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Tuesday, March 27, 2007







Campaigning For Kane --- Part One







Citizen Kane lost $160,000. Historians recall both the film and its star as having gotten a raw deal. Opinions differ as to how much grief Orson Welles brought upon himself. Controversy he invited did hobble the boxoffice. First-run bookings were lost as a result of RKO’s war with William Randolph Hearst as well as profits Kane might otherwise have earned. It was hard enough for this company to score hits even in the best of times. Welles might have had a smash had he dealt with MGM rather than RKO, but Metro would never have given untried talent such carte blanche, nor backed him in a showdown with Hearst. RKO president George Schaefer hungered for, and was willing to gamble on, prestige names that would help RKO grab a bigger market share. 1939’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame pointed the way with $3.1 million in worldwide rentals. Could Orson Welles deliver unique product RKO needed to compete with powerful majors like Paramount, Fox, and MGM? Welles promised something new in screen entertainment --- plus longer lines and runs in downtown palaces Schaefer coveted. Big companies owning said temples had little reason to court unpredictable talent like Welles, despite remarkable strides he’d made onstage and in radio. RKO’s production machinery was not so well oiled as these monoliths in control of all the best theatres. Orson Welles would team with a studio losing money on pictures that might have clicked with stronger distribution muscle --- Vigil In The Night, Swiss Family Robinson, Abe Lincoln In Illinois, Dance, Girl, Dance --- all handicapped coming out of RKO gates. Their sole money star was Ginger Rogers. She and bandleader Kay Kyser supplied most of the black ink on company ledgers. The 1940-41 product annual called for two Welles productions, the first of which would be John Citizen, USA, among those several preliminary titles for Citizen Kane. It should have been released early in 1941, but for sundry threats, legal and otherwise, made by Hearst once he found out the story was based largely on him. This was where RKO’s express toward greater prestige and profit jumped the track …













As Winter 1941 dragged into Spring, Citizen Kane missed scheduled opening dates and bestirred much speculation as to whether it would be shown at all. RKO was sufficiently intimidated by Hearst interests as to delay public exhibition, though ongoing press previews assured a kettle boiling as corporate heads dithered. Orson Welles suggested they show it in circus tents, and volunteered to take Citizen Kane on the road like an old-fashioned medicine show. He’d even buy the negative! That idea still appealed to him decades later when interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich. If they’d only sold it to me --- they would have gotten out from under, and I would have been independently wealthy for the rest of my life --- everybody would have been happy. At least Welles had a role model in Charlie Chaplin. He’d threatened to hire halls, if not tents, to show The Great Dictator when circuits refused to come to (his) terms the previous year. Was Welles just posturing here? The practical realities of trying to seat audiences in makeshift auditoria for gerryrigged movie presentations was alright if you were running 16mm for school groups, but well-intentioned filmmakers doing battle with theatre monopolies stood little chance playing first-run million dollar investments in venues with sawdust for floors. Samuel Goldwyn actually tried it a few years after Kane when he opened Up In Arms with wooden chairs and telegrams from independents applauding his Quixotic gesture, though audiences for that Reno, Nevada "premiere" still preferred the comfort of plush theatre seats. Welles finally went public and threatened to sue RKO unless they released Citizen Kane forthwith. Radio City Music Hall backed out of a prior agreement to host the premiere, necessitating a quick overhaul of an old two-a-day vaudeville house RKO had owned since the twenties. The Palace Theatre was dressed out in a wall of light, four stories high (shown here). A lavish front cost $26,000 to dress, while other advertising and ballyhoo expenses stood RKO $53,000 before the doors opened on May 1, 1941. For all the confidence on display at the Palace, RKO remained tentative as to playdates for Citizen Kane elsewhere. "A few test showings" was all they’d promise --- these would include Chicago (a lackluster engagement as Welles would later recall), Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington. They called it a roadshow, and surely Citizen Kane was that in terms of limited bookings and a long, hot summer in which to lose momentum before the belated general release set for September 5.





























Citizen Kane topped an indifferent slate RKO identified as the First Five For 1941-42. Trade ads were colorful and replete with critical plaudits. Runner-ups on the schedule included Parachute Battalion, Father Takes A Wife (remembered, if at all, as Gloria Swanson’s pre-Sunset Boulevard attempt at a comeback), All That Money Can Buy (stylistically similar to Kane), and Lady Scarface. Block-booking obliged small and independent exhibitors to play all of these. Parachute Battalion (eventual profit --- $128,000) held far greater promise for showmen than Citizen Kane. It was close as they could get to the blockbuster everyone wanted, Warner’s Sergeant York, which would go into general release September 27. Kane was getting a black eye from theatremen hearing crickets and fielding patron complaints as it wound through small towns. Negative comment in the trades was virulent. You’d think Anna Sten was making movies again. There was a World Premiere At Popular Prices in Reading, Pa., complete with parade and baton twirlers --- fresh ad art sexed up Citizen Kane and assured customers they’d not pay the $2.00 asked of roadshow attendees. Pressbooks offered a revised campaign abandoning cartoonish ad art and de-emphasizing an uninspired tagline, It’s Terrific! New one-sheets at last suggested quality product, but they came much too late. Major circuits refused to play the film. Fox West Coast Theatres contracted for Citizen Kane, then opted not to exhibit it, effectively shutting out runs in areas they controlled. Welles had indeed underestimated the enemy he’d made in Hearst. That deluxe trailer for Citizen Kane was a production in itself, and much as it delights us today, chances are Welles' confection baffled viewers unfamiliar with the screen newcomer and whatever it was he was selling. RKO’s season was thus a sinking ship, and George Schaefer would go down with it. Father Takes A Wife lost $104,000. Excellent though it was, All That Money Can Buy (now known as The Devil and Daniel Webster) was down by $53,000. Citizen Kane took $990,000 in domestic rentals and $300,000 foreign. That loss of $160,000 was not so egregious in comparison with other RKO features bleeding as much every year, and surely it was dwarfed by the blow Welles would take with his next, The Magnificent Ambersons, a loser to the tune of $620,000, and one of the worst lickings RKO sustained that decade.







































One critic described Citizen Kane as the picture of a man who is not really worth depicting, and here is the film’s weakness, but was it Kane he rejected, or the actor playing him? Welles was at the least unfamiliar as a screen presence. That voice was known well, but could it have become too overpowering (intimidating?) when combined with Welles’ looming physicality? He’s surely no leading man in the conventional sense. Rubber-necked masks and skull caps do not a romantic leading man make --- and what of those not ready for prime-time Mercury players? Joseph Cotten would break into romantic leads. The rest were at best character support, and few fulfilled the bright promise Welles foresaw in his Citizen Kane trailer. I could suggest revisionist casting that might have turned the commercial tide had the picture been made but months later. Consider the young man among reporters wandering amidst Xanadu treasures in the final sequence. Attentive listeners will identify that unmistakable Alan Ladd voice as it’s heard several times near the end (the still shown here finds him standing in clear view with other players). What if Ladd had played Kane, just after This Gun For Hire? Imagine following the sensation of his breakout role in that Paramount thriller with Alan Ladd as Charles Foster Kane! Welles would have had an unqualified hit and juice enough to stay on and direct no telling how many more RKO projects. At the very least, Welles and Mankiewicz might have rewritten Citizen Kane to accommodate a shared lead with Ladd. Consider this for instance --- Two-fisted enforcer (Ladd) for Big Jim (more sinned against than sinning) Gettys goes after C.F. Kane (Welles), but falls in love with Emily (Ruth Warrick) just as he’s closing in on that love nest his quarry shares with "singer" Susan Alexander. For Emily’s sake, Ladd lets Kane off with a warning, exacts his promise to lay off Gettys and stay out of politics, then decamps with Emily, who’s decided she prefers this bantam with the heart her venal husband lacks. Think they’d have bought that in 1941?




Thursday, March 22, 2007











My Idea Of A Filmgoing Oasis









Imagine --- sitting on a camel, corn dog in hand, watching The Cape Canaveral Monsters --- is that not a glimpse of paradise? Picture an ostrich race during intermission between The Absent-Minded Professor and a Three Stooge comedy. In the sixties, there were drive-ins … and then there were DRIVE-INS. The Oasis just outside Chicago was among the latter. I can’t believe such a place existed, and but for photographic evidence shown here, I still wouldn’t. Built at a cost of $555,000 over a twenty-acre spread, The Oasis sat 1,600 cars, along with seventy seats in each of two indoor theatres facing a 52 X 125-foot screen. The approach took you by desert tents and concrete camels with sheiks mounted thereon. Sand dunes were painted on fences running hundreds of yards alongside the entrance road. This was suburban Chicago, one minute from Oak Grove, Illinois, and 22 minutes from the city’s loop. Folks from the neighborhoods must have thought they’d cross hemispherical lines as they neared The Oasis. Plastic palm trees dotted the landscape. Waterfalls spouted forth from what appeared to be desert wells. It was a work of engineering and showmanship genius, the brainchild of one Oscar Brotman, exhibitor turned attorney, then back again to his first love (he’d run four theatres before turning twenty-one). Oscar was forty-four when he opened the Oasis in 1961. I thought how neat it would be to track him down and get some dope on what it was like running the most exotic drive-in anywhere in these United States, but then it hit me --- the man would be ninety today, if indeed he’s still among us.






















Maria Montez might have ridden her Sahara caravan through these imposing mosque-like portals, though if you’ll observe closely, there’s several boxoffices therein for what must what have been ongoing boffo attendance. I’d have sat through four hours of Andy Pandas just to bask amidst such splendorous trappings, and so what if the movies tanked? You could still ride camels, or elephants, for a quarter. Ostriches ran nightly --- camels too (wonder if patrons wagered on the outcomes?). You could pet the tamer beasts; this in addition to petting that doubtlessly went on in cars. Oscar got the animals from Disney, shortly after Swiss Family Robinson wrapped. Never let it be said that Walt wasn’t the showman’s friend. This playground sure beat hell of the ones we had in elementary school. There were four cafeteria lines serving the usual fare, plus something called apple taffy, which is a new one on me, though I’d concede Northern palettes may run contra to my own. Advertising circulars went on every tray, pushing whatever attractions were headed for the Oasis. The point is all this could be had for an admission of $1.25, with children 12 and under free. "Early bird shows" kicked off at 5:00 on Sunday afternoons, presumably for those with vision adequate to divine moving figures faintly visible in summer daylight. With camels running dead heats around that track, I wonder how much difference it would have made what they flashed on the screen, never mind it's being discernable! Shopping sprees were not unknown among Oasis patrons. There were vendors salted in lounges throughout the concession areas, peddling combs, brushes, pens, lipstick, perfume, toothbrushes, and Mexican jumping beans. Why weren’t we all living near Chicago in 1961?


































Oscar shunned sex pictures. Guess that meant no Brigitte Bardot, nor any of those nasty art pictures along the lines of La Dolce Vita and Satan In High Heels. No doubt he chilled on stateside sizzlers like Baby Doll and Peyton Place as well, though when you’ve a family friendly park as enticing as this, why gum it up with pictures likely to offend? Safer by far to go with attractions like those shown on the marquee here, and what’s wrong with a night spent watching Hondo, with an elephant ride in the bargain? Who among us would be so proud as not to take Oscar up on an entertainment offer like that? Our own Starlite Drive-In, located just off hairpin curves leading to Statesville, NC, was far more prosaic in its bill of fare. We had hula hoop contests, free (live) turkeys, nickel hot dogs, and pumpkin giveaways for thanksgiving shows. Sometimes you had to catch the turkeys, but that only enhanced overall gaiety. Our beloved Starlite was using remnants of prints long since abandoned by hardtops within a radius of two hundred miles. That stuff you saw on The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction about backwoods theatres running silent movies wasn’t too far off the mark where we were concerned. The Starlite unspooled The Oklahoma Kid and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man in the mid-sixties. Red River and The Outlaw were still booking with us in the seventies. Were these somewhere concealed in the Starlite's hollow outdoor screen? No camel rides where I lived, but livestock roamed open drive-in fields, as I’ve alluded to before. All of which makes the prospect of an Oasis Drive-In seem all the more incredible, for if places like this truly existed, I can only imagine people lucky enough to have attended would carry those happy recollections to this day. Were any Greenbriar readers among them?




Monday, March 19, 2007




Rescue These Orphaned Noirs!





Accurately defining film noir has become an increasingly dodgy proposition of late. Distributors intent upon selling deep library product have affixed noir classification upon titles at best questionable as such. As I’m happy to see any and all vintage product out there, such gentle subterfuge isn’t the least offensive to me, but others have brought companies to task for capricious marketing of generic crime and police thrillers, calling them noir to reel in camp following impulse buyers. Meanwhile, hundreds of worthier prospects lay dormant in studio vaults. The four I address today may or may not be authentic noir. You tell me. Everyone has their own definition. Common elements are rife among this quartet. They’re cheap --- mighty cheap. I picture deals closed during late afternoon happy hour and memorialized upon a cocktail napkin. Neophyte investors sinking that small inheritance they should have put against the mortgage in hopes of striking gold with known (if faded) Hollywood pros. These were features only by virtue of being two or three times the length of a Racket Squad episode, booked if at all by exhibitors in need of something --- anything --- to reassure patrons there was some benefit to be had for coming in a grindhouse other than getting out of the rain or sleeping off a drunk. Actors headed down a sliding board toward television did these in hopes of staying on theatre screens a little longer, so who paid heed to Cry Danger, Shield For Murder, Witness To Murder, and The Killer Is Loose? Distractions are rife in a drive-in parking lot after all, and that was first-run port of call for these in towns with limited indoor venues. "A" houses preferred bigger names, preferably in Cinemascope. Consider these numbers --- The Killer Is Loose had 7,987 bookings, Kirk Douglas in The Indian Fighter (color and scope) scored 21,030 --- both from United Artists and released within months of each other. Witness To Murder was a near photo finish for Rear Window and beat it into theatres by four months besides, but Hitchcock’s thriller took 4.8 million in domestic rentals while the former settled at $683,029. Life’s just not fair sometimes, even if Rear Window was the tale more artfully told. Justice is finally served by way of frequent TCM broadcasts for these orphans. All four are richly deserving of that hour and a quarter you might devote to each. Wobbly sets and careening mike booms are more than offset by rich performances, terse dialogue, and you are there LA street locales. This is lean meat shorn of pretension and served minus big studio garnishment. For a single viewing of most Metro biggies, I’d look at Cry Danger a dozen times, and have.
















Dick Powell mentored Robert Parrish’s directing bow and disabused the youngster as to notions of art just prior to starting Cry Danger. It’s only a movie. It’s not real life. It’s shadows on a screen. It’s nothing. It’s dreams. They were lunching at Preston Sturges’ Hollywood restaurant. We’ll make a quality movie for the price. That’s what it’s all about, Powell said. We’ll start on schedule in two weeks and we’ll finish on schedule twenty-two days later. They’d gotten money out of a mid-west theatre owner with producing aspirations. Howard Hughes pledged the rest along with distribution. Powell had an accountant’s brain with regards priorities. Anybody can direct a movie, even I could do it (and he would later on). I’d rather not because it would take too much time. I can make more money acting, selling real estate, and playing the market. Hard to reconcile such casual philosophy with great work Powell did over the years. Pragmatism can sometimes be a handmaiden to excellence, and I suspect Cry Danger wears well precisely because Powell and crew maintained grown-up, get it done attitudes throughout, unburdened by stylistic excesses indulged by so many of today’s neo-noir pretenders. Known less by its title than long standing identification as the one in the trailer park, Cry Danger scores, as do most of these budget noirs, with its location filming --- by necessity, according to director Parrish, as only $7,500 was allocated to set building. Nice to see characters enter dingy hotel lobbies from off the street, thus confirming we’re seeing the real thing. Actual bars and grocers stand in for clip joints and bookie parlors. You’d think Powell and company were making home movies but for guns they carry. Dialogue (rewritten) by ace scribe William (The Gunfighter, The Mob) Bowers was so good as to be highlighted in the pressbook ad shown here, indeed a rare thing among annals of movie salesmanship. Powell works his customary magic with props. Watch how he plays amongst contents of William Conrad’s desk drawers. The star’s economy with words mirrored offscreen dedication to get this job done and move on. Powell to Parrish: You can cut it with Bernie Burton, we’ll ship it, and then we can start thinking about something else. OK? RKO did indeed ship Cry Danger to final domestic rentals of $850,000, with an additional $250,000 foreign. Being an independent (Olympic Productions), the negative went from shelf to shelf and ended up with NTA for syndication packaging. By then, elements had degenerated sufficiently as to leave Cry Danger available, if at all, on duped 16mm. The two prints I collected years ago were (1) splicy original and (2) clean dupe. It seemed you couldn’t win with Cry Danger. The US Copyright Office still lists NTA as owner of the negative, but my question is --- Does that negative even exist anymore?





























Barbara Stanwyck watches as George Sanders strangles a woman in an adjacent apartment window. She confronts him and goes to the police, but nobody believes her, except Sanders, of course. Witness To Murder opened in April of 1954. There were 10,092 bookings. Someone must have seen it and experienced déjà vu when Paramount unveiled Hitchcock’s Rear Window in August of that year, though critics seem to have ignored the many parallels. Variety never mentioned them in its review. Rear Window was the big studio elephant stepping over a modest indie despite its having been first in line to tell a remarkably similar story. I’d sound foolish submitting Witness To Murder as the better picture, though it’s hard resisting an impulse to boost UA’s David over Paramount’s Goliath. Noir legend John Alton photographed Witness To Murder. His compositions must have dazzled 1954 viewers. All of that’s lost today in what look to be 16mm broadcasts on TCM. Apartment dweller noir flourished in 1954. Columbia’s Pushover also dealt with renters peeping across courtyards and down hallways. The killer next door became a popular urban, as well as suburban, menace. Postwar Barbara Stanwyck either played murderers or was busy fleeing from them. She’d become a hard sell for romantic leads, and it wasn’t just an age issue (47 in 1954). Not for a moment could I buy Gary Merrill’s attraction to "bachelor girl" Stanwyck in Witness To Murder, for seldom was a woman so unapproachable on screen as here. The stridency B.S. could get away with in the thirties was now twenty years more off-putting, especially in contrived situations where she’s hurling opportunity in Sanders’ direction, inviting him to do her in. Acting is like roller-skating. Once you know how to do it, it is neither stimulating nor exciting, was a quote attributed to George Sanders, and his listless performance in Witness To Murder, four years out from the triumph of All About Eve, is proof enough he lived by those words. A somnambulant Sanders is preferable to most other players on their best day, however, so seeing him enact yet another would-be Nazi superman, albeit one transplanted to stateside environs, is a delight for fans of this actor, particularly when he lapses into Teutonic tirades. Imagine his character in Manhunt or Confessions Of A Nazi Spy beating it across the Atlantic and setting up shop in the Americas after WWII. That’s essentially the part Sanders plays in Witness To Murder. I suspect a nice 35mm print of this on a big screen, or a DVD release, would elevate its reputation quite a lot.









































Aubrey Schenck and Howard Koch were an independent team in pursuit of whatever exploitation product sold at the given moment, whether it be shlock horror (Voodoo Island, The Black Sleep), exotic actioner (Desert Sands), or calypso music (Bop Girl). The rogue cop saga that was Shield For Murder amounted to just another day’s work for these two, and returns for the United Artists release was no doubt predictable as an average B western would have been a decade earlier. Anti-heroic Edmond O’Brien wears a drab overcoat and pistol-whips both friend and opponent. The sex angle is front and center via trailer bait shots of Marla English (shown here) donning brief attire for seedy nightclub duty (… and does Marla remain the elusive and hotly sought after object of would-be Filmfax interviewers? Has anyone found her yet?). Shield For Murder’s violence is sudden and vivid, beyond self-imposed mainstream limits of the time. Competing with television required haymakers surpassing what was given away on home screens. You had to raise the bar on whatever had come before. Serving up less was never an option. The black-and-white cop genre was eventually wiped out by increased proficiency of TV crews pushing their own envelopes. Shows like Dragnet, Naked City, and M-Squad offered real inducement to stay home. Had Shield For Murder come along five years later, I’m betting it would have sunk like a stone. As it is, the August 1954 release earned $442,919 in domestic rentals, with $432,000 foreign. Within a couple of years, it too was playing television. Could this be reason for that scene where crime boss Hugh Sanders enjoys prizefights (and a clear picture!) on his remote control set? Unusual to see such a positive TV reference at a time when Hollywood was still resisting the home screen’s encroachment. By 1956, police protagonists took a back seat to psycho stalkers. The Killer Is Loose focuses on near superhuman efforts of vengeful Wendell Corey to even a score with straight arrow detective Joseph Cotton. Corey was just this side of TV series work in Harbor Command, which would start up the following year. Had I been an Academy member in 1956, I’d have nominated him for The Killer Is Loose. The man is a revelation here. Formerly typed as a stick in the mud, forever losing the girl, Corey lights up his title role with one of the scariest meek-mannered head cases I’ve ever seen depicted in movies. There’s really nothing out there like him. Too bad this movie, with its modest $392,768 in domestic rentals, got so little attention. Budd Boetticher warms up here for all those Randy Scott westerns at Columbia. The Killer Is Loose moves fast, shocks frequently (John Larch’s death scene!), and delivers admirably within 73 crackling minutes.

Here's a tip. Go to Eddie Muller's Film Noir Foundation and join up. There's an informative newsletter that comes with membership, plus news of noir import and up-to-the-minute dope on happenings in genre underworlds. Muller's site is terrific too.




Thursday, March 15, 2007




Mining More Rock and Roll Gold





How many of us had a barber silently reflecting upon short-lived rock and roll stardom as he cut our hair? That lady behind the florist window could well have danced and sang with pop music headliners in one of Sam Katzman’s quickies. The Whatever Became Of … list generated over years of R&R meteor showering grows ever longer and more obscure. Never did as many young stars flash so brightly and disappear so quickly. Cast lists from features I’ve recently watched run a gamut from faintly familiar to totally unknown. Where did all that promising talent go? Back to school (hopefully)? Jobs within the music industry perhaps? Chances are most (eventually) lived and worked among folks ignorant as to their past glories in vintage rock and roll movies. My imdb search turned up nothing beyond a single credit for many of these performers. I wonder where they did end up. Grocery clerking, bank telling, cobbling my shoes --- or yours? Teen idols of yesteryear frequent Ray Courts autograph shows four times a year in North Hollywood. Back when I attended, Tommy Sands, Michael Callan, and Edd "Kookie" Byrnes were accessible as a clerk behind your meat counter at Harris-Teeter, and at least as unaffected and free of star temperament. Fifty years ago, I’d have had to wade amongst thousands of screaming teenagers for but a glimpse of them. Imagine knowing such fame and adulation so long ago --- then to look back from comparative anonymity you’ve known since. Sands, Callan, and Byrnes have remained visible for those who looked closely, as have other luminaries from teen idolatry’s past. I’d assume most could peruse a Burger King menu without fear of molestation from youthful autograph seekers, though you figure they’ve got to miss it from time to time.





Bands featured in Rock, Rock, Rock! seem qualified enough for a gig at my local YMCA. Such relaxed casting standards among low-budget R&R producers lend roughhewn verite qualities to shows otherwise (and unfairly) dismissed as amateurish. Rock, Rock, Rock! combines missiles poised for career take-off (Tuesday Weld) with duds sputtering in a first and last audition for teen pic glories (Jacqueline Kerr and Fran Manfred, neither to appear in further motion pictures or TV). Campus catch Tommy Randazzo has that silken Duke Mitchell quality about his crooning that made me wonder if rock and roll was really such a departure from vocal styling that had gone before. Randazzo was another of those fringe performers I’d not heard of before seeing Rock, Rock, Rock!. An imdb search revealed further appearances in rock musicals of similar pedigree and many hits as a songwriter later on, yet Tommy might have had a hard time convincing most of us he’d once been (sort of) famous on screen. For the few that hit, there were thousands who didn’t, or like Tommy, sparked but briefly. Rock, Rock, Rock! otherwise delivers on the promise of its advertising. This is a real teenage musical, about kids and starring kids. Tuesday Weld, at thirteen, is dubbed by Connie Francis when songs are needed. 1956 was perhaps the final year girls wore white gloves like Tuesday’s when downtown shopping. The picture is just slapdash enough to be utterly convincing. Camera-awkward teens were what all these shows needed to connect with their intended audience. Compare Rock, Rock, Rock! with the following year’s Bop Girl Goes Calypso, a woebegone effort to catch a musical wave that failed to break on US boxoffice shores. Its title was ultimately shortened to Bop Girl when calypso references were deemed a liability, and post-release pressbooks made nary a mention of the now discarded fad. Producers seemed bent on denying young viewers screen access to their peers. Judy Tyler (at 24) was romanced by pre-Emergency Bobby Troup (38), with sideline kibitzers George O’Hanlon (best known as middle-aged, and eternally set-upon, Joe McDoakes) and surefire teen magnet Lucien Littlefield, fulfilling promise initially shown in 1914 when he started out with the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. Bop Girl is salvaged by unexpected forays into outer limits of rock and roll variation. The Goofers sail across the stage on trapeze rings as they (expertly) play trombone upside down. This band’s eventual fate is unknown to me. For sheer physical effort, they should have outsold The Beatles, but I’m betting they finished up in rural supper clubs. Amazing the talent people took for granted in those days …























Alan Freed was the man who put rock and roll on the map. He (literally) sang its praises on radio, first from far-flung Cleveland in the early fifties, then on NYC airwaves when he and the music got hot. Instinctive genius Freed saw what was coming early on (check him out here with Little Richard and Bill Haley). He’s featured in five rock and roll features as recognized King of the Big Beat, ruling unchallenged until a corporatized new order pushed he and his raffish kind out. Team players along the lines of smooth operator Dick Clark would then take over. Freed and Clark were the Goofus and Gallant of pop interlocutors. A 1953 auto pile-up rearranged Alan’s handsome features and left him with a crooked grin and scarred nose to complement raspy and staccato on-air delivery. Everything Freed did wrong, Clark did right, including testimony before a Senate committee investigating payola in the music biz. One could say Alan paid for Dick’s sins. Freed represented everything smoky, visceral, and forbidden about R&R in its opening act (and would, in time-honored fashion, die utterly broke and forgotten in 1965) --- Clark would skate, for decades, along a surface newly polished by major labels back in control. The contrast between Freed in Don’t Knock the Rock and Clark in 1960’s Because They’re Young is testament to times and how they were a-changin’. The former’s a go-getter and admitted charlatan, but at all times rock and roll’s champion (here with femme admirers at an in-person theatre appearance). Freed played himself in all five of those pictures he made, and no voice for the movement evoked its special qualities so well. Samples of his airchecks are online. Nothing I’ve heard summons up those early days of radio R&R quite like this. Dick Clark’s television shows are meanwhile unreleased on legit DVD. I’d hoped to see volumes of early American Bandstands available, but nothing so far. Must be music rights holding them up. The one item I did come across (among a dealer’s bootleg stock) was the 9-12-59 installment of The Dick Clark Beech-Nut Show, a teevee relic tying in with his screen dramatic debut in Because They’re Young by way of feature player Roberta Shore’s singing appearance. I could only wish now to have every Beech-Nut show Clark did, as this one’s a priceless time capsule. Freckled girls swoon over Paul Anka. The ghostly kinescoped image of Bobby Rydell sings I Dig Girls in a manner reminiscent of gaunt footage I’d seen of Hank Williams close to the end, and host Clark holds packs of Beech-Nut spearmint gum in flawlessly manicured hands (would hyperactive Alan Freed ever have sat still for a manicure?). All this was my build-up to Because They’re Young, in which Dick played an idealistic high school teacher helping troubled teens find themselves. It’s a masterpiece embracing the all kids are basically good philosophy Clark espoused in all walks of his professional life, plus there’s James Darren dropping in on prom night to warble the title song (otherwise played by Duane Eddy in a hit-bound instrumental I begged for, and got, when I was six years old). Michael Callan seduces Tuesday Weld, robs a warehouse, then effects an eleventh-hour reformation (oops, my spoiler). Dick Clark’s a relaxed and confident lead. He might have done more along these lines were it not for punishing schedules he maintained for television. Judging by the unavailability of pictures like this and Universal’s The Unguarded Moment (along with others less ambitious), you’d think the only high school dramas anyone made were Rebel Without A Cause and The Blackboard Jungle. I don’t recall Because They’re Young turning up anywhere before TCM ran it recently. Is it too much to hope that Sony might someday release it on DVD?



































A couple of images worth noting here. That’s William Benton, manager of Stanley-Warner’s Liberty Theatre in Philadelphia, checking out a Rock, Rock, Rock! display with noted disc jockey George Woods, whose personal appearance in connection with the film’s opening is anticipated here by the crowd surrounding a standee announcing his forthcoming gig. Woods promoted concerts with early Motown artists and commanded a huge following in Philadelphia’s black community. He acted on occasion as Dick Clark’s laison to that audience, for whom Clark programmed much of his own radio and television content. Integrated downtown houses were always leagues ahead in terms of programming. My own examination of newspaper microfilm reveals shows I’d have walked (over broken glass) to see back in the sixties, and they were all booked into so-called "colored" venues. While "A" locations in Winston-Salem were running mainstream dogs like The Honeymoon Machine and Dear Brigette (as first-run singles), there was the Center down on Liberty Street unspooling triple bills of The Mummy, Curse Of The Werewolf, and Horror Of Dracula, while the Lincoln up the block would open at 10:00 am and grind out She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Vertigo, and Vera Cruz --- and this was in 1964! Vintage rock and roll features played well into the sixties here as well, a happy result of prints still on hand in Charlotte exchanges and rental terms seldom exceeding $20 per title. Our own Liberty Theatre staged rock and roll parties during the fifties. I would have assumed Lloyd Arnold and his Rockin’ Drifters was some nowhere band out of the sticks that played our town plus a few gymtoriums, but I was happily corrected by websites celebrating a rockabilly group that still enjoys a loyal following. Warren Smith was another stellar name among southeast bands. We had him July 3, 1957, and more’s the pity I was only three at the time, for I’m sure this was one amazing show. The Liberty seems to have booked most of its live programs out of Memphis. They’d hosted country-western acts for years, in addition to cowboy star appearances along the lines of Lash LaRue and Johnny Mack Brown. What was rockabilly but an extension of these sounds? Of all regions in the country making the adjustment to rock and roll, we might have been best prepared for it.
grbrpix@aol.com
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