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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Bonnie and Clyde Turns Forty

There was less celebration over Bonnie and Clyde’s fortieth anniversary than might have been expected. Generational struggles the picture once represented aren’t relevant anymore, as the disapproving establishment circa 1967 is mostly gone now, and victors who claimed cultural dominance are themselves under siege by revisionist-minded youngsters in diapers (or not yet born) when Bonnie and Clyde was released. One of these wrote an interesting piece for The New York Times a few weeks ago, daring to acknowledge merit in Bosley Crowther’s scabrous review which had set off a firestorm in 1967 and led to the critic’s forced retirement after decades with the paper. A.O. Scott speaks of that epochal struggle, but not in fawnish terms agreeable to a sixties generation still flattering themselves for having pulled down a decaying critical hierarchy too mossbound and obtuse to "get" radical chic flicks like Bonnie and Clyde. Least of all would that rebel audience, grayed but clinging tenaciously to their myths, enjoy knowing they were but lemmings enticed to the sea by what I’d call a plain inspired sales plan on Warner Bros’ part. Wait --- weren’t they supposed to have bungled distribution and fought against Warren Beatty’s vision all the way to those cast-off ozoners where Bonnie and Clyde was supposedly dumped? A recent Newsday column addressed the fortieth thus: Warner Bros. thought so little of the film that they released it as a "B" movie, primarily to drive-ins and second-tier theatres. That’s a damning reference to territorial openings common at the time. What more insulting for New York critics and their acolytes than having the season’s pet movie open in Texas and across the South prior to saturation in urban markets far better able to appreciate such ground-breaking artistry? The fact that Bonnie and Clyde went wide first in the South was something camp followers would never get over. To this day, they call it a black mark against Warners.

Once again, it helps to have been there. We got Bonnie and Clyde at the Liberty on September 13, 1967. That was a month before Pauline Kael’s review in The New Yorker, which is supposed to have further stoked the tempest. Down where I lived, Bonnie and Clyde was an unknown quantity. The limited openings in New York had taken place August 13 after a Montreal film festival showing on the fourth of that month. Saturation bookings in the South and Southwest would be the public’s first wide exposure to the film. Warners based much of their campaign on positive reviews Bonnie and Clyde received after the Canada and New York bows. Naysayers like Crowther were more than offset by raves elsewhere. The pressbook was salted with laudatory quotes. Better still for exhibitors was a free package of accessories that normally would have run upwards of ten dollars for rental. I noticed that set of door panels right away when the Liberty started Bonnie and Clyde, and a bullet-hole decal on the back windshield of a parked car out front was reminiscent of ballyhoo they’d done back in 3-D and Cinemascope days. It was only when Colonel Forehand gave me the pressbook that I realized these extras were gratis by courtesy of Warner’s sales force. This wasn’t the first time they’d done a little something extra for showmen. Bookings for Chamber Of Horrors in 1966 included a free Fear Flasher/Horror Horn standee with powered lights and sound effects. There was something distinctly ahead of the curve about Warner campaigns. They had been been trend-setting and showing up the competition for over a year prior to Bonnie and Clyde. I would submit that modern movie advertising began with Warner Bros. Note sassy appeals to seen-it-all patrons encouraged to share a wink with Paul Newman’s Harper in February 1966, among the first camped-up and deliberately sarcastic ad appeals for a straightforward detective thriller. That same month saw Inside Daisy Clover and an almost confrontational tagline (thanks to all the slobs, creeps, and finks ) ideally suited to product demands of fashionably disaffected youth. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (June 1966) could not have been marketed with more precise awareness of what its eventual impact would be. Cunning Warner salesmen had painted targets on the backs of sophisticated moviegoers nationwide by the time Bonnie and Clyde’s campaign hit the drawing board.

A plan this good would still work. They’re young … they’re in love… and they kill people. Anyone claiming Warners botched this sale must have rocks in their head. Here are samples of alternate ads to suggest what I’d consider a major reason for Bonnie and Clyde’s fantastic success. Each are knowingly hip and cutting edge. The pressbook refers to dry wit and violent punch. Advertising delivery on both is what put this show over. Stark contrast is furnished by way of Fox’s conventional effort on behalf of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a not dissimilar product released within months of Bonnie and Clyde. There was nothing wrong with Roger Corman’s movie, other than its running a losing ($264,000) sack race with an arthritic sales force pushing St. Valentine’s as though it were the second coming of Little Caesar --- and what misguided staffer proposed this tie-in for George Segal’s Yama-Yama Man banjo album? Thick with irony is the fact that Bonnie and Clyde filmmakers so brilliantly utilized the same instrument to augment their soundtrack, as I well remember rushing out to buy that 45 RPM single of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I’m betting the Bonnie and Clyde craze was no accident, despite what others have written. Warners knew it would take off in the South, and that’s why we got it early. For us, it was the second coming of Thunder Road. Dixie territorial openings have a noble history. After all, weren’t we first to get Brides Of Dracula, Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Wild Bunch? Snobs up north accused (and maintain) Warners abandoned Bonnie and Clyde. The problem the Liberty had was retrieving this show once audience demand tied up available prints. By late Fall, they were exhibitor equivalents of Faberge Eggs. Everybody wanted Bonnie and Clyde, and bear in mind that in those days, four hundred prints in circulation was the norm, as opposed to three to four thousand we see on opening weekends now. It took Colonel Forehand until May 25 the following year to score a return booking.

My fervent embrace of Bonnie and Clyde resulted in two trips to the Liberty during the one-week engagement. I realized early on the price I’d pay in the final third for fun I’d had in the first. That may be why I didn’t revisit the DVD for an anniversary look. Forty years have past, but Estelle Parsons screeching non-stop in the back seat of that blood-soaked car is still a daunting prospect. Bonnie and Clyde may take credit for stoking the revolution, but that’s been over a long time now, and even though their side won, that still doesn’t make it easier to sit through an at-times very unpleasant show. Could this explain so few throwing birthday parties? A handful of sites rose to the challenge of explaining Bonnie and Clyde and why it matters --- or doesn’t. The younger ones come across a little doubtful. They missed going straight from University town showings to march on the Chancellor’s house back in 1967. All that’s left to them is the movie, and how likely is that to pack a wallop equal to what it did four decades back? Much of Bonnie and Clyde’s initial reception was weighted down with politics and social issues largely forgotten now. I wasn’t aware of all that when I was thirteen and seeing it new. That’s just as well, for it compels me less to defend the film now against justified revisionist criticism such as Scott’s in The Times. We’ve all had occasion to accept a film’s greatness on someone else’s authority, and that someone is usually the person who saw it brand new and can summon up memories of impact and emotion we’ll never feel. Bonnie and Clyde will not again deliver the goods as once it did, though I’m glad I was there to flinch with other first-run shocked observers, but what of great shows I missed by accident of (too late) birth? Have my perceptions of these been largely shaped by impressions my viewing elders passed down?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ghosts In Comedy's Past

I have, this past weekend, chased Buster Keaton into a dark cave from which I’ve yet to extricate myself. Did he make a 1928 cameo appearance that has so far gone unknown and uncredited? Based on the image below, it’s possible he did. Were it not for the fact Brotherly Love is itself a lost film, we could verify Keaton’s apparent routine with Karl Dane, as shown here. Erstwhile barber Buster looks poised to give Karl a too-close shave, but did he actually do so in the released film? Brotherly Love was directed by Charles Reisner, a Keaton friend who’d recently helmed Steamboat Bill, Jr. It was the fifth in a series of feature comedies teaming king-sized Karl Dane with diminutive George K. Arthur. There were seven of these in all. Every one made a profit. After awhile searching for contemporary reviews of Brotherly Love (and discovering few), I found myself drawn into the weirdly fascinating saga that was Dane and Arthur themselves. How could MGM’s premiere laugh team of two seasons and an unbroken chain of seven hits come to be so utterly discarded and forgotten? How does a leading Metro star in 1929 end up selling hot dogs just outside the studio gate five years later? Potential debates over Keaton’s fleeting participation in Brotherly Love became a question less compelling than these. I’d still like to know if Buster’s in the film. Perhaps a more seasoned Keaton scholar can enlighten me. Puzzle pieces beyond the still shown here are few. It’s an "X" (meaning exploitation) captioned pose, as opposed to scene shots which were issued without the lettered designation. You might conclude this is a mere visit to the set, but would Keaton and Dane go to the effort of setting up what looks to be a routine for filming? --- with Buster holding a razor? Rumors persist that Raymond Rohauer had a 16mm reduction of a single reel from Brotherly Love. There were seven total. Otherwise, it doesn’t exist. Know any ninety-year-olds that caught this one first-run? That seems the only way we’ll ever clear the question up, because from everything I’ve been able to determine, neither Brotherly Love nor any of the six other Dane/Arthurs were ever exhibited stateside after the late twenties. The possible whys are the subject of today’s investigation.

The Dane/Arthurs were studio-manufactured product from the start. George K. Arthur had played comedy and character parts, few of them substantial, though he’d shown promise in the title role of The Boob. Karl Dane was a recent sensation in The Big Parade (shown here with John Gilbert), a silent era phenomenon still playing roadshows when Metro executive Harry Rapf informed the two they’d be working together. Neither were committed to blazing new trails in laugh making, but both understood how to take orders. Rookies was the trial balloon. Dane would vary his tobacco-chewing, Big Parade self but slightly to play for laughs opposite effeminate small-fry George, a calculation designed to meet lowbrow audience expectation and satisfy exhibitor demand for feature comedies among seasonal bookings. It is funny from start to finish, came word from Emlenton, Pa. This one’s a scream, said management in Atkinson, Nebraska. If Garbo was what sold in urban markets, Dane and Arthur were what they cried for in the sticks. Rookies (and that's director Sam Wood with D&A here) showed profits of $255,000 and better yet indicated a series would sell. Other companies tried homegrown comedy units to counter independent juggernauts Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Paramount teamed W.C. Fields and Chester Conklin around the same time, but three entries were all these two could sustain. Antic inspiration was a difficult thing to maintain within a factory environment. Dane and Arthur might have realized this but for non-stop schedules and conveyor belt scripts. Baby Mine was next. Karl and George played roommates at a chiropractic school. Now why didn’t Abbott and Costello ever think of that? Assigned directors were picked less for comedic aptitude than for ability to stay ahead of the clock. Baby Mine realized $113,000 in profits, while their next, Circus Rookies, took the most in black ink for the series ($175,000). This kind of success was seeming confirmation that MGM knew comedy packaging as assuredly as other formulae their artisans mixed. The last thing they needed was Buster Keaton to come in and tell them their business.

I’m betting the Dane/Arthurs were business models for Metro’s Keaton series. Comedy was comedy, after all, and theirs were working. Buster pushed up the negative cost on The Cameraman by location shooting in New York. $362,000 was more than twice the expense of any Dane/Arthur, and final profits for The Cameraman ($67,000) were way below what the team’s efforts were showing. That comparison was MGM’s best argument in favor of increased control over the Keatons. Professional jealousy was a thing unknown to Buster, and he had made friends with Karl Dane. A cameo in Brotherly Love would have been effective cross-promotion benefiting both series. The Achilles Heel for Dane and Arthur revealed itself with the installation of microphones. English was decidedly a second language for Dane. You couldn’t cut through his accent with a pick-ax. The second season of 1928-29 got by on silents. Metro’s wait-and-see attitude regarding sound forestalled oblivion that would come to a number of contract players. Several Dane/Arthur features went out with music and effects scores in lieu of dialogue. All At Sea and China Bound found a comfortable berth on positive ledgers. As Keaton’s expenses increased, theirs actually lowered. Free and Easy was Buster’s first talkie, and negative costs ran to $473,000. China Bound got done for only $98,000. Keaton’s rentals were higher (worldwide $875,000), but Free and Easy’s final profit was a minimal $32,000. China Bound scored $129,000 to the good. The party had to end when audiences finally heard Karl Dane speak. That was delayed well into the new year. Why was he seen and not heard in The Hollywood Revue Of 1929? A supporting role with William Haines in Navy Blues revealed the truth. MGM probably overreacted. It seems they never gave Dane’s voice a chance to register. Could his legion of fans accept dialogue with a Danish twist? The studio assumed not and shunted him off to invisible support. As for the Dane/Arthur series, that ended when all-talkies could no longer be avoided.

Machine gunner comics supplanted Karl and George. They would encroach even upon Keaton. Who was Jimmy Durante but a frightful preview of things to come on talking screens? The color image here is hapless Dane pounced upon by a yapping Benny Rubin (at left) in footage from MGM’s abandoned The March Of Time, itself cannibalized and released as varying short subjects. They called this incarnation Crazy House (included as an extra on Warner’s The Champ DVD). Dane’s a butt for cruel humor, his halting line readings, often unintelligible, a poor defense against vaudeville predators. Bits and diminished support at his home studio would send Karl Dane on the road for what proved to be a disastrous stage tour. Paramount tried reteaming Dane and Arthur for a short subject and bally appearances in affiliated theatres, but A Put-Up Job only emphasized the hopelessness of continuing with this pair in talkies. It's actually available on DVD, via Kino’s Cavalcade Of Comedy. This may be our sole opportunity to watch the team at work. A half-dozen two-reelers for independent producer Larry Darmour exist, if at all, in ancient 16mm prints. Dane tried other work, going bust on mining schemes with Benny Rubinesque fast-talkers clearing what was left of his meager accounts. The former star comedian went begging to MGM for any job --- extra, carpenter, handyman --- whatever. Onetime studio pals shunned Karl when he turned up just outside the gates peddling frankfurters. Perhaps this was a too uncomfortable reminder of how easily such a fate could befall one of them in that perilous business. Either way, there were no helping hands. Dane finally put a pistol to his head in April 1934. Friend and Metro contractee Jean Hersholt guilted employers into claiming the body and giving their cast-off headliner a decent burial. Internment for the Dane/Arthur features would follow. Of what value were late silents against early talkies? Archival interest was non-existent, and would remain so. Storage fires and neglect claimed at least half these shows. Rookies, Detectives, and China Bound exist, but for all our chances of seeing them, they might as well be London After Midnight, The Divine Woman, and Rogue Song. Might some adventurous Young Composer for TCM tackle one of these? A disc score with effects was distributed with China Bound. Have any Vitaphone rescuers come across those platters? There were at least happy endings for George K. Arthur. He stayed with the industry by way of producing and distribution, living to a ripe eighty-six. The legacy of Karl Dane is beautifully maintained by Laura Petersen Balogh, whose website celebrates his life and career. Some of the images used for this posting are courtesy Laura and her gallery of rare photos.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Metro Musicals Off The Second Tier

Giving credit where it’s due, let me start by emphasizing that most of what we know about MGM musicals originated with Hugh Fordin and his remarkable book, The World Of Entertainment. A few weeks ago, Val Lewton was a Greenbriar subject. Much of what I learned about him was gleaned from Joel Siegel’s The Reality Of Terror. Both Fordin and Siegel broke ground for a generation of film scholars who would benefit from research and interviews these two contributed. How many such detailed books were published in the early to mid-seventies? These were historians ahead of their time. Fordin made contact with a number of MGM musical veterans in their twilight years. If you look at reunion footage taken at the 1974 premiere of That’s Entertainment, it’s startling to note how many of those performers would be gone within a few short years. This was about the time Fordin conducted a lot of his interviews, as The World Of Entertainment was published in 1975. There have been many reprints since, some under different titles. The book covers Arthur Freed’s career and the many great musicals he produced at Metro. Fordin interviewed Freed extensively, and not a moment too soon, as the producer died in April of 1973. The best anecdotes about MGM musicals originated with The World Of Entertainment. It’s a book that belongs on the shelf of everyone who cares about movies. I found various editions on Amazon at very low prices, some less than two dollars.

Mickey Rooney says he did much of Words and Music hung over. It was his last MGM picture under the old contract. They would have kept him on, but Mick got impatient and argued his way out of the best money he’d ever see acting in movies, admitting later that it was a mistake to leave. You watch Rooney play Lorenz Hart and it’s hard to believe he was just twenty-eight. Show biz and dog years are much the same. Both put on miles far in excess of wear and tear the rest of us experience. Even in 1948, it must have seemed Mickey was around forever. Some people find him hard to take. I think he’s one of the best actors that ever worked, but I’m not necessarily a fan. Last year, he did a show not forty miles from my house, but I didn’t attend, preferring the beach instead. Eighty years this man’s been in show business, and I passed. Do we take him so much for granted still? Life Is Too Short was the second of his published memoirs. He settles scores and writes a near-porn account of trysts with actress greats. The stories Rooney could tell would fill more volumes than the Warren Commission, so how come his interviews are so rigid and rote?

Judy Garland was in Words and Music just enough to sell a double-sided 78 RPM platter of the two songs they paid her $100,000 to perform. Metro held out on dollars Garland earned for previous work on The Pirate, cost overruns having been laid at her doorstep, so bosses held her checks against further misbehavior. According to biographers, the only way she could loosen cash coming to her was by doing Words and Music. Garland's appearance would amount to an extended cameo Judy playing herself. This actress/singer was always the highlight of any revue for which she turned up. There just wasn’t enough of this entertainer to go around. No wonder she cracked up. Morphine pills were getting her through days by the time she did Words and Music. Judy and various doctors begged for a year off, but hers was talent too valuable to turn loose of. An extended break she expected was withdrawn, for the simple reason that every promising idea for a musical became more so when Garland was attached. No other female performer could deliver like this one, more a curse than a blessing. She was too great for her own good, a performer so unique and in such demand that it finally had to do her in.

Amidst uncommon talent in Words and Music, there is Tom Drake, a link sausage out of machinery operated with soulless efficiency. Pre-war personalities were largely born of vaudeville and stage. Seasoned males were off to the service, lowering standards by necessity rather than choice. Would Van Johnson have clicked if not for the war? Tom Drake was several years on Metro’s payroll by the time he played Richard Rodgers in Words and Music. The eternal boy next door, potential for stardom still unrealized, and hopes of same largely passed. There’s such yearning in Drake to make good, and a seeming awareness he can’t. Soon enough they’d let him out of Metro, but unlike Judy Garland’s departure, few would notice. Drake carries the thankless "book" sections of Words and Music. He’s either watching others sing, or lying beneath Rooney’s steamroller. Boys next door were a type no one wanted once the peace was won, and Drake had not the shading to graduate into film noir or reveal anti-social tendencies such as would rescue Robert Walker’s legacy. Like a lot of ex-contract driftwood, he went where they’d have him, generally television, occasional westerns, and sci-fi. Old friends like Elizabeth Taylor arranged work, and he’d turn up in Raintree County. There’s a particularly bittersweet anecdote among many in Richard Lamparski’s recent Hollywood Diary, in which the author recounts Drake’s unannounced appearance at a 16mm collector’s showing of Meet Me In St. Louis. The one-time almost star was feted by this handful of fans gathered in a Hollywood apartment, but was cruelly brought to earth when one of them exclaimed as to what those years had done to his once youthful appearance. Drake would eventually sell used cars a hundred or so yards from the Metro gate. By then, the studio’s luster would be as faded as his own.

Composers thrust into the limelight for something other than songs they’d written were probably as embarrassed and reluctant as any of us might be under similar circumstances, which explains why these musical bios generally emerged as packs of lies. Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter --- all regarded themselves as private citizens (accent on the private) who just happened to write popular hits. They’d never have expected to see their own lives immortalized in movies. When that cycle gained ground in the forties, a tacit arrangement with writers and studios assured that real lives would be fictionalized beyond recognition, with music catalogues the only tangible link between subject and finished product. Cole Porter is said to have laughed off Night and Day along with intimates hep to the real facts, while uneventful lives such as those of Kern and Richard Rodgers guaranteed audience boredom relieved only by snappy tunes they had penned. What little real-life drama propelled Lorenz Hart’s career was of an exceedingly unpleasant sort. Photos of him reveal a dwarfish stature. He’s said to have suffered grievously when not taking bows. Mickey Rooney matched him only in terms of height. Hart had died in 1943. Mick plays him as habitually lonely because he could never get it together with women. Mostly this is Rooney’s let’s put on a show character from the Mickey/Judys all grown up and finding that Broadway won’t buy him a ticket to paradise. The drama works fine as  reflection of Rooney’s own song-and-dance career in twilight, though he seemed too resilient a sort to collapse pajama-clad on a rainy street as did Hart. Richard Rodgers viewed his participation as strictly business. Years later, when Hugh Fordin contacted him for a reminiscence of Words and Music, he curtly replied there was nothing to say. By the early seventies, the man had probably forgotten he'd even been the subject of a screen bio.

The Barkleys Of Broadway was the reunion (after ten years) for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was yet another project intended for Judy Garland. The idea was to reunite she and Fred after Easter Parade. Special numbers were prepared for Garland. Most got dumped when Rogers took over. For all the musicals MGM wanted Judy to do, they could have worked her three shifts a day and still wanted retakes. Once she was off a project, you could forget about it becoming anything special (with the arguable exception of Annie Get Your Gun). Legend has it Rogers was lured from her country retreat to fill in after Garland flaked out following two weeks in rehearsal, though I’m betting the woman nearly got a charlie horse racing to Culver City once she heard the spot was open. Fans tend to withhold approval from Barkleys they extend to earlier RKO musicals from this team. Something was missing after that decade apart. Could it be that they were playing a married couple and bickering for most of Barkley length? With age now an issue for both, you could hardly depict them meeting cute with Edward Everett Horton in tow. That formula could not be recycled. Technicolor is an asset, their first and only time dancing together in multi-hues. I liked The Barkleys Of Broadway for what it reveals of demands now being made by both Astaire and Rogers. She’d been empowered in drama since 1939, brandishing an Academy Award and playing to the hilt a sequence where her Barkleys character delivers a stunning on-stage audition. Garland would have essayed that for humor with a well-judged dose of pathos. Rogers is intent on reminding us how she’s graduated to loftier heights. From the pressbook: In addition to appearing with Astaire in five singing and dancing routines, the ambitious role calls for Miss Rogers to do not only romantic comedy but moving dramatic acting in sequences in which she portrays the celebrated Sarah Bernhardt in a play within the film. The sequence lays an egg scrambled by an actress willing to dance again for old time’s sake, yet committed to distancing herself from audience notions that she would return to musicals as a steady occupation.

Astaire is said to have insisted composers throw together a thing he called The Swing Trot. It was a new dance executed during (and under) the credits. Fred wanted honey he could spread over ads for his dancing school. Franchises were salted all over the country. They’re probably as good a reason as any for his willingness to un-retire and continue making musicals. Again the pressbook: The picture opens with Astaire and Miss Rogers introducing the "Swing Trot," a modern ballroom dance created by Astaire and expected to gain considerable popularity among America’s dancing couples. Exhibitors were expected to push the dance mightily in whatever circulars and Roto sections it could go. Contests encouraged patrons to duplicate The Swing Trot on theatre stages. Astaire assured would-be steppers they could execute necessary moves on dime-sized floors in the midst of a typically overflow crowd (preferably among paid-up members of local Fred Astaire Dance Academies). He predicted the appeal would extend to bobby-soxers, for after all, their dollars would spend as well as old-timers who had swung to the Carioca and Piccolino. Metro released The Barkleys Of Broadway in May of 1949. This was a fallow year for all of Hollywood. Much of what they’d release lost money. Words and Music had come six months earlier and posted a deficit of $317,000. Barkleys would bring back profits of $346,000. Metro musicals we love today were never sure bets at the boxoffice. A Date With Judy could track $1.5 million in black ink, then see the good of that swept away with $2.6 million lost on a thing like The Kissing Bandit. Both Words and Music and The Barkleys Of Broadway shine on Warner DVD. Their release schedule has yielded more treasure this year than any so far, with the Rooney/Garlands imminent and a long awaited Vitaphone collection just beyond. That’s the event of 2007 I look forward to most.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hawks Out Of France

Aspiring autuerists often choose Howard Hawks for beginner courses. Any nincompoop can pick up common threads among this director’s output. They could teach him in elementary schools, but there’s nothing simple-minded about wonders Hawks wrought over five decades making more great movies than virtually any of his golden age rivals. I’ve seen HH saluted web-side by any number of up-and-coming cineastes just beginning to discover his greatness. Hawks is funny and modern and unflappably cool. Young directors today who know their business undoubtedly wish they could be Howard Hawks. Most of his work is available on DVD. Land Of The Pharaohs came out recently, and more than one thoughtful on-line review called it a great rediscovered fifties epic, perhaps the best of them. What then of Hawks stragglers yet to see daylight on video shelves? Again the French brethren come to the rescue on behalf of Yank directors, as they have previously for Minnelli, Fuller, and others. Ceiling Zero and The Road To Glory are two Hawks obscurities largely unseen of late. Ceiling Zero is locked out of the US due to literary rights. It has been MIA on TCM and nowhere on DVD horizons. The Road To Glory has surfaced on Fox’s Movie Channel, but how many subscribers have access to that? Both features were once syndication stalwarts. Region 2 now offers them. I got mine from Amazon France. Ceiling Zero goes by the name Brumes. They call The Road To Glory Les Chemins De La Glorie

Hawks could always find humor in tension. His action shows are generally funnier than his outright comedies. He worked ideally with actors who understood his lightness of touch with adventure yarns and could invest proceedings with fun aspects of personas that audiences liked best. Hawks had a way of bringing out the most in personalities like Bogart, Grant, Cagney, Cooper --- all unplugged when they teamed with him. You wish there had been ten of this man so he could work with all of them more of the time. James Cagney was intuitive enough to understand gags Hawks put over in Ceiling Zero. Their breezy pacing and hopped-up dialogue anticipates The Thing. Pity these two never worked together again, though you can close your eyes during much of Torrid Zone and imagine that’s Hawks beside the camera, so thoroughly was his style and format co-opted by Warners for this and Cagney vehicles to follow. Hawks invented the whole action formula for talkies. Ceiling Zero is early among its application, but this is no mere rough draft (Zero was in fact a reboot of John Ford’s Air Mail, only with more tempo and laughs). Everything is in place and percolating. There’s attitude, danger, sex comedy, sacrifice ---  elements that lesser directors borrowed and bungled in efforts to be like Hawks. Before directors got auteur status, his was the name you saw in trailers. Hawks was always The Man Who Gave You …, and what he gave were the happiest movie-going memories patrons had --- the brand name for a certain kind of dynamic entertainment set apart from disappointment we invariably got when others turned a hand toward Hawks’ kind of movie. Lo the times I’ve watched flaccid shows, albeit with great stars, and thought --- if only Hawks had directed this. The King and Four Queens, The Left Hand Of God, Thunder Bay, Task Force, Legend Of The Lost, so many more. Think how each would have been transformed if only he’d been there. Here’s food for speculation --- Hawks nearly directed Casino Royale in 1966. Howard Hawks and James Bond. That might have given UA and Connery a run for their money.

Women were always better looking in Howard Hawks movies. He had a seasoned eye for what’s timeless in beauty. Hawks women never went out of style. Even ones he used in the thirties hold up today (or the twenties --- think Louise Brooks). None of that dated Helen Twelvetrees stuff for Hawks. June Travis in Ceiling Zero would turn heads at any twenty-first century Happy Hour. So would June Lang in The Road To Glory. What of these actresses when they worked with other directors? Very little excitement came from either. Travis did mostly "B’s" and Lang was corseted in Fox period pieces. Hawks was known as a starmaker and discoveries fared well as long as they stuck with him. Lauren Bacall startles in To Have and Have Not. So what happened later, even continuing with Bogart? Heat generated for Hawks evaporated with Dark Passage and Key Largo. Angie Dickinson was another, floundering for nearly a decade in Warner’s talent pool after Hawks showcased her in Rio Bravo. It took another veteran with Hawksian panache, Don Siegel, to begin bailing her out with The Killers, while a fickle Hawks showed no interest in working with Dickinson again, despite entreaties from the actress. Even small part femmes score mightily passing before Hawks’ camera. That cute taxi driver in The Big Sleep looks transplanted from 2007, or 1992, or 1966, whenever. Not for a moment has current fashion dictated she look anything less than stellar. Styles and standards change. Hawks opted for simplicity and freshness of features that never wear out. Big female names doing Hawks movies are less effective, at least in appearance, than unknowns or beginners he could freely mold. For this director, adventures in courtship were the essence of man-woman relations. Marriage ends the fun. You watch Cagney sparring with June Travis in Ceiling Zero, then cut to staid Pat O’Brien playing board games at home with the wife. Henpecked Stu Erwin has to flame out in his aeroplane to get clear of nagging Isabel Jewell. Domesticity amounts to suffocation, if not a death sentence, for Hawks people, both the men and women. That seems to have been the director’s lot offscreen as well. Never a dutiful husband, even with trophy wives such as one that inspired the Bacall image, Hawks sought adventure in ongoing dalliance with women who no doubt reminded him of characters he put on the screen. None of them could live up to that ideal, of course. What woman could? Hawks dealt in fantasy figures as surely as Hugh Hefner would with Playboy and its out-of-reach centerfolds, another reason this director might have been ideally suited to direct James Bond.

Trench warfare and grimy uniforms are best left to directors like Lewis Milestone and King Vidor. We like Howard Hawks best in cleaner surroundings, where heroism addresses itself to rickety planes and gestures of individual enterprise are carried out for the team’s benefit. Hopeless battle waged in cramped quarters squeeze out what’s best in Hawks, one reason why The Road To Glory seems unlikely to win a place among his admirer’s favorites. 1930’s The Dawn Patrol gave warning of the stifling effect this overly serious material would have on a freewheeling artist like Hawks. His characters need room to breathe, move about, convey insolence where rules are concerned. Stakes are too high in The Road To Glory as well, consequences of rebel postures too grave. Attitudes toward WWI subjects were largely shaped by the stunning success of Universal’s All Quiet On The Western Front. Glories of airborne dogfights celebrated in Wings and Hell’s Angels would sour with hopeless depictions of trench ordeals emphasizing the futility of not just this war, but all conflicts. Grim parables to follow like The Eagle and The Hawk, The Last Flight, and Hawks’ aforementioned The Dawn Patrol gave vent to a lost generation’s philosophy that WWI was itself nothing less than murderous fraud. The Road To Glory was built around footage from a French production Fox had purchased several years before. Les croix de bois (Wooden Crosses) was a critical and popular sensation on the continent, adjudged too harsh to cut commercial mustard here, so Fox took alternative route of pillaging its strongest story elements and battlefield action. Hawks and cinematographer Gregg Toland (shown together above on the set with camera operator Bert Shipman) were charged with matching everything up. Their result was much the old Hollywood bag of tricks (Les croix de bois remains barely seen in this country) with triangle love contests and at times woeful comedy relief, courtesy Zanuck jester, Gregory Ratoff. Scenes dynamic in the French film (Germans planting mines under trenches) remain so for Hawks' incarnation. He makes the most of (few) humorous interludes, and there is June Lang, torrid despite non-existent performing skills. Stars Fredric March and Warner Baxter are too rigid to thrive in a Hawksian universe, reason enough he’d not use them again. Plagiarism suits were drawn like flies to the completed feature. Seems everyone thought he’d written the same story. Indeed, variations on the theme had been told ad nauseam by 1936. Within a few years, such indictments of war would be driven off screens to make way for preparedness themes leading up to US entry into WWII. Ironically, it would be Hawks himself who’d deliver up the biggest smash among these --- Sergeant York.
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