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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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is just a sidelight to your fine post, but I was pleased and a little wistful to see your mention of the late Frank (full name: W. Franklyn) Moshier. He was quite a fine fellow and calling him an "Alice Faye completist" is, if anything, something of an understatement. When I knew him in the early '70s he owned a 16mm print of every film Alice ever made (yes, even the 1962 State Fair, though I don't imagine he threaded that one up very often), and he screened several of them for my uncle Conrad and me in his San Francisco home, a rare pre-video treat. Frank also had hundreds of sheet music copies and thousands -- maybe tens of thousands -- of 8x10 glossies (he got the ever-gracious Alice to autograph one for me). An inscribed copy of his loving, self-published The Films of Alice Faye still occupies an honored perch on my bookshelf. (It was later picked up by A&W Visual Library, who issued it as The Alice Faye Movie Book; a good book, but A&W cut some production corners, and Alice's fans will want to track down a copy under the original title to get the full measure of Frank's devotion.)

3:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jim, I too remember Frank Moshier as a really nice guy who regaled us on several Cinecon dinner occasions with stories of his encounters with stars. I never knew his collection of Alice Faye memorabilia was so vast, however...

4:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more mention of Frank Moshier, John, since you've jogged my memory. It was Frank, in August of 1972, who broke the sad news to Conrad and me (which he had gotten from Alice herself) that Betty Grable had terminal cancer with less than a year to live. Poor Betty passed away in July '73, age 56.

5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend who belonged to Frank Moshier's "Alice Faye Film Club" would occasionally invite me to accompany him on monthly screenings that took place in the 1970s in the welcoming 'home theatre' of Frank's basement. The bill would include shorts and cartoons and a film of Alice's. It was a recreation of a '40s experience, complete with the neighborhood crowded with parked cars.

12:35 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I guess that beyond the Will Rogers comedies, the thing that kept the Fox Film Corporation before it merged with 20th Century Pictures, was its series of Spanish language films.

Fox could have introduced the sound film revolution outside the United States, since they had a much better distribution system than Warners, two years before they did. That did not happened until very late 1929 when their lost film 4 Devils was released with its Movietone soundtrack.

Like all of the other studios, they tried foreign language productions. And their films in Spanish were extremely popular in Argentina. For instance, the Spanish language version of The Big Trail, La gran jornada, was such a popular movie that managed to be exhibited in important theaters for an entire year.

There English language productions were not nearly as popular, and their attempts to release a number of films in dubbed versions destroyed their box office appeal (at least in Latin America).

Yet for their Spanish language films they managed to get an impressive ensemble of stars from Spain and Latin America. José Mojica, Raoul Roulien, Mona Maris, and Rosita Moreno means nothing to English language audiences... but a generation knew these people quite well (specially the two actress, thanks to Carlos Gardel).

When 20th Century-Fox was established, they decided to cancel the Spanish language series, which was lucrative. But the tragic death of Carlos Gardel put a virtual end to that kind of picture.

I love the Bobby Jones shorts. All of them were released in a terrific DVD compilation. I saw them for the first time, many years ago in TNT Latin America (when they used to play classics before they moved them to TCM) and I have always been captivated by those films, been a mediocre to bad golfer myself.

2:44 AM  
Blogger Allan Maurer said...

Another fine post -- I enjoyed George Marshall's later films, especially those I saw in the 50s--

"The Amazing Houdini," with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and "Imitation General," with Glenn Ford and Red Buttons, in particular.

The Houdini biopic, which takes liberties with the facts, as most biopic's do, nevertheless remains fresh and watchable today, even if it did leave many people think the great escapeologist drowned in his water torture cell. (He actually died in a hospital on Halloween after fighting the poisons from a ruptured appendix for longer than anyone thought possible.

12:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

As I remember, Frank Moshier actually died at the LA Cinecon, though I forget which year. Someone correct me if I'm wrong ...

radiotelefonia, thanks for that info on Fox Spanish language releases. I wasn't aware of any of that.

Allan, "Houdini" is a favorite of mine going back to when NBC ran it on "Saturday Night At The Movies", around 1965 I think.

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One note of clarification about "365 Nights In Hollywood" There is a DVD release from Image Entertainment which is transferred from a 35mm nitrate print. It's not always great uniform quality, but obviously 35mm.

1:51 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I have that Image DVD, Anonymous, and though it claims to originate from 35mm, I believe it was actually made from the 16mm print from Frank Moshier's collection, though I'd be happy to be proven wrong, especially since that would confirm that there is actually a 35mm nitrate in existance!

2:42 PM  

Nice one on Marshall. How about one on Monogram's stalwart workhorse, the much-maligned William Beaudine? It would be interesting to chart his successes - today, people assume that the cheap product Monogram produced coupled with the fact that much of it has fallen into the "public domain" means that the films weren't popular. But that's not the case - Monogram wouldn't have lasted as long as it did if people didn't go see those movies. Granted, having series like Charlie Chan and the Bowery Boys was a great help, but all those other non-series entries, most of which were helmed by Beaudine, held some sort of fascination with the public. Perhaps the titles alone were enough to sell most of them. But I don't know the answer, that's why I'm hoping Greenbriar may seek it out. :)

3:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: 365 Nights DVD:

I rechecked my DVD today and I think we are both right--on closer inspection, it appears to have been derived from a 16mm reduction of a 35mm print. Too bad the original 35mm wasn't thoroughly cleaned before printdown. Lots of dried oil is evident throughout. I used to buy old nitrate 35mm prints from a collector back in the late 70s, and they all had this problem. Due to the old projectors throwing oil on the prints, you wound up with dark blotches on the film. Sometimes it could be removed with strong solvents.

I noticed on the DVD, that superimposed over the original copyright notice from 1934, is a Wade Williams copyright of 2003. The film was obviously in the public domain when he got it. This happens more and more nowadays--people arbitrarily claiming ownership of a property that has fallen into PD. The only provision to re-copyright is for colorization or conversion with new sequences making it a new work, or buying the literary work it was based on.


8:51 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi NYCopyGuy --- I'd be willing enough to post on William Beaudine, but where would I find decent prints of all that PD Monogram stuff? I checked out some of TCM's East Side Kids stuff last week, and most of it looked pretty rough. Will we ever see decent prints of these?

Anonymous, the most brazen instance I've seen of dubious reclaiming of ownership must surely be "It's A Wonderful Life", but who could fight these corporate giants? As for smaller titles, I shouldn't think their minimal commercial value would be worth battling over, though I agree that many of these claims are spurious to say the least ...

10:19 AM  

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