Best books on MGM history? I'd nominate Scott Eyman's Lion Of Hollywood and Mark Vieira's Irving Thalberg. Both are tops for research/accuracy/enjoyment.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Book Choice --- The Lion's Share
New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther wrote a book called The Lion's Share that was published in April 1957. It was first to attempt a history of the great Loews and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Variety and the author's own paper gave Crowther positive reviews. He was long recognized as kingpin of film reviewers, having reached a peak of influence by 1957. BC is remembered for later missing the boat on Bonnie and Clyde and being eased off his desk as a result. Now if he's talked about, it's usually in terms of having been out-of-touch throughout much of a long (over twenty-five year) tenure. Crowther worked when critics mattered more. His signing a studio history was gilt-edged so far as credibility. What stories he'd tell in The Lion's Share would become standard text and source for authors to follow. Metro myths to die hardest began or were propagated by Crowther. Still, I enjoyed his book. Of course, better and more accurate ones have been done since. Sometimes though, it's worthwhile to visit movie history as it was understood when shovels first dug into Hollywood past. What Crowther did have was access to near everyone living at the time who'd been at MGM. 1957 was soon enough after a Golden Age for participants to look back fresh and lots more alert than what death or old age would later cancel out. For this alone, The Lion's Share is must reading.
The book was targeted to a mainstream. Dutton published and $5 was the hardcover's price. Crowther's manuscript was trimmed by 50,000 words to get The Lion's Share user-friendly. The author was known enough for a public outside industry to give a look, and that they did to reward of multiple printings over years to follow. Crowther's rather dry meticulousness (a Times review) went down smooth with consumers eager for straight Metro dope. Execs in that company found the book an intrusion, corporate battling a background to first sales of The Lion's Share. Crowther tracked Loew's from nickel origins to then-recent ouster of production chief Dore Schary. The latter was a cooperative interview and got sympathetic coverage in The Lion's Share, while earlier deposed Louis Mayer, still alive in 4/57, was beast and boor to Crowther's mind. Did the old man, then plotting (unsuccessfully) to take back his studio chair, give thought to suing for published slams? If so, I found no ink to confirm, and besides, Mayer had but months to live (August his exit), so maybe LB's concern was more to basics. Few would challenge the book's accuracy. Clark Gable was asked for reaction, and he said The Lion's Share reflected truth pretty much as he remembered. Enough doors opened to Crowther to make his a more-or-less authorized history. New York chief Nicholas Schenck sat down with him, as did Schary, David Selznick, numerous staff and luminaries who'd toiled for the Lion. Biggest help was Norma Shearer, retired and talkative for perhaps an only time after stepping off stardom's ladder. No wonder then that Irving Thalberg emerged most heroic of Metro minions, the most brilliant executive producer ever to work in Hollywood, according to Crowther.
The Lion's Share is strongest where it tells of founding Marcus Loew and how he built an empire up from storefronts. Weaving in/out of his story are dynamos who'd run rival firms. It's easy to forget how linked these people were starting out. Commonest thread among them was willingness to work 24/7 toward dominion of an emerging industry. Crowther goes easy on Adolph Zukor and Sam Goldwyn, both hale/hearty in '57, while passed-on William Fox is tabbed a notoriously savage lone wolf. Reviewers noted such restraint and decorum as Crowther applied in coverage of lions still roaring when his book was new. An author-updated (and unexpurgated) second edition would have been a welcome, possibly eye-opening read, as one can imagine what interview subjects had to say that Crowther dared not use at the time. Trouble with this book then, is the fact it does pull punches, aimed for light readership, thus no digging deep as we'd like into recesses of MGM. Still, it was heady backstage stuff in 1957, and a first truly revelatory peek behind scenes of a still-thriving studio concern.
I'd not take Crowther too much to task for untruths he repeated (or that originated with The Lion's Share). He was relying on what longtime personnel told him. Why would they lie after so many, even then, years? The Ben-Hur saga is related for probably a first time, emphasis on fact no lives were lost during its turbulent 20's shoot. Kevin Brownlow would revisit that topic in The Parade's Gone By eleven years later, some of his fresh interviews suggesting there were perhaps fatalities. There's a colorful recounting of MGM's struggle to get The Broadway Melody off starting lines. Early sound struggles are rich source here for triumph and tragedy. The John Gilbert "white voice" myth is hammered home persuasively. No wonder so many still believe that fable ... but who conveyed it to Crowther? Among those he interviewed was sound supervisor Douglas Shearer. Was this the culprit? There is odd reference to William Haines having had "a strangely high-pitched voice" as well, this complete balderdash as any of his starring talkies will attest, but how much access did Crowther have to these, and how much inclination to watch if he had? Trader Horn tales are told, including claim that Edwina Booth died within a few years of its 1930 release, thanks to illness contracted on African locations. It would be decades before we'd learn that Booth was very much alive and would in fact make it to venerable age eighty-six. All the forgoing was accepted as fact in 1957 thanks to Crowther's repute and fact he had palace keys. Historians have latterly set records straight, but that needn't diminish (by much) value of Bosley Crowther's pioneering work, still a worthwhile and entertaining read if one to approach cautiously.
Best books on MGM history? I'd nominate Scott Eyman's Lion Of Hollywood and Mark Vieira's Irving Thalberg. Both are tops for research/accuracy/enjoyment.
Best books on MGM history? I'd nominate Scott Eyman's Lion Of Hollywood and Mark Vieira's Irving Thalberg. Both are tops for research/accuracy/enjoyment.
Monday, April 25, 2011
It's Showtime Again!
Countdown begins toward Cinevent and Slapsticon, my two favorite Spring-Summer destinations. Getting there has become half the fun for drives through the Virginias, Ohio --- both shows begin for me on Interstate 77 and each amount to apx. six hours on the road (Cinevent happens in Columbus, while Slapsticon headquarters in Arlington, VA). Driving time's good for meditating on fun I've had at previous Cine/Slaps. Actually, 2010 was my first at Slapsticon. Would that I could go back and attend ones missed! It's great reuniting with folks known primarily by mails, or now, internet. If reaction to movies and crowd cheer in general is any indication, everyone has a blast at Cinevent and Slapsticon. I get a rush just entering the hotel at Columbus --- near every year since 1982. There used to be guys camped in the lobby with 16mm lists. We'd look at those before checking in. There's still a thriving dealer room at Columbus, with more on the sixth floor where Morris Everett's annual poster auction is held. So much happens here that it seems four days pass in as many minutes.
Slapsticon last year yielded as many films as I've ever watched in a single weekend. I just couldn't pass any of these rarities up. Organizer Richard Roberts and staff book rarest and most recently restored/rediscovered titles. There's little at Slapsticon you'll find on DVD. Truly it's a show for those who think they've seen everything. This year there is treasure long buried that I'm particularly revved for --- War, Italian Style is a late career starring feature for Buster Keaton last sighted at the Liberty in 1966. It'll be a thrill revisiting this one on Slapsticon's big screen, and with an audience. Harold Lloyd's Professor, Beware is scheduled as well. This one was syndicated with pre-48 Paramounts long ago, but never surfaced in close-by tele-markets. Slapsticon 2011 will be my first time viewing it, as will, I suspect, be the case for many attending. Comedians who don't get enough mainstream exposure are served generously at Slapsticon. Lloyd Hamilton, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, Harry Langdon, assorted Hal Roach all-stars, many more unheralded and richly deserving of play before an appreciative crowd, which Slaps' assuredly is. Best of all here is comfort and quality of hosting Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre, where projected film looks great and acoustics for live music accompaniment is note-perfect. I lasted hours last year on Spectrum seating without fatigue and expect to do so again this July. How many other venues are as hospitable?
Cinevent has their customary line-up of unique attractions, in addition to lure of the auction and dealer rooms. Steve Haynes really does a splendid job of organizing. This year's program includes a Deanna Durbin, His Butler's Sister, so far unreleased on domestic DVD, and My Gal Sal in IB Technicolor. That one's not available on disc either. A Universal I've long waited to see, Bombay Mail, is scheduled. There's even The Lady and The Monster for horror and Von Stroheim completists. Man In The Dark was an early 3-D feature pretty much unseen since 1953. Many silent features are scheduled, with on-site talent at the piano. Any opportunity to catch pre-talkers with live music is worth seizing. Good as digital is, there's no substituting for performers in the room. Cinevent does a Saturday morning cartoon revue that's especially popular, dependable always for (way) off beaten path animation. A longer list of scheduled films is here. I'll be situated at least part-time at tables where Robert Matzen and Mike Mazzone will be selling a very impressive cache of posters and lobby cards they recently acquired. Readers I've met (and especially ones I haven't) are encouraged to stop by. Maybe this time I'll finally encounter Nitrateville's Mike Gebert after several years of just missing each other.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Comedy's Comeback Continues
Where Robert Youngson really broke out was The Golden Age Of Comedy. Would anyone else have come up with an idea so beautifully timed? Had they eventually done so, it might have been too late for prints and negatives Youngson secured from (primarily) Hal Roach and collector archives known to few. Golden Age made it fashionable to applaud silent comedies. Critics seized opportunity Youngson presented to demonstrate a grasp of picture history and enrich their own cache. Nighttime TV hosts served as Pied Pipers for art house audiences flooding New York and elsewhere venues. The Golden Age Of Comedy shook free of musty association silents labored under when general audiences discovered how funny it was. These were laughs of a sort few youngsters had experienced, let alone with peers in a crowded theatre. Comedy had long settled into dialogue-driven tar pits where a Glenn Ford spent reels hiding geisha girls among straw huts as insubstantial as wink-wink stories tickling what was left of Hollywood’s Production Code. Look (or groan) at much of what passed for comedy in 1957 and success of Youngson’s venture seems not so remarkable. His was an audience more than ready for freshened mirth-making. Jack Parr and Steve Allen were sufficiently hip to sniff the zeitgeist, trumpeting The Golden Age Of Comedy as though it were laughter’s second coming (what I’d not give to see tape of that week Parr sang Youngson’s praises --- does footage exist?). The deal with Hal Roach was providential, for its continuation gave Youngson access to what amounted to the best of silent clowning, and there would be enough of it to sustain him for a decade plus.
Audiences knew Laurel and Hardy from television, their talking stuff seemingly vid-burrowed clear down to China. What even fans didn’t realize was that silent L&H was at least as good, especially in crowded auditoria. These subjects were barely seen since the twenties, Youngson in time (barely) to salvage good prints off nitrate passing thirty years of fragility. The Golden Age Of Comedy represented the first time, outside of Chaplin reissues, that pre-sound truly thrived before mainstream customers (Harold Lloyd had tried a few of his, without notable success). Theatres of every size and stripe were asking to book Golden Age, as Youngson’s compilation and ones to follow were ideal for matinees where kids were in and out and it didn’t much matter at what point you entered the show. Combination comedy days such as ones shown here were breath of life for theatres filling weekend dates, head shots of recognizable comics sufficient to fill drive-in lots as well for all night laugh-a-thons. That Laurel and Hardy continued as meaningful theatrical draws from the late fifties right through the sixties was pretty amazing, considering they hadn’t done anything US-new since WWII's close, Babe having died (in August 1957) and Stan settled into retirement. Youngson as deliverer of so much priceless stuff was nothing if not an evangelist for classic comedy. Narration he wrote took pains to identify and background faces chasing past us. In a way, Youngson’s continuing lecture was fun-making's equivalent of Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters mission. Much was silly with here-and-there cringe-worthy punning, but who else was instructing us as to finer points of silent filmmaking? How he put across what amounted to a clowning curriculum (and to a distinctly unschooled public) was the truest Youngson miracle.
When Comedy Was King showed what a Youngson package could do with major distributor backing. Movie columnists celebrated laughter’s archeologist for having unearthed what Granddad once found so uproarious. The compilation broke opening day records at Manhattan’s 68th Street Playhouse, a venue keeping count since nickelodeon days forty-five years before. The place had a single aisle, a tiny lobby, and seated only 389 patrons, but was ideally suited to first-run When Comedy Was King. Youngson had again delivered a perfect wedding of art and mass appeal. Aesthetes could laud classic samplings of Chaplin and Keaton while their kids enjoyed Youngson pulling drag for live action Disneys, The Three Stooges (when they met Snow White), and even Fox’s ultra-serious Crack In The Mirror, among many other unlikely pairings RY’s film engaged as it widened to neighborhood houses. There were degrees of critical condescension. The New York Times called Youngson’s a mild bonanza, and applauded his choice of highlights that moved without the benefit of palaver. First Gotham runs for Youngson generally went to art houses from which quotable reviews might spring, though fissures opened for want of showmen competent to project standard ratio film properly. 30 Years Of Fun was dealt columnist blows when its NYC opening found intended comedy sliced to 1.85 ribbons, for which Youngson unfairly bore blame. Reviewer Eugene Archer complained that by projecting the clips on a modern wide screen, Mr. Youngson has merely chopped the tops and bottoms off the images, with highly unsatisfactory results. As 30 Years Of Fun was by this time (December 1963) saturating among further flung venues, the problem compounded. To readjust masking and apertures was inconvenient for projectionists, and as 30 Years Of Fun played double bills in almost all situations, modifications would have been required for each and every show, operators in effect jumping from wide image to obsolete flat settings five or more times daily. Archer singled out celebrated 30 Years scenes of Charlie Chaplin disassembling an alarm clock in The Pawnshop for being effectively ruined because the audience couldn’t see the comedian’s hands while doing so. A January follow-up letter to editors, penned by 68th Street Playhouse manager Walter Brecher, defended Youngson: Please don’t blame him … the fault lies with the inertia of the average exhibitor, who has committed himself to the widescreen projection pattern. Brecher went on to point out that art theatres, including his own 68th Street Playhouse, took sufficient care to insure proper presentation, but what of venues across the country subsequently playing this and other Youngson features? I don’t remember noticing a problem when seeing ones at the Liberty, but that’s not to say prints weren’t every bit as cropped.
Laurel and Hardy clearly led Youngson parades, being the attraction that drew most customers inside. More than one reviewer commented that their stuff held up better than Chaplin’s. Some of that was backwash from CC’s then-recent exile, with feathers slow to un-ruffle even as a new decade began. Youngson allowed for latter in narration acknowledging controversy while expressing hope that viewers might put politics second to enjoyment of still rib-tickling moments out of Mutual comedies Chaplin had done so long ago. The big elephant in Youngson’s parlor was Harold Lloyd. He whispered not the name in compilations, but others noted absence of comedy’s point man for output and commercial success back when silents ruled. Lloyd and Youngson were sociable (as here), but the former licensing footage to the latter was strictly no dice, for Harold figured on going Bob one better with his own clowning scrapbook. 20th Fox meanwhile pulled stops to promote When Comedy Was King using contract starlets for premiere night at aforementioned 68th Street Playhouse. A newer-minted Keystone Kop is posed here with Margo Moore of Fox’s Wake Me When It’s Over, while Ina Balin on the right was just out in From The Terrace. Trade ads like one above trumpeted raves and put faces back in advertising circulation we hadn’t seen since … well, The Golden Age Of Comedy. Youngson worked show-biz magic of heating up years-past names, and not just among oddballs pre-disposed toward the brand. Ones among us that revere voiceless comedy probably heard opening gun at a Youngson show. I sure did, for it was seeing Big Business played off as When Comedy Was King’s dessert that made me go looking for 8mm silent comedies to own.
Monday, April 18, 2011
Noah's 1957 Challenge To Moses
Being a silent movie adherent was like donning a dunce cap in early 50's Hollywood. Anyone proposing commercial life for non-talkers, outside a Chaplin, was for birds, or unemployment lines. Robert Youngson proved adept enough with novelty shorts at Warners to sneak by single-reel sampling of once done up big, but since discarded, relics. His were like Castle Film highlights from Don Juan, Old San Francisco, Isle Of Lost Ships, and one RY particularly liked, Noah's Ark. A super-spectacle this was, with everything but dialogue (there were chat passages, awkwardly done, and no way useful for latter play). This all put brakes on reissue chance. WB could bank on Little Caesar and Public Enemy for 1954 dates, both nearly old as Noah's Ark, but at least these talked throughout. Silents were for scrap-heaps, or fattening libraries sold by mid-50's to voracious TV. Warners made their vid deal for whole of its pre-49 library, including what voiceless flickers survived. Receiving Associated Artists Productions sought value, however slight, that might derive of least desirable among WB's fabled stock, screening vaulties toward possibility, however remote, of peddling same to art and specialty houses. AAP came to meeting of minds with no-longer Warners employed Youngson over the one pearl he'd championed, Noah's Ark, which had the Bible for story origin, just like mega-smash The Ten Commandments, then on roadshow march. Could Noah's Ark get by being old, so long as it was Old Testament?
Every theatre in the country wanted The Ten Commandments in mid-1957, but most couldn't get it, DeMille's spectacular having pitched tent among biggest houses and staying for what promised forever. AAP figured Noah might pinch hit for audiences waiting on Moses, and they had subsidiary Dominant Pictures to handle distribution, latter's purpose to eke out the last buck from theatres before they (the Warner titles) were shown on television, according to Variety. Noah's Ark would be an experiment, said the company, to see if extreme oldies might sell. To hedge bets, AAP and Youngson cut the 1929 release nearly in half and laid over music and narration. Dominant would treat Noah's Ark like a new picture, saturation booking it through the country one area at a time, according to Variety. One hundred dates for late July and August 1957 were set in tri-states Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Full-page ads went into Philadelphia newspapers, but none disclosed Noah's Ark being a silent made decades before, ID'ing it instead as simply The Most Spectacular Picture Of All Time.
Ten of the first thirty theatres held over Noah's Ark for seven-day runs, better than what Dominant anticipated. With floods, spearing, and columns falling, this was no art-house cast-off. Showmen could bally Noah to hilts as next-best Ten Commandments, so long as Paramount's biggie eluded them (our Liberty wouldn't get TC until September 19, 1957). Dominant had offices mostly on the east coast, so arrangement was made with Manhattan Films International to handle Noah's Ark in eleven western states, Alaska, and Hawaii. Aggressive Manhattan got the film into LA just as The Ten Commandments wrapped forty-six weeks playing first-run, timing just right for another biblical, whatever its vintage. Response to Noah's Ark was mixed overall, depending on territory and how it was pushed. Baltimore saw torrid biz at its Little Art Theatre, wherein records were beat, but faces turned red when St. Paul, Minnesota patrons, lured by Bigger Than Biggest ads, found to chagrin that this was an epic sans talk. More than a few moviegoers attending it became so upset when they learned the truth that they jumped up and demanded their money back, said the St. Paul Dispatch's movie columnist. They'd thought Noah's Ark was a brand new epic that somehow was made with no publicity. Still, despite refunds, the show performed above average for Minneapolis-St. Paul houses, and certainly beat typical revenues for a reissue, even if Noah's Ark wasn't necessarily revealed as such.
Small towns reveled in Noah's Ark, Biblical themes always welcome in Southeast climes. That collecting Moses that guided me to promised land of 16 and 35mm acquisition, Moon Mullins, was handed an exchange-discarded Noah and ran same to his movie club during the early seventies. A Pilot Mountain, NC showman (right) got Noah's Ark into the town's Christmas 1958 parade to some pretty good results, said Boxoffice. Well, it's not as though there were other Noah and the Flood pics to compete with. Perhaps realizing this, the Mirisch Company announced in July 1958 intention to make a new and multi-million $ Noah's Ark (didn't happen). The original meanwhile floated through circuits starved for product. Part of why reissues boomed was lack of small or B titles to fill in weeks, thus Noah's Ark was back in Los Angeles in September 1958, this time with AAP/Dominant's Yankee Doodle Dandy, another Warner fave withheld so far from TV. The duo saw but a mild $4,500 and was gone in a week. AAP had entertained possibility of reviving WB silents beyond Noah's Ark, with maybe a festival group for art-houses ... that announcement came to nothing. Of all pre-talkers they now owned, it appears AAP and successor United Artists included only Noah's Ark among features syndicated to TV (Noah became available for broadcast in the mid-sixties). Back in ownership Warners recently did right by venerable Noah's Ark by issuing a complete-as-exists 1928 version, this a first time the McCoy has been available on video. It's a solid DVD well worth having, though bittersweet is disapperance of Robert Youngson's revamped version. Will that ever surface on TCM or disc?
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Twilight On The Praries: I sat through Aces Wild thinking Harry Carey was old as dirt by 1936, forever in westerns, a pre-dater to John Ford and seemingly everyone who'd saddled up on screen ... then come to find he was my age when AW got done on customary ten-day (if that) B schedule. Does passage of time weigh lighter for current generations? Carey struggled up, built a ranch on silent stardom, then saw it flooded. Constructed again using talkie funds, this time the place burns to the ground. Maybe he kept at westerns against probability of life's next disaster, final of which I'd long understood to be a black widow spider's bite that killed him. Turns out that's a dad-blasted myth, but who started it? Harry Carey cowboy'ed before Bill Hart and possibly had a longest western run of all, his string taut from Griffith and Biograph to Howard Hawks and Red River (stills here are from silent-era Careys). HC set/crews gathered during 1910's resemble gold-rushers from a century before. His gestures were famously copied by John Wayne, who'd gone to see Carey's alter-ego, Cheyenne Harry, as a boy. John Ford helmed a bucket of these starting out. Was the by-30's famed director aware of his friend still pulling Cheyenne duty for humble Commodore Pictures Corp? Aces Wild is Carey/Cheyenne past exertion of silent days. A 30's public mightn't have been so patient with cowboys this far along had not Dad told them Harry was real stuff. I'd in fact bet middle-agers brought offspring to Aces Wild for recapture of youth-going flicker magic. Did toiling-at-B's Duke Wayne consult HC's twilight rides for backward glance and maybe further pointers toward his own emerging persona? By the mid-thirties, just showing up was enough for Carey, accumulated stature did the rest. Almost never does HC skin his sidearm here ... that's left for less cool heads. He's even bested in fights with younger opponents. It's old man's wisdom and judgment that wins Aces Wild's hand. Harry might have made an even better role model in maturity for reasoning ways out of trouble, though admittedly that makes for leisurely pull over 63 minutes seemingly longer. Better-backed cowboys chased along desert and rock pleasing to look at. Ones like Aces Wild on short tether made do with flat roads and brush, cameras distant or skewed to avoid tire tracks and power poles. These I'd call Scrubby Westerns. Sometimes a plane will be overheard, or a motorized something-or-other headed unexpectedly for the location. Carey's Cheyenne Harry is here settling a score gone way back. You wonder if maybe Aces Wild was a sequel to one Ford directed long before, with Carey putting late-date coda to it. Being past romantic eligibility, HC volunteers as rancher daughter's protector and avenger of her father's death. Aces Wild is about getting even for old wrongs, believable when it's Carey and varmints he opposes look as saddle-sore. Republic did a service putting youth on horseback and stunt guys who'd speed things up. Much as I sympathize with valedictory turns like Harry's, it's clear his kind of western wasn't going to renew the brand for changing audiences.
Monday, April 11, 2011
Those Big Parades Of Comedy --- Part One
One advantage most GB readers had growing up was ancient comic faces being familiar thanks to largely black-and-white television. We may not have known Ben Turpin and Billy Bevan by name, but those pans bridged many an hour toward Deputy Dawg/ Mighty Mice-filled Saturday mornings. There was also relic clowning at YMCA day camps, birthday parties, and as “treats” at school. You could have spooled our galaxy in 16mm ribbon for what was trucked to places youngsters gathered. A friend told me in 1968 of seeing Laurel and Hardy during classroom hours at a county school he attended. Which one?, I asked. Oh, something where Stan marched in a trench and ate a mountain of canned beans. Blockheads running at school? Enroll me now! I was ready to transfer despite ten miles' commute. But this sort of thing wasn’t uncommon. A teacher not given to lesson planning invited me to run Blackhawk 8mm for our Democracy In Action class during junior year. I wound up twice unspooling my whole collection as remaining semester yielded to Stan/Oliver, Chaplin, Keaton, et al. Some might call that misuse of education facility, but how’s it different from teachers now putting DVD’s on a loop to anesthetize bored or troublesome students? ... only today they’re doing it with stuff not half so engaging.
Derby hats seemed not so eccentric to a past TV generation, even if few of our fathers wore them by then. Neither did ladies sport hair like Miss Crabtree, and certainly there weren’t open roadsters and Model T’s driven through my neighborhood. It was alternate reality via syndication, one that by weight of its ubiquity became nearly as comfortable as our own. A weekday morning show Channel 8 called Limbo’s Cartoon Circus was host to ninety-minute blends of Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, and Our Gang, fact these went way back precisely what appealed most. When did wholesale rejection of old stuff take hold of us? (I mean them) Was it color’s final and absolute conquest of airwaves that hobbled distant era clowns? A last glorious stand was had in the seventies. Even as network affiliated stations dumped vintage for recent stock, there was independent UHF supplying berths for comedy we liked. Perhaps cable and satellite are to blame for what happened since. Too much choice, and who’s going to pause remotes on black-and-white? It must have been someone else’s lifetime that enabled dining at Shakey’s Pizza while double-duty cooks threaded Charlie Chaplin on a Bell and Howell. There’ll be no more such encounter (or visits to Shakey’s, for that matter), and any pizza I enjoy with Chaplin accompaniment will be mine alone but for a kindred spirit here or there who might remember.
I’m intrigued by efforts at silent movie revival back when that era was one from which Hollywood most wanted to distance itself. What 40’s-50’s presentations lacked was affection for their content. Silents, and by extension those who worked in them, became objects mostly shunned by industry said to have progressed a long way since. Warners celebrated twenty years of sound in 1946 with two-reelers clarifying viewpoint embraced by seemingly all. Out with what's old, and bring on the new. The ad above represents a Raleigh, NC theatre’s Journey Into The Romance and Gayety of Yesteryear. Such was novelty booking in 1945, a fun night out for the curious, and nostalgia perhaps for Grandpa, but in no way entertainment to stand on own merits. Anything so far back needed juicing up. Sight comedy got verbal overlay at expense of comics sped to frenzy in pursuit of laughs. Poor Larry Semon, long dead by the mid-forties when Warners cobbled shorts off his backlog, ran barely ahead of wiseacre narration putting unneeded (and sarcasm laced) exclamation on routines chiseled to bare-bone. So many great comedies meanwhile rotted in vaults. By time critic James Agee recognized gagging’s "Greatest Era" for LIFE magazine in 1948, much was past retrieval. Rich enough Chaplin and Harold Lloyd could afford protecting assets they owned from outset, distributing same at leisure. City Lights was back in 1950 to tune of $507K in domestic rentals, though Chaplin’s work was tabbed exception to prevailing rule that silent features were commercially moribund. Who would have spent to preserve Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon, one (perceived as) washed up and the other departed, their work spread among disparate owners? Deliverance for these and others came by way of archiving personalities Robert Youngson and Raymond Rohaeur, who would themselves achieve fame (or infamy) among a generation discovering comedy greats of the past.
Robert Youngson was heroic for rescuing slapstick out of rusting cans and would have made an ideal honored guest for Cinecon/Cinefest/Cinevent. He made Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, and others object of revival, but died (in 1974) just short of being himself focal point of buff adoration. Imagine questions we’d pose to a visionary whose work shaped lifelong enthusiasm for silent comedy. Was Youngson as jolly in person as photos suggest? Wish I’d met him to find out. Remember when RY frolics were all over television and theatre screens? I’d see When Comedy Was King at home one day, then head Liberty-ways for The Further Perils Of Laurel and Hardy a Saturday following. Narration he wrote made these schools for fun. Say whatever about cutting routines to quick or overindulging commentary, he put a mass audience before artists near-forgotten, rescued endangered negatives, and made many commercial again. Imagine being bug on a wall when Youngson negotiated with rights-rustler Raymond Rohauer for use of Seven Chances in 1970’s Four Clowns. There seemed nothing jolly about hellspawn Rohauer. History has tabbed him least likeable of those who dug for film before same was wider spread, even as records speak to his saving much (nearly all?) of Buster Keaton’s inventory and major segments of Harry Langdon (the First National features), plus others past calculation. Someone should write a book about Rohauer (Scott MacGillivray did a fine chapter on Youngson in Laurel and Hardy: From the Forties Forward), but I’d not envy the commission, for bio-Rohauer might be not unlike lives of Mussolini, Vlad The Impaler, or villains of similar stripe. Youngson and Rohauer were (maybe only) two silent-era rescuers that made something like commercial go of putting lost art before a new audience even as they went about it in starkly opposing ways, both deserving forevermore credit whatever the means for having done it.