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Friday, October 24, 2014

Flat Crime Thrills On Wide Screens

Crime Wave Leads The Pack Of 1954 Thrillers

Two Toughies, Both From WB
Shot in latter months of 1952 (November/December), but held for January '54 release, this was among few (any?) full-frame Warner pics playing off in an otherwise 1.85 season. Titled Don't Cry, Baby, then The City Is Dark before and during production, the project was initially set for Bogart, as would be months-later The System, but HB was turning away everything Warners offered, so sour was he after years of servitude. Eventually labeled Crime Wave thus went on B schedule to be produced by Bryan Foy, who was seasoned at these. Directing Andre De Toth had two weeks and low budget (neg cost a piddling $377K, by far a WB lowest for its release year). Worldwide rentals of $880K meant profit; audiences could still trust Warner for bristling gang subjects. Gene Nelson was given the ex-con lead, a depart from dance work previously engaged; like Gene Kelly at MGM, there was desire on both actor and studio parts to widen range, result occasional detour to rugged subjects. Pace is quick; there wasn't time to dawdle, given  abbreviated scheduling. There's much location and night shooting, a big help. Crime Wave wasn't much regarded then, but Warner values it now, as witness HD streaming on their Archive Instant arm, plus DVD availability.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

TCM Unearths Another Gem

The Stranger's Return (1933) Is Back On Television

Warners has quietly cleared another out-of-circulation title and put it back on view. The Stranger's Return played last week on TCM without fanfare, no mention in Robert Osborne's intro that this was a first time showing in the over twenty years since TNT, according to online posters, had a run. History of The Stranger's Return in terms of spotty sightings is fascinating in itself. There certainly were 16mm prints made up for television when MGM's "Pre-48 Greats" became available for broadcast in August 1956. Sixty stations would within a first three years purchase the entire package of 716 features, including The Stranger's Return, so it would not have gone unseen during that period. Metro pulled the title in 1963, however, indicating The Stranger's Return as "withdrawn" in syndication listings. The flag was result of underlying literary rights (source novel by Phil Stong) that had not been renewed. Other titles taken out of TV circulation at the same time included Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Mr. and Mrs. North (1942), among others, some of which still remain to be cleared for broadcast. There would later be rental access to The Stranger's Return on 16mm, through Films, Inc., whose 1977 Rediscovering The American Cinema catalogue listed the 1933 feature, suggesting that MGM still had non-theatrical, if not TV, rights.

William K. Everson ran a 16mm print to his NYU class on 10/14/77. He probably rented The Stranger's Return from Films, Inc., but on the other hand, it may have been his own print, which hopefully is still around and might supply a scene missing from the final reel. What TCM played looked to be from 35mm with low contrast, reminiscent of grayish 16mm local stations used to lease from syndicators. There seems not to be multiple prints of The Stranger's Return around, the camera negative having burned years back. So question as applies to any oldie brought out of hibernation: Is it worth the wait? Being a King Vidor project automatically confers interest. The theme was one he liked and would return to, being rural-based and close to soil. Location is generous, and thanks-be, these farms aren't built on Metro stages (Stranger's was shot "about an hour or so" from Los Angeles, according to Vidor in a later interview with Nancy Dowd). Characters live off the land, so there's no Depression reference other than Miriam Hopkins mentioning fact she couldn't find a job in the city she's recently left.

I don't gravitate to sticks-set stuff as a rule, finding them usually clich├ęd or oppressive, as in beat-down of Lillian Gish in The Wind or harsh Mountain Justice as meted in that Warners ordeal directed by Mike Curtiz. Worse is when they go all-out poetic with stunner imagery but caterpillar pace, like City Girl. Every farm patriarch is a hard case, it seems, Lionel Barrymore no exception in The Stranger's Return, but good writing lends wit enough to dialogue to make his character engaging, a third act twist on expectation being for me what's best and most memorable about the show. LB talks of long ago when he "went to the Civil War," and there's a real sense of battles having once been fought on ground he now tills. North Carolina had Confederate vet parades well into the 20th century; my mother recalled ones taking place each year in Kings Mountain, where she grew up, so The Stranger's Return and Barrymore's role must have rung especially true for many who saw the film first-run in 1933.

There's also importance of food to these people. They eat, and talk a lot of eating. Lionel is served cereal, "cardboard" according to him, at breakfast (for Grandpa's health) and rebels by going outdoors to collect eggs and do ritual of frying these plus bacon in extended action where we can almost taste result. He later balks at lemonade and cookies served by neighbor Franchot Tone and wife because they'll "spoil our lunch," while his threshing crew after a morning's work rushes to table like starved animals. Their attack on loaded plates seem like comedy to sedentary moderns who've lost sight of what it is to be really hungry after honest-to-goodness work outdoors. Stranger's extended feast with Miriam Hopkins unable to keep pace with demand for seconds, salt, and what-not, is a highlight that's staged beautifully by director Vidor.

Hopkins has a part so well conceived as to make her for once appealing as an actress. She's a modern woman having been around, married, and then split from that, but not jaundiced by experience. Her developing romance with Franchot Tone is believable, suffused with good dialogue, and played splendidly by both. He has a wife, who thankfully isn't a shrew or doormat we wish would clear out for sake of new-found love. There's real sense that Tone would give up much by letting her go, no matter novelty's attraction in Hopkins. The situation is adult, sensitively handled, and reflective of benefit Vidor had for getting his cast/crew well away from Culver to shoot. The Stranger's Return was pre-Code, but not aggressively so, having not the sort of theme we'd associate with the category, and yet ... Vidor did refer to a haystack love scene between Hopkins and Tone missing from a print he saw in the late 70's (his first screening since the film was new). There was no such footage in TCM's broadcast last week. Had it been Code-cut at some point? Many features of the period were, with trims never put back. What we have of The Stranger's Return may be incomplete beyond short business lopped from the end.

Note Clark Gable As Originally Having Been Cast

"My audience in North Dakota ate it up," said one showman. "The answer to the small town exhibitor's prayer," said another. This was typical of grassroots reaction to The Stranger's Return. Of multiple opinions I read, none were negative, and all reported good business. It was, in fact, "a picture that sends them away smiling," according to one manager who'd report pleased patrons he'd not have to duck the next day (bad pictures had a way of keeping managers off small-town streets until stench died down). Some playing The Stranger's Return used the "Personal Assurance" gag that was always chancy, unless you had something truly good to sell. In this case, they did. 100% customer satisfaction was reported in numerous situations. Agricultural centers were a natural, Variety reporting that Lincoln, Nebraska's same named venue "has the town to itself" while playing The Stranger's Return. Overall rentals were fine, with nice gains for Metro thanks to reasonable negative cost ($288,035). Domestic rentals were $439,000, foreign $191,000. Final profit was $117,964.

Many Thanks to Dr. Karl Thiede for info/data on The Stranger's Return.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

When Comedians Were Kings

Lloyd and Keaton Make The Trades in 1926

Here are a couple of newsy trade items (from Motion Picture News, in fact) dated 1926. First is Harold Lloyd "on location" at Greenacres making home movies. Some of these are with the Lloyd DVD sets. They are pro jobs with sound and probably the slickest family reels anyone made during the 30's. Harold was a dedicated hobbyist, and had the money to collect all of anything that engaged him. His record library was said to be immense (did the granddaughter keep all those?). There was also photography, which he did to nines and mastered 3-D besides (a book of them is available). Lloyd seems to have been a self-contained guy. A real man-cave dweller, or in his case, eternal boy. He liked society of young people because, I guess, they reminded Harold of himself. Who else maintained a Christmas tree year round? Lloyd lived like a lot of us would if there was money enough, and the lord knows, he had the money. Also of '26 origin, November of that year in fact, is bulletin at left from location of The General, Buster Keaton's epic of the Civil War. I like its detail re hazards of filming the train wreck, which cost producer Joseph Schenck $40,000, "more than any single comedy sequence on record." Sounds like some minor casualties happened when that locomotive went down. And what of footage those other cameras got? Present day The General gives it to us from one angle only --- were others as effective, or more so? "Mr. Schenck insists on the actual thing," says reportage, and this was his cash to burn. So was it Joe or BK's initial idea to topple a real train? Maybe The General was intended start of segue from Buster the comic to Keaton the action hero. Lastly is total of 200,000 feet of film exposed, of which "7,000 feet will be viewed by laughing Keatonish folks when Buster's first United Artists film comes to the screen." As to balance ("193,000 feet") going into Keaton archives, we can but dream. Does any outtake or discarded stuff survive from The General?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Cartoon Master We've Forgotten

Ted Eshbaugh Makes a Wonderful Wizard Of Oz

Among most amazing artifacts of animation to be recently unearthed is Ted Eshbaugh's The Wizard Of Oz. What's that name, you say? Eshbaugh was a cartooning pioneer, left out of a not a few histories, but championed by Thunderbean's Steve Stanchfield, whose latest Blu-Ray compilation, Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, includes not only The Wizard Of Oz, but a representative sampling of Eshbaugh's work both before and after it. Eshbaugh (shown at left) was a young man with dreams, same as Walt Disney (they were born five years apart), but Walt's came spectacularly true, while for Ted, effort and innovation went largely unrecognized over a lifetime of cartooning. Virtually all his shorts were made for independents, and some have since disappeared. Thunderbean has managed to find color elements for a few that for years were seen only in black-and-white. Eshbaugh is best vindicated, however, by discovery of 35mm IB Technicolor for The Wizard Of Oz, a cartoon that existed before, but not looking like this. It is a highlight of Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, with so many parallels to MGM's 1939 treatment (including a B/W opening) that you figure Leo just had to have checked it out before going forward with a live-action redo.

Ted Eshbaugh got first trade attention in March 1932 for getting a color cartoon booked at the Loew's State in Los Angeles. That was Goofy Goat, done in the Multicolor process, according to an article, History Of The Animated Cartoon, by Earl Theisen, and published in the September 1933 issue of The Journal Of The SMPE (Society Of Motion Picture Engineers). According to Theisen, Goofy Goat had been previewed at the Warner's Alhambra Theatre on July 6, 1931, making it "the first complete cartoon story done in color" (Walter Lantz had earlier supplied an animated color opening to Universal's live-action King Of Jazz, released 3/30). Variety noted "youthful producer" Eshbaugh having applied "months of labor and promotion in which he promoted and expended $10,000." Goofy Goat, and Eshbaugh's projected series of cartoons, had yet to find a distributor, but wasn't that a same challenge that Disney faced and overcame with Steamboat Willie back in 1928?

Eshbaugh's "secret color mixing process" would distinguish "a series of 12 all-color sound cartoons," said Film Daily, with "new studios" being prepped for the tyro producer as Goofy Goat (that's him at left, with gf "Nanny" Goat)continued its stand at Loew's State. Lightning having struck for Disney assured that a trade would watch this youngster closely, coverage of his moves positive and even encouraging: "Eshbaugh, a youth with an idea and no capital, has lined up a staff of young cartoonists ready to turn out more reels if their maestro clicks or collects" (Variety). Goofy Goat scored a mention in the September 1931 issue of Photoplay, their "Short Subjects Of The Month" page saying "Let's see more" of this character "apparently out after some of Mickey Mouse's pickings." They must have caught the Alhambra preview, as I found no evidence of Goofy Goat having playdates beyond there and Loew's State. Any animation historians know of an actual release for this short? Official Films sold 8 and 16mm versions for home use during the 40/50's, these being black-and-white and all that survive of Goofy Goat. Efforts to locate a color print have so far gone  begging.

It would have been Goofy Goat, and follow-up color reel The Snowman, that got Ted Eshbaugh his job making The Wizard of Oz. The Technicolor company wanted a demo reel that would demonstrate effectiveness of their new three-color process. What better than a cartoon that would emphasize widest expanse of the rainbow? Eshbaugh had a deal with Frank J. Baum to adapt his father's The Wizard Of Oz to animation, within an agreed upon time. As production went forward on the cartoon, Technicolor began negotiations with Walt Disney to use the new process for his Silly Symphonies. A contract dated 8/30/32 made way for a first, Flowers and Trees, with three more charted for color. Later amendment to the pact gave Disney exclusive rights to three-color Technicolor use in cartoons for a two year period from 9/1/33 to 8/31/35 (this based on primary research by Michael Barrier for his book, Hollywood Cartoons). In the meantime, Ted Eshbaugh had finished The Wizard Of Oz, a gorgeous sampling of what Technicolor could deliver, but not one that could be released to theatres, now that Disney had sole access to three-color for cartoons.

Under heading of life sometimes being not fair, Ted Eshbaugh had to watch his work buried by a bigger fish that Technicolor angled for and caught. What was one cartoon by Eshbaugh when a possible dozen or more from Disney were planned to exalt the process? Besides that, WD was a name known worldwide, thanks to Mickey Mouse, while Eshbaugh remained unknown. And yet ... there was The Wizard Of Oz, a short anyone with eyes would call infinitely superior to Flowers and Trees, which was not even drawn in color to begin with (more than half finished in B/W), but retrofitted in ways evocative of silent features (and cartoons) kept back for addition of music, sound effects, and even dialogue. Walt had to look at his Flowers and Trees beside The Wizard Of Oz and know that here was occasion when the better man had not won. I wonder if it played on his conscience afterward. Does anyone know if Disney ever offered Ted Eshbaugh a job? Judging by the man's talent, he certainly should have. Worth noting is fact that WD did purchase rights to the Oz books some decades later, but wouldn't screen adapt them during his lifetime as was plan.

So far as we know, The Wizard Of Oz languished in obscurity from 1932 on, but there was effort to release it to theatres in 1935, possibly in anticipation of Disney's three-color exclusivity running out in August of that year. What frustrated the plan, by Ted Eshbaugh and Technicolor, was a lawsuit filed by Frank L. Baum in 5/35, wherein he asked the court to block proposed release of The Wizard Of Oz. Basis was Eshbaugh's failure to finish the cartoon within agreed time set by the parties. "Contract is therefore regarded as void by Baum," reported Variety, leaving Technicolor "730 feet of negative, which under arrangement with Eshbaugh, company (Technicolor) is ready to market unless enjoined." How the matter resolved does not appear in trade search I made, but we might assume it went against Eshbaugh/Technicolor for fact The Wizard Of Oz would not have a theatrical release, at least in the US.

Ted Eshbaugh wasn't entirely a prophet without honor. He was recognized and invited to participate in an exhibit put on during fall 1933 by The Society Of Motion Picture Engineers. They wanted to establish a museum of film history at their Los Angeles headquarters where membership could view industry-made progress. To this display came pioneers like Mack Sennett, with vintage cameras and memoirs of Keystone Kop days, J. Stuart Blackton with a Biograph Mutoscope, Willis O' Brien demonstrating effects trickery for King Kong, all this and more in addition to Ted Eshbaugh's overview of his pioneering work in color cartoons. Walt Disney and Walter Lantz made contributions as well, each showing work done in the area of color. Interesting how tech journals from the 30's made point of including Ted Eshbaugh. I found favorable mentions and acknowledgment of his "first" color cartoon in The International Projectionist (1933), World Film and Television Progress (1938), and The International Photographer (1936). Too bad they couldn't see remarkable work he'd done on The Wizard Of Oz.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Twentieth Tries a Tracy/Hepburn

Will Computers Replace Cast in 1957's Desk Set?

Bright and generally pleasing Tracy/Hepburn, more so in Blu-Ray lately released via Region Two. Spence thought himself too old by this time to do rom-com, and he wouldn't have opposite anyone other than KH, but skills are undiminished and they are a usual great together. Tracy's weight was an always-issue; he's heavy here and it translates amusingly to gusto he brings to several eating segments. I've always thought meal scenes reveal much of actor technique. Do they really eat food during emote or just fake it like punches pulled? In this case, Tracy attacks sandwiches, fried chicken, and especially a "Floating Island" desert like a man starved. I'd love knowing how many takes these scenes required. Hepburn has intriguing ways with roast beef and bread, pulling bites apart before putting same in her mouth. Both stars use hands and attack of food to express attitude and emerging (comic) conflict. I can imagine rehearsals focused much on perishable content out of brown bags. Has any actor written on how to consume properly for stage/screen?

20th Fox lost money on Desk Set (a large $1.3 million), which had to hurt Tracy/Hepburn viability together or singly, though by '57, it was realized that much of loss could be made up with eventual TV sales (Desk Set missed out on network play, heading straight to syndication in 6/63). Arresting vibes go on between Hepburn and female co-workers, KH touchy-feely with Sue Randall especially, even patting her rear at one point. You begin to wonder who Tracy's romantic rival is actually going to be. It's a subtext that juices Desk Set beyond conventions otherwise observed. Joan Blondell is happily along to demonstrate perhaps better aptitude for a co-lead with Tracy, had she been given the chance. Dark costuming was issued to Tracy and Blondell --- as conceal for pounds both had gained?  Cinemascope had its own pitiless way of adding width not just to screens, but players as well. Desk was set in New York, thought you'd barely know it, location being scotched in order to trim costs. What we see of Gotham was, in fact, lifted from How To Marry A Millionaire.

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.
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