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Thursday, October 08, 2015

That Super-Man Is In Again

Man At Large (1941) Pits G. Reeves Against Saboteurs

A Fox B celebrated by few fortunates who have seen it, Man At Large shouldn't go missing in our era of plenty. Other and more obscure Fox programmers have turned up via On-Demand DVD, but so far not this one. Man At Large did play television at one time, generously from the late 50's after first reaching airwaves, and into the 60/70's where it joined others of similar genre as part of a "Mystery/Suspense" package offered by TV packager NTA. Man At Large was also fondly recalled by Don Miller in his indispensable B Movies book, the author referring to it as a best of low-budget Hitchcock homages. Man At Large began shooting on a same June 1941 day as John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, the latter tabbed for prestige playdates and eventual Academy recognition, while humble Man At Large made do with support placement befitting its category. But would modern viewership be as eager to watch all-too familiar How Green again? Ford's classic is sold on Blu-Ray, and streams everywhere, but try finding Man At Large ... I couldn't locate modern appraisals even at IMDB.

The story is typical of actioners leading up to WWII; an escaped Nazi airman, not unlike ones in two-years-later Northern Pursuit, spearheading would-be conquest as our G-Men give chase. Much of fun is in the pace, a rapid 70 minutes that seems less, and with engaging cast top-lined by young George Reeves, doing work here to make us regret his missing brass ring of feature stardom. But then if he had clicked, we'd have no definitive Superman. You'd not beat Man At Large for timing in any case, its arrival keyed to war clouds darkening (released September 1941), and plenty of subsequent play after Germany became our declared enemy. We can never know sock like Man At Large delivered in first-run, then-emotions set on hot with more and more ticket-buyers in uniform, or headed to enlist. Silly though Man At Large may seem today, it was call to arms and reassurance for millions in anxiety over a conflict which outcome was anything but certain. Fox was among most sure-footed at making programmers look lush, thanks to sharp-as-pin camerawork, re-use of standing sets from A's, and trim of fat from narrative always on the go. Man At Large is a rarity that should go back in circulation.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Will We Leave Bud and Lou Behind?

Hold That Ghost (1941) Spooks On Several Levels

Ingredients for a good start: Bumbling wait-staff Bud and Lou disrupt a posh nightclub (where Ted Lewis and The Andrews Sisters perform). Check. Then make shambles at a filling station, done outdoors and sunny. Check. Fleeing from cops in gangland company, they become legatees of the crime chief. Done, and out. From here (fifteen or so minutes in), they and we are confined at a roadhouse gone to ruin where nary a ghost dwells, so why the title? Long mid-section proceeds of Scared Lou and Slapping Bud (that last a most bothersome aspect of this team), and shouting enough to make us want out of Uni's bleak house. Still, Hold That Ghost is adjudged one of A&C's best (***, says Maltin Reviews) largely by those who sat wide-eyed through 60/70's NY and NJ television repeats where I understand these things played non-stop (from other large TV markets too, a typical A&C having ten runs for every one NC got). So it's tube-sat sentiment that drives Bud-Lou love, but what happens when that generation is gone? It's tough enough to keep Laurel-Hardy and Marx Bros. flags flying. How do we defend stuff that dates so loudly as Hold That Ghost?

Writer/Gag-Man John Grant Gives Bud "Slap Lou" Instruction 

It's still treading on a lot of feet (though less with each passing year) to knock A&C, and I wouldn't care to do that in any case. It may, after all, be disturbing aspects that engage us most. First, the Bud as bully aspect. He slaps Lou, then dares him to strike back. Yes, Lou could be a chore, whether dropping dishes or tilting endlessly with lobsters in the soup bowl, but did he have abuse like this coming? Today's much-increased sensitivity to bullying makes the Abbott/Costello dynamic all the harder a sell, especially to youngsters told constantly: Don't hit! Bud's doling of punishment to Lou always kept me at arms-length from the team, a monkey on the back of comedy I otherwise liked.

What does appeal for me about Bud/Lou was fact they made most of their comedies for Universal. There's a home feel to U that other majors lack, a humbler address and more inviting for it. I warmed to Hold That Ghost via credits where an animated spook chases cartoony A&C back/forth among names familiar from horror pix beloved by as diminishing a lot as revere the boys. Do Abbott and Costello have a same expiration date as the monsters? Turn clocks twenty years forward for a moment: Dracula and Frankenstein will still be watched,  but Night Monster and The Mad Ghoul? Those may be part of a same retreating wave as Hold That Ghost, but wait, I'll hopefully still be here, so there should be at least a few of us to sign 2035 petition for all of A&C on Blu-Ray.

I like Abbott and Costello best in a crowd, not necessarily of viewers, but of support cast and funny folk like Shemp Howard or Mischa Auer as foils. The club beginning, and finish, is a most pleasurable part of Hold That Ghost. It brings 40's flavor to the fore, puts music of the day at center stage (Ted Lewis already a retro act by 1941, but the Andrews Sisters fresh as daisies and ongoing good luck charms for A&C). Swing tuning was very much a third partner to Abbott and Costello as they started out for Universal, candy served out of jukeboxes that led consumers from malt shop dance floors to theatre boxoffices. Uni was hip-deep in band shorts to accompany features it sold. These were popular then if forgotten now, thanks to fact we can't see any for latter-day U not making them available. Backdrop of boogie-woogie put A&C at forefront of Hit Parades, their comedy seeming more up-to-minute thanks to tunes charting alongside them.

Bud/Lou as sorry waiters with bent for dice and chorines was the set-up I'd have built Hold That Ghost around, instead of packing them off to a creep house not half so lush as what Bob Hope visited in year before's The Ghost Breakers. We're ones on Hold for a long hour of Lou in fright-react to cupboard door opens or anyone entering a dark room. In could-be recognition that a little of that goes too far a way, there is Joan Davis to screech and fall down like Lou, an act she honed for Fox musicals before. In fact, this loose-limbed comedienne gives Costello a better partner's bargain than Abbott, a mid-way dance they do making me wonder if handlers ever considered a Costello-Davis teaming should the A&C combo crash (an ax hung over the duo thanks to frequent fall-outs). Lou and Joan do a since-celebrated, and oft-reprised by A&C, skit called "The Moving Candle," where Lou sees ghostly shift that she can't. It's a stretched-out gag, most effective, I'd figure, with a full and laughing house, but what works, alone or in a crowd, is Davis as effective partner to Costello. (Here's a query: Has anyone lately shown Hold That Ghost to an audience? How did "The Moving Candle" go over ... did they laugh?)

We wonder, but can never truly know, just what it was about Abbott and Costello (or any then-popular comics) that brought crowded houses down. Well, part answer is crowding itself, and in 1941-42 there were enormous ones as movies approached a peak of attendance. And Abbott and Costello were a brashest novelty among fun-makers. They gave to movies a knowing wink of burlesque, always seeming just this side of a bawdy joke. Too many think of the team as For Kids Only, but I suspect it was grown-ups that laughed loudest when A&C were in prime. I enjoyed Hold That Ghost the more so for seeing it on High-Definition, happy bonus of TCM's Abbott-Costello night a few weeks back when Ghost and In The Navy made HD debut on the channel. Estimation of oldies do an uptick when sharpness and contrast leap as here. We get long-concealed hint of how these comedies clicked when new, for like all of Classic Era Hollywood, Hold That Ghost gleams thanks to polish routinely applied by studios. Cameraman Elwood ("Woody") Bredell, him of Uni horrors and noirs before and aft, was a technician whose work can deliver with sound up or down. It's Bredell touch that makes over-stay in the Ghost house tolerable, a big visual gain on 16mm prints and analog-ish transfers where bland grays stood in for rich-intended black and white. All of Abbott and Costello at Universal gets enhance as titles trickle out in 1080. Will this raise modern-day rating for the team?

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Scratching More Big Town Underbelly

Brakes Are Off for Chicago Confidential (1957)

"Confidential" had become a heat-seeking word by 1957. The same-name magazine was daily in news pages, and court documents. Movie stars had begun pushing back its scurrilous gossip, most recently Maureen O' Hara after a particularly nasty story. Confidential also implied fruit of vice and crime, the hush-hush underbelly a mainstream press shied from. Corrupt unions were hot as well, there being AFL-CIO hearings in progress as Chicago Confidential awaited release. That was mere coincidence, said producer Robert E. Kent, whose Peerless company supplied CC and five other exploitation titles for UA release. Two million was figured to cover the sextet, modest means for pix with modest expectation. Trashy themes were a cinch for double bills, but outside of union wrangling as focal point, Chicago Confidential was same old palaver done to death since Warners issued tommy-guns twenty-five years before. Kent had wanted Richard Boone to topline, took Brian Keith instead. There was otherwise a hatful of familiar faces: Beverly Garland, Dick Foran, Elisha Cook, Jr. Pace is sped by directing Sidney Salkow, back/forth between features and TV and maybe unaware (or unconcerned) as to which was which. Chicago Confidential had a boff Labor Day weekend in the Windy City, but fell off in its second frame. "An uneven performer," said summarizing Variety as elsewhere biz also failed to keep pace. Chicago Confidential begins like mild mix, until you're ten minutes in and hooked, the case for me when MGM/HD played a full-frame (should have been 1.85) transfer.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Too Fragile For AIP?

Night Tide (1963) A Sleeper Finally Awake on Blu-Ray

A fascinating little art movie that nibbled around edges of American-International's exploitation schedule in 1963, Night Tide was among "Filmgroup" product overseen by Roger Corman, the indie outfit his thumb-of-nose at Jim and Sam's dominance of the cheap-thrill market. Spring 1963 promised a Filmgroup slate to include Battle Beyond The Sun, Dementia 13, and The Terror, each of horror/sci-fi backdrop, or at least to be sold that way by distributing AIP, a strong arm Corman needed for efficient delivery of output to theatres (Nicholson/Arkoff by '63 had exchanges in most keys with strategically placed sales staff headed by Milton Moritz). Presence throughout the marketplace put pressure on AIP to keep pipelines full, but there was only so much Jim/Sam could produce in-house, thus deals with Corman and other lone wolves to supply product for distribution.

Corman was known for an open mind toward challenging content. He'd begun with flesh-and-spurs or bug-eye monsters, but stayed hopeful that he'd rise to acclaim of Euro arties making inroad by the early 60's. Night Tide, written and directed by Curtis Harrington, had dreamy vibe of imports, and but for English dialogue spoke, could almost go out as foreign. Trouble was claw-hammer selling that would lump it with genre co-features and mislead customers who paid for spacemen, goose-bumps, or both. Season hope was hung on The Raven, another Poe adapt that came in like a lion for early '63 dates, prompting Nicholson pledge to "father the orphan season" of February through May with four releases that would include Night Tide. This announcement came 2/4, Night Tide ashore but weeks later in Detroit as second feature to Battle Beyond The Sun, a cut-rate ride to orbit. "$7,000 or near" was adjudged "fair" (Variety) for a single frame the combo lasted at the Adams Theatre, though following week adjustment brought the figure down to $6,000. An oldie pair that followed, The Rack and Africa Ablaze (formerly Something Of Value), did better by a thousand.

From this point, Night Tide was judged largely by company it kept. A March pairing with The Raven did "nice" in Boston, but back-seating Battle Beyond The Sun in Frisco saw a "bare" $3,800 in receipts. Part of trouble was trade labeling of Night Tide as sci-fi, which it was not, plus problem of critics so far overlooking a film that needed ballast from opinion-makers. Closest support of that sort came from Sydney, Australia, its annual festival for "bluebloods" including Night Tide among guest-pics from other countries. Submit to the San Francisco Festival for November 1963, however, dealt a cruel blow, Night Tide rejected by the selection committee, despite a final slate to reach "plateau of dullness," according to Variety. Opening night selection may have put the hex on ones to follow: Columbia's taxing war epic, The Victors, directed by Carl Foreman.

Night's tide might have turned if art housing had embraced it in 1963, or after, when Curtis Harrington got notice for studio films he directed. Like a lot of second features, Night Tide would end up more walked out on than sat through, action audiences put off because it wasn't the thriller they bargained for. Posters should have alerted them, AIP at least honest enough to tender the show as "Eerie, Strange" (which it was), and "Macabre" (an argument could even be made as to that), but teaming Night Tide with Battle Beyond The Sun was a cinch to let down kids whose coin bought most admissions. A sort-of cult developed in wake of AIP's 9-64 packaging of Night Tide for TV syndication, late nights a right format for unique appeal it had. Now there is happily a Blu-Ray from Kino, licensed by writer/historian David (The Dawn Of Technicolor) Pierce, and mastered from the camera negative in correct widescreen ratio. At long last, Night Tide, always in the Public Domain (Filmgroup features were never registered), can be seen to best advantage on Blu-ray.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

It's Music, But Is It Sweet?

Rudy Vallee Brings His Sweet Music (1935) Baton To WB

Ann Dvorak had P.O.'ed Warners and this might have been her punishment: co-starring with Rudy Vallee. There's nothing specifically wrong with Rudy (well, perhaps there is). I've pondered why he didn't click  like Crosby, having come to conclusion it's the eyes; they droop, you see, and won't fully commit. We never feel he's looking at us, or co-stars. Vallee seemed always disconnected, as if things more interesting awaited him elsewhere once a movie was done. That might well have been the case, RV known offscreen as a busy rouĂ© with numerous irons in fire (including Dvorak). Vallee would, of course, come into his own as a character comedian by the 40's, a new line to which he applied much skill. A best reason to watch Sweet Music may in fact be Dvorak, performing song/dance that was as strong a suit for her as dramatic art via precodes of short time earlier. Tunes on tap, sweet or otherwise, aren't notable, but Sweet Music was no toss-off, being but step below Busby Berkeley specials. Second teams at WB could pull weight with a Sweet Music, Cain and Mabel ... others for which Buzz couldn't make time. Bonuses here include vaude legend Al Shean, torch songstress Helen Morgan, sourpuss Ned Sparks ... faces caricatured in Warner cartoons that played with Sweet Music in first-run. Shown on TCM --- should spring from Warner Archive in due time.

Monday, September 21, 2015

New and Old Audiences Turn Out For A Beloved Duo

The Bullfighters (1945) Is Laurel-Hardy's US Feature Windup

Chicago Open Serves Atom Bomb w/L&H
I'd say the Laurel and Hardy features for 20th Fox are pretty well rehabilitated by now, decades (near five) having passed since William K. Everson put Indian sign on the group in his Films Of L&H book. Everson's was further push of voodoo pins Laurel himself applied whenever topic arose with biographer John McCabe, or in correspondence w/fans to the end of SL's life (2/65). You wonder if he caught portions on TV, or if memory alone kept flames lit. What Stan may have forgot was store of good will had for the team by 40's audiences, all of whom had seen L&H from either silent beginnings or in full-lengths since the mid-30's. Earlier comedies for Roach were back as well during the war to represent the boys at prime. In fact, a then-public was grateful to have Laurel and Hardy at whatever strength, that confirmed by non-stop profit from all eight of features done between 1941 and US finish that was The Bullfighters.

L&H Sit For Fox Portrait Camera
Success was helped by booking efficiencies of Fox and MGM, the team's wartime employers that put product on screens whatever its merit. Virtually nothing majors released during WWII lost money, so ingrained was moviegoing habit at the time. However little critic support they got for it, Laurel and Hardy kept slapstick's flag flying. Outside of cartoons, or two-reelers still done by Columbia and RKO, the field seemed theirs. Sight-gagging L&H amounted to a nostalgia act, thus wider-aged patronage within their net. Abbott and Costello were fresher, at least seemed funnier at the time, but customers hadn't grown up with them. Laurel and Hardy's bank of comfort and sentiment was accrued since childhood of their public, evidence of which was not just response to the films, but clear lead the team enjoyed over peers on the Hollywood Victory Caravan, a cross-country and star-laden tour to sell defense bonds. Many would recall Stan/Babe as a public's first choice at all stops.

What the Fox six (and Metro two) demonstrated was L&H ability to pull weight where vehicle costs were kept low. That meant B's, natch, but since when was it necessary to spend high on this duo's output? A big problem for the Marx Bros. had been cost for film work from virtual beginning. Many of theirs took loss not because the team was disliked, but for failure to get back cash poured into negatives. The Marxes came with a high tag, more so than Laurel and Hardy (the Brothers had demanded, and got, a % of Paramount returns). Had they been willing to stay in movies, but on B terms, the Marxes might have kept on, if modestly, just as did L&H. A ready audience was certainly there when the Bros. offered A Night In Casablanca in 1946.

Question is, how would things have gone for Laurel and Hardy had they accepted Fox's offer to continue the series? The team might well have had more creative authority. Scott MacGillivray's Laurel and Hardy: From The Forties Forward says Stan directed scenes in the last couple for 20th, and both made gag suggestions that were implemented. The Big Noise and The Bullfighters are glossaries of L&H humor going back to start of their teaming. Most of borrows are from silent shorts, all out of circulation by the mid-40's. I like The Bullfighters, viewed again this week, because it doesn't try to update Laurel and Hardy (like favorite songs, few wanted them to change). The pair wouldn't peak again, but no shame came of these last in the US, which were well-received then, and gave satisfaction later on TV and rental. I trust Fox got profit from sales of their six on DVD. I'm told a few turned up on Blu-Ray from Europe, but have not seen samples. The Big Noise is probably the best-looking of transfers. Others could use work, especially The Dancing Masters, which was taken off 16mm for the DVD. Jitterbugs ran at Cinecon this year in a new 35mm print, which I'm told was stunning, so maybe it will stream in HD, or see domestic Blu-Ray release, provided there's enough L&H interest left to enable that.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Enough Of Sleuthing Couples?

Murder and Mirth Again with There's Always A Woman (1938)

Too much madcap! Metro's Thin Man formula co-opted by Columbia, Joan Blondell and Melvyn Douglas as husband-wife sleuths. Blondell generally does no wrong in GPS quarters, so to find her grating as here puts salt in wound applied by too-cute dialogue and situations. Such a knowing persona as JB's, demonstrated over and again at precode Warners, is woeful miscast when harebrained, let alone as constant handicap toward solving a pair of deaths. This is once when comedy drowns out mystery to detriment of both,  proof of just how delicate the Thin Man formula was, at least to extent of duplicating it. Melvyn Douglas was always a better actor than personality, sense being that he pinch-hit when a Gable or William Powell couldn't be had. Scrappy stuff between him and Blondell nears a border I'd call abuse, and what's more painful than a drunk scene that refuses to end? For Blondell's part, there'd been move away from Warner exclusivity; they'd been shunting her to B's, maybe in recognition that this daughter of the Depression had spent her bolt. Was Joan trying too hard to compensate here? There's Always A Woman is well made if not sumptuous, and there are welcome faces in the suspect line: Mary Astor, Frances Drake, Jerome Cowan ... Astor might have wondered why two-years-earlier Dodsworth hadn't done her more good. A series with the Blondell/Douglas characters was planned, one more in fact made, but with Virginia Bruce subbing for Blondell. There's Always A Woman took $505K in domestic rentals, not shabby, but nowhere near what Thin Man sequels routinely earned. Shown on TCM --- also available from Sony/Columbia DVD.
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