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Monday, November 11, 2019

Another Full Meal That Is Precode

The Crash and Crime and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)

Another of precodes to splendidly capture the era, Dance, Fools, Dance is rich in ways they ought to teach, not just as film history, but history all-round. Pre-crash, post-crash, and all round the town (Chicago), this one put me conversant with the news game (more so even than The Finger Points), rugs yanked from under the rich (familiar Depression theme), and gangs loose and lethal on streets (being Chicago, after all). Add to these Joan Crawford at hot dance, willing surrender of virtue in a first reel, bug-eye dramatics to surpass even herself, and groped by gorilla Gable who’s in to make deep early impression, and does. I don’t glance away from shows this good even to check a clock, because frankly, I don't want a Dance, Fools, Dance to end. Much is woven from aftermath of a certain garage massacre on 2/14/29, a best of early 30’s those that exploited shock off headlines. Did law abiders get vicariously off on close quarters to crime that shows like this supplied? What strikes me is how near they put us to carnage, even where only talked about (vividly) rather than shown.

JC and Lester Vail Agree To Try Out Love "On Approval"

Normal folks sucked into vice is again an emphasis, slumming to speakeasies a danger route for a privileged class gangland knows how to victimize. Joan Crawford and brother William Bakewell, born to wealth, lose it all when Dad drops dead on the exchange floor, an event we see coming from an opener yacht party where latter observes a tottering market and warns fellow card-players that their flush can’t last, all this while Joan puts out to playboy-ish, but ultimately straight arrow, Lester Vail. We’re made to know Joan and sibling Bill are lost lambs once money is gone, but are reassured that screen Joan, even where poor, won't let it stall her long. Bill, less so, is lured into bootlegging, kills benign scribe Cliff Edwards on gang head Clark Gable orders, then is wheel man for the St. Valentine killers. Buying bathtub liquor was like 60’s reefer use for leading always to hard stuff of felonies, maybe death, as movies plus other authority figures told us. I like least the going blind part of drinking bathtub hootch, but look how many took such risk in the 20/early 30’s. Would we drink more today if someone told us all of a sudden that we couldn’t?

The yacht party open sees Joan and guests stripping to skivvies and diving off, this relief to boredom of dance and drinks. The gag works as sop to precode, stills and footage a commonplace in books and highlight reels since. ABC used it for a wide-viewed, in 1972 and since, celebration of MGM past called Hollywood: The Dream Factory, which was first exposure for many to abandon that was 30’s before a crackdown. What with lights out though (at Lester Vail command), why leave any clothes on, and if the issue was not enough bathing suits, according to Joan, what then do they change into once out of saltwater, and dripping wet. Trips home would be sticky at the least (did early 30’s boats have showers?). Yet more reason to not examine such stuff closely, much less to emulate it. We could wonder if real-life revelers tried, and hope that if they did, there were fresh underthings handy. To further and worse example, there is JC at final rich girl breakfast lighting up before servants serve. Dad objects, but she explains, straight-faced, that smoking is a necessary way to keep thin. I’ve heard this before, been told that indeed cigarettes retard appetite, and that’s why so many women used. The scene gives shudders re those who watched in 1931 and were guided by movie star oracle that was Crawford. Most of them, virtually all, aren’t around now to catalog regret, as even a 1931 start at smoking would see lucky survivors aged 100 now, but how many with the habit made it to two thirds that?

A Bootlegger Invited In Among Polite Company, a Commonplace During Prohibition Years 

Joan as moral arbiter tells the boyfriend that she believes in “trying love out,” to which he replies, “On approval?” that the go-ahead and checkmate to their entering a happy marriage and saving Crawford grief, penury, and her brother’s ultimate death. Precode titillated, but often carried a harsh stick for moral misstep. To this, add admission of a criminal element onto home and hearth, as brother Bakewell welcomes a bootlegger so that he can order cases on the cuff. This is all to show how easy it was for criminals to consort with decent folk indifferent to illegality of strong beverage. A montage of youth on frenzied spree tips to a stock market hitting bottom, a warn we saw not for a first time here, variants on the excess=doom dating to Noah’s Ark (modern section), and more. Caution lights were lit if only an audience would heed them, but how to get past distraction of glamour figures doing wrong things and by all evidence enjoying it?

Behind-Scenes Action of Crawford as a Chicago Cub Reporter

Dance, Fools, Dance personalizes the Crash via family retainer telling Joan-Bill they are “wiped out completely,” then to tactless capper, “You’re quite penniless.” I’ll assume this was for benefit of those also penniless, but with a dime at least to get in and see Dance, Fools, Dance. Financial ruin was payback plutocrats had coming, them and their yacht party. Viewers enjoyed screen ostentation plus deflation of the rich. Real life meanwhile did its own leveling, leaps out Wall Street windows reminding us that money was no bet for contentment. What kept rooting interest for “Bonnie Jordan” (Crawford’s character) was JC past-playing rich and poor, her never-say-quit a guarantor of crowd support. A short four years at stardom gave Crawford not one, but several, templates she and writers could mix-match in service to Metro output. Showmen was alert to things she’d do in Dance, Fools, Dance that had worked before. Ad art evoked Our Dancing Daughters, not forgotten even though it was out of circulation for being silent. To that add Paid, a departure when new in 1930, but since absorbed by the Crawford persona, it understood that she’d play all-out melodrama where needed and excel at it. Dance, Fools, Dance thus saw her rich in a first reel, diminished in a second, gone to work at entry level news reporting, then put to root-out of bootlegging killers, all fresh to Crawford following yet comfortably familiar. This was brilliant marketing of a personality built from scratch who had risen to heights in a remarkably short time.

There’s notion, mistaken I think, that we are better educated than folks who saw Dance, Fools, Dance, plus others like it, first run. Seems to me there is corrective for that in every old movie I see. A couple of for instances, not at all emphasized, but there, and noteworthy: Bonnie/Joan turns aside a marriage proposal from “Bob Townsend” (Lester Vail) she attributes to his feeling sorry for her lost fortune. “Noble Barkis,” she says, by way of turning down what she considers a charity offer. I recognized Barkis as the character from David Copperfield, him of the familiar line, “Barkis is willing,” Bob/Lester’s gesture evoking latter because Barkis too was “willing” to marry the novel's “Clara Peggotty,” who otherwise had few prospects. This line of Bonnie’s comes and is gone with no explanation of its literary antecedent, then-audiences figured to know who Barkis was, and how appropriate mention of him at this moment will be. If the line had been adjudged too obscure, would someone at script, shoot, or edit stages have taken it out? No … I suspect most of them had read, or least knew, their Dickens, and figured we would, or should, as well. How many today could figure as much?

"Jake Luva" (Gable) Provides Scoring to His and Gang's Review of St. Valentine Garage Rub-Outs

Where It's Gable Making The Play, No Seldom Means No 

JC Declares Independence: "I'm Hitting The Pace Now, and I Like It"
Real-life crime wasn’t long for entering folklore, and becoming basis for films, The Finger Points inspired by a Chicago reporter’s murder, then there was sneak photography of Ruth Snyder getting death house juice for killing her husband in concert with lover Judd Gray, this a springboard for Cagney comedy at Warners in 1933 (the Snyder/Gray event is referred to as late as 1951 by Douglas Spencer’s newshound character in The Thing). Most crime-centered precodes had basis in truth, lurid news an always source for screen stories. Feral gang chief Clark Gable engineers the St. Valentine killings in Dance, Fools, Dance, but who’d figure his “Jake Luva” for playing soft melody on a crime lair piano while reviewing the hit with henchmen? It’s a remind of how cultivated folks were for being raised in households where music, to be heard, had to be made. I’m always pleased, then abashed, when Classic Era characters sit casually at keyboards and begin to play (this came up before in discussion of Hold Your Man). It’s a sign for me that, whatever depredations otherwise, they were way ahead of later generations for whom home essential was a TV set, or later, video games and palm pilots. Wherever I imagine we’ve “progressed” past bygone folk, it takes but dialogue and situations from rich resource of a Dance, Fools, Dance or related others to get quick corrective, that readily had at a next TCM run or on DVD from Warner Archive.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

James Bond Had Forerunners ...

Before 007, There Was Margaret Lockwood in Highly Dangerous (1950)

Margaret Lockwood studies insects for her living, but is induced by the Home Office to spy on a mythical principality's misuse of the critters for war purpose. Action gets at times Bondian, Lockwood and assist Dane Clark sneaking into enemy labs not unlike what 007 later detonated to dispose of "heroin-flavored bananas." Everything that 60's-clicked in Britain had fascinating origin that sometimes went way back. Maturing Lockwood, no longer the girl-in-distress of The Lady Vanishes, is a determined secret agent. She's even captured by the opposing side (Communists? It's not explicit, but certainly implied) and given sodium pentothal in a surprisingly explicit, and harrowing, highlight. Dane Clark is the American reporter who tags along --- as if she needs help --- and indeed, he's mostly ineffective. That secret plant they penetrate, by the way, nicely anticipates similar facilities Professor Quatermass would search for awful truths. Highly Dangerous had a US release via Lippert Films, and played for most part as support to that company's Lost Continent, a sci-fi with frankly greater B.O. promise. There's been no DVD release, but for Region Two, which includes Highly Dangerous in a Margaret Lockwood box set. TCM shows the film occasionally.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Beware Another "Think Piece"

Film As Art Is Still So Much Popcorn

Movies don’t get respect. They haven’t even after a hundred years. Will it ever come? First some possible whys … the very word “movies” suggests a diminutive ("flicks" worse). But what more appropriate? There is “film,” a word to issue largely from schoolmasters, “cinema” the same, and as pretentious. “Picture” I like, have used, much as old-timers did. I’d propose popcorn as a highest barrier to prestige. Ever see someone carry a buttered bag into the ballet or opera? Popcorn is by definition frivolous. We do not make a meal of art by having meals with art. Especially something so silly as popcorn. With real culture, there is no place even for caviar. Herewith are the most popular snacks with movies: Milk Duds, Raisinets, “Sour Patch Kids,” Goobers, Nachos, Whoppers, popcorn being, of course, Number One. Some theatres will sell you a hot dog. We used to get hamburgers at the Liberty, likelier soybean-burgers. They came with slaw that I used to scrape onto the floor. Such was my regard for our Temple Of Enrichment. How to experience moving picture art on one hand with a box of Goobers in the other? I read that in the silent era, they didn’t let food into theatres. Peanut vendors off the street were allowed to push carts up-down aisles at a few places. Popcorn came later to scuttle film’s parity among the arts. Now awash with Goobers, our debasement is complete.

Note the "Formal Premiere"

Moviegoing was from the start a most democratic cultural pursuit. Too democratic, said High Art gatekeepers. Darkness conferred privacy, so it mattered less how you looked, whereas at live theatre, an arriving, or seated in boxes, viewership, bore as much scrutiny as actors on the stage. Roadshows upped the ante for deportment. Those of a politer generation imposed orderliness. We were dressed for My Fair Lady during a Washington family trip in 1965, my suggestion that we instead see Tomb Of Ligeia at an outskirts drive-in brusquely put down. I wore a starchy white shirt for the Pinocchio reissue of 1962, a feeling of red ants crawling up my back what I recall best of that day. Patrons came appropriate to outstanding event that was Cinerama, as did “Formal Premiere” attendees on Broadway during the early 30’s. To be assigned a seat conferred status, being escorted there jam on the bread. By such means might movies approach legit performance. Problem was attractions that did not justify hard ticket terms, or stayed past point of filling seats. A 1968 foray to Gone With The Wind at Winston-Salem’s Carolina Theatre saw me led by an usher with his flashlight to my reserved spot at a virtually empty matinee. I was seated to the far right, not a favored perch, but my ticket was specific. What penalty might come of a unilateral move? It was halfway through the Barbecue at Twelve Oaks before I dared a center view.

Assuming film is culture, is there any longer a film culture? The sort, I mean, that stood collegiates back blocks for a latest Antonioni or Bergman. Film festivals continue to thrive, so youth, and memory of art film in flower, is served. Apart from queue for comic book adapts, is there eager turnout for first Fridays of grown-up entertainment? I was there for Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, but do not expect that experience to be duplicated. There was once active film following on campuses. Is there vestige of it left? If most anything can be streamed on a hand device, why walk even to the student union for a screening? I saw where Martin Scorsese knocked super heroes and got knocked back even by a Disney chairman with interests distinctly vested. Then there is Francis Coppola who they say can’t/won’t/never will be, hired to make features again. These would seem last hope among veterans for Film As Art, at least as the elderly define Film As Art (but see Scorsese's newest, The Irishman, said to equal his best). I bet there is more worthy product made today than anyone could begin to keep up with, short of ticker tape to tell what is streaming or cloud concealed. Would finest stories shot on camera phones equal low-budget greats of yore? Ways people troll for movies have changed utterly. No longer must one wade in water to pan for gold. You’ll sift much dross, sure, but that was chance viewers and critics always took. Some so venturesome keep web pages to pass along finds, things we’d not know existed but for these bloggers' initiative.

How many will identify themselves as a “film historian?” To be an art historian might imply you have a job with a museum, or that you travel around and lecture, for pay. Best off is he/she who, when asked what they do, says “thoracic surgeon,” or “I design and build robotic body parts to restore normal function.” Most people, more’s a pity, regard film history as trivial pursuit, an absurd accumulation of useless information. I shrink a little if anyone calls me a film historian, but annoyed by the “movie buff” tag, words best spoke to kazoo accompany, a whoopee cushion beneath all who’d celebrate the moving image. What awes me is respect comic folks get. They are gods now and film executives toady to them. Look at San Diego each year, and how stars, directors, sit along a dais to curry favor with those they once called geeks. Super hero enthusiasm no longer asks for respect --- it is demanded. Those who ignore the constituency do so to peril of their product, and their jobs. Imagine a studio establishment and opinion makers afraid not to know who Harry Langdon was, or Jack Pierce, or when and why we lost precode movies. It’s the stuff of dreams, so never mind, but imagine if someone had gone to a boy basement filled with Spiderman and Fantastic Fours, telling him that someday his kind of idol would rule media. Could such an outcome have been believed?
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