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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Greenbriar's Halloween Harvest For 2013

Will You Give Up Your Toothpaste Carton To See Bela Lugosi?

TCM can be a box filled with surprises. I DVR'ed The Death Kiss last Saturday, and lo/behold, the thing looked better than ever I saw it, with not only crisp image from 35mm, but hand-applied color highlights till now stuff of printed legend. So how come an independent cheapie to have tint segments that took untold effort to apply? (thirty hours for eight seconds, it's said) Turns out Death got Kissed by one Gustav Brock, an artist/illustrator long at the task of color flashing what objects on screen needed emphasis, his wand previously waved over at least three of Von Stroheim's silents, The Navigator with Buster Keaton (those effects apparently now missing), and several Marion Davies specials. Sudden and unexpected color gave audiences a goose, and beyond mere novelty, it could serve dramatic purpose as well (check out Brock's "golden" touch upon Greed as retained in TCM's print). The Death Kiss has little standing thanks to poor prints till now in circulation. Bela Lugosi and other Dracula cast members are in it, which is why people watch, but there's more of interest than has so far met viewing eyes.

The Death Kiss was an independent mystery thriller released by World Wide, a company associated with busy-since-silents Tiffany, well-named as it was the tiffany of budget firms, Journey's End (1930) among talkie jewels so far cut. The Death Kiss gains interest for shooting right where action happens, to wit a film studio beset by killing done via a fake firearm replaced by the real thing. Solution is arrived at by David Manners, livelier here than in Dracula, that a partial compensation for Lugosi again being the red herring upon whom suspicion must naturally fall, him a known bogeyman by 1932. We all come away from such as The Death Kiss wishing for more Bela, as in much more to exclusion of boring others, like Vince Barnett in excruciating comic mode. Still, if you want to tour a down-market movie studio, here's the place to do it, The Death Kiss a near-documentary dose of pic-making outside realm of majors-dominated Hollywood.

Dismal times were upon Broadway's "Old" Roxy Theatre (the "New" Roxy being Radio City's just-opened companion for its Music Hall) . The palace seated 5886 and carried weekly overhead that demanded seats be filled. A "presentation" policy had been in effect for the six years since Roxy's opening, hugely expensive stage extravaganzas that kept ongoing costs kite-high. January 1933 found all of Broadway bent in supplication to the mighty pair that was Radio City, their auditoriums siphoning off trade formerly province of a Great White Way. The "Old Roxy" was being called that by trades, and it stung. Low grosses were further indication that Radio City had belled the cat. Roxy saw its all-time worst week with Air Hostess from Columbia in mid-January, an abysmal $7,000 (note contrast: The Cock-Eyed World in 1929 took $167K in a single Roxy week). The house by '32 was in receivership, steps now taken to revive the husk via price drops and change to vaudeville/film policy. Backstage help and other staff was also laid off.

Major releases with attendant % rental were taken off Roxy's menu until fiscal wolves could be routed. For a meantime, independent offerings were chosen for cheapness, hope being that vaude extras might bait hook for patronage. The Death Kiss came at flat cost of $1,500. Air Hostess from Columbia had as price tag $5,000. Walt Disney cartoons also sold by Columbia were getting $500 for first weeks at the Roxy, according to research by animation historian Michael Barrier. Variety estimated that World Wide recovered 3% of its Death Kiss negative cost from the Roxy booking alone, the film having been made for a lean $50,000. Trouble came when second run circuits got in a lather over the Roxy reducing admission for its Death Kiss first-run to thirty-five cents. How could they hope to make later profit with Broadway shaving rates so close? Pressure was put on World Wide to yank The Death Kiss from the Roxy, and the company duly applied for a court injunction, which wasn't granted. The show would proceed, on agreed-upon terms.

The Roxy hung S.R.O. signs as The Death Kiss opened on 1/27/33 to sensational business. Crowds went around the block ... this for a poverty row whodunit? (Variety estimated that one hundred thousand people saw The Death Kiss during its Roxy week) There was cause for the stampede, one lost to time admittedly, but revealed in trade coverage of the day. Seems the Roxy had tied in with radio station WABC to use on-air personality "Just Plain Bill," doing a six-minute talk from the stage. Bill's sponsor was Kolynoss toothpaste, and they'd stimulate lines with a unique appeal to young and old: Bring your empty toothpaste cartons and get in free. The deal called for Kolynoss to give the Roxy a dime back for each admission. In further exchange, Plain Bill's WABC program would lean hard on Death Kiss promotion. Result? A first week of The Death Kiss doing four times what Air Hostess had earned in the previous frame. Said Variety: More kids are seeing the Roxy show this week than all the other Broadway houses together have seen in a year. Trades weren't giving The Death Kiss much credit, Variety referring to it as "a weak screen sister," but with its radio and toothpaste pitch, the Roxy could have run a Reb Russell silent and gotten by. The Death Kiss would afterward slip from vaunted start to obscurity it knows today. How many among moderns know, or care, about The Death Kiss?, other than Lugosi-philes given to turnover of his every performing rock. And yet The Death Kiss offers much of interest, from cast to setting to unique color effects. I'm hoping it will someday merit a full-on restoration by one of the archives.

Many thanks to Scott MacQueen for steering me in direction of Gustav Brock and his work with color tints.

JUST IN! (12:55 PM): Scott MacQueen very kindly sent a vivid sample (above) of Gustav Brock's color tints as they were applied to climactic scenes of The Death Kiss. There were two color sequences that I saw in TCM's print this past weekend. Both were very effective. One depicted a nitrate print catching fire in a projection room, with appropriate reds and yellows to accentuate the danger. Greenbriar much appreciates Scott MacQueen sharing this unique image with readers.


Blogger Dave K said...

So many of the Lugosi odds and ends are, objectively, barely watchable but this one has been a guilty pleasure for me even without the hand coloring. The behind-the-scenes atmosphere seems a lot more reliable than most early talkies from the big studios set on movie sets. Makes me smile to think this sub-B was actually a hot ticket once!

3:05 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Oh, and that frame grab looks terrific!

3:06 PM  

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