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Monday, November 24, 2014

Fox Wants a Pre-Sold Western

Free-Lancing Gable Does The Tall Men (1955) For 20th

Clark Gable gone to 20th Fox from years at Metro, with new employers doing him a better turn in terms of pay (% participation), plus lavish showcasing. Darryl Zanuck had bought the source novel with reservations, calling it "a very third-rate book from the standpoint of publication and sales." Still, there was epic potential, DFZ aware that The Tall Men would be "a colossal undertaking ... it cannot be touched for less than $3,5000,000 and be done the way it should be done, particularly with an all-star cast." The studio chief had been considering a remake of The Iron Horse, an outstanding Fox success from the silent era, and wondered, "Would it be possible to combine these two properties and utilize the famous classic title, The Iron Horse?" Weakness inherent in The Tall Men's novel source might be tempered by the older film's residual prestige: "As you can see, I am trying in some way to tie this story up with a pre-sold title or something that will give it distinction."

What The Tall Men finally morphed to was variant on Red River, Gable a less cantankerous trail boss than John Wayne in the earlier Hawks western. There was, in fact, another Hawks behind cameras, Howard's brother William serving as co-producer (he had brought the property to Zanuck's attention), while direction was ideally vested in Raoul Walsh, duplicating some of effects achieved in years earlier The Big Trail, to wit Indian raids and wagons being lowered down cliff faces. Zanuck might have tendered a Big Trail remake if not for historic loss posted by that 1930 western, which he (and Fox bookkeepers) would have regarded as anything but a "famous classic" or "pre-sold" title. Critics expressed relief at having Gable back in parts worthy of him, Metro having served weak tea in final years of the King's contract (other than notable exception Mogambo). His persona had long since achieved mythic status. Script conference notes from 7/29/54 refer to the Jane Russell character, "Nella," preferring "Ben" (CG), "because he is a man like Clark Gable."

The Tall Men needs watching on widest screens, Blu-ray preferable (from Region 2 in that format), as the story clunks a bit now and then. Do we really care if Gable and Jane Russell settle their romantic differences in the face of larger, landscape-wide issues? Thousands of cow heads in evidence, the largest herd ever rounded up for a film, it was said, and Fox dropped $3.1 million on the negative, a figure somewhat lower than Zanuck had forecast. Ad art played games with Jane Russell's embedded image, "They Don't Come Any Bigger!" a tagline set below her in full-length pose. Of course they were referring to The Tall Men, in case anyone asked ... or objected. If the picture had come out better, Fox might have tried roadshowing The Tall Men. As it was, there came $6.5 from worldwide rentals, that not enough to put the show in profit (part of reason was  large grosses chunk due Gable), but later sale to NBC for two network runs, 10/19/63 and 9/26/64, plus syndication booty, turned red ink to black. The Region Two Blu-Ray is outstanding, and highly recommended.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Another 30's Service Hitch

Scott and Bellamy Dueling For Dee in Coast Guard (1939)

1939 may have the greatest year for movies by some reckoning, but they sure didn't figure Coast Guard into calculations. Still, it was humble B's like this that propped stuff we now call classic, and one could surely not do without the other. CG rehashes service yarns back to Capra and Flight, Dirigible, etc., only minus bigness of these. Ralph Bellamy is Jack Holt's substitute, a credit to the uniform, but hopeless in ways of love, thus Frances Dee collapsing into arms of wolf patrolling Randolph Scott, beginning, middle, and end reliably charted from there. We're no more sophisticated at divining such formula than 30's attendance, much less so, I'd suspect, but it was easy familiarity of these that made programmers welcome on dual-bills --- after all, didn't popcorn taste always the same? Action highlights were where most effort was applied, in this case wrecks and rescues at sea utilizing model work that belied budget limitation of the rest. We're there for the "mission" and never mind who gets the girl, that being foregone conclusion to experienced moviegoers in any case. Columbia saluted each branch of US military, repeatedly through the 30's, as would all majors and what independents could afford uniforms, message implicit that we're ready for whatever comes.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Civil War Battlefields With Sound

Griffith Takes Up Talk with Abraham Lincoln (1930)

D.W. Griffith effort at talkie comeback has gotten razz from critic/historians since time it was new, but rehab comes with Blu-Ray access and wherewithal to see/hear the thing properly. It's a 96 minute stride through key moments of a known-well life, vignettes done brief so as not to dawdle over familiar ground. This is vivid instance where quality makes all the difference. I sat through UHF-PD squalor in the 70's when that was all you got of Lincoln and assumed from there it was largely a dud --- well, what wouldn't be, given that sort of squint down a coke bottle? DWG compositions are the usual great and he moves his camera besides, Abraham Lincoln even or well ahead of talkies done in that uncertain year. Abe took $576K in domestic rentals against $720K spent on the negative (don't know foreign, but it likely wasn't great for this Americana subject). Was 1930 patronage cool to US history topics? The Big Trail came out a same year to similar fate. I wonder if the Birth Of A Nation sound reissue (also '30) might actually have done better. Walter Huston looks and walks the Lincoln part; we could speculate too on what or how many details of his performance were shaped by Griffith. What a difference it might have made had this been a hit. Would there have been a new cycle of DWG epics? ... remakes of his silent classics, but now with talk? Awkward scenes in Abraham Lincoln are outnumbered by many that play splendid. I'm hopeful the pic will win new laurels now that HD has rode to Griffith's rescue.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Tracking Another Cartoon Obscurity

What Looks Like a Tire with Hubcap in The Water Is Actually
Early Go at a Raindrop By Effects Innovator Cy Young

Jingles (1931-2) Offers Early Color and Animated Effects

Another cartoon lost, then found. This one's so obscure, there's even debate as to its title. So why bother? Well, reason one might be Walt Disney's close inspect of this early 30's animated reel meant to boost the "Brewstercolor" process, limited to two essential hues and effort to simulate others (Disney kept an eagle eye on other people's cartoons). But color wasn't what intrigued Walt about Jingles, or Mendelssohn's Spring Song, as it would become better known. What he went for was effects work with raindrops, blooming flowers, other captures of nature by Cy Young, a Chinese artist said to have pioneered cartoons in his native country before emigrating to the US. Young gave life to inanimate objects and made flora, fauna breathe in ways Disney liked and wanted to co-op for his own Silly Symphony group. He'd hire Young on basis of Jingles and put him to effects work on shorts, then ambitious features Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia ... wherever fires licked or floods came, you could be assured Cy Young was back of the magic.

I read of Young's productive, and ultimately tragic, life/career in an outstanding chapter of  just-published Walt's People: Volume 15, another from editor Didier Ghez's sterling series made up of interviews with past Disney staff. Steven Hartley wrote the piece, a beautiful job of research and insight (he has a webpage as well, devoted to WB cartoons). Here is where I learned of Jingles, and was guided yet again to newest of Thunderbean's treasure groups, Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, where the short is part of a Blu-Ray line-up. It's a color print, the lone survivor as rescued by historian Steve Stanchfield from a private collection. Like previously covered Goofy Goat by Ted Eshbaugh, Jingles floated for years as black-and-white only, one of those cartoon oddities no one could quite figure origin of. The only theatre playdate I found was May 1932 at Manhattan's Little Carnegie Playhouse. Otherwise, it seemed a goner other than 16mm monochrome for later TV or sale as home movies. Jingles' inclusion on Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares is another reason to relish this Blu-Ray collection of rarities, and opportunity to glimpse a Disney artist at career beginning.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Long Runs and Word-Of-Mouth = A 1950 Hit

The Third Man Makes Beautiful (Zither) Music --- Part Two

Canada Playdates Are Many and Fruitful
There was a very public dust-up between Selznick and producing partner Alex Korda prior to Third Man release. Seems Alex now had second thoughts about US share he relinquished in earlier talks, and so sued to get in on grosses earned stateside. He'd even use The Third Man prints and negative as leverage, denying Selznick these as opener dates loomed. This annoyed DOS the more as he knew Korda for a slick operator and saw himself as badly used by the Brit mogul. Between court decision on some issues and settlement of others, the matter got resolved with The Third Man at last set in stone for 2/1/50 preem at the Victoria Theatre on Broadway. That date had been juggled over a past several months, in part due to the Korda flap, but also because Selznick wanted to time The Third Man release with breakout of underlying zither music he and a merchandising team knew would catch fire among Yank listeners. The till-then obscure instrument had already lit up Euro markets, Variety reporting in 11/49 "a rush on music schools in Vienna by Austrians who wanted to learn how to play the zither." Austrian zither manufacturers were meanwhile swamped with orders from abroad, the fad having canvassed much of Europe before Americans had first glimpse of The Third Man.

Selznick wanted his thriller, and its thrilling sounds, to play several weeks at pre-release engagements before turning the zither loose on radio and disc listeners. Rollout of movie, then music, would be coordinated like D-Day of linked selling. First was Victoria's open on 2/1/50, then Feb.8 for Miami and Chicago, followed by Feb.21 at Los Angeles' Fine Arts Theatre. Through the month of February, audiences would hear those wild, and some said very sexy, zither themes in theatres only. By March 1 and first "public performances" (airwaves, records, night clubs), the zither would be all a rage and send both first-time and repeat business to The Third Man. So how did timing work? Like a charm, said trades. New York and Chicago did a "spurt," said Variety, with ticket sales steeple-jumping after month-long play, a seldom known event as pics usually tailed off after initial weeks. The zither was shaping up as engine that would drive The Third Man into spring months and wider release, 400 to 600 dates skedded for April 9 and after. "The Third Man Theme, the principal tune, will be hitting its peak of popularity in April," said Variety, "just at the time the film is going into general release." By then, there would be seventeen different recordings of the theme music in stores and over the air.

Later 50's Thrillers Trade on Third Man Rep
But recording companies were balking. They'd grown impatient over Selznick dithering on a release date for The Third Man. "Film Tunes Not Worth the Coin Or Grief," said "diskers" to Variety, constant delays and schedule-shifting "an abuse of their facilities." Besides chaotic calendars, "the recent ratio of film-born hits is low and doesn't near compensate for the trouble they cause in many cases." 20th Fox had lately done a reverse on plans and demanded record distribs to get out discs for Wabash Avenue post haste, another instance where aggrieved music merchants felt juice wasn't worth (tight) squeeze. The Third Man Theme was something else, however, a for-real knockout that would take off in even greater earnest when original zither man Anton Karas made US landfall and got cafe, television, and radio dates courtesy hard-driving MCA agents in charge of his time. Karas, who'd been earning $15 per week at an Austrian bistro before director Carol Reed discovered him, became as inseparable from The Third Man and its zither as Chubby Checker would later be with the Twist. He'd spend rest of a long life dining out, and entertaining diners, with music, and an instrument, he'd immortalize.

The Third Man Becomes Available to TV Viewers in 1957

20th Fox Announces a 1956 Reissue
There were further flaps arising out of The Third Man. Largely laughed off were Communist complaints that Vienna had been defamed by onscreen depiction as "a hell of crime and corruption." Calling The Third Man "a dramatically weak gangster film ... without ethics or morals," the Red press merely goosed already lengthy lines in Vienna, patrons eager to see what fuss was about. More serious, and damaging to receipts, was Orson Welles' outburst to a French interviewer wherein he told of a German nightclub in which "the orchestra played Nazi songs and the audience stood up to give the Nazi salute." Welles claimed that he "knocked out the tooth of a German who slapped a woman when she protested the music" (Variety). Thus began the expected firestorm, and boycott of films in which Welles appeared: Prince Of Foxes, Macbeth, and of course, The Third Man. There were demonstrations that "mushroomed" in theatres, as public pressure saw cancellation of Welles pix. One German exhibitor's association went on record as being "against Orson Welles," and 20th Fox's Deutsch rep had to release a statement assuring that his company had "no contract" with the actor/director. The Third Man had played off most of its German dates by then (11/15), but residual effect was felt: at a Dusseldorf night spot, patrons tossed liquor glasses and food at the bandleader when the Third Man Theme was played.

Orson Welles Got a Lucrative Airwave Gig From Harry Lime

Trade reviews for The Third Man gave praise rare to imports: "This is probably the most internationally accepted picture ever made in Britain," said Showman's Trade Review, while Film Bulletin singled out director Carol Reed for extravagant kudos, The Third Man called "another Reed masterpiece" after examples of The Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out. Here was where Reed would be recognized as a next Hitchcock out of England, The Third Man being the best suspense package from there since AH left. New York's Victoria engagement ran nearly six months, Chicago's Selwyn keeping The Third Man ten weeks. L.A.'s Fine Arts sold the film on hard ticket at two-a-day, $1.80 tops. Variety estimated David Selznick's US distribution take at one million. He would lease The Third Man to 20th Fox for a 1956 reissue, but a weak $82K in domestic rentals (foreign $13K) wouldn't cover new prints and advertising, result a $52K loss. Better returns came from sale to television the following year, The Third Man going out with other Selznick properties among NTA's "Champagne" group, an impressive lot that also included High Noon, a major post-48 "get" for TV. Later there'd be an NTA- developed vid series based on the Harry Lime character, with Michael Rennie as star. The Third Man is available from Criterion and other labels (Region Two) on Blu-Ray, the Criterion disc including a feature-length documentary on the film.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Thriller Hit With Zither Background

Selznick-Korda An Uneasy Producing Pair of The Third Man (1950) --- Part One

Modern Art Meets Movie Merchandising
David Selznick thought Robert Mitchum would make a better Harry Lime than Orson Welles. More I think about it, the righter he seems. Selznick was painted as philistine mogul by surviving-beyond-him Carol Reed and Grahame Greene, both making a clown of their producer associate for interviewer/audiences cued to laugh at their oft-repeated tales. Of course, without Selznick and his stars/money, there'd have been no Third Man. Selznick had become all the more nit-picking and obsessive by 1949, his finger having slipped off the pulse of public taste. For reasons easily understood, DOS felt movies ought to function in ways that worked before the war. It wasn't easy for him or anyone to realize that this industry and its viewership had changed much with coming of peace.

Again to the Mitchum point: I agree with Selznick that he'd have been better. Mitchum had danger, was capable of anything, even diluting penicillin for children, Harry Lime's worst of many crimes. Perfect casting his would have been for Bob having lately been tapped by L.A. vice at a reefer party. He'd fit right into a black market ... ours, Vienna's, anybody's. Orson Welles, on the other hand, never suggests a threat to me, nor can I accept his doing such horrid things in guise of Harry Lime. And we know he won't throw Holly Martens off the Ferris wheel. Were it Mitchum, we'd be surprised if he didn't. Further recasting: what about Gregory Peck in the Joe Cotten role? Selznick presumably still had his contract, unless The Paradine Case wrapped it up, and Peck v. Mitchum would have raised stakes considerably on that wheel. Not to take anything from The Third Man, however. It's still on my all-time favorites list.

There's more lore on The Third Man than for most from the Classic Era. Several book-length studies were written, and interviews abound with many who survived to the film's placement among settled greats. Enduring myth claims Orson Welles directed his scenes, de facto helming much of The Third Man, according to some. Well, it does look and play like a Welles project. He might have done something nearly as good if someone had let him, but by 1948, OW was a "detriment" to ticket-buying, according to Selznick when he demurred on Orson-casting. Sift through the record shows Welles did not write his dialogue for the Ferris wheel, but did contribute the gag about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock. He came up also with the indigestion routine and repeated mention of pills he can no longer get to relieve it. That's aspect of the scene I remember best, mordant humor woven through otherwise tense conversation. But did Welles suffer for not having directed The Third Man, a film very much in his style and a credit that would have made him solidly bankable again? We could wonder how often he'd be approached by fans who assumed OW was creative force behind a thriller so Wellsian as The Third Man. Could OW have laughed off such misplaced accolade as would John Ford when "congratulated" for Red River, a Howard Hawks job.

Selznick made a lucrative deal on The Third Man. For loan of Joseph Cotten and (Alida) Valli, along with some financing, he'd get Western Hemisphere rights and eventually the negative. Being up-to-minute on boxoffice trends and how other company's product was doing, DOS knew The Third Man would be a challenging sell. Being Brit-made put it dangerously close to an art film, or one people wouldn't want whatever its classification. Most of what came out of England danced on gallows here, if released at all, and arties had a ceiling he'd have to get beyond to realize profit on The Third Man. So yes, Selznick made changes, replacing Carol Reed's voice opener to something more conventional in Joseph Cotten's narration. And DOS took out a reel of footage to juice up pace. A dumb idea we'd say --- who'd choose to watch the US version of The Third Man today? --- but Selznick saw urgency to make his film accessible to statesiders who'd never seen anything quite like this before. He'd pioneer use of television trailers to sell The Third Man, one-minute spots made specifically for home viewing, according to Variety (the spots ran in all 58 TV markets available at the time).

The Third Man wouldn't be a first Occupation-set thriller. That distinction may go to Berlin Express. Earlier arrival in terms of comedy was A Foreign Affair from Billy Wilder/ Paramount. A closer cousin to The Third Man, and a merchandising example Selznick may have consulted, was MGM's The Search, also realist in approach and perceived by many at the time as an art pic. The Third Man was blessed with content that could sell, sex and sudden death a most potent. Misery of bombed-out Vienna populace was secondary to these, The Third Man very Hollywood in that respect despite Reed/Greene's quest for something different. There would be multiple ad styles tendered by the pressbook ("fully three times as many ad mats as are usually furnished for the best pictures," observed Motion Picture Herald), each keyed to specific audience desire, some designed like modern art. This was a very forward-thinking campaign, one that would be imitated by others to come. Selznick was known to oversee every detail of exploitation, so may we credit him with perceptive selling that helped make The Third Man a US hit?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Steve McQueen Drives Ahead Of His Time

Le Mans (1971) Finishes High Among Race Pics

I found this much better than its rep would suggest. Critics complained there was no story, many bored with so much race stuff. Well, you do need threshold interest in fast cars to enjoy Le Mans, speed being Steve McQueen's obsession and his entire reason to produce and star in the film. That it broke his Solar unit (which had made enormous hit Bullitt) and ended up not earning him a dime was only part of damage Le Mans did to McQueen. This was his show and he'd see it done his way, at end (or middle) of which money partners took reins away from Solar and raced shooting to a finish, cost a much more than planned ten million. John Sturges was hired to direct, being a friend and once-mentor to McQueen, but he'd bug the star to beef narrative, add dialogue, make Le Mans more conventional. To Steve's credit, he held story and dialogue, especially his own, to bare minimum. You'd think for a first twenty minutes that Le Mans was a silent movie beyond roar of engines.

As semi-doc, Le Mans works great. You're pretty there in terms of locale and intimacy of pits, their crews, and inside broilers that was racing machinery. Crashes are horrific, any of them sure to kill an occupant, but amazingly, nobody died during production, although one driver lost a leg (his "sacrifice" noted in closing credits). Le Mans was actually ahead of its time for austere guidance by McQueen. We don't need to hear him talk this time. His action carries the day, which was this actor's preference in any case. Steve was always for trimming lines; you could put total of his Le Mans dialogue in a one-to-two minute bag. Cast membership beyond is for most part pro drivers brought aboard to assure authenticity. They do that in spades, a big and further plus to Le Mans. The movie ended up in profit, but McQueen got a black eye among money men who'd not turn him so loose on a project again. Besides that, he was sick of Solar and drain it imposed on personal finances. From now on, the star would take his considerable money and run.
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