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Friday, February 23, 2018

Choosing Loyalties In Wartime


Menzies Makes Much Of Address Unknown (1944)

Paul Lukas is tempted into a Nazi net while pre-war vacationing in Deutschland. Lukas was the Hungarian import that made Hollywood grade as opposed to countryman Bela Lugosi, who struggled. Was it Lukas' greater proficiency with the language, or was he the better actor? If nothing else, Lucas rang warning bells re Axis menace, what with this Columbia "B," plus higher-profile Watch On The Rhine and Uncertain Glory for Warners. Address Unknown was directed by design maestro William Cameron Menzies, who wrings visual elegance from a very limited budget, this a Menzies signature that would persist into the 50's and Invaders From Mars. More money might have increased scrutiny of script content; as it stands, this is bolder with regard SS persecution of undesirables than even mainstream propaganda engaged. Much of termite art was practiced by B's for their ability to glide under radars. Address Unknown shows up occasionally on TCM, product of their ongoing run of Columbia pics.




Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sing A Song Of Drive-Ins


Did The Boys Know A Place Even Better Than The Beach?



Shawn Nagy's Super Oldies is where I set my online dial each morning. They choose beyond rigid playlists of Sirius and whatever radio still plays way-back hits. The Beach Boys came up this week with a 1964 tune called Drive-In, which I don't recall as a single, and barely, if ever, heard anywhere before. Drive-In was written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love. There were plenty of pop songs about moviegoing culture and drive-ins in particular, but few spelled out why young people preferred under-stars viewing, though as Drive-In tells it, "viewing" was a least of reasons to attend. I listened closely to the lyrics and tried plugging my own drive-in concept to the what the Beach Boys knew. We differed first and most decidedly on climate and when those outdoor screens were lit. California screenings could go year round, and did. Our drive-ins had a busy season (late spring, through summer), had to take winter months off but for brave sites that offered heaters and sometimes free coffee to patrons willing to brave the cold. Others just closed and took lumps of months without the cash flow. I'd not ventured a drive-in outside of summer before taking a date one January to a banged-up print of Thunderball, and that proved a mistake for myriad of reasons. North Carolina under-stars during winter was scarcely what the Beach Boys knew in the Golden State.






"Every time I have a date, there's only one place to go. That's to the drive-in," begins the song. Families sought drive-ins for a cheap night-out, grill meals for all, with kids within reach and likely to fall asleep. Teens conversely went to be with other teens, loose from constriction that was home, and assured privacy that was closed cars. To take a date was reason aplenty for going. "It's such a groovy place to talk and maybe watch a show," maybe being operative word, for did it ever matter what was on the bill? (exceptions, yes, like NC lure that was Thunder Road) The drive-in was about community and freedom to move about, socialize, enjoy perks like playgrounds, train rides, full-service food, that hardtops couldn't supply. Theatre seats were confining, and management didn't like us jumping in/out of them, except to go buy concessions. To talk at an indoor site meant disturbing others, never an issue in open air that was drive-ins. "Forget about the plot," say the Beach Boys, and indeed, who took time to divine that, with so much else to distract us? Drive-ins saw their height in tandem with television's rise at home. Both used movies more/less for wallpaper, or white noise at best. Concentration patrons applied from bolted-down seats was no more. People who went to drive-ins for the film were figured to need their heads examined.






"Don't sneak your buddies in the trunk, 'cause they might get caught ..." was the BB's bid for social responsibility, and makes me wonder if anyone ever suffocated for sake of free admission. And what's a record for how many sneaks could fit in a trunk? Maybe this is part-why so many venues charged by the carload. "If you say you watch the movie, you're a couple o' liars, and remember, only you can prevent forest fires" was saucy wink the band didn't generally go in for, but everyone knew the purpose drive-ins served for youth, which is why parents saw less comfort in offspring viewing outdoors rather that in. Much eventuality traced back nine months to stolen time at the Starlight. For myself, our own Starlight was site for oldies and second-runs not likely to play again within four walls. But for the Starlight, there would have been no Brides Of Dracula or The Curse Of Frankenstein in my young life, but short of a driving license (rare among those age 11), who could see such treasure long discarded by downtown first-runners? Drive-ins would go away for a most part ... demise was once explained to me as result of the 70's gas crisis. Was that it, or did folks just get bored with the habit? Where then, do young people go to gather, or do they gather at all, other than online? For modern relevancy, the Beach Boys song could as readily be celebration for spinning bees, barn raisings, or vaudeville. Nothing renders a lyric so quaint as mention of drive-in way of living so long past.




Monday, February 19, 2018

Noir Stepping Closer To The Line


The Big Combo Is A Bracing 50's Slap




Getting goods on the "Organization" is mission for bitter cop Cornel Wilde, who's hobbled by love interest in moll Jean Wallace, she having begun as a good girl corrupted by Richard Conte's untouchable hood. Conte was a last minute substitution for Jack Palance, the latter dropped when he insisted that his wife be given a top female spot. There is violence bracketed by talk (lots) staged in dark spots like RKO once used for economy. Trade ads promised shock along lines of recent Dragnet and On The Waterfront, both hits, and positive reviews looked back further to Scarface and Public Enemy. Cornel Wilde's independent Theodora Productions teamed with producer Sidney Harmon and writer Phillip Yordan's Security Pictures to do The Big Combo, set for tee-off on 9/10/54 in color/widescreen (later down-sized to black-and-white), Allied Artists aboard as of 7/54 with commit to distribute. The latter's Steve Broidy was busy upgrading AA product from humbler Monogram origin, The Big Combo to open February, 1955 with two others of crime-thrilling category, Murder Is My Beat and Dial 116.






Combo got bumped a month on AA's decide to up its advertising budget and saturation-book the thriller for March '55. Cornel Wilde and wife/co-star Jean Wallace guested on NBC-TV's Colgate Comedy Hour and reenacted seven-minutes from The Big Combo to hypo its imminent release. That same month, Broidy hectored an exhibitor conference re over-reliance on blockbusters that left his smaller pics in the cold, warning them that if product like AA's dried up, they'd be at the mercy of big companies who'd then ratchet up terms. For guys like Broidy, it was non-stop war for playdates, his outfit obliged to crowbar The Big Combo and others of AA label into theatres.  Combo's director Joseph H. Lewis and cameraman John Alton would drive later interest among noir fanciers who might have embraced the pic tighter had decent prints been in circulation. You'd have thought it was a lost film for ugliness of DVD's, but these were rotted fruit of Combo's Public Domain status. Now there is, at long last, a Blu-Ray of excellent quality from Olive.




Saturday, February 17, 2018

Claw To Depression's Top


Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Wants Success At Any Price (1934)

Released just ahead of strengthened PCA enforcement, Success At Any Price took aim at shifty business practice, and thanks to writer and committed communist John Howard Lawson, delivered its haymaker to far greater effect than later films where Lawson and other Hollywood Reds could but salt scripts lightly with political content. Success was based on a play of Lawson's that was well received, denuded of Anti-Semite theme, but otherwise laying timber to amoral Wall Streeters. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. starts off a rotter and pretty much ends that way; the picture doesn't pull punches like you'd expect even of pre-coding where romantic leads are involved. Finality of Fairbanks with darkened and hollow eyes must have given pause to those who came, but this being RKO in doldrums, fewer did (a mere $150K in domestic rentals). Much of what this studio generated was like Warner programmers with life sucked out of them, Success having no music, other than source, and playing dead serious all the way. Much of that was Lawson getting in his licks; a print of Success At Any Price was what HUAC members needed when he and other Unfriendly Tenners took the stand during postwar investigations. Still, there is good writing and dialogue here, Lawson full bore at bead on system soured. Frank Morgan's remark at one point that he still believes in America comes across as hopeless naïveté, if not outright idiocy. Such a line, and indeed much of Price's points, would have been expunged had the picture been submitted later in 1934. Ancillary victim is Colleen Moore, fourth-billed and a doormat for all of 75 minutes Success lasts. It's tough reconciling her character here with the Flaming Youth of ten years back. No comeback could come of casting like this, but wasn't that case in the previous season's The Power and The Glory, where she played a same sort of drab part? Success At Any Price turns up on TCM and should eventually on Warner Archive as well, though elements will need a scrubbing for DVD release.




Friday, February 16, 2018

Elvis Out Of Fatigues, Does Fatiguing Movie


G.I. Blues (1960) Has Edges Polished Off Presley

The Pelvis in uniform, being comeback error if we're to regard Elvis as iconoclast or rebel figure, which he'd been to varying degree in a first four before his country called. To tame the beast was Hal Wallis' aim. Presley needed to be industrialized, a consumer good minus potholes that controversy or poor press might impose. His knowing fans would protest (the Beatles maintained Elvis was essentially through after his service hitch), but how much of this singer's public caught merchandising drift? Wallis was experienced, perhaps cynical enough, to know fads could be sustained but for so long. If Presley was to last, it would have to be in safe vehicles recycled on two-or-so a year basis like contract stars Wallis herded at Warners and for his independent set-up with Paramount, for which distribution all his Elvis output was made. 

Et, Tu, Caricaturist? Squares In Selling Maintain Bungle Of The Pic

Just as other rock and roll acts were corporate neutralized, so would be Presley. His having served made the rebel pose untenable to sustain. An Elvis mustered out of uniform might wonder if this was moment to try wings at straight performing along action lines, perhaps a combat story as was engaged by other up-and-comers, or a western (picture him as one of The Magnificent Seven). But wait, the music element had to be served, this more lucrative in long runs than films that came and went. For Presley of the 60's, a film, any film, was there largely to sell records.  G.I. Blues is post-Army Presley formula in vitro, an awkward start. Weren't Elvis pics supposed to be just about Elvis? G.I. Blues has its star share focus with "pals" in his unit, two guys principally, each so dull as to evaporate off the screen. One romances the roommate of Presley's love interest (Juliet Prowse), to which '60 youth must have chanted "Who Cares?" The other has sired an illigit kid with a German townie (!), a plot element both soft-peddled (post-production edits?) and of no use toward making G.I.'s 104 minutes easier to withstand.




Here too, was where soundtrack marketing took center, RCA's LP pushed in both ads and the trailer. Trouble was the songs. They weren't much good, not a meaningful hit in the lot, nor a patch on singles Elvis had been getting out before, during, and after, his Army stay. G.I. Blues takes place in Germany, though all of Presley footage was done on Para's backlot. What scenics there were came of a second unit Wallis sent over, then projected behind Elvis and others doubled in the German shots. The singer's filmgoer base had been teenaged --- now it seemed Wallis was throwing nets over children, a puppet act Elvis shares being painful barometer. This, and interminable business with a crying infant, was what disillusioned fans held up as proof that Presley had been gelded. They were right as to that and more, but Wallis was vindicated by grosses, the best he'd seen so far for an association with Presley. G.I. Blues brought $3.8 million in domestic rentals, a gain on $2.7 million King Creole had earned, and $3.3 million Loving You took. This, of course, was all Wallis needed to prove he'd been right, and so dye was cast (if a Technicolor one) for future Elvis output.




Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Lewton Back In Fang and Claws


The Leopard Man (1943) Brings Out The Beast In Showmen


Two Lewton Thrillers Combine For Chicago First-Run
Horror films were considered as good as means used to exploit them, a title the most critical element, thus B units told by memo that their next would be called Cat People, or I Walked With A Zombie, or The Leopard Man. Arthur Mayer could decorate his Rialto front before seeing the product or receiving the print, provided a title said it all. Art supplied to Mayer, from which he scissored best images and then enlarged the lot, told all that was necessary for sidewalk passers to know, in this case a leopard man preying on women “For A First Time On Any Screen.” Such had been good enough selling for stage melodramas and freak shows, the product stripped-down to barest essentials so a Rialto premiere could prosper, and venues down the line would know better how to promote product labelled The Leopard Man. Chillers by the 40’s looked more urgently toward novelty, as in what your fiend does that no fiend has done before. The Leopard Man played many situations with Captive Wild Woman, which was Universal’s idea of a captivating title at least, and no matter if the picture was good, fair, or stank. Critics singling out any horror film for praise seemed perverse to extreme, which was why Val Lewton stood out like a rose in a thorn patch. Signing mainstream pics would not have done him half so good as single-handed uplift of this lowliest genre. Trouble was Rialto’s mob and others of simple appetite being left behind as Lewton’s product fell shorter, then shorter, of what lurid displays promised.






The Lewton series for RKO was stair-steps that went down, each new one earning less than the last. Trouble too was cost creeping up as the series went along. B pictures could not sustain like this, being a category where you needed to know close to a penny what your merchandise would bring back. None of what came after Cat People would do as well as Cat People, it being the only true sleeper of the Lewton lot. Still, however, there was profit, if less of it, and The Leopard Man certainly had exploitable elements. There was no supernatural card in the deck, as here was horror more psycho-sexual than where monsters loomed large, so yes, you could say this was a “First Time On Any Screen.” Ads argued that a leopard man, serially killing helpless women, was a force driven not by bloodlust, but plain lust. I’m a little surprised The Leopard Man didn’t gross better than it did. Maybe word-of-mouth hobbled it. The Motion Picture Herald’s reviewer (5-8-43) saw clouds gather at a preview screening, “There were perhaps a half-dozen or more walkouts during the unreeling. Noticeably lacking to this reviewer was the tenseness among the audience that generally pervades the screening of a horror thriller.” Scare pics almost never met heights of breathless advertising, customers accustomed enough to that, but there were creep goals that had to be met for value in your quarter, those walkouts certain to tell friends that The Leopard Man fell short.






Censorship was what took juice out of gothic fruit. The Code was just pitiless where horror films were submitted, and why would studios spend chips arguing on monster behalf considering low priority the stuff had to begin with? The Leopard Man was a mystery draped in horror’s cloak. Val Lewton and director Jacques Tournear devised stalk scenes to justify a chiller label, whole of The Leopard Man hanging on one/two segments to haunt dreaming even of  those otherwise let down. Whatever the limits of what he could show, Lewton could always fall back on all colors of his dark, which a PCA couldn’t very well ink out. Most Lewton payoffs occur where we don’t see, or barely can, as in long walk for an adolescent girl who gets home only for the door to be locked against her, helpless pounding no good to gain entry and prolonged enough so the leopard behind will catch up. It’s a classic sequence for which The Leopard Man is best remembered today. What happens after is more conventional business (though not necessarily so in 1943) of human agency behind “leopard” murders and ultimate unmasking of the killer.








The Leopard Man would enjoy the most extensive revival of any Val Lewton film thanks to service as a second feature for 1952 engagements of King Kong. The combo was a summer phenomenon driven by TV saturation. King Kong was, of course, what customers came to see, but The Leopard Man went with it in virtually all situations, and like Kong would earn more than in  first-run. Many a moppet sat through The Leopard Man for no reason other than to gorge on Kong a second time. Example of the pair filling seats was a June 1952 week, plus four holdover days, at the RKO Palace in Cleveland, Ohio (ad at right), where Kong/Leopard "did a better business than any first-run film the Grand has played in the last few months." Lines down a city block brought complaint from merchants that youngsters (60% of attendance, said Variety) were blocking entrance to neighboring shops. Ads like the RKO Palace's told the story ... The Leopard Man was mostly there to clear seats for a next run of the show crowds came for, but Lewton's thriller got massive trickle-down, as did others of his backlog that returned during the 50's. A meaningful boost lay in fact that RKO made safety prints of The Leopard Man for a first time on this occasion, hundreds of them to service saturation dates for the double bill. Many of these prints would stay in circulation for years to come. Afterlife of The Leopard Man was further enhanced by release to television in 1956, its reputation burnished the more when historians took up it with other Lewtons from the early 70's forward (Joel Siegel's 1973 book, Val Lewton: The Reality Of Terror a major step toward that direction).




Monday, February 12, 2018

Murder Behind The Cameras!


The Studio Murder Mystery (1929) Is Prehistoric Whodunit





Killings afoot on the Paramount lot circa 1929, the "Studio" given fictional name, though all of it is Para West Coast, at a time when production was divided between that and New York's Astoria lot. Release came mid-year, so there had been talkies before, though still this wears a mighty stiff collar. Only fullest committed to old film will apply, an effort since no satellite to my knowing beams The Studio Murder Mystery, nor is likely to. There are some we've just got to give up for lost, including lots of Paramount even TV shunned when they first landed there in 1959. Studio suspect list engages, however: Warner Oland, Neil Hamilton, Chester Conklin, victim Fredric March, investigating Eugene Pallette. March and real-life spouse Florence Eldridge do husband-wife sparring, she confronting him for non-stop infidelity, a scene that from my understanding played often at the March household, art mimicking life. The killer's ploy involves dummies and ventriloquism, a challenge to good sound recording, which The Studio Murder Mystery has not got, but a spur toward clunky fun. There are night shoots at the Marathon gate and in-out of sound stages only lately repurposed for talk, so The Studio Murder Mystery has real docu-value to forgive primitivism otherwise. Found it on You Tube, quality not half bad.




Sunday, February 11, 2018

Everglades The Novelty For Indian Fighting


Seminole (1953) Sees Uni Cast Swallowed In Mud

Released just short of Universal's conversion to wide screens, Seminole is swamp-set and endurance trial for talent mostly underpaid to do such muddy work. In-lead Rock Hudson, clear candidate as Universal's next big thing, is backed by weekly-check support in either uniform or feathers, contract players for U getting at least variety in their parts (Hugh O'Brien a shaved-head Seminole, and it looks like he really took it off). Same-time treatment of Seminoles was WB's Distant Drums, more of which had been shot in Florida, but neither pic got made entirely there. These Indians had distinction of colorful dress and repute for no quarter given to white invaders. Background was at least a novelty and that was hoped to bestir interest not roused by mere westerns off U-I rack. Budd Boetticher directs, not so recognizably as later and better outdoor work enabled by superior writing (the Scott/Brown/Kennedy group), but likes of Seminole made possible his move up to Columbia's series now classified as classic. Uni used television heavily to pitch these actioners, and had casts go on whatever local chat shows would have them. This got product noticed more effectively than that from bigger companies and talent that snubbed the medium.


The Seminole story is proposed as true, which historians and even casual watchers know as bogus, but little of 1953 reviewing cared, as what major critics would bother seeing Seminole at all? (Universal could find no Indian women to play squaws, so used Hawaiians in their stead) Formula is doggedly applied, though U-I had by now honed their westerns to sheen of Technicolor and reliable mastery of camerawork. No one's outdoor lensing was more handsome. Two weeks were spent on swampy backlot after briefest establishing shots from Florida-dispatched second unit, to which Boetticher gave morale boost by showing up in immaculate white Panama suit with wide-brim hat, daring any of mud-soaked cast to sully him. They fell upon him, of course, resulting immersion to six feet of "quicksand" poured for the film, as duly reported in humor terms by Variety (7-21-52). Being good sport enough to sacrifice his outfit and be hazed by Seminole cast would earn good will for Boetticher and keep him on U's payroll for another busy year. Seminole has surfaced in rich HD on Retroplex, and is available from Universal's DVD Vault Series.




Friday, February 09, 2018

Vas You Dere, Sharlee?


Meet The Baron (1933) Is Tunnel Through Comic Pyramids

Under heading of things MGM did for boxoffice came Meet The Baron, a screen launch for Jack Pearl of radio fame. Leo brought him and Ed Wynn aboard because free broadcast was too big to ignore. Each got a single starring vehicle at the lot. Metro wouldn't warm to radio like Paramount, but then they weren't invested in radio like Paramount. Somehow producer David Selznick fell on the sword that was Meet The Baron. He wanted no part of the project but did want to be a team player. Selznick spoke to wretchedness of the thing in notes done years later for a proposed memoir. "A horror I produced," he'd recall, "I made the picture with a loathing for it." Selznick confessed he had "never been a devotee of radio comics," indeed had never heard Jack Pearl perform. Hard as DOS labored at movies, I'd not imagine him listening to much radio, what with time off spent gambling and wenching per this dynamo's wont. Only hardest airwave-cores would know Jack Pearl today. Some of his programs can be heard online. Jack mangled words and made malapropisms a found art for schoolboys. They'd spread far/wide his catchphrase, "Vas You Dere, Sharlee?," this Pearl's response when funning partners tried catching him in a lie. "World's Biggest Liar" was in fact his shtick, hence "Baron Munchhausen" as air identity. Here's but sample pearl of Pearl's humor ... I'll spare you more ... Announcer to Jack: What did you have for breakfast, Baron?, to Jack reply: Baseball pancakes, then the announcer again, Baseball pancakes? What do you mean, baseball pancakes? Jack: I don't know, but we used a batter to make them!




The above lobby card from Meet The Baron sold at auction in 2005 for $6900. Can you guess why? Mind you, this was an 11X14 piece of paper. Could be someone bought this instead of paying their child's college tuition, or for that operation so Dad could walk again. Nuts as I was for collecting, I'd like to think I was never this far gone. But hey, it's the Stooges, and Ted Healy, so many might let the family stay lame for such treasure. Would such a card hammer for so much in 2017 as in 2005? It's a cinch there aren't as many Stooge fanatics above ground as twelve years ago. Let that pass, as they say in precode, but I'll add this: Meet The Baron is lush with Ted and his slap-ee boys. He and Stooges are prolific through running time, enough to cull into a solid two-reeler, if one were of editing mind. For most, of course, it's Stooges that make Meet The Baron bearable. I had fun for ardent clowning by not only them, but Jimmy Durante (minus Keaton, could he sustain as lead, or continuing second-lead, comic? --- MGM certainly tried), Zasu Pitts, Edna May Oliver, plus curiosity satisfied on seeing Jack Pearl do his way-back thing. Who knows? There might be a latent Jack Pearl fan within us all. I'm just waiting to spring "Vas You Dere, Sharlee?" on a next person who doubts my veracity. Should I save it for the next GPS reader who tries to factually correct me?
grbrpix@aol.com
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