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Monday, April 04, 2011

Border Incident Moves To Metro

I'm for crediting Dore Schary with MGM film noirs popularized of late via Warner DVD release. His was the experiment that made possible a series of lower budget thrillers prolific as what RKO and Fox contributed to dark-lit cycles. Schary brought noir sensibility from production heading at RKO, where Crossfire had been his personally supervised hit, in addition to Out Of The Past, They Live By Night, and The Set-Up, which he oversaw. It's true Schary tilted toward messages, but that ID's been over-applied by writers quick to assign this exec blame for Metro's slide (could even a reincarnated Thalberg have prevented that?). DS was given MGM reins in August 1948 and set sight toward expanded volume, putting an unprecedented-for-Metro thirteen pics before cameras by November. His part-mission was to reduce costs, bloated under Louis Mayer and varied committees to point where even well-attended shows bled red, that due to overhead tacked on already high budgets. Schary was experienced producing B's, had done so for MGM in earlier seasons, and knew how to make cash go far. He'd cinch belts at this industry's most extravagant address, first by shopping for scripts in-house or bought reasonably from outside, a switch from Metro policy of spending large on pre-sold novels and plays. This would translate to present-day set hat, coat, and often gun mellers later called noir by coiners of the term. What Schary stamped in a first season would be manna to cultists not yet born --- Act Of Violence, Scene Of The Crime, Border Incident, Tension, and Side Street, among others distressed but not fully noir. Without DS on the lot, I doubt these would have happened.

Cross-town Eagle-Lion was then celebrating $ spun off tinglers Raw Deal and T-Men, two demonstrative of thrifty ways director Anthony Mann and camera-magician John Alton had with exploitation others barely got essence of. Both were sufficient talks-of-town to bring Schary calling for a loan-out. Could Mann/Alton breathe life to his concept for Metros done on a budget? Eagle-Lion had planned Border Incident for the dark team's next (and Mann/Alton were very much regarded as that). In fact, a script was finished, and as of late October 1948, three weeks away from cameras. Plan called for it to be brought home for $450,000, though more realistic estimate suggested $650,000, too expensive to make at this time, said E-L president Arthur Krim. Rescuing Dore Schary bought the screenplay for $50,000 and borrowed Mann plus Alton. He'd known AM since they were in high school together, and figured the team ideal to test newly lean policy for Metro. Shooting schedules that had passed fifty days, sometimes ninety or more, would be trimmed to thirty, perhaps less, under Schary's plan. Border Incident was called his "experiment" to see, as Variety put it, if a picture can be turned out at a reasonable budget without bypassing production quality.

Surprising was MGM's embrace of personnel from the "quickie field," but conditions couldn't go on as they had. If Border Incident got made within a planned twenty-eight days on a proposed budget of $550,000, so much the better. Eagle-Lion's was an example worth following where economies were concerned. Toward simulating that model, Schary borrowed even script polisher John C. Higgin and assistant director Howard Koch from E-L, both versed on Mann-habits and getting max out of a dollar. The deal was cut in late November 1948 ... by mid-March '49, Border Incident was finished. Final negative cost came to $748K, not quite the bargain Schary hoped for, but way below an average $1.5 million MGM spent on features after the war. Border Incident was a hard-hitter based on topical subject matter that appealed to Schary's social conscience. You could take (sell) it as exploitation (Eagle-Lion's original intent) or as cry for reform. Enforcement agencies on both sides of the border cooperated. The story had begun as Wetbacks, later Border Patrol, all the while a T-Men redo to glorify agents stanching flow of illegal entrants past US checkpoint. Mann had told The New York Times months earlier that sympathies would direct toward Mexican labor sold into virtual slavery by farm barons who'd rob them coming and going. There was canyon quicksand, mass graves, and gravel-toned Charles McGraw as henchman's lead (plus no more stinking badges Alfonso Bedoya from Treasure Of The Sierra Madre), these for a public less interested in social themes than wallow in violence known to accompany illegal border crossing.

"Border" In Need Of A Boundary said Variety once Incident completed and it was discovered multiple companies were planning pics with Border in their title. Both Fox and independent Milton Sperling registered Over The Border, plus Paramount had Below The Border ready. Something had to give. MGM kept its moniker and trade reviews were encouraging. Advance comment noted Mann's rough-play, a signature from Eagle-Lion hits. There was Border Incident shock of farm equipment separating one character from his insides that caused vapors, though all conceded wicket takes might swell accordingly. Schary wasn't for pulling punches. To his and Metro's credit, they'd let E-L's transplanted team go bare knuck as had been policy at home-lot. It seemed the cheaper these thrillers, the more gloves off. Schary used neophyte staff to bring further ones in, each for less than the last --- Tension cost a mere $682K, Dial 1119's even more rock bottom (for Metro) $472K. Disadvantage to these, along with Border Incident, was total lack of star names. Each played lower half of double-bills in larger markets, and all lost money. At Los Angeles openings, Border Incident backed Scene Of The Crime, another MGM economy model (negative cost: $760,000, but it made profit thanks to Van Johnson). Chicago's run was sluggish, said Variety, Border oddly paired with Margaret O'Brien in The Secret Garden. The Garrick's take for these was actually surpassed by the theatre's subsequent booking of Marx Bros. oldies Animal Crackers and Duck Soup ($7,500 for that week as opposed to Garden/Border's $6,000). Said drubbing put Border Incident in its own quicksand of $178,000 lost. Domestic rentals so low ($580K, plus $348K foreign) wouldn't be mitigated even by savings on the negative. Expert as he was at slimmed-down thrillers, Anthony Mann would not make MGM's first team so long as returns continued this tepid.

Next Up: More Anthony Mann and Devil's Doorway.


Blogger Jeff Overturf said...

Just gotta jump in here and tell you again how much I enjoy and appreciate your blog. Your insight into all these things that I thought only fascinated me is always a treat.

p.s. I love the new banner!

1:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks very much, Jeff. Glad to hear from another "Border Incident" fan. Warners' DVD of this one looks really great, by the way ...

3:10 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

There's a lot of ways to leave this Earth, but I wouldn't want to go the way George Murphy did in BORDER INCIDENT.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

More great stuff, John. I'm laughing trying to imagine just who would go to a double feature of "Border Incident'' and "The Secret Garden.''

6:00 PM  

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