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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Jungle Jitters at Paramount

The Jungle Princess Is A  1936 Mating Call

This evidently made a big splash when it came out in 1936, status trampled by copies done afterward. Paramount wanted their own jungle franchise to shade the Tarzan series out of Metro. Para's were less action than sex oriented. Too bad the Code vitiated much of erotic possibility. Censor records show dialogue hamstrung by need to keep relations between titular Dorothy Lamour and exploring (only not exploring her) Ray Milland on purest up and up. Boredom was the outcome lest animal violence filled gaps, but The Jungle Princess falls down for having but one tiger, and he's tamed by her. A first-reel elephant stampede is lifted bodily from Cooper-Schoedsack's previous Chang. Did viewers who got that thrill back in 1927 recall it still? Some might cry foul, but then coming to see a thing called The Jungle Princess might have been gamble enough, as in deserving what you got, or didn't get.

Baboons attack a hostile village preparing to roast Lamour-Milland, except shots don't necessarily match, and I couldn't figure out just what sort of animals, or stuffed props, were being hurled against straw huts, or miniatures made to look like same. Effects were still catch-as-catch-can, like when stars interact with the tiger, only not so convincingly as when Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn did so two years later in Bringing Up Baby. Publicity was naturally all about Dorothy Lamour. "Put Real Animals In The Lobby," advised the pressbook, without spelling out mechanics, or safety measures, called for by such a display. Lamour was a gentler turn on Edwina Booth's Trader Horn character, being right away taken with Milland as interloper to her paradise and an eager partner to embrace. Adolescent boys plus men surely went daffy for this, a given for follow-ups, nearly identical, that Paramount did right up to, and through, the war, all enhanced by Technicolor, which trend-setter The Jungle Princess did not have. Too much monkeyshines (as in tiring chimps) would infect follow-ups, indeed rival Tarzans as well, as jungle pics became less for grown-ups. If anything turned me off these as a child, it was ape antics that were never funny and ate up footage like termites. The Jungle Princess is lately out from Universal's Vault and looks very nice.

Monday, February 11, 2019

His Most Terrifying?

The Birds A Mixed Blessing for Universal

The Birds was a commercial disappointment. Not a flop, but a disappointment. So were 1963 releases Freud and The Ugly American, said a Universal spokesman to Variety. The Birds, an April 1963 release, had earned $4.6 million in domestic rentals by the end of that year. Variety's January 1964 round-up of "Top Rental Films" for the completed 1963 estimated that it would end up with five million. Alfred Hitchcock's previous Psycho had taken $8.9 million and cost way less than The Birds. I was surprised to learn that The Birds did less than expected business, for it had made large impact, especially on my age group. Hitchcock famously said "The Birds Could Be The Most Terrifying Motion Picture I Have Ever Made." Who'd argue at prospect of birds attacking en masse and pecking mankind to death? This seemed cut to order for youth, but therein may have been the rub, for might grown-ups find the concept silly? Similar things had been done along cheap sci-fi lines ... spiders, grasshoppers, all make of nature turned on humanity. Answer to "What's It About?" was/is anyone's threshold query, decision to stay/go based on preferred short answer. If you were nine at the time (which I was), that answer re The Birds represented 1963 ideal, but parents in receipt of same? ("It's about flocks of birds that kill people") Well ... maybe not so much.

Los Angeles Saturation Opening
Did Universal marketing sense a problem? Did Wasserman or anyone warn Hitchcock ahead of production that The Birds might not fly? When I finally caught it on historic NBC broadcast night (1-6-68, and a record audience for a movie on television), The Birds seemed vaguely a letdown for winged terrors not swooping down on San Francisco (or at least Oakland) for a wow finish. I was imposing monster movie expectations on something entirely different. Had others done as much? Did adults as well figure on a showdown where we'd defeat the birds or be overrun by them? I was a few more years adjusting to the quiet ending, was longer realizing that no other wrap could have worked, let alone birds vs. military might ("Guns, tanks, bombs, they're like toys against them!" was OK as applied to Martians, but to feathered former friends?). Hitchcock had taken on William Castle's sort of spook thriller with Psycho and won. Once-benign wildlife felling man gave him but qualified victory. Had AH seen enough sci-fi to realize how locked in its formulas were? Most of us with price of admission and dime bags of popcorn looked for Godzillas on each moviegoing horizon. To withhold essential bumps was to incur our displeasure. Meanwhile Mom and dad sat home where entertainment was comfy and free.

Hordes, as in viewership, came for The Birds when NBC premiered it in January 1968. The network claimed 47,700,000 watchers, which was, said tabulators, an all-time high figure (unseated champ The Bridge On The River Kwai for ABC). You could believe the number or not, but all agreed that Hitchcock had made ratings history, and from that Saturday night came enshrine of The Birds as tip-top of home-audience getters. It would be a sharpest knife in a Universal drawer open to syndication, local stations knowing they could boost ad revenue by scheduling The Birds for prime or late hours. Psycho had been problematic as tube-cast. A network run was skipped thanks to controversy. The Birds went down easier because there was less tension to trim. As I recall, and someone correct me if I'm wrong, the only cut NBC made was close-ups of the farmer with his eyes plucked out. As I recall from that night of fifty years ago, we got a first glimpse only, the two more explicit shots to follow dropped by network censors. The sensation of its NBC broadcast and high profile after-play made The Birds seem in hindsight the biggest hit of all from Hitchcock, television a perfect venue for it.

I've lately watched the Blu-Ray again, and would wager The Birds looks better on this format than even 35mm. I now prefer build-up and quieter scenes to melee that starts almost an hour in. The bird attacks are still a little much for me, especially where children are victims, or worse, when Tippi Hedren ventures into a third act attic, which I chapter-skipped this time, having read more than enough of what Hitchcock put the actress through to get effects he wanted. The Birds' first half, then, is a most pleasing, with pace, structure, crisp editing, trick shots, mainly mattes, to enhance Bodega Bay locations. I could take the birds out of The Birds and like it as much. Was Tippi Hedren's Melanie Daniels the last of madcap heiresses to topline a major movie? Lots that is old-fashioned gets aired here. I ran The Birds at ASU/Greenbriar once and they laughed at the scene where Tippi/Melanie torments over the mother that deserted her, an on-the-nose crowbar of "depth" into the character. The college kids whiffed that and mocked accordingly, a reaction I'd not seen before and which surprised me. Still, The Birds had its legend, passed down by elders no doubt, Hitchcock still a name to be reckoned with among the student body. This was over ten years ago, however, so I wonder if he still has that cache.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

When Big Bands Ruled The Roost

Pot O' Gold A Product Of 1941 Time

Which was the deal --- juke boxes servicing movies or movies servicing jukeboxes? At least one Pot O’ Gold venue proposed the answer by putting a nickel player in the lobby, even inviting patrons to dance. Was this in lieu of Pot O’ Gold in the auditorium? Nominal stars were James Stewart and Paulette Goddard, but Pot O’ Gold also had Horace Heidt and his Orchestra, them more a focus for selling, especially where Heidt took the stage as accompany to the film. A name band could reliably pack a house even where the screen attraction fell down. In fact, the movies were often as not a chaser, or at least opportunity for an audience to calm down toward a next musical aggregate. Pot O’ Gold alone, especially today with years having taken their toll, seems a very definition of silly, if not time-wasting, all more damning the fact it is Public Domain and so more of a pestilence upon viewership. James Stewart expressed disdain that Pot O’ Gold should be among most visible of his old films, especially as there was little to recommend the show. That’s a modern viewpoint, and understandable, but 1941 crowds, high on Heidt, Stewart, P. Goddard, whatever activated turnstiles, were well-satisfied if United Artists rentals are any guide. Stress outside theatres made relaxation inside all the more imperative, being as how war was coming and everyone knew it.

Pot O’ Gold and musicals like it before the war or during were as sure a bet as westerns done cheaply enough. Producer James Roosevelt, son of yes, him, came from background of Marine service, radio, insurance selling, work for his father, then flirtation with the show world via work for Goldwyn. Pot O’ Gold was a sole feature venture and worth a pot in publicity for Roosevelt’s involvement. The set-up was independent, with release through UA, Roosevelt likely heir to the negative, which is maybe how failure to renew the copyright happened. There was a reissue in 1948 under the title Jimmy Steps Out, which was marginally less exploitative of its star, as Stewart's character in Pot O’ Gold was at least named “Jimmy.” A slant for smaller towns with no access to name bands was contests for local swing groups. These were thick as flies where country clubs, school dances, etc., needed live music to celebrate by, and winning a battle of bands was means by which regional bookings could be had, or increased. Theatres sought the darkness, within and without. Their natural enemy was daylight savings time, which translated for them to more outdoor activity that kept customers away from indoor auditoria. They’d fight daylight savings wherever it was proposed. Bad enough that summer months had heat plus a late setting sun. So often it seemed nature itself worked against exhibition. A best DVD of Pot O’ Gold is from Image-Hal Roach, all the rest strictly pot-luck.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Timing Right For The Gehrig Story

Pride Fans Out To Key Cities in August After NY Open in June

Baseball For The Non-Fan Gets Fans

Toward proof that baseball lives forever comes Heritage auction this month where a Lou Gehrig “game worn cap” is estimated to bring 200K, this part of a family consignment that has sport collectors atwitter. Imagine --- something that belonged to Lou Gehrig can now belong to you. Will the ultimate high bidder want it for love, or pure investment? Would he or she stand before a mirror and take selfies wearing the cap? There is no film memorabilia I would give two hundred thousand for, even if I had it. How meaningful is Gehrig? We knew in 1942. He had recently died, a nationwide heartbreak over loss of the man who otherwise could not be stopped. His appeal went past base runs and pinch hits. Gehrig stood for indomitable spirit quite beyond his game. Goldwyn and RKO’s hit with Pride of the Yankees was historic. It needed bath towels to mop tears a third act brought on, this a ribbon on the “sweetest love story” man or woman had yet lived on screens. Goldwyn insisted that romance take front seat over baseball. Ads put Teresa Wright at equal prominence with Gary Cooper, in art display if not billing. Pride of the Yankees would be “The Great American Story” at start of a world (war) series we had to win. More than one venue saw recent-bought war bonds as qualifier for admission. Gehrig as never-give-up guy was both inspiration and recruiter. Timing got the pennant for Pride ($4.2 million in worldwide rentals) even as foreign receipts were but a third of the domestic score. The show thrives yet with those who love baseball, Gary Cooper recalled as much for this as Sergeant York or High Noon.

Chicago Puts Emphasis On The Love Story
I went years not liking Pride of the Yankees because it seemed so mawkishly Hollywood. First act kid stuff with Lou batting his ball through a shop window, Ma and Pa at dueling accents from the old country, and worse, Coop in bashful mode to make it seem like some other actor did Morocco in 1930. The Code really took ginger out of him. Cooper at forty-one as frosh waiter at Columbia U won’t wash, and notion that any girl could make a chump of him is plain silly (again: Morocco). This was apparently what we wanted of Cooper by the early 40’s --- look at trial that is Meet John Doe, where he’s a dope ringed by all of most irritating support Frank Capra could locate (rooting interest here: Edward Arnold). I wish Cooper had never done Mr. Deeds or anything else for Capra. They about ruined him. Dumb-down of the persona began in earnest with Deeds and contaminates a first two-thirds of Coop as Gehrig, but come dawn of the character getting sick, and C as G becomes a finest work Cooper did, every move right, gestures keyed to rich emotional payoff. Cooper must somehow have understood a mighty man brought low, his Gehrig a best depiction I’ve seen of what creeping fate does. Where he entertained troops during the war, Cooper always led with Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech, which reliably made soldiers weep. It was the most effective bit any star could put on for service audiences, a heart tug to leaven yup-nope comedy that was balance of Coop’s live act.

Critic Manny Farber complained that there wasn’t enough baseball in Pride of the Yankees, and what was there looked phony. That didn’t matter, least of all to viewers, and showmen who waved tens of thousands in. Gehrig’s personal story was the lure, that plus love’s triumph over adversity. Are we still as fascinated with illness that won’t be cured and how people deal with it? A finish sad enough will often yield happy reward at ticket windows. The curtain speech is a moistener to hardest hearts, for which we can still forgive a lot of hokum gone before. Pride of the Yankees ran fourteen weeks at the Astor on Broadway, records smashed nearly whole of the way (venue’s just-previous This Above All, also a hit, lasted nine frames before move-over to the Roxy). Samuel Goldwyn wanted prices upped on theory that his show was like steak that need not be sold like hamburger. Goldwyn also insisted that distributing RKO “exempt” Pride of the Yankees from placement on double bills, to which they complied. The Gotham premiere was glitter night for whatever celebrity was in town, be it movie, sport, or political. The date was June 15, 1942, Pride of the Yankees to launch not just at the Globe, but a total of 41 RKO circuit houses in New York, “seating capacity in excess of that which could accommodate a World Series crowd at the Yankee Stadium,” said Goldwyn publicity (Showman’s Trade Review --- 6/27/42). All seats for the opener were reserved, the Astor continuing with two-a-day policy throughout its run. Wartime required nightly dim-outs, so klieg lights normally used for such a gala were dark. Astor ducats ranged from $1.10 to $2.20 (Motion Picture Daily).

Encouraging Women To Attend --- And Bring Their Men

Could You Buy Gary Cooper As A Fall Guy For The College Vamp?

The Disney-Goldwyn Link Is Emphasized For Publicity. RKO Distributed For Both.

Trades reported “long lines which waited patiently on the broiling sidewalk,” an ongoing sight during Pride’s NY run that “amazed many bystanders.” Five of each day’s seven shows at the Astor had patrons backed down sidewalks for admission. Post-summer for Pride of the Yankees was the World Series in October, which reminded patrons that the Astor was still in there pitching. Many were going back a second or third time, especially with ball season in full swing. The Film Daily’s “Along the Rialto” column (10-1-42) challenged “presumptuous” designation of baseball as our “so-called ‘National Pastime’,” the game “having considerably less right, in fact, to adopt the label than the movies have.” B’ball had long been a natural enemy of Hollywood, night games a drain on local attendance, especially in small towns where popular enough teams could empty an auditorium no matter what the action on screens. Toward thematic programming, Samuel Goldwyn asked chum Walt Disney (they socialized often) to quick-do a cartoon that would accompany Pride of the Yankees at premieres. Result was a Goofy reel, How To Play Baseball, allegedly wrapped in twelve weeks (six months to a year the usual time). Imagine the mass that saw this short, plus a war-themed doc, John Ford’s The Battle Of Midway, that came in as September support for Pride of the Yankees. There is no Blu-Ray as yet for the feature, but TCM and HD Net Movies have run it often in HD.

Friday, February 01, 2019

A Director Big As All Outdoors

Funny How Old Drive-In Lots From Above Look Like Remains Of An Ancient City, or Staging Area For Alien Aircraft

Charlotte Drives In For An All-Hitchcock Night

Was there ever in the history of movies a director who merited an all-night show at US drive-ins? Only one I've seen do it is Alfred Hitchcock, whose unique kind of thrillers could reliably fill a lot in small towns or large. That's because everyone knew him, certainly so after television made Hitchcock a household name and face. He was everywhere in the 50's and 60's. Folks equated him with shock, especially after sensation of Psycho. That was the one to buy Hitchcock permanent space at drive-ins. If his that came after, or older stuff, was half so scary as Psycho, then Hitchcock was good for dusk-dawn marathon with relays back-forth to canteen and playground. Drive-ins thrived on thematic programming. All-night hot car movies, monsters, rock and roll --- anything so folks would know exactly what they'd get for showing up. Specific titles mattered less ... yes, Marnie was a stiff, but it had James Bond, then there was The Birds, which everyone had heard about, even if they missed it at hardtops. Midnight capping Psycho would blow a kiss to drivers leaving the lot, Hitchcock appetite sated until a next round, which wouldn't be long coming, as shows like this were common, at least in 1965 when I clipped this ad from The Charlotte Observer.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

This Woman's World Now a House Of Strangers

How Many Do You Know That Would Recognize A One Of Them?

$125 K in 1954? That's Over $1.1 Million Today
A reason I can’t get as good sense of modern films is people in them being strangers to me. At what point do we stop following players, quit knowing them, stop being engaged by them? I met that crossroad some time back, am so far behind now as to never catch up. A friend handed me a Smart Phone with a digital image of himself with an actress named Jennifer Lawrence. I recognized her no more than moderns would Theda Bara. Worse was nonplus at Jennifer Lawrence being the highest paid actress of 2015 and 2016 (says IMDB). Going to current movies might help, but there's oblige to see Hunger Games or X-Men: Apocalypse, what’s left of life way too short for that. Why be incredulous, then, at viewers drawing blank to starry 1954 cast of Woman’s World? Buffs lifelong in the bag can’t conceive saying who’s that to Lauren Bacall, June Allyson, Clifton Webb … in fact, the whole ensemble. I mentioned Cornel Wilde to a woman once, and she said, “Oh yes, he was in an I Love Lucy,” me grateful for small crumb that was. Here’s a reason why civilians don’t cotton to classics: They have no, and I mean no, frame of reference. You might say yes, but Fred MacMurray was on My Three Sons, and Lauren Bacall was married to Humphrey Bogart. Well, first off, who’s Humphrey Bogart? --- and secondly, do we forget that My Three Sons went off network forty-seven years ago? By way of experiment with a lab rat of lifetime acquaintance, I ran Woman’s World to confirm bleak theory, which held, but here was salve: it still pleases, even to a least indoctrinated to Hollywood of old.

Jean Negulesco Directs Cornel Wilde and June Allyson
We need context, at least some recognizable element, to enjoy any film. What fun comes of being a stranger to a strange film? Bad enough watching old faces comport in older clothes, drive odd cars, use dial phones. They smoke a lot too, sometimes even cigars. For retro dwellers, that’s a comfort zone. We adjust to 1954 as easily as being cold outside in the winter. Not so friends who make error of letting us pick a movie to watch. For them, 1954 or any past year makes awkward fit. How often do even devotees “cringe” at what many call unenlightened times? Vintage films become more a briar patch every day. When does old simply become too old? We who care need to empathize better with those who don’t, and keep in mind that they are doing us a favor to watch Woman’s World or any relic we might impose in the name of “sharing.” Hopeful voices say Stan and Ollie will “bring back” Laurel and Hardy. The hell it will. The world that received Woman’s World in 1954 is too gone to retrieve even in part. So too are all the people. Of principals, only Arlene Dahl is left. Never discount a mass of humanity who won’t watch oldies because everyone in them is dead. Billy Wilder once said he didn’t like repeat view of his past stuff for that very reason. So how to spring Woman’s World upon those willing to take a chance? I could propose a way, convoluted and wholly impractical, but it might work, given days if not a month of your friend’s focus, but who has that to give a pastime wholly unimportant to those outside the movie life? They could bone up instead on entrance exams to medical school and maybe get in.

Forget What Andrew Sarris Wrote --- Jean Negulesco's Cinemascope Pics Are Swell

Here’s the plan, utterly impractical as it is, but close as you’d get to making Woman’s World a meaningful sit. First show them what car design was like in 1954. There are product and promo reels on You Tube to help. They are time capsules of vanished style and technology. Did I forget to mention that Woman’s World takes place at a Gotham nerve center of auto manufacture with Clifton Webb as the tycoon owner seeking a second in command, to be picked from three couples auditioning? They are Fred MacMurray/Lauren Bacall, Cornel Wilde/June Allyson, and finally Van Heflin and Arlene Dahl. A knowing Webb looks as close at wives as their applicant mates. He realizes that it is indeed a woman’s world in terms of influence they wield over husbands, but Woman’s World does not imprint this with a heavy hand, being comedy at its root and dedicated more to fashion of the moment, as in 1954, and how best to amuse a casual consumer of films during that year. I should mention the obvious … that Woman’s World is a delightful show and as good a capture of high life in the year I was born than any more celebrated title that comes to mind. Why else would I compose such an exhausting primer on how to present it?

Back to my scheme then: Don’t give them Woman’s World cold. Start with introductory work its cast did before and after. For Clifton Webb, run Laura, maybe Dreamboat, certainly Titanic. Your individual or group will then love and anticipate him going into Woman’s World. June Allyson in Executive Suite, The Glenn Miller Story, The Girl in White (a favorite, if obscure). Tell how Executive Suite came out but months ahead of Woman’s World, latter a froth doppelganger. Similar comparison can be made with Van Heflin and way-darker Patterns. Cornel Wilde will be the challenge. Introduce him as the Great Sebastian, or Chopin, or one of the Columbia sword shows? The Naked Prey would not be amiss to show range. Anyway, you get the idea as it could apply to whole of Woman's World cast. Trouble is sheer heft of such a project, and all to make familiar ground of one movie. Sometimes too, even past familiarity can backfire. I once ran a hard-got 16mm print of Since You Went Away to my sister, who said on seeing Joseph Cotton, “Oh no, there’s that Uncle Charlie” (we had, the week before, watched Shadow of a Doubt). Impressions from past work feeds into each thing we see actors do. That was never so true as during the Classic Era (or should I just call it the Studio Era, as they certainly weren’t all classics). We embrace an ongoing star persona as much, or more, than whatever individual part they take. At least it was that way when fame was built on contract and merchandising foundations. For we who hang on by life raft that is TCM, the process yet thrives. Start-to-finish knowing of star lives and careers enrich Woman’s World and all the rest of an increasingly remote past. An enchanted place to be, even as it widens gulf between us and those we’d induct to embrace of old film, if only we could. Woman’s World is available on Blu-Ray. Get it by all means, and wallow.
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