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Monday, October 18, 2021

A Mystery That Doesn't Cheat and Pays Off


Green For Danger (1947) is Who Done It For The Ages

Yank trades sure kept UK pics on the grill over what reads like hostile environment for imports, showmen outside art housing egging on discontent with outsider product flopping within our walls. Even most gracious Brit visitors got the ice, as here when Variety damned Green For Danger with faintest praise: "Very acceptable mystery film but hardly one that warrants giving Hollywood back to the Indians," cute at expense of what I'd call a masterpiece of whodunits, foreign or domestic. You know a mystery works when you're immersed enough in the set-up to forget there's going to be (has to be) murder within a next reel, this by way of saying the thing works well outside genre convention. Here is occasion where we really can defy guest viewers to guess the killer. Credit for that goes to writing/directing (and co-producer) Sidney Gilliat, whose name on UK credits make any a must to watch, his wit having enhanced The Lady Vanishes, Night Train To Munich, numerous others.

I've seen Green For Danger numerous times and still am surprised by the reveal. Follow closely and rewards are great, most memorably the great Alastair Sim as oddball Inspector Cockrell, a fabulous creation you could wish upon a series of thrillers over decades to follow, but regrettably this was a one and only case for Cockrell, though Sim would approximate him elsewhere. The actor, his performance, and Green For Danger itself were of such unconventional type as to put columnists to search of fresh accolades. Highest praise for the film would come from outside trade establishment like Variety protecting borders. Rave reviewing compared Green For Danger to The Thin Man and the best of Sherlock Holmes. Syndicated Billy Rose wrote that "it makes Hollywood's latest shoot-'em-ups look like pillow fights in a girl's dormitory," and called Alastair Sim a "civilized funnyman."

In fact, Sim's acerbic Cockrell was funny to extent of one's appetite for blackest of humor and character capacity to switch suddenly from apparent buffoon to sly and efficient investigator. Cockrell would see modern tribute in the person of Columbo and other sleuths habitually underestimated. Green For Danger was US-handled by Eagle-Lion, which got J. Arthur Rank leavings after Universal creamed best of his for distribution (E-L dealt twelve from Rank during 1948). Initial dates were LA saturated as second feature to E-L's Repeat Performance, while New York play at the Winter Garden yielded $16K over a first four days, unusually good for an import minus marquee lure.

What lit Gotham was rave notices from critics previewed by Eagle-Lion, the latter knowing it had strong merchandise to ride reviewer wave toward further word-of-mouth from satisfied patrons. A good enough picture could catch on thus where newspapers and radio guided movie choices, "smart" shows like Green For Danger a hook for those seeking something out of the ordinary. Airwave support was a big help, WOR running week-long contests tied to Green For Danger and conducting interviews with visiting star Leo Genn. Eagle-Lion had itself an urban hit if not one that would click in the heartland. As distribution rights reverted back to J. Arthur Rank, Green For Danger and others of his would be handled by Allied Films, Inc. for 1951 reissue. TV soon got the leavings, Green For Danger, like others of Rank origin, an early arrival to home consumption. Criterion offers a splendid DVD, and TCM has played Green For Danger occasionally in HD.

Monday, October 11, 2021

The Happy Years Are Here Again

Greenbriar today revisits a column from way back in 2007 that celebrated a time even further back from early in the twentieth century when boy's schooling was something it never would be again. 2007 text is updated with yellow-highlighted comments in part result of seeing The Happy Years again recently, a wedding of GPS old and new to also appreciate reader input from '07 that, as always, enhanced whatever I had to say with fresh info and insights. Thanks much to you readers for that.  Sometimes a good picture can be jinxed by a campaign that refuses to jell --- then there are those left at the starting post as sales personnel devote themselves to more promising stock. Everything fell apart for The Happy Years from the moment it was trade-shown on May 24, 1950. MGM had unveiled Annie Get Your Gun to showmen the day before, excitement building too for Father Of The Bride. These were leviathans that would roll over The Happy Years, and all these years later, it’s still on the canvas. We can only guess what went wrong, though trade scribes hinted at the problem. Ads covered with type and cluttered posters, said The Manager’s Round Table section of The Motion Picture Herald --- very little illustration, so you have to read to get the point. One-sheets were uninspired, as shown here, and limited to headshots of an unpresupposing cast. What exactly was Metro selling? No one seemed to get a handle on how to exploit The Happy Years. It was based on "beloved" stories that had run in The Saturday Evening Post over the last eleven years, but was Post reader familiarity enough to get back $1.3 million spent on a Technicolor period piece? These were hard enough to merchandise with stars aboard (witness The Tall Target), so how to excite patrons over a boy’s prep school at the turn of the century? The Happy Years headed double bills with another MGM forfeit, Mystery Street (loss --- $277,000). This is a grand picture and deserved better results, said one manager concluding his dispirited run of The Happy Years. Worthy shows had been dumped before and would be again, east coast Leow's sales having shrunk from a job too challenging for customary comfort. A Father Of The Bride or Annie Get Your Gun, let alone King Solomon's Mines, virtually sold themselves and saw considerable grosses, while The Happy Years withered in the heat of summer playoff to finish with an egregious $680,000 in domestic rentals, plus $179,000 foreign. Fact to face was a public indifferent to mirror upon days past that was The Happy Years, for though it dealt in exploits of adolescence, these were not adolescents to reflect experience of teens attending movies in 1950, latter by then, and by far, the dominant age group buying tickets. Let their needs be met by A Date With Judy, or something of like, current-set, time. A million-dollar loss was recorded for The Happy Years, and there would be no re-issues, other than a few bookings among MGM's Children’s Matinee series of the early seventies where it was re-titled The Adventures Of Young Dink Stover. Those who cared might have seen The Happy Years previously on television, as it had gone into syndication for Fall 1964 with 39 other post-48 Metros. The (very) few prints in circulation among collectors were either heisted from Films, Inc. or some TV station. I’ve not yet met anyone who didn’t like this picture. Occasionally there are sightings on TCM, but otherwise The Happy Years is orphaned. There’s never been a video release. Warner Archive adopted The Happy Years in 2010, a nice transfer. Amazon has it for $9.99, half what I gladly paid eleven years ago. I’ve watched interviews with Dean Stockwell in hopes it would be mentioned, more lately a sit-down he did with TCM accessible on You Tube, a good interview despite The Happy Years not coming up over its forty minute length.  

My father attended a boy’s school very much like Lawrenceville, the setting of The Happy Years. He particularly enjoyed the picture when we saw it on the old SFM Holiday Network presentation around 1981, but is there anyone left who would understand, even remotely, the student’s life he identified with? This was truly a movie for men who’d come of age near the turn of the (past) century. No one born since could comprehend, nor dramatize, that world so well. Producer Carey Wilson, born 1889, was enamoured of the project, having been a faithful reader of the Lawrenceville stories. Chances are he attended a place very much like it. Director William Wellman had been an outstanding athlete in high school, though it’s been suggested he never finished. He was born in 1896. These men brought old-world sensibility to The Happy Years. Both were fascinated by the culture of a boy’s academy. I’ve not experienced a place such as Lawrenceville, but details seem authentic. I’d like to think my father’s sojourn at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee was similar. He boarded there in the late 1910's. The night we watched The Happy Years, he surprised me by turning to say at the end, and meaningfully, "Now that was a good picture," a reaction no show had gotten from him in my memory. Maybe his own experience in The Happy Years milieu roused memory of its larger truths. It took men of a certain age to appreciate crucial distinction between gerunds and gerundives. I have been reading a compilation of letters that Raymond Chandler sent to various publishers, fellow authors, readers, etc. "Hard-boiled" Chandler spent formative school years in England, where he received classical instruction in Greek and Latin. He took great pride later for having had what he regarded as proper education, crediting this for skills doing fiction. I took Latin in high school, made a muck of it, a fact regretted the more as traditional education seems increasingly imperiled. Is Latin taught anymore ... anywhere ... let alone Greek? Distinction between gerunds and gerundives seemed odd to a point of being comical in the late 60's when I first saw The Happy Years and was failing Latin. More and more I realize, however, that the joke was on me, Raymond Chandler a useful reminder of that fact. Ever wish you could go back and re-do school the right way? I dare say my second chance might well begin with a Latin course, one taken for serious this time.  

Youthful roles for Dean Stockwell, Darryl Hickman, and Scotty Beckett were nearly exhausted when they did The Happy Years. No longer boys in a cute sense, they were deep into adolescence and complications that implied. Scotty had been arrested the year before for driving drunk. By the time The Happy Years went into production, he was twenty years old and married. The easy charm he projects in the movie was something he had plenty of in real life. It got him (barely) out of tough scrapes over a tumultuous adulthood until his luck ran out with a probable suicide (his third attempt) in 1968. Dean Stockwell was younger --- thirteen at the time The Happy Years was shot. This was his peak period, but late in the post-war day for child players to enter the game. He had the distinction of appearing in two classics released within weeks of each other --- Stars In My Crown and The Happy Years, but kid pictures of the kind MGM routinely turned out during the thirties and forties were disappearing fast, and Stockwell would only have a couple left before withdrawing for several years to wait out puberty. Darryl Hickman was gangly and well past boy parts at eighteen, had been in movies since If I Were King in 1938. He was on a TCM child star panel some years back and gave a good account of himself. I found it hard to believe someone so youthful in appearance and attitude could be seventy-five as of 2006, and is ninety today. He wrote a book that has received praise. 

Variety suggested trims. The Happy Years was leisurely and, some said, overlong. It is relaxed as to pacing, but wasn’t life itself so in vanished days depicted? I’d not vote to remove a moment of these 110 minutes. Life as idyllic in a final decade of the nineteenth century had great currency among those who wrote from point of view of a twentieth. Not many authors who latterly made names for themselves failed to unpack precious memories accumulated during youth. Even a caustic observer like H.L. Mencken let guard down to bask in joy that was his boyhood past in Baltimore. Books written in a first half of the twentieth century to meander in spent days of the nineteenth could make up a genre in themselves. Patriarch of Happy Years choice Leon Ames is on hand, his a comforting presence as is the familiar Meet Me In St. Louis house (even against a beach set matte painting). These link The Happy Years with nostalgia exercises done previous by Metro. The St. Louis house itself became a touchstone for memories kept from movies held close, a reflection of family life idealized, if not fancifully beyond what any of knew, or could ever know. Not a few found a comfort that was missing from their lives otherwise, "escape" a best and sometimes most urgent reason for attending. Films from the Classic Era understood this need, and ministered to it. Red Skelton’s Excuse My Dust of the following year would utilize the same standing sets, much of furniture seen in The Happy Years used again here.  Celebration of times past prevailed also at Fox with Cheaper By The Dozen, and Warner’s Booth Tarkington stories accommodated Doris Day’s formula for On Moonlight Bay and By The Light Of The Silvery Moon. These revolved around similar period of American history. There must have been a fifties consensus that life in the nineties was simpler (if not preferable). Will we look back on any decade of the twentieth century with as much nostalgia? For a while, it seemed the sixties would reclaim us. American Graffiti ushered in 70's longing for drive-ins and sock hops, but that era seems now like ancient history. Why would movies embrace the nineteenth century again? Might as well revisit lives of the pharaohs , and that is all a more reason to treasure The Happy Years. We are not going to get pictures the likes of this again. People who could mount them are gone and they did not leave instructions behind.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Another Crowded 30's Bill

Where The Screen Becomes A Mirror For Kansas City Watchers

How dependent were Silly Symphonies on Mickey Mouse? The latter "presented" each in main titles, as if he'd turn up in the cartoon itself. Father Noah's Ark had Technicolor plus Disney progress brought to bear (each Symphony advanced from the one before), but there was no Mickey in these. The mouse was insurance Disney took up for all of product branding. Mickey was the face on whatever bore Disney tag through years the mouse was America's most popular cartoon character. Betty Boop was a challenger, Popeye in fact unseated him, then in-house Donald Duck took a lead. For mid-1933, however, a Mickey image on ads was close as showmen got to guaranteed attendance. The Loew's Midland was a four million dollar palace built in Kansas City that seated over 3500 patrons. They got something more on this occasion than a feature with shorts. Many in fact saw themselves and neighbors in Paseo High Scholl graduation footage which was part of the theatre's customized newsreel (Paseo still thrives as an Academy Of Fine and Performing Arts). There were also highlights of the "Riverside Races," Riverside a community located just north of Kansas City. Newsreels at a venue like the Loew's Midland were very much about serving local interests. Who wouldn't attend a program where you might be the star on screen, even if glimpsed but briefly? The "Dempsey-Schmeling-Baer" triad refers to a June 8, 1933 event where Jack Dempsey promoted the heavyweight showdown between Max Schmeling and Max Baer. Add to this a Pete Smith and one of the better Todd-Pitts comedies, The Bargain Of The Century, a title which would as aptly apply to the Loew's Midland overall program that June 1933 day.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Cantor and Color Make Whoopee

 When Apostles of Pep Were Among Us

Parts of Whoopee! are really funny, as is creaky underpinning and whole show that is Eddie Cantor, 20’s conception of what clicked in comedy derived from stages, this his overall best, with two-color Technicolor poured over dance numbers by early applier Busby Berkeley. I read Richard Barrios' expert coverage in A Song in the Dark and was guided to thirteen-year-old (!) Betty Grable (Didn't they check birth certificates at Goldwyn Girl round-up?) as chorine to give voice for an opener that will transport us close as anything to Broadway as it was in 1928-29 when Whoopee! did 407 performances at the New Amsterdam on Broadway, 12/28 to 11/29. Ticket sales averaged $40K a week, stellar for legit if smaller spud beside what movies by then could realize, especially with new-arrived talkies speeding up turnstiles (The Cock-Eyed World at the Roxy drew $173,391 for its opening frame). Whatever the comparisons, Whoopee was Broadway’s top earning musical during 1928-29, so clearly there was more than just Marx Bros. getting live laughs in those days, Cantor more-so a favorite for headlining the Ziegfeld Follies. Whoopee! on disc has strongest whiff of “live” performing from vanished epoch, my “creaky” applied only in filmic sense, but even at that, Whoopee! vaults ahead of much that came out during 1930. Warner Archive's DVD seems juiced at times, unless two-color Technicolor really was able to capture blues, which I always understood it could not. A still OK disc, if not an altogether accurate one. There must be overpowering temptation to "fix" old movies where easily done so at modern transfer desks.

Cantor Cavorts as The Kid From Spain

was meeting of minds between Samuel Goldwyn and Florenz Ziegfeld, the latter eased aside by stronger will of the former. The musical-comedy was transposed more-less as was, though songs we’d like are missing, Love Me Or Leave Me less comedic than others of the score, omissions including also I Faw Down and Go Boom, while Eddie’s signature tune, Makin’ Whoopee, stayed evermore in his repertoire, as familiar perhaps to 50’s TV viewers as it had been for showgoers in 1928-29, Eddie inevitably reviving it anytime, anywhere, he was invited to perform. Part of ongoing Cantor charm was his association with silly songs, a balm to fans looking back from the 50’s to times that were simpler, and many thought, better. He truly was the “Apostle of Pep.” Colgate’s Comedy Hour used Cantor, would have continued doing so, but for health collapse that foreclosed strenuous comedy, which Eddie’s always had been. Still, the old routines could be managed so long as he stood relatively still, not the Eddie his public had known, but necessity that had to be met. He had been among first to do “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” kept on right to a point where he no longer could. There was comfort in Cantor taking a tune most saw as weird artifact (look at Bananas treatment by Sabrina), but embraced anyway, just because no one pretended it to be anything other than absurd, and besides, hadn’t the fifties given us “How Much Is That Doggy In the Window”?

A Tab Version of Whoopee Goes On Tour, "Supervised" By An Absent Eddie

Spending was demonic, a cool million when most features got done for a quarter or less of that, but Whoopee! plus Eddie Cantor was considered a surest thing around, which it was, provided you knew vaudeville and Cantor's domination of it. But 1930 was before Eddie got firm hold of radio millions (as in listeners), so his public was an urban one, as was approach to humor recognized less by hix/stix that Goldwyn/UA had to serve. Eddie sings his ribald songs, the title one lyrically tamed for tenderer stub-holding sensibilities. Reviewer of the play Robert E. Sherwood, for Life, pointed out verse as in “It’s not the chorus girl’s voice that gets her the big Rolls Royce --- It’s making whoopee!” This and spray of verbal naughties were pared, bow to provincial crowds not accustomed to Cantor’s freewheeling. Latter was among secrets of his live-performer success, for no two renditions of Whoopee were the same, Eddie following own dictates as to what to say or do on a given night. His stage commenting even on events that may have happened that very afternoon made jibes play like a late edition just on streets outside the New Amsterdam. You could, and many did, go see Whoopee multiple times to hear what Cantor lately had to say, a technique others, like Will Rogers, famously used, but Eddie’s was all the funnier by breaking often free of “book” portions, him nonconformist in addition to being funny. Outsiders got the flavor of New York and certainly Broadway from ultimate insider that was Cantor. He had been raised in Gotham (Lower East Side), took the town for his own, reflected it better than virtually anyone on any stage. If his act was at times “clubby,” well that was OK too, for Eddie was exotic in his ethnic displays, and to heck with pleasing, or even being understood by, everybody, though fortunately he was magnetic enough to pull all beneath his big tent.

Broadway was principally about parading its uniqueness, artists like Cantor never of a mind to overlap with anyone else’s approach. Look at singularity of him, Will Rogers, Jolson, W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Ed Wynn --- you’d not confuse a particle of these with the others, or anybody, question being how specialness might translate someday to movies, where please-all-and-sundry was steadfastly the rule, Broadway as one’s own playpen suddenly a place to confine rather than bask in. Cantor had to be smoothed out for widest consumption, an account well given by Henry Jenkins in his book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?. Eddie could cut loose at the Follies or Roof Garden, ad-libbing near the knuckle of permissive talk, but movies were not of mind to let him perform fully his way, a devil's bargain he recognized and resigned to. There was screen awareness of him from shorts done in a last year and released by Paramount, one reel at most of Cantor plus patter, best sampling a piece called Midnight Frolic, set at one of his Roof Garden shows, albeit Astoria-reconstructed, still close enough to seem authentic. We look at the grey image and wonder if this was as good as Eddie got, hardly a fair comparison to him doing routines when they were freshest, and before live crowds. Midnight Frolic first-ran in tandem (3/29) with The Letter, starring Jeanne Eagels, a heavy dose for which Cantor was welcome relief. To that point, film use of Cantor was a matter of tries to encourage (Kid Boots), but later to fail (Special Delivery). Both were silent features, neither made his job simpler. Eddie headlined one of the early DeForest reels where we hear him speak, also sing, stage-derived material, but how many saw this experimental bit, shown as it was in but few venues, and hardly noticed by a mainstream?

Prolific Eddie Cantor and Family

Eddie had a cameo as himself in Glorifying The American Girl, in fact an extended routine, but the feature came late in a musicals cycle and drew less attention than if it arrived sooner. A lot no doubt assumed Whoopee! was Cantor’s debut on film 
(note the movie’s exclamation point as opposed to the play which went without the !), and for extraordinary effort applied here, it might as well have been. Whoopee!'s value beyond entertaining, which it still does, is giving us Broadway in something like the flesh, pink as piglets per two-color with charm of its narrow range. Eddie Cantor would go merry way of clowning for Goldwyn, a plushest fun-maker of any lead comic during the 30's. You could wish others of the era had half so much money behind their vehicles, and besides, Eddie kept a pretty high standard by his measure, even if viewers find him today as inaccessible as, say, Joe E. Brown, but Brown was enormously popular too for a lengthy vogue, so again, maybe 30’s folk knew something we don’t. Goldwyn was generous to his star hire, a five-year pact from 1930-31, $100K per vehicle with ten percent of profits for sweetener, at rate of one feature per year. If you like Eddie, each serves fine. I looked at Palmy Days and Roman Scandals recently and laughed. Kid Millions has a wrap reel in newly christened Three-Color Technicolor that made 16mm prints a collector grail at one time … Eddie and Our Gang kids loose in a massive deco Ice Cream factory, pure Classic Era pleasure.

Cantor seems to have mastered all mediums --- recording when it was primitive and then more developed, a radio program to go the distance, received warmly on television as that newest of forms gave 
even oldest hands from vaudeville new relevance. You could say Eddie was too “hot” for the mellow tube, though circumstances softened his act by the 50’s to incorporate as much nostalgia for his and others’ past peak, recreating hoke with troupers still babies or unborn when he started out (Eddie continued “discovering” young talent, Eddie Fisher among these). Slowdown was made necessary by heart ailment that plagued Cantor from the early 50's to the end that was 1964. This gave him time to regroup and perhaps reflect, as evidenced by another memoir, Take My Life, through spirited dictation of which his stenographer and ghost assist could barely keep up. Energy was slowed, but not Eddie’s enthusiasm, still immense and particularly so when he took account of glory days and personalities he shared them with. He had a room where walls displayed them all. Mention Bill Fields or Will Rogers and he could talk a staccato blue streak. I don’t know of anyone in show business who appreciated other people’s talent as Cantor did. He never went a scorched earth route, but would spell out friend oddities which, coming from Eddie, sounded like expression of endearment. A for-instance: pal Fred Allen could never click on television because he simply disliked people, said Cantor matter of fact. Well, maybe Fred himself wouldn’t have denied that.

Had he lived longer, Eddie would undoubtedly have been a willing and enthusiastic resource for show-era researchers. Apart from entertaining, he was revered the while (a long while, virtually his entertainer lifetime) for charity work, known well for length/breadth, the March of Dimes his creation. Eddie took that idea straight to Roosevelt’s office, door of which was always open to him. Family members (grandchildren) keep Eddie alive with DVD releases (“Lost Performances”), made up of rare stuff. Admirable effort, if a steep climb to maintain visibility. You Tube is full of him, including Colgate shows, his Person To Person with Ed Murrow, much more. Warner Archive did a nice box of the Goldwyn comedies, save Whoopee! and Kid Millions, which were offered separately. Beyond Goldwyns, the Archive has Show Business, Thank Your Lucky Stars, others, while Fox on Demand offers Ali Baba Goes To Town (but check reviews, several there say it is a lousy transfer).

Monday, September 20, 2021

Where Great Art Was Carved By Hands

Above and Two Images Below, Examples of Wood Engraving from 1842

 Pen and Ink the Master Stroke

Someone’s devoted effort of a scrapbook again lights a way to understanding how movies were sold forever ago. Pen and ink as ad basis would be lost as progress of printing went hand in hand with expulsion of silent filmgoing, high contrast black and white drawings for newspaper promotion given way to photographic rendition of show folk being promoted. “Halftone” broke up an image into black dots on a white background, or white dots on a black background, these to achieve “a credible simulation of a photograph.” Where dots were small enough, they would not register to the human eye, but could be detected where the image was examined close. Reproduction in a newspaper was sufficiently poor for halftones to get by, but none flattered subjects of a so-called photo, certainly not in comparison with pen and ink, dynamism a given where the artist was capable as most were at the time. Pen and ink in hindsight seems a lost art sacrificed for no good reason. There were those who’d say as much for voiceless storytelling, that argument made and lost as amusement choice were made for a public rather than in concert with their wishes.

Pen and ink ads, seen but infrequent after the very early thirties, seem another category of lost art, or so I thought until search for P&I at You Tube found a fresh generation holding torch aloft for what might be thought a technique gone forever. These artists don’t just fan-follow, they apply and instruct, having devoted creative lives to recapture of pen and ink as preferred format of expression. I wound up taking a YT art lesson of my own, made to realize (no surprise) that pen and ink drawing is no cinch. “What I don’t know, I sure as hell can learn,” says William Holden as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch, though Pike would surely be let down by my failure to make a go of what they call “representational art.”

Here, and Samples Below, of Pen and Ink Art That Was Photo Engraved

Photoengraving enabled pen and ink to spread through magazines and newspapers during the late 1800’s, having crowded out wood engraving, a hands-on and labor-intensive process not to last beyond a turn of the century. Photoengraving wasn’t easy either. You had to draw the ad or image, then trace it onto a metal or copper plate (those seeking a cheapest way chose tin), apply wax, ink, felt-like cloth or soft pads under heavy rollers. An engraver generally took over for these steps, as they required levels of expertise and repeated application of technique that artists for the most part lacked time or inclination to master. To draw an ad seems effort enough … but what came after daunts me more. I’ll not ask to be reincarnated as a printer, let alone an engraver. Precise work that, complex and exacting from start to finish. Nothing so requires patience and an eagle eye, not even the initial creation of an image. One could as easily transfer a restaurant menu to the head of a pin. Even explanation as given by the videos confound me. Were I not so enamored of pen and ink art, I would probably give it up as a bad job, or one completely beyond me.

One thing’s sure: distance between executing an ad and seeing it published was flush with hazard, two dozen ways to see work spoiled by a careless engraver, mishap printing, art shaved off for theatre policy or to promote another show at the expense of whatever you drew for. Long as a man got paid, then no worries, for it was all tomorrow’s fish wrap, and who ever confused movie ads with art? (Me, that’s who). There’s a chapter in The Art of Selling Movies about pen and ink ads. I called it lost art then and my feeling since is more so, especially as increased number turn up in album searches and amusement sheets yellowed with time. So much precise application of infinite gradations of pencil, then “color” that was black ink as realized in newspapers before fuller color could be reproduced on pages. Black-and-white for ads made a same argument for artistic primacy as movies using the same process. You got more mood and effect from those stark contrasts than any alternative proposed, deep-etched portraiture of star favorites more dramatic than dot depictions to diminish most if not all of them. The You Tubers made pen and ink look doable, if not simple. You have but to master line shading, hatching and cross-hatching, “scribble-doodle,” contour and cross-contour, and stippling --- and from there split atoms for an encore. Anyone might learn given talent, patience, concentration, proper tools, and did I say talent? This is where I stumble, kind of like last year when I tried to take up “Pickleball,” a venture I’d recommend to anyone who’d like to recapture joy of ninth-grade P.E.

I used to draw at school … comic strips, monster heads, flip books. My desktop was briefly a mural celebrating the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, which surely our sexton regretted having to wipe over. There was then a spark for art if latent and put aside since. Real drawing is one tough nut it seems. Tricks of pen and ink are spice on essential course that is composing a face, mission I’ve accomplished but for eyes, nose, mouth, jaw, and overall shape of the head. Way to live best with yourself is not to take up drawing unless there is ability, instinctive or otherwise bred-in, to build from. My effort was applied upon John Gilbert as he appears in His Glorious Night. I know not the most basic tenets of portraiture as demonstrated by a first pencil draft, then a next done on reflection of the failed first. Pen-ink artists knew what I clearly do not, pity being they aren’t here to guide me. Does one begin by shaping the head, or doing the eyes, then setting the hair and jawline? A chicken or egg argument, and I can’t figure which is correct. Maybe it comes down to individual style, and I’ve not found mine.

Contrast Milky, Dot-Driven Halftone at Left on this Ad, and Vivid Pen-Ink Rendition
 of Emil Jannings at Lower Right

Back in elementary, there were those that took art lessons from a lady up the street from school, pupils wanting to be there but slightly more than for piano instruction also thought necessary by parents wanting to raise offspring proper. I never got the lessons thanks to predisposition to draw Batmen, werewolves, what not, though piano did claim me, if briefly, and best forgot since. An artist is born, not made. Those who illustrated for a livelihood came by it on their own initiative, so says ninety-five percent of bios I see of those who became career artists. I’m inspired by magic woven from pen and ink ... Franklin Booth, Joseph Clement Coll, Charles Dana Gibson, each aware from beginnings of what they were put on this earth to do. We could all hope to duplicate them, but such gift comes to but precious few. Just to try, even if it’s to realize you haven’t got the stuff, is help toward appreciating the remarkable skill these artists had, and what the rest of us might aspire to, or maybe just enjoy the more for realizing how easy it isn't to draw well.
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