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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Grindhouses In and Out Of Dreams

It took a long time for grindhouse to become a dirty word. Google it today and you’ll find any number of tawdry definitions. A downtown movie theater - in disrepair since its glory days as a movie palace of the '30s and '40s - known for "grinding out" non-stop double-bill programs of B-movies. Fanboy experts, few of them born before such places vanished, differ but slightly when describing venues largely the product of wishful imagination --- A grindhouse is a movie theatre that specializes in playing movies that feature over the top violence and sexual imagery. Suddenly everyone’s an authority on a trade term largely unknown outside exhibition circles until director Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez reasserted it with their recent "double-feature" homage. Real grind showmen, at least those operating through the sixties, would cringe in the face of demeaning labels post-modernists have attached to their modest line of exhibition. Must be that word grind, and nasty connotation it entails. Once a simple term to describe theatres running continuous through the day, grind meant opening your doors, usually before noon, and playing without interruption till closing. There were plenty of first-run palaces within this classification. In a day when patrons entered halfway through shows, then stayed into the next to catch up, grind was all but a business necessity. Few theatres profited on dark screens and lengthy breaks between programs. No one called the Liberty a grindhouse --- Ivan Anderson and Colonel Forehand would have been mortified at the thought of having their venue lumped in amongst company so unworthy as that celebrated by Tarantino’s crew --- yet we sat out many a 60’s Saturday while two and three features unspooled without a moment’s break. I remember calling the boxoffice to ask when Tarantula would start. Whenever the one before it ends was the cashier’s brusque reply. A ratings system and resulting ugly product, plus the closure of studio exchanges (with resulting loss of available prints), gave grindhouses their scurvy name. By the early seventies, we’d been cast out of Eden. So much of theatre going after that was like arriving at the fairground after the circus left town.

I’ve alluded to Greensboro's National Theatre in previous posts. It was an 1800 seat survivor of the silent era (built in 1921) that somehow managed to keep its lights on through December of 1966. A single fuzzy picture here was all I could find. People around Greensboro, North Carolina have forgotten it except those lucky enough to spend Saturdays there. The National was a grindhouse I’d have gladly pitched a tent in. A 1967 wrecking ball denied me the pleasure of seeing it first hand, but ads shown here and recollections I’ve gathered from youthful patrons of the era convince me that if there was a filmgoing heaven on earth, the National was surely it. Consider the week of January 1-7 in 1964. Thursday and Friday was a triple bill of The Three Stooges In Orbit, Jack The Giant Killer, and Jason and The Argonauts. Saturday and Sunday brought Horrors Of The Black Museum and House On Haunted Hill, followed by The Bravados and The Naked Spur on Monday and Tuesday. This was but a typical week at the National. Shows like these were possible because studio exchanges in Charlotte kept old prints on hand and thus in service. Grindhouses like the National could book features going back to the thirties, and often did. Gunga Din, They Died With Their Boots On, The Grapes Of Wrath --- all played there in 1964. Local audiences still accepted black-and-white in theatres as virtually none of them had color television at home (there were only 1.3 million sets in American homes that year). The fact many of these pictures played day and date with TV was little deterrent. Admission to the National was thirty-five cents for kids. The one-time patron I spoke to is fifty-five now. He used to ride city transit to the front door each Saturday and stay till nightfall. He’d watch three movies at least once (from an 11:00 AM start) and catch the same bus home after dark. The theatre was clean and safe (notwithstanding a single wharf rat observed near the front row on one occasion). No drunks nor threat of molestation. Mostly kids. Seldom packed, but always healthy attendance. Richard saw Elvis there in person and fell asleep during his show. It was February 6, 1956. Who knew? He caught The Lone Ranger first-run and virtually all the notable sci-fi pics. There was a carnival atmosphere about the place. Posters were everywhere. He remembers long walks to the boy’s room. Halls were low-lit. A one-sheet for I Was A Teenage Frankenstein gave him a start during one of those. The place was cooled by enormous fans that blew right in your face. There were actually box seats along the left and right wall, but no one sat in them. You could have remade Chaney’s Phantom here. They’d let kids bring bag lunches in. Who wouldn't gladly eat grass for the kind of triple features they routinely got?

There were other grindhouses in North Carolina, perhaps more than old newspaper microfilm reveals. Most ran ads sparingly … some not at all. The Belvedere in Charlotte stands to this day, but the theatre closed years ago. They seated 460 and ran back-to-back shows to die for. These tattered samplings I clipped at age ten represent the limit of their promotional budget. Ads in The Charlotte Observer were hard to justify when your maximum ticket price was fifty cents. I’m betting there were more grindhouses in Charlotte. They just operated below the radar. A very pleasant recurring dream of my youth involved rounding a corner to find a hitherto unknown theatre. I go to visit the projectionist and his booth is filled with 35mm prints of many favorites. Upon my request for a Hammer film I’d not seen, he says Certainly, Sir, and down I go to join an audience much like the ones for whom such dreams came true in venues like the Belvedere. Smaller communities made do with fewer screens. Grindhouses were generally for towns at least big enough to have a TV station. One exception was Hickory and its legendary Catawba Theatre, notorious outpost for features pinched out of depots and salvaged off dump trucks. My friend Norman loved movies, but shunned the Catawba. Just why is a mystery, for this was one square lot seemingly suspended in time. It was operated by the selfsame pool hall operator from whom I’d (much) later score that 35mm print of Horror Of Dracula. He would get prints and keep them. The Catawba dared not advertise lest exchanges be alerted. Norman would pass the marquee in the mid-sixties and see Yankee Doodle Dandy and Rebel Without A Cause sharing a bill. Was this place the realization of my recurring dream? It was closed and torn down by 1972 when I started college in Hickory, but there would be those who spoke of fabulous treasures within those parched walls.

Our closest grindhouses were a two-lane hour’s drive to Winston-Salem. There were three that flourished there in the sixties, but all were gone by 1970. The Lincoln, Center, and Lafayette were classified as Negro houses, as these were the only integrated hardtops in town. They’d list in the Sunday Showcase column of The Winston-Salem Journal. Otherwise, you’d have no idea of what played and when. I could look at their schedule and hope, but no way was anyone going to drive me 58 miles for movies often predating my birth. One remarkable exception occurred in July 1966 when I persuaded my mother to carry us down for the Center Theatre's triple dollop of Pit and The Pendulum, Premature Burial, and Tomb Of Ligeia (note the Journal’s Showcase listing for the week as shown here --- clear to see the grinds were running well ahead of mainstream houses). Here was my one and only visit to a real live grindhouse in full flowering. The Center was no crumbling edifice. Spanking clean, if a bit careworn, its entrance area pulsated with three-sheets towering above us. Rotisserie hot dogs twirled behind a well-stocked concessions counter. Grindhouses may well have been hazards elsewhere, but I felt safe at the Center, so much so as to ask the friendly manager if he’d please mail me that Pit and The Pendulum one-sheet once he was done with it. Certainly, Sir, said he, and the address I tendered on a scrap of paper was carefully printed so as to avoid the remotest possibility of delivery confusion. Alas, the parcel never came. Our postman tactfully refrained from asking why I met him street side for the remainder of that summer. Having dealt previously with the likes of Gothic Castle and The Captain Company, my patience was eternal.

NC grindhouses might have survived a little longer if television hadn’t gobbled up product so voraciously. By the late sixties, windows between theatrical and free TV were but a sliver, especially for the kind of movie grinds depended on. Hercules In the Haunted World opened January 1965 at the Lincoln. By October, it was playing Late Shows at home. 1968 found color sets penetrating an estimated third of American homes. What reason to go out and pay when you could see all the merchandise right there in your den? Studio exchanges bailed out of Charlotte through the seventies, leaving thousands of prints landfill bound. No longer could you book MGM oldies like The Bribe and Carbine Williams for double action bills. All those Killer Shrews and Invaders From Mars crowding the National and Center marquees were junked for good. The Charlotte Observer newspaper trucks that used to deliver prints through piedmont and western NC were carrying first-run titles and nothing but. My friend at the old Crown Cinemas in Hickory had to book through New York and California when he played a classics series in 1984. Shipping costs alone killed their profit. The old Catawba would have had these squirreled in its attic, or at the least scored what they needed for a twenty-dollar rental out of Charlotte. Exhibition took a mighty hit when those exchanges closed. Grindhouses would henceforth go urban dwelling, and from there gather up moss of disrepute we now associate with them. Outside of titles with rural themes, we never even got much of the stuff that played 42nd Street environs. Double features were extinct by the eighties. The last one I recall around here was when Fox tried to combo Aliens with their remake of The Fly, and that was at least twenty years ago. I don’t wonder at audience indifference (if not bafflement) over Tarantino’s film --- combo bookings are as foreign to kids today as theatrical "B" westerns were to my generation. As Samuel Goldwyn said, we’ve passed a lot of water since then. The poster art for Grindhouse did at least manage to evoke window cards of yore. I wonder if North Carolina’s own Benton Card Company is aware of the tribute paid it by 2007 poster artists for Grindhouse, as they obviously borrowed the design of Die, Monster, Die!/Planet Of The Vampires as shown here. AIP used Benton Card for all their 14X22 displays --- that business out of Benson, NC still has inventory remaining and presumably available to collectors.
Varied ads for the National and Belvedere reflect imaginative selling even within tiny spaces dictated by non-existent marketing budgets. The Center infrequently called attention to first-runs they (seldom) had, but the Lafayette and Lincoln never once showed up in my perusal of theatre advertising from those waning days of Winston-Salem grindhouses. Ind
eed, the Lafayette was first to be shuttered in the Spring of 1964. The National photo was taken only weeks before they closed down in December 1966, but the venerable old palace was going out with a retro bang --- She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Wake Of The Red Witch! Other images are of grindhouses in various states. Above is the first-run Fox Warfield opening Black Sabbath and The Evil Eye in San Francisco … and note grind neighbor Crest Theatre with its triple bill of The Comedy Of Terrors, Kid Galahad, and The Wild and The Innocent.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Bing Crosby Rides Out The Fifties

You can watch Bing Crosby and his kind of musical going out with the tide in Paramount’s Just For You, a 1952 harkening back, or perhaps farewell to, earlier days when stars like Bing and vehicles like this were enough to pack houses and send everyone home whistling tunes bound for the Hit Parade. No way could Just For You compete with sophisticated groundbreakers being made at Metro among visionary talent like Arthur Freed, Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire. Everybody else’s musicals looked and sounded tired beside theirs. Crosby had signed with Paramount for seven years … but that was seven years ago (here he is at a forties high with studio chieftains Adolph Zukor and Barney Balaban). Popularity once taken for granted was harder to maintain with audiences far choosier than those who’d flocked to see Here Come The Waves and Welcome Stranger. Television cut into Crosby’s boxoffice, but everyone had that problem by 1952. His Mr. Music had a negative cost of $1.7 million and ended with domestic rentals of $2.2. $2.1 million was spent on Here Comes The Groom and $2.6 domestic came back. Just For You would be a return to Technicolor and the biggest budget for a Crosby since the forties ($2.3 million). It is a great showcase for his talent in maturity, with the added bonus of family conflict drama more engaging now that we know something of what went on in the star’s own household. 1952 was near twilight for screen fathers blessed with such respectful and obedient kids. Hard to believe Just For You came just three years before Rebel Without a Cause. Watching the two together, you’d think they were made fifteen years apart. Natalie Wood, at fourteen, enters in white gloves wearing a cape, complaining of having sat through what she calls a cornball production of "The Student Prince" for the younger set. This is her closest brush with rebellion. Natalie’s stated goal is to enter an exclusive finishing school and serve as hostess for Dad’s social gatherings. Young pup Robert Arthur, only months past accompanying Kirk Douglas to Ace In The Hole’s mine cave-in, addresses Bing as "sir" and barely rocks the boat over a teen-age infatuation with Jane Wyman, Crosby’s love interest. Adolescent angst as expressed here is but a mild bump on a fast track to maturity and realization that Dad was right all along. A neat finish endorses the peacetime Army Air Force as ideal place for a young man to straighten up and fly right. Bing must surely have wished for similarly dutiful and motivated children at home.

The Country Girl was Crosby’s boldest break with formula (as emphasized by the noirish one-sheet shown here), a gamble necessitated by falling receipts mentioned earlier (Just For You had ended with $2.4 million domestic). Braver still was his willingness to play a washed-up, clearly Bing Crosby inspired, entertainer. Audition scenes cruelly parallel Frank Elgin’s tired shtick with much of what Bing himself had been getting by on over a last several years. All that separates Elgin and Crosby are alcoholism and a cold water flat. Such flirting with self-abasement would become common in the sixties and thereafter, but few big names would venture there as early as 1954. This was a performance deserving of at least the Academy nomination Crosby earned, if not the award he lost to Marlon Brando. Bing’s character in Just For You stages Broadway hits of a sort The Country Girl dismisses as old-fashioned. Generation gap worries and mild ribbing about his age are front and center in Just For You, as if Bing were now easing some of Bob Hope’s putdowns into his screen persona. At least one toupee shows graying temples, and efforts at a vigorous dance (comically) throws the old trouper’s back out. Just For You Crosby plays for laughs much of what he’d perform in deadly earnest for The Country Girl. Which then, was the real Bing? A little of both perhaps, based on what I’ve read. Among insights Crosby gives us in The Country Girl are a glimpse of what he might be like when stage lights go down and the mask drops. Could anyone have been so relaxed and avuncular once cameras stopped turning? Frank Elgin reveals stresses that came with maintaining the Crosby image offscreen. Co-workers have testified to a distant and moody Bing when shooting paused on various Paramount vehicles. Never was he so convincing as when playing childish and fussy in The Country Girl. It’s a privileged peek at behavior a great many headliners indulged when audiences weren’t watching. Crosby’s actor enough, and honest enough, to expose not only their foibles, but his own. It is a performance of great self-awareness, and his triumph.

You know you’re sampling Formula Crosby when the opening shot reveals a marquee --- Bill Benson --- My Kind Of Music --- 3rd Year, or Jordon Blake Presents Carolina Hill in "Forever and Ever." Crosby character's status as ongoing Broadway sensations in both Just For You and Anything Goes is a given, which raises the question --- just how would his kind of music have been received on the Great White Way in the fifties? Could producers have sold a show constructed entirely around Bing Crosby and his familiar persona? Anything Goes (released April 1956) proposes a resounding yes. Amidst a musical landscape about to be overrun with Elvis and rock n’ roll (Rock Around The Clock was just out and Love Me Tender would be along in November), Bing’s Bill Benson is besieged with offers to launch a new show within moments of closing a three-year run on his last. Were movie audiences still buying into such a conceit? Dire returns for Anything Goes suggested they weren’t. Paramount invested $3.2 million in the negative. Fantastic rentals from White Christmas ($8.1 million) and The Country Girl ($6.4) indicated a comeback for Crosby, so imagine disappointment when Paramount counted a mere $1.7 million in domestic rentals from Anything Goes. It would be their last musical foray with a star who had grossed steadily for them over nearly a quarter of a century. Contemporary DVD reviews reflect low regard for Anything Goes, though Variety dubbed it a sock musical package. Does sentiment for an aging Crosby make me side with the latter? I won’t argue it’s sock, but there is valiant effort here to turn clocks back to when old standards and musical chairing among lovers was enough to fill cash drawers. How could Paramount (and Crosby) have known all this was fast coming to an end? Cole Porter lyrics are both cleansed and modernized to comply with Code restrictions and TV gag references. Co-star Donald O’Connor supplies at least passing contact with present day entertainment realities. He’s the upstart video sensation (based on Eddie Fisher and Coke Time?) who is brought on to prop up "old-timer" Bing. The success of Euro art movies may have resulted in French star Jeanmaire’s casting here, though it’s hard selling this fiery (22 year-old) continental’s love at first sight for relaxed to the point of slumber Crosby. They share romance aboard a (never rocking) ship seemingly bound for nowhere, as indeed it was in terms of profit. 

High Society was an enormous hit, though I wonder how much Crosby was credited for it. This was his last musical lead among grown-up co-stars before submitting to the youthquake that resulted in Say One For Me and High Time, both of which sought to ease Bing toward relevance in rock and roll's new order. High Society allowed a reprieve before the necessary transition, for it is jazz being highlighted here, Crosby always comfortable in that milieu. He was (approximately) 53 --- I’ll not try being precise as to that age, in deference to question regarding his actual birthdate going back to, well, his actual birthdate. Suffice to say the pairing with Grace Kelly was believable despite a several decades age difference. Crosby was one star a lot of people would miss as members of his generation were swept aside to accommodate younger players. There was, and would continue to be, healthy demand for him on television, but even Crosby must have realized paid admissions without the added marquee lure of Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra would be few. In a year of almost steady loss for Metro, High Society managed ten million in worldwide rentals for the star combination. Closest MGM runner-up in 1956 was Teahouse Of The August Moon ($9.3 worldwide), though in terms of profit, both were slammed by, of all things, The Fastest Gun Alive. That economical Glenn Ford western brought home a staggering two million dollar gain, easily surpassing the $1.5 profit for High Society and Teahouse’s $1.6 in black ink. As for Bing Crosby, High Society would be his last starring musical to go into the positive column. Forthcoming vehicles at Fox lost money. Say One For Me in 1959 was down by $119,000, while High Time the following year took a two million dollar bath, despite teen berths for Fabian and Tuesday Weld in support of Bing. Frequent guest appearances, Hollywood Palace hosting, and eagerly awaited Christmas specials would assure a far wider audience via television for the remainder of his life, so it’s doubtful Crosby regretted the feature loss in any case. Many of the latter have been released on DVD. All are worth checking out.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A 1960 Memphis Scream-iere

The Malco Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee might have seemed an unlikely place to jumpstart a nationwide campaign for Brides Of Dracula, yet this is where the Hammer horror classic had its world premiere, on Friday, June 3, 1960. Three thousand patrons, most of them teen-agers, lined the block around Main and Beale Street, then jammed the house to capacity. Combined efforts of Malco staff and Universal field agents brought them there. Evidence at hand suggests moviegoing reached a state of grace that night. Film history books don’t have a lot to say about that fraternity of men at the vanguard of selling pictures we call classics today. Their bows were taken at ticket booths and deposit windows --- where success counted most. It’s fun, said Malco vice-president Richard Lightman as he coordinated the arrival of Count Dracula in a mule-driven antique hearse found in a Kentucky junkyard. You can’t just take a horror thriller and put it on the screen. This type of picture must be ballyhooed. Lightman understood the need for novelty to merchandise monsters, especially when so many of them competed for a kid’s allowance dollar. The very week he played Brides Of Dracula, Warner’s palace up the street was head-to-head with Circus Of Horrors. Universal's challenge was to differentiate its shocks from those served up by others. Already there had been complaints about the plethora of Dracula themes. Harrison’s Reports rebelled two years before when confronted with the triumvirate of Blood/Return, and Horror Of Dracula, all in simultaneous circulation and causing no end to confusion among patrons and promoters. The average moviegoer, unlike those of us who are in the motion picture business, does not remember the exact title of a picture he or she has seen unless it happened to be a truly exceptional film, said Pete Harrison. There is no telling how many moviegoers who will see one of them will unwittingly pass up either one or both of the other pictures in the mistaken belief that they are one and the same. Now schools were letting out for a 1960 summer that much more saturated with horror subjects, and here was Universal entering yet another contestant in the Dracula sweepstakes. An expert would be needed to sell this one, so they called A-Mike Vogel …

A-Mike (or did they just call him Mike? --- anyway, that’s the unusual way he spelled his first name) was an exhibition genius from way back. He conducted the Manager’s Round Table section for The Motion Picture Herald from 1933 to 1942. A-Mike could pound ad copy in his sleep, a dangling cigarette and crumpled hat his trademarks (shown hovered over a typewriter, he looks to have merged Walter Winchell, Billy Wilder, and A Star Is Born’s Matt Libby into one flamboyant package). By 1960, Vogel had his own advertising and exploitation agency in San Francisco. Let’s get in and pitch said he to exhibitors as Universal turned this merchandising whirlwind loose on Brides Of Dracula. Find a newly married couple willing to spend their wedding night in the graveyard! fairly captured the spirit of A-Mike’s strategy. His Dracula Bat-Flying Derby foresaw kid-built kites looming over marquees. Science and shop classes from school would be certain to tie in, promised Vogel. Book merchants were assured that Monarch’s paperback novelization would feature a cover impregnated with special-type perfume. Having acquired my own copy several years ago, I reexamined that just now, only to find it sans odors (other than musty ones owing to encroachment of age). Potential hit singles on the Coral label included Brides Of Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha and Transylvania Polka, complete with David Peel and Yvonne Monlaur on the sleeve. I’m A Mummy had been Universal’s pop single accompanying a previous Hammer horror they’d distributed, and who better than airwave disc-spinners for getting the word out to kids? Saturation openings were planned for June, and Memphis would lead off. Lightman and the Malco had been angling for this premiere since a proposed bow for The Mummy fell through a year before. Malco’s reputation was built selling chillers. Now they’d establish a template for showmen nationwide to follow.

Getting capacity audiences was tougher by 1960. A barn like the Malco gathered lots of dust among three thousand often empty seats. Only a monster movie will fill the house, said management. One local reporter noted teenagers who flock to these goosebump spectacles with glowing eyes, as if it were something wonderful. News coverage of the Brides Of Dracula was snide per mainstream attitude toward horror films (and their audience). The picture was about what one would expect, sniffed Memphis’ Commercial Appeal. One of those creations which are completely ridiculous but which will quiver your spine anyway if you aren’t careful. Richard Lightman (shown here beside his antique hearse) understood the reality of pushing thrillers --- It has been our experience that with a show of this type, the business just won’t hold up over a week. Long runs were unknown where films like these were concerned. Many "A" venues avoided them altogether. Horror favorites we revere today opened as drive-in second features in many major cities. Hardtops usually burned them off after two or three days. Lightman’s prophesy was fulfilled again with Brides Of Dracula, the expected seven days being extent of the Malco's run, its place ceded to a reissue of The Greatest Show On Earth. Films like Brides Of Dracula were all about heavy exploitation and a quick play-off. Silly stunts such as those recommended by A-Mike Vogel worked best. The Malco wasn’t alone when it came to sidewalk ballyhoo, as evidenced here. Pedestrians barely flinched at the sight of vampires and festooned femmes on various city corners. Such things were more commonplace in those days of busy downtown shopping. A man walking the streets in a barrel, his sign proclaiming I Just Saw Brides Of Dracula and It Scared The Pants Off Me!, heralded Malco's premiere night. "Werewolf whistles" and a Do-It-Yourself Vampire Kit were available in advance of the opening. Accessories included two sharpened stakes, a small wooden mallet, a silver bullet, garlic cloves, and wolfbane, all for a quarter.

The stage show was pushed hardest. Advertising director Watson Davis’ efforts were abetted by Universal "technical expert" Heidi Erich, a self-proclaimed descendent of Elizabeth Bathory, history’s only legally convicted vampire (I Googled her, and yes, Bathory was a notorious vampiress during the 1500’s). Members of the Memphis Little Theatre would perform a ritual of unholy matrimony wherein assorted girls were accompanied down the aisles by a German band (shown here), while the Malco’s mighty Wurlitzer rose up from below floor level to herald the arrival of Dracula himself. Brides inclined to resist were tied to props of various medieval torture instruments to await the ceremony, while a "heckler" plant in the audience was dragged from his seat and beheaded on a guillotine to college glee club accompaniment. Ushers working in the guise of Frankenstein, Quasimodo, and the Wolf Man doubled as stage performers (a complete script of the pageant was made available to exhibitors wishing to stage their own effort). The Vampire Gift Shoppe shown here was sold out an hour before the premiere (that’s theatre manager Elton Holland at left and Watson Davis on the right). Davis specialized in horror film promotion (he constructed a twenty-foot high Tyrannosaurus Rex to promote the Malco's subsequent booking of Dinosaurus), and would later assume hosting duties for WHBQ’s Fantastic Features, wherein he was billed as Sivad. That series of Memphis TV horrors lasted from 1962 into the seventies, and made Davis a legendary local figure. The Malco thrives to this day, albeit restored to its original name, The Orpheum, which was given birth in 1928 as a vaudeville and variety site. Now a performing arts center, the venerable house hosts concerts and special events. Friend of the Greenbriar John Beifuss, Jr., curator of that outstanding website, The Bloodshot Eye, provided much background on the Malco and Memphis environs (Thanks, John!).

UPDATE (9-17-07): Some interesting financial info on the 1966 combo reissue of Brides Of Dracula with King Kong vs. Godzilla. Brides took $130,000 in domestic rentals and Kong brought $161,000 (the latter had earned $1.219 million in domestic rentals during its initial 1963 release). I suspect the reissue was profitable as it's doubtful Universal made new 35mm prints of either feature. As far as I know, there was no combo pressbook prepared and no new campaign material.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Metro's Romance with Radium

I don’t suppose Greer Garson will ever come back into vogue. Her kind of movie’s as gone as the pharaohs. Working through the forties, we might expect her in a few film noirs, as even Katharine Hepburn managed with Undercurrent, but Garson brooked not neuroses or anti-social behavior. Her persona expired sure as ration tickets issued through a war for which she exemplified homefront struggle and sacrifice. Once that was over, so was Garson. Nearly all her's afterward lost money (The Miniver Story a horrific $2.3 million in red). Warners quietly released 1943’s Madame Curie on DVD a few months ago, having been among winners (according to WB) in a buyer’s poll of most wanted discs. So how many of us ordered? Surely not so many as stood on line when it played Radio City Music Hall from late 1943 into Spring 1944. Those patrons needed a Greer Garson. Our diminished interest shouldn't reflect on an actress who rallied spirits and faced uncertainty alongside her audience. She may have had a short run, but who since connected so intensely with viewers in a shared crisis? Eyewitnesses, and I’m referring to those who experienced Mrs. Miniver, Random Harvest, and Madame Curie first-run, are fast taking leave of us. Soon there’ll be but bemused generations to look upon these time capsules and wonder (if not doubt) how any of them could have been so wildly popular. I’d like to think there is entertainment life left in Madame Curie before it’s buried among similar artifacts.

MGM had explored The Romance Of Radium in a 1937 short released a year before Eve Curie’s published biography of her famous parents. Dramatic potential was recognized and development underway before Metro acquired rights in the book. Radium was considered an exotic, if dangerous, healer, like something Flash Gordon might bring home from the planet Mongo. It glowed in the dark and there were but tiny fragments so far harvested. This was science that would play like science fiction, and the Curies promised a love story to remove the stigma of test tubes and laboratories. Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Ann Harding were each announced for the lead. Ironic that real-life inventor Hedy Lamarr wasn’t considered, for even as Madame Curie was in pre-production, she and composer George Antheil developed a classified communication system that led eventually to our modern cellular phones, receiving their patent before the picture was released. As it is, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon were well cast. Eve Curie provided family photos and costumes were scrupulously duplicated, as was the spartan workshop where radium was discovered. Latter-day critics would cite a Madame Curie in terms of Metro tendency toward over-production and decorative frou-frou. Contract director Clarence Brown spoke of zealous competition among departments eager to promote themselves, Metro a place that would set plush chairs at a breakfast table. Lushness for its own sake perhaps, but how else to convey your department’s enterprise? 

It helps to know a little science if you’re going to watch Madame Curie. I didn’t, though Metro writers saw me through by way of accessible dialogue and a Physics For Dummies approach much appreciated by this habitual underachiever (my summer school "C" in chemistry was tendered in exchange for my promise to attend class each day and not otherwise annoy the instructor). The real Marie Curie treated her radioactive isotopes like pet rocks and enjoyed watching them shimmer in unlighted rooms. You have to wonder how she lived long as she did carrying the things around in her pocket as though they were Hershey Kisses. First cousin to radium poisoning Aplastic anemia finally killed her in 1934. Hazards are touched on but briefly in Madame Curie. Greer Garson develops a burn on her arm, but it doesn’t hurt so much, and rubber gloves prevent further injury. A compromise with realism, perhaps, but imagine a 1943 exploration of physical and psychic horrors associated with radiation poisoning --- directed by Von Stroheim, with Martin Kosleck (anticipating his own The Flesh Eaters by twenty years) as Pierre. Would Madame Curie have realized its eventual million-dollar profit under those circumstances? Metro was cited at the time for its sober adherence to fact over romantic embroidery. Side issues are avoided in favor of the radium drama, and suspense along these lines is nicely maintained despite a 124 minute running time. Walter Pidgeon was never a conventional romantic lead. He was mature before stardom came and so could play thoughtful types. I enjoyed his give-and-take dialogue with Garson as they searched for the elusive element. Imagine a mainstream release today with major stars discussing scientific theory and exclaiming over the content of petri dishes

There’s a vanishing ink quality about Herbert Stothart’s music. Always there, but you never really hear it. Would these scores play better isolated? A few have been released on CD, but I’ve not listened. There were segments of Madame Curie when I concentrated, with some effort, on Stothart, but within moments, my attention drifted. If film music is indeed most effective when unobtrusive, then Stothart must truly be one of its great exponents. His cadence matches that of many MGM features he scored. Relaxed, measured, unassuming. Modern viewers might choose less charitable words. Ann walked in the room during my screening of Madame Curie, looked at the picture but a few seconds, said This Looks Boring, and left. In an increasingly corporatized world, perhaps viewers sense modern chokeholds to come in Metro forties output --- they're very much like studio product today. No company was so stripped of individual voices. After Thalberg’s death in 1936, creative decisions were sifted through committees. Everyone was second-guessed --- a real-life parallel to The Fountainhead with the Howard Roarks out and the Ellsworth Tooheys firmly in command. Movies were beautifully polished, but often at the loss of their soul. Compare the latter four Thin Man mysteries with the first two … consider Tarzan after 1934. Laurel and Hardy at Metro was their nadir, and what of The Marx Brothers there? We either make peace with company policy of the time, or leave their pictures alone. Disney in the forties ran along similar tracks. Were the same efficiency experts servicing both lots? Based on filmic evidence, it seems you could work at Warners or RKO without finding pods under your bed, though just when you’re ready to dismiss Metro generally, there’s a Minnelli, some Clarence Browns, and yes, Madame Curie, which I might never have revisited but for Warner’s consideration. Maybe it’s time someone took up the gauntlet and reexamined more MGM product, even if that means watching Air Raid Wardens again ...
Photo Captions
Note justifiably proud studio artisans showing off their handiwork to up-and-coming star Robert Walker, and later Walter Pidgeon, on the set. That's the real Curies on bicycles alongside screen counterparts, and again, check out similarities in respective portraits of same. Verisimilitude is also maintained by way of Metro's art department recreation of the Curie laboratory, as both shown here demonstrate. Finally, that's Madame Curie director Mervyn LeRoy and producer Sidney Franklin conferring with Greer Garson during shooting.
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