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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Watch List For 1/2/13

CHINA VENTURE (1953) --- Don Siegel shows what adroit directing can do with low-budget combat formula. China Venture's jungle setting was built entirely on Columbia stages, and frankly looks better than if they'd gone to the real thing. Edmond O'Brien as Sgt. Rock-ish lead must recover a downed Japanese pilot who knows the Empire's plan for defending invasion. Trekking troops are sniper-picked after Lost Patrol fashion before siege by a comic, but dangerous, Chinese warlord. A screwy enough concept, but maybe something like it really happened. Siegel said nobody saw his early pics because they were in and out of theatres so fast, then chopped up for TV. A real shame as to China Venture, cause it's a model of B-level efficiency.

ZENOBIA (1939) --- Done amidst uncertainty of Hal Roach's future in features, this was, according to Roach corporate historian Richard Lewis Ward, a tough one even to get into theatres, exhib and public hostility due to Oliver Hardy showing up sans Stan. Harry Langdon was instead the Fiddle's partner, longtime Bow Laurel having quit Roach ensembles in protest over too-low pay and not enough creative say. Zenobia's namesake elephant is a plot device cumbersome for limit of gags you can reasonably build around such an inexpressive and slow-moving prop. Roach spent probably too much on Old South ambience. This was obviously aimed at first-run and class bookings. Costumes/setting for Zenobia are beyond reproach. Looking at stills is more rewarding than the pic itself.

June Lang, Oliver Hardy, and Director Gordon Douglas On The Zenobia Set

Subplots must have been dropped, for I glimpsed William Bakewell and can't imagine his being utilized as mere crowd filler. Hardy eschews slapstick, opts instead for genteel humor and sartorial elegance. He could certainly have parlayed this into renewed career at character-playing, a more benign Eugene Pallette perhaps. Suppose Babe considered going a separate way and leaving Laurel to contretemps with Roach? One for whom Zenobia gave opportunity was Harry Langdon, this a most prominent feature spot he'd had in years. Pity the part's not better developed. Was Harry left to scheme up his own bits? Zenobia's interest for me derives from so much going wrong. It's frankly a curiosity piece, trouble being satisfaction of that long before 73 minutes is up. TCM's print looks very nice.

MY TRUE STORY (1951) --- A movie based on content from a confession magazine ... was this a first? ... also an initial directing gig for Mickey Rooney, who points the camera ably and wraps under onset of fatigue. Helen Walker is a jewel crook ex-con who goes soft over the old lady she's supposed to loot. Offbeat objective here is rare recipe for a perfume, squirreled away in the matron's mansion. Will Helen's rough-play cohorts come in and take it by force? Mick makes True's small-town setting look like Carvel, only it's Columbia where this was shot, and they were making him do so on nickels. The kind of show that played beneath full weight of bigger attractions and would be wiped out by television giving such away. Reminded me of episodes from Loretta Young's anthology series. Some brutal doings by the gang push My True Story toward noir, but execution is otherwise too drab to qualify, thus cultists won't be bothered. Columbia's rendering looks great on TCM.

OUT WHERE THE STARS BEGIN (1938) --- Star-struck girl manages to sneak onto Technicolor'ed movie lot with help of make-up assistant Jeffrey Lynn. This Warner short made it look pretty easy to crash gates, though I'm sure the real thing was far more Gulag-ish. We do see Wayne Morris, Ann Sheridan, and Dick Foran in relaxed arrival to work, each sat in new convertibles they presumably own. There's every impression that WB paid personnel lavishly (so there's your make-believe). There is making of movies as movies were never made, but writer Crane Wilbur gets a swipe at martinet directors of Euro lineage, specifically Mike Curtiz, upon whom Fritz Feld's Herr Nitvitch is clearly based, the latter instructing minions at one point to "bring on the empty horses." Curtiz malapropisms were sufficiently bandied at commissary tables to eventually make their way to on-set spoofing. Did Curtiz good-sport along? Sprightly songs were co-written by a certain Greenbriar reader's grandfather. Our gate-crasher is discovered straightaway and achieves stardom within a day's shooting. No wonder hopeful kids flooded Hollywood. Subjects like this gave them every hope that fame could be won in a walk. Beautiful quality as a DVD extra with Angels With Dirty Faces.

WILDFIRE (1945) --- History was made when demon West Coast exhibitor Robert Lippert took to custom-making his own seat-fillers, these habitually poised between low and lower budgets, but reliable for at least minimal profits, which was more than Lippert could realize dealing with major distributor sharks determined to scoop his theatres' gravy. Wildfire (The Story Of A Horse) was the first, a modest (and how) western painted with fuzzy hues of Cinecolor and as little action as then-kids would tolerate. It's a curious bag of animal husbandry and sagebrush skullduggery, with vets off earliest silent range. So how much would Lippert pay Francis Ford, director Jack's brother and one-time king of serials, to come in for a morning and do dialogue with Bob Steele, experience between them adding up to almost a whole history of movies? Bob is still in shape (age 38), does horse leaps as in yore, and acquits well with words. His opponent is been around forever at villainy John Miljan, who I thought would have chucked same by 1945, but as it turns out, was getting second wind at screen perfidy. Singing sheriff Eddie Dean has a look-in and a pair of tunes, from which he'd earn a series despite, or maybe because of, a likeably goofball expression and little aptitude for action. The titular horse comes often to Bob's rescue and in fact merited a 1948 sequel, natch titled Return Of Wildfire, in case there's interest (but no DVD available at present). The first Wildfire can be had from VCI/Kit Parker in its fine Darn Good Westerns Volume One set.

THE NAKED AND THE DEAD (1958) --- Big aspirations end with an outsized, but fairly routine, war movie. Charles Laughton was set to direct Paul Gregory's production, others from Night Of The Hunter poised to participate, but all came a cropper when Hunter flopped, and outside interests got involved. Shame Laughton's script from the Norman Mailer novel got sacked once others took charge. Economies being stricter observed, straight-ahead Raoul Walsh took directorial charge, normally a good thing, maybe not as much here. Still, it's two gutsy hours in the field, with Walsh evoking his own previous war forays if not Mailer's. Naked is edge-cutting at times, What Price Glory-retro at others. Walsh went a lifetime figuring old gags could work as well forty years apart. Much of Naked's charm comes of ying-yanging between clich├ęs aged in the wood, and revisionist, if slightly so, script content. Nice use of the widescreen during location'ed combat.

THE EXTRA GIRL (1923) --- Mabel Normand in another of her features for Mack Sennett. This hit an early 20's bulls-eye wickets-wise, perhaps the last of Mabel's to do so. She's already wan here, a burden of bad press and offscreen addiction taking visible toll. Again bound to antiseptic home and small-town hearth, Ralph Graves and Vernon Dent spar for her hand and go at surprisingly brutal fisticuffs, making me wonder at times if this was comedy or what. Mabel's a (too) long time getting to Hollywood, where pace quickens and highlights play out. Normand was among cuter tricks at Keystone, but that seemed eternities ago by 1923 and The Extra Girl, wherein studios beckon in mistaken belief that she'll be pretty enough to star in movies, the letdown upon her arrival being not a little cruel to both Mabel and her character. Behind-scenes Hollywood and LA environs are nicely captured, though what's clearly the Sennett studio isn't called by that name. Tarries a bit for fluff it is, but anything with Normand fascinates, and TCM's broadcast print (furnished by Cine-Museum) looked terrif.


Anonymous Mike D said...

Surprised you didn't mention Aldo Ray being billed under his real name, Aldo DaRe, in 'My True Story'. That looks like him playing the chauffeur.
Looking forward to another year of your wonderful posts!

8:05 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

A longer post on "My True Story" might have gotten around to Aldo Ray, but at least he's represented in the ugly, tinted still I used for "The Naked and The Dead"!

Thanks much for encouragement toward another year of posts. No danger of "The Watch List" running out, as there are hundreds of entries backed up and ready to publish as 2013 proceeds on (I looked at an insane 700 movies this past year).

8:22 AM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

I read somewhere the deal on "Zenobia" was that Roach had L&H on separate, non-synchronized contracts so they couldn't negotiate as a team. Laurel let his contract expire and benched himself until Hardy was up for renewal so they could bargain together. Roach couldn't let Hardy sit around while on the payroll; he wanted to prove he could profit off the boys separately if he had to.

It is a strange film. Hardy and Langdon share some scenes but never function as a team -- you can't drop Laurel into Langdon's part. You also get folksy Ollie justifying segregation to a small black boy via black and white pills. Later, if I recall, he has the same little boy recite some patriotic document to inspire the romantic lead.

ANyway, there are gentle pleasures in seeing Hardy play a non-burlesqued Southern gentleman . . . the type his more familiar character sort of sadly aspired to be (I think of him affecting a smoking jacket and cap in "Sons of the Desert").

3:44 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

DBenson: The situation between Laurel & Roach was a bit more complicated than Stan letting his contract expire to "catch up" with the end of Hardy's. There had been several disagreements between he and Roach, which came to a head when the producer wanted a new ending shot for BLOCK-HEADS. Complicating things further, Laurel was then embroiled in the most troubled of his marriages - a union that, ironically, closely mirrored Langdon's ill-fated 2nd marriage of ten years' earlier. When ZENOBIA tanked at the box office, and Laurel finally shed his ball-and-chain, the two were able to work out a deal that brought him back for a one-year deal that yielded A CHUMP AT OXFORD and SAPS AT SEA. Not until those were completed were he and Hardy finally able to sign somewhere as a team... not that it led to anything close to an improvement.


10:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Fascinating speculation about Oliver Hardy as a character actor!(Remember he was in the pre-Laurel days!) He would have been perfect for character parts---as would Stan! This could have opened new facets of both their personas instead of their mediocre output(not always their fault) after 1940.

Thanks for mentioning one of my favorite Technicolor Warners shorts, OUT WHERE THE STARS BEGIN. This theme was repeated often by Warners in shorts of 1938-40.
Luckily, most of these satirical Hollywood shorts are available as extras on many Warners classic DVDs. Fritz Feld is a great Curtiz!

Palace Theatre

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I've probably said it before, but I think Laurel & Hardy could have done "Zenobia" kind of as an experiment to get out of their usual characters. It certainly would have made it more interesting.

These Wednesday posts are great fun to read. 700 movies in one year! Were there even that many made worth seeing in the last 100 years?

9:08 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

In 1940 Laurel & Hardy despaired of their situation at Hal Roach; they wanted bigger productions and better stories, not the cheap, thrown-together gag bags they'd been doing lately. So, for them personally, leaving Roach was indeed an improvement. Both Stan and Babe liked the new setup: Babe said that Fox gave them the terms they wanted, and Stan kept a huge file of souvenirs from his first Fox picture. After two features that tried to turn them into Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy finally had more say about their movies, and gradually they were able to incorporate more of their own material into the scripts.

9:17 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

With regards to RKO's "The Naked And The Dead" it's interesting to note that the film was shot in "RKO-Scope" by Joseph LaShelle...or "WarnerScope"... depending on which print you see. "Dead" was one of RKO's "last-gasp" releases before they went under; being released by WB in 1958 (let's hope that WAC releases this film.)
Bernard Herrmann, on hiatus from home studio 20th Century-Fox scored the picture at the behest of producer Ray Klune who had remembered Herrmann from Fox. Herrmann was able to conduct his score at the Goldwyn scoring stage even though Hollywood was embroiled in a musicians strike at the time, because RKO was not considered a "major" studio and they somehow got around the boycott. Herrmann scored "Dead" in between "Vertigo" and "The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad"......Frankly, Herrmann's score for "The Naked And The Dead" gives the film a horror and intensity that Walsh & co. had failed to provide. Herrmann's savage, brutally millitaristic main title starts the fim out and never lets up. It gives "The Naked And The Dead" a brutal subtext from which the film derives it's dark power.


8:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Zenobia" also has the dubious distinction of being the last movie Stepin Fetchit was in during his initial run as a film star, excepting his "comeback" appearances in a handful of films in the late 40s and 50s.

10:01 PM  
Anonymous Ed Watz said...

Stan Laurel quarreled with Hal Roach over creative control while earning over $100,000 a year in the late 1930s for his work as actor/writer/director (without screen credit on the latter duties, of course). It must have been a shock for Laurel to realize that Fox and MGM were only willing to pay him $25,000 a picture for services rendered as an performer, regardless of any creative input. The only post-Roach year that Laurel & Hardy made anything approaching their previous annual salaries in film was 1944, when they each earned $75,000 for appearing in three features. It must have been a humbling lesson to Stan that whatever their disagreements, Roach had been the fairest boss he ever had in pictures.

1:32 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Great shout-out for OUT WHERE THE STARS BEGIN. And SWINGTIME IN HOLLYWOOD with Feld and Foy is maybe even better!

Still have a beat up 16mm print of ZENOBIA, a fun kind of oddity, P.C. concerns aside.

Have not caught MY TRUE STORY since the 60's... would love to catch it again!

7:30 PM  

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