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Sunday, June 24, 2007




America The Beautiful





I wonder if we’ll ever see another Revolutionary War drama in theatres. D.W. Griffith might have speculated as much after his disappointment with America in 1924. Mel Gibson would go there many years later with The Patriot, which by all rights should have outgrossed The Perfect Storm on opening weekend, but didn’t. Is the War For Independence too long ago to care about, or is it just those costumes and men with pigtails? Producers of Revolution thought they’d overcome the jinx in 1985, but found (to considerable loss) that in some aspects, audiences do not change. Griffith’s America is assumed to have failed because everyone knows Revolutionary War subjects fail --- but certainly no one was aware when DWG tackled the subject for the first time on a large scale. The resulting stigma has lingered since, not overcome even by America’s one million in domestic rentals that bested most of Mary Pickford’s United Artists vehicles of the period, and its status as one of the five most popular attractions of 1924. The real problem was huge sums spent and a drumbeat of publicity that anticipated the second coming of Birth Of A Nation, king of silent era blockbusters and a success story every filmmaker aspired to repeat. Griffith had sufficient reason to expect as much with America. Loans he floated to complete it crawled toward three-quarters of a million. The New York Times quoted Griffith (shown here with admirer and future director Robert Florey) as having admitted a thirty-percent interest rate on notes he’d signed toward the end of production. Numbers flew as to how much America finally cost. The Times averred it was 1.3 million. Variety speculated something in the range of $950,000. Those who reap the real benefit of (Griffith’s) labors are the men with capital who have been willing to gamble on a Griffith production. The director shot America on New England locations where much of the actual Revolution took place. His own Mamaroneck, New York studio (aerial view shown here) was twenty-eight acres neighboring sites of historic incidents Griffith recreated. The US War Department supplied thousands of soldiers to enact battle sequences to the accompaniment of a thirty-three piece military band (DWG insisted on mood music even for combat!). No one before or since could stage a clash of arms like Griffith. He leased three surrounding farms so as to open up the natural space for his armies to traverse. Amazing the outdoor miracles DWG accomplished with that hand-cranked box camera.







America was one of those rare movies still in production even after opening night. Previews were held from early February 1924, despite Griffith’s awaiting snow for his essential Valley Forge sequence. On the very day audiences in South Norwalk, Connecticut were watching an initial cut of the feature, DWG was not many miles away shooting winter footage of General Washington and his troops suffering barefoot privations. The premiere of America found Griffith’s epic pared from sixteen reels down to a copyrighted fourteen, and Variety predicted much deletion may be done before the picture is fully set. What they didn’t know was that his crew was still working, and for at least a week after that opening. Whatever additional material adjudged an improvement would simply be spliced into circulating prints. Griffith took America on a roadshow tour for initial engagements. He picked up the tab for orchestras and promotion, but kept a greater share of the receipts. The director knew how to put on a grand show of his newest production (and surely understood showmanship, as witness this orgy sequence staged for the benefit of villainous Lionel Barrymore and henchmen!). Women were said to have gasped and cried when Paul Revere took his famous ride. That remains a stirring highlight today, even in diminished prints surviving. One can only imagine the impact original tinted and toned nitrate 35mm would have had on first-run audiences. People today imagine silent viewers were better satisfied with less. In fact, the opposite was true. If we could sit for presentations the equal of what they had in 1924, I’ve no doubt a lot of us would find emotions turned loose in ways unexpected. My own (admittedly limited) experience with silent films and live orchestras are among my best remembered in theatres. Ben-Hur with seventy musicians once brought tears to these jaded eyes. Could I have stood such pounding on a weekly basis in palaces seating thousands, with dynamic accompaniment a commonplace? Likely I’d have sought treatment for an excess of bliss, for that is the only word I can summon for the movie going encounters those lucky people routinely had.























Most silent films are lost now. Many that survive are here by virtue of single surviving prints. America would be quartered and diced for stock others could use. Griffith’s battle scenes turned up in cheaper shows later on, much as would footage from talkie independents like Stagecoach and One Million BC. After the nitrate dust of that cleared, we were left with British source materials representing a distinct version DWG prepared for UK audiences, wherein depiction of Redcoat perfidy was softened for the Empire. There weren’t enough showings to challenge negative myths in circulation. William K. Everson defended America’s reputation before his silent film group in 1957 and called upon star Neil Hamilton to reminisce for the benefit of printed program notes. Blackhawk sold the feature in 8mm, but black-and-white editions were a disservice where night scenes called for blue tinting. Paul Revere’s ride played badly in what appeared to be broad daylight once color enhancements were lost. Silents are fragile in so many ways. Once rescued, they can still be ruined if not properly presented. Paul Killiam made a mess of a 94-minute version for video, burdened with superfluous narration. Little wonder America suffered in the face of such truncation. Sadly, the question always comes back around to this --- who’s there to care about silent films? To narrow it further --- who cares about silents that aren’t funny? Sales figures for the DVD of America had to be dismal, especially as it came out in dawning years of the format (1999), but as of this moment, it’s still in print, and though not likely on Best-Buy shelves, can be had with minimal on-line effort. The DVD includes color tints, the feature restored closely as possible to its 1924 length, and most impressively, the original score recreated by Eric Beheim and the Mamaroneck Theater Orchestra. Anyone tempted to dip a toe into dramatic silent waters might profitably begin with America



































D.W. Griffith’s a great pictorialist and dynamic storyteller, but get ready to commit when you’re running one of these --- Birth Of A Nation (draw the shades!), Intolerance (clear your calendar for at least the day), Broken Blossoms (major bummer), and Orphans Of The Storm (Dame Fortune dealing harshly with the Gishes for a seeming eternity). America emerges most accessible of the Griffith group, at least for my time and money. Maybe I just like Revolutionary War subjects that look as though they were actually shot during the Revolutionary War. Shows like The Patriot boast expertise to remind you they’re restaging events with modern devices unknown to silent era technicians, but what does that accomplish other than putting us at greater distance from historical incidents more compatible with Griffith’s ancient tools? Here’s another occasion where the older document, admittedly yellowed and timeworn, seizes verisimilitude others would strive for, but are too late to achieve. They revived America in 35mm before a packed room in 2004. Applause at the Capital Theatre in Rome, NY rocked the house. Sequences powerful in 1924 did it again eighty years later. Some would carp over dated story conventions. Love surmounting class divisions and a family split over duty and honor were subjects dear to Griffith. Feminine lead Carol Dempster (her portrait here) revealed an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment on DWG’s part, but he was smitten with the girl offscreen as well as on, and since that can oft happen to anybody, one can’t be too harsh where her occasional gaucheries are concerned (and Dempster was better in other films she did for Griffith). Patient endurance of these is small payment for what DWG delivers on the battlefield and town squares he depicts so scrupulously (authentic pistols, drums, and other artifacts were loaned by various museums and historical societies). Griffith seemed quite the elder statesman helming America, having exhausted himself over fifteen or so years spent inventing screen narrative. Neil Hamilton confessed later of his and other young players having regarded the veteran as impossibly old. What a shock, then, to learn Griffith was only forty-seven and about to lose his independence as a filmmaker when America was released.




Friday, June 15, 2007




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.




Tuesday, June 12, 2007











Just In Time For Father's Day --- The Katharine Hepburn Collection!









I’ll raise some hackles today by perversely celebrating Katharine Hepburn’s centennial rather than John Wayne’s. Well, there goes some core readership, for how many male cineastes sit for feature-length doses of this still-hard-to-digest-even-after-100-years woman? Don’t tell me it’s a matter of taste either. I know I’m in the majority here, at least among guys. They’d opt for needle-nose pliers to individual toenails rather than sustained exposure to Hepburn performances. At fourteen, when CBS finally ran The African Queen in primetime, I wondered why Bogart didn’t chuck her off the boat, preferably in gator-infested waters. Warner’s DVD set was obtained with less enthusiasm than resignation, so how come me to watch four of them within days of the box’s arrival? Dotage increases tolerance, maybe. Morning Glory is the earliest sampling. Hepburn plays a girl who talks too much and gets on everyone’s nerves. Believe me, she nails it. There’s an extended drunk scene as well (note to aspiring directors --- never permit already irritating actors to do drunk scenes). Champ pre-code seducer Adolphe Menjou is up to old tricks, his coupling with Hepburn mercifully taking place off screen. Jaunty Doug Fairbanks Jr. unaccountably carries a torch, despite her frozen posture whenever he approaches. Though she plays an aspiring actress, we never see Hepburn’s character perform onstage. If she is the Morning Glory, then surely C. Aubrey Smith is Evening’s Triumph, for never was that grand old trouper better than here. What a missed opportunity for RKO to follow up with a vehicle about his character, which I found far more sympathetic and compelling than hers. Morning Glory, like most RKO ventures of the time, was finished at a low cost. $239,000 was spent, and $582,000 worldwide came back. A profit of $115,000 put the show in fifth position for RKO’s year behind Little Women, King Kong, Flying Down To Rio, and Son Of Kong. A Hepburn that lost money was the just preceding Christopher Strong, her only bonafide (in spirit) precode and one I wish they’d opted for on DVD instead of Morning Glory. What an inspiration to cast Hepburn opposite Colin Clive --- and Helen Chandler’s his daughter! Reason enough to watch, as Clive endures customary torment and is arresting as ever while doing so. One of the monster kids wrote Hepburn as to what it was like emoting with CC. Her one-sentence reply made me wonder how well she remembered him, if indeed she did at all (it had only been sixty or so years at the time). How could the nonagenarian have imagined they’d be asking about Colin Clive after all that time?







The boxoffice poison label would attach with Sylvia Scarlett and its misbegotten progeny. Until then (1935), the Hepburns did alright. Spitfire, Alice Adams, and Break Of Hearts made money. The Little Minister posted but a minimal loss ($9,000). Sylvia Scarlett was like a snake that kept on biting. Everything the actress did for RKO after this would choke, excepting Stage Door, which may have been saved by Ginger Roger’s presence on the marquee. Hepburn seems more content dressed as a boy in Sylvia Scarlett. Maybe she should have done it more often. The picture actually tumbles when she goes back to playing a girl. Like so many comedies (from any era), this one runs out of steam in the last third. Sylvia Scarlett has been called picaresque. That usually means trouble in my book. So much gender swapping gets knowing snickers now that we’ve had our revealing bios of principals involved, but 1935 audiences weren’t hep to those insider jokes, so down this went to the tune of $363,000 lost. Was it coincidence then to see Hepburn somewhat cruelly caricatured in Warner’s animated Coo-Coo Nut Grove (shown here) of the same year? The affectations were targeted further by Disney artists in 1938’s Mother Goose Goes Hollywood. By then, it was open season on the actress. Mary Of Scotland, Quality Street, and Bringing Up Baby all tanked. Exhibitors called out this Hollywood empress without clothes. You have to give the woman credit for developing a vehicle that would bring back her audience (The Philadelphia Story). Metro starrers in the forties would supplant RKO work that finished her in the thirties. Three of the MGM’s are included in the DVD box.




























The William Powell/Myrna Loy series was more reliable than the Tracy/Hepburns. At least customers knew what they were getting. Metro’s realization of the latter team’s greater success with comedies came slow. As late as 1947, there were still missteps like The Sea Of Grass to frustrate fan expectations of laughs they preferred from these two. All the Tracy/Hepburns at MGM went into profit, however. Without Love showed up in the middle. Wartime concerns are front and center. Scientific work for the allies and a housing shortage encourages the pair to marry for convenience with an understanding there will be no consummation of said vows. A saucy proposition for Code-benumbed audiences no doubt led to grosses the highest so far for a Tracy/Hepburn, though it must have been clear to the actress that she needed Tracy far more than he needed her. It was always hard getting any warmth out of Hepburn, and too few leading men seemed able to arouse passion or break through her guard. Was male viewer resentment as acute then, or did it indeed go back to Hepburn’s RKO beginnings? With Garbo and Shearer gone, she might at least have functioned as a second-string Greer Garson, but who to stand in for Walter Pidgeon duties, when this star was so intent upon overpowering leading men weaker than Tracy (and that took in just about all of them)? Solo vehicles would consequently fail. Dragon Seed was a loser even in a year (1944) when civilians seemed to live in movie theatres, and Song Of Love (a million lost) convinced Metro to henceforth not use Hepburn at all sans Tracy. There was no gesture toward formidable leading men in these --- as Bette Davis once sang, they were either too young or too old --- thus Turhan Bey and Walter Huston in Dragon Seed, Paul Henried (romantic prospects usually nil with him) and Robert Walker. The one (post- Philadelphia Story) success Hepburn had in the forties without Tracy was Undercurrent, and thanks to Bad Bob (in fact, two of them), it’s my favorite of the Warner DVD lot.








































Undercurrent was Robert Taylor’s welcome back after two years with the service. Patsy Kelly could have co-starred and it would still be a hit. Again Hepburn was riding a leading man’s coattails into profit (one million to the good). Undercurrent was a modern dress woman’s gothic and though stylishly directed by Vincente Minnelli, there’s the always-heavy hand of zealous Metro art directors and costume changes seemingly taking place from shot to shot. Hepburn starts out as Plain Jane (in outfits the actress likely preferred in private life) and is transformed into mid-career Joan Crawford, not a comfortable berth for a player of KH’s temperament (the hat shown here looks borrowed from Medusa). Still she’s believable opposite newly sinister Robert Taylor, whose opening bell this was for a whole series of disturbed/neurotic characters. The onetime matinee idol seemed given over to ongoing rehab for traumas experienced by a generation of leading men who’d served, his screen characters consigned to moral and psychological twilight relieved only by costume adventures that came along to rescue Taylor in the fifties. Could a volatile onscreen relationship shared by Hepburn and Taylor in Undercurrent reflect the turbulent offscreen association of Hepburn and Tracy? In the wake of assignations with moody (if not dysfunctional) types like Howard Hughes, John Ford, and Spencer Tracy, Hepburn may well have tapped into a well of personal experience whilst preparing for Undercurrent. The fact it’s one of her better performances without Tracy suggests a perhaps-closer identification with the character she was playing. Hepburn’s greater conflict, in front of and behind the camera, was with a newcomer she could dismiss but not ignore. Everyone knew Robert Mitchum had something or he wouldn’t have been there. His kind of insouciance was a poke in the eye to veterans who applied strict professional standards on movie sets. The fact he mocked Hepburn for the benefit of crewmembers (and Mitchum was a wickedly accurate mimic) challenged both the actress and an old guard she represented. Mitchum’s style and the kind of movies he’d make would have little to do with Metro factory methods. A final scene they enact on a piano bench is among the most awkward two players ever shared. Far more tense and effective is Mitchum’s confrontation with Robert Taylor --- the old giving way reluctantly to the new --- and both perhaps knowing it.
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