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Friday, August 22, 2014

Enter Tim Holt To Western Stardom

Wagon Train (1940) Kicks Off A New Series For RKO

It's a misnomer to even call this a B western, RKO having spent to point of graduation past Saturday status ($95,000 the final cost). I wouldn't be surprised if Wagon Train was sold in select territories as a special. $95K was way past investments to follow on Tim Holt's new series, Wagon Train the first and clearly impression-maker for ones to come. Tim was a relative kid (21) here, being sold as a cowboy romancer and hopeful catnip to femmes. Was he the device to widen gender interest in oaters? Wagon Train wound up in a negative column ($12,000 lost), but RKO probably figured on that going in. The idea was to establish a new outdoor star, and do so on first class terms. Locations were splendidly chosen, parts shot in Kanab, Utah among imposing rocks and desert. Tim's a trailmaster warding off Apaches and food hoarding settlers. A post-massacre scene is strong meat, ingĂ©nue Martha O' Driscoll cracking up over carnage she's seen. Much here is close to the bone for matinee expectation, '40 kids flattered, I'll bet, for RKO's stronger dose than what Republic and others were then handing out. Holt was attuned from a start with dialogue, no awkwardness there, and he'd only get better with time. Hardly a wonder his phone rang frequent with offers to support in A's for the majors. Many of his for RKO are out from Warner Archive, including Wagon Train. The Tim Holts as a group rank at the tip-top of series westerns.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Never Has It Looked Like This ...

Blu-Ray Journey Through Intolerance (1916)

Came across a Babylonian tower of an 8mm Intolerance at the last Cinevent and wondered how collectors back in the day stood for ordeal that was threading those tiny reels (well over a dozen) to sit three+ hours before a gauzy image. But wait --- I ran such a print, Birth Of A Nation in fact, to a college audience in 1971, juggling plastic reels in darkness and praying each would come in right order. What hills we climbed in that analog, or belt/gear era. Word to wise: Avoid three hour movies where reel change comes every ten minutes --- it's murder, I say. Show of hands please, for teenage or under collectors who bought D.W. Griffith epics on narrowest gauge from Blackhawk during the 60/70's. Here was what separated sissies from the strong. And what about price? Intolerance set us back $90.98/$103.98 for 8mm/Super 8 respectively in 1970 (the equivalent of $409.74 or $468.28 today). You can get the Blu-Ray for under $30. Who says old days were better?

Dig Deep, You Blackhawk Buyers, or Mow Grass/Shampoo Dogs Till You Drop,
For Privilege Of Owning Intolerance on 8mm.

Intolerance tends to be a duty sit even for most confirmed cineastes. Griffith himself would later admit it was "more depressing than hopeful." Three of four interlocked stories have downer ends, so to watch alone is no spur to sunny days. I say days because it takes me multiple ones to push through Intolerance. A last two views, one on laser disc 25 years back, and most recently the Blu-Ray, were spread over three/four sessions. So why lie across this track? For me, a reason is quality like nothing dreamt of before --- this Intolerance takes the long bridge from swamp that was older prints and gives best evidence of DWG as then-master of composition/action-staging, all of what he was lauded for then and we had to take largely on faith thanks to compromised presentations from 1916 to now. Are we in a Golden Age of film retrieval and rebirth? Weekly arrival of digital marvels like Intolerance say yes.

I'm for cutting cake on hundredth anniversary for Intolerance, since production did begin (on intended stand-alone feature The Mother and The Law) in 1914. What became Intolerance was actually cobbled from that venture plus a grand-scale Babylon saga Griffith dreamed up after flipping over Cabiria out of Italy. He didn't want Euros getting the better of him re bigness, and besides had Birth Of A Nation to live up to. DWG felt a same rock in his shoe as David Selznick when Gone With The Wind became that producer's epic to surpass. Impossible missions for both, and respective careers suffered. Intolerance also bore brunt of critic division and a confused public. Was Griffith asking too much of moviegoers? Intolerance is a tough enough commission a hundred years out, and we're supposed to be so much more sophisticated than '16's lot. The traveling roadshow for Intolerance was like hauling those elephants DWG used to dress Babylon sets, 135 people needed to tie ribbon on hard-ticket play in key locales. Keeping them paid and covering house nuts left less cash in Griffith, let alone his distributor, tills.

Griffith was the showman extraordinaire for all his openers. First-nighting to Intolerance would have been like going to the circus or a rock concert today. People surely came out of shows wrung out, what with all of live stuff plus emotional head-bang of the film. Trouble was Griffith the perfectionist never being satisfied w/work he'd done. In his parlance, there was no such thing as a finished movie. He'd rejigger roadshows from city to city, physical prints recut, scenes rearranged, to suit DWG's mood of the moment. Someone ought to do a book on Griffith the premiere impresario. He sure oversaw enough of them during career prime. Amusing too are tales of Dave pushing way into MOMA projection booths as late as 1940, wanting to tweak Intolerance. He just wouldn't stop figuring ways to enhance the thing. What survives of Intolerance is best-ever presented on Blu-Ray from the Cohen Film Collection (and includes The Mother and The Law, plus The Fall Of Babylon, each released post-Intolerance). There is also an excellent book, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance: Its Genesis and Its Vision, by William M. Drew. The author's webpage has lately added data re newly discovered previews Griffith held for Intolerance in summer 1916. Seems all previous histories were misinformed as to when the film was first seen by an audience. Drew sets that record straight in expert and thoroughly researched fashion.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Further Effort To Straighten Out Those Dead End Kids

Warner Salutes The Dead End Kids 'On Dress Parade' (1939)

It wasn't anyone's easiest job to fit the Dead End Kids into B pics as follow-up to dynamic screen debut in Goldwyn's Dead End and even better Angels With Dirty Faces from WB. Surrender to comedy was years away; these initial seven with the gang (or is it eight?) never could settle on formula that might have sustained a series at Burbank. If Warners could keep Torchy Blane going, why not Dead Enders? The boys had come west armed with experience (from the stage Dead End) and no small ability, but how many helpings could a public take of street badness reformed? The place to go was lower-case B's, that purpose served by Universal, and later, Monogram. In the meantime, there was The Dead End Kids 'On Dress Parade' plus further Warner usage of the boys. Leo Gorcey's "Slip" is the malcontent, others of his group eager to please brass at a military academy shaping youth for what's clearly a war to come (WB getting preparedness ducks in a row). This (small) Parade is basest off-the-rack, but there's comfort in that, and how many options were there in a military school setting? (Jackie Cooper and Freddie Barthlomew saw as narrow opportunities in same-year's Spirit Of Culver for Universal) Slip has to be put straight, and there's 62 minutes in which to do it. Campus exteriors were shot right on the Warner lot. I expected to see Hal Wallis or Bennie Foy emerge out a door for commissary lunch. There's strain on credulity for Gorcey leading the class in tactics and calculus, partial reason perhaps why WB gave up on the group after Dress Parade. William Clemens directed, a start Monday, finish Friday man ideally suited to budget work. Warner Archive offers The Dead End Kids 'On Dress Parade' in a two-fer with Hell's Kitchen, what I call a bargain.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Merry Marxes On Second Outing

Animals Crackers (1930) Back Again --- and Then Again

The Hanna Theatre in Cleveland Sat 1,397 for Legit Performances
The second Marx Brothers feature at Paramount and based again on a well-oiled Broadway hit where laughs had been pared down over months to funniest of funny. This and The Cocoanuts are purest of all things Marx in spite of tentative boy-girl subplots, these not so intrusive as similar device would become in the team's later MGM comedies. Were the Marxes adverse-affected by having to perform before stone-silent filming crews as opposed to accustomed roaring crowds? That had to have impact on mood and morale. Groucho must have later compared quality of these movies to stage versions, but I don't recall just where, so many books out there by and about him. Would be interesting to learn what changes were made when Animal Crackers made its jump from the stage, which raises larger question: Has anyone restaged this play since the Marx Brothers? I don't see offhand how they could, but anything's possible ...

Chicago Gets Animal Crackers in 1974
97 minutes is a touch long. A lot of what goes on in the third act plays like recapitulation of the first. There seems also to be a good deal of Code-cutting in surviving elements. I know Animal Crackers had a reissue in the late forties before the picture disappeared for a long while. Lines are obviously missing, though ones remain that I'm surprised weren't shorn when AC was submitted for a PCA seal. The DVD is soft for an opening reel, gets better and stays so through the remainder. This has to be the only 1930 feature to still be commercially viable in the seventies (City Lights too if we stretch the calendar a year). Universal got out a 1974 theatrical encore so college-age Marxists could have a "new" Bros. shrine to worship, and Groucho was fortunately around to bask in laurels (exhib at the time Mike Cline reports his 35mm print had a muddy track). Colleges could rent Animal Crackers afterward, but it was pricey --- $175 versus 50/50. Still remarkable to me is CBS playing AC in summer 1979 prime-time. Universal was meanwhile offering the pic on new-christened Discovision for $15.95, which according to Variety, had to be increased from $9.95 due to the format's startup costs being "substantially higher" than anticipated.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Is Bette Better When She's Bad?

John Huston Toughens Up In This Our Life (1942)

I'm always surprised by how plain nasty this Warner melodrama plays. Was it director John Huston that stripped off gloves, or did war clouds presage tougher terms for love contesting? The harder edge of Mildred Pierce is anticipated here, even as its a speeding auto Bette Davis employs as lethal weapon rather than firearms later. She'd been hateful in movies before, even a murderess in classier The Letter, but what vitriol is flung in this Life! It needs all of underplaying Olivia De Havilland can deploy to keep BD part way on rails. Actually, De Havilland is a best aspect of the show, fuel for my ranking her tops on Studio Era assembly lines. Was she so effective here for very close attention from Huston? (they were involved off-set) Davis and even JL complained of JH tilting Life too far in Olivia's favor. Must have worked, because she owns it. Cruelty is rife and more palatable if not taken too serious (would a younger audience laugh at Life today?). Davis shrieks I Hate You at hapless Dennis Morgan, tells doddering Charles Coburn that she hopes he'll die. Bette's public sure liked her with stops pulled, but moderns may side with cameo-as-bartending Walter Huston when he says, I hope she breaks her neck, and in the pic's eagerness to please, she does! (oops, my spoiler)

Capitalism gets a black eye as repped by ruthless grabber Coburn, while George Brent stands in for filmland fantasy that our best lawyers prefer assisting needy to having clients that pay (no such animal). There's racial grievance aired in closer-to-bone terms than was customary before such became fashionable after the war. I finally had to check writer credits to see how so much politics got in, and sure enough, Howard Koch, who'd have blacklist trouble later, and who knows, maybe the source novel by Ellen Glasgow was as social-minded (anyone read it?). In This Our Life was a 40's message carrier way ahead of Doug Sirk and his similarly freighted melodramas to come in a following decade. Huston undoubtedly took pen to some of scripting, as was his wont. Result is vinegar beyond even hothouse Davis that was known quantity for customers going in.

Associate producer David Lewis (see his book, The Creative Producer, edited by James Curtis) illuminates Life's backstage. He recalled John Huston's indifference to both the project and novel from which no workable screenplay could derive. Star temperaments were rife, De Havilland wanting to play the "bad" sister, Davis unwilling to be anything but that. Trouble was, BD had eight years on ODeH and looked it, so how to credibly steal away the latter's screen husband (Dennis Morgan)? It's a problem even more acute to modern viewing. Not helping was Kewpie lips painted on Davis plus hair bangs unbecoming to age she was. BD knew her part was wrong, and said as much later, but had to play cards Warners dealt, as did Huston, Lewis, the lot. Oft-bane for the studio system was fact that X number of pictures went out each year, and yes, it was marvelous when one emerged good, but they'd be manufactured in any event, stars like Davis obliged to accept said odds against continuous run of worthwhile work.

Lewis said Huston would go through paces and deliver up routine product as ordered by employers, figuring to focus on isolated properties he knew had merit (like The Maltese Falcon or Treasure Of The Sierra Madre). The producer attributed Huston's attitude to a "restless nature," that the director "did his best (or worst) to put action and drama" into In This  Our Life. However low he regarded the piece, Huston did light a fire under the Davis franchise to make Life the Falcon of melodramas, a brass knuckle applied to what might have been dullish love triangulating by other hands. Here was "throbbing life" as touted by WB in trailers for In This Our Life, Huston having loosed Bette Davis to "demonic" display of on and off screen aggressiveness, a deliberate move on his part, and one that paid with the largest profit yet earned by a Davis vehicle. Would more with Huston have kept the BD star aloft longer? Judging by $1.2 million gain recorded by In This Our Life, it would seem JH was a same sort of hypo to Davis' career as he'd been for Bogart, even if the director never took credit for help he'd been (JH but briefly mentioned In This Our Life on later occasions). Likely a last thing Huston wanted was status of an Edmund Goulding and further association with "woman's pictures."

WB Davis Ads From
Decorous to Delirious
Bette Davis in the interview book, Mother Goddamn, characterized In This Our Life as "a real boxoffice failure," which demonstrates how unaware even biggest stars were of films' boxoffice performance. Davis would not have had access to WB ledgers, any more than Huston did, the latter saying as much in An Open Book, his 9/80 published memoir. Life's success may have sprung from bolder approach re ads and publicity. They'd go for throats where restraint had been policy before. In This Our Life was sold like covers off paperback or confession mags from circular racks at the corner druggist. May-be trashy, but certainly it worked, and future Davis merchandising would take a leaf from Life's lurid book. Warner WWII graphics, on posters and elsewhere, looked like graffiti on subway walls, making their message urgent for more urgent time that was war. With dignity left to Greer Garson shows at Metro, WB offered Davis and all of other personalities on most direct and hard-hitter terms (imagine George Arliss or Paul Muni plying their trade at 40's Warners). In This Our Life has been playing Warner Instant in HD and is available on DVD.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Gregory Ratoff Carries a Vitaphone Reel

For Sale (1929) Is Six Minutes Under High Pressure

Gregory Ratoff well-cast as the world's most obnoxious salesman. He just won't leave Guy Kibbee (who knew from obnoxious himself) alone. Audiences then found funny the idea of a never-say-die, or never-take-no, peddler. Enough of them were still knocking on doors for all to know the approach. Today we get it from Amazon's suggestive selling. Ratoff doesn't look like the eventual director of Intermezzo, Lancer Spy, and numerous Fox musicals, and yet, he made the jump, going back/forth from sets to behind camera (his best parts? Probably All About Eve's Max Fabian and seldom-seen Once In A Lifetime). I get the impression that Ratoff was very well-connected socially, particularly in Darryl Zanuck's circle. Not that he lacked talent, provided you like accents cut thick, and in-face shtick. For Sale tenders a routine I'd assume fed Ratoff in vaudeville. Maybe that's what recommended him to Vitaphone's Bryan Foy, himself a lifetime member of the performing fraternity. Foy strikes me as a man who'd fall asleep on the set, wake up, and discover he's just finished another one-reeler. How else to explain such prolific output? For Sale was done when fast talk itself was enough to dazzle, Ratoff being without peer at least at that. The short is part of Warner Archives' Vitaphone: Volume Two, from which I've dug many a treasure, and now await further servings of wonderful same.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

More Postwar Greed For Gold

R. Scott and Crew Dig Up The Walking Hills (1949) of Death Valley

Desperate men and a woman dig for desert gold. This was shot in Death Valley and looks to have been absolute hell to make. John Sturges directs, an early credit, and top hand Harry Joe Brown produced. He'd continue with star Randolph Scott for a slew of westerns over a next ten years. This one's actually modern-set, but once everyone repairs to heat on horseback, it might as well be Old West. The start reel is set in a border town that looks like dress rehearse for Touch Of Evil, and greed for gold theme is extension of recent success Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. In fact, Columbia did another one very like The Walking Hills in a same year, Lust For Gold. Ella Raines is distinctly Hawksian in manner/ approach ... she'd been developed by the star-maker, then cut loose for bigger fish, but Raines remembered HH lessons, applying them here and elsewhere. Scott is at times distinctly non-heroic; seems most of his gold party are fleeing murder raps --- maybe Randy too? The story trips at times, runs for cover of flashbacks, which aren't a help. That man Edgar Buchannan is in again, a drag upon so much at Columbia during the 40's. All of a cast roasts over spit that was Death Valley location --- whatever was paid them wasn't near enough. Had any company spent so much time there since Stroheim and Greed? Seen on Sony's HD channel.
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