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Monday, September 20, 2021

Where Great Art Was Carved By Hands

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

 Pen and Ink the Master Stroke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 13, 2021

Boris Karloff Presents ...


Stories To Go Bump In The Dark

Occasion was Wally and Beaver wanting to go downtown for a horror combo, their having enjoyed Hot Rod Cuties and Rope Justice the previous week. Leave It To Beaver writers clearly had no respect for Saturday stuff as followed by children in the late 50’s, but a line of Ward’s stuck with me as what a then-generation of fathers had themselves grown up on. Ward at least understands basis for his boy’s enthusiasm, his having “seen Dracula four times and had a subscription to Weird Tales magazine” during long past youth. The line struck me for what it revealed not only of fictional Ward Cleaver, but also series staff. So there were grown men in the fifties and early sixties who once enjoyed chiller movies and scary mags. And here we thought such decay was our generation's alone. Someone went to Dracula in 1931, in fact, throngs did. My father even admitted to having been there at advanced age of twenty-four when surely vampires would not impress him unduly. I grew up assuming no grown-up but Forrest Ackerman cared about monsters. Others thought them silly, regressive, a bad influence. I might have looked askance upon any adult professing to like horror films. Hollywood did not help by making chillers childish and silly. Exception of The Haunting in 1963 was for me like eating off fine China at my aunt’s house on Thanksgiving. Surely a few past adolescence were there, but none acknowledged it to me. Horror could enter however, through a back door that was literature, enjoyment to be had in private, stepped up from pulp that once was Weird Tales and like kind. To this came Boris Karloff as surface Bogey Man, but erudite scholar beneath, dispensing spooky but tasteful tales we’d not be ashamed to be caught reading.

Karloff was a cultivated man. He attended public schools in England, King’s College in London. These I suspect offered more rigorous instruction than could be had from Ivy Leagues selling degrees today. Karloff enjoyed the company of others who read prodigious as he, among them Edmund Speare, an editor for Knopf, whose The World’s Great Short Stories --- Masterpieces of American, English, and Continental Literature had been a considerable success when first published in August 1942, five more printings by June 1945. It occurred to Speare that a collection of goose-bumpers, so-called Tales of Terror, might click if vetted by Sultan of Scares Karloff, credited as editor and penning an introduction in addition to helping with story selection. He and Speare drew on material dating from the nineteenth century forward. There was Poe, Joseph Conrad, Faulkner, Bram Stoker, plus others of less renown, each thought by the pair to merit inclusion. Fourteen tales in all, which I read because Boris Karloff recommended I read, a strongest of incentives (“Full marks,” he might say upon my completion --- why did I not curry such favor with instructors at school?). Karloff as connoisseur of fright fiction was known to me far back as when a series of comic books used his name and image for monthly cover art and as “host” to open stories. Tales of Terror appeared in 1943, obviously early for me, so a copy was latter-day got, distinctly second-hand and sans a dustjacket, but for a low price. The Karloff intro at five plus pages reminded me that here was a man seasoned in the arts and a more than capable guide to fiction worth reading. The yarns being short meant gratification was had within thirty to forty-five minutes, a best kind of reading for one restless as I sometimes can be (check e-mail, investigate noise in the carport, what makes the neighbor dog keep barking?).

If you couldn’t take Karloff word as to what chills, then no one was reliable. My second-hand Tales of Terror arrived by mail, worse for the wear, pulpwood paper the necessary wartime option, as it would remain for Karloff's next anthology, As The Darkness Falls (1946). Add intervening years and pages flake apart just for looking at them too hard. I made a pencil note and the point sank right through the yellowed parchment. A lot of copies must have sold because both books are common on used terms. With a dust cover, however, let alone intact and unworn, cost can run higher. I went to Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC for a faithful reproduction of what wrapped both books when new. You can’t tell them from originals, an enhancement for my time reading. Editor Karloff says he gave “help in compiling” the collection, but “major job of reading” went to Speare. Still, “stories literally rained on me by the hundreds," recalled Karloff, "for weeks on end I regaled myself at this wonderful feast and was a mass of delicious goose pimples.” Karloff had wit himself as a writer, enjoyed authority to pick out the best and weed out the rest, a “fine frenzy of egomania” he wished could “last forever.” The process took place during Karloff’s road tour for Arsenic and Old Lace, as he refers to conference and correspondence with Speare through a period of constant travel. Timing was perfect for Tales and Darkness, as Karloff had never enjoyed such prestige as he would for the extensive run of Arsenic. I bet every library and book stall in the country snatched up these volumes soon as they came available.

Panelists on Information Please: John Kieran, Franklin P. Adams, Boris Karloff, and Oscar Levant

Karloff as editor and interlocuter for these stories made sense, his intellect familiar to listeners of Information Please, a radio panel where never-easy questions were posed to regulars and guests, BK frequent among latter. I played an episode (2-20-42) where John Carradine joined the group, he and Karloff visiting “monsters” whose acumen was put to the test. As both occasionally recite from Shakespeare, Grimm Fairy Tales, Arabian Nights, or Joseph Conrad (a writer pet of Karloff’s), it seems unlikely they were briefed as to mere answers in advance, since their responses often amount to spontaneous performance. How humbling to hear those of past time who were broadly educated, knew folklore, the classics. A lot of radio was frivolous, not shows like this. You’d think Information Please was a sustaining program, but then comes the Lucky Strike announcer and we know theirs was a mainstream audience. Karloff had definite ideas as to what made scary storytelling, distinction between “horror” (repels) and “terror” (un-eases) one he would often point out to interviewers. His was a thinking man’s appreciation for fiction dealt dark. As would later be the case with Christopher Lee, Karloff was fascinated by chilling aspects of literature, realized his own contributions on film were seldom what he hoped for, but ray of hope did come with his three for Val Lewton at RKO, who Karloff credited with “rescuing him from the living dead, and restored, so to speak, his soul.” Must have pained Karloff to perform in what he knew were inferior films, even if final tally did reveal worthy work, law of averages to permit a fair number turning out well and sometimes exceptional.

Karloff maintained that power of suggestion was what frightened best, and yes, some of writers in the anthologies served this end nicely. Much of text on the other hand goes way more explicit than movies could dare in the forties, graphically descriptive of mayhem, rotted corpses, varied “putrescence” let loose to prey on man. Radio dramas in which Karloff appeared were often as morbid. Did parents oblige Junior to switch off sets where graves were dug too deep? Separate picture from words and you’d go places a visual image was forbade to enter. We could argue that rawest chilling Karloff or anyone did was through a microphone, broadcast censorship laxer on horror than oversteps re sex. Did rawest meat on radio come courtesy chill broadcasts such as Karloff and kin supplied? License at least for a while extended to comic books, an EC line peaking, if that’s a right word, with content senate investigators would call deleterious to mental health of youngsters. Imposition of a “Comics Code” took ginger out of dime mags for a generation to come. Karloff’s own Tales of Mystery pulled its punch with the title alone, the stories thin milk beside wild-wooly EC efforts of not-so-distant yore. My interest was served in the 60’s by Creepy, a Warren publication where art was spun not in color as with comic books, for to do so on horrific terms would violate the Code, even late as 1964, so what we got was gore denuded of blood reds. Some of outlaw artists and writers from EC past again plied trade, Creepy and its sister success Eerie a newsstand presence I eventually got along without, for how many times could you tell essentially a same story?

Edmund Wilson in 1944 wrote a blanket review of the ghost anthologies. He could be severe upon books the rest of us call good, did not hesitate to pan even The Maltese Falcon for a column where he said mystery novels were largely the bunk. Maybe it’s no surprise that Wilson took a dim view of scare stories and said none could discomfit any reader over age ten, notion of ghosts having been product of a candlelit era “killed by the electric light.” As darkness was what bred spooks, all you need do to rout them is throw a switch and “flood every corner of the room.” Outdoors as site for haunting was undone by flashlights with which we could ferret out ghosts. Here was why such resolute product of a past century was best left behind as we entered a wired world. But how to account for recent slew of the supernatural? Wilson said it was “real horrors loose on the earth,” fantasy a means to cope with “periods of social confusion,” and come to terms with the madness of war via pleasure got from imaginary horror. The stories themselves “do not pretend to a literary standard,” said Wilson, most of them “trashily or weakly done.” He cited some authors who should have been included in the collections, but weren’t. Wilson having limited himself to elevated prose was not of mind to embrace “the phantom fringe which has been exploited by these anthologies,” even as he recognized that readers of such appetite would ignore his advice to seek more enlightened pastime.

The two Karloff collections were rivaled by Random House’s Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, which beat both for thickness and wider selection. Yet more was Dashiell Hammett introducing over 500 pages of “Chills and Thrills,” none having been published in book form previous. His was to-the-point entitled Creeps By Night, first appearing in 1931, back at half its original length in 1944 (so much for the 500 pages), a response to wartime demand for C's&T’s. So how chill/thrilling by today’s measure? The Hammett picks were of more recent origin, many having debuted in Weird Tales, which was why they were new to hardbound printing, Weird Tales down-market and regarded as anything but worthwhile literature. Future writers of note, however, began with pulps: Sinclair Lewis, Tennessee Williams, Louella Parsons (!), numerous others. Buyers could rely on 200,000 words in each issue, all pulps cut along same or similar pattern. Covers alone were enough to call out riot squads in response, lurid beyond what any Barnes and Noble would display in timid times we know. Never mind movies … pulps were where horror was most horrific. Did children do the buying, or sick-minded adults? Price varied from dimes to fifteen cents to two bits … depending on survival skills or cunning of your competitor. I could delve into and read the whole of pulpy lot, Horror Stories, Strange Tales, Dime Mystery Magazine, plus what was done with westerns, romance, war themes, but how to live long enough to fulfill such commission? I expect most fans read history of pulps rather than pulps themselves, few claiming merit in literature hurry-up generated at vast quantity. Adventure magazine during its peak came out three times a month, so how could minimum of 600,000 words, served every ten days, maintain any sort of standard?

I got through twenty or so stories from the two Karloff volumes and Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. But one needs to know when to quit, too many a route to numbness.  Some are plain nauseating, others an escort to slumber’s portal. “Just four more pages and I can say I read it,” but say to who? Thing is, I like ghost stories, because, well, there’s always going to be a ghost, and I like ghosts, in fact believe firmly in them. I am further of opinion that most everyone has had some sort of supernatural experience but are loathe to admit it. The Random House book says in its intro that our fascination for such content arises from “fear of the human dead.” Think of sitting in a group of say four or six and telling them you once encountered a spirit. It would be all over town by tomorrow that you were nuts. A moment when I know I’ve won someone’s confidence is when they tell in sotto voice of having seen/heard something not of this earth. Consider advantage in a ghost, preferably someone you knew of course, popping by to explain what awaits on the other side. Poof would go mystery of life and death, let alone “fear of the human dead,” provided of course that no malign entity shows up to haunt sleep, meals, or leisure. Deep thoughts pulpy tales inspire! For the record, writers whose contribution I enjoyed: Somerset Maugham, W.W. Jacobs (how about that Monkey’s Paw?), Ambrose Bierce, E.A. Poe (who turns up in virtually all collections). Him what gave me most willies was H.P. Lovecraft, distinctly not someone I would have wanted to trade lives with, or accompany for barbecue, as here was a weirdest guy to have written weird tales.

Photos of Lovecraft, all of them, more than faintly disturb. Suffice to say, there are none of him basking at the shore with Carole Landis balanced on his shoulders. Lovecraft lived with Mom, theirs a “pathological love-hate relationship” --- sounds like the home life of 16mm collectors I knew. Then was an aunt, and another aunt, each with sufficient pathology to carry on Mom’s spirit-breakage of Lovecraft. A wife-in-brief was run off by the aunts. Mom had already died when he met the wife, not that she could have made things worse than they were. Lovecraft was said to have to have been second only to Voltaire for prolific letter-writing. One missive ran to 20,000 words. He spent a lifetime burying nuts for fame he would not live to enjoy, a talent far ahead of his time and most of readership. Lovecraft was prominent within a circle that understood him, these for sure no part of any mainstream. He was on the one hand anti-social, but helped young writers who sought his counsel. Lovecraft and readers who rubbed him wrong would feud for months in correspondence addressed to, and published by, Weird Tales. One of his sparring partners was a young Forrest Ackerman. Some said Lovecraft was good only for bottom-feeder pulps, but do please compare numbers with what was called serious literature. Weird Tales sold a half million or more copies per issue --- Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby moved but 25,000 units in the author’s lifetime. How soon we forgot that pulps had an enormous following. More people read them than most anything in print. Trouble is, few if any left behind thoughts or analysis, pulp the very definition of ephemeral. Like newsprint, pulps were not designed to last, so why would thinkers or critics pay heed to them? An Edmund Wilson did not address himself to stories like Satan Is My Lover or Cult of the Lusting Carcass. I doubt Lovecraft expected to be appreciated in his time, for who of genius was, or is, unless they discover some new digital realm?

Lovecraft had friends who came to his legacy’s rescue soon after he passed, two of them starting a firm called “Arkham House” to publish his works. Arkham was the fictional Massachusetts site of varied horrors Lovecraft invented, a cursed place we assume was based on Salem of the same state, where twenty so-called witches were hanged. Arkham may have been Lovecraft’s supreme creation. This place unlike Salem had real witches … goblins … fiends … among populace. Was Salem cursed for its prosecution of faux witches? Indeed, they might still be cursed, mutant children born in succeeding generations, or folks spontaneously combusting in streets perhaps. 1963’s The Haunted Palace, based on Lovecraft (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) and set in Arkham, got dose of these. Famed author Nathaniel Hawthorne had a granddad who was one of the hanging judges, by name “Hathorne,” so shamed by posterity that Nathaniel chose “Hawthorne” to go by. Lovecraft’s cult was wide by the 60’s when first I heard of him. 1965's Die, Monster, Die derived from The Color Out of Space by Lovecraft, which I read and found harrowing, then watched the bled-white movie again to steady nerves. Lovecraft books Arkham House published now demand $4000 and up. Did Lovecraft see that much from totality of stories he sold to Weird Tales and spots elsewhere? Pulps overall have been ennobled by fans. There are oodles of books about them, inspired mostly by garish, grisly covers that could never have got through the door of Rhodes' Newsstand on my Main Street. What made pulps finally go away? There were over 200 of them in mid-Depression. Cheap Thrills by Ron Goulart (agreed to be a best history of pulps) put blame on the rise of comic books, Goulart saying these were “somewhat like buffered aspirin, (and) cut down the time it took for the action to get from the page to the brain --- and they took away much of the pulp’s audience.” Thing is, pulps still lasted, if limping, into the seventies. Ones who still care hold conventions. Video from these are at You Tube. Gatherings seem composed of boys that never grew up (not a knock, for who am I to talk?), with an occasional college professor to ruminate on the meaning of it all as he/she bargains for a Weird Tales or Horror Stories. I am fascinated by pulps, but thankful not to have been lured by siren call of collecting them. Do we still care as did those who knew pulps when they were current? Like with old-time radio, you wonder how much longer the party can last. 

Monday, September 06, 2021

Just Beware Eye Contact With Rosin Dust


Watch City for Conquest, Then Move To The Country

Warner meditation on fickle lady that was NYC and how she'd not lay welcome mat to any but fastest runners at life, a sermon repeated to numb effect by "old-timer" Frank Craven alert to City for Conquest as epic mosaic on urban lives. Here was what struggle city life was, the big town counterpart to Our Town where Craven played memorably the Stage Manager for Broadway audiences through much of 1938. Our Town had been popular, influential to drama since, remains so today. City for Conquest was ambitious in ways unique to modern-set Warner output. Source was a 1936 novel by Aben Kandel, who wrote plays as well, made his way to Hollywood as did most that sought assurance of a roof and square meals. The book took exception to so little milk of kindness flowing from Gotham, an expected attitude among those who would chronicle modern life. City for Conquest the book was enjoyed, discussed, eventually forgotten. Few recall it now except as basis for a James Cagney vehicle. A Routledge-published line of “Lost Urban Classics” rescued City for Conquest from neglect in 2015, promoting it as a “nearly forgotten masterpiece,” readers left to side or not with enthused reappraisal. Reader reviews of the reprint are enthused. Who doesn’t like discovering art cast out of memory by others? Shows free thinking and not running with herds, like glow I feel carrying banner for Cain and Mabel.

Varied Reprints of the Source Novel

This was a sort of story to bear as much (more) Warners signature as any ten authors could apply, a reason why Kandel narrative and characters got sheared so viewers could absorb the lot in less than two hours, an outcome to displease Cagney, something of a bibliophile who felt movies profaned truer arts. He in fact wrote a letter of apology to Kandel after seeing City for Conquest, said he was all done watching movies he appeared in, a promise not to be entirely kept. What Cagney forgot was urgency, especially WB’s, to keep tempo at boils, maintain him at perpetual bounce, paying crowds not there after all to see novels faithfully reproduced. Irony was Aben Kandel having had screenwriting experience, enough surely to adapt his own work, yet John Wexley, late of Angels With Dirty Faces, took helm to structure (rather re-structure) content. In fact, Angels was more a model for City for Conquest than Kandel’s book, a same teeming slum for good-bad kids to graduate from, some headed for success (and heartbreak attendant), others to crime. Echoes of not only Angels, but aforementioned Our Town and Frank Craven as narrating omnipresence, then Bob Steele for surly foe as he was in previous Of Mice and Men, a prestige if not commercial prelude to City for Conquest. Latter ran to 104 minutes, longish for a Cagney, his fanbase restless as his characters tended to be. Warners sensing this cut City for Conquest to reduce girth of an April 1946 double-bill it shared with also-reissued No Time For Comedy, virtually all of Frank Craven dropped. Those minutes stayed truant through years of televised syndication and rental prints, an abrupt ending to tip us that sections were out. Digital put City for Conquest right, Craven not necessarily welcomed back. In fact, viewers might prefer he stay gone.

Some speculate cuts were made to dump the “old timer,” intent likelier to bring City for Conquest below 100 minutes and reassure 1946 exhibitors that it and No Time For Comedy would together be taut enough for maximum turnover of combo attendance, this in addition to Craven’s character having slowed down action, plus Warner no longer needing to draw parallel with Our Town. City for Conquest was directed by Anatole Litvak, who Cagney disliked for being tortoise slow and a martinet besides. Jim thought most meggers at WB to be punk, him profane to biographer John McCabe re Litvak as the two sat in Cagney’s kitchen over forty years later to recall City for Conquest. I heard audio of those conversations (McCabe sharing them at a Cinecon where he spoke), he and JC interrupted by dogs ambling in-out of the room while the two men talk, all this to remind us of country-wide canyon between bustling Hollywood of 1940 and quietude of a Duchess County, New York farm in the early eighties. Cagney outlived most of people he worked with and so spoke freely of them. Judging by opinions the actor expressed, we could wonder why he did not retire sooner than 1961, money being plentiful to do so. JC was perverse for wanting to dial down dynamism while Warner execs to a man knew this was his strength. Oft-producing Hal Wallis forever wrote memos asking Cagney to toughen up scenes, give fans what they paid to see, but Jim largely ignored “front office” directives, never liked Wallis besides, and Wallis knew it (from his memoir re Cagney: “He and I never became friends. He was cold to me, and I wasn’t particularly fond of him”). Interesting to read of people forced together, for years as case with Wallis-Cagney, success requiring them to make a best of less than agreeable relation. Would that take bloom off a rose that was wealth or stardom? We like to think people disdained can be dodged, but how possible was that amidst bustle of the picture business, any workplace, then or now? Could be among reasons many were unhappy even to make a prosperous living there.

City For Conquest
has sentiment, pace, and great Cagney work. He lost weight to train for boxing, so there's not the paunch that peeked in during previous Torrid Zone, a property he didn't respect near so much as this. JC is a boxer who's foolish for fickle Ann Sheridan, her wanting bright lights that pro dance partner Anthony Quinn can give. Others of Cagney orbit meet destiny appropriate to Big Town backdrop. Supporting performances are expectedly outstanding. How many accents could one identify as New Yorkese? Did/does each borough have its individual dialect? From where I live, they all sound essentially the same, Huntz Hall-ish or Leo Gorcey-esque. Could a Henry Higgins transplanted to New York identify a dozen, maybe a hundred, differing speech patterns? “Southern” accents are thought to be of-a-region piece when truth is they differ from state to state, county to county even, if subtly. Chances are James Cagney of Yorkville origin talked different, if marginally, from those of a bridge or tunnel’s opposite end. He liked to surprise interviewers by not resorting to dem-dose as expected. Did Cagney and other Gotham-born actors work, in fact struggle, to rid themselves of identifying accents to get wider work? Southerners are routinely advised to homogenize speech if they expect to move up in corporate jobs, certainly ones where headquarters are Northeast located or on the West Coast. I have a friend from Hickory, NC who as a teenager trained his voice to sound like Laurence Olivier. It very nearly worked, as he does evoke more Larry than others of rural origin (never mind what affectation that must have sounded like to his neighbors). For myself, Basil Rathbone remains the ideal, though at this stage of life, I have more/less given up any quest to sound like him.

Elia Kazan as ill-fated “Googi” made me wish he had stayed an actor longer, or maybe directed himself eventually. Kazan hard sells “personality” and gives a fun performance we may not expect of early Method training (though from all account, Kazan had his own Method, relying more on instinct and judgment than hard-wired technique as taught by former associates in Group Theatre). Bob Steele, welcome always in non-west parts, is the bully boxer Jim knocks down, Donald Crisp a benign fight promoter (were there such men?), Lee Patrick a resigned chorine who takes in destitute Sheridan, oily Anthony Quinn essaying a type Rudolph Valentino might have come to had he lived to character work in talkies. You could wonder in fact if Rudy was anything like Quinn’s “Murray Burns” during dance days before he entered movies, though from I understand, RV was unfailingly a considerate sort, unlike City’s sleaze Quinn.

Classy and by all appearance costly finish is the “Magic Isle Symphony” as composed by “Edward Kenny,” brother to Cagney’s “Danny” and played by Arthur Kennedy. This lengthy section amounts to step up for Max Steiner to status of serious composer, at least gives appearance so. There would not be fulfillment of such promise; unlike Warners colleague Erich Korngold, no concerts were dedicated to, or conducted by, Max Steiner. His scores were symphonic in a sense not favored today, cued to action, “Mickey Moused” as detractors said then and have repeated since. I of course get defensive at this, Mickey Mousing for me a good thing. Movies lost a lot when they let go this technique. I wonder how viewers might respond if someone revived it. That would sure be a novelty … maybe a popular one? Who complained over music in Mickey Mouse cartoons?  I can whistle back all eight minutes of Leigh Harline’s contribution to Mickey’s Service Station, talent acquired from 1974 and acquisition of a 16mm print (as to whether this is useful talent, let others judge for themselves).

Commenters say the Steiner “Symphony” traded too transparently on Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, which since its debut in 1924 was mighty influence upon composers everywhere, in movies especially. It sounds in fact like movie music to come. How many would-be Gershwins do you suppose wrote their own Symphony for Some-Or-Other City? Given ability or inclination, I might have penned something to salute my little town, though I doubt the setting would merit soaring melodies as tendered by Gershwin or frank imitator that was said to be Steiner. Also could regret City’s score not going on store shelves for sake of eager listeners (proper LP’s still a way off in 1940). So why isn't this on CD, other than excerpted here/there? I had a cassette tape as offered by the Max Steiner Music Society in the seventies, played it plenty, the theme delivering wallop upon my boy plexus at a time when I was perhaps more in touch with emotions. For one at appropriate age and romantic bent, City’s climactic concert serves a bounty. I asked Conrad Lane what effect it had on him in 1940. “I hummed the principal theme for years after,” he said, so powerful was the effect. Memory was all Conrad had, however, for he would not get to see (and hear) City for Conquest again until the late fifties when it turned up on television (minus Frank Craven, he noted).

The Symphony was signal that City for Conquest was something more than formula served an umpteenth time by Warner. Intentions were good here, if earnest past patience of patrons there for punches, and never mind high-minded sentiment re Gotham as expressed by A. Kennedy while quiet and attentive Cagney hangs on his every speech. Latter liked thoughtful words and went passive where he saw them coming, a struggle with duality of on and offscreen characters, preferring the cerebral if reminded daily of toast buttered by flying fists the Strand mob, and ones elsewhere, insisted upon. Jim did not mind being a loser at love or victim of sour circumstance as where Ann Sheridan uses him badly and a worse ring bout sees him blinded maybe for life. Cagney could be novel at playing sightless or whatever infirm others applied rote skill to. His “Danny Kenny,” down to selling papers at a corner kiosk (right across the street from NY’s legendary Rialto Theatre), tilts his head and squints in a way the actor probably observed among real-life afflicted. City for Conquest builds to Cagney crash, signals along the way that he’ll lose both girl and a welterweight crown.

I choke up always at that moment halfway through where Cagney and Sheridan are parting at a train, Danny/Jim pleading that she will “always be my girl,” this again where Steiner spots the ideal emotion and draws it out of us. Or does he? I mean now, not nearly fifty years ago when I first saw City for Conquest. Would a modern audience mock this in toto? I suspect my response to such moments were, and remain, very much like those experienced in 1940, being of accord with Conrad in that respect, but how reasonable is it to expect a twenty-year-old to feel anything like the same? This truly is approach and style that movies have put away, that the case from not so long after City for Conquest came out. Did audiences revisiting it in 1946 find City for Conquest a little bit cornball? Change was in many ways infinite between 1940 and 1946. By the time Warners’ pre-49 library began showing up on television in 1956-57, viewers were acutely aware that these were “old” movies they were watching and that each would require a proper adjustment. Tack sixty-five more years onto that and imagine how some teenager feels when he/she stumbles over City for Conquest on TCM. Remember in the 70’s when then-stars John Travolta and Michael J. Fox talked of how much they loved Cagney growing up? Could a young player today be similarly impressed, and inspired? City for Conquest plays TCM in HD, and streams so elsewhere. Added-back footage looks to be several generations removed from the camera negative. We can be grateful those minutes survive at all.
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