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Thursday, February 04, 2016

When Lead Men Lived Off Westerns

Fred Sits Back Seat Behind Better B.O. Bets Doris and Jack

Fred MacMurray Plays Cowboy in Face Of A Fugitive (1959)

Fred MacMurray as a stickup man with lots to answer for who holes up in a mine town and grows a conscience. There were oceans of adult-theme westerns in the 50's, companies trying to float above thick of TV oaters. A star like MacMurray could make a project with his name and deferred salary, the reward a chunk of net provided the show goes into black. Most of time ones like Fugitive could thrive by dint of thrift, avoidance of crowds, location, other spending traps. Face Of A Fugitive is primarily a "town" western,  which meant conflicts settled by talk and infrequent gunplay. Good enough writing could assure interest, as was case here. "Morningside Productions" was where Charles Schneer hung hat, this a rare western he engaged, but not a sole one; there was also Good Day For A Hanging with MacMurray. Fred was known for holding on to a first dollar earned in pictures, one way of keeping rich to do sure-thing actioners like these. He wasn't a Scott or McCrea, but there was space for plenty on cowboy marquees, drive-ins especially hot to play outdoor product. Come to think of it, what's more appropriate than convertible-sit as Fred rides out for a reckoning, time-honored ritual to seldom require undivided attention.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Among Less Seen Of Chaplins

Two Charlies in The Idle Class (1921)

A First National Chaplin given elegance by a score he composed in the 70's for first circulation of the film since Pathé handled a 20's reissue. This family-sanctioned Idle Class is by definition a two-reeler, but runs a third longer than Mutual comedies of same duration, thanks to slowed-up frame rate CC applied when he modernized it (a 32 minute present-day length). How close, or should I say far, is this from what 1921 audiences got? Chaplin negatives were worn to nubbins by heavy play, The Idle Class opening in New York City alone with 120 prints, an early instance of saturation play. There had lately been success of The Kid, and First National figured to raise rentals for The Idle Class, but ended up compromising with riled exhibs by giving each the show day-and-date, but requiring longer runs to maximize returns. Theatres Idle'd for three days, some a week, with a comedy that lost steam well before prints went back. Complaints were heard that The Idle Class was far from Chaplin's best. Were we beginning to expect too much from him?

Variety was sympathetic, calling it "uproarious entertainment" and chiding those who'd say otherwise. It was enough, after all, that Charlie make us laugh, and not reasonable to measure his work henceforth against un-toppable standard of The Kid. Photoplay sang praises: The Idle Class for them ranked next to The Kid and Shoulder Arms, latter pair voted best of Chaplin's so-far output. CC had finished The Idle Class "in record time," said observers (David Robinson's Chaplin bio says it took five months), the pic described as "a satire on society," and/or "a travesty on the weakness of the wealthy." These descriptives, likely issued by Chaplin's shop, may well have gone on scorecards kept by those who'd dress the tramp in Red as socio-political clouds gathered. As to pleasures enabled by his own wealth, there was homecoming to England plus a Euro tour as aftermath to completion of The Idle Class.

Chaplin had his million-dollar contract to make eight comedies for First National, but what's less known is the next million generated once negatives reverted to him after contractual five years FN had to distribute. Latter bled the subjects white, or so they thought, but lines formed as each made ways to Chaplin ownership and control. He'd barter the pack to United Artists, or so it was thought, UA after all being part-owned by Chaplin and distributor of his films to come. Did Charlie find himself too frugal to deal with? Pathé made the better offer: a cool million split between two packages of four at $500K each, The Idle Class among the latter group that also included The Pilgrim, Pay Day, and The Kid. The Idle Class became Chaplin's sole property on 4-18-26, according to Film Daily. Terms beyond the flat price were as follows, said Variety (9-30-25): "Chaplin will have a percentage arrangement whereby he will collect if the pictures gross above a specified amount."

The Idle Class went years unseen, other than bootleg prints. Chaplin didn't include it among his Revue of First National shorts in the late-50's, and there was no Idle Class with initial inventory turned over to Mo Rothman for reissue in the early 70's. Robinson's book reported Chaplin adding both The Kid and The Idle Class to the Rothman package as gesture of thanks for the deal having so far gone well. We got them in tandem at Greensboro's Janus Theatre in summer 1973, a first and memorable time seeing The Idle Class. It is for me an equal, or nearly so, to any of the First Nationals, an admission, I suppose, that none of them are as good as five or six of the best Mutuals, but if there is a scene I'd pick of Chaplin at pantomimic best, it would be an Idle Class moment he shares with a cocktail shaker and turned mostly away from the camera. I don't know of a gag's pay-off in all of Chaplin that gets a better audience response than this.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Putting Up A Great Front

Broadway's Rialto Celebrates Sherlock Holmes

Behold the above masterpiece of front design and marvel that such artistry was taken down and replaced on week or bi-week basis while Broadway's Rialto Theatre was operated by "Merchant Of Menace" Arthur Mayer, the Harvard-graduate showman best of all at his job and known industry-wide for it. Mayer didn't limit to exhibition, being analyst (his many trade columns), historian (a memoir, Merely Colossal, in 1953), and teacher/lecturer at USC, Stanford, Dartmouth, others. He'd begun at '07 graduation, worked Indiana theatres and later for Sam Goldwyn, was tabbed by Paramount to oversee publicity, cooked up the "Panther Woman" search for Island Of Lost Souls among varied stunts. Mayer ran the Rialto for bosses before assuming venue lease and splitting profits with Para for time left (to November 1935). After that, he knocked down the old Rialto, rebuilt from ground up, and took further lease of twenty years. From this, it was Mayer policy what prevailed, being thrill, horror, far-est out exploitation. The Rialto was first-run address of most Universal chillers from 1936 to fade of the cycle, Mayer according them balm of B'way open as singles, with fronts-of-house to set pace for others to emulate, but never surpass.

Ad space sold high as kites in NY dailies, so Mayer put his dollars on the street, where passerbys could be lured by siren tune of ghouls within. Universal's Sherlock Holmes group was strictly B, played beneath larger fish in urban markets, but The Scarlet Claw ran lone at the Rialto, a berth we fans would accord any Universal favorite, but which theatres too-seldom did when pics were new. Here was premiere of The Scarlet Claw on Broadway, in a spot seating 594, admission from forty to eighty-five cents, depending on showtime, and age of patronage. You could enter the Rialto from the street or a subway platform below. Shows ran to 4 AM, per sign at paying window. It sometimes ran round the clock, Rialto being habitat for nightcrawlers. Gunshots could and did go off in the auditorium to faint reaction. Crowds were used to mayhem on and off the screen.

Mainstream critics always condescended to success that was Rialto's, Mayer playing along as bemused intellect dialed down to primitive taste of his mob. He fed quips to popular press and saved nut/bolt of Rialto routine for trade reportage. Columns by Mayer are primer on how to sell hard and maximize biz. He likely did better off The Scarlet Claw than anyone else that used it. His two-week mid-May 1944 stand got $9K for a first frame, $6K the second ("upper brackets," said Variety). More dough was presumably dropped for War Bonds --- note extensive front-of-house pitching for those. "First Time On Any Screen" presumes a World Premiere, any thrill product in safest hands at the Rialto. The many 8X10 stills on display are unprotected, and I wonder how many were filched by fans bit young by collecting bug. Daily inventory must have revealed a gap or three to be replenished. Rialto's kept-busy art-shop had hands full at image blow-ups (that giant claw! --- Paul Cavanagh's head!), and yes, yes, yes, we must Buy More Bonds.

Sherlock Holmes was singularly exploitable because you could sell him for mystery or outright horror, depending on need. Rialto's Holmes looks like a chillingest thriller, title claw's oversized reach for a shrinking maiden like sci-fi fiends of a next decade. Here was no deceptive advertising, for The Scarlet Claw did come closest to monster merchandise out of Universal, regarded to present day as scariest of their SH dozen. Grind policy at the Rialto meant continuous dirge of projectors for all of operating hours, walk-ins oblivious to "start times." The Scarlet Claw is at 74 minutes accompanied by Donald's Gold Mine from Disney-RKO and a Speaking Of Animals short out of Paramount, plus a newsreel. All were one-reel subjects, total runtime under thirty minutes. Donald's Gold Mine dated back two years, but may have missed Broadway during interim, Disney cartoons known for at-times circulating for long periods in smaller markets ahead of keys. Speaking Of Animals was a live-action series, save some backgrounds and mouth-movement of livestock, dogs, etc. animated by Tex Avery, concept creator and aboard for initial entries. A few can be accessed on line, but none seem available on DVD. The shorts were popular though, and known to theatregoers in same way as MGM's Pete Smith Specialties or the WB Joe McDoakes.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Dinosaur That Came Before Digital

Only Purists Need Apply

Ventured to boy-room where my first 8mm "theatre" saw fruition, and names like Castle and Blackhawk were synonym for enchantment. There is no Back To Basic like return to 8mm. I was reminded how a small and steady hand is best to thread that narrowest of gauge. Plus a pair of young eyes. Everything about 8mm is scaled-down, the projector, film, its image as projected. Here was a format best enjoyed by children (age ten was start for me). For this last round, I needed two pair of specs on hand, one for close work, a second to view results. Thread process was like putting string through a needle minus its eye. Patience is a must when handling film, delay and frustration the bane of most screenings. A forty-year old projector I used had dubious benefit of self-threading, which means film chatters madly till you feed it in just so. Focus varied throughout, never what we, spoiled by digital, would call sharp. In fact, focus is no issue at all today, a concept gone as adjusting your tuner to pull in distant TV channels.

There is much on 8mm that you won't see anyplace else. Blackhawk used to offer reels that would go out of print like certain DVD's do now. If anybody cared, they'd be collector items. As it is, you have to work for your fun where it comes to 8mm. I got out two subjects for the hour remembrance of how things were, and won't be again. First was a Ken Film, one-time distributor of home movies for United Artists, then-owner of pre-49 Warner inventory. This 8mm spool was called The Swashbucklers, and ran about eight minutes. Every blurry foot was action, all but brief intro featuring Errol Flynn. Glimpse of Doug Fairbanks plus John Barrymore (from Don Juan) lead in, then it's Flynn for the rest, him referred to in "Superimposed Titles" as Greatest Of All Swashbucklers, a point to brook no argument then or now. I contemplated how this was once the only way you'd own footage of Flynn sinking ships, wielding swords, or leading a charge, barest souvenir of shows then less accessible on TV (fewer markets used them after the mid-60's, and by the 70's, mostly UHF). Theatres, save revival housing in NY or LA, had largely bowed out (a Charlotte theatre brought back Adventures Of Robin Hood in 1974, a Dominant print in black-and-white). The Swashbucklers, copyrighted 1967, was sunken treasure where outliers like me kept residence.

The Blackhawk box read Melodrama Rides The Rails, which could be anything of course, but sounded like more excerpts, maybe from serials or thrill-stuff done on runaway engines. BH chief Kent D. Eastin was a lifelong train buff, so catalogues were loaded with railroad reels, which I guess sold during days when collectors better remembered iron horses rumbling through town, or riding passenger on same. The fifteen minutes here was culled from ancient scraps --- a crash between steam engines staged for a county fair shortly after turn of the 20th century (explanatory titles said this was often a feature at public gatherings as obsolete trains were fazed out --- so why not exit them with a bang?) --- then there was A Rail Tragedy, where a robber on board cleans a woman's purse, then hurls her off the moving train. She survives, he's captured, so tragedy ends up a relative term, other than my own for not being able to keep the picture steady or get it in focus. Why didn't we 8mm collectors give this headache up and go play basketball like normal youth?

Highlight of Melodrama Rides The Rails was a 1911 Vitagraph short called A Mother's Devotion, or The Firing Of The Patchwork Quilt. High concept in a nutshell: Mother sees son off to engineer duty, later realizes a trestle is out, warns him by setting her patchwork quilt ablaze, laying it across rails as way to give warning. Vitagraph knew how to wring suspense from single reels, and there's fine glimpse of the big hoss chugging toward what might be disaster. My question, then: Once an 8mm collector bought Melodrama Rides The Rails, how many times would he watch? (notice I said "he" --- girls had better sense than to mess with this stuff) I enjoyed Melodrama Rides The Rails, but likely as not, won't go back. "Specialized Interest" is summed up by this very definition of toys you play with alone. Hard to imagine other members of a collector's household sitting in. Who knows but what love entails such, or greater, sacrifice? Many stand guilty of inflicting film passion on others less passionate, 8mm an outer edge of trivia's pursuit (and not a practical one --- where will I find a replacement when this lamp burns out?). Best then, to travel solo down that memory lane, annoying no one save GPS readers with relics and rumination arising therefrom.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Where Flubber Had An Ancestor

It Happens Every Spring (1949) Pitches Comedy

This was one of the earlier 20th Fox titles that NBC played on their Saturday Night At The Movies inaugural season (4/7/62 and again 9/8/62). A lot of people caught Spring fever there and called it a favorite of sport comedies. The gimmick was memorable, Ray Milland inventing by chance a baseball that repels wood, this enabling him to strike out would-be batters. Late exposure may disappoint for expectation that Spring be wacky as Flubber farces that Disney made in the early 60's, cribbed shamelessly from this Fox original. Milland is absent-minded as Fred MacMurray would be, his baseball vis-à-vis Fred's basketball/football seasons. Somehow fantasy elements blended well with America's Pastime, if this, Angels In The Outfield, and later Field Of Dreams are indication. College professors in movies are always underpaid, and that gets an airing here as it would in 20th's same year Mother Is A Freshman. Were screenwriters former instructors who quit the chalkboard for movie millions?

Monday, January 18, 2016

20th's Christmas Gift To 1947 Crowds

Captain From Castile (1947) Is Noir With A Sword

Merry Christmas, Cleveland
Fox and I-Tunes earn plaudits for delivering this costs-be-damned blockbuster to High-Def watchers at long last. Castile needs all of aural/visual help it can get, locations (spectacular) and Alfred Newman scoring being best elements. Otherwise, certainly story-wise, it is episodic, sometimes clunky, at two hours and twenty minutes the epic takes to unfold. I haven't read Samuel Shellabarger's source novel, but judging by result here, it may be much the same (can anyone confirm or deny?). I call Castile and two-years-later Prince Of Foxes "noir with swords" for hanging costumes on grim subject matter where double-dealing is rife and no one's to be trusted. Lacking is cheer of Zorro or The Black Swan. Did all genres come out of WWII under such cloud? Less swash than vinegar, Castile makes us pay dear for color, music and spectacle it's best known for.

Tyrone Power's title character is three times arrested and bound up in chains. His twelve-year-old sister is tortured to death by the Inquisition. Second half sees Ty head-shot with an arrow --- painful on-screen surgery follows. Captain From Castile fairly hangs with crepe, and we wonder if this was war-born attitude on part of writer-producing Lamar Trotti, director Henry King, or both. Buffs recall Nightmare Alley as Fox and Power's big depart from dream merchandising, but Captain From Castile is the real downer. Still ... I watch and watch again. There was delay seeing Castile a first time, a single 70's run on Charlotte Channel 9 before the SFM Holiday Network ran it w/considerable trims in the early 80's. 16mm Technicolor prints (so few extant) were Rembrandt equivalent for collectors at the time. On High-Def streaming, Castile looks good as I suppose technology can allow, the prior DVD well in shade beside it.

Fox tied holiday hopes on Captain From Castile for 1947, the tab at finish $4.5 million, spending bested only by Forever Amber (6.3!). There was just no way to get that back, and so Castile, despite being a hit ($5.9 million worldwide), lost over a million. Fox would cinch belts after free-spend year that was '47. We can really see economies imposed with product from 1948, the new order lasting to intro of Cinemascope and hypo, if temporary, supplied by that wide process. Costs ran amok most when on location, Captain From Castile gone south of border to face delay and weather-imposed snafus. Mexican backdrop is a lift, King and crew shooting against clouds as well as expected blue sky. The effect rates high on 40's color charts and presages some of departure John Ford would take from Tech orthodoxy for She Wore A Yellow Ribbon two years later. We expect volcanoes on view to be matte-painted, but they're real, and erupting in the bargain. Henry King had habit of flying his private plane over sites under consideration; he'd see and remember best of landscape from hundreds of square miles observed (King knew Mexico from air vantage long before Captain From Castile). "Filmed Where It Happened" brag was honestly applied here, Mexico location standing in for action set there, plus Spain background of a first half.

Captain From Castile is history, if harsh. The Cortez expedition, joined by Ty Power's title character, was bold grab for loot, and the film makes no amend for ruthless ways gold was got. Castile reflects postwar reality of wised-up patronage and everyone out to serve himself. Clear-drawn black-and-white of hero v. villain goes past shades of gray to rendering a whole cast dark, reason Castile disturbed me at young age where I preferred Zorro world of right being might with evil vanquished. So don't come to Castile for heroes in clean skirts. Power as much as anyone serves selfish end and continues so to the fade. Wounds of foresaid arrow plus Act Three stabbing don't materially change his attitude (Ty laughs when Aztec temples are leveled by raiding Cortez). First apostle of me-first is Caesar Romero in latter role, him stealing Castile second half as ultra-motivated New World despoiler. Today's rigid Code would make Cortez a heavy on no uncertain terms, but in 1947? --- you go, Hernando.

In-house star creation was still achievable, if tougher, after the war. 20th needed names to replace a senior class eased out with transition to the 50's. Tyrone Power felt ground shift as vehicles took modest turn after Castile loss. It would be Gregory Peck henceforth for first chair at Zanuck table (a not dissimilar passing of torch went on at Warners as Burt Lancaster took projects once defaulted to Errol Flynn, and Peck was there too to have intended-for-Flynn Captain Horatio Hornblower). The Fox broom swept women as peremptorily, "new faces" brought on sure as a high school's prom queen was dethroned by next year's pick. Jean Peters had not an ounce of experience, film or stage, but Henry King gave three days to testing her and clinched female lead for the newcomer with his endorsement to DFZ. Such was Zanuck's trust in King that he stamped Peters a go, major career a clinch with Power away. Thus could stars be born with a single and highest-profile production such as Captain From Castile.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Metro Muscles In Another Musical

Athena (1954) Kids Then-Health Crazing

An MGM musical for the second team: producing Joe Pasternak, stars Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Edmund Purdom, Vic Damone. The accent's on youth; these were to be a next generation of musical leads for Metro, and had this been ten years before, maybe that would have worked out, but 1954 was close to the cliff for dollars it cost to do songfests decently, let alone profitably. Athena lost money even for economy the Schary regime enforced: a mere $1.4 million in negative cost that $1.2 million in domestic rentals wouldn't cover. The loss was $458K, not crippling because there were MGM musicals that year that did earn profits, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and The Student Prince being notables. Vic Damone was a noble experiment, being big on TV and shellac sales, but somehow he wouldn't click in movies. Athena's story was at least a departure, Powell and Reynolds eligible daughters of a screwball "health-nut" family, an idea that got serious traction when cultural nets drew in and welcomed such alternate lifestyle. Maybe Athena was twenty years ahead of its time. Musclemen are a backdrop throughout, one of them Steve Reeves of future Hercules assignment. Irksome how differences seemingly irreconcilable are magically put right, or simply ignored, to force a happy ending. I'll make allowance for lots in a musical, but it's tough imagining much future for these characters beyond the fade. Athena is another that plays HD on Warner Instant, looking great and with (real) stereo applied to the music numbers.
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