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Monday, August 15, 2022

Where Frames of Reference Splinter

 


Which Gets To Be The Highest Art?


That 1975 summer out at USC had us part of the time in a History of Cinema class with instructor John Schultheiss, who knew his topic and shared greats from a Studio Era at a time when there was less to compete with a Studio Era. How have conditions changed since? Plenty, according to Jeffrey Sconce, who teaches at Northwestern University: “When film studies coalesced as an academic discipline in the 1970’s, it had about 70 years of film history to contend with … Now we’re at 120 or so years and the “classical” era is an even more remote sliver of total film history.” Remote sliver. But that's what hopeless antiquarians like me cling to. Take away my sliver and like S. Holmes, I retire to Sussex and keep bees. Whatever recognition, whatever context or frame of reference the older films had, is gone now. When Dr. Schultheiss showed Double Indemnity, a first time for me, there was comfort of known faces and names. Fred (My Three Sons) MacMurray, Barbara (The Big Valley) Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson (innumerable late shows) were anything but strangers. Each was recognizable going in and no adjustment need be made. Thirty-year-old Double Indemnity from 1944 was hospitable still for us watching in 1975, certainly so for this group of twenty-year-olds. The screening was like any gathering where one gravitates to those they know.



We turn on Netflix or Amazon Prime and scan headers for what’s familiar. Of “recent” titles, those of twenty years back or less, there are increasingly casts of strangers. So why take a chance with strangers? Then comes a Michael Douglas or Diane Keaton, still willing to work for amusement of us who no longer do, at light confections true, but these are what mature palettes stand best. There was one of late, D. Keaton as a long-ago cheerleader who transitions to an old folk’s home where she forms a senior pep squad. They enter a competition against mean teen girls … and win! My life was affirmed just watching, if sobered by presence by Pam Grier as one of the seniors. Pam Grier. Could anything bring mortality so close, and yet we watch because these are people we know from far back. Even their roles being diminished is a comfort, if a small one. Billing which reads “… and Bruce Willis as Arch Stanton,” will occasion a look in, as does Jerry Seinfeld yet doing stand-up, even as his net worth climbs past nine hundred and fifty million. Bless their vitality, though Willis lately retired for reasons of health, three projects awaiting completion or release. How many players voluntarily walk away? Most stay, and are wanted, especially by those who stream and will stop for them. There was only one C. Aubrey Smith during the forties. Now there are a hundred of him. May Robsons too, if better preserved than was she. Meaningful names are at a premium, their number less likely to be replenished. Can stars be born at Netflix? Not rhetorical, but an honest question from someone who doesn’t pretend to understand the modern marketplace.



I had but to look back brief to see it all coming. When NBC premiered Dirty Harry in the mid-seventies, my father glanced up to a thing unfamiliar until Clint Eastwood entered. Well, there’s old Rowdy Yates … and from there he watched. That is me now. I need reassurance of the familiar to venture in, like dogs or cats who must sniff a thing before having a taste. Watching Double Indemnity recent was reminder that it, and a lot of us watching, belong more to that past than today. We know Walter and Phyliss and Keyes, and actors playing them, but how many born since say, 1980, will enter that cave? To paraphrase Neff at the Dictaphone … black-and-white, checkstrange way they talk, checkeverybody long dead and forgot, checkand what the hell kind of device is this guy talking into? Double Indemnity and kin are more and more of a ghost world. They are the eighteenth-century literature I was assigned to read in college. What entertained once will likelier oppress now, and not just with movies. Music long adored fades from playlists, faceless focus groups ordaining its end. Authors earlier read and enjoyed are listed en masse at Wikipedia as “largely forgotten.” Look for instance at the back cover of a first edition of This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. These titles represented “New Scribner Fiction” in 1920. Recognize a one, even one? I did not, yet all were popular that year. Go the next step … what movies might we recognize from 1920?



Plenty, as it turned out: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Barrymore), The Flapper (Olive Thomas), Last of the Mohicans (Tourneur, Clarence Brown), The Mark of Zorro (Fairbanks), The Penalty (Chaney), Pollyanna (Mary Pickford), Way Down East (Griffith), and Why Change Your Wife? (DeMille). A number of these are available on Blu-Ray. All can be readily seen somewhere. Of Scribner fiction listed for 1920, I’ll guess none remain in print, except This Side of Paradise. Said topic has lately been my tar baby, ongoing bafflement as to why so much, in fact seeming whole of literature from a past century, has gone by boards. “Unreadable” is the term I most often see, so tell me, are 1920 movies from the above list “unwatchable”? Stack up the eight, and given time, we might enjoy them all. The Penalty still wallops. I’m more and more of opinion that film is not only our liveliest art, but maybe a best surviving art. Has anyone surveyed past music or fine art to determine content that pleases still today? Here is part reason I say movies continue to abide: There were always stills for them … and posters … publicity material of every conceivable sort. Online assures such stuff will be everywhere and forever more. Frozen images of Chaney, Pickford, and Fairbanks are never more than a click away, not singly, but by thousands. You Tube is a resource for everyone that ever stood before a camera. I found a very arresting five-minute clip of Olive Thomas (Broadway, Arizona --- 1917) that someone lately uploaded, and the YT sidebar led me to a bio of the star with her live/death laid bare. Novels and their authors had little such advantage. We’re lucky to find a single photograph of ones who scribbled but never performed.





No one need be utterly forgot so long as there is Internet and fans memorializing them digitally. Olive Thomas is still someone’s sweetheart, as evidence ease of reference to her online, and my man George Bancroft sees renewed fame thanks to a half dozen of his features plus innumerable clip and tributes at YT. Above is my own salute, a lobby card of GB from Paramount on Parade which I’m sure will find its way onto sites and Facebooks, more kindling for a Bancroft fire still burning. Found also The Life and Death of George Bancroft (a 14:42 minute salute) which turns out to be someone else entirely, “an American historian and statesman” who lived in the nineteenth century. Greenbriar has uploaded a minimum of 25,000 images since 2005, and I cling to belief that inhabitants of Pluto may well discover George Bancroft and plentiful others from a GPS past. There was never such access to gone faces and films before the Net. Remember examining tiny print of an index that was A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen by Daniel Blum just to find one still from an obscure 20’s title? Today yields permanence for all, truest triumph of image over print. Little stands for literature except what of it was adapted for movies. I read an essay last night about Frank Norris, his work unfamiliar but for Greed and Moran of the Lady Letty, each known thanks not to Norris, but EvS and Rudy. I don’t believe Safety Last and Harold Lloyd will ever go away so long as that iconic photo of him hanging off the clock survives. Things seen lately at You Tube … a videographer wondering if the “Golden Age of Original Cinema” ended in the nineties. The nineties? Yes, that someone’s, many a someone’s, idea of a Golden Age. Point he makes is that this was pre-sequels, pre route without risk that modern industry habitually takes. Plaintiff exhibits as follow: Ed Wood, Pulp Fiction, Good Fellas, The Sixth Sense, Four Weddings and a Funeral. The list goes beyond good ones I named, but point is made. These all were what the speaker grew up with, knows best, clings to, ... and he'd be little more than forty now, if that.



Point is that those who were formed by films during the nineties naturally hew closest to them. They grieve loss of creative spirit that made the era possible. My generation is no longer alone for living in an exalted past. Much younger ones now taste the hemlock. But examine current evidence as supplied by streaming services, from whence much that is original springs. I looked at two last week, The Phantom Thread and The House of Gucci. Both engaged me, each bold in its way. Certainly not like what we’ve seen before. I wonder if those who complain loudest are simply not digging deep enough. Does anyone even know how many movies fill ether that is Amazon Prime, Apple, Netflix, so many others that stream? One You Tuber giddy on digital wealth proposed that “cinema” is the Greatest of All Art Forms, now or ever in the past. His comment column immediately saw correctives. No, it is video games that reach highest toward art, while others propose that virtual reality will wipe slates clean to embark us upon epochs not dreamt of before. I can believe that, but will I live long enough to see it? And who of us might be too timid to step upon moonscape of action narrative to do battle with flesh-eater zombies? How rewarding could such immersion be?





Monday, August 08, 2022

Film Noir #11

 


Noir: The Black Glove and Blackmail


THE BLACK GLOVE (1954) --- Best I could tell, this Lippert/Hammer confab was shot in 1953, briefly US-released apx. March 1954, then let go to television in 1955 (as shown by a TV GUIDE listing from November of that year). Robert Lippert made a seeming hundred cheap features in league with nascent Hammer Films and other Brit firms, from late forties well into the sixties. I’ve a feeling these courted Eady cash (UK govt. boosting home production w/ financial incentives), plus tax advantage at home. Rare to locate domestic bookings, though Lippert had pals in exhibition who'd use them, plus he ran the lot at his own many venues. Anyway, they returned some sort of profit, else he would not have kept at it (possibly write-offs in the end, or something darker like money laundering?). Most are not so good as you’d like them to be, what with future Hammer horror talent behind cameras, in the case of The Black Glove Terence Fisher directing, Michael Carreras producing, Jimmy Sangster somewhere in minor capacity.



Lippert M.O. was to send an American name, never a major one, to star, this toward US selling or eventual TV syndication a better likelihood, and we may assume everyone got greased proper, except maybe scattered audiences that had to sit through shows like The Black Glove, which proposes to be a mystery, has noir trimming, moments of atmosphere, cute dialogue spotted here, mostly there, none congealing to satisfactory effect. With rush and too little funds in play, I give this credit for any little thing got right but could not recommend a sweep of pre-horror Hammer output. I slept now/then through much of The Black Glove but was alert to see hero Alex Nicol unmask the killer for a Nick Charles-Charlie Chan finish. The Black Glove showed up among “free” Amazon Prime offerings, and picture quality was fine, thus a pleasant surprise and I’ll not complain for having watched. Easy to never hear of, let alone see, a picture so obscure. Noir completists however might apply, others advised to poke about elsewhere.



BLACKMAIL (1947) --- Republic in the land of dark, serial and western folk transplanted to wet pavement and purse-held handguns. Some things don’t change, like fist fights wild as what the Crimson Ghost earlier engaged, during which, per Republic, hats never fly off (a Herb Yates edict?). Mister Big of thuggery is, who else?, Roy Barcroft. Juvenile boys were right at home watching this one. Yolk is more barely boiled than hard, runny in fact. Blackmail was screen debut for “Hollywood Detective” Dan Turner, pulp-bred creation of Robert Leslie Bellem, known less by moviegoers than by millions who read Spicy Detective, wherein Bellem via Turner put readership through paces meek movies would not dare. A best summary of what they wrought was S.K. Perelman’s for The New Yorker, excerpts from Bellem, plus Perelman commentary, to show how outlandish hard-boiled fiction had got by the 40’s. Made me want to go find everything Bellem wrote (there are recent-printed anthologies).



Blackmail
unfortunately is tepid tea. Republic was not of a mind to break down barriers. Dan Turner could have been Dill Pickle for all they cared, as no detective in theirs or anyone’s hands could be more generic. Turner is played by William Marshall, who had once been a band singer, and by evidence here, should have remained so. Blackmail fits definition of noir in theme but not by execution. Lesley Selander directs, he of numerous good westerns, and there is Ricardo Cortez to remind us that precode once led fields and would not again. Violence and sex the preserve of Bellem/Turner stories is muted here to a vanishing point. Any fans of pulp going to Blackmail with expectation would have been severely disappointed, though I doubt many were so foolish or trusting to have bet quarters against whatever Republic handed them, unless it was Zorro or Rocky Lane. Here was a matter of Blacksmith, Stick to Your Forge, or whatever variation on that expression applies. Saw Blackmail on You Tube, a print odd for having quick fades to black every few minutes to cue for commercial placement on 50’s television, Republic backlog having been sold early to the enemy camp (and exhibitors hated them for it).





Monday, August 01, 2022

Brits Romance at the Seashore

Bank Holiday (1937) is UK Idea of Vacation

Released here by Gaumont, but barely, as Three On A Weekend, and if ever a title needed change, here was it. Early directorial effort by Carol Reed that left no doubt as to talent developing. Bank Holiday's moniker was restored for distributing MGM's print that TCM uses, being showcase for British-Lioness Margaret Lockwood in appealing mode to develop further with her next, The Lady Vanishes. Three On A Weekend was actually a misleading title, as plenty more than three are addressed, Lockwood and mis-matched companion Hugh Williams a most prominent among good-sized ensemble. Romance aborning is between she and a bereaved husband met in sympathetic nursing capacity. They're separated for virtual whole of running time, suspense derived from whether they'll get together for the fade. Bank Holiday is well made and engaging, its mix of seaside classes (mostly lower) a nice, and I assume authentic, glimpse of Brit vacation ritual. This all would seem remote to US patronage in 1938, and reason for the film's near-invisibility stateside. Good, then, to have Bank Holiday turn up at TCM, in addition to inclusion on a Region Two box set of Margaret Lockwoods. VCI also offers a DVD.




Monday, July 25, 2022

Comedy Is Catching


They Laughed 180 Years Ago --- Why Not Now?


Plenty can testify re comedy impact on audiences, us all having experienced it in theatres, but what of days long before screens were hung, and film unspooled? Minstrel times specifically, that which Mark Twain looked at live during the 1840’s when but a boy. He learned then about laughs and what earned them, wrote years later when occasion came to escort his mother and an elderly aunt to their first ever such show, at a time when minstrelsy itself was fading from landscapes. For young Samuel Clemens, the “Negro musical show” of early incarnation was “a glad and stunning surprise,” jokes the funnier as he was hearing them for a first time. Clemens recalled a house convulsed when “Mr. Bones” told of a sea crossing with all provisions lost, passengers subsisting on eggs. “You lived on eggs! Where did you get eggs?” asks the interlocuter. “Every day, when the storm was so bad, the captain laid to.” For years the gag worked, until finally it did not, “the population of the United States had heard it so many times that they respected it no longer and always received it in a deep and reproachful and indignant silence, along with others of its caliber which had achieved disfavor by long service.” What Sam learned about audiences, ones separated by twenty years but hearing same routines, made him realize what comedy can do for and to crowds.



The minstrel encore came during the Civil War, Sam’s mother in attendance with him and Aunt Betsey, “a dear and lovely lady of her own age (60),” both “fond of excitement” and novelties. They were in St. Louis, and the Christy Minstrel troupe (“one of the most celebrated … and one of the best”) was playing to an audience of sixteen hundred. Both women were astonished by the costumes and extravagance. Inevitably, the joke about eggs came round. “Everybody in the house except my novices had heard it a hundred times, a frozen and solemn silence settled down upon the sixteen hundred, and poor “Bones” sat there in that depressing atmosphere and went through with his joke,” only this time when the captain “laid to,” there came “heart-whole cackles and convulsions of laughter (from Sam’s mother and Aunt Betsey) that so astonished and delighted that great audience that it rose in a solid body to look, and see who it might be that had not heard that joke before. The laughter of my novices went on and on until their hilarity became contagious, and the whole sixteen hundred joined in and shook the place with the thunders of their joy.” Here was how two members from a mass could turn tides and convert an ordinary evening into an event, “all the jokes as new to them as they were as old to the rest of the house.” Mark Twain might well have spoken for happenings to occur in theatres over the century and a half since: “The audience left the place sore and weary with laughter and full of gratitude to the innocent pair that had furnished to their jaded souls that rare and precious pleasure.”



Could a single, or pair viewing, accomplish as much today? There is cause to think that moderns are more resistant to humor. Do we age out of capacity to laugh together? I attended a 1977 concert by stand-up comedian Steve Martin at Wake Forest University, him at a peak of new-minted popularity. Here was a college mob, several thousand at least, there to see Steve with his banjo cavort as on Saturday Night Live and other televised places. It couldn’t miss … except it did because gags were all too familiar to nearly everyone in the auditorium. Steve felt flooring sink beneath his feet, stepped finally toward us to plaintively inquire --- you’ve all got HBO, haven’t you? A chorus of yes and scattered applause, but Steve was stuck with what he had prepared, and so doggedly saw through material dog-eared by repeat views of a cable special that now made his live appearance superfluous. Martin’s plight was not unlike comics who in the late twenties agreed to do Vitaphone shorts, these sent to wired theatres throughout the country, a host of towns large and small where the performer could never use those gags again. If vaudeville was dying, here was rushing ahead with burial.




A routine appealing enough might loop a hundred times on our You Tube, three-to-six-minute detail of which is committed forever to memory. Such is province of home sitters alone and so less weird for looking at a thing over and over, but I recall a time when whole audiences did same rituals, going back weekend after weekend, again in 1977, to worship Smokey and the Bandit. Others of us loitered about the College Park Cinema, so were privy to the odd repeaters. All were past laughing, transfixed instead by cars crashing and liturgy as observed by a cast now cousins to those who devotedly came to re-watch. It always needed audience of sufficient size to bestir glee. I went to a matinee of Young Frankenstein in 1974 and there were maybe fifteen people present. None to my knowledge as much as smiled. A month later I sat in at the College Park and they roared. It took a village, you see. That Chaplin weekend I attended at Durham in 2010 drew but thirty-nine of us to The Circus, but it clicked well as anything to such a small group could, and as told before, I was gratified by applause that came with the finish. What might Chaplin have done with a same house at capacity?




Back to the Civil War and its minstrel night. Was it the two women’s laughter that gave the audience license to respond as heartily? Had they wanted to laugh but did not for fear of looking and sounding like rubes? Mark Twain and his “novices” brought gust of fresh wind into what had become a staid setting. It’s like the time I saw Sabrina at a NY revival house in 1983 and the crowd responded gaily throughout. What a surprise, and what renewal for a favorite still a favorite but taken too long for granted (by me) with no snickers left in it. As movies carried on, with humor often timeworn, we more and more need a mainstream’s consent to enjoy it unabashedly. Distancing of age made allowance for “quaint” and enabled a modern minstrel like Buster Keaton to come on Ed Wynn’s TV program in 1949 to reprise The Butcher Boy from dawn of man that was 1917, as old routines served to 60's era of irony having rotted into camp, Buster again their ambassador in likes of Pajama Party, doing routines he knew were surefire, and yes, they were fresh to many of teens watching. A gag old enough could be brazenly repeated where being old was the joke in itself. I’m thinking of climbs up poles to a sign reading Wet Paint by Laurel and Hardy, first in 1928 (Habeas Corpus), again in 1945 for The Big Noise, then four short years later comes Cary Grant to do the same in I Was a Male War Bride. What did they take us for --- novices?




Robert Youngson compilations was what made it alright to linger upon spent comedy and realize there was much to admire in humor from so long ago. Children and a lot of adults attending The Golden Age of Comedy in 1957 were unknowing successors to Mrs. Clemens and Aunt Betsey. They’d not seen such wonders before. Ones old enough to recall mirth as dealt during the teens and twenties, obviously they were plentiful, could holler This stuff is stale! --- but who believed them amidst fresh-found joy? Novices filled matinee slots where old comedies played not as classic or cult, just content that despite being black-and-white, might still please youth years back of first family color TV. Late as 1963, the Orangeburg, SC Drive-In unspooled Way Out West (L&H), Go West (Marx Bros.), and Gold Raiders (Stooges), all from 30/40’s. What was old became “cornball,” funny again if it was to begin with, being things we could laugh at on multiple levels, ironic, or naïve for ones like Mrs. Clemens or Aunt Betsey who never saw Francis in the Haunted House before. Corny shows, generally three or four features at a sit, were passed-around policy among brother NC/SC exhibitors who knew stix pix fit fewer spots in a growingly sophisticated market waiting on The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde, but at least for a first half of the sixties, a showman could harvest kernels and flatter crowds by letting all in on the joke “cornball” comedy had become. They should have been around to host the Christy Minstrels, but hold, there came the New Christy Minstrels, founded in 1961, to assert how brief even a century can be for “jaded souls” to gather anew and find fun in most unlikely places.





Monday, July 18, 2022

Film Noir #10


Noir: The Big Operator and Black Angel



THE BIG OPERATOR (1959) --- Mickey Rooney could give great performances in repose. Let the film be rag-tag, Mick never missed. By 1959, he was shuttling between leads for B’s and support in A’s. Attitude may have held him down, as Rooney had habit of sacking agents and biting hands that fed him. Deep-resenting how he was treated since Number One time was passed, Rooney saw solace in playing hard-bark heavies where he’d push around even ones that dwarf him like Steve Cochran and Ray Danton. Conductor of twisted symphony that is The Big Operator was Albert Zugsmith, of whom it was said no one was so penurious or given so to sludge. But … if there were no Zuggy, there would likely be no Touch of Evil, or The Incredible Shrinking Man, so take medicine that is The Big Operator and like it. Any film where Steve Cochran is happy wed to Mamie Van Doren (their kid is Jay North) ranks high among my souvenirs. Cast in support can only be called inspired … where does one even begin? Mel Torme, aforesaid Danton, Leo Gordon, Jim Backus, Charles Chaplin Jr., Ray Anthony, and VAMPIRA --- caps necessary because there was but one Vampira (unless you factor in Carrol Borland or Elvira).



She is billed too as Vampira, not Maila Nurmi, and better still, plays a beatnik. Jackie Coogan is present, credited too as Dialogue Coach, and who could have brought to that job such range of experience? Coogan saw much in his life, too much to speak of for interviews perhaps, an infant of tawdriest tank stops and bad influences from parents on down. GPS addressed Jack before in terms of being cheated out of millions, lynch mob presence, and marriage to Betty Grable (what she learned from him). Most movies will assure you that unions are on the square, but Zugsmith apparently got no such directive. Rooney’s brotherhood appears to be rotten from the top down. Had Zugsmith been having union trouble? The Big Operator was distributed by MGM, done independent by Zugsmith for negative cost of $537K, scope black-and-white and on L.A. streets or the Metro backlot where needed. There came but $319K in domestic rentals, $295K foreign. Final loss was $312K. The Big Operator plus others Zugsmith did for Metro release reverted to him, all gone quick to TV. Olive has a Blu-Ray of fine quality.



BLACK ANGEL (1946) --- Universal did class mysteries during the 40’s to invite better bookings and placement at top of bills their unaccustomed place. Toward that came gifted directors like Robert Siodmak, writers to climb hill out of pulp origin, and casts to supply conviction if not glamour. Phantom Lady, then The Suspect and Scarlet Street, proved it could be done, and to a public’s liking. These had Siodmak or Fritz Lang as signatories, prior associates of Hitchcock on hand (Joan Harrison a producer), plus stories strung on crime and guilt to ensnare folks like you/me who schlep onto harm’s path. One could cast an Alan Curtis, Dan Duryea, or at further extreme Charles Laughton or Edward G. Robinson and realize how easy it was for common clay to trip up and into a gas chamber. Black Angel has a nonentity we barely meet (John Bennett) charged right off with murder, and a wife ticking down to his scheduled execution, a “good girl” (June Vincent) who won’t mind using born loser Dan Duryea to find the real killer.



Wrinkle here is that Duryea might be the killer, if unaware of the fact, complications the handiwork of source author Cornell Woolrich, who for many is sufficient reason to look at Black Angel. I like how Vincent strings Duryea along, being handsy with him and seeming to promise he’ll be successor to the husband however the case turns out, Duryea this time lovelorn rather than a cruel exploiter of women. This actor was clearly floated here for something other than villainy or weaklings. Roy William Neill directs Black Angel, having graduated from the Sherlock Holmes series, his future seeming assured for noir and like subjects had not death claimed him in 12/46 at age fifty-nine. Universal constructs a lavish nightclub set and stages most of action around it, a boost to production values and off-set to perception that Black Angel is more of “B” same. Universal really had to earn whatever first-run placement they got, offerings from them vetted thorough before “A” dates were bestowed. Black Angel was released as a nice standard DVD, then more recently a Blu-Ray from Kino.





Monday, July 11, 2022

Phantom At Fairground


 "Old-Time Movies" Among Coney Marvels



Coney Island for me was merely a place movie characters went to. Real people attended too of course, in droves as to be startling. Here seemed spot where one stood in line just to wade into vastness of surf. To gather where you’ve no space to turn seems anything but inviting, though I’m told stress of the city made any retreat a godsend despite gobs of humanity pressed firm together. There surely was joy at Coney, an East Coast Disneyland decades before there was a Disneyland, nights lit to splendor few experienced before, a best yet exhibit of modern miracle that was electricity. For New Yorkers, it was a World’s Fair built to last. I never went and assume little remains of what once-mobs beheld. There are myriad Coney postcards among attics yet, trickle from these to eBay a never-will-end process. Of ghosts to awake me was above glimpse of boys regarding “Stauch’s Original Old-Time Movies,” which I understand rolled up its screen in 1940, so this was mid-late thirties. I thought for a while we were in 1925, youngsters gathered to see Phantom of the Opera when it was new, too good to be true, though this will more than do, us close among tough troop of ragamuffins there to see if stuff so ancient still has juice to quench them.




These boys being “show me” sort would have missed Lon Chaney when fresh, but heard of him from parents. The Phantom unmasked sent mom-pop screaming into streets and legend of that persisted. Not from this troupe would screams come. “Ironic” generations were incubating here, poised to jeer what unnerved a public of years past. Were nickels or dimes fair fare to go in and face Phantoms? The fact latter won’t talk is known to these scruffs, “old-time” films code for screen silence. Charlie Chaplin lends support with comedy gone back to 1914 (Caught in a Cabaret), seemingly before anybody in the world was born. This group looks like what Rocky Sullivan corrupted upon release from stir and coming back to his old neighborhood. One looking at the camera w/ripped shirt suggests Billy Halop with mouth curled close to a snarl. I would not have liked passing this bunch on my way to violin lessons at age twelve. So NY/NJ boys smoked openly in the street? Grown-ups onlooking are tentative, knowing potential trouble when they see it.


 


From where did Stauch’s book the print? Surely not Universal, done and out of Phantom trade by this time. I’ll guess they used 16mm Kodascope. As to advertising out front, there is a half-sheet for the 1930 reissue, with sound and Technicolor scenes, a “Now Playing” snipe to cover up promise of these. Promo leaned on pageantry rather than the Phantom himself, policy upon ’25 release and some period later to keep mask-less visage off placards. Think what a cloudburst would do to all this, like the Liberty letting its Panther Girl of the Kongo one-sheet get drenched by elements in 1967. Would storms send Stauch staff hurriedly out to drag standees to safety? --- or did they say never mind, it’s only paper. Looks like 11x14 lobby cards on display in addition to 8X10 stills, a temptation to rogues. Did our Dead-Enders take home souvenirs? Co-attraction Chaplin was rote matter for more than mere “old-time” engaging. His two-reelers had been in recent circulation by RKO at member houses all over and well-received by all. Did Coney fans figure on flicks as adjunct to ice cream and cotton candy? Shows ran to midnight at least. Note loudspeaker out front. Oh, for a recording of the barker’s spiel. Bet Phantom was never so fun before this or since.




Coney Island was much about open air and water everywhere, but there were attractions behind doors, some revolved around water as well, punishing and devastating downpours, as in a building dedicated to the Johnstown Flood and all its horror, a place you’d enter to experience death up close. People then as now were fascinated by doom onrushing, nature turned upon all and claiming victims indiscriminately. Imagine a structure built upon premise of fate inescapable. Did it become a grocer's or warehouse later? Reminiscent this is of when the 1904 St. Louis fair saluted Galveston on graphic terms. Folks like learning how others go about perishing, being nature of beasts we are. Coney had rides that look dangerous, would likely be banned now. “Shoot the Chutes” was hazardous enough to knock Fatty and his date sideways and into drink for his 1917 comedy made on site, but more of that later. You could empty a day and night at Coney. It was cheap, and for everybody. A “frankfurter and roll” cost ten cents. When did we start calling them hot dogs? (Answer: they already were, per trade ad below)





There were bath houses and steam rooms where boys shunned fat men giving them glimpse of what they might one day become. Dance halls of sufficient enormity were places you'd enter alone but not necessarily come out that way. Bands were everywhere and songs became hits at Coney. Go Where the Crowds Go to hear Al Ferguson play “You’ll Do the Same Thing Over Again” as diners look off balconies to enjoy the dance, but there’s eerily Coconut Grove-ish aura to raised space with obscure means of egress. I perused You Tube and found “You’ll Do the Same Thing Over Again,” a 1911 recording on Edison wax. It so far has 68 listens, so I am in rarified company. The song amuses and has true things to say of people and life, as much of popular tuning did in that day. After-meal cigars were had from counters bigger than anything we see today to sell any product. What made men give up cigars so completely? To be defined by your smoke … who was the last to do that --- Clint Eastwood in his spaghettis? … Arnold Schwarzenegger? I’ll paraphrase Buster in The Playhouse saying “This fellow Stauch seems to be the whole show.” Did Stauch own Coney Island? “The Capitol of the Pleasure City” was his, but Stauch had lots of capitols, as building fronts attest. Louis Stauch was loved, and generous to charity. He lived to see Coney decline and most of his structures demolished.



Coney Island peaked before World War One, so Fatty, Buster, and Al going there in 1917 may amount to valedictory for the place. All doors, parks, and places swung open to Roscoe. Him enjoying Coney was guarantee we all could, whatever a distance getting there. If someone had shown Arbuckle a crystal ball of what was going to happen to him, I don’t think he could have believed it. For that matter, how could anyone so in grip of Fatty love? Prints of Coney Island are gloriously upgraded from how they used to look, varied specimen sprinkled about You Tube. Action begins on the beach, a quiet spot, for folks knowing Fatty was present would have pushed waves back. As it is, we see onlookers distant from a pier. Imagine Coney management holding closer crowds at bay. Fatty has a nag wife and can’t get shed of her, tosses sand down the front of her shore outfit then buries himself altogether near the waterline, using a periscope to see from under the pile. How miserably uncomfortable silent comedy making was. Could there be enough showers to keep slog from under one’s very skin? Roscoe was known as dapper offscreen, maybe his way of asserting, I can be pristine clean as any of you, despite grime to which I’m daily plunged. Part why all gravitated to Fatty was his willingness to take punishment and be chipper about it, a gladsome friend for all. Loss of that is something we’ll never quite conceptualize from such time distant. Buster Keaton of immortality Arbuckle had taken away gives forecast of his own varied things to come, at one point doing a backflip that looks more special effect than feat humans could perform, but there is Buster doing it, and we are yet amazed. Al St. John is sans necessary teeth, more likeable the more you endure him. Still can’t believe he appeared in person at the Liberty, during the fifties (in “Bad Fuzzy” guise). Look please at the very studied still above, one of first I suspect so carefully composed, Buster with the sledge, Fatty’s hat headed skyward, an image endlessly reprinted and forever emblematic of silent comedy as utterly carefree epoch it was.

grbrpix@aol.com
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