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Monday, February 27, 2006

Love That Laird!

I can drive up to Wal-Mart any hour of any day and see two dozen shoppers twice as big as Laird Cregar. That’s how much things have changed since his death in 1944. If Laird were around today, I’ll bet he’d be doing the romantic leads he so longed for during his all too brief career at Twentieth-Century-Fox. Back then, of course, he was typed as a big, fat, sinister, booming-voiced grotesque. He tried to get away from all that by going on crash diets and seeking plastic surgeons to make him "beautiful" like other leading men. In the end, it killed him --- a great actor only 31 years old when the curtain rang down. Poor Laird was so down on himself! Reading about his monumental insecurities makes me want to jump on Rod’s Time Machine again, just so I could go back to the Fox lot during the production of Heaven Can Wait and say, "Laird…dude…you look great!" Well, just check out this color shot of him as Satan in that great 1943 Ernst Lubitsch comedy --- is he the coolest or what? I think Laird looked better with the weight than without. Of course, he was never svelte, but that rigid diet that preceded his appearance in the last film, Hangover Square (released posthumously) did not flatter him. You can tell he’s not happy when you watch it, and by all accounts (especially Greg Mank’s in his excellent book, The Hollywood Hissables), Laird was miserable during the filming.

I think chicks would have gone for Laird in a big way were it not for the fact that he was gay (well, for that matter, I guess they did go for him, though it must have been a disappointment for some of them when he didn't return their romantic interest). Gene Tierney certainly looks impressed in this candid shot on the Fox lot. Oh yeah, she digs Laird. You can tell. He’s said to have been a real charmer off the set, and sometimes, when he was in a particularly good mood, the 328-pound actor would do cartwheels all the way from his dressing room to the soundstage. You gotta love a guy as un-self-conscious as that, but wait --- there’s the paradox, because another part of Laird was always trying to break free of that body he felt trapped in. He’d come from a king-sized family --- his mother was nearly Laird’s size, but the fortune they’d enjoyed during his father’s lifetime was wiped out in the ’29 crash, so Laird had to struggle years in poverty before hitting the jackpot with an L.A. stage turn as Oscar Wilde. The town went wild for his Wilde (as witness this hand-written congratulatory letter from Jack Barrymore), and Laird was on his way.

This neat-o still of in the chips Laird burning the note was taken in 1942 to celebrate the retirement of his debt to the Philadelphia, PA Rotary Club. Seems they had staked him to a course of dramatic studies at the Pasedena Playhouse several years previous, and now he’s paying them back. Doesn’t he look happy here? Well, being Toast Of The Town’ll do that for a guy. By this time, he’d installed Mom, an aunt, and a seven-year-old niece into his luxurious Beverly Hills abode, wherein he entertained on a grand scale (and taught the kid to do cartwheels). During those days of struggle, Laird often had to sleep in the back seat of a friend’s car. Here he is, just a couple of years later, sharing a back seat with Veronica Lake! The movie is This Gun For Hire, one of the few pics he did off the Fox lot. Overall, Laird had a much too short four years in pictures, but look at all the good ones he racked up in that brief time --- Blood and Sand, Charley’s Aunt, I Wake Up Screaming, This Gun For Hire, Ten Gentlemen From West Point, The Black Swan, Hello, Frisco, Hello, Heaven Can Wait, The Lodger, Hangover Square --- what a list! Imagine any actor today getting out that much quality work in so short a time, or even within an entire career.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Maureen O'Sullivan --- Part 1

Would anyone mind terribly if we went to two parts for these lovely, unabashed pre-code shots of Maureen O’Sullivan from Tarzan and His Mate? We stumbled across the first few, then some more, and … well, how could we leave any of these out? I mean, honestly, was there ever anything remotely like her … ever? This is one Tarzan pic that’ll perk up even the most jaded modern viewer, especially with all the keen footage they’ve put back in the DVD. That nude swimming sequence was always the stuff of legend among collectors. I knew of a Canadian 16mm fan who had a print that included it. Funny thing is, his version was topless only, whereas the DVD is totally nude. That isn’t Maureen in the water either way, more’s the pity, and from what we hear, Metro shot a number of variations on the swim scene. I’ve actually seen guys crane their necks during that part where Maureen’s rubbing the sticks together to ward off the lions, as if maybe a different viewing position will reveal a little more of her. What a picture. All that stuff with the gorillas throwing boulders on the safari from the top of the cliff is just beyond great. I knew a girl once, she was a teenager at the time, who was just nuts about Maureen. This was about twenty years ago. Anyway, she told her parents that her dream was to meet the actress, by now in her seventies and living in New York. Well, lo and behold, high school graduation arrived, and Mom and Dad gifted her with a trip to NYC, where she spent the day with Maureen! Who says celebrities aren’t good scouts?

A Film Noir Sunday

Does one really need an excuse to post a random group of fantastic film noir images? Having just run across a group of these, I couldn’t resist dropping some favorites on the site to liven up your Sunday morning. That’s Raymond Burr getting ready to smack somebody around in Desperate (1947). It’s one of those ordinary-Joe gets caught up in a web of murder and corruption stories. Steve Brodie’s the Joe. I like Ray as Perry Mason, but his big-screen villainy was sure missed after he made the switch to Tee-Vee. Ray’s also a snake in RKO’s His Kind Of Woman (1951), though he’s not in this shot with Bob Mitchum. That’s Charles McGraw oppressing Bob. Chuck is the living end when it comes to noir legends. Word is he was hard as nails in real life too. Wish I’d known him. Here he is with Marie Windsor in The Narrow Margin (1952), and I don’t have to tell anyone how great that show is. Finally, Burt Lancaster’s tempting Harold Vermilyea in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Never forget seeing that one on NBC Saturday Night At The Movies back in 1968. Incidentally, there’s a recent book called Dark City Dames, by Eddie Muller --- all about the actresses who populated these great thrillers. It’s one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read about the slippery highway of movie stardom. Among the many tomes written on the subject of noir, I’d put this right at the top.

Black-Market Popcorn --- Now It Can Be Told

Frugal breakfast bore unexpected fruit when I made my customary 6:00 a.m. entrance at the little diner where morning oatmeal is served. As I walked by a booth out front, I overheard snatches of conversation between one of the cooks and her grandfather, him preparing to attack a plate of biscuits and gravy. "Back when I worked at the theatre…" he said, which got my attention. Could this be a veteran of long past days at the Liberty, Allen, or even the generations-defunct Rose? Turns out he worked at the Allen from 1941 through 1944, his job to hustling popcorn. Wesley couldn’t be bothered about movies they ran, but his memories of that corn were vivid as to permeate our dining area with a smell of molten butter. Seems business was slow in ’41 when Wesley initially took charge of the counter (popcorn all they had for concessions, with no candy, and but one coke machine in the lobby). He made do with sluggish sales until a fateful day he added extra seasoning to the mix. Now, if you’re a connoisseur of theatre popcorn, the matter of seasoning can often draw a line of demarcation between a tasty treat and negation of your movie-going experience. Wesley’s enhanced popcorn was a sensation, with sales rocketing. The boss was delighted. Only problem lay in the fact that there was a war on, and popcorn seasoning was a rationed item. You could only get one 450 pound barrel every four months. Wes had used up the Allen’s barrel in six weeks. Not to worry, said senior management, and then, in a hushed aside, "I’ll get that seasoning…" Sure there was a war out there, but here was 1500 bags of popcorn being sold each Saturday, and at a nickel a bag, that’s seventy-five dollars. For this kind of windfall, rationing be hanged! Wesley is still loathe to speculate just how his boss got the extra barrels. All he knows is … they was got. One’s imagination runs riot at the prospect of a small-town exhibitor dealing in black-market popcorn seasoning. How did he acquire it? What sort of criminal element was involved? Was our humble community honeycombed with dealers in wartime contraband? Did sinister Axis agency lend assist to obtain the flavorful salt and butter combination? It’s fortunate I wasn’t born yet. Otherwise, I might have been sitting there eating popcorn at the expense of our boys in uniform. For all I know, this web of seditious intrigue extended all the way to Berlin or Tokyo. Perhaps it is best this story remain hidden. The Allen burned in 1962, Wesley the only one left who knows of its secret past. Let us mark this file --- confidential.

By way of background, here are 1941 ads for the Allen, and its rival up the street, the Liberty. The Allen ran second behind the Liberty, both in seating capacity (about 300 less of them), and the fact the Allen had no stage. Note the Liberty’s promise of "Deluxe Big-Time Vaudeville." They had stars making personal appearances as well. Wesley remembers seeing Wild Bill Elliot up there once. By the way, the Allen's run of Carolina may have been one of the last times the 1934 Fox feature was seen anywhere, as it is now a lost film, pretty incredible that a major studio feature of such late vintage should vanish from the face of the earth, but there it is. If anyone knows if and where Carolina survives, do make contact, and I’ll gladly update (Henry King directed a cast including Janet Gaynor, Lionel Barrymore, and Robert Young --- above is a still). For obvious reasons, this is a film I’d really like to see.

My Adventures With Don Juan

Back when this writer was chasing 16mm film across the landscape, a magic beacon called IB Technicolor guided my path. IB prints would not fade. They were rich, luminous treasures. Few collectors had them. Those who did were known and respected among peers. To possess IB was to achieve status. You could run them for friends and fellow enthusiasts, knowing a better print could not exist elsewhere. Bragging rights varied according to title. It was one thing to tell friends (and rivals) of your IB Caine Mutiny --- quite another to announce a just located Adventures Of Robin Hood. The question was always rarity. How many Caines were around? Well, lots actually. It was a big rental title, and heavily syndicated on TV, so Columbia printed many 16mm IB’s. Titles like Robin Hood were something else. Also Vertigo, The Wizard Of Oz, The Searchers, Leave Her To Heaven… these were the Faberge eggs of collectible 16mm. To own one or more was to enter a state of grace among film hoarders. The dealer’s room at a collector’s convention would stand still if ever a seeker of celluloid came across likes of an IB Weekend In Havana, or maybe War Of The Worlds in Technicolor. Such moments were to be savored. It goes without saying that competition for these was fierce and unrelenting.

My own 16mm collecting days, now past, were spent largely in the company of august and well-regarded Robert M. Cli
ne of Thornhill Entertainmentveteran of many years dealing in film, his name known to anyone who trafficked in 16mm. Mr. Cline and myself, along with a merry band of far-flung collecting comrades, were soldiers of fortune in the movie game, "knights without armor in a savage land," to quote Paladin’s theme song (calling cards might well have read, Want Films – Will Travel). Our idea of fun was to scarf up every good title in a dealer’s room before it even opened. We’d be in the parking lot ready to deal when collectors drove up. A lot of rarities got no further than the trunk of someone’s car before transition to our greedy hands. Thrill of the chase was its own reward. Knowing you scored a title everyone else wanted became an end in itself. I need not relive those days, but memories of them are stuff of great nostalgia for Mr. Cline and myself.

"Sugared thoughts and hopeful suppositions"--- those words Bing Crosby used to describe Ichabod Crane’s desire for the fair Katrina in Disney’s animated Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, the phrase summing up my fevered pursuit of th
e alleged sole existing 16mm IB Technicolor print of The Adventures Of Don Juan. Warner’s 1948 Errol Flynn costumer had always been a favorite. I had an Eastman print for years --- "straight eastman" we called them, because eventually, they would fade. Legends persisted of one Technicolor print. Could this be had? First, I needed to track it down. Like the Maltese Falcon, it had gone through many hands. I spoke to its current owner, but progress was forever delayed by assorted vagaries of a negotiating process. This could require months, sometimes years, of a dedicated collector’s time and patience. Our deal was eventually made by phone, final consummation to take place at the seller’s home in upstate New York (for the life of me, I can’t remember the name of that town anymore). Only coin of the realm would do --- no check, nor negotiable instrument of any kind. Casper Gutman himself would have smiled upon our enterprise. All that was left was to fly up and take delivery. Simple, right?

Robert Cline and I were driven to the collector’s house by an old friend and Jersey native Dan Mercer, him well versed in by-ways of the Empire state. By the time we reached our destination, I felt like Renfield at Borgo Pass. Our attempt to gain entrance at the given address on this bitterly cold winter’s day was met with silence. We knew our man was there ... the why of our not getting an answer at the door took longer becoming clear ... it wasn’t yet dark. By the time 
our host appeared, after an azure sun had given way to night, all was understood. There had been eccentric collectors before, we'd known lots, but never anyone like this. Since I’d given advance notice only of Mr. Cline as companion, our third party, and coachman, was told to remain outside. It might have been better at that point to garland our vehicle with wolf bane before leaving Dan to face the dark alone, but time did not permit. Don Juan was waiting! Our brief stop in the kitchen, heaven forbid to eat within, as the refrigerator still bore the seal of the Seven Jackals, revealed something I’d not seen before, to wit, no ceiling, barely a floor in the upstairs room above, only a few boards that seemed to be suspended in mid-air. One could but despair for whatever luckless individual might wander into such perilous space. Fortunately, as our 16mm quarry resided in the basement, we would not venture into harm’s way. Journey below ground was to accompany of asthmatic wheeze from a basement furnace, belching fumes over an Aladdin’s cave of filmic treasures likes of which few humans had beheld. I'll not belabor what lay within this mine of movies. Our poring however was rebuffed. The deal was for Adventures Of Don Juan --- no more, no less. Stuff we had to leave behind was enough to make grown men cry. It was the one time in my life I saw boxes filled to overflowing with untouched Technicolor Warner cartoons, still on cores, with their original lab stickers. Bittersweet memories. Adventures Of Don Juan that meant so much to me would be ultimate object of an Ebay auction conducted by Robert Cline’s Thornhill Entertainment. I never thought I’d see a day of departure from it, but times change, as do priorities. I hope whoever ended up with Don Juan enjoyed it. They can’t experience the same adventure of search and gather, but perhaps they are better off for that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

We Interrupt Today's Work On The Big Sleep...

We’ve just had a break in shooting The Big Sleep. It seems Mr. Hawks has gotten the transcript of Tuesday’s Home Theater Forum live chat with Warner DVD representatives, and he can’t wait to share the big news about forthcoming titles with stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. A disinterested Louis Jean Heydt is on the sidelines, having already announced that he’s sticking with his laser disc collection. Bogie’s expression betrays his excitement over WB exec George Feltenstein’s promise that Halloween 2006 will bring the DVD release of all those 30’s horror titles we’ve been waiting for --- Mask Of Fu Manchu, The Walking Dead, Mad Love, and Mark Of The Vampire. "Hey, Betty", he says, "Look at this! They’re even coming out with The Giant Behemoth, Queen Of Outer Space, and lots more of those long-awaited Allied Artists sci-fi titles folks have been asking about!" "But don’t overlook that Prisoner Of Zenda collection", warns Mr.Hawks, "…all three versions!" His secretary there in the corner (her name’s Margaret Cunningham, by the way) has just noticed those Norma Shearers on the promised list, and another film noir box --- and what about those silents! The Big Parade, The Crowd, Show People, lots more --- and the early Warner Doris Day titles are on the way too. Bogie’s still flipping through those Q&A’s, his hands trembling with anticipation. "Here’s a Gangsters 2 box, and more of my pictures in the pipeline…and here’s a Cagney box, and a Bob Mitchum collection. Wow! No wonder Warners is considered the hands-down best DVD producer in the business!" "Well, that’s something we can all agree on", says an avuncular Howard Hawks, "…guess there won’t be any more work getting done on this set today. Let's all send Warners an e-mail congratulating them on the terrific job they're doing, with our assurances that we’ll be first in line to purchase all those great DVDs on Warner’s 2006 release schedule!"

The above flight of fancy reflects our heady excitement over what looks to be the biggest DVD release year so far for those champions of classic movies over at Warners. Under the leadership of veteran disc producer and historian George Feltenstein, this company has set a standard of quality unsurpassed in the industry. Warner’s ongoing annual status as DVD Producer Of The Year has become a foregone conclusion. No one comes close to their level of quality and commitment. If you’d like to read the transcript of this week’s live chat, here’s the
LINK. So many great titles are forthcoming, not to mention all those great short subjects that are part and parcel of most Warner DVD releases. Each new box set arrival is like Christmas morning here at the Greenbriar. Keep up the great work, guys!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Some Good People Born This Past Week

Sometimes, in a crowded week, there might be ten or twelve names we’d like to address for the birth date round-up, but space best permits about four, so here’s a handful of likeable players who share this writer’s own February birth-month. First up is Jack Benny (2-14), and this color shot shows he and wife Mary Livingstone in an early-forties pose. I do still maintain an unwavering opinion that Jack had the funniest ongoing comedy persona of all time. The fact that he mined it for well over forty years, without its becoming stale, is nothing short of miraculous. Even his last NBC specials from the early seventies are gems. Too bad we can’t see those anymore. I used to have a video of a Benny show, I think it’s from around 1954, where his guest was Humphrey Bogart. Amazing. Despite his near elder-statesman status in the business, Bogie still reverted back to the public image his audience knew best --- Duke Mantee --- for his comedy sketch with Jack. That gangster thing followed him to the very end. Well, so did Jack’s miser tag, even though he was well-known off-stage for his generosity, and for being a nice guy in a comedy jungle where a lot of our most "beloved" names were real bastards as soon as the lights went down. Not Jack.

Now honestly, was there ever an actor who projected more sincerity than Hugh Beaumont (2-16)? I’m not even sure it was acting. Maybe all the stuff that was happening to Ward Clever was really happening to Hugh, and we just didn’t realize it at the time. That’s how good he was. Total conviction, and he really seemed to listen to other actors when they spoke. So why didn’t his feature career take off? Well, he wasn’t bigger than life, for one thing. Not the movie star type, exactly. As it turned out, the family sitcom was ideal for him, but I wonder if Hugh wanted more. He didn’t work much after Beaver --- I'll never forget one time on Medical Center, the O.R. door opened, and in walked Hugh, with white hair! Did the producers of that show have any idea of the effect that iconic face would have after what was then a seven-year absence? I don’t recall anything else about that episode, but I sure remember that moment. Hugh ended up in Spartanburg, SC, living with his son, I think. Close enough that I could have looked him up. Bet he would have been very gracious. What a shame he just missed the Beaver reunion TV movie. Lousy as that turned out to be, it could have sure used his reassuring presence. By the way, this still is from Anthony Mann’s Railroaded, a crackerjack noir that’s available on DVD. That’s Mrs. Pat Buttram (Sheila Ryan) and John Ireland with Hugh.

Here’s Ann Sheridan (2-21) lounging on a bear skin rug at Warners. She said years later that she hated that rug. It was tatty, and smelled real bad. Guess it’s kinda hard to machine wash those things, and would a dry cleaners accept them? The ones around here wouldn’t. Anyway, Annie was one of those gals that smoked her lunch every day. Cagney used to watch her at the commissary and be fascinated. She’d order a plate of scrambled eggs, then push them around with her fork as she went through a chain of fags, lighting one after another despite Jim’s health warnings. Well, that’s what got her in the end, of course, that and the alcohol. She’s one of those actresses that really aged quick. By the fifties, it was more or less character work for her, but there were still good ones (ever see Come Next Spring?). One of these days we’ll have to do a Monday Glamour Starter for her. Now that I think of it, why didn’t she do more pictures with Howard Hawks? They would have been a perfect team. At the risk of sounding too autuerish here, I think her performance in Torrid Zone is very Hawksian.

I promised myself I wouldn’t use a Kevin McCarthy (2-15) still from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, and this nice shot of he and Eddie Robinson from Nightmare is the fulfillment of that solemn pledge. Kevin’s great, of course, and blessed be, he’s still with us. I actually got to spend some time with him back in 1989, when he came to our little NC village with his Harry Truman one-man show. We drove to and from the Greensboro airport together, and had dinner at the Holiday Inn. He was terrific. I’d met a few celebrities before, but never had I spent so much time around one. He regaled me with stories about the making of Hotel (Merle!), Kansas City Bomber, and, of course, the pod movie. What a great experience. Of all the big names this country boy ever encountered (and there haven’t been that many), Kev was by far the nicest. Happy birthday, sir!

Monday, February 20, 2006

On The Road With Clark Gable --- Part 2

Well, we just got to the Colorado location to shoot Across The Wide Missouri. Gable’s speedy gas-buggy is no worse for the wear, and he’s ready to start work. "Work" in this case involves a lot than just doing the movie ... Seems Mrs. Gable decided it might be fun to tag along, so here she is to cast a little feminine ray of sunshine over those long, gloomy days in the remote wilderness. Lady Sylvia’s got their cabin all dolled up like home, and don’t worry about her --- she’ll pass the time with painting and crocheting while Clark pulls those long hours being heroic for the cameras. Everybody knows this marriage is headed for the shoals, but for the sake of the fan press, Mr. and Mrs. Gable are willing to make nice and pretend their wedded life is simply idyllic, just like every other couple in Hollywood. They say the camera never lies, however, and it looks as though our photographer has revealed a little more than the Gables, let alone MGM, intended.

First, a little time off for fishing, and can’t you tell Clark’s just de-lighted to have the wife along. He’d be even happier if she’d leave his rod the hell alone. And isn’t she just too pristine in her outdoorsy outfit? Imagine her sawing the heads off fish they’re going to catch --- catch, that is, if she’ll stop doodling around with the man’s rod (time for that later, says Clark). What if would-be fisherwoman Sylvia were to go headfirst into that mighty river, just like Bill Powell did in that rib tickling Libelled Lady sequence? Bet the fan mags would have a blast with a shot of that, even if they were barred from the Metro lot for life as a result. This angling expedition won’t last much longer. Lady Sylvia broke a nail and had to be rushed to the infirmary.

Here are the Gables checking out some of Sylvia’s artistic handiwork. Wonder where that canvas hangs today. We like to speculate on little things like that. Clark’s probably speculating on how long it will take to get his stuff packed once they get back to the ranch. Howard Strickling and the guys in publicity asked him to make it look good at least for the location gig. After that, all bets are off. But can Gable hold his temper even for that long? ….

Okay, here’s where things gets dicey. It’s breakfast time, and the Gables are having a nice cup of coffee together. So far, so good. He can fake that. Then the publicity shutterbug gets the idea it might be fun to stage a little husband/wife disagreement over the newspaper --- so he’s instructed Clark to "act" annoyed over Sylvia’s interference with his reading. Here’s the original back caption --- "WOMEN’S PAGE … OR SPORT’S PAGE? The Gables, like all married couples, should really have two newspapers" --- or two residences, he’s thinking, preferably separate ones. Just look at that snarl! If this is acting, we’ve been underestimating this guy for too long. Judging by his deep tan, it looks as though they’ve been cooped up on location for several long weeks by now, and that’s just enough for Clark to have had a snootfull of Sylvia. Better to pass the time with actor buds James Whitmore and Ricardo Montalban (isn’t this the movie where Ricardo got that back injury that almost scuttled his career?). In Sylvia’s defense, I will say she doesn’t look much happier than her husband in this outdoor shot. That’s a
pretty nice afghan she’s working on, but I wish she wouldn’t let it lay on the ground like that. Whitmore or Montalban are liable to walk by and step on it. Oh, and for the record, the Gables split within a few months after this trip.

Monday's Glamour Starter --- Merle Oberon

A friend of mine from school used to be a dedicated fan of Merle Oberon. He thought she was sheer perfection. Back in the late sixties, he’d order stills of her from Movie Star News in Manhattan, and when her movies turned up at 4:00 a.m. on some obscure New Jersey TV station, he’d either stay up all night, or set his alarm, to see them. When Hotel surfaced at a local drive-in around 1968, he celebrated his recent acquisition of a driver’s license to go there alone, during a rainstorm, to watch his idol. Because his windshield wipers tended to obstruct a clear view of Merle, he got out and stood beside his car to watch the show, all the while holding his umbrella to guard against the elements. Now that story is by way of illustrating just how powerful an effect some of these actresses had in their day. For my friend, at least, the Magic Of Merle reached years beyond her own era of prominence, for she was well into semi-retirement when he first discovered her. Merle’s biggest problem lay in the fact that she didn’t make many important pictures. If you take away Wuthering Heights, the woman’s pretty well stripped naked. I personally like Divorce Of Lady X, Lydia, A Song To Remember, and a few others --- and of course, The Lodger is an all-time favorite. Now if they had put Merle’s real-life story on the screen, that would have really been something. As a matter of fact, they did tell it once --- in the TV movie, Queenie --- which was actually a fictionalized story suggested by her life.

Good luck trying to figure out the origins of Merle Oberon. All evidence suggests she didn’t even know all of truth. One thing was certain. This woman had lots to hide about her background, especially in a day when uncertain racial origin could erase a career. Oberon was still dishing fiction about her beginnings right to the end, way beyond a point where it mattered. That was 1978, when she was invited "back" to her supposed birthplace in Hobart, Tasmania, hosts alarmed to find no record of Oberon having been born in Hobart. Local press took a close interest, and Miss Oberon beat  hasty retreat back home, avoiding inquiry that awaited her now-cancelled appearances. Within a year she was dead, having withdrawn from public life with her last husband, much younger actor Robert Wolders. Some Australian producers later got interested in her story, exposing more of a spider's web re those early years. It had been rumored she was "half-caste", with an Anglo father and an Indian mother. Merle had brought a dark-skinned personal maid when Hollywood beckoned, and yes, it was Mother assuming that role for what was left of her lifetime. Merle had grown up on the "shabby streets of Bombay," had lived by wits, or off largesse of wealthy men, from early on. She was "Queenie O’Brien" in club hostess days. Further myth claimed she actually came of Chinese heritage, a "Lottie Chintock" the actual birth-mother. There might too have been a sister who turned out to be the mother, plus two or three possibilities for the the father (a certainty: Merle was born out of wedlock). 

This still at top shows 
irresistible Merle disrupting staid life of  Laurence Olivier in an Alexander Korda comedy, The Divorce Of Lady X, of interest because both look fine in Technicolor, Olivier haughty and priggish as I  prefer him at this stage of a long career. They would re-team in the same year’s Wuthering Heights, accounts saying Larry was mean because he preferred Vivien Leigh to play opposite him. Olivier could be priggish in that first decade of screen work, as he'd readily admit during elder statesman interviews. The lush color portrait is from Lydia, a woman’s story she did (also for Korda) in 1941. Mainstream hits like The Lodger and (especially) A Song To Remember kept Oberon's name afloat through the 40's, but a following decade would find her treading water on television, a fate dealt to any number of stars on a wane. She is with Tom Conway above in something called Assignment: Foreign Legion. Oberon married well and didn't need the money, was a social success among international jet-setters, and by all evidence a popular hostess. She probably had as spectacular a jump from humble beginnings as anyone who worked in movies, having more than perfected the art of concealment with regard background and parentage. She lived, then died, just short of changed times where that no longer would matter.   


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Pepsi Break For Lon and Brod

It’s Pepsi time on location for Universal’s big bruisers in residence, Lon Chaney Jr, and Brod Crawford, as they take an unexpected soft drink break from the rigors of yet another interchangeable "B" actioner in which they’re starred. You can’t tell us these boys didn’t have another bottle stowed away in the hollow of one of those trees North Of The Klondike. The very idea of marooning Chaney and Crawford in the wilderness without stronger libation would just be unthinkable. Evie seems content enough with her soda pop, but Lon looks downright threatening. Unless that bottle’s spiked, we fear the big guy’s gonna be making some trouble in the next few minutes. Brod seems a little more composed. Has he told Lon about that thermos he smuggled onto the set? If not, these two are liable to come to blows --- and it won’t be the first time either!

A Trip Back To 1938

When I look at a still like this, it’s almost as though I were staring into some alternate universe, a place that surely never existed, for the thrill of going there and seeing it for real would be just too delirious. Of course, other people feel that way about basketball tournaments, or NASCAR museums, so to each his own, but if this writer could indeed go back in time to any era or place, this one would be as good a start as any. Grindhouses, those lowly little theatres that opened early, and played late (if not all night), were a staple in every town of any size, and often as not, they’d load up the bill with at least three features, all of them second-run at best. Those projectors would grind through long days on a continuous basis --- no breaks or intermission --- that’s where the "grind" got its name. You could walk into one of these joints anytime, as it didn’t matter what was on that screen. Chances are you're there to get warm, or sleep off a three-day drunk, or maybe find a dark corner in the balcony to consummate a new relationship. That’s what the movies were for back then. Maybe it’s as well industry people, let alone the stars, never frequented such places. It would have been disillusioning, if not dangerous. I’ve always loved the idea of a grindhouse. They had absolutely no pretensions. Bookings were, for the most part, indiscriminate. Cheap rentals were the guiding light, and the bill changed every other day most of the time. That meant having to constantly rip down all those gorgeous posters. Most of the time you could return them for a credit, unless they were glued them to the board. In those days, with so many pedestrians on the streets, you had to grab their attention walking by, and hope that on impulse, they might walk in.

See this guy standing there with the bag? That’s me --- and it’s 1938. Seems I was able to sneak into that collector's garage, the one with Rod Taylor’s old Time Machine prop, and guess what? It worked. So here I am, and boy, I can’t wait to get in there and get started! Maybe I’ll get to see Death Fangs first. It’s only a 1934 short subject, but Flash The Wonder Dog is in it, and he always gives good value for your dime’s admission. First I need a little snack. Hmmm, that chili con carne might be good for ten cents, or how about that slap-down breakfast --- two eggs, bread, coffee, and orange juice for seventeen cents. Kinda steep, but it’ll hold me through a five-hour show, I guess. Man, these posters are nice. Wonder if the manager will believe me when I tell him they'll be worth a fortune in about sixty years? Better not. No need in getting beat up or arrested on my first trip back in time. That’s liable to happen in any case once I enter the dark environs of this place. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten the nickel hot dog at that little place behind me. Say, didn’t they use real dogs to make the things back then? Folks were pretty strapped, after all . My stomach’s feeling kinda funny just thinking about that. Now, let’s see --- what’s on the program --- That Girl From Paris --- well, I sure didn’t come sixty-eight years back in time to see a 1936 Lily Pons/Jack Oakie vehicle! Okay, how about Sweetheart Of The Navy --- that’s 1937, only a year old, but Eric Linden and Cecilia Parker? Boy, that manager needs some of my expert guidance. Maybe I’ll tell the guy he should bring in a triple bill of Captain Blood, King Kong, and The Thin Man. Then again, maybe not. From the looks of him, standing deep within the recesses of that inner lobby, he doesn't seem the sort who’d be responsive to booking suggestions. Oh well, there’s always the third feature, One Way Passage, from 1932. Bill Powell and Kay Francis are in that one, and if it gets underway pretty soon, I can get back to 2006 in time to visit the emergency room and deal with that hot dog.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Coloring Giant Ants!

Ask a sci-fi fan to name a most memorable aspect of Them! and they will mention the giant marauding ants, or an evocative opening scene with little Sandy Descher traumatized from her encounter with the monsters. Them! was a blue-ribbon exception to prevailing view of science-fiction as font for cheap thrilling, worthy at most of a child's attention. Them! has been researched, exhaustively so. There seemed little left to learn of its impact and influence, but wait ... what of how it was promoted to a public for which Them! was an altogether unknown quantity. A coloring contest to fan interest in giant ants? Well, why not? I came across this and other bally blitzes via search of 1954 newspapers here in North Wilkesboro, NC. Turns out Them! was quite the event for those of us still paying little more than a dime or a quarter to get into our Allen Theatre.  

What I found was possibly the biggest campaign any picture had in North Wilkesboro that year.  Drumbeat started three weeks in advance of the Allen's playdate. The venue seated 450 and had a balcony, but no stage. Our Journal-Patriot carried its first announcement of the coloring contest, and however readers regarded that, the prizes to be awarded were no laughing matter. RCA Victor televisions were a heady proposition in a community where few families even owned a set, runner-up radios and phonograph generating near as much excitement in households as well. I'm betting a lot of adults put crayon to paper toward helping Junior cop such goodies. As you can see by the "Coloring Contest Entry Blank", the idea was to imagine how the ants would look in color. We could wonder if any of those original entries survive today. The Allen unleashed the monsters on June 27, 1954, as Them! played a three-day engagement, this a maximum run for movies in our town, unless it was The Ten Commandments. Even when I going as a kid in the mid to late sixties, we almost never had anything stay longer, three to five program changes a week pretty much the norm back then. No doubt Them! clicked for the Allen, as it came on heels of Creature From The Black Lagoon (in 3-D), and was displaced by Dial M For Murder. The Allen was a bright light for movie entertainment in  June, 1954.

For those who always dreamed of becoming a Them fighter (just like the regular civilian defense wears!), here was opportunity, and would anyone recall Mrs. J.D. Campbell of Midville, Ohio? Is it possible that Mr. Campbell was a Warners exchange man in that area, or a starving Ohio exhibitor hoping to get better terms for upcoming WB releases? Mrs. Campbell certainly doesn’t look like the kind of patron who would enjoy a picture like Them!. In fact, she more resembles a sort who would try to prevent others from enjoying Them!. And public safety concerns do compel us to point out the hazards inherent in that proposed street bally. To wit, if those girls intend to walk shoulder-to-shoulder down city sidewalks, where does that leave their fellow pedestrians? Dangerously close to, if not in, the street, I should think. And finally, does anyone actually possess that Art Carney "novelty record"? I can’t imagine what a thing like that would sound like, but I’d sure like to hear it. If anyone has one, please enlighten us all!

Finally, Them! at the boxoffice. I’ve read often of how this was Warner’s biggest moneymaker in 1954. How it out-grossed big pictures like A Star Is Born, etc. Well, it’s true Them! was a hit, but it certainly wasn’t their biggest hit. Them! had a negative cost of $1.2 million, and earned $1.6 in domestic rentals. Foreign rentals were $890,000, and worldwide totaled $2.5 million, for a final profit of $685,000. That was exceptional for sci-fi product, but nowhere near what Dial M For Murder brought back --- or Drum Beat with Alan Ladd. Them! was more profitable than A Star Is Born, even though the musical had a considerably larger gross. An exorbitant negative cost, however, limited Star's profit to $164,000. Unqualified successes for that year were The High and The Mighty ($4.6 profit), and the Dragnet feature with Jack Webb ($3.3 to the good). Both of these ran rings around the ants, that no discredit to Them!, since legacy-wise, it seems to have emerged a clear winner.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Many Faces Of Dick Powell

I'm going out on a limb here and making a declaration which all readers can disagree with or correct me on. Here goes --- Dick Powell was the only major star to successfully undergo a complete image change, becoming an even bigger star than he'd been with the old image. There --- now name someone else who did that. As Dell Henderson said in Choo Choo, I dare you, I defy you! Over the years, I’ve asked a number of friends to address the issue --- no one yet has proposed another actor or actress who did it. And remember --- it has to be a total transformation --- not just an occasional casting against type. Okay, enough of that. Back to Dick.

Dick Powell was a great actor and a visionary producer. Some people like him best in those singing Warner parts, but I think he’s best in film noir. Sometimes he came off insipid in early musicals, but that wasn’t Dick’s fault. One feels his embarrassment in those, that underlying desire to push a grapefruit into Ruby Keeler’s face. By 1936, Dick’s need to bust out of those song-fests was palpable --- just consider the costumes he wore in Hearts Divided, with Marion Davies. Why not put on a dress on the man and be done with it? By way of compensation, I understand Dick did have a fling with his leading lady, though the record doesn't reflect his having woke up the next morning with a horse-head sharing his bed (W.R. Hearst presumably having mellowed somewhat by this time). In the wake of the Warners sentence, Dick found pickings even slimmer elsewhere. Paramount wanted him to sing some more (and whose idea was that pencil mustache?), and Universal added insult to injury by placing him in support of Abbott and Costello! Now mind you, In The Navy is fine if you like the boys, but it didn’t take a sooth-sayer to know Dick’s career was in big trouble by this time. They say he really went after Double Indemnity at Paramount and no doubt would have been great in Fred’s part (not that Fred was any slouch). Anyway, Dick met the head studio dog in an elevator shortly after and read him the riot act. Surprisingly, Dick's onerous contract was settled then and there, leaving Dick to set up Murder, My Sweet at RKO ....

This first still is Smiling Dick from Footlight Parade, a great picture, but Cagney’s picture. That’s a fab hat Dick’s wearing, but we suspect he’d rather have worn Jim’s shoes. Dick was known as a "pleasing tenor". Do tenors please anyone anymore? Maybe so, but I doubt any future (male) stars will break into the business based on that qualification. Next is Wide-Eyed Dick half-smiling for the Sunday section. Is that deadly (in the good sense) suit his way of letting us know a change is in the air? Maybe he’s just gotten off that Paramount elevator --- still a little startled, uncertain of the future, but determined to forge ahead.

Well, this next fabulous shot is the New Dick Powell (that’s how the posters read) in Murder, My Sweet. We never tire of seeing Dick in that picture. Watch what he does with props next time. Always picking things up off desktops, sniffing a cigarette before he’ll put it in his mouth, etc. I wish other actors were as good with handy objects. Ever seen Dick do his thing with hotel keys? Look at Cornered --- it’s beautiful. And when he gets off that train at the beginning of Cry Danger! (great, great movie, by the way), watch how he tests the weight of his suitcase, as if determining whether someone’s heisted anything out of it. Then there's proof that Dick could do a western, and a good one --- Station West (1948), and that’s Jane Greer with him (can you believe this doll was once married to Rudy Vallee?). Lots of good dialogue here, and Ray Burr’s the villain. Finally, there's Dick after he became one of the absolute power centers in early television. Lots of people have forgotten what a pioneer he was in that field. You could say he invented the whole concept of big stars doing anthology work. Nobody said no when Dick called. Look at this ensemble for just one 1961 episode of The Dick Powell Show (he produced, hosted, and sometimes performed). From left to right, Ronald Reagan (looks like Ron was in about the same shape here as Dick just before he left Paramount --- talk about a complete forthcoming image change!), Nick Adams (Frankenstein Conquers The World still a bright star on his horizon), Lloyd Bridges (what a drag it must have been having to swim your parts), Mickey Rooney (is there anyone he didn't work with?), Edgar Bergen (I challenge you to detect this man’s lips moving!), Jack Carson (beatnik attire, Jack?), Ralph Bellamy (bet he either doesn’t get the girl or is revealed to be the surprise killer, maybe both), Kay Thompson (Think Pink!), Dean Jones (always seemed too open and friendly for serious parts) --- seated is Carolyn Jones (girlfriend Ann got to see her on stage once) --- and the man in charge (you can tell by his expression), Dick Powell. What a shame he died so young in 1963. Aaron Spelling often said Dick was his mentor (but would Dick have given us The Love Boat?). We’ve seen pictures of his son, by last wife June Allyson, and he looks exactly like Dick. Wonder if Allyson owned the rights to all those shows he produced. Anybody know? We’d love to see them on DVD some day, just for the star-studded casts, if nothing else.
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