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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ads That Sold Sizzle and Steak

Illicit Precode As Fresh Fruit For 1931

I always figured exhibitors were creative participants in movies because it was them that applied punctuation to what Hollywood produced. No film was really finished till showmen got hold of it. They'd look at a pressbook, trailer, synopsis, or trade ad, and right away know what aspect might sell. A single ad done right could boil a convoluted story to its essence. Scholars have spent book lengths trying to define precode, the job having been done for them long ago by original merchants of the form. What west coast producers shipped each week was less finished product than rawest clay to be molded by east coast personnel, with finishing touch applied by theatre management where all bucks stopped. He/she would size up ad accessories and decide if same could be applied to needs of his/her community. Local desks where promotion got prepared was where rubber met the road insofar as keeping lights lit and staff paid.
Illicit was mother's milk to aggressive selling. Consider first the title --- one word and quick to the point, a natural for marquees needing what space there was to boost support attractions (Illicit plus Mickey Mouse!). The old Embassy Theatre in San Francisco, lately renamed the Warner Bros., had been swallowed by earthquake during construction (1906), then rose from ash to be named, renamed several times during interim. Warners used the site to showcase Vitaphone (as above with Disreali in 1929), then bought the 1,387 seats outright. Illicit would "World Premiere" on 1/9/31 at a dollar per ticket, Jack Warner, Barbara Stanwyck, and Mervyn LeRoy personally appearing. Babs was billed as "San Francisco's Own Daughter," but cursory research says she was Brooklyn-born. Suppose anyone challenged the boast?
Illicit isn't really much of a movie, precode or otherwise, being  stiff in joints thanks to talk and pace still on wobbly feet. There hadn't been a lot of lively WB work out of 1930 gates (a few like The Dawn Patrol being notable exception), but the following year showed big strides. What's good about Illicit is forthrightness of modern girl philosophy as expressed by Barbara Stanwyck. She spends whole of a first reel explaining to dullard live-in James Rennie why they should not be married, speech given from horizontal clinch on a divan. He's tired of "pussyfooting" and shun of standards, ... but I Love Pussyfooting! says she, an excerpt that would decorate a number of docus about precode. These ads from first and holdover weeks at the Warner Bros. cull all of what's hot-cha from Illicit ("If I, the woman, do not ask for marriage ... why should you, the man?"). To it's credit, Illicit does deliver on promise of taglines, if doing so at relax pace. Warner Archive offers a DVD, and Illicit streams in HD at Warner Instant.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Hail Their Conquering Despots?


When Dictators Were a Moviegoer Rage

Axis partners of the future were all over US news and popular culture through the 30's. Hitler jokes turned up in cartoons even, and Mussolini took a ribbing by way of Sunday funnies caricature. Screwy part was, lots of folk really admired the puffed-up dictator, guest books to il Duce signed by Doug and Mary, Paulette Goddard, others among biz elite. There was juice enough to float a frankly admiring profile (feature-length) called Mussolini Speaks! (1933) from Columbia Pictures, whose chief, Harry Cohn, may have seen himself in mirrors as Benito (if not, then others surely did). Mussolini was viewed at the least as a get-it-done leader to uplift down-out nation that was Italy. More than a few thought as much of Adolph Hitler, who seemed to be licking single-handed a German depression. Where Mussolini Speaks! was a puff-job, however, Fox's March Of Time short, Inside Nazi Germany (1937), read Hitler in darker terms, casting the "Shadow" of his "Nazi Arm" over America. Movies were charged by the Code to tread light re politics/propaganda, but local ads could be, and were,  frisky at peppering up sensation in newsreels. Sometimes that alone could sell a program, as maybe here where Inside Nazi Germany promises cold splash for an evening otherwise spent in formulaic company of Alice Faye and You're A Sweetheart. Would sock/shock value of the docu-reel plus Disney's visionary The Old Mill add up to value for tickets bought? I've got a feeling Alice was least recalled aspect of this visit to the Aztec.

GREENBRIAR ON THE AIR: Showmen, Sell It Hot was featured recently on Ed Robertson's radio talk show, TV Confidential, wherein I'm interviewed at thirty minute length about the book and showmanship in general. The program can be heard at TV Confidential's Archive, being episode #240, with broadcast dates of July 16-21. Actress Diane Baker and screenwriter Paul Robert Coyle (as co-host) are also featured. Give it a listen and determine how well I'm able to disguise my rampant Southern accent. Also note below a recently received quote re: Showmen, Sell It Hot from eminent author/historian Rudy Behlmer.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Warring Between States Circa 1912

The Confederate Ironclad Goes a Single Reel Round With Yanks

I'll be covering more of these ancients, that more a threat than promise for some, but what compels like civil war subjects done by folk among whom remembered Blue-Gray conflict first hand? The Confederate Ironclad was made in Jacksonville, Florida by the soon-enough-to-fold Kalem Company, another of single reel grocers that sold film by pounds rather than merit. Often they'd ring the bell, as here, with pace and excitement to approach Griffith at Biograph, plus there's inherent appeal to yarns revolved around ironclad v. gunboat action. There's girl spying afoot, this belle's crinoline a disguise for Yankee probing into whereabouts of Reb fortification. Program notes in a booklet for Treasures From American Film Archives (Volume One) speculate that the ironclad used was built to commemorate the anniversary of actual battle twixt Monitor and Merrimack, those names tripping off tongues of Civil War buffs for 150 years since the two clashed for real. Replicas supplied grandeur rare to nickelodeons of the day, and what whoops battle scenes here must have provoked! The survivor print looks great, and there's music from original score sheets to further authenticity. Silent drama shorts like this can be fun and even memorable, and the DVD Treasure sets are just that for gathering so many and presenting them so well.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Two Winners and A Loser

Born Yesterday (1950) Is Born Again On Blu-Ray

Columbia got its licks from Washington for what Mr. Smith had done there, so was this time careful to put as much civics lesson as comedy into Born Yesterday, a defanged depict of politicians bought by loudmouth Broderick Crawford as he shacks up in DC with apparent birdbrain Judy Holliday. This was the latter's breakaway to stardom after capture of raves for the part on Broadway and being eccentric support in a handful of films (most recent and notable of these Adam's Rib). Judy and Brod share a hotel suite in Born Yesterday, big as a floor, but apparently not a bed, though it's left for us to imagine they do. Holliday was something different in realm of humor, her line readings like no one else's before or since. Director George Cukor hailed her ability to go from farce to pathos in a single shot; it's still apparent, and effective, in work she does here with both Crawford and William Holden. Death would close memory banks on a unique talent --- I remember TV listings from the 60's always reading "The Late Judy Holliday" whenever one of her pics was shown. Selling point by then might have been Holden as the egghead who educates JH and keeps us aware that US government is crystal clean despite Brod corrupting a congressman. "One bad apple" could never spoil such a splendid crop as ours in Washington, assures Bill.

The after-drama to comedy that was Born Yesterday occurred on Oscar night (3-29-51) where Judy Holliday was nominated for Best Actress. She was a guest at Jose Ferrer's party to which fellow nominee Gloria Swanson was also invited (Ferrer and Swanson were doing a Broadway revival of 20th Century together). Jose rented New York's La Zambra restaurant and had a radio hook-up with the award ceremony should any of guests cop a win. He'd been nominated for Cyrano de Bergerac, but figured Bill Holden a sure bet for Sunset Boulevard. Swanson had high hope she'd take the prize for the same film over favorite Bette Davis, whose All About Eve triumph seemed a pipe for honors. The hot wire to H'wood was for awardees to address radio listeners live from the party, Fred Astaire being airwave host. Ferrer got the Best Actor nod he'd not expected, but bigger shock by far was Judy Holliday knocking back both Bette and Gloria for coveted Actress statue. The wire photo at right tells not the real story of the winners/loser trio snapped together minutes after announcements: fact is, la Swanson was less than "Gracious" for her loss, and in fact told Judy Holliday that she was "awfully young" to have won the award, having "just started out, with a whole life and career in front of you" (GS would outlive JH by eighteen years). Gloria added that this was "my last chance" to receive such an accolade, and that now she'd miss out on rebirth as a serious actress as opposed to a personality left over from a vanished era. Still, appearances had to be maintained, thus the photo, which saw publication in hundreds of newspapers the next day.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Metro's Two For Price Of One

Unlike The Better-Known Hilton Sisters, This Dishy Duo Was Not Conjoined

The Wilde Twins Parent Trapping In Twice Blessed (1945)

Twin teens Lee and Lyn Wilde beating The Parent Trap and its credited story origin by near-fifteen years, which makes me wonder why Metro didn't cry foul when Disney released its higher-profile remake (or was it outright steal?) in 1961. Near as I make it, the German novel (Das doppelte Lottchen) adapted by Disney was written by Erich Kastner in 1949, but surely this author caught Twice Blessed, by then out a while, though more recently to after-war Deutsch patrons. Did he copy Metro's yarn as all appearances indicate? Twice Blessed is hotter-wired to teen habits of its day than safer playing The Parent Trap, and the Wildes are surely a saucier pair than two scrubbed Hayleys. As barometer to jitterbugging 40's youth, Twice Blessed is one priceless capsule, moving brisk along 76 minutes that never goes tiring. The Wildes were a novel parlay with talent enough to score individually, even if MGM never saw fit to part them for individual vehicles. This was their sole starring showcase, otherwise work being specialty placement in Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble and similar pix. Twice Blessed should be better known, and credited, for being first with a concept popularized considerably more by ones who'd borrow brazenly from it.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Columbia Puts Bitter Tea In Radio City's Cup

Cultures Clash in The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933)

Columbia drank bitter tea for the failure this Frank Capra production was --- $298,000 in domestic rentals back from a reputed million spent in negative cost. Some would say it was an art film gone wrong. Capra admitted having supped in hopes of Bitter Tea yielding a much desired Academy Award, for which he'd not even be nominated that year. There were bad omens from premiering in early 1933 at just-opened Radio City Music Hall, a cathedral other showmen resented for its siphon-off of patronage from established Broadway houses. The Bitter Tea Of General Yen got off to a bad start there, yanked after a poor week and Radio City's inability to cover its house nut. Frank Capra had till now done comedies and actioners that patronage liked --- why poach now in exotic fields of Von Sternberg endeavor? FC thought serious might translate to gained status. He'd go through the rest of a long life placing General Yen among proudest achievements.

It was, and remains, a visual stunner. One modern observer said Bitter Tea's lush settings reminded him of theatre lobbies hosting the film (Radio City's, maybe?). Never before had Capra taken such pain with the look of a show. Like some of Von Sternbergs he evoked, The Bitter Tea Of General Yen can look like a million even in dupe prints. What got Capra and cast in hot water was daring stuff of interracial romancing between Barbara Stanwyck and tendered-as-Chinese Nils Asther (the actor was actually Danish-born and raised in Sweden). The big moment was a dream sequence where they clinch; it's still got punch for flouting what was then taboo, never mind our precode expectations. Trade reviewing called Capra's hand, saying he'd get grief for miscegenation content, and judging by failure of the pic, it's likely he did, at least in part for the Stanwyck-Asther hook-up.

A Very Different General Yen As Envisioned By Columbia's Product Annual For 1932-33

Nils Asther's General Yen may be a best feature of Bitter Tea. He's suave, ruthless, speaks multiple languages, and better attuned to Yank realities than ugly Americans he deals with, one of whom is Walter Connolly, a mercenary delight and one reason why Code police nixed a reissue Columbia sought for the film years later. General Yen's obsession with the Stanwyck character makes sense, or doesn't, according to one's own acceptance of Babs as object of intense desire. How many in 1932, or among today's audience, would give up all for a roll with this actress/character, especially when she's so surly as here toward a frankly more likeable Yen/Asther? Capra would enjoy success, and a coveted Oscar (in fact, bushels of them), for getting back in a comedy groove with It Happened One Night, a truly momentous hit that would establish him as Hollywood's leading director of the 1930's.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

1949 Showmen Go Gender Targeting

Useful Pressbook Art --- But What Was In It For The Ladies?

Command Decision Lesson #1: If Women Say No, The Pic Won't Go

The trouble seemed to be this: MGM had spent lots for a property adapted to Broadway success about men under stress of war, a war ended several years before. Legiters would pass on heart interest, result no women, that is, not one, in the cast. MGM hewed to that for translate of Command Decision to film, so no ground was given to worrying wives or sweethearts back home per formula of combat stories gone before. Fliers and those who'd led on the ground were invited to advance screen Command Decision and fill out cards re authenticity. Thumbs up from these put the feature on track for Academy consideration, perhaps a Best Picture for 1948, thus a three-theatre "Pre-Release" in Los Angeles for Christmas of that year to qualify for votes. Full-dress military police would act as honor guards for these openers, Command Decision a most lavish of postwar tributes to those who'd won the peace. Reward for Leo's effort was the L.A. Army/Navy Club placing Command Decision among ten all-time best war pics, a list that included Wings, The Big Parade, A FarewellTo Arms, and more recent Destination Tokyo, They Were Expendable, and A Walk In The Sun. All well and good this, but what of hinterland houses that relied on women to fill seats, or bring men/boys who would?

Problems arose in wake of ads done for the pressbook, none of which were femme focused, a mistake that showmen on the ground would have to address. MGM had done a teaser trailer aimed partly to women, but it was too small an effort. Command Decision was getting known as a new year's (and 25th anniversary) Metro show with appeal limited to men, and that was deadly considering fact that it was Mom, dates, and gal-pals that made command decision of what men/boys saw at theatres. How then to assure women that Command Decision was their kind of entertainment? One way, a most obvious one, was to emphasize Clark Gable (as in "The Ladies Love ..."), still swooning even on approach to a third decade serving Leo. Distaff columnists liberally quoted in ads guaranteed sisterhood that Command Decision would please. Ads shown here are from Buffalo and Kansas City, a pair of keys that would have been put on notice as to selling snafus on Command Decision (as in word received from L.A., NYC, and Chicago), and making appropriate adjustment to their own promoting. Kinks could often be ironed out this way, subsequent daters learning from errors made on first-runs.

More Command Decision at Greenbriar Archive.
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