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Monday, May 31, 2010




Favorites List --- The Last Flight







There was a writer in the twenties named John Monk Saunders who wanted to be Ernest Hemingway and ended up hanging himself. So much for the capsule bio. It’s as much as I knew about Saunders for a long time. That plus the fact he was married to Fay Wray, which made the suicide part all the more unfathomable. Somewhere there are descendents from the prominent family he was born into. Do they honor memories of one dismissed by others as failed and frustrated? But wait. John Monk Saunders wrote Wings and The Dawn Patrol, among quite a few others dealing with aerial wartime themes. Once, and long ago, he was writing’s promise for new realism and honesty with regards men who fought. Saunders just never got respect Hemingway earned for literature, and was in fact accused of purloining themes and incidents from the latter’s The Sun Also Rises, published a few years ahead of Saunders’ The Single Lady (from which The Last Flight derives). What Saunders enjoyed was applause and recognition a lot of better writers missed. So who needs posthumous acclaim when you can have it now? Something ate away at Saunders and brought him to a tragic finish. Was it realization that he was a mere pretender to greatness? Among sharper thorns was fact he hadn’t actually seen action during the Great War that was subject of most Saunders output. Trained to fly, yes, but fated never to do so in combat. Instead, they put him to instructing others at a Florida pilot’s school. Despite pleas for transfer, Saunders remained well clear of the action. How many times do you suppose patrons impressed with The Dawn Patrol (and the Academy Award he won for penning it) asked him to detail first-hand dogfighting?


Saunders had been a Rhodes scholar and child of privilege. Accounts of a so-called Lost Generation passing hours in Parisian bars roused his impulse to merge with that lifestyle and write about it (and them). Hemingway had done so after all, and Saunders was not alone for regarding him the best literary role model going. Whatever reality there was in that caravan of walking war wounded was enhanced by triflers who bore not their scars but enjoyed the romance by association. Saunders was already married to Fay Wray and much in demand screenwriting when he decamped to France for a taste of what he’d read about. The Single Lady was his yield for time served and Liberty magazine was all for serializing it upon his return. Warner star Richard Barthelmess noticed and saw potential for his own next starring vehicle. Dick was a believable platoon mate to those who’d marched and flown in combat. Two of his best-received vehicles had been The Patent Leather Kid and Saunders’ The Dawn Patrol. For The Single Lady’s author, there was gratification of seeing his story express train from publication to Hollywood’s embrace, with Saunders invited to furnish a shooting scenario (accompanied by publication of the novel by Grosset and Dunlap as one of their “Photoplay Editions,” accompanied by stills from the film). Originally titled Nikki and Her War-Birds, what finally emerged from Warners in 1931 was The Last Flight, an oddity then and more so now, a one-of-a-kind made possible by Saunders and Barthelmess at a short-lived juncture where neither had to compromise integrity of the film’s theme as both saw it.


























It was right timing for Saunders. He had a smoother entrée to studios in fact than Hemingway, as Single Lady crabbed a deal EH thought he had for movie rights to The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was sufficiently miffed to consult with counsel over Saunder’s lift(s) from his novel, but stopped short of legal action. The Single Lady got faithfully adapted, thanks to Saunders typing adaptation keys and Barthelmess protecting what he screen-wrote. The latter was himself a representative of filmland’s own Lost Generation of silent luminaries, soldiering on despite evidence mounting daily that new faces were supplanting him. Barthelmess is precisely right casting for The Last Flight, his own renown headed for eclipse, but maintaining at all times a tortured integrity that serves perfectly his character here. WB brass called The Last Flight uncommercial, as it focused on flyers’ lives after they were done flying, a dismaying contrast to actionful predecessors, which by 1931 were themselves losing boxoffice altitude. The Last Flight’s minimal combat stuff dominated the trailer, making disappointment keener when the feature disposed of said highlights in its opening reel. This was drama of endless talk among the willfully dissipated, not glories won in the skies. It’s a picture better suited to us now than patrons then, being frustrating to their expectations, but congenial to our own. Modern viewers tend to like The Last Flight. It took me watching twice to catch the wave. Now it’s one of my favorite Warner precodes. Some critics then admired the experiment, but a larger public balked. Against negative costs of $491,000, The Last Flight took domestic rentals of $405,000, with foreign a mere $45,000. The eventual loss totaled $253,000.






















The first rediscovery I noticed for The Last Flight showed up in a published collection of essays under The American Film Institute’s umbrella in 1972. That appreciation by Tom Shales came at a time when the film was difficult at the least to come by. There was syndication availability, but most stations, even UHF ones, shunned really ancient Warner titles by the early seventies, preferring to cruise with better known Bogart and Davis oldies. Shales called The Last Flight "a revealing and a very significant oddball … recklessly oddball in fact." He singled out director William Dieterle in accordance with AFI then-policy of recognizing behind-the-camera talent too long ignored by mainstream critics. Articles like this could regenerate an old film. The community of cineastes was a small one (still is) and endorsement from a Tom Shales probably led to at least collegiate bookings for The Last Flight, which by the mid-seventies could be had at a bargain rental of $35 from UA/16. For John Monk Saunders’ source novel, there was also revival around the same time. The Single Lady came back into print via a Southern Illinois University Press venture called The Lost American Fiction Series. No claim is made that we are resuscitating lost masterpieces, said the publisher. We are reprinting works that merit re-reading because they are good writing. SIUP maintained it had serious ambitions for the series. They wanted to rescue certain books and authors from what they referred to as undeserved obscurity. The Single Lady was accompanied by a thoughtful afterword from writer Stephen Longstreet that established Saunders’ permanent residency in Hemingway’s shadow. Referring to The Single Lady as a carousel of impressions moving quickly to a very faint tune, Longstreet concluded that the book’s obscurity was largely a deserved one, though it was not without interest. SIUP’s 1976 reprinting was of Grosset and Dunlap’s Photoplay edition, and even included several photos from Warners’ film that illustrated the 1931 book. I made it to page 95 of 383 making up the text, enough to satisfy myself that The Last Flight was a faithful translation of Saunders’ novel. One thing Longstreet pointed out was fact that, as of 1976, there was no published biography of John Monk Saunders. That appears to remain the case. Probably the best place to read about him would be Fay Wray’s memoir, On The Other Hand, published in 1989 and an engaging account of her career and marriage to Saunders. As for The Last Flight, it is recently available from Warner DVD Archives and also recommended.




Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Mining The Art Shop



Too distracted getting ready for this week's Cinevent to concentrate on writing, but wanted to have something up while I'm gone to the show, thus a handful of theatre ads recently scanned. Hope a lot of you will be at Columbus. It's a great show I've attended since 1982.

How big a serial was Columbia's Superman? Well, not many chapter-plays merited newspaper ads like this. Back in the era of silent serials, lavish displays were commonplace on theatre pages, but that was when adults attended weekly installments. Talkies consigned these to kids and their Saturday matinees, where it mattered less what played as long as it could mount a horse. Superman, however, was always something special. Even if that 1948 serial disappointed, still it was the Man Of Steel and he had a following bigger with each passing year. I remember Kirk Alyn setting up his dealer's table at shows where few of us had even seen his Superman output, it having been decades since the two Columbia serials played anywhere other that in pages of Screen Thrills Illustrated.





Were youngsters dismayed when they paid to see Davy Crockett and realized it was "adapted" from the Disneyland TV episodes? I'd guess color made up for letdown otherwise, along with seeing their hero on a large screen. Disney had been wise enough to shoot his Crockett adventures that way so as to secure residual value later when televisions graduated out of black-and-white. The craze over this character must have come as a shock to everyone involved. I'm too young to recall coonskin caps and such, and would probably have preferred cartoons anyway. The Mickey Mouse Club was usually a wait for whatever animated filler Mouseketeer Karen Pendleton pulled out of that drawer (she was my crush on the show and I was jealous at age five of Cubby getting to spend so much time around her).
He Made Women Curse The Day They Were Born ... so this is dignified treatment Fritz Lang's M received when imported to US shores? Maybe art houses approached it with reverence, but grind situations knew there was much to exploit in the venerable German classic, and they weren't above using lowdown art to lure patrons in. Peter Lorre looks like he's strangling a Baby Jane doll here. Thank goodness no such scene was included in Lang's original. Lorre's designation as "lust-murderer" implies something even more disturbing than what the film depicts. This ad dates from the forties, long before M was taken up by various churches of cinema. It's always interesting to come across ballyhoo for titles since canonized, wherein shlock merchandisers took what was rented them and really went to town with it.











Folks in Mason City, Iowa evidently took quite a shine to badman John Dillinger after he robbed their First National Bank on March 13, 1934. This ad for newsreels featuring the desperado fairly celebrate Dillinger's determination and deliberation as he emptied their vaults after the cool manner of his suggested inspiration, Jesse James. Would these have been the sorts of downtrodden folk that covered for Bonnie and Clyde when they passed through? This ad looks for all the world to me like an endorsement of JD's taking ways. Depression- whipped citizenry must have really had it in for those banks! Wonder if they cheered footage of Dillinger when Movietone reels flashed him up. Must have been a kick having a bank knocked over right in your own home town (likely just a few doors up from Mason City's Palace Theatre). Incidental to the Most Thrilling Episodes of John Dillinger's life would have been opportunity to see Charlie Chan's Courage, one of four Fox Chans we'll not see again thanks to that disastrous warehouse fire a few years later that took out most of their pre-merger inventory.







They say Frank Capra thought a lot of himself, and seeing this ad, I don't wonder. The occasion was Lost Horizon's two-a-day opening in San Francisco, and do note these advanced prices. Not many directors enjoyed this man's renown. It Happened One Night clocked record repeat bookings and wrote boxoffice history (was any comedy of the 30's more influential?). By 1937 and Lost Horizon, any Capra project was sure to draw a widest public, for his appeal reached all segments of the paying audience. Plush theatres used to routinely advertise big names expected to attend their opening nights. Not all of these would necessarily show up, but enough did to make for truly gala events. If nothing else, said crowd saw a longer version of Lost Horizon than we ever will. I've always had problems watching this show for the mess that is so much formerly lost footage patched in from inferior prints.




Monday, May 24, 2010







Favorites List --- Sorry, Wrong Number




Sorry, Wrong Number was once a story that meant something to almost everyone. They'd either listened to it on radio, seen the movie, or heard conversation about it. The title itself became a catch-phrase. Now we're left with a DVD and remnants of a generation that experienced eight separate broadcasts of what's said to be Radio's Most Famous Play. I'll defer to airwave authorities over truth (or not) of that, and merely assert here and now that few if any thrillers work so well when you're home alone and it's late, that going for Agnes Moorehead's radio rendition, Paramount's 1948 movie, or even Jack Benny's send-up as heard on October 17, 1948 (and readily accessible on line). I'll declare too that Sorry, Wrong Number plays swell to general audiences, having run it for several college crowds that roundly approved. But here's the rub: My last SWN engagement was ten years ago and since then telephones, at least as I've always understood them, have morphed into communication devices Sorry, Wrong Number's initial audience would never fully grasp. Can this show make sense to youth today? --- what with texting, facebook, cells ... what could be so retro as receivers in a cradle, let alone necessity of dealing with operators. Watching Sorry, Wrong Number in a wireless world reminded me that I haven't spoken to a live-voiced representative of the phone company for years, so how's Barbara Stanwyck doing so incessantly for 89 minutes going to register with 2010 viewers?





Like so many eventual filmic institutions, Sorry, Wrong Number began on radio. To be precise, it happened on a program called Suspense that ran on CBS from 1942 through 1962, a staggering record I'd presume only a few soap operas have beaten (945 episodes were broadcast and more than 900 are said to survive). The date was May 23, 1943. Legend claims Agnes Moorehead didn't want to play it at first. Said Sorry, Wrong Number was too morbid and made her nervous. Of course, the doomed Leona became Moorehead's signature role, even if she'd never be seen performing it (other actresses would for TV, but never AM). Sorry, Wrong Number became an ongoing airing event, subject to frequent listener demands for an encore. Always they used Agnes to reprise the lead, except when Stanwyck took a turn in 1950 for Lux Radio Theater's go at the expanded movie version with co-star Burt Lancaster. If Moorehead was human at all, she had to resent Stanwyck poaching on a character long since settled as hers. I read somewhere of a 1946 television adaptation of Sorry, Wrong Number, which only makes sense inasmuch as you can stage the whole thing with one hysterical actress in bed with a side table and a prop phone; what's more ideally suited to ultra austere live TV? One college-era afternoon I've not forgotten took place in a church basement just off campus where a group dramatized Sorry, Wrong Number using its original twenty-two or so minute script. I remember being amazed anyone was still putting on this show so late as 1974. Might some enterprising playmakers try again today using a BlackBerry?
















Radio historians say Sorry, Wrong Number had its final dramatization in 1962, again with Agnes Moorehead. I'd have thought drama minus pictures was altogether finished by that time, but radio, being the institution everyone imagined would last forever, took years lumbering off. Sort of like vaudeville or what's left of today's print media. Seems no one in my growing-up household listened to radio except for music or news about school closings when it snowed. Why couldn't I have been one of those odd children shunning TV in favor of this fading theatre of the imagination? According to histories, there was still plenty beyond Sorry, Wrong Number I could have enjoyed in 1962, but how might radio have torn this eight-year-old away from The Jetsons? Now much of radio's history is stored on line for listening pleasure, thus was I regaled with Sorry, Wrong Number's historic first recital (and tried communing with jangled nerves of those who listened in originally). How many heard that 1943 broadcast and ones to come? More than watch even highest-rated television programs today? Paramount boasted forty million having been thrilled by the time their 1948 movie was ready to go, enough I'd think to put any pre-sold property in the shade. Certainly everyone got the jokes when Jack Benny's crew lampooned a by-then folkloric tale in October of that year. I'd have to assume Hollywood and radio walking hand-in-hand during this period when both were at a peak made everyone rich. Hal Wallis surely faced serious rivals when he went bidding for Sorry, Wrong Number.



















Short stories and radio dramas called for similar handling when prepped for feature-length. Was Wallis guided by Mark Hellinger's expansion of The Killers from those few pages Hemingway sold him? This was everyone's model for fattening terse narrative into two-hour's thriller-making. Flashbacks became staples of noir by 1948 and Sorry, Wrong Number abounds in them. Lucille Fletcher had written radio's capsuled inspiration and was hired by Wallis to background thoroughly how luckless Leona got to her point of no rescue. Viewers new to Sorry, Wrong Number are often stunned by its ending. They expect Burt Lancaster to crash in at the last minute to save his wife. I'd guess 1948 saw the bleak finish coming from having listened at home or hearing friends drop spoilers. The web Wallis constructed was exemplary noir after the fashion of his own I Walk Alone and The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (among Paramount's many missed opportunities was a boxed DVD set of the best among these). Wallis deserves more credit as a major noir architect, one who pursued the brand seriously long before it was labeled and sold for extraordinary style it represented. He confessed a preference for portraying the dark side of life ... frankly and without compromise (his Starmaker memoir). Wallis stayed resolutely indoors rather than venturing to street locations as other noirists would, with result being stylized thrillers knee-deep in studio crafted atmospherics we happily associate with the genre. There was also his stock company traveling from dark to darker alleys. It must have seemed for a while that Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey, and others of the Wallis school would never get away from doing pictures like these. Sorry, Wrong Number only whets my appetite for the Summer DVD release of Dark City and Rope Of Sand, two Wallis productions from this fertile period that have been long out of circulation (but where's much-requested I Walk Alone?).




Thursday, May 20, 2010


Slapsticon 2010 Is Coming!




I'm headed for Slapsticon in Arlington, VA this summer. Four days of vintage comedy unspools July 15-18 at the spacious and comfortable Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre. Don't know about the rest of you attending, but I'll need this break from habitual solitary viewing. Where comedies are concerned, that's exactly the wrong way to watch. How are we to judge what's funny sitting alone with our televisions? Slapsticon is a needed corrective to the hermit's life so many enthusiasts pursue. Kindred spirits there are eager to share Johnny Hines, Snub Pollard, and the Dippy Doo-Dads (who among my local acquaintance will sit for obscure, but eminently worthwhile, likes of these?). I'll be interested in seeing how such clowns play in a large auditorium before several hundred viewers. They say laughter is contagious with a crowd. I know that's true from experience, though in my case, there's not been enough such experience. This year's is the seventh Slapsticon. A number of hotels are convenient to the Rosslyn with abundance of good restaurants nearby. It's worth noting that this venue, where all of Slapsticon's screenings take place, has cushioned seats in a spacious auditorium (crucial data for those embarking upon four days looking at movies). Slapsticon provides by far the most lavish and informative program book of shows I attend (these being definite keepers for reference and repeat reading pleasure). If we're to appreciate classic clowns, surely the best way is in an environment like this, where prints are of optimum quality and presentation is of consistently high standard. There is really nothing like live musical enhancement when you're watching silent film. Good as many are, I'll forget a two-reeler on DVD within days of looking, but in-person performances enter the memory to stay. Slapsticon gathers the best of such accompanists to provide that extra something you get when music is happening here and now, just like when Golden Age comedies were new.












I expect to make numerous discoveries at Slapsticon. Clowns barely known to me will likely rise higher in estimation, thanks to hospitality of a large screen and enthusiastic audience. Monty Banks, Lupino Lane, and Billy Dooley are faces I've not seen enough of at home. I expect the three, plus favorites of longer standing, to make large impression at Slapsticon. There is always revelation where rare film gets an airing. Most of what's on Slapsticon's program has been little, if at all, seen elsewhere. Organizers try to avoid stuff readily available on DVD. I'm really stoked for Modern Love, a Universal part-talking feature with Charley Chase, and there's old favorite Africa Screams in 35mm. This will be my first Abbott and Costello in the larger gauge, and I look forward to it. Plus we'll see Roscoe Arbuckle in The Round-Up and several Harry Langdons new to me. They're showing cartoons as well. Show coordinator Richard Roberts tells me there's a 1913 Vitagraph called The Fuedists scheduled, which he describes as sort of an early Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, featuring all of Vitagraph's star comics of the time: John Bunny, Sidney Drew, Flora Finch, Wally Van, and Hughie Mack. Where else would you see something so scarce and offbeat as this?













Another thing recommends Slapsticon that I'll mention. Virtually all those producers behind recent DVD comedy collections will be there. This includes folks we can credit with multi-disc sets on Keaton, Langdon, Arbuckle, and Chase, as well as volumes so far released of American Slapstick, the much applauded clowning compilation(s) that has brought so many shorts and features out of hibernation. Contributions these people have made toward rescue and revival of classic comedy have been an ongoing highlight of DVD collecting for me. Some among these are furnishing surprises to be added to an already burgeoning line-up, among them at least one eye-opener that promises to set a new bar for rarity. I'm told there is still lodging to be had near the Rosslyn (focal point of Slapsticon activities), but reservations should be made soon against likelihood of vacancies eventually taken. Attendance has increased with each year of this show, a reflection of how much participants are enjoying it.




Monday, May 17, 2010




Universal Makes Boxoffice Music


We assume a lot about moviegoers in the fifties. What can I do but speculate here about a public's reaction to The Glenn Miller Story? First, there's what we know for truth, borne out by revenues the likes of which Universal-International hadn't amassed before. Some of the biggest hits of back then are ones we seldom talk about now. The Glenn Miller Story was a right attraction at a perfect moment. It got people back into theatres who'd given up movies for barbecuing and evening softball. And said prodigals brought their kids, 1954 being a year when virtually every potential customer remembered Glenn Miller and wanted to see (and even more so, hear) his life story. Universal's biopic revived memories of what was pleasant about recently past war years (well, ten years seems recent to me anyway). Youngsters who'd courted against backdrops of Miller melodies now attended as married couples. Fault lines dividing teens from musical tastes of elders were opening, but fissures remained narrow enough for showmen to manage a family audience and enjoy consensus among pleased patrons. Who foresaw a year's later surly youth busting up prized swing records in The Blackboard Jungle? Decca had out a soundtrack for The Glenn Miller Story in tandem with the pic's release and selections from that zoomed up Hit Parade charts. The late bandleader was selling again just as Al Jolson had when Columbia told his story in 1946, that one being template for Universal's go at Miller's life, warts of which were scrubbed in deference to family and fans who viewed Glenn as Mister Congeniality among music-makers. And who better to play him than James Stewart at his easiest going?






Lots prefer Jim as neurotic in accordance with modern embrace of genres darkened, his westerns and Hitchcocks exploring avenues more to misanthropic likings. The Glenn Miller Story is a Stewart/Anthony Mann collaboration (along with Strategic Air Command) cultists put in a sack and tossed to rivers. That was decades after Glenn Miller socked over bigger grosses ($7.5 million domestic) than any of their other teamings. There's no use (or need) defending its sentiment, the by-numbers rise to fame having little to do with facts of any band man's history. It was, as with Jolson, all about the music. Plus that aspect of Glenn Miller's life they wouldn't fudge, his tragic end in an air crash that everyone in 1954 recalled or had heard about. This for a finish guaranteed a solid femme turnout and wrung oceans of tears to wash down tunes folks loved hearing again. LIFE magazine stunted the openings to photograph women crying as they watched The Glenn Miller Story that February, along with couples adrift upon clouds of romance (two shown here hand-holding) as Stewart and perfect movie wife June Allyson renewed their screen vows.
















Who needed gloves-off biopics in 1954? Those were just around the corner in any case. MGM's Love Me Or Leave Me of the next year was unrelentingly harsh, and I'll Cry Tomorrow from the same company added jiggers of alcohol to a getting toxic mix. The Glenn Miller Story plays like pabulum beside these (and never mind further ones down the line). Nothing unpleasant happens short of Miller's plane going down, and that takes place offscreen. Stops are out, however, for Allyson's response. Here is grief clinically enacted by an actress for whom such display was expected highlight of all her performances, a trio of which co-starred Stewart. People still attended movies in 1954 to weep as much as laugh. Universal saw that reaffirmed in their other blockbuster from the same year, Magnificent Obsession. Most frustrating perhaps is The Glenn Miller Story's dawdling on titular figure's slow climb to fame. A first half and part of the second is more about reverses and pawnshop detours, these forestalling songs we're there to hear. Best perhaps to tune in for its last forty or so minutes, because that's where most all the Miller standards get loving recital. How potent a shot of adrenalin did his music get for being heard again here? I was just born when Universal released The Glenn Miller Story, but an Ebay search reveals multiple soundtrack releases through what remained of the fifties. There were albums, extended play 45's, and Decca's stereo reissue of its platter in 1956. The film would become an object of moviegoing nostalgia, as Universal happily discovered in 1959 when a Sindlinger & Co. poll revealed The Glenn Miller Story was the U-I backlog picture audiences most wanted back in theatres.






























The survey was taken to measure viability of reissues against tempting alternative of television sale. Rival companies were gearing up for post-48 surrender to the one-eyed monster and exhibs were apoplectic. Hadn't Universal been the small theatre's best friend? Now they looked for the company to stem a coming tide of recent features to home screens and promised favorable dates if only U-I would share vaulties with them rather than TV stations. Sindlinger spent four weeks canvassing venues large and small to determine which Universal oldies patrons would spring admissions to reacquaint with. 53 potential titles were fielded. Perhaps numbers were inflated for publicity's sake, but twenty-three million were said to want another round of The Glenn Miller Story (Bosley Crowther doubted such a figure, and said so in a New York Times column), and that was sufficient to put U-I in full blast selling mode, their energy on the pic's behalf being equal to that applied toward new releases. A New York trade press luncheon saw Universal execs bandying estimates of $3.5 million in fresh rentals to come, plus claims they'd spend more pushing Glenn Miller's revival than was expended for recent hit Pillow Talk. If the picture were made today, it couldn't be improved upon, said marketers, so labs got out 100 new prints and a rush was on for bookings starting March 1960. By the time The Glenn Miller Story penetrated theatres, Warners was closing deals for many of their post-48 biggies and Fox would follow suit with their own historic NBC Saturday Night At The Movies deal the following year. 1960-61 would open video barn doors and even The Glenn Miller Story, for all a public's willingness to come see it again, would be announced for airwave availability in December of 1963.














There was one more theatrical reissue for The Glenn Miller Story, a surprising twenty-five years after Universal's 1960 rollout. James Stewart had worked compatibly with the studio's sales force merchandising a package of Alfred Hitchcock features back in theatres for 1983, and it was the actor who proposed The Glenn Miller Story's encore as possible follow-up. Stewart remembered stereo tracks having been recorded in 1954 and felt these might now be a lure for paying crowds to hear the venerable show as never before. A scouring of studio vaults bore little fruit, however, and it looked as though Decca's song masters for the 50's soundtrack albums would be close as they'd come to a stereo Glenn Miller. According to Universal publicity, a late-in-the-day pass through a Chicago storage depot yielded hitherto unknown recording of the entire feature and basis for an all-encompassing Dolby mix (not that I swear by veracity of this studio sanctioned info, and would welcome corrective to same if anyone knows better re these tracks and what exposure they had from 1954 to present day --- and does Uni's DVD derive from true stereo masters?). 1985 was late for tendering a 50's feature to TV saturated customers. In this case, the multi-channel track was justification to go forward with theatrical dates. Fresh poster art emphasized Dolby enhancement (above), and Universal got its refurbished GMS a berth at the Cannes Film Festival held in May 1985. Stewart brought leading lady June Allyson along to thump for what both referred to as a personal favorite, receiving twenty minute's ovation at the fest unspooling. That Cannes reception encouraged the pair's continued touring with The Glenn Miller Story, Stewart presumably greased with a profit share per his original 50's deal with U-I, but black ink would not flow. A miserable $79,342 in domestic rentals was all this reissue could muster. Twenty years of televised access to The Glenn Miller Story had taken a toll in spite of stereophonic refreshment.




Thursday, May 13, 2010


47 Years Late To The Mad World Party




How much It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is enough? For me, it was the three or so hours MGM-HD recently showed (I'm not so mad about Mad as to run a stopwatch). For some, there cannot be enough Mad-ness short of every inch that passed through Ultra Panavision cameras in 1963. I tried catching up on restoration efforts fans/archivists/historians have made and gave up. Too complicated. There must be half a dozen lengths of Mad World out there. Devotees have made it life's mission to reassemble the epic comedy to an exalted five hours said to have been its original running time (is that just myth?). I've considered picking out a 70mm orphan and making that my obsession, but which one? Mad World was from first release a jinx in my life. The Liberty was late getting it. By then, prints were probably Super 8 and whittled down to 90 minutes. Well, it was fifth grade and there was a girl I'd asked to go with me for a matinee after school. She wound up accompanying a rival suitor and I blamed Mad World's comedic allure (at least in part) for love's debacle. The film for me was thus tainted and for that, I would not go see it at all.







Decades later, we were in Los Angeles and noted a revival theatre on Hollywood Boulevard running Mad World. Three of us, including a lifelong MMMMW follower, attended. A few minutes in, I had a stunning realization. This is panned-and-scanned was my shout-out to no one in particular, which indeed it was ... a 35mm print made for television broadcast that somehow wound up in this auditorium. My Mad friend immediately bolted for the lobby where he angrily demanded refund of our admission. The manager was wheelchair bound but appeared plenty able to quick-shot or knife throw us into submission. I sought refuge in the street rather than pursue a confrontation, for what if blankets in the man's lap did conceal things lethal? Mad World's pall seemed to be as much about missed opportunity as belief I'd formed that existing versions were less than ideal for viewing. What at long last played on MGM-HD still lacks at least an hour's footage, but what's there sparkles like diamonds and I'm glad to have experienced a first Mad Mad experience before such a spotless image.














As for the movie ... well, there it is. Spectacular at all times, funny in parts. Watching alone wasn't the best idea, but who do I find willing to share those three hours? Young people wouldn't recognize these comedians anymore. A few listed on IMDB eluded me. Much time passed taking stock of personalities I like versus ones that get on the nerves. Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters go to the former, Ethel Merman very much with the latter (and I'd like to have given Sid Caesar and Edie Adams a key out of that basement). When Don Knotts turned up briefly, I found myself preferring him over most of the leads. Lifelong dedication to Buster Keaton makes me wish he had taken Spencer Tracy's role. Perfect casting that would have been. As it is, I enjoy and was astonished that Tracy entered so gamely into frenzied slapstick. Someone might tell me how much of that exertion toward the end was really him. Stuff with the fire ladders was my favorite, so for sure Mad World had a sock finish. If I'd seen the picture brand new in 1963, let alone in a 70mm palace, there'd undoubtedly be candles lit to it every night here at Greenbriar. Fans are voracious and that I can well appreciate. For preteens in the sixties, Mad World must have been a dream not walking, but running.




















I know it's a point others have made, but you gotta respect all the amazing stunts pulled off here. Some of them I couldn't believe. Did they bring Ray Harryhausen in to animate guys flying off ladders through windows? Wait a minute, I just remembered. Willis O' Brien did provide stop-motion for parts of Mad World (per Google confirmation). Packed 1963 theatres must have been like madhouses watching all this. Other comedies tried topping Mad World, but couldn't. The Great Race I watched recently and had about the same reaction to. It soars or it drags, but what soars reaches heights movies don't get near anymore. I respect these films, which would also include Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, for faking so little. That's a distinction they wouldn't have had when new. No matter now if their comedy occasionally thuds, so long as we're spared CGI shortcuts. Did Hollywood attempt such laugh-getting bigness after the sixties? I do recall 1941 as being one that tried. We went to that in 1979 and it was like clocks were turned back toward roadshow rollicking (seeing MMMMW at last makes me curious to watch 1941 again --- should I?). Spielberg's was surely a conscious tribute to Mad World-ness. Could my life's summit be achieved joining other Mad-mavens in the chase for still missing remnants of MMMMW --- or is that footage buried under a Big W of unknown location?
grbrpix@aol.com
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