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Friday, November 30, 2007

Many Dates With Judy

For having been born too late, I missed dates with Judy far greater in number than what I’d assumed was her sole appearance in the 1948 MGM musical starring Jane Powell, just released on DVD. Turns out this character had a near twenty-year run in various media, a brand name on radio and television, plus comic books and motion pictures. What started as summer replacement for Bob Hope in 1941 evolved into nine seasons of home listening. Shows like A Date With Judy revolved around teen problems at home and among school friends, with parents baffled over juve slanguage and exhibits of immaturity, but always right in the end. According to sex-deprived boys who grew up in radio's era, the girl’s voices were a major turn-on, despite all programs being scrubbed clean of inference. I pulled up a handful of Judy shows for on-line listening. One of them guest-starred Frank Sinatra; another had Joseph Cotten visiting the family. At times it sounded as though they were talking out of barrels. Radio archives are flush with some shows, bone dry on others. I located fifteen Dates With Judy. Maybe more exist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this were all. The similar Meet Corliss Archer is said to be largely gone, which is too bad, because my elementary school band teacher, Priscilla Lyon, was the first actress to play her on radio. None of these shows are particularly funny, but it is possible to lull yourself into a sufficiently comatose state to groove with them. Girls act silly, boys their eunuch pets. Teenagers as a group behave as utter fools, presumably to blunt any threat they might otherwise pose. You can tell sponsors were parsing these scripts with surgical precision, careful to disperse reality’s intrusion. I’d love to hear from a then-faithful listener, but how many of those visit Greenbriar (or any website)? Web-based nostalgia is after all limited to those who can (or are willing to) ambulate there --- age and passing have taken a lot of older memories with them. A Date With Judy had sufficient legs to manage a daytime television berth beginning in 1951 (the cast shown above). This played live and lasted a couple of years, eventually moving into primetime. There weren’t enough episodes to strip in syndication, not a factor anyway since A Date With Judy wasn’t shot on film and would survive (if at all) on kinescope only. Fans may well have read comic books while listening (or watching), so why not spin the character off into these? Covers here represent a DC run that lasted from 1947 to 1960. They’re not collected with anything like the gusto Superman and Batman inspire, and for all the world they look just like Archie comics I used to get in the early sixties. Those were easy for me to dump later, with nary a regret since, demonstrating perhaps just how disposable A Date With Judy and its kind became once listeners (and readers) grew out of them.

Judy might have been the next Andy Hardy, had attitudes and audiences not been so changed by the war. As it was, MGM ran a decade behind the curve when it brought Andy back from service in 1946. He had not changed at all, and neither did the Hardy formula. A Date With Judy shared time warp reflecting a studio determined to maintain pre-war business as usual. Household sets are art-directed into otherworldly perfection. Teen patrons whose parents discouraged excess make-up would be reassured by on-screen peers larded with pancake and rouge. Sometimes design and outcome go in opposing directions, or maybe they intended Elizabeth Taylor to represent definitive forties jail-bait, as she certainly does here (speaking of Archie comics, Powell and Taylor are filmic dead ringers, by look and temperament, for Betty and Veronica). High school dances in A Date With Judy are divorced enough from reality to allow Xavier Cugat’s casual attendance, as if musical headliners might drop in on your prom or mine. Beyond title and character names based on the radio plays, Judy and her friends are the same sort of let’s-put-on-show Carvel dwellers Mickey and Judy had been. Metro teens behaved well and respected their elders. So had kids on radio, but more was at stake in movies. A status quo of family filmgoing had to be maintained. It was this industry’s very foundation. Let trash merchants handle the likes of Teenage --- Mad Moments Of Youth (shown here), for its disreputable hosts neither needed nor wanted Code Seals for exploitation product they ran, yet theirs was the direction an entire industry would be headed within a short decade. Jane Powell was reassurance for parents starting to worry just prior to release of films that spoke directly to their fears. Columbia’s Knock On Any Door and Universal’s City Across the River within a following year would warn that all was not well among America’s youth. Trouble in these was confined to slums, but there was always the threat it would break out. Misunderstandings with parents in A Date With Judy are resolved promptly and always short of the law’s intervention. Note Elizabeth Taylor’s contretemps with dad Leon Ames over Wall Street distractions that make him inattentive at home, then fast forward to Natalie Wood’s sexually charged Daddy rejection in Rebel Without A Cause. That must surely have been the last picture daughters would have wanted to go with their fathers to see (and vice versa). By 1955, moviegoers were bifurcating into opposing camps. What one chose for entertainment (and role modeling), the other deplored. Louis Mayer and his producers understood the madness in such a course, but there was little they could do to forestall its forward (or backward?) march.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Time For Some Laurel and Hardy

Writing about Laurel and Hardy comes easy. Finding previously unpublished photos is the challenge. I’ve not seen these before, but that’s not to say they haven't shown up elsewhere, for there are innumerable fan periodicals and digests devoted to this greatest of comedy teams. The first zine I recall was Pratfall, which started in the late sixties. Many others have flourished since. Laurel and Hardy stood (and sat) for tens of thousands of stills. Publishers loved fresh art of the funnymen. Two more recognizable figures were not to be found in the early thirties (and note how prominently their short subjects were featured in theatre ads of the time, as in this combination of The Chimp with James Cagney’s Winner Take All). How many images of L&H are as yet undiscovered? The one shown here of Hal Roach players taking off on stage melodramas was new to me. From left to right, there’s Stan as maiden in distress, Babe as plantation patriarch, Charley Chase in possession of the mortgage, and blackfaced Edgar Kennedy as loyal family retainer. Laurel and Hardy linked up with comedy giants off their home base from time to time. This pose with Harold Lloyd was taken when the three were at RKO in 1939, Lloyd at producing chores and L&H busily engaged on The Flying Deuces. Paths were crossed with Buster Keaton on Culver City lots during the early thirties. Here they’re making music for MGM publicity cameras. Allen "Farina" Hoskins was one of several Our Gang kids visiting the Laurel and Hardy stage for photo ops. Holiday sittings were also de reguier in the thirties; thus here are Stan and Babe as pilgrims. Sears catalogues gave many 8mm collectors their start during the sixties. My initial Laurel and Hardy purchase, Big Business, came from the venerable mail order house in 1968. Within a few years, Sears would devote a special supplement to movies they were selling (as shown below), but most home enthusiasts went over to Blackhawk Bulletins and ordered directly once that Davenport address was noted on the bottom side of film boxes. Monthly sales provided further incentive. That print you'd wanted of Double Whoopee might drop from $12.98 to $10.95, enough to tip over buyers for whom saving $2.03 amounted to the bargain of their young lives (I’ve not been so thrilled with reduced retail since). I doubt monies going to Blackhawk came any harder earned, for who knows how much grass was cut, papers delivered, and dogs shampooed toward financing purchases of Leave Em’ Laughing and You’re Darn Tootin’?

Blackhawk used to sell groups of stills from the comedy team’s films. You could pay $2.98 for a nice packet of Hog Wild shots. Several of those happened to be from foreign versions of the short. They produced two in addition to the domestic one we know. The sight of unknown actresses playing Mrs. Hardy was an intriguing bafflement. First I heard of alternate language Laurel and Hardys was when someone wrote that Boris Karloff played a convict in the French Pardon Us. Years later, foreign negatives turned up in a vault search and suddenly we were watching Laughing Gravy, Berth Marks, Chickens Come Home and several others in Spanish and French. German has remained elusive, other than snatches of Pardon Us and a recently discovered Laurel and Hardy Murder Case. Drawers are unfortunately empty on Hog Wild, for neither foreign edition is available or known to exist. The pose shown here was typical of groupings Hal Roach arranged to publicize multiple language options for his comedy shorts. As with Greenbriar’s previously posted shot from Blotto, it was enough to surround the comedians with various players enacting the role of screen wife. Here it’s Oliver Hardy flanked by a multi-national menu of shrewish spouses, each of whom will clonk him with the same fry pan, but in differing tongues. From left to right, there is Linda Loredo (Spanish) Yola D’Avril (French), and of course, beloved Fay Holderness, by far severest of the three. Dialogue was spoken phonetically, but that isn’t news to Laurel and Hardy followers. What fascinates me are expanded versions Hal Roach distributed in countries where his headliner team amounted to so much gold bullion at ticket windows. Was Hog Wild longer in France and South America? Night Owls and Chickens Come Home certainly were. Some foreign versions became virtual features. Laurel and Hardy were if anything more revered off our own shores. There’s a reason for all that DVD circulation in Europe and the UK. The comedians amassed untold good will for making the effort to speak other languages and audiences wouldn't forget them for it. They continued playing continental theatres long after disappearing from our own. I had a high school Spanish teacher exiled from Cuba after the Castro takeover who had seen Laurel and Hardy with audiences right up to the time he left. These late 50’s screenings would presumably include alternate versions now among the missing. Could the Spanish Hog Wild and others be resting among Cuban holdings yet? Never mind smuggling cigars out of there. I’m all set to hollow out my steamer trunk for the concealment of lost Laurel and Hardys.

Thelma Todd is shown here preparing for an uncertain dive into the oversized bathtub constructed for Brats. That’s another one where foreign versions are lost (French, German, and possibly Spanish). Were any of the jumbo props around when Hal Roach Studios had their closing up auction in 1963? Brats was the first photo set I bought from Blackhawk. They lasted a few weeks until my mother accidentally threw them away (I’m only recently out of analysis over that). We had Laurel and Hardy on four channels back in the sixties, each accessible to varying degrees. The magic of a rotating antenna cleared snow and righted sound but to limited effect. I spent most weekends excavating for stations out of High Point and Charlotte North Carolina, Greenville in South Carolina, and Channel 5 from Bristol, Tennessee. The only satellites in those days were ones the Russians were sending up, and cable was something tractors pulled. I walked through a blizzard to a cousin’s house one morning to see if I could catch Channel 4’s Laurel and Hardy show a little clearer than we were getting it. That’s when I saw Brats the first time … saw being an elastic term to describe pained endurance of a barely visible transmission. No wonder I was obliged to wear spectacles until age eighteen. The hurdles one leaped to see televised favorites were the viewing equivalent of World Olympics. Kid programming formats showed little mercy to pacing and construction of Laurel and Hardy shorts. They would cut away and leave the projector running, rejoining in progress as if the team were so much filler between clown acts, Cub Scout recognition, and appeals on behalf of animal shelters. I snapped one afternoon and took pen to paper for purpose of straightening out Channel 4’s programming division after they cut Chickens Come Home by half on the daily Monty’s Rascals show. You butchers are hacking, defacing, and mutilating these Laurel and Hardy classics! sums up diplomacy I applied to hand-written correspondence on Blue Horse tablet. They erred in assuming the letter had come from an adult, but would do so more grievously by inviting this fifteen-year-old to guest on Today In The Piedmont, Channel 4’s noontime cooking and chat program. Thus November 29, 1969 would mark my first (and so far most recent --- which is to say only) television appearance…

We drove (or rather, I was driven) three hours to reach Greenville. Few back home would see the broadcast as practically no one could pick up Channel 4. The station manager’s jaw dropped like a Tex Avery wolf when he greeted us at the door. I thought you’d be older, said he, but what to do now, with airtime less than two hours away? They escorted me to the film room (my request) so I could see where the Laurel and Hardys were kept. My imagination had constructed a pristine library with neatly arranged rows of all the cartoons and comedies Channel 4 possessed --- Popeye, Looney Tunes, The Mischief Makers. Little prepared was I for what greeted me. An oversized closet it was, with 16mm prints stacked into corners and station employees shuffling about like inmates on Devil’s Island. I ingratiated myself thus, Hey! Why do you guys keep showing "The Hoosegow" week after week and never once "Blotto" or "Helpmates"? My guest status checkmated their natural impulse to cut a hickory stalk and apply it to my precocious backside. Well, suppose you just root around and find the ones you want to see, they volunteered, and we’ll start showing them on Monty’s Rascals. My next half-hour was spent rearranging Channel 4's shelves. Favorites were moved up the queue. Alpine Antics and Gyp the Gypsy were consigned to a dark corner among Astro Boy cartoons they were no longer using. Never was an adolescent Laurel and Hardy fan so empowered. As further demonstration of heroic patience, the film room employees threaded up Blotto and let me sit next to a chattering Bell and Howell to watch it. We’ll never be able be able to show this, said one of them when a scantily clad dancer made her entrance at the Rainbow Club. Going on Today In The Piedmont became an afterthought in the wake of such fun I was having here. My segment lasted seven or so minutes. The lady host politely regarded her couch sitting interview subject whose feet barely touched the floor. Today In The Piedmont’s producer doubled as helmsman on Monty’s Rascals. So you’re the one who wrote those nasty letters, he said with a glower just as we were going live before thousands, nay millions, of viewers who no doubt mistook me for Harry Earles or perhaps Billy Curtis (my growth spurt being years in the offing). I have little memory of what was said, though forearmed with those 8X10 photos purchased from Blackhawk, there were at least visual aids we could hold up to the camera as it lumbered close in upon us. And yes, the program was in living color. For purposes of context, do note the line-up on the ad Channel 4 ran in that day’s newspaper. Blaze Starr coming up on Mike Douglas, then My World and Welcome To It for the evening’s start, and Bracken’s World to wrap up NBC’s primetime feast. I was, if nothing else, keeping distinguished entertainment company that day.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Greenbriar Weekend Marquee

I knew Richard Dix was the Whistler and that William Castle directed some of the better series entries, but my acquaintance was limited to stills and a misunderstanding that this series seldom rose above "B" levels and was thus safely ignored by latter generations. Wrong was I on several counts. First off, Dix was not himself the Whistler. That character would remain unseen, except in shadow, and would at best serve as Greek chorus for principals changing with each film. Richard Dix was the only constant, but he never repeated roles within this series. Each installment would be a tour de force and provide more variation for the actor than other leading men, even in "A" parts, might hope for in whole of careers. Over seven thrillers in which he starred, Dix was sympathetic here, dangerously psychotic there. Wealthy in one, down and out in the next. Had these pictures attracted critical notice, Dix might have been rescued from low-budgeters and back in stardom he had known during the twenties and early thirties. Overripe in salad days, RD pushed pedals to the floor in big ones like Cimarron, and for my money, he’s dynamic there as empire builder, but once talkie empires were established, Dix’s billing fell below the title except in low-budget he-man actioners evocative of those that gave him a start. Nearing his fifties by the forties, both Dix and the Whistlers aged like fine wine as his tortured alter egos wandered dark alleys and were buffeted by fate. Scripts were borrowed, and padded, after radio’s Whistler team had their go. Sometimes uncertain pacing betrays those origins. Little will happen the first forty minutes, then there’s a rush to finish with plot contrivances unpredictable if unlikely. Crazy illogic plays as though it were everyday normalcy and you keep waiting for one of those dream endings to restore a semblance of reality. Customary "B" economies are observed, as these were pictures not likely to break out beyond predictable returns. For random example, Mark Of The Whistler earned $270,000 in domestic rentals, Power Of The Whistler $226,000. Like most series, revenue diminished as more came off the line. By Return Of The Whistler (the final entry), domestic rentals were down to $166,000. Young and eager director William Castle used Whistlers to show off for Columbia chief Harry Cohn, and a lot of his showman’s tricks were previewed for viewers who would encounter Castle a decade later in tricky horror pictures. Always in readiness to lift ideas from their betters, the Whistlers drew upon Citizen Kane for one (Dix’s tycoon life told in opening newsreel flashback) and The Maltese Falcon on another (Dix as morally bankrupt private eye pursues priceless Jenny Lind wax cylinders). All of which is to say neat ideas are in abundance here, and were it not for callow youngsters auditioning before Columbia cameras (Dix really carries a lot of dead weight among so-called supporting casts), these thrillers might enjoy enhanced reputations today. The Whistlers revolved upon the same studio wheel that drove The Crime Doctor, Boston Blackie, The Lone Wolf, and Ellery Queen. Nobody had as many detectives and mysteries running as Columbia. Most have hung shingles at TCM of late after years of comparative invisibility. All are worth revisiting.

Ask anyone who was there in 1967, and they’ll tell you the money shot in Berserk is definitely Micheal Gough getting an oversized spike driven through his forehead from behind (to paraphrase Batiatus to Crassus, Brilliant thrust, difficult angle). It’s a breathtaking tableau that has stayed with me since, and I was happy to see it left intact for TCM’s recent showing. Do note Gough’s anguished countenance lined up alongside Joan Crawford in the one-sheet here. Berserk was among trashy shock shows aging actresses were loathe to accept in the post-Baby Jane sixties. Outside television and summer stock, however, these were the only games left for even biggest names of yore. Crawford is again hard-as-nails boss lady (and potential, if not actual, murderess) as befitting her public and private image since Mildred Pierce and the end of World War Two. The fact she was still able to play it with name above the title after twenty years is testament to her amazing longevity. Berserk is notable for putting Crawford front and center again after less rewarding featured and "guest star" appearances in support of others (The Best Of Everything, The Caretakers). At sixty-two, she’s brandishing trim legs and a wig pulled back like Barrymore’s Hyde hair, creeping us out with dialogue implying (mercifully offscreen) bedroom frolics with Michael Gough and Ty Hardin. Mayhem against circus backgrounds was so common as to presumably discourage post-war youngsters from wanting to leave home and join the big top. Tent shows in thrillers of limited budget were always of the struggling and fleabag variety. Serial murders seemed all the greater a hardship as so few performers could be spared without endangering the whole enterprise. Suspects are sufficiently limited in number as to necessitate dragging in by the heels a "surprise" killer who doesn’t even appear until the second half of the picture. Authentic circus acts play in their entirety, so there is uneasy communion between trained dogs and trapeze performers either hanged or impaled on a bed of nails, with Crawford functioning as a distaff Don Ameche presiding over a big-screen International Showtime. Producer Herman Cohen would regale interviewers with Berserk anecdotes, most arising from efforts to placate his imperious star. He’s shown twice among spectators in the bleachers. There would be fewer of these for Cohen’s kind of exploitation shocker as a soon-to-be introduced ratings system enabled gorier chills and rendered tame Berserk and much of what had horrified us in the sixties.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

High Hills To Climb

Don several layers of clothes in the event you start any climb up German mountain films. I’m shivering yet from harrowing ordeals set upon summits unforgiving and icebergs collapsing. Survival movies aren’t for everyone, possibly on the theory we get enough hardship in daily life, but those emerging from Germany’s 20/30's cycle are surely best of the lot. Footage so spectacular outlived features whose highlights would be pillaged, then put before audiences of children there to watch serials and "B" action shows. What drew German crowds to begin with? It may have begun with climbing fads among University students. They’d pass hours under tutelage of martinet professors, then ascend nearby Bavarian Alps on manhood ritualized weekends. Some called it a dangerous cult, especially in hindsight when writers looked around for possible origins of the Nazi rise. Those associations, and Leni Riefenstahl’s extensive involvement with the genre, weigh like anchors upon the reputation of mountain films. Writer Siegfried Kracauer was among those first to pile on. Idolatry of glaciers and rocks was symptomatic of an antirationalism on which the Nazis could capitalize, said he in what many consider the definitive work on German film, From Caligari To Hitler. Others maintain climbing reflected heroic idealism on the part of those up to the challenge. Close examination will find plenty to support both theories, but chances are you’ll be so overwhelmed as to be two or three viewings away from reasoned consideration of social and political underpinnings. Is there dime’s worth of difference between motivations that drove German climbers and ones that propel latter-day IMAX adventurers seeking new horizons atop snowy peaks? Digital mini-cams and helicopters provide accompaniment along rock walls today with safety provisions German crews never dreamed of. The White Hell Of Pitz Palu came by its title honestly, for making this was indeed a five month’s hell on frozen earth, with primitive equipment there to record cast suffering unprecedented in movies before or since.

Dr. Arnold Fanck was a geologist who got interested in film as an adjunct to his obsession with mountains. Combining the two resulted in visual poetry unknown to German directors locked inside oppressive stages. Fanck got outdoors and thrilled his public with close calls often staged at the expense of terrified actors and crew. The White Hell Of Pitz Palu was shot in early to mid-1929 among the Swiss Alps. There were hopes it would break out and find an international audience. Toward that end, star Leni Riefenstahl suggested noted director G.W. Pabst to come in and punch up the human element, Fanck being frankly better with mountains than people. Both proved ruthless (and sadistic?) taskmasters. Pabst supervised interiors and drama while Fanck took charge of hazard shooting. The latter got out of hand at times. Pretty much everyone came down with pneumonia. Hot wine and punch was necessary to keep the company breathing. Temperatures plunged to thirty below zero. Riefenstahl got frostbite on her upper thighs and bladder damage that lasted the rest of her life (another seventy-four years!). Fanck hoisted the rope-bound actress up a jagged precipice, touching off an avalanche with dynamite for added effect. Blizzards supplied by nature were augmented with giant propellers aimed at performers tossed about like rag dolls. Icicles literally hung off faces. Siren of the snowcaps Leni was besieged with love missives left on her pillow nightly by a besotted Dr. Fanck, whose on location tyranny led to an escape attempt that nearly cost the lives of a desperate Riefenstahl and the guide she’d entrusted to lead her out. Sheer madness much of the time, but what got on the screen amazed and still does. Riefenstahl would achieve Euro celebrity doing these nature dramas, and according to her memoirs, American stardom beckoned by way of Josef Von Sternberg’s offer of a Paramount contract. But for not having taken that fork in the road, Leni Riefenstahl might have ended up a stateside cult figure, her legacy spared the controversy it acquired for having remained in Germany to helm Triumph Of The Will and Olympia. But could she ever have become a great director over here?

Despite its having been shot silent, and at a late date, Universal committed to US distribution and scored the first booking of a German feature in New York’s deluxe Roxy Theatre. The White Hell Of Pitz Palu came at twilight for non-talkers in distribution after 1929. Universal tried covering the anomaly with two distinct versions utilizing music, narration, and effects. These were ping-ponged among theatres from June 1930 into the autumn of that year. One was discredited straightaway and hasn’t been seen since. Critics lambasted popular newsreel personality Graham McNamee’s feature length stating of the obvious. To have this knight of the superlative describe the wondrous views in the Alps is to gild the lily with a vengeance, said TIME’s review. Much better was the alternate (scored) version by Universal staff composer Heinz Roemheld, whose themes would be used again (and again) in many a beloved horror film and serial (The Mummy, Flash Gordon, more). Both US editions of The White Hell Of Pitz Palu were cut down to a manageable 75 minutes from the original German (over) length of 135. Universal invested $68,922.93 in its purchase of the German negative and preparation of the two domestic versions. White Hell was available for outright purchase through Universal’s Show-At-Home library during the thirties, but was otherwise little seen afterward. It seemed the critical establishment viewed it as more of a stunt thriller than legitimate classic. The Cambridge Film Society in England played White Hell as part of a G.W. Pabst series in the early forties, and New York’s Cinema 16 ran it among that group’s alternative film offerings on November 1 and 2 of 1955. The Museum Of Modern Art listed the so-called 1935 "sound" version (a doctored German reissue in which voices were overdubbed to create ersatz dialogue for otherwise silent players) as part of their circulating library (there was also a 1953 remake made up of stock footage and sound stage mountain mock-ups). Universal’s Heinz Roemheld scored edition meanwhile made the rounds among latter-day collectors and was for years the version shown at conventions and buff gatherings (it's available here). Kino’s DVD release of the full-length German version was the long awaited opportunity to at last see White Hell Of Pitz Palu intact.

Much was mined from the frozen husk of White Hell. You could build entire serial chapters out of footage spectacular as this, and on at least two occasions, Universal did. Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe was third (and last) among serial adaptations of Alex Raymond’s comic strip. Epic wasn’t a word you’d ascribe to chapter-plays, yet here were three the likes of which no matinee audience had dreamt. They were a hypnotic mix of deco settings, eccentric costuming, and sputtering rocket models, augmented by generous music borrowings from past Universal scores. Stock footage was there when they could match it, but this being science fiction, opportunities were limited along those lines. Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe did manage a hefty lift of White Hell highlights during Chapters Two and Three. The snowbound entrapment of Flash and Dale on the planet of Frigia dissolved into a near complete replaying of the search and rescue sequence from the German film, even to the point of reusing Heinz Roemheld’s music from Universal's 1930 release. The vintage material was woven so adroitly as to suggest it was shot fresh for the serial, and since the Flash Gordons were pretty elaborate to begin with, audiences were spared obvious mis-matches between old and new. Universal’s license in the character was unfortunately limited to the general release of the serials and several feature versions derived from these. King Features Syndicate wound up with the negatives, Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe being one that would lapse into the public domain just in time to be widely sold by 8 and 16mm distributors. The three serials played television with replaced titles. Space Soldiers was an umbrella for all the chapters and stations could strip them over weekday afternoons alongside Rocky Jones and Captain Video, though the latter space operas looked puny indeed beside Universal’s (now King’s) lavish product. Flash Gordon was hugely popular in his prime. I’m not old enough to remember, as these were heady days of comic strips, the ongoing serials (three over a six-year period), and coverage in mass circulation magazines. Had Universal maintained rights to Flash Gordon, we’d have likely enjoyed at least one more generation in the character’s firm embrace, for they would surely have spun him off into Castle Films and Aurora Models, two ancillary markets that sustained the legacy of the studio’s monster franchise. Maybe I wasn’t looking closely enough during the sixties and seventies --- were there Flash Gordon trading cards, billfolds, or build them yourself action figures then?

A well-known landmark on film history’s calendar of infamy was Universal’s decision to junk their silent negatives during the late forties. If not valuable for commercial purposes, weren’t these at least useful as continuing sources for stock footage? Maybe not, for by then the studio had abandoned its serials and "B" westerns. Could this discontinuation have led to disposal of most pre-thirties output? Once their kiddie litter was cleared out of the box, what use could Universal have for ancient (and voiceless) reels of black-and-white indian attacks and rides to the rescue? Thus were hundreds of treasures lost. What’s left of them can be glimpsed in cowboy and chapter-plays released in the talking era. Lost City Of The Jungle was Universal’s penultimate serial. This was 1946, and juice was squeezed from fruit cultivated since the company’s start. Few cliffhangers are so listless as this one. Extensive footage from White Hell Of Pitz Palu is immediately recognizable, being among highlights few to take us out of doors and away from cramped sets. Himalaya Horror is the title given Chapter One. It wasn’t uncommon for serials to shoot their bolt during opening installments. Universal’s idea of a sock beginning was to give us their best old material, and so far as that went, White Hell ranked among the most exciting stuff they owned. Did mid-forties starlet Jane Adams realize she was doubling for Leni Riefenstahl? Probably not, as most players never had (let alone sought) the opportunity to watch themselves in chapter-plays. Rental collected for matinee filler was not adjusted for post-war (increased) costs of making serials. Exhibitors were on the same downward slide as producer/distributors. Owing to its product split with the Allen, the Liberty didn’t play Universal output, but records show Colonel Forehand paid Republic only $6.50 per chapter for Daughter Of Don Q, and this was the same year Lost City Of The Jungle came out. Hard to justify spending real money on serials with revenue expectations low as this. Universal’s lost city was more like a screening room you’d go to each week to watch highlights from movies past. In addition to White Hell, there were chunks out of Jon Hall/Maria Montez exotics, chief among these White Savage, which was itself only a few years old when consulted for stock by Lost City Of The Jungle. Russell Hayden and Keye Luke point beyond foliage on a 1946 soundstage and volcanoes erupt again beneath Jon Hall and Sabu. Universal by this time was even skimping on fistfights, their serials so plot heavy as to crowd out physical action altogether. Endless discussion over atom bombs, glowing goddesses, and those inevitable detonation devices confuse to the point of audience surrender. What's left to enjoy, if anything, is spotting the double necessitated by Lionel Atwill’s death during production. Lost City Of The Jungle survives in that public domain wilderness of serials forgotten by their owners and ignored by all but hard-core completists. The Serial Squadron has done the nicest job of restoring it. Their dedication to chapter-play preservation continues to bear fruit.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Golfing Threat

Dateline:1930. The talkie novelty is beginning to taper off. Folks are investing recreational dollars (that is, quarters and dimes) in new fads. There was, after all, some fun to be had outside of movies. The Tom Thumb Menace lamented in the trade press was another word for miniature golf, and was a showman’s bane from Spring 1930 until that September when the craze began subsiding. In the meantime, putting greens were shellacking boxoffices across the country. Go Out and Trade Blow For Blow With Miniature Golf advises this ad for W.C. Fields’ short comedy, The Golf Specialist, and note how RKO links its product with the ongoing national craze. Undercutting admissions was the surest weapon interlopers could use against established theatres. If a movie cost fifty cents, why not golf for thirty-five? The Tom Thumbs gained allure from being open most of the night (some past 4 AM). Women could play unescorted, as courses not indoors were often located beneath electric billboards. Being out late in such a safe and sociable environment had appeal movies lacked. It was sport after a fashion, and friendly competition was a handy way of meeting and greeting. Depression dwellers who couldn’t afford the regulation game viewed "Rinky-dink Golf" as a satisfying alternative, and what matter that play was had upon clay or hard sand as opposed to grass? Even movie stars got in on the fad, though industry loyalty encouraged low-key participation. Mary Pickford and Jackie Coogan designed private courses for home play. Mary’s was done in modernistic French style with expressionist palm trees and surreal flower arrangements. Studios supposedly forbade onscreen miniature golfing much as they would televisions years later. One exception was the Our Gang comedy Little Daddy, wherein Roach’s Rascals constructed their own Missing Links Premature Golf Course.

A few exhibs figured on joining the craze they knew they couldn’t lick. William C. Smalley of Cooperstown, NY took control by locating golf courses close to his theatres and fixing prices so as not to compete with house admissions. Fifty cents bought a round of putting just as the same amount would gain entrance to Smalley’s movie offering. Cross advertising profited both. If You Make This Hole In One, You Will Receive Free Admission at Smalley’s Theatre Tonight Where You Will See and Hear Norma Shearer in ‘The Divorcee’. Others figured on luring golfers into makeshift courses put down in mezzanines and lobby corners (as shown here). Tie-ins with civic groups led to cross-pollination between putting tournaments and moviegoing (as shown in this ad). Complementary ducats went to high scorers. As interest went beyond putting, Warners’ Bobby Jones shorts inspired showmen to conduct demonstrations in the lobby, such as one here in Milwaukee. Miniature golf would peak at 30,000 links nationwide during the thirties, 150 of these at rooftop locations in New York City alone. My hometown’s College Park Cinema was located next to a course owned as well by the theatre’s proprietor. You could play midget golf there in the early seventies, then go next door and see a movie (always Billy Jack, it seemed). Video games have since replaced putting as lobby pastimes, but I wonder what might happen in unlikely event of a modern theatre reviving mini-golf. Just remove one or two of skyscraper-sized standees and you'd reclaim space enough to put in a small course (if not Par 3 fairways!). Have iPods and cell phones numbed kids to the possibilities of enjoying miniature golf? Putt-Putt was one of my favorite activities growing up. Will twenty-first century theatres see its likes again?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The George Marshall Cult Starts Here!

They never taught the likes of George Marshall in film school, and more’s the pity they didn’t/don’t. One modern writer refers to him as the quintessential hack director. Harsh words for such a reliable all-purpose man who served the industry from 1912 to 1972, manning the helm into his eightieth year. They can’t all be Hitchcock and Ford. With seven hundred and fifty features plus heaven knows how many shorts coming off studio lines per annum, somebody had to pull plows and get routine jobs done. Marshall was among such necessary personnel. Sometimes he did better than alright. Always he was efficient, looking every inch the part of a battle seasoned Hollywood pioneer. Life experience he brought to his first movie set make contemporary directors look like bottle-sucking infants. Marshall graduated from a school of life as opposed to UCLA. A child of now two centuries back (born 1891), he went farm-to-farm selling equipment, did cub reporting, and worked railroad shifts in between. He had a pugilist's nose. Coincidental may be the fact he took up pro baseball. Yesterday’s twenty calendar years is today’s --- what? Does anybody anymore get so much adventure in life early on? Marshall was just out of his teens when he landed in Hollywood. There was extra work, bit-playing, propping --- then camera assisting, make-up application, editing, and assistant directing. In those pre-union days, it was still possible to be jack-of-a-hundred trades. Coast Guard service led to Signal Corp duties in the First World War. After that, Marshall (still not yet thirty) would direct Tom Mix and later take charge of Fox’s short comedies unit. I mention this not so much in an effort to "rediscover" George Marshall --- it’s clearly too late, and there’s been too much film scholarship published --- for any (past) Hollywood director to be so anointed. It would hardly enough to take down a few DVD’s and pay random tribute to a craftsman of his longevity and output --- surely George Marshall and those of his generation deserve more, but what a variety of shows are not seen before, and so enjoyable in the bargain. 

TCM runs Bobby Jones shorts every now and again. He’s the long-ago golf champ whose story was told in a 2004 movie called Bobby Jones: Stroke Of Genius. George Marshall dreamed up the notion of putting Jones on the links with various Hollywood stars for purposes of teaching them (and us) a few duffing moves. There is gentle ribbing and ad-libbing among major names you’d not expect to see in a sport reel. Warner Oland did one. So did W.C. Fields. Cagney and Robinson took on-screen lessons in the near-immediate wake of rat-tatting to fame in Little Caesar and Public Enemy. No matter their status, all of these stood in awe of Bobby’s mighty swing. Astonished reactions to his expertise are at least as convincing as any performance they gave in features. George Marshall was deft enough in ways of comedy to engage viewers not otherwise taken by slow-motion golf swings. I found myself quite taken both by the pro’s relaxed Georgia drawl and his near-supernatural way with a niblick. Warners did several seasons of these --- eighteen sessions at a reel apiece to make champions of us all, each a trophy winner among sport shorts.

George Marshall had sharp features and an edge in his voice that made Fred Kohler look and sound like a geranium. He could play comedy as well as direct it. An early-thirties sojourn with Hal Roach found him in charge of a new series teaming Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. A lot of these are plain wretched. I’m not sure they ever got that formula down, despite attempts all the way to Todd’s mysterious death four years after the shorts were introduced. Marshall dropped out of them and so did Pitts. The director went over to the Laurel and Hardy unit and did several good ones. Pack Up Your Troubles was the team’s second at feature-length and Marshall had a cameo playing a vengeful army cook. His is the funniest supporting bit in the film. I’m doubtful any director exerted influence over Laurel and Hardy once Leo McCarey left. The shorts Marshall helmed --- Towed In A Hole and Their First Mistake --- are not markedly different from other L&H during 1932, Stan Laurel’s creative control complete by this time, but Roach required at least a nominal body in the director’s chair, so for this brief period, Marshall was it. He would shuttle between Culver City and Mack Sennett’s factory for several years. The Sennett talking comedies are unknown quantities for modern viewers and have been for years. Blackhawk once sold them in 16mm, but that was generations back. A handful are available on DVD from Kino. There were a tiny few made famous by Bing Crosby or W.C. Fields, but a majority (including those directed by George Marshall) featured names best remembered by stouthearted buffs. Franklin Pangborn headlined several, as did Walter Catlett, Babe Kane, and silent holdovers Ford Sterling and Mack Swain. Even then they were two-reelers on life support, minor and past prime clowns bailing and flailing against the spectre of bankruptcy that would eventually take Sennett and his studio down.

There was a collector and Alice Faye completist named Frank Moshier who possessed the alleged only surviving print of 365 Nights In Hollywood, and it was by way of his estate that the 16mm rarity came to be used as source material for VCI’s DVD release. George Marshall directed his first features for Fox Film Corporation. 365 Nights would be a musical comedy hopelessly outmatched by Busby Berkeley spectaculars at Warners and Astaire/Rogers at RKO. 365 Nights In Hollywood was a 1934 release with ideas and execution that dated back further, the sort of limp rag that justified a public’s increased demand for double features. Such failed effort to beat song-and-dance competitors at their game is less interesting than authentic feel for life at the bottom of Hollywood’s food chain. Crooked talent schools operating in drab frame houses promise stardom to rubes and chumps desperate to break into movies. 365 Nights is itself drab enough to play like a cut-rate Movietone newsreel of life among show-biz shutouts. The DVD's muddy source print lends credibility the movie may not have enjoyed in sparkling 35mm nitrate. Being a twenty-year plus industry veteran by this time, George Marshall undoubtedly knew his way around scams and their practitioners. Two Will Rogers vehicles coming in 1934 and the following year would find a larger audience (365 Nights lost $19,000). Marshall left no more of a signature upon these than David Butler, James Cruze, or other directors hog-tied by a formula now in rigor mortis. I watched the two that Marshall supervised --- Life Begins At Forty and In Old Kentucky. They float upon my memory like contents of a molasses barrel. I can’t quite recall what happened in which. Will chases jaybirds with a slingshot. Banjo music heralds title credits. Funny (they think) old Grandpa chases folks with a loaded shotgun, and it occurs to nobody to take it away from him. There are both good girls and contrasting snooty ones to compete for vacuous juveniles. Bad behavior is generally equated with having money. Why didn’t they invite D.W. Griffith to come out of involuntary retirement and direct these things? He would have been ideal. Will Rogers was himself the auteur in command, presiding over small towns so distant in memory that we’re surprised whenever an automobile is driven upon the scene. Hard to imagine that much of the country was then very like the settings depicted here. They reflected an idealized  Americana, and  rural sites so flattered would worship Will Rogers. His pictures hauled freight for a struggling Fox Film Corporation. There were five featuring Rogers in 1935, two released posthumously. Marshall’s In Old Kentucky would be the last. I wonder how long the Rogers craze would have gone had he lived. I do know they reissued his oldies into the late thirties and all were lucrative. Foreign markets never got the appeal of these. For continentals, they must have played like life on Saturn. Example: In Old Kentucky took $1.4 million in domestic rentals, but a negligible $67,000 foreign.

More to come on George Marshall.
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