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Monday, June 17, 2024

Stuff of Comedy Turned Serious


Why Shouldn't Quiz Shows Be Crooked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2024

Ads and Oddities #6


Ad/Odds: D. Copperfield for the Liberty?, Raoul Walsh Putting On Brakes, The Lone Ranger Opens for Sears, Posing with Posters

THERE CAN’T BE MORE THAN ONE OF THESE --- Propelling memories way back, remember when Greenbriar told tale of Freddie Bartholomew slated to appear in person at the Liberty March 16, 1948? He was to act in The Hasty Heart till fate dictated otherwise, Freddie a no-show with lawsuits ensuing. I had in 2006 retrieved a newspaper ad for the event, but little else to memorialize its non-happening. Local articles addressed the legal flap, but readers were not told what damages, if any, were collected. For us to even come close to hosting a star of Freddie’s caliber was heady stuff, him no longer being a star per se less important than the fact here was David Copperfield, rather here wasn’t David Copperfield. Did we figure Freddie and handlers blew us off for being such a jerkwater stop? All we had to then, or after, was occasional cowboy names, none too proud to twirl guns on the Liberty stage. Fact is, Freddie had fallen far way by 1948, as evidenced by comparison of Captains Courageous one-sheet art circa initial release in 1937, then for a 1946 reissue lobby card. Ever see billing plummet so? But why not, for a near-generation had come of age since Freddie was a boy and horizons seemed endless. I understand there were grasping relatives who got much of what he earned, an oldest story for child stars. What Wilkes knew was that Freddie was promised and all a sudden no he wasn't. You could not blame us and Liberty management for taking it personal. Imagine embarrassment of having to refund those advance admissions. North Wilkesboro’s entrée to big-time theatre was choked in the cradle, making the collectible shown here a wistful one. Freddie Bartholomew went into television, behind-scenes, and retired from there years later. He sat for an interview in late life and seemed to have rid himself of the British accent, shed finally and altogether as David Copperfield … and The Hasty Heart.

JACKRABBIT ATTACK --- Seems Feg Murray was making merry of inside Hollywood with gloves on and off. I’m guessing a most press director Raoul Walsh had was when that hair raising hare came through his car window and launched shards enough to half-blind the actor/helmsman. For Murray to make a cartoon of it was mere show-doing business, Walsh least to complain, as what was this incident but more of each man in his time collecting one more anecdote to seize floors wherever he brought it up? Walsh for most part wore his patch after, sometimes not. He didn’t mind being photographed either way. Patchless poses chill me a little, Raoul with what looks like a dab of cotton stuck in the socket and never mind appearance past that. He was conceded toughest of tough breed that made action movies. Did he really ride with Villa, steal John Barrymore’s body out of a morgue to prank Errol Flynn? As to the latter, I much hope not. Raoul Walsh was a known tall tale teller. For him the truth was no more required than right/wrong feathers on an Indian. They’d be shot all the same and so would accuracy if interviewers asked Raoul a too specific question. In quiet moments (few), he’d reflect and maybe hint as to something that really happened, few of filmmakers so good at summing up character and personalities of folk he knew or worked with. We won’t get Walsh-types again, his kind and the kind of work he did long gone and not coming back.

LEE POWELL’S IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD --- I should be more conversant about certain serial and western names. Buck, Tim, and Hoot are known to extent by me, nowhere near degree of earlier generations, yet way ahead of what future dwellers will know. These action aces are so much dinosaur bones for all folks care today, fewer all a while to keep lamps burning, and maybe a last to have notion who Lee Powell was. Suffice to say he meant plenty when Sears and Roebuck in Bloomington, Illinois hosted him as the Lone Ranger on Wednesday, July 12th at 10:30 am, but what year? Surely late thirties, maybe early forties before Powell enlisted and went to island combat from which he never returned. Did outpour of grief follow his 1943 death? Powell was not so active as to be another Buck Jones. Nor could his passing be so keenly felt as that of Fred Thomson. Lee Powell enlisted with the Marines. Before that, he had been in westerns and some serials, most notably two where he played the Lone Ranger, these to confer what of immortality he’d get. That was plenty, because even while the serials are forgot, the Ranger as a character is still recognized by lots, and most will hear if not remember that an actor named Lee Powell was once prime enactor. The Lone Ranger serials disappeared after initial runs and missed reissue or TV exposure for decades to come. Cowboy cons ran bootleg chapters to full rooms. Boys-to-eventual men drove far to see Lee Powell be the Ranger and recapture childhood paradise that was late thirties theatergoing. Both chapterplays are readily had if on dupey terms. Reason they vanished in the first place was adapt rights expiring and Republic not spending to clear or renew them.

LET’S POSE WITH POSTERS --- There is an inscription on the back of this snapshot, from somebody to somebody, only I can’t read it and would defy anyone else to, this what I’ve always disliked about “cursive” writing. Truth is I was force-taught cursive and refused to use it at school forever after, taking the position that print where deftly applied could always be understood, and show me please one person out of a hundred who can do cursive legibly. Goal in youth was to print clearly as TV listings in the newspaper or even more ideally, pages in the TV GUIDE. Teachers sometimes got punitive for my shunning cursive. Cruel, cruel school! To topic at hand, why didn’t I pose in front of favorite posters back in the day? Given poses at Liberty entrance beside one-sheets for Brides of Dracula or Goldfinger, well … they’d be banners at Greenbriar yet, maybe passport photos or on my driving license. Photos like this turn up from time to time. Was novelty of movies such in 1922 to be backdrop (foreground!) for fans wanting to memorialize a trip to the show? The Truthful Liar looks good from a hundred years out, but I’ll guess it is lost today. What a comfy afternoon this appears, with attendee clad in simple attractive dress, a straw hat to suggest mid-Fall, perhaps early Spring. Imagine hearing from this Miss what the Great War was like on home front and what she recalled of nickelodeons. We need spectral visitors to return and explain life as it was … books and even films are just not enough. Such ghosts would not scare me if they’d be anything like this cheerful vision.

Monday, June 03, 2024

Parkland Picks with Popcorn #4


PPP: Northwest Mounted Police, Diary of a High School Bride, The Black Shield of Falworth, and Battle of the Worlds

NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE (1940) --- Try tracking this in the US. So far as I know, can’t be done. There is a rights snafu on home shores, has been for years since syndication had Northwest Mounted Police, not a best of DeMilles either way, but his first in Technicolor, and there is recommendation enough. Mine is a disc import, legitimate in place of origin, as good quality as one could hope for in a Region Two DVD. Still years since watching, Northwest Mounted Police makes up in size, cast, and color what it lacks in structure and story. DeMille had tendency to sprawl --- he would have acknowledged as much --- though oft-times a grand show grand enough will compensate for weary spots along lengthy way, in this case 126 minutes. Gary Cooper takes several reels to arrive, till then Preston Foster and Robert Preston doing mustachioed duty, trouble for me telling them apart at times. Madeleine Carroll, fairly forgot by the time Northwest Mounted Police played 50’s reissue dates, stays passive and changing bandages for Mounties brought onto sound stages she occupies rather than second-unit exteriors from which she is absent. Vexatious aspect of DeMille was keeping indoors while underlings shot big sky action, albeit ably, but wasn’t spectacle supposed to be C.B.’s especial gift? Best to bask within walls the director confines himself to, admire details he designs after Belasco model, and realize that if somehow we could go back to lavish plays of a past century, Northwest Mounted Police is what the best of them would look like. There is what makes Cecil B. DeMille unique, his concept of place and people filling it was unsurpassed. No rival settings could compete. Watch if you can some of behind-scenes shorts Paramount did to pump DeMille during the thirties. Each give glimpse of his office with decorative, and functional, props used for projects gone back to the teens, and handy still for future projects. He kept enough swords and chain mail to equip legions, often had players don apparel for a first interview. Among happiest Liberty attends for me was Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments. The sixties surely weren’t making them like that anymore.

DIARY OF A HIGH SCHOOL BRIDE (1959) --- Long since solemn vow to see this and here it finally is on You Tube, reliable rescue shelter for feature obscurities. Diary of a High School Bride makes me long for drive-in life but faintly known. Oh, but to be there when AIP was aiming these toward rain-splattered screens, transport with top down where weather wasn’t inclement, and canteen treats a roofed venue would not sell (ever have ice cream at a hardtop? Not me). Diary of a High School Bride tells it in the title … she’s seventeen and he’s twenty-four, meaning jailbait and a sap inviting an active sentence, right? Depended on state residence, not sure how California saw law, “Judy’s” parents resorting to bribery rather than badges to lure daughter away from wedded bed with “Steve.” Anita Sands and Ronald Foster are the young couple. I could not recall seeing this actress in anything before, and sure enough, she did no other feature, only TV, energy lacking on my part to root out specific episodes of My Three Sons or Hawaiian Eye. Ron Foster was spawn of TV as well, and further unknown quantity. Just more eager youngsters fed into AIP chipper and acting for virtually free. Jim/Sam spent undoubted nickels to make Diary of a High School Bride, though it brought back hefty-for-them $239K in domestic rentals, more than was realized from most horror/sci-fi the company released. High School Bride fairly celebrates cheapness, opening with our couple driving against romantic backdrop of process screens, Judy clutching her stuffed animal and apprehensive over forthcoming nightfall. This picture will not take sides, says post-title scroll, and be assured nothing exploitive will happen here. Look to ads instead for what is tawdry. One Tony Casanova, “Star of American International Records,” performs the theme plus “Say Bye Bye,” done after fashion of E. Presley. High School Bride's husband earns $40 a week and “plays house” with Judy in a “one-room flat,” says accusing parents. “At least it’s clean” replies Steve. There is a coffee shop with hipsters, lots of sunglasses, modern art, and a flamenco player. Why was I born so late? Welcome and unexpected bonus for a third act is psycho menace “Chuck” (Chris Robinson) who chases Judy all over AIP soundstages at the old Chaplin studio, this after explaining to her that his father produces there and lately made piles of dough off The Screaming Skull. Talk about meta. Chuck has plenty punishment coming, but to be electrocuted, then plunged off a roof-high platform, there was pay-off plenty severe.

THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH (1954) --- A first “deluxe,” comparatively speaking, for Tony Curtis at Universal-International, The Black Shield of Falworth meant to match MGM and their so-far spectaculars, Scaramouuche, Ivanhoe, that U could not hope to challenge other than with hope and sheer bravado. Tony’s was still a bubble-gum audience, as in grown-ups not so engaged by him as they might be with Robert Taylor or Stewart Granger. Still Shield is a game bid by all and in Cinemascope as well, economies betrayed by the wide lens it’s true, but a public knew by now to deal gentle with U-I and its beginner rank of stars. Fan mags were atwitter over Curtis back with offscreen wife Janet Leigh, borrowed from Metro, and there is Herbert Marshall to remind us that class could and often did help the humble aspire upward. Black Shield was shot on castle grounds laid years earlier for Tower of London and used forever since. I played amidst surprisingly solid structures through summer 1975 and USC’s filmmaking program where three days of each week was spent at Universal. Surely the edifice is knocked down by now --- would it be any more sacred than the Phantom stage which we know for recent rendezvous with wrecking balls? The Black Shield of Falworth has vigor to sustain 99 minutes, better still where one is happily enrolled at college of U. Remember stories told by contract talent of classes taken, in fact required, at fencing, riding, dance? We see them put to tests here, yet Tony is frequently doubled, oft by David Sharpe taking Curtis falls. Can't let the ice-cream face be banged up. Delay of even days could wreck a fragile system like Universal’s. Something so storybook as The Black Shield of Falworth reminds us that what pleased youngsters early in the century could do so as effectively in the fifties, source story handiwork of Howard Pyle, who defined the age of chivalry for moderns eager to relive an era far more a romantic fantasy than any sort of historical reality. Several import Blu-Rays are available, and all appear to be multi-region.

--- The single time Col. Forehand gave me a pressbook for a film he was not disposed to show was Battle of the Worlds. It had a lush color cover and I noted right away that Claude Rains starred. Since then (1964), Battle of the Worlds was high quest to see, but who owned it, or even ever saw it? Italian produced, Battle entered the US under “Topaz Corporation” auspices, its companion feature Atom-Age Vampire. Not sure how good distribution was for Topaz product, only that the Liberty never got further than Battle's pressbook. My interest was of course Claude Rains, so welcome came The Film Detective with its Blu-Ray, doing best as could be with elements some steps down from what went through cameras, curiosity yet satisfied by what was salvaged. Battle’s ubiquity at You Tube leads me to believe PD status attached some while back. Show is reminiscent of TV sci-fi like Rocky Jones or Space Patrol where interplanetary hoppers talked their way through galaxies, rolling about space stations on office chairs with little wheels on them. What special effects there are do not convince, but maybe I’d enjoy them less if they did. Rains is there to lend stature and earn money at undoubted behest of a wife, who had spending to do and insufficient means for doing it. Our (sole) star starts off at irascible pitch and has nowhere to go but up. By the end, we are as exhausted as him. Don’t know if Claude had crib cards around the set, but either way, he spews techy monologues like a Roman fountain. I caught him a few times rolling R’s. Did Rains figure no one would see this farrago? If so, he was nearly right. Till the Film Detective came to rescue, I never figured Battle of the Worlds would enter my universe.

Monday, May 27, 2024

The Universal-International School of Art and Life


Thought Balloon for Kid at Lower Left: OMG, It's Really Piper Laurie!

Where Stars Below Stars Still Get To Be Stars

To be a movie star at Universal-International was to be a fake movie star, said Piper Laurie, who knew from fifties sentence served alongside forever second stringers that was youth under yoke of U-I’s contract system, last of a breed declining elsewhere in the industry. Paramount had its “Golden Circle” that would not last, MGM developing talent beyond point where this could be successfully done, and Columbia … well, Columbia had John Derek. The 50’s was faint chance to be an acting hopeful, at least an actor built from the ground up, which many of U neophytes were. From truck driver to star was myth propagated there, no myth actually, as it worked for Rock Hudson, who as Roy Fitzgerald did manual work until fame whispered in his ear plus promise of time, as much as was needed, for him to season like beef on a spit and become an actor many if not most would respect. Same for Tony Curtis, who wanted to learn, yearned to improve, and did. Audie Murphy had steppingstone of war heroism to become a western favorite, all five foot six and ferocious of him. The women were attractive (had to be) and capable, increasingly so with back-bending work and constant publicity trials. Being a star was more advertising your stardom so as to confirm being a star, or soon to be a star as asserted non-stop on radio/TV stations across the land, theatre lobbies where card tables or countertops supplied surface to sign glossy stills, these and more done at ten to one ratio of time in front of cameras doing what you imagined was the job you were signed for. No one’s conception of stardom was borne out by reality of attaining it. For nearly all there was disillusion of one sort or other, but it was a living, and did beat driving trucks.

Don't Kid with Audie On or Off Screen --- He'd Soon Kill You as Look at You

I’ve been watching a lot of Universal-International lately, much of it pleasing, all of it better in hindsight than I might have expected. Thing about U-I is how humble a shop it was, few aspiring toward grandeur, none for award or prestige. Big stars came there to slum and take percentage of what down-market vehicles drew them, support supplied by junior varsity that was contract players all in a row to earn meager checks they were at least temporarily grateful to get. Many went from astounded by luck just being there to surly/restless for eighty-hour weeks and grueling travel (again, for publicity). Like quitting a lousy job to run away and join the circus, U-I big-top was surfeit of cotton candy to become indigestible. Over-exploited talent would read of actors elsewhere who made good movies and became better actors for doing so, an outcome seemingly foreclosed to Universal players. Tony Curtis was friends with Marlon Brando, shared digs with him a while, long enough to realize Brando had a real professional’s job while Tony wore bell slippers and kissed Piper Laurie, who he disliked both for being “Piper Laurie” and ruthlessly careerist as he was. Piper had complaints too, like U-I executives stopping by her lone table at the commissary to inspect meals and say she’d got too much, them acute-aware of weight she fought throughout U tenure. So were these youngsters mere meat for processing to theatres and more, drive-ins? Yes for most part, and they knew it. Wise or lucky ones got out, moved up, at least kept working, this possible for their having names, remembered less for movies they’d been in than fact they were or had once been, “movie stars,” if faux ones. To such slander I differ however, because seeing U-I hires today is to acquire regard for labor performed competent, theirs a modesty we can admire for doing as instructed and never over-doing, this pleasing contrast to souped-up products of suddenly fashionable technique that would severely date much of young folk acting in the fifties.

Best Meets Brightest, Both Knowing Who Acting's Expert Applicator Was

To modest I’ll add humble, this assured by Universal care in casting veteran back-up to insecure up-and-comers who had less experience than looks. A John McIntire or Ernest Borginine was rod up the back for Curtis or Audie, and the perceptive among neophytes knew it. Where Rock Hudson needed expertise to perform alongside, there was Charles Coburn (Has Anybody Seen My Gal) or someone as seasoned. The girls felt lucky playing opposite Tyrone Power or James Stewart when either deigned to visit Universal, memories from Piper Laurie, Julie Adams, Lori Nelson, happiest for kind/courteous Ty or Jim who treated them as pros and insisted on first name basis throughout shoots. These were examples to aspire to, cash they collected a goal, but how was that attained by one silly pirate or harem yarn after another? Universal meant formula rigidly applied. Yes, they spent and took serious a Stewart or Power property, but where top-lining Tony and Piper (four undistinguished times), there was little but hard sell of his wavy hair and her cottage cheese enabled curves. There always was promise of bigger things ahead. Mamie Van Doren lived on such promise until she realized none would be fulfilled. When peak of accomplishment was Star In the Dust co-starring John Agar, it was time for Mamie to fold and head elsewhere. U-I youth were clubby for sharing same struggles. Rock would cuss out brass, never to their faces, but co-labor admired his pluck and knew someday he’d tell Mr. Muhl what for. Meanwhile they all took lessons in horsemanship, sword play, dance, diction, you name self-improvement route. Mamie said frankly that this was where she got what amounted to a high school education. So did Tony. He’d pose for stills in cap and gown, despite not actually earning them. That’s OK, cause there were more smarts got at U-I than any public school could teach.

Rock and Piper ... Local Greenbriar Friend Married a Woman Who Was Named After Piper

I looked at Ride a Crooked Trail (1958), Audie Murphy versus Walter Matthau, Audie underplaying to Walter’s near-Fieldsian hanging judge, an all but comic read. Matthau came of Broadway and acting lab background, a bull in china shop that was U-I. Murphy meanwhile played close to vest and never let thesping show. Lack of confidence? Maybe (his character is named “Joe Maybe”), but Audie was Zen enough to let Walter knock down furniture toward being the bigger noise, settled star Murphy more amused than chagrined by attempt at theft of scenes. He had no pretense toward acting, Audie’s subdued style and characters believable the more to my inexpert reckoning and perhaps gratification of other modern viewers. Boys at Universal all did boxer movies, thus Murphy for World in My Corner (his trainer John McIntire), Jeff Chandler as Iron Man, and Tony Curtis twice (Fists and Fury, The Square Jungle). What was to dread for distaffs was banish to a Francis or Kettle picture. One or other was always in works, and no ingenue at U-I was spared them. Mamie Van Doren thought they were poison, a very definition of utility work. Add to misery was having to do publicity with the mule, sometimes go on stage with him/her, all for $260 a week Mamie drew. Was she better off as Joan Olander of plain beginnings? Mamie fought off crude advances by U-I helmsmen like Jesse Hibbs, no Vidor or Walsh, but with busier hands. What a life, but Mamie got last laughs by outliving virtually everyone she’d come in contact with.

Mamie Wonders If Jeff Will Get Fussy Again As Was Norm

Like or loathe them, the Kettles and Francis were low risk teaching auditoriums for talent, little if nothing at stake, chance of inviting scorn nil apart from just being in a Kettle/Francis. But were other parts so much better? Mamie did Yankee Pasha with Jeff Chandler, him with a “fussy, little old lady quality.” They were all fussy, of course, worrisome option tolling like chapel bells, with always a front office ringing them, or not. Few could be sure if this month might be their last month. Certainly none wanted ticket back to obscurity they came from. Little reminders shone often through the glitter. Tony Curtis was distinctly turned off Shelly Winters as she reminded him of nagging Mama back in the Bronx, but then Mama and Schwartz brood left same Bronx to move in with Tony/Bernie soon as he had it made, so back he was plunged to old life despite being now “Tony Curtis.” Everyone on contract had some past to escape, sixteen-hour workdays faint hardship beside what they had come from. Disappointments were borne stoically. Piper Laurie worked like a Trojan for a dance segment in The Golden Horde, only to find someone doubled her for the final print. She’d cope also with Mamie trying to cop center stage for numbers they shared in Ain’t Misbehavin,’ a U-I musical MGM need never have worried about. Premieres were a balm, even when they weren’t for your own movie. The Glenn Miller Story upon Grand Open drew U’s junior league and permitted fans to ogle stars of tomorrow. Attendance of course was compulsory. Who knows, maybe someday said juniors would appear in pictures big as The Glenn Miller Story. Annoyance was going on the road to pump someone else’s product, a bigger guest name at U-I maybe who couldn’t be bothered.

Being a Star Often Meant Getting Within Smelling Distance of Francis

Classy features were rare at Universal, done often as not by director Douglas Sirk, him applying grace where melodrama needed it, the helmer a magnet after profound success that was Magnificent Obsession in 1954. Sirks were where contract youngsters could shine brightest. Rock Hudson crossed his Rubicon with Magnificent Obsession, so back he’d be for more of approximate same. Nibbling round edges were others of his former category, Gregg Palmer sensitive and whispering his lines to Barbara Rush, both willing to stand down for leads that were Hudson and freelance noise Jane Wyman. Rock was a first breakout of his class and proved U-I star creation could work with luck and earnest application. Polite players they were, none tried filching scenes from their betters in command, thus William Reynolds in All That Heaven Allows or There’s Always Tomorrow never intruding upon Wyman, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, even Rock Hudson now that latter had graduated into leads. Hudson would see to that even if Universal bosses did not. Grant Williams had his moment in Written on the Wind, withdrew into wings with hopes he’d have another if fortune smiled (it would, with The Incredible Shrinking Man). Junior Mints who’d grow into Pom Poms elsewhere would look back amused at salad (or cottage cheese) days at Universal. Burt Reynolds wove U-I anecdotes into his talk show repertoire, telling how he and Clint Eastwood got the sack on a same day for equally obscure reasons. Latter had begun lowly as jet pilot putting the kibosh on Tarantula in 1955. Who among eager class dreamed Clint would go farthest of all? U-I output apart from famed ones, like the Sirks, are hard to track, let alone see proper. Kino has released oodles on Blu-Ray while others languish on You Tube as gift from fans to fans, which is how I lately saw Running Wild, exploitation that played double with Tarantula on first-runs, reason alone to seek it out, plus Mamie Van Doren doing spirited dance to Bill Haley and Comets (recorded), Running Wild another U-I ghost awaiting resurrection on disc or streaming.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Film Noir #28


Noir: Charley Varrick, The Clouded Yellow, Collateral, and Confidence Girl

CHARLEY VARRICK (1973) --- I’m indifferent to Walter Matthau in comedy but will take him all day in something like Charley Varrick, a sunlit noir directed by Don Siegel that came/went largely unnoticed (1973), in part because, as Siegel recalled, Matthau chatting with columnists knocked the film and said the script was never any good. Siegel took this hard and blamed Matthau for commercial failure of the film. I wonder if Matthau realized how effective he was in crime/chase/police thrillers (even The Laughing Policeman, a least of them, still good because of him). Charley Varrick is terse after programmers Siegel directed when being quicker on/off screens didn’t matter so much for less expectation attached to them. 1973 could not afford such indulgence as lower budget action had to be really lower budget in order to pay. I’m thinking Peter Fonda or Warren Oates as Charley Varrick might have gotten by, but then you’d need to call the movie something like "Heist Highway" or "Money to Burn." Don Siegel’s book goes into practical problems of action staging, days wasted, location locals trying to hustle more Universal money than initially bargained for, Siegel having to get tough with them plus members of the crew that slacked or misbehaved. So what was directing, even auteur directing, but plain hard labor? Siegel used familiar and welcome faces --- I spotted Bob Steele, Tom Tully, among others. Joe Don Baker is a memorable heavy, enforcing for the Mafia, and yes, it’s referred to as the Mafia (suppose wired-into-Mob Wasserman got permission?). There is a story that Charley Varrick was conceived as hard R exploitation but was toned down when Radio City Music Hall indicated willingness to play it for Easter holidays. True or mere rumor? Excellent in all ways, and much like an R in attitude if not execution, Charley Varrick should be better known, though still there is a cult and members are enthusiastic, enough so to inspire a Region Two Blu-Ray with oodles of extras, a documentary near as long as the feature. Kino also released Charley Varrick stateside.

THE CLOUDED YELLOW (1950) --- Title refers to a species of butterfly, no help in knowing what content amounts to otherwise, and it was British besides. Columbia imported The Clouded Yellow for 1952 dates, generally on back end of duallers, and there was faint help from Variety's glowing review when they caught the suspense thriller at a London screening in November 1950. “Tense manhunt murder drama … is a solid proposition for exhibitors in any situation here. It’s big prospects in America are well above average, and the pic need not be confined to the art house trade.” Marquee strength, if any, was supplied by Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard, The Clouded Yellow sold as worthy successor to Hitchcock from long back, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, both of which it does evoke. There is pastoral setting, much chasing across locations plus Liverpool cityscape. Villainy is committed and dangerous, and there are welcome Brit faces in support, Andre Morrell, Kenneth More, others. But the show would please only if patronage could be tempted inside, and Columbia wasn’t pulling stops to make that happen. Result was mere $193K in domestic rentals. Part of trouble was UK product festooning early television, including many from the Rank Corporation, which was responsible also for The Clouded Yellow. Where it can be found on DVD, generally import discs priced rather high, The Clouded Yellow both surprises and delights, nicely up there with sleepers off the Isles that have stayed asleep too long.

COLLATERAL (2004) --- I’m for giving Michael Mann possessory credit because his films are unmistakably his own. Collateral, Heat, most of others, seem to me the work of a forever forty or so year old director with another twenty years at least in him. A surprise then to find that Mann has passed eighty, so how many more lie ahead for this highest energy talent? He spoke of how a studio system would never have worked for him as it did for “guys like Howard Hawks,” this based on fact that Mann could never do a movie and “simply walk away.” Price of this posture is too few Michael Mann movies, a misfortune visited upon his acknowledged influence, Stanley Kubrick. I’m selfish enough to regret there weren’t two or three Michael Mann pictures per each of fifty years he has worked, that after fashion of … guys like Howard Hawks. It must surely be hell to organize a project these days, “these days” gone back to before a Michael Mann got started. There tends to be a couple annums at least between each of his, like was case for Kubrick. Mann features are something like events. I assume actors consent to working with him without looking at scripts. Most were never better than with him. Tom Cruise as a cold-eyed killer seems unlikely, but Mann makes it work in Collateral. The film not film was shot digital and has a look no noir street-set had to that time (2004). Mann embraced digital early and knew he could achieve effects with the format undreamed of before. Collateral on projected 4K makes L.A. a dreamscape of streets empty when you need help, crowded when you are given chase. Mann has said the look of Collateral was ruined when 35mm prints were made from his work and botched in the doing, 2004 still in transition from celluloid to pixels. Keep in mind the resistance theatres made to 86’ing of film. Now it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to go back to it. Collateral for me is as modern as something shot yesterday, but look, the show is twenty years past and counting. It mesmerizes for what Mann has done with elements. Again as with Kubrick, I figure no one interferes with him, because as also with Kubrick, Mann’s films have shown profit, being boxoffice as to content and execution. I’m just sorry we can’t have two dozen more from him, but wait, might I have said a same thing about Clint Eastwood two decades back?, and look at him since.

CONFIDENCE GIRL (1952) --- Get this: Confidence Girl earned only $150K in domestic rentals for releasing United Artists in 1952. That’s like being invisible for whatever time it was supposed to play theatres/drive-ins. Similarity of title to others may have been to blame, or Tom Conway yet again. Writing and direction was by Andrew L. Stone, his wife in close collaboration. The Stones could tell a yarn and seldom let down their audience. Confidence Girl has bunco artists leading cops a merry chase with schemes to make The Sting seem prosaic, trickery up to and including fake mind-reads by Whitney Brooke in a stolen fur and Tom starting off in pursuit of her but turning out to be her crook confederate. Enough twists to open a champagne bottle and much of it works provided we give clemency to 80 minutes of puzzle with some pieces missing plus a “conscience” end to better do without. Conway still had suavity to spare at early fifties juncture and I believed him as a Raffles always three steps ahead of law. Stone shot cheaply against 100% real-thing backdrops. Interiors play in front of windows that overlook urban streets and that’s credible plus. Always prefer these to built stages and cheap flats the bane of most independent work. Stone used department stores, precincts, nighteries … you can take Confidence Girl for documentary and have your time if not money’s worth. Amazon plays it as part of Prime reward and I rolled a seven for watching --- much better than obscurity and bare budget would suggest. The stuff you find streaming, much of which is fresh as in never knew such existed. Noir really is a bottomless well. No wonder I’ve done these so long and am still barely into the alphabet. Must say it is the obscurest ones affording the most pleasure, perhaps because they do so unexpectedly.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Watch List for 5/13/2024


Watched: The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, The Impossible Years, One of Our Spies is Missing, and The Private War of Major Benson

THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING (1955) --- I learned from IMDB that Marilyn Monroe turned down this opportunity to play Evelyn Nesbit, object of early century scandal when her husband shot and killed Evelyn's former lover in a crowded restaurant. We’ll never know excitement all this caused (happened in 1906), but plenty oldsters who attended The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing did recall the event and subsequent trial. So how many among youth cared? Not enough apparently, because Fox’s Cinemascope outlay ($1.7 million spent) lost them a million once beans were counted. Maybe it was figured the sex would sell, but in floor length dresses that were Code contained besides? Monroe likely sensed this and reasonably said no. Joan Collins plays Nesbit as a good girl steered wrong, Ray Milland the rake who deflowers her, plus Farley Granger spurned and unbalanced with a gun. The trial can’t help but play anti-climactic, and we don’t get what ultimately became of Nesbit. She copped a credit for consultation, and maybe that’s why the character skirts are so clean.

Nesbit was dynamite looking in her teenage prime, frankly more so than Collins, and radiated steam sufficient to fill a thousand headlines. Red Velvet indicates fall of grace for the fade, Nesbit reduced to degrading variety work, though fact in real-life was her having a profitable run at vaudeville, then sing/songs for clubs far flung as Havana. There is You Tube footage of her performing there in the early thirties, a spoof of torchy tunes Evelyn knew too well from life if not art. Creepy in unplugged way, here is evidence of what happens when celebrity is too long clung to. Evelyn stayed around however, excelled at ceramics, taught them successfully, died in 1967. Book and movie Ragtime dredged her up yet again, but by then, there was no more memory of Nesbit or the killing than lore from the Boer War. So long as there are Google images however, we’ll not lose sight of passions such an extraordinary looker as Evelyn Nesbit roused in Edwardian men. Just too bad Fox didn’t have an actress on hand that could rise to her level (closest? I say Debra Paget). The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing plays HD at Vudu, also at Amazon Prime. Disney will allow it on Blu-Ray when I win the Irish Sweepstakes.

THE IMPOSSIBLE YEARS (1968) --- So far as parents were concerned, the ratings system arrived not a moment too soon, but what began with promise came a cropper when likes of The Impossible Years went out "G" labeled. That stink rose from cavern of Radio City's Music Hall, where families mistook Metro's sex farce for a Christmas package with Disney-like whimsy inside. Came the complaints from mortified Moms and Dads --- if anything merited an "M" at minimum rating, it was this smutty send-up of teen groping habits and lost virginity. The adapted-from play had been a hit, written by middle-age men (one of them Groucho's son Arthur Marx) and yes, the concept was leering and smarmy as after dinner speeching at the Friar's Club. The Impossible Years wasn't alone for getting an unlikely "G": there was Dracula Has Risen From The Grave similarly rated, eyebrows aloft as well when the Monkees' Head passed for all audiences. This would suggest liberal lean on MPAA part, and that indeed was case for these first titles submitted, but outcry would tighten screws, final outcome being nanny standard applied today, where smoking a cigarette onscreen might buy you a hard "R." To that last, Christina Farrare as teen cause of travail in The Impossible Years is seen lighting up to no objection from David Niven and Lola Albright, their problems with her about to get a lot worse as story thickens.

Niven had sure hand for comedy --- who better to fall off bridge between the generations? He's a college prof here, campus setting a retro reprise of what Jerry Lewis concocted for The Nutty Professor. It surprises us, then, to see "protesters" hauling signs after comic opera fashion, The Impossible Years safely ahead of Kent State and events that make such demonstration a scary prospect. Here it's all for laughs and kids will be kids, no more serious than Elvis and pals being hauled to hoosegow for over-exuberance in Girl Happy. There's nary mention of Vietnam or social injustice or whatever occupied real-life activists at the time. The Impossible Years would tread cautiously over establishment eggshells, this after all a bid for entire family attendance, even as individual elements alarm in hindsight --- but who knew the "Bartholomew Smuts" character, a bearded party crasher with artistic pretensions, would later remind us so of Charles Manson? It took only months for The Impossible Years to hopelessly date ... in fact, it was so before cameras began rolling. Critic duty obliged me in 1968 to pen a review for our local sheet, which to my look-back surprise gave The Impossible Years a “Grade A,” noting also that the Liberty “held it over, and pricked off a day from The Pink Jungle.” I did return that week to review The Pink Jungle, but how could it hope to surpass The Impossible Years?

ONE OF OUR SPIES IS MISSING (1966) --- Time again to cry U.N.C.L.E for paying admission to a feature cobbled from TV episodes of the spy series, a deceptive art perfected by Metro after discovery that paste-ups could gross ahead of bombs they were dropping into theatres during very bad seasons that were the mid-60's. One of Our Spies is Missing was actually a fourth fake of eight the U.N.C.L.E. team spat forth, and a first to be restricted to overseas release. An initial three had grossed well, astonishingly so in foreign playdates, so that's where effort would be concentrated. One of Our Spies is Missing had been built for $108K, which was TV's two-part episode cost plus expense of added footage and reshoots for Euro theatrical. What came back was $1.7 million in offshore rentals, better money than Metro realized on any number of clucks they had in circulation. Spies is sold on DVD by Warner Archive along with the seven other U.N.C.L.E.'s, and noteworthy is fact it crops nicely to 1.85, clear being fact they framed the show for eventual theatrical use. Challenge comes of 100 minutes doggedly done on dull MGM backlot as dressed for London or Paris. Leave them face it in 1966: One of Our Spies is Missing was a cheat in any man's language. There's an outstanding article by Craig Henderson on production/release of the film in Issue # 12 of Cinema Retro.

THE PRIVATE WAR OF MAJOR BENSON (1955) --- Released mere months before Rebel Without a Cause, but what era-book-ends these make. Youth as potential adult with maturity and discipline that implies was a dream to fast vanish once JD’s and rock-roll defined teens figured now to stir trouble. The Private War of Major Benson is set at a military academy, Charlton Heston the martinet assigned there for his own bad attitude, focus on boys of varied age from whom he’ll learn patience and humanity, stock stuff as Universal-International was so gifted at dispersing. Heston found the property, was eager to do comedy to relieve severity of ten commanding. Principal tyke is Tim Hovey, cherub star of this and other U-I’s and fated to future horrors like child stars as unfortunate. Same for Sal Mineo, here where Benson and Rebel intersected, Sal in Benson as model boy any Dad or Mom would embrace, us to wonder if Mineo was like this or was he altogether sad Plato of Rebel placement. So why go see The Private War of Major Benson … for Heston? He is romance-teamed with Julie Adams, as in why feature two big names to whom you must bestow percentage when contract staff does as well. Youth in addition to Hovey and Mineo amounts to faceless plus Tim Considine, a survivor and smart for being so, his future with Disney (was he “Spin” or “Marty,” or neither?), much other TV, getting smacked by George Scott as Patton, and finishing up as dispenser of fifteen-dollar autographs at Hollywood Collector Shows. No martyr to decaying culture he. The Private War of Major Benson fascinates on levels not imagined in summer 1955, a celebration at twilight of "good" boys that only Buena Vista or Pat Boone would eventually stand up for. Of movies invisible since syndication day, Benson stands tall. I’d seen it nowhere since Channel 9-Charlotte 60’s day, TCM the digger-up for a Heston night, transfer stale, not 1.85 and HD as hoped, but as with much that is vintage/obscure, let’s not ask for the moon.
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