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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

One Hell Of A Great War 1932 Revisited

Wilmington, Delaware's V.F.W. Supplies Uniform and Drum Corps For Downtown Bally Parade

The Big Drive (1932) Is Precode's Censor-Proof Bloodbath

Hell broke loose in December 1932 when indie shockumentary The Big Drive went Over The Top to show a public what ferocity we and allies dealt during the Great War over a decade past. If this wasn't precode in a rawest way, I don't know what was, but like Bring 'Em Back Alive and others of jungle derivation, little is mentioned of these buried offshoots. Compiler of The Big Drive was A.L. Rule, a WWI vet who was said to have scoured worldwide vaults to gather "withheld till now" proof of man's inhumanity to man. The menu was blissfully simple to sell: Glory and Hell ... Blood and Mud ... Clubbing ... Stabbing. Who wouldn't want bountiful meal of that? In fact, enough did to immediately call forth imitators. Within weeks of The Big Drive came Forgotten Men, while ahead of it was Four Aces, which didn't catch gore wave mostly for a title indistinct as to content. The Film Daily (1/23/33) noted The Big Drive's "surprise business,"  showmen in the know saw unbound violence as the catnip, and where you couldn't get away with such let-loose savagery in features, there was no stopping fact-based recount of horrors in battle ... how else to warn society against future conflagration? ("Strong propaganda against war" said The Film Daily's approving review)

NYC's Mayfair Theatre Barb-Wires Marquee To Slam Over Blood-Guts Content 
Drunk on profits Albert Rule announced his sequel, The Death Parade, which was even more to the point, but could he move fast enough to preserve the fad and outrun copycats? Major pitch of The Big Drive was trench cameramen having lost lives by score to capture carnage for later and stunned amusement. Ninety-six died, said The New York Sun, to which Big Drive distributor First Division offered corrective: it was "only forty-five." Why niggle over detail so long as we got men bayoneting one another in full view? ("Seen are the flashing bayonets as they stab into the gullets of enemy soldiers," said The Motion Picture Herald's breathless review) Wouldn't one or other of combatants turn a weapon on those photographing them at lethal work? But no, this stuff was the McCoy, said Rule, coming as it did from sealed storage of both US and allied gvts. If The Big Drive was good enough for members of Congress to screen (The Hollywood Reporter, 2/28/33), who was anyone to question veracity? Local censors did an expected handspring, wanted gorier footage excised, but how to answer American Legion posts stood firm behind the pic, each arguing that we must see war as it so horribly is. Distributor First Division offered Big Drive bally ideas far afield of good taste: " ... have a shell-shocked veteran simulate a seizure." Whatever their social responsibility, showmen left press watchdogs to sort it all out. Uppermost was ticket-selling --- "Got them in and they liked it. What More?" asked Walt Bradley of the Moon Theatre in Neligh, Nebraska. Indeed, what more?

Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Spirit Of Vaudeville Still Stirs

Two Girls On Broadway (1940) Sets Star-Making To Music

The two girls on Broadway are Lana Turner and Joan Blondell. Turner was nineteen, Blondell thirty-three. Metro was developing LT as a sex symbol minus pre-code claws of a departed Jean Harlow, Turner's allure kept within Code fences (some of press compared her with Clara Bow). Turner was of a generation that need not be rehabilitated for past onscreen sin, which put her at interesting contrast with Blondell, the big sister and unmolested fiancée of George Murphy, him as sexless as Metro wanted Blondell to now be. Murphy affection will transfer to Turner before half of reels play out, Blondell's part less reprise of work done at Warner than losing at love which was bane of Bessie Love in previous MGM musicals, a sacrifice for good-of-all to pave way for a younger ingénue to have the leading man. Here was formula chiseled onto rock that was every sister act back to The Broadway Melody, a model in repeated use for by-then ten years. Two Girls On Broadway was too rich for a B, with $427K in negative cost, not a lot less than was spent on The Shop Around The Corner, comedies with Myrna Loy, or increasingly pricey Andy Hardys. Intent was to make currency of Lana Turner, a proposed star of a not-distant future. Within a year, she would lead in decided A's.

Blondell hauls Turner like pack gear going into combat. Whatever credit goes to the younger star (LT billed first) is thanks in large part to Blondell making sure Turner registers well. Did JB get instruct to mentor LT onscreen and off? Blondell by 1939 comes off suddenly like a character actress, as if pre-code golddigging had been done by someone else. A lot of veterans were hired by MGM, and elsewhere, to prop up fresher talent. It was work, if not work in a center ring. Aging often meant having to punt for benefit of newcomers. Others of greater experience surround putative star that was Lana Turner: Wallace Ford as a Walter Winchell-inspired columnist who, like WW, used to be in vaudeville, Jimmy Conlin a street vendor with unexpected edge, various others. If vaudeville was dead by 1940, then loads of its baggage got buried in movies, where vet talent was seen constantly in parts big and small. Then too there was radio, plus presentation houses still tendering vaude as though times had not changed at all. Work was never so plentiful for lots of performing folk, and they didn't have to catch trains or live in dingy boarding houses to get it. Most were fed up on the gypsy life anyway. Finish of the per se vaudeville era might have been the best thing that could happen for them. Two Girls On Broadway is available on a nice DVD from Warner Archive.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Von and Lorre Loose On The Riviera

Villainy Prevails in I Was An Adventuress (1940)

Erich von Stroheim and Peter Lorre grazing on pre-war Euro playgrounds, thief assist supplied by Vera Zorina, that odd footnote who sniffed stardom and later did weeks on For Whom The Bell Tolls location before being snatched back and replaced by Ingrid Bergman. Zorina, she went mostly by surname alone, had ballet for a specialty. Critics felt she did that better than acting, less of them noting Zorina as voluptuous beyond norm of toe dancers. From Swan Lake in I Was An Adventuress to That Old Black Magic for Star-Spangled Rhythm was proof of Zorina range, latter a hotsy highlight of which servicemen got an unexpurgated version that lit camp and frontline shows. 16mm prints survive and it's a wow, making me wonder what else studios heated up for exclusive military play. I Was An Adventuress has Zorina and Richard Greene top-billed, a laugh on reality of Stroheim and Lorre being who we're there to see, but 1940 didn't necessarily see things our way. Greene was after all listed over Basil Rathbone in Hound Of The Baskervilles, and to Fox seemed a next Tyrone Power. Fail at that seems predetermined in hindsight, but less appealing players than Greene did make stardom grade. Modern preference goes to odd ducks Stroheim/Lorre, and whatever the cast placement, these two dominate whole of I Was An Adventuress, Zorina and Greene reduced to same sort of romantic distraction that took our minds but momentarily off Laurel and Hardy in any half-dozen of the team's comedy features.

Von is especially resplendent here. I recognized some of the wardrobe as his own. And the bamboo cane. How much of  wardrobe do you suppose he had to pawn? The 30's had been cruelly lean. Pals at MGM even took up a collection so Von and family could have a decent Christmas. Most of them remembered what it was like to be on your uppers. Stroheim could look elegant perched in a junkyard. Most of his vehicles of late had been just that, with remarkable exception of Grande Illusion. Maybe that one got him the job on I Was An Adventuress. He hadn't been in surroundings rich as this for a long time. It warms the heart to see Von so featured and free with tricks we love him for. There's the head slung-back to down a drink, done twice in case we blinked or were out to smoke. Apropos of nothing is EvS snipping threads from frayed cuffs with a microscopic pair of scissors while seated on a cafe terrace. Bless director Gregory Ratoff for shooting that, and Darryl Zanuck for leaving it in. I'll never call Ratoff a suck-up hack again. Stroheim had the gift of charm plus menace. That last being always an aspect of his screen persona may be what kept Von from getting more, or at least regular, work. He was dangerous in a best of circumstance, not congenial to comedy or anywhere he could not be at least part-sinister. Stroheim was object lesson for a frightened town, his balloon pumped too much, flown too high, then popped for all to see and take object lesson from. To extend him charity was to buy insurance that maybe his fate wouldn't be yours. No wonder the MGM holiday card, with cash, had so many names affixed. I Was An Adventuress is available on Fox On-Demand DVD and looks fine.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Striking 50's Club Scene

 This Could Be The Night (1957)  Pleases In B/W Scope

A picture that J.J. Hensecker would have enjoyed if J.J. Hunsecker had been a real person, and perhaps a last to depict New York on Damon Runyan terms. MGM even arranged to have Earl Wilson host a trailer, him a columnist who would certainly have frequented spots like where action happens here. He appears on-camera with chanteuse Julie Wilson and mentions that he hasn't seen her around town lately because she's been in Hollywood making this movie, such insider talk maybe a turn-off to rurals otherwise disposed to go see This Could Be The Night. It would probably have lost money anyway, this being 1957 when most of what MGM released lost money. For director Robert Wise, Night came between hit that was Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Until They Sail, a feature trio to argue Wise's reliability for polished product. Wise could take good material and reliably make it very good, like story-and-tempo minded filmmakers Jacques Tourneur, Rudolph Maté, others who await proper recognition. This Could Be The Night has prim schoolteacher Jean Simmons (hers the school also used in Blackboard Jungle) moonlighting as secretary for tough but tender nightclub owner Paul Douglas, he and partner Anthony Franciosa taking it upon selves to protect her from unsavory nightlife and types (including themselves). Idea of Simmons as a "greenhorn" (read virgin) is much emphasized, in that sense a reprise of The Moon Is Blue, but Simmons was by now twenty-eight, so notion of her as inexperienced is hard swallow indeed.

Past that, however, is sometimes bright comedy and music/dance of a sort we'd figure for uptown cabarets in final days of thrive. Trailer-bait Julie Wilson isn't remembered much, at least by me, but was a Manhattan rage and thrush with Ray Anthony's orchestra, latter also appearing in This Could Be The Night as himself. Dancing Neile Adams came close to Broadway brass rings, does striking numbers here, but chucked it to marry Steve McQueen, endure quietly his stardom and infidelities, her second career a memoir of their life together and non-stop reminiscence of McQueen for documentary profiles. Nibbling round edges is Joan Blondell, her character a long-ago headliner, whose apartment with daughter Adams is splayed with stills of Blondell at Warner Bros. peak. Of veterans aboard, ZaSu Pitts is in/out as concerned landlady for Simmons. Maltin Reviews called This Could Be The Night "forced ... frantic" --- opening up of intended B&W-Cinemascope relieves at least some of that, but there is lots of shouting and running about, a hazard when characters are drawn along Runyonesque lines. This Could Be The Night is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Cagney Still Off The Reservation

Something To Sing About (1937) Is Grand National Up From Poverty Row

What did the James Cagney pact achieve for Grand National? Plenty, judging by trade reportage. Imagine a biggest of stars jumping a major ship to sail with barely a skiff. It was beyond an anomaly. Grand National went from a jack to a king overnight. Their product would be welcome in top venues, seldom the case for independents before. Broadway example was a deal worked between GN sales management and circuit owner Harry Brandt, whose Globe and Central Theatres became “home of all Grand National pictures,” beginning with Something To Sing About for a September 20, 1937 Globe opening (Film Daily, 9-13-37). With Cagney at their service, Grand National might actually crack barriers protected by the eight majors, his name leading an assault on doors too long shut to outsiders. It wouldn’t quite work out that way, but GN sure raised a sweat on status-quo the behemoths thought they had solidly in place, and the trades, plus showmen nationwide, made a loud cheering section. Helping too was the good movie Something To Sing About turned out to be. This was no cheapie salvaged by its star, but a vehicle lush as possible for underdog circumstance in which it was made, allowance happily given by a show world solidly in Grand National’s corner.

The company was a year old, “under the guidance of 39-year-old president Edward L. Alperson" (Boxoffice, 5-22-37). Like any industry David, they hung on by threads relentlessly sawed by mainstream Goliaths. Grand National was formed to host outlaw Cagney, who had breached Warner walls after hard-won expungement of his contract. GN’s first with him, Great Guy, was less great shakes as a film than announcement to theatres that little guys could play with big leagues too, whatever blocks an establishment tossed in their way. Grand National would look to a harvest moon for 1937, sixty-five features announced for a coming season at a first annual convention held during May in Los Angeles. Cagney was ahead for not only Something To Sing About in September, but another, Dynamite, to follow. There would be twelve “special productions,” twelve “Class A” features, a series of twenty-four to be developed around radio, book, and newspaper cartoon characters, along with sixteen westerns (Tex Ritter, Ken Maynard). There were comedies with Stuart Erwin and dramas toplining Anna Sten on tap. Series stuff included The Shadow, Wallaby Jim, Renfrew Of The Mounted, a “Federal Agent” group, and others. Attendees to the L.A. confab likely saw the grandiose forecast as so much pipe smoke, but knew theirs was a business run on confidence, even if misplaced. Whatever Grand National could deliver, they’d try darndest to push through a marketplace.

James Cagney was a champ to exhibitors for his stand against Warners. He wasn’t just taking them on, but a whole allied, ingrained system the bane of independent operators everywhere. Cagney for these became a one-man trust buster. To book Something To Sing About gave showmen something to show solidarity about. That this was a musical gave pause perhaps, but Cagney sang/danced before in Footlight Parade, a most successful of WB shows he did from earlier in the 30’s. Grand National was where the actor could tweak a persona he’d become bored with. Some, but not enough, were refreshed by JC hoofing it, his being an action audience, so advertising had to play up whatever punches might land in this otherwise civilized vehicle. Opening reel of Something To Sing About is entirely set on expanded stage that is “Terry Rooney’s” bandstand and club, a designer’s creation to do proud beside any that WB, Metro, the rest, could devise.

Budget filmmakers often led with a lushest backdrop to fairly shout “A” treatment ahead. Something’s nightspot, dense with extras and mile-high ceiling, lets us know, or at least imagine, that no expense will be spared. Thrust of story is Terry/Jim being lured to Hollywood for star-making process, basis of comedy and further music from there.  “Galore Pictures” is the pincushion for venality of big-time moviemaking, the sort of place Cagney felt well rid of, Something To Sing About an “insider” rake over a studio system as viewed by outsiders. Terry/Jim is swindled and lied to by toadies who don’t know their business, but try to mind his. A support cast is out of odd drawers to emphasize kooks in back of movies we watch --- Johnny Arthur, Dwight Frye, William Frawley as time-honored demon press agent. These and other familiar faces link Something To Sing About with output from majors that regularly featured them. Take the Grand National logo off this show and you could figure it for something out of Paramount, or at least RKO, maybe Columbia. Something To Sing About, for years in the Public Domain, is available from a number of labels, the Hal Roach or Roan Group’s a good choice, and there is streaming option at Amazon.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Lesser Of Noir and Siodmak, But Still ...

Stanwyck Comes-A-Killing to The File On Thelma Jordon (1950)

Gets off to unpromising start with Wendell Corey sloppy drunk for what seems eternity, but be patient, it gets better. Hal Wallis produced, another of his delves into psychology of greedy folk pushed to killing because they want it all. Corey was a Wallis hire lacking goods to lead, here a born chump stronger names might have been reluctant to play. For an assistant D.A. with oft-mentioned promise, he sure makes stupid moves, all in service to Barbara Stanwyck doing reprise of image-defining Double Indemnity. Thelma Jordon (The File On ... often omitted from title listings) was directed by Robert Siodmak, so you'd expect a higher profile, though it was settled long ago, even by cultists, that this was among his weakest. Thelma is really more representative of Wallis, who would let no director personal-stamp anything bearing HW credit. The less charitable could laugh at thickets woven here, Thelma Jordon one of those where complication is prolonged for its own sake. Siodmak gets in licks where he can: Corey's relation with the wife he betrays is more grown-up than what we expect of otherwise bald melodrama. The File On Thelma Jordon arrives via Olive Blu-Ray lease from Paramount. Quality is fine.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Romance Under The Code

Chained (1934) A Mixmaster Of Morality

This came out several months after the Code cracked down, but does not play altogether gutless. Rules became more stringent as monitors felt their oats, however, so Chained a year later would have been weaker tea. The premise is still ludicrous. We're asked to believe that tycoon Otto Kruger maintains co-worker Joan Crawford not in mistress capacity, despite his marriage crumbled by a castrating spouse. Crawford is willing to consummate the relationship after the wife says no re divorce, to which Kruger demurs, being stunned at the very idea of such a thing. He sends Joan on a Pan-American cruise so they can both "think about" her offer, just as any man would when the woman he desperately wants is ready to put out. Did audiences laugh aloud at this? Maybe not, what with gloss so thick and Clark Gable turning up shipboard. Besides, Kruger is an old guy, as in his 50's, so where does he come off wanting to trade in the first place? Heat comes of Gable's pursuit and Crawford's avoidance. That lasts down an ocean and into Brazil where CG keeps a ranch with horses and a piazza chock-filled with servants. Crawford as shopgirl was definitely behind her here. Chained was about substituting luxury for narrative truth, and it works on at least this occasion where frills disguise characters doing what no human in a same circumstance would.

Chained spoke to large extent between the lines, or between dissolves, fade outs and in, whatever permitted a grown-up viewer to form his/her own notion of what has taken place during unseen interims. We know Otto Kruger and Joan Crawford have not slept together because dialogue tells us specifically that. Later on, with Gable at his below-equator paradise, there is collapse into tall grass, a steaming kiss, followed by the fade. We may assume they acted on nature from there, and it's at least half confirmed reels later by Gable when he refers to their having gone "balmy" under a South American sun. Audiences were in a way flattered for knack they'd develop at decoding the Code, but that was an adjustment that took time, and those denser or less patient may well have given up movies as too tough a slog toward coherence. The job would be no less a challenge today with viewership used to sex dealt face up and explicit. Would they have hope of reading narrative sleight-of-hand as applied in Chained?

Prohibition had been gone over a year when Chained came out. Drinking was in meantime back with a vengeance and became chief concern, if not way of life, for idols we'd bid to emulate. To know which drink to order implied not only sophistication, but wealth. Nursing a cocktail meant having leisure to do so, working people presumably without time or resource to know infinite permutations of alcohol. The bracer you ordered spoke much to background and status. Crawford wants a "sherry flip" because she and Kruger share them back home, but Gable disparages the choice as one that provincials or old folks would make, him not needing to meet Kruger to realize the man is outclassed. People are graded then, by what they drink. Social life of Hollywood had to have been influenced by all this, or maybe the social life influenced the movies. Liquor no longer being bootlegged made connoisseurs of whoever could stock a home bar, or make positive impression at nightspots. Part of why drinks and cigarettes thrived in films was gift both were to acting, there being no more valued props than these. Why worry what to do with your hands with ready crutches handy? 

Clarence Brown (above) directed Chained. He understood from touching down at Metro in the late 20's how a dream factory best functioned, and wove artistry from unlikeliest elements. A long second act of Chained takes place aboard ship, a real one Brown utilizes and makes most of, advantage pressed by traveling shots of Gable/Crawford as they deck walk and encounter other passengers. A skeet shoot with targets over the water, plus swimming in a pool aboard, lends variety and takes onus off predicted romance of the leads. Much of value in 30's star vehicles was background they played against, ticket's worth the invite to travel places we'd never likely see, even where trips were simulated by rear projection. An aspect that separated us from screen idols was their knowing exactly how to comport themselves in whatever circumstance presented itself. Perfect appearance, etiquette, bon mots at hand where occasion needed them. Part of reason candid interviews were forbade was knowledge that stars being themselves would be too much letdown from ideal they presented on screen. Clark Gable had been muzzled from 1931 and a fan mag chat titled "I Do What I Am Told," where he frankly spoke to peonage at his place of employ.

Marriage vows were meant by a vigorous Code to be observed, but where the magnets were Gable and Crawford, and she's wed to withered Otto Kruger, something of the rule had to bend. Noble as self-sacrifice was on most occasions, no audience would accept co-stars in heat staying separated. Hollywood had seen the situation play in real life with the Mary Pickford/Douglas Fairbanks coupling which would not be denied despite both having spouses. That misfortune was resolved by mutual pay-offs and disposal of baggage, then sanctify by (second) marriage between Doug and Mary, the switch embraced by a post-Victorian public that could as easily have gone a negative way. Musical beds had not been played at so high a stake, but it worked, and would again and again as movieland morality found acceptance by its mass following. Chained relied on that by letting Crawford enter into marriage with Kruger, who is entirely likeable and sympathetic, but old (the actor was 48 when he did Chained), and a presumably inadequate sheets partner for Joan.

The finish, which I'll give away as Chained is plenty fun even knowing how it wraps, lets Kruger simply give up this most precious thing in his life (a sentiment he repeats throughout Chained), and for which he sacrifices children we understand he will not be permitted to see again, thanks to a vengeful first wife. "That doesn't matter," he says, so shouldn't it matter a great deal more when Gable comes to claim his wife? And yet because it is Gable, and Gable wants Crawford and she wants him, the inconvenience of a husband will be removed so as to afford a happy ending. Dishonest, even outlandish as this fade is (would any husband be so good a sport?), it was the resolution they wanted, insisted upon, in 1934, and remains so for us watching today, and hang the ethics of it. Think Casablanca if Ilsa had chosen Rick at the airport with Victor's resigned approval. Would the film be so beloved in that event? Chained is a joy for many reasons then, tops among the Gable-Crawfords to my mind. It can had on DVD from Warner Archive.
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