Sunday, January 30, 2011
Bette Runs The Show
A Stolen Life (recently out from Warner archives) was the first Bette Davis melodrama revisited in maybe a year, so I'd forgotten how compelling best of her stuff could be. Did any star make a worse mistake leaving her/his place of employment? Cagney when he split Warners, perhaps. Errol Flynn too, for that matter. Davis minus WB machinery won't float for me. Much of what's good about A Stolen Life is so because they'd perfected the brand and knew what pleased. Bette's great, but I want Warner wrappings with her. Take those away and you're left with Payment On Demand, The Star, or (worse) Another Man's Poison. I've said before how crucial Max Steiner's music is to a Bette Davis experience. She realized and acknowledged as much in talks with historians. Pics from leaving WB onward were one-woman shows on what seemed a bare stage (All About Eve an obvious exception). Davis was aging and that too accelerated decline. I remember reading somewhere of Cagney admitting (if grudgingly) Warners' efficiency with sets they'd built for his comeback-to-the-fold Angels With Dirty Faces, this after JC's Grand National defection and vehicles to demonstrate that even dynamos like Jim couldn't bake cakes without flour.
The record's replete as to Davis being difficult, rolling over directorial authority toward her way and dispatching theirs to highways. A Stolen Life's helmer Curtis Bernhardt lived long enough to get his version of events on the record. Bette took that dispatch and answered back, but firm. It was a he-said, she-said thirty years past anyone but late show mavens caring, but illustrates vividly how pride is a final faculty to go. Davis was a great interview resource for having a memory like elephants, not forgetting detail down to costumes and even poster art Warners bungled on shows dating to ingénue years. Somebody or other had good ideas for A Stolen Life, its New England setting off-usual recipe for Davis, but congenial to backgrounds she favored when not working (Yankee-land being BD's natural habitat). Having her play twins is a device I'm surprised wasn't consulted long before 1946. It would be again, far more nastily, twenty years hence in Dead Ringer, otherwise an effort to do things an old-fashioned way. I'll bet crowds gasped when Stolen Life's BD # 1 lit BD # 2's cigarette ... effects this convincing were possible at majors with their $ and technical expertise ... where or who else could pull it off? Bette might (should) have consulted that reality before stomping off Beyond The Forest a few years later and saying goodbye to support essential for putting over her kind of star vehicle.
A Stolen Life was special for being produced, at least on paper, by Bette Davis (A B.D. Production, reads credits). Biographers suggest it was a tax dodge, A-list salaries going mostly to gov'ment coffers at the time, necessitating devices like hers and fellow WB'er Errol Flynn, who'd recently whipped up Thomson Productions to avert onerous duties to his adopted Uncle Sam. Davis, however, seized the label at face value to ramp up creative input already a prerogative on shows she headlined. Script revision was this time done in front of shooting rather than as outcome of fierce on-set argument, and despite her claiming later to have had no more producer control than a man on the moon, I'd like thinking A Stolen Life reflects BD's how-to for a vehicle finally rendered her way. If in fact she labored beyond producer in name only, then regret is A Stolen Life being one-off it was, for Davis in charge of her own unit might have kept stardom's lamp burning for at least a few more Warner seasons.
BD and columnists she spoke with usually got round to her pet peeve of censors bowdlerizing scripts and product emerging from said weakened tea. It was worse after the war when audiences began nixing movie romance shorn of reality. A Stolen Life's set-up amounts to this: Bette loves Glenn Ford and it looks like he's on board, until saucy twin (also BD) lures him to the altar. Sailing mishap that follows leaves twin dead and means of Bette assuming her identity and place in the marital bed ... a socko construct you could remake today ... but in 1946? No way could you pay off on tantalizing possibilities here, Davis knowing A Stolen Life's strongest meat would be deemed unsafe for Code consumption. Letdown and compromise was part/parcel of moviegoing experience then. Patrons learned to translate dissolves, a tie loosened where it was not in a previous scene --- whatever got across offscreen coupling that Junior wouldn't detect. Bette Davis films got closest inspection because they dealt with events leading to sex, even if it was cancelled-on-arrival. Censor-mandated necessity in A Stolen Life is keeping faux-wife Bette out of conjugal harm's way with unknowing Glenn Ford, denying us consummation the whole improbable business has led up to. As Jerry Colonna used to say, I can dream, can't I?, and indeed, mere suggestion and imagination taking it from there might have been enough to satisfy fans who knew from experience what they couldn't see in this or any other Bette Davis show.
Trouble was teeth baring in noirish mellers Joan Crawford was now generating at Warners. Mildred Pierce preceded A Stolen Life and showed what a woman's picture with guts looked like. Maybe I should say gats, for Crawford packing heat in designer handbags lured male patronage till now indifferent to love travails among stardom's sorority. Murder as a feminine pursuit widened appeal of Crawford and free-lancing Barbara Stanwyck. Bette Davis as twins or no was hard put competing with that, A Stolen Life's best ever BD-profit attributable more to record year 1946 than increasing interest in her (the next, Deception, initiated a boxoffice falling off). Crawford at WB would run out of steam too, but not so soon as Davis, and the former's embrace of woman-in-peril themes for a 50's spike put JC ahead of BD during seasons wherein both worked hardest at staying relevant. Pitting them against one another in Baby Jane's mansion of horrors was natural outcome to all this and must have been long-awaited satisfaction for customers longing to see gloves finally off both Davis and Crawford.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
An Easy Picture To Live In
Movies good enough can immerse us to where it's like real people up there instead of just characters for what time a story takes to unfold. Here's how wrapped up I got revisiting Laura: Waldo's clock ... the one Dana Andrews kicks in after he breaks into Lydecker's apartment ... did the latter's estate file a claim against police for damage to one of two such clocks in existence, as Waldo described his treasure during opening narration? And who are his descendents --- nieces, a nephew in the service? Maybe Waldo had a sister he hadn't seen in years, and she looked forward to one day owning that clock. Many nits are in Laura to pick. A killer retrieving his concealed murder weapon should notice shells removed, but Waldo hardly reacts --- it's enough that there are two more in his pocket. I kept thinking how fun it would be listening to Lydecker radio broadcasts, or maybe peruse columns he wrote in NYT online archives. But wait, there was no Waldo Lydecker in real life, at least for all we know. Can great films generate their own parallel universe for fans to occupy? If so, then Laura should be among first to declare vacancies.
The casting turned out right, to my mind, whatever complication there was getting there. Gene Tierney might have been Jennifer Jones instead. Would that have worked? Probably about as well, I'd like to think. They shared the same height (5'7"), a thing that surprised me for having assumed Jones was lots taller. I wonder how much it bothered actresses to have turned down a role that turned out to be a career-definer for someone else. Did Jennifer Jones regret the Laura pass for the rest of her very long life? The character represents perfection, but Gene Tierney lends Laura humanity in odd and endearing ways she addresses ... Mr. Lydecka ... I don't get a newspapa ... I might as well have pulled the trigga. I'll need to check more of this actress to see if she drops R's similarly elsewhere. Then there's Dana Andrews' technique of breaking up a line --- was this his invention or Preminger's? I know that you went away to make up your mind (pause) whether you would marry Shelby Carpenter (longer pause) or not. Repeat viewings thrive on pearls like this.
Andrews, in fact, might be the show's best performance, never mind his being less showy than Clifton Webb and others. The man's a whiz with props. Notice what he does with keys --- doesn't twirl, sort of jiggles, and never a same way twice. When DA shows Tierney a newspaper, meant to startle, he jerks the front page for emphasis as he puts it before her face. What Andrews does with his baseball game-toy is Best Actor worthy in itself --- was a prop before or since put to such clever use? I'm glad this actor is finally getting props too long withheld, latter day appreciation a result of noirs and other career worthies being rediscovered. One more question, though ... what's a sashweight? A counterweight to a vertically sliding window sash is how Google defines the word, but how could that have been weapon used in the Harrington murder case Dana Andrews references in Laura's opening scene? Maybe I'm spelling the word wrong, or just haven't read enough hard-boiled mystery novels to recognize a thing familiar to those who have. Paging an expert here!
There's always mention in any Laura discussion of Mark's meet with Waldo as the latter soaks in a tub. What I notice is Clifton Webb visibly clothed in boxer shorts beneath the surface. It's plain in the still above as well. Funny how a good print can smooth kink out of a scene you've spent years reading a particular way. And what of Webb's performance in general? Did 1944 audiences view his waspish as gay? I wonder if they were as vigilant to so-called "coding" as we've become. If everyone insists that Waldo is gay, then what about George Sanders' Addison DeWitt in All About Eve? I haven't heard such speculated about that personage. Was it Sanders coming across more virile in whatever parts he took? I'd not label Waldo homosexual for offscreen lifestyle Clifton Webb maintained, though it would seem many writers think otherwise. CW could play straight convincingly when occasion required, as in Titanic. Imagine our take on Laura if originally cast Laird Cregar had played Waldo!
I used to drop into a Holiday Inn for lunch buffet during Wake Forest mid-70's years. There was a pianist that did standards, including (often) the theme from Laura. I mentioned it one day and he told me of having played in South America with an orchestra during World War II. There was an occasion when Gene Tierney and husband Oleg Cassini showed up and requested Laura (I had no reason to doubt truth of this, as he also mentioned seeing Walt Disney several times during the latter's wartime Pan-American tour). Such was popularity of David Raksin's music. What if they had used Sophisticated Lady as Laura's theme per initial plan? Doubt if the show would be on my favorites list in that event. Variations on Raksin's title tune is what we mostly hear in Laura, dance and restaurant scenes with other songs backgrounded having to be removed from 50's television prints, this resolved in the 80's when music rights were cleared and the film finally shown complete again.
One last question: Did Waldo ever get his $5000 for endorsing the Wallace pen?
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Favorites List --- In a Lonely Place
I thought Crackle was merely what came between snap and pop, but turns out there's a place by that name streaming movies "for free" to Sony Blu-Ray users. Enough programming travels on air now to confuse sharpest observers. My stumble across In a Lonely Place at Crackle was unexpected as most else watched lately ... but how do you pass up quality so good as this? Most are high-definition, shorthand for best ever look of titles seen endlessly before, but never to such perfection as here. In a Lonely Place has been called a cult film, more recently film noir, anything but the flop it was when new. Do seek it out if you haven't already (at Crackle or elsewhere), for here's a doomed romance tinged with mystery/suspense and what's maybe Humphrey Bogart's top-of-them-all performance under fine direction by Nicholas Ray. It lasts 94 minutes and those pass quick. Why did it tank? I'm suspecting the title bore guilt there. In a Lonely Place suggests where many among audiences lived, some (if not all) of the time. Maybe this turned them off going in 1950, plus Bogart having no business in merchandise bearing such label (his name still synonymous with gats and gals, whether he liked it or not). Exhibs felt similarly: Why Bogart doesn't make action pictures as before, I'll never know ... most of my patrons don't understand it, and they don't keep it a secret. Domestic rentals for In a Lonely Place croaked at $954K --- no Bogart picture had earned solittle since before High Sierra.
I read Bogart never liked In a Lonely Place. Speculation was, he thought the character of Dixon Steele struck too close to home. Anyone who's read an HB bio knows there are parallels, though to cite these as reason for the star's antipathy strikes me as doubtful. More persuasive is simple fact In a Lonely Place struck too close to Santana account books, greasing wheels toward that independent company's disillusionment. It wasn't uncommon for players to assign merit based on a project's commercial outcome. If critics didn't respond and a public wouldn't attend, how could you call something good? To 1950 tastes, In a Lonely Place lacked a genre fit it needed. Columbia tried positioning it as a mystery, but where's real doubt of Dix Steele's innocence, at least among viewers if not characters in the film? Promise of a "surprise finish" was emphasized on posters, virtually setting up customers for a fall. Variety spoke bluntly to lack of an audience-pleasing ending. The film's mature and understated wrap-up would not be rewarded by a marketplace expecting third-act fireworks, especially from Bogart. I looked for and couldn't find indication HB pushed In a Lonely Place as he had just previous Tokyo Joe (via personal appearances). Could it be he got a squint at the finished product and wrote it off?
Bogart was, among other things, peeved over Warners' refusal to loan wife Lauren Bacall for In a Lonely Place (they even nixed her walking onstage when Bogie appeared with Tokyo Joe in New York). Would Bacall as Lonely Place co-star wear so well as Gloria Grahame? The latter seems the better actress to modern sensibilities, certainly as a noir icon she surpasses Bacall. Considering freight their offscreen love hauled, I wonder if Lonely Place might have been thrown askew as a fifth Bogart-Bacall teaming, Santana/Columbia's road-company Dark Passage being surest route to a more conventional film than In a Lonely Place turned out to be. With regard latter's inside Hollywood setting, there'd be few patrons identifying with show-biz characters, even marginal ones dramatized here. When had movieland been so sourly depicted prior to 1950? It is doubtful that this type of presentation furthers the industry's public relations, said The Motion Picture Herald, perhaps unmindful of grenades a few month's later Sunset Boulevard would toss. H'wood excess had generally played for comedy, as with Sullivan's Travels, but Lonely Place enactors saw movie fans for dumbbell cretins and each other as popcorn salesmen. There's a meanness to Bogart's bum-rushing a cocktail waitress (and eventual murder victim) whose offense is liking popular novels and films based on them. Writers could be cruel turning lasers on a public they held in contempt even in best of times. One of them, Andrew Solt, complained of cut-rate sets built for In a Lonely Place, specifically a restaurant/bar said to have been patterned after Bogart's own after-hours haunt, Romanoff's. Well, this was Columbia, after all, and likely as not, skimpy $ they advanced, plus what Santana bank-borrowed, would not have been enough to put Lonely Place in Bogart's accustomed Warner class.
Trade reviewers were warm/cold, recognizing high-grade effort with doubts a few expressed over commercial prospect. A strange admixture of romance and melodrama, came word from a May preview Variety attended, displayed in episodic fashion to provide moderate entertainment at best (though that trade did file a later, more positive "official" review). Motion Picture Herald's outlook was brighter (... should go over big at the boxoffice) and all agreed Bogart had done exemplary work. Sometimes confidence, or lack of same, in a new film was revealed by key city openings. In a Lonely Place hit grounds running in New York and Chicago, but it wasn't the picture doing heavy lifting. Patti Page and Frankie Laine were headlining the Paramount's Broadway stage bill, resulting in a first week's $80,000 the movie surely would not have delivered on its own hoof. Chicago's Oriental Theatre offered in-person Louis Armstrong as buttress to Bogart with $38,000 banked for an opening frame. So, given pick between Satchmo and Bogie, which would have settled your decision to go? Frankie Laine (or at least his shadow) followed In a Lonely Place to its Los Angeles saturation run, where FL's When You're Smiling played second feature (and mood relief?) to Bogart's dark walk. There was no stage revue, and the bill closed after eleven days with total receipts of $41,500. In a Lonely Place would not be reissued, and television release came in December 1960. As to HB and his producing company, Army Archerd reported: Bogart was all smiles yesterday (2/17/55) --- received the check (almost a million bucks) from Columbia for his stock in Santana. The deal called for HB ownership in eight features to be transferred, including six made for Columbia (the actor owned some of And Baby Makes Three and The Family Secret in addition to ones he top-lined), along with interest in The African Queen and Beat The Devil. It was later said that Bogie framed a copy of the check to hang on his den wall.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Honk If You Love Sunset!
It's Netflix what turned loose an avalanche of Sunset Carson westerns here recent, and some of us (wonder how many) are happy wranglers for it. Not to brag, but I shook his hand once, maybe several times, at Dixie cowboy cons we used to haunt in the 70's/80's. Course I had to reach up to do it, as towering Sunset was like Gulliver entering dealer rooms, near all his fans mere Lilliputians. What's crazed about his westerns is bad guys offering Sunset a knuckle sandwich even as they stand at eye level with his shirt buttons. To go mano-a-mano with this tree-top was sheer lunacy, yet over and again, heavies ventured forth like limbs fed into a chipper. The sense B westerns don't make sometimes! Sunset will routinely bend down to go through doors. Sets for him come off like those built for juniors Stan and Babe in Brats. When fists go to swingin', better hide the balsa furniture, because none of it will save intact once SC vacuums the place. So alright, the burning question --- how's his acting? Does anything matter less? Watch Sunset awhile and you'll revere line readings few thesps could stay on salary doing, even at Republic. They'd let him go, sure, but for reasons what laid many a cowboy low --- demon rum and ticking off the boss, to-wit Herbert J. Yates, who'd make time in a busy day to fire Sunset personally.
But I'm ahead of myself: Better to start with lucky breaks ... Sunset making pals of Frank Borzage and Mike Curtiz, two who could pick up phones and have you stood before cameras by afternoon. SC was lean as string beans and a scouting Republic said he'd need meat on lanky bones to stand frontier punishment. Having crossed that threshold, Sunset was put to supporting comic Smiley "Frog" Burnette for a try-out season (this a first occasion billing a sidekick over the action hero, but who'd heard of Carson then?). Fan mail did the rest ... for Sunset, this amounted to a deluge. Cowboys had been handsome before, but his lent distinction of big sisters (and Mom) bringing cap-gunners to Saturday meets, and that warn't for new-found love of western formulae. Sunset was their giant with a baby face and voice to match, but put him on a horse and the wind couldn't keep up, being, of course, what red-blood boys like. Carson astride evoked low-flying aircraft, and how he rendered a bruising! Fights weren't regarded fair unless Sunset took on four minimum. He'd pretty much use one for a ball and the rest for bowling pins.
Sooner or later in his westerns, Sunset comes around to admit, I'm not much good fer makin' speeches, thus getting him off hooks for delivering necessary ones so awkwardly. Ineptness with words is endearing when you perform actionful rest as well as Carson. He began with Republic at $150 a week, punched ways to eventual $250 before high spiriting (make that being high on spirits) put Sunset to pasture after championship seasons when his westerns were best in their category. A mere boy in mid-twenties, drunk on sudden fame if not the sauce, and thoughtless as to consequence of being fired not just from Republic, but by word-of-mouth extension, a whole industry that carved his name with trouble. They'd spent lots to establish Sunset, so imagine umbrage over his frittering stardom away. Comebacks attempted later, wretchedly shot on 16mm blown up to 35, hammered down SC's oblivion. I'll need to seek those out, of course, being irresistibly drawn to westerns representing a rock bottom.
Sunset eventually made way to protective yolk of Carolina cowpokes who'd grown up idolizing him. Many were collectors. Who among these imagined SC dropping in on club screenings of movies he'd made thirty years before? My friend/mentor Moon Mullins would often say, You just missed Sunset!, as I'd pull up in his back yard. Hickory's star-in-residence was then (mid-seventies) hosting afternoon UHF westerns while I was seated but yards away in college class. With so many fans at middle-aged spending peaks, all in quest of lost innocence, Sunset pointed to roads back. He'd go here and yonder hosting laments for days past, working the old quick-shot or bullwhip act, signing autographs 'till gun-hands wilted. Was there a nicer celebrity of yesteryear on the western con route? Not that I'd encounter. Sunset got hit by a car while crossing four lanes over to Moon's house one afternoon. Word was they had to take the car to the emergency room. Above represents some of ventures SC got drawn into whilst nostalgic flames burned brightest. He was dream come true for admirers who'd hoped one day to meet a boyhood hero. Sunset made that reality just being, for that blessed while, the most accessible western icon of them all.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Getting In George's Groove
Don't be thrown by George Arliss' appearance. He's one I promise you'll be hooked on from first exposure forward. Warner Archives did major service releasing a DVD three-fer at $24.95 (sales/coupons get it for less). Interesting how GA and fellow odd-duck Marie Dressler just missed being born during the Civil War (both 1868), trod boards from youth, and found stardom (as in few more popular) on talking screens. Arliss made "stage-derived" seem a good thing, and unapologetic he was for putting words and grand gesture first. Shouldn't young actors be studying him? There seemed a rush to dismiss Arliss after he was gone. Does the fact I enjoy him so much suggest need to better acquaint myself with "good" acting? Branding Arliss a relic is habit mostly of those who haven't watched him. I'd venture GA before an audience ... take your pick of vehicles ... would light up auditoriums as though he were there live, which was pretty much effect his screen presence had during its 30's heyday. Arliss made crowds feel uplifted (a lofty reputation preceded him) and gave them fun besides with a bottomless bag of performing tricks (back when that was admired). His way with gentle putdown was without peer. Been awhile since watching him (16mm days in fact), so I'd forgot what delights these are. First out of Warner's triad came A Successful Calamity, being lighter confection for Arliss. The credit reads "Mr. George Arliss," appendage given no one else at Warners (or anywhere?). His was among precious few names good for prestige and money. Paul Muni would succeed Arliss by means actorly but not physical. There was no duplicating GA the latter way. One look at him on a poster settles debate as to tastes running different then, but doesn't this say more for a 30's public that saw a unique talent and gravitated to it?
Choices were broader then. You knew Warners aimed wide when a George Arliss or Joe E. Brown led season offerings. Novel personalities could break through given such prodigious output from companies. Arliss had done silents, but like W.C. Fields and Ronald Colman, needed dialogue to really put over his act. Playing Disraeli got him an Academy Award and confirmation of theatrical way being right to popularize all-talkies. Now it may not seem so, what with latter-day anxiety for movies to always move, but GA had chops to stand still and make customers like it. He knew, and made them believe, that George Arliss reciting dialogue was reason enough to buy tickets, it helping lots for films being on and off under ninety minutes, some considerably less. A Successful Calamity reflected the Arliss drift toward comedy --- was this to avoid looking stuffy? There were only so many great men of history he could play, after all (a dilemma Muni would not later overcome). Arliss works best when stringing his bow with humor. A Successful Calamity puts varied modern absurdities before him, enjoyment coming of Arliss recoil from each. It's fun observing his old world take on then-fashionable art deco and experimental music --- anyone GA's age must have thought such a fad-driven world utterly mad. His sage's answer to all this is sufficiently droll to make you see things his way. On-screen Arliss was habitually the wise old owl (even looking the part) who put pretension to rout and made out a regular Joe even when he played über-tycoons, as in A Successful Calamity.
Pretty amazing how George Arliss could enact (often) richest guys in town and still maintain rooting interest of fans who might well have been giving up meals for a movie ticket. His Successful Calamity's Wall Street lion is never less than a man of the people, good to his butler, tolerant of phonies and stuffed-shirts, all but winking at us as he puts each in their proper place (for his years on the stage, GA really had a sense of how to play scenes to an audience, even if he couldn't see them). Arliss' millionaires were repositories of keen wit and horse sense. They could advise presidents and kick back in the servant's quarters on a same day, situations Arliss pulled off without stirring his public's resentment. The device would get tired, but GA had a solid five or so year run at WB. Variety was perhaps rougher on A Successful Calamity than I would have been, calling Arliss' a milk and water diet that no amount of prestige could sustain forever. There'd be a move to Fox for three good ones, a brace in England (but of course!), then retirement and passing at age 77 in 1946. The Arliss inventory canvassed TV from 1956, though stations bought packages more for access to familiar Bogart, Cagney, and Flynn action. What exposure Arliss got by the seventies was from broadcasters, mostly UHF, that couldn't afford higher profile titles. Historian/teacher William K. Everson was an early booster, seemingly alone in voting an Arliss ticket --- his classroom and film society runs amounted to as much exposure as these films would get until TCM put them into rotation. Warner Archives' recent release is happy outcome of years waiting to get Arliss on home-disc. I hope there will be more of them.