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Monday, November 20, 2017

Blood Sport Fun For All!


Bring 'Em Back Alive (1932) Is Uncaged Precode Fury

... and Red Meat It Was, As Showmen Knew Their Bloodthirsty Youth Audience

Frank Buck was the Great White Bwana of adventuring through first-half of a century bent on explore of whatever lost corners were left. He was dashing and mustachioed and could wrestle a baby elephant to standstill, as evidenced in Bring 'Em Back Alive, a Malayan travel folder where Buck hunts game for bring-back to zoos and whatever pitch might be interested in jungle exotica. "Frank Buck" was an ideal name to go native with, and lo/behold, it was really his, Frank as Buck evoking a male animal stalking other male animals he'd subdue. Frank was less for killing beasts than photographing them killing each other. He'd just pick up pieces and deliver to brisk buyers back home, latter which included distribs who'd sell him as latter-day Trader Horn, not the bearded old-timer as was Horn of Africa, but hale-and-hearty master of wild who'd belie his age (late 40's and into 50's at a peak) to wade into whatever danger his camera crew came upon. Bring 'Em Back Alive was the book, and then movie, that made Buck boxoffice, in addition to claw-and-fang, legend. RKO socked over a million in worldwide rentals during a Depression year when most of what they sent out did half that, or less. Success of Bring 'Em Back Alive made King Kong of the following season seem viable. I'd go further and say that had there been no hit that was Bring 'Em Back Alive, there might not have been a King Kong at all.




Genius Seller Terry Turner Spent $10K of 1932 Dollars For This Display 
Bring 'Em Back Alive traded both on best-selling source book by Frank Buck and roaring hit that was Trader Horn. There too were fleabag jungle pics, purest exploitation like Blonde Captive and Ingagi, that nibbled around edges. All these were precode in a most extreme sense, but scholars of that period shy from them today, possibly because the theme is a hot match to play with. There's little aspect of these that could now be approached, what with attitudes so utterly changed over intervening decades. But what other precodes dealt such brazen nudity as Bring 'Em Back Alive and kin? Fact it was native skin on exhibit made the device OK to censors, a same pass that rendered National Geographic rare print outlet for polite display of flesh. And note the crowd across streets from New York's Mayfair, agog at the theatre's spectacle front mightier than a circus in full swing. What Bring 'Em Back Alive gave that a zoo or circus could not was wildest life in natural habitat, and preying on each other. No way could animal acts on civilized ground pit beasts against their kind, or other enemies of the jungle, and all for our startled amusement (most magic selling words: IN MORTAL COMBAT). Only movies dared deliver this kind of thrill, and that's what separated Bring 'Em Back Alive from staid viewing at fairgrounds. Call it rudest precode, then, and not unlike same-year Freaks, which took human specimen from unchecked nature and dared us to watch them with no bars between.




Memory played trick --- still does --- that Bring 'Em Back Alive was shot in Africa, when it was actually Malaya, where there was ferocity aplenty to go round. Frank was not for bagging beasts, as in lion heads, rugs, or zebra skins. He was more the Hatari! man before there was a Hatari!. I'll guess that Howard Hawks knew Buck and remembered his saga when chase after rhinos commenced in early 60's mash-up of Bring 'Em Back Alive that became Hatari!. Frank was known, in fact seen, and in person, by most who frequented circuses and World Fairs, for he was tireless at spreading legend that was Frank Buck. Anytime he cared to make a movie, someone was there to write a check, for Buck dealt liveliest footage of animals ripping hell out of one another and frequently to the death. Youngsters could fairly smell jungle blood in their Bijou seats. King Kong was well and good, but it was fake after all, while Buck's tiger v. python, lion v. whatever, even where staged or at least sweetened, was the real and savage thing. I looked at Bring 'Em Back Alive, a recent run on TCM, and lost all track of time when that Bengal tiger locked teeth with a strangulating python, a thrill still in 2017, so just imagine pants wet when this thing played new in 1932.




Bring 'Em Back For a Fresh Audience in 1948, Grossing Still Alive and Lively


And Still They Came ... Even Unto Code Era
Bring 'Em Back Alive became stuff of lore, like King Kong as a linger in consciousness. RKO brought it back in 1948 and did $345K in domestic rentals, a wow for a picture this old. By-then venerable Frank, still khaki-ready, did personal apps up/down the Coast with RKO's Eastern field supervisor (Variety, 8-5-48). For kids of a new generation, Buck was still grand emissary of wildest kingdoms. Movies had still not topped him for jungle life in the raw, though King Solomon's Mines would shortly unseat Frank's brand. For meantime at least, Bring 'Em Back Alive's reissue got credit for an uptick in jungle thrillers, as MGM and RKO found to profit of old Tarzans revived, plus library Sabus from the 30's that UA/Korda tendered. They'd even want Frank back to play himself, and with Abbott and Costello, for Africa Screams!, done shortly before Buck headed toward horizon in 1950. I checked for DVD's on the seven films Frank Buck did, at least those built around his travels, and none seem available from mainstream labels (Grapevine Video has Bring 'Em Back Alive, and disc reviews are good). There should be easier access to all of it, but who'd care? With nowaday up-close and digital inspect of wildlife round the globe, Frank Buck's stuff looks punk indeed, but he was among first getting there, and there's no beating primitive energy these travelogues still have.




Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Saturday Assortment In 1959


Watching These In Company Of Hundreds

I know I'm hung up on old cartoons and comedies still playing theatres in the 50/60's (and the 70's, for that matter), but there are worse habits to embrace, and besides, the topic fascinates me ... frustrates too for having experienced too little of it during heyday. What if an enterprising showman tried this today? Would children, or grown-ups, turn up? The concept would seem foreign, I know. Too many years under the bridge. For that matter, are cartoons watched by anyone now, other than "adult collectors," as the Warner boxes say they are intended for? This April, 1959 matinee at the Grand in Steubenville, Ohio is one "the whole family will enjoy," but wouldn't racket and roaming of kids preclude fun for others? The Little Rascals and Stooges were lighting up TV nationwide by '59, both series drawing larger viewership than had followed them in theatres. Our Rascals host out of Charlotte did continuous round of Saturday appearances to sing on stage and run 35mm prints of Our Gang kept in the trunk of his car (hope those were safety prints). The Stooges were received like gods off Olympus. Mike Cline of Then Playing (who was there) said the roar upon seeing them in credits was deafening and did not die down for length of the short. Didn't matter if it was Curly, Shemp, or Joe. The Stooges were beloved any way they came.




Monday, November 13, 2017

Calling --- Who?


Bulldog Drummond Back In Postwar Business

Metro bought "all unproduced and new Bulldog Drummond yarns" (Variety) in February 1950 with intent of a series, one per year in event the first of them clicked. That was Calling Bulldog Drummond, to be produced at the company's Boreham Wood Studios during late summer 1950. MGM was thawing frozen funds by shooting seven features over the year in foreign climes. This was cash they had collected in boxoffice revenue from these countries, but couldn't take out thanks to native law requiring outlay on home ground to stimulate economy. That worked OK thanks to money going further over there than here, unions and attendant expense having caused domestic costs to soar. Biggest of oversea spenders had been King Solomon's Mines, done in England and South Africa, then more lavished on Quo Vadis, a big stimuli to Italy. Calling Bulldog Drummond was budgeted for a million, but ended up costing half again more. That was chancy for a character barely on screens since the 30's when Ronald Colman and then John Howard played him. Detective series had been dropped elsewhere, including at Metro where the Thin Man was absent since 1947. So who at Culver was champion for such dated property as Drummond?




Ads had to emphasize the "New" of Calling Bulldog Drummond, a public otherwise figuring it for a reissue, especially as the pic played down-bill in most situations.  Many keys used Drummond as support to An American In Paris. Walter Pidgeon was titular lead over otherwise Brit support, his an only meaningful name in credits. Eased to mature character work stateside, here was rugged departure that saw Pidgeon at gunplay and fist brawling, Drummond gone undercover to bust up a burgling ring. The idea was sound enough had Calling Bulldog Drummond been made cheaper, but this was new day where sole star Pidgeon, let alone as a mostly-forgot sleuth, couldn't haul weight even as a second feature. Enjoyable as it turned out, Calling Bulldog Drummond took a million $ loss, result of ruinous $372K in domestic rentals and barely better $546K foreign. Needless to say, a series was scotched. Pity so many concepts once a cinch were moribund now. Seemed everyone's crystal ball was cracked, especially at Metro. Calling Bulldog Drummond is available from Warner Archive to let us know what so many customers missed in 1951. Quality is fine, the show a trim 79 minutes, and not overstuffed as we might fear from Leo. Bonus with the DVD is the Goldwyn Bulldog Drummond from 1929 with Ronald Colman. They're a spot-on pair and much recommended.




Thursday, November 09, 2017

Old West Sundown For Gary Cooper


The Real West (1961) Sets The Frontier Saga Straight

The Real West was broadcast on March 29, 1961. Six weeks later, onscreen "storyteller" and narrator Gary Cooper, this his final appearance, would be gone. The public learned between these two events that Cooper was gravely ill, that having been tipped by James Stewart in an emotional tribute to Coop at the Academy Awards ceremony (April 17), and spread the next day by worldwide press. Insiders mostly knew prior to that. Cooper himself had learned of his inoperable condition in late February, but pushed forward to complete The Real West because he believed in the project, had in fact volunteered to do it, and of course, lent stature to the finished program no one else could have duplicated. The Real West would serve as epitaph for Cooper as well as a vanished frontier it explored. Lost to a public still devoted to Cooper (popularity only enhanced by past work all over television) were three he had pacted to do for 20th Fox, The Comancheros a first, and set for January 1961 start, but docs, and his wife, knew before then that the situation was hopeless. Trades had a kind way of shielding stars where stricken, Variety and others into 1961 assuring that Cooper would work again, despite private suspicions that indeed he would not. This was done for Bogart through 1956, and was barometer of how loved these people were by an industry so enhanced by their participating in it.


Among Last Things Cooper Did --- A Savings and Loan Magazine Ad


Coop was bullish on The Real West. He spoke to Hedda Hopper about it in February 1961 and would submit to TV GUIDE for a profile to appear in the March 25-31 issue, which was week of the NBC broadcast, these fascinating glimpse of Cooper's priorities as he approached a finish. "People," he told TV GUIDE, "don't recognize me as much as they used to. Only the older people. The kids today have Frankie Avalon and Elvis Presley. They pretty much leave me alone." He spoke with Hopper of early talkie days, referring to Roy Pomeroy and how Victor Fleming stood up to the self-serving sound coordinator, this as follow-up to Coop naming his all-time favorite role, The Virginian. Great stuff --- there's bottomless well of pic history in Hopper columns. Why hasn't someone mined them for a book? --- and I mean a real anthology and not just more of the gossip stuff. The Real West would not be Gary Cooper's West. He wanted it real, and that meant departing from myths made in his and other outdoor actioners. The program still ended up being a valedictory for him, a walk into sunset as moving as William S. Hart introducing Tumbleweeds for a 1938 reissue. Producer-director of The Real West Donald Hyatt wrote a farewell for Variety (8/2/61) that was vivid recount of "The Last Performance" by Gary Cooper. You Tube has The Real West, and there is a DVD available.




Monday, November 06, 2017

A 50's Roast Of The Silent Era


Dreamboat (1952) Gets Fun From Old Flix

Premise has staid college prof Clifton Webb concealing for years his past as a silent movie heart-throb. This is 1952 when silent films were jeered at or thought creepy in line with Sunset Boulevard and past luminaries living dangerously in the past. What mention there was of silent stars was one or other found waitressing or in police court. I'd be interested to know how many became college instructors, or earned a degree at higher education. Webb's Dreamboat character claims at one point that he was plucked out of teaching to act in movies. Was there real-life instance of this? Dreamboat but mildly jabs at the silent era, the real target being television and all its worthless works. Hollywood was bitter and alarmed by the new media, and with reason. Little of what the industry made could turn profit, Dreamboat barely eking dark ink despite but $1.2 million spent. The concept was one that ads had to explain, as in sample above, and at left. As with other ideas unclear from a title alone (When In Rome, for instance), ticket sales might falter where set-ups weren't apparent from the marquee or posters outside. Black-and-white comedy was too easy to get for free at home. Still, if anyone could turn vault key at ticket windows, it was Clifton Webb, who was close as Fox had to a guaranteed money star in the 50's, him being what Betty Grable had once been for 20th.




What put Webb over was social skill (much) in addition to waspish and one-of-kind screen persona. He was a bitchier W.C. Fields who'd not back from his edge to be lovable. Once comedy found Webb, he was unstoppable. Sitting Pretty and then Cheaper By The Dozen were massive hits, two million or more for each in profit. Sequels and follow-ups were, if not as lush, dependable. To social panache mentioned, I'd say that's where Webb consolidated stardom and made friend of everyone powerful in the business. He charmed Zanuck and played lawn croquet at the mogul's Sunday gathers. DFZ had friends among those in Fox employ, but he was a true fan of Clifton Webb. The cycle of CW in comedy went right to end of the 50's, and I'd propose, kept the star at peak of a public's awareness thanks to most backlog showing up on NBC Saturday nights, their prime and premiere post-48 showcase of Fox features a must-weekend-see for tele-viewers. Dreamboat, by the way, picked up another $200K for the NBC sale, its net bow on 11-25-61 (Variety on 2-13-6reported that per-title price for a first NBC movie season).




Dreamboat raises practical questions, first which, could anyone who was a major attraction in the 20's blend seamlessly into private life and not be recognized, let alone in a campus setting where they address groups every day? It takes TV exposure of his old films, presumably not seen in years, for "Thornton Sayre" to be unmasked as "Bruce Blair," this result of negatives "being bought for peanuts" by programmer Fred Clark. So here's next inquire: How many silent features played the home box during early 50's? I understand some of Fairbanks did, and maybe stuff Joe Schenck or other independents owned, but what else? I said features now, not short comedies or cartoons. I know those were fed to kiddies from early on. What burns Thornton Sayre is oldies run every week, and nationwide. That would mean network, and I know of no dedicated net series for pre-talkers for whole of the 50's, or in all of TV history for that matter (closest would be Silents, Please, where ABC offered truncated features).




Sayre-daughter Anne Francis is invited by the mean girl sorority to a Bruce Blair broadcast, idea being to humiliate her before a crowd. Fox clearly had it in for Greek systems, if not college structure as a whole. Once-respected instructor Sayre can only save his job by heading Gotham way to bell network fat cats, one of whom is his old co-star Ginger Rogers, now in league with Clark and junk merchants we presume made up all of televised output. Largest laughs of Dreamboat come where Bruce Blair and "Gloria Marlowe" (Rogers) do silent emoting, these clips very much 50's concept of what wowed 20's public. Audiences were flattered and amused to see voiceless films ridiculed. How far we had come from such primitive entertainment! For all of rankle purists get from the jape, Bruce Blair's recreated vehicles are funny, him less a Valentino than John Gilbert, or perhaps Ronald Colman in first flowering. There is a Zorro send-up, desert dashings, WWI aviating, most of genres we then and now associate with vanished time. The clips seem less a mockery of silents because they are so enjoyable. I wonder if exiting moviegoers in 1952 thought of giving more relics a go, especially if they were this much fun.




An aside with regard 50's, specifically Fox, ideal of appeal, re distaff talent. 1952 saw a number of women on 20th contract, none so sky-high as Marilyn Monroe by that year, hers a cat-bird seat not to be seized by any of rivals through rest of a decade. But how does the contest play in retrospect? That is, sixty-five long years in retrospect? For me at least, Monroe is more the Bruce Blair of stone-age standard at allure, Anne Francis infinitely more appealing as a "museum type" presented in Dreamboat as so drab that network go-getter Jeffrey Hunter has to be arm-twisted into taking her out. I always thought of Francis as very much the dish that Monroe was proposed to be in Don't Bother To Knock, a same year launch of MM as starring sex bomb and presumed object of patron desire. Audiences were always manipulated as to who their idols should be, be it in Bruce Blair's day, or our own. What of those who think outside the box where it comes to instinctive response? Anne Francis in Dreamboat and Jean Peters in following year's Niagara beat socks off Monroe for me, that no slam on MM, unless lure is assumed to be all she ever had to offer. I've suspected more of late that it is women who today are more fascinated by Marilyn Monroe, for reasons I'll not try to divine. Dreamboat is available from Fox On-Demand DVD, but watch for it instead on TCM or FXM, where it plays HD and looks fine.




Thursday, November 02, 2017

You'll Feel Every Cannon Shot


Cease Fire! (1953) Finally Back In 3-D Glory

I've not gone looking for on-the-ground documentaries about the Korean War, but can't offhand imagine how any could be so effective as this 3-D march over actual battle sites with real personnel who fought. Cease Fire! was boldest experiment muted by a gimmick too few respected. Had producer Hal Wallis jettisoned 3-D, he'd have maybe had at least a critic success if not an economic one (reviews still overall good, but did depth dial greater respect down?). Cease Fire! seems more a Wallis whack at prestige, like Come Back Little Sheba, than cash-in on a process the public was already tiring of. In either case, Cease Fire! played most engagements flat. What seemed to limit the film actually enhances it now. Surface impression is of soldiers trying to act and some falling down on that unaccustomed job, which of course was whole point of the till-then never-tried exercise. Yes, there had been G.I.'s on camera before, as background and even speaking support to, for instance, John Wayne in Sands Of Iwo Jima, but Cease Fire! had dog faces as the whole show, and who can complain where entirety of the cast is the McCoy? We adjust to the amateurs right off because none stand out as pros, all earning nod for game effort at showing what they'd gone through in combat. Fact that some would end up casualties is further boost to verisimilitude. Wallis should have gotten documentary awards for doing Cease Fire!.




Wallis was still a show-me-the-money producer, Cease Fire! no sop to applause from reviewers. It would be sold on action and authenticity terms, and just so no one would misread Cease Fire! as a newsreel in depth, there were trailers boosting the show along lines of Battleground plus other pics that had brought war recount out of doldrums. Trouble was this being a Korea war, where goals seemed obscure against backdrop of "peace talks" we read as exercises in futility. Cease Fire! acknowledges that with at least one character to represent doubt of ever getting out of this far-away mess (suggested combo: Cease Fire! with Pork Chop Hill). Whatever integrity in the telling, Cease Fire!, which ran low tab in negative cost ($265K), took back less than a million in domestic rentals for both flat, and limited 3-D, playdates. Afterward vanishing act made Cease Fire! a barely known artifact of the 3-D era --- we couldn't see it even on syndicated TV. Kino's Blu-Ray amounts to a brand new old movie for ones of us born since last theatrical dates over sixty years ago. Crack team at 3-D Archive is again at helm of stereo-view recovery (both picture and sound), my guess that Cease Fire! never played this fine on its best first-run presentment. Be sure to read exhaustive coverage of the film's production and release by Ted Okuda at the 3-D Archive site. This is research of the highest order. Cease Fire! will be released November 21 on 3-D/Blu-Ray. It is a must-see for devotees of depth and even more so, those seeking combat coverage with artifice off.

All images above courtesy the 3-D Archive.




Monday, October 30, 2017

Enough To Make You Think Vampires Are Real


Nominate Vampyr (1931) For All-Time Creep Out

Because of its spelling, I went around years pronouncing Vampyr as Vam-peer, a nod on my part to greater sophistication of Euros who'd made this odd and very acquired taste of a chiller. First familiarity came of Carlos Clarens' An Illustrated History Of The Horror Film, published in 1967, where creepy stills promised fear cold as a grave, implying burial alive among highlights. Problem, of course, was seeing the thing. Television had none of it, while further book reference (The Film Till Now) spoke of "a film much applauded by the intelligentsia," author Paul Rotha's seeming dismissal of  Vampyr as "very much of a museum piece." Was this as much result of awful prints in circulation? There were versions in varied language, that is what little could be made out from largely inaudible soundtracks. Directing Carl Dreyer had covered bases re English, German, French editions, but much of reception was cool, and I couldn't find indication that Vampyr got US release beyond a Film Daily mention on 10/30/33, wherein Arthur Ziehm of General Foreign Sales Corp. was said to have acquired rights.




Vampyr floated for decades at diminished capacity. Histories when they mentioned it did so in terms of compromised image. "Unfortunately the prints that are available in the United States are not made from the master negative and so their photographic quality is rather poor," said one 1960 reference. Ever the opportunist Raymond Rohaeur booked Euro-passage in October 1964 to acquire rights from Vampyr's producer/money man/star Baron Nicolas De Gunzburg (how many Barons got kicks making movies?), who'd almost forgot Vampyr. Rohauer did a customary slash-and-burn job of warning off "bootleg" copies of his new-obtained pic and combed archives to upgrade elements where possible. Subtitling whiz Herman Weinberg was hired to do a same for Vampyr. College and festival runs evolved once Weinberg finished his work in January 1968. Variety announced a Paris "first-run" in May, 1968, on a festival menu with Buster Keaton's The Cameraman. Fleetwood Films "will reissue (Vampyr) this (1968) winter in a more complete form than has ever been shown in the US," said Variety. Dreyer's would become known as a deepest-dish chiller and challenge for watchers to stay awake. There's nothing in horror's universe like it, but patience is required. Moments of Vampyr top any effect thrill-makers have achieved. Now that prints are decent, we can fuller appreciate promise put forth by Clarens' book images of fifty years ago.
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