy Awards Were No Protection Against Shears of Syndication

Channel 8 patiently explained that movies must often be "carefully edited" for telecast, time limit and "sponsor messages" inescapable facts of programming life. What they knew but didn't express was that films were filler, nothing more nor less. Anyone who'd demand The Lost Weekend intact had to be a crank or a child. It was twenty years since the thing won "Best Picture," and who knew or cared from that? The Lost Weekend was accompany to supper dishes cleared, dog/cats let in/out, the gamut of household necessity to quell focus on flicks that bridged afternoon with primetime. Mere heads of lettuce to chop, they'd make a ninety-minute salad with remnant tossed out. Question we purists must finally ask: Were they so wrong?


Most television then was white noise. Many a household left sets running all day, as had been case with radio. Lots listened more than watched, screens on as backdrop to conversation or a phonograph playing. Attention paid was little, I suspect. Too many distractions around the house, if not the room. And how does one concentrate on a movie broken up by non-stop ads? Sensible folk wanted the story shortened, as who in a busy family had two hours or more for focus on narrative off a tiny box (25" regarded a big screen then). I don't think people noticed movies being cut. They were too well schooled at catching drift of a story even where it was gutted of first or middle sections. It was like walking into a theatre part ways into the show. You'd need but moments to understand everything that happened to that point. What movies were on television was a souvenir of what they had once been at cinemas. Those who'd remember The Lost Weekend would be satisfied by morsels caught before Junior flipped over to The Jetsons.


To "showcase" an old movie was to risk losing restless viewers. Having lights on in a room meant they'd be up and down constantly. Others of the household were in/out of the viewing space, phones jangling, adjourn to the kitchen for prep of snacks or TV-tray ... how would even a reverently presented Lost Weekend compete with that? Station directors understood such reality. They knew that movies weren't meant to be fully consumed and understood on the tube, unless maybe it was event of a Bridge On the River Kwai or The Robe unveiling for first broadcast time. Families might clear schedule for these, as in plan ahead, get grass mowed, then settle in for the haul. Mid-sixties forward became burial ground for B/W oldies now that color sets were getting into record number of homes. Choice for purists was simple: Take The Lost Weekend and ones like it on their terms, or don't watch. We had to stop worrying and love cut movies.


Of course, I kept writing letters. Management surely dreaded my scrawl on envelopes, knowing they'd have to answer what points I raised. My error was assuming everyone else felt as I did. Fact was, integrity of classic film was nobody's priority, at least in NC markets with late shows an only venue where features might be seen complete. It took cable and then satellite to rehab the backlogs. A service like AMC and later TCM had luxury of time and no need to amend vaulties. A generation that came up in the 80/90's saw classics way different from those that bore scar of editor knives. I've long thought there were, and are, far more serious buffs now than in blighted era gone before. Attendance at TCM's Festival bears it out, and look at all of blogs, Twitters, and Facebooking these fans do, plus books they continue to write. Imagine if TCM, or any network, did a chop-job on The Lost Weekend today. On-line fury would deafen us all. We had our Good Old Days with classic movies, but again I say, these are the Better New Days.




Thursday, December 01, 2016

Where CK Had Its Biggest Nights


Kane Is 58's Comeback Kid

Here's another reckless assertion which I invite any or all to refute: Citizen Kane had its largest-ever viewing audience during the week of January 6, 1958 in and around Los Angeles (on station KHJ), this surpassed only by ten months later New York City broadcast through Thanksgiving week, twelve free Gotham runs to whoever could pick up WOR, Channel 9. Kane never drew such a crowd, not in initial release, certainly not from revivals. Wish I knew how many millions watched over those bi-coastal weeks. Was this when Citizen Kane truly achieved modern classic standing? Never mind its being truncated and riddled with commercials. At least hint of greatness broke through, whatever abuse was heaped upon it. I'm back on Kane jag thanks to Scott MacQueen pointing my way to the TV ad at left, which appeared in support of November runs on WOR. Other promos for Channel 9 can be seen at previous (6/19/16) GPS posting on Kane's TV premiere(s). WOR pushed the run with multiple print promos (this latest my favorite), each a salvo to whatever sought paid admissions that NYC week. No wonder theatres despised television. Surely Orson Welles noted the showcase his seventeen-year-oldie got over multiple nights with much of Gotham tuned in. Might Kane have been a (re)freshed calling card to help him get further jobs? Industry execs on both coasts would certainly have been watching, what with Citizen Kane playing every night over respective weeks. I'd say the only larger TV audience Welles had during the 50's was his guesting on I Love Lucy (10-15-56), unless I've overlooked another, and higher profile, appearance (but then, was anything more watched than I Love Lucy that decade?).




Monday, November 28, 2016

Where Clowns Ruled The Roost


When Comedy Was King (1960) Dons DVD Crown

It’s been written and said that Robert Youngson beget a generation of silent comedy enthusiasts that later became collectors, then archivists, and ultimately suppliers of classic clowning to DVD buyers, all this detail-explained by Richard M. Roberts in a richly informative and entertaining audio commentary for Kit Parker’s new release of Youngson’s When Comedy Was King, the 1961 compilation agreed by most to be the compiler’s best. Roberts was another inspired to collect by Youngson example. He understands the impulse that drew so many moths to 8/16mm flame. How often do movie mavens pause to examine mirrors as Roberts does here? He recalls the Blackhawk catalogs, old flick shows with Shakey’s pizza, kiddie meets where Youngson first wove theatrical spell. A lot of us rode these magic carpets ---still do by digital route. For me, at least, it’s valuable to take stock of where so much of it began. Like “monster kids” sharing scary pursuit through magazines and late shows, here was a generation separated by states, but shaped by an enthusiasm Youngson was among first to express. The producer's career and personal story is told by Roberts, each comedy highlight also ID’ed, w/ background as to how RY foraged footage for When Comedy Was King and others of his oeuvre.


When Comedy Was King was available before, though never like this. 16mm transfers of indifferent quality are here replaced by sourcing from the original negative. When Comedy Was King has not sparkled so since ’60 first-runs. Care Youngson took with his presentation finally sees fruition thanks to highest grade release of all that has gone before. If you’ve shrunk from prior DVD offerings, you need not from this. When Comedy Was King resonates personally for being first of Youngsons I saw, sock finish of Laurel and Hardy with Jim Finlayson and contested Christmas trees a segment I'd recall when Big Business showed up in a 1968 Sears catalog. Seems you could own the two-reeler, in its entirety, watching just as 1929 audiences did. What heady intoxicant this was in days before film possession became commonplace thanks to discs and digital. I'll not reiterate what powerful narcotic these 8mm reels became. They'd be monkeys to ride my back for years to come.


When Comedy Was King is a best lure for civilians new to silent-era laughter. Highlights, as in Chaplin, Langdon, Keaton, the rest, are presented not as museum march, but lively brisk-pace to accompany music/effects that made Youngson a mainstream hit-maker to 50/60's showgoers. No need being film-fixated to enjoy these, a point made by commentator Roberts. Some of sheer fun in old comedy has been bled out by over-reverence, slowed-down projection, or analytic overkill, our obsess for vintage clowning a sometimes-threat to suffocate it. None of this was threat to Youngson. He was first, and so set the mold, for compilations everyone could enjoy, even those never before exposed to early-era slapstick. The DVD, available now from Amazon, includes three bonus shorts with mirth-makers so far unsung outside purest leagues, but they still amuse, and how: Hughey Mack and Dot Farley in An Elephant On His Hands (1920), Lige Conley in Fast and Furious (1924), and The Three Fatties in their Ton Of Fun comedy, Heavy Love (1926). These plus When Comedy Was King make for an evening, plus happy repeats, of vintage merriment.




Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Warners Cast Pulls Jury Duty


Love and a Murder Trial Complicate Perfect Strangers (1950)

Twelve not-so-angry men and women hash out guilt or innocence in an L.A. murder trial, two debating illicit love in addition to final verdict. Perfect Strangers begins with careful depict of the jury process, names drawn, letters sent, civilians reporting for duty, all after semi-doc fashion of Louis De Rochemont or Eagle-Lion true crime mellers. Support folk engage more than dullish principals Ginger Rogers and Dennis Morgan, Perfect Strangers typical of Warner output after Jack cinched belts to offset a plunging boxoffice. He had revived a B unit for increase of volume and use of overhead, idle stages and personnel a drain on dollars, but what came out of WB by 1949 and after reflected well on nobody, output looking cut-rate beside free spending of wartime's boom. Still, there was increased production, Warners getting out 23 features in 1948, 27 for 1949, then 29 in 1950, the studio not doing better, but at least doing more.


Trial progresses as background to drama among jurors, the twelve sequestered in as comfortable a drab hotel as Warner set-dressers could afford. If real-life deliberations were like here, I'd figure little justice to have been done, or by sheer inadvertence if it was. Still, this was near-first for the process half-seriously portrayed, and since most of us get jury summoned eventually, the topic had relevance and might in itself have sold curiosity tickets. Producing was Jerry Wald, Perfect Strangers an oasis of modesty among lots more ambitious Warner projects he'd done. Story had been told on stage by writer team Hecht/MacArthur, and I'm wondering if censorship might have taken juice out of dialogue these two penned for the play. Certainly nothing heard here suggests the celebrated team. Bretaigne Windust had directed several for Warners, none distinguished save a Bogart, The Enforcer, that's said to have been salvaged by Raoul Walsh, sans credit. Windust would move on to television, die young, be more/less forgotten. His last credit was a Leave It To Beaver. TCM runs Perfect Strangers, and there's a DVD from Warner Archive.




Sunday, November 20, 2016

Where Paramount Put Westerns On The Talkie Map


The Virginian (1929) Looks/Sounds Like True West

This was widely famed when new in 1929, so much so that Paramount brought it back in 1934, then did a remake in 1946. Outdoors never sounded so good, opening titles scored by mooing cows. This is where Yup/Nope got hung on Gary Cooper for keeps. He'd live with, sometimes spoof, that image all the way to the end. It's so pervasive as to obscure the performance he gives as The Virginian, so halting, so naturalistic, as to seem almost like "bad" or inexperienced acting. But Cooper was experienced by this time, for that matter understood new rules of screen talk better than vets that played opposite him to their peril (John Barrymore said Cooper was the best bar none, including himself). I think Coop based his Virginian on genuine articles he'd met growing up in Montana. No talking cowboys had so far registered like this. Compare Cooper with Warner Baxter overreach as the Cisco Kid the previous year (Fox's In Old Arizona). Cooper's so raw here as to be without even mannerisms he'd develop as stardom was consolidated. Compare The Virginian with later The Plainsman, Along Came Jones, or Dallas, and see him apply tricks to point of being mechanical. Problem for Coop was his knowing it had come to that, freshness of The Virginian not to be fully had again.


Not to say he'd ever be less than great. I looked at him recent in Garden Of Evil and ... monumental. In fact, monument was the word to describe this star by 1954. Cooper knew he was relying on repeated effects by then, and sat in on acting classes (with coach Jeff Corey) to improve. His efforts to learn went right through the career. It wasn't insecurity, but a genuine humility. Did greats like Cooper fully realize that it was cumulative effect of all their roles that moved us so, redoubled each time we saw a new one? I'd grow up with his on syndicated TV, one week Vera Cruz, then The Hanging Tree, backward to Sergeant York or High Noon. Each built upon the last, as brick was laid by Cooper to his screen persona. I missed that initial impact, am sorry for it, can but imagine going to each of his when new, as well with Bogart, Gable, Flynn, Cagney, the rest, were unfurling at a same time. These were method actors in far truer sense than would be case after it became a self-conscious, if not destructive, cult.


Everything Cooper and peers experienced in for large part turbulent lives was reflected by performances, not an affect, but genuine and even unconscious for a most part. We saw what smoking and alcohol did to these faces. Almost all of them would die comparatively young. Whatever disturb went on in private lives translated right to the screen in expression if not interpretation of roles. Authenticity rather than affect. While Method-ers plowed childhood for emotional guideline, these had but to recall last night's assignation or unwelcome flap at Ciro's to create mood for a working day. Cooper and peers were pros, but they hauled rocks from personal life and habits, all shared, if unknowingly, with ones of us (especially now with benefit of candid bios) that knew what went on back of scenes. Cooper was especially colorful, if unwise in some of indulgences, but each were plasma to feed unimpeachable authority of his screen self. Anthony Perkins once recalled telling Cooper how great it was to work with such a living legend in Friendly Persuasion, to which Coop replied, "How about we leave off that legend s--t." Cooper knew that to analyze his gift was to jeopardize it, and hardly needed to be told he was a legend.




Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ziegfeld's Heaven-Sent Encore


Ziegfeld Follies Is MGM's Super-Revue for 1946

N.Y.'s Capitol Hosts Gotham Premiere
Years spent in production, false starts (director George Sidney dropped out), and lavish numbers shot, then jettisoned, leaving us to wonder if maybe the discarded stuff was better than what's here. Were the actual Follies in 20's heyday as uneven as MGM's recreation? There's no narrative --- just songs and blackouts --- and get ready for a slog ... for 110 minutes. Everyone's in it who could dance/sing. Producer Arthur Freed had carte blanche after smash that was Meet Me In St. Louis, but that one had story and heart. Ziegfeld is just elephantine. Imagine $3.4 million spent, which wouldn't be got back even in movies' brightest boxoffice year and $5.3 million in worldwide rentals. MGM had a reputation to uphold: they were filmic equivalent to B'way legend Ziegfeld after all, so every musical, especially ones from the Freed unit, had to be events.


A lot of Ziegfeld Follies is good; Vincente Minnelli directed the most ambitious parts, but who needed Keenan Wynn in extended comic mode, or Edward Arnold and Victor Moore in an agonizing routine with no apparent end? Comedians Ziegfeld had used were surely funnier than these, but wait, there's Fanny Brice, who did appear for the Great Man, her material as lame as the rest purporting to be funny. To Ziegfeld participation, there is William Powell as grey eminence in a heavenly penthouse, an opener section that shows what Metro decorators anticipated by way of eternal reward. Numerous directors handled stuff not worthy of Minnelli: Roy Del Ruth, aforementioned George Sidney, Norman Taurog. Fred Astaire dances the most, once with Gene Kelly, which, along with a Judy Garland piece, is likeliest to turn up today and in future as excerpts, along with Lucille Ball wielding a whip over chorines in cat suits. Ziegfeld Follies has played on Warner Instant in HD, and you can add a star or two to ratings previously given just for visual uptick.




Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Notorious New Star Is Born


Young Widow (1946) Is First Wide Glimpse Of Jane Russell

This was the Jane Russell movie most people saw after five years of ogling her pin-ups, The Outlaw a sufficiently hot potato as to be shunned by circuits and certainly small towns. Howard Hughes went for lurid even in push of this placid drama wherein war-widowed Russell must rejoin romance ranks as embodied by flyer Louis Hayward. "What Are The Two Biggest Reasons For Jane Russell's Success?" asked Hughes' publicity, to which everyone giggled the answer, and why not? To pose such a question was asking for trouble. A wider public hadn't seen Russell other than in still photography on haystacks or carrying milk jugs. Hughes was insanely unsubtle, or was he merely insane? For all his micromanage of publicity, HH interfered less with production of Young Widow, Jane Russell having been loaned to independent producer Hunt Stromberg. Part of that deal included starter Faith Domergue in third-bill placement, even though she'd have but two scenes.


Hughes would also negotiate for United Artists distribution, a package deal with The Outlaw, which would go out just behind Young Widow, Russell personal-appearing with both. Stromberg took time, and lost time, completing his project. There were complications renting studio space, the producer not having access to facility of the majors. Delay in getting Young Widow started ("scripting and casting trouble," said Variety) put Stromberg beyond his lease period with California Studios, so he had to move to General Service facility. Ida Lupino had been set to star, but "pulled out because she didn't like the script," according to Variety. By the time Jane Russell was aboard, Young Widow was headed over-budget, to eventual sum of $600K, according to Tino Balio's United Artists book. What muddied water further was three directors in and out over shooting: William Dieterle (left after arguments with Stromberg), Andre De Toth, and Edwin L. Marin, who Russell would recall as too literal with regards script and gave no leeway for actor input.


Maybe a most important element was stills, specifically ones of Russell in negligee and provocative pose. Two weeks were spent on these. If Young Widow sold, photo art was how they'd sell it. JR was tendered as "The World's Most Exciting Brunette," much of ads with her in bathing attire and/or sleepwear. Who'd have known going in how somber this drama would play, especially for a first act with Russell wallowed in grief? Well, the title warned them. It's only when action switches from bayou setting to Gotham night life that action picks up. Maybe audiences got tired from waiting on The Outlaw and Russell to show up on screens, accustomed to her as a face on mag covers and not movies, for Young Widow crash-fell to $1.2 million in domestic rentals, and only $355K foreign. Those numbers should have been better in attendance-peak 1946, and certainly more was needed to cover overruns incurred on the film. Young Widow has gone into hibernation since, other than a 50's reissue titled The Naughty Widow, and early syndication. What shows up infrequently on TCM looks to be 16mm, so no idea as to where present-day ownership lies.
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