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Monday, July 22, 2024

Precode Picks #4


Precodes: Anna Christie, The Devil to Pay, Preview to Kong?, and No More Orchids

ANNA CHRISTIE (1930) --- GARBO TALKS! as marquees shouted, but what they should have said was, GARBO TALKS AS THOUGH ON STAGE, which the Anna Christie experience was more/less like, a thing I’d not necessarily knock, as Anna Christie gives us close-as-ever insight to what GG might have amounted to had legit rather than film claimed her. Takes are long, static for that, being 1930 with sound still unaccustomed and customers there to hear Garbo speak and never mind if cameras do anything other than focus dead on her. There is the accent --- everyone knew she'd have it, which was part of fascination, question, if any, whether sense could be made of it. Yes to that, unlike with Vilma Banky or Karl Dane, being unfortunate instances, but they didn’t have Garbo’s magnetism or studio willingness to handle with utmost care. The property was of porcelain pedigree, surefire on stages since Eugene O’Neill penned it to rapturous response. Blanche Sweet had been a silent Anna Christie, but the property needed talk to put power across, for this was sex drama where question was how explicit they would venture toward Anna as woman formerly of the streets who might marry so long as affianced never knows her past. Charles Bickford has persuasive way with growls but fell off Metro payrolls when he growled too at Louis Mayer. Anna Christie did well enough to empower Garbo, already that way for being one star who might get on a boat, sail home (to Sweden), and never look back. She truly could take the career of leave it. Anna Christie is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive.

THE DEVIL TO PAY (1931) --- We’re not ten minutes in before Ronald Colman approaches a woman on the street, whom he does not know, and says, “Have no fear for the day … You look divine.” Anyone today who’d intrude upon a stranger with a remark like that might find himself straightaway to police court, but this was 1931 and the man was Ronald Colman, whose voice alone excused whatever liberties he chose to take. I could wish for nerve and panache enough to speak such a line as Colman's, provided I had his voice to speak it. Here is where one recognizes full extent of not being Ronald Colman. Did he offscreen radiate such poise, such assurance? If so, a show-world and otherwise-world surely yielded to his every wish. To simply be Colman was more desired than for him to act as something else, A Double Life disconcerting despite him Academy-awarded for it. The Devil to Pay is Colman as presumed self, a “days in the life …” that we take for mirror of who he was. A whole star system was built upon such illusion, “range” be shunned lest a brand be diminished. People pointed at Parnell as folly for Clark Gable, MGM as instigator, him the goat for yielding. A personality was called that for bearing natural gifts apart from what training could supply. If Colman was nothing like his screen image, then he surely was an actor of remarkable resource. Television robbed movies of primacy by constructing series entirely around personalities and seeing them run years on that single engine. Film stars had not the advantage to show up weekly, closest to that a Clara Bow seen as often as seasons changed, or two-reel comedians, western favorites, served eight times within a year. To tender more might endanger interest in even the most popular names.

REAL LIFE PRECURSOR TO KONG? --- I figured Kong’s stage unveiling for something real life could never hope to approach, but here courtesy the Seattle Post-Intelligencer circa April 20, 1930 is a live attraction “For a Few Days Only” to remind us that Bigger was always Better, especially where the Biggest could be harnessed and put on display for thrill-seekers. What could go wrong? thought Carl Denham when he raised the curtain of Kong, “chrome steel” a safeguard sure as a “Special Glass Enclosed R.R. Car” to contain a 55-foot, 65 ton whale plus presumed offspring at 18 feet and 3 tons. Could mere glass contain such mighty brutes? What if one or both had crashed out? Imagine camera bugs as tactless as those snapping an agitated Kong. We may assume whales did not enjoy being photographed. Picture yourself with nose against the glass for a closest look, and it cracks, loosing leviathans to crush all beneath their massive weight. What of Mama Whale protecting her baby as Kong did Ann Darrow, or Mrs. Gorgo in destructive descent upon London to rescue her young. Is it possible that Kong creatives saw this Seattle spectacle and filed away an idea for their future project? I for one would not have relied upon a sheet of glass, however thick, to shield against two whales in presumed close confinement. Freak attractions were the norm in 1930 and for years before and after. Ask Tod Browning’s cast what it was like to be so exploited. Think too of captive animals brought ashore to amuse gawkers. This sort of thing went on … and on … for so long as hucksters had wildlife or human unfortunates to (unwillingly) prop a show. Remember Herman Cohen hauling “Zamba” the lion into theatre lobbies to promote Black Zoo? Moderns differ from ancient Romans but a sliver it seems.

NO MORE ORCHIDS (1932) --- Caught a chill watching the end of this. Ever had it happen --- when a film intersects uncomfortably with real life, not intended, but based on a future we know but filmmakers could not have? Here (distinct spoiler alert) we have Carole Lombard waving goodbye to dad Walter Connolly as he departs on a plane. What she doesn’t realize is that he’ll pilot the craft smack onto the side of a mountain mere miles off. January 1942 came ten years after No More Orchids was new. Old films often have such stark moments. We sense the father’s sacrifice coming (his bank having failed), but surely things will resolve. This being precode, they don’t. Precode was about more than cocktails and loose sex. Realities were what they’d trade primarily in, likeable characters taking the fall to our surprise, if not always pleasure. Orchid’s story is on one hand a wafer, on the other a thick loaf re life among Depression dwellers barely touched by the Crash, but mindful of how close they are to the precipice. Lombard is a poor (grand)daughter of the rich, fated to marry a Euro prince, who shows up halfway but does not turn out to be a crumb as mere class envy might present him, our hope either way for true love to conquer all (suitable suitor Lyle Talbot not rich, but a better prospect to weather hard times). Gable’s “Peter Warne” of It Happened One Night had plenty such blueprints to follow by 1934, the right-working-guy almost a cliché when Frank Capra and writers got round to it. Capra too had a go with Platinum Blonde the same year as No More Orchids where he’d tread parallel ground. Refreshing in Orchids is older players driving narrative to degree more than customary, Connolly, Louise Closser Hale, also C. Aubrey Smith, who for guilt over tragedy he causes might board a next doomed flight himself. In fact, I envision a panoply of penance in the wake of Orchid’s end title. Seen on TCM in High-Def and highly recommended.

Monday, July 15, 2024

Category Called Comedy #6


CCC: The Lady Eve and Ghostbusters

THE LADY EVE (1941) --- The Lady Eve wowed 1941 for sophistication and slapstick the product of fertile mind that was Preston Sturges’, known/advertised for being so after mere two, The Great McGinty and Christmas in July. The Lady Eve was his first with top stars and proof of Sturges getting blank check to do what suited him, which also was what suited everyone in swelling attendance. What made Sturges uniquely valuable was the desire to make comedy a largest public would enjoy and support. For personality flamboyant beyond even what Hollywood afforded, let alone would tolerate, he’d be something entirely unique and not easily handled by an industry built upon structure and discipline. No one before had so flattered their audience. The Lady Eve announces intent with cartoon credits, not just funny drawings but an animated snake that crawls into the “O” of Preston’s name and can’t wriggle out, this his guarantee that we are going to laugh. Sturges adapted from a story to be changed in most particulars. Henry Fonda did other romantic comedies with Barbara Stanwyck that most would be challenged to even name. I am told Sturges was the first studio employee during the sound era who was permitted to write and direct. Also understood is that many were jealous of him from a start and longed for his downfall. It has never been satisfactorily explained to me why he was pushed out of Paramount. You do historic hit that was The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, then Hail the Conquering Hero, then poof, you’re gone? Buddy DeSylva must have had serious hate going to expel such a genius asset.

It was recognized by one and all that Preston Sturges could do Paramount comedies infinitely better than the Paramount system could do them, and this made him both an asset and a threat. There is no work safer than work routinely performed. Excellence can generate too bright a light. Extreme excellence can create need among the less gifted to bring its creator down. Sturges was extraordinary and knew it. He let others know that he knew it. There seems never to have been an ounce of malice in Sturges. Perhaps he could have protected himself better had there been. He was a small boy whose erector sets always turned out better than what other boys built, a bit little like Orson Welles but for being hugely commercial in his makings, which meant no one could touch him … until one day they could (The Great Moment) and did with gusto that to me seems wildly disproportionate to the failure-or-not of one project that certainly did not of itself cost Paramount enough to cause fiscal downfall. I feel like Bill Demarest repeating “It’s the same dame,” except mine reads, “What did Preston Sturges do to deserve what they did to him?” The Lady Eve was far enough out in front for some critics to call it Best Picture of 1941. The public laughed and many went back again. Fonda and Stanwyck had what Columbia called a “Joyous Reunion” called You Belong to Me (also 1941), which might have seemed OK had The Lady Eve not been still around to remind everyone the pretender was counterfeit. Imagine showing up to work every day on something you know won’t be a patch on what turned out so well before, but that is nature of mass-produced movies, and to stay in them, one made his/her peace with it.

The Lady Eve
is pretzled now to fashion’s expectation, described on its disc box as “gender-flipped.” Don’t know how that fits, nor the Fonda character’s “judgmental priggishness.” Much if not all of repackaging old film comes to making it “relevant,” that is, acceptable to modern notions, this the “challenge” to modern marketing. Cheer for those who admire vintage because of discredited attitudes, not in spite of them. Many profess to like screwball, 30/40’s comedy in general, but there is frankly little of it I show civilians with confidence. Take two others with Stanwyck released in 1941, Ball of Fire and Meet John Doe. Great directors behind both, peerless writers, yet flawed in ways too fundamental for other than seasoned buffs to get through, let alone repeatedly. The Lady Eve benefits considerable for brevity, 94 minutes and out. Ball of Fire is 111, John Doe 122. These things matter to impatient moderns with already twitching rears. I know one who asks, “How long is it?” before any screening. If I say over 75 minutes, she’s for bailing. We therefore watch lots of precode. Trick for comedy is holding tempo and interest aloft. So many flail after promise of a strong start. Great films like lesser films have wrinkles, none perfect by anyone’s reckoning (quick: Name please a feature you regard as perfect). The Lady Eve has a start-stop-will-it-stumble point for most everyone seeing it a first time, a plot turn I’ve seen alienate some, myself included at earlier stage of life. Query then: Does Charlie/Hopsy deserve punishment he takes from Jean/Eve in a second half?

Even in farce comedy we must be sensitive to character’s feelings, maybe more so. It is clear early that Charles Pike is a scion of wealth. He has a majordomo, “Muggsy,” whose job is to see that predators don’t separate Charles from his family money. Charles is not streetwise and tends to trust unwisely, so is an easy target for Jean, who is engaged in ongoing criminal enterprise with her father. These are clearly people to be avoided, especially where one has wealth. Charles falls in love with Jean, but is apprised by the ship’s purser of her lawless background and so naturally feels betrayed and taken gross advantage of. Quite naturally he wants no further association with her, let alone marriage. Jean takes umbrage at Charles’ rejection and devotes herself to getting even by assuming a false identity and invading his family’s home, an off-putting prospect. I’ve known many turned utterly off The Lady Eve for how Jean/Eve treats Charles, marrying him under phony pretense and humiliating him on their wedding night. “I need him like the ax needs the turkey” might amuse in other contexts, but here it disturbs, for what is this woman ultimately capable of? The turn-off many experience with the second half of The Lady Eve makes for a high hill to climb. I tried it in the past and failed, though lately have reconciled with all aspects of The Lady Eve, now for me Sturges’ best comedy, but will not lose sight that mileage for it will vary depending upon who it is shown to.

GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) --- I can’t recall when television bred so many stars as in the Saturday Night Live era. And now we can’t generate stars for trying hardest, as if whole of the concept was buried as Egypt pharaohs. When Ghostbuster sequels are made (several, if frankly too many), nothing will do but to bring back principals who now spookily represent what it once was to sell tickets on names alone. I use “spookily” advisedly because even deceased Busters are back via hologram or whatever unholy device is summoned to raise what seems real ghosts. I drew Ghostbusters as part of ongoing rehab for 80’s output shunned or come frostily away from when little or nothing of then-cinema merited my approval. Warmth-up of age, willingness to meet at least halfway, sees much that is improved, or was it me that needed improving, because Ghostbusters seems in all ways a pleasant time capsule to forty years gone that need not be lived again but for flashcards from then that play better than I would have guessed they could. Worth noting is what Ghostbusters means to a generation who came upon it in kid-hood or adolescence. For them GB is Kane and Kong rolled into iconic one, and I’m not sure if Columbia/Sony/whatever owns a more valuable IP than this. There was a theatrical reissue for a thirty year anniversary, and lately a new Ghostbusters touched down to do again same things as before, aid and comfort to nostalgics and under heading of what an industry calls “fan service.” I saw neither Ghostbusters II, the reviled remake of 2016, or a sort-of-arty rethink from 2021. There will always be Ghostbusters so long as creatives are too frightened by market realities to be creative, but who you gonna call when old-timers from 1984 are too old to answer even for a cameo. I would ask how Sigourney Weaver reacted when approached by Columbia/Sony/whatever. Do young folks seeing new Ghostbusters ask, Where is our generation of personalities like these? Chances are they care less what movies offer any more, so long as there is gaming, infinite scrolling, whatever Dopamine substitutes are handy. Busters have been around long enough to see theatrical movies themselves become ghosts. 

Monday, July 08, 2024

Fiendish Foursome for Fun


The Comedy of Terrors as All-Star Third Acts

Grumpy Old Creeps might apply were The Comedy of Terrors reissued today, ground since 1963 littered by aged men not venerable but ill-content and objects less of laughter than derision. “Your Favorite Creeps Together Again!” was legend over flattering portraiture of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and “Also Starring” Basil Rathbone, the artist Reynold Brown depicting each on affectionate terms. The Comedy of Terrors was maybe a first for headlining old-timers to mirth-make and be respected despite ’63 youth-be-served attitude otherwise prevailing. Comedy’s creeper clutch had never been away since beginning eons before, joy to masses and now offspring since the 1930’s. All were of “Spook Show” tradition even though none to my knowing worked matinee spoof stages (as Bela Lugosi of departed league had). Each could be funny as in laugh with us, not at us, but here were clown masks on and us entreated to guffaw for whole of 84 minutes. To view The Comedy of Terrors best however is to ponder things other than what is said and done on the screen.

Being shot on rented space at General Services Studio, I’d ask how principals arrived to work each morning. Who drove as opposed to who was driven? What sort of vehicle could Peter Lorre afford at this point? At lunch break, where did they eat? And did they eat together? Suppose Evie chauffeured Boris and brought bag lunch and thermos for consult through the work day? What of pay for the cast? Price got the most surely, so what did that leave for Karloff, Lorre, Rathbone? Ten thousand … as much as $20K? Karloff like Price was an AIP star under contract. I went to The Terror, Black Sabbath, and Die, Monster, Die, but skipped The Comedy of Terrors for not liking horror stars as potential objects of ridicule. Same kept me away from Hillbillies in a Haunted House and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. I sat through snowy transmission of a Dr. Kildare episode to see Rathbone guesting. Pieces of this can be accessed here and there on You Tube. He is rancorous as Basil was known to be when fans called him “Sherlock.” He came across in the sixties as a man whom time and custom had passed by. Base in fact was our era and Basil was perhaps too good for us. He looks gaunt in The Comedy of Terrors, but his voice is crisp and borrowed teeth behave. In larger TV markets he hosted movie programs, shilling for a sponsor beer in one instance. Rathbone wasn’t fond of being in scare shows but would do them to serve necessity. He had aversion to boys who approached him holding monster magazines, one of them chased off the set of The Comedy of Terrors (lucky boy ... chased away by Basil Rathbone). I met writer Russ Jones at a West Coast show years ago and asked him about the time he interviewed Rathbone for Castle of Frankenstein magazine. He said Basil was polite if aloof on the topic of horrors, but enjoyed telling of sword roles and how he could have bested E. Flynn or Tyrone Power in duels if only scripts had let him. Basil had just bought a classical music album and was listening to it when he tipped over on July 21, 1967. I’m still hoping to wake up one morning and from that moment on talk just like Basil Rathbone.

Was Vincent Price the only Comedy creep who would someday work for fans who lined up to see his AIP’s? (Tim Burton a hirer at near career-close for VP). Price had edge of age (younger) and understood inherent humor in the genre he served. He is beyond broad in The Comedy of Terrors and so is Lorre. Peter Lorre had been a goofy gargoyle doing all sort of support work and being unlike any definition one could apply to acting, clear case since 1930 and Germany’s M. Did he really have no memory of doing Moto mysteries for all-of-time drug loop? I believe it for Lorre himself having confessed so. He would play mean practical jokes and scamper away when victims retaliated (ask George Raft). You’d think being short and pudgy would make Pete more cautious, but no. He was dear friends with Humphrey Bogart and not many people were. A stuntman wears a Lorre mask in The Comedy of Terrors and it looks spookiest of all faces on view. I was able to identify to some degree with favorites, but Lorre … might as well be a man on the moon. Halloween was busiest time on all of casts' calendar. You hope they gathered up nuts enough to eat through sunnier days when phones rung less, but hold --- Karloff secured posterity with a Christmas project, the Grinch he’s best known for now and maybe for always. Boris offscreen was too genial for monsters, and lots knew it. I recall Castle of Frankenstein’s cover headline for Die, Monster, Die that Karloff was “Playing a Monster for the First Time in 30 Years,” and me thinking, well who needs that? I’ll take him in a wheelchair and just talking, thank you.

I read of Chaney showing up in mid-sixties, his and the apx. date, at amusement parks to hand out flyers of himself in varied monster guise. What was needed was all of us older, maybe approaching our own sixties, to show up, be worshipful, and tell Lon how revered he’d be in nostalgia years to come. Presumably only Price lived long enough to grasp full dimension of monster fan culture. Yes, we were out there when The Comedy of Terrors played first-run, buying Famous Monsters, staying up late to see veterans young then, old and still serving yet, an emerging army loving them either way. Trouble was we weren’t connected to each other, small/large towns isolation wards for genre-loving to exclusion of adult endorsed recreation. Look today at the Classic Horror Film Board, lore and fan exchanging that never sleeps. I’ll bet there are more of the dedicated today than ever was during so-called Monster Booms of the fifties and sixties, which for all its remembered glories, was lonely outpost for overwhelming most. Is there present-day joy in watching The Comedy of Terrors? Depends on mood, capacity to look back longingly. I forgive any or all overage from this cast. “Karloff timed his delivery of that line flawlessly,” I will say … “Rathbone steals the show with his most exquisite late-in-life performance!” Too much cat squalling via “Rhubarb” (didn’t he/she once work with Ray Milland?), Joyce Jameson whom the script insists “sing,” Joe E. Brown (why? Because he’d been funny in Some Like It Hot?). There are those who assign “labored” to The Comedy of Terrors. Mere jiggery-pokery, I say. Will admit however to its not being for everyone, appeal limited perhaps to Grumpy Old Creeps now approaching age of Comedy's quartet.

You need a life’s exposure to this fantastic four and their associations prior: Karloff and Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein, together with Price for Tower of London, Lorre with Karloff in You’ll Find Out and again for The Boogie Man Will Get You, Price, Lorre, Karloff in The Raven, Rathbone and Price, Lorre in Tales of Terror, these for ’63-64 fanship board meetings via theatre or TV, fact of many preceding our birth all the better. Karloff and Lorre made a NY boroughs bus tour to promote The Raven and we can imagine fervid greeting they got from monster kids youthful still but walking much among us. Think how many accumulated since, having lost none of glow for ghouls. There is of late a book to confirm this and more: The Ghost of Frankenstein No. 16 of Scripts from the Crypt presented by Tom Weaver. He’s all over 380 pages with Gregory W. Mank, Bill Cooke, Roger Hurlburt, Frank Dello Stritto, and research associate Scott Gallinghouse. I’ve said same of previous Scripts/Crypt. Each goes straight from postman to lamp and chair, nary rise nor break for me till bones are as Minnie says, a last to be consumed. I last lauded Weaver work with The Mummy’s Hand, his having come out with follow-up volumes The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Ghost since. Want to lift your mood, learn a lot plus laffs in the bargain? Any/all of these should brighten any midnight (strongly suggest watching respective movies for appetizer, dessert, or both).

Monday, July 01, 2024

Stills That Speak #5

STS: Mr. and Mrs. Joan Crawford at Home, Nick Adams 's Godzilla, MGM Pulls Deluxe Trailers

PHILLIP TERRY’S THE “HEAD MAN” --- Never mind Crawford kids. What of hapless husbands? We might rate each according to respective images, being the relevant three were actors. Firstly Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., scion of more fame that Crawford could hope to achieve and so not ground to submission by her. She was besides a relative starter at the time and knew she had much to learn from him and elders, JC taught table manners from Mary amongst other proprieties. Call it a draw when she and Junior split. Then was Franchot Tone, cultivated and coming from class she lacked, knew acting besides from Group Theatre background, which she could not help respecting. Next and I’d say least potent of partners was Phillip Terry, who we imagine to be weak because he played weak parts in few important films he did, but wait, Terry was all-athletic at school, worked oil fields, seemingly no pushover. He and Joan adopted a boy they named Phillip Terry, Jr., the split leaving her with custody of this child whose name she’d change. Captions applied to fan gush here are smothered in present-day irony. “They’re a gloriously happy foursome with a normal family life,” says press of parents posed with Phillip Jr, soon Christopher, and some-said-bad-seed Christina whose crucifixion of Mom would wait thirty more years. Divorce came on heels of this sitting. Here’s my query: Did Phillip Terry, who lived till 1993, look back on his Crawford experience for publication? Any private comments that were eventually shared? I’d scour JC bios, but there are too many for my enfeebling mind to absorb. Imagine fun of watching a video cassette of Mommie Dearest in Terry’s den with him supplying live audio commentary. The movie actually takes place in large part during the Crawford-Terry marriage, though memory (mine) suggests he was nowhere depicted. I’d confirm but for blood oath never to sit through Mommie Dearest again.

GOJIRA FINDS A FRIEND IN NICK ADAMS --- Two for pop culture’s scrapheap? Snob industry figured Adams for slumming when he traveled (far) east to play opposite Japanese monsters, but Nick grooved with it and publicly said so. We admire him the more for helping Frankenstein conquer the world and harnessing astro-menaces. I’m mixed up as to Baragon’s placement among Nippon gargantuans, but Nick appears to have worked with him/it, maybe more than once. Might Nick Adams have become Toho’s first ongoing imported-from-America star? Data is out there no doubt, but I’m not conversant beyond seeing Frankenstein Conquers the World when new in 1966 and forgetting same utterly since. More than this one still has surfaced of Nick interacting with others of Toho employ. A somewhat portly Godzilla was between battling Mothra (aka “The Thing”) and next seen at loggerheads with Ghidrah, though as I complained before, there seemed no Ghidrah within sixty square miles of me, as though monsters from Japan were no longer welcome at N. Carolina theatres. A Godzilla plus others lull, washed up for keeps maybe? Thankfully no, Destroy All Monsters in eventual offing, my walking out on it in 1968 a guard against having my fourteen-year-old intelligence insulted (oh but to set that right at seventy). Godzilla is bigger than ever today based on all-time high receipts for a latest, critic/fandom gone through roofs of enthusiasm. Is Nick Adams examining here an actual model they used for filming Godzilla? Was there a split between guys wearing the rubber suit and miniatures to be used when the monster stomped on smaller structures? It occurs to me that Godzilla has been doing his thing for seventy years now, longer even than James Bond. Did Nick Adams divine a future the rest of us missed? I choose not to believe his death was deliberate. A mystery yes, but aspects suggest it was accidental, or darker, depending on one’s own interpretation of facts.

MGM MAKES TRAILERS SOMETHING SPECIAL --- Trailers as an art form all their own await recognition yet, but for how many were previews a highpoint of days at the show? They all seem identical nowadays … could that be for essentially same personnel assembling the lot? Greenbriar wrote of trailers in 2008 with emphasis on collecting them back before most that exist could be accessed online. Now we can call up most any title and find, somewhere, its original preview. “The Exhibitor” as bugler to the trade did March 12, 1952 coverage of MGM’s focus on two minute promos that in many a circumstance entertained as well as a lead feature. “Personalized” pitching often involved stars or support players brought on to share news of an upcoming attraction. These had been done from the thirties forward … Bela Lugosi for Mark of the Vampire, the four stars of Libeled Lady together in offscreen antics, lavish trailers a signal to exhibition that no stone would stay unturned where selling was the goal. Just as animation had its wing, so too did trailers. Sometimes the two would merge, as when cartoonists drew one minute’s length on behalf of Adam’s Rib, a sort of teaser to go out in addition to a longer lure for the 1949 comedy, latter featuring narration by “a Smith named Pete,” a man who habitually found himself funnier than others did, or is it just me? However way, Smith surely helped Adam’s Rib, his trailer a curiosity if not a joy listening to. This and a plethora of others stream at TCM address. One I could not locate however was It’s a Big Country, which has Gary Cooper riding out to his ranch mailbox where word awaits of the 1951 Metro omnibus. The preview was around on 16mm, but nowhere now it seems, unless under an Internet stone I have left unturned.

The Exhibitor says Leo specialty-sold mostly drama and comedy, “the big musicals can sell themselves most effectively by utilizing direct material,” by which they meant scenes, excerpts from songs, nothing specifically filmed for the trailer. An exception was On the Town, which had narration plus the opening James A. FitzPatrick title card to herald his participation. Question arises as to how many previews FitzPatrick participated in? Or Pete Smith? Or John Nesbitt of “Passing Parade” fame, who stepped up for The Man With a Cloak. I came across Lionel Barrymore narrating for The Happy Years, Clark Gable and Broderick Crawford on-camera for Lone Star, the pair riding up to camera front with assurance that we’ll enjoy their new western. Then there was Red Skelton doing what looks like a couple day’s work to promote Watch the Birdie, as though Red were giving us a comedy short to herald his comedy feature. Westward the Women offered a reel’s worth of behind-scenes and highlights that amounted to a docu-subject and invaluable record of the feature’s making. Lavishness of trailers tailed off after the early fifties unless Leo had something really special to sell, which for one was High Society in 1956, Bing Crosby greeting Ed Sullivan on a Metro soundstage having what sounds like unrehearsed conversation about High Society amidst generous clips. Trailers could run long, apply the hard sell by means that could and did amuse latter-day audiences. I ran one for Scaramouche for several weeks leading up to a university playdate, crowds seeing it often enough to chant “Scaramouche!” in unison with the narrator as he repeated the name throughout. Abiding mystery is for what movie did Debbie Reynolds and Fernando Lamas do a special MGM preview, as shown in the photo here. Not knowing points up the number, probably great number, of unique trailers I’ve yet to see.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Lawdog McGraw Hampered By One of His Own?


Favorites List --- The Narrow Margin

I’ve a fundamental beef with Marie Windsor’s character in The Narrow Margin. As shown above, she turns out to be a policewoman gone undercover on behalf of the “Internal Affairs Division” to root out cops receiving “graft and payoffs.” Her function then is to fink out fellow law enforcement officers in event they coddle criminals. Posing as the widow of a murdered kingpin, she will be escorted cross-country by detective sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and work partner of six years, Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe), “Mrs. Frankie Neall” slated to testify against Mob interests, except Mrs. Neall is really “Sarah Meggs” who is planted for purpose of “testing” Brown and Forbes in event they choose to play ball with baddies. Gus is shot down as the pair attempt to escort their phony witness down shabby apartment stairs, after which faux Mrs. Neall disparages the late Forbes for having “got himself killed.” Brown understandably hates her and we are encouraged to do likewise. Here’s the thing: I disapprove of Ms. Neall/Sarah Meggs much the more on realizing she not only brought about Forbes’ death but will devote herself to making the now-solo Brown’s mission a miserable one, being non-stop rude toward the detective who blames himself for Gus’s death. She is determined also to corrupt clean-record Brown by proposing they both prosper on thirty-thousand so far offered by assassins who have boarded Chicago-to-L.A. train with intent to kill. “Why did they stick me with a decoy?” asks Brown once put right re the scheme and indeed we might pose the same question. Would less lives have been lost had “Mrs. Neall” confided her true identity to lighten Brown’s considerable load? Consider carnage she caused to possibly entrap what we know to be an upright cop. My sympathy over her fate went right out a window upon unmasking of this Internal Affairs plant. Does response derive from repeated seventies-eighties movie incident of venality within IA ranks? Harry Callahan got pains a-plenty from them, and often as not, IA personnel were themselves on the take. Maybe I’m muddled for years of slip-slide ethics as practiced by movies. Is it too late to bring back simple white hats and black hats?

The Narrow Margin
wasn’t meant to ponder beyond 71-minute runtime but note that like with comedy or any preset genre, characters are expected to behave as viewership might, given a same set of circumstance, this assuming we root with such characters. I on one hand might admire the policewoman's sacrifice and risk she took, but meaningful is fact the film does not address this nor refer to Officer Meggs after her death. Was recognition passed over to keep focus on Margin's witness/potential victim switch? To explore result of Meggs' conduct might muddy an already crowded third act. Fleet-paced programmers had not time or inclination to iron wrinkles in narrative, and even if they did, would a 1952 audience sit patient for it? Tis not for me to complain of how The Narrow Margin resolves, but might detective Brown reflect once smoke clears and he’s back on a daily beat? Having reviewed events at greater leisure with fixed income colleagues who have their own beef with higher-ups, might Brown protest, take the argument upstairs, bawl out the Commissioner even (but what if latter is dirty and previous object of Officer Meggs investigation?). Like Harry Callahan later on, Brown might toss his badge in the drink and opt henceforth for private work, or maybe like McGraw on other screen occasions, investigate insurance fraud (Roadblock), perhaps switch sides and knock over an armored car (William Talman could have used McGraw brains for that Robbery gone ultimately wrong).

Readership might someday tell me to shut up and enjoy these old pictures for what they are. Trouble is complexity within best of them crying out for alternate reads which I doggedly apply. Remember My Man Godfrey, Holiday, Suspicion? This is getting to be a habit. Is there such thing as Classic Era Rehab? The Narrow Margin was seen as special right from belated start, being finished two years before but for Howard Hughes as head of RKO dithering over release. He in fact wanted to scrap a whole thing and begin again as an A project with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, HH nuts enough to take the loss and have things his peculiar way. His Kind of Woman was said to have been a very different show before being virtually remade in Hughes image. Remember juggling of The Window before it finally got into theatres? As with The Narrow Margin, huzzahs called that 1949 thriller a sleeper. RKO was odd sort of address where miracles could happen. Merchandising however shrank from sleeper label because no, The Narrow Margin was wide awake and sure enough to be a mainstream hit, ads going offbeat direction to let patrons know this was no ordinary suspense ride, nor arty beyond their grasp. I sense Terry Turner behind this campaign and why not? He was live wire for Snow White’s reissue, ditto King Kong, and Sudden Fear, all selling 1952 tickets by bushels. The “Fat Man with a Gun” gag was something new. Did it remind watchers of Hitchcock's profile as assist to his output? Canadian venues compared The Narrow Margin with “Classic Tradition” of Hitchcock and Carol Reed. TIME magazine evoked The Lady Vanishes and Night Train (to Munich), reputations of these heady since long before. “A new school of ad styling” said the Motion Picture Herald, and yes, for something without stars, The Narrow Margin offered a memorable night out, if placed on lower level of bills.

Opinions weren’t uniform, the Catholic Film Society (London) figuring The Narrow Margin best suited to “normal male adolescents.” 1952 appealed to such for clear majority of showgoing, as in aim toward youth or go hungry. We like noir but for then-reviewers, they were common as dirt, including diamonds amidst much ruffage. The Exhibitor called Margin “a mishmash … the twists become ludicrous.” And here we are writing how inventive those twists are. A crowded marketplace barely saw difference between ordinary genre product and ones above fray mostly frayed. Still it was news when The Narrow Margin stayed eleven weeks at New York’s Trans-Lux, oft-art address not given to penny candy, anything they’d book amounting to endorsement for the venue’s invitation alone. Management left it for local press and discriminating critics to do the rest. Wider spread cinemas took their own chance, some to thrive, others to thud. “Make sure you sell the streamliner,” said the Motion Picture Herald, “display model railroads in the lobby” if possible, this presupposing you’d book The Narrow Margin for more than a day or two, many if not most situations opting for short hops, Margin its own streamliner rushed through town and on to a next brief stop. Outlying management ID’ed what may have been a central problem: “I would surely like to know who puts the titles to some of these motion pictures. Our business was no good because the title was not understood. Why couldn’t they have named it “The Eastbound Death” or something with a snappy title?” Why indeed? Nostalgia drives this train, even, or especially, for those of us who never knew dining cars, red caps, upper berths, the rest. Confinement speeds tempo. I’d as soon McGraw begin another murder hunt on heels of this one, such is comfort riding beside him. Adjustments? Less of gabby Gordon Gebert, otherwise yes to Photoplay bouquet for “a movie that moves, with a story that clicks!” The Narrow Margin so far eludes on Blu-Ray, but there is a DVD of good quality.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Stuff of Comedy Turned Serious


Why Shouldn't Quiz Shows Be Crooked?

There once were public intellectuals that walked the Earth. They spoke on radio, sparred with comedians, and enriched millions, not disdained for being cultivated but adored because they were. Wit was what many (most?) wanted supply of, good vocabulary to be admired and emulated. Bing Crosby displayed erudition weekly and that became part of his ongoing appeal. We’d tune in nightly broadcasts to laugh and learn. Information Please really was informational, plus it had personalities to keep fun in the mix. Oscar Levant raised laughs not in spite of being smart, but because he was smart. Deems Taylor was egghead lite, never to take himself too serious and an eager guest to Duffy’s Tavern where invited. Newspaper columnists were also treasured asset. They could read, write, spell, and often amuse. Folks quoted a columnist and took personal credit for the insight, hoped others had not read the squib, as one of them might be waiting to spring same gag. There were “Quiz Kids” to ennoble what we’d later call geek behavior. Acquire of knowledge could in fact make one rich. Postwar emphasis on education opened collegiate doors not just to veterans, but for all who wanted smarts like what guessers after cash displayed on radio and lately television where geniuses had faces to go with mental agility. To this phenomenon came Champagne for Caesar, where bookworm Ronald Colman turns media sensation for his know-it-all-ness, a goal we’d all aspire to in 1950, and in fact many did.

Good sport KTLA permitted its camera to be used, “Milady Soap” quiz show presumably theirs, except I wonder if real stuff on primitive air was as lavish as depicted here, contest in terms of staging and large studio audience more like radio and resources that medium could manage (radio/TV simulcast is suggested). What televised game shows from 1950 survive? Little enough is around from later in the decade, and Caesar notion that cash prize for knowledge could reach into millions is fanciful beyond anyone’s concept of then-reality. Premise is Colman as eccentric “Beauregard Bottomley” driving double-or-nothing toward bankrupt point for soap manufacturer and sponsor Vincent Price. Champagne for Caesar is comedy with a thinking cap on, us invited to ponder comedown for culture that TV represented. Colman/Beauregard’s is voice in a wilderness for literacy exploited by slick operators who want him to win until suddenly they don’t. We are to understand that it is all about money, television at dawn of evil it would do for fullest share of an audience. Everyone around Beauregard sees his store of knowledge as useless but for moment’s blip he will register as human encyclopedia repurposed to sell soap. Champagne for Caesar came at a peaking time for education so far as a general public regarded it, college doable thanks to the GI Bill and recognition that learning was needed to vault out of a working class. Beauregard was thus figure of fun but up to a point, his not profiting from genius but from what genius might earn in hard cash. Toward settling for comforts of life, he’ll blithely sell out champ status and throw the game, his own corruption a neat two-hander to see everyone happy for Caesar’s fun fade.

Happy Sellouts: Rigged Gaming is Good Enough for Celeste Holm and Ronald Colman

That last is what endears me to Champagne for Caesar, Beauregard knowing all the world’s a sham and making sure he gets his end of it, “wrong” answer a right one toward tooling off with wealth, new wheels, and Celeste Holm who will toss his books away for their not needing them on a honeymoon. Caesar’s is a cheerfully cynical wrap plus raspberry to 1994’s Quiz Show, which dealt with a same racket, but took cribbing plus false wins seriously as Vietnam and Watergate filmmakers claimed such conduct led up to. Righteous Robert Redford as producer/director did not write Quiz Show, but his weighty thumb is upon proceeds start to end, exposure of crooked game shows during the fifties where America “lost its innocence.” How often have chalk-walkers charted past events that cost us innocence, as if we ever had it, and how many viewers cared a fig in 1956 that NBC fixed Twenty-One? Quiz Show bases upright self upon too tragic truth by nineties definition, a dark night of our national soul. Evil men of television warp principles in service to big business and only public confession from high-profile winner Charles Van Doren can redeem us. Quiz Show doubled with Champagne for Caesar is best evidence of how self-serious movies became over a forty-year canyon, made by ones who always get to be right backed by fawning reviews to assure them that of course they are always right. Only difference between Beauregard and Van Doren is former really knowing answers but taking a dive for profit, the girl, and getting back his private life, all sane and sensible reasons for chucking a championship that really meant nothing to begin with. Champagne for Caesar posits itself, and a frankly farcical theme, as comedy it was and is.

Could a “senate oversight” investigator have been bothered in 1950 to investigate perfidies of some dumb game show? Champagne for Caesar suggests not … could it have even occurred to them? Maybe it was good sense we lost, not innocence, but common sense, where so much was made of Van Doren being fed right answers and walking a public plank for it. Were same jealous forces that later framed a payola scandal to wreck rock and roll behind this imbroglio? I enjoy Quiz Show, parts are funny, truer truth spoke by Martin Scorsese as string-pulling sponsor that is Geritol, his speech good a time as any to exit Quiz Show and figure this was where best lesson of the movie lay. He’s like Lonesome Rhodes knowing the score on Vitajex and saying sure, I’ll sell your phony pills, and let’s all get rich doing it. I’m a sucker for “villains” in movies voicing wisdom by my admittedly singular lights, as if preachers with pens and directors with pretensions inadvertently left a free thinker in their movie to voice for those who won’t buy into agenda so resolutely pushed. Not by design does Scorsese’s character and “Robert Kintner,” played by Allan Rich, emerge as heroes and role models for warped sort as I, but thanks be to Quiz Show for including them. Who knows but what Disney might “correct” Quiz Show with edits to better confirm who should be hissable among folk it portrays. And don’t laugh, for this conglom won’t shrink from heavy hand upon past inventory to stay on “the right side of history,” as shown vivid by before-afters all over You Tube.

UPDATE 6/17/2024 --- GIFTS FROM GRIFF --- Earlier today he corrected me re spelling of Vitajex and sent along neat images for which many thanks, Griff:
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