Getting Back Those Wide Screens
Who’d have thought Goldfinger would duplicate so identically the post-credits opening of Lucky Me? Both feature dazzling aerial views of Miami, then resort immediately to studio artifice. James Bond retreats to Pinewood soundstages, Doris Day to Warner’s backlot substitute for Miami sidewalks. Her Superstition Song, recalling Bobby Van’s downtown hop in Small Town Girl and anticipating Gene Kelly’s studio street tour (but at night and on skates) in It’s Always Fair Weather, suffers in comparison to said numbers expertly staged at MGM and recipients of money and expertise forever denied Doris Day at economy-minded WB. Worth noting here is the fact both Lucky Me and A Star Is Born were in production at the same time. Star was classified an independent production, though Warners poured resources into Judy Garland’s comeback unheard of since wartime expenditures for musicals far bigger than those they’d made lately. The still shown here is of Doris visiting Judy’s set. She couldn’t have been unmindful of the extended schedule (and budget) accorded A Star Is Born, nor the presence of famed director George Cukor, a technician the star no doubt coveted over Jack Donohue (Lucky Me), David Butler, and other journeymen usually assigned to her pictures. Day had what she described as a nervous breakdown just prior to Lucky Me. Her slow recovery was rewarded with a script she considered lousy in the extreme. I can’t remember much about the picture, she said in her memoirs, then goes on to detail desperate efforts made to avoid it. What I didn’t want to do, after the rough time I’d had, was to get involved in a project for which I had no enthusiasm. Apparently Doris Day did Lucky Me in a kind of stupor. Would that performers today deliver half so well at full strength! Amazing the energy Doris brings to a project she completed in such circumstances. Whereas I was always able to get into a part with effortless vitality, now it was all I could do to get myself up to a performing level. Talk about professional discipline. Instead of whining themselves into rehab, troupers like Day just went and did it. All the more reason to admire a long gone generation of truly committed entertainers. Sometimes it’s shows done under duress I can’t help admiring most. Day’s self-proscribed therapy called for rests between takes in the dressing room and avoidance of interviews. Watching her belt out the numbers in Lucky Me, you’d never guess what an ordeal this was.
Roving vaudevillians were staples of many a thirties and (nostalgia flavored) forties musical, but how long did such archaic figures actually dwell among us? Lucky Me proposes they could, as late as 1954, tandem perform with movie shows in theatres like the one supposedly operating on a downtown Miami street. I had a hard time buying that conceit, and was thus driven to reference shelves for possible dates of vaude’s final fade as support for screen presentations. This New York Times ad is what I found. RKO’s Cool Palace, B’Way’s Only Vaudeville and Screen Show --- dated 1955. With One Desire plus eight big acts, it must have been quite the entertainment bargain for seventy cents, and imagine kicking things off at 10:45 AM! If indeed the Palace was Broadway’s last holdout for live spots between movies (and I'd like to know when they gave up the format), you wonder how much stage action there was in metro theatres otherwise situated. Too many cloistered hours in the Warner writer’s building no doubt led to time warped mentalities among scribes far removed from changing realities in exhibition. The Parisian Revue staged here by Doris Day and Company smacks of big-time vaudeville from summit years in the teens and twenties. The notion that shows like this were being staged between newsreels among starving urban houses in 1954 confirms at the outset Lucky Me’s placement in a strictly parallel universe.
Cinemascope was the screen novelty that really caught on. Other things they’d thrown up against television wilted quickly. Installation of Cinerama was too expensive to gain wide acceptance among exhibitors, despite smash business in those few venues equipped to play it, and 3-D seemed the very definition of a flash in the pan. Cinemascope was something you could put in your house without having to hock the place. Our own Allen Theatre was cursed with a building no wider than the old standard screen they’d been using (twenty-seven feet --- I measured it years after the 1962 fire). Owing to a product split, they played all Fox and Warner product. The Robe made the Allen in March of 1954. They resolved the width issue by simply clamping on an anamorphic lens and letting chips fall where they may, resulting in a picture shown as much upon side walls as the screen itself. Most of Lucky Me was thus enjoyed (?) on velvet curtains by audiences obliged to rotate their heads in two directions at a minimum of 180 degrees. WB men in the field likely shunned the Allen with its chump change seating capacity, so who's to care if backwoods patrons emerged from that benighted auditorium needing chiropractic attention? Besides, Warners was busy figuring ways to best Fox at widescreen Olympics by ordering up a competing system they could call their own. Time really was of the essence as 1953 gave way to a new (and for Fox, immensely profitable) year. Lucky Me was rushed out for a late March 1954 opening in Miami, setting for the film, but site of limited second unit lensing, as most of this was shot on Burbank home ground (WB having caved to the necessity of licensing Fox's Cinemascope trademark). Stars Robert Cummings, Phil Silvers, and Nancy Walker were guests of the Tri-Florida State Theatres chain, as shown here. Reviews were middling. Warners was relying less on inferior stuff they had in circulation than grandiose projects held in abeyance for future release. Jack Warner hosted a Cinemascope preview reel trumpeting ten forthcoming features (a trade ad for that shown here), almost all utilizing the wide process. A Star Is Born was the crown jewel of these and rough cuts were being sneaked to trade editors at the beginning of March, although the picture wouldn’t see release until September of 1954. By virtue of its March opening, Lucky Me managed to be among those first musicals exhibited in Cinemascope (it beat MGM’s Rose Marie into theatres by days, but was preceded by Fox’s New Faces, which got out a few weeks earlier).
I don’t take for granted that Lucky Me and other Cinemascopes are finally available again after being pretty much lost for the entirety of my lifetime (the picture opened a mere month after I was born). Warners played it off to surprisingly modest numbers for the remainder of that year. You’d have expected their second Cinemascope release to do better than a final $79,000 in profit. Calamity Jane had scored much higher without the wide process, but it had Secret Love, the kind of smash song hit the new show strived toward, but couldn’t achieve. Lucky Me was a picture of the moment, and no one anticipated a shelf life beyond those tickets sold on the basis of a new screen format and little else. So what becomes of product dismissed as lackluster early on? Unlike westerns and actioners, there’s little demand for reissues. Newer Doris Days meant newer songs, so why revisit movies with tunes recalled only for having failed to crack the top charts? Lucky Me wound up in the Warner’s syndication dump of 1960 with 122 other post-48 features, many of which would be fated to spend succeeding decades panned, scanned, and mutilated with commercials --- defying any and all argument that most were once (at least) entertaining pictures, and some much more than that. Between general release in 1954 and a largely botched laser disc that sold a few hundred copies in the late eighties, you couldn’t see Lucky Me in scope, let alone with decent color (and inferior Warnercolor used in 1954 remains problematic, even on newly restored disc). Rental prints were "adapted", itself a compromising precursor to latter-day letterboxing on TV, except here they still cropped substantial information from both sides, with characters spilling off proscribed edges. Films Inc. distributed these in 16mm, and while they did have Cinemascope (and IB Technicolor) prints of many 20th Fox releases (requiring special projection lenses), their 1955-56 catalogue (the relevant page shown here) withheld anamorphic prints of all Warner releases except Mister Roberts and The Silver Chalice. The only way you could rent Lucky Me (at $32.50 per day) and other scope Warner titles was by way of those ersatz "no special lens or screen required" prints. Unwrapping the new DVD, with its stereo tracks restored as well as the frame’s original width, is a revelation and at long last a square deal for this modest musical that needs all the help an expanded canvas gives it. I’d like to think the critical reputation of Lucky Me, as well as others like Track Of The Cat, Ring Of Fear, and Land Of The Pharaohs, will be enhanced by proper presentations so long withheld. Early Cinemascope titles have been disadvantaged for too many years. Those of us raised on the husks of these once proud shows can be happy to have lasted long enough to finally enjoy them as audiences did when this process was itself the modern miracle of the screen.