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Sunday, January 25, 2009







Watched At Random for January 2009







I really like Charlie Chan, but confess to getting mixed-up as to who’s who and which of them might be the killer and why. The mystery always engages me less than ancillary matters like old dark houses and (good or bad) comic relief. There are surely reasons for filling crossword puzzles other than completing the thing itself. I’ll usually try following a Chan plot for about ten minutes and then give up. What made these work so well for so many years? Fox made profits on every one they did! I think it was those distractions from the mystery that pleased best. Chans are family comedies in a detective’s disguise. Low-key Charlie in frustrated by-play with exuberant sons assure lightness of touch missing from whodunits too absorbed in … well, who done it. The one I got out was Charlie Chan At Treasure Island, which fans consider the best of those with Sidney Toler. I’m not as deep into the Chan life as others, but certain tricks of the mystery trade are recognizable for years of (occasionally) watching these things. One device they played me here was that of a character receiving superficial injuries supposedly inflicted by the killer being sought. Said character will always turn out to be the killer! A lot of you more expert will say Duh, but I was quite pleased with myself for guessing correctly. Charlie Chan At Treasure Island looks like an expensive picture. Dress extras mill about at leisure. Sets glisten and are sumptuous. I was amazed to learn it had a negative cost of only $199,000. Yes, that’s a "B" budget (only Jane Withers, The Jones Family, and Mr. Moto worked as cheap), but talk about putting all your money on the screen! Another thing about Charlie Chan At Treasure Island was how creepy parts of it were, more so than most horror pictures being done at the time and as handsomely mounted as any of them. There was $280,000 in domestic rentals and $138,000 foreign for $72,000 in final profits. Fox could probably estimate Chan revenue to a near penny during the heyday. Costs and returns didn’t vary a lot for as long as they produced the series. Bigger markets used them in support of "A" features, but many small towns played Chans as singles. Returns diminished somewhat for Sidney Toler taking over from Warner Oland, but how do you follow an act as good as the latter’s? I’m glad these are all available now (well, other than some Monograms and the lost ones), and relieved that Fox found good elements on most. Someone told me that overseas sales on the Chans were what assured release for the entire (existing) Fox group on DVD.
















Why remake Libeled Lady, nearly scene-for-scene, a mere ten years after a well received (and doubtlessly remembered so) original? Was Metro’s poverty of ideas by 1946 so acute as their seeming inability to launch stars of a quality equal to pre-war manufacture? Here are the substitutions: Van Johnson for William Powell. Esther Williams in Myrna Loy’s part. Lucille Ball as Jean Harlow, with braying Keenan Wynn an update of Spencer Tracy. The bringing along of personalities was by now so streamlined as to permit slides into home for talent (or lack of it) that a decade before would have stalled in auditions. Metro covered such deficits by way of free spending that a wartime attendance boom made possible. Libeled Lady had cost $603,000. Easy To Wed’s negative ran to $1.6 million. The mentality afoot required Something For Everyone in such entertainments; thus outsized musical numbers intrude upon an already sluggish narrative. I found myself in anxious anticipation of Ethel Smith’s upcoming organ recital (being a fan and proud possessor of her "Best Of …" CD). She’s a welcome respite in a final third by which I’d lost all interest in labored attempts at comedy by players with too little aptitude for it. Easy To Wed represents old Hollywood as derided by those who’d tar all studio product with a formula brush. It’s a beached whale of a musical/comedy/romance that was a dream factory’s occasional nightmare. Hard enough core students of the era will yet find aspects beguiling. I’d have wondered all my life why Keenan Wynn was promoted to such (near) leads but for Scott Eyman’s explanation in his Lion Of Hollywood bio of Louis Mayer. That very practical reason as put forth by Eyman is a compelling one for watching Easy To Wed, as Van Johnson figured in an offscreen drama that provided for me a subtext irresistible (let’s just say that Van needed a beard and Wynn’s wife supplied it). Had 1946 audiences but known of such extraordinary measures taken to protect fragile star images! Lucille Ball previews the sort of bull in a china shop persona she’d adopt for her vid series a few years later. Stations with the pre-48 MGM package likely advertised Easy To Wed as vehicle for her during the run of I Love Lucy, even if Wed's part is a shrill and unattractive one (Harlow was as well the least appealing of the four-cornered leads in Libeled Lady). Van Johnson is cruelly assigned dialogue beautifully spoken by William Powell a decade previous. You’d have to assume Van’s bobby-sox followers had either short memories or tin ears for comic timing. Metro signed contractees while stronger names were off to war and set youngsters upon on-the-job training that made or broke most within short periods. Such cynical enterprise got lightweight talent in over heads and out the gates before skills could develop. Johnson was good (and persistent) enough to survive in eventual character work. His recent obituaries failed to emphasize what an enormous draw Van was at the peak of Easy To Wed and fluff-shows like it. Four million in domestic rentals and $1.6 more from foreign brought this one to an eventual $1.7 million in profits. That’s a lot of seats filled for something very nearly forgotten today.



















I was almost surprised to find that Phone Call From A Stranger made money ($254,000 profit in fact). For a straight drama with no gunplay or violent element, and in black-and-white, you’d think viewers could get as much for free at home. Television dealt heavily in playlets themed on forgiveness and personal accountability. Such could be made economically on single sets and arouse no viewer objection. Producer/writer Nunnally Johnson was a mainstay at Fox whose scruples clashed with in vogue Joseph Mankiewicz, to whose (commercial) success this film aspired, but Johnson wouldn’t let characters off the hook with glib dialogue and pat resolutions. His narrative follows through on responsibility characters bear and mistakes they must answer for, with Phone Call From A Stranger mirroring a value system largely gone out of movies and television since. Film Noir is as much about these things, but more palatable to modern viewers thanks to crime and suspense supplying fun this frankly drab picture lacks (and kudos to Fox for not trying to sell Phone Call as Noir). A problem with three part stories is that one of them will likely be more engaging than the other two, while representing only a third of the total. That had been the case with A Letter To Three Wives, the previous Fox hit referenced in Phone Call’s trailer. You get a sense of marketing desperation from previews like this. Lines out of context suggest sexual liberties not taken in the feature, and Shelly Winter’s role as a strip-tease artist (emphasis on that in narration) is hammered beyond its importance to the plot. Imagine a sales division handed a finished movie with little that’s provocative and struggling for crumbs suggesting that it is. Hollywood by 1952 was at a point where every feature had to make its own argument for a patron’s dollar. People just weren’t going to theatres as a matter of course anymore. Small black-and-white dramas like Phone Call From A Stranger (negative cost $801,000) would be ushered out with Cinemascope’s arrival and availability of better anthology programs on television. Fox remade the story for its own dramatic series in 1956, using a combination of actors recreating their roles and footage borrowed from the feature.


































I watched Birdman Of Alcatraz on NBC Saturday Night At The Movies in 1968 and wondered why they hadn’t let such a nice man go free after those books he'd written and a prison riot he quelled. Come to find that real-life Robert Stroud was pricklier (read psychopathic, according to prison records) and not near the benign figure (even in old age) as played by Burt Lancaster. When you’re fourteen (as I was for that telecast), rights and wrongs are simpler and notions of fair play easier arrived at. To me it seemed Stroud got a raw deal and a crawl at the end informing me of his death five years before (1963) while still in custody made it tough getting to sleep that night. Most of us recall first exposure to adult movies (not just ones with nudity or "R" ratings, though I certainly haven’t forgotten those either!). I’m thinking more of ones that made me listen to dialogue and ponder interaction among characters as opposed to waiting for the next saucer landing or colossal man to come my way. 1968 was the year I finally sat still for things like The Caine Mutiny, Tunes of Glory, and Birdman Of Alcatraz, pathways to filmic adulthood and each putting me wise to nuance they explored. The three are still favorites and not just for being rites of passage. Birdman takes its time, being that’s what it’s all about --- there’s a feeling of incarceration you get for sharing Stroud’s eternity behind bars. Some say the picture dawdles. John Frankenheimer gets close on a bird egg that takes several minutes to hatch and there’s no reactions or cutaway, a sort of directoral audacity we’d see more of through the sixties. Prison life as experienced by Stroud/Lancaster is more detention than hellish reality of systems (still) in place and doubtlessly worse in that convict’s time. Audiences can bear only so much infliction upon movie stars locked up, thus Burt’s spared beatings, drug use (which figured heavily into Stroud’s own experience), and sexual abuses endemic to real-life stir. Such restraint would be applied as well on Clint Eastwood’s behalf in the later (1979) Escape From Alcatraz, itself clearly modeled on much of Birdman Of Alcatraz. Those who knew Stroud said Birdman was purest fantasy, but much of his life is presented as it happened, even if this drama stops short of indicting the system he exposed in a book suppressed during the prisoner’s lifetime.

19 Comments:

Blogger East Side said...

Having watched most of the Warner Oland Chan movies on late night TV during my youth, I quickly learned the suspect with the moustache is always the guilty party.

8:56 AM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

Glad you enjoyed CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND. The 'extras' on the FOX DVD are extremely interesting, especially the history of the island itself.

One of the great things of the FOX CHAN series for me is that I can watch them over and over, and they remain just as enjoyable as if it was a first viewing, even if I do remember the murderer in all of them. One thing I enjoy is on a repeat viewing, knowing the killer before I watch, is piecing the clues together as I go to see how the film reaches its conclusion.

Production value-wise, one would think you're watching FOX's LAURA.

Top-notch all the way 'to the end of the line', Mr. Neff.

9:18 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Fasten your seat belt, this one's going to be bumpy:

Back in the early 80's (I think) I made the acquaintance of a veteran producer named Sam Marx. Sam had been brought-back to Metro by, I believe it was David Begelman, at that time, with the express idea of updating older properties for possible re-makes and thus (and as it turned-out, one final, last-ditch-effort at restoring MGM to it's former eminence). Never one to let an opportunity slip-by, I sold Sam on the idea of a remake of "Libeled Lady". My take was using the current "tabloids" and a specific-case that had recently been settled between The National Inquirer and Carol Burnett.
He loved it. I submitted an outline. He didn't love it. He read a script that my partner and I had just written called "The Bright Side" -- and loved THAT. We were briefly brought out to Metro under Sam's auspices as "junior writers". His office was in the writer's building, located just inside the main gate of the studio, and to quote Garson Kanin, "Alice in Wonderland was a piker". The stories Sam had would have filled 10 -- make that 100 -- posts here at Greenbriar.
It is my understanding that either around that same time or just prior to my pitch, Roddy McDowell had also been at Metro with the idea of a re-make. Sam said he wanted to do it using the same cast as the recently-completed and very successful "Victor/Victoria". I thought I had it licked, and having loved the orig. was wildly enthusiastic to do it. But herein lay the problem --"co-respondents" and such that the orig. was so dependent upon were just outdated by then, and I just couldn't find, as Goldwyn used to say, "that spark" to ignite the fire. I still say a re-make might have worked. I really have never seen "Easy To Wed", except perhaps years ago, maybe little bits and pieces here and there. You are 100% correct, however. It's one of those "elephantine", top-heavy things that Metro was doing at that time that lacked all resemblance to the charm and elegance (and cast!) they-had the first-time around. But, with those box-office figures you quoted, who in their right-senses was going to argue with Mayer?
P.S.: An old associate of my father's was a writer named George Callahan, who did the screenplays for most of the later "Chans" at Monogram. Oh, and then there was Benson Fong, who played "Number two son" was it? who owned "Ah Fongs" restaurant on Beverly Drive, the best Chinese restaurant that ever was, and would always come sit and talk with us when we were there, and was extremely nice to me when I was a child. He would later appear in "Flower Drum Song".

As ever, R.J.

12:49 PM  
Anonymous James said...

Why did Fox stop making the Chans when they were still profitable for the company? Usually when a company pulls the plug on series product, it's because they're no longer turning a profit.

Have you ever seen any of the Jane Withers films or an entry in the Jones Family series? I've heard about those for years but have never seen so much as a single frame of either series anywhere.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Livius said...

I have to agree with you regarding the mystery being secondary in many Chan pictures. The whole atmosphere and "world of Chan" is what draws me in, and draws me back, to the series time and again. Even the monogram films manage this, although not quite as much given the cheapskate production values.

6:02 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, thanks as always for more wonderful insider stuff. Never knew Sam Marx had a studio job so late as the eighties ...

James, the Chan profits were slipping as the series neared its finish at Fox, although none of the entries lost money. As to other reasons the series ended, who knows?

Yes, Livius, it's the "World Of Chan" I like too ... never mind who killed who.

6:46 AM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

The CHAN series was dropped by FOX because of the impending loss of the foreign markets due to WW2.

The same reason holds true as to why MGM dropped the TARZAN series.

8:39 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

I do remember my mother telling me when I was a baby and she would be home taking care of me, they would run The Jones Family on early morning television, and how much she had liked them. In addition, I have but the dimmest recollection of seeing some of the entries, as well as maybe one or two of the early Jane Withers films (and I believe she did several with humorist Irvin S. Cobb, whom Fox was considering as replacement for Will Rogers who had just died), on a very late-night entry out here in L.A. called "Classic Theatre"(I believe)which played at like 2 in the morning on Friday nights (so I was allowed to stay-up, my folks were probably out at a party or something anyway!)on the CBS-affiliate,KNXT (which was then channel 2).
They must have had the entire Fox package at that time, because I DO have clear-recollections of seeing things like "Seventh Heaven" with Simone Simon and James Stewart, and something called "Sins of Man" with Jean Hersholt and Don Ameche, as well as "Ladies In Love", which was one of Tyrone Power's first-roles. The latter is now on DVD. What chances exist at this late date of catching "The Jones Family" is really up for grabs, but if it's any consolation, I doubt if you're missing much. R.J.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Speaking of both remakes and the Tyrone Powers on DVD, to your point about how odd it was that they would remake things so quickly, the Tyrone Power set of non-swashbucklers includes 1937's Love Is News, with Tyrone Power as Steve Leyton, energetic/irritating reporter hounding heiress Loretta Young, and its 1948 remake That Wonderful Urge, with Tyrone Power as Thomas Jefferson Tyler, energetic/irritating reporter hounding heiress Gene Tierney. Did they really need to do this twice in a space of time shorter than the period between Die Hard 3 and Die Hard 4? (Actually three times, since there was a remake without Power in between-- Sweet Rosie O'Grady, with Betty Grable and Robert Young.)

There must have been a lot of folks sitting in theaters saying "Hey, haven't we seen this Tyrone Power picture before? But wait..."

9:29 PM  
Anonymous r,j, said...

Michael,
I know your question is directed toward our host, and believe me, I'm not trying to "take over" here, but I just received a (gratis) boxed set of those Ty Power DVD's from a very nice woman who presided over a tribute they had to him here in Hollywood back in Nov., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his passing.

John might-well be able to give you a better educated answer than I, but it all comes back to the old Hollywood-adage, "If they liked it once, they'll love it twice!", as an actor-friend of mine used to say. But I think the real truth was Darryl Zanuck, and how the system worked at that time. When you have two very-expensive actors like T.P. and Gene Tierney under-contract, and nothing on-board for them production (or pre-production) wise, the simplest-thing is to "dust off" a proven-hit, and one that can be done on a lower-budget, that can be shot in-house (at the studio), re-title it and send-it whizzing through your exhibitor's exchanges. This would for Zanuck, Mayer, Cohn and the rest, and everyone(at the studio) on full-time salaries, justify "overhead". For Mr. Power, who was complaining about "yet another costumer!", and his expressed desire to the boss to do some comedy for a change, it would keep him pacified, while the next "Prince of Foxes" or what-have-you was being prepared.
This was how things worked under the "old" studio system -- but don't kid yourself -- it's still, to a very modified degree, how things still operate. ("Oceans 547"). For every "Casablanca", there were always ten "Wonderful Urges".
Sorry for once again being so long-winded! R.J.

2:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, you make me want to get out both "Love Is News" and "That Wonderful Urge" and do a comparison. I'm a big fan of Tyrone Power! Maybe it's time to do a post about some of his films. If I get around to compiling one of those Favorite Actor memes, he'll be among my picks.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

The one I've actually liked the best so far is called Day-Time Wife. It's a bit of a contrived farce, but there's something genuinely touching about a young couple sort of being pulled apart by the fact that they're so locked into their roles as husband/executive and wife/housekeeper that they hardly know anything about how the other one lives and feels any more. (The farce comes in as she enters the workforce as the secretary to wolf Warren William, and sees what her husband is turning into, while Power, seeing her in the secretary's role for somebody else, realizes what he's been ignoring at home.) A minor, but nicely done and rather sweet little movie.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chan regular Kay Linaker taught at my High School in Rindge, N.H.(But we knew her as Kate Phillips)

1:02 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

I like "Day-Time Wife" a lot,as well. The studio (which I guess really meant Zanuck), at that juncture, seemed to be taking their cues from current Metro successes. "Day-Time" seems to be a variation on Gable's "Wife Vs. Secretary" (just as "Love Is News" was doubtless inspired by the huge success of "Libeled Lady"). But, what is interesting about Michael's comment is that while "Day-Time" IS minor, it is also (as he points out) very sweet, because among other reasons, it's the kind of little comedy that they seemed to be able to make almost effortlessly (well, much like the better "Charlie Chans'") in 1939, which conversely by 1948, with "That Wonderful Urge", had become rather labored and strained, indicating both changing audience taste, as well as the the fact that the formulas themselves were becoming tired and somewhat played-out.(I like "Day-Time" so much that I even "appropriated" a line from it, in the current play I'm doing on Eythe/McCallister, when Joan Davis asks Linda Darnell, "Are you in or out?" "I don't know?" "Did he ask if you to play Parcheesi?" "Yes." "You're in!" It was just those last two words I lifted, as my "little tribute" to Miss Davis!)

2:46 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Say Anonymous, did any of the students ever get Kay to talk about her days at Fox?

RJ and Michael, I've always liked "Day-Time Wife" too. A miracle, and a welcome one, that Fox released it on DVD. Watch the banner tomorrow, as I'll be putting up a still from it.

2:59 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I had a friend in high school who refused to watch the Warner Oland Chans - he detested them for some reason - I didn't care either way, both Chans were fun to watch. Saturday afternoons from the early sixties on were filled with the Chan Family, Mr. Moto, all sorts of noir and 'B' films, so the whole milieu of studio leftovers was on display for me to enjoy. The Chans were the most fun of all the series, as they had a droll sense of humor to them every so many scenes.

As for remakes so close in time to the original, it shows the quick turnover in the audience's age has not stopped the churn to this day. I can see that some social conventions will be to obtuse to modern viewers to make a palatable story line, but the basics of the plots are probably ageless, so we'll see the same stuff over and and over again as long as the stars sell the product. Van Johnson, as a bobby-soxer idol, had to deal with the devil to stay in films, poor sap - he sure made the most of it.

6:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kay Linaker told me about Ralph Morgan, Peter Lorre, Jack Benny, Harry Cohn, James Whale, Etc. She said that all of Oland's colseups were shot first so they could get them before he got too drunk.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Dear Anonymous,

I loved your anecdote about Warner Oland --it made me laugh out loud. My father told me, that when he was at Warners, the same was true for Bogie, and Barton MacLane!

John, by the way, isn't there some story, which I vaguely-recall, that Oland had started shooting another "Chan", had gone-off on a "bat", then died suddenly, while the film was in the middle of production, and it was for that reason they rushed-in Sidney Toler as last-minute replacement, and Toler took over the role from that point on?

P.S.: My mother told me that when she was a young girl, going to Beverly High, that Ralph Morgan was the local Air Raid Warden in the neighborhood!

3:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, someone told me that "Charlie Chan At Ringside" was in preparation when Oland died, and that the film was quickly retooled for Mr. Moto.

I for one would have been more than alarmed by the sight of Warner Oland "on a bat."

7:18 AM  

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