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Monday, November 19, 2018

Romance Under The Code

Chained (1934) A Mixmaster Of Morality

This came out several months after the Code cracked down, but does not play altogether gutless. Rules became more stringent as monitors felt their oats, however, so Chained a year later would have been weaker tea. The premise is still ludicrous. We're asked to believe that tycoon Otto Kruger maintains co-worker Joan Crawford not in mistress capacity, despite his marriage crumbled by a castrating spouse. Crawford is willing to consummate the relationship after the wife says no to divorce, to which Kruger says no, being stunned at the very idea of such a thing. He sends Joan on a Pan-American cruise so they can both "think about" her offer, just as any man would when the woman he desperately wants is ready to put out. Did audiences laugh aloud at this? Maybe not, what with gloss so thick and Clark Gable turning up shipboard. Besides, Kruger is an old guy, as in his 50's, so where does he come off wanting to trade in the first place? Heat comes of Gable's pursuit and Crawford's avoidance. That lasts down an ocean and into Brazil where CG keeps a ranch with horses and a piazza chock-filled with servants. Crawford as shopgirl was definitely behind her here. Chained was about substituting luxury for narrative truth, and it works on at least this occasion where frills disguise characters doing what no human in a same circumstance would.

Chained spoke to large extent between the lines, or between dissolves, fade outs and in, whatever permitted a grown-up viewer to form his/her own notion of what has taken place during unseen interims. We know Otto Kruger and Joan Crawford have not slept together because dialogue tells us specifically that. Later on, with Gable at his below-equator paradise, there is collapse into tall grass, a steaming kiss, followed by the fade. We may assume they acted on nature from there, and it's at least half confirmed reels later by Gable when he refers to their having gone "balmy" under a South American sun. Audiences were in a way flattered for knack they'd develop at decoding the Code, but that was an adjustment that took time, and those denser or less patient may well have given up movies as too tough a slog toward coherence. The job would be no less a challenge today with viewership used to sex dealt face up and explicit. Would they have hope of reading narrative sleight-of-hand as applied in Chained?

Prohibition had been gone over a year when Chained came out. Drinking was in meantime back with a vengeance and became chief concern, if not way of life, for idols we'd bid to emulate. To know which drink to order implied not only sophistication, but wealth. Nursing a cocktail meant having leisure to do so, working people presumably without time or resource to know infinite permutations of alcohol. The bracer you ordered spoke much to background and status. Crawford wants a "sherry flip" because she and Kruger share them back home, but Gable disparages the choice as one that provincials or old folks would make, him not needing to meet Kruger to realize the man is outclassed. People are graded then, by what they drink. Social life of Hollywood had to have been influenced by all this, or maybe the social life influenced the movies. Liquor no longer being bootlegged made connoisseurs of whoever could stock a home bar, or make positive impression at nightspots. Part of why drinks and cigarettes thrived in films was gift both were to acting, there being no more valued props than these. Why worry what to do with your hands with ready crutches handy? 

Clarence Brown (above) directed Chained. He understood from touching down at Metro in the late 20's how a dream factory best functioned, and wove artistry from unlikeliest elements. A long second act of Chained takes place aboard ship, a real one Brown utilizes and makes most of, advantage pressed by traveling shots of Gable/Crawford as they deck walk and encounter other passengers. A skeet shoot with targets over the water, plus swimming in a pool aboard, lends variety and takes onus off predicted romance of the leads. Much of value in 30's star vehicles was background they played against, ticket's worth the invite to travel places we'd never likely see, even where trips were simulated by rear projection. An aspect that separated us from screen idols was their knowing exactly how to comport themselves in whatever circumstance presented itself. Perfect appearance, etiquette, bon mots at hand where occasion needed them. Part of reason candid interviews were forbade was knowledge that stars being themselves would be too much letdown from ideal they presented on screen. Clark Gable had been muzzled from 1931 and a fan mag chat titled "I Do What I Am Told," where he frankly spoke to peonage at his place of employ.

Marriage vows were meant by a vigorous Code to be observed, but where the magnets were Gable and Crawford, and she's wed to withered Otto Kruger, something of the rule had to bend. Noble as self-sacrifice was on most occasions, no audience would accept co-stars in heat staying separated. Hollywood had seen the situation play in real life with the Mary Pickford/Douglas Fairbanks coupling which would not be denied despite both having spouses. That misfortune was resolved by mutual pay-offs and disposal of baggage, then sanctify by (second) marriage between Doug and Mary, the switch embraced by a post-Victorian public that could as easily have gone a negative way. Musical beds had not been played at so high a stake, but it worked, and would again and again as movieland morality found acceptance by its mass following. Chained relied on that by letting Crawford enter into marriage with Kruger, who is entirely likeable and sympathetic, but old (the actor was 48 when he did Chained), and a presumably inadequate sheets partner for Joan.

The finish, which I'll give away as Chained is plenty fun even knowing how it wraps, lets Kruger simply give up this most precious thing in his life (a sentiment he repeats throughout Chained), and for which he sacrifices children we understand he will not be permitted to see again, thanks to a vengeful first wife. "That doesn't matter," he says, so shouldn't it matter a great deal more when Gable comes to claim his wife? And yet because it is Gable, and Gable wants Crawford and she wants him, the inconvenience of a husband will be removed so as to afford a happy ending. Dishonest, even outlandish as this fade is (would any husband be so good a sport?), it was the resolution they wanted, insisted upon, in 1934, and remains so for us watching today, and hang the ethics of it. Think Casablanca if Ilsa had chosen Rick at the airport with Victor's resigned approval. Would the film be so beloved in that event? Chained is a joy for many reasons then, tops among the Gable-Crawfords to my mind. It can had on DVD from Warner Archive.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Postwar Range Closing On Studio Westerns

The Outriders Fills Metro Quota For Outdoors 1950

Overstuffed recliner of a comfort western where Metro took epic bumps of their own Northwest Passage plus others and brought all to bear on Joel McCrea and Confederates as they flee a Union stockade toward big-scale confront with Quantrill renegades. Using history as backdrop made "A" oaters respectable, based-on-fact reassuring crowds that they weren't paying for another dumb shoot-'em-up, mentality that grafted psychology and social issues onto outdoor subjects like Pursued, Devil's Doorway, Broken Arrow, others that gave impression of heft beyond cowboy/injun stuff at Saturday gathers. The Outriders locationed at Kanab, Utah, fresh site at a time when westerns needed background to distinguish themselves. Problem facing 1950 markets was glut of boots-and-saddle: good ones had a tough time standing out. Metro swapped leads like chessmen to train's departure for location: first Van Heflin for The Outriders, then Van Johnson, before Joel McCrea caught outgoing Utah express. It was a plug-in-your-hero game that companies with contract talent played. The Outriders got notice for a whale of a river crossing staged under what looked to be trying real-life conditions (that a specific echo from Northwest Passage). Metro proved a same year with King Solomon's Mines (in Africa) that no firm was better at staging hazard on nature's stage. The Outriders played well but cost beyond what could be recovered, a negative at $1.6 million would not break even with $1.5 million in domestic rentals and $697K foreign. The loss was $453,000. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Were Karloff Labs Altogether Mad?

We Should Have Listened To This Man!

It's not news that crackpot science Boris Karloff practiced in his quartet of late 30's/early 40's would be absorbed into real life treatment later on. What was then way-out melodrama plays for me like legitimate tragedy now. I always longed for just one of BK's  experiments to work out. Alas, they never did, and so he marched grimly to one death chamber after another, put there by cruel authority that never understood. This seemed a confirmation that no good deed goes unpunished. If lesson of life being unfair needed teaching, these pictures taught it. In fact, the group as a whole, mostly for Columbia release, has me satisfied that any miracle cures I develop must be kept resolutely to myself, sharing with mankind too near flirtation with a hangman's rope. That last was shadow hung (yes, hung) over several Karloffs in the lot: The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang, these and others of a prolific lot hosted at present by Amazon Prime and adorned as not before with HD  clarity we dared not dream of in Shock Theatre days.

Of course I take it all too much to heart, possibly more now than at ten years old, for issues of justice and fairness that nag a mature mind (how mature if I still look at such stuff?). For the record, here is a pair in addition to the aforementioned two: The Man With Nine Lives and The Devil Commands. The quartet plus The Black Room are playing Amazon. Latter is period-set fun with robust BK in dual role capacity and well above the law so far as mayhem he commits. Trouble with the science group is Karloff under thumbs of judge, jury, wardens, every sort of law/order representation all of us dread at some time or other. He is also older in these, made up to look still older, so vulnerability gets factored in much as would be case in late-career mishaps that saw BK immersed in chill water (The Terror) or catching pneumonia on Euro locations (Black Sabbath). We fans are protective of Karloff as we would be for any Granddad put to hardship, so when he invents something useful, even epoch-making, how dare they drag him off by a rope? The guy who cured polio wasn't treated so harsh, as I recall. Drat Columbia and horror mechanisms they had to apply, but how else to satisfy thrill shoppers?

These films raise specter of a possibly wasted life. Should I have been developing serums rather than watching monster movies? What of youngsters who embraced science for seeing Karloff perform even misguided experiments? Where he went wrong, they may go right. One or more might have introduced whatever antibiotic I took last. Never underestimate influence horror movies have. Again to those mechanisms, which I've learned to dread: A first reel of The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang go swimmingly for benign and brilliant Boris, his efforts at a seeming cusp of triumph. Why must there be wrinkles to this? Some snoop or ding-dong assistant will inevitably wreck the craft, BK's tube-fed substitute for a human heart, or chugging cleanser of damaged cells shot to pieces before he gets the death verdict. You have to swallow food for thought quick in these Columbias, as they only last an hour plus mere minutes. Their not being worthy of Karloff is a given, but that is part of nobility in such ignoble enterprise. Folks came to be scared in 1939, 1940, whenever, so formula must be served, no matter larger issues the films address, then trivialize.

To which I'll raise one more: Could human cells regenerate themselves and give us immortality if not for ordinary wear-and-tear on the human body and mind? Boris thought so in Before I Hang, and sure sold the concept to me. I wanted  him to make it work, but no such satisfaction is had, BK transfused by a thrice-murdering donor, a clear contrivance to make him the bogey-man for a second half not so satisfying (let alone hopeful) as the first. I saw these as a kid and hoped Karloff ideas might be embraced by a presumably enlightened 60's community and that I would enjoy longer (if not forever) life for their being put in play by modern medicine. We could all benefit from such forward-thinking research, best of all BK's seeming arrest of the aging process. How many have dreamed that a key to immortality might be discovered before we age and die? Boris Karloff held out promise of this, even against rules of "B" narrative and forgone disaster they impose. His experiments achieve a state of grace, even if fleetingly within six or so reels.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Finding Fun In The War

Stalag 17 (1953) Generates Laughs Inside Barbed Wire

A landmark Billy Wilder dramedy that got imitated too much and lost some punch as consequence, that being no fault of the blueprint, which still compels for BW's airtight script and Bill Holden starmaking to surpass even his Sunset Boulevard. Poster art emphasized the fun, Robert Strauss all over one-sheets in his "Animal" guise. His and Harvey Lembeck's shenanigans would be easiest footage to lose today; together they frankly date the pic. But would we have had Lembeck's immortal Eric Von Zipper of AIP's beach series if not for Stalag 17? I found myself always waiting for Holden to take back over, as the story and resolution of its essential mystery (who's the German plant among P.O.W.'s?) lies with him. Born loser Joe Gillis of Sunset Boulevard has become proactive, if anti-heroic, Sefton a sort of me first we'd warm increasingly to in the 50's, and especially so after Holden patented it.

Too many look-backs credit Brando, Dean, or such as summing up the decade, but Holden was more the real deal for reflecting conflict that roiled in men of the era. Stalag 17 needs recognition too for expertise of Wilder writing (with Edwin Blum) back yonder when script construction mattered. There are so many Eureka bumps for the audience: the light bulb chord, chess piece, a traitor unmasked. Wilder's films were better than anyone's when it came to narrative satisfaction. A pity he fell out with Paramount after this and Sabrina. They needed each other, Wilder for the studio's polish and tech support, Paramount for quality pics BW contributed to otherwise bland seasons. Check out Love In The Afternoon and consider how much more elegant it would at least have looked amidst Paramount environs.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Still Fresh After Sixty Years

Is Giant's Barbecue The Tastiest Of All?

I recently went to a high school reunion, nothing in itself, but occasion again to be yanked from real life into a movie seen numerous times that left a big impression, just because some aspect of the event took me there. In this case, it was a barbecue grill with a crowd stood round that spoke Giant to me. Did these 150 revelers not get such an obvious connection? Somehow I expected them to, but how reasonable is that? Giant came out over sixty years ago, after all. Less and less people have heard of it since. All the world's a screen, however, at least for film hounds with much of lives given to it. The reunionists grilled a pig for their open air feast, as in a hog split open and brimming with fresh meat, to which came the revelation that I am Bick Benedict and these are my guests. Survey of classmates did not reveal a Jett Rink stood apart and pulling a horse's tail, nor a Leslie/Liz, however well-preserved some of attendees were. Barbecue transported me to Reata, Giant my pick (or pig-pickin') for a most vivid cook-out in all of movies. It seems not fashionable these days to like Giant, but to this mind and eyes, it is every bit the "Cavalcade" Warner's promised in 1956 publicity, barbecuing but one of plenty highlights spread over three hours and twenty-one minutes. Can't, in fact, think of a 50's epic I like better.

The barbecue scene is early introduction to Reata way of life. It brings on characters that will populate Giant, and firms up those we know.  There is flavor and detail few films achieved to then, or since. George Stevens famously shot miles of footage he would spend a year sifting through. His camera addressed players from every angle, requiring take after take, which had to exhaust them. With so much footage for Stevens to pick from, he got flawless results that were almost intimidating. The barbecue is a Swiss watch of a Giant set-piece, but no more so than the rest of it. Reata neighbors to figure into a next three hours line up one by one to meet Bick’s new wife. We get that this is undiscovered country for her, the barbecue pit stood in for earthy way of life she must adjust to. Also an outlier is Jett Rink, but more so the actor who plays him, James Dean. Separated from the cook-out, Dean lingered apart as well from others of the cast who had to adjust to him. Pulling a horse’s tail as he crosses the frame, Jimmy poses for imagery he knows will be iconic, though to what degree he could not have imagined. Dean understood what it took to register as a star, that more his goal, I suspect, than excelling as an actor. Jett peering from under the brim of a hat, propped full-length in the back seat of a 20’s auto, any of shots devoted to Dean could serve as magazine covers, or giveaway to fans. Stevens had to recognize this as he spent a post-Dean-death year editing Giant.

Marfa residents were welcome to the barbecue. By some accounts, they were even fed. Come one and all was Stevens policy for all-outdoor settings. He called townsfolk “good will ambassadors” for Giant. They'd serve as extras for the feed, and many more of them stood back of cameras. Giant stars took breaks to sign autographs. A vista shot includes the Reata house in a far background, space so vast as to make human participants seem fewer. I don’t wonder that pilgrims still go to Marfa and what’s left of the structure, crumbled to almost nothing as it is. Must be spooky to stand alone, or with a companion, and regard what was once such active ground. Hallowed ground, they'd call it. Is it still sacred for Texans after sixty years? The barbecue puts several stories underway as folks feast, Leslie as awkward fit to Texas culture, Vashti announcing her own marriage now that Bick is unattainable, Jett as outsider and photographed so, plus Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) kidded by a tactless neighbor who says Luz would “rather herd cattle than make love.” Jett as friend and ultimate beneficiary of Luz’s estate makes sense for their shared isolation here. For that matter, Bick might be sole among principals not isolated amidst vast space director Stevens uses.

James Dean does his soon-to-be-immortal car pose to burnish the point. The auto-mo-bile, as Bick calls it, is reminder that a first half of Giant is period set. Otherwise, and based on Dean's dress and deportment, you could place Jett Rink for here-and-now, as in 1956, if not today. He had done a same trick in East Of Eden with sweaters any 50's teen would be pleased to wear at school, Dean realizing that fashion on him was timeless (would current youth opt for a red windbreaker like what he wore, and made sensation of, in Rebel Without A Cause?). Dean in the car became a most sought after card from Giant's lobby set of eight, and made up all of art on the film's R-80's one-sheet from Kino (at right), this after he became a best reason to go and see a movie old as Giant. We may assume that Jett/Jimmy partakes not of barbecue delights. Was Dean ever shown eating in a film, or would this have brought him too far down to earth? Cary Grant once advised a fellow player never to indulge during a public appearance, because sure enough camera-bugs would capture you with mouth agape and shoveling food into it. Grant knew his public would simply not allow a star to be too human.

Big sloppy plates of barbecue are yet repugnant to many. Raw animal on a spit can have such effect. Tough to look at, let alone eat. Stevens captures that reaction where Leslie/Liz recoils from a dish she's offered. Bick has just informed her that it is a "calf's head,"  not realizing this is the wrong-est thing to say. We know from incidents of the barbecue that Bick/Leslie are in numerous ways mismatched. Stevens makes sure ranch hands unwrap the calf head so we won't miss detail. I envision the director preparing final form of Giant, perusing dozens of calf close-ups to pick a most graphic one. Such detail is what makes Giant a favorite, certainly for me. Stevens cuts from the close-up to meat dropped heavy on Leslie's plate, us knowing what result will be. She'll faint, as expected and set up from previous shots, the sequence ending with Luz saying to herself if not other characters that "I knew this was going to happen." For himself, Stevens could build to multiple pay-offs here and in other highlights of Giant, structural echoes from silent comedy he worked on years before at Roach. You could take out the barbecue and call that splendidly realized portion a whole movie, notwithstanding so many other wonders to enjoy in Giant.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Radio Bleeds Onto Talkie Screens

Lugosi Casts Spell Over Chandu The Magician (1932)

Past radio becomes so much vapor as those who tuned in go a same way. Have oral history projects gathered memory of what listening was like? A name like Chandu escapes recognition today, as does The Shadow or Mandrake, or … what other heroes of departed youth? Pulps, serials, few surviving broadcasts, can reclaim them, but these are bare remnant of weekly (some daily) crackling over air that’s said to have thrilled more satisfactorily than TV that took radio’s place. I’d not have known or cared for Chandu but for Bela Lugosi opposing the character in one feature, then becoming him in a follow-up chapter-play. Serials being as antique a format as radio, we'd not have access to Return Of Chandu until PD video began spitting it out, while Chandu The Magician, buried among Fox-fare, seemed as likely to turn up as London After Midnight. Meanwhile, it was old men of decreasing number who’d recall Chandu as recurring figure, us having to take their word, plus evidence of wireless schedules, that the character once had a vital role in shaping of youth. I played a couple Chandu radio episodes online, same storyline (coincidence? There were over 50 episodes) that inspired Fox’s movie adapt, but OTR still is not ingrained habit here, though I’d be well served for more time spent in that Theatre Of The Imagination.

Hey Look --- Notorious Precode Auction Scene Is Highlighted In This 1932 Ad

Speaking of imagination, I’ve read of listeners doing mind-picture of events as they occurred on radio, self-generating people and places on wings of voice/fx heard. Sort of like silent movies to which we had to give fuller attention. So did radio and pre-speech films breed a generation of writers better able to express themselves creatively? Lots of pop culture still extant was given birth by artists raised on radio. The Chandu episode I heard needed work and concentration to fully enjoy. Maybe the real reason I don’t hear more OTR is life spent at idiot-proof intake of amusement. I’ve wondered how much is left of the old movie enthusiasm --- shouldn’t we ask too how many still revere radio? There are conclaves yet that meet, recreate old broadcasts, and talk undoubtedly of Chandu. For others of us, there is Kino’s Blu-Ray release of the 1932 Fox pic, which has plenty to engage even if you care less re the title Magician.
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