GREENBRIAR SHORT SUBJECTS
COMEDY UPDATES: A pair of recent events worth noting. Richard M. Roberts has alerted me that his Silent Comedy Mafia news and discussion site is now up and running. This is good news for everyone immersed in classic laugh-getters often revisited here at Greenbriar and very much the province of Mafia members who can and do teach us plenty at this very informative address. Already there’s lots of fascinating posts, with more added by the hour. Participants have shared rare images I’ve not seen elsewhere and topics so far include Sacred Cows --- What subjects were considered hands-off among silent comedians? There’s also an essay on Vitagraph shorts by Steve Massa that’s an expert last word on the subject, plus excerpts from a forthcoming biography of Glenn Tryon. I get stuck like molasses every time I go there, and the joint’s only been open five days! They’re inviting everyone who loves vintage comedy to join in.
There’s a petition afoot to get Charley Chase Columbia shorts out on DVD. A lot of you know about this and have undoubtedly signed on, but for those who haven’t heard, word is that transfers have been made and discs are essentially ready to manufacture but for Sony’s reticence, perhaps over the economic downturn and/or concern as to limited interest in Chase. Actual DVD release hangs somewhat in the balance. Will online signatories help stiffen corporate resolve? If so, we need to go HERE post-haste and cast a vote for Charley. Word is they’ll listen and respond if fans make voices heard. I’ve waited years to see these shorts. Some of them have been unavailable since original release in the late thirties. Remember Sony’s terrific Buster Keaton Columbia set? I’m anxious to go there again, this time with Charley. Best place for updates on the petition is the fantastic World Of Charley Chase website. They’ll link you to the polling place and share lots of neat Chase lore as well.
A STAR TO BE REBORN?: I went and did it again this week … looked at forty minutes of 1954's A Star Is Born, then switched off. The dancing stills intrusion at that point remain a vexation for me. Ronald Haver installed them twenty-five years ago and they've hobbled the official version since. If all of A Star Is Born equalled its first act, we’d have a musical to beat them all. As it is, I’m with those who say it’s too long and Lord help us if they’ve indeed secured the missing footage. There are collectors allegedly in possession of complete prints. Maybe they were exhibitors who complained loudly when WB called its three hours in, diced circulating copies, then cut the negative. Letters to trades in 1954 encouraged availability of alternate versions, but Warners said nix. I’m not surprised a few were liberated from depots. Rumors abound that one or more of these will enable a long-awaited restoration and allow us to see as well as hear all those scenes Haver recreated with photos and a surviving track. I’ll be ready for the long trek if that’s the case. Will James Mason seem less miscast at 181 minutes? I can’t buy his Norman Maine as a romantic screen favorite on the wane, for Mason himself never pretended to that. Wonderful as this actor was, he seemed more a character star and not the sort that premiere audiences, such as one that opens A Star Is Born, would swoon over (although I’m aware that women were mightily attracted to career-making scoundrels he’d essayed in the UK). If alternate reality permitted reopening nominations for Norman Maine, I’d suggest Errol Flynn … too far gone by 1954 maybe, but imagine what he’d have done with this role given strong direction and the application of a little personal discipline. Flynn would have at least made a charming and therefore more sympathetic drunk. Mason is mean and surly and manhandles Garland too much of the time. To be so quick with his hands, and fists, you wonder why Esther would ever have been lured by such a hair trigger. I was afraid from their first meeting and thereafter that he’d beat her up. Mason might have benefited here from being less the serious actor and more a matinee idol closer aligned with Norman Maine, and Errol Flynn.
My favorite thing about A Star Is Born is sheer heft of what must have been a revolutionary sound experience for first-run audiences. Haver wrote about that in his excellent book. Music and dialogue just throbs in this picture. They’d say its directional stereo is primitive today, but that’s how I like early Cinemascope best, and A Star Is Born really gives you a sensation of being there when it blew doors off remaining palaces big enough to dazzle thousands (like the Chicago Theatre of the ad shown here, which seated 3500 and was the film’s host in that city). Imperfections of early scope are endearing to me. I like faces broadening out, then closing in as subjects move toward a frame’s outer edges. Judy Garland takes licks for a camera that caresses, then abuses, her features. Haver says it was a chaotic production for technical snafus and uncertainty over color and a wide screen. Director George Cukor shows mastery with initial scenes backstage at Grauman’s Chinese and makes Cinemascope his own throughout, but letting Judy go too blubbery later on (in a grueling confessional with Charles Bickford) or indulging her cutes with a frozen-smiled Mason (she dons lampshades and such) make hours seem longer. Still, the best of A Star Is Born is nirvana itself, and I’ll gladly pull necessary time for any opportunity to see it truly restored. Might that be in a year or so's offing?