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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

More Spooky Than Funny?


Paramount Says --- Sell The Cat and The Canary Either Way



It never mattered how much comic relief you threw at horror films in the 30's. They'd still be scary. I'll bet as many youngsters got nightmares from watching The Cat and The Canary as from various Frankensteins or Draculas. Value in chillers came of setting and atmosphere, which Cat/Canary had in abundance. A haunted house with secret passages is still a formidable thing no matter your approach to it, murder a serious business whatever wisecracks made by Bob Hope. At least that was case in 1939, when Hope was not yet confirmed as full-time jester and demolisher of screen genres. Here he is at a start as sheep in would-be wolf clothing, more earnest than as the braggart he'd later evolve to. Scaring skittish Bob was as sure-fire as would be case for Red Skelton or Lou Costello, repeat cycle for these clowns so long as they did movies. What seemed a contradiction in the scare-pair Hope made with Paramount, Canary and then The Ghost Breakers, was done-straight settings with humor eclipsed by fright. Maybe adults weren't affected, but children surely were. Here was a wire movies walked whenever laughter met thrills --- even Disney with his Shaggy Dog had moments to go rough on small fry.






Paramount selling saw the contradiction. They'd promote The Cat and The Canary more for chills than comedy. Menace of a cat claw as it hovers over Paulette Goddard was dominant art for both the one and three sheets, Bob Hope not pictured on either size display. Anyone seeing these on a theatre front would assume Cat/Canary was horror pure and simple. Certainly the title was pre-sold to that effect, The Cat and The Canary having barnstormed far/wide in terms of fright. The story, known to most who had seen the play or silent era version (and that took in bulk of pop culture followers) was basically serious, a will read at midnight that unleashes mayhem in a spooky house where a madman offs those who stand between him/her and the family fortune. To that was added mirthful seasoning, but in moderation. Paramount kept Bob Hope in check to keep faith with the source property, a good thing as he might have over-tipped scales even a year or two later as his popularity from radio touched a peak. Most of what went on in haunted houses relied on inspirations that were The Cat and The Canary and also-famed The Bat. These two defined the genre, at least on stage. For all I know, they're still being adapted for school or community plays.






We know The Cat and The Canary today mostly for Hope. He was a new sort of lead for romantic comedy, a fraidy cat if not outright coward that leading ladies could still cotton to. Hope was early to burlesque convention, fourth walls yet to be breached as they would be after a brasher Bob made that expected. You could argue that he's easiest to like in The Cat and The Canary before being ruled by radio further entrenched and movie vehicles the same. To project sincerity was to betray the kid-everything space Hope would be locked into. The Cat and The Canary came pleasingly before that, a sort of what if? relaxed lead Bob Hope might have been under different circumstances. Cat/Canary helmsman Elliott Nugent had his own early 30's go at affable performing before switch to direction. His ideas likely informed the screen character Bob Hope became. Did Hope ever credit Nugent for guidance? They had worked together before, would several times again. Hope did cite Frank Fay as his vaudeville inspiration, but had less to say about screen assist he received.






I will guess that Paramount sales got handed this job, looked around and saw the current revival of horror films (Son Of Frankenstein, released early in 1939), and decided that The Cat and The Canary would fly best under that flag. Production and publicity were separate animals, one often at odds with the other. Creative ends often had no idea, and less interest, how merchandising would move a finished product. We say "creative end," but should be mindful that ad/pub called for at least as much creativity, like where that end game had to be played on behalf of dodgy wares. Of filmmakers who followed through to the ticket windows and luring customers in, Alfred Hitchcock was a best example, maybe an only one so actively involved, but here was the most-part thing: home office staff, generally New York based, did the exploitation for what movies were shipped from the west for distribution and ultimate payoff, if there was to be one. The Cat and The Canary looked like a surer bet for scare selling, so that is how it was sold. Paramount focused on the cat fiend and his "horrible, hairy grasp." Past chillers were evoked, comparisons with Dracula and Frankenstein made, masks available to children so they too could be cat creatures, and midnight spook shows were proposed as a best format to launch The Cat and The Canary. It must have struck chords because a same theme and leads were back within a year with The Ghost Breakers. The Cat and The Canary was gone for awhile because of rights snafu, but is among us now on DVD and occasionally at TCM in HD. It is a must for expert blending of titters and thrills, certainly among most handsome of 30’s genre mash-ups.




Monday, April 15, 2019

They Liked This, But Not The Ambersons


The Fleet's In (1942) Gives a Wartime Audience What It Wants


The Fleet's In was the featured program at the infamous Pomona preview where The Magnificent Ambersons unspooled before a hostile audience, the show a shambles because the mob wanted music/comedy and not a somber evocation of elite decline circa past century Indianapolis. According to witness recall, these onlookers at Ambersons as Welles conceived it either razzed, laughed or walked out. A couple more sneaks told RKO loud and clear to chop The Magnificent Ambersons from over two hours to less than ninety minutes. We wonder how a great film like that got made when everyone who'd see it was one shade or other of cretinism. Too easy for enlightened us to dump on insensible them. You'd think all of classic movies were pearls cast before mass public swine. Of course they ate up loutish The Fleet's In and rejected The Magnificent Ambersons. That's how benighted 40's viewership was. The Fleet's In as Pomona's Judas goat becomes mere something Hollywood wasted resource on when they should have been issuing blank checks to Orson Welles. And yet The Fleet's In was what they did prefer to whatever Welles did, a mood-of-moment thing to be sure, March 17, 1942 the seat of shame in Pomona. Ambersons was an add-on to The Fleet's In, not the attraction folks paid to see. They were there for fun of Dorothy Lamour and Betty Hutton with Eddie Bracken and big band Jimmy Dorsey. These could not have been worse bedmates for the Ambersons. It was like some Axis power snuck ashore to do mischief on our moviegoing habit.






The Fleet's In was enjoyed a lot more then than it could be now, a sort of invisible ink among better regarded artifacts of the day. Who could look longingly back at such a thing, and yet some would, maybe for personal circumstance that made The Fleet's In part of a happy evening out. I've seen diary and scrapbook entries where a clipped ad or image from a since forgotten show is captioned with "Really good!," or "Saw it with Betty last night and we loved it!" If you venture near The Fleet's In today, better put on your 1942 goggles, because that's an only way of even beginning to understand appeal it once had. Think Eddie Bracken was funny? Well, millions once did, including a writer-director we've since called genius, Preston Sturges. Betty Hutton seems less energized than plain nuts to modern eyes, and history records she did go a little starkers toward career finish, but for verve, zest, zing, whatever polite substitute for madness we'd call her, Hutton was exactly what a wartime public was primed for. The Fleet's In is historic for, if nothing else, getting her truly started as a decade-long star attraction, because attract she truly did. Of Bracken, I'll say less. Had he been active ten years earlier, Eddie might have been part of insufferable ensemble that was Hal Roach's Taxi Boys. He'd do many "vehicles" beyond Sturges comedies best recalled. Were it not for those, would Eddie Bracken be known at all?


Ocean Wave Is Right, with Krupa and Connee Boswell In Addition To The Fleet's In.


Ever Wish They Still Had Conga Lines? I Do.


The Fleet's In has run at least twice on TCM, for which there's no accounting, but happy are days when any pre-49 Paramount is sighted and seen. This one was their idea of a revue, sort of a wartime Paramount On Parade, with oddity acts to humble even Hutton: dance team Lorraine and Rognan, fated to a same plane crash that disabled Jane Froman the following year, Cass Daley of boisterous voice and teeth that alarm, Gil Lamb who appears to swallow his tiny harmonica, then plays it. All this was vaudeville in an oxygen tent supplied by the present emergency. So who said variety died with arrival of talkies? Far as I can see, the war brought vaude back in big ways (think of acts doing camp and front line work), this continuing to dawn of television, latter a rescue of show-biz as known since the 19th century. The Fleet's In is peerless record of talent called back from what history thought was oblivion. A truly good act could engage as readily in 1942 as 1888, especially ones of freak persuasion. If performers did not themselves date back to start of vaudeville, they certainly learned from those who did.



The story in a peanut shell: Bashful gob William Holden (who surely offered a knuckle sandwich to anyone who mentioned The Fleet's In to him in later years) gets tagged as lothario after a starlet leaves lipstick on him for a publicity stunt in which he's not complicit. From there, Bill is dared to harness a kiss from chilly songstress Dorothy Lamour, from there an hour of misunderstandings and kiss/slap/kiss to numb all but most forbearing of watchers. There's no mention of actual war, The Fleet's In a finished job before Pearl (released January 1942). In that sense, it benefited in much a same way as To The Shores Of Tripoli and early arrivals with the luck of perfect timing. Maybe Orson Welles should have done a service musical, an It's All True set in west coast night clubs (more I think about this, the less kidding I am over the idea). Bet among sailor pals over whether Holden will kiss Lamour, and in public, was a gag destined to be reused as late as Elvis and G.I. Blues, but surely won't be again, The Fleet's In a further distance from our culture than lots of silents we could name. Narrative stops cold for a third act recital of all screwballs from the bill, so strap in for one after another of acts you truly had to be in 1942 Pomona to love, all backed by Jimmy Dorsey and the Boys. I'm at point of floating a theory that live performers got more and more like cartoons as war heated up --- honestly, some of these were like Daffy Duck or Olive Oyl translated to live action. We are never going to know times like this again.




Friday, April 12, 2019

Another Ad To Sum Up The Business

Castle Management Gives Us What We Want

The best of theatre ads reflected the character of folk that designed them. A manager's philosophy of what a show should be was reflected by how he sold it. Here is 1922 laying out of elements needed to make a good program. After ninety-five years, I think it still holds. Those closest to a paying audience knew best what was wanted in exchange for admission. "The story, the backgrounds, the acting, the humor" --- well, that was "everything" by Castle Theatre reckoning. "A real picture for real people" sums up what movies should be, then or now, because "real people" are the ones that return profit. A crass and philistine policy to many perhaps, but the man who embraced it kept meat on his family's table, and what really mattered beyond that? Clown-face Larry Semon understood, so well in fact that he drew his own image to accompany the Castle's ad. Larry put being an artist second to pleasing the mob with slapstick unnerving for even a 20's public inured to roughest of play. The Sawmill is around, here/there and You Tube. Semon looks as though he's being killed in every shot. Should we rebrand the 20's as the era for taking punishment? Watching comedy like this makes me think yes. And fights! I like how this ad makes a sentence of it --- Fights! Preferably "rattling good ones." I'll guess that House Peters as The Man From Lost River is itself lost now, like so much else of the period. Even a "most powerful and red-blooded" show had little defense against nitrate decay and changed tastes.




Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Eyewitness To A Premiere


A Future Historian Who Was There

What film historian names would we place in a 60/70’s honor roll? I mean those who pioneered writing and research for a digital generation that would have it far easier thanks to quick-reference sites like LANTERN and newspaper archives that proliferate. One that contributed much was Don Miller, whose two books, B Movies and Hollywood Corral, are still all you need to fully know those topics. Little is known of Miller outside the work, but he'd be  prolific also for Focus On Film, the UK based journal that remains a best in its class (back issues, 37 total, turn up on E-Bay, all worth a buy if gotten for right enough price). I’ve wondered --- what was average circulation for serious film journals between the 60’s and 80’s? That seems to have been their peak period, but how many of each issue sold, to subscribers if not stores? Someone told me around 400. That seems small, so maybe I’m misinformed. There were scholars who simply quit and did something else (Kalton Lahue comes to mind). It isn’t as though film research bought groceries. Name one student of old movies who traded his/her knowledge for a Juguar or swimming pool. Pause … yes, I thought not.


I Googled to learn more of Don Miller. Crickets … except for another Donald Miller, a “Christian iconoclast” whose book is titled Blue Like Jazz. I don’t know for sure when our Don Miller died, but it was at least thirty years ago. How many pats on the head did film journal articles yield? They’d come, if at all, from letters to the editor, most with stingers in their tail (“Stranger On The Third Floor came out in April of 1940, not June,” or my favorite, “The author neglected to mention …”). You’d not persuade a best friend to read handiwork, unless they were movie nuts, and then they’d point up errors. Laboring for love. I’d like knowing what Focus On Film paid Don Miller for his articles, being assured it wasn’t a fraction of enough. His B Movies book grew out of a FoF piece. Leonard Maltin enabled publication, also of Hollwood Corral, a real service to film history. Maltin would reprint B Movies several times afterward. It remains in print today. Miller did his research the hardest way, leafing through Film Daily Yearbooks, dogged peer at trades, most of resource a number of subways from home. Such was determined route of ones who broke trail for later inquiries. We have it so good today. No, make that, we are spoiled rotten.


I lately re-read Don Miller’s coverage on “Private Eyes: From Sam Spade to J.J. Gittes” for Focus On Film #22 (over twenty pages, so much detail). It is a splendid job, but here’s what grabbed me: Don Miller was at New York’s RKO Palace “first-day, first performance” for Murder, My Sweet in February 1945, and shared his impressions from thirty-year-ago memory. Who of us can go back that far, let alone tell it so eloquent? “A wintry day,” said Miller, on which Dick Powell made a personal appearance with Murder, My Sweet, “his old, smiling, emcee self, all charm and teeth and wavy hair, wowing the ladies in the audience and joining in repartee with co-player Mike Mazurki for easy laughs.” I wish I could tell anecdotes so riveting as this, let alone write as nimbly. “He (Powell) topped it off with a rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In.” Miller captures too the surprise of “all charm and teeth” Powell’s segue to hard-bitten career alter that was Murder, My Sweet. “On the screen, it wasn’t Powell, but a new actor, playing the Marlowe part perhaps a shade too emphatically in trying to prove to the boys he could hack it, but at times really digging deep, and in a few moments doing it better than anyone had a right to expect …”


As was customary, Miller had insights that would not have occurred to me. “He (Powell) knew how to use that trained voice too. Chandler had Marlowe fairly well educated, and Powell let it seep through the beefsteak. When Bogart played Marlowe, he had to tell the audience he went to college, and there’s a big difference. Maybe that’s why Chandler stamped his approval on the film.” I checked Variety to see if any of their reviewers were at the Murder, My Sweet opening and reviewed it. The trade would often cover presentation houses and evaluate stage and screen fare, but not this time, making Don Miller’s the only eyeball account of what came off on that historic night. Imagine Dick Powell doing live-act gags with Mike Mazurki, then yanked around by him minutes later in played-straight Murder, My Sweet. The mind reels. I wish Miller had left a diary account of all his moviegoing. He applies much personal touch to B Movies and Hollywood Corral. As mentioned, the first remains in print, the second, updated and expanded by Packy Smith’s Riverwood Press in 1993. Corral can be had used from Amazon for, at the moment, $19.95 and up. It is one of the crowning film books, not only for Don Miller’s original text, but essays done by latter-day experts Richard Bann, Karl Thiede, Sam Sherman, many others. Like all of Don Miller’s writing, it is well worth seeking out.




Monday, April 08, 2019

Great Performing For The Stills Department


Should They Have Given Academy Awards For Posing?

How to test an actor’s skill and truest commitment: watch them in stills. There is unexplored territory, for how many stills do we see, even for films we profess to adore? Hundreds were taken for every major title. Gone With The Wind piled up over a thousand. Stills were used for publicity of every sort: newspapers, magazines, store windows, tie-ins … every reference made to the product outside studio walls. Players and crew would devote days just to posing, each of captures lit with care toward eventual use by publishers or showmen sliding photos into lobby frames. Stills were seen far in advance of films they promoted. What ran on screens was for many anti-climactic, for hadn’t they seen “the story in pictures” as told by popular publications? I collected stills for many years, still do if something interesting comes up. Never was there completion on any title. Acquire a hundred images from Captain Blood and you’re still not a fraction of the way there, and what if all of “scene” stills are gathered? There are yet candids, on-set sits, portraits … no limit to possibilities. I doubt anyone at Warners in 1935 could tell us how many stills were taken for Captain Blood. Publicity was a job more exhausting for actors than films they performed in.




Ethel Barrymore and Legit Cast Pose For a 1901 Still
Two back-lit frames sit beside my work station at Greenbriar HQ. One holds a lobby card, the other an 8X10 still. Sometimes I stare at them while figuring what to write next. Recently I pondered the glossy pose of John Garfield with Roy Roberts in Force Of Evil (below) and asked myself: Are they not “acting” here as surely as before the moving picture camera? Stills were often made shortly after a scene was completed, players asked to stay behind so staff photographers can memorialize the drama just enacted. All this was necessary to selling down the line, for films were a commodity; players had to understand that and cooperate with the process. Garfield and Roberts were experienced enough to know what was expected of them. They'd not sit rigid or tableau-like as stage casts often did in earlier days when photos were taken for a play in preparation. Movie stills had to reflect drama we would enjoy for a paid admission, that meaning actors must act same as when speaking or in motion. There was art to still posing, and it had to be learned same as emoting otherwise. Stars crabbed at what some called extra burden, though wiser heads knew it was stills effectively published or displayed that got their public past a boxoffice and into seats. This was a reality of the business that brooked no argument.



Ponder this Force Of Evil shot through eyes of those for whom it was unknown quantity in 1948. Garfield and Roberts represent their characters nicely here. Nothing is overstated. We might reach any number of conclusions for not having seen Force Of Evil, but chances are this pose will make us seek it out if that’s the case. Stills were made to rouse curiosity and close distance between a magazine page and the Bijou’s ticket window. After that practical fact, they become most precious souvenirs of having seen a film. It is for that reason I prefer them over other sorts of memorabilia. Garfield and Roberts here speak a volume to content of Force Of Evil. It is a hotel room, breakfast or maybe coffee has been brought up. Poker chips on the table indicate a game the night before, or maybe one to come. The actors regard each other, both “in character.” Garfield wears a Phi Beta Kappa key on his vest, certainly a key to the man he portrays. Roberts remains seated but is still a threat. I’m resisting an impulse to stop writing now and go downstairs to watch Force Of Evil again.





I could random-pick stills and never come up for air. They represent a deepest rabbit hole there is. I’ll generally pull the file after I watch something. Last night it was The Lady Eve. Above are two stills, both reflecting situations in the narrative. Barbara Stanwyck looking warily at Charles Coburn, him the same to her. This was no frame capture or in-action shot made while cameras turned. Stanwyck and Coburn had to stick around after, or come in special and pose, their doing so essential to exploitation. The other shot intrigues: What are Eric Blore, Eugene Pallette, Stanwyck, Janet Beecher, and others, looking at? We know for having seen The Lady Eve many times, but readers in 1941 had to wonder, then come and find out for themselves. The group is looking at something behind the camera, Henry Fonda having taken another spectacular pratfall, each reacting in respective pro actor way, though I doubt Fonda laid back down on the floor covered in foodstuff just to assist their performances. In any case, our curiosity is properly piqued.



Here is Rudy, putting over attitude for the still photographer. Some came by expertise by repeated effort and dogged application, others like Valentino got the trick by pure instinct. He had what the best fashion models displayed, but also a feel for putting across conflict. Rather than point an accusing finger at Vilma Banky, as here, he could as easily crook a same digit outward and bid us enter his torrid tent scene. What made this sheik a sensation? I’d propose a genius for standing still equal at least to his action aptitude.



All hail Norma Shearer. She is a most magnetic of 30’s actresses, at least for me. And I said actress. No one did gestures, up-and-down voicing, that laugh, many, many lines in the precodes where she spoofed Victorian attitudes her characters would dispatch. Norma’s histrionics could as often be her spoofing histrionics, but when she got serious, other players best back off and give her the moment. Norma too was fabulous with the stills, hers a “flawed” beauty, as if there could ever be true consensus as to what is beautiful. Think of people who are more aroused by “cute” than “beautiful,” and those who are actually turned off by convention’s idea of beauty. Shearer is here on behalf of Strange Interlude, that wild growth of unspoke thoughts conveyed only to us in the audience, plus inherited insanity, which movies won’t touch anymore, and Norma as a woman every man in the cast wants. Look at her with Ralph Morgan, him the mama’s boy desperate to have her, but never will, Norma looking straight on with knowledge of just that. Theirs is a thinking posture to tell a chapter of the story for a potential audience who will see this image in a newspaper or magazine. Does it call for acting as dedicated as that applied to the film? Certainly it does.



Then there is Clark Gable in what looks an awkward pose with a child player (Tad Alexander). They’re not connecting, us to infer that Gable, as “Ned Darrell,” has given the boy a present he does not want. The two must play this “scene” without moving, but convey the drama that Strange Interlude will further flesh out. Did Gable and Tad discuss, if briefly, what pose they will strike to properly reflect the dramatic situation in play? Sitting for stills, outside of portraits or straight glamour stuff, must have been tiring for actors, for they could not be casual about the job, not if they wanted to do it right.


Norma again, dragged up a flight of stairs by May Robson. Why? The terrified apprehension on Norma’s face --- what for? Come see Strange Interlude to find out. We know what May knows and will now show to Norma … a family member gone starkers and kept upstairs, the family secret and disgrace. Never doubt there was artistry in still work, on the part of players in addition to master photographers kept on staff during the Classic Era.






So how’s for a Joker in the deck, and it would be John Barrymore. Here he’s tricked out in what looks like a Cossack hat for Hold That Co-Ed, a fluff he need not have given best effort toward, so why put down a lit and refreshing smoke just to face a camera with Marjorie Weaver and George Murphy? Who’s to chastise the Great Profile, who’s already slumming enough just to be here? And yet note, where it was a part he respected, with a partner he admired, Barrymore could rise to the occasion and apply his gifts to a most effective capture, as here in Grand Hotel with Garbo. JB was not for spending his acorns too glibly.




Saturday, April 06, 2019

Further Slapstick Rescue


The Alice Howell Collection Fills A Silent Comedy Gap

Alice Howell was until now a name in slapstick histories, one you’d see in archival photos but not on film. It was said she pioneered physical comedy as practiced by women, an art we figured only for Mabel Normand and a few far lesser known. Trouble with film history is so much of it being gone. An Alice Howell may as well have worked on the stage for so little evidence we had of her work. That is all fixed thanks to search effort by Steve Massa and Ben Model. They have canvassed sources worldwide to find a dozen Alice Howell shorts unseen by anyone outside privileged access. This comedienne did roughhouse to make even Al St. John flinch (they are together in the first subject offered here, 1914’s Shot In The Excitement). Howell had been in vaudeville, knew ropes pulled taut, survival her keenest instinct, but all humor crafters were like that, culling fun from struggle at life they knew too well. Alice Howell wasn’t long getting leads, and so had series here/there for what was left of the teens and into the 20’s. A public’s appetite for comedy (insatiable it seemed) kept Howell at the millstone till graceful retirement saw her out. No sad finish here. Real estate kept the ex-performer in chips, and her daughter, briefly in films, married the director George Stevens. There is an Alice Howell career and bio chapter in Steve Massa’s fine collection of slapstick profiles, Lame Brains and Lunatics. Massa and Model deserve much credit for bringing thought-lost film like this back to viewing surface. Quality here is fine, mostly from 35mm, all scored by maestro Model. The Alice Howell Collection, on the Undercrank label with input from the Library Of Congress, is available here.




Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Classic Era Trips To Zenda



Three Ways To Do The Prisoner Of Zenda


The legendary NBC special on David Selznick from 1968 began with a pull-back of Ronald Colman (some day I will spell it "Coleman" just to be like everyone else) and Madeleine Carroll as they enter a grand ballroom in The Prisoner Of Zenda, narrator Henry Fonda calling it a moment to epitomize old Hollywood at a most grandiose. That highlight was all I could get of The Prisoner Of Zenda at the time, because no station in NC ran it by my searching eyes, and search I did through every week of TV GUIDES for years. How we take for granted treasure so readily had today. MGM bought Selznick's Zenda for a 1952 remake. His original went from there to diminuendo. It could be rented on 16mm non-theatrical from Films, Inc., but stayed elusive otherwise. Elders maintained the 1937 version was better than what Metro later did with Stewart Granger, but where was evidence for comparison? The newer Zenda was broadcast from early 60's onward, but syndication glossaries kept a "?" beside listings for the 1937 version. United Artists broke ice when they distributed the pre-48 MGM library, Zenda among those available by the late 70's. Since then, of course, TCM has righted the wrong, and there is a DVD that pairs 1937 and 1952 treatments. Preferred one has been loudly declared and agreed upon, personnel in '52 knowing theirs was but pale patch on Selznick's work, even as Technicolor splashed paint on the pageant.






I looked at the DOS version again recently. It begins slow, has to trudge thicket of exposition, but sails admirably once we're at court and deception of one Colman substituting for another. Here is also where Alfred Newman's splendid music really kicks in, a kind of sum-up score for what we love about a Classic Era. Selznick knew the property was old-fashioned, but trusted it, just as he had Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Garden Of Allah. The producer's taste had been formed by childhood explore of literature. One writer (I think Ben Hecht) said frankly that it had ossified there. Success proved Selznick right however, as The Prisoner Of Zenda took $2.6 million worldwide, overseas gross topping what the film got domestically. All of what Selznick made had gloss beyond what even majors could achieve. He'd putter with a thing until it was flawless, bring in directors just to do specific moments he knew they'd excel at. That was how W.S. Van Dyke came to shoot the climactic duel, and George Cukor the "renunciation" of Colman by Carroll in favor of the throne she must now sit on.


I Don't Know Much About Board Game Collectibles, But This Must Be One Heck Of a Rare One






John Cromwell got directorial credit for Zenda, him a ready instrument of Selznick's will, sensible enough to realize that a man's name on studio stationary meant that his word would be final. As to whether Cromwell helmed bulk of the film, there is Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s autobio recall (The Salad Days) that JC and DOS "had a showdown" over constant Selznick rewrites and that "John was relieved of his assignment and a good deal of the film was re-shot with W.S. Van Dyke replacing Cromwell as director." Fairbanks observed that the switch "did make everything go smoother." Certainly Cromwell gave no ground in later-in-life interviews ... so far as he was concerned, The Prisoner Of Zenda was his work, and co-workers let that impression stand so long as the veteran director lived. The Salad Days was published in 1988, nine years after John Cromwell died. A search of Selznick records might reveal how much of Zenda was actually Cromwell's, but then, how much of any Selznick production could belong to staff other than Selznick, always in firmest control of everything written, shot, and edited.


John Cromwell, Center with Pipe, Directs The Prisoner Of Zenda




An Outdoor Dueling Scene Deleted From Final Prints of the 1937 Version


Casting beyond Colman and Carroll was as perfect. Here, in fact, was where any remake would die on vines. Robert Douglas and Jane Greer for Raymond Massey and Mary Astor? And this was only fifteen years later, when memory of Selznick's Zenda was fresh. It must have amused DOS to see what he knew would be a punk try. Not that anything was specifically wrong with the 1952 version. It is most enjoyable on updated terms, especially if you'd not been exposed to the earlier one, but back-to-back, and ouch. James Mason was interviewed by Focus On Film in 1970 (#2). " ... a depressing experience for an actor ... ," he called  Zenda '52, wherein Mason played Rupert Of Hentzau. Blame was fixed on director Richard Thorpe, the players limited to one take unless something went seriously wrong. Mason recalled Stewart Granger asking to do a scene again, feeling he could improve on it, to which Thorpe responded, "No, I don't see any reason. It was fine. I'm going to print that. It was good." When Granger persisted, the director reminded him that takes with "reasonable tempo" where actors "say their lines in a way that's completely intelligible" was plenty enough to get jobs done for the boxoffice, that last Thorpe's primary concern according to Mason. 




Home Movie Hound Doug Jr. Gets Some Captures of Co-Stars


Ramon Novarro as a Silent-Era Rupert


Jane Greer said they kept a moviola on the 1952 set where scenes from the 1937 version were viewed and then slavishly duplicated. Outcome of the remake bears this out. It is like a photocopy done after someone figured out how to do photocopies with color. But everyone acquits fine, none seeming to slum. I had a 16mm IB Technicolor print of this Zenda back in the 70's and it was a thrill of a collecting lifetime. Affection sustains for that, if little else. I'm not at Viva Richard Thorpe stage, but those apparent first takes he printed play fine, but then this was Metro at peak of technical efficiency, even if a twilight one. They were wise enough to re-use the Newman score, this time adapted by Conrad Salinger. Posters fairly had to shout The NEW Prisoner Of Zenda to avoid appearance of stale bread. Did anyone in sales alert Dore Schary that fifteen years was but wink of time to at least mature ticket buyers --- or did Schary figure attendance had gone over altogether to kids and teens? Selznick's oldie came back to theatres as recently as 1949. He was promiscuous in licensing backlog for reissues. Had MGM even looked into possible over-exposure of the earlier film? And wait, Selznick's wasn't even the first, as there had been a silent Zenda back in 1922, directed by Rex Ingram for the old Metro firm before merger that made up MGM. The Prisoner Of Zenda, then, was a tale told plenty by the time 1952 audiences took receipt of it.




Mary Astor and Colman Relax Between Scenes


Where a Baddest Man Is a Movie's Best Asset
There was also a fifteen years window between the Ingram silent and Selznick's try. The gulf in terms of pace and story construction was vast, however, as though filmmaking had got its full education in that brief space of time. The 1922 Zenda plods, misses opportunities Selznick would seize, and lets both action and the love story wilt on a near two-hour vine. Ingram was about visuals more than narrative, excelled at the first, tended to drag with the second. His Zenda has size and luminous effect later ones would not attempt, and is worth a look for elements they'd improve upon. In Colman/Granger's part is Lewis Stone, his dual role hardly separate for neither character having much verve, Stone then as now our idea of mature rectitude, one of those you imagine never saw a young day in his life. Starred in the 1922 Zenda is Ramon Novarro, who plays Rupert of Hentzau, said to be the most actor-proof part ever written. In other words, no one could emerge from it in less than triumph. When Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was offered the role in 1937, his father told him to accept by all means, that this was a best opportunity he'd ever have to make an impression, which indeed he did. My question, then: What other parts are actor-proof, that is, so good as to foreclose possibility of failure? One at least comes to my mind, Doc Holliday, but what of others? Surely there are more, in fact, lots more.






Rupert Of Hentzau getting away with murder was one of few times that happened in Code-dominated movies. Several deaths are attributable to him, only one shown, but we're given to understand he is ruthless, unsportsmanlike, and has killed unarmed men. Hentzau is utterly likeable otherwise ... well, likeable really because he is ruthless, unsportsmanlike, and laughs it off, his philosophy being that morality is for chumps. I think The Prisoner Of Zenda was onto something with Rupert. He's like a character from today dropped down over a century back (the novel published in 1894), and kept around to give readers/viewers a glimpse of anti-heroism to come. Rupert is funny and sardonic and no one wanted to see him punished, then or since. Selznick knew this and used a trick to let Rupert off the hook, telling the PCA that he had a Zenda sequel planned where Rupert would get just desserts. As it stands, he gives a jaunty farewell and swims off to safety. Of course, there was no sequel, by Selznick or anyone, even though Anthony Hope had written a follow-up novel to The Prisoner Of Zenda. The three principal versions of Zenda can be had on DVD, including the silent version from Warner Archive. Screening of the three gives good account of progress and changes in H'wood filmmaking over a thirty-year span.
grbrpix@aol.com
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