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Friday, October 12, 2007

Greenbriar Weekend Marquee

Modern enthusiasts see (and prefer) film noir in starkest black-and-white. Stills reproduced in books and online are consistent with dark looks the films maintained. Even poster art with generally subdued colors uphold the integrity of noir as we define it. What’s been forgotten are fan magazines of the day where everything was viewed through rose-tint glasses. Film noir was not yet a recognized genre and rulebooks had not yet gone to press. If love finds Dick Powell on the set of ultra-gritty Cornered, fan scribes and shutterbugs would be there to record it, no matter the disorienting effect such photos would have sixty years later. Readers in 1945 were a lot more interested in Dick and June’s romantic prospects than yet another RKO crime meller, even one as accomplished as Cornered. The issue was not whether Powell would unmask Nazi war criminals that killed his screen wife. What readers wanted was a wedding date for he and Allyson. Would Metro boss Louis Mayer intervene and separate the lovebirds? Apparently not for long, for shown here is the nuptial event seen by a lot more people via wire service than ever caught Cornered, which itself gathered a nice (for RKO) $413,000 in profits against negative costs of $728,000 (domestic rentals were $1.3 million with foreign $480,000). Dick Powell took his Murder, My Sweet image transformation a considerable step further in Cornered. This is one of the moodiest performances a leading man ever gave. Powell's arresting head scar was great visual punctuation to his character’s surly outlook throughout a particularly nasty noir, and by the way, how many Code heroes got to fade out on having beaten the villain to death in a climactic confrontation?

So who remembers when there were no cartoons on television --- or, for that matter, no television at all?  Animation was something  special when it was the exclusive province of theatres. TV would change that. Instead of a dozen or so Popeyes spread over a year, my generation got twice that over a week’s worth of afternoon programming. Were we overfed? At least through the fifties, exhibitors ran cartoon shows to fill holiday mornings, such as the one below for a School’s Out Matinee. This ad dates around 1957. Television was not yet so inundated with animation, but floodgates were opening. AAP had packaged and was selling pre-49 Warners and Popeyes in mass quantity. Prior to this, cartoons were delivered via small distributors and by stealth out of major companies. You could see Ub Iwerks subjects by courtesy of Commonwealth Pictures, Van Beuren shorts from Unity Films, and as early as 1950, the Official Films library of cartoons. Farmer Alfalfa had his own show. His primitive stuff made cave drawings look like IMAX. Kids really were better off waiting for their neighborhood house to book another morning special. At least those were in color. Good cartoons were tough to come by on early television. Wary exhibitors laid in wait for studios to unleash libraries for home viewing. One that did was Warner Brothers, disguising their output behind logos replaced by handlers who had leased the company's backlog. How do you conceal something so distinctive as a Warners cartoon? Sunset Productions grafted new openings for Porky, Bosko, and Buddy shorts, then adorned end titles with A Guild Films Presentation. Theatre showmen cried foul over the subterfuge, obvious to anyone with minimal exposure to Warner output. The Sunset-Guild package was limited to black-and-white subjects; all were Looney Tunes of pre-1943 vintage. For 16mm collectors, these were the rarest and most sought after cartoons, as most disappeared from the airwaves once AAP dumped later (and more desirable) titles onto the market. After Warners developed their own prime-time Bugs Bunny Show on ABC (utilizing the post-49 subjects), Bosko and Buddy joined missing person ranks. Independent 35mm distributors utilized a device possibly inspired by the TV packagers. They’d clip tunnel openings from pilfered Warner cartoons and rent them to theatres, bypassing fees otherwise payable to WB. My collecting mentor Moon Mullins gave me a number of these --- all in Technicolor and excellent shape, but for those missing tunnels. It was years before a Charlotte depot man set me straight as to the insidious reason these were clipped.

Knickers and overalls might distinguish this eager crowd from modern youth awaiting another Spiderman installment, but I wonder if kids get half so much fun out of corporatized movie-going as children here adorned with "third eyes" passed among them in front of Omaha’s Muse Theatre as they await entry to see Chapter One of the appropriately named chapter thriller. Alas, these youngsters are mostly gone, and I’m guessing the serial is lost as well. Management pasted bonus eyes just above the bridge of noses sniffing out free admission they got for wearing the appendage while standing on line. You can barely see the adornment even looking closely at this yellowed photo of a stunt dating back nearly a hundred years (August 1920), and, yes, I'm beginning to sound like one of Robert Youngson’s narrators. Being summertime, one might sweat off gummed paper, advised then-showmen, so in a pinch, feel free to go out and "draw the eyes on each child with black grease paint." They say the only kids in Omaha without three eyes that day were home sick in bed. We’ve forgotten what events serials were during that era, but this display, and the long line approaching, tells its own story. Chapter-plays lasting fifteen weeks (sometimes longer for silent ones) were not easily forgotten, no matter the passage of years. My father was still able to recall, in the sixties, seeing The Perils Of Pauline first-run in 1914.

TCM ran this week, without fanfare, Columbia’s 1951 Valentino, a biopic of the silent screen’s great lover. Everyone from producer Edward Small down to its going-through-motions cast must have known this was a botch, and I’d guess Columbia made it with hopes of approaching Jolson Story business. Domestic rentals were $1.5 million, actually one of the company’s better earners for that year, which gives some idea of lower grossing rungs Columbia clung to even in the early fifties. Cautious measures applied with Jolson were taken as well with Valentino’s story. No actual names other than his own are in evidence. I checked and both Rudy’s wives were still alive in 1951, so I assume neither would give clearance. They probably weren’t even approached. Luckless Columbia still got sued by silent actress Alice Terry, Valentino’s co-star in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, who claimed that one of the characters was impliedly based on her. That would be Eleanor Parker as a standard issue (and wholly fictional) leading lady that Rudy hopelessly loves. No one was fact-checking Hollywood biographies in those days. If Technicolored bunk about the silent era made good melodrama, why not call it Valentino? The only thing they get right are titles of films he made. Many are recreated in short bursts of action and/or love clinches. Most had been out of circulation long enough for people to forget how they actually played. The truly remarkable thing about Valentino is Anthony Dexter. He’s an absolute dead ringer. The man looks more like Valentino than Valentino did. He’s reason enough to watch this. Columbia put out stories of Dexter having worked on a farm with no prior experience acting. Actually, he’d had plenty. But he was too much a spitting image for his own good. After Valentino, producer Edward Small put Dexter into roles Rudy might have played had he lived long enough to skid into Poverty Row. Unkindest cut was Fire Maidens From Outer Space, a sci-fi so miserable even cultists blanch at the sight of it. Dexter ended up teaching high school. He died in 2001.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Always welcome e-mail arrived today from Scott MacGillivray, which follows:

Hi, John -- Excellent piece today, as usual. Funny you should mention this kind of matinee show, because I just tried this myself for the Sons of the Desert audience in Boston. I wanted to run something lightweight for a July evening, so I ran an evening of Laurel & Hardy shorts complemented by color cartoons. (Plus a serial chapter and a 1950s Stooge comedy for added matinee flavor!)

I pitched this as "something new in shorts!" and hoped for the best. I thought this would either be too specialized, in which case a few animation buffs would attend, or a novelty that would attract a bigger crowd. Either way, it was a stunt, and it paid off. Bigger attendance than usual, and very nice exit comment afterward. I'll probably try this again next July. So it still pays to think like an exhibitor, and the "school's out" marathon still works!

5:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John...What a delight to see that generic ad art for the cartoon festival package.

Our two area drive-ins would normally have a "Kartoon Karnival" once a month paired up with other family-friendly features. When that ad featuring Tom and Jerry and Barney Bear appeared in the newspaper, I would beg the parents to take me and we went quite often. It was usually a package of MGM cartoons but would occsionally consist of Paramount Famous cartoons and (very rarely) Warner Brothers releases.

There were usually around 7 to 10 cartoons in each showing. I can recall seeing "The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold" and "The Guns of Fort Petticoat" as second features.

Thanks for the wonderful memory jog with the MGM ad art

6:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Circa 1965, WTEV (Channel 6) in Providence, RI signed on for the first time and immediately started running Warners' earliest b&w cartoons, complete with the original Warners/Vitaphone logo. To me, it was like jumping into a time machine. I've never forgotten the feeling; I knew I was watching something very old (at the time, only 35 years old at most!) and very special.

10:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boston's channel 38 ran the Van Bueren, Iwerks, and Farmer Alfalfa cartoons in the mid and late 60s(plus "Out of the Inkwell"), before they could afford newer cartoons.

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re the Valentino Story. Hollywood always have this motto, why let real life get in the way of a good story?

Look at the Ziegfeld Story(happy marriage to Billie Burke - not unless she really did not mine her husband sleeping with every girl that walked into his office), The Buster Keaton Story(only thing they got right there is the name, not even the names of the films were correct)

10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Channel 4 in Columbus, Ohio used to show a half-hour of Van Bueren cartoons each weekday morning sometime around 1955 or so. It was a strange concept in which they aired the cartoons with "beautiful music" playing over the cartoons original soundtracks. It was bizarre watching a Van Beuren Tom and Jerry cartoon with Mantovani-type music playing over it.
The station announcer would do a daily intro saying something like..."It's time for Cartoons for the Kiddees and Music for Mom while she does the housework".

What a concept, huh?

11:41 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's really bizarre, John. Thanks for passing it along. I never heard of stations replacing entire soundtracks on cartoons!

Anonymous, I've never actually seen "The Buster Keaton Story". Has anyone run that on cable or satellite? It seems to have vanished altogether...

4:42 AM  

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