The George Marshall Cult Starts Here!
They never taught the likes of George Marshall in film school, and more’s the pity they didn’t/don’t. One modern writer refers to him as the quintessential hack director. Harsh words for such a reliable all-purpose man who served the industry from 1912 to 1972, manning the helm into his eightieth year. They can’t all be Hitchcock and Ford. With seven hundred and fifty features plus heaven knows how many shorts coming off studio lines per annum, somebody had to pull plows and get routine jobs done. Marshall was among those guys. Sometimes he did better than alright. Always he was efficient, looking every inch the part of a battle seasoned Hollywood pioneer, among those men tempered like steel Lee Marvin used to talk about. Life experience he brought to his first movie set make contemporary directors look like bottle-sucking infants. George graduated the school of life as opposed to UCLA. He’d been expelled from better joints than that. A child now going on two centuries back (born 1891), he bopped farm-to-farm selling equipment, did time-honored cub reporting, and worked railroad shifts in between. With that pugilist’s nose he had, I’ll bet George applied Ernie Borginine bat messages to more than one would-be Emperor of the Pacific rail line. Coincidental may be the fact he took up pro baseball as well. Yesterday’s twenty calendar years is today’s --- what? Does anybody anymore get this much adventure in life so early on --- or ever? Marshall was just out of his teens when he landed in Hollywood. There was extra work, bit-playing, propping --- then camera assisting, make-up application, editing, and assistant directing. In those pre-union days, it was still possible to be jack-of-a-hundred trades. Coast Guard service led to Signal Corp duties in the First World War. After that, Marshall (still not yet thirty) would direct Tom Mix and later take charge of Fox’s short comedies unit. I mention this not so much in an effort to "rediscover" George Marshall --- it’s clearly too late, and there’s been too much film scholarship published --- for any (past) Hollywood director to be so anointed. It’s hardly enough to take down a few DVD’s and write a bit of random tribute to a craftsman of his incredible longevity and output --- surely George Marshall and others of his generation deserve more --- but I’m having fun taking a whirl at it, for there are shows here I’d not seen before. Soon enough I’ll be back aboard the pantheon celebrating names covered all too exhaustively by others, but for this and follow-up posts to come, it’s me and George Marshall and a lot of mighty fine little pictures he gave us.
TCM runs Bobby Jones shorts every now and again. He’s the long-ago golf champ recently (and amazingly) biopic’ed in a 2004 movie called Bobby Jones: Stroke Of Genius. George Marshall dreamed up the notion of putting Jones on the links with various Hollywood stars for purposes of teaching them (and us) a few duffing moves. There's lots of gentle ribbing and probable ad-libbing among major names you’d not expect to see in a sport reel. Warner Oland did one. So did W.C. Fields. Cagney and Robinson took on-screen lessons in the near-immediate wake of rat-tatting to fame in Little Caesar and Public Enemy. No matter their status, all of these big leaguers stood in awe of Bobby’s mighty swing. Their astonished reactions to his expertise are at least as convincing as any performance they gave in features. George Marshall was deft in ways of comedy and generated sufficient mirth to engage viewers not otherwise fascinated by slow-motion golf swings. Last night, I observed Jones bounce one off a tree and onto the green. Having been golfaphobic since running a cart into a lake back in 1967, I found myself quite taken both by the pro’s relaxed Georgia drawl and his near-supernatural way with a niblick. Warners did two seasons of these --- eighteen sessions at a reel apiece might make champions of us all --- they’re definitely trophy winners among sport shorts.
George Marshall had sharp features and an edge in his voice that made Fred Kohler look and sound like a geranium. He could play comedy as well as direct it. An early-thirties sojourn with Hal Roach found him in charge of a new series teaming Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. A lot of these are plain wretched. I’m not sure they ever got that formula down, despite attempts going clear through to Todd’s mysterious death four years after the shorts were introduced. Marshall dropped out of them and so did Pitts. The director went over to the Laurel and Hardy unit and did several good ones. Pack Up Your Troubles was the team’s second at feature-length and Marshall had a priceless cameo playing a vengeful army cook. He’s the funniest supporting bit in the film (as shown here). I’m frankly doubtful any director exerted a lot of influence over Laurel and Hardy once Leo McCarey left. The shorts Marshall helmed --- Towed In A Hole and Their First Mistake --- are not markedly different from any other L&H during 1932. Stan Laurel’s creative control was fairly complete by this time, but Roach policy required at least a nominal body in the director’s chair, so for this brief period, Marshall was it. He’d shuttle between Culver City and Mack Sennett’s factory for several years. The Sennett talking comedies are unknown quantities for modern viewers and have been for years. Blackhawk once sold them in 16mm, but that was at least three decades back. A handful are available on DVD from Kino. There’s a tiny few made famous by the presence of Bing Crosby or W.C. Fields, but the majority (including those directed by George Marshall) featured names best remembered by stouthearted buffs. Franklin Pangborn headlined several, as did Walter Catlett, Babe Kane, and silent holdovers Ford Sterling and Mack Swain. Even then these were two-reelers on life support, minor and past prime clowns bailing and flailing against the spectre of bankruptcy that would eventually take Sennett and his studio down.
There was a 16mm collector and Alice Faye completist named Frank Moshier who possessed the alleged only surviving print of 365 Nights In Hollywood, and it was by way of his estate that this rarity came to be used as source material for VCI’s DVD release. George Marshall directed his first features for Fox Film Corporation. 365 Nights would be a musical comedy hopelessly outmatched against Busby Berkeley spectaculars at Warners and Astaire/Rogers dance recitals at RKO. It was a 1934 release with ideas and execution that dated back further, the sort of limp rag that justified a public’s increased demand for double features. The failed effort to beat song-and-dance competitors at that game is less interesting than an authentic feel for life at the bottom of Hollywood’s anxious food chain. Crooked talent schools operating in drab frame houses promise stardom to rubes and chumps desperate to break into movies. 365 Nights is itself drab enough to play like a cut-rate Movietone newsreel of life among show-biz losers and shutouts. The muddy source print used here lends credibility the movie may not have enjoyed in sparkling 35mm nitrate. Being a twenty-year plus industry veteran by this time, George Marshall undoubtedly knew his way around scams and their practitioners. Two Will Rogers vehicles coming in 1934 and the following year would find a larger audience (365 Nights lost $19,000). Marshall left no more of a signature upon these than David Butler, James Cruze, or other directors hog-tied by a formula now in rigor mortis. Only John Ford rose above it. I watched the two that Marshall supervised --- Life Begins At Forty and In Old Kentucky. They float upon my memory like contents of a molasses barrel. I can’t quite recall what happened in which. Will chases jaybirds with a slingshot. Banjo music heralds title credits. Funny (they think) old Grandpa chases folks with a loaded shotgun, and it occurs to nobody to take it away from him. There are both good girls and contrasting snooty ones to compete for vacuous Bobby Harron-inspired juveniles. Bad behavior is generally equated with having money. Why didn’t they invite D.W. Griffith to come out of involuntary retirement and direct these things? He’d have been ideal. As it is, Rogers is himself the auteur in command. He presides over small towns so distant in memory that we’re surprised whenever an automobile is driven upon the scene. Hard to imagine that much of the country was then very like the settings depicted in these shows. They reflected an idealized rural Americana and those it flattered would worship Will Rogers. His pictures hauled the freight for a struggling Fox Film Corporation. There were actually five of them in 1935, two released posthumously. Marshall’s In Old Kentucky would be the last. I wonder how long the Rogers craze would have gone had he lived. I do know they reissued his oldies into the late thirties and all were lucrative. Foreign markets never got the appeal of these. For continentals, they must have played like life on Saturn. Example: In Old Kentucky took a whopping 1.4 million in domestic rentals, but returned a negligible $67,000 foreign.
More to come on George Marshall.