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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Jean Simmons Challenges The Code

Today is Jean Simmon’s 77th birthday, and as it happens, we just ran across these stills from an admittedly obscure Metro pic she did with Paul Newman in 1957, Until They Sail. The thing that got our attention, and hopefully yours as well, is how even publicity shots were, by that time, really beginning to challenge the Production Code. Needless to say, this pose on the bed promises something the movie itself will not deliver, but it does forecast the sixties breakdown of the Code that would finally usher in the adoption of the Ratings System. Beautiful But Dangerous was the RKO working title for which kittenish Jean appears here in her fishing get-up. The picture was ultimately retitled and released in 1954 as She Couldn’t Say No, and it was a real time waster for Jean and co-star Bob Mitchum (as a country doctor!). Why they put these two to work in a lame comedy like this instead of another noir like Angel Face is anyone’s guess.


We’ve heard from a number of readers wanting another installment of Gary Cooper, and that’s good, as we’ve got lots more neat images we’d like to upload --- so keep checking by, cause we expect to have it up within the week. There’ll also be another Star Scrapbook feature, as we’re digging into more of the collection that yielded the Clara Bow images we used last week. Seems this guy was a Paulette Goddard enthusiast as well, and we found some great stuff there, so keep watching.

Some of our friends in Cyberspace have given Greenbriar a nice boost lately (we’re only a month old this week), and we’d like to acknowledge their kindness.
CLASSIC MOVIES is Brad Lang’s terrific resource for news and updates on all things relating to vintage movies, and well worthy of a place on your favorites list. Same goes for IN THE BALCONY, whose moderator, Laughing Gravy, gave us our very first link. Gravy’s got DVD news (he stays on top of the classic announcements), a message board, and lotsa fun stuff. Mike Keaney’s Film NOIR site is a good place to lose yourself in any number of fascinating dark alleys. We found some great stuff here. LIBERTAS bills itself as "a forum for conservative thought on film", and they’ve got a real appreciation for the classics (nice TCM updates with images) as well as an eagle-eye for contemporary Hollywood machinations. THE THIRD BANANA is a celebration of unjustly neglected comedians, and it’s great. They did a piece a few months ago on a what if … teaming of Charlie Chaplin and El Brendel that’s just about the cleverest thing I’ve ever read. Finally, Tim Lucas and his Video WATCHBLOG are a Greenbriar must each morning, sure as Frugal Breakfast. He did a Gordon Scott essay recently that is hands down the best thing I’ve ever read on that most underrated actor, and just last week, I enjoyed some import DVD German westerns that I picked up as a direct result of his insightful review. Thanks Tim. I’d never have discovered these without ya!

Monday, January 30, 2006

Monday's Glamour Starter --- Joan Leslie

Why Joan Leslie for Glamour Starter when we could have picked Hedy Lamarr (and she’s coming, by the way), or Jane Russell, or any number of obvious choices? Well, it’s because we think she’s cute, and because we do try to avoid the obvious here at the Greenbriar. Besides, we really admire the way Joanie handled her life after she got out of the star business, but more on this anon. As it happens, she just had a birthday --- turned 81 this past Thursday --- and get this --- Joan Leslie was born the same day as Paul Newman --- I mean the very same day!! Really freaked me out to learn this. She seems older than Hud. I had this image of Paul in his knickers watching Joanie with Bogart in High Sierra, and dancing with Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, his feet just barely touching the floor of the little grindhouse where he grew up.

The amazing thing about Joanie is the fact that she was only sixteen when she stepped before the camera with Mad Dog Earle, and only fifteen when she was signed to do High Sierra. Her backstory was a familiar one for those days. She and her sisters seem to have taken every singing, dancing, and overall precocity award to be had around Detroit in the early thirties, till old man Depression hit, and suddenly Dad was out of a job, and desperation was just around the corner. It’s easy to be glib about a thing like this now, but you gotta admire the way these people persevered in the face of such odds. Tough breed, those crash veterans. One of the precocious sisters eventually opened a few Hollywood doors, and suddenly Joan was in, doing a Camille kid-bit, and even scoring a
momentary on-set acknowledgement from Garbo herself (the self-same Garbo who turned down Basil Rathbone’s request for an inscribed photo when they made Anna Karenina together --- we can never forgive anyone doing a thing like that to our Basil). Anyway, Joan ended up at WB, where the star build-up went into high gear before the ink dried on her first contract. She says Bogie himself did the High Sierra test with her. What a pro. He could have stayed home that day, fought with Mayo, and left the gig to John Ridgely or Dane Clark, but Bogart was nothing if not a dedicated actor, and to top that, he even forbade swearing on the set in deference to little Joanie. Reminds us once again that Bogart was basically a Victorian at heart. Question is, why did they keep letting that squirrelly Mayo Methot onto the lot to torment this poor man? Joan’s not the first interview to mention that in connection with Bogart tensions during a shoot. Always jealous of the leading ladies, hovering around the set … this guy really needed somebody stationed at the door! There’s a fantastic Warners short Joanie did in that first year called Alice In Movieland, where she plays a variation on her own climb-to-stardom story (a lot like Fox’s terrific Stardust with Linda Darnell). It’s an extra on the DVD with The Sea Hawk, and worth the price of the disc by itself. As for the Warners career, it ended up in a courtroom when Joan turned twenty-one. She wanted out, and eventually made the break, but smiling Jack L. got the word around that she wasn’t a "team player", so some lean years followed, first with Eagle-Lion, then at Republic. I remember having a 16mm network print of an old TV show once where she did a shampoo commercial. The happy ending came with a good marriage, kids that turned out well, and a dress design business. Joan Leslie does a lot of festivals and screenings as well. It’d be great to meet her someday.

These stills really point up the scattershot, schizo madhouse that was the WB publicity mill (that scene from It’s A Great Feeling with the flacks at work does have a near-documentary flavor!). First Joan’s the earnest schoolgirl taking lessons on the set. Now, pardon our cynicism here, but this sure looks like a phony-baloney- let’s-just-barely-comply-with-child-labor-laws set-up to us. Joan says the kids had to pull three hours a day, usually in fifteen-minute increments. You don’t get many Phi Beta Kappa keys on a schedule like that! No wonder so many former child actors come off like Mortimer Snerd when they’re interviewed (not Joan though --- she was really bright, and both her kids became college professors!). The insanely stupid pose with the turkey might well have called the whole movie star idea into question for Joan, especially since this hungry gobbler looks as though he’s getting ready to share something pretty "fowl" with his co-star (they say turkey bites hurt). Watch out, Joanie, or you’ll end up like Old Yeller! Hard to blame him though, as we might well have made the same selection from the menu had we been there! Our personal favorite is the pouty pose, mainly because we just generally go for pouty poses. The one with Cagney needs no explanation. We are ashamed to say it’s the first still of James Cagney that we have uploaded on this site. No excuse for that, as we think he’s great, and we do intend to redeem ourselves on that account in weeks to come. Finally, the sultry pose. This was done for Janie Gets Married, the kind of vehicle that made Joanie start ringing up lawyers. She’s better at pouty, don’t you think? We do.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Born This Day In 1880 --- W.C. Fields

The death of Lou Costello’s toddler son is a well-known Hollywood tragedy. Less familiar, even to some of his fans, is a similar incident visited upon W.C. Fields on March 15, 1941, when the two and a half year old son of actors Anthony Quinn and Katherine DeMille (Quinn states the child's age as three in his memoirs) wandered across the street from his grandfather’s home, fell into Field’s backyard fish pond, and drowned. According to Anthony Quinn’s recollection, he and the family were visiting Cecil B. DeMille that Sunday afternoon, and somehow the boy had gotten separated from his nanny. Fields kept a little sailboat in the pond, and that was presumably the attraction. Emergency personnel worked over the child for several hours, but it was hopeless. Following the incident, Fields "went into retreat for three or four days," and wouldn’t talk to anybody (see James Curtis' outstanding Fields bio for more detail). Of course, the parents never got over it, as Anthony Quinn recounted, and this would further erode already weak underpinnings of their marriage. Fields wouldn't go near the pond again.

The still shown her was what led to recounting of this sad story, as it shows the pond very shortly before 3/15/41's incident. W.C. Fields had entered into agreement with Universal to star in a comedy based upon his screenplay entitled The Great Man. Toward that end, he was persuaded by studio executives to include parts in his story for singing ingenue Gloria Jean and a pair of particularly loathsome flash-in-the-pan moppets, "Butch and Buddy." This pact was made January 9, 1941, according to Curtis (folks, this excellent research is his, not mine!). As filming did not begin until July 7, 1941, we'll assume this publicity still was made sometime between January 9 and March 15, the date of Christopher Quinn’s death. That range seems fairly certain, as I don’t think there's any way that Fields would have submitted to this photo sitting after the drowning. The Great Man was completed that summer and released as Never Give A Sucker An Even Break. The woman in the striking portrait by photographer Eugene Robert Richie is Christopher’s mother, Katherine DeMille, who had an interesting acting career during the thirties/forties. You may remember her in Call Of The Wild, The Black Room, and several of her father’s pictures. There’s a chilling postscript to their marriage in Anthony Quinn’s book, which I'll not recount here, but suffice to say, this too is a highly recommended read, along with the Curtis/Fields volume.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Gary Cooper's Stalking Big Game

I’ve always liked actors who brought a bit of themselves to their roles, allowing us a glimpse of the real person behind the part they’re playing. Some would say this is limiting, that an actor in such circumstance is merely "playing himself". Gary Cooper was dismissed in this way, as was John Wayne, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and others. This strikes us as a glib putdown of some very complex individuals in extraordinary circumstances who were, in their own distinctive way, living out the drama of their personal lives on the screen. After you’ve read a little about these people, you realize just how heavily coded their performances are, particularly those stars who enjoyed (and that may not be the most appropriate word) successful careers both before, and after, World War Two. Each of them constructed a screen personality over periods of time, the "himself" critics referred to. Wayne was no natural cowboy. He didn’t care for horses at all, and stayed away from them when he wasn’t working. Grant was anything but the suave figure he projected on screen, often tormented by the contradiction between image and reality. Gable and Cooper seem a little closer to the images they maintained, and it’s for that reason I find these two infinitely fascinating, particularly Gary Cooper, whose androgynous beauty mask would transform itself into a virtual roadmap of the actor’s private anguish as each performance revealed the stress of age, career concerns, and domestic conflicts eating away at him.

This first art montage is typical of what Don Lockwood would later call studio "banana oil". So is this hunting display, although the essence of it is true. Coop did actually go on safari, and did indeed hunt and kill big game, but it’s doubtful he "set off for Africa before the studio directors could stop him". That’s something contract players did not do. Actually, Bwana Coop was, in many ways, as mama-dominated as Miss Charlotte Vale herself, for it was Mrs. Alice Cooper (not to be confused with a 70’s rock singer who distinguished himself by being a fan of The Creature From The Black Lagoon) who ran off Gary’s hot tamale mistress, Lupe Valez, an act of maternal interference that led to a nervous breakdown for her boy (that plus the fact that Paramount was working him 16-18 hours a day). Coop was already worn to a frazzle in the wake of affairs with Clara Bow, Evelyn Brent, and who knows how many others (well, just look at the pictures of this guy --- he really needed all those wild animals to fight off the babes!). That "vacation" the fan mags referred to was actually an extended rehab for overwork and exhaustion (yeah, and in the wake of Clara and Lupe, poor spent youth needed some R&R). Mama actually considered taking Boy out of the movies altogether, and repairing to the family ranch back in Montana (just so there’s no doubt about one thing, the Coopers had serious money, so that manure-shufflin’, up-from-the-starving-extra-ranks palaver was, well, just so much manuro). What she didn’t anticipate was Coop’s choice for a vacation destination --- hitting all the high spots among various decadent European playgrounds and getting himself tied up with a jet-set adventuress (thirteen years his senior!) named Dorothy di Frasso, who would later land on the FBI’s Hit Parade for her subsequent liaisons with Bugsy Siegel and a coterie of known Nazi operatives. That little adventure on the continent led to the African excursion referred to on the fan page. When Coop returned stateside, he was hale and hearty, pet monkey "Toluca" in tow, along with enough stuffed carcasses to open his own furrier.

The glossy pics shown here offer a pretty fair glimpse of the eternal tug-of-war among Coop’s feminine influences. First there is Mother. Seems amiable enough, "except when crossed" (to quote Dr. Pretorious). The photo was taken for a compulsory Mother’s Day just-plain-folks sitting at Paramount in 1936. By then, the wandering boy had been subdued and brought into the corral by the lady sharing his carriage ride, Sandra Shaw, former social lioness, and now Mrs. Gary Cooper. We’re struggling for the proper word to describe Coop’s expression in this shot. Sheepish? Bored? Thinking about Lupe? In all the pics we’ve seen of that couple, she looks, well, commanding. After all, they say every boy ends up marrying his mother. Looks like Coop was no exception. The third shot is fairly typical of Gary Cooper on Wolf Patrol. That private party where this was taken was just so much African landscape for the lanky lothario, and it looks like he’s spotted his quarry in comely Joan Crawford (alright, maybe she was never comely, but we like the word). The general posture of these two give a pretty good indication of what’s going to happen within the next hour in some tinsel-town love nest of undetermined (and hopefully discreet) location. Master director Raoul Walsh used to tell how Coop would zero in on a girl by going into his aw-shucks, timid-boy-needs-a-mommy routine while the girl would search for his wandering eyes (always with the head tilted and looking down at his shoes) in an effort to "reach" him. Upon her success in bringing him out of his shell, the two would adjourn to the actor’s dressing trailer, where Coop would take over the instruction. As Walsh had witnessed this routine on so many occasions, he always knew "when the snake was getting ready to strike".

Of course, this was only the first stage of the Cooper drama. Things got more than a little hard after the war, and we’ve got some images from that period that we think are pretty dramatic. If there’s interest in more Gary Cooper, we’d be glad to go for a Part 2. Let us know, readers!

Friday, January 27, 2006

Kennel Ration For Movie Stars

Those merry pranksters at Universal-International really cooked up a good one to promote their alleged 1964 comedy, Wild and Wonderful. Why not finagle all the big stars presently working on the lot to drop by and be photographed with this particularly hideous dog that U-I has tapped to share marquee honors with should-have-known-better-than-to-star-in-this Tony Curtis? "Monsieur Cognac" was the animal’s name, and according to our imdb crib sheet, this was his only screen credit. As for Tony Curtis, he’d just completed Forty Pounds Of Trouble for Universal, and so presumably could not be humiliated any further with this. A few years later, he’d be Boston strangling to erase the memories of things like this, but the damage was done, and Tony’s career descended faster than we kids in the sixties could go on a backyard "Slip ‘n Slide". In the meantime, however, Universal brought in some major star power to jump start Monsieur Cognac’s screen career, and incidentally, to give us a glimpse of what even big-name players in those days were willing to do in order to promote, or maintain, a studio berth. Who’d imagine that Cary Grant would submit to something like this, well into his elder statesman in the industry status, and only two years away from retirement? Based on what we’ve read about Grant, he was a surprisingly good sport when it came to gags like this, and a review of the trade magazines, even into the sixties, reveals that he was very much a team player when it came to promotion and publicity (especially when he owned a big piece of his starring features). I’ve seen any number of stills with exhibitors and exchange men smiling broadly as they pose in local theater lobbies with accommodating, man-of-the-people Cary Grant. No doubt about it, showmen in the field considered Cary one of the good guys. We have to assume from this pic that he’s getting story input for Father Goose from Monsieur Cognac. Watching that hard-sit movie today, we can still detect Cognac’s paw prints all over the script.

Now we have Kirk Douglas letting his hair down with what appears to be a stuffed Monsieur Cognac (his taxidermied double, perhaps?). We suspect Kirk had just finished For Love Or Money at this point, and might have been hanging around the lot trying to shore up another deal with Lew Wasserman. We also figure old Kirk for more than a little impatience with stupidity like this, but business is business, and I bet that if we showed him this picture today, he’d have absolutely no memory of it (loved your Ragman’s Son, Kirk!). Suppose one of you high-powered industry insiders e-mail this to him, and let’s see if he remembers it. Maybe Kirk has some cool anecdotes he’d share with us about what it was like to work with Monsieur Cognac.

Here’s poor Greg in his Captain Newman, M.D. uniform, it’s painfully obvious that Cognac has just put his nose in the man’s crotch, and Greg is determined that it will not happen again (just think, if this had been a year sooner, Peck would be wearing one of his Atticus Finch suits --- wouldn’t that be great?). If I were a psychiatrist, or psychologist, or just the good old family doctor (to quote Scottie Ferguson), I’d comment on Greg’s body language here, and conclude that this man needs some therapy, or maybe he just needs to get away from this smelly dog! Would it be indelicate to speculate as to the possibility of Monsieur Cognac having attempted to hunch Mr. Peck’s leg just before this still session began? It would explain a lot.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

One "Yes" Vote For Harold --- And A Mystery Photo

This word just came via a posting at the Buster Keaton Yahoo group (link HERE). Ultimate Harold Lloyd enthusisast and historian Annette Lloyd has been in conversation with Harold's grandaughter about the possibility of another DVD collection devoted to the great comedian. Believe it or not, there's still lots of good stuff left, even after that incredible set we got in 2005!

Memo To The Harold Lloyd Trust --- Please consider this posting a resounding YES in favor of that plan, and we encourage readers to visit Annette Lloyd's new blog
HERE in order to cast your vote for Harold. They're looking for feedback over there, so don't be shy! Oh, and here's a photographic P.S. for Lloyd experts --- can any of you help us identify this mystery still? The back caption merely says "Harold Lloyd Visits the Set", but what set? And who are those two gals with him?

Call For Judy Garland Fans

Judy’s always been a hard sell with straight men. In fact, not only do straight men generally dismiss (if not dislike) Judy, they tend to prefer that their friends do so as well. Here are variations on that sentiment as they have been expressed to me over the years ---- "I’m not exactly a fan of Judy Garland, are you?" (always with a bit of an edge to it) ---- "I don’t like Judy Garland! You don’t, do you?" (as though the continued friendship may hinge upon your answering properly). Must real men conceal their pleasure in Judy? Must we renounce her in order to qualify as heterosexuals? The conflict only deepened for me when I brought the issue before my girlfriend this morning. "Too hard", said she, "… not feminine… you’d never want to take her home to meet the family". Well, there’s an understatement to be sure, but what’s the Judy cult coming to when even the sisterhood turns against her? So, we pose this query to our readers --- what do you really think of Judy Garland? For myself, I pondered that weighty matter today as I watched I Could Go On Singing for the first time.

This was Judy’s last feature ("sadly", as Maltin’s TV review says), and it was released in 1963, six or so years prior to her death. It’s surprisingly plush for a star who’d not had a hit movie in nearly a decade, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. Of course, Judy sings her lungs out, but I found all that less interesting than the drama, and she’s really good with the drama (plus, I didn’t think the songs were all that hot). Say what you like, but this woman could act. She had a spontaneity that’s really effective when it isn’t going overboard, and I found her a lot more restrained here than in A Star Is Born, where you always have the feeling of George Cukor sitting behind the camera going, "Wonderful, Judy, more! More! MORE!" The only thing with Judy is the intensity. Once she’s switched on, she’s gonna take you with her all the way to the breakdown, particularly in these post-MGM things where you always have the feeling she’s getting ready to crack up and flee from the set. Apparently, that’s very nearly how it was, according to what I’ve read. In I Could Go On Singing, she essentially plays herself, and the show’s full of those backstage moments designed to give us a glimpse of the real Judy. Her fans must have gone nuts over this one. It’s not like Gay Purr-ee of the previous year, where she gave voice to a Chuck Jones cartoon cat (and had to endure one of those hellish New York opening weekends where Warners put her on a sweltering bus and sent her to every crumbling neighborhood theatre in the five boroughs for personal appearances). I Could Go On Singing is 100% Judy, as the ad shown here will attest, and good as she is, that can be a little exhausting. The story is one of those mother love things, and I kept waiting for a Stella Dallas ending which never really arrived. In fact, the whole thing just kind of stopped instead of ending. Judy really looks her age too, bless her heart. You wonder if Ross Hunter could have done anything for her the way he did for Lana Turner. Probably not.

Based on our research, this picture really went into the tank commercially. After all the trouble they’d had with Judy (and the pic was barely finished at all, thanks to her misbehavior), United Artists went down to a crushing defeat in every market. One observer said they might as well have hung a sign in the boxoffice reading, "Smallpox Inside". Domestic rentals were a horrific $301,000 (UA had sci-fi and strongman fodder that did almost as well), and foreign was only marginally better at $455,000. There were only 4,339 bookings --- even Vincent Price in the black-and-white Tower Of London did better than that. People wanted to see Judy in person. That’s what hooked UA in the first place. What got them snake-bit was the realization that no one wanted to go see Judy on the screen anymore, unless it was The Wizard Of Oz on a TV screen.

One more anecdote about Judy, though not a personal one. This I’d find hard to believe were it not for the unimpeachable first-person source, a life-long Garland fan and not a man given to prevarication. It seems that during the early sixties, when Judy was often as not broke (sneaking out of hotels to avoid the tab, that sort of thing), she would sometimes econimize by crashing with fans during her concert travels. During one such layover with an acolyte who later dealt autographs and became an acquaintance of mine, Judy decided to entertain this guy, and a couple of his friends, with an impromptu concert in the living room of his apartment. Singing along with her Judy At Carnegie Hall on the phonograph, she belted out every single number on that now legendary double album, all for the benefit of three fans who must have thought they’d died and gone to Judy Heaven. This is one story I’ve picked up in collecting travels that really freaked me out. Totally incredible, but I believe every word of it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Just Crazy About That Big Clock

If there’s one movie I adore, it’s The Big Clock. Unlike so many latter-day film theorists, I think noir can provide a lot of laughs, if taken in the right spirit, and for my money, Charles Laughton gives one of the wittiest performances of his career in this one. Was there ever a more delightful corporate tyrant than Earl Janoth? I first saw The Big Clock at the age of thirteen, and he became one of my boyhood heroes from that moment. That lethal argument he has with Rita Johnson is just priceless, and the way he clutches that sundial, with those cocked eyebrows and curled lips twitching, not to mention that stunning fatal blow ... It’s one of the great moments in noir.

How about this clock? Both inside and out, it’s just a fantastic creation. All those eerie controls, and that neat sound it makes when Ray’s hiding behind the face. Then sinister Harry Morgan enters and Ray clonks him. Terrific stuff. Harry’s performance as Janoth’s majordomo and deadly errand boy is aces all around. That great rubdown sequence where he applies the alcohol to Charlie’s corpulent torso is just too creepy and unwholesome for puny words to describe. Further bonuses include director John Farrow’s wife Maureen O’ Sullivan in a rare post-Jane part, and Chuck’s better half, Elsa Lanchester, in another of her patented eccentric roles. Once again, I couldn’t resist some of those nutty pressbook suggestions put forth by the Paramount sales boys. Oh, to have worked in that department back then! Could we have been so brilliantly imaginative as these crack showmen?

A couple of personal reminiscences here. The first involves Noel Neill. She’s actually in The Big Clock, playing an elevator girl during the first reel. The whole scene’s done in a single take (from inside the elevator looking out!) as she chatters along from one floor to the next (we see each floor). People are getting in and out of the enclosed space, some carrying rather unwieldy props, and each with their own bit of business and/or dialogue. It’s a very complex sequence, and Noel’s really good in it. About fifteen or so years ago, I sat in on one of those Q&A sessions with her at a collector convention, and listened patiently (as did she) to the usual line of inquiry that has surely dogged this woman over decades of personal appearances. "Who killed George Reeves?" "Was John Hamilton really just an old drunk?" "Why do you and Phyliss Coates hate each other?" Well, I didn’t want to go that route, so I decided to ask about The Big Clock, and guess what? She remembered it, and remembered it well. It was a one-day job, she said, and indeed, they got it all in the first take.

My other Big Clock encounter was with famed designer Edith Head, and I probably made an ass of myself with that one. A bunch of us in the 1975 USC Summer Cinema Studies Program (I think that's what it was called) were meeting in a little conference room at Universal, and our guest instructor was Miss Head. She’d brought along some of her Oscar-winning costume drawings, and gave a nice presentation. Since we only had about twenty-five in the class, there was plenty of opportunity for individual questions. Now here was the woman who’d dressed Carole Lombard, Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich … who knows how many others, and I’m the student who just has to ask about The Big Clock. Well, she politely muttered, I don’t remember a lot about that one. I then compounded my folly by recalling a favorite scene in the picture…. Charles Laughton falling down the elevator shaft. That seemed as good a moment as any for the celebrated design genius to make her graceful exit, much as she might have done after an encounter with one of those obnoxious Art Linkletter kids on the old House Party shows where she was a frequent guest. I, of course, remained oblivious to my error, and have only recently come to appreciate the full dimensions of my gaucherie on that memorable day.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

It's A Wonderful World In Color

These ads will be a curiosity for the younger readers, and perhaps a happy journey back for many of the rest. Certainly for those of us who came of age in the sixties, the memory of Walt Disney’s Sunday night program is indelible. Color television was something beyond a miracle for me in 1961. We wouldn’t have a color set until 1966, but an uncle down the street was a great proponent of the various media breakthroughs of that era, and couldn’t wait to install his first color set. At that time, there was so little multihued programming available that the expense seemed hardly worthwhile, but the rainbow visible on NBC Sunday evenings compensated for many a monochromatic night otherwise, and the Disney show, with its dynamic, paint-splashed opening, was an essential rite of passage into the exotic realm of color TV . The sheer novelty of the program overcame some pretty dreary content that first season. For every good episode (usually built around cartoons), there would be a "funny" animal show, or an earnest animal on some endless, and seemingly futile, trek through the wilderness show. Those were hard to get through, even in color. Sometimes they’d use an obscure Disney live-action feature as a two (or three) parter. Some of these, like The Horsemasters (Annette!), or The Prince and The Pauper, were released theatrically in Europe, and first-run on television stateside. As you can see from these elaborate magazine ads, the campaign for September’s premiere that year was all-out. The idea was to use the series to sell RCA color sets, and the company sponsored Disney’s show in a determined effort to do just that.

Edgar's Nasty Little Dummy

There’s an unwholesome quality about Charlie McCarthy that we at the Greenbriar have always admired. He was a frankly lecherous dummy who spoke for several generations of dissolute men and boys, sort of a Dean Martin in knotty pine. An ongoing affront to any and all polite exchange between the sexes, he burrowed into the hypocrisies of social intercourse in all its manifestations. Yes, we like Charlie a lot, ever since our first exposure to he and Edgar (and Mortimer) in the W.C. Fields classic, You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man. It’s great seeing their Vitaphone shorts featured as extras on Warner DVD's as well. The happiest surprise, however, came with Disney's recent release of Alice In Wonderland. Among the extras on Disc 2, there was a Christmas TV special from 1950, in which Bergen and the dummies are attending a party on the Disney lot, hosted by Walt himself, and featuring appearances by child star Bobby Driscoll and the English kid who served as a live-action model for Alice In Wonderland. In fact, the special itself (Walt’s first for television) was a promotion for the upcoming release of Alice In Wonderland, and twelve-year old Kathryn Beaumont is outfitted in full Alice regalia, even though the feature itself was animated, and she never appeared on screen. This is where Charlie swings into action, and I’m frankly amazed that ABC, let alone Disney, allowed their ribald exchange to get past the editor’s table. Walt makes the introduction, Kathryn is ultra-polite in that manner we expect from all British youth of the time, and then Charlie zeroes in, undeterred by the fact that he is dealing with a twelve-year old girl, as opposed to Mae West, Paulette Goddard, or some other saucy vixen on one of his radio programs. Charlie, this is the voice of Alice, says Walt, to which Charlie leeringly replies, Well… what goes with the voice isn’t so bad either! I’m ever so glad to meet you, Charlie, says Kathryn, at which point he leans in and delivers the proposition, Look sis, why don’t we slip away from this fish-fry and go somewhere. I happen to know of an intimate little soda fountain… She then interrupts with, I cahn’t, Charlie… and introduces the unenthusiastic dummy to Bobby Driscoll. Now, this sort of dialogue would no doubt wow ‘em at a camp show, or a guest spot with Hope, but how did Bergen end up with material like this for a comic exchange between his alter-ego and an underage girl? We figure it must have been some sort of snafu during the writing session, or maybe some gesture of insurrection on the part of a disaffected scribe. Anyway, it was as close as Charlie would get to the commission of a statutory offense, and it happened on Uncle Walt’s show!

Our love for Charlie is boundless, so we're providing several glimpses of our favorite little wooden man. That's Charlie and "Alice" Kathryn Beaumont on the left --- then he's intruding on Edgar's romantic moment in The Goldwyn Follies. That's the boys doing a swami act with a leggy chorine in Stage Door Canteen, and finally, a page from Warner's pressbook celebrating the return of their Vitaphone short subjects, and suggesting some of the tie-ins available.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Some Interesting People Born On This Date

Raymond Griffith (born 1895) was one of those "Silk Hat" comedians during the silent era, sort of a William Powell of his day (in fact, he and Powell worked together at Paramount). The fact that Griffith is utterly forgotten now is due largely to the fact that most of his starring vehicles are lost. There’s a reviewer on imdb who claims to have seen some of these features, but his reviews look a little fishy to me. Maybe there’s more Griffith stuff out there than I thought. Anyway, I saw him in a 1924 pic called Changing Husbands at one of those long-ago Cinecon gatherings, and believe me, this guy raised the roof. You know how sometimes people will laugh at a silent comedy because they come expecting nothing, and it turns out to be a little better than they figured? Well, this thing simply laid them in the aisles. Griffith’s pantomime was an absolute revelation. He made Chaplin look he was playing Ibsen. I wish I could have another experience like that with a silent feature. In fact, I wish I could see Changing Husbands again, maybe on DVD. Raymond Griffith never had a chance in talkies, because he’d lost his voice to childhood diphtheria (there’s also some screwy business about an on-stage trauma he suffered in a kid role, but I don’t buy it any more than those suspect imdb film reviews). One talker he did make was something called The Sleeping Porch, which I saw in an unannounced Syracuse Cinefest screening. It was a 1929 short, and they explained Griffith’s largely mute performance by establishing him as a man rendered speechless with a bad cold! Needless to say, this was not productive of laffs. Fortunately for Griffith, his producing acumen led to a longtime association with 20th Fox, where he’s credited with, among other things, The Mark Of Zorro (Bless you for that, Ray!). The real Raymond Griffith shocker is how the man died. Choked to death at his table during dinner at the Masquer’s Club in 1957! Dead at 62 of asphyxia. Ate something bad, they said. Great comedian, though. Check him out in another good one, Hands Up!, if you can find it.

Franklin Pangborn (born 1888) was always a "nance" character --- more specifically a sissy, a fussbudget, a harassed clerk, or functionary. He worked behind a desk so often in his movies, I began to wonder if he even had a lower torso. Anytime Pangborn showed up in a feature, you knew the whole enterprise would be better off for it. Everybody had a good time watching Frank. He was always great. Bill Fields liked to use him, as did Preston Sturges. This is Frank with the Andrews Sisters in a little 1942 Universal musical called What’s Cookin’, and I guess there’s about as much a chance of the studio releasing this as there is of flying pigs colonizing Saturn. There is a new DVD of Paramount comedy shorts coming from Kino in February, however, and Glenn Erickson’s excellent
REVIEW says Frank’s in one of them. Reason enough to buy, I’d say.

Bob Steele (born 1907) was a little whirlwind of a "B" western star who made his horse look like Winged Pegasus, but he could also be the nastiest "A" picture villain in the business, as witness Of Mice And Men (pictured here with Lon Chaney, Jr.), City For Conquest, and The Big Sleep (where he makes a sniveling Elisha Cook drink poison). Bogart really liked Steele, and made a point of using him in 1951's The Enforcer --- here they are on the set with Roy Roberts. By the way, does anybody remember that time Bob did a 1970 Family Affair episode where irritating little Jody idolizes old-time cowboy star Bob, only to be disillusioned when Uncle Bill introduces him to the now aged and decrepit Steele? It was a nice vignette, and very nearly Bob’s last stand before a camera before emphysema laid him low. I recall some western fans telling me about a mid-eighties visit they’d made to the old timer where he could barely make the trip up the hallway to greet them. But he came, and they were thrilled. By all accounts, he was a good guy, and what a stunning go at fisticuffs he could stage!

Today's Glamour Starter --- Fay Wray

I had resolved to stay off the King Kong bandwagon, at least until all this excitement over the remake died down, but hanged if these dynamite art stills of Fay Wray didn't come along, and… well … here they are. Just to avoid treading on too-familiar ground, I did a quick Google image search, and found surprisingly few underclad poses of our girl. Actually, this is only a few of them, as I don’t want to bore you readers, but if there’s sufficient interest, a stimulating Part 2 may well arrive at a later date! Long before there was a King Kong DVD, there was the King Kong Treasure. Or should we call it the King Kong Falcon? Whatever term best describes the unattainable among collectors in those heady days when owning 16mm prints of favorite films was truly a mark of distinction. I’d been bitten by the collecting bug (no, let’s call it a scorpion) way back in 1964, the year I first saw King Kong on Channel 3’s Picture For A Sunday Afternoon. I’d just combined my meager purse with two other boys in the neighborhood so that our eleven dollars might obtain a pair of 8mm "home movies" from the back pages of Famous Monsters (folks, there are entire discussion groups on line devoted to this magazine alone!). Castle Film’s eight minute version of Dracula (or more if you were willing to run your projector real slow) was plenty okay with us, and all that great dinosaur footage in Official Film’s condensation of the 1925 Lost World would be seared into our memories for life. King Kong, however, was not even available in 8mm, not no way, not no how. If you wanted to see that, you’d have to wait for it on television, and by the mid- sixties, with color TV gaining its foothold, those old B/W movies were suddenly becoming passe; even the really great ones like King Kong were being pushed aside in favor of things like Taza, Son Of Cochise, and Ten Thousand Bedrooms. Our search for Kong became as frustrating as Jack Driscoll’s. The first breakthrough came surprisingly in a theatrical revival, just after I’d turned sixteen in 1970. Janus Films of New York, they of the foreign imports and art-house successes, picked up "The Mighty Monarch Of Melodramas" and added a little spice to the program that would rock Kong fandom to its very foundations. Rediscovered footage, long buried in a collector’s attic (why is it always the attic?), promised long suppressed, graphic footage that would make the old mealy-mouthed King Kong look like one of the Marquis chimps. Imagine my anticipation when I literally ran out of the school building, drove ninety MPH through a rainstorm (the Lord really does protect fools and children) in order to catch the 4:00 show at the Carolina Theatre in Winston-Salem, NC (it was an hour from home). I watched the thing three times that weekend, and yes, I know I should have been slapped into military school instead and taught real discipline, or at the very least, compelled to play junior varsity football, but thank heaven my parents weren’t like that, and besides, when a child has reached this level of disorder, what can one do? At least I’d seen King Kong again, and within two years, when I began collecting 16mm film, I knew I had to own King Kong as well. Now, if you wanted to possess King Kong during those peak days of film collecting (that is, before DVD essentially wiped it all out), you had several ways to go. First was the "dupe" route. That’s just a print off a print … a muddy, bootlegged, unworthy thing. And you’d be clipped by $160 even for that. Alright, fair enough, but does it have the outtakes? After the Janus re-issue, no one wanted to see Kong again without the outtakes. Try explaining an incomplete print to a surly audience in your parent’s basement! They want to see Kong using natives for toothpicks, and dropping Gary Cooper’s future wife from that apartment building! What makes your film collection so special if you can’t give them that? The answer, of course, was to get a Janus print, or at least a dupe off a Janus print. Those tended toward $175+, assuming you could find one. But wait! How about that "monkey" print (so called because of the cryptic title etched on to the leader negative), so recently discovered in England, and spirited out aboard a clipper ship bound for the Americas? Could one of those be had? Well, yes, if you knew a collector who knew the collector who’d made that dangerous voyage. The monkey prints were supposed to be the best. Their only superior would be an original Janus print, and you’d have to commit a felony to get one of those (that’s okay, just tell us when and where!). A monkey print would even trump an original C&C (a note here for the uninitiated … C&C prints were those generated for TV distribution after RKO sold its library in 1955). I can’t recall the number of King Kong prints we used to "check out" at collector conventions over the years. I do have a vague memory of the night I ran my (first) print of Kong in the smoke-filled den of a crowded fraternity house back around 1974. We’d mixed a lethal potion called PJ, a fruity, alcohol-laced concoction that put everyone in a proper festive mood for the big ape thriller, and believe me, after working your way to the bottom of one of those PJ barrels, reel changes do not come easy, especially when your fingers feel thick as bananas, and they're asking you to repeat the picture over and over again! Well, all of that’s smoked meat now. The day King Kong was released on DVD, I dropped by the Wal-Mart right after Frugal Breakfast, and paid $20 plus change for the absolute best presentation of that movie I’d seen in all my years of Kong pursuit. Rest assured that irony wasn’t lost on me. Decades of travel, expense, and heartache in search of the perfect print of King Kong … and it all ends at a Wal-Mart store not half-a-mile from my front door. I guess that’s real progress.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Born This Day In 1875 --- D.W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith occupied a strange and unique position in the Hollywood community of the thirties and forties. No one was respected more, nor wanted less. The spectre of Griffith parked outside a studio gate aroused such feelings of pity, guilt, and general discomfort among all those on the inside that no door could be closed against him. Most of the power-players had learned their business from Griffith. The creative giant and father figure to an entire generation of producers and directors could no longer find a place in the industry he’d helped create. Nevertheless, work would always stop when Mr. Griffith arrived on a set. Just a visit and friendly reunion with an old associate who’d made it big, now shooting the important pictures Griffith used to direct. For men like C.B. DeMille and W.S. Van Dyke, those drop-ins had to be excruciating. They knew the sad old veteran wanted back in to resume his own career, but knew it was utterly impossible. Norma Desmond’s visit to DeMille’s Samson and Delilah set in Sunset Boulevard came closest to capturing the reality of those encounters. When someone once asked Irving Thalberg about giving Griffith a job at MGM, he merely shook his head, and said, "Impossible." Hollywood was anxious to give D.W. Griffith the grandest funeral tribute its money and shared guilt could buy, but even at that, they failed him. When the day finally came, on July 21, 1948, eulogist Donald Crisp delivered a stinging address before a half-filled chapel (fans were let in to swell attendance) in which he denounced an ungrateful industry for its shabby treatment of the great pioneer. Of course, they’d heard all that before, and now wanted only to get back to work and forget the whole thing.

These images do not represent D.W. Griffith at his peak. They show a man struggling to hang on in an industry that preferred he be confined to places like The Museum Of Modern Art, where they liked to keep relics. Griffith looks natty here with Cecil B. DeMille in a late twenties set pose. The man dressed sharp in those days. Good taste in hats, too. Griffith still had Abraham Lincoln and The Struggle ahead of him when this pic was made, so we shouldn’t count him out just yet. This next still, in which he appears to be directing a scene from San Francisco, was taken on the Metro lot in March 1936, and that’s D.W.’s old clapper boy W.S. Van Dyke standing behind the Master with his foot on the ladder. Van Dyke was another director who could never say no to Griffith, and by all accounts, the two were pals till the end (and Van Dyke’s would come sooner when he died young in 1943). I’d really like to know if Griffith actually called action on any of what made the final cut in San Francisco. This still is the only reference I've seen to his presence on the set, and the idea he might have directed a shot or two is a tantilizing one. Anyone got any dope on this? These last two are of Griffith in obvious decline. Note the tatty sport jacket he's chosen for a One Million B.C. publicity foray with producer Hal Roach. It's not a good fit, and that plaid is all wrong for him (still like the hat, though). I'm also a little miffed with Hal for using this great oracle of the silent cinema to shill for a dumb caveman movie with iguanas and other real-life critters standing in for prehistoric beasts (and for being so promiscuous in selling stock footage of self-same critters for every threadbare sci-fi pic to come along for the next twenty years!). At least Hal was offering D.W. some sort of a real job, as the original studio caption suggests ---

"Absent from films for eight years, David Wark Griffith, pioneer motion picture director and producer, arrived in Hollywood today. Griffith stopped in at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City to pay a personal visit to his friend Hal Roach, a friend of a quarter century’s standing. Before the visit was over, Griffith was prevailed upon to return to picture making as an associate in the Roach organization, his only contract a firm hand clasp."

According to our information, the deal never came to much, but Griffith did hang around the lot for a month or so, offering some casting suggestions (was Carole Landis the Great Man's last discovery?). This shot of Hal pointing something or other out to D.W. reflects pleasure in having Griffith on the lot, but also determination in letting the old-timer know who’s in charge there.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Star Scrapbooks --- Clara Bow

I was going through some old scrapbooks last night from a collector who'd acquired them years before in an estate sale. If we searched the provenance for all these clippings, they might well go back to the siege of Troy, but the thing that impressed me about this collection was how lovingly that nameless collector had gathered together and maintained it all. Among the artifacts of this long-ago devotee of Clara Bow, I found a neatly inscribed folder, brim-full of individual trims about the actress. Countless Clara images had been carefully removed from what must have been hundreds of magazines and newspapers over the years. The way he’d cut each one out, sometimes with intricate patterns, to avoid overlap with a neighboring article, was quite a monument to one man's patience and resourcefulness. I have no idea where these photos originally appeared, but a lot of them are both unfamiliar and well worth sharing with Greenbriar readers (and ask your kind indulgence, as I did opt for the sauciest poses!). Some individual cutouts were an odd size, so the collage effect on Photoshop seemed the best way to go. Just a small tribute to a Clara Bow fan of yore, artfully applying the scissors to his fan magazines, so that we might enjoy the fruits of his effort some seventy-five years later.

The full-color display above appeared in a Paramount exhibitors annual for the 1930-31 season. As you can see, great things were promised for Clara, but her career was headed for the barn by this time, and within less than two years, she’s be out of movies altogether. The Clara Bow Paramount talkies are among the rarest of her entire output, and we’d be thrilled to see Universal (they own the pre-48 Paramounts) release a box set of these, as they've recently done with the Dietrich, Lombard, and Mae West groups. If you want to read a fabulous biography of Clara Bow, look no further than
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