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Monday, May 10, 2021

What Early 20th Century Boys Chose First


Memories of When Everything Seemed New

Have lately daydreamed I was born around 1900, illusion aided by writings of several who were. All are gone of course, but they sure bring that past alive, nearly to a point of my being able to share it with them. Passage of time, effects of change, weighed heaviest on folks who took a twentieth century's ride, in a saddle, or rumble seat, eventually aboard a plane for many, but not all. My father (b. 1907), sat astride Dobbin, made the whole of 32 miles from Statesville to here. Bet he never saw pavement once, an experience common at the time, but imagine mounting a horse today for anything other than novelty, or sport. As means for necessary travel, I’d say the Dobbins are long since glue. Are folk of the aughts and teens to be envied? (and being 2021 we must ask, which aughts and teens?) Writers of that era were much moved by ways they had known, but saw disappear by adulthood, calling up a past in columns, sometimes a book devoted to what had been meaningful, but since lost. Edward Wagenknecht (1900-2004) did a history, The Movies In The Age of Innocence, dealing with the silent period, nearly all of which he knew first-hand (he may even have been there for The Great Train Robbery when new). Wagenknecht would later team with Anthony Slide on Fifty Great American Silent Films 1912-1920, A Pictorial Survey. He also taught and wrote on English and American literature. Wagenknecht ended up with sixty books to his credit, including one most personal, As Far As Yesterday (1968), where he, at about age I am now, stirred embers of youth and told of emerging lively arts and which of these engaged him most. There were moments reading when I would have traded my boyhood for his, but couldn’t we say as much of anyone fortunate enough to have come up in the teens, 20, 30, 40’s?

Wagenknecht reflects on comic strips carried in abundance by newspapers. His heroes were many … Happy Hooligan, Foxy Grandpa, most of all Little Nemo in Slumberland. Latter remains a cult favorite, hypnotic still for being leagues ahead of anything drawn elsewhere. Windsor McCay of dinosaur Gertie fame was the artist. His strip, outsize to full-sheets and in color, began in 1905, ran for a decade, was revived in 1924, lasted three more years, then quit. Wagenknecht was mesmerized by Nemo, which well I can imagine, as it mesmerizes still. To a boy in 1905, this must have been like a circus come to town each Sunday. Wagenknect’s impressions, from his adult perspective, reveal an impact I hardly got from anything growing up, certainly not from comics accumulated to age 12, unceremoniously dropped after, ultimately sold. I miss none of them. Was there defining difference between comic strips and eventual comic books? Wagenknect said the latter meant nothing to him … maybe because they arrived post-his childhood, but consider master collector and archivist Bill Blackbeard (1926-2011), who single-handed saved our whole history of comic strips by crisscrossing the US time and again to fill transfer trucks with old newspapers that would fill his San Francisco home to bursting. Blackbeard catalogued millions of strips that otherwise would have been lost to time and decay, as few survive except on yellowed pages he rescued. Blackbeard largely disdained comic books, thought they stood small beside strips, him for instance calling Superman “meretricious dreck.” Was there magic on those daily pages that ten-cent Dells and DC’s could not approach? Have comic book collectors settled all this time for meretricious dreck?

Bill Blackbeard, Famed Rescuer of Comic Strip Art

I never lost myself to comic books as did plentiful peers. There was interest, but never in characters that would have stood me well once time came to unload, my bag being Archie, Hot Stuff, rather than Spiderman, the Marvel crop. Did dabble with Batman, if briefly, when ABC in January ’66 made him meaningful. I had drawn comics during downtime at school, which for me amounted to all time spent at school. My sheaves were stapled, had a cover, introduced characters like “Civil and Pokey,” modeled somewhat after Top Cat and friends, sci-fi the format for “Southern Space Slowpoke,” whose logo was a Big S in front of letters that spelled three words of the name. I graduated from these to penning horror stories, which sometimes they let me read to the class. There was even a fictitious pair of “stars” who played in whatever transition my tales made to film. Parents would have preferred my deeper immersion in studies even as they arranged with our local news-and-mag dealer to let loose one of spinning racks from which one pulled latest comics, this so I could display my collection just like a real store. Diehards surely dreaded cretins that got to these first at newsstands and bent back issues to see what was behind, creases there to stay. And what of brats putting paws on what we collectors tenderly preserved, cover and pages folded so the comic fit in one rather than both their grubby hands. Many treasures of mine plunged from a 9.5 to a 4.0 (comic certification talk) as result of such abuse, damage once done being for keeps.

Had to ponder by adolescence the point of continuing, movies-and-stuff-related engaging me way more by then. What I wanted was theatre ads out of old newspapers, not comic strips. Certainly admire Bill Blackbeard’s herculean effort though, and wish in a way to have better appreciated drawn panels and magic applied to them. Wonder how many, if any, comic fans went on to study so-called “fine” art, though chances are most considered comic art plenty fine enough. Saw where the San Diego Comic-Con was cancelled for a second time, two years deprived must be agony for those devoted. Interesting how collectors serious enough will “slab” their books, vacuum-packing to thwart what age inflicts upon all things, a way comics might outlive their owners. Unknowing civilians remain incredulous: You spend a fortune on the thing, then seal it up to where it can’t even be read? Like Ann who inquires rhetorically upon my receipt of yet another lobby card, “You paid that for a piece of paper?,” words fairly spat out in derision (Gee, at least I don’t slab them, my meek reply). To collect is to live one’s life in martyrdom.

Occasional “Children’s Plays” during the early 1900’s went under heading of treats for tots, each sensitive to “propriety of taking children to the theatre,” this preamble to a 1903 review of Babes In Toyland when it opened at the Majestic Theatre in New York. “It may be wise to keep their youthful minds from the stimulating and exciting influence of stage performances,” said James Metcalfe for LIFE magazine, even as he cited “few more enjoyable things in the life of a critic than the frank and outspoken joy, laughter, and wonder of an audience of children,” youth at the theatre OK so long as closely supervised. New Yorker columnist Wolcott Gibbs (1902-1958) recalled from 1935 vantage a policy wherein youngsters “couldn’t go in alone” to Broadway sites, in particular one he wanted to attend by name the “Nemo,” located at B’way and 110th Street, which Gibbs took for a playhouse devoted exclusive to Little Nemo and his dream travels, Gibbs, like Edward Wagenknecht, a fan. “I was able to only stand wistfully on the sidewalk outside, watching the happy crowds on their way to see Little Nemo,  “miraculously translated into flesh and blood.” When finally an accommodating aunt escorted him inside, Gibbs saw a “disastrous performance … with a troupe of performing dogs … and a mystifying scene in which a fat man spanked a young lady repeatedly with a board,” Gibbs “tricked and furious, in the smelly dark.” A purest pastime for boys like he and Wagenknecht was books. Like with comic strips, these would not so betray expectation. A literary happening to quietly launch in 1900 was The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. I never appreciated impact of his Oz series (fourteen in all) until reading Gibbs, Wagenknecht, others, who came to these at ideal age and were captured fully by the alternative universe Baum created.

A modern parallel to the Oz books may be Harry Potter, each awaited by fervent readership. Baum eventually felt trapped by Oz, tried to quit, but followers would not let him. He finally relented and made new entries an annual event. Wagenknecht remembered this as happiest aspect of Christmas, sentiment unabated by age eighteen when he wrote L. Frank Baum to convey all that Oz meant to him. Baum’s reply, written two months before he died in May 1919, was chatty and appreciative, a balm for his “heart trouble,” the letter concluding, “Thank you for writing me. It helps.” Wagenknecht discovered movies during the aughts, said “practically all the great stories of the world were retold in one-reelers.” These included Oz tales, which Wagenknecht and Wolcott Gibbs also saw staged by troupes travelling to venues the to-be writers might frequent. Could a reader expect absolute fidelity to narratives spun by favorite books? Gibbs attended The Wizard of Oz as limned by vaudeville team Montgomery and Stone. “For grownups,” he said, Oz “must have been charming,” but for Gibbs, who had committed text to memory, “it was just more perfidy and foolishness.” Gibbs would later write “of a period in almost every childhood, when we can accept simultaneously the reality of actual life and the reality of supernatural happenings in books.” What he saw in the theatre “was all wrong,” Dorothy “definitely grown up … had a habit, unknown to the real Dorothy, of detaching herself suddenly from the events around her and singing a song.” The Cowardly Lion was Gibbs’ “bitterest disappointment … a miserable fake … just an actor dressed up … prancing idiotically on its hind legs.” The play sadly ruined Oz books for Gibbs, his lion no longer living, but mere “cloth and cardboard” (I wonder if he took a flyer on the ’39 version)

Gibbs was as put out with mock-upping done to Peter Pan, “synthetic animals … Nana (the dog) … transparently not a Newfoundland, any more than the creature that swallowed the alarm clock was an alligator, or could sensibly have been regarded as an alligator by anybody over the age of ten.” So far as Gibbs was concerned, live treatments debased the books he, and others of his generation, adored. Before our era of rife and repeated stage, screen, TV versions of literature, it was easy to imagine harm done by such travesties as permanent, image of the original work libeled from there onward. “It never let up, and presently I began to suspect that all so-called “children’s entertainment” was designed to provide adults with a bogus and condescending nostalgia.” Such plays were “violation of my private ideas,” escape from which came the movies, which Gibbs knew also to be distortions of things he read, but they had at least a patina of realism. Lions eating Christians on screen (“sandals and all”) were real lions. Edward Wagenknecht too found comfort in film, as did Gilbert Seldes, who saw movies as most popular of new-minted “lively arts.” There was integrity also in the circus and “parlor magicians,” these honest enough to admit fooling you, the challenge being to figure out how. Wagenknecht was enraptured by “Master Magician (Howard) Thurston,” sought out the vet performer years later to tell him so. Blackstone, “The Greatest Magician The World Has Ever Known” was also a quest to meet in person. Wagenknecht freely admitted to being a “very childlike adult,” this a badge of honor so far as he saw it, and all more reason for me to enjoy his writing. Birds of a feather, you know.

Monday, May 03, 2021

First Annie Gun Misfires


MGM Musicals Make Blu-Ray Landing

If we must lose Warner Archive, at least let them exit singing, MGM musicals arriving plenty on Blu-Ray for whatever is left of disc service, five lately out, perhaps more I’ve overlooked: Annie Get Your Gun, Good News, Showboat, The Great Caruso, and Broadway Melody of 1940, Annie gold-encrusted since NBC had a single 1965 play, the picture less easy to see after until clips turned up in That’s Entertainment Part Two. To have a 16mm print was like snatching a Rembrandt off the Metropolitan’s wall. There came confetti and pinwheels when TCM brought Annie out of comparative hiding prior to Warners making it available on DVD. Annie is a favorite for those who embrace, or will endure, Betty Hutton, my being of latter persuasion, but as willing to enfold her for a part few could play so well, which raises matter of who MGM initially bought the source play for, Judy Garland their most valued musical asset melting down first in gossip columns, then on front pages, across the land. Leo lost grip of talent understood to be irreplaceable, plain evidence they could not control property East Coast management and stockholders relied on for continued profits. To stake so much on such an unstable resource … no wonder banks and cooler corporate heads shunned this industry, or dealt with it cautious.

I watched Broadway Melody of 1940 and Good News by way of warm-up to Annie. Both can be, are, enjoyed, provided you have a bent for musicals, specifically ones from Metro. We (at least I) tend to think of theirs in terms of That’s Entertainment, as if the features themselves don’t exist apart from those compilations. Musicals tend toward joyous spots set amidst hidebound storytelling and foolish misunderstandings that take forever to sort out. This had been formula on Broadway, “book” sections a price paid for enjoyment of the scores. Most musicals from the 20’s aren't stage-revived, certainly not in toto, even ones crowded with loveliest song. Movies would be much the same, rescue and continued relevance coming of personalities we still enjoy, thus Fred Astaire to make Broadway Melody of 1940 viable, DVD providing menu select for highlights, result many viewers shaving the show from 102 minutes to whatever one liked of dance and tunes. That amounted for me to Begin The Beguine with Fred and Eleanor Powell against mirrored black walls and floor, That’s Entertainment using the piece as sole picking from Melody-’40. Think of numbers plucked from B’way shows and not seen in original context again. No wonder Hollywood did such overhaul on musical plays when adapting them. Two good glimpses of legit in the raw: The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, early enough for talkies not to trust anything other than simple porting-over from the stage, a boon for us getting closer approximation of the Marx Bros. live than we could have had if the films had been made even a few years later.


MGM was known for its vast assemblage of talent, but how vast were individual talents, and how many of these could singly carry a musical? There was but one voice, one with capacity to lift story out of formula and give it appearance of genuine heart. No actress or singer was presumed to be so good as Judy Garland. All were of tier or tiers beneath her: June Allyson, Jane Powell, Kathryn Grayson, Cyd Charisse, on this point both they and handlers were of like mind, Garland’s ability viewed as almost supernatural. She’d be billed above Fred Astaire and he would not complain. Nor would Kelly, or anyone of prominence. Whatever one’s own opinion of Garland, there is no taking from her a status not achieved by others who did musicals at Metro, or for that matter, anyplace else. That this vessel of cheery consensus should break down so completely was a source of unease, true despair, for infinite number whose livelihoods were tied to hers. Garland made life hell for many, but few kept a grudge, at least of those who worked, or tried to work, with her. Lots saw coming the debacle of Annie Get Your Gun. Still, no matter how dire her delays or behavior, they knew magic would not be instilled other than from her. Garland was the specialness of casting, a reason why Irving Berlin was willing to sell, and what Broadway, no matter who they had, in this instance Ethel Merman, could not approach. Garland had become for the 40’s what Marilyn Monroe would be for the 50’s, an increasingly impossible mission each time out. So did MGM have any choice but to settle the artist's contract and let her go? I’d say not.

The Annie Get Your Gun Blu-Ray has footage of Garland doing two of the numbers, less boisterous than Betty Hutton would be (observers said JG was “too elegant” for the part). Though she was said to want this role badly, it wasn’t long before Garland realized she was wrong for it. She tried saying so, but everyone discounted that for nerves, or usual craziness, by reckon of those less sparing. What do actors do where obliged to act even when they know they will act badly? Happens all the time, surely among studio serfs this was endemic, but how many had leave to stop the show, walk out, cost their employer thousands, then be taken back with all forgiven? This was Garland’s status and no one else’s. Leo did not otherwise tolerate such conduct. The Lion could dash a career and not look back, every career, that is, but Garland’s. She stood for what made their musical unit truly exceptional. To rely on Allyson, Powell, Grayson, left MGM little better off than Fox or Warners, and even they had Betty Grable and Doris Day, respectively. MGM was obliged to negotiate with a person who was not sane. Stress Garland caused must have been ungodly. Mayer even sent Katharine Hepburn to the Minnelli residence after Judy tried cutting her throat, idea being that Hepburn as a most stable among actress ranks could somehow talk reason to her. Mayer asking the favor was recognition of Hepburn’s having the most maturity, the most authority, of any performer on the lot, whether her tough love approach was tactful or not (“Your ass has hit the gutter. There’s no place to go but up. Now Goddammit. Do it!”). A person like Hepburn could never understand the mind of a person like Garland, the difference between one who felt eternally put upon and sorry for herself, confronted by another who had not known a self-pitying day in her life.

Good News
is evidence of MGM on musical autopilot. It is adequate, pleasing at times, staff talent augmented by high-volt hopefuls brought from Broadway to show Hollywood some things or two. June Allyson, for appeal she had, operated at a level of expected competence and seldom more. Same with Peter Lawford, who could get by on looks but not voice or dance. Production and choreography was relied upon to dazzle, if being dazzled was within reach. Young talent with fizz had left with Mickey Rooney, so what was left … Mel Torme? I can’t think of an exceptional singer among male ranks at Metro, Astaire and Kelly not really pretending to that (although with time, we learned to embrace their voices), Nelson Eddy by the 40’s going, then gone, and Frank Sinatra, great as he was, did not become so as Lion property, him nobody’s property as was forcefully evident from early on. Howard Keel and Mario Lanza came to eventual rescue, but late to MGM’s party, both to witness the genre fade. Other studios were as blighted, Paramount blessed with Crosby, while Fox had Dick Haymes, terrific where poised before the mike, thudding when not. Dennis Morgan sounded fine for Warners, but something lacked … he’d never be a Bing to Jack Carson’s Bob. Maybe Metro should have taken a leaf from their old Dogway Melody shorts and teach Lassie to sing.

Start It Again ... Start It Again

I thought of Annie Get Your Gun this time in train wreck terms, even though things turned out largely fine. There was less profit than it should have had, due to bloated negative cost thanks to they-knew-who. $8.1 million in worldwide rentals was cork off of champagne, but profit stuck at $1.3 million, still good, but the tab, plus what Irving Berlin took (lots), otherwise expense of the property, Betty Hutton borrowed for $150K flat from Paramount, well, it all adds up. Again to those outtakes, unexpurgated form of which were once a rarest object of grim curiosity, pieces seen on authorized terms per DVD or Blu-ray, cloudier glimpse afforded on You Tube. More of what survived, Judy and others fluffing lines, stopped numbers, her provoked by a clapper board, this was stuff of fascination to go with what we heard of disaster that was Judy Garland as aborted Annie. A collector friend in Greenwich Village had got the footage, all the footage, from a guy who made a print off a print that MGM lab techs had made up for Liza Minnelli after That’s Entertainment --- very hush-hush. We watched in anxiety that the hovel might be pinched. This was around 1985, Annie as a feature yet withheld. I do miss collecting as forbidden pursuit, blood quickened with each find. “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” was a number Judy completed (she in fact pre-recorded most all of the score), and it’s part of Blu-extras, but her doing the song is also on You Tube, and with one of the support kids blowing a line, to which lifelong pro Garland reacts but quick, spreads her arms in director mode, says “Start it again … Start it again,” which they do. It is a moment where we see her capacity to take completely over where needed, for who else present had even half her grasp of getting a performance right?

Garland kept being promised vacations she never fully got. After a couple weeks of what was understood to be months off, they’d call and want her back to just do this, pre-record that, try on costumes … and before she knew it, principal photography was upon her. Corporate, then and now, knives out always. Read the Charles Walters bio by Brent Phillips and learn how music personnel regularly took brunts. As long as she breathed, Leo figured Judy should work. Contract folk never got a rest, unless they went out in the woods somewhere and couldn’t be found, like Gable or Robert Taylor. Judy should have taken up camping, or duck hunts. They did at least cover her medical costs, a sort of Workman’s Comp before there was Workman’s Comp. Stress caused Garland’s hair to fall out, and she was only 27! Don’t you want to just reach back and hug this poor creature? Not everyone did at the time, Mary Astor fed up early as St. Louis and said so (to Judy response: But … I don’t sleep!), and Anita Loos, who thought JG “a compulsive weeper … a great bore.” Judy also didn’t mind sticking it to a colleague who got in her way, as director Fred Zinnemann recalled in a letter to Vincente Minnelli after the latter took Fred’s chair on The Clock (“I think Judy has behaved pretty badly in this whole set-up …”).

MGM initially put Busby Berkeley to directing Annie Get Your Gun. Someone (Arthur Freed?) must have liked or felt sorry for him, as Buzz was thought washed up by many if not most. He was exacting, impatient, especially with Garland, whose teen dreams, plus ones after, this martinet had haunted, him having done several of the Mickey-Judys. Mere sight of Buzz gave Garland migraines. She lacked nerve to give as good as she got from this monster of her past. Wish I could have fed her a retaliatory line when he got nasty: Hey Buzz, shouldn’t you be in the penitentiary for second degree murder? (see L.A. DUI deaths circa 1935) That might have shut him up and got Garland a round of on-set applause, from Howard Keel certainly, who had an ankle broke thanks to Berkeley making him do over and again a horseback entrance. Garland was a settled genius, if unsettled as custodian of it, a quickest study, her delays/upset largely reason for The Pirate losing money in 1948, so some had to ask if this juice was worth the squeeze. Significant was her last for Leo, Summer Stock, also finishing in the red. Maybe it was easier seeing her go than stay, at least for Loew’s East Coast accounting division. Off immediate topic a sec: Mike Cline and I were in Atlanta, on the way to, or coming back, from a poster show, and heading up the escalator as we were going down --- Howard Keel! Too far away for us to annoy him, and in motion besides, so his defenses were not down.

Hardly an oasis of stability herself, Betty Hutton saw what opportunity Annie was and behaved as if she’d been as meek for Paramount (they knew better). She complained to Osborne at TCM of cold treatment after taking Judy’s place, Hutton a most fragile of interviews toward the end. She was another of stars dealt-out, not long after Garland from Metro, Betty insisting on a present husband to co-star for her next, Paramount naturally opposed and finally washing hands of her. Hutton was from there a ghost at banquets, comeback trying (Spring Reunion), a TV series that didn’t last, talks here and there for documentaries (one on Preston Sturges). Next stop was said to be scrubbing floors at a rectory somewhere, therapy more the object than income. Hutton would credit a priest at the place with saving her sanity, so good for her, and him. Walter Matthau later got argumentative Barbra Streisand’s goat on the Hello Dolly set by loudly warning Remember what happened to Betty Hutton! Judy Garland meanwhile had gone from Metro exit to triumph of A Star Is Born. All show biz revered her for being an absolute best the art afforded, plus cautionary fable for what results when that biz consumes you. Star premiere footage, done for TV, shows mixed emotion as biggest names fete Judy, even as none would pay dear price she did. Nobody had fans so devoted, one I knew an autograph dealer who told me an amazing story of when Garland (always broke) couch-slept at a small L.A. apartment he shared with a pal. She was grateful, enough so to load up double LP Judy At Carnegie Hall on their phonograph and sing the whole thing to her hosts’ astonished joy. I asked my guy to repeat the story to be sure I heard it right. Hollywood … you wacky, wonderful town.

There used to be constant info and anecdotes about MGM musicals thanks to so many being still around to tell them. Ann Miller actually went to work again for Metro to spread gospel of That’s Entertainment. But it’s 2021 now, and they’ve all shuffled off. We might as well be talking of figures from past World Wars. Books are filled with testimony on Annie Get Your Gun and the rest, but there will not be any more testimony. It seemed once that whatever old stars did not reminisce about MGM musicals were riding The Love Boat. A story told on Lana Turner illustrates. Seems she arrived for the LB cruise expecting rose petals strewn before her, an illusion put to rout by fellow guest, and always-realist Stewart Granger, Look sweetheart, we’re not at MGM anymore. Old Hollywood itself sort of sailed away on the Love Boat. Judy Garland's legacy proved to be as delicate for what happened to The Wizard of Oz, once an annual event, now just another plug-in to TCM schedules, Oz having become sort of the Our Gang of features. When there’s not a Munchkin left to tell what Judy was really like, well, we know it’s time for us all to throw in our dice.

Monday, April 26, 2021

What Shook Them Plenty In The Twenties


When The Monster (1922 and 1925) Terrified and Tickled Us 

Lon Chaney in The Monster would seem to have all of necessary ingredients, adaptation from a Broadway play that ran 101 performances, Roland West direction, a dark house with trap passages, human vivisection planned if not carried out … the title alone proposes full and final statement on all things horrific. Think how many chillers before or after might thrive on such definitive labeling to sum up content a hundred score others shared. Were one to make a film about a monster, would it not be ideally called The Monster? Yet we barely know this Monster, regarding little, if any, of it as outstanding, not even Chaney, his entry delayed till thirty minutes in. I've gone years underestimating The Monster, was put right by perusing a collection of Broadway theatre reviews (1918-1923) by Dorothy Parker, most unseen since long-ago publication, then rescue from yellowed newsprint by editor Kevin C. Fitzpatrick. Parker we know as seasoned wit of verse, short stories, general observations with sting in the tail. She roasted many a hapless play, but The Monster wasn’t one of them. The hard-boiled reviewer found it terrifying, sarcasm off. Is it time we acknowledge scary tales told from darkened stages as most effective transmit of tension, a mode to spook us more than mere movies could? For all of shock I’ve seen on celluloid, there’s not been one all-out horror performed live to my eyes. Parker’s shivery review of The Monster from 1922 makes me realize I missed quite a something for not being around when scares issued more from stages than screens.

At first it seemed she was being clever at The Monster’s expense, but no, Parker was genuinely spooked. Mirroring mood of the fun-inflected chiller, there is warning to faint hearts tempered by Dorothy Parker wit that would characterize all she’d do through a long career. The best of previous thrill plays were “as the pattering of raindrops on a tin roof compared to even the calmest stretches of The Monster,” Parker citing The Bat and The Cat and the Canary as “little lullabies” beside this “truly grand show! … The gentleman seated next to me will bear to his grave the marks I left upon him when I clutched him in a frenzy of terror during the close of the second act. Heaven only knows how he laughed off those feminine fingerprints when he got home to his wife.” Parker mentions “electric lights” out front of the Thirty-Ninth Street Theatre announcing “Merry Melodrama” that was The Monster, though she barely found it merry, “you get to that state where you are piteously grateful for any little thing which brings it home to you that it is only a play, after all.” I wondered for reading all this if Dorothy Parker, other critics, audience members, were naturally timid in 1922, not like crocodile-skinned moderns who could stand anything. But explanation is not so simple as that.

Note Parker's 1922 audience was essentially captive in a theatre darkened to extreme on both the stage and among seats, especially during a third act she saw as a summit of terror, what with the heroine strapped to a table and about to be dismembered by a mad surgeon, her would-be rescuer bound in an electric chair and taking repeated shocks from villainy. Consider too a black venue where ingress-egress is made difficult if not unmanageable thanks to loss of visibility save mayhem played out before you. There were also sounds heard from the dark, live sounds, not canned to safe distance by a motion-picture track (and this was before sound movies), onlookers “gnawing the arms off their seats,” as Parker put it. Nothing can duplicate the impact of an actual voice, especially one expressing fear or panic. Consider history of live performers said to electrify crowds, but not able to do so when captured on film. I drove down to watch my niece in a Playmakers rendition of Wait Until Dark, which like The Monster, staged much of action in ink blackness. What jolted us was sudden shrieks and cries from characters we could not see, feeling they might be upon us for being so close. It’s knowing these people are actually there, not at safe remove of projected images. Here is what would give live spook shows their punch, also “haunted houses” at fairs and Harvest fests. The “for real” as opposed to “It’s Only A Movie.”

The Monster
impacts less on film. Had Dorothy Parker gone, she may well have panned it. Yet critics did speak well of The Monster, several saying it topped the play. We care, if at all, because Lon Chaney is the mad “Doctor” Ziska who has taken over a lunatic asylum and cast all of staff into on-site dungeons. Comic relief, much supplied by Johnny Arthur, weighs heavy upon expectation that Chaney will be the pivot point. Fact he isn’t causes resentment toward The Monster, plus our conviction that any chiller directed by Roland West should be way better than this. I saw The Monster a first-time years ago and did fast-forward to Chaney stuff, annoyed to distraction by Johnny Arthur. Reading the Dorothy Parker review pointed up values in the source material I had not considered, The Monster an early source for much that would shape scaring for years to come. So why does undercut of those scares alienate us now? A fan magazine review of The Monster (at right) hints at attitudes of the day, and why laughs were a needed leveler, saying that “mystery executed to the tune of comedy” is “the only way to treat this subject so as not to make it appear ridiculous.” So horror undiluted is, at least was, ridiculous? Was there risk of the audience laughing at proposed thrills not already tempered by laughter? Such policy may explain a lot of what we would see in chillers to come, Doctor X an example many of us have lately enjoyed. Who supplies the comic relief makes a difference, my vote securely with a Lee Tracy, or Glenda Farrell (in Mystery of the Wax Museum), as opposed to less appealing Johnny Arthur in The Monster.

Merry Melodrama was indeed what they wanted, what, in fact, they insisted upon. Remember how 1925’s Phantom of the Opera went back to drawing boards for being unrelievedly horrifying? Comedy was the solution in part, Snitz Edwards a supplier of it. We get him willing or not, a Phantom unexpurgated mere stuff of dreams, Snitz a forever-anchor to show how habit and expectation differed in 1925, a same year The Monster came out. Criticism goes hardest today on comics who were brought in to wet fuses, Johnny Arthur an affront to the Chaney we are there to see, getting way more screen time, even coming to a rescue which will upturn all of henchmen plus Chaney as head threat. The Monster seems an encore of Sherlock, Jr., which it does resemble, even if Johnny Arthur makes a tepid substitute for Buster Keaton. Arthur would continue in comedy, fussy types once sound came, his grip of posterity derived from being ineffectual father to Our Gangers Darla and/or Spanky for mid-to-late 30’s Hal Roach. There was a column in the old Classic Film Collector penned by a “Don Marlowe,” who claimed he was a member of Our Gang. Marlowe wrote, around 1969 as I recall, that Johnny Arthur ended up washing dishes at a hash house of undisclosed locale. For me, this was early insight into how the mighty could fall. Not sure as to accuracy however, as Marlowe was known to tell whoppers. Whatever truth or not of his kitchen policing, Arthur did, by most accounts, finish up destitute in 1951, fated to an unmarked grave at age 68.

Swat That Snitz For Befouling Our Precious Phantom!

The Monster
's house alone is reward for watching. Much like what was designed for the stage no doubt, but here are multiple levels gotten at by retreat or pursuit, advantage had by film over live staging. Night business was shot after sundown on insistence of Roland West, him devising a wire-walk, done in dark and during an electric storm, putting plentiful thrill in thrill comedy. Best way to enjoy The Monster is through eyes of those there in 1925, or 1922 if lucky enough to attend the play. Chaney gets very much into the spirit of fun, less burdened by make-up, thus more his own face than those thousand others, which he uses not to mock his menace, but to revel in exaggeration of it. Complaint I won’t argue with is not enough Chaney, absent for that first half-hour, gone again till the forty-five-minute mark, getting stride for a third act’s wow and final dispatch. His mad lab anticipates what varied Doctor Neff’s of traveling magic-and-excitation put up, then took down, from matinee stages. Chaney with scalpel hovering over a bound victim, her captive swain voltage-seated and fit with a metal bowl cap, evokes not only live spook rallies to come, but Bride of the Monster, which I’d like to think was inspired by The Monster, save fact that Ed Wood was but one-year-old when the latter came out in 1925. Chaney look and gestures are like Hjalmar Poelzig arrived early. Surely The Monster was at least partial model for Boris Karloff’s performance in The Black Cat. Things Chaney does with his hands are a delight across all his work, used here to humorously flamboyant effect. Wonder what he could have done with the Pretorius part in Bride of Frankenstein. I’ll not go further ‘long those lines, lest we recreate virtually all of 30’s horror in Lon’s image.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Humor Again Was The Charm

More of Smart-Written Movies

Old film doubters carp about “formula” as if (1) that were a bad thing, and (2) we have thankfully graduated from it. But stories are yet told in same ways, ask any caveman, means by which they get told where difference lies. As with so many things, it’s not the what, but the how. Writers stood out by making the how seem like fresh what. “A New Kind of Western” was never really that, any more than “A Different Sort of Love Story” could be. The situations were going to be an essential same, dialogue or visuals performing rescue from ruts. What would Shane have been if filmed at Corriganville, or All About Eve if told by Columbia on B backstage terms, Ann Miller seizing spotlights from Evelyn Keyes. I like commonplace narrative reborn by writing that first accepts reality that nothing truly new is likely to surface after a thousand years of storytelling. It can seem so, however, through fresh approach, one seen before perhaps, just not lately. Clever enough words can turn wiltiest flowers back toward the sun. For sample --- we could cite dozens just by what gets watched most often --- Cry Danger, a noir to wait years being exalted, finally so thanks to restoration and delighted surprise at how nimbly it spun a familiar web. Even ads were hep to the difference --- “Terrific thrill and excitement plus the smartest dialogue you ever heard!” Distinction lay in that plus column, Cry Danger joining many that are favorites less for what we see than words we hear.

Smart dialogue really means witty, “getting” the joke so we can be in-the-know like Dick Powell. Great stars were born, at least in talkies, by things they said raising them above awkward way the rest of us communicate. We like it because maybe by trying harder, a state of Powell grace can be achieved. And don’t stop with him for a role model, add Cagney, Joan Blondell, Bogart, Glenda Farrell, certainly all who worked at precode and freer speech in movies than we have enjoyed since. Best writing was less to convey insight than be funny. Leave perspicacity to poetry and literature. Star vehicles, the best ones, were essentially comedy, more ribald the better. If Jim Cagney as a titular Picture Snatcher sets out to photograph a woman being executed (camera taped to his leg), then let him succeed to accompany of laughter and sharp riposte to those who would deter him. Stars were ultra-goal-oriented, plus agile in the getting, resistance reliably overcome by wordplay. William Powell seldom struck a blow or shot anyone, save verbally. Women suffered briefer, if at all, than would be a later-30’s case. Kay Francis pre-and-post Code enforcement amounts to two entirely different actresses, humor bled out to leave she and sisterhood chalk white. Men gave up as much, Cagney’s a resort to service action or efforts on the side of law. Still it was comedy these stars would essentially play. Clark Gable could fret over knee breeches and pigtails he’d be obliged to wear in Mutiny on the Bounty, but what worried him more was seriousness of the venture, a parting from more typical, light-foot way.

“Knowing the score” was how heroes led, at least kept abreast of all comers, flipping the Golden Rule to do the other guy before he did you. Go-getters took life lessons from an ongoing Depression. Writers taught by the hard school spoke through scrappers that reflected their world, or word, view. Smart Set prose that began with East Coast magazines was vulgarized to fit raffish cut of players who spoke to a commonest audience. They could be plain folk, but not dumb folk, bright, but not cerebral. Tough guys who were also intellectual ended badly, Wolf Larsen, Doc Holliday, too educated for their own survival. Restless writers peppered street talk with epigrams enough to make us wonder if screen hustlers graduated Yale before embracing their disrepute. Writers and those they wrote for could show their smarts, but not to extent of pitching a joke over anyone’s head. The winners made average Joe-Janes laugh and feel good about themselves. Years ago, early 80’s I think, Dan Mercer and I saw North By Northwest at a revival in Charlotte. Driving back, we speculated on why it worked so well. He said part of the secret was crediting the audience for quick-wit and sophistication by giving them the best of both, letting us in on sly jokes, talked up to, rather than down. Viewers verily burst with good will for movies that treat them so.

People generally prefer movies to “talk like we talk,” which was what made period settings a tough sled. Modern vernacular was more than ingrained … radio, vaudeville, advertising in or out of popular magazines … all taught a language way apart from what forebears knew. Few understood how corrupted we were by slang, fewer willing to get along without it. So far as most figured, those of gone centuries spo
ke a foreign tongue, wore peculiar clothes in the bargain. Films past-set had to be disguised for ads and publicity. Gentleman Jim, Devotion, lots more, were sold false and hoped to be good enough so customers would not revolt once put wise. Note ads, Errol as Jim with signature mustache (Corbett didn't have one, and neither does Flynn playing him), while Alexis Smith sports distinctly 40's headdress. Devotion, a screen bio of the Bronte sisters, is even farther off base as advertised. Writers were artful for making the past seem like now, long as it wasn’t too far past. A best way to accomplish that was with humor. Gentleman Jim had that by acres, plus Errol Flynn 40’s agile midst 90’s custom, as though any of us might travel back and live their lives on our terms. San Francisco in 1936 waved a similar wand over 1906 run-up to the quake, a lapse of only thirty years between that event and times radically changed during the interim (no radio, and films but barely born when San Francisco took place). How could such primitivism sustain if not for vitality Clark Gable stood for, his “Blackie Norton” a one-of-us to counter otherness of a vanished era. Those able-enough could get away with extreme period so long as wit narrowed the gulf. Look to George Arliss for best application of this, laughing up lace sleeves at anyone who said his history could not latter-day please. Again, it was smart writing to the rescue.

Film writers were notoriously undervalued. Many got grief barely assuaged by money they could never have realized elsewhere. Average weekly pay at Warners was $650 (says Here’s Looking At You, Kid, by James R. Silke). Prominent or proven scribes could reach $1,250 to $1,750. All stayed humble for belief they wrote on sand, tides forever going out with films here today, gone from theatres tomorrow. What then did it matter if you and three other guys got credit for finished work? Trafficking in what was at most ephemeral enabled “detachment” as Walter Reisch recalled, dialogue writers flavoring someone else’s original story “unmolested by their own vanity.” (Backstory 2, edited by Pat McGilligan) A given star vehicle may start out solemn, but always end breezy, that understood to be a public’s preference. Many at tail end of the writing process were fundamentally gag men and knew it. Smarter ones enjoyed the ride, leaving prestige to those who would starve for art.

And what did prestige add up to in posterity’s long run? Ultimate accolade was for novelists who sold in print, but real money came with a movie sale, from which point those faceless but well paid gag men livened up the serious writer’s stuff to make it palatable. Same with celebrated plays. Many reviewing films adapted from these declared them improved by the stage-to-screen jump. Experienced studio scribes saw novels and plays as rawest material from which to derive something that would entertain. Agatha Christie acknowledged Billy Wilder’s enhance of Witness For The Prosecution, his humor a godsend her source effort lacked. Does “literature” for the screen survive better than a same put between covers? I’ve been reading Edmund Wilson, his book reviewing more pans than puff, many cows I thought were sacred put to the slaughter. Two for instance: Louis Bromfield and William Saroyan. I took for years snob word that these, among noted novelists and playwrights, were settled superior to whoever wrote for films. Wilson as chef of humble pie made me realize no one of his period was beyond criticism, so then I must ask who reads these authors today? How much of popular literature from the 30’s and 40’s remains in print, is enjoyed by moderns? Bromfield’s name I recognize from credits on The Rains Came and Mrs. Parkington, Saroyan means The Human Comedy to me, and not much else, although he did win a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 (plus $1000 cash) for The Time of Your Life, infamous among film folk as a major Cagney misstep of 1948. Query to all: Have more in a last thirty years seen The Rains Came, Mrs. Parkington, The Human Comedy, than probed the books? (Saroyan wrote a novel based on his screenplay for The Human Comedy) I’ll put it simpler: Has anyone here read even one of these?

H’wood writers were made to feel small beside literary lions, whatever differences of income. Deepest sting was generous money given screen scribes, which many felt their punk art did not merit. Most were content to take the cash and run. I’d like to think someone walked up to William Bowers after Cry Danger to congratulate him for the “Smartest Dialogue You Ever Heard!,” chances better they didn't. Ones who could truly sweeten a script had to be rare. Studio confinement, eight hours expected on site and typing, made pranks a pastime, these to compensate for what writers knew was wage slavery. Insiders portrayed themselves as madcap purveyors of pap (see Boy Meets Girl), but there was risk in telling your public they were buying stenchy goods. What if customers took talent on their caustic word and stopped going to movies? Best to make do with your velvet trap and apply talent to betterment of tales told endlessly before. Studio films were genre-focused, had to be to support release schedules of one or more features per week. Best way to separate stock from sameness was humor, expected or not, better in fact where unexpected.

We didn’t figure horror films to amuse us, but often they did, especially where James Whale and his writers drove. I now watch The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man for laughs, a bravo in my book, as other chillers, after all, truly chill but once. Whale’s are gifts to keep on giving. Observe what Vincent Price did for so-called horror films from the 50’s on, he and hep writers good-natured subverters of a genre taken seriously long enough. Westerns were livened by humor, it lifted onus of cliches. For every once I’d watch The Ox-Bow Incident, Burt Kennedy’s Renown westerns directed by Budd Boetticher will unspool a half-dozen times. I confess to never having seen The Ox-Bow Incident, less willing by the day to be so bummed. Noir we assume to be serious, but the best of it really isn’t. His Kind of Woman was again on deck for me recent, as often is The Big Clock, ubiquitous Cry Danger, each because they delight me, “dark” content letting in good-humored sun. Hitchcock was liked best when he amused most. Six of his were brought back in 1983, Rear Window the only sure bet, because it was essentially funny. So is Psycho for that matter, Norman and his candy corn forever! I bet most in 1959 saw North By Northwest as a rescue from Vertigo and worry that Hitchcock had lost his light touch. Too bad Marnie came along later to reassert the heaviness. Maybe Hitchcock needed gag men as did big studio colleagues. There are potholes to auteuring, loss of fun an oft-casualty.

That's The Spirit! as Above-Captured by WB Blue-Streak They Drive By Night

Were I to pick a Blue-Streak, a handshake, that is, between melodrama (normally a flag to fun seekers) and ribaldry, it would be a Warner cycle, rewarding if brief, that ran from 1939 into the early 40’s, an engine stoked by talent considerable when separate, unbeatable where combined. On their face actioners The Roaring Twenties, Torrid Zone, They Drive By Night, and Manpower strike me as ideal matings between tension and laughter. Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay wrote them, Mark Hellinger associate-produced under Hal Wallis as executive producer, and Raoul Walsh directed three of the four. A common thread among these was innate story sense, an instinct for what a mass audience would enjoy. Even where narrative was cobbled from same yarns told before, the case with majority here, it was atypical telling that paid. Any cycle, however received at a start, plays out eventually, as would this as participants scattered, Hellinger to independent producing, Wallis to Paramount’s shingle, Wald also to produce, Macaulay continuing as a writer to maintain Blue-Streak spirit (Across The Pacific, Captains of the Clouds). These men as a group had much to do with establishing a Warner formula for action salted with comedy, a pattern influencing most genres (war and Desperate Journey, gangsters with All Through The Night, westerns and San Antonio), this but part basis for Warners being label I gravitate to where picking an evening’s relaxation.

CODY’S COAT --- THE EARLY YEARS --- This won’t make any headlines, is best placed under category of minor discoveries, but will settle at least whatever lingering inquiry there might be regarding Cody Jarrett’s overcoat, a concern to few admittedly, some who'd frequent Greenbriar perhaps. Was digging among stills for Boy Meets Girl when I found the one shown here. Wait, I know that overcoat! It belongs to Cody! Would like to think I don’t obsess to excess over articles of clothing, but something about that raiment always appealed to me, it being critical element to White Heat’s cold cabin scene where Cody dons it through much of an opening reel and what to my mind are among best portions of the movie. The coat is there when Cody slugs a henchman for using the car radio (If that battery is dead, it’ll have company), collapses onto Ma’s lap with a headache, and parries wife Verna’s suggestion that they double-cross the gang and keep all of stolen money for themselves. I don’t generally respond to costuming so acutely, this an exception … could it be I covet Cody’s coat, would want one just like it? I admit to similar emotion re Carl Denham’s King Kong wrap, enjoying always how he bundles himself into it before going in search of “a girl for my picture.” Clothes really made the men in those days.
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