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Monday, February 26, 2024

Useful Relic Format That is DVD


Digging For, and Finding, Disc "Extra" Gold

Once there stood mighty fortress that was DVD with extras and talkers and sometimes Easter Eggs, a bargain for modest price to have them. Blu-Ray buried a generation of these in the name of image improved but for most part not much else. I get out an old disc to always surprise of how much is there to enjoy, a couple returned to by sheer chance, years since exploring either, but glad to have done so. Was there really a time when Fox Video released all their Charlie Chan features and did them up deluxe, each box, as in seven boxes, with oodles of bonus content that carry 65-minute movies to a two hour finish? Here’s how excavating happens for me: a happenstance visit to Philo Vance via The Garden Murder Case, then the Kennel, the Dragon, and wanting more if not of Vance, then why not C. Chan whom I’d not called up since The Black Camel, only this time Sidney Toler rather than default choice Oland, thus Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, among best of Tolers, and more so a treat for Fox documenting the World’s Fair of 1939 in San Francisco where an entire island rose out of the bay thanks to man-effort and engineering, color home movies and testimony of those who recalled first-hand what creation was like. Segments being made in 2007 puts us sixteen years past ones who saw the real Treasure Island and were still around to speak of it. Then there was a wow of an extra comparing “Zodiac” villainy of the film with real-life Frisco serial killings a generation after. Chilling to contemplate are links suggested between the two.

So what influence led to retrieve of dust-laden Fall of the Roman Empire, Bronston behemoth of 1964 not consulted since 2008 when proud double-disc marched ways into household that till 2024 has watched Fall but once. Did its three hours daunt? Memory of the feature faded over sixteen years save much shooting in snow and honey of a
 chariot race plus duel to make Ben-Hur look like a Sunday surrey ride. Fall of the Roman Empire was owned in ’08 by “The Weinstein Company.” Is it still? Glory that was Rome looks still glorious here, what with production to take breath truly away. Why did I go see Duel of the Titans and not this? Checked for Blu-Ray access in the US and found none. Lots from elsewhere Regions however, these clearly digging what once straddled the world and remains longest lasting of all civilizations. Picture looked fine on my standard disc, a cinch that newer ones, even if Blu, would lack all of bonus content this ’08 release has. Never knew a lot about Samuel Bronston, but experts taught me here. Bronston and bunch rebuilt Rome on Spanish plains, him fleeced a whole time by “assist” lining own pockets to tune of millions, Bronston fated to fall upon Roman sword that was fail of this most massive among his ventures. Each of what Bronston made had to be mighty hits in order to enable a next. In this case, it was El Cid to grease chariot wheels, always-threat a boxoffice reverse that would fell Bronston’s fragile empire. The producer was himself a sort of update Rome, doing one more as colossal which was Circus World, which like Roman Empire, also available off-shore only on Blu-Ray.

All Chans were not created equal, as neither are discs hosting them. I began Chan (Toler) in Reno and had a good time till the image froze around fifteen minutes in, not to regain footing and henceforth a coaster. Some DVD’s last, others not. Extras play fine, the feature lasting barely past the first murder. One that did play, until lights out dictated by me, was a cluck called City in Darkness, CC in Paris (again) but this time sans son, any of them, comic that was no relief enacted by Harold Huber who was test of endurance beyond mish-mosh of a story I could/would not follow. Always a bitter pill to concede failure at watching any feature, though preferable to taxing oneself past point of boredom. Don’t want to sour myself with Chan for after all there may be Monograms to cope with down the line. Does Sidney Toler please as substitute for Warner Oland? I say yes for recognition of large shoes former had to fill, as who really could be so graceful as true-life mystery that was Oland? There was something distinctly uncanny about this man so few seemed to know well. He came and went to work till one day he simply went and never came back. Do I go on a limb by declaring Oland second only to Shirley Temple as most valued Fox property? The Chan series always made profit, and he was principal reason for it, Oland loss like Will Rogers for leaving major hole in release schedules. Toler filled in, someone had to, but things would never be quite the same. Time answered the riddle of how long the series could last when Fox let it go in 1942, bargaining with Toler so he could carry Chan elsewhere.

Wish I had lived more in a roadshow age. Saw some on two-a-day terms, mostly of musical bent, but what a treat The Fall of the Roman Empire would have been, surely balm for ages mostly young, talk in plenty giving way to action resplendent on scale movies had not so far touched. Don’t know how Bronston slept for pressure of finance and keeping massive force organized toward finish of undertaking that was Rome. One of disc interviews was a Bronston son who went to medical school rather than follow elephantine Dad footsteps. Offspring and wife visited massive forum sets, decorated inside and out, stunned as any civilian confronted by such effort. Imagine life as spawn off Olympian that was S. Bronston. And yet even gods do tumble, for Bronston went begging to Paramount for completion cash, giving up much to see over-bloated Rome through. Critics and much of viewership called Fall too much a downer, but let’s be fair, it wasn’t called Rise of the Roman Empire, even if maybe that should have been the concept and title. Taking three hours for a civilization to collapse was less burden at least than three centuries the real Rome took to fold, but what matter come 1964 with Paramount’s ill investment facing tepid turnstiles? Frustration for us is the monolith withdrawn from modern inspection, as with others of Bronston lineage. Fans call regular for US Blu-Ray release of Rome, Cid, Circus World, the spectacle-lot, but so far nothing. Maybe it needs the Cinerama restoration crew to pull these mastodons back from oblivion.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Works Well with Whiskey #3

 WWW: Robocop, The Sea Wolves, Sign of the Gladiator, and The Hill

ROBOCOP (1987) --- Outlaw action thriller they’d not dare today, Robocop silly on surface, a title giving exclamation to that, but don’t confuse with safe spandex  served over twenty years past (really, that many?). Robocop runs rapid, tawdry in the cut-price doing. Used to be flummoxed by those calling the eighties a golden era, or “last” golden era, but hang if things like Robocop don’t open my eyes. Robocop is fun in disorienting ways. No wonder it made a star director of Paul Verhoeven, forever young in maverick spirit it seems, yet the man is now eighty-five. I call Robocop pre-CC, that is Current Code. There are more of those than expected, Robocop near top for trashiness (seen Starship Troopers? Great), yet with plenty bold to say, nothing like Current Code compliant always safe and spineless. Robocop shines like a beacon from distant past (thirty-seven years anyway) to remind us there once were wolves in sci-fi clothing to challenge status quos rather than remain in resolute service to them. Robocop and kin are refreshing rebuke to chains binding now-Hollywood, good start to hang up super-suits or give same back to children where they belong. But what of baby teeth too sharp for marshmallows latterly “heroes”? I venture it is kids getting bored with current stuff, not just grown-ups. An “Unrated Director’s Cut” Robocop can be had on Blu-Ray. See it for a bloody good time.

THE SEA WOLVES (1980) --- Watched this plus The Guns of Navarone and what dispiriting difference mere nineteen years made. Old folk actioners were a late seventies staple, visible into the eighties, a final stand for stars once major stars who could fight and die convincingly for war or western purpose. Action in the end was all vets were saleable for, as what else would an international market support? Gregory Peck in drama might float TV-movie boats, but on a big screen, he, like others, must pack a gun where starring, or character-support where not starring. It was work, the best a player of venerable age could expect, many of comparable years finding reassurance in Peck, David Niven, giving good account of themselves in a scrap. From the producers of The Wild Geese, said trailers, and so indeed was this more of same, us left to wonder whose appetite was best served by should-be retirees buckling up again to quell international villainy. What I noticed of these Wolves was caution at movement and firing of arms, Niven uneasy with his pistol for lately being more-less sedentary on screen. We expected Gregory Peck to always be battle-ready, for hadn’t he been so just last night on a late movie? Concept is for Boer War colleagues, formed of late as “Calcutta Light Horse” members, to rouse themselves toward sink of German shipping for King and Country, much of two acts played for comedy except for junior recruit Roger Moore (in his fifties, but junior among these) whose mission is to seduce a could-be Axis operative after 007 fashion. Part of separating men from well-spent men was this group standing for camera inspection, which could be pitiless, for instance Trevor Howard, once reliable soldier in greasepaint now greased by years of tipple and damage that did him. Be patient re pace, forgive sluggish script (Reginald Rose) and direction (Andrew V. McLaglen), and you’ll get by. What is the word they use for stuff like this … elegiac?

SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR (1959) --- Rome --- long ago … the Liberty, almost as long it seems, since we sat for what is called “Peplum” by fans of such. I mainly recall men tied between horses whipped toward opposite directions, or Gordon Scott fighting Steve Reeves (Romulus/Remus), maybe Reeves piloting a Trojan Horse, which I persuaded our Sixth-Grade teacher to let us attend for extra credit. Did it have scholastic value? Don’t remember, but the idea seemed viable. Sign of the Gladiator streams on Amazon Prime, Italian-spoke, but there is menu of subtitles from which to choose, and ratio is scope-correct. True value of viewing enterprise is Sign’s status of earning biggest-to-then rentals for American-International, $883K (hold my toga, Horrors of the Black Museum). Goliath and the Barbarians would do even better, an astounding $1.818 million. This was the best money Jim and Sam saw till Beach Party in 1963. Admiring Sign of the Gladiator and sitting through it, however, are two different things. There is no principal “strongman,” Georges Marshal more wiry than muscle-bound, and he’s no gladiator either, that just to sugar marquees. What we get for strength is Anita Ekberg, zaftig to nines and barely clad aboard steed (wouldn’t that itch after a while?). She is referred to alternatively as “Bathsheba” and “Zenobia” --- in either case, the “Virgin Queen” of Palmyra, or whatever place she ruthlessly rules in opposition to Rome itself. I had fun at isolated moments even as they became increasingly isolated over 98 minutes which seemed like more and maybe was. I hope Jim/Sam gave this one a haircut before release, Amazon tendering not their version, but presumed “original” from Euro source.

THE HILL (1965) --- Star all of sudden Sean Connery had pick of properties by the mid-sixties and so chose The Hill, meat-on-bone recite of conditions within a military stockade in desert deep fry and shot in a spot parched as what story depicted. Connery wanted out of Bond-age early on. They hadn’t treated him well, saying no to percentage terms he sought, major burn coming of conversation with Dean Martin where SC learned the Matt Helm series got Dean much more than 007 brought its portrayer. But who fielded outside projects for Connery? We, at least me, wanted more Bond, not A Fine Madness, Woman of Straw, or The Hill. Woman of Straw is actually OK, especially so The Hill, neither fare for youth wanting more of Aston-Martins and jet packs. The Hill was of sort that might not have got American release were Connery absent. Makes one thirsty just watching, which explains WWW placement. Connery was to large extent a misplaced British actor, despite his being Scots, and you could say the Bond thing was, if a happy accident, anyway an accident. He was startled and made largely miserable by fan frenzy the product of 007. What could have prepared journeyman Brits for worldwide celebrity? So few had experienced it, none to degree Connery now did. He couldn’t chuck Bond quick enough once his contracted five were done, even if there was reluctant return with Diamonds Are Forever, which he did for extraordinary fee donated to Scottish charities, then a much later Bond accepted with personal control strings attached. The Hill is grim, sweaty, frankly hopeless, one of military setting that might appeal to vets who said such themes were too often fairy-tailed by movies. Directing was Sidney Lumet, whom Connery respected a lot, MGM back of the project with finance and US distribution. They surely did not expect much from it, but lo/behold The Hill did well in an otherwise bleak season, modest $1.5 million spent on the negative bringing back $3.9 million in worldwide rentals for ultimate profit of $706K.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Film Noir #27


Noir: Breakaway, Canicule aka Dog Day, Circle of Danger, Clash by Night, and Cloudburst

BREAKAWAY (1956) --- It’s another Tom “Duke” Martin thriller with Tom Conway! There were two, lensed in Britain, one US-released, Murder on Approval, while this one, Breakaway, I’m not for sure. Maybe RKO in waning days floated it to a handful of Yank cinemas. Someone more patient to do necessary research will enlighten us. Breakaway showed up in a “Forgotten Noir” DVD box, itself forgotten for coming out of VCI years back, but these  please where it’s small change intrigue one wants, or Conway toplining for a next to last time (The Last Man to Hang would follow, which based on Tom’s support cast, plus Terence Fisher directing, looks mighty interesting). Duke Martin as limned by Conway is described by online writers as a “suave, if a trifle elderly, private eye,” which troubles me (1) because Tom Conway was a sprightly fifty-one when he made Breakaway, and (2) I like to think I have much in common with suave, if elderly, private eyes, thus Tom Conway more an identification figure as I transition to “trifle” (plus) elder status. Duke detects as avocation rather than livelihood, involving himself in Breakaway’s mystery more for curiosity than quid a day plus expenses. For all narrative reveals, he never got paid for his troubles, as who invited Duke to horn in? Do real-life private dicks do pro bono work? Lawyers sometimes do, if seldom realizing so until their effort is spent, like J. Stewart as chump advocate in Anatomy of a Murder. Duke is on the trail of “a formula which may reduce metal fatigue,” which I had to look up, but still don’t really understand meaning of. Femme assist is Honor Blackman, nine years away from Pussy Galore, and hanged if I could reconcile the two. What culture shock must it have been for jobbing Brit players like Blackman to sludge along years in such disposables as Breakaway, then overnight find themselves catapulted to international stardom by the James Bond series? Such talent should have formed a support group to ruminate on how such an utterly mad thing could have happened to them, Blackman and Sean Connery to co-chair meetings.

CANICULE, aka DOG DAY (1984) --- I got vapors watching Lee Marvin dragged through this swampy French crime story, among final things he did and I’m guessing a job he regretted once plane touched down and he got a slant on what Euro hosts were planning. Lee was but sixty, seemed leagues older, or just plain spent. He was an action star now trapped doing action, a next after Canicule pairing him with Chuck Norris. I found no evidence of Canicule having a US release, but English-language prints were issued, alternate title Dog Day sounding like something Yanks would call a Lee Marvin vehicle. As “Jimmy Cobb,” he and confederates muff a bank job, Lee alone and hid in a barn way out from Paris where trouble started, cops and a rival gang in pursuit. Degenerate rurals stall a getaway, a brat kid making off with loot Marvin thought was hid. Canicule becomes more the farmers’ story than Lee's, patches of comedy leavened by violence to call up memory of Herschell Gordon Lewis, not a felicitous mate to Marvin. Frankly never heard of Canicule or Dog Day before Kino made their Blu-Ray available, but on proposition anything with Lee Marvin has to be worth watching once at least, I bought in. Not sorry for the ride, as you can’t call this boring, outrages and unexpected frequent nudity enough to renew conviction that there’s nobody like the French to upend expectations. Never saleable as an art film for being so frankly disgusting at times, this what saves bacon for those who’d not equate Lee with art in any event. Maybe he knew, or hoped, no one would ever see finished result, and until now, I’d guess few had. Canicule reminded me of those Mexican horrors Karloff did near the end where he had not notion of other and exploitative stuff they shot with intent of slotting same in with his work. Did Lee realize what sleaze he had let himself in for? And yet there is raw stuff that includes him, so we can’t let him off hooks altogether. Canicule is fine to sate grim curiosity, is even enjoyable on lowdown terms. Certainly R-worthy, had anyone bothered to rate it.

CIRCLE OF DANGER (1951) --- Don’t recall a shot fired or fist thrown in this subdued thriller, Brit-produced, where Ray Milland travels abroad to investigate a brother’s peculiar wartime death. Considerable interest comes of Jacques Tourneur directing, him never putting a foot wrong where in charge, especially when topic is noirish which this is despite cottage and country backdrop. Milland is for tracking members of a former Commando team whose return from a mission behind enemy lines saw but one casualty that is Ray’s sibling, each of the disbanded team with plenty to hide. War guilt and/or unresolved issues made basis for much melodrama to follow WWII, Circle of Danger among quieter ones, and the better for it, Milland older enough not to need or benefit from action spasms or tilt with femme fatales. Romance comes courtesy Patricia Roc, appealing in singular way this actress was, plus Marius Goring of Red Shoes background as possibly dangerous director of dance revues, an offbeat occupation for noir villains, if indeed he is one. There too is Naunton Wayne, formerly of comedy for Hitchcock and others, amusing if possibly sinister here. “Coronado Productions” was an independent spearheaded by David E. Rose. Cuts were made for a US release, though a Region Two DVD appears complete. Eagle-Lion promised Circle of Danger for US market as part of an “art” group to play specialty houses, “three to four years” a window promised before it and other titles would be offered to television, by mid-1951 on United Artists docket for stateside play-off. Reviews were mixed, “placid” among words bandied, though one reviewer saw merit in an ending “unconventional and a surprise,” which indeed it is, for I did not see same coming, this to further advantage for Circle of Danger, which while undeniably obscure, has much to please, and toward closure of noir watch lists, should prove a worthwhile detour.

CLASH BY NIGHT (1952) --- Melodrama for me seems “overheated” where same arguments are aired repeatedly, point made by each but beaten silly and exhausting by a welcome end. Not saying Clash by Night falls full in this category, but it tickles edges. There comes point in any third act where you’re ready to wrap things up and go home, more ongoing case nowadays than in a Classic Era where writing at least was more disciplined, as here it for most part is, but there is something wearing about a cuckold who takes forever getting wise, Paul Douglas ramping up voice volume till end point where all he does is shout at Barbara Stanwyck, who does her own reach in decibels, a trademark to go down smoother when male opponents stand there and take it, which Douglas and other male lead Robert Ryan distinctly do not. All this came indirectly of pen wielded by Clifford Odets, whose work we recognize for distinct P.O.V., but how much of Odets survived other cooks like Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna, producing for RKO release? They even copyrighted Clash by Night, so must have had ownership or at least large stake in the negative at one time. Howard Hughes gave them a rich deal and carte blanche for multiple features, and Clash by Night bears bold creative signatures. The Ryan character vocals a hate for women, which makes me wonder if Odets/whoever was letting off steam of his/their own. Stanwyck is black sheep come home to a fishing village she left in disgrace years before, soiled and thus shunned. Clash by Night has would-be adult content diluted by Code compliance, but intent is good and they take things at least far as any project could at the time. Marilyn Monroe is in for a better than small part, being one of stars over the title if not a lead. She’s as good here as would be case after she got more self-conscious and was grazed upon by acting coaches. Directing is Fritz Lang, this amidst work where he could find it, hobbled by reputation spread by players who couldn’t stand him, their number not topping ones who understood his genius and how it could help them. Clash by Night is out via Warner Archive on put-right Blu-Ray, always happy outcome for RKO’s that can use all of visual enhance they can get.

CLOUDBURST (1951) --- Another where we don’t want the killer caught but know for certain he must be. Cloudburst turns on irresistible premise that those who killed during the war will do so again given right provocation. They are trained and ready to even scores where conditions call for it, in this case Robert Preston as a resistance veteran tracking a criminal couple that did in his wife. Preston plays admirably subdued, a code breaker who’d not harm a fly but has deadly reflex to check conscience and do away with anyone who wrongs him. The war must surely have done this to many. How do you come home from wholesale killing without ever having impulse to do so again? Cloudburst puts sympathy with Preston --- we support his tracking quarry and having his revenge. Fact he does so satisfies, bringing him to justice less so. American release for Cloudburst in early 1952 saw little reward. Motion Picture Daily called it “a murky little importation from England … boxoffice output seems to be on the moderate side, which is on a par with its entertainment substance.” Variety spoke of Cloudburst in terms of “palatable celluloid,” fit at most for duallers, which was as much as distributing United Artists could expect from any of trades. They had taken over the title from Eagle-Lion, which folded its enterprise into UA, and we may assume promotion was perfunctory, as likely were receipts. Still, for Cloudburst explore of wartime fallout there is much to admire, its topic barely addressed by US filmmakers, though Act of Violence (1948) had certain parallels and was similarly rewarding. Cloudburst streams at present on Amazon Prime. There is also an On-Demand DVD from MGM/UA.

Monday, February 05, 2024

1951's Stab In the Back


LIFE Versus the Movies

August 13, 1951, was Detonation Day, not when a cold war turned hot, but where the Number One family weekly aimed laser at an industry they said was in throes of decline, an industry too late to save. Hollywood saw LIFE’s gesture as one to live ever after in infamy, a sneak attack wholly unjustified. How could amusement for masses occasion such hostility? Everyone read LIFE magazine. A household to afford but one magazine subscription would subscribe to LIFE. Whatever it printed, people talked about. Size mattered, as issues were big as a Declaration of Independence delivered each week to your door. To be on the cover could make a career. “But I thought we were friends,” the movies said as LIFE spoke otherwise, and this after years of paid advertising to enrich Luce coffers (him the editor-in-chief and chief turncoat). And what of a double truck full-color ad for Flying Leathernecks on pages 54 and 55 in selfsame issue that sunk the knife, plus David and Bathsheba on page 37, paid promotion all? The scourge of it … the betrayal. LIFE wrote plain that theatres were finished. Banner across their obit groaned with half-dozen images of closed houses, 3,000 they said and counting, marquees emptied, and dig prose from bylined bombardier Robert Coughlan … “Like the fluttering of doves at the wheeling of a hawk, like the stirring of the seal herd when the hunters come ashore, like the watchful waiting of the villagers at the rumbling of the mountain,” these analogy to Hollywood cowered in shadow that was doom. Citing data opponents said were nursed, Coughlan spoke what many would figure for truth. Why would LIFE lie? And yet regard profile title: "Now It Is Trouble That Is Supercolossal in Hollywood," jibe upon hyperbole long laughed at and now shorthand for bitterest irony.

It was known that television was giving movies a black eye. In fact, mainstream mags including LIFE had taken a few on the chin. Why read when you could watch, and for free! Literacy took a tumble for sure. Everyone kidded the “idiot box,” none more than ones enjoying it most. We all knew or thought Hollywood was forever. How could people who made Samson and Delilah go broke? LIFE knew it needed hard facts to make a case, and so went out and got them, interpretation of same where imagination kicked in. “What dread shape has awakened the dreamer?” asked Coughlan, his answer the boxoffice, down as in way down, result theatres boarded up or turned into furniture outlets. Television was a culprit sure, but mainly it was viewership “arrived at maturity” and rejecting “simple-minded” stories told by Hollywood. Such thus dictated entertainment choice for young postwar families. Go out to a movie, why not? Here’s why not: baby-sitter, parking fees, gas and oil … let’s call the whole thing off. So they did, said Coughlan, shuttered venues the result. LIFE reviewed history re court obliged divorcement of exhibition from production, foreign tariffs blocking income from overseas, myriad of business woes like any industry had, but this being movies, we all had a stake, or at least an opinion. LIFE found a sore and so cut deeper. Not that they were necessarily wrong. Estimates of TV growth were in fact low, for the medium would not merely expand … it would explode. Five years later, after television penetrated all regions of the US, such an article as LIFE’s would seem a soft pat.

Imagine a mirror piece written today, or rather don’t imagine, see for yourself online, hundreds per 2024 proclaiming end to movies, not as forthcoming, but now. Don’t forget those who said talkies would wash up Hollywood, artistically if not economically. Transition awakens grim sleepers. LIFE joked that there were still a few guys getting rich off sale of horse collars, so hope for movies was perhaps not altogether lost. Then as now, the concept of “movie stars” was written off. In a good picture they might get by, but let product be poor and even biggest names would drag it down further. Average cost of films after the war had risen 300%, most barely earning back negative costs in US home market. TV saturated areas had seen theatre receipts drop twenty to forty percent, said surveys LIFE cited but did not conduct themselves. Bad news was cherry-picked from like-mind sources, positive feedback ignored, said Arthur Mayer for the defense, him picked as rebuttal spokesman for the industry. Mayer’s thoughtful essay was whittled from a ball bat to a toothpick by LIFE editors (they printed but 275 words of his response), support letters also minimized in aftermath of 8/13/51. What a time to be attacked what with Movietime USA just launched, nationwide ad sweep a cooperative effort by the industry to bring us back to paying screens. Movietime USA swore that films had never been better. Just linger upon list of ones current and outstanding: The Great Caruso, Born Yesterday, Strangers on a Train, That’s My Boy, The Thing, Showboat. If these weren’t good as anything from record year 1946, then maybe it was time to plain give up.

So above titles were industry’s idea of its best? That alone could be basis for LIFE’s claim, loudest touted of group The Great Caruso, which played six smash weeks in Chicago, a record, and shouldn't that alone confer greatness? There were meantime 107 television stations operating, thirteen million sets in household use. Well sure, said Mayer, but “Just as (people) fitted the automobile, the radio, and other pastimes into their purses and leisure, they are giving a place in their lives to both TV and movies.” No one wanted to sit at home all the time, argued producer and industry booster Jerry Wald, who with partner Norman Krasna borrowed millions to launch an independent venture. It was inconceivable to think that people would abandon movies after fifty years attending them. Yet those who stood beside the industry were “whistling in the graveyard,” according to LIFE. Retaliatory argument pointed to revenue LIFE was losing, and why was Henry Luce attacking movies if not for grudge a result of his March of Time series plus other efforts to break into films not bearing fruit he expected? Continual was claim that nothing was wrong with business that good pictures could not fix, as though doldrums were simple as that, but rundown of releases from early fifties to rescue by Cinemascope show much that was worthy failing right alongside product called “bad” or ordinary. Example at random: Angels in the Outfield, which was much enjoyed, well-liked in hindsight, and lost money, despite being made relatively cheap. Truth was that even quality may not be enough, and that worried Hollywood profoundly.

Punch and then counterpunch … television would wash up movies? No! Hollywood would absorb TV, making of it a supplicant if not slave. Yes, much of production was East Coast-based, but this could change. Whatever video makers could do, Hollywood would do better. In the meantime, scurrilous attacks from brother media helped nobody. In fact, there were right-motivated magazines poised to rescue movies from sully LIFE applied, Coronet, Collier’s and LOOK ready to lend supportive hand, if by gestures sudden and some said insincere. Samuel Goldwyn wrote the Collier’s piece, a fix obviously in, while LOOK titled its six pages “Who Says Hollywood is Dying?” These were hurried effort to assist a wounded giant, and to large extent worked. “There still seems to be no end in sight for the veritable avalanche of constructive magazine attentions to the industry following the one adverse blast by LIFE,” said Motion Picture Herald (9/22/51), while oracle Adolph Zukor pledged “that when the industry is through with its efforts, the recent article in LIFE magazine will just be a humorous incident.” In short, shoo fly shoo … we fought worse ogres than this. Imaginative heads sought ways to use television toward their own boxoffice ends. Why not combine television with moviegoing? Simple, said Fox chief Spyros Skouras … Install the enlarged box and give viewers a best of both worlds, a prizefight beamed live to theatres, or a performance of South Pacific from Broadway to home stage, plus “a wonderful movie like The Frogmen.” Giddy by this point, Skouras declared “at a dollar a ticket, I take in a million dollars in one night!”

There was also Telemeter and other devices to supply living rooms with Hollywood entertainment. Insert to a coin box gave access to brand new movies, a single “admission” the whole family could share. Exhibitors raised holy hell at sites where Telemeter was experimented, plus image transmission made features look lousy as TV was accused of being. Theatre television meanwhile died for equipment too expensive and again, an image impossible to watch, let alone enjoy. For sure The Frogmen looked wonderful beside this. Hollywood need would not be answered by pipe-dreaming like this. Dore Schary of MGM admitted that studio overhead, grotesque as it was ingrained, would continue so long as the Lion could turn out uniquely spectacular shows like Quo Vadis and King Solomon’s Mines to let patrons know that there was nothing like mainstream Hollywood to give what television could not, and probably never would. Schary conceded that it was big ones that covered loss from little ones (like Angels in the Outfield), but that little ones were essential to absorb overhead that was unyielding. Weight of latter would shrink in-house production for many majors and oblige them to rent facilities to independent firms. Warners went this route after failure to hold spending at one million per feature or below. For outside bulk buyers, a best bargain Hollywood offered was old negatives to reprint and sell for insatiable appetite that was television. Such windfall was more than studios could resist. Maybe LIFE was right as to Hollywood whistling through graveyards, their own it seemed for finding highest profit through sale of precious libraries.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Watch List for 1/29/2024


Watched: The Cyclops, Law of the Underworld, The Band Plays On, Warlock, and Before Dawn

THE CYCLOPS (1957) --- Who'd have dreamed a sci-fi junker like this would so rivet generations after sixty, closer to seventy, years. I watch ... and again I watch ... for no sensible reason. Maybe it's contemplation of obnoxious roar the title monster issues (Paul Frees said to have devised it), or perhaps one or all of humbled names engage me: James Craig (remote on the location, said co-star Gloria Talbott --- could you blame him?), Tom Drake (the Boy Next Door now next to blown-up iguanas) ... and then there's "the Lonster." Chaney did serious work, applied himself accordingly, for likes of High Noon, Not As a Stranger, and The Defiant Ones. And then there were those, such as The Cyclops, wherein he slummed, and visibly, cork out, as it were, to play down-market parts on wobbly chalk mark. Chaney was no way diminished by half-lit performing, only question being, was it half or whole? Certain actors with a bun on were better than others sober and at full strength, Chaney notable among them. His fans like Lon unpredictable with wont to walk through prop walls, only here he's loose outdoors, very much home ground for LCJr., who loved camping and takes to hard ground like a grizzly laid out for winter rest. Chaney would have been a fun co-worker for washed-out-of-Metro Tom Drake, himself no shunner of the bottle. Gloria said close quarters with these two (in an airplane mock-up) made her tipsy just breathing their air. Drake was by 1957 working where he could and selling cars when he couldn't, still going on the MGM lot for haircuts because it was home to him. And now comes question I must ask: Is the title a misnomer? Were we to assume that plural use implies multiple Cyclops, or would a singular Cyclop also be called a Cyclops? My spell check just tripped on "Cyclop," so clearly Allied Artists was right and I am wrong, or at least misguided.

In any event, there would not have been budget to allow for Cyclopi, or Cyclop by two, or rival brother Cyclops, or even a Siamese Cyclops, one with a right eye, the other with a left. The Cyclops was produced, directed, written, and effects by Bert I. Gordon, a do-it-yourselfer to enervating effect for his audience, mostly kids who spent allowance unwisely to see his refuse. But wait, here I'm knocking The Cyclops again, when it's plain I love it. 66 minutes yields the following: Lon Chaney --- sci-fi dream girl that is Gloria Talbott, who gave marvelous interviews in latter years, most notably to genre historian Tom Weaver --- James Craig doing Clark Gable impression over a decade after he'd been ejected from Metro for the same --- Lon Chaney --- monsters that are fake beyond wildest presumption of 8mm home movie makers --- Bronson Cave location but lately vacated by John Ford and crew of The Searchers --- Lon Chaney --- a spear deftly thrown by Craig/Gable into the very eye of the Cyclops, a stunner moment omitted from some prints, and initially so from Warner Archives' DVD, but once alerted, they made effort to find, and put back, the missing frames ... now that's customer service.

LAW OF THE UNDERWORLD (1938) --- The "Law" as title-referred obliges likeable crook Chester Morris to sacrifice all for simpy lovers Ann Shirley and Richard Bond, unknowing pawns in his jewel robbing scheme. A trouble for many with the Code was its unbending rule that crime must never pay, so from first shot fired, we know Morris is doomed and no act of contrition will save him. Like Cagney, Bogart, and street-wisers in higher pay, Morris could die for a finish to dry eyes exiting theatres, but here was player and performance winning our sympathy, then frustrating same with an ending both arbitrary and unwelcome. Or maybe it's just me liking Chester Morris and deploring his facing the rope. Morris was encased in B's by the late 30's and on eve of long run as Boston Blackie, his budget-bags happily mixed ones, whither he be aviator, crime boss, whatever action occupation, he was always capable ... versatile ... enough to pull what would otherwise be commonplace vehicles to something often special or at the least entertaining. Law Of The Underworld showed up on TCM as part of a Lew Landers (director) day.

THE BAND PLAYS ON (1934) --- Wrong-side-of-track boys are redeemed by football coach Preston Foster, who sees them into college sport. An MGM programmer that takes serious the compromise made by schools valuing field wins over classroom distinction, a theme more common than we'd expect. The Band Plays On was neither first nor last to wag finger at sell-outs by coaching staff/players, an underworld always in wings to tempt athletes otherwise true to their schools. For this instance it's Robert Young and Stuart Erwin on pigskin duty, Ted Healy his usual bad influence in trying to sign Young onto pro ball, latter but quicksand so far as Hollywood thought. School sports were OK, building body and character and all that, but playing for hire smacked not only of vice (gambling, fixed games, etc.), but the worse crime of competing with motion pictures for our recreational hours. This was downfall from which steadfast movie-going boys had to be protected. Metro's trailer sold The Band Plays On as "A Comedy Drama For All Whose Hearts Are Young," which could as easily sum up three-quarters of any studio's output in 1934. The Band Plays On is entertaining, if a reel overlong. Seen on TCM.

WARLOCK (1959) --- Town tamer Henry Fonda is hired by outlaw-beset townsmen to rid the place of Tom Drake and terrorizers, of which Richard Widmark is reluctant member. An adult western of high aspiration, Warlock gets tangled in ambitious narrative, but scores A for effort of rising above genre formula. Fonda as a philosophical gunman is like repeat of his Wyatt Earp with pages more of dialogue, and Doc Holliday update in the person of Anthony Quinn makes for bromance between the two that was rare stuff in 50's westerns. Saddle-bred filmmakers competition by 1959 wasn't other filmmakers, but television producers of westerns, which were improving all the time, Gunsmoke an ongoing standout among "adult" frontier fare. Warlock could go that distance, plus more in terms of sex/violence stepped up since the war. Added advantage of Cinemascope and color added value that could not be duplicated at home. Change came on Euro wind as the 60's approached, Italian oaters redefining the genre and putting even mature work like Warlock in permanent shade. There was but The Wild Bunch to make all westerns gone before seem quaint, but some asked what all that license had gained us, and they could point to work like Warlock as exhibit A of old way being perhaps better (or at least more grown-up). Twilight Time had a Blu-Ray, out of print now.

BEFORE DAWN (1933) --- This dark house thriller-with-humor was originally to be called Death Watch, but that title didn't sound like fun, so RKO held a contest (for $50 prize) to find a new one. A right label was important, as inappropriate choice could mean death at the boxoffice, never mind merit of the movie being tendered. Before Dawn was the anemic last resort --- you could call anything that and convey no more idea as to what story was about. In this case, it's vice dick Stuart Erwin, playing more or less straight, on quest for hidden cash socked away in a could-be spook house. Horror elements are distinct --- Before Dawn should be better known for that reason --- but again, that vanilla title. Warner Oland is a sinister medico told by a patient he mercy-killed where $ is hid, plus there's Dorothy Wilson as a clairvoyant whose future-seeing is on the level and not exposed later as a hoax. In other words, fantasy aspect is upheld and we don't get rugs yanked from under as was too often case in mysteries. Pace is brisk under Irving Pichel direction. This shows up on occasion at TCM, one of those you'd not know existed until random confront by it at 2 AM, or anytime for that matter, before dawn.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Precode Picks #2


Precodes: Let Us Be Gay, Smart Money, Dark Hazard, Susan Lenox, and a Hot Lobby Card

LET US BE GAY (1930) --- Doormat duckling turns swan when wife Norma Shearer gets shaft from straying husband Rod LaRoque, this after she bore him two kids if traipsing about the house with hair ribbons and endlessly singing “I Love You, I Love You,” a treacly tune I know not the origin of. Norma really pulls out stops for opener scenes here, no make-up and believe me, Shearer without war paint was plain personified; you’d not figure her to have ever been a movie star, let alone in a position to remain one. Let Us Be Brave might have been more apt title here, as Norma yields not an inch to glamour expectation. Were fans shocked? I sort of was but admired Norma the more for stepping so far out of safe space. There’s reason why she tops among favorites. Let Us Be Gay creaks by compare with The Divorcee and fireworks it had, but I’m told a Frisco revival had lines round block from the Castro Theatre. Did they misunderstand what Let Us Be Gay was about? The source play by Rachel Crothers ran from February 1929 to December of the same year, 353 performances  at the “Little Theatre,” which was built in 1912 and seated 597. Ross Alexander starred and Warren William had a support part. One and only Robert Benchley reviewed for the old LIFE magazine: “A little better than moderately good, but nothing to go home and fling yourself on the couch over.” Shame we can’t travel back in time and view the play. Seeing the film is near as good however, the whole having been shot like on stage with a cast posed and waiting for cues. Country estate setting and life among idle rich is again a backdrop, this reliable for necessary stillness and no one getting too far afield of microphones. Best aspect of Let Us Be Gay is Shearer’s transform from dowdy to chic. Will she reconcile with errant husband she encounters at Marie Dressler’s weekend gather? Precode by calendar definition if less fun in sense of other Normas from like period, though certainly worth a look, available from Warner Archive and run on TCM in HD.

SMART MONEY (1931) and DARK HAZARD (1934) --- Taken aback by a Warner memo found in outstanding book that was Scoundrels and Spitballers, Edward G. Robinson topic of March 1935 in-house discussion: “ … there is no denying the obvious: Robinson is no longer the star he once was. The public has already decided this.” Robert Lord, who knew his creative business, wrote this. Correspondence among execs and producing staff was seldom site for tact. Lord’s note went to Wallis, whose patience with players was, like anyone’s, dictated by their standing at ticket windows. Had anyone confided to Edward G. Robinson that he was on the slide? Chances are he felt it by attitude and body language going in and out of WB’s commissary and sound stages. Any actor was hypersensitive to standing. Question from our distance is, why had the public lost interest in Eddie, if indeed they had? Two of his viewed lately give a hint, Smart Money, which came next after Little Caesar, and Dark Hazard of a few years later, presumably when the star began to slip. The two along with several others of Robinson’s precode lot have an element in common, that is him as braggart, would-be ladies’ man, self-declared winner who always lost. He’s a luckiest gambler in the world till chips go ways down in Smart Money, light confection before last reel application of ice water, tone change not unknown to then WB programmers. Nick “The Barber” Venizelos is loud, vain, and a chump for hard dames. Robinson was five foot four and a half it is said, so how to credibly get the girl? Trouble was he took onscreen falls until they got monotonous. I for one like little guys to win, at least every now and then. Writers at Warners were intent on keeping Eddie behind eight balls. Love was constantly denied him, us allowed, encouraged, to feel his characters not entitled to it.

An outside picture for Columbia, I Am the Law, gave relief, if temporary. Robinson is happily wed and prevails over criminal element, maturity meaning he won’t have to bellow or brag so much as in formative past. Dark Hazard snatches a cheery ending from jaws of yet more loss, a save for the movie I did not expect but was pleased to get. Robinson could show heart in ways he almost certainly improvised, like when greeting a race dog with hugs and kisses. We don’t want such a man, or any animal lover, to end on skids. Smart Money and Dark Hazard are taken with gaming culture in all of variations, cards, horses, dice, and yes, dogs. Betting is made fun, and I wonder if a greater enforced Code added language to discourage this. Crime skirts edges of gambling, but gunplay won’t intrude on Smart Money or Dark Hazard, risk centered instead on go broke prospect behind each deal or snake eye roll. Robinson had hard luck etched in his face. He couldn’t have gotten away from it any more than other plug ugly character men, no matter their brilliance as actors, an image fortified by Eddie’s offscreen travails, worst of these a wife who wanted a movie prince and grudgingly took a frog, worst of all letting E.G. regularly know it. He at least had a fabulous art collection to keep him warm, but even that went half to the monster spouse once he finally got shed of her. A second mate appreciated him, in fact shared his intense interest in paintings. Fans of Robinson perhaps identify with him more than with profiles labelled splendid. Imitators used to be everywhere but now are gone. I saw a video where Billy Crystal spoke to his admiration, did his Eddie voice, all to the good till it hit me that Crystal's own tribute was thirty years ago at least.

SUSAN LENOX (1931) --- Must passion come at such price as here? Promising engineer Clark Gable, full of concepts to build a better bridge, enjoys rustic cabin idyll with G. Garbo, is betrayed by her (GG not altogether at fault, as carny viper John Miljan can be persuasive). Gable falls to ruin as result, which by that I mean drunken, derelict, wandering seas-sort-of-ruin which no woman should be empowered to cause, not even Garbo at throbbing summit. What Gable as “Rodney” needed was some of Gary Cooper’s Morocco detachment, latter a preferred precode role model for boys otherwise ensnared by sirens. Greta Garbo was Metro-proposed temptation no male could resist, ideally (they thought) cast as Mata Hari in same year as Susan Lenox, but what of GG and males today? We could guess majority response to such query, not to Swedish Sphinx advantage, but might one say the same of Dietrich? Exotic travels well, or doesn’t. What lured in the thirties will not necessarily lure ninety years hence. Guys picking precode winner today, prospect for prom date anyway, would likely lean Toby Wing’s way, or as-qualified Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Gloria Stuart, pick a partner as there were plenty. Garbo suffered no matter comfort of circumstance, Susan a coddled concubine of OK older guys and even a marriage prospect (one proposes), a sounder choice than sullen and still drink-addled Gable. And where does latter come off so destroyed by any woman’s misconduct? Again the Gary Cooper parallel. These guys by their looks and carriage could get on with healing and be healed in a hurry, just for being Gable or Cooper, that after all why men in the audience cheer them and women swoon them. Audiences prefer heroes to pick up pieces quick and proceed on next jungle trek or turn of wheel that is vigor life. No brooding for my role models please.

LOBBY CARD LURE OR LURID? --- Did movies, at least promotion of them, invite rigid enforcement of the Code? Here is further evidence that yes, they did. I’ve long been of opinion that advertising was a worse bugbear than the films themselves, ads much more viewed than what played inside. Lobby cards shouted to the streets from fronts and cooperating store windows. Maybe you could avoid watching Melody Cruise in 1933, but you’d not duck same going in or out of the theatre, let alone in newspapers, looking at a magazine, passing a billboard. And don’t overlook tire covers spinning the message. Was there nudity in Melody Cruise? We might say no but tell that to a mother in 1933 as Junior peers up close at border art on the lobby card shown here. Promotion took liberties as everyone knows, but here was promise of things forbidden whatever license precodes were presumed to have. This was cootch dancers giving it all up on the midway and then covering up once ticket buyers sat down in the tent. So-called “bluenoses” need not examine evidence on screens when glance at posters told all they needed to know. Film companies could police what pressbooks printed, but who among creative showmen relied on pressbooks? More than one told me they were useless but to wrap fish, for what did far-off distributors know of hometowns and what they’d buy? Theatre ads in willing newspapers could scorch where needed, and in hard times, such heat was always needed (see a chapter devoted to such in The Art of Selling Movies). I’m surprised a crackdown did not come sooner. What then of Melody Cruise? Chances are it’s no better or bolder that whatever else RKO had up precode sleeves, proof of pudding frequent on TCM. Examine the lobby card, see the pic, and let us know if Melody Cruise in any way delivers upon extravagant border claims.
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