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Monday, September 17, 2018

Corman Cashing In On Sputnik


Ads Make Better Satellite War Than Movie

This was cut-rate fruit of the Sputnik craze. Roger Corman claimed that he got it together within mere weeks of the Russian satellite launch, but release date vs. Sputnik circling indicate months between the two, and besides, there was plentiful product to hook actual events with sci-fi at least roughly on point. Pics that caught Sputnik tailwind included MGM's The Invisible Boy and Enemy From Space from United Artists, both out during Fall 1957 when headlines were hottest, War Of The Satellites arriving well after Sputnik re-entry and burnout (January 1958), but distributing Allied Artists pinned a ripe second feature to Satellites which was Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman, since an object of cult immortality. I'll bet in fact that auction sales of posters for 50 Foot Woman have well surpassed total receipts AA collected back in 1958. Sci-fi combos, nearly always black-and-white, did a grab-and-run with whatever could be scooped over a week stand at hardtops or (predominantly) drive-ins. Posters did a heaviest lift, and this double-bill had doozy art for both elements, even if frankly lying as to content (ray-gun brandishing space walker against rocket-in-flight background, the 50 Foot giantess plucking cars off a freeway). Truest auteur behind much of 50's sci-fi may have been Reynold Brown and other artists who created stunner bally for otherwise impoverished weirdies.




Once out of theatres, War Of The Satellites took lumps from television (so brief at 66 minutes that it was actually padded for tube runs). Roger Corman had charge of the negative and licensed War, plus Attack Of The Crab Monsters and Not Of This Earth for a DVD triple from the Shout! Factory. I cropped War Of The Satellites from full-frame to 1.85 projection and got a nice result. Seeing it like this at least helps the film play better, if not so vivid as under a blanket of 1958 stars or amidst butter corned aroma of a matinee, but that era isn't coming back, so this will do. War Of The Satellites is best enjoyed on basis of what remarkable things Roger Corman did with string-bean budget and clocks ticking mightily against him. Being soft for sci-fi helps, and there's sport of ID'ing sound effects and stock footage cribbed from someone else's older movie. A standout visual, shown over, then over, and so on, has elephantine missiles matted behind full-size buildings, a shot too lavish for Corman and staff to have rigged, so I'm wondering where it came from --- looks like pre-dated British sci-fi to me, but would '58 be too soon to borrow from one of the Quatermass thrillers? War Of The Satellites is worth the watch where one ponders such issue, and not half-bad for a yarn it spins of alien interference with our space program. Dialogue warns against letting rival planets dictate space policy, a pointed reference to Soviets maybe using orbit as a combat staging area.




Thursday, September 13, 2018

Last Feature Roundup For The Stooges


Larry, Moe, and Joe Out West for The Outlaws Is Coming! (1965)

Fellow fifth graders were surprisingly indifferent to this --- in fact, I don't think any of us caught the Liberty's three-day run. I had borne brunt of earlier Stooge features from Columbia, having been dragged to them by cousins or neighbors, but '65 was a new day, and I considered myself inoculated from further Stooging. This recent view was therefore my first, and hanged if the thing didn't play better than grim anticipation over interceding half-century. The boys had spoofed westerns before, primarily in shorts, though there was a teaming with George O'Brien at feature length. Outlaws at times has an almost hipster spin on genre clich├ęs, future Laugh-In's Henry Gibson applying layers of irony to his Indian support part. The thing looks hardly more lavish than a late Stooge short; kids in theatres must have thought they were looking at a great big TV set for economies observed, but the trio give all, and I'm impressed as ever by their outlasting virtually all Gold Age acts that came before. Indeed, the Stooges might have performed to infinity but for Larry's stroke. To sum up, I didn't laugh at The Outlaws Is Coming!, but did respect it, and could spank myself for passing in 1965. Columbia got respectable returns for minimal outlay: $598K in domestic rentals, and $240K foreign. The Sony Channel's HD displays map of Moe's wrinkles to splendorous effect.




Monday, September 10, 2018

How Far Can A Public Be Uplifted?


Metro Does Good Citizenship With The Magnificent Yankee (1950)


You'll thank us for making it, even if you don't come see it, was seeming Metro message to a public they wished would support The Magnificent Yankee, but hang those gum-poppers who wanted comedies and melodramas and westerns. Still, The Magnificent Yankee could go far arguing that movies had more to offer than empty genre calories. MGM had punted before for prestige sake. Occasionally that had value even over profit. Let The Magnificent Yankee lose $465K so long as Leo's patriotism was burnished, 1950 a time when never enough of that could be had. "A credit to the industry" said Metro marketers to showmen who'd immediately smell fish. They'd seen this dodge before and suffered for taking the bait. "It is just about one of the best, and in playing it and promoting it, you will win for your theatre the gratitude and respect of your community." Such high-minded talk translated quick to: You'll lose your a--, but feel good doing it. 



Trouble was, no matter how cheaply MGM made small pictures (Yankee's negative cost $638K), they'd still wind up in the red. You couldn't blame old timers for saying the company was on fumes. And here came Dore Schary with a film about a Supreme Court Justice back in 1902. Ads had to conceal both the content and the period setting, plus total dearth of names (Louis Calhern the lead). Whole of the campaign would turn on reviews, which were laudatory to a fault, but where's the good when other aspects of The Magnificent Yankee had to be hid? Metro did two trailers, both accessible either at You Tube or as an extra on the Warner Archive DVD. One features Lionel Barrymore pitching for the film, describing Oliver Wendell Holmes as a "rough, tough, sort of man," but also a "genial giant." This came under heading of anything to imply action, which The Magnificent Yankee did not have, unless verbal arguments could be called action. It's easy to imagine East Coast merchandising turning up collective noses at what experience taught them would be a hard sell, and no one drawing checks based on performance liked hard sells. Failure would only invite blame from Culver, as in You Didn't Sell Hard Enough. Movies like The Magnificent Yankee were in the end a no-win game.






Trades reported a May 1950 week that Metro staff and researchers spent in Washington getting Supreme Court background, cooperation assured as The Magnificent Yankee would be a 100% positive depiction of the court and its workings. They'd be back in June to shoot four days of location footage, virtually on heels of the Born Yesterday crew, which had just finished up in Washington. Historical, said Variety, was a percentage deal given Emmet Lavery, author of the play on which The Magnificent Yankee was based, him to also pen a script for the screen adapt. MGM had evidently not cut scribes in on profits before (as it turned out, of course, Lavery got no additional coin, as there were no profits). Metro prided itself on historical clarity and verisimilitude, this tested by exhaustive search for a photo of Fanny Holmes, wife of the title character and played by Ann Harding. Turned out there were no photos in existence of the woman, whereas there was plentiful visual record of her husband. Inquiry revealed that Mrs. Holmes had been sickly before and during their life in Washington, and refused to sit before a camera (her hair was cut very short due to the illness and didn't grow back). I checked Google for possibility of an image turned up in the sixty-eight years since The Magnificent Yankee was made, but nothing. Toward speed and economy, there were ten days of rehearsal for The Magnificent Yankee under direction of John Sturges, to be followed by 22 days of shooting. MGM under Dore Schary was watching out-flow of dollars.






A timely boost came in August 1950 for The Magnificent Yankee. Major segment of the film had Justice Holmes ruling against free speech where it posed a "clear and present danger." The concept was revisited by the 1949-50 court when a group of Communists appealed a decision which said they had no right to espouse the Red cause as that was violation of the Smith Act, which made it a felony to teach and advocate violent overthrow of the U.S. Government. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction and declared the Smith Act constitutional. Yankee's emphasis on the Holmes ruling put Metro foursquare with the Americanism theme pushed hardest by the film, as well as emphasizing the company's opposition to present-day Un-American activities, this another means by which Leo and The Magnificent Yankee could prosper whatever the economic outcome.






Metro began sneak previews of The Magnificent Yankee in October 1950 and realized they had makings of a critical success and possible award winner. There were also "academia" screenings and an unspool for the Supreme Court, to which five Justices showed up. Decision was made to open The Magnificent Yankee in December to qualify for Academy consideration. L.A.'s 4 Star Theatre, recognized as a "sure-seater" (art house) was chosen for the invitational premiere. A special trailer was made for the 4 Star opening, which is still extant and a bonus on the Warner Archive DVD. MGM opted for a "soft-spoken, homey, and 'sincere' approach" for its radio campaign, no hard sell or sound effects for "spot blurbs." The appeal would aim at stations listened to by adults, including classical music outlets. Test of the approach in L.A. would determine viability of a similar policy for national release. Gotham booking was at Radio City Music Hall for January 1951, with a stage extravaganza entitled "Red, White, and Blues," which, said Variety (1-24-51), ran the gamut "from opera to voodoo and swing." Two weeks of "fair," then less, play, saw The Magnificent Yankee out of the Hall.






The trend tended toward strong initial days or weeks at urban sites, then steep or steeper drops. Hinterland stops saw The Magnificent Yankee at tail-end of double bills. Generally, something with action led the bill, like in Chicago where Yankee backed up a Ray Milland thriller out of Britain, Circle Of Danger. None of this would surprise Metro handlers, who knew from disappointment over "offbeat" merchandise. Sales veep William F. Rodgers maintained, however, "that experimentation is necessary, for there can be no formula in anticipating public taste." Rodgers referred to Stars In My Crown, The Next Voice You Hear, and Night Into Morning as others of "different" persuasion, each out of Metro in 1950-51 and all to lose money. Sales staff was instructed "to make any kind of terms ... within reason" once a problem title was recognized. Viewers induced to see The Magnificent Yankee enjoyed it, but there was the rub --- getting them in. The film was safe and civilized to a fault, for Justice Holmes did nothing dramatic beyond dissenting often with other sitting judges, and where was excitement in that, unless you were a legal scholar? Still, it was the sort of output Metro could point to with pride when sourpusses later hung crepe over things like Rogue Cop or Flame and The Flesh that appealed to a baser audience.




Thursday, September 06, 2018

Tied Tight To The Movie Habit

Record Crowds Go Boom For Boom Town (1940)

I just adore holdover ads like this. They so reflect the joy of success at exhibiting. You've got a hit --- crow it out! Human impulse is always to go and look at what everyone else is looking at. Why be the wallflower who hasn't seen Boom Town? "Oh Boy!" says the Wilkes-Barre crowd with a rope around an all-star cast. This could be seen coming. The Comerford knew way ahead that Boom Town would be held over --- and over. MGM set terms on that assumption, and they were high. Boom Town was notorious that year for what Leo demanded. Well, take Gable, Tracy, Colbert, and Lamarr or leave them, said the Lion. Boom Town theme was close to distribution philosophy, being of corporate meat-eaters on never-ending prowl for profits. Who says movies were the voice of directors? This one was shout of parent company Leow's Inc. Their rope was around all of showgoers in lush year that was 1940.




Monday, September 03, 2018

Endless Quest For Journey's End


The Great War Drama We Forgot


Atlanta Gets The Live Journey's End Experience
What a downer to know a thing is good, but you can't see it. Journey's End is owned by who-I-don't-know, produced by a company that folded before Prohibition quit. Anyone interested in The Great War should see it, but most won't, and likely never will based on phantom status. There's also issue of length, a long version intended, plus cut ones that misrepresent Journey's End where it has too seldom resurfaced. I was slipped a bootleg that was thankfully intact, but search me as to whether anyone could care enough to fix Journey's End and put it on Blu-ray. Bigger gorilla that was All Quiet On The Western Front took bulk of 1930 laurels, few of even harder core buffs having seen both. I needed two looks at Journey's End to get full into trench-set eyeball of a Lost Generation in the making, and admit to wanting to watch firstly because James Whale directed and Colin Clive starred. That's two endorsements, and frankly enough to justify the sit even if Journey's End weren't special otherwise, but here's the save, it is.


James Whale Directs The Stage Cast




Journey's End had been a play in England, its writer (R.C. Sherriff) having waded war's mud and blood for real. Viewers felt the authenticity, those who had served saying Journey's End was just what they suffered. Word-of-mouth made attendance an almost religious experience. There had been WWI plays, but none so far to capture the hell so vividly. We know men of the second war were reluctant to discuss what they'd seen, and may assume their elders from the first round were even more reticent. Many saw Journey's End through tears. It either resolved a lot of PTSD, or awakened it. England took Journey's End most of all to heart because that country felt more of Allied loss. No man of sufficient age was untouched, ones who saw Journey's End balanced by those who'd stay away for fear they couldn't relive the experience w/o hazard. This, then, was something beyond casual theatre-going. Had James Whale not been taken up by children who'd love his later horror films, he would be best remembered for Journey's End, a property JW saw through live staging in both the UK and US, then for this first feature he would direct.






The story is of men living in a hole. They can only go out to face Germans, or have the Germans pour in. Journey's End as a play is ideal for such confinement, for how many of trenches offered more space than a stage? Advantage served by live performance might be lost in translation to screens, where movement was a must, even in earliest talkies for which a single set was anathema. Here was where James Whale could prove himself equal to the challenge that filming posed, keeping values of a successful play from fate suffered by nascent tries at adaptation by others. James Whale had an instinct for stage-screen translation right from his start. Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein were a next two after Journey's End, and look at assurance of both. We're lately reminded of his skills by 2017's reemergence of The Old Dark House, so there are Blu-Rays now of all Whale chillers. A director's status can rest on preservation/availability of work, and for James Whale at least, there has been much progress. TCM runs Showboat now in HD, and their lease of One More River continues. A Kiss Before The Mirror languishes on substandard DVD, a Universal "On-Demand" that demands more their willingness to re-master it, so far not done. A fix and revival for Journey's End would be a welcome step closer to exalted place this director deserves.
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