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Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Chaplin Carbon Copy On The Loose

Billy West Is A Faux Charlie in The Hobo (1917)

Stout and youthful Babe Hardy puts away a tower of flapjacks and mile-long sausage in opener segments of The Hobo I hope they didn't shoot twice, his eating as prodigious as any screen-depicted before or since. Was Babe's appetite half so ravenous in private life? It was vigorous golf that controlled weight over a career's peak; real obesity came only with cessation of sport and increase of drink, that being twenty-five years past The Hobo and Babe being fresh-faced rival to Chaplin imitator Billy West, who really had CC nailed and still can fool unwary watchers. How many less laughs did Chaplin fakes earn in crowded theatres circa '17? The Billy Wests were not cheap affairs, and the best of them are funny by standards of comedy that competed with Charlie. It helped too to have former CC supporters on hand to do a same for West, in this case Leo White from Chaplin's Essanay period. West runs through largely episodic antics, two reels eating up inspiration fast, thus action spill out of train station setting to purloined autos, police giving chase, and West sign-off with Chaplinesque "pathos." I couldn't decide if that part was homage, or Billy mocking Charlie for a device that by 1917 was familiar to CC's larger public.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Set Sail From Devil's Island

Gable and Crawford's Last Together is Strange Cargo (1940)

Clark Gable's first after Gone With The Wind finds him busting off a devilish island with a Christ figure among convict company. Obviously a one-of-kind, this runs long, has several climaxes (one only needed), but plays fine given willingness to get into spirit. Glamour folk Gable and Joan Crawford meet mud and crocs in pursuit, Strange Cargo '40-sold legitimately as something different, at least for them. Gable snarls and is relentlessly cynical; you'd actually like him to give so much surly attitude a rest. Here was a furthest up necks in swamp a Metro cast had gone since Kongo in 1932, only this time with soul-saving along way in accord with Code responsibility. One great scene has everyone on an escape boat deciding who'll test a barrel possibly tainted with salt water, knowing the drinker might swell his tongue and die hard in event it's there. Certainly made me resolve never to touch the stuff. We get feel of excess cooks thinning the broth, downside of MGM star vehicles on which so many below-line jobs hung. Leo could afford blue-ribbon support casts, thus Peter Lorre, Albert Dekker, Paul Lukas, many others that make Strange Cargo more an ensemble than was usual for a Gable/Crawford. Visually a knockout, thanks to HD delivery by Warner Instant.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Brit Sleuthing With Comic Chaser

Bulldog Jack Is 1935's Thrill and Laugh Mix

What if Bulldog Drummond fell sick and needed someone to pinch hit for him? That's the conceit of this comedy/thriller where funnyman Jack Hulbert assumes mantle of the dashing detective and cracks a jewel-robbing mob operating out of London's underground rail system. Action set there is profuse for an otherwise modest-managed Gaumont release, that company again trying to crack US markets as they had (and would) with Hitchcock suspensers. Stateside lead lady Fay Wray assists along those lines, as does fact we knew Drummond from times Ronald Colman played him over here. Hulbert was an acquired domestic taste, bitter to some perhaps as any import wine might be, but efficient once he stops bungling and gets down to straight crime-fight. Ralph Richardson underplays as the mastermind and never tries to upstage a florid Hulbert. UK humor was at that time a thing less accessible to us. It took Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers in the 50's to show how funny Brits could be. Variety reviewed Jack as Alias Bulldog Drummond, finding it "... fated for bookings of lesser importance on this side." MGM-UA owns Bulldog Jack now, having leased the pic to Netflix, Dish Network, and possibly elsewhere.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Runt Of Hitchcock Litter Arrives Late To TV

Under Capricorn (1949) Is Hand-Me-Down For Home Viewers

A book was out in summer 1967 that laid down whole of the coming TV season, including most of movies that would play network, with thumbnail reviews by NYT's Howard Thompson (once chairman of the New York Film Critics --- does anyone read his archive today?). Slightly oversized and soft bound, TV 68 was priced high for the time ($1.25), but a joy for heads-up of what we'd watch in a coming year. Sure beat pants off TV Guide's annual Fall Preview, which was sketchier re upcoming net features, with only a handful of titles to tease readership. 1967-68 was a banner year for primetime movies, and peak of exposure for Alfred Hitchcock on all three networks. His vid series was gone, other than syndication, but here was feast of favorites he'd done for theatres, most appearing for a first time on TV. Ratings record setter for the movie season was The Birds, a blockbuster 38.9 rating with a 58.8% audience share for its 1/6/68 Saturday night premiere, stats that beat higher-touted Bridge On The River Kwai on ABC in 9/66. There'd be four Hitchcocks for 1967-68 in addition to The Birds, surprise one being Under Capricorn, made way back in 1949, that decade's output generally shunned by primetime that stuck to later product. I marveled that such an oldie would land on prime real estate that was CBS Friday night (12/7/67), my curiosity whetted to see this seeming rarest of the Master's work.

Under Capricorn had not been syndicated to locals ("Never Shown On TV" said announcement of its sale to CBS), so was fresh produce. Ownership had gone round blocks, first with Transatlantic, which was Hitchcock and partner Sidney Bernstein's company, then to Daniel O'Shea, a Selznick associate well versed in distribution. Warner Bros. had distributed Under Capricorn in 1949 to loss of $500K, and had no residual interest in the negative. O'Shea set up a company, Balboa Distributors, to reissue Capricorn in 1963, but theatre attendance was spotty, the L.A. date and others a letdown according to Variety. A new trailer tried jazzing up the "meller" via emphasis on a shrunken head Ingrid Bergman confronts in her boudoir, patrons realizing to their loss that this was the only scare in an otherwise talkative and untypical for AH show. Still, it was in color and few had seen Under Capricorn over a past decade, so Bill Paley ("himself," said Variety) sat down with O'Shea to make a $600K deal for CBS runs of both Under Capricorn and Joan Of Arc, latter also with Ingrid Bergman and controlled by O'Shea, now doing business as Showcorporation.

Wild and Woolly Art To Promote Capricorn's 1963 Reissue

There was grim competition among network movie programmers for this summit season of ratings war. Overtake of ABC's Bridge On The River Kwai by The Birds at NBC spurred pricing for both feature packages and ad rates --- would supply keep pace with demand? There were but so many blockbusters in any studio kitbag, so net shoppers for '67-'68 had to be creative and find films others had overlooked. That led them to vaulties that for one reason or other had not been on television before. "As the well runs dry on feature pix, the networks have become increasingly susceptible to vintage product --- provided, of course, there's story and marquee values," reported Variety (3/29/67). The Paley pact with Showcorporation resulted in two runs for Under Capricorn, 12/7/67 and 5/24/68. Of  five Hitchcocks network-shown that season, it would rank next to last ratings-wise, with an 18.4 rating and a 30.8 audience share. The Trouble With Harry for ABC would do worse (17.0/30.4), while The Birds, North By Northwest, and Marnie landed among top lures for the feature-driven TV season. Notable was Under Capricorn's 5/24/68 second run during a non-ratings week, these typically a ghetto for little regarded titles.

Prospects Look Drab at TFE '68, Where Under Capricorn
Will Be First Offered To Syndication

Still, it did score network play, and Showcorporation could run with this ball to selling meets for syndication. Under Capricorn would be among "proven pictures" offered at the annual TFE convention (Television Film Exhibit) held 4/68, Showcorporation peddling pix with soothe of free drinks in their hospitality suite at Chicago's Hilton. There's good reason why we seldom saw Under Capricorn after those CBS runs, that being weakness of other titles in the Showcorporation package (Man On The Spying Trapeze, with Wayde Preston, 30 Winchester For El Dorado starring Carl Mohner, others of Euro/Brit origin). Under Capricorn and Joan Of Arc were alone in the group for having had a network run. Showcorporation would within a few years unload Capricorn and Joan to Gold Key Entertainment, latter distributing the pair until 1/81, when King World took reins and put them in a five-feature "Epics" group with Constantine and The Cross, David and Goliath, and Uncle Was A Vampire (!). Is it a wonder that Under Capricorn became so obscure, if not inaccessible? (at least on television) Of 16mm rental houses, Audio Brandon had it for $60, and at least some of prints were IB Technicolor, my having come across one at a collecting con in the mid-80's.

When did TCM last show Under Capricorn? Folks who saw it there said the print was a wash-out. I saw the DVD released by Image in 2003, being one of several Amazon lists, a number of them imports. Quality could be lots better, but the thing is watchable. A Blu-Ray would dazzle, considering Technicolor and the fact Capricorn was photographed by the great Jack Cardiff. I understand the BFI did a restoration, their print shown at UCLA. There are smart scholar/critics who call Under Capricorn one of Hitchcock's greatest films (Dave Kehr put it among a top half-dozen). Long takes AH used for Rope are not Capricorn-confined to a single set, going in/out of doors, up stairs, through room after room, a real tour de force the director intended as just that. Plenty of behind-scenes lore is told by not only Hitchcock bios, but Cardiff, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotten in books they wrote. Under Capricorn disappoints a majority for not being the thriller they expect from Hitchcock, but it's yards better than costume melodramas done elsewhere during the 40's, and should join lion's share of the Master's output now available on Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Carradine's Got Another Science Project

Raising The Dead in Monogram's Basement: The Face Of Marble (1946)

John Carradine is as reasonable a mad scientist as you could hope to assist at reviving the dead, a worthy effort as he presents it even if results come a cropper. I was always one who wanted such experimentation to succeed, if only to let a little joy into lives of Carradine, Karloff, others who made up in sincerity what they lacked in sanity. The Face Of Marble uneases from an opener where a dead sailor is dragged off a beach for buzz back to life in JC's lab; this shook up Dan Mercer enough at age 10 to put him in flight for bed. I might have been similarly undone had we access to Monograms in NC markets (they'd come later after nerve for late horrors had calmed). Fans of Universal diss Mono mostly because prints are notoriously sub-par and they weren't shown as often once TV got hold of admittedly better Universal chillers, but back in 40's first-run, these cheaper creepers were all over marquees, particularly in small bergs where money (in terms of low rent of prints) mattered most. What's nutty (delightfully so) about Face Of Marble is its menace in the form of a ghost dog ambling through closed doors. His name is Brutus, a Great Dane playing himself, though unfairly not billed. Was Carradine abashed at doing these things? I'm told he worked in whatever so as to finance a Shakespeare group. How could JC know it would be lowly shockers he'd be recalled for rather than bartering the Bard? Netflix streams an old transfer of Marble from neg owner MGM --- are there no better elements around than this?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Singing Sweethearts Long Past

Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy Under a New Moon (1940)

It's been easy to ignore or ridicule MacDonald/Eddy musicals since audiences laughed upon first sight of them in That's Entertainment. It was the one point in that compilation where mirth was directed at rather than with performers. My perception was clouded from there, having not seen a Mac/E up to 1974, and resolving not to if this was typical of their work. I still resisted as in "Not just now, maybe later" as clock lately ticked on New Moon as Warner Instant offering (movies there rotate and you can't put any off too long). Last night I gave in and came away glad for it. Gad, what a lavish spread this was! Understand Louis Mayer loved his Jeanette, thus Lion's purse spread wide for her vehicles. Richest were those with Eddy that made profit even on million plus invariably spent (notably more than committed to other Metro musicals, such as The Broadway Melody Of 1940, though The Wizard Of Oz topped them all for outlay). How many of us saw Nelson Eddy for a first time in anything other than 1943's Phantom Of The Opera? Or MacDonald beyond San Francisco?

Eddy comes off to least effect in Phantom, but was fine in Metros closer tailored for him, New Moon making clear how the series with MacDonald pleased a generation of viewing that would remember the team with real affection. Eddy could do action, manage comedy, and make love scenes with Jeanette believable. To latter extent, he beat Clark Gable in San Francisco. Operetta, yes, lots of it, does not undermine Eddy's masculinity. I rather wish That's Entertainment hadn't cut to the pair so sudden and head-on from Rose Marie, his pursed lips made up and the team faintly absurd against rear-projected wilderness. Those who'd holler "camp" at all old Hollywood had their ammunition here. And yet there were those in 1974 who saw MacDonald/Eddy as sentimental highlight of That's Entertainment, being the middle-aged, or better, by-then public who had loved the duo and looked forward to each of their co-starrings over period between 1935 and 1942. Our 60/70's-bred generation could never grasp feeling these folk had for Jeanette/Nelson in soaring song.

Eddy and MacDonald with New Moon Producer/Director
 Robert Z. Leonard

His Larger Part Cut, Buster Keaton Can Still
 Be Glimpsed in New Moon Crowd Scenes 
New Moon is really operetta variant on Captain Blood, Jeanette buying as bond servant the impudent Eddy, who's that way because he's actually a duke on the run from usurpers. Here was MacDonald/Eddy outreach to action attendance, New Moon's second half given to slave revolt, storm at sea, and plethora of effects equal to biggest spectacle MGM laid forth to that time. It had been a play and then a 1930 film with Lawrence Tibbett and Grace Moore, neither done on anything like scale here. New Moon was guided for a first two weeks by W.S. Van Dyke, who then ceded to Robert Z. Leonard, latter taking screen credit. A director's hand weighed lighter at Metro. Ones like Leonard were there to shovel coal to furnace lit by a dominant producer, in this case also Leonard, his reward for having made success of previous MacDonald/Eddys. Theirs was a series sufficiently oiled to need less individual input than coordination of departments. MGM by 1940 was a committee-driven factory, and if New Moon is soulless for that, there is yet size and still-breathtaking craftsmanship to make the sit worthwhile. The show still runs in terrific HD on Warner Instant, and is available on DVD.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Movies Get Rougher In 1968

The Boston Strangler Squeezes Blood Off Headlines

Was this a first true-crime treatment of serial killing? It shocked in '68 for clinical detail re sex/mutilation aspect of DeSalvo murders, and memory still fresh of the horror made a hit ($8.3 million worldwide) of Fox's "tasteful" (said critics) treatment. Strangler was "Suggested For Mature Audiences," so we knew going in there'd be raw meat. Crime scenes are graphic as was dared at the time, and it startled to hear Henry Fonda, as chief investigator, inquire after "semen residue" on bodies. A new day indeed, as further evidenced by The Detective, also from Fox, where Frank Sinatra spoke plain on shock topics till then forbade by a weakening Code. One thing we understood about the soon-to-be ratings system was bets being off as to content; even some of what they rated "G," like for instance Dracula Has Risen From The Grave or The Impossible Years, was rough or sexy beyond what would have been tolerated a season or two before. I admit much of thrill in going to movies from '68 on was to see what walls they'd breach.

The Boston Strangler was one I sat alone watching at the Liberty on a weekday after school. Friends couldn't be bothered, and grown-ups were at work (hopefully) or home watching television. Matinees were being dropped in smaller towns but for weekends, but we persisted all the way to first Liberty closure in 1973 (a two-year blackout). Was it worth my sixty cents and that of three or four odd patrons to continue these 3:00 shows? I combo reviewed The Boston Strangler and a Parent Trap reissue for local press, the pair having played in succession over a past week. I should have pointed out how radically movies had changed in just seven years, but missed that point at fourteen. Strangler was jazzed up with split-screen visuals and action-reaction sharing halves of a Panavision screen, all of which played hell for techs who had to scan 16mm prints for TV use. Didn't Fox realize that a vast majority of public would see The Boston Strangler this way? But here seemed another device movies could use to differentiate from the tube, even if the trick plays trendy and more like distraction now.

The thing is neatly halved, killer pursuit in the first, arrest and analysis of DeSalvo for a (long) second. Think Psycho with an extra hour of Norman being interrogated and finally owning up to his/her dual personality. For many, The Boston Strangler is over once they catch DeSalvo. No more killings, suspense diminished, and we're left to verbal ping-pong twixt Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis, whose convincing perf was pride and joy for the actor in both his autbios. How he copped the prize was lots like Marlon Brando humbling self to be The Godfather four years later. Both stars were on downward sled, and while Brando's hit the dip then vaulted skyward, Curtis was largely back to copies of what had worked earlier for him and others (his first after The Boston Strangler: Those Daring Young Men In Their Jaunty Jalopies). Strangler can't help but engage, thanks to grim curiosity as nightmare unfolds, but its no patch on a modern variant like Zodiac, probably the best and most chilling of serial death watches (excepting M, of course).
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