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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Hollywood As a Sun-Fun Town

Hollywood Hotel (1937) Is The Tinseltown Tour To Beat

Sheer delight, if not a skosh overlong (109 minutes), so much song and mirth as to make trimming doubtful, you'd not check out from any room of this Hotel. Warners was most merciless where it came to ribbing Hollywood, their cartoons not alone for exposing foolishness of the biz. There was also a line of WB two-reelers where clowns assumed studio charge, a recurring character, "Nitvitz," played by Fritz Feld. Hollywood Hotel was directed by Busby Berkeley on a dark side of his moon, Golddigging glory days gone and him reduced to assignments less worthy of talent celebrated from 42nd Street to a horrific car crash where a drunken BB took innocent lives. Warner bailing him out made an indentured servant of the director who'd toe corporate line for a remainder of sentence there. Hollywood Hotel, however, wears the happy face Buzz would apply to The Gangs All Here at 20th Fox in 1943. Both are among cheeriest of musicals, viewing of either a pick-me-up on gloomiest otherwise days.

Hollywood Hotel was where the town's signature song, Hooray For Hollywood, was introduced, that for an opener and fun ramping up for remainder. Two of the Lane sisters get tried before becoming a pair among 1938's Four Daughters, Lola best being bitchy as she had the expression for it, while Rosemary puts over bland sweetness (who's going to write a shared bio of the Lane family? I'd like reading it). Greatness for Hollywood Hotel is assured by presence of Great and Good Ted Healy, never so insufferable as here. The part where he insults Louella Parsons aboard an elevator is for the ages. What does it say about me that I revere Ted so? Of premature star losses, his is most keenly felt in these quarters. Hugh Herbert goes woo-wooing in blackface, posed as a plantation slave to gum up filming of a Civil War epic.

Hollywood Hotel posits the town, and films it generates, as idiotic --- maybe we need distance of time to better enjoy what seemed then like fan-fueled junk. There is Dick Powell and chorus for a lengthy and lovely deco drive-in dance, him in waiter uniform serving malts and ham on rye. Oh, for a Hollywood that was still like that, in which event I'd happily fly back out. Dick and Rosemary visit the H'wood Bowl, and it's the real thing, at night, where they even demonstrate acoustics. The title hotel's lobby looks like a sultan's palace; were any Hollywood accommodations so luxurious? As faraway viewers took much of this for serious, how disillusioning was it to actually visit filmland and see plainer reality of the place? 

Monday, December 09, 2019

The Times, They Are Earthquaking

All The World's A Stream

Am I seeing this right? Has movie stardom been sacrificed on the altar of Netflix? I recall $20 million paychecks, plus gross participation, for biggest names of the 80/90’s. How they must long for that now, at least those who remember back that far. It looks to me like the star system is all but kaput. And how do you define a Netflix movie? Some insist it isn’t a ‘real’ movie at all, owing to absence from theatres. An entrenched system prefers to deny the very existence of Scorsese’s The Irishman, even as viewers call it 2019’s Best Picture. Purists say film is meant to be projected onto a screen for delectation of a filled house, but look how often digital delivery fouls up, and how dim the picture looks when downloads work. I saw The Irishman at home, on a big screen, in a recliner, and am hanged if any theatre can match that. The “audience experience”? --- I’ll take vanilla.

We know how movies were convulsed by changes in the 50’s. Veterans on both sides of the camera felt lost as their system took sleds. Transition is toughest for those used to, dependent on, things as they were. What is happening now is beyond ordinary or expected change. Scorsese says it’s a biggest switch since talkies came. He also claims certain movies, very popular ones, “aren’t cinema.” That was taken as an insult to not just shows in question, but their viewership. He was dismissed by these as an old man out of touch. Never mind his just delivering a could-be career best, and for Netflix. How much more “in touch” do you get? There are others who ride the tide and prosper. Clint Eastwood, approaching ninety, does fine work as a matter of routine, and reliably makes at least one out of any three a surprise hit (and none a loss). Tom Hanks seems to have unerring sense of what a modern audience wants, or at least what his mature fanbase prefers. I’ve enjoyed Robert Redford’s latter work and was sorry when he announced finis to acting. Despite these still bright lights that inspire us all to push on, I can’t help thinking they, and all of talent still at work, will do so under net that is streaming services, movie goers going no further than home seating or what they watch in the palm of hands. But hold … isn’t that just variation on nay-say going back to talkie transition, and endless points of perceived crisis since?

It is understood that The Irishman would not have been made had not Netflix kicked in. The necessary $159 million was theirs, plus consent to length and bleak epilogue a bygone industry would not have countenanced. Imagine if a Netflix had been around when Orson Welles or Erich von Stroheim needed them, The Magnificent Ambersons welcome in whatever mood Welles chose, EvS free to let breathe his ruined masterpieces (Hey folks, let’s order out pizza and binge-watch Greed tonight!). Appropriate then that Welles would benefit from policy change that looks to guide most all of filmmaking now, his The Other Side Of The Wind a rescue that would not have happened any other way than it did (look at decades of attempt under the old system). Forces, weakening ones, resist stream-product being nominated for awards, or being recognized in a mainstream, accepted sense. To tremors we’re seeing, add that of casting out of a Twilight Zone of trick effects, old actors young again, DeNiro, Pacino presumably able to rat-tat forever, though sharp, if pitiless, eyes, insist that while they look like forty, they move like eighty. But here’s the essence: Actors don’t have to age out anymore. They may not even have to stay alive (witness James Dean’s promised comeback). So has the trick been tried on women? Think of actresses from the 80’s, 90’s, earlier even, that could be back playing romance leads, maybe with partners twenty-thirty years younger, born long after their leading lady. I’d gladly drive out to see something like that, but again, are bells tolling for brick-mortar spots to see movies?

Streams, it seems, have become the Great Equalizer. No need for stars big enough to “open” a new film. Chances are we’ll sample whatever Netflix premieres sometime over a given week, or months (Julia Roberts has done a series … let’s sample five minutes). Last month was bow for a new Eddie Murphy, My Name Is Dolemite. It is the most enjoyable time I’ve had with one of his since 48 Hours and the first Beverly Hills Cop. Again we can figure no one would have supported this project pre-Netflix, let alone pay Murphy cash he used to get. But when did a lamestream industry last give him something good as this? Plenty beyond Netflix are making films for phones or whatever thimble we watch on, once super-names aboard for feature-length, limited series, half hour comedy, each supplying employ where an obsolescent system will not.

Old-timers need not sit home with scrapbooks … I liked Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin in The Kominsky Method, two seasons so far, and there’s Jennifer Aniston, age fifty, doing her thing on a stream galaxy I’ve not yet explored (idea: make her twenty-five again for a quarter-century more of rom-cons, or better yet, ten more Friends seasons with the principal six re-purposed to former selves). Who can say “No TV For Me” as Gable or Bogart once did (boy, do they seem more and more like ancient pharaohs), where television itself is so fluid as to frankly need a new name (for all of time, as in none, watching, I could wonder if the three “major” networks even broadcast anymore). We are heir to truly democratic times, the level field so many in Hollywood profess to want. Is there still big money in this game, other than the occasional supe-hero that strikes lightning? (Answer: Yes, and Netflix is earning it) Change makes content-delivery of even recent past seem like Sanskrit, but I suppose all of “old” media cries into a same bucket, and yet it’s an exhilarating thing to be witness to. In view of what’s happened in a short ten years, imagine where viewing will be after a next decade.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Where Ads Imply It All

Design For Living Campaign Plays with Censor Fire

I wish I liked this more, but am not alone for disappointment in what should be peak application of the Lubitsch touch. Most any of ones from his Paramount period are better. Design may be proof of how fragile sophisticated comedy can be. A play by Noel Coward was its basis, largely rewritten by Lubitsch and Ben Hecht, a triangle that resolves into a threesome mostly what Design is remembered for. The concept was tough to juggle even given precode laxity, so imagine split-hair negotiation between Paramount and pliable censors to get it passed. Living was best lived by urbanites who knew Coward, had familiarity with the play, and queued up for whatever bore Lubitsch's name. If the 30's had a Woody Allen, it may have been this writer/director. Precode sauce was not so savored in its day as fans savor it now, result Design For Living's spike in buff estimation, but I'd hesitate laying it on a general audience. They may be unwilling to make the necessary allowance.

Lubitsch seems to have been a loss leader for Paramount season offerings. Few of his were profitable. Granted, however, is struggle all Depression era movies had chasing coin, no matter their merits. For a then-public, choice was often food, heating coal, or admission to Bijous. Many were shocked at prices hung at Broadway’s Criterion for the Premiere ("Only Theatre in the World Showing This Picture This Year,” clever, as initial showtime was 8:45 PM on Dec.31,1933). For the reserved-seat, two-a-day engagement, admissions ran high as $1.65, and not lower than fifty-five cents, astronomical when laid against dimes, or at most quarters, taken in across the wider US. Meaningful too was Ernst Lubitsch himself marching forward and prominently in opening day ads with his stars Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, and Fredric March. This was status few directors enjoyed, and certainly none outside the tallest money class. Lubitsch, then, was for prestige, and Paramount's outreach to an affluent and highbrow audience.

Reviews about the town were expectedly positive. Critics admired effort toward sophistication whatever the mixed result. Lubitsch, Noel Coward, and Ben Hecht were referred to as "The Authors," as though Design were being staged, not screened, on Broadway. It had been done legit, thus the pre-sell for movies, but was Paramount trying here to blur the difference? West Coast radio was heavily employed on Design's behalf, home listening still in ascendance as tool for pic publicity. Stills were rife of Lubitsch posing on the set with players. He would continue to be as important as these toward advertising. Of the latter, Paramount took care against too elevated an approach. “We realize that some towns won't go for "dressed up" pictures,” so Para assured that ads of the cast in street clothes would be available. However, “where photos of the stars in full dress have been used, they are so informally cock-eyed ... that they just ooze the informality of three very informal people.”

Pics of the Criterion's front display were handed down to subsequent daters with assurance that Design For Living had been a smash there, but close inspect revealed it took but "mild profit" (Variety) from that theatre's three-and-a-half week run. Showmen were hep to hyper-fueled reportage from first-run fronts, and took little of it seriously. Real selling revolved around Design's naughty theme: "It Will Give Women New Ideas On Love." Was Paramount challenging a well-entrenched status-quo? Design For Living went into general release for early 1934, with strict Code enforcement just around a corner (summer of that year). Did aroused censorship use Design ads to argue their case for a clampdown? Far more people saw the ads than saw the movie, including kids and other impressionables. "The daring, distracting play of a woman who loved two men ... completely ... simultaneously!" was copy printed above March, Hopkins, and Cooper in a tight huddle, sky the limit as to interpretation of those words. Was Miriam indeed taking on both guys at once? If so, Design For Living really would be something new in movies. Never mind Mae West. Paramount was asking for trouble with this campaign. Soon enough, they’d get it.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Movies Are Your Best Background Noise

Multi-Task While You Watch

Imagine cold-calling a random number from the phone book, and on live television. In this era of incessant robo dials, who would answer? Dick Bennick, Jo Nelson, and later Jerry Merritt, did it weekdays for Channel 8 (High Point, NC), the idea to lock in viewers for their otherwise unremarkable afternoon movies. Be home, tuned in, and you could win $100, maybe more! Jo/Jerry would try a residence, try again if the line was busy, wait endless minutes, as did we, for lines to clear, all so dream of windfalls could be met. “Dialing for Dollars” ate ten-fifteen minutes of most two-hour slots, that in addition to sponsor ads, the movie a least priority. Stations needed DFD and devices like it to take onus off films that viewership cared less to see, the calls a sort of bribe for our leisure time. Chances are we wouldn’t be there for whole of the program, as there’d be chores about the house, kids to pick up from Scouts, any of myriad daily duties. At most you had snatches of movie and peeps now and then when hosts tried another phone contact. Televisions ran no matter where you were in the house. Was this any way to enjoy Classic Era movies? No, but it was a near-only way they’d be consumed for many benighted years. You could wonder that any of us care to revisit old Hollywood now.

Dialing for Dollars was quaint, amusing in hindsight, more talk show than film presentation, especially where a guest from the Chamber Of Commerce would show up midway and discuss for eight-at-least minutes a next day’s Blood Drive. That meant more lopped off The Bad and The Beautiful, or whatever, but who kept score? There weren’t books to list running times until a first Maltin Reviews in 1969, and maybe we were better off ignorant for trauma those numbers induced. Average folk didn’t mind … they probably tuned in a half-hour late anyway, and besides, anyone could catch up with a story within a minute or two, being trained at it by formula TV. Drop the needle on any scene and get the whole set-up, same really as soap operas, which could be skipped six months, then caught up easily by a next-seen episode. Broadcasting movies was a same as hanging wallpaper. Anyone with objection was a crank or outlier, not typical of viewing majority. Nascent cable days saw stations at odds over content beamed from one also leased by another. Channel 8 did a burn in 1978  when Superstation 17 out of Atlanta ran Dodge City for our cable delectation, their complaint to the service provider resulting in a block on 17’s broadcast and a two-hour screen message to effect that 8’s lease of the film made it “unfair” for a remote station to offer Dodge City as well. Difference was that 17’s Dodge City was more-less complete, while 8’s was chopped a couple reels, and in black-and-white. My rage was towering, letters impotent, new-acquired VCR dormant. How could I collect off the air in the face of such corruption, what with favorites abused and no one to defend them? Someone should have put me straight to reality that No One Else Cared.

It Begins: Bringing Housework To The Drive-In

Two-hour slots were a luxury. Most local stations held daytime movies to ninety minutes for knowing that was all of patience watchers had. Consider a study done in 1955 by Editor and Publisher: “Two-thirds of those with a television on during the day (are) doing something else simultaneously, most times housework. During the evening, (6-10 P.M.) half were doing something else as well.” The Surgeon General in 1970 listed collateral activities going on against a TV backdrop: “doing homework, reading, sorting wash, preparing meals, setting the table, dressing and undressing, exercising, playing cards and board games, and conversing.” That wouldn’t leave a lot of time for The Caine Mutiny, which I recall tuning in on Greensboro’s Channel 2 that year, two-hours, and in color. Toward getting straighter to narrative point, WFMY opened with Bogart’s first scene at the lectern, a couple reels into a 124 minute show, but again, who noticed, let alone worried about it? Inattention was a shroud that hung over televised movies. Anything about the house merited closer engagement. Cary Grant hanging off Mount Rushmore was second to everything from feeding Fido to chasing flies about the den with a swatter. You knew he’d come out OK, and there was no admission paid to North By Northwest as was case when it was new at theatres in 1959. Movies, no matter how fine, were casually, passively, consumed, as was most all television. This was not new, as radio dealt from a same cold deck, listeners even less focused on media they heard, but could not look at. Drive-ins would form a bridge from sit-down cinemas to couch-centered viewing. They would anticipate, then reflect, a coming home entertainment experience, at least from standpoint of letting any-all distractions have their way.

Titles that once topped glittering marquees were now mute accompany to vacuum cleaners pushed round a twenty-two inch box. Charlotte’s Channel 9 bought “Pre-48 Greats” from MGM and gave them a not-great berth on noon weekdays, ninety minutes to get stories told amidst commercial intrusion. A for-instance on January 2, 1962: Cass Timberlane, a highest-profile adapt, back in 1947, of a popular novel by Sinclair Lewis, 119 minutes claiming undivided attention in plush theatres seating thousands, Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner its leads. I got out the Warner Archive DVD and by way of experiment watched … well, sort of watched, as a series of “something elses” got done, as much outside the room as in. Even in front of the screen, I made sure to occupy my hands, or hold a book for looking down at, or up from. The only thing lacking was a pot of beans to snap. Against firewalls I constructed, Cass Timberlane still made narrative sense, ten minutes here, five there, enough to fully know what was happening to the lead characters. My simulation of the 1962 broadcast had an advantage Channel 9’s did not, being a complete version thanks to the DVD, not interrupted except by my wanderings, and clearer by far on a flat screen the size of which ’62 viewers dared not dream. Cass Timberlane being an “average” movie, it mattered less that I saw it truncated while pursuing activities in opposition to it. That was, after all, how a typical watcher-after-a-fashion would have responded over years Cass Timberlane played syndicated TV.

Going out to the movies was no longer an essential. Thanks to network primetime, the movies came to you. Admission to theatres dropped from highs in the mid-40’s to abysmal lows by the early 60’s. 4.1 billion tickets sold in 1946, down to 2.8 by 1951, 1.9 in 1956, 1.1 in 1962 and again in 1963 (“United States Theatrical Film Admissions,” Variety, 6-24-81). Windows between theatrical and TV were thrown open. It seemed no wait at all before you could see a film at home. Tube-premieres commanded greater focus, “events” like The Robe and Bridge On The River Kwai making movie nights on television an appointment you’d keep. Color broadcasts, in strong demand by the mid-60’s because so many more viewers had sets to receive them, increased cache of televised movies. There seemed less reason than ever to attend theatres. I recall this period as one where few people, at least of my acquaintance, bothered with the theatre. A sample incident from 1967: In The Heat of the Night showed up at the Liberty,  three-days that drew seemingly no one for the weekday matinees other than myself (afternoons generally vacant unless it was Disney, or a talked-about like Bonnie and Clyde). No one at school or among adults seemed to have heard of, or bothered about, In The Heat of the Night. Some months later it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, though few expressed regret for missing out at the Liberty. It would be on television within a few months, after all --- untrue, but a notion they would not be disabused of (In The Heat Of The Night was 1973 before reaching the tube, via NBC).

Charlotte’s Channel 3 had its “Best of Hollywood” in lieu of Monday evening CBS feed, and such was its following that they took a poll in 1972 for the movie most viewers wanted to see from a ballot made up of titles Channel 3 had on lease. Magnificent Obsession being the winner made it a local must-see, chances greater that a household would suspend other activities to sit down and really watch. Older films got marginally more respect as a 70’s nostalgia wave put more of them on station schedules. Cable and satellite were stair-steps to real deal that was TCM, its precursors first TBS, aforementioned “SuperStation,” then TNT, where precodes were popularized --- both services ad-littered. Truest revolution was the old AMC, American Movie Classics, a first instance of non-interrupted oldies other than Public Broadcasting’s occasional forays. Key to enjoyment of films on TV was getting rid of the breaks, means by which TCM got, and kept, its following, even as AMC turned tail with contemporary titles served in chunks. TCM made history by pioneer gathering respect for movies on television as something other than filler between ads.
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