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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Columbia Puts Bitter Tea In Radio City's Cup

Cultures Clash in The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933)

Columbia drank bitter tea for the failure this Frank Capra production was --- $298,000 in domestic rentals back from a reputed million spent in negative cost. Some would say it was an art film gone wrong. Capra admitted having supped in hopes of Bitter Tea yielding a much desired Academy Award, for which he'd not even be nominated that year. There were bad omens from premiering in early 1933 at just-opened Radio City Music Hall, a cathedral other showmen resented for its siphon-off of patronage from established Broadway houses. The Bitter Tea Of General Yen got off to a bad start there, yanked after a poor week and Radio City's inability to cover its house nut. Frank Capra had till now done comedies and actioners that patronage liked --- why poach now in exotic fields of Von Sternberg endeavor? FC thought serious might translate to gained status. He'd go through the rest of a long life placing General Yen among proudest achievements.

It was, and remains, a visual stunner. One modern observer said Bitter Tea's lush settings reminded him of theatre lobbies hosting the film (Radio City's, maybe?). Never before had Capra taken such pain with the look of a show. Like some of Von Sternbergs he evoked, The Bitter Tea Of General Yen can look like a million even in dupe prints. What got Capra and cast in hot water was daring stuff of interracial romancing between Barbara Stanwyck and tendered-as-Chinese Nils Asther (the actor was actually Danish-born and raised in Sweden). The big moment was a dream sequence where they clinch; it's still got punch for flouting what was then taboo, never mind our precode expectations. Trade reviewing called Capra's hand, saying he'd get grief for miscegenation content, and judging by failure of the pic, it's likely he did, at least in part for the Stanwyck-Asther hook-up.

A Very Different General Yen As Envisioned By Columbia's Product Annual For 1932-33

Nils Asther's General Yen may be a best feature of Bitter Tea. He's suave, ruthless, speaks multiple languages, and better attuned to Yank realities than ugly Americans he deals with, one of whom is Walter Connolly, a mercenary delight and one reason why Code police nixed a reissue Columbia sought for the film years later. General Yen's obsession with the Stanwyck character makes sense, or doesn't, according to one's own acceptance of Babs as object of intense desire. How many in 1932, or among today's audience, would give up all for a roll with this actress/character, especially when she's so surly as here toward a frankly more likeable Yen/Asther? Capra would enjoy success, and a coveted Oscar (in fact, bushels of them), for getting back in a comedy groove with It Happened One Night, a truly momentous hit that would establish him as Hollywood's leading director of the 1930's.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

1949 Showmen Go Gender Targeting

Useful Pressbook Art --- But What Was In It For The Ladies?

Command Decision Lesson #1: If Women Say No, The Pic Won't Go

The trouble seemed to be this: MGM had spent lots for a property adapted to Broadway success about men under stress of war, a war ended several years before. Legiters would pass on heart interest, result no women, that is, not one, in the cast. MGM hewed to that for translate of Command Decision to film, so no ground was given to worrying wives or sweethearts back home per formula of combat stories gone before. Fliers and those who'd led on the ground were invited to advance screen Command Decision and fill out cards re authenticity. Thumbs up from these put the feature on track for Academy consideration, perhaps a Best Picture for 1948, thus a three-theatre "Pre-Release" in Los Angeles for Christmas of that year to qualify for votes. Full-dress military police would act as honor guards for these openers, Command Decision a most lavish of postwar tributes to those who'd won the peace. Reward for Leo's effort was the L.A. Army/Navy Club placing Command Decision among ten all-time best war pics, a list that included Wings, The Big Parade, A FarewellTo Arms, and more recent Destination Tokyo, They Were Expendable, and A Walk In The Sun. All well and good this, but what of hinterland houses that relied on women to fill seats, or bring men/boys who would?

Problems arose in wake of ads done for the pressbook, none of which were femme focused, a mistake that showmen on the ground would have to address. MGM had done a teaser trailer aimed partly to women, but it was too small an effort. Command Decision was getting known as a new year's (and 25th anniversary) Metro show with appeal limited to men, and that was deadly considering fact that it was Mom, dates, and gal-pals that made command decision of what men/boys saw at theatres. How then to assure women that Command Decision was their kind of entertainment? One way, a most obvious one, was to emphasize Clark Gable (as in "The Ladies Love ..."), still swooning even on approach to a third decade serving Leo. Distaff columnists liberally quoted in ads guaranteed sisterhood that Command Decision would please. Ads shown here are from Buffalo and Kansas City, a pair of keys that would have been put on notice as to selling snafus on Command Decision (as in word received from L.A., NYC, and Chicago), and making appropriate adjustment to their own promoting. Kinks could often be ironed out this way, subsequent daters learning from errors made on first-runs.

More Command Decision at Greenbriar Archive.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Errol On His Own

Flynn Steps On Skids with Crossed Swords (1954)

Crossed Swords Came To Chicago, But Did Not Conquer
Of movie idols who thrived in the Golden Age, Errol Flynn may have been a truest Man Of The World. He'd been everywhere, had traversed oceans and penetrated jungles. To make movies on the continent would seem more natural to him than doing so on Warner sound stages, thus Crossed Swords as welcome respite from Burbank captivity. Flynn had just spilt from WB when Italian backers offered Crossed Swords. He was not (yet) a star in decline, as recent The Master Of Ballantrae had done extremely well, and may have made Warners regret their separation from Errol. The latter's Italian venture was initially called Teacher Of Don Juan, the title a bit close to Warner's previous Flynn vehicle for comfort, thus eventual change to Crossed Swords.

Errol's greater interest was launch of William Tell, his producing dream project for which Crossed Swords served as dry run. He was gad-flying among Yank picture-folk who were thick as flies overseas, and free with advice; both John Ford and Orson Welles were observed in hobnob with Flynn during the Italo sojourn. 1953 had begun with Errol laid up with flu, then jaundice, this as topping to a liver said to be in free-fall atrophy. These as cap for already dissipating features made Crossed Swords a less than flattering Flynn debut as independent filmmaker. Still, his kind of action was catnip to worldwide audiences, and Crossed Swords had plenty of that, even if staging lacked polish of Warner duels past. Locations were a plus, however; borrow of castle and grounds adding grandeur to a not otherwise lavish production. Color photography by seasoned Jack Cardiff gave Crossed Swords at least the impression of richness.

Flynn was spirited and cooperative; this after all was opportunity to establish himself as a free agent who'd henceforth customize his own star vehicles. Principal players spoke English, a must for US release prospects, while dubbing of support speech got by thanks to post-production assist from United Artists, that company having agreed to domestic-handle Crossed Swords and upcoming William Tell. Swords' co-star Gina Lollobrigida would provide merchandising advantage in the US, having appeared lately opposite Humphrey Bogart in Beat The Devil, and being sold as "Italy's Marilyn Monroe." Crossed Swords did tepid stateside business, only $332,000 in domestic rentals. More might have been expected based on patron response to costumers Ivanhoe and Scaramouche. Maybe a US market got word-of-mouth that Crossed Swords amounted to pasta less digestible over here.

United Artists sales wasn't to blame. They'd issue a lavish pressbook and arrange opens where bally might help most, but reviews were tepid, Variety stamping Crossed Swords as "routine escapism for undiscriminating audiences." B.O. response varied according to territory, but common to all was distinct falling off in second frames, as experienced by Chicago's Monroe Theatre, which started OK, but "went sluggish" (Variety) for a follow-up week. Part of trouble, said observers, was so-called "2-D product lack," that is, a conventional framed movie being sold to a public drunk on "choicest available Cinemascope and widescreen pix." Result was Crossed Swords on lower end of duals, like in L.A. where it played saturation support to Shield For Murder, a "bad cop" actioner done for cheap and B/W, but more promising withal than Crossed Swords. Was Errol headed for shoals? Fate of Crossed Swords couldn't have made it easier for him to raise cash toward finishing William Tell. Coming years would render Swords a tough one to track down. There was TV exposure via 1958 packaging among 52 United Artists features that included The African Queen and Red River, probably the strongest syndicated group, from standpoint of post-48's, being offered that year. Ownership today of Crossed Swords is cloudy, and DVD's offered thus far have been iffy.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Paramount Introducing Telemeter and a "New Youngster"

Forever Female (1953) Is Fresh Blu-Ray Arrival

A Broadway swing station between All About Eve and The Country Girl, Forever Female is a frothiest serve of backstage life. Success and prestige for All About Eve (multiple Academy wins) inspired performers to examine themselves. The business of entertaining came under scrutiny, from filmmaking in The Bad and The Beautiful to burlesque of Top Banana. Knowing there was most drama in legit, Hollywood put its opposite-coast rival under hot lamp of truth-telling re egos and stardom passing prime. Examinations could be merciless, as for Bing Crosby in The Country Girl, Ginger Rogers for two occasions, Forever Female plus Black Widow, and always there were kids trying to break in, most at Metro where Broadway translated still to melody rather than melodrama. Paramount's bid with Forever Female served purposes beyond mere nod to Eve, FF being launch pad for "Future Star" Pat Crowley and a home viewing format Para hoped would revolutionize entertainment, Telemeter.

Movies still, as always, served youth best as of 1952 when Forever Female went into works. The original title, Reaching For The Stars, might have been more apt to describe struggle of newcomers to seize the stage, and it was a same in Hollywood where failure to cultivate fresh personalities was noted ("Famine In New Faces," complained Variety). Trouble was the town overselling untried talent on conviction that an organized enough campaign could make any product stick. Such may have a case with Pat Crowley, who had pluck and oodles of pep, but thudded despite a marketing assault comparable to Rommel's across African desert. Not that Crowley lacked goods, but even she might have suspected these were oversold. Everywhere was seen her face from September 1952 and transplant from stage and TV beginnings (Carousel and a Tovarich re-do on Broadway, plus A Date With Judy and anthologies for the tube). 750 unknowns had been interviewed and/or auditioned in New York by Para scouts, from which three were brought to Hollywood for screen testing. The winner would get not only an extended contract, but the ingénue lead in Forever Female. Others, then, were being tested besides this trio of girls, namely Paramount star-builders who'd be put to their own test of creating a next "overnight" sensation.

Let it be done a new way, suggested Paramount chief Don Hartman, and so it was left to studio rank-and-file to select a winner from the three contestants. This may for once have been on the level, Variety reporting "White-Collar Casting" conducted by "secretaries and office boys" brought to screenings of the tested femmes for purpose of picking a winner. Paramount could then straight-face announce this most democratic means by which stars were now born. Not from cynical press room recess, but by honest selection of working folk just like ones buying tickets. This was clever means of manufacturing a star with clean hands, though you wonder how losers Christine White and Sally Heston felt about the contest. I checked fate of both at IMDB. Christine would do uncredited bits in features like Vice Squad, turn up in 1958's Macabre, and much, much television. Sally Heston didn't turn up at all. Count these two, then, among the 749 who tried and failed at brass casting ring of Forever Female, but was Pat Crowley so much better off for getting the part?

A judge had to approve the nineteen-year-old's starting salary of $350 per week, it understood that $1,000 might be reached should Paramount exercise all options over a seven-year contract period. This was the same sort of indentured servitude long practiced by majors, but Para wasn't for sinking so much publicity into property they didn't own. Column/news mentions were frequent as Forever Female went into production (10/1/52) and build-up of Pat Crowley intensified. As in multiple Star Is Born fictions, there was move to change her name, Paramount hiring a "Hollywood numerologist," who proposed fifty-five variations on a new moniker, such being old style huckstering of perhaps unhelpful sort, so again Para turned to on-lot wage earners for assist. In what may have been a staged revolt, Crowley herself said no to the name switch and even to billing as Patricia, preferring the more gender-neutral Pat. "Anybody who sees me will know I'm a girl," she cheekily told Army Archerd.

How then, to keep light focused on Pat Crowley as Forever Female waited out the year to release? Here was a showcase wrapped fourteen months before audiences would see it, with a personality that needed to register during the interim. 1953 would amount to haul of a comparative unknown to a press and public who'd not see her on screens till after Christmas. In a meantime, there was utility work that Pat Crowley would perform to earn keep. She and Para pactee Jan Sterling escorted ex-P.O.W. guests to the 7-15-53 premiere of Stalag 17 at the Warner Beverly Theatre in LA, while tests were conducted later that month by director Michael Curtiz in which Crowley participated, the object to determine which camera lenses would work best for Paramount's new Vistavision process. Other studio ingénues to pose included Marla English of later AIP fame, and Kathryn Grandstaff (Grant). There would come the inevitable Photoplay magazine award that placed Crowley among 1953 newcomers "most likely to succeed," the honor shared with seemingly every young player the industry had in hoppers that year.

Where Forever Female made trivia history was its being a first-ever major studio feature to World Premiere on television, even though that November 1953 event was restricted to "sunny and prosperous" Palm Springs viewership. Paramount's experimental "Telemeter" would be means by which entertainment could be delivered to home sets as cable later would be, an idea years ahead of wider 70's implementation. The idea of a "boxoffice in the home" especially appealed to Para topper Barney Balaban, who liked prospect of selling tickets to hearth sitters. If they wouldn't go out for a show, the show would come to them, at coin deposit price. Anyone who'd fed gas meters would know Telemeter as an old friend, only this one gave movies for money, sans necessity of leaving armchairs. Here was where that "lost audience' could be got back. Paramount half-owned the system with International Telemeter Corp. of Los Angeles, and 11/53 launch would see Forever Female in simul-opening at Palm Springs' Plaza Theatre plus local TV sets to which coin boxes had been attached.

Telemeter was fed off a closed circuit that served Palm Springs viewing, so could avoid FCC ban on pay television, this not being classified as "free air" (the signal coming in on phone wires). 400 households subscribed to closed circuit TV, and 71 of these participated in the Telemeter test, paying $1.35 to see Forever Female's evening broadcast, which followed the afternoon's USC-Notre Dame football game, home-received for a dollar. As to outcome, said International Projectionist magazine, opinions differed. "It was felt by some that Forever Female was not the best choice for starting the test. A comedy is enjoyed most with a large responsive audience rather than when viewed by a few people at home. Also it was noted that TV reproduction tended to blur or wash out detail in backgrounds and long shots." Toward bally for the event came one star of Forever Female to theatre-appear and visit Palm Springs homes in which Telemeter was installed. That star was Pat Crowley.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Runt In The "Shock!" Litter

Long-Ago Late Show That Was Chinatown Squad (1935)

Screen Gems offered a package of so-called monster movies for TV syndication in 1957 that included most of the Frankenstein/Draculas, among others, that Universal made during the 30's and 40's, but there weren't enough bonifide horrors to fill out a needed fifty-two title group, result being fill-in with mysteries and mellers that held less fascination for Shock Theatre stay-uppers. Fifty-two was the magic number needed for a fresh late show per week, or two runs per annum in the event of double-featuring (and many stations did run the package in pairs). Chinatown Squad's presence in the Shock! group is likeliest basis for interest in it today, many having sat dutifully through Universal's programmer on long-ago tee-vee in hopes a Wolf Man or Mummy might follow. Those of us who've committed monsters to memory over past fifty years can better, if belatedly, appreciate the charm of modest thrillers where no issue beyond whodunit is addressed.

Chinatown Squad is by-numbers application of formula beloved by ones (presumably most in GPS attendance) who've rifled Universal graveyards and looking now for what's less familiar from that studio. Is Chinatown Squad rare? Well, I sure haven't seen it turn up in decades, at least since Screen Gems' lease ran out on the Uni spook-lot and Squad was dumped from MCA's subsequent re-grouping of the horrors. There's renewed interest in Squad-star Lyle Talbot thanks to daughter Margaret Talbot's The Entertainer, her bio and celebration of an actor called journeyman by most, but well beloved for plying a lifetime trade well, and never condescending to work he was given (Lyle lent dignity even to Ed Wood projects that used him).

Chinatown Squad's lead woman is Valerie Hobson, scarcely grown when before cameras in 1935, for near as I calculate, Val was all of seventeen at the time. What a contrast to actresses today playing ingénues into their forties! There is comedy relief with Andy Devine; for excess hours he put in at Universal, you'd think Andy kept a sleeping bag on the lot. Story credit goes to Dore Schary, Chinatown Squad an early accomplishment. We're never certain what all of narrative fuss is about. There's a murder, and former police dick Talbot thinks "Foo-Chow Communists" are in back of it, this logical enough in context of intrigues engaged on Universal's back lot, dressed nicely to evoke Chinatown by-ways. Dialogue is "smart" as in smart-aleck, the 30's a peak era for wisecracking. Chinatown Squad enjoyed happy advantage that Universal B's share, being economy-made, but never looking cheap. It's a fun 75 minutes, even sans monsters, to make one regret not giving Chinatown Squad a fairer shake on Shock Theatre.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Enter Eddie Dean to Postwar Westerns

Eddie and A Horse Called Copper in The Westward Trail (1948)

Eddie Dean and steed rout schemes to mine silver at expense of homesteaders. Less of same was invested by PRC on beginner lead Dean's behalf. How could he rise to cowboy top on such meager investment of coin? Series westerns were barn-bound by the late forties, what with specter of TV on horizons. Still, there'd be effort at renewing brands --- Lash LaRue, Rex Allen, Jimmy Wakely --- but as J.J. Hunsecker once said, You're dead son, go get yourself buried. What's ignored about Dean is fact he was a darn good songwriter in addition to other gifts, It's Courtin' Time his serenade to lead lady Phyllis Planchard (Westward was one of only two credited feature roles she had). Eddie did twenty westerns for PRC, according to B-west Bible The Hollywood Corral, a few of these in Cinecolor, then focused on music. His westerns show up from time to time on Retroplex in a best quality I've seen for PD floor sweepings.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Hollywood Ghosts On The Loose!

The Old-Time Gang's All Here: Richard Conte and Checked-Coat Bill Castle Confer With
(Left To Right) Helen Gibson, Francis X. Bushman, William Farnum, and Betty Blythe

Hollywood Story (1951) Picks Silent Era Bones

Bill Castle was a better showman than director, his megging a mere perfunctory step toward promoting he preferred. His foothold, however, was made with really boring Columbia programmers under Sam Katzman's tent (a few good ones prior to that in the 40's). Hollywood Story isn't among the dog lot, being Universal-International, and worthwhile for early-50's explore of unsolved murder dating to silent movieland era. The gimmick was to spin off the William Desmond Taylor snuff-out, a potato still warm despite chasm of twenty years since it happened. Names weren't used, and by time writers got done, the whole of yarn was fiction, but death scenes for Taylor and Hollywood Story's "Franklin Ferrara" look remarkably alike, a parallel for at least insiders to munch on. Otherwise, this was strict who-long ago-dunit set on a back lot, that device as old as talkies themselves. What interest Hollywood Story generates is behind-camera glimpse of the town and folk working in it, H'wood home movie aspect a most compelling reason to watch.

It was habit then to drag out old-timers for occasion like this. Otherwise, they'd be ignored as usual, resulting in time-to-time burn from most outspoken of them. Elmo Lincoln was called, he of ancient Tarzan guise, only to be pushed far into background as glorified extra. Those of the gone era who spoke did so briefly: Betty Blythe, William Farnum, Helen Gibson. Value of these relics was to publicize Hollywood Story, not perform in it. Francis X. Bushman perhaps understood this best. He was an old ham who'd been curing since the teens, hopeful swain to many a Grandma who might be induced now to come and see him flash a still manly profile. Difference was, Bushman still had old-world charm and was an elegant speaker besides. Him on tour for Hollywood Story was guarantee of local press interest, wherever he appeared. You couldn't necessarily say that of flash-in-pan talent being incubated at U-I.

Chicago Grannies Converge On "Frankie Boy" Bushman --- Placards Courtesy U's Art Dept.

So it really came down to who among vets could be most useful, Elmo Lincoln as remind of how mighty had fallen, or Bushman with oodles of joie de vivre and capacity to fill a lodge or ladies' tea. Elmo would dig a losing hole deeper with remarks to '51 press thus: "Every time they want to exploit something like Hollywood Story, they call on us ... The motion picture industry is the most unappreciative, selfish business in America today." And yes, he was justified, Universal having paid the former Tarzan a miserable $15 for the single day's work, but talk about burning a bridge ... Elmo Lincoln would, in any case, be gone the year after Hollywood Story was released. For Bushman however, 1951-52 would be season to roll up frayed cuffs and drum-beat for not only Hollywood Story, but blockbuster that was David and Bathsheba, in which he had a small, but speaking, part. Both were country-wide tours, Betty Blythe joining him on Hollywood Story's behalf as they flew into Chicago, Cleveland, elsewhere. The X man would remain a good luck charm around town. They'd use him not only to evoke old tinsel-ville, but to lend solid character support as well. Look close next time at The Bad and The Beautiful or Sabrina and you'll find Francis.

My Town Boasted No Silent Stars I Was Aware Of --- Did Yours?

Yes, you could say pioneers of the screen were ignored, but a number of them kept up with each other, and search of L.A. press finds much in the way of reunion, luncheons, and such to which survivors were invited. Trouble was tar brush applied by Sunset Boulevard, having come a year before Hollywood Story, and paving way for hereafter noirish approach to pre-talk themes. You'd think from these two that old-time emoters dabbled as much, then and now, in mayhem, if not outright kill-off of peers. What kept Hollywood Story from explicit treat of Wm. Desmond Taylor's case was continued, if ghostly, presence of Mary Miles Minter and her said-to-be gun totin' mother, Mary with litigious bent, Mom inclined to self-help in disposing of troublemakers (it was widely believed about town that she had offed Taylor).

Hollywood Story Highlight When We Visit a U-I Soundstage

So what we got was tentative evoke of old Hollywood, minus any actual names, other than guests along Bushman, Farnum, Gibson lines who were paid for few words they spoke and recognition by elder-enough fans. Otherwise, it's Richard Conte and Julia Adams bemused by what was left of a waxen museum, Conte a modern-day producer availing himself of old films as quest for authenticity ... but even that was problematic for Universal having burned up all its silent prints and negatives a few years before, a fact few  were aware of in 1951. So what does he screen? Just the most famous strip of film Universal still had --- 1925's unmask scene from Phantom Of The Opera. Hollywood Story gave best glimpse of its title subject by going outdoors, specifically poolside at the fabled Roosevelt Hotel, footage of the annual Christmas parade down H'wood Blvd., and locationing at the Chaplin studio, where much welcome stuff was shot. There's also a visit to Universal's own sound stage, Joel McCrea good-sporting a cameo. Best echo of vanished times is Julia Adams playing a 20's romance scene with Paul Cavanagh --- she nails the Swanson style to point of it looking like real silent stuff. This may have been the show of talent that got Adams her U-I contract. Hollywood Story has just been released on DVD by TCM Archive --- quality is OK.
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