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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The First Couple In A Movie Together

Reagan Bows Out Of Starring Features with Hellcats Of The Navy (1957)

Recalled, if at all, as Ronald Reagan's only feature appearance with wife Nancy. It looks like a war movie made during the war itself that got dredged up to release in 1957, as if someone had misplaced it for fifteen years. Cheapness is byword, this a second of properties Charles Schneer developed for Columbia release under his "Morningside" banner. Schneer had done sci-fi/fantasy (The Giant Ymir, which became Twenty Million Miles To Earth), but didn't want himself typed by the genre. Product needed to be cheap so as to play double features, often at lower position. You couldn't spend a million dollars and expect to get it back booking flat. Hellcats Of The Navy had every cooperation from that branch; Pacific Fleet Commander Chester Nimitz even did a prologue and participated by way of actor portrayal. A bigger star than Reagan and expanded budget might have gotten a good picture out of this ...

Sub dramas were popular; there'd been Submarine Command with William Holden, Run Silent, Run Deep and Torpedo Run to come ... all had, and needed, a strong name to lead. Reagan earlier cast lot with TV, folks understandably of opinion they should get him for free. In fact, this was a first lead he had in quite a while (also his last). Hellcats Of The Navy mooched off previous sailings, Crash Dive (1943) among recognizable oldies pillaged. Simple math dictated that if action highlights couldn't be got elsewhere, Hellcats would do without. There simply wasn't time or money to stage combat beyond most modest of scale. Music, too, was borrowed, main titles reusing The Caine Mutiny's principal theme by Max Steiner. A decade toward forgiveness put chill on "Jap" epithets --- they'd be "Japanese" in all but one line of dialogue, and that was probably a slip where resource was lacked to reshoot. Hellcats Of The Navy turns up on Sony's HD Movie Channel, looking better than you'd imagine it could, so, of course, that helps for getting through it. Toward satisfaction of curiosity and closure of Reagan watch lists, Hellcats Of The Navy gets by.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Literary Classic Put On Paying Basis

Greenbriar Posting #2000: David Copperfield (1935) Is Evergreen For Metro

MGM had a “World Heritage” series they launched in 1962. Designed as outreach to schools and sop to group attendance, the oldies group generally booked on off days (Tuesday was choice for venues near me), and would play matinee-only at many sites. Cousin to the Heritage lot was “Enrichment” titles, which were literary-based and ripe for higher-brow approval. All of selections had played TV or were about to, but freshness wasn’t the point of Heritage and Enrichment, content based after all on history, or musty books ordinarily the bane of youth bundled aboard buses to see impossibly old movies adapted from even older text. MGM kept prints at their Charlotte exchange for as long as there was a Charlotte exchange. A friend who worked there told me that upstairs storage fairly groaned with 35mm and tons of accessories for Heritage/Enrichment, plus long-beard musicals brought back to pleasure middle-agers. Sad day was when all this got junked with closure of the address, though a few stragglers continued to be booked right into the early 80’s. Enrichment was the bundle that held David Copperfield, which I was jubilant to see at Gastonia, NC’s Webb Theatre in 1969, just me alone with a like-new 35mm print that I’m sure management regretted booking in view of non-attendance to the 1935 relic. Heaven on earth was seeing W.C. Fields, Basil Rathbone, more of favorites, up on the big screen and in a show altogether new to me (no close-by TV station ran Copperfield by the late 60’s) and hugely entertaining.

To adapt David Copperfield was longtime goal of David Selznick, him quartered at MGM from 1933 with his own autonomous unit and access to contract stars. Selznick had read the Dickens novel over and again from youth, had a dog-eared copy with red binding that his father had given him which DOS carried throughout research and production on David Copperfield. Selznick knew Dickens so well that he could spot misplaced commas or punctuation in later editions. The novel could not have been placed in more responsible hands than his. Whatever changes or abridgements he made were to the ultimate good of the project, as evidenced by popular embrace of the film and how it has sustained even unto present day. Selznick had demonstrated how to make classic novels pay with his Little Women a couple of seasons earlier, that one a rare instance of major gain for struggling RKO. Maybe success of Little Women induced a doubting Metro to go forward on David Copperfield despite built-in complication of a story cleaved in two by its half-and-half focus on David the boy, then David the man. Greater interest was vested in the child portion, that agreed by most readers, some suggesting the movie end with its title character at cusp of maturity.

Some floated possibility of a movie done in two parts, as in a pair of features based on the novel, but final vote would go for 130 minutes to tell the narrative, or what the film could contain of it, with a first 70 or so minutes given over to the kid portion, and remaining hour to the grown-up lead. Casting had benefit of bigger-than-life personas duplicating larger-than-reality figures as envisioned by Dickens, the cast based, at least visually, on “Phiz” (Hablot Browne) engravings that appeared in earliest printings of David Copperfield. A personality-driven 30’s star system could mirror perfectly the flamboyant illustrations so familiar to readers whose image of Dickens’ universe was based on these. Certainly W.C. Fields had a face and carriage straight out of Dickens, as did Edna May Oliver, Herbert Mundin, Una O’ Connor --- you could argue the whole lot belonged more to a nineteenth century than to the twentieth. I wonder how these players might function in today's entertainment setting, or could they function at all? Changes in performance style make ours a tough stage to fit Edna May Oliver into, but then, how many current names could have risen to a level equal with such a colorful cast in 1935?

Struggle at the time was to find a Brit boy adequate to play David. That would be Freddie Bartholomew, a mannerly child who could weep copious through Dickensian ordeal. Tougher and less noted quest was finding an adult as effective to essay grown David. Borrow of Frank Lawton from Universal was likely surrender to fact no one could be found so ideal as the child. What was needed, and not got, was 30’s equivalent to John Mills as mature Pip in David Lean’s Great Expectations in 1946. Lawton seems weak to have emerged from struggle we’ve seen Freddie engage, and drama of a first half of David Copperfield is not altogether sustained for a second. Most memorable of Copperfield cast couldn’t help being W.C. Fields as Micawber. Of clips excerpted since, his drop from roof ledge into family hovel is the comic highlight, Fieldsian enough to find use in 1964’s Big Parade Of Comedy or other occasion where MGM needed footage of the comedian. In fact, David Copperfield was all they owned featuring him. Fields’ would be the face of Copperfield advertising from 1935 onward, his image certainly a point of emphasis for those occasions when the film was revived during the 60’s and afterward.

Holiday Gift From NYC's Channel 2 --- A Less Mutilated Copperfield
David Selznick made friends among directors, and they’d stay loyal to him. He also kept ties with MGM so that he could borrow helmsmen in their employ when need arose. W.S. Van Dyke, for instance, came over to stage a sword brawl between Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in The Prisoner Of Zenda (credited director was John Cromwell). George Cukor had been a DOS loyalist since doing What Price Hollywood? and Little Women at RKO, both these produced by Selznick when he was with the beeping tower. Cukor must have been open to, or tolerant of, Selznick’s non-stop outpour of suggestions. The director signed a contract with DOS after the producer went independent in 1935. A lot of what recommended Cukor was how he handled literary adaptations entrusted to him by Selznick. David Copperfield was auteurist in the sense of auteurs being Selznick-Cukor, the team as decision-makers immune to Metro oversight. Shared success had given them such leeway by 1934 when David Copperfield was made. Even so revered a writer as Hugh Walpole, brought over England to help adapt Dickens, would break on the wheel that was Selznick-Cukor driven. Screenwriter Sidney Buchman recalled Walpole working under “strict tutelage” of the pair, “struggling to be a carpenter” for a David Copperfield built to mass-market blueprint. Buchman said Walpole ended up “like some beaten schoolboy, totally intimidated, utterly miserable.” Perhaps not altogether miserable though, as Walpole would stay on to work with Selznick on Little Lord Fauntleroy the following year.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Westerns On 60's Ways Down

Audie Murphy Seeks 40 Guns To Apache Pass (1967)

Audie Murphy had to scratch for work after being let out of Universal, his kind of westerns not long for an industry leaned toward spaghetti flavoring a genre gone flat. Murphy was fed up with saddling, but needed cash. He'd like to have done other sorts of projects, developed a few, but with no takers toward financing. Don Graham's fine AM bio says the faded star got a mere $50K to do 40 Guns To Apache Pass for producing Edward Small, one of four they teamed on with budgets of $400K each. Small by this time may have figured his output had more value on television, that being where these likely broke even or took modest gain. Director William Witney got his 40 Guns crew out to rocks where I guess he'd been innumerable times for westerns near identical to this one. Witney was thirty years at the game by now, time enough to fill an ocean with actioners. The fact of some being a best in their class still awaits proper recognition, and though 40 Guns isn't that, it still plays efficient and more so if seen at proper 1.85. 40 Guns To Apache Pass was essentially an old western newly made, last roundup for hands long calloused by outdoor work. What became of so many men who saw their way of life and living suddenly put aside? We'd sit through films like 40 Guns To Apache Pass at the Liberty, impatient for them to end for horror or sci-fi to follow. Someone might have whispered, a la Rhett Butler, I wouldn't be in such a hurry to see them go if I were you ...

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Walsh Leaps to Silent Era Forefront

Regeneration Defines Big Picture-Making For 1915

Dashing Raoul Walsh (seen pictures from this period? --- no wonder he was also in demand as leading man) directs, co-writes for a first time to establish a half-century career. Critics were wowed and RW became a made man at features in infancy. What to weep over is follow-ups of his that don't survive, dozens of which sound fascinating, especially those with Walsh-wife Miriam Cooper, who put Raoul in a briar patch once they split (hell hath no fury, etc.), but made with him a series of ace-high dramas like The Honor System, a prison meller that would probably be a hailed a masterpiece if only we could locate it. Director primacy is won by those whose work has longest survival list, that helping Griffith, for one, stay atop. Walsh meanwhile, who may have been best of all, must sustain on tiny sampling of a prolific silent career gone largely to dust. Regeneration turned up by chance to uptick his standing and prove Walsh began at a gallop. Of course, more could resurface tomorrow, and elevate him further. Regeneration is called the first feature-length gangster movie --- quite a distinction --- and I don't see anything challenging it. There's good pace, subtle effects, a camera pulling in or away for emphasis when needed. Walsh was a quick study at Griffith's elbow when he played J. Wilkes Booth in The Birth Of A Nation. To think this man kept making movies all the way to 1964 is some kind of amazing. 

Monday, July 09, 2018

History Brought To Technicolored Life

Colonial Hardship Of Drums Along The Mohawk (1939)

Another stress watch, as many classics have become for me. No blame on John Ford's film, but Drums Along The Mohawk is intense, Indian attacks way harrowing despite repeats of the show and knowing well the finish. Hordes not shown close-up ("Thousands, and they're coming this way!") make any stand against them seem hopeless, which for most of run time, is dispiriting case. How often were real-life pioneers obliged to rebuild after yet another scorch-out of communities? These natives are scarier than most in movies, and that may be why Ford gets latter-day slam for portraying them that way. A tense wrap is out of Griffith's Birth Of A Nation playbook, siege on the settler's fort reaching pitch of children snatched from mothers and nearly tossed to flames before reinforcement arrives at a last moment. Did this cause nightmares for 1939-40 youth? (would have for me) Drums was pitched aggressively to schools, so kids were there as groups, maybe less so by choice. Much as I admire Drums Along The Mohawk, there's fierce edge to its blade that Ford humor cannot undo. How to erase recall of helpless Francis Ford strapped to a hay wagon set ablaze? Takes time, or maybe my hide has thinned for this sort of mayhem.

Americana and patriotic topics was table set for much of 1939 showgoing. Even shorts went three-corner hat route via Warners and its "Sons Of Liberty" group, these less for profit than trumpet blowing "Good Citizenship" on WB part for making them. Westerns as told on empire builder terms were wows for profit, but looks to America's Revolution bore taste of chalk and dates to memorize. In short, back to school, and how was that fun? Allegheny Uprising from RKO went unwanted ($230K lost), while wiser heads stayed clear of the era most considered poison for movies (that had been assumed for Civil War themes as well, until GWTW). Maybe crowds were exhausted with Americana by November 1939 when Drums Along The Mohawk was released. Ford and Fox had gone enrichment route earlier in the year with Young Mr. Lincoln, and that yielded red ink. So too would Drums Along The Mohawk, which cost more ($1.4 million to Lincoln's $606K), did much better, but not enough to return a heady investment in Technicolor and location filming. Drums Along The Mohawk wasn't a disaster ($2.1 million in worldwide rentals), but that wasn't enough to see profit, and profit was what Fox was in business to generate.

A starting-out squawk I had this time was miscast of Claudette Colbert as co-lead with Henry Fonda. He's right, her less so, or maybe it's Fonda looking younger than his thirty-four years when Drums was made. Colbert had two years on him (born 1903), and buying her as sheltered daughter seen off to frontier wedlock by weeping mom Clara Blandick is asking much. Better choice for the part, admittedly less starry, would have been Linda Darnell, new to 20th and initially used for the ingénue part Dorris Bowdon ultimately took over (Darnell is said to be visible in long shots). Sounds unlikely at first blush, but the role needed a girl untried by frontier life, which Colbert decidedly was not, having a so-far career at knowing the score, and better served by contemporary backdrop. Darnell was admittedly green, as in virtually no experience, but wouldn't all that have worked to considerable advantage had Ford brought her carefully along and gotten the character his narrative ideally sought? Word was that Colbert talked back to customarily unchallenged Ford, her ace being status as loaned-out star, as in major star, from Paramount. Serious argument between these two could have led to a him-or-me phone call back to Fox, and I'm not so sure Ford would have prevailed. Give me Darnell then, for ideal pairing with Fonda (and they would get together the following year in Chad Hanna).

Robert Lowery and Linda Darnell on Location --- Darnell Would Later Be Replaced

Fonda at one point recites carnage of a battle Ford meant to shoot, but didn't for time and budgetary reasons. The telling is explicit beyond what could have been shown on screen ("Heads blowed half-off" --- that sort of thing). It was effective shorthand on Ford's part, and what savings ... Monogram could have used his kind of economy. For combat approximating what Ford might have staged for Drums Along The Mohawk, there would be 1940's Northwest Passage, where King Vidor pitched violence-beyond-norm between explorers and redskins, also in color. Sinister face of Drums' enemy is John Carradine with an eye-patch and Tory sympathies. Redcoats don't show until a third act, and they're mostly at a distance. Zanuck didn't want to irk the British, knowing they'd soon enough be our wartime allies. If wilderness was indeed a last lost paradise, Ford found it at his Utah shooting site that cast/crew would remember as highlight of their professional lives. Nightly ritual of meals, entertainment overseen by Fonda, taps blown, tent sleeping, all of roughing it that was/is the Romance Of John Ford, and reason his outdoor stuff cries authenticity.

Exploitation aimed for jugulars ("treachery, massacre, torture ... into the valley where the savage Iroquois lurked!") even as outreach went to educators by way of charts picturing historical sites, these to display in school and public libraries. Fox got Drums Along The Mohawk a favored spot on the Kate Smith radio hour, with dramatization of scenes from the film. "Super-Color Photos" in a set of eight promised a "three-dimensional effect," these turning up later at paper shows and prized by collectors. Drums Along The Mohawk was back in 1947 and did $424K in domestic rentals, along with Western Union a most profitable reissue for Fox that year. Downside was new prints in black-and-white, a disappointment to viewers who remembered how lovely Drums looked in 1939-40. The film was booked to matinees through the late 40's, one of history-themed programs aimed at young people and approval of parents who wanted more enrichment for time offspring spent in theatres. Drums Along The Mohawk unfortunately stayed monochrome from then through early syndication to TV where stations broadcast full-time in B/W. Color prints generated by distributor NTA, many of these on dye-transfer stock, began showing up in the mid-60's. Here was first opportunity to see Drums Along The Mohawk in Technicolor since initial release. Most recent retrieval is a Blu-ray from Twilight Time, a better than might be expected disc, considering what Fox let happen to most of their three-strip elements. A welcome extra is a ninety-minute Ford At Fox documentary.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Other-Worldly Vaudeville On View

Spit Fire and Like It!

Freaky vaudeville could be off-putting, at least in hindsight to us, but were audiences of the day so timid? We're told of folks run screaming away from Freaks in 1932, but I'm wondering now if that's myth. Truth perhaps is forebears being lots tougher than moderns give them credit for. They knew human oddities from fair grounds before freak showing was banned most places. Vaude acts had to be different to thrive, so sought weirdest ways to startle and entertain. To that arena came Hadji-Ali, upchuck king of unsettling acts. He'd swallow anything, then spit it up. Would Hadji be permitted on a stage today? He's here thanks to an elegant ad I found from Sacramento, where Hadji flamed through week of 11-14-23. It's as well they didn't book him a following frame, as I'm not sure Thanksgiving dinner would go down so well after a dose of Hadji. How best to describe his act? Best probably not to try, except to say he drinks kerosene and spits fire, and that, according to lore, was itself short of the topper, which got more outrageous over years he performed. In fact, for projection Hadji had, he could have set the back row ablaze. People then loved outrageous things the human body could be made to do. Would they still if offered a modern Hadji? We can see the original in a seven minute segment of Politiquerias, the Spanish language version of Laurel and Hardy's 1931 comedy, Chickens Come Home. It's part of a DVD set, Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection. Hadji does his startling thing, less spectacularly than it would have been on large stages he could muss up with more abandon. Other performers would recall Hadji with awe (Judy Garland spoke longingly of him in later interviews). When Hadji left, there would be no one to even attempt stuff he did.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Liberty Once Upon An Autumn Day

Our Big Parade For 1959

A local friend made my day when he brought by this wonderful image of our Liberty Theatre from a 1959 high school yearbook. Occasion was that year's Fall Harvest Parade, occasion to show latest farm equipment and whatever beauties had lately been crowned at homecomings. We had many such events in then-North Wilkesboro. Parades, especially at Christmas, brought out the whole county, the Liberty wide open in case anyone wanted to unwind with a movie and concessions. The Thursday-Friday bill paired King Of The Wild Stallions with Little Rascals Varieties, latter a group of Our Gang shorts that included Pinch Singer, Reunion In Rhythm, and The Our Gang Follies of 1936 and 1938. Both these attractions were "new" to extent of Varieties being compiled in 1959, while King Of The Wild Stallions was a May release of that year. Close inspect of the front door reveals a figure that I'm satisfied is Colonel Roy Forehand, ever-present manager of the Liberty. There was at that time a display of posters between the entry and exit doors on the right and left. It would be taken out when they re-did the front in the mid-sixties, a regret because sometimes there would be three-sheets there which afterward had no space large enough to hang. Note the Liberty still using newsreels in 1959, and touting Cinemascope plus Stereophonic Sound. Serials were still a mainstay at the Liberty, Jesse James Rides Again having recently played off when this picture was taken. To right of the main marquee is North By Northwest, which would begin on Sunday and play till Thursday. Blink and you could miss a great show at the Liberty.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Something New From Leonard Maltin

Hooked On Hollywood Is A Rich Chest Of Vintage Treasure

Leonard Maltin has always represented the gold standard of film writing. His TV Movie Guide, first published while I was still in high school, saw no homework done that week, so enraptured was I by this un-stuck-up survey of films that could be watched at home (remember how snide mainstream critics were toward genre favorites?). A four star rating for Bride Of Frankenstein? Unheard of till then. Finally there was credit bestowed on shows we knew were classic, even if an older generation chose not to. Maltin also had a fan mag called Film Fan Monthly, published in Teaneck, New Jersey. Being not worldly or well-traveled, I wasn't sure what a "Teaneck, New Jersey" might amount to, though it seemed all of movie writers and historians came from at least near there. After all, wasn't Calvin Beck's own "Gothic Castle" located in North Bergen, New Jersey? Leonard Maltin wrote many books from which I'd learn much --- one on comedy teams, another about animated cartoons, then definitive coverage of Disney's legacy, a prolific output over nearly half a century. His newest, Hooked On Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime Of Film Fandom (from Paladin Communications), is out today (July 2). I have read it, as in every word, as in reading nothing else till it was finished, as in being sorry when it was finished. I could as much have enjoyed 400 more pages of Hooked On Hollywood's delve into sagas of past film all new to me, indeed unknown to anyone before Maltin dug his customary deep to find lost lore re movies we all love. To this is added rich illustrations, many interviews he conducted with Classic Era survivors, one after a hundred factoids you'd find in no reference because this data just wasn't to be had before Maltin searched it out.

Hooked On Hollywood offers much of what Leonard Maltin flushed out of studio records and memos no one else had consulted. Did they not care as much about "All the Music in Casablanca"? (the opening chapter title) We do, as this is mesmerizing stuff to anyone who's spent a lifetime repeat-viewing the 1942 Warners classic (I watched again after reading, and got fresher-than-ever appreciation for Casablanca). There is also "Remembering Forgotten Men," as in Joan Blondell performing the Busby Berkeley number for Gold Diggers Of 1933, this preceding an interview Maltin conducted with Blondell herself. Bulk of the book is, in fact, the interviews, wherein he asks the very questions I would have given similar opportunity, but would I have had late 60's and 70's foresight to hunt down and speak with Anita Loos, Robert Youngson, Mitchell Leisen, George O' Brien, John Cromwell? --- the list goes on and is extensive. Maltin adds perspective to his lifelong pursuit with intros where he recalls what it was like to interact with screen immortals in their autumn days, LM himself but a lad on many of these occasions. Hooked On Hollywood has 386 pages and they are chock-filled with revelation. No book by Leonard Maltin needs me or anyone to endorse its quality or usefulness. That all goes without saying just for his name on the cover. If you've read past Maltin output --- and how are you at Greenbriar if you haven't? --- just know that Hooked On Hollywood is the author scoring large again, and prepare for joyous time absorbing what's between these covers.
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