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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.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Once More --- What's a Ymir??

It's a Cleveland-Shattering Double-Thrill Bill for 1957!

Twenty or Five or Miles or Years --- Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

Ray Harryhausen free of the yoke that was producer Sam Katzman, this a leap-up from the last two Columbia sci-fi's revolved around stop-motion to be rechristened "Dynamation." The Venus-bred monster is Kong-like but in no way cuddly; there's generous helping of him, with footage in between the usual wait for more off Ray's table-top. Set in Italy, so no skyscrapers topple, but it's maybe as good watching coliseums give way under ever increased weight of the so-called "Ymir" (but who called him that? I didn't hear anyone in the movie use the name). It was real tribute to Harryhausen that Hollywood built narratives around promise of his puppets; without them these shows would be nothing. What grabbed me this time was the Ymir hoist-up of stop-motion people, RH animating them in the monster's grip. Violence is kept to a minimum by Harryhausen, it understood that kids and teens were his majority public. Note was taken and applied to a next, The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, latter tailored specifically for youth and thereby collecting best-ever rentals for Columbia. Re-branding of RH creations enabled a fresh cycle of fantasies that sustained right into the eighties, a remarkable run that brought several generations of FX-followers into Ray's net. Added disclosure: Since 1968, I've confused this title with Hammer's Five Million Years To Earth (have others?). Just had to again confirm both to prevent Twenty displaced by Five, or Miles corrupted to Years ... and/or vice versa.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Jack Benny Looking For A Screen Persona

The Rounder (1930) A Single-Reel Curio

Jack Benny, dapper in straw boater, is the title figure attempting drunken entry into upstairs window of a residence not his own. That means ladders, a curious cop, and business not played to Jack's strength, which in 1930 was not so clear as radio would establish a few years later. Jack had scored in vaudeville, played the Palace, but was slower to conquer movies. His emceeing of The Hollywood Revue Of 1929 wasn't noteworthy, and a surrounding cast in The Rounder seemed more congenial to film work. His character is described by Dorothy Sebastian as a man who "laughs and drinks and scoffs at life," but dissolute didn't become the Benny we'd come to love. Neither he nor Sebastian are quick on verbal uptake, but that may have been uncertainty re talking technology new to both. She'd been girl support to Keaton and part of flapper retinue at MGM, candles burnt at both ends offscreen, but only one wick lit when onscreen,  partnering with Sebastian leaving comics with most of a load to carry. Briefer-in George K. Arthur had been half of a sock team with Karl Dane, but they were for most part done by 1930, and he'd tumble down billing from there. Appearing even less was Polly Moran, on verge of success with Marie Dressler, giving The Rounder halves of Metro comedy teams both going out and coming in. The short is DVD-available on Warner Archive's Classic Shorts From The Dream Factory, Volume Two.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Warner's Last In A Library?

Book Revue (1946) Is Tour Through Mid-40's Pop Culture

Apparently the end of the line for cartoons where book covers come to life and a whole of then-popular culture gets a roasting. Book Revue was among last that Bob Clampett directed for Warners. What a shame he left, and a year before Book Revue came out, release often a wide lag from actual production. Did some of topical gags outdate within that gap? Clampett and others at WB were drunk on what came over radios and off advertising pages (wasn't everyone at the time?). Pillage of Lucky Strike's pitch for its cigarette was constant in cartoons: So round, so firm, so fully packed, so free and easy on the draw. Generations grew up knowing the phrase, but ignorant of what it once sold. As incorporated to comedy, it was a mainstay, and continued long past Book Revue. Humphrey Bogart got laughs via recitation of it when he guested on Jack Benny's 10/25/53 TV program, not coincidentally sponsored by Lucky Strike.

Book Revue also uses Daffy Duck more or less as Danny Kaye, the latter's then-popularity great enough to subvert the cartoon duck's established personality and make Daffy the mere mimic of a white-hot comedic novelty. Was Frank Sinatra as rail thin and emaciated panic-inducer among femmes getting tired? The routine had been basis for much of WB's Swooner Crooner in 1944, Sinatra in again that year with Stage Door Cartoon, and recurring as slender enough to be sucked through a straw for 1947's Slick Hare. Book Revue may be the most barbed of Sinatra impressions, Frankie's pallor sickly as he's pushed about by a male nurse. Manic animating as in Book Revue wouldn't outlast Bob Clampett at Warners, cartoons like his not dared by directors remaining on the job. All the more reason to hold Clampett's stuff dear. Book Revue used to be hotly sought by 16mm collectors, the first title they'd ask for when a WB package jumped off back of a film truck.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hammer Trading Monsters For Suspense

Hysteria (1965) Puts Another Amnesiac In Harm's Way

MGM-Elstree was a buzzing hive in 1964 when partnered with Hammer for Hysteria, another (and last) of B/W thrillers done by the horror specialists to feed off success of Psycho. Jimmy Sangster had written most of that group; now he would produce as well. This was likeliest a subcontract between Metro and Hammer, as Hysteria has belonged to the former since '65 release and is currently available from Warner Archive. MGM needed product to distribute and hired Hammer to supply it. There's little about Hysteria to identify it as a Hammer film. The company was transitioning out of Bray House and losing some of its distinctive identity in any case. To shoot at Elstree and London locations made Hammer product indistinguishable from others of similar type. Bob Lippert could have sent a lead man like Hysteria's Robert Webber over and gotten as much result, as he had for chillers Witchcraft (Lon Chaney) and The Earth Dies Screaming (Willard Parker). Webber was functional if not charismatic; he's an amnesiac who might have killed during blackouts. There are bloody knives and a shower murder, these having more practical use in trailers and publicity for Hysteria than in the narrative itself. Sangster said later that he'd gotten tired of this stuff, and director Freddie Francis confessed it was a miserable six-week shoot (Webber's misbehavior, among other things). Wayne Kinsley tells the story with fascinating detail in his Hammer history book. There's no hint of mod or swinging London among drab backgrounds captured here. Even Webber's penthouse flat has lingering air of postwar austerity. Variety said Hysteria should please "at the bottom of a double bill," where it sat mostly behind Signpost To Murder, another Metro suspenser, or Hammer's She remake, also MGM handled in the US.

Monday, February 16, 2015

How You Can Blow 86 Minutes Like I Did

South Of Suez (1940) Is Warners Jungle Rot

Knew I was in trouble for passing much of this Warners programmer wondering if a pet monkey was the same one Errol Flynn had in The Sea Hawk. "Programmer" may be inapt to describe a sprawling, yet strict-B rummage off sets from The Letter and situations echoing Bordertown and same year as SoS, They Drive By Night, which itself lifted Bordertown bumps. Stories at WB were like bolts of cloth used over/again till worn to thread. Second-tier folk at least got leads and colorful character work; here it's George Tobias as a straight heavy with Lee Patrick going all Lupino-Davis at a shrieking finish, which must have been fun for her. Leading man is George Brent, good for utility when Cagney or (later) Bogart couldn't be bothered. Did Brent ever object to tepid scripts --- or just take what was handed him? I'd guess the latter, as what force could he apply to argument with WB front office? Brenda Marshall is the woman interest; I've begun to notice an always unhappy expression, even when Brenda smiles. Did Bill Holden notice this at home? South Of Suez is overlong, by fifteen or so minutes, for its slight content. Another where everything has to be resolved in a drawn-out trial sequence, point at which I confess to fast-forwarding. Q: Why do I continue to watch these? A: Because I enjoy the world through Warner prism. Seen on TCM.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Best Noir in Smallest Package

Armored Car Robbery Joins a Crowded 1950 Bill

Charles McGraw Cracks an Armored Car Robbery (1950)

Oh, what a honey of a noir! To think masterworks like this were taken so utterly for granted. RKO made it for just $203K, but still Armored Car got robbed to loss of $40,000 (only $195K in domestic rentals and $100K foreign). Weren't there critics and trade to tell everyone how nifty these 67 minutes were? Cop shows would surface on TV, making it tougher for modest features to graze. Now pics like this are revered, and rightly, Warner Instant streaming Armored Car Robbery lately in HD. Nice when a title gives you the pic's whole score, robbing fuse lit in an opener reel and chase being on from there. Charles McGraw is happily not among miscreants, him the seasoned dick beset with an immature partner. McGraw is my idea of star presence, gravel spit with every line. Heavies are the customary loser lot but for William Talman, who cuts tags out of wardrobe to avoid "loose ends." Who wrote such marvelous stuff? Credits say Earl Fenton had a hand, applied as well to RKO classics His Kind Of Woman, The Narrow Margin, more. Did this man (who died in 1972) realize how good he was? If not, the Academy should have told him. Directing was Richard Fleischer, Armored Car Robbery a calling card when he was mentioned for afterward jobs. Did Disney catch the Armored Car before offering Fleischer 20,000 Leagues in 1953? Unsure how many times I've watched this, an always joy, and evergreen forever.
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