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Friday, September 20, 2013

Universal Catches Gaumont's Express


Rome Express (1932-33) Was a US Sleeper Train

A flat marvelous rail-set thriller, which once aboard, never stops till we reach dénouement. What a kick to find one previously unknown that turns out so good as this. I'm for putting Rome Express in a class with The Lady Vanishes and Night Train. Part of bounty is surely Sydney Gilliat, the writing whiz whose very early credit this was. Along as well to punch entertainment's ticket is Conrad Veidt, sinister as we prefer him, and silent-era lure Esther Ralston, a doll here and adept with words. Why didn't she cut it with talkies? Rome is Grand Hotel on rails, multiple stories converging to frenzy of a last act. Snappy beyond what you expect of Brits at dawn of sound, this one went out with high expectation.


Producing Gaumont-British had just erected a lavish new facility at Shepherd's Bush, including what was said to be Europe's largest soundstage. Rome Express would be their first filmed there, work begun in June 1932. US release was surely a target, as this was customized very much after Hollywood pace and fashion. Could Rome's locomotive outpace our own Shanghai Express? Critics said it had --- indeed,  consensus among many was that Rome Express beat even Grand Hotel at multi-character gambit. "At last there is an English picture that one can welcome with rousing huzzahs," said New York's World-Telegram. Rhapsodic press called it a landmark, that rare UK import you'd call truly entertaining. To The Hollywood Reporter's estimation, Rome Express gave "clear indication that the London producers have finally caught on."


Variety reported (12/32) Universal's US distribution buy from Gaumont for $20,000, "as a guarantee against percentage." The trade further gave Rome Express a rave, calling it "probably the best British film shown over here to date." Rome Express had been made for less than $100,000, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and would "demonstrate conclusively that our big costs and heavy overheads are foolish, that not only can good pictures be made for $200,000 and under, but MUST BE MADE (their caps) at that figure if our business is ever to be put on a profitable basis again." The Reporter saw Rome Express as product that could overcome ingrained prejudice of domestic audiences toward foreign-made films, "PROVIDED Universal gets behind it with the proper advertising and exploitation ..."


Universal used trade and critic momentum to score a booking at the RKO Roxy, adjunct to the Radio City complex recently opened. Here was a prestige date that got attention, but a first week's take of $30K was adjudged an overall loss thanks to overhead the 3,510 seat venue generated. Latter half of February 1932 stood out for three British-made features opening in Times Square, including Gloria Swanson's independent Perfect Understanding, and The Man Who Won, from British-International, in addition to Rome Express. No one could accuse Universal of narrow offerings; their weekly house organ pushed a second Gaumont acquisition, Be Mine Tonight, a musical from over there, and a more challenging sell than Rome Express. These were sold alongside The Big Cage, with Clyde Beatty, a first starring feature for Walter Winchell, and Lee Tracy in Private Jones (when was the last time these were seen anywhere?).


One aspect of Rome Express that gave me a happiest jolt was recognition of footage that Universal lifted for use in their two-years later The Black Cat, that being stuff of train departure and extras getting aboard. The corpulent chef taking receipt of meat delivery, cigarette hung out of his mouth (above), is a Black Cat image that's stuck with me going on fifty years. Now I know from whence he came, and even better, there's more of him in Rome Express, even to dialogue and reaction when bodies pile up. I always figured that character had an inner life we weren't seeing, and here it is. For all I know, Vitus Werdegast and the Alisons are seated somewhere aboard this Rome Express as well, making their way to fateful rendezvous with Hjalmar Poelzig. VCI has a fine DVD of Rome Express as part of their ongoing British Collection. I couldn't recommend it higher.

1 Comments:

Blogger Michael said...

Jeez, guess I have to buy this for a third time, having owned previous bootleg VHS and DVD. It is a corking good film and a better suspense film than any of Hitchcock's talkies to that point. The remake, Sleeping Car to Trieste, is also worth seeing, but it doesn't have a star to compare with Veidt in Albert Lieven.

12:10 PM  

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