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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

As Mutilated Masterpieces Go ...


Could We Hack 40 Reels Of Greed?

There's nothing like Greed to lead you back to books after watching. This time, I consulted Arthur Lenig and Herman Weinberg, who dealt exhaustive with Erich von Stroheim's doomed masterpiece. But would forty-two reels, another four or so hours, amount to that? It was accepted for decades that (uncut) Greed would rank among greatest, if not #1 of all time, but days of it turning up on critic polls are over, and I've come to wonder how many, even among serious cineastes, are bothering even to watch. Think of mini-series playing television "complete" in the 70/80's, those long tortured hours with commercials besides. Networks even padded big-name theatricals with unused footage to sell additional hours of advertising --- Superman, Earthquake, plenty more. All of Greed might fit nicely over four nights of NBC primetime, and imagine it going dusk to dawn on TCM. Stroheim had rigid system of the 20's to face. Theatres were only in a second decade of coping with features, and here comes EvS with nine-hours. No wonder the town thought he was nuts.




I went over the Weinberg summary of cut stuff, accompanied by stills. A lot of it involved support characters. How engaging would that have been? Tough enough sticking with Greed's downer of a principal narrative. Human nature being what it is, there's nothing we crave like something we're told we can't see, but would all of Greed please, even if the whole kit and caboodle turned up? What I saw on TCM was the release version Thalberg and dicers turned out, as opposed to mix of footage with dancing stills that bloated Greed to longer length and called it restoration. Not to knock that effort, but give me stills or a movie, not both at once. Greed is good where mood is right (as in utterly depressed or suicidal), but who'll pull it down for repeat runs or party placement? I'll be surprised if Warners goes for Blu-Ray release what with Greed's diminished cache. There just aren't enough champions left for it today.




Monday, April 23, 2018

The 30's Price Of Respectibility


The Easiest Way (1931) Again Seems a Most Sensible Way

Remarkable how gritty MGM pictures of the 1930-31 season could be. The Easiest Way begins with Constance Bennett living in squalor with a bum father, (J. Farrell McDonald), sour mother (Clara Blandick), and passel full of ill-behaved siblings. It's enough to propel any working girl into clutches of mistress-keeper Adolphe Menjou, her ad exec boss who sees marriage and family as a trap and nothing else, on-screen evidence suggesting he's more than right. The Bennett persona dealt its mosaic of precode whoring until a public was sated with it and her. You could only do the same story so many times before exhaustion took hold. Bennett's many for RKO got that accomplished by 1933. This actress was sharp enough to pass along at least the illusion of major stardom until an industry wised up and put her in support parts or B leads. For The Easiest Way however, the act was fresh and plain-spoke on trading virtue for Depression-era comforts. Trouble was The Easiest Way and ones like it made the swap both sensible and much preferred to poor-but-pure option that looked more and more like a sucker's choice as precode spread its credo for living. There was just no way a morally upright establishment would let this go on.




Bennett's brood fight over gruel and stale toast in an opener you could mistake for postwar Italo-realism if this weren't 1930. Metro did not shrink from coldwater realism when early talking situations called for it. Was this Thalberg influence?, because it applies across a board of what they sent out with formative sound. Contrasts between have and have-not, and they couldn't be starker than here, are neatly summarized by Robert Montgomery when he squires Bennett to a cookout and pinches what looks like a twelve-ounce steak off the grill to give to a dog. This summed up the face of wealth during a time that few could be exposed to it other than at movies. There wasn't concerted effort by Hollywood to pillory the rich, for social revolution could come of that and they'd be at least partly to blame, but there was a let them eat cake aspect to playboy and tycoon conduct during this period when viewer sensitivity had to have been acute.




The source play had been hot stuff for twenty years before MGM took it up with tongs, the Hays Office having warned that trouble would come of adaptation. Had Thalberg paid heed, there would have been half or more Metro output cleaved off, as skating at the edge was very much corporate pursuit now that tickets sold fewer and a public sought heat from film narratives. Let there be moral compensation, but also wallow in luxury that fallen women could at least enjoy through second acts before punishment befell. Patrons understood the price we paid to see characters revel in sin up to pipers being paid. Arguments for clean living were faint in the face of Menjou-bestowed cars and diamonds, plus fact he's devoted and not at all a bad guy to bed down with, marriage-wise or not. Those who would judge are a priggish lot, even a first-credit-for-Metro Clark Gable, who won't give Connie a time of day once she trades goodies to Menjou. One look at this fresh bull, however, and you know he won't be doing a piety act for long. In fact, MGM saw a star birthed from first preview audiences demand to know who this guy was. They'd find out with a dozen features Clark Gable would appear in during 1931 alone. Within that time, he'd become a major attraction.




The Easiest Way was a sort of real-time project, being shot during November and December 1930, and taking place at the same time, as evidenced by checks written and shown in close-up, situations and dialogue running up to the holiday season, an urgency because this was a best time for down-and-outers to find jobs. Bennett is enslaved by the "ribbon counter" (men's ties) where getting hit on is daily ritual. Her friend Marjorie Rambeau explains the facts of man/woman interaction in words that still apply. Remarkable how precode, at least writers in back of it, understood reality so much better than we do now. Rambeau, always a voice of bitter experience, turns up throughout The Easiest Way to boost Connie up or knock her down. This actress, always in support and as often stealing films she appeared in, conveyed flint-hard appreciation for Depression woe that bespoke what many (most?) audience members were thinking. She worked into the 50's (her 60's) and would for whole of the time embody hard-won wisdom (excellent too in 1953's Torch Song).




Robert Montgomery is The Easiest Way's leading man. He is easy to forget in hindsight because of Gable. They do not appear in scenes together, Montgomery representing the well-borne and upwardly mobile, while Gable is up-from-pavement with rolled sleeves and Anita Page as his well-serviced wife. No contest then, for who needed polite lovemaking as a culture cracked under the Crash. Gable came at precisely a right moment and made out best, knowingly or not, from it. He is a "laundryman" who builds the business to where he and wife/child have a more than comfortable home for Christmas, The Easiest Way wrapping as hit-skids Bennett shows up in Stella Dallas mode, peering through a window at family life where she's not welcome. Yes, even precode dealt harshly with fallen women. It was only occasional that they prospered for straying. The Easiest Way is too enjoyable to be a preachment, however, being brisk (73 minutes) and to a brim with brusque dialogue, a given during the period. It is a must for many reasons, and available on DVD from Warner Archive.




Sunday, April 22, 2018

Warner Gangs Demand Tribute!


Missing Witnesses (1937) Is Off WB "B" Shelf

Vice gangs rule backlot streets yet again at Warners, blowing out same store windows and auto-piling into street lamps, footage used/reused for decades. Crime paid better for WB than anyplace else. No sooner would they finish two/three racket B's than launch one on larger budget with Robinson or Cagney, all a sure thing for action money dependable as sunrise. Talent could be tried as well in the cheap ones --- how else could you road test a Dick Purcell as next Cagney (which he decidedly was not). Writing's fairly punk --- we don't get the sense of anyone laboring much over these scripts --- but how could they when a finished feature had to roll out of Warners each week? It was sheer nervous energy that put most cheap melodrama across, that plus pressure to finish on Friday. Missing Witnesses got a little lost on me as to who heavies were and what they were up to, though it's possible I snoozed through vital exposition. There's endless talk about "protection rackets," which must have been a bigger problem then than now. With all the drug stores and spaghetti joints gone to nationwide chains nowadays, how could crooks lean on but one for rake-offs?




Friday, April 20, 2018

More Than Offbeat, But Not A Dog


Powell Trades Tough For Rib Tickle in You Can Never Tell (1951)

Turns out Universal-International was making Disney live action comedies before Disney. This one's about a poisoned dog that returns in the person of Dick Powell to unmask his killer. Walt and crew might have done as much with Fred MacMurray or Dean Jones a decade later and to far wackier degree than restraint applied here. The subdue effect to what should have been friskier fare is what hobbles potential of You Can Never Tell. As long as they weren't really going to cut loose with the comedy, I found myself wishing the yarn were played straight, Powell's reincarnated pooch now a private eye squaring accounts in earnest, and never mind effort at laughs. Universal did any number of coat-and-tie (read genial) comedies during the 50's where nuttiness that was needed gave way to punches pulled. You Can Never Tell tries occasionally at breaking out of the pack. Powell's sidekick, formerly a racehorse, and now Joyce Holden, runs 45 MPH on foot to catch a departing bus, a bit of narrative abandon this show could use more of. I wish Frank Tashlin had directed You Can Never Tell instead of Lou Breslow. Powell in comfortable 50's status took properties he liked, made offbeat choices, had as many clicks as misses (and would seriously consider Curse Of The Demon a few years later). The idea of You Can Never Tell is, alas, more engaging than its execution, but isn't that the case with so many? Here is one that Universal could remake to advantage. Their On-Demand Vault series has You Can Never Tell for DVD purchase.




Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Men On Secret Mission


Cockleshell Heroes (1955-56) Turns Tide Of The War

Warwick was a British firm headed by Irving Allen and pre-James Bond Albert R. Broccoli. They did big-scale actioners meant to compete with a best the Yanks could deliver. War themes were a staple, big names lured from our shores to headline. So far there'd been Alan Ladd in several, Victor Mature for Safari and Zarak, plus oddball of a sci-fi, The Gamma People, with Paul Douglas. The big Cockleshell name was director and star Jose Ferrer, riding a career crest and regarded a triple, if not more, threat, for whatever project he took on, the Jack Buchanan character in MGM's The Bandwagon said to have spoofed him. The story was fact-based, impossible mission stuff, grim outcome from which Warwick doesn't shrink. There weren't a lot of war pix where objective was achieved at cost of nearly all personnel, as here, but it's that integrity that elevates Cockleshell Heroes. Did Robert Aldrich observe and take note for his later The Dirty Dozen? The latter seems a remake in many ways: comic-flavored training and war games in a first half, dead serious penetration of enemy territory for the second. Trevor Howard acquits well as Ferrer's opposite number; they clash and eventually join in detailing the raid. Eager Brit thesps don uniform, some to join Hammer ranks in years to come: John Van Eyssen (Horror Of Dracula) is among volunteers, and Christopher Lee commands a submarine rendezvous. The Cockleshell Heroes is best seen wide, as on Sony's HD channel.




Monday, April 16, 2018

10 ... 20 ... 60 Years Ahead Of Its Time ...


Have We Caught Up With Beat The Devil Yet?


Shot in early 1953, but released in March 1954, this was sold by braver exhibs in terms of black-and-white flatness we should celebrate --- a deliberately old-fashioned show amidst shape-shifting screens. Beat The Devil would have been better off had it been more like the thrillers it proposed to spoof. The satire was obscure enough to need helpful narration confirming that indeed this was a lark; otherwise you could go the whole thing figuring Beat The Devil a plain misfire. Humphrey Bogart tagged it for exactly that, resenting his money wasted on such smug self-indulgence. The star spent personal funds to accommodate friend and Devil's director John Huston, who'd handed Bogart his 50's triumph The African Queen and the Academy Award it yielded for an actor too-long typed as urban tough-guy. Beat The Devil then, was a hiccup among post-Warner Bogarts that were uniformly successful otherwise, and it would be after HB's death before a meaningful cult would form around he and Huston's "shaggy dog" spoof (that usually a critic's designation for pics everyone but the public will like).






Origin story of Beat The Devil has been given two ways. One version has John Huston being given the source book and imploring Bogart to invest and star in it, but Bogart told LOOK magazine in September 1953 that someone had lent him the novel and he said to Huston, "Let's buy it." Bogart added that he "raised the dough" to make Beat The Devil. On the last detail, there seems to be no argument. In fact, Bogart would lose something upward of $450,000, a 1953 equivalent to four million today. This certainly would not have been loss to laugh off. Location shooting was in Ravello, Italy, where cast/crew spent seven weeks, according to Variety, much of that partying and writing just ahead of the camera. Europe being a social mecca for tax-dodging Hollywoodites of the day (it was claimed you could duck the federal tab by working fourteen straight months offshore). There were many old friends who'd link up far from home. Director pals of Huston visited Ravello --- William Wyler and Howard Hawks sighted among passers-through. David Selznick gifted the company with a ping-pong table to pass idle hours, his wife Jennifer Jones among the "international" cast. Home movies were made of this vacation enjoyed largely on Bogart's money, fascinating to watch because they are in color, unlike the feature.








What may have started off as serio-comic became altogether farce as writer Truman Capote joked up dialogue and Huston got into spirit of fun. The cast was less convinced as words were handed them right before scenes to be taken. Wiser heads saw the hangover to come once Huston or whoever assembled the mess. Fullest awakening came as the director did his editing in August 1953. Plan had been to get Beat The Devil into release for September, triad of Huston, Gina Lollobrigida, and Bogart to thump the show with personal apps during July-August-September. That plan had to be scotched after participants, and distributor United Artists, got a look at Huston's finished product. Beat The Devil seemed not fish nor fowl, and sloppily made in the bargain (deliberate? It looks as though Huston was emulating imports that he, and others, admired). Fall '53 was also the coming of The Robe and others of widened screen that would render old-style square frames obsolete. Every month that Beat The Devil stayed in the stall would make it seem more of an antique when audiences finally saw it.






Emergency measures would have to be applied to put the film in releasable shape. Bogart invited a director panel for advice toward salvage. One can imagine polite silence when lights went up. Trouble among both insiders, and civilians who got a peek, was not knowing if Beat The Devil was straight melodrama or a send-up. To hopeful rescue came husband-wife editing team of Gene and Marjorie Fowler. They would reminisce about their time on Beat The Devil for a 1964 Variety article which was part of the trade's thirty-first anniversary issue. The Fowlers had been shown the film and were told that it had been distributed during fall 1953 in England and "was doing very poorly." Beat The Devil would have to be "saved" by the editing team to have any hope of success in US markets. "We decided that the simplest solution was to let the audience in on the fact this was a comedy," trouble being the Fowlers having access only to a cut negative, and a final dubbed track, essentially what patrons were then seeing in the UK. "We started by transposing some scenes, eliminating certain story points, and punching up others with inserts. Then we took the tail end of the picture and put it up at the beginning, telling the story in flashback form. We opened on a close shot of four somber faced gentlemen marching along purposefully, while a new narration, spoken by Bogart, stated, Here are the four most successful criminals of Europe." The Fowlers were satisfied that their work helped transform Beat The Devil  into what they said became "an esoteric classic."






Reshuffle of the narrative was accompanied by censor call for "some snipping" to certain views of Gina Lollobrigida, said Army Archerd in his 11-18-53 column for Variety. The trade reported two days later that Bogart had given UA "the right to lease (Beat The Devil ) to TV if it doesn't make the grade theatrically." Deal further called for Bogart to receive "15% per run" in the event such option was taken (as things turned out, Beat The Devil would not appear on television until fall of 1964). Toward agreed-upon March 1954 release, United Artists set simultaneous opening at 68 theatres in the New York metropolitan area, a bid less to beat any devil than beat word-of-mouth which was expected to be bad. Some initial dates did OK, but sure enough, the smell got out. Dorothy Kilgallen's Screenland column laid a haymaker on Beat The Devil --- customers, she said, "gasped" at the previewed film, saying that the players "couldn't possibly have given such performances unless they were drunk, drugged, or didn't give a darn ..." Exhibitor comments agreed that Bogart had let down his public. Part of trouble was UA grossly misleading audiences with promise of "Adventure At Its Boldest --- Bogart At His Best," accompanied by the star laying a sledgehammer right on villainy, and fondling a falling-out-of-her-gown Lollobrigida. To promote Beat The Devil as sly farce would likely have been ruinous, however, as such content was not what Bogart's following was known to embrace. Whatever the missteps, Beat The Devil would be, along with In A Lonely Place, the only Humphrey Bogart vehicle during whole of the 50's to earn less than a million in domestic rentals. $975,132 from 8,891 engagements was plain disaster, but not one that would come as surprise to those who had scurried to make something commercially viable out of Beat The Devil.


One-Sheet For The 1964 Reissue


Pitching Beat The Devil To TV Stations For Fall 1964


Alternate Style For The 1964 Syndicated Pitch
Bogart sold his Beat The Devil interest to Columbia in February 1955, along with his ownership in The African Queen and all the Santana titles produced by that company in which he was a partner. Beat The Devil would become the object of a very interesting reissue experiment in 1964. Columbia by then had an art subsidiary called "Royal Films International" to handle their elevated stuff, and Royal put together a fresh campaign for Beat The Devil as a film "Ten Years Ahead Of Its Time." That having been ten years before 1964, Royal figured our greater sophistication had caught up with Beat The Devil and now was time to finally appreciate it. The film, said Variety (4-23-64), would be "getting a strictly high-brow treatment" via bookings through 36 venues nationwide that were controlled by the Art Theatre Guild chain. A New York run at the 5th Avenue Cinema lasted six weeks and took $30,900, which was awfully good for a 273 seater. Variety attributed Beat The Devil "comeback" success to an "expanded market for the so-called "sophisticated" pix, new sales approach, and that "Bogie" craze now booming after grassrooting in colleges." The revival would play out as Columbia-Screen Gems put Beat The Devil into a feature package for fall 1964 syndication to TV, where it was alternately marketed to buyer stations as an "offbeat ... comedy classic," or Bogart the "International Swindler" up to old tricks.






I've watched Beat The Devil again, and as with past viewings, have liked it more each time. It's not that I finally "get" the humor, as frankly that still eludes me, but as a curiosity and record of what Euro influence had done to Huston, nothing equals Beat The Devil. This was no movie for hopeless provincials we Americans were. Bogart in straight-up crime fighter mode (Deadline USA, The Enforcer) was what Yanks preferred, though The African Queen demonstrated tolerance for offbeat path, so long as comedy and romance were served. Bogart is certainly not flattered by the camera. And donning ascots?? We realize suddenly why it was necessary for Bogie to be under studio protection where he could be carefully photographed. The African Queen got by because his "Charlie Allnutt" was an extreme character whose sweat and grime enhanced the part. For Beat The Devil, Bogart is assigned to suavity and Gina Lollobrigida for onscreen wife, plus Jennifer Jones with whom he'll steal kisses, none of which an emaciated HB seems fit for. There was an auto crack-up on location that sliced his tongue, broke out some teeth, for which he'd have stitches and rush order for new bridge work. There is a scene in Beat The Devil where Bogart's badly swollen lip is clear in evidence. He would frankly look and comport better two years later in his final film, The Harder They Fall.




Beat The Devil Makes The Art House in Cleveland For Spring 1964


Jennifer Jones came off best of the cast for me. Someone told her later that this would be the picture she'd be remembered for, and JJ was non-plussed. Everyone associated with Beat The Devil would write it off as a disaster. The inevitable cult formed around coffee tables in university towns (Harvard's Brattle Theatre an early champion), and revivals sold Beat The Devil as mockery it only fitfully was. Bogart festivals had less luck because his legion wanted straight dope of a Maltese Falcon, not a movie that would ridicule it. There is lately a "Director Cut" that loses the narration and has added footage, essentially what was shown in Europe and the UK over latter months of 1953 while UA, Bogart, et al, struggled to fix Beat The Devil for stateside consumption. This "restoration" has played revival screens but is not yet available on home disc. It did, however, turn up unexpectedly, and most welcome, on a late night TCM broadcast, so we can at last see Beat The Devil as John Huston presumably intended it.




Friday, April 13, 2018

Grisly Leap For The 60's


The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962) Is Head-Start On Tasteless Trend

This was for years tendered to me as more rotten than it turned out to be., shorthand describe being "the one with a head in the brownie pan." Actually, Brain's a gory mess, much more explicit than '62 politeness would otherwise dictate. One guy has an arm ripped off by a mutant and another gets flesh chewed from his neck, so where indeed to draw lines? A next couple years would answer with Blood Feast, then The Flesh Eaters. There was Brain's wide-eye dismembered head on the cover of Horror Monsters #8, and who wasn't mesmerized by that? From such an image is genre folklore born. Made at leanest cost, lab scenes comprise much of footage, and were staged, allegedly, in a NY hotel basement. The Brain That Wouldn't Die belies its title in that title femme wants to die, but can't thanks to experimentation of a fiancĂ© who yanked her noggin out of a car on fire. Previous victims dot the labscape, doc assist with a claw hand, plus aforesaid mutant, the latter a wow once out of his closet and getting even. There's trolling too among strip joints from which a wholly unmotivated catfight ensues, all quite unwholesome, and I'm surprised even Jim and Sam picked up Brain for distribution. The film's producers must have made them a virtual gift of the thing.
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