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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Wayne Mops Up Seattle Streets

McQ (1974) Is Duke In Twilight and Modern Dress

I get sneaking notion that, given choice of John Waynes to watch, most would just as soon it be a McQ, or Brannigan, or Big Jake, as any of the rest. Too many of classics are over-exposed, or served in too deep a dish, like freighted-with-politics The Searchers, which revisionists now call "not enjoyable." Will they realize (or admit) that their own over-analysis that has made it so? TCM ran the 70's three last week, in succession, and in wide HD, to benefit of each, and maybe it was relief to have Wayne in stuff you could half-watch while steaks grill or books get read. He's heavy (or tactfully: well-fed), rug-bedecked (did villainy ever think to snatch off his piece?), and isolated (Duke seldom gets to "belong" in late vehicles). McQ has odor of a Starsky/Hutch or other TV chase after "dirty" cops or dealers with their "junk," Wayne too long at the fair (age 66) being understood at the time. Sick abed John Ford made near-an-end note of Duke "playing policeman in some rubbish," instead of being nearer Palm Desert to visit, the old man knowing well a reality of jobs taken just to stay active.

So what is good about McQ? I found several things to like, this a first ever view --- like others, I ducked it when new (McQ took years to break even, says Scott Eyman's definitive Wayne bio). Actually, the thing works as clinical exam of an icon on plod to career close. Seems Wayne knew McQ for "pedestrian" work it was, but who was offering better? Modern-dress action wasn't unknown to him, as witness contempo investigation Duke conducted as Big Jim McLain in 1952, relaxed and engaging coat-tie work to make us wish he'd been a detective more often. McQ borrowed off Bullitt, Wayne making McQueenish noise in a Trans-Am, and critics/public in '74 recognized McQ as his answer to Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry. Inhibiting was belief by Wayne/Batjac that his was still a "family" audience, thus violence/sex kept below "R" level. A sharper edge to the knife might have renewed his action brand, but Wayne wasn't for assuming such risk at so late a date, and he'd not approve explicit stuff in any case.

Seattle location is a help --- again, it was Steve McQueen who taught H'wood to set action on (actual) streets, having insisted on S.F. authenticity for Bullitt, which others emulated once they saw success of his. Based on theory that a big man needs a big gun, Duke gets his cannon to dwarf Eastwood's comparative pea-shooter, and it's fun seeing him knock out carloads of villainy with a single shot. Good players who'd lately done better movies are along, Al Lettieri to evoke The Godfather, Eddie Albert anticipating a later the same year The Longest Yard. Anyone who worked with late-in-day Wayne could depend on being asked about it during interviews to come. Julie Adams, doing but one sequence with Duke, has been go-to for McQ lore since, her quotes on the experience found in Eyman, Ronald Davis, elsewhere. McQ unmask of Mister Big in department corruption comes straight from C. Chan's playbook --- look for your least likely suspect --- another of reasons Wayne came to rue the job. Mighty tired stuff in 1974 to be sure, but quaintness and even pathos of tired-out Duke giving it one more thrust lends McQ value not so apparent then. Who knows but what belated appreciation for McQ may lead to repeat spin of Brannigan?

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Dead End Kids Do Reform Scool

Interesting Wrap-Up Scene That Did Not Appear in Final Prints

Crime School (1938) Is Socko For The Strand

For most movies anyway, it was New York's audience that had to be pleased, being point from which word-of-mouth and trade ads flowed. Obscure as it seems in hindsight, Crime School made big Gotham noise when new, its three-week Strand stand a history-maker for this modest B done by Warners at $222K negative cost. The Dead End Kids were fresh produce, Crime School a follow-up to previous year's Goldwyn hit that gave the teen team their name. Fun aspects of hooliganism would be sifted henceforth from social commentary woven by playwright Sidney Kingsley and Dead End director William Wyler for the '37 release, and I wonder if either realized it was boys on a loose who'd sustain for decades (and counting) after heavy stance of Dead End was forgot. Warners had sense to know where value lay in their misbehaving ensemble, but would a public beyond rowdy Strand-goers appreciate them as much?

Dead-Enders were distinctly urban to start, born of the streets familiar to city-dwellers who'd make up bulk of their following. Crime School was perhaps a surprise in terms of NYC reception, not because they liked it, but because of how much they liked it. Warners had figured Crime School for a one-off, and so let contracts lapse for some of the kids, advantage seized by Universal, who'd hire now-idle membership to do Little Tough Guy, a quick trade on interest generated by Crime School, and cause for WB to cinch up the ensemble and not let fish slip the net till Dead End currency was wrung dry. That wouldn't take long as things worked out, but what boon these boys were to companies that used them henceforth: Universal again, for a string of B's, most sadly MIA at present, at least on watchable terms, and then immortality that was The Bowery Boys, a Monogram, then Allied Artists, gift to keep on giving via WB Archive DVD sets and now HD stream-and-broadcast at Warner Instant and TCM.

Crime School was produced by Bryan Foy, WB's whirling dervish of a cut-rater, but one to be reckoned with for oft-time he delivered sleepers that could play "A" dates despite "B" trapping. Crime School shaped early as something special. In fact, it was ordered back into production for punch-up of a finish after execs, impressed with rushes, smelt potential for a breakout. Fact that it was night-shoots indicates time/expense WB was willing to bear as Crime School got ticked up a notch. Foy was buoyed enough to contact chums in exhibition, these numbering hundreds, telling each to be on lookout for sock attraction that was Crime School. Warners made trade hay of the Strand smash, that theatre their NYC flagship and testing pond for much of product. Cagney had made his bones there, no more loyal following was elsewhere for this dynamic player. To team Jim with the Dead End Kids for Angels With Dirty Faces was mere common sense in light of what his previous stuff and Crime School did in NY and other urban centers.

Crime School is object of Greenbriar interest thanks to HD unspool at TCM. What I note from this first view in years is how good Dead Enders comport themselves both comedy and serious-wise. Billy Halop strikes me as lots better actor than he got credit for. Grown-ups have mostly nuisance value, even Humphrey Bogart as do-gooder reformist at the boy's asylum to which the Kids are sent, his romance with Gale Page strictly warm milk and no way precursor to Bogie who'd later emerge. Him taking two reels to Crime School-arrive is no loss either, but here's the thing ... it's near a most noteworthy pic Bogart was associated with since The Petrified Forest, which shows how poor his lot had been over a past couple years. And did Bogart notice how close his fortunes were linked to the Dead End Kids from 1937 through a next season? Three sharing marquees with the boys, Dead End, Crime School, and Angels With Dirty Faces, raised specter of continued teaming. In fact, Warners floated trade talk that Bogart would be back with the kids for a follow-up to Crime School. Rescue for HB may have come for failure of the film to stand up in the sticks, where Crime School fell down notably before rural folk. Final tally was still a wow, however ... $1.4 in worldwide rentals and $758K profit, which was more than most Warner A's got that year.

Crime School touched on social issues but lightly, and in strictly melodramatic terms, but wouldn't escape notice of special interests. Were there New York reformatories (Crime School's implied setting) that starved boys and whipped them with a cat o' nine tails? The film suggested yes, but lit-up NY penologists gave Crime School a pan for giving "distorted impression of correctional methods and treatments of reformatory inmates." Such abuses simply never took place, said officials, "except in the chain gangs of the south," which everyone recalled WB exploiting back in 1933. Coin-of-realm endorsement came from the Boys Scouts of America, whose leadership sent letters to countrywide Scoutmasters urging them to see and recommend Crime School to membership. Hit status of the pic, plus Bogart's risen star, led to WWII reissue for Crime School, above ad a sampling of play-off as Cleveland support for "Idol Of The Air Lanes" Jan Garber and His Orchestra.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Good Bad Men Are Hard To Find

Bill Hart Mows 'Em Down in Knight Of The Trail (1915)

William S. Hart has another romance impeded by road agent/badman past. The title is tip to Bill's essential goodness; as was case in so many of his, it only took a right woman to sever ties with outlawry. Any Hart yarn could be told in two reels, reason maybe for his early shorts being a best intro to the cowboy immortal's stuff. Bill would invariably start as a man with secrets and emotions pent up, payoff deriving from disposal of no-goods that have misled the gal he loves or town he protects. Knight Of The Trail situates Hart alone in crowds, seldom facing others at the bar, a solitary drinker even when surrounded. At cards he's disengaged, unless someone cheats, then it's hell from both barrels. There were more close-ups for Hart than was accorded most stars, his face a reliable map to where stories were headed. Being older, and looking it, relieved Bill of action expectation a Tom Mix would have, and that eventually made his stuff seem quaint. Hart's approach by nature wouldn't change with times, but he had a nice run and kept standards high at work he did.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Junior Names Carry a Metro Musical

Three Hopefuls Say, Give A Girl A Break (1952)

A second-tier musical sold short, if at all, by Metro marketers not averse to dumping product they lacked confidence in. In Girl's instance, there was no Broadway open, and for a most part double-featuring from there. Variety gave it but "mild chances as a companion feature for twin bills." The negative had cost $1.7 million, a fair chunk even for musicals aimed higher. Girl was slated initially as vehicle for Astaire, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly to trio-star. Their withdrawal left normally support talent to make music and dance: Marge and Gower Champion, Debbie Reynolds,  beginner Bob Fosse. The format serves them, being simple as to plot, which is to say there's virtually none beyond choosing one of three girls to lead a B'way revue. Absence of narrative allows more of what we're there to see, and these players put over nicely the hoof-work. MGM creates a Gotham of 50's dreaming, all full moons, cityscapes, and gleaming yellow cabs. I enjoyed this, on Warner Instant in HD, as much as higher-profile songfests Metro cobbled during late term of musicals' Golden Age. Too bad a spoiled 1953-54 public didn't agree, Give A Girl A Break ignored to ultimate loss of $1.1 million. Variety noted a 3/54 Chicago surfeit of pics not strong enough to play as singles, thus the RKO Grand's late winter policy of pairing weak sisters for single weeks so they'd at least have Loop play and satisfy distributors who'd advertise to that effect. Give A Girl A Break thus ran a single Chicago frame as combo with Tennessee Champ, another limping out of MGM that was more properly labeled a "B."

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Did Westerns Crab Buster's Act?

Buster and Fuzzy Hunt the Outlaw Of The Plains (1944)

There was an impatience about Buster Crabbe's cowboy that I sort of like. Was this general attitude of a lapsed Tarzan/F. Gordon peeved at doing westerns by stopwatch? It would be interesting to know what they paid Buster per oater. $750 or thereabouts? That's still a fortune by 40's working folk standard, and might seem a better gig had PRC done more than mere eight per year. Crabbe would have supplemented with other things, like swim shows here/there, jungle or prize-ring B's, etc. Was there youth that preferred Buster and his cheapies over slicker merchandise from Republic, or did groans greet PRC logos? A development in series western was kids gravitating to sidekicks and sometimes liking them better than heroes. Al St. John finessed his Fuzzy into center ring of the Crabbes. It takes two reels, in fact, for Buster to even show up in Outlaw Of The Plains. Until then, it's wall-to-wall Fuzzy and whatever reward or punishment that amounts to for then-or-now viewers. PRC stinted on action, so pix got/get by, if at all, on personality of saddle personnel. Retroplex has shown a few in what they call HD, but even w/ doubt as to that, quality is leagues better than PRC westerns have looked for years.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Another One For The Banning Squad?

The Wild '74 Ride That Was Freebie and The Bean

Movies like Freebie and The Bean were appropriate to cinderblock cinemas during the 70's when what we saw was as ratty as places we'd see them. Seems wrong, in fact, to look at Freebie in a seat without ripped cloth or something rank adhering to it. Warner Archive has a DVD, thus the revisit, for a first time in proper scope ratio since tenth or so occasion Freebie played our shoebox back in the day, or I viewed bleary and cropped VHS like ones shown below. The thing was around our College Park Cinema enough to make me wonder if a print was hid among concession storage with Kit-Kats and Junior Mints. Freebie is of sort they'll not make again, that an observe by (many) others besides myself. All you need do is watch to realize how times have so changed in forty years. What pic illustrates that truth better?

Freebie and The Bean and ones like it are "precode" for freewheeling (not just car chasing) that such shows saw out. If pre-Jaws 70's was indeed a "last Golden Age" for movies, then I say it was for Freebies that didn't retreat in face of organized pressure to be "affirmative" in all social/cultural respects. Film study profs should lay this raw meat before enrollment and permit all to slip collars for a couple of hours, even if balance of class is spent apologizing for Freebie and Bean excesses. Selection could rest upon Richard Rush as auteur of the era, if misguided on this occasion. Most old movies are forgot eventually. Some, like Freebie and The Bean, disappear and go unsought, even by those who recall how lively it/they once seemed. Freebie falls into "You Had To Be There" category with Smoky and The Bandit, Billy Jack, the Trinity westerns, Vanishing Point, and others meant for ragtag venues like those I sat in.

We think of Vertigo and Bullitt as great "San Francisco" movies, but Freebie and The Bean was shot there too, only on dingier streets and in strict avoidance of pretty houses and hills the others visited. Freebie is gritty in so offhand way as to render of little consequence where action was shot. Any grubby 70's metro area would do. How they executed these car chases beats me. Onlookers barely avoid being run over, and one stricken auto slides right up to the camera lens, all done for real as CGI was no option in '74. Old stuntmen who gather likely talk of Freebie as acme of high-risk filming. The thing is by definition a comedy, overstated at times by rinky-dink music beneath frenzy of pursuits. Violence is sudden and not PG-sanitized as today, so there's tension to keep clowning in check.

I'm not sure when the "buddy cop" concept got started. Was it before Freebie and The Bean? Harry Callahan had partners, but wasn't chummy with them (most died on duty). James Caan and Alan Arkin fight with each other as much as the criminals. Dialogue flies with expletives and doesn't mind being unintelligible at times. Doubles are there to do motorcycle tricks and take falls for Caan/Arkin, but the pair do much of spills on their own. If Freebie and The Bean had come out a decade later, we'd have had six sequels to follow. As it is, Freebie was a one-off, but for a TV series adapt (at right). Chances are the feature got back negative cost at our College Park alone. So do I recommend? By all means, effusive yes. Freebie and The Bean is fun, as in fun as ever 70's precode, and my argument that indeed there was a Golden Age to come of that benighted decade.

UPDATE --- 1:30 PM: Mike Cline sent a neat ad prepared back in 1974 when he was a Salisbury, NC exhibitor, and Freebie and The Bean was new ...

Thursday, August 06, 2015

a 30's B From RKO Stables ...

Ann Dvorak Plays The Horses in Racing Lady (1937)

Ann Dvorak is a fresh-off-farm and unkissed daughter of horse trainer Harry Carey --- this in several years wake of precode scorchers Three On A Match and Scarface? How soon they'd forgot, or maybe they hadn't, thus Racing Lady's nowhere placement among Dvorak's oeuvre. Such was RKO Coventry to which she was banished after causing grief at Warners. What a shame, for I maintain AD would have made a better Bette Davis than Bette Davis. Imagine her as First Lady for WB, dynamic like Davis and sexy unlike Davis. It could have been a great run. As things worked out (or didn't, by Dvorak's measure), B's like Racing Lady would be her future and fate, along with good character work in occasional A's. Nothing's wrong with Racing Lady, as how much can go amiss in 59 minutes? The horse flesh is attractive --- folks liked equine yarns then --- and what goes on in servant quarters engages, what with Hattie McDaniel, Willie Best and others getting lots more to do than was customary for domestics or sidekicks they'd generally play. I wonder if Selznick, checking out Hattie's fine dramatic work here, was inspired to GWTW-cast her as result. There's also good use of Berton Churchill as a benign racing tout, this fine old trouper adept enough with comedy to make us regret his not doing more of it. Lastly, there is oddity of Smith Ballew, initially a singer off radio who went from Racing Lady to warbling in Sol Lesser westerns.
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