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Monday, January 30, 2023

Clay That Became a Metro Special


How to Tell a Story That Became Wife vs. Secretary (1936)


Retrieved via research done at USC’s Cinema Library in 1989 are memos generated by Metro in 1934-35 for project that became Wife vs. Secretary, released in early 1936 as vehicle for star trio Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy, and directed by Clarence Brown. A story editor by name of Ray Long declares (10/18/34), “This is to be the exceptional, the totally different story of a triangle. Instead of being played with rancor or peevishness, it is to be played light-heartedly and in a tempo like that of The Thin Man.” What was it to be an “exceptional” or “totally different” property at MGM circa 1934? Did narrative often begin this way before varied hands applied  sameness and convention? 10/18/34 was but months into stricter Code enforcement. Surely there were ideas submitted for Wife vs. Secretary that ultimately came out. Overlap with style and humor of The Thin Man lets us know how influential that historic hit was, not only in terms of audience popularity, but ways it was imitated for seasons to come. Fresh styles of humor were not long fresh once seized by others and bled white, The Thin Man and It Happened One Night (also 1934) two most copied concepts from whole of the thirties. Wife vs. Secretary was intended for William Powell to headline. As “Vanning Sanford,” Powell “loves parties, likes his cocktails and highballs.” Alcohol consumption had become a screen signature for this star, The Thin Man best evidence of glamour associated with drink, now safely legalized in the US and adding patina of sophistication to modern-set romances and comedy. Powell as ambassador for such lifestyle would peak however with The Thin Man, Code policy forbidding excess of liquor consumption lest it be aped by audiences.

Image Restoration Courtesy Mark Vieira/ Starlight Studio


Wife vs. Secretary
was for complicating the lives of otherwise enviable characters so that patrons could exit relieved and refreshed: “It should send husbands, wives, and secretaries out of the theater, each saying, “Well, at least we get a break.”” This was old psychology, the rich and beautiful beset with problems that wealth or attractiveness alone, or combined, cannot overcome. In the end, a Gable or Harlow must conform to standards we all observe, lest bear disgrace for their trespass. If we cannot be these characters, or live in any way like them, then let us feel superior to folly that led identification figures to near-collapse of family and career the result of misjudgment we’d not yield to. Clark Gable has nothing on us for plain common sense. Dynamic operations were the stuff of thirties romance emerging but slow from Depression’s grip. Wife vs. Secretary was set amidst high-powered publishing, model being the Curtis Company in Philadelphia, its entire operation under one roof. Curtis wasn’t indicated by name, but insiders recognized the brand, this being where slick magazines and advertising to buttress them saw birth. Imagine those inspired by such example choosing occupation along sped-up line that was slicks plus promoting that went with them. Salaries allowed for elegant homes, nightly revel, and servants at ready. This was private enterprise equivalent to stage celebrity or other such noteworthy enterprise, exotic as to be out of reach but not altogether inaccessible. Harlow’s secretary character will cede marriage or family just to work among trend-setters despite mere clerical status. “I think I shall die an old maid. I’m going to stick by Bill (Powell) at the office … I need my life with him more that I need any husband,” hers or any ambitious woman's philosophy as MGM story staff understood it.

Clarence Brown Directs Clark Gable and Myrna Loy


The Code obliged filmmakers to adopt an unreal posture. How could a Jean Harlow accept spinsterhood and lifelong platonic association with a William Powell, let alone Clark Gable as Powell’s casting substitute? Audiences would be asked by the mid-thirties to suspend disbelief aroused by situations that were frankly implausible. Said producer Hunt Stromberg upon assignment to Wife vs. Secretary: “Vanning Sanford (Gable’s character, later changed to Van Stanhope) is deeply attached to and fond of the girl (Harlow) because she, in some measure, is like a nurse who has faithfully and unselfishly administered to a person through illness. These sorts of people cannot help but be loved. And when we say loved in this instance, we do not associate it with the physical nor the passionate.” It was as though Stromberg was trying to kid himself and others through idealized personalities not the least like all-too-human nature of those making Wife vs. Secretary and others who'd eventually watch it. Stromberg burrows deep for conviction that such people do, or at least might, exist in some corner of real life: “You can love a person to the extent of doing anything for them --- or risking anything. That does not mean that you would kick your wife in the face and go to bed with the girl.” In less circuitous terms, Stromberg was telling all who’d listen to do as we say, not as we do, “we” being MGM higher-ups and godlike stars long in the habit of taking what they wanted and never mind morality or consequence. Wife vs. Secretary as much as any post-Code represented fork in roads headed for untruth many movies had to cope with until clever enough personnel devised ways to tell an adult story more adroitly.



Stromberg wanted spice of The Thin Man but knew he’d not have that under guidelines recently imposed. “All this opening (breakfast scene) should be a veritable whirlwind of pace and bright, amusing business, in which we warm up to these people instantly in something of the vein of The Thin Man relationship.” Wife vs. Secretary does less effectively what The Thin Man had done so right. Clark Gable has not the urbanity of Powell. He seems to struggle with an unfamiliar setting, and over-cute dialogue won’t help. And whose idea was it to have him gift Myrna Loy with a bracelet wrapped inside a fried flounder? Messy to say the least, as who would want the fish after jewelry is pried out? The Sanford lifestyle is lavish, but Van’s is a common touch. He even bets with a servant on the outcome of a sporting event. This marriage is a perfect one, but the Stanhopes do not share a bedroom, Van coyly asking how “Linda” got along “after that man (himself) left last night,” assuring us that he at least enjoys conjugal access to her separate sleeping quarter. The stage is set for a threat to this union, but it won’t come from steadfast secretary Harlow as “Whitey Wilson,” interestingly named as this was when MGM browned Harlow’s platinum hair to normalize her appearance and persona. Whitey lives with parents and has a drip of a boyfriend (James Stewart) who wants her to chuck the job and marry him. Any life at the office, even a chaste one, would be preferable to this. At no time is attraction indicated between Van and Whitey, an unnatural state as between Gable and Harlow, who had coupled so readily but a few years prior.



Hunt Stromberg saw nonsensical aspect of the pairing. How could this secretary “admire” her boss without “wanting to climb in the hay with him,” a concern to mirror that of audiences to come. Had 1936’s public entered willing compact with Hollywood to make a best of unwanted circumstance, to give up goodies all knew could not last? Cries for censorship had been long and persistent, it obvious that truce of sorts must be reached if movies were to last. Stromberg declared that Wife vs. Secretary would “break the chain of MGM’s women’s formula,” which he could argue it did, but to whose loss? Source story was from pages of Cosmopolitan, Faith Baldwin the author, and we’ll assume she spun the yarn more honestly than screenwriters Norman Krasna, Alice Duer Miller, and John Lee Mahin managed. Essential problem lay in fact that if Harlow/Whitey could not have Gable/Van, what then would be her outcome? Question was asked and answered by 4/26/35, Harlow alone at the end, but not, Stromberg assured, “a long-suffering Cinderella, who sits by and tears out her heart while the wife eats all the frosting from the cake.” Did Wife vs. Secretary achieve satisfying resolution? Not from perspective of eighty-seven passed years, logic telling us, as it surely did viewers in 1936, that Whitey must leave her job and accept consolation prize that is simpering Stewart, him of seventy-five a week job he’ll expect both to live on, Van and his staff-full apartment a gone dream. Assurance she has done the “right” thing by giving up Gable left, still leaves, ashen aftertaste.

Could Gable Play a Character of Great Intellect and Achievement? Your call!


Harlow and Whiny Consolation Prize She Gets

Casting concerns are reflected in the memos. Insiders surprisingly made same assumptions re limitation of MGM stars that a public or unsympathetic critics might have. Stromberg expressed doubt that Clark Gable could play “a man of great mental brilliance and of intellectual background … a character that represents another type of world entirely.” These were not issues with William Powell initially aboard. Did Stromberg adopt too narrow a view of Gable? “In my opinion, Gable … is too much the type of brawn and muscle, as all his great performances have proven.” This actor could not show Van Stanhope’s “polish – association with big enterprises --- great, keen wit, and intellect --- charm of personality --- gentleness --- but above all, achievement.” A tall order for any player, especially one defined in terms of “personality.” Had Gable or any of Metro talent an idea of how coolly they were appraised by handlers, as often thought inadequate by estimation of higher-ups? As to job of being Van Stanhope, “I’m not sure at all whether Gable could accomplish this,” said Stromberg. Despite immense popularity, Gable like anyone had to prove his ability, range if needed within a defined persona, again and again. Consider challenge of Mutiny on the Bounty to be met, a part Gable was certain he could not handle. Studio support could go but so far. In the end, all players had to fend for themselves. Debacle that was Parnell would demonstrate limit even to competence and ingenuity otherwise taken for granted within the factory system. No star for a moment could assume they were entirely safe.

Mother Knows Best, Says May Robson to Myrna Loy


Wife vs. Secretary
would be about the suspicion of adultery rather than adultery itself, or “something smutty” in Gable/Van parlance. This is a man who had rolled with married Mary Astor but four years before in Red Dust. Whispers start among the Stanhope’s mean-spirited friends. For damage done, we wish they could find new friends. Stanhope parties are filled with Iagos. Temptation is but momentarily addressed, and that well into Act Three. Harlow’s sexuality was sacrificed to the new order along with her hair color. Gable’s too, him much the goofball here, “a sexual Mister Magoo” as writer Rene Jordan observed. Beacon of sense turns out to be May Robson as Van’s mother, who explains secretarial threat to oblivious Myrna Loy. One thing the Code did not do was place muzzles on mothers. They could voice reality movies were otherwise forbidden to explore, like for instance a husband’s always-inclination to cheat, as in “leaving a small boy alone in a room with a box-full of candy.” Of course he’s going to eat it, be sorry later, but still … he will eat. Movie moms accepted facts of married life and tried passing wisdom to daughters. Remember The Women where Lucile Watson tells Norma Shearer that her father once (heck, several times) had affairs? … after which marriage sustained because after all “he never loved those women.” Stick it out, Mother counsels. Never leave on a point of pride. Maybe wives were better off, she says, when divorce was not an option, and they had to stay, whatever the husband’s improprieties. Imagine Robson/Watson monologues delivered today. There would be much talent in breadlines after.




Wife vs. Secretary triumphs on gloss enough to work a sort of mass-hypnotism upon watchers. I pondered upon lives of its cast --- what they were thinking, as in who among them attached any more value to this piece than the throwaway Cosmopolitan tale it was based upon. One reason stars got restless was ephemeral nature of work they did. Were I to somehow re-call shades of Gable, Harlow, and Loy to tell them how much I enjoyed Wife vs. Secretary in 2023, they’d rightly figure me cracked. Too little is known of what drove these folks, how they regarded their work, because (1) Gable talked hardly ever of past jobs and died too soon (1960) for serious profiling, not that he necessarily would cooperate, (2) Harlow was gone a year and a half (1937) after being Whitey, leaving only Loy, and to lesser degree James Stewart, to sort out what went on so many years before. Loy made up to some degree for loss of the others, being a perceptive, and I think reliable, surviving witness to 30’s MGM she was among last to describe. Loy speaks yet on You Tube chats varied as Dick Cavett guesting or phone conversation her caller recorded no doubt without consent (one wherein she takes off on Katharine Hepburn, whom she disliked and thought a “show-off”). All are ghosts now, us left with ghostly videos. Interview programs were not done to last. Film and stills taken to promote film do however have a permanency, assuming they are properly preserved. Images posted here and elsewhere boast clarity a tribute to what artists achieved in 1935-36, Wife vs. Secretary reborn thanks to Warner Archives’ newly released Blu-Ray. Classic era artifacts have come a long way from thirty-forty or more years ago when remnants looked as if they’d not again see freshness of the new. Ironic that now with all of principals from the era gone, we finally have Wife vs. Secretary and others like it to enjoy as they should have been from respective starts.





Monday, January 23, 2023

Film Noir #19

 


Noir: Brick, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Brute Force


BRICK (2005) --- I issue coherence challenge for anyone who can honestly say they understood a quarter of dialogue spoken in Brick. Old folk describe watching recent films with subtitles. Their hearing is fine, but comprehension? Gone. It is as though several generations have been shut out of entertainment. Mumbling dialogue has been fashionable in some quarters for over seventy years, proper diction regarded a false god no actor should worship, long since coached out of them. Too few of us are understood even where we try hardest. I always thought speech should be taught in schools. How about instead of Algebra II to start? Brick has been categorized as noir. It is clearly inspired by Dashiell Hammett, and specifically The Maltese Falcon. Let’s say it is Hammett for the very immature. Brick might work better if it took itself less seriously. Pulp lingo substitutes for how we expect teenagers to talk, whatever dialogue is intelligible, unreasonable perhaps to expect different. Brick has a student disappear from what appears a post-apocalyptic high school where there are no classes, or teachers, in evidence, save Louis Gossett Jr. as a vice-principal whom I bless for enunciating clear among others determined not to. Brick is further instance where I might be called out-of-touch for not getting it. Undoubtedly they are right. One review says Brick is not only the best film noir ever made, but maybe the best movie ever made. Perhaps best for me to stay clear of neo/crypto/proto noir for the good of all. Seems what clicks for a past twenty years is at the least “different.” It drove loose-defined noirs like The Usual Suspects and one where everything went backwards (Memento). How long shall traditional narrative remain the enemy?



BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974) --- A College Park attraction. Not a few late Peckinpahs landed there, each it seemed more flawed than the last. I walked into Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to observe men shooting heads off live chickens and said That will do. Missed Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner (latter seen since, and very good), while The Getaway, which everyone beat path to College Park for, had fine sections, but seemed way cruel and unpleasant when Al Lettieri went overboard abusing the TV actor couple. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia I did sit through and liked, in fact do still, which seems a violation of norm because this is where Peckinpah was said to go bridges too far toward full-flung nihilist. The director felt Bring Me the Head came closest to his overall intent, studio interference a least so far recorded. Some (me) could call Alfredo happy culmination of Mexico-Be-Scary shows that thrived from The Treasure of Sierra Madre, through The Big Steal, Blowing Wild, Jeopardy, and innumerable westerns. Garcia was relentlessly grim and hard-R for a time when such approach and attitude was commonplace. We expected no seventies film to end cheerily.


Peckinpah uses bumps that livened earlier ventures, a finish to echo The Wild Bunch and give fans what they want from Sam Peckinpah. He was trapped as "Bloody Sam" by 1974, no more lyricism for maverick and lit fuse this director had become. Sam was getting $400K per picture, and there were expectations. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia got good reviews, but bad ones were louder. Pauline Kael sat him down, rather dressed him down for two hours, and she had been a supporter. Sam was long an alcoholic, but now Alfredo star Warren Oates introduced him to cocaine, so it was fast freight from there. Everyone then thought coke was relatively harmless, no hangovers!, and what’s more, non-addictive. I don’t wonder it ate through Hollywood like Piranhas. Peckinpah had a self-destructive bent anyway, and this just made him worse. For all of drugs and booze, it was a miracle any movie got finished, especially Cross of Iron and parts of The Killer Elite. I remember thinking he had really sold out to do a dumb trucker thing, or could be I was put off by Kris Kristofferson. Might Peckinpah have lasted better in the studio era where responsibilities were better understood, and discipline more rigidly imposed? He had plentiful talent, writing as well as later directing. I watched again the first episode of a Brian Keith TV series he created, The Westerner, and it was a splendid job. That was early and when Peckinpah was trying to make initial impression, so he behaved. What hopes so many had after The Wild Bunch, a moment seeming like Sam Peckinpah could resurrect his industry, or at least an action end of it. So much of 60-70’s talent flashed and burned. How much of that do we blame on lifestyle excess?



BRUTE FORCE (1947) --- A prison stay harsher for audiences than what movies gave before, result of Mark Hellinger upping authenticity, at least surface so, politics behind penal system a focus, plus bad apples among guard personnel, among which is villain to a T chillingly enacted by Hume Cronyn, who I’m surprised wasn’t typed in this sort of role for career remain (was there treachery in TV anthologies he did which I haven’t seen and would not have easy access to?). Woman interest is served by random femme inserting to flashbacks and dream scenes. Awkward and pointless, but essential to selling, as Hellinger admitted. Whole of his pile rode on each offering after The Killers and continued declare of independence. “Hellinger Tells It “The Killers” Way,” said ads, and so he did, a least we’d expect from hard-tack truth told in column work for Gotham sheets and realizing Hellinger knew an underworld inside and frontwards. Brute Force takes care to bend our cell-block saturation without breaking it, speeches made to effect that you can’t crowd but so many men in so small cages without hell to eventually pay, which it does here in a riot payoff that upped ante for violence and must have shocked tender watchers. Inmates are loyal with one another to a point, but ones who talk get it hard, most graphic death dealt to informers. Burt Lancaster did this at a time he was mired in noir, often on born loser setting. How many capers could one man bungle? Brute Force otherwise gives character ensemble plenty of sun to shine in, talents anything but confined. Note a ripped John Hoyt early on, he body-built for a hobby, and Cronyn earns the more conviction wielding a strap you’d dare anyone to try taking away from him. These guys must really have worked themselves into shape to do Brute Force. Jules Dassin directed, as he would Naked City plus more outstanding noirs. Great things seemed further in his offing till HUAC bugles called and he split the country, luckily managing to direct good ones in Europe, live 96 years, and tell his side to numerous scribes through the interim.




Monday, January 16, 2023

Canon Fire #2

 


Among the One Hundred: Hot Saturday (1932)


Did small towns breed anything other than gossip, misery, more gossip? Resolved by the early thirties was … no they didn’t. It was less to get above one’s raising than to get far away from one’s raising. Everyone starts somewhere, even Podunk places if so cursed, but there’s no excuse for staying there. When did attitudes so turn on rural beginnings, let alone endings? A 1966 history of The Smart Set magazine (teens and twenties-published) touched on what authors called “The Revolt of the Village,” better called Revolt from the Village, or more so, Escape from them. Such attitude came in wake of a past century
and subsequent world war, census reflecting increase to fifty-one percent living by 1920 in urban areas (today eighty-one percent and rising, if not risen). There once was a Cult of the Village, Midwest Edens of “goodness and heroism,” but gone were those days, said scholar Carl Van Doren, who spoke in ’20 of “provincialism and cultural rot” to characterize rural life. Pastoral traditions were for dismantling as literature and arts moved east and pitched tents in Greenwich Village and spots amenable to intelligentsia fed up with notion that country backgrounds were noblest to spring from. New to me was eight of eleven Pulitzer winners between 1918 and 1929 being of Midwest origin, condition coastal elites were intent to change. They would of course, and how. So when did small towns “rot” into “reactionary backwater” to become “flyover country” as now defined? Hot Saturday shows attitudes hard upon hardening.

Gossips at Work As in All Damnable Small Towns

Sex and Contraband Booze the Pastime in Marysville Just Like Anywhere USA 

Opener screen text amounts to policy statement, Marysville best avoided but by those who forfeit what they enjoy of private life or company of cultivated others. Paramount shot in an actual small town for conviction, one suffocating as circumstance of narrow-mind citizenry. Nancy Carroll’s “Ruth Brock” has a bank position as do others of callow young adulthood whose society she limits herself to because what else is available? To this comes city man “Romer Sheffield” (Cary Grant), a rake and wealthy in the bargain, who keeps summer abode near a lake where youth frolics during time off. Romer has good bootleggers and shares his yield, being alone now that discard mistress “Camille Renault” has been paid off and put aboard a train. Ruth as diamond in the rough attracts Romer, but she is too good a girl to lie down for him. Town talk assumes the contrary however, so her reputation is ruined, this on heels of being let go from the bank job. These are but natural consequence of stifling environment that is Marysville. Should Ruth remain here, she’ll settle finally for one or other of rubes unworthy of her. Parents are neither supportive or encouraging, a father once in politics and now on the bum, her mother a nag who values Ruth only for weekly pay packet the household will attach. There is nothing about Marysville to recommend it, Ruth departing an only chance to end happy. Romer as free agent, if casual fornicator, is clearly preferable, surprising moral to the story Hot Saturday tells, yet an only conclusion 1932 audiences would be expected to embrace.

What It Was Worth To Dispose of a Mistress in 1932

Edward Woods as Hick "Connie Billip" is Small Competition for Randy Romer Sheffield


But did they? There was state-imposed censorship, footage lifted off prints that went back incomplete to depots. Hot Saturday was a tale told by ones who for most part disdained those content to stay put in sticks. George Jean Nathan, who I’m sure regarded himself a fair man, characterized American novels (in 1929) as “written by men and women who, for all their pretense to the contrary, are in the matter of mind, life, attitude, and environment essentially and actually country-jakes.” The “yokel grain” was unmistakable, said Nathan, “the more culturally experienced and cosmopolitan reader … alienated … by the author’s unconscious betrayal of himself as cousin at least to the characters he dissects and as a more or less comfortable habitue of the sorry landscape he describes.” To Nathan’s reckoning, American narrative “had straws in its hair and a trace of cow on its boot … written in the main by provincials,” most of them lacking “that silent and hidden yet pervasively articulate metropolitan and world-balanced note that one finds in the novels of even the lesser Europeans.” Part of problem thinkers like Nathan had with movies was perception they “cow”towed to bumpkins same as books not worthy of East Coast reading, and yes, there was straw in hair of those who created or consumed films by Will Rogers, series westerns, “country-jake” done on conveyor by Universal and firms of lesser pedigree. Hot Saturday may have been set in comparative backwoods, but so long as a rose like Ruth could be plucked from Marysville wilting garden, even by perceived cad that was Romer, hope might prevail.



Randolph Scott as “Bill Fadden” is presented as romantic alternative to Romer. Will Ruth choose this hometown boy who always loved her and went off but temporary to learn geological surveying? Bill at least has education but is otherwise enclosed and intolerant as others of his “sorry landscape.” He will lose Ruth for electing to believe nasty gossip and showing Marysville stripe. What can she do but confirm his suspicion by bedding down with Romer? Current viewers cheer this turn, being unexpected and true to precode ethos, but note it serves more the ingrained disdain on the part of an increasingly empowered elite. For them, whatever Bill got, he had coming, his contrition too late to undo damage done for endorsing Marysville or any aspect of its value system. By leaving home to face an uncertain future, Ruth turns scorn received from townsfolk back upon them, her decision presented as not just a right one, but an only acceptable one. Riding away with Romer, “to New York” he says, Ruth gets all the berries when Romer springs a proposal, actually less that than merely telling her a minister friend “will marry us,” them plus writers, and us, knowing that bad as Marysville was, certain conventions it clung to must be observed.





Monday, January 09, 2023

Again the Cinema Sharing Struggle ...


If I Like It, Why Shouldn't Everybody?


If you show someone a movie, let alone show a movie to a group, you own that movie, at least for purpose of credit or blame depending on where opinions land. There is burden to having an intense interest that others do not necessarily share. A scene playing tad slow to you will seem tenfold that to guests, few if any having asked to be put through such ordeal. Actors overact? Mount the scaffold, as you must answer for it. I’ve had reaction anxiety since ten-years-old running 8mm to other ten-year-olds. Who wants rap for wasting other folk’s time? Hardcore movie buffs are not necessarily to be trusted for taste. I approached at least half-dozen neighbor boys for accompany to Castle of Blood in 1964, none taking bait despite avowal that here was most horrific of horrors, result me at the Liberty alone for a first time ever. It would not be the last. The Alamo coming back in 1967 saw assure for half a seventh grade that it was a must-not-miss, four or five taking a chance to satisfaction of all, but later The Greatest Show on Earth was no sale no matter my guarantee it was a pip. Risk and maybe-or-not reward persist to present day. Ann and I over the holidays watched, or rather she submitted, to nine features: Witness for the Prosecution, The Apartment, San Francisco, Hot Saturday, The Lady Eve, Frenzy, The Big Clock, Libeled Lady, and The Thin Man. I sweated each out. Response was generally good until sour note struck by The Thin Man, which we had seen twice before, though 2022 found it “not so sharp as the last time.” Boring her with analysis of what might have gone wrong and why, I right or not concluded that coming on heels of Libeled Lady (which Ann called best of the nine) created expectation of wall-to-wall comedy, which The Thin Man for all of merit is not, being in large a mystery to ploddingly work out. So what had The Thin Man become? A great movie suddenly not so great anymore? She had liked it in the past. Did I program carelessly? Quest seems forever after “safe” choices. Is there a film alive to please everybody for always? If so, I haven’t found it.



Turn over floor then to Dan Mercer, him having traveled fifty-year road with me since we met at alma mater Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, NC. Dan gives rich testimony re night The Black Cat played at Monroe Auditorium in autumn ’73. I’ve reprinted his thoughts below, in part culled from 5/31/2021 response to a GPS column entitled “Critics --- Get to Know Your Audience.” Primary concern Dan addresses is how will 1973’s crowd react to a feature thirty-nine years old at the time (like age-equivalents Ghostbusters or Gremlins unspooling today):
As I was sitting at the campus auditorium showing … I was almost frightened that the crowd of students, who did not know (The Black Cat) and could not be expected to,  would treat it with derision. The mood established by the film was so delicate that it could be rent by a single chuckle or sarcastic comment. The film began, playing to an audience that seemed interested in it, at least initially. There was a moment early on, as Lugosi and the young American couple played by David Manners and Jacqueline Welles are riding on the train, when Lugosi reaches out to caress the hair of the sleeping Welles and Manners looks on, neither startled nor offended, but contemplative. Had the audience been other than entirely engaged with the film at that point, here is where they would have mocked it. But they were entirely engaged by it, swept away by its mystery and sadness, and would remain so until the very end. I, too, was thrilled by their reaction and so proud of them.



Being also there that night (my 16mm print), I worried too of rent by a single chuckle as Dan described. Relief that none came was palpable. No two audiences being alike, a next time for The Black Cat might have brought an irreverent house down. You just could never tell. I spent days toting Sherlock, Jr. on 8mm from one indulgent English class to a next, instructors curious enough to let me run it, classmates relieved not to hear teacher teach. This was daytime play in high-ceilinged rooms with windows tall as in a cathedral, so light poured forth no matter shades let down. Bad enough I was shooting small gauge across thirty-foot expanse, grain dispersed like rain entering gutters. Sherlock Jr. is famed for dream scenes of Buster amidst camera effects and wow chases, getting there a march through set-up with him accused of stealing a watch, me on edge for having stole valued time of watchers impatient for Sherlock Jr. to “get good.” Whatever their response, I would press Keaton upon further groups, always a voice whispering maybe this time he'll click. Came eventually to a point where like a playwright or director of stage doings, I’d stand clear of the audience and wait instead for comments going out. Lesson hammered home then and often after: Never make promises your movie may not keep.



Best experiences were ones where none of responsibility was mine. The Carolina in Winston-Salem ran the Janus King Kong in March 1970 (Uncensored! cried ads), first out-of-town distance I drove, having been in receipt of an operator’s license for all of three weeks. Mesmerized for three views, I wanted to impress upon my mind how the audience absorbed each one. Would they laugh … jeer … and if so, when? First forebode was sailors fleeing the brontosaurus, camera undercranked so they resembled Keystone Cops, this after Bruce Cabot saying “I guess I love you” to Fay Wray, tipping his hat forward post-kiss. Laughter at Bruce/Fay was OK for it being affectionate mirth. This ’70 crowd understood King Kong was a very old movie and so gave quarter. I could relax for anonymity midst nearly full houses and not being liable for anyone’s disappointment. Dream of time travel often finds us “back then” when classics were new and we experience them with first-ever timers. Closest I came was Deja vu of The Tall T at a tiny-town theatre filled with former front-rowers and offspring they brought to breathe air that was great westerns, an only occasion where time’s threshold was seemingly breached, cherry atop being fact I was mere one of fulsome lot with enjoyment again not incumbent upon me. It was like being with Sullivan’s Travels chain-gang as they watched Pluto, merely present as opposed to “presenting.” 



Nature of a viewing event can relieve pressure, like where there’s gather for a party or cookout and your flicker is mere side dish, less critical than deviled eggs or who won at horseshoes. These were shows I liked for being incidental to fun, like ring toss at a crowded county fair. My brother had Christmas feeds for which 16mm was novelty projected in dark space apart from mingling, guests free to wander in/out to entertainment not crux of being there. Such was context for Meet Me in St. Louis, White Heat, among others. I noted specially those who sat for a whole thing. Note mine were non-challengers, as opposed to something of sort like You must watch Lightning Strikes Twice It’s late King Vidor! Classics are enjoyed most where big deal isn’t made of them. Son of Fury around a same epoch (early eighties) played to an outdoor crowd inert from day spent swimming, more immersed in eats than problems of Tyrone Power, points to me for filling 98 minutes sat on grass (Disney’s Ichabod Crane as warm-up). Again, not the film that must pass muster (rather mustard itself a priority), Son of Fury but coda to jollity (site by the way was Camp Susan Barber Jones, closer-by prototype for years-before Parent Trap-ish week). Are we best served by least attention (by others) on stuff we like? Maybe it’s better to let oldies creep in upon cat feet and surprise whoever arrives not expecting to be enriched. Someone else bring horseshoes and deviled eggs, and maybe I’ll again take a chance.





Monday, January 02, 2023

Film Noir #18


Noir: Brawl in Cell Block 99, Breaking In, and The Bribe


BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017) --- Title bespeaks retro fun circa fifties with Brod Crawford or kin busting out of stir with bulls hot after them. Don’t you believe it. Takes steel to cope with what Brawl in Cell Block 99 gives, it of sort the MPAA rated X back when standards prevailed. Not complaining, as what is here compels due to skill of writer-director S. Craig Zahler, his a cobra reflex for charnel places healthier viewership might shun. Dialogue is able in ways rivalry could envy, and once hooked, you're hell bound to a finish. This prison is not what Jim Cagney or George Raft faced. You could take youth to those and none come out scarred. Brawl would be tough for a sumo wrestler to get through without blanching. Give me Valium rather than Milk Duds going in, then prepare to be immersed, Zahler using again his player group, all capable. Vince Vaughn can snap any man’s arm by threes, does so repeatedly. Didn't realize he was over six foot four, equal at least to John Wayne, but Wayne never dashed opponents as done casually here. And what arresting dialogue Cell Block cast gets, hardest R content palatable with such wit attendant, Zahler thinking clever amidst corrosive levels of violence. Don’t expect sissy happy ending stuff. Saw this on Amazon streaming, rehab since ongoing. Do filmmakers resent that their work isn’t being seen in theatres? But what can they do about it?



BREAKING IN (1989) --- Old thief mentors young thief in what might have been, should have been, 1989 alert for one worthwhile in our midst. IMDB says Breaking In had a budget of six million, returned $1.877 worldwide. For a film at least pretty good, this was discouragement, as in think how many others so situated end up in a same scrapheap. Enough to make talent give up and go home. We were told in 1989 that Breaking In was dawn upon Burt Reynolds as a character actor, darned if he wasn’t good at it, etc., and so he was, but his “Ernie Mullins” is tired, walks with a limp, Reynolds unplugged and reminder that best days were behind and not likely to come back. A set injury and dire sickness a few years before was hard by itself to shake off, and here came Breaking In as if to confirm rumors as right. Old football wounds plus stunt work did damage, this actor’s decline seemingly overnight. Still he was good whatever the assignment and sentiment would always be there among plentiful who grew up on Burt Reynolds movies. Breaking In paces well, has good talk and situations (written by John Sayles, directed by Bill Forsyth), and is nourish to extent this man and comparative boy are criminals and dwell on society’s outer edge, however much of Breaking In is played for humor. They rob the drabbest places, a supermarket, homes anything but promising as scores, an amusement park (Portland, Oregon located, and fittingly run down). Threat looms that someone will be hurt or imprisoned, though when it comes, we are satisfied and can sign off cheerful. This is noir with a half-smile and pathos for Reynolds still able/willing, plus knowing Breaking In should have been treated better than it was, a small movie that today would stream to exclusion of cinemas. Kino has a nice Blu-Ray if anyone is curious. I’m pleased for having watched.



THE BRIBE (1948) --- There is for many a need to know noir the moment one claps eyes upon it, so to that end, I recommend The Bribe for show window to sum up the style and initiate those new to pursuit of dark doings. Ill-boding frame device, check. Flashbacks to where it all started bringing us eventually back to where we started, by which time we've forgot all that, check. Doubt lingers like Robert Taylor's cigarette cloud as to who might be trusted, or why they should not be trusted. A femme is possibly fatale, resolve of this delayed till final inning. The Bribe is several kinds of fine without being fine as a whole. It fairly shrieks backlot approximation of Central America, what Taylor refers to as a “whisky and quinine resort.” He starts off staring down a process projected storm, his final fag smoked and fingers dug into an empty pack, noir device and actor artifice surely taught at Pasadena Playhouse and points east to the Atlantic, foolproof thesping stratagem and I love it, cigarettes an always reliable crutch. People smoked for plenty good reasons and maybe dying sooner was worth it for a lot of them. Had Robert Taylor been warned, which I assume he was, and often, would he have quit? His Bribe character is named Rigby Reardon, a name I’d not dream up writing fiction a hundred years. Steve Martin was also Rigby Reardon in a 1982 send-up of noir called Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, woven from old footage dropped into new action, The Bribe a principal source and most representative of a world Dead Men makers sought to recreate. I went more to see the old clips than laugh at Martin, little enough to inspire the latter, was astonished by pains Universal took to match vintage views with ’82 effort at duplicating the look. Here was isolated occasion where real effort/expense went to presenting past film as it could/once did look. Imagine reward had they forgot Steve Martin and given us The Bribe, plus others excerpted, intact. For the sake of matching old with new, labs for once applied maximum effort, showing what could be retrieved from original elements.




The Bribe
would not likely inspire Blu-Ray release, though I could be wrong (hope so). Plot turns on postwar concerns, valuable goods sold amongst scrap and salvage, in this case airplane engines, latter valued enough by thieves to justify payoffs and murder. Taylor is a federal man who comes within hairbreadth of “selling out,” him by postwar no guarantor for doing right things on screen, Undercurrent and High Wall two so far to darken the Taylor image, plus fact his once-celebrated looks took on almost devilish demeanor, what with widow’s peak more peaked and brows to speak sullen even where words did not. G-men were seldom corrupted during the Studio Era, virtually never prior to the war when they were most venerated, but we’re not for sure of Rigby till almost an end. Metro must have walked a thin line to get this story passed. Leo explored contraband themes a following year with Malaya, again with focus on exotic action, so were third worlds and offshoot islands hotbeds for smuggled goods? I began wondering if that junkyard Dana Andrews went to work for in The Best Years of Our Lives might make profitable way selling plane parts offshore and let chump taxpayers get it in the neck per usual, as Charles Laughton colorfully puts it in The Bribe. There is history here, as with any noir, if you want to sniff for it. Taylor sniffs mostly after Ava Gardner, who here plays variant on “Kitty Collins” from star-making The Killers, singing in bare midriff black attire against smoky cantina backdrop. You can regard what Metro does with setting like this and get time's worth, Gardner on hand or not. Visuals are the sell with much if majority of noir, and it is this upon which The Bribe excels (Joseph Ruttenberg director of photography). There is a Warner Archive DVD that could be improved upon, but still will do for pleasure The Bribe supplies.

grbrpix@aol.com
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