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Saturday, October 20, 2018

As Rare As Roach Shorts Get

Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts Arrive On DVD

The Sprocket Vault, of previous humor finds like Charley Chase (Roach talkies) and Youngson's When Comedy Was King, has raided a deepest so-far tomb and brought back all of two-reelers with distaff team of Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts, most unseen, let alone in toto, since they were new. I've asked before, and hereby do again: Did anyone see these on TV? --- Ever? Not this viewer, whose Roach diet was Rascals and Laurel-Hardy only, despite there being so much more from HR's Fun Factory. These too will make way to DVD, but only if sales enable continued releasing. It's for that reason each need all of support a buff community can give, no act of charity for bargain this double-disc is, seventeen Todd-Pitts shorts for a mere twenty-five dollars. So what is that, less than a dollar and fifty cents apiece? I knew a collector who gladly forked a hundred each for the things in 16mm, back when it took a divining rod over breadth of dealer rooms to find such treasure. The caboodle looks better now than prints we once bled for. Again so much for the Good Old Days. To enhance an already rich bounty is commentary for each short by revolving experts Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt, Brent Walker, and Robert Farr. Print quality is excellent through all of content. Todd and Pitts from Roach amounts to geyser of comedy sprung forth after too long dormant. Order quick and let the gem-gather commence.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

More Of Madcap Marion

Not So Dumb (1930) Is Davies-Vidor Again At Comedy

Marion Davies is a thoroughgoing ditz in this, her second talkie. It was also director King Vidor's second go at sound (after Hallelujah), so both had hills to climb. Not So Dumb's source play had action confined to parlor and patio of a country estate. Vidor talked years later of how he tried to open things up by letting players migrate among rooms, but best intentions of 1929 don't make a 2018 sit easier. Davies is locus of modern interest --- there are buffs still who like her a lot --- and we can admire how she overcame what was purportedly a bad stutter to do dialogue sans handicap. Her "Dulcy" is a scatterbrain, always saying wrong things and inviting embarrassment, a high wire to walk where such types inevitably try patience. Not So Dumb tests Davies' charm. The title suggests there is brighter light to her dim bulb, which I waited for. Dulcy nearly wrecks her fiancé's chance at business success, for which we worry more today for knowing how fragile livelihoods were at this dawn of the Crash.

The play, called by the character's name, rolled them in aisles from 1921 and introduced "Dulcyisms," shorthand for mangled meanings. One mis-turn of phrase is a stunner that would today get Not So Dumb, if not Davies herself, run out of the industry. Goose to fun is Franklin Pangborn as a "scenarist" who elopes with the support ingénue. Their kissing may be a first (and only?) for Pangborn on screen. Vidor let players gild the play's dialogue with wit of their own, recalling that these were naturally funny folk who could enhance text they were handed. He also pointed out W.R. Hearst as a heavy hand behind scenes, "sufficiently powerful to compel MGM and me" to make this and previous vehicles with Davies. That implies Metro and a public didn't want her, which was not the case. Davies' output returned profit, and she did not throw her weight around, despite Hearst association that would have allowed her to get away with it. Everyone seems to have liked Davies, and her party invites were a most coveted in town. Many a career was made or renewed during weekends at Hearst Castle where she played hostess. Her films are the more interesting where seen in this context. Not So Dumb is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Paramount Test Market In Action

Showmen Find The Selling Key For Doctor Cyclops (1940)

Paramount's 1940 Roll-Out

Made, so said, "behind locked doors," Doctor Cyclops would have been an ideal child's frolic but for its title character killing two of sympathetic doll-size victims in cold blood, an outcome we don't see coming for larkish fun had to that point (though there is tip-off of grim opener death for Paul Fix, bathed in green light as he's put under a lethal ray). A shrunk-to-scale cast interacts with giant props built after example of Devil Doll from MGM in 1936. Dumpsters must have groaned for post-production input, for where could massive books, balsa chairs, what not, ever be re-used? Directing was Ernest Schoedsack, recognized by publicity for trick films past, King Kong his standout, which you could say he followed up here. Interesting to have taller-than-tall Schoedsack calling action and cut on tiny folk besieged by a giant turned loon, for in a sense this was Schoedsack-eye view of peers, or at least how many saw him, though unlike Albert Dekker's mad experimenter, Schoedsack was benign to a fault.

Monster magazines of the 60's were paved with Cyclops stills to promise a moon of thrills if only we could track the rarity to syndicated lairs. Trouble was too few stations running Doctor Cyclops, let alone in color. Our Channel 8 in High Point did in 1967, a multi-hue dream come true. NC stations had begun leasing color prints where they could have them, a response to increased sale of color sets, this primary basis for B/W oldies being banished off VHF television, at least where I lived. Color came at a higher cost however, some broadcasters opting for B/W prints of color titles, an economy hopefully not noted by viewership. Theatres had done similar mischief through the 50's, many reissues of once-vibrant Technicolor features now booked in black-and-white only. Imagine Leave Her To Heaven or The Adventures Of Robin Hood seen that way, and in 35mm on a large screen. Such was compromise to which showmen and audiences resigned.

Paramount Home Office Reaches Out For Showman Assist To Market Doctor Cyclops

Kansas City Among The Test Markets For Doctor Cyclops

Doctor Cyclops was merchandised from the ground up, its offbeat theme, and utter lack of marquee names needing all of help a showmanship community could give. Toward that end, Paramount's home office (NY) reached out to managers proven at making screen fare fly, whatever hurdles stood before them. To sell a Hope-Crosby or a Beau Geste was infant's play --- just open doors and step back --- but Doctor Cyclops was unknown quantity, and peculiar besides. Three men and a woman shrunk by a kook scientist was thumbnail of the plot. Five advance preview sites were picked to make the yarn a magnet for showgoers. Theatre-men judged most capable, in Denver, Kansas City, Nashville, Altoona, and Providence, were put to the task. These would contribute ideas from which a nationwide campaign would develop. Whatever worked for them would be incorporated into posters, trade ads, and the pressbook. Gotham brainstorming could do but so much. It took creative minds wider afield to crack a sales code for Doctor Cyclops. What was achieved got an oddball movie a mainstream embrace, the five managers applauded as swimmers against a tide of patron resistance. Expertise like theirs was worth weight in admission coin, and I'd like to think career advance or at the least bonus reward was had for ideas these men cooked up.

Frankenstein's 1935 Bride Lends a Promoting Hand

Suppose your livelihood revolved around promoting one movie after another. No sooner would a project be done than another came to command your time and creative effort. Projects they were, and distributors were watching. For instance of Doctor Cyclops, Paramount sent field men to observe and report on what you'd do on behalf of the film. They'll help where needed, of course. Need a fifteen-foot high chair as bally display for your lobby? Find a way to get it built, and quick. Your request letter (shown above) arrives from the home office in mid-February for a March 7 opening. There are other features to exhibit and promote during the interim, but the Cyclops campaign must be baked and ready to serve by a set-in-stone playdate, drumbeat to be heard well ahead of that. Ideas develop in lieu of sleep, if necessary. The buck stops with you, as house manager. Trades call Doctor Cyclops a "decided novelty," those words a sword with two edges. Rewards are great if Doctor Cyclops clicks under your watch. An invite to region-supervise for Paramount, perhaps, or something extra in your pay packet. After all, you've helped pull bacon from a possible fire.

Nothing Sold During Summer Months Like Air-Conditioned Comfort

So results are in from the five test runs and all are outstanding. Altoona does 22 percent over normal, Nashville with the best business they've seen for a past year. Test cities top every Paramount attraction they've had since Beau Geste (Denver did it despite an otherwise crippling snowstorm). Looks like cakes and ale for all concerned, and sure-fire strategy for Doctor Cyclops as it goes into general release for late Spring and summer 1940. By then, theatres will labor under weight of hot days and hotter auditoriums. Some still close for swelter period, as who could be entertained from oven-vantage? Lush-equipped venues could boast air-conditioning, banners hung from marquees to let patronage know there was refuge here from heat. They'd watch Doctor Cyclops, or anything else, repeated times just to stay cool. Ads trumpeted the advantage, as there was no greater leg-up during summer months than refrigerated air.

A Lobby-Constructed Mad Lab To Bally Doctor Cyclops

"Romance" Ads Geared To Distaff Trade Not Otherwise Disposed To Sci-Fi Thrills

Doctor Cyclops was at the least a fun time for youth. They'd enter a heavy-promoting lobby and see wonders as great as what waited on the screen, if not a giant chair then perhaps a mad lab like the one Doctor Cyclops will use in the film, or a mirror display to peek through and see a pretty girl shrunk to pygmy-size. All in a day's visit to a well-run 1940 playhouse. Children were best served by Doctor Cyclops, so pair it with something else from Paramount they'll like, Gulliver's Travels or The Biscuit Eater perhaps, or at the least a serial chapter. We giggle at parts of Doctor Cyclops now, but who's to say it didn't scare them plenty in 1940? Are there survivors yet who recall the ferocious tabby with its low growl pursuing a shrunk cast through Technicolor'ed foliage? That unsettled me a bit and I'm supposed to be way more sophisticated than audiences back then. What we need is more eyewitness accounts of film-watching during the Classic Era. Otherwise, how's to know what effect these films had? Most of such access and opportunity is gone or going now. Doctor Cyclops survives mainly in memory of those who saw it on television, this no adequate place to watch, especially over years when it ran B/W only. Universal's DVD is bright compensation however, one of their better efforts at preserve and presentation. TCM should lease Doctor Cyclops and let one of their capable hosts celebrate it. There is still "decided novelty" here, and fresh veal for movie mavens who think they've seen everything.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Horning In On A Revolution

British Agent (1934) Is Russia, Romance, and Rebellion

Leslie Howard takes a notion to run things in Russia as its revolution boils over, till Red functionary Kay Francis intercedes on the Party's behalf. They play the eternal struggle between love and duty, as caught by Warner camera under direction of Michael Curtiz, with set designs by Anton Grot, so even where British Agent drags, there's plenty at least to look at. WB had ways of appearing more expensive than they were, British Agent at negative cost of $475K more like a million in terms of plush and crowded frames. Politics are sketched lightly and never an obstruction to romance. Hollywood had lately flirted with the Soviet experiment by way of planned projects that never came to fruition, for instance Frank Capra's MGM epic of the Red takeover which was scotched before lift-off. Many during our Great Depression wondered if Russians had the right idea, but movies weren't about to endorse five year plans, unless they came in terms of increasing profit. British Agent revolves around what its title implies: embassy man Leslie Howard trying to manipulate a war to his country's benefit, the Russians serving as background mob. Latter's leadership includes Irving Pichel and J. Carroll Naish, fanatics the both, but that's how movies portrayed most revolutionaries, save our own for American independence.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Hour Long Musical For Bottom Of Bills

Moonlight and Cactus Answers 1944 Need

Another musical rhinestone out of Universal and a bootleg someone passed me that surprisingly looked great. I've tried to make sense of what kept these things so prolific, and have decided it was handshake of swing and the World War to which that phenomenon was scored. Popularity of swing, vast as it was, faded once fighting stopped for mosaic of reasons. Universal quit the small tunefests for lower key of band shorts, which some of companies maintained into the 50's. It needed a particular meld of pop culture to make movie stars of the Andrews Sisters, who you wouldn't think led credits on so many B's (Moonlight their twelfth), what with few seen or available today. Like so much of old films, it was a matter of time and place. G.I.'s had picked the Andrews as their favorite vocal group, and anyone within reach of a radio or jukebox knew precisely who they were. You could make a case that this trio was Beatles-big at a peak, so U's money was safely spent even on slight vehicle that was Moonlight and Cactus, plus the dozen others.

Universal Ingenue In Support: Elyse Knox

Leo Carrillo In A Scene Either Cut From Moonlight and Cactus, Or I Slept Through It 

A name band, at least one, was essential to credits, but how prominent was Mitch Ayres and His Orchestra? I found no CD's for him, only "pre-owned" vinyl. The Andrews must have found him congenial, as they toured with Ayres as orchestral backdrop. Swing at summit was evidently a big enough tent to accommodate everyone. Moonlight and Cactus served useful purpose of playing behind live acts that were truer draw for patronage. You could argue it was the chaser all movies were claimed to be at inception when they showed up on vaudeville programs. For the RKO Palace at right, there was Duke Ellington and a loaded stage bill to sate customers, Moonlight and Cactus a mere intermission to be sat through so they could enjoy Duke and Company again. No wonder then that the film itself is such small punkins. It was hardly meant to be more. For those who'd inquire, there is Shemp Howard, Eddie Quillan, and recent sprinter from the Mummy, Elyse Knox, along with malaprop master Leo Carrillo arriving for a second half. I couldn't decide if music was relief from comedy or the other way around. Funsters are left pretty much to their own; you wonder if routines were extempo. Setting is an all-girl ranch which was often case at Universal, hopeful starlets more rife on this lot than anyplace in town, it seemed. Moonlight and Cactus is long spent tissue admittedly, but worth a glance if a renegade disc can he had, or someone sneaks it up on You Tube.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Vitaphone Digs In

The Divine Lady (1929) Is Big-Scale History with Sound

A Vitaphone special that lost money ($520K). The novelty of sound as end in itself was spent by 3/22/29 and release of The Divine Lady, which suffered too from word got round of its lacking dialogue, the Vita boost limited to scoring and infrequent song. Latter was said to have been sung by Corinne Griffith, but audiences were beginning to smell rats re stars bent on vocalizing, and besides, Griffith looked barely in sync with lyrics (her being dubbed was outed by Photoplay magazine). It was critical that tunes be emphasized, Warners having learned how much a hit theme could enhance both attendance and song sheet sales. A distinct advantage to sound movies was their ability to promote music the studios also owned, that much made clear by success of the early Al Jolsons. The Divine Lady was hugely expensive, more so than Noah's Ark of same year release, so getting back investment may have seemed hopeless going in.

Patronage was drunk on hearing favorites speak; Warners in fact ran ads of them doing just that, mouths agape as if to promise great things upon paid admission. For The Divine Lady to withhold Griffith speech was handicap built in. The company had lately placed modest female talent on pedestals, Corinne Griffith and Dolores Costello alternately lauded for supreme artistry plus status as "The World's Most Beautiful Woman." Both would crash on shoals of dialogue and  recording of same that flattered neither. To be a World's Most Beautiful Woman was no defense against pitiless microphones. Warners may have overestimated crowd interest in period settings, especially where three-cornered hats and ruffled sleeves factored in. It was tough enough adjusting to sound without having to overcome 18th Century costume/titles barrier.

Action was where The Divine Lady shined, maritime stuff profuse and ships looking full size. They weren't, but miniatures are convincing, enough so for WB to reuse footage in their 1935 Captain Blood. Frank Lloyd directed The Divine Lady, this well before his Mutiny On The Bounty that further established historical cred. A man could seal his reputation on efficient handling of challenger genres, and Lloyd was proficient, if not inspired, with these costumers. In a way, it was sad that such a spectacular production as The Divine Lady would come and go so quickly, being an altogether obsolete product within months of release due to industry-wide changeover to all-talking. We're lucky the thing survives at all ... nitrate prints were supplied to UCLA and MOMA by the Czechoslovak Film Archive, and sound discs had fortunately survived. The Divine Lady in its restored version is happily available from Warners' DVD Archive.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Big Game Boxoffice Hunt

Paramount Pins Highest Hope On Hatari! (1962)

Five Shows Daily Makes For Long Shifts at NYC's DeMille Theatre
There were three releases in waning days of the Studio Era that Paramount sales staff was high as a kite for: The Ten Commandments, Psycho, and Hatari!. For each they prepared a special insert for the pressbook called a “Care and Handling Manual,” which laid out four weeks of run-up to play dates with instructions on what to do each day. Hatari! had all of makings to be a massive hit. Some at Paramount thought it would approach The Ten Commandments for grossing. Had I been on promoting team prior to release, I might well have agreed based on remarkable footage of John Wayne and crew chasing exotic animals over African plains, such spectacle as was never caught by cameras before. The fact Hatari! did not make record-buster grade was attributed to several things, not least the fact of children being its most fascinated audience, but how many of them stayed still for 157 minutes the picture lasted? The length kept Hatari! to less showtimes in a day, another slap to revenue. Still, the best of it was the best movies could offer in 1962, a magical advance on action-staging to confirm Howard Hawks as ongoing leader in the field. What he did with still-conventional resource, operators doubting Hawks could bring off animal chase stuff, would give today’s CGI a race for conviction, difference being his effects were real and current tries are not.

Theatres brought wild animals to fronts and into lobbies. There were tie-ins with zoos and auto manufacturers that had supplied Hatari! with terrain vehicles. A strong soundtrack by Henry Mancini yielded instrumental hits to link with the film. Hawks saw new direction his music needed to head and so let go of Dimitri Tiomkin, whose peak had passed. The director approaching his mid-sixties kept an awareness of what a modern audience would want. His getting free reign to do Hatari! was reward for Rio Bravo going so well in 1959. The project called Africa was a Hawks sort of story which became an entirely other sort of story by the time cameras turned. In would seem, in fact, that there was no story at all, only a basic situation, characters as Hawks envisioned them, and exotic action through which a plotline could later be threaded. The director-producer had conceived Africa for two strong leads, Clark Gable with John Wayne possibly, but events cancelled that out, as well perhaps, for Gable always seemed to me to represent a generation other than Wayne’s, even though they were only six years apart in age, and had begun in movies at roughly a same time. Wayne had to carry Hatari! as sole prominent personality amidst relative unknowns, most Euro-derived. We warm to them on repeated views of Hatari!, but my impression from a first watch was that JW carried a lot of dead weight here, unlike in Rio Bravo where others brought gravitas from past hit movies and especially television.

Hawks had studied enough TV to realize that viewers no longer needed, in fact had no want, for structured stories. They were too distracted in any case to follow three disciplined acts, home watch being anything but disciplined. Maybe Hawks noted how his own old films were TV-diced into unrelated scenes that left viewers to guess what a yarn was all about. In the end, it didn’t matter, for as Hawks well knew, they had seen all the old tropes fourscore times, so why fret with detail? Hawks would henceforth opt for scenes that would please within loosest framework of relationships among people he enjoyed, and hoped we would. This is how his films relax and reward time and again like no one else’s. You know the highlights and are each time there to see them again. Even if there was a strong narrative, any novelty to that would have dissipated long ago, in event you were back to watch again. This is how Hawks parts from other filmmakers for me. I can drift from one pleasurable scene to a next, the goodies never more than a few minutes apart. Length doesn't matter, for who’s in a hurry for any good thing to end?

The half-dozen Hawks made from Rio Bravo to a finish of Rio Lobo were admittedly set to neutral, which makes them ideal to comfort watching. To note also is easy listening Hawks applied to all six: Tiomkin at much reduced bombast for Rio Bravo, Mancini for Hatari! and Man’s Favorite Sport, Nelson Riddle making music fun with Redline 7000 and El Dorado, and finally by Jerry Goldsmith and Rio Lobo. These films didn’t need dynamism in scoring --- in fact, that might have deterred joy in watching. Film history records that Hawks was “discovered” in the early 60’s by an emerging auteurist establishment. They must not have had awareness of films sold on his name since at least the early 40’s, when Howard Hawks was shorthand for crowd-pleasing entertainment. Trailers for virtually anything by Hawks would emphasize his past achievements, as he was a major merchandising element for output at least from Sergeant York onward.

Director-Producer Howard Hawks with John Wayne

Hawks also had a possessive credit above titles on posters for virtually all output long before most noticed such things. This was less to honor him than to assure customers there was an outstanding show inside. The MOMA series for Hawks in May 1962, a first in the US, was recognition by elite latecomers who discovered HH long after mainstream viewers knew him as guarantor of good times. This director had no need of validation from a critical establishment. He had got that from a mass public that expressed their approval with admissions bought. Afterlife beyond initial disappointment for Hatari! came with reissues through the 60’s, a first with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, then an encore with Hud. ABC got Hatari! for primetime broadcast on Sunday, 1-14-68. Hawks’ estate presumably still gets revenue from Hatari!, as he owned half the negative. Old films used to gather coin by being somewhere on television most of the time --- now they stream anywhere, any hour day or night, each time a ticket punched. Wish I could peek in Paramount ledgers to see what Hatari! generates in daily, or hourly, hits. From pay-per-view acorns must mighty oaks grow. I’ll bet we’d be amazed at what Hatari! and others like it have accumulated as of digital-driven 2018.
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