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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Through Mann and Metro's Dark Devil's Doorway

Near as I can figure, Anthony Mann remained with Metro by dent of loans from Eagle-Lion to do Border Incident and Side Street. After these, it appears a switch was made to install him full-time at MGM, along with cinematographer John Alton (a buy-out of their E-L contracts?). Cost-cutting remained Metro policy heading into 1949. Recently installed production chief Dore Schary measured projects for thrift and whatever prep work could avoid time/resource waste once cameras began turning. Devil's Doorway was in works since before Mann's arrival. February 1949 even saw announcement of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn for leads. Part of Schary's clean-up was to keep talent busy. That put Mann to Robert Taylor's Ambush quick on heels of Side Street ... but jobs might shift from one day to next on this busier-than-ever lot, thus scratch Tracy/Hepburn, take Mann off Ambush, and proceed with Devil's Doorway for Fall '49 Durango shooting and on-lot completion at pared-to $1.3 million negative cost, way less than expense previously common to MGM star vehicles.

Devil's Doorway plays tougher than typical even of dark approached westerns after the war. Interiors are inky black, location days shot mostly for night, with a grim finish that surely didn't clear short of arguments among MGM sales folk who'd rather have substituted a happy or at least hopeful ending. Minus marquee insurance of Robert Taylor, this might have been third strike (and out?) for recent-to-the-lot Mann. Having Devil's Doorway at last on well-rendered DVD makes it for us a less hard-luck sit, grim proceedings eased by visual wealth John Alton's camera shares. DD's being pro-Indian lends PC cred as well, clearing way for modern scribes to "discover" its progressive stance. Maybe Dore Schary's in for image rehab in the bargain, what with Warner release of social-themed pics he green-lighted during exec tenure at MGM. Writers under thumb of prior regime took DS for his word that even genre yarns were open to liberal voicing, thus Border Incident, Stars In My Crown, Devil's Doorway, in addition to Intruder In The Dust, which plainer spelled out injustice they'd wish to expose. Dore Schary was frank in promising that MGM product will continue to have messages. We have to stop thinking in terms of old-fashioned and shopworn definitions of entertainment, said he to Metro's sales force as reported by Variety, we have to make our pictures modern and clear in their intent. We must have them reflect the world we live in. Even when we do period films, those films must be seen in terms of the modern observer.

Trades weren't necessarily receptive to Schary's not-so-hidden agenda. Picture about whites as a minority race is coming out, wrote Variety's Alta Durant, It's Metro's Devil's Doorway, in which Bob Taylor plays a heap big Injun. This kind of snark got traction as Schary's pet projects increasingly went down to boxoffice defeat. Better appreciated was Anthony Mann's choice of action over messaging, the first which he slammed over forcefully enough to tamp down preachments. A barroom hand-to-hand with bronzed Taylor beating tar out of town bullies was not unlike saloon combat Robert Mitchum engaged in RKO's then-recent Blood On The Moon. Back from real-warring stars found new credibility via directors like Mann done with pulling punches as in softer westerns of yore. Heap bigger problem for Metro sales was Too Many Cactus Films, as targeted by Variety just as Devil's Doorway prepped for release. The market was flooded with A westerns, four to seven a month looming for 1950's summer and into fall. Opening dates were juggled to avoid clash of too similar properties. Devil's Doorway had been completed and ready since year's beginning, but delayed now thanks to 20th Fox's Broken Arrow, which plowed much same ground and was in Technicolor besides.

Devil's Doorway started off in October with Midwest play and brought, said Variety, hefty totals. November New York opening at Loew's flagship, the Capital, was only fairly okay with $46K the first week, despite Tommy Dorsey and His Band, Jackie Gleason, Lita Baron, and Rory Calhoun on stage. The campaign needed a goose and got it thanks to newly prepared ads emphasizing a taboo love theme barely addressed in the film itself. What Power Kept These Two Apart? asked showmen indifferent to misleading nature of the blurb. Bare-chested Robert Taylor faces low-cut attired Paula Raymond, neither on pic view as anything such. White Girl ... and Indian! was at least something fresh to exploit, never mind Devil's Doorway failure to deliver on its promise. Standardized selling was otherwise in evidence. A suggested lobby display invited customers to enter a lobby-built "Devil's Doorway" (blindfolded!) with a no-doubt drafted from usher ranks Indian chief wearing "full war regalia" concealed within. So much for Dore Schary's enlightened depiction of Native Americans! What maybe helped was MGM's entry to TV-spot promotion, these 15-30-60 second bites a wave of future tub-thumping that began for Loews in late summer 1950 with Devil's Doorway, King Solomon's Mines, Right Cross, and A Life Of Her Own. Despite rival Broken Arrow's better rentals, $5.5 million worldwide to $2.3 for Devil's Doorway, the latter got over humps for being economically made and coming back with $188K profit. Bonus to this would be recognition of Doorway as preferred of the two by nowaday historians.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

And Dore backed out (at the last minute) appearing as himself on I LOVE LUCY.

Said he was too nervous.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Ted Newsom said...

Interesting to see Paula Raymond in an A-picture (or nervous A, anyway) then so quickly end up supporting a Rhedosaurus in BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Reminds me of Lizbeth Scott's Hal Wallis/Hollywood arc and sudden appearance in a lowly Hammer thriller. Man...

4:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Interesting too that Lizabeth Scott came back to do one more for Wallis, "Loving You," in 1957, then pretty much dropped out except for some TV and one more feature in the early 70's ...

9:53 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

THe ads for this are cracking me up!

11:57 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Lizabeth Scott was present last year at The Academy in Bev. Hills, in connection with a tribute to Barbara Stanwyck. Host Robert Osborne interviewed Stanwyck co-stars Kirk Douglas and Nina Foch on-stage, but merely introduced Ms. Scott from the audience, who took a bow.

I remember well seeing an 8x10 photo of my mother posing with Dore Schary at some event (probably for the Jewish Home for the Aged). No, John I don't have it now -- wish I did, all consigned to memory. (Oh, I do remember her telling me about meeting Robert Taylor at a party at Arnold Laven's home -- he was then producer of "The Detectives" -- later "Big Valley" -- you know, Levy, Gardner and Laven. I was so young at the time, it really meant very little to me, but I asked her, "What was he like?" "Much shorter than I had imagined", she said, "But what a beautiful face!"


6:49 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Finally caught up with Paula Raymond in the elusive FLIGHT THAT DISAPPEARED via Netflix Instant view the other day. Always added a touch of class (I thought) to any project.

10:03 PM  

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