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Monday, November 30, 2015

Again Where Teens Ruled The Roost

Rooney-Garland Steamroller Continues with Strike Up The Band (1940)

The second bundle of joy from Mickey and Judy as show-biz aspirants, Strike Up The Band shows how easy stardom might be had if luck is yours and proper ethic choices are made. Will Mick sacrifice his big break so a doctor can be flown in to fix a neighbor kid's broke arm? Yes, he can and does, from which flows an even better break (playing with Paul Whiteman's orchestra!) for being such a square shooter. Such was Classic Era fantasy of life dealing reward for selfless acts, and to watch Rooney here, you almost imagine it could work. Maybe movies had something in good paying off ... surely it did in terms of profit. Was a US public more ethically/morally upright back when movies taught toward those ends? Strike Up The Band cost more than immensely successful Babes In Arms ($854K as opposed to $748K), but got the expected uptick in worldwide rentals ($3.4 million to Babes' $3.3). Would you have let Judy sleep where there were dollars like this to be had?

Make believe aspect of Strike Up The Band went beyond small town kids staking all on a show biz dream and winning, farthest remove from reality being Rooney/Garland as apple-pie product of loving and stable homes. Could either identify with their screen characters on any level? To read their bios is dip into American gothic. No quantity of fame would be worth price these two paid. Never mind parents, none of four involved worth a pinch of salt as providers, let alone nurturers. I'd guess that Mickey and Judy grew up thinking normal family life was strictly the stuff of dreams, which is likely why they functioned best behind Metro walls. Somewhere it's written that Rooney acted most like a human being while on sets with director and crew. Garland would fly apart like a hand grenade before age 30, the best of a career spent by then. I wish they could have had MGM bow-out of Summer Stock together, it so clearly a Mickey/Judy reunion by writer intent, but by 1950, she was all a public wanted more of, so Gene Kelly took up the part that should have been Rooney's.

Strike Up The Band came when both were peaking. There was no youth pair to compare with R and G. Teams elsewhere tried, like at Universal where Donald O' Conner and Gloria Jean, or Susanna Foster, would mix and match, none novas like Rooney/Garland. Aspirants also lacked Metro resource and brilliant teamwork behind cameras that made each of R/G teamings an event. To call these "barnyard musicals" suggests modesty, a down-step from pageants where grown-ups sang and danced. Actually, the Mickey/Judys were most reliably profitable of all musicals MGM had going. There would have been more had not each taken so much time to prepare and produce (unlike Universal where musicals were served off cookie sheets baked alike). Must have been pain for Loew bookkeepers to watch Rooney/Garland age out of "Let's Put On A Show" format, just as it was to see Andy Hardy grow up and finish out of the money.

That's Entertainment! kidded the group by montaging scenes of exuberant Mickey ("We can form our own modern dance orchestra!"), as if that happened in dozens of films rather than mere four. In a 1974 fresh out of ideas, other than recycle of old ones, mockery was salve for failure to pack creative gear, and who knows, laughing at betters may have been comfort in the face of going broke, which MGM surely was when adding "Boy, Do We Need It Now" to posters for That's Entertainment!, a for-once instance of truth in advertising. On the other hand, Strike Up The Band may shine brighter as excerpts rather than whole product, two hours a tad long to stay aboard such light vessel. Narrative in a nutshell: Mickey and Judy want to be musical stars and figure Paul Whiteman can them help do it. In a meantime, there is frustrated love (Judy for Mickey), broken dates (him lured by acrobatic back-flip of June Preisser, offscreen Rooney no doubt appreciative of possibilities in that), and parent/authority figures who must be respected even as they impede progress toward footlights. One thing teens never did at MGM was question authority. How many youngsters of unstable family background dreamed of Lewis Stone for a father?

Yes, It's That Mighty King Of Jazz, Paul Whiteman,
 as Show Biz Counsel to Mick

And then there is Paul Whiteman. Belittled today as false prophet and bogus King Of Jazz, he ruled roost that was bandstands from the 20's till swing eased him toward emeritus status and remain of a career where Whiteman kept baton aloft, pioneered among big names doing D.J. duty, and took his act to most secure of memory banks that was TV. In short, Whiteman did all things right in context of his times, cash and comforts served, if not posterity's approval. He's ideal as show biz mentor to Mickey, repeating familiar movie maxim that being a great guy is always preferable to money or success, to which 100% of performers then/now would say "Oh, yeah?," but Whiteman sells the speech and ideal, which for all we know, the bandleader bought into himself. Strike Up The Band is part of a Rooney/Garland DVD set from Warners, Mick supplying another of his odd-intense old age intros, plus the big conga number is here in sort-of stereo, a result of 1940 stage recording where two or more microphones were placed among the orchestra to bracing effect. It's an extra on the Band disc.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Vamp When Ready

Louise Glaum Enters Sex (1920) Sweepstakes

I've got to wonder if this title got some exhibs in dutch, but nothing suggests so in Variety or trades lately checked (did any talkie go by that straight-to-point label?). What does come across is aggressive bid by the W.W. Hodkinson Corporation, an independent, to get Sex before audiences during slack April weeks when, according to insiders, competition was offering duds after winter release of stronger fare. Distribution patterns differed then from now, the weather having more to do with boxoffice success/failure. Venues faced tougher time staying comfortable, as in freeze winters, roast summers. Sex is dispensed here by Louise Glaum, a vamp who gets bitter taste of her own medicine. Glaum was Theda Bara on streamlined terms, a spider woman (or tigress, take your pick) who makes toys of men and enemies of their wives. There were such women, of course, plying trade in cabarets or backstage, and not a few stole husbands who'd help them become ... well, movie stars like Louise Glaum. Maybe that explains more-or-less sympathetic treatment accorded Sex's vamp --- we reap what we sow, after all, and the ending here doesn't revel in Glaum's defeat. Production is admirably polished; Fred Niblo of later Ben-Hur directed, and there's florid titling by C. Gardner Sullivan, Bill Hart's old wordsmith. Variety gave Sex the pan, delving into how clothes fit actors cast as Broadway swells, right down to cut of trousers. A player not properly turned out undercut conviction of whatever story he/she told, Sex an instance of clothes making, or spoling, the film. When have we last seen a movie judged on outerwear?

Monday, November 23, 2015

2 and 1/2 Years in The Making, 60 Years Getting Here on Blu-Ray

This Island Earth Arrives from German Galaxy

Albuquerque Hardtops Cede TIE To Outdoor Open
There's been fierce debate over a just-released German Blu-Ray of this sci-fi favorite, "Favorite" a relative term ones of certain age might affix, those well predating Star Wars and special fx strides to leave TIE among stores of antiquity. I'll cop to sentiment guiding my way, outer space explored on comic book terms much preferred to self-serious meditations that today define the genre. This Island Earth has death rays, saucers, buckets of color, all of what we'd call "eye candy" for lack of better descript. So now to the contested disc --- should you risk the cost, let alone shipping from overseas? To that I say mine is fine, proviso a tech ignorance that won't fully grasp bit rate, "single layer," aspects best not  confronted here. Agreed the transfer would be better if Universal revisited negs w/unlimited fund, but why wait on slim chance for that? Execs in charge were  raised from Star Wars start-point at best (many would call SW primitive, in fact), modern consensus that sci-fi began there. We who cling onto This Island Earth are nigh unto pension and make up less meaningful a market per day. It says a lot that Euros must again be our benefactors where US classics are concerned. TIE looks better on German Blu-Ray than it has on any stateside disc, and that's all I need to know.

If Someone Sent You an Interocitor, Could You Build It?

This Island Earth was calculated risk by Universal in the mid-50's, being upgrade on science-fiction and outreach to an audience beyond monster-seekers. To hedge the bet and have something at least to advertise, there would be mutants (mu-tants, as Jeff Morrow calls them) among distant planet dwellers; otherwise This Island Earth was idea-oriented and didn't rush its jump from Earth to "Metaluna" and back again. As for U's risk being calculated, they surely knew fate of earlier sci-fi's that overspent, word being out/around by 1954 that budgets must be kept down when dealing with far-flung content. Insight to then-reality comes courtesy Aubrey Solomon's book, Twentieth-Century Fox: A Company and Financial History, published in 1988, still in print, and part of the Scarecrow Filmmakers series. Solomon found memos that reflect how skittish the majors, at least cooler heads at Fox, could be when dealing with a genre where spending had to kept in check ...

Writer Phillip Dunne brought Zanuck a "science-fiction adventure" story called Saber Tooth in 1952. They developed a screenplay over the next year before Samuel Fuller got involved to do another draft. By October 1954, Fox realized it had a project that would cost two, possibly three, million to produce. Zanuck regarded science-fiction as "basically "B" pictures," and felt Saber Tooth at estimated price might be too great a gamble. One of his execs called a Paramount contact to see how latter had done with War Of The Worlds, which by late '54 had played most of theatrical dates: "he told me the picture cost $1,600,000, and while it opened big, it soon fell off. It did fairly well abroad and they will make a slight profit. He asked me why I wanted the figures, and I (20th's Sid Rogell) told him we were considering a big science-fiction picture which may cost as much as $2,000,000. He (Paramount's Jack Karp) said he thought we must be nuts to even consider such a thing." Zanuck called off Saber Tooth and it never was made. The finished and approved screenplay is presumably still on file at Fox.

Next Question: If Someone Sent You a Space-O-Rain,
 Would You Wear It?

12/4/56: FJA Stands Ready To Serve
Your Out-Of-This-World Needs
Universal rolled dice and finished This Island Earth for release in 900 theatres over a month period beginning June 15, 1955. NY opener at the Broadway's Victoria had seen Earth reach $22K in a first three days (the week's total a "smash" $38K), unusually solid for sci-fi. Chicago's McVickers venue was concerned that Earth appeal would be mostly to "moppet trade" (Variety), and so tied-in with the Salerno Biscuit Co. to let in kiddies gratis so long as they brought a box-top plus Mom, Dad, or both, to buy an adult ticket. U-I and McVickers figured $8,000 in free advertising thanks to the cookie pitch, and opener week took $28K, another "smash," said trades. Subsequent play gave mixed result, "terrific in Detroit but limp in Baltimore," was Variety verdict for two of keys. The outer-spacer was oft-bedmate to U-I's Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy, topping the bill for some sites, in support at others. Pay-out overall for This Island Earth wouldn't inspire follow-ups as ambitious, "weirdies" to come cheaper than what went before: The Deadly Mantis, The Mole People, and eventual stoppage of the series. MGM would be similarly burned on Forbidden Planet, cold truth suggesting that sci-fi should stick to basements. It stayed there another decade before 2001, Planet Of The Apes, others, initiated rehab and run-up to game-changer that was Star Wars.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Denning Drilling For Texas Tea

RKO Seeks a Gusher with Double Deal (1950)

Good news: Marie Windsor is top-billed and the female lead. Less good: She's nice and the other woman (Fay Baker) is bad. Reverse their parts and we'd have a movie. Otherwise, it's a cheapie, almost poverty row-ish, reflective of RKO then-need to fill distribution channels. They released 34 features in 1950, about average for years between 1948 through 1952 (bottoms fell after that). Most were off bargain rack and looked it. A Charles McGraw to lead and/or noirish theme could enrich outcome, but Double Deal had neither, its oil drilling a blah subject, especially with only one derrick in view. Richard Denning is "Buzz Doyle," just off a bus, then done out of his poke with loaded dice. That's a promising start, with Denning pleasant as customary, but there was seldom edge to his adventurers, nuance begin/ending with pursuit of a buck or a girl. Patronage preferred soldiers of fortune straight-forward and easily digested; it took Bob Mitchum to go successfully against the grain. Denning or a Steve Brodie were for RKO bench warming, chumps minus complexity, Double Deal strictly from hunger. Such B's were written to seven reels' measure like piece goods, but theatres needed back seaters to meet double-feature expectation. I'd like to think Howard Hughes watched Double Deal and gave Marie Windsor a nod for The Narrow Margin as result. This turns up, if at all, on TCM. No disc as yet. Is anyone waiting?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Bill Castle Does a Dreamy Thriller

The Night Walker (1964) Is Out On DVD

I anoint Barbara Stanwyck as 60's, if not all-time, scream queen after seeing TCM's new disc release of The Night Walker, paired with Dark Intruder to tie ribbon on obscurities fan-base has begged for. Should it matter that both are mediocre-minus transfers? Depends on intensity of your want. Mine was reckless enough to order sight (or review) unseen. Lesson learned again --- don't wade out till you know murk of the water. Sole compensation is The Night Walker being 1.85 and plenty fun, sort of a jazzed-up Thriller episode with bigger stars and wider frame for poverty of art direction. What was the difference between features and TV at Universal? Answer: Practically none under weighty thumb of Lew Wasserman, U's chief baker whose bread always seemed three days old, him not worthy to associate with Hitchcock in any capacity other than agent, but born to tie-in with William Castle on downward arc of latter's shlock ride.

Castle linked with Universal for a mid-60's trio, intended to be five, plus a possible TV series "a la Hitchcock," but the association stopped after three, each less gimmick laden than chillers that gave Bill a name. Could Hitchcock have quelled fulfillment of the deal, as he had allegedly used influence to get Thriller cancelled? I wonder too if Castle and Hitchcock passed each other on ways in/out of the commissary. Maybe not, as AH took meals in his bungalow, and I doubt he invited Bill to join. Each had imitated the other, gone after similar markets, no love lost between them, though whatever $ Castle could bring U would be shared by major stockholder Hitchcock (The Night Walker used Psycho-scribe Robert Bloch, and Castle's last several pics had borrowed heavily off Psycho's blueprint). Universal was for covering thriller bases at both class and cheap level, thus Marnie to grace first-runs in '64, The Night Walker for grinds. There was a "commissary cocktail party" to kick off the latter, as reported by Army Archerd on 5/14/64, co-stars Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in attendance, with Joan Crawford sending congratulatory wire and hope they'd duplicate her socko Castle partnership that was Straight-Jacket of the previous year.

Castle and Universal flogged The Night Walker's "dream" theme, launching a contest with Modern Screen, latter among last stands of a dying fan mag tradition. There was also a six-minute teaser (titled Experiment In Nightmares, cost: $25K) with "nitery hypnotist" Pat Collins to herald arrival of the feature at theatres (anyone seen it?). Castle told trade press that The Night Walker would be a departure: "I've gone from gore into pure shock and suspense," his latest linked with "the current teenage rebellion against parental control." Say what? There are no teens in The Night Walker, at least none I saw, but Bill covered the disparity, explaining that "teenage frustrations also manifest themselves in dreams," so voila!, The Night Walker has a youth angle. He would make a point or two less cock-eyed, such as conviction that pictures are best opened regionally instead of mass-saturated: "You can be big in Minneapolis and drop dead in Chicago." If anyone knew realities of selling, it was Castle. "There should be different campaigns for different areas," he'd emphasize, this a policy Bill would apply also to The Night Walker.

Other Castle doozies he'd tell to sell The Night Walker: "Our company (that is, his company) is one of the wealthiest in Hollywood" (wait a minute, with Straight-Jacket having grossed seven million worldwide, maybe it was). To charges that his films were "too violent and could incite violence," Bill merely inquired as to whether John Wilkes Booth had seen movies (guess that falls under heading of "rhetorical question"). "Have we gone so soft in America? What do they want --- everything to be Disney?," he asked, not unreasonably. Castle and Night Walker stars Stanwyck, Taylor, and Lloyd Bochner divided thirty cities between them and headed out to thump the thriller from late December '64 into the new year. Reviews were mixed, as expected, Variety calling The Night Walker too "complicated," but with sock sequences per Castle habit. Stanwyck and Taylor were tendered as "Together Again!," ones of us ten years old at the time baffled for not knowing they'd been apart, or for that matter, even met. The Night Walker was clear-aimed at a Baby Jane market --- old-timers jumping out again to say Boo --- but this time, there was a rival at the gate, The Night Walker put head-to-head against Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte in many keys. It plays today in terms strictly nostalgic ... liking Castle helps ... and vet stars enhance, with unexpected bonus (for me) Vic Mizzy's nifty score. Close your eyes, listen to Vic's music, and you'll think The Night Walker is The Ghost and Mr. Chicken done straight.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Another Bout of RKO Dogfighting

Goggles On for Flying Devils (1933)

With aviation buff Merian C. Cooper at RKO's helm by 1933, it must have been a cinch for staff to pitch an aerial theme to green light response. I bet some did meetings with him in flight scarf and goggles. The story here could be guessed at from credits alone, Eric Linden's name a tip he'll be the kid brother, probably to Bruce Cabot, maverick vet of the skies. Flying Devils plays like warm-up for The Tarnished Angels, itself adapted from William Faulkner's novel Pylon, published in 1935. Did Faulkner go see Flying Devils in 1933 and get ideas? There's little else of outstanding interest here, but some (like me) who find any aero theme irresistible will watch and be gratified. Pic heroes that flew through the 30's carried scars from the Great War, airborne's Lost Generation a crowded fraternity. Youngsters thrilled to such and dreamt they'd grow up and be flyers, a more realistic prospect than gun-slinging or cattle-punching, latter the extent of what westerns could promise. No wonder that genre went briefly out of style when flying fads peaked.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Untold Story Of An Unsung Artist

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape Of Films To Come Is A Holiday Season Must-Read

His name in titles was assurance of unforgettable sights ahead, William Cameron Menzies often a truer director of films he designed than those who got official credit. Menzies went by several titles: Art Director, Production Designer, many designations short of the one that applied on all films he oversaw ... Master Visual Stylist, I'd call him. And now James Curtis, previous biographer of W.C. Fields, Spencer Tracy, James Whale, others, tells the William Cameron Menzies story, from silent-era beginnings to final achievement that was Around The World In 80 Days. Between those bookends came The Thief Of Bagdad with Fairbanks, work on Barrymore and Valentino specials, Things To Come, then association with Selznick, Hitchcock, many who made classics that might not have been so minus Menzies participation. The book is detailed as to how he did it (Menzies family members cooperated and supplied original art, memos, correspondence). Here is behind-scenes insight we've not had before, and from prospective of a man to whom recognition is long overdue. Curtis shows how Menzies steered Gone With The Wind, Kings Row, so many others, to greatness. If, during his lifetime, he was too often overlooked, here at last Menzies gets full due. Whatever knowledge you have of Classic Era films, Curtis' book will redouble. William Cameron Menzies: The Shape Of Films To Come is available from Amazon on November 17.
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