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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

John Wayne's Brand Of Comfort Western

One of those revolving door powers-that-be in home video distribution made a recent comment that the only black-and-white DVD’s that move are those with John Wayne. The absence of sales figures (are there better kept secrets than these?) prevent our knowing what truth, if any, that quote contains, but I’d venture to say this individual at least understands that John Wayne remains top man among deceased stars, possibly the only name who can still open a weekend for old movies released on DVD. I’d love to read the deal memo Wayne’s family had with Paramount for that Batjac group they released last year. What sort of revenue does Hondo and The High and The Mighty generate in 2007? Do such annuities provide sufficient cakes and ale for surviving family members? It’s one hundred years since Wayne was born and nearly thirty since he passed, yet fan following persists, and his ongoing status is closer to mainstream and wider than any niche celebrating classic era rivals. Others were bigger in their day, but none approach Wayne now. He’s certainly the only star identified with westerns that modern audiences will go near. If Randolph Scott could somehow morph into John Wayne, we’d sure enough be watching those Budd Boettichers courtesy Sony DVD by now. Hard to believe Wayne spent much of his active career broke. In that respect, he was a lot like Elvis. Neither left estates commensurate with their legend and popularity. Any time you figure on having seen Wayne’s entire deck of cards, another performance will come along, never mind that it’s one you’ve seen a dozen times, and confirm yet again the man’s remarkable grasp of what his public wanted. A hundred tributes for the hundredth dredged The Searchers and Rio Bravo, so permit me on this occasion to bypass John Ford and Howard Hawks in favor of a boilerplate special Batjac served called The War Wagon. Far from forgotten (how could it be, with virtual non-stop exposure on Encore channels?), anything but a candidate for critical rediscovery, but here is the best evidence of how well John Wayne understood us.

I am not a man of words and nuance, Wayne said. The real cowboy loved, hated, had fun, was lusty. He didn’t have mental problems. This was Batjac’s philosophy in a nutshell. Wayne could rise to occasion for those strong directors who defined his screen image, but understood Ethan Edwards and Tom Dunson were not characters to man the cash register. Fans preferred to know exactly what they were getting from Wayne. Again, he shared the Elvis trap of having to deliver on rigid expectations, and with age an increasing factor, Wayne could hardly afford to frustrate these. Not that he wanted to. Sure, they’re simple, but simplicity is art was among defense tactics Wayne played against critics who wondered why his own westerns weren’t as good as those he’d done for Ford and Hawks. Too considerate of his mentor elders to mention it, but Wayne could take solace in Batjacs earnings, to wit --- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for Ford does 3.1 million in domestic rentals, McLintock under Wayne’s control takes 4.5. Howard Hawks’ El Dorado earns a sturdy 5.2 million, but The War Wagon bests it with 5.8 domestic. Comfort westerns were best for the long haul, and Wayne going on forty years in the business was too smart to rock that boat. Everything about The War Wagon bespeaks his total creative control. It’s shows like this that really put you inside Wayne’s skull. Memoirs and interviews have spoken to episodes in which directors, always younger and more compliant at Batjac, ceded their chair when Wayne proposed (self-described) better ideas. Few had the nerve or endurance to stand and argue with the star/producer under a boiling Durango sun. Most long-standing crew members knew well to avoid bringing Wayne himself to a boil, for his was a temper quick to rise whenever things ran at less than maximum efficiency. War Wagon cinematographer William Clothier remembered Wayne pushing Howard Keel, a formidable physical presence himself, from rock to barranca and back again. He moved actors around like chessmen on location gameboards he knew as well as the one he often played between set-ups. Stars with stature at least approaching his, such as Kirk Douglas here, could make Wayne stand down, but only just.

The War Wagon profits by a lighter touch, and shorter length, than just previous The Sons Of Katie Elder. Principal heavy is good ol’ Bruce Cabot, as narrator Wayne refers to him in the trailer, layers of paunch past King Kong and beyond capacity to engage his opponent at fisticuffs evoking memories of previous set-to’s in 1947’s Angel and The Badman. Wayne nearing sixty tumbles over saloon tables and backwards through an ocean of breakaway chairs, as epic scale, if unmotivated, brawls were de rigueur in establishment 60’s westerns headed for their own extinction. It’s ten years younger than Wayne Kirk Douglas who’s clinging to youth in The War Wagon. His leather outfit looks as sprayed on as Shirley Eaton’s gold paint, and indeed anticipates casting potential among William Friedkin’s ensemble in 1980’s Cruising. A then unexpected bare-assed gag (oddly missing from the recent DVD) was among the first I recall with a major male star, and Douglas seems intent on showing Wayne up with saddle-seating acrobatics worthy of a silent-era Tom Mix. In fact, the older man was annoyed, and observed for publicists that anyone could perform such miracles surrounding their mounts with trampolines. Douglas gigged Wayne further by calling him John instead of the preferred Duke, while the latter pointedly asked if his co-star, wearing a comical oversized ring over his gloved finger, intended on playing the part like a queer. Assuming the role of sagebrush Spartacus, Douglas tried fermenting rebellion among cast and crew against Wayne’s perceived tyranny, encouraging browbeaten director Burt Kennedy to just once defy his overbearing producer/star. That’s just how Duke is, replied Kennedy, whose better judgment negated temptation to join Kirk’s slave revolt. Friction between Wayne and Douglas was never serious, however, as they’d worked together before and knew each other’s foibles too well. Boredom on location as much as anything inspired Kirk’s mischief making. Their tension and rivalry work well for the picture in the end, as friendly enemies Wayne and Douglas execute an old west heist with borrowings from played straight noirs The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing. There’s even gold dust blown away a la Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, though ramifications of this don’t impede a welcome upbeat ending. The War Wagon’s solid boxoffice reconfirmed that action men in maturity work best in pairs. Wayne discovered this going into the sixties and seldom ventured alone onto marquees thereafter.

The War Wagon wound up in a three-way Summer 1967 race with super-westerns El Dorado and The Way West. Thanks to release delayed over a year, Hawks’ film obliged Wayne to compete with himself, as El Dorado’s debut of 6-1-67 was followed within ten days by The War Wagon. Kirk Douglas was similarly afflicted as The Way West, also featuring Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark, had opened on 5-24-67 and was fading fast to a disappointing tune of just 1.9 million in domestic rentals. As it was his company’s money invested in The War Wagon, Wayne took a personal interest in premiering the western where it would be best received (Dallas, then Fort Worth). His Texas contacts were of long standing. Veteran circuit men knew him on a first name basis as Wayne bear-hugged every sociable occasion while visiting the Lone Star State (as shown here). He’d wangled money from oil and cattle tycoons to finance The Alamo and hoisted many a jug among whoop-it-up modern westerners. Would but life and art commingle, we might imagine John Wayne flying up from Reita with the Benedicts to join festivities on Jett Rink Day, then attending Capt. Wade Hunnicutt’s Home From The Hill barbecue. Just following people person Wayne around on his selling junkets had makings of a compelling movie in itself. It’s an aspect of his career every bit as fascinating to me as what he put on the screen. Wayne was very much of the work hard and play harder school of movie making. Running with his crowd called for iron man constitution and at least two hollow legs, not to mention lungs impervious to toxin. Autumn years Wayne vehicles resonate with names and faces that tried to keep his pace, but couldn’t sustain the race. Grant Withers had become an alcoholic and killed himself in 1959. Ward Bond dropped dead of a heart attack in 1960 while attending a football game in Texas (age 57). He’d maintained a red meat/cigarette/bourbon regimen over three seasons of eighteen-hour workdays on Wagon Train. The War Wagon heavy (Good ol’) Bruce Cabot was indeed that, having lost a pile partnering with Wayne on a whiskey importing venture and dying at 68 of lung and throat cancer. Wayne had lately come out of his own near miss when they did The War Wagon together. Batjacs to come would be less profitable for distributors as Wayne had priced himself to a point where little pie was left for studio participants. His amazing career has only been equaled, if not eclipsed, by Clint Eastwood, a latter-day man of action who’s managed to outlast Wayne, both starring and directing, just by taking a little better care of himself.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

At Long Last Conquering The Worm

If a horror film is truly meant to create a sense of fear and dread within its onlooker, then surely one succeeded in its purpose on May 31, 1969 when I first came upon The Conqueror Worm, better known now as Witchfinder General and newly released to DVD. I’d not been, nor would I ever be again, so emotionally pummeled by a film --- undone to the point of declaring it one of the worst pictures made to its date. Certainly no Poe thriller with Vincent Price had sunk so low. The panning review shown here was my artless, if immature, expression of disapproval in our (then) local newspaper, for whom I was (inexplicably) permitted to evaluate movies at the ages of fourteen and fifteen. We attended on a Saturday. The Liberty was perhaps a third filled. Flush days were past for that venerable house. Colonel Forehand could scarcely have known that his combo of The Conqueror Worm with The Devil’s Bride would bring closure to the last great decade of British horror. It’s taken me another thirty-eight years to appreciate how lucky I was to be there that day, despite resentment I’d harbor toward Witchfinder General for long thereafter. Analysis might reveal and rid others of lesser traumas, but I self-medicated by way of damning Michael Reeves’ final film and even tossing into the attic a pressbook Colonel Forehand gave me soon after the playdate. That I would come to embrace said incubus seemed at the least unlikely, yet I’m here to declare Witchfinder General not just a great horror film, but a revolutionary one.

The director had already died (2-11-69) when we saw The Conqueror Worm. He was twenty-five. Some say Michael Reeves committed suicide. The account of what happened looks like an accidental overdose to me. He had a plenty bleak view of the world if his limited filmic output is any indication, but a lot of that may have been youthful affectation. Many of us liked to play cynical in our twenties, little anticipating forthcoming life events that might justify such attitudes. Reeves didn’t stay long enough to find out about any of that. He’d brashly barged in on Don Siegel (at his home!) to express admiration and ask for work. On that account, I’d identify with the young man, for I too invaded Siegel’s sanctum sanctorum at Universal when I was a student at USC in 1975, but that’s a story I’ll save for another post. I mention it for purposes of confirming that Siegel was exceptionally gracious to at least two of his youthful fans. Reeves left but three credits. One of them I’d encountered several years prior to Witchfinder General. That was The She-Beast, reference to which I fleetingly made in a previous story. We’d gone to see it with a dud called The Embalmer (ad shown here), our expectations lowered for having watched the latter first. Who among my cadre of thirteen-year-olds (at least five of us together) would have dreamed that The She-Beast would have a nude scene --- the first ever to be unspooled on the Liberty's screen? Like witnesses to the Hindenberg, we all still remember it.

Witchfinder General is like the evil doppelganger of A Man For All Seasons. That prestigious Best Picture winner of 1966 utilized similar English countryside. Both pictures deal with persecution and religious intolerance. You could take your grandmother to see A Man For All Seasons and she'd thank you for it. Schoolteachers undoubtedly gave extra credit for some who went. Witchfinder General was nasty and cruel, but it was history too. Reeves force-fed fact-based truths that sixties audiences weren’t prepared for. They liked civilized discourse among British pageant players, not on-screen immolation and priests being hung. Star Vincent Price came over figuring he’d walk through another AIP thriller like those he’d done for years in his sleep. Tactless but determined Reeves reshot his way through the actor’s bag of tricks until an exhausted Price finally gave the ice-cold performance he needed. They never got along. Reeves would have preferred Donald Pleasance. One look at Will Penny and you thank God that wish went unfulfilled. Both star and director had compelling arguments. Reeves didn’t want more of a too-familiar face and voice on autopilot from so many routine vehicles. Trouble was he was too impatient and perhaps inarticulate to simply explain what he did want. This was a rushed production after all, and the two men (or more accurately, a man and a boy) could hardly have had less in common on a personal level. Vincent Price reminded his director of greater experience he’d had in films, and indeed, this actor’s way had pleased for three profitable decades. For all that time, Price’s was a benign image despite sinister parts he played. Everything in fun and suitable for the family. His was the friendly face in Sears catalogs promoting art appreciation. American-International’s tenth anniversary found Price acting as genial master of ceremonies at exhibitor confabs where he introduced Beach Party singing regulars. Being told by an upstart kid to abandon every device that had won your audience would at least confuse, and probably alarm, this very set-in-his-ways actor. How would fans react? I knew from nothing about aesthetic contracts upon seeing The Conqueror Worm in 1969, but felt very definitely that Vincent Price had violated ours for making such a picture. Was my response unique, or were others as alienated?

1968 was several years after Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe series limped into closure. Domestic rentals for these had fallen from million plus highs to a piddling $348,000 for Tomb Of Ligeia. Continuation with other directors was worse. War-Gods Of The Deep under Jacques Tournear delivered just $338,000. Admission prices had gone up since these, and AIP was getting better bookings thanks to the runaway success of The Wild Angels. Domestic rentals for The Conqueror Worm approached early Corman standards (but how with a one-sheet as ugly as the one shown here?). Its 1.1 million was fourth highest among the Poes, trailing Pit and The Pendulum (1.474), House Of Usher (1.414), and The Raven (1.2). You could say critics ignored it, but trade reviews were generally okay, that dismissive air of condescension toward all horror films being a customary factor. Perhaps AIP was misguided in selling it as such, but how else? Vincent Price guaranteed business as usual (was this another reason Reeves objected to his casting?), so looking at it from AIP’s viewpoint, the Poe tie-in was a simple economic expediency --- and it worked. In fact, The Conqueror Worm gave new impetus to the company’s ongoing Vincent Price franchise. Too bad for us that Michael Reeves didn’t get to direct The Oblong Box, but it’s unlikely AIP shed tears, for this lazy and perfunctory thriller rode The Conqueror Worm coattails to even greater numbers --- 1.4 million in domestic rentals, despite fewer bookings (8,188) than Worm had (8,766). Retro camp delivered Price from a row of weak sisters he’d done after Worm. The Abominable Dr. Phibes was sold in that backhanded way companies had embraced since Warners struck gold with Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down!). Phibes depicted its star in tender embrace with a rib-tickling poster legend --- Love Means Never Having To Say You’re Ugly. The happy result was 1.8 million in domestic rentals and the best money they’d ever seen for a horror picture. Had Michael Reeves lived to become house director, what might he have done with a property like this?

Anyone with doubts as to Reeves’ contribution with regards Witchfinder General need only refer to what Gordon Hessler delivered with The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, and Cry Of The Banshee (all with Price), or what undistinguished work he did with 1972’s Murders In The Rue Morgue, the sort of listless product that would pretty much kill off AIP horrors for good. The newly released Witchfinder General on DVD rescues the film after decades of neglect. Others tell that story better than I could. Suffice to say we now have something worth looking at (and listening to --- the original musical score is finally back). Reeves’ devotion to Don Siegel was not misplaced. That great action director emphasized movement and tempo in the same way Reeves would in Witchfinder General. This is one lean (and mean!) chiller, and yet there are moments of formal beauty; I’ve seldom seen outdoor locations evoke time and setting as effectively (lots of impressive riding inserts as well). The fact it was done so quickly and at such a low budget makes one regret all the more that Reeves didn’t live longer to stage bigger pictures (but would he have risen to greater challenges?). Boyhood friend Ian Ogilvy played in all three features Reeves directed, yet they seem to have known little of each other outside the work environment. Based on evidence here at hand (Ogilvy with his sports car), the young actor at least appears to have gotten more fun out of working in movies than Reeves ever did. The director boosted sex and violence no more than what his employers sought. American-International arranged for nudity beyond what Reeves had filmed (bringing in another director to shoot footage of topless tavern wenches), as stateside markets were poised as of 1968 to embrace much more explicit on-screen content. The face of horror really was changing. Hammer imports would be henceforth seasoned with nudity as well, and finally The Exorcist would show what fantastic commercial pay-off could flow from hard "R" sensation and all that implied. Witchfinder General was at the vanguard of these. It’s lost none of its capacity to shock. I wonder how jaded viewers of latter-day Saws and Hostels would react to Michael Reeves’ charnel house. Has anyone out there road tested Witchfinder General among younger audiences?
Some UPDATES: Check previous Greenbriar posts for new info recently acquired --- Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole, Brides Of Dracula, and Val Lewton --- Part Two.
And Many Thanks to Lee Pfeiffer and his fabulous Cinema Retro website and magazine (have you subscribed yet? --- it's the greatest!) for the Italian poster image from Witchfinder General.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Early Talkers On The Ropes

There’s a feeling one gets in the company of a truly ancient talkie. You feel as though you’re the only person left on the face of the earth watching such a relic. One Romantic Night was that kind of experience for me. With seemingly everything coming out on DVD, why choose this (other than its availability HERE)? More to the point, just what is it that makes Lillian Gish’s talking debut so compelling? According to United Artists ledgers, the May 1930 release lost money. A negative cost of $608,000 was pretty big money at the time. Getting that back with just $399,000 in domestic rental was unlikely. I checked the feature films sourcebook for television and it doesn’t look as though anyone bothered with distribution there. Could it be ownership issues? MGM remade One Romantic Night under the original title of Frederic Molnar's play from which it was adapted --- The Swan. That featured Grace Kelly, Alec Guiness, and Louis Jourdon. These 1956 players stood in for the original’s Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, and Conrad Nagel. You know you’re plowing transition from silents ground with this trio. Every awkward device of primitive sound production is here --- and then some. Orchestra music threatens to drown out dialogue. Fabric rustles as it would when Lina Lamont and Don Lockwood played love scenes years later in Singin’ In The Rain. The authenticity of all this --- we’re witnessing the real struggle between silence and incoming sound --- is what I liked best about One Romantic Night. Lillian Gish recalled being talked into the project by consort George Jean Nathan. She knew there was trouble when an untried director showed up representing himself as schooled in the ways of dialogue. They’d record miles of that. Gish knew it was a slow and dull picture before they were finished. What a trial to continue along a filmmaking path you realize leads nowhere --- smelling disaster at the beginning and knowing there’s little you can do to extricate yourself from it. By all means, check out One Romantic Night and feel the ghosts of 1930 patrons abandoning the auditorium en masse.

Had I been around that year, I’d not have been surprised to read of Lillian Gish giving up movies and entering a nunnery. One Romantic Night demonstrates the unliklihood of a future for her in talking leads. The title itself is an oxymoron with Gish’s name preceding it. Great though she was, this was not a woman disposed toward on-screen lovemaking. There was a story of how she’d persuaded director King Vidor to omit kissing scenes when they shot La Boheme a few years earlier --- and her co-star was John Gilbert! Pairing Gilbert with a touch-me-not leading lady was like putting a muzzle on Rin-Tin-Tin. It seemed with Gish that passionate gestures were at the least a breach of decorum. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, a kiss would be more likely to put Gish into the comatose state rather than bringing her out of it. Millions are Waiting To Hear Lillian Gish in Her First Talking Picture, says the poster, but were they? Talking or no, by 1930 audiences may have had their fill. Gish’s last five had been for Metro. The first two of these were hits --- La Boheme scored $377,000 in profits and The Scarlet Letter $296,000. After that came the fall. Annie Laurie lost $264,000 and The Enemy posted minimal profits of $96,000 (about what better Tim McCoy MGM historicals were getting). The Wind broke the back of her Metro contract with $87,000 gone. Gish said she left there after Irving Thalberg suggested a manufactured off-screen scandal to feature her, the idea being to chip away a little of that patrician veneer. Not a bad idea when you think about it. Who knows but what it might have led to new career opportunities. Lillian Gish as The Divorcee? --- pre-code liaisons with Adolphe Menjou, Ricardo Cortez, or even Warren William? Thalberg’s idea got no further than the exit gate at Metro. One can only imagine Gish’s indignant reply when he floated it.

Quick flashcard. Who had a longer career in motion pictures than Lillian Gish? Anyone? I can’t think of a runner up, though there is Mickey Rooney. He’s passed her with eighty years performing on screen, but that, of course, has been since she died. I think Gish held the record during her lifetime with seventy-five years active in movies, and consider this --- she played a lead in her final (1987) feature, The Whales Of August. Co-stars in One Romantic Night endured less well. Variety was harsh in its assessment of Conrad Nagel and Rod La Rocque. Recitational, voice-conscious, always-studied read the trade paper’s dismissal of Nagel, an actor so overused in early talkies as to become a one-man epidemic (and this was Nagel’s own assessment). He’d become a running joke among industry wags. I even recall Johnny Carson making a Conrad Nagel joke in the late eighties, years after the man had died. Stolid, stuffy, forever losing the girl or sacrificing her to the arms of another, Nagel still gets a raw deal in screen history books. Interviewed for a wonderful collection entitled The Real Tinsel (published in 1970 --- used copies at $1.29!), the actor lamented the fact he’d made thirty-one talking pictures within the space of two transitional years between the silent and talking eras. One night he and his wife drove all over LA in a vain effort to find one theatre not showing a Conrad Nagel movie. They finally gave the whole thing up as a bad job. Sometimes he’d work thirty-six hours straight without a break, taking time out for a necessary shave before moving to the next set-up. Juggling four pictures at once became a commonplace. It’s remarkable he was so (consistently) good amidst this undoubted state of confusion. Both Nagel and Rod La Rocque spent years in stock companies before and (in La Rocque’s case) during careers in silent film. Neither would maintain success in talkies. Once other screen voices caught up to Nagel, he’d go back to the stage and supporting parts. La Rocque’s romantic idol status gained in DeMille silents was cut short when microphones picked up a nasal drawl he couldn’t rid himself of, despite intense voice training. I couldn’t carry all that corned beef and cabbage, said the long retired star on the topic of stardom’s grind. One Romantic Night would thus come to represent everything a newly articulate cinema wanted to rid itself of.

The worst shellacking from a flop like this would be borne by exhibitors. Despite the low cost of paper (and here’s the order form for One Romantic Night), depression-era showmen had to be very careful how much they spent on advertising. Going overboard with posters and accessories could wipe out what little profit you might realize for the week. Pressbooks encouraged heavy promotion. Cover every window and billboard in town, they’d say, but pay us on delivery. Note the staggering choice of materials for One Romantic Night. Metropolitan and circuit houses could routinely buy this stuff and canvas the town with it. For a small-town independent, heavy promotion for a single attraction meant gambling the mortgage, but since pictures in pre-TV saturation days were largely advertised at the local level, you had to generate eye appeal for pedestrians on your street. Warnings from neighboring towns as to dogs on the loose saved many an exhibitor from beatings he’d otherwise get on pictures like One Romantic Night, but in the end, you had to rely on instinct. Patrons looked to a showman’s word as to whether a picture was any good. You’d not stay in business long betraying that trust. Exhibitors writing in to trade magazines complained loudly and often of how they’d been snookered on a promised "special’ by distributor salesmen. Seasoned theatre men ignored much of what was suggested and/or promised in pressbooks and product annuals. Art such as that shown here of an exhibitor beaming as throngs enter his venue to see One Romantic Night provoked knowing laughter from showmen in the business long enough to know better. Never-ending shell games played by producers and distributors would lead to anti-trust complaints and the end of studio oligopolies. Such actions and changes they brought would begin with small and independent exhibitors.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Back On Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard harked to a past in movies as it looked to a future in exploitation. This would be the first feature to incorporate TV spots into its advertising campaign. National Screen Service was the distributor of trailer sets made up of two twenty second spots and a pair at one minute each. The package could be rented from NSS for thirty-five dollars. Television was finally recognized in 1950 as a necessary adjunct to publicity campaigns, despite studio abhorrence of the home screen. Talk and panel programs were fertile ground for free advertising. Much of the word gotten out by Gloria Swanson on behalf of Sunset Boulevard came about as a result of her appearances on local chat shows across the country. Previewing, reshooting, and extensive post-production delayed Sunset Boulevard for almost a year, but this was opportunity for Paramount to raise press and critical awareness of the exceptional product they had. This being a Hollywood story, industry screenings were numerous and a hot ticket among movie personnel anxious to see their walk of life dramatized on screen. Wilder wanted authenticity and so used actual names and places. Fictional Monarch and Miracle studio references were jettisoned in favor of the real thing. Big names agreed to lend flattering quotes for use in Sunset Boulevard ads (one shown here), and these weren’t limited to artists on Paramount payrolls. Endorsements from Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, and Gene Tierney were not a commonplace even on their home lots. I suspect industry reaction to Sunset Boulevard cut along generational divides. Those who’d arrived and flourished with talkies no doubt saw it as accurate and honest with regards the silent era, while survivors of that vanished period felt cruelly exploited and put upon. Mary Pickford was said to have left her screening prior to lights coming up. I’d venture that much of Louis Mayer’s wrath came of having spent his own early career in silents, being a decade and a half older than Gloria Swanson. Could Mayer have sensed the Hollywood scrap heap laying in (less than two year’s) wait for him? Perhaps symbolic, if not coincidental, was the fact that Sunset Boulevard would be the last major studio release shot on nitrate negative.

The opening was at Radio City Music Hall. Paramount emphasized critical raves and otherwise relied on a tagline nearly as uninspired as that used to sell Citizen Kane (It’s Terrific!). Many posters simply read A Most Unusual Motion Picture with credits against stark red or yellow backgrounds. Oversized paper beyond one-sheet size omitted picture art altogether. The Style "A" (shown here) is by far the most collectable of otherwise unexciting promotion issued on Sunset Boulevard, being a stunning image of maniacal Gloria Swanson looming over William Holden and Nancy Olson. Paramount’s bigger fish that year was Samson and Delilah. It was a gigantic hit. The pictures merge in Sunset Boulevard when Norma Desmond goes to visit Cecil B. DeMille on the set of his blockbuster. It’s amusing to hear DeMille shun the notion of filming that awful script (Norma and Joe’s Salome), yet here he is in 1949 shooting what amounts to a modern Salome. So entrenched was CB in silent technique and staging for his own productions that differences between Samson and the would-be Salome are negligible at best. No director was as wedded to archaic methods, though DeMille was always up to the minute in terms of showmanship. I’ve no doubt CB could have turned the Desmond-Gillis Salome into another Samson-sized smash had he given it half a chance.

The waxworks label had to sting. Cinematographer John Seitz had been there when Rudolph Valentino played The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. He was fifty-seven when Sunset Boulevard was made, having been in the business since 1916. Would this man have looked in the mirror and seen waxworks? Wilder's caustic vision consigned many a veteran (some not so much older than BW himself) to perhaps premature oblivion. Dim figures you may still remember from the silent days, says William Holden’s narration. For Buster Keaton, it was merely another (single) day’s work, but this was not a man otherwise disposed to sit in a rocking chair, and hadn’t H.B. Warner done fine work as Mr. Gower the druggist just a few years before in It’s A Wonderful Life? A look at call sheets for Frank Capra, John Ford, and, yes, Cecil B. DeMille pictures will reveal staggering numbers of so-called waxworks in both bit and speaking roles. These directors went way back in American film and formed numerous professional attachments along the way. Billy Wilder was a comparatively recent arrival, and had not the sentiment they felt for longtime contributors to the industry. These colleagues might have agreed with Mayer that Wilder was indeed biting the hand that was feeding him.

Norma Desmond’s film archive appears to be better stocked than any silent personality I’m aware of. She and Joe Gillis watch movies three times a week according to Holden’s narration, and all of them Desmond vehicles. This is one occasion where Sunset Boulevard departs well from reality, as few stars owned copies of their work, let alone complete libraries in 35mm. Swanson herself would lament the extinction of most of her films. The memoir she published in 1980 mentioned a then-lost pairing with Rudolph Valentino. Who’d have guessed then that Beyond The Rocks survived, let alone among the holdings of an eccentric loner collector in the Netherlands? Imagine the excitement UCLA archivists would have felt having a go at Norma Desmond’s private stash! Those with home libraries generally owned the negative --- thus DeMille, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd; each maintained storage for practical as much as sentimental purposes. Few working actors took prints home. Colleen Moore had a number of First National features in which she’d maintained some ownership. These were donated to the Museum Of Modern Art in the fifties, but subsequently lost when mistakenly transferred to Warners. All those years Moore safeguarded her prints and now they’re gone. Clara Bow’s family has two of her films --- that’s all --- and both are talkies. These people spent old age with no more idea of how to see their old shows than we had. Most who lived in Los Angeles had to drive down to John Hampton’s Silent Movie Theatre (shown below) to get a glimpse of themselves. Norma Desmond might have made fewer suicide attempts had she known how lucky she was to screen 35mm nitrate reels of Queen Kelly in her living room, and you’d think ongoing access to such viewing treasures would make Joe Gillis’ gigolo status a lighter burden to bear as well, despite his professed indifference to the silent classics. The two of them watching Queen Kelly plays like an excursion to some indian burial ground, yet there was only twenty years between that unfinished feature and Sunset Boulevard. Twenty Years?? That seems like just yesterday to me!

Watching Sunset Boulevard made me wonder about the real Norma Desmonds among retired screen stars in 1949. Did Wilder base his story on fact, legend, or just imaginings he’d had? Surely there was gossip about crazy ex-movie queens holed up in crumbling mansions, but who and/or how many? Sunset Boulevard’s gothic treatment seems right. Wilder had to have encountered fallen stars in their natural habitat to come up with something so authentic as this. I don’t recall any interview where the writer-director actually revealed his inspiration for the character. Certainly there were actresses whose final days evoked Norma Desmond. Mae Murray was said to have engaged in ab-Norma behavior. Kenneth Anger published ghoulish stills of Nita Naldi, Alma Rubens, and others. He’d even get around to taking down Gloria Swanson in Volume Two of Hollywood Babylon. Some guys in a bookstore told me once that Madge Bellamy used to come in doing a Baby Jane number. Mary Miles Minter was said to have been cracked wide open for years. Movies treated former membership pretty shabbily after Sunset Boulevard. Either they were good for laughs, as in fictionalizations like Singin’ In The Rain and Dreamboat, or bio’ed in slow dripping acid. The waxworks melted as Hollywood lovingly dramatized their "struggles." Ones with money remained above it. Harold Lloyd could sit out the ugliness at Greenacres, but Buster Keaton needed a house and let Paramount exploit him (with The Buster Keaton Story) in order to have it. Artists too obscure to see their lives dissected on film were thrown to wolves via Ralph Edwards and This Is Your Life. Check out Frances Farmer’s episode to appreciate just how lucky Norma Desmond was. There were no oil wells pumping and pumping for folks this desperate.

If you revere old movies and chase them long enough, you’ll eventually get your own Norma encounter. Mine took place when Thornhill Entertainment’s Robert Cline and I went to visit one-time starlet Suzanne Kaaren in Salisbury, NC back in 1980. She was the widow of esteemed actor Sidney Blackmer and was living in his ancestral home. The place looked like Twelve Oaks after the Yankees were done with it. We thought it would be a kick to meet Bela Lugosi’s leading lady in Devil Bat. Suzanne had worked with The Three Stooges as well. Billy Wilder could absolutely have remade Sunset Boulevard here and this woman could have starred. The walls were covered with playbills tracking Sidney Blackmer’s Broadway career. These were trappings way beyond spooky, but Mrs. Blackmer had some great stories to tell. Why not live in the past when you’ve got one as fascinating as hers? The same philosophy might apply with any number of loosely defined celebrities signing autographs for ten and twenty dollars at various Burbank (and beyond) weekend shows. Those are chock full of Normas, both male and female.
UPDATE (9-18-o7): Here's some financial info I just got for Sunset Boulevard. The negative cost was $1.759,915.97 million, and the domestic rentals totalled $2.350 million. Depending upon foreign, this picture may or may not have lost money.
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