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Friday, September 19, 2014

A Leap From Small Screen To Large

James Arness Takes Starring Part in Gun The Man Down (1956)

John Wayne's Batjac company produced several westerns written by Burt Kennedy (Seven Men From Now most notable), and I can't help thinking Wayne would have been better served starring in at least one of them rather than going abroad for Legend Of The Lost and The Barbarian and The Geisha. A Gun The Man Down was modest, yes, little better than a TV program at feature-length to Wayne's mind, and maybe that's why he used Jim Arness, a vid-hit in Gunsmoke, to lead. Arness had to be borrowed from the series by former employer Wayne, with Gun The Man Down listed in trades as independent effort of producer Robert Morrison (Wayne's brother) and Andrew McLaglen, this the latter's first feature credit as director. It's a spare western. mostly town-set for economy's sake, with good dialogue by Kennedy taking up slack for lack of action. Arness is an "outlaw" by definition, his skirts kept clean (other gang members do the killing) so as to survive a Code-sanctioned finish. The Morrison-McLaglen team guided Seven Men From Now (its director Budd Boetticher) and Man In The Vault in a same year, though John Wayne confided in a letter to John Ford that maybe he'd brought them along too fast. Based on good result got with Gun The Man Down, JW may have been unduly critical.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lorre Lands at 20th

Spies Steal Secrets in Crack-Up (1936)

Not all Fox Cinema Archive releases are botched transfers of Cinemascope or vintage Technicolor backlog. Some, like today's Crack-Up, are plenty satisfactory and worth the dip, especially on sale terms like one Amazon is having now, Crack-Up and others of the 20th line going for $14.49 as opposed to $19.98 retail. They haven't shied from B's off their shelves --- there's even Jane Withers and the Jones Family offered, though neither of these have Peter Lorre in first Fox flowering. Crack-Up was the German exotic's initial bid for screen normalcy, his parts previous leaning so sinister as to make crowds wonder if Lorre himself was tainted by M's unwholesome strain. For Crack-Up, we'd get him both ways, as jester and fiend, the first a disguise for the second. Either way Pete's creepy, his brain damage put-on all too convincing for a first act, so much so that we're relieved to see him emerge as spy ring leader who freely executes those who fail foreign power he serves. And pray what nationality does Crack-Up Lorre represent? On basis on Teutonic accent and heel-clicking among subordinates, it's got to be Germany, already in Hollywood crosshairs as opponent we'll eventually face.

Crack-Up fell among B's out of 20th, its negative cost a lean $224K, in line with others of budget class. Samuel G. Engel would start as credited producer here, from which would follow others of modest goal. For Lorre too, Crack-Up was a test run. Could his odd appeal be domesticated? Success at that would come with Mr. Moto, which Lorre acknowledged was done "to get the flavor of M out of the cinema palate of the American fan." He'd be well paid for Crack-Up: four weeks guaranteed at $2500 per, plus first billing. People were curious about Lorre and wanted to see more of him. After all, there was no player remotely like this on our shores. Crack-Up would also focus on enhance of Brian Donlevy, but to what end? As lead man material, he came off shifty and seldom to be trusted. That would be case here, Donlevy seeming to confirm with each part that he'd work best as a heavy. Crack-Up runs seventy minutes, concerns itself with a secret propeller design stolen in service to one foreign power, diverted then to another, J. Carroll Naish in service to that. Confusion might result from inattention, though the end has a curious pathos. Fox B's were unpredictable, some outstanding of the type. Crack-Up clicks for being fast, fun, and Lorre-centric, along with bonus of a DVD that looks good as this does.

So the still above, taken on presumed location ... the dapper gent who's seated, clad in arresting Southwest garb, is none other than silent era stylist Rex Ingram, who earlier gave us The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, The Magician, Mare Nostrum, more 20's classics (I could almost mistake him for Tom Conway). The elegantly dressed lady is Mrs. Ingram, Alice Terry, once co-star to Valentino and a stellar silent name in her own right. Fox's still caption says they've come to visit "friend of year's standing" Peter Lorre, at left. Had Lorre made acquaintance during extended late 20's period when the Ingrams were making films in Europe? That's Crack-Up director Malcolm St. Clair in fedora behind Alice. He'd been a veteran at comedy (w/Keaton), many features for Paramount, including early talkie The Canary Murder Case, and was now starting off a second wind for Fox in their B unit. The group, including Brian Donlevy at right, "spent much time reminiscing," according to studio caption.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

1952's "Best Picture" --- and Why Not?

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) Still On My Favorites List

I'm yet to forgive a neighbor kid's older brother for dragging us out of the Liberty after the big train crash, well before conclusion of DeMille's circus epic. Greatest Show was long, you see, and we were past due home for supper. I had boosted the show at school that day as biggest of big, but '52 being a long way back of '67, no one among peers had heard of it. This happened the same year when The Alamo passed through again before surrender to TV. In fact, The Greatest Show On Earth would vid-land within months of this last theatre run, a pity as it's one (like all DeMilles) that plays ideally on a large screen. An interview I once read with a programming exec said Greatest Show tended to bomb when tube-cast, and yes, it did perform below other Paramounts that TV-preemed during the 60's (ABC's Sunday night premiere ratings a disappointment). So why was that? Had audiences wearied of the circus?

Greatest Show was where urgency of large scale moviemaking (specifically DeMille's) met its sandlot equivalent. A reason C.B. carried such conviction as narrator was his identification with grave responsibility of putting on truly huge shows, which his Greatest is, whatever pooh-poohs have been dealt it since. What DeMille film wasn't, in the end, a big circus? Speaking to long in effect fashion of calling GSOE the "worst" of Academy Best Picture winners, I could name one dozen, if not two, to rank below it (most any, for instance, from the last thirty years). In fact, Greatest Show is among personal 50's faves, an entertainment sledgehammer like boys use in the C.B.-narrated prologue to nail down tent poles. DeMille knew precisely what would sell a 1952 audience, and delivered it. No actual circus I ever attended was half so pleasing, though admittedly moth-eaten ones that came to our town were no meaningful competition. C.B. turned down Burt Lancaster for the aerialist part eventually played by Cornel Wilde because of Burt's suspect politics at the time. What a loss on one hand, but had BL done The Great Sebastian, would he have passed on Trapeze four years later for not wanting to repeat himself?

Betty Hutton is her usual acquired-taste self. I know people who won't watch her in anything, so there went some of Greatest Show's viewership for all time. Charlton Heston's leather jacket and beat-up hat were as much the character as Chuck's performing. Did teenage boys ape the look as they would James Dean's later red jacket pose, frankly fey in comparison to rugged Heston? Some circus acts are extended, which can wear patience, but DeMille was enamored of all things sawdust, much like patronage in days when more had attended, and loved, Barnum and Bailey. It's really DeMille's semi-doc approach that works best, his stopping the show throughout to explain just what circus-folk endured to get under canvas. Never mind special-effects then vs. now: Greatest Show's train wreck is a whale of an (almost) finish; I thought it the most spectacular thing so far in movies back in '67. James Stewart's mercy-killing doctor on the run was my idea of Best Drama as well: I teared up and still do at Button's too-brief reunion with his mother who sits fretful among the big-top audience. The Greatest Show On Earth plays on VuDu and Amazon in HD and looks fantastic, being long-term a best display of Technicolor at peak glory.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Fox's Cure For Anyone's Depression

The U.S. "Department Of Amusement" Offers Stand Up and Cheer (1934)

There's a splendid book by Henry Jenkins called What Made Pistachio Nuts that explores vaudeville performers as they translated to early-30's screen comedy. A number of them appear in Stand Up and Cheer, a pastiche of stand-alone acts and musical highlights barely related to a backstage drama with Warner Baxter, embattled as in 42nd Street, trying to put on a national revue. He's been president-appointed as Cabinet Secretary of Amusement, which might not have been a bad idea in real life. Will Rogers dreamed up the concept for Fox, but wouldn't play the lead, thus Baxter in reprise of his signature WB role. Stand Up and Cheer is recalled, if at all, as an early showcase for Shirley Temple, who gets but few scenes and a single song/dance number. The print 20th offers on DVD is incomplete --- over ten minutes is out --- there being no good excuse for that as the footage is known to exist. There are good, some startling moments, the latter put forth by Mitchell and Durant as acrobatic dignitaries using each other like beach balls, theirs the Stand Up section you'll take to troubled sleep (how did these two keep heads on straight?). Stepin' Fetchit is also in, though some of his are among parts missing. "Hillbilly" music gets saluted in strictly Broadway terms, an odd clash of styles. The 30's phenomenon of mountain melodies was nicely explored by Gregory A. Waller in an essay, Hillbilly Music and Will Rogers: Small-Town Picture Shows in the 1930's, which appears in a book Waller edited, Moviegoing In America (highly recommended).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Something Sorta New In Cartoons

It's 1929, and Rudy Ising Has a Cartoon Deal For You

When Bosko Was The Freshest Talk-Ink Kid In Town

How many Disney artists in the late 20's sat at easels scheming to develop their own characters and open their own shops? Hugh Harman was planning Bosko from 1927, and registered drawings for copyright in January 1928. All this while he still drew for, and drew a paycheck from, Walt. I wonder if quieter moments found Harman noodling on Bosko, his shoulders forward and arms wrapped round drawings done on company time. Risk, of course, was Walt coming round to inspect work, both in and out of refuse cans, as was his wont where employee output was concerned. Did he have notion of what Harman was up to? Anyway, he'd get the message when HH and partner from Kansas City roots Rudy Ising signed with Charles Mintz, till-then Disney distributor with a plot of his own to purloin Oswald The Lucky (and Lifeline for Disney) Rabbit.

Harman, Ising, and a pal back from K.C., Friz Freleng, did not last long with the new Oswald set-up (all three out by spring '29), and at loose ends for employment. This was the moment to gamble on Bosko, full enough conceived by Harman-Ising to try out a demo reel for (if any) buyers. Sustaining dream of animators was a series commitment from one of established studios. Necessary from start was for Bosko to talk, mid-to-late 1929 a barren ground for silent cartoons. Formats to present animated characters were pretty limited, all the more so with unaccustomed sound. H&I tendered Rudy as a Max Fleischer-ish artist busy at task of creating Bosko, a human or animal?, black or white? riff on other folk's cartooning. The game is tipped when Bosko gives with Amos n' Andy idiom and goes into Jolson inspired Sonny Boy (a Brunswick, and later Warners-owned, tune, lifted for this occasion).

Ising at least looks prosperous in double-breasted vest with lapels. Was this his best, if not only, suit at the time? Noise on the soundtrack seems at first to be his pencil scratching on the pad, but no, it's just a scratchy track. Money for this reel had to have been got nickels at a time, as none of participants were flush, and the Crash was just around corners. Sound as practiced by outsiders like Harman and Ising was jerry-built at best, as even richest of studios were still feeling their way through voice plus picture. To Bosko and creator's credit, he does stay in sync through converse with Ising, even if recording levels differ between them (the character's dialogue was spoke just off camera at the same times as Ising's, the animation added later). Well heah I is, and I shoa feel good were immortal first words from Bosko, followed by tap dance and some whistling, then piano accompany to Sonny Boy. Bosko is nothing if not eager, even desperate, to please. Two years of hope and effort by Harman-Ising hung on luck they'd need to put him over.

They weren't really offering anything new. Sound cartoons had past being a startling novelty, and Bosko was nothing novel to look at. The fact we'd hear him blow a raspberry was no rack to hang a year's contract on. Hugh Harman carried the reel around town like a vacuum cleaner salesman to chorus of doors slamming. "You're too early" with sound was probably polite blow-off from contacts who didn't want Bosko cartoons in any event. Luck so needed came courtesy Leon Schlesinger, who already knew there was interest in animation at Warners, him dug in deep there thanks to family connection, prior dealings, and good will with Jack L. They were ready to tie in with any half-decent cartoon series he could deliver, provided price was right (as in miser-cheap), the reels to augment prolific Vitaphone Varieties from WB. The January 1930 deal with Schlesinger was for one cartoon per month, a goal Harman and Ising could meet, provided they didn't sleep much. Thus emerged Looney Tunes, and eventually Merrie Melodies. As Walt often said, It all started with a mouse, so then did Warner cartoons begin with Bosko, The Talk-Ink Kid, not so noted an event, but history withal and four minutes well worth close inspect. It's included as a bonus feature on Thunderbean's Blu-Ray release, Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, from which Greenbriar hopes to visit other content over coming weeks. Much that is rare and fascinating is here.

More beginner Bosko HERE.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Every 40's Boy Had Or Wanted One ...

Where Monogram's Hot Rod (1950) Meets The Road

Kids and their hot rods ... is there a modern equivalent? Does youth any longer care about speed, other than what's achieved w/ vid games or band width? I never souped up an engine, but this Monogram budgeter makes it look like fun. The serious issue was teens using public roads to race, it leading to many then-casualties. Hot Rod is for state-sanctioned, thus safety assured, contests on dedicated tracks, model son James Lydon (as opposed to "Jimmy" of previous work) teaming with stern judge dad Art Baker to make organized racing a reality. To this nod for social responsibility was added jalopies in fast action, doing the very things Hot Rod counsels against; in fact, producer Jerry Thomas called cast and crew back after filming to shoot more chase/race stuff as sweetener. Thomas wanted also to juice casting with former Our Gang members, telling Variety in 6/50 that he'd use them "chiefly for exploitation purposes." Thus came Tommy (Butch) Bond, but no others from the Gang. Maybe they didn't care to be exploited. 1950 was a busy year for Monogram, spokesman producer Scott R. Dunlap announcing sixteen features for release, plus six more under the Allied Artists banner, AA being Mono's upward reaching alter-ego. Hot Rod is pleasingly available from Warner Archive on remastered disc, their customary A+ job.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Laurel and Hardy Getting Used To Sound

Laurel and Hardy Get Some On-Set Coaching For Their Spanish Language Night Owls

Stan/Babe Reach Beyond Borders with Night Owls (1930)

A 60's fan wrote retired-to-the-Oceana Stan and reported purchase of "silent" Night Owls from Blackhawk Films. Laurel's reply counseled that it was a sound comedy, and should be seen that way. Maybe he was remembering the celebration of noise this early talker was. The team knew early on that laughs were sweetened by judicious use of sound over dialogue. Hold the talk, but clang the anvil. Night Owls has burglars Stan/Babe trying at very quiet entry to target house, failure a comedic consequence of tipped garbage pails, yowling cats, and fallen vases on ways in. Set outdoors, Night Owls was actually done on Roach stages, so each noise reverberates off walls, and that makes for nice confined effect. How many yoks could you get from Babe's coat/trousers being ripped? Plenty, as evidenced here. The best Laurel/Hardy comedies were the simplest; this pair needed plot contrivance least of any clowns. Night Owls was so basic as to last career's life for the team: they were still doing the break-in routine in Brit music halls during the 50's. Night Owls was also first to add foreign-language versions, spoken phonetically by Laurel and Hardy plus revolving support players versed in respective languages, in this case Spanish and Italian. Here was a doable task for L&H, as they needed not words to convey humor,  this surprisingly in a '30 marketplace newly drunk on dialogue, once-greats of the silent era Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton having woke with hangovers after initial try at talk.
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