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Monday, April 15, 2024

An 85th Anniversary Surprise Booking ...


Gone with the Wind Blew Back Last Week

A part of me is for shortening Gone with the Wind to simply Gone. And yet there are pockets that care, 116 of them showing up for a Fathom Events run this past week, my local six-plex using GWTW for one matinee (Sunday) and two evening runs (Monday, then Wednesday). Admission was $10, which means they collected $1160 total. That may have been more than Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire or Kung Fu Panda 4 took for comparable play. I dealt myself in for Sunday afternoon, time served one hour, as here is where audible reaction most occurs, at least that was case on distant occasions when me and audiences intersected. Back then prints were bad, good, worn, intact … one never knew. This time GWTW was digital and that translates more/less to idiot proof, so worry not of wrong ratio or faded color. This looked and sounded OK if dimmer, though I’d guess audiences by now are resigned to that. GWTW ran in a smaller room to seat 125, so Sunday’s 55 seemed a crowd. Here was chance to see what Rhett and Scarlett could do with 2024 viewership. Obviously none came on casual impulse … not to a four-hour film, most having seen GWTW I expect, never on a big screen perhaps, as was case with the lady who cuts my hair who pledged weeks ago not to miss her all-time favorite movie “as it was meant to be seen.” I had ears up for response to specific scenes well recalled for how each played a half-century back. Would they go same directions again? Answer was yes, with a few surprising no’s.

Gone with the Wind
was pondered last at Greenbriar in 2010. Many comments were posted, these worth a latter look after fourteen years elapsed. I tried this time to put myself in the place of today-folk watching a 1939 release. Were any there who had never seen GWTW? If so, they were in for something unlike all that is modern filmmaking, and more so, storytelling. Is any current film so heavily scored? I’d like to think someone among the uninitiated might “discover” the music and want more of same sort, or is that too wishful thinking? Love for lush accompany might be too high a hill for anyone young (even old) to climb, for didn’t movies abandon classical/romantic models by the sixties, certainly the seventies? I felt keenly Wind's age when Thomas Mitchell did his Tara speech and the camera rolled back for a majesty take. When was this sort of thing last attempted? Gone with the Wind defines narrative-driven, bearing in mind this isn’t something moderns necessarily want, so does GWTW suffer for its discipline and careful construction? Characters are dense and piled high. Could you scroll, text, as so many do, and still keep up? Lots insist a movie permit all this, which may be why coherence matters so much less now. No film today is remotely like Gone with the Wind, whereas on 1967-68 occasion for a major reissue, there were still features that harked back, at least tentatively, to the epic original. Imitators stepped boldly forward just ten years before, Raintree County and lately mentioned Band of Angels. I wasn’t nervous watching GWTW for not being responsible for how it would be received, my days for bringing anything vintage before current watchers happily and mercifully passed.

Gone with the Wind
was for years a gateway drug to old film addiction. Exposure enough, repeated enough, made a rest of the Classic Era simpler to access, easier to enjoy. How possible was it to sit a civilian down for black-and-white recital by faces all of which were unfamiliar? During the sixties-seventies at least, more people saw GWTW than any way-past title save The Wizard of Oz, opportunity arising to widen their acquaintance with at least the four principals from Wind: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, and Olivia DeHavilland. Gable as lure brought groups of sorority girls to my 1975 collegiate run of Honky Tonk, all of them there for knowing him as Rhett Butler. My sister long ago sat through televised Intermezzo with me after recognizing Leslie Howard, and how many tolerated Errol Flynn pictures I showed at school for familiar face Olivia DeHavilland showing up in them? Clark Gable acknowledged in later years that Gone with the Wind was what primarily kept his name alive and enabled public forgiveness for weaker movies he had done. Ever asked someone who liked GWTW if they’d seen anything else with one of its stars? Had they not, chances are they might be willing to. Wish I could have polled Wind’s exiting audience last week, me as modern-day Johnny Grant with Rock, Pretty Baby’s crowd. As it is, my stay was less than whole of runtime, truth of matter being I’m hard pressed to sit among an audience that long. Comfort of home has become too comfortable. When Blu-Ray looks hands down better than anything they can project upon public screens … well, that’s progress of a sort I suppose, but are we richer for it? Me for the door once data was gathered.

Query to all: Was Gone with the Wind the only Clark Gable starring feature where he did not end up with the girl? Did Leslie Howard really sacrifice himself so the Germans would not realize the Brits had broken their code? Had Vivien Leigh’s bipolar condition become a handicap by the time she played Scarlett, and if not then, when? I knew a collector named Herb Bridges who lived in Atlanta and had the largest GWTW stash of anyone under one roof. We visited him once and I got to hold the green Paris hat that Rhett brought Scarlett. Also went to a high school basketball gym where the Scarlett portrait hung, and you could still see a dent where Rhett threw his glass against it. Pleased to report 2024’s audience laughed at same spots they had before, the biggest when Aunt Pitty fainted at the bazaar, a most appreciative when Rhett says “And you, Mrs. Hamilton, I know just how much that meant to you.” Suppose Selznick penned that line? It could have been any of a dozen credited, or not, scribes. Either way, it's deathless. Most interesting and unexpected was the viewing 55’s non-reaction at Rand Brooks’ proposal to Scarlett, specifically his skipping away after her acceptance for “Mr. O’Hara, Mr. O’Hara!” Later when we’re shown a letter from the War Department informing Scarlett of Charles’ death wherein Measles is listed as the cause, audiences of my past tittered or laughed outright once eyes scrolled to the bottom, but this time, and for a first time I’ve experienced, there was stillness. Do present-day neighbors feel a greater compassion for Charles Hamilton than crueler counterparts I grew up among? What a difference fifty years makes. Ann recalls patronage stood up the street and around our local bank’s corner to see a Sunday matinee for Gone with the Wind at the Liberty in 1972. Comparing this with the 55 I saw it with seems a considerable drop down, but saints be praised for mere fact Gone with the Wind was shown theatrically, it among oldies I’d least expect to turn up in this or any present year.

Monday, April 08, 2024

Stills That Speak #4


STS: John Barrymore as Richard, Sister Ethel, Handsy Gable, plus Bogie and Flynn

JOHN BARRYMORE DOING SHAKESPEARE --- The Show of Shows hindsights as woofing dog among studio revues, lice upon 1929 schedules, but wanted by a public curious to hear and not just see stars. Barrymore among these was known for declamation of Bard words (re stage triumph as Hamlet), so who was more an object of aural yearning? He parts a curtain in formal attire to announce recital as Richard III that we’ll experience just like it was Broadway and we paid four dollars and up for a seat. This was heady prospect, as it conferred bragging rights for all bearing witness to Barrymore with his voice. He was great before as romantic lead for Warners, but those were silent, and here was art as opposed to artifice of before. Jack in his intro makes prospect of sound ... sound fun, quipping about Richard killing on a scale like “Al Caponie,” name mispronounced by JB to humor effect. The slot goes seven minutes, enough of Shakespeare for most palates, a rendition of Richard fit snugly on vaudeville terms. In fact, WB could have released the Barrymore segment as one of their “Vitaphone Varieties,” one-reel an ideal host to Shakespeare’s great enactor. Jack gives it the whole hog ---- not sure how his Richard would play to modern standards, but for JB of former Jekyll-Hyde and future Svengali, it does nicely. Barrymore never had it so good as in 1929. He was happy-married to Dolores Costello, made buckets of money off Warners and independent vehicles for United Artists, plus there was a mansion lately secured which was but few mile drive from WB stages where he for most part toiled. If but Jack could tame substance demons, but his oyster was one from which he spat out all of pearls. As for Show of Show’s forecast of more “serious” performing by Barrymore, there was a Hamlet screen-test to come, not for WB, but in color, a surviving glimpse to what might have been (but who, or how many, would have paid ways in to watch it?). What we’d get of Barrymore doing Shakespeare was recordings, radio, parts in and of movies (1936 Romeo and Juliet support, deeper in decline but still effective). His Show of Shows segment is on You Tube.

ETHEL GOT OLD BUT ONLY ON SCREENS --- I always figured Ethel Barrymore for crone support in things like The Spiral Staircase, Portrait of Jennie, and Deadline USA, but wow, look at her in youth. They say she was a stage world’s most stunning, and a best of actresses in the bargain, that last in evidence of work for movies, Ethel getting gravy both stage and screen offered via perform through apex eras of both. She even did vaudeville after anoint as First Lady of legit, but being pragmatic and liking money, she took a playlet on the road and got richer in variety than she or anyone could hope for staying with prestige work. There are plenty anecdotes of Ethel being plain-folks and appreciative of what made a good dog act, never too stuck up to be her vaude self midst down market artists higher up in mass estimation than Broadway dwellers could ever hope to be. Ethel wrote a book, she pretty much had to for everyone expecting it … in fact, there were several tomes, her nothing if not beloved for wise old women she’d essay for films. Watch Ethel with Bogey/Bogie in Deadline USA and see how he defers in long dialogue they share. Surely the by-comparison neophyte thrilled to having dialogue (lots) with what must have been an acting idol from his youth. Audiences unto the fifties (Deadline USA was 1952) could appreciate old-timer encores where it was plain here was their twilight and they'd not sustain much longer. Not only great personages from vanished stage, but also faces weathered but still recognizable from dawn of movies, like a Francis X. Bushman peeping from behind near-extra ranks. So the public had a short memory? Not where those they loved most mattered still, Ethel Barrymore as good an instance of this as any.

MIND THOSE HANDS, GABLE --- I read where the King got $300K for doing Band of Angels. Talk about toil for strictly cash. He flew east for locations, but most of 125 minutes stank of sound stages. Band of Angels is bad and good after spectacular fashion, mostly bad. It was figured to evoke Gone With the Wind, and so was Raintree County of soon arrival, but Gable as former slave trader and rake of the seas was even more distant memory than Rhett Butler’s for blockade runner days. I chased Band of Angels along syndicated route just to watch, more hear, Gable speeches that run on, but what verve he gives them. Would have been great to see him head-to-head with Tracy for Inherit the Wind and let Fredric March stay home. The movie would certainly have been less a slam dunk given that casting, as we’d maybe root as much if not more for CG to score for God and make Wind less a stacked deck (imagine those Boom Town buddies together again). Gable was fine at sustained speaking, Command Decision proof to that. He liked Angels' Yvonne DeCarlo for her salty language and dirty jokes. If any film must be a “Guilty Pleasure,” let it be this. Seen the trailer for Band of Angels? The King and Yvonne being directed by Raoul Walsh take a break when Gable “notices” us looking in. He narrates from there and three minutes’ delight ensues, Band of Angels labelled “daringly unusual, boldly presented, its passions primitive,” so say Gable. Remember, this is 1958, when movies had presumably got beyond melodramas of oldest school. Not Band of Angels! There’s even Ray Teal as a mustache-twirling flesh auctioneer, and that’s before Gable enters the show. Aspects of the story are numbingly foolish, Band of Angels based on a best-seller by Robert Penn Warren, who surely did not vet treatment Warners gave it. There’d be profit from $3.9 million in worldwide rentals, not a lot, but as much perhaps as Band of Angels deserved. The still splayed here has CG bear paws mighty close to where they never went in MGM days, but this being 1958 and dawn upon Code undermine, such publicity might come as no surprise.

HITTING IT OFF FOR REAL OR JUST PRETEND? --- This is the only image I have seen of Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn together offscreen. Costumes indicate Passage to Marseille meets Uncertain Glory. The two seem affable. We’re told that Bogart and Flynn did not socialize. What could they have had in common, apart from both working at Warner Bros.? Common ground for WB oarsmen would be shared grouse toward management. Bogart probably knew that Flynn was at this point earning more. HB was lately off Casablanca, which earned hugely and won “Best Picture” besides. Flynn meanwhile was happy to be free of legal shackles, a possible active sentence no longer looming. His acquittal was handicap to heroic image burnished since stardom conferred by Captain Blood, but 1944 saw changed attitudes re rectitude players were expected to maintain, Errol’s misconduct a plus for many who felt that with a war on, we'd choose get-it-done if flawed role models more than boyish scouts preferred before. The trial in fact was a spike for Flynn’s career, just as Casablanca and then Bacall would be for Bogart. You could say both men sat here at a summit. They sure look mutually pleased with selves. Errol if he notices has maybe one puff left on the fag he’s holding. Otherwise a burnt fingertip beckons. I’m always surprised when Bogie isn’t holding a cigarette. He didn’t put them down even when posing for stills and publicity (smokes part of his persona after all). Chances are there's a cig in HB's right hand we don’t see. Did either actor consider quitting, even for a moment? Too few counseled that in the forties, but habit users aged quicker than ones without the habit. Look at poor Bette Davis. Best takeaway here is Bogart and Flynn seeming to enjoy one another’s company, and to me it looks genuine, or maybe they were better actors than even us dedicated fans realize.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Poe, Are You Avenged?


Among the One-Hundred: The Black Cat and Other Poetics

Ask anyone to recall who was the first nineteenth-century author to come to their attention and I bet most would answer Edgar Allan Poe. That certainly was the case for me. “Poe” as product promised the best, whether it be The Haunted Palace or The Masque of the Red Death at the theatre, or The Black Cat and The Raven on television at home. The fact few were strict adaptations would not matter, each having pledged to “capture the spirit of Poe,” all benefiting from pedigree the long-deceased author suggested. I seldom heard of Poe at school and have no memory of being taught him. Readings indicate the academic community ignored Poe and perhaps still do. He has apparently had more civilian admirers than professorial ones. Given choice as to one's own written legacy, wouldn’t most want the same? Seems Poe touches deepest those who seek literature not for its being endorsed by appointed authorities, but by making meaning for millions who have identified not just with Poe stories and poems, but with Poe himself. Doctor Who did a fantasy episode where Van Gogh somehow transports to the present day and is assured that he was and remains the greatest artist who ever lived. What if Edgar Allan Poe came back? Think how fans would seek him out to rain plaudits. We wish that could happen for the way this poor man suffered over a too-brief forty years (1809-1849). Not sure anyone could have helped even if they had been there and willing, as Poe was often as not his own worst enemy, and possibly that is what lures us most to him, Poe close as American letters got to an “anti-author,” so often opposing standards rigidly applied. To an era that preferred gentility, he brought kerosene. Even if Poe showed up a hundred years later, I’m not sure he would have got invites, let alone tenure, at institutions of learning.

I was drawn to Poe because he could raise the dead, gothic horror more my meat than dinosaurs or outer space. The author is, was, always, noted for scares even though most of his work went other directions. How he died (well, how did he die?) was mystery never to be solved. Darker-pitch admirers spent lives to unraveling the why, maybe the who, responsible. Mystery of Poe passing is so baffling as to suggest true deviltry at work, as in did Poe swap his soul for literary genius? Getting/watching the new Blu-ray of All That Money Can Buy started me speculating, not for a first time, if men, women too, sold themselves to Satan once upon past centuries, the more a possibility as I noted Mr. Scratch making his unholy bargain with Jabez Stone circa 1840’s, peak period of Poe, and culminating near time he exited … or was taken. Poe came across as tormented enough to barter anything for peace, or trading for capacity to pen spookier than then-spookiest stories. Suppose the devil took him for sake of a more apropoe
 curtain? Time and setting of then seems more likely for devils to be afoot and among us, but would that be less a case now? How many of us would yield without even being aware of it? Maybe reading and watching too much Edgar Allan Poe would get the job done, or binging on The Walking Dead, few realizing what damnation lays in literary, televised, or Internet wait. If any successor scribe made similar bargain, it probably was H.P. Lovecraft, his stuff sickly enough to make Poe a Dr. Suess by comparison.

Poe deliberately kept himself at distance, at least from those he didn’t much like. Don’t we all? He described one more/less enemy as “the most malignant and pertinacious of all fiends,” a libel I’d not pen on any donkey met so far in life, and how did Poe imagine his co-respondent (a hoped-for girlfriend) would know what “pertinacious” meant without at least a Google search? (for the record: “holding firmly to an opinion or course of action”). Proof again that to be educated in those days was to be really educated. Poe was handsome, at least in youth, could be charming, except to those he riled. One described his “gray, watery, and always dull eyes,” a mouth “not very well chiseled, nor very sweet,” a tongue “too large for his mouth,” with hands “singularly small, resembling bird claws,” reviews of Poe the person thus mixed, as was criticism he wrote of books, many acerbic enough to earn a host of detractors. Did the devil whisper in his ear to alienate so many as possible within forty short years? And yet lots called him “Eddy” and looked back on Poe as a right guy unfairly maligned. Movies from a silent start portrayed him as sympathetic, if tragic and doom-laden. Fox offered feature treatment that was The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, not an inapt title because he was loved, and by disparate women, including a child wife said to look like Linda Darnell (no, they didn’t say that in 1845, this merely to assert that Darnell was well cast, did her part nicely, and yes, I am a fan). Poe himself was John Shepperd, aka Shepperd Strudwick, whose only starring role this may have been. The 1944 release ran but 67 minutes, and was produced by Bryan Foy, known mostly for B’s. For quick pace over short stay Poe had, it isn’t bad. There too is a Fox-On-Demand DVD.

I have survived seeing The Black Cat for a first time by sixty years. Here is how long some of principal players lived past their own participation: Jacqueline Wells (Julie Bishop) --- 67 years, David Manners --- 64 years, and Lucille Lund --- 68 years. They lived to 87, 98, and 89, respectively. These people, for all of wisdom accumulated over combined lifetimes, must have been hard pressed to imagine what The Black Cat would come to mean to a fan base largely unborn during brief time they spent on a project likely unimportant to them in 1934. To be sought out by an admirer so many decades hence surely left each nonplussed, for weren’t there pursuits more constructive than long-ago venture now obscure? One could ask a bricklayer to reflect upon steps installed a half-century ago and get similar reaction. Might this sum up David Manners when tracked down in final inning that was nursing home pancakes and vain hope he’ll enjoy them unmolested? Lucille Lund worked also in westerns that stood tall with former boys now old men, some among these wondering too about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat one more quiver in her ten dollars per autograph bow, but imagine standing before this crowned head of cinema, never mind her part in The Black Cat being small and getting paid but pittance for performing it. Could Ms. Lund have forecast such annuity? As 2006 told, I wrote Jacqueline Wells a fan letter and she replied twelve years later. I realize now what a short time that seemed at such venerable age as hers. Ms. Wells aka Julie Bishop writing four pages to an utter stranger who revered her for The Black Cat and other things (many other things … see IMDB credits) meant little more to Jacqueline/Julie than tip for a waiter, bootblack, or fan long ago when she was active, but for me, this was a gift to keep giving with each re-watch of The Black Cat.

A complaint about Poe, at least among academics, was that his poetry did not fit convention, as in being easily taught.  Movie critics were as hard on The Black Cat. As so often a case, they laid sarcasm to what was not fully understood, let alone appreciated. Reviews from 1934 suggest The Black Cat was too good for at least its reviewing audience. Even among Universal horrors, this was an outlier. Experts say it was snuck through production while Carl Laemmle Sr. was visiting Europe, this under category of believing a thing because I want to believe it. Director Edgar Ulmer was a sort of Poe for life traveled over plenty rocks in the road. The Black Cat suffers, as do all Hollywood films, for being merchandise first, and art a distant second. Why isn’t literature in such category? They were printed and sold too, with expectation of earning revenue. Poe would exclaim to friends about a new story or poem that would finally put him over, prosperity right around a corner. That never happened in part because no sooner would writers write than others would steal. Poe ruminated over copyrights with Charles Dickens when a couple of times they met. Author ownership was also a burning topic of The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe. Was Fox editorializing on their own behalf as well as departed Poe's? The Black Cat is modern-set, though you’d hardly know it by a yarn so unearthly. Was credited story and screenplay man Peter Ruric channeling Poe when he dreamed up The Black Cat? --- because he surely “captured the spirit” as so many others would attempt/claim to do. Ruric is another of mystery figures who kept to his quill and shunned public notice, him writing hardboiled for “Black Mask” and whatever else covered rent. Edgar Ulmer kept too his own counsel. You could call The Black Cat plenty mysterioso just for these plus that most up front of enigmas, Bela Lugosi. I knew there was something wildly singular about The Black Cat from first encounter in 1964.

Poe as mad himself stoked fire come 1935 with The Raven’s Lugosi a crazed surgeon obsessed by works of he who a century past was adjudged by enemies to be nuts, or absinthe-sodden. Who but Bela to exemplify demented Poe? “Dr. Richard Vollin” is a genius at brain work, but doctor, heal thyself, as he’s over the full moon for Irene Ware after her dance in tribute to Poe, this to make anyone already insane the more so. Such was Lugosi’s dish, Karloff along as more/less brute assist. Did BK notice back seat he sat? The whole of Universal being a “toilet,” as he confided to co-player Ian Wolfe, may have resolved Karloff to let it go so long as checks cleared. “It’s more than a hobby” murmurs Vollin re torture instruments he basement-keeps, but honestly, what growing boy wouldn’t like an operating pit/pendulum to deal with insolent playmates? Vollin is to his credit a fun host, supplying an impressive tabletop horse race game to amuse guests. Did he rent that for the evening, or was it offshoot of his Poe collection? Ego-driven Vollin declares “I am a law unto myself,” which I guess all of us would like to be, him wading again into the OR despite having been years at research and away from scalpels. “A doctor is fascinated by death and pain,” he declares, and based on my own of-late medical experiences, I suspect he was onto something. Swapping flatteries with “Jean Thatcher” (Ware), Vollin jumps the gun by frankly declaring himself “a God with the taint of human emotion.” Lugosi never had such baroque dialogue. In fact, they are more like speeches one best hears in stupefied awe. Ever wrapped a debate with “I tear torture out of myself by torturing you”? Lovers Lester Matthews and Jean/Irene are locked in a room which in its entirety lowers to basement level, after which walls close in to crush trapped quarry, except here the crushee turns out to be … but why spoil it. Invest your own 61 minutes and know peerless, if not strictly Poe, joy that is The Raven.

Here was a conceit worth exploring: Edgar Allan Poe as a real-life solver of mysteries and to the rescue of maidenhood in distress. Thing is, all this might have happened. Again, we could hope for it to have happened. The Man With a Cloak was Metro dematasse to follow 1951  "A" helpings, careful application of $881K in negative costs to tell B/W story (or fact?) of Poe sensing sinister doings in a New York brownstone and his effort to see that habitants don’t poison elder Louis Calhern and dispossess visiting Leslie Caron. So why shouldn’t Poe do-good when not writing or being haunted by dipso desires and constant quest for elusive work? We like best authors who are proactive, at least those portrayed in movies. Joseph Cotten as Poe was a good pick, the star sort of revisiting his Gaslight character but also being sensitive Joe as in Portrait of Jennie, over-indulging Joe of The Third Man. Remarkable how deep was kit that finer actors drew from during the Classic Era. I believed in Cotten as “Dupin” and was pleased by last shot revealing him as Poe. Bios in fact reveal complexities enough to figure the author for infinite roles he could have played in a short life, The Man With a Cloak taking place in 1848, one year before Poe passing. Why not let him unmask perfidy and discover a lost will to put everyone’s life right? Poe pretty much invented the modern detective story, so let him be a real-life sleuth. Kindly tavern owner Jim Backus serves the stranger cuffo drinks throughout 80 minutes runtime for knowing latter's heart is in a right place, as do we … so who says Edgar Allan Poe was anything other than a stand-up hero? I like The Man With a Cloak and am sorry not enough of a 1952 public did, Cloak earning but $780K worldwide to ultimately lose $441K, this after MGM floated it, at least for Gotham engagement, as an art film. Few were fooled however, as you don’t feature Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Cotten, and Leslie Caron in an art movie. Leo was finding out that even best-intentioned humble ones had little chance against a daily changing, if not deteriorating, marketplace.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Ads and Oddities #5


Ad/Odds: Dick's Doughnut Party, Unholy Love, All-RKO Show, and Dream Girl

WHY NOT A DOUGHNUT PARTY? --- Merit badge to all who toss such event after fashion of Olivia DeHavilland and Dick Powell in 1938. What goes ideally with doughnuts? They may not have proposed marijuana then, but I’ll attest to pastry and cannabis as irresistible combo for potheads during a seventies usage peak … this not from personal experience (never took weed --- really). What I did hear of, and often, was classmates toking up on weekend nights, then hitting Hwy. 421 for Winston-Salem (apx. an hour’s distance) to Krispy-Kreme Doughnuts where fresh treats came out of ovens twenty-four hours daily (fun fact: Winston was site of the very first KK in 1937). Odysseys resulted from “munchies,” hunger said to result from using plant with roots in hell. I knew boys who’d boast of a dozen doughnuts per midnight sitting. My choice, being a good scout, was “Sweet Sixteen” as in white sugared snacks. I think there were 16 of them in each bag. One night in college, we were in a card game which I exited, forgetting my Sweet Sixteens. Realizing the error not two minutes later, I returned to find table occupants, each in munchies grip, with white powder on their mouths, not cocaine, but what was left of my doughnuts. Fury ensued (mine), which got me nowhere. What we needed was leaf from Olivia and Dick’s book, milk served with Sweet Sixteens rather than marijuana. Yet I wonder if doughnuts were sufficient stimulus for Olivia/Dick's merry group. Alcohol as default guest to adult parties make orange juice or milk (even “cool, fresh cider” --- unless spiked) seem tepid alternatives. Note Joan Fontaine serving Pabst Blue-Ribbon at her more grounded in reality pool gathering. I don’t think doughnuts would be compatible with beer, let alone with mixed drinks. Stars were obliged to push product of all sorts, most of which they never personally used, although I can well imagine if D. Powell or Hard To Get lead lady DeHavilland arrived early morning to the set with a big box of doughnuts, they would surely go fast, probably with coffee to energize a sleep-deprived cast and crew.

MYRNA LOY in UNHOLY LOVE? --- An “Art Cinema” might be many things, base exploitation, sex themes promised though not delivered, certainly not where Myrna Loy is the featured star. Patronage could smell rats from distance of print ads, some possibly guessing that Unholy Love was actually the 1932 Vanity Fair rebranded for mid-forties play. I was able to ID the program thanks to key art of Loy which figured into old stills from ‘32 source, Vanity Fair sold on tawdry terms by independent producer M.H. Hoffman, who presumably made the feature available on state’s rights basis, best sell figured a time-honored sex sell. Vanity Fair was based on a nineteenth-century novel somewhat saucy, updating to lend fresh possibility enhanced by risen star Myrna Loy prior to her break into major celebrity. Second feature Reckless Girls could be anything, no use guessing what. Note respectable Colonel Blimp closing out a run. Maybe receipts were low enough from that to need harder tack for recovery. “Little theatres” really found their métier in Euro imports where art and sex coalesced and made titillation seekers feel righteous paying ways in, since foreign stuff, especially Italos, got rave reviews from respectable critics and no one need be embarrassed for attending. Ads for these could be as misleading as Vanity Fair’s reincarnation as Unholy Love. A problem all major stars had was early and possibly embarrassing work returning to haunt them, especially where sold on terms like here. Nothing they could do about it of course. Reassurance for Loy came of knowing content of Vanity Fair would confer no shame, but how could she know Vanity Fair was what was hid behind Unholy Love?

RKO TRIPLE HEADER --- Got a feeling All That Money Can Buy got a same bum’s rush in-out of 1941 theatres as Citizen Kane, and later The Magnificent Ambersons. What to do, said RKO, but jam bills with stuff an audience might actually enjoy and keep Daniel Webster and his Devil in back seats. All That Money Can Buy saw eventual title change for being so obscure --- what were we selling, asked exhibitors, and no one apart from those who paid ways in could answer. Hardly a best way to peddle product understood only in exchange for admission bought, a risk fewer were willing to take. Has a public changed in that respect? All That Money Can Buy was economically made, a negative cost of $463K, took domestic rentals of $527K, foreign at $184K (being Americana a drug upon that market). Loss amounted to $53K, so RKO must have thanked fact it was cheaply produced (for an A). Fact they’d treat All That Money Can Buy largely as a B was response more to public apathy and exhibitor disinterest. Being based on “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” it would ultimately be called that, schools a fitter venue from the forties on. 16mm prints while visually good enough were incomplete, so collectors and TV watchers made do with ninety or so minutes which at least told the story, fleshed-out less though classrooms no doubt preferred it. To pair All That Money Can Buy with belated Flagg and Quirt (with songs!) made commercial sense, as comedy plus three cartoons from Disney helped make medicine go down, blood-stained hands reaching from Hell good enough ad copy for what Money could buy, even as mission of theatres was primarily to leave them laughing, as this program likely did. All That Money Can Buy is lately out from Criterion, restored and looking a best ever.

DREAM GIRL (1948) --- Another starring Betty Hutton, which means forgotten, never shown, near-inaccessible. Betty will be revived when I find dinosaur eggs in the back yard, not primary point for today however, as who's here to state the obvious? Object of interest instead is the Chicago Theatre hosting the “Hutton Hurricane” with much to make fifty, even sixty-five, cents seem a bargain, at least to us who would Dream to go back and see this Girl as seasoning upon stage lures familiar then, but like Betty Hutton, gone with shifting winds. Consider hours these entertainers pulled … start time 9AM, a last show at 10PM. From there I’d be for a sanitarium stay, but these troupers were bound for however long Dream Girl drew crowds, this ad indicating a Hold Over, so how long did artists endure upon this bill? Toni Harper was a “Girl Jazz Singer” and Chicago native who was eleven when she appeared here, later did Ed Sullivan spots seen at You Tube, retired from performing at twenty-nine, and died in 2023. Two-Ton Baker had, among other hits, “I Like Stinky Cheese,” which I will leave for others to resurrect via You Tube or ancient vinyl. Disc jockeys on stage merit mention as Dave Garroway was among them. He obviously went places. DJ’s were welcome at presentation houses for often broadcasting live from jamborees they’d narrate like a ball game, listeners encouraged to come on down and join the fun. Against so much here-and-now excitement few features could compete, the Chicago Theatre wise in loading up live acts where a movie was soft, as probably was Dream Girl, to some extent a chaser to clear seats so watchers wouldn’t camp all day for a single admission. Of course if the stage attraction was hot enough, like a hit crooner or band, there might be endurance sitters there for a twelve-hour haul. Some among these would have been plenty sick of Dream Girl after a long, long day.

Monday, March 18, 2024

More Batjacs ...


Produced by John Wayne --- Part Two

Of the Batjacs, Seven Men from Now may be an only one called canonical. Of westerns, it is close to a top of fifties heap. Extras for Seven Men from Now are lush with profiling of Budd Boeticcher, Kennedy, Gail Russell, more from the 1956 project. 2010 and thereabouts was when DVD buyers really got a money’s fillup. “Sparkhill” made these pocket documentaries. I don’t know if they are still in business, but they did a crackerjack job. Where your 78-minute feature comes with as much length again of bonuses, there is $5.99 well spent (Amazon’s current price, used discs low as $2.50). How much visual difference does Blu-Ray, let alone 4K make, unless you intend projecting your image on a coliseum wall? Between online bargains and what flea markets turn up, one could build a more than imposing DVD collection for as many dimes, though there is argument too for streaming option, where Seven Men from Now is had in HD for $3.99. Seven Men from Now once nowhere is accessible now as a commonest object. “Collectible” is quaint term by modern parlance. I thought to have hung the moon with my turned-red 16mm print of Seven Men from Now, like revealing treasure to ones my age or less I knew would not have seen it elsewhere. Where/how could they? Here was artifact exclusive to whoever had luck of discovery and pride of ownership. Open access to come was more democratic, so of course to be preferred, but what was having a Faberge egg when anyone might get cartons of them? I could exit the house today and fairly trip over Seven Men from Now.

Coming out of late seventies televised cloud courtesy CBS (a single run), The High and the Mighty seemed less high despite fond memories from 1954, not so mighty as hit status from earlier time implied. Were watchers easier to please in the fifties, or had airplane disaster films become too much more sophisticated, like air travel itself? A damaged reputation can seep into bones of anyone’s revisit, even those making any/all allowance for things vintage. The High and the Mighty, twenty-five years old when the network booked 1979 flight, seemed older and was cramped besides by square-tube the bane of post-53 product. I had focused on what was weak about High/Mighty until recent visit to discover instead fine aspects of it, easy at last to grasp what made this a historic hit for John Wayne and distributing Warner Bros. Here was first-time spectacle of modern air travel on Cinemascope/color terms, suspense of near-doom for star ensemble as seasoning. If ever there was can’t miss feeling among trade watchers and WB sales force, The High and the Mighty had it. Peril plays for me because aspects of then-aeronautics raise concern of how resource of seventy-years back can save this planeload of humanity. DVD extra said flights from Honolulu to US west coast were a longest in the world over ocean and with no landing available in case of emergency, twelve hours aboard unless you come down sudden into water like a mountain you’d slam into. Shivers me to think on it … imagine same in 1954. Did The High and the Mighty discourage commercial air travel? Can’t imagine major lines being happy, despite repeated mantra that one is safer on planes than driving an automobile. Some reassurance when you’re going down …

Spencer Tracy was supposed to do the Wayne pilot part. I’m glad he didn’t. Like name actresses who turned down spots among crowded cast, Tracy may have balked at High/Mighty not revolving around him, as John Wayne might were this not his company producing. Wayne was chief pilot aboard whatever craft he sat, let alone one flying under his own colors, off-casting his compromised “Dan Roman,” perceived failure and now underling who saw passengers, including wife and son, perish years before in a crash impliedly his fault. Roman is humble/humbled to near finish where Wayne dynamic force comes to final act rescue of his imperiled flock. Dan Roman is among Wayne’s best and quietist leads, his authority the greater for being withheld so long. Flashback of him stumbling off a doomed craft to find his child’s burning teddy bear packs expected wallop, moment reminiscent for me of Wayne as Sean Thornton in the boxing ring just after killing his opponent, or Ethan finding torn clothes of victims in The Searchers. It works splendidly in context of full-out melodrama that is The High and the Mighty. Success of latter and previous Hondo were career peaks for Wayne, both done on his terms and without crutch that was Ford or Hawks. I don’t wonder that impetus for The Alamo increased the more around this time. If Wayne could ramrod High/Mighty/Hondo, where was limit to energy/ability? Suppose anyone suggested to Wayne a reissue for The High and the Mighty after success of Airport in 1970? Guess he would have felt it too spent by then.

Some picture DVD as a dead format, but discs like these Paramount Batjacs should be cherished. We need Blu-Ray to fill properly a jumbo screen, but for television large in themselves, plain discs work fine. The High and the Mighty has a second DVD devoted to extras, one about passenger flying in the fifties with survivors of the era, many of whom had flown during the war. I was captivated. You’ll not duplicate this today for such veterans being gone. Track of the Cat was next of watches, scope and strange and largely bereft even of color by director William Wellman on experimental tour. Never mistake him for conventional. And yet coming from Wayne meant money, Robert Mitchum the star, Track of the Cat good for two million in worldwide rentals against negative cost of $1.1 million. Wayne/Fellows and later Batjac had keen commercial instinct. Track of the Cat was bleak, dark, radical almost, yet profited. William Wellman wished in hindsight he had never done it, but could late interviews really reflect his views?, the director acknowledging upheaval that had come with age, his seventies memoir which he referred to as necessary therapy entitled A Short Time for Insanity. Wellman was in fact house director for Wayne/Fellows, having signed to do six features, overall prosperity of the firm result in part of his being there and ready to pitch in not only to projects where credited, but ones needing eleventh hour help.

One limping was Ring of Fear, a circus cloak of many colors (plus Cinemascope) adjudged unreleasable until Wellman did repairs. Ring of Fear gave 1954 three rings of precisely what it wanted  … a wide screen, circus-based thrills, and of all incongruous things, Mickey Spillane, as himself, cracking a midway mystery at behest of lion wrangler Clyde Beatty, something for every-single-one it seemed. Wellman did miracles at his forge, Ring of Fear entertaining well as any such hodgepodge, and again, it was a hit, a sizeable one (finished for less than a million, and $1.8 million in profit). Besides being valued record of Beatty taming cats, not a thing to be underestimated, there is Spillane as actor, and a pleasing one. Sean McClory as a psycho killer applies acid-to-aerial ropes the bane of performing under movie big tops it seems. Wayne had grown a stock company of players, all good and seemingly liked by viewership. A number of support folk are profiled within Paramount/Batjac DVD’s. Others recommended but not here in depth are Island in the Sky, another by Wellman, and some say best of his for the company, Hondo directed by John Farrow, an outstanding Wayne western with or without 3-D. With Man in the Vault there is opportunity to observe Batjac’s second string showing what they could do with leads, a 73 minute B by definition but good at the time to absorb overhead for what had become a major-minor operation, Wayne-Fellows/Batjac being how-to for making star independence work.

Monday, March 11, 2024

A Feature Group Up from Depths


When Paramount Played with Batjac --- Part One

Call this “When DVD Was King,” or Gold Age for Discs. Guess all formats have such apex, be they laser, even cassettes of long past. CD’s still come out, though I’m not certain who buys them. DVD stunned for quality when initially arrived. First toe-in I recall was 1999 and Teenagers from Outer Space. Suddenly we knew 16mm was kaput. Now it is discs that are dinosaurs, for why buy when streaming will do? Except streaming is them deciding what you watch, and when, “physical media” the retreat we make to possession that is true. Must be merit there, for Teenagers from Outer Space still lies upon home shelf, but watch it again? There might be the rub. Old enough DVD’s breed nostalgia all their own. Folk in younger category treasure first spin of a favorite on shiny disc. To show age now is to recall VHS you once collected, hoarding laser discs plain eccentric. I dusted off a DVD from Paramount's group of John Wayne estate assets, Track of the Cat seen for a first time in a long time. Starting with voluminous extras rather than the 1954 feature, I came out of hour’s instruct with a Track/Cat masters, ready to school the world on a feature out of circulation since I was childish as in seven or eight, Track of the Cat but one of a bunch Paramount unveiled in 2010 along with others of lost lot owned by Batjac and Wayne heirs. These belonging to the star’s estate assumed myth place for being gone amidst rumor negatives rotted on inadequate storage vine, and maybe we’d not see the movies again. Remember relief when the lot came back in bulk?

John Wayne formed his independent company with a producer named Robert Fellows. Wayne-Fellows teamed with Warner Bros. for financing and distribution. Negatives after eight years would revert to Wayne, as in they’d be his and nobody else’s (Fellows bought out and gone by then). This was arrangement similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s with Paramount, eight years opportunity for partner firms to realize return from reissues and perhaps television play. Trouble with both Wayne, Hitchcock, others like them, was ill-equip to protect fragile elements once Warner, Paramount, whoever, relinquished interest. It was a same situation with Alan Ladd and his “Jaguar” group. Movie stars, directors, are folk much gifted, but not necessarily at archiving. Did John Wayne take casual attitude toward oldies the stuff of warehouse expense and limited prospect for return? Like keeping one-eye or three-legged cats you’re too kind to put down. Remember panting for return of Hondo and The High and the Mighty and nobody showing them? Both limped finally onto CBS during 1979 for new-got VHS recording. My cassettes may still be around … but here’s oddity, to this day we don’t have The High and the Mighty on Blu-Ray, or Hondo on home 3-D. It’s as though they’ve retreated again. Both stream in high-def, privilege that could be withdrawn by flick of a Paramount/Batjac pen. What age of uncertainty this still is for collectors, owners preferring we not possess for keeps, objective to charge on each occasion watched, televisions a toll booth like what I drive through in West Virginia on ways to Columbus each year. Enjoy at choice and leisure? Even if you “own” a streaming film, it can be dammed up a next day. Gather ye nuts while you may but know curtains can lower anytime.

Paramount leased whole of the Batjac properties for home release, “all or none” from what I understand, no cherry pick of Wayne ones with stray pups left in the pound. It is one thing to have Hondo with generous extras, quite another where it’s Plunder of the Sun, an average if that Glenn Ford melodrama that never had legacy so good. Being friend to underdogs, I began much as Glenn did for Mayan treasure, Plunder of the Sun him soldier-of-fortuning over Mexico locations for gold from ancient time. Almost a total was done on location, among disc bonuses a letter Ford sent from there to his beloved mother, nice human interest as narrated by Ford son Peter. There is also background explained by an archeologist who has dug ruins which was Sun backdrop for action, explaining facts they got right, or sweetened for sake of narrative. This all almost makes Plunder of the Sun a pleasure watching, one I won’t call dull, as Glenn Ford in action mode and exotic settings will sustain 81 minutes. Directing is John Farrow, minus celebrated long and traveling takes, but doing imaginative stalk through what was left of pyramids, these open to cast/crew in such way to make me wonder if Wayne himself went down to grease authorities for freest access to sacred spots. Pity plot wasn’t tighter wound, Ford and Sean McClory beating each other up to fatigue effect. There once were movies like Plunder of the Sun by the peck, and Glenn Ford seems to have been in most of them.

Trouble is, I fall asleep during one like this or another Batjac, Man in the Vault, even in close to a straight-back chair, best revive a small square of Lindt Dark Chocolate, eighty-five percent cocoa, like what comes from way south of border, this not product placement, just proposal of chocolate as safe alternative for outright speed one might otherwise take to get through sluggish shows. A Glenn Ford actioner was as safe a bet as Wayne-Fellows (precursor to Batjac) could make on formula product. To later application of same (1956) came a western, Seven Men from Now, which then seemed not markedly different from a host of like-others starring Randolph Scott, assurance against loss as what of his ever failed with paying crowds?, especially now with drive-ins at peak of playing any/all to eager parkers and eaters of meal-size concessions. In brief, Seven Men from Now and like were best in all-outdoors, being shot open air and pledged to please. What by-now Batjac did not see was classic status Seven Men from Now would achieve once auteur status adhered to director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy. Turns out this was arguably the best of whole lot Batjac licensed to Paramount, and more than worth effort to restore far-gone, but not irretrievable, elements. Seven Men from Now got most fest exposure for Boetticher and Kennedy being present to hear fresh huzzahs for long-past effort.

Herewith for the record are titles within Batjac group Paramount issued, though none save Hondo and McLintock have so far surfaced on Blu-Ray (most can be streamed in HD): Plunder of the Sun, Hondo, Ring of Fear, The High and the Mighty, Track of the Cat, Island in the Sky, Man in the Vault, Seven Men from Now, and McLintock. There were other Batjacs, some having stayed with Warners since initial release (like Blood Alley), or housed with United Artists (Escort West, China Doll). What made the Paramount group unique was rarity once they finished first-runs and retreated back to Wayne possession. Warners tried using ones they had distributed for television in the early sixties, putting Hondo, The High and the Mighty, others, into a syndicated package offered first in 1960. That did not last long, John Wayne suing to stop tube release, denied court relief, then biding time till Warner distribution deal ran out, at which point titles disappeared from local stations. Said sour experience may have resolved Wayne not to share inventory with other distributors who surely came calling afterward. Fans would not have access to most of these pictures until the CBS runs, although McLintock saw endless network play to become a most familiar of Wayne titles on TV. Others became stuff of legend and object(s) of collector quest. Seven Men from Now began showing up on dealer tables at cowboy cons, ten dollars for as wretched a transfer as man could render, but what was Seven Men from Now by the seventies-eighties but obscure object of cult interest, a “must-see” among Danny Peary selections in his Guide for the Film Fanatic, a connoisseur’s western few else were familiar with.
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