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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Cartoon Master We've Forgotten

Ted Eshbaugh Makes a Wonderful Wizard Of Oz

Among most amazing artifacts of animation to be recently unearthed is Ted Eshbaugh's The Wizard Of Oz. What's that name, you say? Eshbaugh was a cartooning pioneer, left out of a not a few histories, but championed by Thunderbean's Steve Stanchfield, whose latest Blu-Ray compilation, Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, includes not only The Wizard Of Oz, but a representative sampling of Eshbaugh's work both before and after it. Eshbaugh (shown at left) was a young man with dreams, same as Walt Disney (they were born five years apart), but Walt's came spectacularly true, while for Ted, effort and innovation went largely unrecognized over a lifetime of cartooning. Virtually all his shorts were made for independents, and some have since disappeared. Thunderbean has managed to find color elements for a few that for years were seen only in black-and-white. Eshbaugh is best vindicated, however, by discovery of 35mm IB Technicolor for The Wizard Of Oz, a cartoon that existed before, but not looking like this. It is a highlight of Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, with so many parallels to MGM's 1939 treatment (including a B/W opening) that you figure Leo just had to have checked it out before going forward with a live-action redo.

Ted Eshbaugh got first trade attention in March 1932 for getting a color cartoon booked at the Loew's State in Los Angeles. That was Goofy Goat, done in the Multicolor process, according to an article, History Of The Animated Cartoon, by Earl Theisen, and published in the September 1933 issue of The Journal Of The SMPE (Society Of Motion Picture Engineers). According to Theisen, Goofy Goat had been previewed at the Warner's Alhambra Theatre on July 6, 1931, making it "the first complete cartoon story done in color" (Walter Lantz had earlier supplied an animated color opening to Universal's live-action King Of Jazz, released 3/30). Variety noted "youthful producer" Eshbaugh having applied "months of labor and promotion in which he promoted and expended $10,000." Goofy Goat, and Eshbaugh's projected series of cartoons, had yet to find a distributor, but wasn't that a same challenge that Disney faced and overcame with Steamboat Willie back in 1928?

Eshbaugh's "secret color mixing process" would distinguish "a series of 12 all-color sound cartoons," said Film Daily, with "new studios" being prepped for the tyro producer as Goofy Goat (that's him at left, with gf "Nanny" Goat)continued its stand at Loew's State. Lightning having struck for Disney assured that a trade would watch this youngster closely, coverage of his moves positive and even encouraging: "Eshbaugh, a youth with an idea and no capital, has lined up a staff of young cartoonists ready to turn out more reels if their maestro clicks or collects" (Variety). Goofy Goat scored a mention in the September 1931 issue of Photoplay, their "Short Subjects Of The Month" page saying "Let's see more" of this character "apparently out after some of Mickey Mouse's pickings." They must have caught the Alhambra preview, as I found no evidence of Goofy Goat having playdates beyond there and Loew's State. Any animation historians know of an actual release for this short? Official Films sold 8 and 16mm versions for home use during the 40/50's, these being black-and-white and all that survive of Goofy Goat. Efforts to locate a color print have so far gone  begging.

It would have been Goofy Goat, and follow-up color reel The Snowman, that got Ted Eshbaugh his job making The Wizard of Oz. The Technicolor company wanted a demo reel that would demonstrate effectiveness of their new three-color process. What better than a cartoon that would emphasize widest expanse of the rainbow? Eshbaugh had a deal with Frank J. Baum to adapt his father's The Wizard Of Oz to animation, within an agreed upon time. As production went forward on the cartoon, Technicolor began negotiations with Walt Disney to use the new process for his Silly Symphonies. A contract dated 8/30/32 made way for a first, Flowers and Trees, with three more charted for color. Later amendment to the pact gave Disney exclusive rights to three-color Technicolor use in cartoons for a two year period from 9/1/33 to 8/31/35 (this based on primary research by Michael Barrier for his book, Hollywood Cartoons). In the meantime, Ted Eshbaugh had finished The Wizard Of Oz, a gorgeous sampling of what Technicolor could deliver, but not one that could be released to theatres, now that Disney had sole access to three-color for cartoons.

Under heading of life sometimes being not fair, Ted Eshbaugh had to watch his work buried by a bigger fish that Technicolor angled for and caught. What was one cartoon by Eshbaugh when a possible dozen or more from Disney were planned to exalt the process? Besides that, WD was a name known worldwide, thanks to Mickey Mouse, while Eshbaugh remained unknown. And yet ... there was The Wizard Of Oz, a short anyone with eyes would call infinitely superior to Flowers and Trees, which was not even drawn in color to begin with (more than half finished in B/W), but retrofitted in ways evocative of silent features (and cartoons) kept back for addition of music, sound effects, and even dialogue. Walt had to look at his Flowers and Trees beside The Wizard Of Oz and know that here was occasion when the better man had not won. I wonder if it played on his conscience afterward. Does anyone know if Disney ever offered Ted Eshbaugh a job? Judging by the man's talent, he certainly should have. Worth noting is fact that WD did purchase rights to the Oz books some decades later, but wouldn't screen adapt them during his lifetime as was plan.

So far as we know, The Wizard Of Oz languished in obscurity from 1932 on, but there was effort to release it to theatres in 1935, possibly in anticipation of Disney's three-color exclusivity running out in August of that year. What frustrated the plan, by Ted Eshbaugh and Technicolor, was a lawsuit filed by Frank L. Baum in 5/35, wherein he asked the court to block proposed release of The Wizard Of Oz. Basis was Eshbaugh's failure to finish the cartoon within agreed time set by the parties. "Contract is therefore regarded as void by Baum," reported Variety, leaving Technicolor "730 feet of negative, which under arrangement with Eshbaugh, company (Technicolor) is ready to market unless enjoined." How the matter resolved does not appear in trade search I made, but we might assume it went against Eshbaugh/Technicolor for fact The Wizard Of Oz would not have a theatrical release, at least in the US.

Ted Eshbaugh wasn't entirely a prophet without honor. He was recognized and invited to participate in an exhibit put on during fall 1933 by The Society Of Motion Picture Engineers. They wanted to establish a museum of film history at their Los Angeles headquarters where membership could view industry-made progress. To this display came pioneers like Mack Sennett, with vintage cameras and memoirs of Keystone Kop days, J. Stuart Blackton with a Biograph Mutoscope, Willis O' Brien demonstrating effects trickery for King Kong, all this and more in addition to Ted Eshbaugh's overview of his pioneering work in color cartoons. Walt Disney and Walter Lantz made contributions as well, each showing work done in the area of color. Interesting how tech journals from the 30's made point of including Ted Eshbaugh. I found favorable mentions and acknowledgment of his "first" color cartoon in The International Projectionist (1933), World Film and Television Progress (1938), and The International Photographer (1936). Too bad they couldn't see remarkable work he'd done on The Wizard Of Oz.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Twentieth Tries a Tracy/Hepburn

Will Computers Replace Cast in 1957's Desk Set?

Bright and generally pleasing Tracy/Hepburn, more so in Blu-Ray lately released via Region Two. Spence thought himself too old by this time to do rom-com, and he wouldn't have opposite anyone other than KH, but skills are undiminished and they are a usual great together. Tracy's weight was an always-issue; he's heavy here and it translates amusingly to gusto he brings to several eating segments. I've always thought meal scenes reveal much of actor technique. Do they really eat food during emote or just fake it like punches pulled? In this case, Tracy attacks sandwiches, fried chicken, and especially a "Floating Island" desert like a man starved. I'd love knowing how many takes these scenes required. Hepburn has intriguing ways with roast beef and bread, pulling bites apart before putting same in her mouth. Both stars use hands and attack of food to express attitude and emerging (comic) conflict. I can imagine rehearsals focused much on perishable content out of brown bags. Has any actor written on how to consume properly for stage/screen?

20th Fox lost money on Desk Set (a large $1.3 million), which had to hurt Tracy/Hepburn viability together or singly, though by '57, it was realized that much of loss could be made up with eventual TV sales (Desk Set missed out on network play, heading straight to syndication in 6/63). Arresting vibes go on between Hepburn and female co-workers, KH touchy-feely with Sue Randall especially, even patting her rear at one point. You begin to wonder who Tracy's romantic rival is actually going to be. It's a subtext that juices Desk Set beyond conventions otherwise observed. Joan Blondell is happily along to demonstrate perhaps better aptitude for a co-lead with Tracy, had she been given the chance. Dark costuming was issued to Tracy and Blondell --- as conceal for pounds both had gained?  Cinemascope had its own pitiless way of adding width not just to screens, but players as well. Desk was set in New York, thought you'd barely know it, location being scotched in order to trim costs. What we see of Gotham was, in fact, lifted from How To Marry A Millionaire.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Chaplin Carbon Copy On The Loose

Billy West Is A Faux Charlie in The Hobo (1917)

Stout and youthful Babe Hardy puts away a tower of flapjacks and mile-long sausage in opener segments of The Hobo I hope they didn't shoot twice, his eating as prodigious as any screen-depicted before or since. Was Babe's appetite half so ravenous in private life? It was vigorous golf that controlled weight over a career's peak; real obesity came only with cessation of sport and increase of drink, that being twenty-five years past The Hobo and Babe being fresh-faced rival to Chaplin imitator Billy West, who really had CC nailed and still can fool unwary watchers. How many less laughs did Chaplin fakes earn in crowded theatres circa '17? The Billy Wests were not cheap affairs, and the best of them are funny by standards of comedy that competed with Charlie. It helped too to have former CC supporters on hand to do a same for West, in this case Leo White from Chaplin's Essanay period. West runs through largely episodic antics, two reels eating up inspiration fast, thus action spill out of train station setting to purloined autos, police giving chase, and West sign-off with Chaplinesque "pathos." I couldn't decide if that part was homage, or Billy mocking Charlie for a device that by 1917 was familiar to CC's larger public.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Set Sail From Devil's Island

Gable and Crawford's Last Together is Strange Cargo (1940)

Clark Gable's first after Gone With The Wind finds him busting off a devilish island with a Christ figure among convict company. Obviously a one-of-kind, this runs long, has several climaxes (one only needed), but plays fine given willingness to get into spirit. Glamour folk Gable and Joan Crawford meet mud and crocs in pursuit, Strange Cargo '40-sold legitimately as something different, at least for them. Gable snarls and is relentlessly cynical; you'd actually like him to give so much surly attitude a rest. Here was a furthest up necks in swamp a Metro cast had gone since Kongo in 1932, only this time with soul-saving along way in accord with Code responsibility. One great scene has everyone on an escape boat deciding who'll test a barrel possibly tainted with salt water, knowing the drinker might swell his tongue and die hard in event it's there. Certainly made me resolve never to touch the stuff. We get feel of excess cooks thinning the broth, downside of MGM star vehicles on which so many below-line jobs hung. Leo could afford blue-ribbon support casts, thus Peter Lorre, Albert Dekker, Paul Lukas, many others that make Strange Cargo more an ensemble than was usual for a Gable/Crawford. Visually a knockout, thanks to HD delivery by Warner Instant.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Brit Sleuthing With Comic Chaser

Bulldog Jack Is 1935's Thrill and Laugh Mix

What if Bulldog Drummond fell sick and needed someone to pinch hit for him? That's the conceit of this comedy/thriller where funnyman Jack Hulbert assumes mantle of the dashing detective and cracks a jewel-robbing mob operating out of London's underground rail system. Action set there is profuse for an otherwise modest-managed Gaumont release, that company again trying to crack US markets as they had (and would) with Hitchcock suspensers. Stateside lead lady Fay Wray assists along those lines, as does fact we knew Drummond from times Ronald Colman played him over here. Hulbert was an acquired domestic taste, bitter to some perhaps as any import wine might be, but efficient once he stops bungling and gets down to straight crime-fight. Ralph Richardson underplays as the mastermind and never tries to upstage a florid Hulbert. UK humor was at that time a thing less accessible to us. It took Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers in the 50's to show how funny Brits could be. Variety reviewed Jack as Alias Bulldog Drummond, finding it "... fated for bookings of lesser importance on this side." MGM-UA owns Bulldog Jack now, having leased the pic to Netflix, Dish Network, and possibly elsewhere.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Runt Of Hitchcock Litter Arrives Late To TV

Under Capricorn (1949) Is Hand-Me-Down For Home Viewers

A book was out in summer 1967 that laid down whole of the coming TV season, including most of movies that would play network, with thumbnail reviews by NYT's Howard Thompson (once chairman of the New York Film Critics --- does anyone read his archive today?). Slightly oversized and soft bound, TV 68 was priced high for the time ($1.25), but a joy for heads-up of what we'd watch in a coming year. Sure beat pants off TV Guide's annual Fall Preview, which was sketchier re upcoming net features, with only a handful of titles to tease readership. 1967-68 was a banner year for primetime movies, and peak of exposure for Alfred Hitchcock on all three networks. His vid series was gone, other than syndication, but here was feast of favorites he'd done for theatres, most appearing for a first time on TV. Ratings record setter for the movie season was The Birds, a blockbuster 38.9 rating with a 58.8% audience share for its 1/6/68 Saturday night premiere, stats that beat higher-touted Bridge On The River Kwai on ABC in 9/66. There'd be four Hitchcocks for 1967-68 in addition to The Birds, surprise one being Under Capricorn, made way back in 1949, that decade's output generally shunned by primetime that stuck to later product. I marveled that such an oldie would land on prime real estate that was CBS Friday night (12/7/67), my curiosity whetted to see this seeming rarest of the Master's work.

Under Capricorn had not been syndicated to locals ("Never Shown On TV" said announcement of its sale to CBS), so was fresh produce. Ownership had gone round blocks, first with Transatlantic, which was Hitchcock and partner Sidney Bernstein's company, then to Daniel O'Shea, a Selznick associate well versed in distribution. Warner Bros. had distributed Under Capricorn in 1949 to loss of $500K, and had no residual interest in the negative. O'Shea set up a company, Balboa Distributors, to reissue Capricorn in 1963, but theatre attendance was spotty, the L.A. date and others a letdown according to Variety. A new trailer tried jazzing up the "meller" via emphasis on a shrunken head Ingrid Bergman confronts in her boudoir, patrons realizing to their loss that this was the only scare in an otherwise talkative and untypical for AH show. Still, it was in color and few had seen Under Capricorn over a past decade, so Bill Paley ("himself," said Variety) sat down with O'Shea to make a $600K deal for CBS runs of both Under Capricorn and Joan Of Arc, latter also with Ingrid Bergman and controlled by O'Shea, now doing business as Showcorporation.

Wild and Woolly Art To Promote Capricorn's 1963 Reissue

There was grim competition among network movie programmers for this summit season of ratings war. Overtake of ABC's Bridge On The River Kwai by The Birds at NBC spurred pricing for both feature packages and ad rates --- would supply keep pace with demand? There were but so many blockbusters in any studio kitbag, so net shoppers for '67-'68 had to be creative and find films others had overlooked. That led them to vaulties that for one reason or other had not been on television before. "As the well runs dry on feature pix, the networks have become increasingly susceptible to vintage product --- provided, of course, there's story and marquee values," reported Variety (3/29/67). The Paley pact with Showcorporation resulted in two runs for Under Capricorn, 12/7/67 and 5/24/68. Of  five Hitchcocks network-shown that season, it would rank next to last ratings-wise, with an 18.4 rating and a 30.8 audience share. The Trouble With Harry for ABC would do worse (17.0/30.4), while The Birds, North By Northwest, and Marnie landed among top lures for the feature-driven TV season. Notable was Under Capricorn's 5/24/68 second run during a non-ratings week, these typically a ghetto for little regarded titles.

Prospects Look Drab at TFE '68, Where Under Capricorn
Will Be First Offered To Syndication

Still, it did score network play, and Showcorporation could run with this ball to selling meets for syndication. Under Capricorn would be among "proven pictures" offered at the annual TFE convention (Television Film Exhibit) held 4/68, Showcorporation peddling pix with soothe of free drinks in their hospitality suite at Chicago's Hilton. There's good reason why we seldom saw Under Capricorn after those CBS runs, that being weakness of other titles in the Showcorporation package (Man On The Spying Trapeze, with Wayde Preston, 30 Winchester For El Dorado starring Carl Mohner, others of Euro/Brit origin). Under Capricorn and Joan Of Arc were alone in the group for having had a network run. Showcorporation would within a few years unload Capricorn and Joan to Gold Key Entertainment, latter distributing the pair until 1/81, when King World took reins and put them in a five-feature "Epics" group with Constantine and The Cross, David and Goliath, and Uncle Was A Vampire (!). Is it a wonder that Under Capricorn became so obscure, if not inaccessible? (at least on television) Of 16mm rental houses, Audio Brandon had it for $60, and at least some of prints were IB Technicolor, my having come across one at a collecting con in the mid-80's.

When did TCM last show Under Capricorn? Folks who saw it there said the print was a wash-out. I saw the DVD released by Image in 2003, being one of several Amazon lists, a number of them imports. Quality could be lots better, but the thing is watchable. A Blu-Ray would dazzle, considering Technicolor and the fact Capricorn was photographed by the great Jack Cardiff. I understand the BFI did a restoration, their print shown at UCLA. There are smart scholar/critics who call Under Capricorn one of Hitchcock's greatest films (Dave Kehr put it among a top half-dozen). Long takes AH used for Rope are not Capricorn-confined to a single set, going in/out of doors, up stairs, through room after room, a real tour de force the director intended as just that. Plenty of behind-scenes lore is told by not only Hitchcock bios, but Cardiff, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotten in books they wrote. Under Capricorn disappoints a majority for not being the thriller they expect from Hitchcock, but it's yards better than costume melodramas done elsewhere during the 40's, and should join lion's share of the Master's output now available on Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Carradine's Got Another Science Project

Raising The Dead in Monogram's Basement: The Face Of Marble (1946)

John Carradine is as reasonable a mad scientist as you could hope to assist at reviving the dead, a worthy effort as he presents it even if results come a cropper. I was always one who wanted such experimentation to succeed, if only to let a little joy into lives of Carradine, Karloff, others who made up in sincerity what they lacked in sanity. The Face Of Marble uneases from an opener where a dead sailor is dragged off a beach for buzz back to life in JC's lab; this shook up Dan Mercer enough at age 10 to put him in flight for bed. I might have been similarly undone had we access to Monograms in NC markets (they'd come later after nerve for late horrors had calmed). Fans of Universal diss Mono mostly because prints are notoriously sub-par and they weren't shown as often once TV got hold of admittedly better Universal chillers, but back in 40's first-run, these cheaper creepers were all over marquees, particularly in small bergs where money (in terms of low rent of prints) mattered most. What's nutty (delightfully so) about Face Of Marble is its menace in the form of a ghost dog ambling through closed doors. His name is Brutus, a Great Dane playing himself, though unfairly not billed. Was Carradine abashed at doing these things? I'm told he worked in whatever so as to finance a Shakespeare group. How could JC know it would be lowly shockers he'd be recalled for rather than bartering the Bard? Netflix streams an old transfer of Marble from neg owner MGM --- are there no better elements around than this?
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