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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

One Hell Of A Great War 1932 Revisited

Wilmington, Delaware's V.F.W. Supplies Uniform and Drum Corps For Downtown Bally Parade

The Big Drive (1932) Is Precode's Censor-Proof Bloodbath

Hell broke loose in December 1932 when indie shockumentary The Big Drive went Over The Top to show a public what ferocity we and allies dealt during Great War over a decade past. If this wasn't precode in a rawest way, I don't know what was, but like Bring 'Em Back Alive and others of jungle derivation, little is mentioned of these buried offshoots. Compiler of The Big Drive was A.L. Rule, a WWI vet who was said to have scoured worldwide vaults to gather "withheld till now" proof of man's inhumanity to man. The menu was blissfully simple to sell: Glory and Hell ... Blood and Mud ... Clubbing ... Stabbing. Who wouldn't want bountiful meal of that? In fact, enough did to immediately call forth imitators. Within weeks of The Big Drive came Forgotten Men, while ahead of it was Four Aces, which didn't catch gore wave mostly for a title indistinct as to content. The Film Daily (1/23/33) noted The Big Drive's "surprise business," but showmen in the know knew unbound violence was the catnip, and where you couldn't get away with such let-loose savagery in features, there was no stopping fact-based recount of horrors in battle ... how else to warn society against future conflagration? ("Strong propaganda against war" said The Film Daily's approving review)

NYC's Mayfair Theatre Barb-Wires Marquee To Slam Over Blood-Guts Content 
Drunk on profits Albert Rule announced his sequel, The Death Parade, which was even more to the point, but could he move fast enough to preserve the fad and outrun copycats? Major pitch of The Big Drive was trench cameramen having lost lives by score to capture carnage for later and stunned amusement. Ninety-six died, said The New York Sun, to which Big Drive distributor First Division offered corrective: it was "only forty-five." So why niggle over detail so long as we got men bayoneting one another in full view? ("Seen are the flashing bayonets as they stab into the gullets of enemy soldiers," said The Motion Picture Herald's breathless review) But hold on --- wouldn't one or other of combatants turn a weapon on those photographing them at lethal work? But no, this stuff was the McCoy, said Rule, coming as it did from sealed storage of both US and allied gvts. If The Big Drive was good enough for members of Congress to screen (The Hollywood Reporter, 2/28/33), who was anyone to question veracity? Local censors did an expected handspring, wanted gorier footage excised, but how to answer American Legion posts stood firm behind the pic, each arguing that we must see war as it so horribly is. Distributor First Division offered Big Drive bally ideas far afield of good taste: " ... have a shell-shocked veteran simulate a seizure." Whatever their social responsibility, showmen left press watchdogs to sort it all out. Uppermost was ticket-selling --- "Got them in and they liked it. What More?" asked Walt Bradley of the Moon Theatre in Neligh, Nebraska. Indeed, what more?

Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Spirit Of Vaudeville Still Stirs

Two Girls On Broadway (1940) Sets Star-Making To Music

The two girls on Broadway are Lana Turner and Joan Blondell. Turner was nineteen, Blondell thirty-three. Metro was developing LT as a sex symbol minus pre-code claws of a departed Jean Harlow, Turner's allure kept within Code fences (some of press compared her with Clara Bow). Turner was of a generation that need not be rehabilitated for past onscreen sin, which put her at interesting contrast with Blondell, the big sister and unmolested fiancée of George Murphy, him as sexless as Metro wanted Blondell to now be. Murphy affection will transfer to Turner before half of reels play out, Blondell's part less reprise of work done at Warner than losing at love which was bane of Bessie Love in previous MGM musicals, a sacrifice for good-of-all to pave way for a younger ingénue to have the leading man. Here was formula chiseled onto rock that was every sister act back to The Broadway Melody, a model in repeated use for by-then ten years. Two Girls On Broadway was too rich for a B, with $427K in negative cost, not a lot less than was spent on The Shop Around The Corner, comedies with Myrna Loy, or increasingly pricey Andy Hardys. Intent was to make currency of Lana Turner, a proposed star of a not-distant future. Within a year, she would lead in decided A's.

Blondell hauls Turner like pack gear going into combat. Whatever credit goes to the younger star (LT billed first) is thanks in large part to Blondell making sure Turner registers well. Did JB get instruct to mentor LT onscreen and off? Blondell by 1939 comes off suddenly like a character actress, as if pre-code golddigging had been done by someone else. A lot of veterans were hired by MGM, and elsewhere, to prop up fresher talent. It was work, if not work in a center ring. Aging often meant having to punt for benefit of newcomers. Others of greater experience surround putative star that was Lana Turner: Wallace Ford as a Walter Winchell-inspired columnist who, like WW, used to be in vaudeville, Jimmy Conlin a street vendor with unexpected edge, various others. If vaudeville was dead by 1940, then loads of its baggage got buried in movies, where vet talent was seen constantly in parts big and small. Then too there was radio, plus presentation houses still tendering vaude as though times had not changed at all. Work was never so plentiful for lots of performing folk, and they didn't have to catch trains or live in dingy boarding houses to get it. Most were fed up on the gypsy life anyway. Finish of the per se vaudeville era might have been the best thing that could happen for them. Two Girls On Broadway is available on a nice DVD from Warner Archive.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Von and Lorre Loose On The Riviera

Villainy Prevails in I Was An Adventuress (1940)

Erich von Stroheim and Peter Lorre grazing on pre-war Euro playgrounds, thief assist supplied by Vera Zorina, that odd footnote who sniffed stardom and later did weeks on For Whom The Bell Tolls location before being snatched back and replaced by Ingrid Bergman. Zorina, she went mostly by surname alone, had ballet for a specialty. Critics felt she did that better than acting, less of them noting Zorina as voluptuous beyond norm of toe dancers. From Swan Lake in I Was An Adventuress to That Old Black Magic for Star-Spangled Rhythm was proof of Zorina range, latter a hotsy highlight of which servicemen got an unexpurgated version that lit camp and frontline shows. 16mm prints survive and it's a wow, making me wonder what else studios heated up for exclusive military play. I Was An Adventuress has Zorina and Richard Greene top-billed, a laugh on reality of Stroheim and Lorre being who we're there to see, but 1940 didn't necessarily see things our way. Greene was after all listed over Basil Rathbone in Hound Of The Baskervilles, and to Fox seemed a next Tyrone Power. Fail at that seems predetermined in hindsight, but less appealing players than Greene did make stardom grade. Modern preference goes to odd ducks Stroheim/Lorre, and whatever the cast placement, these two dominate whole of I Was An Adventuress, Zorina and Greene reduced to same sort of romantic distraction that took our minds but momentarily off Laurel and Hardy in any half-dozen of the team's comedy features.

Von is especially resplendent here. I recognized some of the wardrobe as his own. And the bamboo cane. How much of  wardrobe do you suppose he had to pawn? The 30's had been cruelly lean. Pals at MGM even took up a collection so Von and family could have a decent Christmas. Most of them remembered what it was like to be on your uppers. Stroheim could look elegant perched in a junkyard. Most of his vehicles of late had been just that, with remarkable exception of Grande Illusion. Maybe that one got him the job on I Was An Adventuress. He hadn't been in surroundings rich as this for a long time. It warms the heart to see Von so featured and free with tricks we love him for. There's the head slung-back to down a drink, done twice in case we blinked or were out to smoke. Apropos of nothing is EvS snipping threads from frayed cuffs with a microscopic pair of scissors while seated on a cafe terrace. Bless director Gregory Ratoff for shooting that, and Darryl Zanuck for leaving it in. I'll never call Ratoff a suck-up hack again. Stroheim had the gift of charm plus menace. That last being always an aspect of his screen persona may be what kept Von from getting more, or at least regular, work. He was dangerous in a best of circumstance, not congenial to comedy or anywhere he could not be at least part-sinister. Stroheim was object lesson for a frightened town, his balloon pumped too much, flown too high, then popped for all to see and take object lesson from. To extend him charity was to buy insurance that maybe his fate wouldn't be yours. No wonder the MGM holiday card, with cash, had so many names affixed. I Was An Adventuress is available on Fox On-Demand DVD and looks fine.
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