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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The King Finally Crowns Himself


Clark Gable Produces The King and Four Queens (1956)



Jane Russell, husband Bob Waterfield w/ Kay & Clark Gable
To question of whether Clark Gable was able to trade on his "King" status among lead men, there was this aptly titled partnering of him and "Queens" times four who we have no doubt he'll tame. So by all rights, The King and Four Queens should have been a hit, but for several then-reasons, was not. Some can be divined from watching --- it really isn't much of a western, especially for those who expect action of the genre. Selling was "Hotter" than content, too often a case where merchandisers were handed a stiff. Director Raoul Walsh knew The King and Four Queens smelled while making it, would confide same to colleague Samuel Fuller, who was shooting another western on nearby location. Gable co-produced with Jane Russell and husband Bob Waterfield, latter an ex-football pro. Russell would have joined the cast, but was prohibited by terms of an ongoing Howard Hughes contract. Waterfield rightly pointed out that if she did the co-lead, "the audience will know which one Gable ends up with in the last reel" (obvious enough with final pick Eleanor Parker). Still, The King and Four Queens might have fooled enough customers to go into profit ... but for a single enemy come to call on Clark Gable from living rooms nationwide.

Producing Partners Waterfield and Gable Confer w/ Director Raoul Walsh

Gable deplored old films on television, and said so to all comers. He feared no one would pay to see him in theatres when they could have a younger him for free at home. Otherwise, he enjoyed the medium, especially sports being broadcast. As to otherwise mediocrity, "TV has the brains and the techniques behind it. It is going to get better," said Gable. Acid test of his theory was The King and Four Queens going into release just as massive pile of pre-48 MGM's landed on the tube, as in everywhere, for most viewing markets bought in, Leo being a best retailer of old features so far. Deal for The King and Four Queens had been cut back in April 1955, before anyone saw such a dump coming. Gable was in for salary and generous slice of pie (10% of gross, or 50% of net, whichever was greater, said Variety's Army Archerd on 3-28-56). A previous free-lance deal with Fox had given him percentage of gross receipts, which put CG in the chips, but left 20th with a loss, at least for The Tall Men, his second for them. Gable was still a meaningful name, however, so United Artists was pleased to tie on with his project, kick in some financing, and handle distribution. "UA Hails The King," they'd say in proud trade ads for The Last Man In Wagon Mound, which was working title for The King and Four Queens.



"Gabco Productions" had a same bugaboo as other indies: "The big problem is finding a good story," said its chief, who knew from bad stories he'd been handed as an obedient contract player for most of past twenty-five years. The Last Man In Wagon Mound at least looked like a cinch, what with roguish Gable as rooster in a crowded hen house, but where were other roosters he could peck at? The King and Four Queens as finished was notably shy of action. Gable's being chased at a credits start. We don't know for what, and never find out. Maybe the movie would have been better to show events leading up to that. Anyhow, he's soon confined and under watchful gun of matriarchal Jo Van Fleet and bevy of beauty he'll seduce for sake of hidden gold. This sounded like bee's knees for sex, but a Production Code was still in force, and besides, Gable's was a family audience. He least of anyone had desire to make a dirty movie. Result was fade/dissolves off hug/kisses as engaged by the King and his Queens, which disappointed adults and bored kids. Shootin' irons Gable brandishes in poster art are not in evidence here, other than trick firing aimed at nothing other than tossed coins. What The King and Four Queens needed, and didn't get, was male opposition, preferably in groups, for this King to overcome.



Gable was a truest holdout against television, despite one in "every room" in his house ("If I didn't have them, I'd probably go out to more movies," he told Army Archerd). Gable had pat answer should broadcasters come calling: "I sent word out through my agent that I was not available for TV. I like the picture business, and I don't want to mix the two ... I don't want to be in competition with myself." Time brought new realities, however. Many millions more were watching the tube than buying tickets by 1956. If you wanted exposure to these, let alone sell a new feature, it would be necessary to meet the enemy and make him your partner, no matter distaste of the enterprise. Bearding this lion came easier where den-master was old Gable pal Ed Sullivan, who had after all crowned the King back in 1938 and made nationwide hay of the coronation. Could Ed do as much for The King and Four Queens? Gable appeared on the CBS Toast Of The Town program in hopes he would. This was the star's first time on home screens, other than Metro oldies poured over late hours.


Sullivan was a friend to movie merchandisers, having been in bed with Fox for The Best Things In Life Are Free, and on behalf of UA with Trapeze. He'd fly to The King and Four Queens' Utah location in May 1956, the idea to explore the film's making and do a brief skit with Gable. "Comedy bit seemed more than a bit forced," said Variety's review of the broadcast, the segment seeming "to have more of Sullivan than it did of Gable." Amid crowded hour that also included Maria Callas, Dick Shawn, Teresa Brewer, and Collier's All-American Football Team, Clark Gable's TV debut was at least a highlight, but what would that do for The King and Four Queens? UA sales had work cut out for them. Two-Gun Gable of the ads was misleading, as customers would learn too late, and possibly warn friends about. Could vigorous selling at local level save bacon? Toward finding out, UA launched a contest for participating showmen, with $2500 cash and "An All-Expense Paid Trip To Hollywood!" for the winner.

United Artists Merchandisers Look For Sales Angles


Such a pitch to exhibitors smacked of desperation, wise ones sensing a tough sell. Good product spoke for itself, and didn't need such help down the distribution line. Trade shows told truth of the matter. The King and Four Queens fell short of promises they'd be expected to make, and no one liked misleading customers, for they had way of biting back when so suckered. Folks still liked Gable, him a brand name built over decades and happily associated with what sold best in movies --- action and sex. Yes, he was older, and others had supplanted the King at top of polls, but there was still willingness to go when he offered something worthy. Cascade of his old stuff on TV showed youth what Gable had done at his best, and who knows but what a few might drop into The King and Four Queens to see if he still had chops. Mom and Dad knew affirmative of that, but they tended to stay home unless a special drew them on, which The King and Four Queens was not. The sales contest, then, was making best of a bad job, and at least fired up management at local levels. If they'd not push hard for sake of the picture, then let them do so for the cash reward.



LOOK magazine kicked in with a Gable profile. He was always news, a part of history really. Vet columnists were also ready to lend a hand, like Joe Hyams in three parts at twenty-five newspapers. Hyams and journo fellowship long knew Gable as a good scout, and where The King and Four Queens could be boosted, they'd do so. Ultimate take of $2.199 million in domestic rentals, with $1.2 million foreign, was a letdown, if not expected for merchandise this was. Maybe it was a younger man's action game ... Burt Lancaster as The Kentuckian had taken a brisk $4.9 million a year before, Kirk Douglas in The Indian Fighter getting the same figure prior to that, both for United Artists release. Gable perhaps saw handwriting and veered to comedy afterward. The King and Four Queens did not play ABC primetime movies as did so many UA's in the early 60's. In fact, no network ran it. Gable had a clause requiring his OK for release of the film to TV, so delay due to him, and subsequently his estate, may have scotched early effort to put The King and Four Queens on viewing schedules. There's a Blu-ray out from Kino that looks fine, properly wide and with good color. As final flush of lady-killing, would-be action man Gable, The King and Four Queens is a must, and it matters a lot less after sixty years that this show delivers less than was hoped. We could say that, after all, for half at least of everything we see.




Sunday, June 26, 2016

Where A Great Actor Drew The Line ...


Once Again --- Lon Chaney Shall Not Die!

What we know of the great Lon Chaney sure wasn't gleaned from him. This was a silent man in more ways than characters he created on screen. Like any working stiff, he punched a time clock and quit at finish of day's work, not at all like fellow stars who ran the race 24/7. Chaney had more in common with trash collectors and sewer workers than glitter gods he led in popularity, but not temperament. This may be reason why trash collectors and sewer workers loved Lon like no other picture player. They knew he spoke for them, even in guise of freaks and monsters. Chaney disdained interviews but was evidently civil to writers just doing their job on film sets. One of these was Inez Wallace, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer's woman on the scene in Hollywood. She won the trust of Hollywood by telling mostly truth and keeping her word re off-record exchanges. Wallace sat with Chaney during idle time between takes, in plain conversation rather than interview mode. He spoke, she listened, both understanding talk wouldn't go beyond studio walls. She kept the promise so long as he lived, finally gave it up in a tribute column printed 9/7/30 in the Plain-Dealer. I came across the page ("Women's Magazine and Amusement Section") during scan of theatre ads. It sure reads to me like Chaney in more-less his own words, these a seldom find then or now.

The Well-Traveled Inez Wallace Received by India Hosts

We don't learn what year their conversation took place, or which film Chaney was working on when they met, but here's philosophy in part as expressed by him to her: "I can't see any sense in publicity. Either the public likes you or they don't," this a stand we know Chaney took, even as he did cooperate in publicity, a vital if onerous aspect of merchandising any product, movies and their stars no different from whatever sold retail. Lon tells of how sick he got of "ham actors" during struggle days (as property man), always bragging and laden with press clippings. "I made up my mind that if I ever did have any luck, I was going to soft-pedal the self-advertising --- because I learned that the better actor a man was, the less he talked about it." That's a quote characteristic of Chaney. I recall similar words spoken later by Humphrey Bogart, he and Lon hewing to similar outlook, with similar result in terms of accomplishment and lasting value of work.

Chaney Paying Health Penalty for Starring in The Penalty

Chaney deplored actors "selling their souls for publicity," forgetting about their own families because they were "so obsessed with what other actors would think about them." Chaney spoke of the "terrific fight" he had in keeping his home life private, that when his studio day is through, "I'M THROUGH --- and I don't mean perhaps." What intrigued me most about the Chaney-Wallace discussion was reference to chronic back pain Lon had experienced since The Penalty in 1920. "It was a great part, but I wish I'd never played it," said Chaney, his doctor now forbidding roles that required twisting or binding of body parts. "It's going to be tough on me to give up the contortions because they are half of my success." Chaney leaves Wallace with impression that he may have to quit the screen because of his back. She ends her article and posthumously published interview with speculation that Chaney " ... really gave his life for his art, as he has never been well since this trouble with his back began ..." One more long-ago conversation to add to Lon lore, if deepening his mystery rather than resolving it, but like any LC speculation, welcome at Greenbriar.




Thursday, June 23, 2016

"America's Funniest Family" In 1966 ...


Shall We Celebrate 50 Years of Munster Go Home?

Advise for anyone who's been holding on to Munster Go Home posters or memorabilia --- sell now. Those there for the network run would have to be sixty, or pushing it, so how much longer can the stuff fetch hundreds? Nostalgia is an engine that eventually plays out ... or dies out. Even sub-channels are ditching really old TV. The Munsters debuted in 1964 and was gone within two years (5/12/66). Batman was credited with doing it in. Universal released a Munster feature after the show's demise(summer '66). Fox did the same for Batman. 1966 was a great year to be a fan, or become one. There was even Star Trek coming with the new school year. Add to these Lost In Space, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Addams Family (what episodes were left of it), so many more of fanta-sort that glutted airwaves and would cede only to horror/sci-fi features that filled daytime or late, late slots. Keeping up with it all was full-time work. Munster Go Home was a "Good Times" DVD I found forlorn and unopened in the basement --- why would I have bought it in the first place? --- but at long last has come revisit. Will Greenbriar's be the only fiftieth year recognition?


Munster Go Home was never much good, but it was in color. And not just color, but rich IB Technicolor, a process in waning days, but vibrant enough still to haul weakest product across finish lines (Munster Go Home was shot on Eastman negative, but prints were Tech, which made stunning difference). I saw it during a week visiting Grandmother in Kings Mountain, NC. The Munster engagement was followed by Paradise --- Hawaiian Style, also Technicolor, also not so good. A drug store next to the Joy Theatre got in the Castle Of Frankenstein 1967 Fearbook, a colossal event as there had lately been a regular issue arrived on stands, and two in succession was nirvana beyond words. The monster mags embraced fad TV because it sold copies, thus CoF with Batman and later Star Trek covers, Monster World #2 putting the Munsters on its front, and later The Addams Family. I regarded these a pander, but a necessary commercial expediency. There was always Chaney Sr., Karloff, et al, on the inside. We knew where Beck and Ackerman's hearts really lay.


I'm sure I never laughed once at Munster Go Home in 1966, the series strictly one-joke for me, and besides, sending up classic monsters was never a concept I'd endorse. People seemed too near to laughing at them as it was, thanks to chatterbox late night hosts, so why encourage it further with spoof movies and TV? It occurs to me now that the Munsters may have been the only meaningful exploit for Universal's monster franchise during the 60's. What else did they have beyond this and licensing the images for Aurora models, here-and-there toys, billfolds, tee-shirts, all pretty cheesy, that utilized familiar and Uni-owned faces. Lugosi, Jr. sued for monies deriving from license of his father's image, but what monies? (monster mags didn't pay for use of stills from Universal, or anyone's, horror movies) I don't know of any concerted effort Universal made to spread its horror legacy, despite the 60's being peak of a monster boom and youth's shared hunger for Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, and so on. Now we have Universal concocting a multi-million plan to resurrect its monsters a la the Marvel heroes, but will that come to greater success than relative non-effort of fifty years ago?


One thing Munster Go Home did right was finish-up with Herman racing his "Drag-ula" against sport cars in an English derby (the film set there, which disappointed some who preferred the familiar Munster house setting). A smart idea was offering the Drag-ula as a model kit, Grandpa at the wheel rather than Herman. Toys being a humbler enterprise in 1966, I'd not imagine the replica reaped millions, but whatever it got was so much found money for Universal, theirs an exertion little beyond signing of a license agreement. Munster Go Home had been shot during March-April 1966, Army Archerd of Variety calling it a "hush-hush vox pouli test" by Universal to maybe revive the cancelled series in event the movie clicked (show principals were under contract through July). This time it was figured to go out under U's syndication arm rather than with a network. Yvonne DeCarlo was meanwhile gratified by royalties she was getting for "Lily Munster" toys being sold to tourists at Universal's gift shop, though it was stipulated that should she costume as Lily during her upcoming nightery act, the studio would claim 50% of her take. The solution? --- play it strictly as Yvonne and not Lily. There is a 2006 DVD of Munster Go Home that gets good reviews at Amazon, selling at bargain $7.58 (on a double with TV-movie The Munster's Revenge).




Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Other Miller Band I Didn't Know


News To Me: Glenn Miller Had A Brother and His Name Was Herb

Here was occasion to learn something new, an ad from 1943 touting Glenn Miller's brother as bandleading attraction at Cleveland's RKO Palace. I never realized Glenn had a sibling who also performed, let alone that they resembled each other so. Turns out Herb managed Glenn's band through the 30's, had played a trumpet himself since age 12, and carried on the Miller legacy right into the 80's. Herb did trumpet duty with Charlie Spivak after the manager stint with Glenn, then formed his own group while earning a master's degree at the University Of Michigan. This ad finds Herb sharing a bill with Ann Corio, a burlesque name who also did a string of exotic cheapies for PRC, then Monogram. These paved way for successful stage appearances through the war, rather like Bela Lugosi's traveling spook show getting tread from budget pics he headlined for those same companies. Her mild (assuredly very mild) strip act assured Ms. Corio top placement on the Palace's bill, even as her "Undress With Finesse" act would need to be toned way down for family patronage. To satisfaction of latter came Eddie Foy, Jr., a vaude face since forever and lately onscreen in Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which he played Eddie Sr. Final note re Herb Miller --- at first when I saw he was "Carrying On In The Miller Manner," I thought the performance was post- Glenn's demise, but turns out Palace date at hand was October 8, 1943, so Carrying On must have been in terms of Herb continuing while Glenn served with armed forces.




Sunday, June 19, 2016

Masterpiece On The Chopper's Block


Citizen Kane Comes To Television

Citizen Kane Makes L.A. Art House Landing in May, 1956 


First off, research for this piece was done primarily by writer/historian Russell Merritt, who generously shared with me his findings. We both were interested in movie afterlives on TV, especially notable ones like Citizen Kane. I waited on good visuals before doing this post, and so came ads for Gotham's first televising of Kane during Thanksgiving week of 1958. This wasn't the film's TV premiere, however. Los Angeles seems to have had first home exposure to Citizen Kane on January 6, 1958, over Channel 9, KHJ (the station ran Kane each night for a week, save Saturday). Most of the RKO library had been playing television from 1956, but some titles were withheld, including Citizen Kane. The reason was a theatrical reissue, Kane enjoying success at art houses and even a few mainstream situations. I'm aware of no TV broadcasts of Kane prior to L.A.'s in January 1958, but would welcome data to the contrary. New York's WOR (Channel 9) had Citizen Kane some months later (November 1958) on its Million Dollar Movie, a showcase for their RKO library. There were two primetime playoffs each night of Thanksgiving week, the first at 7:30, and again at 10:30. The Welles classic occupied a two-hour time slot, with regular programming during the 9:30-10:30 break between the two Kane showings (among these, Science-Fiction Theatre, Harness Racing from Yonkers, Top Pro Golf, and Man Without A Gun, starring Rex Reason). Variety noted fact that ads for WOR's broadcast were carried in the Hearst-owned New York Journal-American, a newspaper that had banned mention of Orson Welles or Citizen Kane when the film was released in 1941.


Welcome as it may have been to free viewing, there were those who deplored surgery WOR performed on Citizen Kane. The New York Times' Jack Gould spoke for disaffected fans of Welles and his masterpiece. To Gould's mind, any viewing experience would be compromised by "the rules of TV advertising." While acknowledging the station's expansion from a customary ninety-minute slot to two hours for Kane, Gould condemned "a total of nine interruptions" during the film. Within these, the columnist estimated "roughly twenty advertisements for individual services, plus several more advertisements in behalf of WOR-TV's own schedule." Citizen Kane ran 119 minutes, so of course there would have to be cuts. What remained of Kane was free at least, thus a far larger NY audience seeing it on the "Million Dollar Movie" than had done so in paying situations. Citizen Kane would widen reach into other television markets. Chicago saw it on December 4, 1958 ... in a ninety-minute time slot, so imagine the vivisection when you factor in that plus commercials inserted. WTTG in Washington had a 1-4-59 broadcast along with an interesting blurb in TV listings: "The movie parallels the life of a great publishing figure who was the Nation's most successful failure." A slam on departed Hearst by a rival paper?

Russell Merritt's new book, co-written by J.B. Kaufman, Silly Symphonies: A Companion To The Classic Cartoon Series, is coming soon, and available for pre-order now at Amazon. It is a second and expanded edition of an original that has been out of print for some time and is highly collectible.




Thursday, June 16, 2016

Monthly Balm For Film Lovers


A 70's Club We Wanted To Join

One upon a time there was a Book-Of-The Month club for movie lovers. The ad above is from 1973, which is close enough to when Movie Book Club started. This was a first monthly obligation by mail I'd been involved with. Record clubs were around, but tainted by parents who hit ceiling when offspring joined without permission, leaving Mom/Dad to rid family of the incubus. Temptation to join was bushel of goods for a dollar, sometimes less, after which body and soul, certainly allowance, belonged to the company store. I thought long before pulling trigger on the Movie Book Club. Would they send me to Devil's Island for missing a payment? What if good titles played out and I was obligated to buy novelizations of latest disaster pics? Doubt was removed from a start, for the Movie Book Club proved a very good thing. I'd be a member for almost as long as the club itself lasted, which memory suggests was plentiful years. 1973 saw dawn upon boom in movie books, enough output finally to support a club. Members would receive a monthly update, with a suggested volume plus others you could choose instead, or add on. You had to let them know by a set date lest the selection arrive along with billing.

I always looked forward to the newsletters, so never was stung by unwanted stuff. My interest being strong as it was, there were always titles to entice. Note the picks here for new members: Citadel's "Films Of ..." series in abundance, a new one of these every few weeks, it seemed. Back in pre-imdb, this was only way to survey an entire career, with photos besides. There were also the William K. Everson books, each a gem, and no less pleasing to read today. Everson was among treasured few with real wit to his writing. I'd baldly imitate him in whatever college themes I was pressed to compose. Getting books through the club was lots easier and more convenient than bird-dogging stores (none around here catered to buffs) or ordering from a publisher. Was there any figure so solitary as a vintage movie fan in 1973? The Movie Book Club, plus few mags and fanzines being published, made it seem we were part of a broader community, even if getting to membership meant crossing one of more state lines.




Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Hilton Hysteria In Middletown!


Novelty Act Writ Large

Those sweethearts from Freaks were a busy conjoined pair in years leading up to, and after, the Tod Browning classic of 1932. North Carolina had a stake, it seems, in Siamese twins. The Barnum-exploited originals, Chang and Eng Bunker, retired to my home county, had a passel of kids, went broke after our side lost in the Civil War. A hundred years later, the Hiltons were traveling with a Freaks revival when their roadshow sharpie left his troupe high/dry near Charlotte. The gals wound up weighing meat at a local market through much of the 60's, died in 1969. This vaude appearance was much earlier, 12/26/28, in Middletown, Ohio. Everyone from miles around was figured to be there. The Hiltons did scores of stops like this, real talent an augment to the physical novelty. Male performers would often come out and dance with the pair, one such swain a young Bob Hope. Also-on-Sorg-bill The Burns Twins are hopelessly outclassed for being mere twins, and not conjoined. Statistics at the time said nine sets of Siamese twins had been born in the last 200 years, so chance of copycats crabbing the Hilton's act was nil. There's a recent documentary about the girls. Apparently, they were abused pretty badly by handlers. The duo has a large fan/cult following. Their other movie, a starring one (Chained For Life) has shown up on TCM, and is available on DVD.
grbrpix@aol.com
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