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Sunday, January 20, 2019

All-Star Undead Cast at Warners

Selling Between Two Worlds (1944) Is A Life-Or-Death Call

It's stating the obvious that folks in wartime wondered lots more about what happens to us after death. What better time, then, to remake Outward Bound, an old stage property that explored souls in transit to a next world. There had been screen adapt in 1930, not especially good then, and creaky today as old talkies can get. Between Two Worlds updates the tale to backdrop of fresh conflict, its characters blown up in the blitz and set forth together on route to Heaven or Hell, determined by conduct of each in life. The property has built-in appeal, as who doesn't wonder what afterlife's pay-off will be? Is it really so simple as good rewarded, greed/avarice punished? Between Two Worlds would have us think so. It needs no leap of faith to imagine sweet Sara Allgood en route to paradise, or likeable lunkhead George Tobias bound for same, nor do we doubt George Coulouris headed for hotter clime. Suspense, then, is left to whether attempted suicides Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker will answer for their misdeed, or if cynic idler John Garfield will burn for mere bad attitude. What if final judgment does operate so neatly as movies portray it?

"Lasting Love" was ad-tendered as theme of Between Two Worlds, a misnomer of sorts, for who had nerve to declare it was all about death? In midst of war, this could spell doom to ticket-selling. Still a majority in 1944 had to contemplate loss, movies the means by which grim thoughts could be pushed from conscious minds for a few hours at least. This may explain well as anything how Hollywood enjoyed its World War boom. Publicity for Between Two Worlds walked a slick rope by comparing the title's implied journey to hereafter with servicemen "between two worlds" of peace at home and "a place unknown to them," this illuminating a need for us to keep in closer touch with them via letters and parcels. Warners was cautious then, to conceal what Between Two Worlds was really about. Ads told everything but the truth about this attraction, a given where selling of uncertain product went, but here was a curtain drawn tight against a theme thought risky no matter how patronage might be moved by it. Brave showmen could go the more explicit route, as did management of the Newman Theatre in Kansas City, a test run for which WB and the Newman art shop prepared ads to spell out the death theme and emphasize that Between Two Worlds was “Too Eerie For Children.” Ads I found from elsewhere went safer ways, with romance and a star cast the emphasis, but these Newman samples must be admired for laying a dicey theme on the line.

Cleveland Opts for Safe Selling
"We're Headed For Heaven Or Plenty Of Trouble" says wiseacre John Garfield in promotional art, which could mean anything other than the Heaven this film is about, but on the other hand, who could complain they were misled? Studio press laid off that distinction and focused on offscreen Garfield as good-cheer ambassador for soldiers far afield. His volunteering to entertain troops got much emphasis. Had Garfield's public been served with notice of the star's compromised health? A bad heart kept him from taking up arms, but no one served so unselfishly on a homefront and at hazardous ports of call. Being primary marquee name put Garfield at center of virtually all ads, the better to conceal actual content of Between Two Worlds. An ensemble cast delivers well, this an occasion for actors to overcome type casting that dogged much of screen work, or to shade those types with richer-than-usual characterization. If less of it jells than we'd like, there are those efforts, plus novelty of the set-up. What's more arresting than a ship bound from the here to the hereafter? Between Two Worlds was profitable without being notably so. A best feature in hindsight might be the score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, reason by itself to have the Warner Archive DVD or catch Between Two Worlds next time on TCM.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Which Is The Digital Way To Go?

Can We Really Recapture Horror Of Dracula?

It is time for me to face up to Horror of Dracula as the dream from youth that cannot be realized again. Several lifelong favorites sit in that drawer. Horror is more acute because again there is effort to render a perfect one, via Warners’ Blu-Ray, and to be expected, fans are taking the knee. They want Horror of Dracula to be the experience it was when all of life was discovery, and Technicolor bled like from neck punctures. HoD is a great movie, but it can take us but so far back in time. I chased the unicorn from beginnings at collecting, this to salve hard truth of not having seen the 1958 chiller in a theatre. There were playdates missed thanks to theatres too far away, a reissue with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1965 that every house but the Liberty ran. Seeing Horror of Dracula for a first time on snowy TV is no fit way to see Horror of Dracula. Detail of this made part of three Greenbriar posts (2011) where I tried getting the monkey off my back, game again afoot what with a latest disc to parse over. When is enough enough?

Science says my eyes aren’t so acute to color values as they were forty-three years ago when I saw Horror of Dracula first in IB Tech. That was a 16mm print vibrant beyond nature or dreams. Quiver I felt on threading it won’t be surpassed by anything now or to come. Mere possession of movies was then nine-tenths of violating copyrights. My Horror of Dracula had been pinched from someplace, but I never asked where. Law abide was among first forfeit by collectors. The hot box my postman brought cost $350. The Blu-Ray is today had for $17.99. No wonder it shrinks by comparison. A thing hard got is always better appreciated. To watch the disc alongside my old print would sober me quick, but who wants rose-tint so cruelly bleached off memories? Let me tell increasingly few who will listen how much better my long-gone 16mm looked than upstart digital. So little of Tech is left for many, if not most, to believe me.

A British distributor put out Horror of Dracula in 2013, loaded with extras and a cooler palette that I associate more with British Technicolor. Of HoD prints passed through Greenbriar portals (each fully digested), there were two 16’s in IB, one a “brand new” low-fade liberated from a lab which had a longer staking scene for Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh), then 35mm bought out of a pool room from an old man who’d as soon cut you as stick a nickel in a juke box. Latter print was made up for the 1965 reissue that Seven Arts handled, had registration problems, so scratch prevailing myth of theatrical being what Horror of Dracula was/is supposed to look like (who truly knows as to that?). Some write that American prints were more saturated than British ones, which I suspect is true. IB color I’ve seen from UK labs does play cooler, less bloody reds or cobalt blues. Horror of Dracula works either way for me. Heating up hues can mean loss of contrast, plus penalty of softer detail, which I understand happened with parts of the Warner Blu-Ray. Instead of taking the yet again buying plunge, I got out the Brit Blu-Ray, watched again, and found it lovely. Lesson learned? Possibly that fault lies not in Horror of Dracula, dear Brutus, but in myself. Reflection on this makes watching an evermore rich experience I hope to repeat lots before sunlight or stakes or loose crucifixes release my restless soul.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Passing The Baton On Broadway

Barrymore Blows Kisses and Arliss Hugs Back

Two lions grazing off the Main Stem … that was George Arliss and John Barrymore as each triumphed off a newly vocal screen and tossed brocades to one another. Both were Warner artists now, or should I say artistes? --- for WB sold A/B as indistinguishable from what they had been on a live stage. In fact, Vitaphone rendered them better, and if you didn’t believe that, look at turn-away crowds and receipts it took elephants to haul off. Movies wielded a big bat now that they could talk, and so-called “legit” could like it or go fish. For Arliss and Barrymore, who after all liked to eat like the rest of us, there was gold flowing as from Midas purse. Never had board-trod yielded such wealth. And to live and work in California where a sun shone all the time and juice fairly dripped off fruit trees! To blazes with centuries-old tradition, for here was wealth Thespis dare not dream of, plus exposure to millions more than had seen them strut and fret upon a stage. Actors never had it so good, as long as they could deliver on a celluloid basis.

The date was December 1, 1929, ads for Disraeli and General Crack looming large on The New York Times’ amusement page. One was making room for the other at the Warner Bros. Theatre, where 1,360 seats cushioned Roadshow rears to see a best of what WB had to offer in newly-fangled, and ever-improving sound. Their Vitaphone was talk of the industry, patronage obliged to reserve seats if they had hope of seeing George Arliss do his Disraeli better even than over five seasons wherein he’d been the character, an on/off occurrence since 1911 and already adapted to film, albeit silent, in 1921. Those not near enough to have watched Arliss in person had heard of the actor/role melding, and what a mesmerizer it was. Harry Warner told GA frankly that WB “did not expect it to pay," that Disraeli was “expensive bait to hook people into the cinema who had never been there” (this from GA’s memoir, My Ten Years In The Studio). Was Harry thinking first of Broadway-ites disdainful of movies who might be lured now that there was sight plus sound of noted plays? Snobbery for the stage had to take a hike upon arrival, and seeming perfection, of the Vitaphone miracle. Talk about Old Man Depression --- he'd really land hard at legit addresses.

Disraeli played for two months at the Warners’ Theatre, October through November 1929, then moved to the Central Theatre to finish the year. It had left the Warners’ to make way for General Crack. Ads shown here appeared on that same NYT page dated 12/1/29. George Arliss was surrendering his Warner berth to “America’s Greatest Actor,” John Barrymore. “My engagement,” as Arliss put it, would continue at the Central. Further linkage of the two saw John Barrymore quoted re Disraeli: “Extraordinary --- delightful --- beautifully directed --- acted with exceptional skill.” All this smacked of live performing, distinction having blurred, if not erased, between that and Vitaphone. Part of Arliss success came of patrons going over and over to see him play Disraeli. He recalled in his first memoir, Up The Years From Bloomsbury, that “Nearly every member of the audience had been to the play five or six times --- some ten --- some twenty …,” this no hyperbole, for Arliss kept good account of who attended his performances, and how often they were there. Considering the 1929 film’s success and longevity, we could wonder how many repeat views it inspired, and how much that had to do with considerable profit Warners earned.

Price scale for the Warners’ Theatre was one to two dollars, by no means cheap seats. Disraeli and General Crack demanded $2 per admission, being regarded as top attractions. A significant percentage of any film’s total gross was got from New York first-runs alone. Consider $25,700 that Disraeli saw for a first full October week, then $24,637 realized by General Crack for a similar frame in December. Wall Street crashed in the middle of Disraeli’s stay, but its take was not affected, a $23.5K average through the Arliss run. Audience satisfaction witGeneral Crack must be taken on faith, the show having scattered to wind after 1929-30. Stills are plenty appetizing, as in Barrymore at constant clinching, a powder monkey and dwarf for humor assist, plus tilting with Lowell Sherman, all boosted by Technicolor spurts. What survives of General Crack are sound discs (a complete set at UCLA), and a silent version of the feature. Unfortunately, the two don’t match.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

When Rathbone Wrote A Book

Hi There Sherlock, How's Dr. Watson?

No one likes to be teased, let alone someone so accomplished as Basil Rathbone through what should have been a peak of recognition and regard. Teased, unfortunately, was the word, and Rathbone knew it. They'd stop him on streets, address him as "Sherlock," recite lines he knew too well and had grown to despise. This, then, was Basil Rathbone's reward for playing Sherlock Holmes fourteen times in films, hundreds more on radio, and finally on stage for an ill-starred revival. He couldn't evade the character for trying, even 60's TV obliged him to host SH movies he wished would go away and let him act outside the Holmes trap. I lately read Rathbone's memoir, In And Out Of Character. The book revels in his stage triumphs and other artists he befriended. What Rathbone suffered was dignity gone after a public lost sight of him as anything other than the master sleuth. He calls one chapter "Hi there, Sherlock, how's Dr. Watson?," and it's painful to read. Think of being asked that everywhere you go by fresh kids and rude adults. Rathbone had lost admiration for Holmes, part of why he wanted out in 1946. That came at a price, for Universal wanted more, as did MCA agents dangling a renewed, and richer, radio deal. The bailout did collateral damage to screen/broadcast partner Nigel Bruce, his ire not concealed (Basil's book: "my long-term friendship with Nigel Bruce suffered severe and recurring shocks").

It was understood by most, if not Rathbone, that you didn't quit Hollywood until they were ready to quit you. He got no movies between a final Holmes in 1946 and Casanova's Big Night in 1954 (voice work for Ichabod and Mr. Toad notwithstanding). Was a punishment poll taken among would-be hirers? He did a lot of television, but larger screens were foreclosed to Rathbone. Did word get ‘round that he was no team player? Unwillingness to stay with Holmes lost dollars for many beyond Bruce, each with Rathbone to blame. His book mentions MCA head Jules Stein's "acceptance of my decision," but that didn't mean Stein liked it. Rathbone got one immediate benefit for ditching Hollywood, a lead as Dr. Sloper in Broadway's The Heiress opposite Wendy Hiller. Nightly applause made a toasty fire, but what of greater number who thought of him only as Sherlock Holmes, the more so once the series began playing television in 1954? A row of Tony Awards (he won for The Heiress) could not put that perception to rout. By time Rathbone wrote memoirs in 1962, he was well sick of the character, limiting mention of Holmes to that single chapter and summing up what a burden SH had become.

Rathbone would even suggest that Holmes himself was by now a dated concept. “Could it be that our efforts somewhat resembled museum pieces?” he asked. Alfred Hitchcock had become the “prime spoofer” of such “purely synthetic hysteria,” which modern audiences could accept only as a “joke.” Re the famous Holmes play penned and played by William Gillette earlier in the century, Rathbone finding it “so ludicrously funny today that the only possible way to present it in the sixties would be to play it like The Drunkard, with Groucho Marx as Sherlock Holmes.” The fed-up actor seemed bent on seeing Holmes out for keeps, the stories “dated” and “unacceptable to an age where science has proven that science-fiction is another outdated joke (and turning out to be a most unpleasant one).” Rathbone figured the “only possible medium” for Doyle’s creation “would be a full-length Disney cartoon” (prophetic, as Disney would do just that years later with The Great Mouse Detective). History may prove Rathbone right if recent events are an indication. Our Flat Rock Playhouse here in North Carolina staged Hound Of The Baskervilles as laff-a-minute travesty on Holmes (above), while recent-in-theatres Holmes and Watson is said to represent a nadir along parody lines. May we assume that those who gag up Holmes do so because maybe they’re not skilled enough to play him straight, like Rathbone did?

Basil Rathbone regarded himself as more typed by a single character than “any other classic actor has ever been or ever will be again” (query then, in the five plus decades since In and Out Of Character was written, has any other performer been so branded, outside of television?). As to horror films he made, Rathbone mentions none. It is known that he disdained them; his only known reference to Son Of Frankenstein was to call it a “penny dreadful,” this to an interviewer who’d be sorry for bringing it up. Rathbone embraced a past era’s concept of quality work on stage and in film, which did not include B mysteries and chill-thrillers. Could he conceive that future generations would revere his Holmes, let alone Wolf Frankenstein or even The Black Sleep’s Dr. Cadman? I doubt any fan, however eloquent, could convince Rathbone, then or today, were he with us, that these merited place among his, or anyone’s, most pleasure-giving work. First editions of In and Out Of Character are quite collectible, the book reprinted at least twice, in 2004 with Rathbone on the cover as Holmes. We can guess what his reaction to that might have been.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Will It Or Won't It Crash?

Brit Cool Is Novelty Of Air Thrilled No Highway In The Sky (1951)

James Stewart is a believable science geek trying to forestall air disaster he knows will occur after quantity of hours flown. Done in the UK under Fox auspices; they sent over JS and a staff director (Henry Koster), but balance of cast is refreshingly Brit and/or Euro-flavored (Marlene Dietrich). This may be Marlene's best performance; certainly she's close as ever to mirroring herself on film. As a celebrity caught in peril aloft, Dietrich captures star need of adulation from strangers, without allowing any of them to get too close. The actress makes most of good dialogue toward something truer than mere melodrama. Absent-minded professorial Stewart doesn't overplay his part as would be case in twelve-year later Dear Brigitte (similar, but pitched to comedy). Did he low-key in deference to Brit players who were masters at that? Many here get early licks at screen prominence: Glynis Johns, Niall MacGinnes, Wilfred Hyde-White, Kenneth More. These could make any American interloper look to laurels, even Stewart at a peak of star status. The concept of tails popping off planes due to vibration are one more reason for me to go on avoiding the things, real tension maintained during mid-length of flight with principals all aboard. I'd assume Fox did No Highway In The Sky to thaw frozen funds; it regrettably lost a pile ($1.1 million) due to neg costs unusually high ($2.1 million) and starkly poor domestic rentals ($863K). It deserved lots better. No Highway In The Sky HD-plays here and there, definitely a flight worth boarding.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Gathering Up Pies Since 1927

The Battle Of The Century Still Not Won

The struggle to see all of The Battle Of The Century went a step further for me this weekend when a fellow pilgrim shared his grab off German TV, broadcast of which was but moments over before the Laurel-Hardy faithful had it spread like butter over continents less blessed. Now at last we can see The Battle Of The Century as it was re-constructed four or so years ago after a West Coast collector found a complete Reel Two once the property of Robert Youngson, who in 1957 was the first to use footage from the 1927 short comedy since … well, 1927. From its cut-down incorporation into The Golden Age Of Comedy, Youngson’s ’57 celebration of silent clowns, we of L&H bent have spent lives in quest of an entire Battle Of The Century, which has come by drips and drabs, but still is not fully complete. If you don’t care for Laurel and Hardy, or more specifically this treasure of an (almost) two-reel short, then go thy way elsewhere until these effusions blow by, for I’m among ones whose pulse verily stopped when at last I saw what time and passing miles of nitrate had so long denied.

The Hal Roach negatives were distressed already by 1957 when Youngson brought what was extant of them to editing tables he and fellow historian William K. Everson hovered over to look at what was, in most instance, new footage to both. Youngson (b. 1917) likely saw silent Laurel and Hardys when new, but fewer of them since, while for Everson (b. 1929), most silent L&H would have been a new experience, at least in prints that were intact  and presentable to a fresh audience. It was for Youngson and Everson to evaluate The Battle Of The Century and decide how much of it was worthy of inclusion in The Golden Of Comedy. Everson later recalled watching the short in negative form on a tabletop moviola. Neither he nor Youngson were impressed until the pie fight began in the second reel. Even this could be improved by tighter editing, thought Youngson, his preferred melee just over three minutes, down from twice that length as prepared by Roach artists and staff in 1927. Youngson obviously took a lot upon his own judgment here, the idea being to incorporate a highlight from The Battle Of The Century, not the whole thing. What pained fans to come was Youngson failing to preserve footage he didn’t use for The Golden Age Of Comedy in addition to that which he did. To do so would have impacted Golden Age cost, or come out of Youngson’s pocket. Whatever accommodation was reached, it seems Youngson did rescue at least Reel Two of Battle Of The Century, for it was this reel in 16mm that surfaced after his passing, and quite inadvertently.

Those tight-wound three minutes of pie toss in The Golden Age Of Comedy were an undoubted peak to Youngson’s reckoning, for he’d use them again in Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20’s, which came eight years later. Does the battle royale play better in tightened form? We can now judge, with both versions finally available. The original has inter-titles, always first to go whenever Youngson applied himself to silent artifacts. That for me affects the rhythm of all his compilations, narration no substitute for wit inherent in H.M. Walker asides. We have to assume, of course, that a 1957 audience for The Golden Age Of Comedy would not have sat for a movie they’d have to read, but if we can do so now, why not then? This was clearly a decision Youngson made from a beginning, and stuck to, throughout his career.

Eager narration prepped us for “The pie-throwing triumphant --- this is it,” a gauntlet thrown to anyone who’d suggest a better pie-fight elsewhere. Everson pointed out in his Films Of Laurel and Hardy book that there were far fewer of these than most assumed, pies thrown, he said, as punctuation to gags where they otherwise did not figure. My own impression, formed long before seeing The Battle Of The Century or its excerpt in The Golden Age Of Comedy, was of pies hurled in earnest by members of Our Gang in 1929’s Shivering Shakespeare, run on a virtual loop by Charlotte’s Channel 3 from the late 50’s onward. That pie-sling lasted two and a half minutes, and involved a crowded room full of combatants. I’d assume it was at the least a conscious reprise of a finish that had played so well in The Battle Of The Century (L&H engaged enough encore "Battles" to make the title an almost generic one for their silent comedies). Everson didn’t mention Shivering Shakespeare though, which surprised me a little when his book came out in 1967.

Most of a first reel of The Battle Of The Century was a comic prizefight, a good enough routine that Youngson and Everson didn’t much care for when they screened it in 1957. Youngson evidently did not preserve that reel and would not consult it for later Laurel-Hardy excavations. The boxing open did survive, however, subsequent rights-holder Richard Feiner using it for his mid-sixties “Laurel and Hardy Laughtoons” series, made up of silent L&H clips trimmed to approximate length of cartoons. It was a reasonable means of marketing shorts that might otherwise be problematic for TV, due to lack of dialogue. A 35mm print of the prizefight, being Reel One of The Battle Of The Century minus three and a half minutes, was discovered by Leonard Maltin in 1975 as he was preparing a comedy season for the Museum Of Modern Art. Shock wave from that put Blackhawk Films to work on an enhanced Battle that would incorporate the new-found footage plus what there was of the pie fight as edited by Robert Youngson back in 1957. 8/16mm collectors were closer to their goal, but according to Hal Roach historian Richard W. Bann, this was still only half, if that, of a complete Battle Of The Century.

Does it all matter so much? Well, no more than ongoing search for Hats Off or The Rogue Song, and those are just missing pieces of the Laurel and Hardy puzzle. There are lost manuscripts by great writers, compositions long unaccounted for by giants of classical music. Do we put these down among trivial pursuits? It becomes a matter of cultural hierarchy. Since most will tell us that a missing Mozart easily trumps any unearthed Laurel and Hardy, it boils down, as with all things, to one's own opinion. Too many still regard a dedicated interest in film as trifling waste. Most of you reading this know well what I mean. To celebrate The Battle Of The Century is to enter a margin, niche, such place as the mainstream won’t go, but who would have dreamed that 2018-19 would see a brand-new Stan and Ollie in theatres, and done on what appears to be a quite lavish scale. They’re even playing it in Winston-Salem, starting January 25, at a theatre right up the street from where I saw March Of The Wooden Soldiers in 1972. I’ll get there on foot if necessary, to observe how many others turn up to see this first-ever screen bio of Laurel and Hardy.
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