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Friday, April 18, 2014

Noir Climbs In The Ring

80 Savage Minutes That Is The Set-Up (1949)

Boxing as the grim game movies would disdain until Humphrey Bogart finally called for the sport's outlawing in The Harder They Fall. Was this partly one industry wanting to get rid of competition that was the other? After all, small arenas in "tank towns" and elsewhere drew crowds that weren't attending theatres, so why not relieve them of a less healthy choice? Boxing being a grubby business, a lot of people saw bouts on screen who wouldn't dream of attending an actual match (myself included), that gulf widened as filmmakers increasingly associated the "sport" with both organized and petty crime. For purposes of The Set-Up, director Robert Wise extended criticism to watchers as well, his camera scanning over blood thirst among men and women in the stands. The idea apparently was to make any of us ashamed to look at fights, let alone support human suffering, and the underworld, by paid attendance to matches. Critics hailing The Set-Up noted parallel with gladiatorial combat where merciless crowds gave thumbs-down to fallen warriors.

Things got to a point where boxing itself was an affront to civilized conduct, reason I suppose why we have less nightly bouts in those tank towns that are presumably still on the map (but what about brutal bare-knuck matches held nightly in gather spots nationwide, and broadcast as often to TV viewing?). The Set-Up got into a grudge match of its own when UA's Champion was set to open and RKO boss Howard Hughes sniffed infringement on part of creative crew of that ring drama. There was basis to the flap, Champion director Mark Robson having been at RKO till recent, and with access to The Set-Up's script in development. Court decision was for RKO, and UA had to trim offending portions from Champion. On-canvas UA would call Hughes a big bully, which he probably was (remember the kibosh HH put on Red River's original ending), and a bad sport besides for rushing out The Set-Up just ahead of Champion's bow. All of that is forgot now, and we're left with apple-orange that is these two, both with considerable merit, and available to HD-viewing (The Set-Up via Warner Instant, Champion on Blu-Ray).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Keaton On Kampus

College (1927) Sharpens Up For Blu-Ray

Among Buster Keaton features for United Artists release, this fell into public domain and was sold to collectors during the Blackhawk era, one of few Keatons legit-available in 8/16mm. Later it was judged a weak sister once the whole of his silents reemerged on home format, lesser quality of College prints factored into that. Much is resolved by Kino's Blu-Ray, which upgrade should raise regard for the show (significant was College being last of BK features to be issued by Kino in HD). There's been speculation that Keaton made it as surer thing retreat from commercial disappoint of The General, and as coattail hanger to Harold Lloyd's very successful The Freshman. Everyone was doing college-set comedies then, higher education a fad with youth lured to four years of necking and pep rallies as promised by pic-makers. Buster as brilliant scholar/class valedictorian is welcome and believable, a part he'd again enact on Speak Easily's talkie occasion. Keaton must have been amused playing academic despite not having gone a day to school, though time would properly recognize instinctive genius for comic creation, a thing no institution could teach.

A Short Feature Allows For Multiple Acts of Vaudeville In Ads Shown Above 

Buster's goal is to conquer sports, not to seek popularity as was Harold Lloyd mission (BK too inner-directed for that in any case), and to win fickle heart of Anne Cornwall. Amusing in itself is prime athlete Keaton obliged to bungle at games he could offscreen best anyone at; there's no better evidence of BK the actor than muddling a try at baseball, this a game he played nearly every day of prime years and excelled in. College's race to a rescue makes us wonder if Buster should have tried out for Olympics as sideline to moviemaking. Wonder how many times he tried a pole vault into that upper-floor window before ceding the stunt to a pro. Keaton's coda to College is icy splash to maybe reflect downturn at home with Natalie. Would she have got his last grim jest? (assuming Nat still bothered seeing current Keatons) College used campus and field backgrounds that are located for then-now analysis by expert John Bengston in a disc extra.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Collegiate Comedy Circa 1949

Higher Education When Mother Is A Freshman

Loretta Young wangles way into college at late date (age 35, so her character claims, although LY herself was but 36 in '49) for the sake of bratty daughter Betty Lynn, who's gaga over English prof Van Johnson. No surprise that he'll flip for Loretta, even as years of movie stardom had calcified this actress to appearance older than her actual age. For being at the job so long by 1949, Young must have seemed anything but youthful to an emerging second generation of viewership. She plays comedy not unlike melodrama, both an essential same to a performing mechanism whose focus seemed more on coif and costuming. Collegiate setting is what pleases, the whole of campus exteriors shot at the University Of Nevada at Reno. This was Loretta Young's return to Fox after eight years, having been queen there, but tiring of statue parts they'd assigned her (maybe they understood appropriate casting better than she). There's a sophomore dance, music borrowed from previous Fox pix, and to-be stars among student body (Debra Paget, Barbara Lawrence). Professor Van explains to Loretta at one point that there's nothing inappropriate about faculty dating students, the college having progressed to a point where such is OK. He also has a live-in, uniformed maid at his gingerbread teacher's residence and is fully equipped to support Loretta, plus daughter's tuition, should they wed. Struggling educators of the day must have gotten a yok out of that.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Valentino Manning Up

Rudy Sets Sail in Moran Of The Lady Letty (1922)

Rudolph Valentino learning two-fist ways as a pampered youth shanghaied aboard Walter Long's scurvy ketch. This was Rudy's first after The Sheik. Uncertainty as to spelling of his name pervaded ads of the time, though the heaven knows he'd changed it enough times himself. Paramount's notion was to man up RV and get him well off perfumed desert sands. To that they'd succeed, as Rudy transitions well from idler to hard-bitten. Here was a player who deserved better than programmers Paramount gave him. They were exploitative as well, failing to back their boy when he got in a marital jam (as in wed to two at once). Moran's lead lady was Dorothy Dalton; in fact, the title refers to her, not Valentino. Maybe Para cast DD so femmes could reasonably say, If she can have him, then surely I could ... that's how un-glam Dalton looked, although she gets more appealing as the pic wears on. Rudy was too exotic to ever play All-American. Had he lived, I can see him as precode dweller after Ricardo Cortez fashion (or better put, Cortez following after Valentino example), and later, doing character work along lines of Ramon Novarro and Antonio Moreno, both being effective in that capacity for many years. Moran Of The Lady Letty has been nicely transferred by Flicker Alley as part of their Rudolph Valentino DVD Collection.

Monday, April 14, 2014

RKO Attempts a Saucy Mix

"America's New Sweethearts" In 1956's Bundle Of Joy

RKO listed five reasons in trade ads why Bundle Of Joy would do "capacity business" for Christmas 1956. I'll not cite them all, but chief was Eddie Fisher, white-hot off TV, making his star screen debut as duet with wife Debbie Reynolds, "America's New Sweethearts" as anointed by fans and press. And what better basis for showmen to tie-in with local merchants than Bundle being set in a department store during holidays? That's essential charm of this otherwise labored comedy, 50's consumerism dressed in Technicolor an irresistible parlay. Premise had served Ginger Rogers seventeen years before as Bachelor Mother, a title which of itself drew patrons in hope a Code would be violated, which of course it wasn't. Still, this seemed a yarn worth remaking, but think how few years the situation had left to shock. Unwed motherhood as basis for social outrage got airing the same season, but on serious terms, with MGM's These Wilder Years, but maybe RKO had a better idea playing it for laughs and music as here.

Fifty-eight years is a long time in which to forget how popular Eddie Fisher was at prime. His Coke Time was a network hit and Eddie/Debbie merged for 50's mindset to something like Doug/Mary in idolatry of yore. Ebay-bid a '56 fan mag and chances are they'll be in it. Seven songs were cleffed for Bundle Of Joy, and RKO centered selling around them. Fisher got what Army Archerd called a "fabulous" deal: publishing rights for all the songs (there'd be a soundtrack LP) and 35% ownership of the film. Coca-Cola was solidly aboard for promotion, Fisher closely associated with the soft drink product thanks to his ongoing TV stint. Coke would festoon thousands of delivery trucks with Bundle Of Joy banners, this a "precedent-breaking move" on the corp's part, according to pic publicity. Two-million was production budget set by RKO, a more than generous figure for the troubled firm. Summer production for Bundle Of Joy saw a largest ever number of requests for star photos, Fisher alone or Fisher/Reynolds, 11,262 letters received during one record-shattering week. Richard Dix and Helen Twelvetrees, of former RKO employ, never had it so good in long-gone 30's.

Hard to believe there were once 6,000 Eddie Fisher fan clubs active. We think of him now, if at all, as somewhat the heel who made enemies of ex-wives and those he'd defame in scathing memoirs. Does anyone listen to Eddie on CD? I liked his tuning for Bundle Of Joy, and there's a boyish quality opposite better screen-experienced Debbie, she a grizzled vet beside newcomer husband. Reynolds was like Grace Kelly in that both were pledged to MGM, but loaned out to Leo's considerable profit, in DR's case, to RKO and also for Tammy and The Bachelor at Universal-International. Bundle Of Joy is banquet for speculation among those who'd tear masks off H'wood hypocrisy, "arranged" marriages, and perfect couples who were anything but. A best approach might be to read some of  scorched earth books written since Bundle Of Joy, then watch the movie. Warner Instant has been streaming a gorgeous HD transfer in 1.85.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Stan and Babe Do A Crash-Out

The Second Hundred Years (1927) Among Early Laurel-Hardy Comedies

Laurel and Hardy are goal-birds in what was evidently sold as their first "true" team comedy, though I don't necessarily trust myself reciting such stats. Just when did patronage begin recognizing these two as matched pair? They dig out of a cell, tunnel into the warden's office, effect escape from there in guise of painters. Robert Youngson made hey-hey with this one in The Golden Age Of Comedy by emphasis on Stan whitewashing a flapper's pert rear. Laurel-Hardy really hit ground running, their characters fully developed almost from start. Hal Roach must have levitated on realizing the mine he'd found. Stan does chasing of a cherry round the dinner table bit that rocked houses, so good as to inspire re-do by comedienne Anita Garvin months later in another L&H, From Soup To Nuts. LA locations are used for prison exteriors, then it's to Roach backlot for street scenes charmingly simple and seeming a corner away from Chaplin's Easy Street. Wonder how many blocks Roach built on site for comics to play on --- were there more than the one shown here? This Second Hundred Years is, to my mind, among funniest of Stan/Babe's silent output; certainly it was a favorite on 8mm. Just wish prints were better. There's nitrate crumble here and there --- maybe we should just be thankful it exists at all.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sinatra and Company Stick It To The Enemy

A Shoot 'Em Up War For Never So Few (1959)

Frank Sinatra alternates between China/Burma combat and R&R with Gina Lollobrigida. Among fighting force are soon-to-be-stars Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, Never So Few a preview of the sort of actioners they'd engage as WWII movies became the stuff of 60's fantasy. This was among early occasion for enemy troops blowing up real good for always outnumbered, but never outfought, allies. Director John Sturges saw his future in said approach, increased distance from the actual war enabling battles to be staged in comic book terms. Still, that was action viewership wanted, and if we're to trace back Hollywood's blockbusting mentality, Never So Few may be a place to start. The project was slated for travel, but only a second unit went, the principals held to Metro backlot and nearby locations.

I call this a Hugo Friedhofer movie because his score is the best thing about it. Sinatra romancing of Lollobrigida is a drag through which we await return to battle stations. McQueen shows vividly what a next generation of stars will look (and act) like. His gunfiring in place of words makes the rest look like over-talkers, SMc early on hep to fact that dialogue was something action men did best without. Politics jerk a rug from under a once-ally as Frank and troop expose betrayal of GI's by the soon-to-go-Red China, making it clear we were wrong to have ever trusted them. Payback is a third-act massacre they surprisingly get away with, a rare if not unique instance under the Code. Burmese scenics look great, but it's obvious Frank and friends stayed home, their jungle a same one Tarzan traversed at Culver. MGM was slow to recognize a public fed up with faking re backgrounds. Never So Few plays on Warner Instant in HD and looks terrific.
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