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Saturday, September 29, 2012



South Sea Sinning --- Part One

I find MGM south sea idylls anything but idealized. A look at White Shadows In The South Seas, The Pagan, Untamed, and Never The Twain Shall Meet taught me why they never caught on as an ongoing genre like, say, jungle pics. At least for Metro, it was success in the jungle that spared us further sailings below the equator, a relief in the long run, as ones they took are among harshest and most unpleasant sits of the era. White Shadows In The South Seas indicts Caucasian abuse and exploitation of noble island folk, its onscreen stance an interesting comparison with what director W.S. Van Dyke observed, and wrote about, for a (very private) diary he kept during production from late-1927 to mid-'28. These turned up in an attic trunk generations later and saw publication as W.S. Van Dyke's Journal: White Shadows In The South Seas (1927-28), a backstage wonder you wish existed on more classics made then or ever.


Against lovely scenics (that must have been a lulu on 35mm nitrate) come bleak happenings and a bummer wrap to cause wonder as to how White Shadows managed whopper grosses when new. Metro's crack selling can take credit, and there was novelty of sights (and synchronized sound with native music) not before captured on such lavish and locationed scale. Basis was a novel that Irving Thalberg was said to have liked (the title best of all), a reproach more severe of white trepidations than even the movie he oversaw. Surviving prints don't do White Shadows visual justice, a most critical aspect, as the thing's value rests largely on that. Also, at least on Warner's Archive DVD, there is track spoilage at the beginning ... maybe the discs got immersed in some of that salt water.

Scurrilous Whites Ply Trade Among Exploited Natives


Director W.S. Van Dyke Receives Radio
Instructions from Metro Home Base
The real beneficiary of White Shadow's success was director Van Dyke. He'd begun at assisting, moved up to director, back again, flush here, jobless there ... since Griffith days. Lately Van/Woody (his went-by names) wrangled Tim McCoy series-actioners for Metro. These showed Van could work fast and on hard ground, so off to Tahiti he was dispatched to help credited Robert Flaherty on White Shadows, Flaherty being the name Metro hoped to sell in concert with exotic footage with which he'd been associated (class and mass had liked Nanook Of The North and Moana). Van Dyke got there (ten-day's sail) and found Flaherty helpless to gear up a factory's way, thus a bogged down shoot and conditions more squalid by the hour. If you ever thought how much fun it might have been to work in Golden Age movies, read Woody's account of this trip, then be glad for 2012 comforts of home and a Net to read of his wretched hardship making White Shadows In The South Seas. MGM has taken a few months of my life and put them on a hot griddle and watched them fry, wrote Van.


Van Dyke's was a takeover, not altogether hostile, of White Shadows In The South Seas, and it was here the director's legend was born. He'd be the explorer/adventurer who mastered movies, also a man's man Flaherty wasn't. And Metro stood ready to polish the image. They had resource to put Van Dyke in Africa for Trader Horn, the frozen north for Eskimo, any point of a compass not hitherto photographed. Exciting as Merian Cooper's trips were, he'd not have such machinery to back ships/crews like Van Dyke and Metro blank checks (Trader Horn cost $1.3M). The company liked directors with pioneer spirit. Clarence Brown braved wilds to do The Trail Of '98 around a same time. King Vidor would later carve a Northwest Passage out of backwoods. These were as much manhood rituals as epic movies, and a director's stock went up for his ability to tough them out. W.S. Van Dyke may have been a most noteworthy of these in his day, the public-perceived equal or better to anyone working. There were several books ... one he wrote called Horning Into Africa, published in 1931 ... my copy had been donated by "Col. W.S. Van Dyke" to the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. How many ones did he similarly gift to facilities around the country?

W.S. Van Dyke, at left, Receives Fan Magazine Writers from the States on
White Shadows Location

Had not Van Dyke died early (1943), and comparatively young (53), there'd be at least a biography. For a director so noted in his lifetime, it's remarkable how little is out there today. The long out of print Van Dyke and The Mythical City Hollywood was commissioned by his mother, Laura Winston Van Dyke (the book's copyright is hers), and written by Robert C. Cannon in 1948. There was apparently a reprint in 1977, though I haven't seen copies. Much of White Shadows lore had origin here. Van Dyke represented a vanguard of he-men who drifted into studios from gold fields, railroad camps ... had he once been a "mercenary," with all that loaded term implied? Anyway, there were none tougher, and to publicity's benefit, Van Dyke looked the part. How he wrestled White Shadows In The South Seas to the ground was only a beginning to fame that unfortunately did not outlive him by enough.

Ramon Novarro and Dorothy Janis as South Sea Natives in The Pagan

Van Dyke had sworn he'd never return to the islands. A rousing hit of White Shadows put that vow in abeyance. Might south seas adventure become staple commodity for Metro? Only if it could be done for a price to assure fiscal gain. For an encore they chose The Pagan, with Ramon Novarro to represent island virtues and Donald Crisp white villainy. A happy ending was barely in time to relieve another sour narrative ... rotter Crisp wallops natives with near the sadism he inflicted on Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms. Van Dyke had learned from the White Shadows trip and filmed with dispatch. Again there was a soundtrack, but no talk. April 1929 release was alongside Metro features with dialogue, though Novarro did vocalize to pleasing effect (enormous song sheet sales), with over half a million in profits a result for The Pagan. Reception to White Shadows In The South Seas and The Pagan pointed to MGM filming further in tropic climes. But could the cycle adjust itself to talking screens?




Wednesday, September 26, 2012


The Watch List For 9/26/12

PRIVATE HELL 36 (1954) --- Points of interest: Don Siegel directed, Ida Lupino produced/stars, Steve Cochran is co-male lead. Otherwise, the story took a while to get going. Steve is a turned-crook cop, Howard Duff his conscience-ridden partner. Siegel said Cochran stayed lit much of the time, cast fellows joining him in spiked coffee-breaking. Maybe Steve felt he'd done enough of these to finish one halfway in the bag --- he's more accomplished that way than others at 100%. Remarkable how many cheap noirs were made on a lick & promise, begun with scripts one third prepped, fraying tempers and disorganization from there. Still, there are individual scenes, quite a few, written and played effectively. Everyone's life is a mess, Dean Jagger and his pipe sole stabilizing influence. Steve and Ida are convincingly damaged people, their romance punctuated by accusation and hard slaps to the face, a noir ritual and maybe one not uncommonly played in real lives during the up-tight 50's.


Siegel knew his way around sudden bursts of violence and was good at build-up to body blows we feel for investment in frayed characters. When guns are drawn, look out. I counted four cast members who'd work for him again in 1956's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, so obviously, they had Don's phone number. Ida Lupino and Collier Young raised Hell for their independent Filmmakers company, which went south for error of trying to distribute Private same 36 in addition to producing. Siegel and Ida hit it off at first, fell out later. She was trying to keep a marriage with co-star Howard Duff together. Maybe they were doing the slap-and-kiss routine at home. Things wouldn't work out, and according to Siegel, neither did the film. Private Hell 36 is a honey so long as expectations stay modest. Nice to have it on Blu-Ray and presented in 1.85 widescreen.


THREE HOURS TO KILL (1954) --- Dana Andrews rides into town to get even for a botched hanging, hemp scar on his neck reflecting bitter mood. The 50's were when adult westerns really got going. Everybody wanted the next High Noon. Andrews was good in whatever he did --- talk about a star being a whole reason to watch. There's also a mystery killer abroad, fair enough to get through a first viewing if not repeat ones. Shooting outdoors and in color was adequate to pull 50's westerns across, these plus a meaningful name above titles distinguished them from horseflesh rode gratis at home. Columbia has done a fine 1.85 transfer for their On-Demand DVD program.


CAPTAIN KIDD (1945) --- Charles Laughton approaches comedy for 1945 Captain Kidd-ing that he would surrender to altogether when the character met Abbott and Costello seven years later. CL was better on sly setting than outright burlesque, and here he has a vet crew willing to stand down and let the rascal have his head. Tissue narrative gives way to Laughton lunacy as he systematically offs his own crew, logic of this elusive but welcome withal as it's Chuck with an upper hand we want. Randolph Scott isn't named Stolid Hero, but that's the role he got. I'll bet Laughton arrived on-set each morn bearing slips of paper with ideas to juice up the day's shoot, and who were producers to deny him? This Captain Kidd would surely not have been made short of CL enlisting. TCM played it --- quality was OK.


CAPTAIN CAREY USA (1950) --- Alan Ladd goes back to Italy after the war to find out who betrayed his OSS team. There's a girl he loses, finds, loses again. The story is messy and pace is slow. Director Mitchell Leisen told writer David Chierichetti that he tried to make something of it, but fate and Paramount not-much-caring prevailed. Two assets are Ladd and composer Hugo Friedhofer, Ladd doing it all with eyes and jackrabbit motion. His quick climb over walls to a balcony look like Doug Fairbanks back on the job. Leisen said Laddie's wife came nagging to the set and disrupted hubby's concentration. He'd sulk from there to workday's end. The ball and chain weighed heavy on Ladd. Captain Carey's flawed script could be forgiven at his level of star contribution, though. Why try harder with AL assurance enough of the boxoffice? A few years later would have put Vistavision cameras in Italy for CC-USA. This is black-and-white, studio bound, with welcome feel of vintage Paramount, enhanced by Olive's Blu-Ray release.


I'LL WAIT FOR YOU --- (1941) --- You know it's a Metro B when Robert Sterling is the flashy gangster working at behest of Reed Hadley, fleeing cop Paul Kelly into the rural embrace of Marsha Hunt. Her farm folk redeem Bob in furtherance of MGM country-good, city-less so doctrine as expressed in much of their output. It's well-known that Metro's low-budgets were everyone else's big spending, so I'll Wait For You doesn't short-change. The further reformation of a basically likeable crook was dog-eared from silents, but useful to road-test talent and get return on character faces drawing weekly pay. Sterling was OK for utility as Clark Gable's brother here, a discarded suitor there (sometimes both), but others newcoming to Metro were more suitable to leads. Marsha Hunt, also utility, was valued by plain-folk in the audience that identified with her. For every Lana Turner, MGM needed three or four Marsha Hunts. Code rules won't quite give us an ending we'd like, though being expected helps it annoy less. From Warner Archive.

LAW OF THE BADLANDS (1945) --- Warners did a brace of vest-pocket westerns at two-reel length between the late thirties and mid-forties. Early ones had Technicolor lensing and all featured WB stars in development. Initially, they were laced with music and dance, that later abandoned for straight action content. The series was really an opportunity for Warners to derive stock footage from expensive shoot-ups done previous, thus The Oklahoma Kid, Dodge City, and such got renewed life in short subjects, cast members kitted out in wardrobe having adorned Cagney, Flynn, others in now pillaged highlights. Wasn't easy matching Robert Shayne with four and a half inch shorter Jim Cagney, even with Shayne in identical buckskins.

Law Of The Badlands has Shayne cashiered from the Army, tried for murder (innocent, natch), and landing with Custer at the Little Big Horn, all in a lightning stroke of twenty minutes. Crowd footage and the massacre finish from They Died With Their Boots On lent Law Of The Badlands grandeur impossible to achieve on customary two-reel budgets. Maybe patrons liked a potted western with their movie show every now and again. There had to be some reason for this group lasting over seven years. Warners would re-cycle action bumps in TV series to come, thus James Garner, Ty Hardin, etc. mimicking appearance and moves of players departed from the lot, but still performing via vintage derring-do.




Saturday, September 22, 2012


Lloyd's Of London and Star Manufacture

I got a nice history lesson watching Lloyd's Of London this week. Classic-era Hollywood could be as effective a teacher as entertainer. Might that be partly why the word "classic" applies? Twentieth-Fox's Daryl Zanuck was particularly keen on historical tutelage, but kept his classroom a crowd-pleasing place. The success of a Lloyd's satisfies me that public education taught lots more in the 30's. How else did audiences sit for the saga of an eighteenth-century insurance company? Must have been flattering when motion picture companies figured us brainy enough to get so much past-era drift.


Famous name-dropping in Lloyd's Of London is like a Winchell column published in Merry (and very) Olde England. For all its romance and bodice-ripping, you come away from Lloyd's  somehow ... enriched. Maybe that was secret to its ka-pow success, filling two-a-day seats at $2 admissions. Wags called the studio "18th Century Fox," not necessarily a knock, as who could argue with profits they derived from recreating (and juicing up) past events? We forget mass, and critical, exultation over The House Of Rothschild, a Zanuck-produced 1934 release that set pattern for fact-based pageants to come.


The merger of DFZ and Joseph Schenck's Twentieth-Century Pictures with the old (and ailing) Fox company was tacitly endorsed by entrenched Hollywood, and in fact, execs around town bet on the merger with invested dollars. MGM would extend further courtesy by loaning stars to newly-christened 20th Century Fox. It's how Freddie Bartholomew came to topline Lloyd's Of London. Freddie may have been the only child player to deliver prestige with his name, having been associated up to then with literary adaptation of a pedigree that would commend itself to educated patronage. All Lloyd's Of London lacked was George Arliss (busy elsewhere on the Fox lot).


Most inspired was casting of newcomer Tyrone Power, Jr. as grown-up Bartholomew, and from thirty-five or so minutes in, the dominant lead. Power came to Lloyd's from small parts since 1932. He'd made good impression in Girl's Dormitory for Fox a few months previous, so using him here wasn't quite the gamble it appeared. Fox could look to, as inspiration, the truly overnight success of Warners' Errol Flynn a year earlier, a promoting blueprint usable to launch Power. Lloyd's Of London's pressbook posits Power's stardom as a fait accompli, this before audiences beyond east-west coast premieres even had a look at him.

Una to Freddie: When You Speak Of This In Future Years ... And You Will ... Be Kind.

The story told, compatible with up-from-obscurity Hollywood star-making, was that director Henry King saw a test of Tyrone Power and insisted he be cast rather than front-office choice Don Ameche. Audiences liked believing they were responsible for career ascensions, but here was one time a studio openly took choice upon itself to simply tell a public, Here is your star arrival for 1937. Observant fans didn't ordinarily like being manipulated, had rebuffed past tries (Anna Sten a notorious example), but here goods tendered were in accord, and perfectly so, with patron desire.

Broadway's Premiere at the Astor Theatre

Power took the same learning curve as had Flynn, his performance and persona forming as Lloyd's Of London itself progressed (did they shoot in sequence?). Audiences rightly saw Ty as green, and maybe embraced him the more for it. A brand new star was exciting, being news to travel fastest through beauty salons, over drug counters, and deepest perhaps in hallways at school. Lloyd's Of London had premieres at Broadway's Astor Theatre and The Carthay Circle in Hollywood, at a time when such were truly gala events. Great depression downturn was far enough back of the industry to enable modified roadshow policy with regards showiest product, thus Lloyd's Of London played twice a day at these venues with seats at $2 tops. This got a persuasive message out that Lloyd's Of London was product to reckon with.


Small towns down the distribution line might wait a year for Lloyd's Of London to reach them, but appetite whetted by star-studded openings and continual fan magazine drumbeat made delay bearable. By the time many saw Lloyd's Of London, Tyrone Power had made at least two further starring vehicles. It was these smaller pics that benefited most from money poured upon Lloyd's Of London (its negative cost $873K). Tyrone Power could not have laid stardom's foundation in a Second Honeymoon or Love Is News. These were, in a sense, opportunistic crows that would feed off bounty of Lloyd's Of London.


Fox had also seen after an international market with Lloyd's, its subject matter a UK/Euro lure, and like many of the company's historicals, realized foreign grosses nearly the equal of what it took domestically. A worldwide $2.1 million put Lloyd's among highest scoring for 20th's 1936-37 season, although Shirley Temple vehicles, done by the company for far less money, routinely out-performed all else tendered by Fox, even epic-styled Lloyd's. The latter turns up on TCM from time to time. Fox must have done a re-master, because it looks terrific. I assume, or hope, that 20th's On-Demand DVD program will have it out before long.




Wednesday, September 19, 2012


The Watch List For 9/19/12

LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE (1957; released 1958) --- You want so much for this to be good and it just isn't. Virtually no air combat here, presumably the whole reason you'd watch a movie called Lafayette Escadrille. This was William Wellman's dream project, its story he wrote years before. There's even the director's son playing Wellman as a young flyer. Mainly though, it's a vehicle for Tab Hunter at his swooniest, and love scenes weigh heavy on the pace. Also too much You're In The Army Now clodhopping among raw recruits that include fresh faces Will Hutchins, David Janssen, Clint Eastwood, Tom Laughlin, more. A curiosity that might have been the talking equivalent of Wings if Warners hadn't sealed the checkbook.


Half of money blown on The Spirit Of St. Louis should have been re-routed to make a great picture of this. Wellman renounced Lafayette Escadrille --- did others take over from the beginning to reshape his vision? 1957 was a long way past the director's Wings peak, and injuries WW received during the Great War, plus encroachment of age, played havoc with his ability to sustain long and involved shooting schedules. Maybe some of what grounded Escadrille was limit these circumstances placed on Wellman, no longer the energetic and vigorous helmsman who'd gone aloft to grab moments of authenticity for previous air epics. Training scenes smack of the real thing as Wellman would describe it. Here's where we get a sense of the conflict he experienced, but that war was long ago by 1957, and kids, even Tab Hunter fans, just weren't interested (an $823K loss).


The plot device that makes Tab a fugitive wasn't welcomed by me, as it took him out of the war and possibility of air action. Again, it's dogfights we want and don't get (until nearly the end --- and comprised of stock footage from 1938's Men With Wings). Hard to defend Lafayette Escadrille even if you're a Wellman loyalist. Leonard Rosenman did a good score, though. Wellman himself narrates to the effect that nearly all members of his real-life squadron died in combat. The future director survived, of course. According to Frank Thompson's bio, WW was in on fierce fighting, shooting down Jerrys with the rest. Wellman's own memoir was known to be salted for dramatic effect, but even if you took a mere half for truth, that still left a dramatic and exciting story to be told in Lafayette Escadrille, if only Warners had been more supportive of it.


DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA (1947) --- How to reconcile RKO's tough noir approach with a comic strip kids followed faithfully. The Dick Tracy series kept fanciful character names, but otherwise was straight-up police thrilling for general patronage. Morgan Conway had been Tracy in the first two. He was fine, but a public got restless for Ralph Byrd to return from late-30's serials and take up duty. Dick Tracy's Dilemma is actually roughest of the four pic lot. Jack Lambert's hook-hand killer looks/acts horror-derived (Tracy needed Sherlock Holmes to help track this Creeper down), and moppets must have gone home to nightmares from watching. Only an hour long, so how trying could it be? Done in a day when movies treated comics as comics. We need to go back there.


HELLFIRE (1949) --- Crook gambler Bill Elliott gets religion and goes about reforming the rest of the West. You'll not believe this concept until you see it (Hellfire's end title reads "Amen"). Sincerely felt though, and that I liked. There's also Trucolor and Marie Windsor, only question being which is lovelier. Republic was upgrading their westerns and using seasoned casts, best of them retaining energy of B's with trappings of near-A's. Bill reads from the Bible when not yanking his sixes. Must have sold, as other gunfire preachers followed Hellfire's wake. Did I mention Marie Windsor? She's an outlaw gal Bill straightens out, to which you sit wondering why this one-of-a-kind never achieved stardom she so deserved. Forrest Tucker and Jim Davis are on hand yet again for Republic. They must have slept in their cowboy suits. Trucolor was a limited process, but give me more of it. Hellfire's on Netflix. You won't get burned for watching.


SECRETS OF A SECRETARY (1931) --- Love the title, as Claudette Colbert runs precode and early-career gamut to stolid Herb Marshall romance accompaniment. Threatened to be creaky, but really wasn't (maybe a little, but I'm tolerant). Another where the rich girl goes broke and gets humbled, wish fulfillment perhaps for Depression onlookers (see MGM's Dance, Fools, Dance for more of same). She marries a "gig" (as in -olo) and thereby plummets to titular secretarial status. Colbert could react to stock situations like real people. Even when Cleopattering, she was as you and I --- what actress did dialogue so deftly? Secretary was filmed on Paramount Long Island stages ... when these crowd up with extras, you expect seams to burst. To hit all bases, there's love rivalry, blackmail, gangland nightspots, with murder attendant, all paced decently and varied as to background. Precode Paras are a garden waiting to be harvested. Only a few have seen DVD release. This was a dub someone handed me in a hotel lobby. What a way to collect.


THREE WISE GIRLS (1932) --- Jean Harlow's unreal enough in early roles to seem like a platinum Betty Boop. Starring at Columbia was not a help. Their precodes lack polish of Metro and energy of Warners. Three Wise Girls would lay like dead fish if not for Harlow and an interesting cast. She's doused with lip rouge (to bring out light facial features?) and her mouth's bee-stung after Mae Murray (out of) fashion. Costuming doesn't always flatter. Soon-to-be-contracting MGM would have its work cut out with raw material that was early Harlow. Wise Girls partner Mae Clarke said JH was "an embarrassment" (see David Stenn's Harlow bio). I don't doubt that's true, more so then than now, however.


Harlow did work hard at improving, so I'm sympathetic to whatever's awkward about her here. So-called "bad" performances often serve pulpy precodes best. Who wants subtlety and understatement in these? The director was William Beaudine, pulling plows since the teens. Would Bowery Boys later ask him what it was like guiding Jean Harlow? Mae Clarke is effective in a pro-actress way. I don't wonder that she disdained Harlow. Third wise girl is Marie Prevost (of doggie dinner fame), weight gain confining her to comic/wisecrack support. Neither Clarke nor Prevost have much hope holding the screen when Harlow enters. She's a moving candle that leaves other players in darkness. Cheers to Columbia for making Three Wise Girls available in its recent Precode collection. Quality's a wow.
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