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Wednesday, November 28, 2012


The Watch List For 11/28/12

BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK (1934) --- Freewheeling gentleman sleuth Ronald Colman in the second of what I wish had been a longer series that unfortunately ended here, at least insofar as Colman's participation. 30's mystery goes down easiest on light setting. The best of them are all about personalities, or should be. Footloose RC relies on his charm, of which there's plenty. Strikes Back reminded me of The Devil To Pay of a few years earlier, being undistilled Colman as most prefer him. No lost love or march to the guillotine here. Bulldog's mystery is not one the cast takes seriously, its solution apparent from about mid-way, getting there and beyond being multiple levels of fun.


Villainy is supplied by Warner Oland. I read how he showed up often not knowing the day's dialogue. Maybe actors now should follow that example given results WO got with it. Oland v. Colman is a thespic dream match. You could wish detecting Drummond had gone over to Fox in the wake of Strikes Back and teamed with Charlie Chan. This one seemed precode, even though it wasn't, what with foolery arising from Charles Butterworth and Una Merkel's unconsummated wedding night. Danger is real enough to keep Strikes Back out of outright spoofing's way, but barely so. What a shame this isn't legit-available. Some underlying rights snafu, I assume, and who'll spend the $ clearing it? One of the best 30's pics we can't see, except boot-wise.


MEN IN WAR (1957) --- The grim business of getting to, then taking, a Korean objective one foot and casualty at a time. Men In War was said to have cost indie filmmakers (for UA release) less than a million, dirt roads and Bronson cavern subbing for Asian peninsulas. For its simplicity and avoidance of combat formula, this may be a purest of manhood rituals director Anthony Mann addressed over a decades-long career. I'd guess he had more freedom here than with big studio westerns done around a same period. Men In War's writer (Ben Maddow) went on blacklists and so was not credited. Players I like do strong work: Robert Ryan (in for a % of the pic), Aldo Ray, Robert Keith (one word of dialogue as a shell-shocked officer, and great), James Edwards, Vic Morrow ... there's also Tony Ray, director Nick's son of le affaire Gloria Grahame fame. Men In War padded someone's purse, with $1.3 million in domestic rentals, another $1.3 foreign --- this was one independent venture that paid off.


FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967; US released in 1968) --- Hammer films, at least around me, had stopped drawing crowds by 5-11-68 when I saw this with The Viking Queen, Brick Davis and myself feeling quite alone at the Liberty. Distributing 20th Fox was little more engaged, their pressbook for Five Million Years To Earth less substantial than a cocktail napkin. The fact it's among best of that era Hammers mattered little for eroded enthusiasm for their brand (Five Million got a paltry $306K in domestic rentals). Co-feature The Viking Queen was maybe more to liking of whatever other fourteen-year-old boys were that day in Liberty attendance. Five Million Years To Earth (UK released as Quatermass and The Pit) served a deeper dish than I could fully grasp at the time. It's actually taken a number more viewings to catch up with startling ideas put across here. Hard to believe something so literate played initial dates to mostly children. Many towns had it only at drive-ins, a further barrier to committed concentration Five Million deserves. Seen on a crackerjack Region Two Blu-Ray that I'd highly recommend.


ANDY HARDY'S BLONDE TROUBLE (1944) ---  Andy headed off to college really amounts to splitting up the family, so there is back-and-forth between him on campus and fairly tepid happenings back in Carvel (making us realize how much the Hardys needed Andy). Surprisingly long for a Hardy, Blonde Trouble puts both Andy and his audience in unfamiliar surroundings. What helps is novelty of the Wilde twins (both still with us) and suddenly grown up, even though she plays a freshman co-ed, Bonita Granville (one thing startling about teens in 40's pix is their stylish and mature dress --- I could happily go for any of Andy's suits). Dr. Keye Luke drops over from Blair General to treat Judge Hardy for tonsillitis, a neat melding of two entrenched MGM series.


The Hardy franchise was here at a turning point. How could they continue with Andy away four years to college? And what of his service obligation, with a country now at war? (scenes addressing this issue were shot, then jettisoned) Andy and Carvel would never be the same after Blonde Trouble. One more in 1946, Love Laughs At Andy Hardy, would not revive the brand after a two-year's break of momentum (and Rooney's own service hitch). Worse would be Andy Hardy Comes Home, which he shouldn't have, in 1958. A most surprising aspect of Blonde Trouble is college dean Herbert Marshall, who flirts with possibility of romance with student Bonita Granville, a concept far more daring now than it would have been in 1944. Seen on TCM, though Blonde Trouble is bound to show up with Warner Archive's next Andy Hardy wave.


PARACHUTE BATTALION (1941) --- This was sold by RKO to 1941 exhibitors in the same block with Citizen Kane, but unlike Kane, came back with a profit. Parachute was exactly what audiences wanted as the country drifted closer to war. True, it doesn't amount to much, but soldiers in training were focal points of interest for families facing membership thinned by a peacetime, and soon to be wartime, draft. The story is mere backdrop to training footage, with boys making first jumps out of aircraft. War isn't mentioned, but it's clear that's where they're headed. Edmond O'Brien looks younger than he would again, a handsome boy who'd be immortal as an agitated character man, and Robert Preston is recognizable mainly by his voice. Welcome Harry Carey plays a grizzled sergeant. Viewers who'd known his westerns since childhood must have been reassured to know HC stood still ready to serve. There's no combat here, just camp conflicts, more of them romantic than military-related. A fairly rough print seen on TCM.




Saturday, November 24, 2012


A Saturday Cartoon Carnival

We all have our Saturday mornings to look back on. Mine were mostly Our Gang, Laurel-Hardy, an occasional Flash Gordon serial, and most prolific of all, syndicated cartoons. Winston-Salem's Channel 12 ad at left represent their years black-and-white broadcasting color cartoons from the pre-48 Warners library, short after numbing short that at a peak, ran to ninety minutes with few interruptions (local sponsorship hard to come by for such ghetto AM hours). Selections were random. There'd be a good Daffy Duck, then four or five cat/mice couplings separated only by recurrence of the Warner shield flying out of its tunnel. Popeye shows on Charlotte's Channel 9 could be dire in event of King Features horning in on Fleischer classics with one of their made-for-the-tube subjects. Overall kid reaction (and socko ratings) made less distinction, cartoons on 50/60's television being horn of plenty for stations lucky enough to exclusive-get the best packages, as trade advertised herein.



Toy and Sugar-Sweet Merchants Were Eager To Climb Aboard
 AAP Buyer Station Wagons During a 1956-57 Syndication Boom 

Also-Ran U,M&M Offered Betty Boop and Little Lulu To
Stations That Couldn't Afford, or Missed Out On, Bugs and Popeye
I used to wonder why there wasn't a "Mickey Mouse Playhouse," "Fireman Jim Presents Donald Duck and Friends," or some Disney-such. Walt was known even then as miserly with regard his cartoons on TV. There was the Sunday night hour, but to my mind, these weren't authentic for titles removed and shuffle into theme format that dominated WD's Wonderful World. Pre-packaged half-hours of MGM or Lantz cartoons were alike in further snipping of theatre credits, as were "Harvey Films" that I long assumed had been made by the comic book publisher rather than Paramount. What with DVD release of animation by the tons, we can now see much, if admittedly far from all, of cartoons now gone from Saturday schedules, our own customized weekend views far surpassing what was available way-back (thus my coverage of lately seen ones that follow). There's amazing scholarship all over, on line as well as in books. I get more than ever out of watching cartoons, then consulting what experts say, most all of them having come by lifelong interest the same way I did, by rising early-morn to gorge on happy animated alternative to five days of school-going.


Replace Those Envelopes With Hundred Dollar Bills To Get An
Idea Of How Lucrative AAP Cartoons Were For Buyer Stations
AIN'T SHE SWEET (1932) --- Paramount calibrated its "Screen Songs" to grab viewership beyond appetite for mere cartoons. This series combined big star live action and tune delivery with what amounted to intro animation by the Fleischers, their stuff a warm-up to names hot off radio and song sheets inviting us to join in group recital of hits of the day, this not unlike concerts now where performers encourage the crowd to participate. Screen Songs livened many a then-show, theatres being already a community center most everyplace, and natural venue for folks to share vocalizing with neighbors. Two places then, where small towners teamed at song, church and their movie house. Today, we seem down to neither. Hard for me to imagine a thousand strong accompaniment to Lillian Roth doing Ain't She Sweet, but this thrush was persuasive, and like laughter is contagion to a crowd, so too would most give in to her invite. Such fun forged bonds among patronage that brought them back, if not for movies, then for pleasure of just being there and raising voices together.

Check Out The Billing Figure ... This Kind of Money Was Unheard Of
in Kiddie Programming Up To That Time

Here's Explanation For All Those Washed Out Prints
16mm Collectors Later Had To Cope With
Flash forward to early 60's me sitting before a televised hour of Screen Songs (never meant to be run in groups) and tiring quickly of the format and a bounce ball I was loathe to sing alone with. Recollection is of watching Max and Dave's cartooning for a first half, then switching channels or consulting comic books for dullish recital that followed, never realizing this was the highlight for first-run audiences. Ain't She Sweet is included among rarities in Flicker Alley's Saved From The Flames DVD set, and glory of glories, it has all-original Paramount titles and logo as opposed to NTA replacement footage imposed on these shorts from 50's date of syndication. How many Para shorts survive with credits all-intact? Maybe Olive Films will answer in event of Blu-Ray releasing Fleischer subjects, including (rumored) Betty Boop, and (is there hope?) more of these Screen Songs.

We're Fifty Five Years Later .... Does This Still Hold True?

Do You Suppose There's a Long Retired
Station Employee Out There Who's
Saying, I Used To Be Brakeman Bill!
COPS IS ALWAYS RIGHT (1938) --- Bluto and spinach on sabbatical as Popeye faces police brutality and a strident, even for her, Olive Oyl, who answers his dogged devotion with heaps of abuse beyond customary levels. Was this an unhealthy relationship the sailor should long ago have gotten out of? He's there to help with housework and she continually snipes him. Maybe Popeye needed spinach to put down Olive oppression. The surly cop is a partial Bluto stand-in, but Popeye won't fight him back as that might be bad example for his Saturday theatre club members in then-cross-country attendance, the sailor after all a role model to 30's moppetry. As usual miraculous animating is in play, Fleischer artists staging furniture ballet we see from overhead long shot (Popeye's room redecorations). Just moments like this make a whole cartoon worth watching. There's also dashing up/down endless flights of stairs, a reality of urban apartment dwelling before elevators were commonplace (reminded me too of Buster Keaton's similar exertions in The Cameraman --- comedy and cartoon folk obviously watched each other closely).

AAP Celebrates The Very Thing Parents Worried About ...
Kids Camped In Front of the TV Instead Of Playing Outdoors

WACKY RABBIT CARTOONS (1938-1940) --- How piggy Warners got once Porky took off and race was on to develop another critter for equal, if not greater, earnings. Did edict come from Jack L. and New York to incubate more animated stars, but quick? A late 30's pipeline was filled with screwy fur or feather bearers to vex established names like Porky or Elmer and threaten to steal their public's fancy. In fact, Daffy and later Bugs would do just that, reducing Porky/Elmer to mere support player status (a crowning humiliation when Porky became Daffy's "comic relief" sidekick in some 50's western spoofing). Rabbits on ways to becoming Bugs are chronological presented in WB's second Platinum Collection, several new to DVD, all presented here in Blu-Ray. The four relevant cartoons are Porky's Hare Hunt, Hare-Um Scare-Um, Prest-O Change-O, and Elmer's Candid Camera.


Wait A Minute, This is Seattle. You
Mean There Were Two Brakeman Bills?
For those into history of Warner ways, these together are like tour through their Termite Museum, a dig so deep not possible till now. Respective "wabbits" are doggedly wacky, by number four almost conventionally so. Sometimes wacky blurs with irritation (ours), and you want beleaguered hunter dogs, or Porky himself, to take a hare by the throat and rip him asunder. Cartoon characters walk a fine line twixt tickling funny bones and getting on nerves. I was happiest with Elmer's tormentor who at least spoke in conversational tone as opposed to others with a same shrillness. One even got there first with the Woody Woodpecker laugh that would plague us all later. Watching these will satisfy all of Bugs Bunny being no overnight creation. Trial and error we get via the quartet shows how animators/idea guys struggled to star-make characters since taken for granted, but how else to screen-test other than throwing sketches against screens to see which ones stick?


Disney's Cartoons Had Been Undisputed Kings In
Theatres, But They'd Pass On Syndicating the Library
PUSS GETS THE BOOT (1940) --- The first Tom and Jerry cartoon, though here they're Jasper and Jinx. Metro probably knew they'd get a long series out of these, but 110 and then some? It's remarkable standards stayed so high, T&J's good at least to intro of Cinemascope and weaker ones that followed (never mind 60's dross and stuff for tee-vee). Showmen hugged the cat/mouse from beginnings --- it looked finally as though MGM had a name team (and brand) that could be advertised out front. What a relief Tom and Jerry surely was for New York's sales division too. The series pumped super-violence into cartooning, more so as crowds lapped up Tom electrocuted by a tail plugged in sockets, biting off his tongue upon a suddenly shut mouth, other such frivolity. He's also shaggier in early ones and does real cat sounds to convey pain (lots of that). Jerry/Jinx gets an upper hand to close Puss Gets The Boot, Tom in receipt of just that, but tables would turn as feline and rodent took equal punishment in cartoons to come, per audience desire. A great thing about T&J was that neither was all good/bad, having equal parts rooting interest (ours). Mammy Two-Shoes was reliable for giving both a higher authority to fear and answer to. A shame she'd disappear and not be properly replaced. The first thirty-seven Tom and Jerrys are out on Blu-Ray from Warners, all complete and beautifully rendered.




Wednesday, November 21, 2012


The Watch List For 11/21/12

HOT PEPPER (1933) --- Irrepressible Flagg and Quirt, enacted a fourth (and final) time by Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen, don civvies for a go at rum-running and double-crosses. The two were like rowdiest guests at a stag dinner, their bawdy asides tempting fate of even lax '33 censorship. The Flagg/Quirt tandem was synonymous with loaded dice and fast shuffles. Femme support could anticipate an onscreen pat in the rear from Eddie, while blustering Vic was seldom remiss at licking ten times his weight in bar bullies. Perhaps less liberties were taken with Hot Pepper for censor awareness of the series' raunchy past.


What Price Glory? had led the Flagg/Quirt assault in 1926 and was wide-seen as the most profane of all silent features (confirmed by lip-readers). Sequel The Cock-Eyed World spoke in Sez You-Sez I vernacular, plus Lili Damita as 1929's marine objective. These characters and formula were foolproof and renewable. Hot Pepper of that title is Lupe Valez, stripping for Vic in what might be tagged Exhibit A for precode license. She dances too as a night club show-stopper that made me (and doubtless then-crowds) wish for an encore. Eddie gets off a crack, Aw nuts, with a shell on, that for all I know, entered catch-phraseology among Depressioners.


Dumbbell shtick comes courtesy El Brendel, someone at Fox's pet who got into much of their highest-profile stuff (a counterpart to Harry Green at Paramount?). Directing John Blystone likely sent others home by saying, OK, El gets the rest of this scene ... orders from the front office. Hot Pepper came and went in 1933, was missing for years after, then turned up as part of a "Golden Century" TV package Fox devised in 1970. From there, it vanished again and remains so. Mine was grey market off a long-ago dealer. Quality's actually pretty good. If 20th's On-Demand program wants to open our eyes, they should get this and others of Fox precode inventory into circulation.


PURSUED (1947) --- Can lifelong tortured dreams reveal what so unsettles brooding Robert Mitchum? Pursued has been called the first of saddle-bred noir. I'd tab both it and just-previous Duel In The Sun for honors (Duel maybe more so), the two not coincidentally based on novels by Niven Busch. He saw Pursued as vehicle to further enhance stardom of wife Teresa Wright (first-billed), and didn't worry much over Mitchum, or whoever, for the male lead. Producing was Milton Sperling, a Harry Warner son-in-law the family wanted in-house, so they made him a deal to do semi-independent ongoing A's with top WB names. Sperling got/gets a bum rap as the "son-in-law also rises," but I've yet to see a United States Picture that disappoints (USP his indie company name). Writer and perhaps envious Ivan Goff said Milt was "a joke" and that nothing he did amounted to importance. Posterity gives the lie to that amidst reappraisal not only of Pursued, but Cloak and Dagger, South Of St. Louis, Three Secrets, The Enforcer ... I could go on.


Sperling was known by fair evaluation as a crack story man (he wrote as well) and seasoned judge of what worked. To a post-war market gaga for genre twists, Pursued was novel merchandise and not to be confused with wilting sagebrush patrons had tired of even before a slump gripped '47 boxoffices. Freudian psychology was fresh paint applied to an otherwise whodunit resolved like others in a final reel. Intelligently written and played, Pursued woke up a jaded public who'd seen everything on horsebacks and took $1.2 million in profits for WB. The pic's interest stays lively for guessing what oft-flashbacked dreams signify, its big reveal at the end a satisfying one. There's also fistfights and gunplay so psych stuff won't weigh too heavy. Directing Raoul Walsh was less thinker than action purveyor, so his taking charge saves Pursued going too contemplative. Olive's Blu-Ray lends further distinction, a great job and credit to James Wong Howe's rich photography.


CITY GIRL (1930) --- Farm boy Charles Farrell is city-bound to sell the wheat crop, meets and marries hash-slinger Mary Duncan, then courts disaster when he brings her home to face tyrant patriarch David Torrence. A story that can be, usually is, very unpleasant, but oft-told in the late twenties when urban v. rural themes resonated more. MGM had done similar The Wind with Lillian Gish, which I can't bear watching for her shrinking violet response to cruelty inflicted by country hosts. Mary Duncan's City Girl stands up to farm oppression and generates more rooting interest. Director F.W. Murnau of Sunrise triumph composes each shot like something you could hang on a wall, City Girl further proof of silent film having reached artistry's summit just prior to that era being banished. In fact, a part-talking re-gig that did mischief with Murnau's cut was released, but is (perhaps thankfully) lost, leaving us with the silent (as preferred by its director) version.


RUNNING WILD (1927) --- A Bill Fields silent feature for Paramount. He's beyond hen-pecked here, abused would better describe it, not only by a shrew wife, but her nauseating kid for whom Bill must provide. In-laws and bloodsucking stepchildren were foundation not only for Fields' domestic comedy, but others who saw extended family life as ongoing hell on earth. Bill sold me here never to adopt ready-made households. His only consolation in Running Wild is blood daughter Mary Brian, who's devoted to him (minus her, RW would be an unrelieved downer). Sounds like content Fields devised, but James Curtis' bio informs that the story was someone else's, and much invention came courtesy Gregory La Cava, who directed. Bill straight performs near-heart-rending stuff, like when beloved Brian denounces his lack of backbone. Fields could do a hurt reaction to nines. He'd been there, so knew terrains of loss.


Running Wild is another where we wait impatiently for the worm to turn. When his does, Bill all but deconstructs whatever sets are standing, and deals out physical punishment, intensity of which he'd not repeat once sound arrived. Fields getting even in Running Wild is not unlike Harold Lloyd settling Kid Brother accounts the same year --- both violent beyond what we expect of such mild-mannered personas. Running Wild is more about character than laughs, but so long as it's Fields, we're fascinated. This is from his clip-on mustache era, that a barrier to fullest enjoyment, plus, of course, the lacking of sound and Fieldsian repartee. I watched this on a DVD made off a video cassette Paramount released for their 75th Anniversary. Looked tolerable, and there's a fabulous organ score by Gaylord Carter.

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