TRUE TO THE NAVY (1930)--- I've been searching
for a word to describe Clara Bow's Paramount
talkies, and have arrived at "confining." Seemed True To The Navy
would never get away from a drug store counter around which interminable chat
revolves. Bow still had looks and personality, both hamstrung by microphones
and a camera nailed down. Paramount
was ruthless at wringing what value was left in her name. But thenCB was no
worse used than other stars on their roster. Her leading man is Fredric March,
then a relative newcomer, but too urbane and Broadway-bred to be seeking
"soivice" at Bow's soda fountain. Stock comedy is tiresome province
of one Harry Green, his ethnic act a staple at early-30's Paramount. I wonder who among employers thought
him funny enough to continue using.
Get-it-done talkies didn't allow for luminous
close-ups such as lavished on Bow in Wingsand It days. Yack-yack pervades True
To The Navy, innervating reels of it, Clara and others stood stock still to
recite dialogue we'd happily do without. Bow jerks sodas, but has a maid at
home, to whom she performs the picture's one song. Paramount's indifference reflects all over. What
we know of behind-the-scenes make these vehicles (and Para
itself) hard to admire. Nothing about True To The Navy suggests care or
application of effort.Frank Tuttlewas a good director, but only with workable
material. No commitment on Bow's part could have overcome disadvantage here.
She would do a handful more, then leave Paramount.
Better instinct for self-preservation might have helped her change the tide,
but Clara Bow was about showing up for work, not evaluating or looking to
improve work she was given.
MOMENTS IN MUSIC (1950)--- This was part of a
series of shorts produced under the auspices of the Motion Picture Academy
during the late forties and into 1950. Each major studio contributed one or
more subjects (Moments In Music from MGM), their mission to boost an entire pic
industry and keep families attending as families.This, however, was waning day
of all movies appealing to everybody. Fragmenting of patronage was around a
50's corner, and all of Hollywood's
PR effort, including this series, was for naught toward slowing it. Emphasis of
Moments In Music is on films' potential to enrich viewers with classical and
operatic performance. There is acknowledgement of swing and
"boogie-woogie," but it is capacity for class being advanced, thus
Stokowski, Jose Iturbi, and Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy for highlights. Oddly
no Deanna Durbin, even though access would have been had to footage of her (all
of studio libraries available for clip usage in each subject). We're led to
think from Moments In Music that audiences young and old would be forever
linked in loving establishment Hollywood
and tunes it offered. The fact that wouldn't be the case lends sad subtext to
an otherwise beguiling reel.
THE STRANGER FROM PECOS (1943) --- Johnny Mack
Brown in the second of a Monogram series begun in 1943. He's a federal man
earlier played by Buck Jones for a Mono group with Tim McCoy and Raymond
Hatton, but Jones had died, so continuation fell to Johnny Mack, minus Tim, but
with Hatton continuing as comic support. Brown was capable enough with dialogue
to forgive dearth of action in these. He fights less, "investigates"
more. Too much talk on blahsets was staple of Monogram B's, but The Stranger
From Pecos has expertise of Brown and sidekick Hatton, their byplay a
sustenance for the 57 minutes this lasts. One Stranger scene has them
reminiscing about events from the last western they'd done. Roy Barcroft and
Charlie King are welcome heavies. These Monogram Browns haven't looked so good
since 40's newness. Warner Archive packages them on DVD and will hopefully
continue doing so.
CONSOLATION MARRIAGE (1931)--- Irene Dunne and
Pat O'Brien marry on rebound of jilting by former lovers. This is precode by
definition, but dullish in execution. RKO under exec producer William LeBaron
churned drama with sameness of imprint in slo-mo tempo that make latter day
sits an effort. The concept is interesting. You know the old girl/boyfriend
will be back to renew claims, but it plays with singular lack of urgency. Dunne
and O'Brien are equal to uplifting task, they'd save worse vehicles in a past
and future. There's John Halliday in customarily splendid support, and Myrna
Loy sprinkles precode spice where she can. RKO needed supervision of a David
Selznick and later Merian C. Cooper to elevate merchandise. Consolation
Marriage and so many from early Radio seasons were drugs on a picturegoing
market and barely improve with age.
ONE MORE TIME (1931)--- Warner Bros. was eager,
nay desperate, to develop a next Mickey Mouse. Their efforts went begging, like
everyone's, at least for initial 30's seasons when sole recourse seemed to be
plagiarizing Disney's mouse outright. One More Time's "Foxy" is a
Mickey photostat with a bushy tail and rodent ears that come to a point.
Difference beyond is less than negligible. Foxy acts and reacts like Mickey,
the latter such a powerhouse as to make competitors put all restraint aside in
efforts to clone him toward profitable end. WB had bought the Brunswick Music
Company, thus had a deep catalogue of song. These would frame cartoons and
hopefully sell piano sheets. All they lacked were onscreen words and a bouncing
Gags proved timeworn and not much funny even
then. Characters set on crude mostly shoot razz berries. That would end with
Code enforcement. Even bits and background figures are drawn like Mickey, with scarce
attempt to conceal the theft. Disney needed a lawyer army to stop burgling from
his easels. Foxy wouldn't last and didn't deserve to. There'd not be one more
time for him after One More Time. Warner cartoons improved when talent like
Avery and Clampett came to create Porky, Daffy, and the rest. These were what
finally put end to Mouse-napping. Seen on Looney Tunes Golden Collection:
MUSIC MADE SIMPLE (1938)---
This is one of MGM's Robert Benchley shorts. You either like his stuff or don't,
few half measures apply. Benchley would do situation subjects where he'd try to
sleep or train a dog to comic effect, the Algonquin's Ed Kennedy or Leon Errol.
Then there were ones that put him behind a podium for a reel's duration, Music
Made Simple among these. Humor being subjective can figure on some that'll howl
through any Benchley lecture, as neighbors on a same row sit in stony silence.
His humor was what they called "droll," which is to say it's not much
practiced anymore. Benchley suits me best when decorating a ChinaSeas
or Foreign Correspondent and not overstaying his wit. One reel of all-Benchley
will do --- two reels would have been stretching his point.
Halloween Harvest 2012 --- Part Two --- Putting The Sell On Vampires
Silent era watchers knew all about that thing
called a "vampire." Theda Bara had been one. So were Louise Glaum and
Nita Naldi. Wrecking men's lives was a vampire's business, but to literally
suck his blood was something else again. That for most went beyondbelief. Supernatural
done serious was for those who bought into mystics, séance following, and other
such foolery. The idea of being "undead" seemed a concept unworthy
even of silliest fiction. Universal's mission for Dracula was to overcome all
that and make real vampires believable for picture audiences. Germany, by way
of director F.W. Murnau, had earlier (1922) grooved to blood-sucking and
eternal lifestyle with Nosferatu, that having belatedly US-opened in 1929 (so
it's written --- were there any bookings sooner?), and mostly to "little
theatres," these earlier incarnation of art houses.
There's been too much written about Dracula for
me to regurgitate a fraction of here. It's a dense subject best approached by
increment, in this case with emphasis on how a few 1931 theatres sold the
groundbreaking pic. Dracula was an exploitation natural that foresaw horror's push to generations forthcoming. A lot of bally tricks were introduced
here. Showmen could wish all merchandise came so natural to promotion. Dracula
the movie was played straight, but needn't be sold that way. Exhibs found you
could take the edge off nightmare inducers by stressing "fun"element
of being scared silly, thus come-ons tinged with humor. Then as ever, patrons
sought higher ground in relation to shows that might frighten them otherwise.
Nobody wanted to be a crybaby. Let others take chillers seriously while we
maintain composure and stay in on the joke. Showmen were better to tread
lightly, for weren't Dracula and his kin somewhat of an irreligious lot to
Toward figuring out what this Dracula was all
about, the Exhibitors Herald-World dispatched a rep to Universal during 10/30
while filming was underway. He came back to describe a vampire thus:
blood-sucking "half-dead" ... who peers through cobwebs, changes
himself into a wolf and then into a veil of mist. Well, it was a start toward
understanding this character from a novel reported (at least by EH-W) to have
sold more copies than any other book except the Bible. Uni's expenditure for
production was said to be $400,000 (actually $341,191, according to my source),
while star Bela Lugosi makes weirdness a part of his daily life --- even
carries it into his home. Was this publicity's variation on Nosferatu's gag that
lead Max Shreck might himself be the genuine vampiric article?
Setting a pace for selling's ground game was the
Roxy onBroadway and Hollywood's
Pantages Theatre. Times Square had seen a
surfeit of so-called "weak sisters," those pics difficult to push for
their sheer lack of exploitable elements, Dracula a stark departure from these.
Mobs around the Roxy reflected success of posted "snipes" around town
that used a Friday The (February) 13th opening day as superstition's
endorsement of Dracula (actual bow had been moved ahead one day to avoid possible
jinx of a 13th premiere, thus first Roxy showings on the 12th). Said snipes courted
levity along lines of Monster Laff gum cards we used to buy in the 60's: Good
To The Last Gasp, I'll Be On Your Neck, etc. And imagine that palace's Dracula
backed by an aggregate of ballet, chorus, and "Roxyettes" 125 strong.
Fox West Coast Theatres laid groundwork in
February for Dracula playdates ahead. The circuit heard rumors that Universal
planned roadshows for the east, but trade screening raised some doubt as to
wisdom of this: While it must be admitted it is a thriller ... still there are
spots where it sags and takes it out of the big class ... or even out of the
semi top class. Fox put its own pen-and-ink artists to ad prep for Dracula at
West Coast venues, these among most striking imagery to bestir interest in the
thriller. This is hardly classed as a child's picture, warned editors of the
circuit's newsletter: We would not attempt any contest among school children ...
it is a bit too nightmarish.
Excess morbidity was also discouraged. It would
not be very good policy to use coffins in front of your house ... in other
words ... don't go too far in gruesome exploitation ... keep it weird ... but
don't suggest dead bodies. To further leaven the horror, a principal Fox ad pledged
that "Dracula will haunt you ... he will thrill ... and yet amuse."
One screwy scheme to emphasize the latter was the Pantages' placement of
paperhangers in formal dress and masks to install a Dracula twenty-sheet on Hollywood Boulevard
billboards. Keep it fun was the overriding message, as was Handle (Dracula)
With Care. By all means, stay on boardwith eerie exploitation, but don't go
overboard, and avoid targeting kids.
Universal trade ads were frisky and distinctly
precode. "Dracula Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out" seemed to
trade on a Lon Chaney-spoofing song introduced in The Hollywood Revue Of 1929,
while art of Bela Lugosi hovering over a barely night-dressed victim promised
delights the film would sadly not fulfill. "The Story Of The Strangest
Passion The World Has Ever Known" put Dracula's erotic appeal on a front
burner, with eager femmes seeming to await the bloodsucker's unholy embrace. So
what was this Dracula other than "a vampire petting party of 500 years
ago"? That was plenty enough to fill registers. Sex was pushed, and pushed
hard, for these first-run engagements, a spin that would be abandoned later
when Dracula was back for reissue coin, often in Frankenstein's company, straight
chilling being watchword for 1938 and beyond ads observed closer by Code
For '31 dates at least, there was promise of the
vampire's kiss like the icy breath of death ... yet no woman could resist. So
how many of that gender's number lined up to see what this amounted to? Dracula
issued a virtual challenge for women to confront this most impure of potential
lovers. Were "Gasping Heights Of Passion" not unlike
"Terror," after all? Midnight previews might answer that query ---these
a lure to grown-up attendance and hopeful word-of-mouthfor days to follow.
Dracula could do worse than "living on the kisses of youth," after
all. I tried finding Google reference to some of these vaudevillians who
stage-preceded Dracula at RKO's Orpheum Theatre (above). Naro Lockford and Co. were
acrobatic and adagio dancers. The "5 Honey Boys" are apparently lost
to time (as are a majority of minstrel acts, I suppose). The Sandy Lang Revue
was known for its skating exhibitions, and continued performing as bonus to
movie shows into (at least) the forties.
AIR FORCE (1943)--- May-be the best of combat
pulse-pounders done when the war's outcome was still uncertain. Howard Hawks
directed Air Force for Warner Bros., so top rungs are a starting point. I hear
Hawks gave supervisors apoplexy by shooting slow and having dialogue rewritten.
As many fresh words came via Bill Faulkner, you'd have to figure Hawks once
again knew his business. The flying crew is a usual wartime assemblage, but
clearer-drawn, and all memorable here. Placing Harry Careyamong them confers
instant authority. John Ridgely commands and had to have looked back on this as
his shining hour in films (mostly minor parts otherwise).John Garfieldis
malcontent to start, but gets with the program. That sounds familiar, but he doesn't
play it so. Neither do Hawks or his writers.
What We're Fighting For was never put across so
effectively. First act tension derives from night flying toward Pearl Harbor just after the attack, and battle scenes to
follow are just impeccably done. So much Air Force atmosphere presages The Thing, broken-up dialogue and stepped-on lines an HH signature. Underplaying
applies modern patina we expect of all that is Hawks. Did he possess a crystal
ball that saw into 21st-century preference? You'd not be embarrassed showing
any of his best to a current crowd. That's been the case for Air Force's
near-seventy years and applies as well to ones even earlier. Hawks was himself
reticent and so are his characters. At no point in Air Force do any of them go
over tops. It's his finest war drama, which is to say it's anyone's in that
category. Long, but never feels that way. You're hardly aware of the clock.
Apple streams Air Force in high-definition. I never knew anything could look so
BACHELOR APARTMENT (1931)--- Lowell Sherman
repeats his Way Down East seducer for laughs, going about what was then
expected of a well-established screen persona. Irene Dunne tames him in that
way "good" women had of draining fun out of otherwise spicy comedies.
Again, there are misunderstandings to eat up slow moving time. Sherman's splendidly art-deco digs are at
least visual compensation. Silent-era names make late career appearance. Mae
Murray seems more a stalker threat than intended comic mistress Lowell
discards. Norman Kerry of added weight and thinning hair supplies curio interest
for those who wonder what became of Phantom Of The Opera'sleading man.
Bachelor Apartment is another RKO with soft picture and flattened sound in
common. Are camera negatives for these lost?
THE PERFECT SNOB (1941)--- A more silly than
funny B from Fox, but I made it to 65 minutes' finish line. Star aborning
Cornel Wilde is supported by comic gifts from God Charlotte Greenwood and Charlie
Ruggles as henpecker and henpeckee. These two plus indulging director Raymond
McCarey make The Perfect Snob fun. Ray was Leo's brother, lacked the latter's
singular genius, but knew ways 'roundcomedy, having directed Our Gang,Roscoe Arbuckle,Laurel/Hardy, and the Stooges. He replaced Mal St. Clair --- from
expertise standpoint, a mere switch from apples to oranges. Plenty creative was
Fox's reuse of Swamp Water sets for Wilde and Tony Quinn's sugar plantation. Nothing
went wasted at Fox. Build for one and use for three. That water-logged stage surely
stank to blazes by the time this crew came by it. The Perfect Snob's story
splits between there and Hawaii
resort setting, so we don't feel confined, that the bane of B's where
background is static and under-dressed. Cornel Wilde is actually livelier here
than he'd be as a star. Did after-handlers tamp him down? The Perfect Snob is
good example of talent brought along in sink-or-swim programmers where not too
much is gambled toward creation of headliner merchandise. Excellent quality via
Fox's On-Demand DVD.
MANDALAY (1934)--- Here was precode released 2/34 in last
flowering before strict enforcement applied chokeholds. Tears are shed yet for
latter-half 1934 shows shorn by censors wide awakened. Mandalay got under a net lowering and perhaps
chose that occasion to give precode a wild and wooly send-off.Kay Francisis
the dove soiled yet again. She loves, loses, then poisons Ricardo Cortez, for
which there is no legal consequence. Mere months later would have seen her led
off in cuffs, something neither audiences then nor us now would have liked.
Warner Oland supplies first-half menace. He was another of those true
eccentrics that bespoke precode, a face and voice to sum up the period and make
a best argument for reviving its wares. Directing flair uplifts Mandalay's not-uncommon narrative,
Michael Curtiz composing to maximum effect. Foregrounds are never vacant,
interesting people and objects moving constantly between us and principals who
emote. How is it backlot locations are more satisfying here than if they'd gone
abroad to actual ports-of-call? Humblest programmers from WB are rife with
flavor and incident. The likes of Mandalay
are what form lines at precode revues put on by what repertory housing
survives. I saw it on TCM, but a Warner Archive release can't be far off.
MABEL AT THE WHEEL (1914)--- Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand
fun-making for Keystone. There's renewed life in this antique for archival
gathering of multiple nitrate prints used to cobble a best-ever presentation of
this and other CC's for Sennett. What's wondrous is street and background life
we observe as comics cavort amongst real folks going about daily life. Do
general (not film) historians realize what valuable social documents these are?
There are people standing in distant backyards to witness Charlie and Mabel
merriment as if that were routine incident. Heck, maybe it was. Best of the
Keystones for me are when they plop down clowns at actual events such as
parades, auto races, whatever engaged a pre-WWI populace.
On this occasion, it's a motor derby and Mabel
is indeed at the wheel. Other drivers are kitted in turtleneck and goggles,
looking sporty and not a little teens-era glamorous. Speed roadsters spin on
mud as Sennetteers (including Sennett himself) dodge them. We're less taken
with foreground frolic than onlooker eyes darting between Chaplin/Mabel and the
camera photographing them. A lot by then would have known CC for the
up-and-comer he was. Others look frankly bored. One smiling man leans backward
into the arms of a male companion (out and proud circa 1914?). Mabel At The
Wheel is 23 minutes truly spent in another era, print quality at last
permitting us to reach forward and feel the air.
CHINA DOLL (1958)--- Blame director Frank
Borgaze for the ocean of tears to be shed at a wallop emotional finish to this
WWII romance. The impact comes slow and unexpected, opener reels suggesting
little past odd pair-up of hardened flyer Victor Mature with a Chinese waif he
unknowingly "buys" from her father. Give it time and China Doll will
hand you something memorable. Borzage's name assures plenty out of the
ordinary. Mature shows again how good he routinely was by this point of a
prolific career.Robert Morrison
produced for the Batjac company --- he was John Wayne's brother. Duke could have
played this, and well, but not so well asVic. Dish Network comps subscribers
with On-Demand HD of China Doll and others of United Artists origin. It looked
terrif in 1.85.