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Thursday, July 02, 2015

Learning From Great Cartoons

What Transparent and Opaque Does For Window Cleaners (1940)

Must one be an artist to properly appreciate animation? Maybe not, but it sure helps. I drew lots as a child, even did flipbooks, which is sort of ersatz animating, no? (my flip, circa 1966, had Batman tied to a Pit/Pendulum device by the Joker) What counts is knowledge of paint as applied to canvas, or paper. Veteran artist Stewart MacKissick (he did the Blu-Ray covers for Gulliver's Travels and the 3-D Rarities one-sheet) gave me a tutorial at Cinevent last month. I had asked about terms he used in describing cartoon backgrounds, like transparent watercolor and opaque gouache. He explained these, and I continued inquiry at You Tube upon return home, goal being to overcome ignorance of at least these art concepts and enjoy better what Classic Era craftsmen achieved. It's made a difference alright, for much as I love backgrounds in 30's Disney cartooning, there's now rudimentary grasp of technique brought to bear on shorts too many (certainly me) take for granted.

Window Cleaners is no laugh fest. Donald had quacked long enough by 1940 to shed novelty if not tail feathers he (again) loses here. There's a menacing bee to get best of the duck, an always condition whenever Disney characters defied nature or its denizens. I wanted Donald to swat the thing and be done with it, even for knowing he'd be defeated as always (DD had real basis for temper loss, a reason I often feel sorry for him). Now about those transparent watercolors: They are all over Window Cleaners. Transparent means by which paint is applied permits white light from surface paper to come through, result a glisten, "alive" finish to the background. Window Cleaners gets this across in cityscapes that lend illusion of sunlit detail and, most vividly, heights from which Donald dangles. Several have observed that it was cartoon equivalent to thrill comedy Harold Lloyd did. Window Cleaners is just another WD cartoon on the one hand, but something remarkable for high-up illusion it creates. I'm finding Disney shorts a lot more rewarding for relax of humor expectation and greater focus on polish and beauty of backgrounds. Window Cleaners can be had at You Tube, and as part of The Chronological Donald: Volume One on DVD.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Favorite Band Has Its Story Told

The Four Seasons Celebrated in Jersey Boys (2014)

Saw several refer to this as an "old people's" movie, which is reference to myself and peers, I suppose, having come up with the Four Seasons as constant background to 60/70's living. One could argue that Clint (Tarantula) Eastwood led too gentle a dance with the quartet, and yes, there's alternative of a Martin Scorsese having throats slit and eyes popped out over direction the Seasons took in heyday, but do we want that as foreground to Let's Hang On and Rag Doll? I always loved the band, and still smell chlorine from pools swam while they played on juke boxes next to Tom's nab machines we'd visit once dry. Siblings bought the albums when I was too young to consume LP's ($4 a minimum then), so there was access from beginnings to 4S music. Few were so gratified as I when they (at least Valli) made comeback with My Eyes Adored You, Who Loves You, December 1963, these a background to college years and beloved unto now. So was I ripe for The Jersey Boys? Yes, and Yes again.

Here was threshold problem: They didn't use original recordings. These Jersey Boys don't really sound like Frankie and the Four, and that takes adjustment. Once you're reconciled, however, the story makes up difference, and by a third act, even the music makes inroad. Seems the boys were tied to N.J. gang elements (Christopher Walken as lead apostle). Scorsese would have run far with that, but Eastwood stays tentative. No one here gets shot, or even punched. Mischief this crew commits is strictly Dead End kids sort. For many, that made The Jersey Boys seem old-fashioned. Eastwood shot parts on what looks like the Warners backlot. There's even a car driven against an apparent process screen, something I haven't seen since Austin Powers spoofed the technique. Bravo to Eastwood for reviving it, his sort of Marnie moment, and I'd like to think unconscious homage to 60's Hitchcock and other old-timers looking to save costs and not drive so far to work.

These Seasons presumably do their own singing --- at least it's not the original Four we hear (unless there was a reunion to record tracks). Was this a creative decision or a rights (withheld) necessity? Updating was cinched in old days where Al Jolson's backlog got refreshed to 1946 standard for The Jolson Story, with AJ performing anew to modern orchestrations. Plugged into Larry Parks' pantomime, the effect was electric. As satisfying was Universal restage of Glenn Miller standards for their 1954 biopic, decade old hits seeming brand new to a fresh audience. Updating the Seasons by fifty years was tougher commission. You couldn't have 2014 actors performing to (comparative) stone-age tape (or whatever format the masters survive on), though on the other hand, anything done new won't capture raw quality of music recorded when rock and pop was resolutely analog, if that (any music archivists out there to vet, or correct, my freewheeling assumptions?).

Still, I liked The Jersey Boys a lot. Each of the boys are fine. There's a Price Of Fame thread woven throughout, so it's like watching The Gene Krupa Story or something of way-past vintage. One of the writers (Marshall Brinkman) dates to Annie Hall, which for audiences today might as well be a silent movie. And I wonder what drew Clint to this project.  Surely not nostalgia, for he was a grizzled pro before this pre-Fab Four got a first break. But that just adds to fun, as there's retro value to not just the story and setting, but it's telling as well. A younger auteur might make things uglier, more off-putting (not that I mind rougher stuff, but not for a biopic about the Four Seasons). Besides, Frankie Valli and Robert Gaudio as Exec Producers aren't going to do anything to cock-up nostalgia touring (26 concerts slated for 2015-16).

Now comes my geeky call-out of what looks like error in the Jersey Boys telling. There's a scene where the group is in a hotel room watching TV. The movie is The Big Carnival, which one of them refers to as Ace In The Hole (it hadn't been called that since summer of 1951). This is all taking place no later than 1962, because songwriter Bob Gaudio gets inspiration for Big Girls Don't Cry by watching Kirk Douglas slap Jan Sterling. Big Girls Don't Cry was released to Top 40 glory in 1962. Now here's problem for those who care enough to have read this far: The Big Carnival did not premiere on television until December 4, 1965 (NBC's Saturday Night At The Movies). Gotcha, Clint and Company! Digging reveals that Gaudio was actually inspired by tele-viewing Slightly Scarlet, which had been in TV syndication from late 50's onward. Was it easier clearing clips from the Paramount pic? Anyway, it's a fun gaffe, if a minor one, and I'm sure billionaire Clint (especially after American Sniper) would rightly issue "Get A Life" order to me for bringing it up. Don't exit The Jersey Boys early, by the way, as there's merry end credits dance featuring whole of the ensemble cast, this a cheery finish to an enjoyable couple of hours.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Next Best Thing To Being There

This New Book Puts You On A Classic's Location

Thought-lost films continue to turn up, right? But how about a visual record (as in over 150 images) from behind-scenes of a John Ford wartime classic ... news to me on par with reels hauled up from hiding ... a between-covers coup achieved by author Lou Sabini and serviceman-photographer Nicholas Scutti. Latter was assigned to the Florida location of They Were Expendable, part of U.S. Navy cooperation with Ford/crew, Scutti making his own photo diary during a month spent with Expendable's company. Scutti got to know director Ford and all of performing principals, coming away with much insight into each and all. His captures were not for studio use or publicity ... thus nothing posed ... and everyone on relax or candid setting. We really get sense of a crew at work, play, eating, arguing (Bob Montgomery did not hit it off with Ward Bond), etc. Most welcome of visitors was military personnel passing through, or there to greet Naval colleague Ford, one of these a spit-and-polish Richard Barthelmess, former silent era star and now a lieutenant commander. Behind The Scenes Of They Were Expendable: A Pictorial History is one-of-a-kind, and once-in-a-lifetime, explore of Classic Era filmmaking like we dream of, but nearly never get. Just pretend someone gave you a camera and a ticket back to Florida in 1945 --- that's the kind of kick you'll get from exploring this marvelous book. Amazon has it HERE.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Lush Garden Of A Late Silent

The Garden Of Eden (1928) Is Visual Paradise

This ultra-polished vehicle for silent star Corinne Griffith came out during last roar of voiceless film that was 1928, pics from there losing some of sheen for limitations sound imposed upon visuals. The Garden Of Eden was no trend-setter in itself, but nicely cribbed from naughty fun Ernst Lubitsch and imitators had since the German director's takeover of ribaldry done stateside. Critics were generous and United Artists took $583K in domestic rentals, a little below average for that year, but OK overall. The Garden Of Eden is notable for being the very first DVD from stalwart distrib Flicker Alley back in 2002, and out-of-print for most of years since. It's a collector item now and deservedly so, being a top-notch transfer with generous extras. Flicker Alley has The Garden Of Eden on streaming basis, so opportunity is there to see it.

Corinne Griffith was lauded as a greatest of screen beauties, her look surviving unto a 21st Century to whom she still appeals (my take, anyway, while admitting these things are subjective). A 20's public preferred Corinne out of clothes where possible, she being bared in set-pieces which were/are Garden highlights. Was retirement with coming of sound partly her admission that the career was fueled by sex? She did but a handful of talkies. William K. Everson wrote of her voice not clicking, but I've not watched to confirm. Corinne kept her cash, notwithstanding husbands who got portions of it, and wrote books, from which Papa's Delicate Condition stood out. There was a court incident where Griffith got on the witness stand to deny that she was Corinne Griffith. Silent era colleagues were called to impeach her testimony, while observers came away thinking she was just another nut job of a faded movie queen.

The Garden Of Eden was product of happier times, being of a brief period when CG could call her shots. UA's deal was with the actress as producer, her current husband, Walter Morosco, along for the ride but taking orders from better half. Cheesecake poses would herald Eden's coming, discard of Doug Fairbanks, Jr. as leading man resulting in offbeat Charles Ray as substitute, him of "hick" leads in earlier silents. Ray by '28 was just this side of vaude touring for sustenance, H'wood having had surfeit of his act. Publicity yelled, It's A Pippin,' that being popular slang of the time, and laid upon apple art, plus snakes, fig leaves, whatever else might evoke Eden. Ad messages then as now came direct to point. Happy coincidence in Philadelphia saw a gopher snake escape from a pet shop, then gathered off the street by showman George Sobel of the Stanley Theatre, who carried the six-footer into his lobby for display. Cops didn't bother asking if the incident was framed, such gags a known quantity on busy thoroughfare where merchants stroked each other for mutual benefit. If film promotion was so much snake oil, why not use snakes?

The Garden Of Eden had a color sequence, once upon a first-run. It may turn up again when dinosaurs come back. What a shame so much Technicolor is gone, a loss more keenly felt with peruse of lately published The Dawn Of Technicolor 1915-1936, by James Layton and David Pierce, a massive and marvelous history of the process in early flowering. If you want demonstration of a talk-less era on lushest setting, go by all means with The Garden Of Eden. It's got all of what would become "precode." In fact, I'm wondering when someone might do a book on the roots of precode, cause this Garden is rich with them. Thing is, The Garden Of Eden floated around decades among collectors (long ago Griggs Moviedrome offered it), and was celebrated for what a silent movie could look like where you had a really fine print. It's also Exhibit A for William Cameron Menzies as all-time champ of production designers, plus early evidence of director Lewis Milestone headed for the top (All Quiet but two seasons off).

Saturday, June 20, 2015

A Mystery "B" From Metro

Mad Holiday (1936) Sets Edmund Lowe In Powell Pattern

Screen sleuth Edmund Lowe is tired of bad movies he makes and quits the biz only to encounter time-honored real murder aboard ship. Sounds better than it turns out, this a Metro B representative of that studio's commit to supply cheapies as second features. MGM was dragged screaming into a double-feature policy, but houses everywhere by the mid-thirties were using them, and you couldn't buck a public's clear preference. A combo by then was generally a good A and soft B, or good B supporting a letdown A. Customers wouldn't complain either way so long as they could plop on (hopefully) cushioned seats for three hours at least. But hold on --- most theatre seats in those days were hard-backed at least --- so it took a champ back, if not backside, to get through long shows. Mad Holiday loaded bases with character folk to assure laughs if not suspense, thus ZaSu Pitts, Edgar Kennedy, Ted Healy (him again), all this dashed with Thin Man-ish flavor. Would murder be taken seriously again after that cycle caught fire? Guess we needed noir, still years down a road, before screen death got renewed impact.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Laurel and Hardy Winding Down Silent Careers

Radio Gets Results in Bacon Grabbers (1929)

Deadbeat Edgar Kennedy won't make payments on his radio, so the sheriff sends Laurel and Hardy out to retrieve it.  Taking a man's radio in 1929 was worse than seizing his wife or dog, that listening post a most important article of furniture in anyone's Jazz Age home. $600 million was spent on radios in 1929, over 80% " bought on time," that is, monthly payments that added from eleven to forty percent onto original cost of the luxury. But radio had in fact become a necessity. Without it, you'd be out of everyone's loop. It made sense, then, for Kennedy to seal his entrance against Stan and Babe effort to seize the set, '29's public at least able to appreciate Ed's anxiety if not his honesty.

Bacon Grabbers was always obscure among the Laurel-Hardys. Blackhawk in heady days offered it on 8 or 16mm, minus the disc score available to bookers in 1929, latter mattering less for fact the two-reeler had no dialogue. Robert Youngson never used Bacon Grabbers in his comedy compilations (anyone know why?). Like Big Business and The Perfect Day, this too was shot on sunny environ that was L.A. neighborhoods before all of open space was filled. Nothing conveys bucolic beginnings of filmland like L&H done outdoors. You can never mind comedy of these and still get a marvelous travelogue with each. Bacon Grabbers is all roof and ladders and windows busted, as good a reflection of bungalow living in the 20's as we'll ever have. There's even Jean Harlow to deliver the finish gag. Too bad this short is out-of-print DVD-wise. Will these silent Laurel-Hardys ever see light again?

UPDATE --- 6/17/15: Long arm of coincidence brought news of a Laurel-Hardy rediscovery just after this post went up. Seems the long missing second reel of Battle Of The Century has turned up. This is really a find, as that short had survived till now in its first reel only, plus a pie fight from the second that was used (after editing) by producer Robert Youngson for The Golden Age Of Comedy. A Greenbriar post on various L&H Battles Of The Centuries from the silent era is HERE.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Off The Wire This Morning ...

Sir Christopher Lee

It never occurred to me that someday he'd be gone. Had Dracula's immortality bled into my perception of Christopher Lee the man? We wanted him to stay forever because Chris never went out of style. He was the one old name who kept punching stardom's ticket for one generation after another. There were the Hammers and Fu Manchus and so forth from 50's through the 60's, then James Bond villainy before a wider audience, support work in high-profilers Airport '77 and 1941 where mainstream audiences found him. Chris was dubbed cool enough to host Saturday Night Live (a 70's equivalent to knighthood?). Then he got work from directors who'd grown up with his evil-doing in theatres. That brought exposure before another generation of fandom ... then another when he ping-ponged from Lord Of The Rings and sequels to the second wave of Star Wars ... and sequels. Christopher Lee is the only actor I can think of who could have lived another hundred years and stayed in demand for whole of it.

You'd see him from beginnings in British parts. People would be chatting in a manor house, and suddenly this tall and magnetic presence would enter, and all the rest would evaporate. The game would be to see how fast you could say "There's Chris Lee!" before someone else in the room recognized him. It happened most recently for me with Scott Of The Antarctic and The Warriors, the first dated 1948, the next 1955. Polish up your Lee-spotting skills in any number of Brit pix between those dates or before/after, as Chris seemed everywhere, and always to the good of shows that could use his kind of energy. Lee was never afraid to go ahead and be an actor, that is, to show us something and make a thing worth paying attention to. His kind of stature, imposing at the least, called for bravura of a kind that too many "natural" players stayed clear of, maybe for knowing they had not the panache to take screen command and keep it, like him.

Lee at times wanted out from under the horror hood. For a while in the 70's, it looked like he'd make it, but somehow he couldn't help being sinister, and a Hammer past would hang on like grim un-death. Not that CL disdained chillers altogether, for he'd champion writers of the genre and apply himself to projects that rose above the formula, like The Devil Rides Out and The Wicker Man. Some who met Lee reported a healthy actor's ego and tendency to dominate a room. Well, what else would you expect, or want? I'd have been disappointed if he'd been any other way. Teamings with Peter Cushing were ideal because they were so different onscreen and off, yet got along famously and had truest friendship as there was between horror icons. The rest of us could figure that if "Saint Peter" liked Chris, he must be a right guy. At least I'll go on assuming it now that they're both gone, and door to meeting either is closed.

His homefolk finally knighted the actor a few years ago, and that gave gravitas to everything he'd done or was doing. Sir Christopher became an online familiar and issued Christmas greeting from comfort of hearth, where he also spoke to admirers who couldn't get enough of a legend's career reflection. And yes, Lee liked to talk, and did so for DVD producers, book authors, whatever queue waited upon his door. As to staying current, nobody did that better. Will any of us be performing heavy metal at age 90? Be in continuing demand at age 90 and beyond? (CL was signed to start another picture just prior to his passing) To have lived such a long life so well is worthy example to follow, a good job indeed if we can do it at half Sir Christopher's strength.
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