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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

When A German Heat Seeker Came Our Way ...

M "Staggers The Senses" In America --- Part One

Got out the Blu-Ray again when word came of Criterion discs rotting. Hadn't affected mine, but there was impetus at least to see the feature again, plus several of its extras, and to conclude that M is my favorite of all foreign-language films. Son of original producer Harold Nebenzal calls it great entertainment despite subject matter that couldn't be more off-putting. I won't countenance any current movie or TV program involving abuse to children (which lets me out of most Law and Orders), but M I'll watch anytime. The thing's still as modern as if made yesterday. I listened to the audio commentary, which is excellent, plus left off subtitles and realized I'll not use them again. Bane of foreign pics for me has always been need to read throughout, and inability to do that and absorb visuals. Maybe sharper folk handle this better, but I pass on vertical tennis matches or watching movies on a pogo stick. Mine eyes weren't made to bounce. M works all the better on repeat basis where titles become superfluous. Besides, I always wonder about accuracy in translations. Check out the English-language version of M (included as an extra) to know how banal dialogue becomes when bastardized from native language. It's sure not the same show Fritz Lang directed, yet appears to be what Yanks often saw from 1933 till art houses took pains later to show the German real-deal shot in entirety by him. Question arose as to M reception on domestic shores (very little on the topic in Lang bios), and what turns up on inquiry is as usual surprising in terms of how the '31 classic was marketed stateside.

Ever hear of Joe Plunkett? Turns out he was single-handed importer of M to the US. Plunkett was a hustler and done-it-all who began with Paramount in silents (producing) after much stage experience. He then ran the Strand on Broadway, a huge house, which gave Joe scent of dollars and how best to earn them. His general-managing the RKO circuit lent further mastery in the trenches. Like most cash chasers, Joe was on lookout for what he could buy cheap and peddle to venues outside an industry mainstream. M had been lining them up in Berlin, but no US majors wanted meat so tainted (how the H to sell a thriller about child killing?). The Schubert organization was briefly interested, but hedged on money. Plunkett rolled dice as was wont and acquired rights. He read and saw how well foreign stuff could do given right handling. There had been trade-reported film shortage with imports looking good to product-pinched houses. Rome Express from Gaumont-British via Universal was getting traction, and RKO's Metropolitan circuit saw strong business with Maedchen In Uniform, which had "broken down the chain booker's general opposition to foreign-mades," according to Variety. Could M forge similar inroad to American boxoffices?

Joe Plunkett had a friend in Walter Reade, both being lifelong dime into dollar men. They had lately teamed to produce stage units for independent venues in need of live prologue to movies, a venture very much like James Cagney's in Footlight Parade. Reade also owned a Broadway bulwark, the Mayfair (seating 2,200), which he had leased to RKO for ten years at $270,000 per annum, of which seven was left, but his tenant "repudiated" the contract after trying to stiff Reade on rents. RKO had upper hand what with Depression bearing down, and took a "So Sue Us" attitude to lone wolf Walter. He'd operate the joint himself to keep it open, this as of 3/33, when pal Plunkett came calling with long chance that was M. Not that Reade was weighed with product, having been stuck so far with indies (Race Track from World-Wide), plus one from Gaumont (Tribal Wars). Maybe M was just the novelty he'd need, and help besides to usher in new policy for the Mayfair, hereafter "The Cinema Of All Nations."

By trade estimate, M came to, and conquered, the Mayfair. A first week after 3-31-33 opener brought $15,400, the theatre's "best in a long while," according to Variety. That sure beat the down-street and size comparable Rialto, where Girl Missing from Warners "will be lucky" to pull $9,000 for the same frame. Reade/Plunkett's German grenade held for three weeks despite growing intensity of backlash toward all things Deutsch, this a result of Hitler crackdown on American majors and their reps. Variety's 4/18/33 headline said it all: Nazis Oust US Film Men. Frost would be felt wherever German stuff was shown. What was once 100 stateside theatres hosting the country's product as regular policy was, as of May '33, down to six. Reason was 65-70% of pic-goers for these sites being Jewish, and they'd bail with word of hostility aimed their way by the Nazi regime. Variety added that "a goodly portion of the German-American population is figured as being in sympathy with Jewish feelings on the matter and are also laying off German product."

Was it general resentment toward Germany that caused a second week's Mayfair audience to begin demanding refunds because they couldn't understand M's dialogue and didn't like subtitles? This was "anti-Hitler feeling," said Variety, and the Mayfair needed quick action to quell it. Joe Plunkett and Walter Reade yanked the German-spoke M during its second weekend and substituted an English-language version done by producer Seymour Nebenzal for UK markets, the Mayfair operating on sensible theory that customers are always right. Fevers still ran high and M's storyline didn't help, even as word-of-mouth pulled in sensation seekers. "The Woman's Angle" as reported in Variety (4/4/33) said that despite being depicted with "realistic artistry, compassion and dramatic suspense," M would be "limited by the nature of its theme and unfamiliar sordid background to the femme intelligentsia." True enough words to describe 1933 viewer prospect --- do they still apply today?

Part Two of M is HERE.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Always insightful Craig Reardon weighs in on "M" (Part One):

Boy, do we think similarly, John. "M" is quite likely the greatest foreign film I've ever seen, as you don't have to make any allowances for whatsoever, and that---if some of the precious film students and critics were as honest as they are precious--is something you can't say for most any other foreign film that's been canonized. From its story to its direction to its casting and acting, it's a masterpiece, alright. I have often been exposed to the same 'received wisdom' I assume you have about movie history, and until about fifteen to twenty years ago, when I decided---a very deliberate decision---that my opinion was just as valid as anyone else's, for ME---I tended to accept things like, "Lang is cold; he doesn't really communicate with actors; he's a technician". Well, whatever American actors who worked on his films may have thought of him personally, either in the workplace or socially, you sure don't get those other impressions when you watch "M". It is merely PERFECTLY cast, and the direction is taut, believable, intelligent, probing, teasing, fascinating, always. The blocking of the camera is way, way ahead of what I tend to think of as "its time", but this is terribly compromised by my relative lack of knowledge of silent movies, let alone those made in Germany. I have been catching up a tiny bit with purchases of the Blu-rays of the Murnau films offered through Eureka! Masters of Cinema of the UK. It's their edition of "M" that I have, which gives you the German original (preferable in content and appearance) and an early dubbed version for distribution in England. I take your point about dubbed films. My objection to them is that they're so often badly performed. Also, as you impute (accurately!) that English translations used as captions on many films are often erroneous or even censored, or both, I wonder whether this isn't also often true for those translations used for the actors dubbing them? I can understand just enough French that I often laugh at what the subtitles say on French film classics versus what I'm actually hearing them say in French. Today, in my opinion, it would be possible to redo ALL foreign films with accurate translations that are not foolishly nor primly bowdlerized, and to have them DECENTLY PERFORMED, for crying out loud, by the actors chosen to dub them! Meantime, I accept the irritating limitations of subtitles, though you are as usual so on the money in describing the 'tennis match' for the eyeballs. Fortunately, "M" is told as much in images as it is in dialog.

4:16 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two of Craig Reardon on "M":

It's funny to read you quoting that contemporary quote that allows that the film takes a mature and compassionate view of women, but judges that "female intelligentsia" will probably not like "M". What a paradox! It would be precisely those intelligent females who WOULD love "M", just as it still appeals to intelligent males. It's INTELLIGENCE ITSELF which it seems to me is always in a bit too scant supply, and inhibits awareness of and enjoyment of far too many great aesthetic/commercial achievements such as "M", and a proper appreciation of the artists involved in them. Take Peter Lorre, God bless him. For him, I'd have to say that after "M", everything was a gradual and accelerating descent from Mt. Olympus, as far as film art is concerned. Like Bernard Herrmann commenting on his own film career as a composer, he said "I began at the top, and worked my way down." (Having begun, as you know, with "Citizen Kane"! His patron Welles could have said that same.)

Bravo on another great posting that throws the spotlight on a film whose appeal can never, ever wane....still a brave, thrilling, funny, shocking and magnificent film...and apart from a very, very few others (and right now I can only think of "Psycho"), one of the only 'serial killer' movies that leaps above its kin like a skyscraper does compared to mud huts.


4:17 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

To much talk about Blu-Ray; I actually don't need any of that. I remember the days when Salvador Sammaritano would show this film on TV in the mid eighties (I think he also showed on the small screen in the sixties as well). The print was rahter worn, the telecine not really good but I managed to read the subtitles:

I really love subtitles and I have to disagree with you, they are inobtrusive and I prefer them by far than the lousy dubbed version that companies are imposing in Argentina on basic TV channels and even movie theaters (they will fail, as usual).

Subtitle creation is not difficult and I have seen what individual people for personal fun are doing in other languages (mostly, for Criterion videos) which is in many cases of high accuracy.

And for obscure movie releases... Do you know how was the release of CUESTA ABAJO (1934) in New York?

6:30 PM  

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