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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Two Years and 466 Postings Ago...

Greenbriar Picture Shows opened on December 27, 2005. It began as a place to deposit images hopefully unfamiliar to readers. Sometimes I’d post three times a day. The novelty of seeing everything go up instantly was quite a kick. Later I slowed down to once a day. After awhile, it seemed an index and search archive was needed. Greenbriar became for me one of those blogging obsessions people speak of. The movie life seems normal enough to one who lives it. I’ve been reassured in finding there are plenty of others who are similarly driven. The thing I love about the internet and DVD and TCM and all the rest is how they create opportunities for online writers to discover and rediscover movies long unseen. It happened this past year with Ace In The Hole, These Are The Damned (TCM leased a package from Sony, and suddenly this Columbia owned Hammer Film was back after decades of hibernation), and many others. Something like Witchfinder General resurfaces and informed voices are heard worldwide in celebration. I love the instant gratification of newsgroups and forums. Every day’s an adventure in this peculiarly twenty-first century funhouse. I don’t read a tenth of stuff daily I know I’d like. Forty-eight hour days might help, but not much. Blogs I follow are great because they tap into their creator’s personality and experience. Would print media ever have allowed for such expression? I think someday we’ll look back and marvel at this revolution we’re living. I don’t take it for granted a moment because I remember what it was like when we didn’t have all this. Most Greenbriar readers probably do too as I suspect we’re in the approximate same age group. Rest assured I appreciate each and all who comment here. Sometimes I think some of you ought to be writing these posts instead of me. The things I learn from readers! When Google took over Blogger, they instituted policies requiring commenters to sign on with Google first, essentially becoming a "member" of that group. I’ve not seen any downside to this, but it has complicated the commenting process somewhat. Anyone who’s had problems might look into signing with Google. It’s simple and requires no meaningful forfeit of privacy. Anyway, to those who share views with other Greenbriar readers and myself, I do offer thanks and invite you to please continue.

I’ve spent these two years reflecting on movies that have impacted on me. Most I came upon during that age of wonderment we all experience between ten and twenty when the best picture-viewing experiences of our lives are gathered and collated. I could review any number of worthwhile recent films (and I do watch a lot of them), but others are better equipped for that commission. The fact is I like ads and photos and lobby cards they generated during the classic era. Writing about premieres and ballyhoo is as close as I’ll get to reliving them, as I experienced so few classics when they were new. Sobering indeed has been my realization that most everything I speak of at Greenbriar was past before I was born. A shame I can’t get as excited over opening night of National Treasure --- Part Two, but I leave those joys to the present generation between ten and twenty, hoping they get as much fun out of what’s new as I did forty years ago over the likes of Goldfinger and The Dirty Dozen. For what it’s worth, realization of my own diminished capacity for adolescent awe came in 1977 when I went to see Star Wars first-run. We arrived twenty minutes in, and as I recall, there was a boy and two distinctly unappealing robots shuffling amidst a desert wasteland. One of them looked like a vacuum cleaner and made irritating noises. Over the next two hours, I came to know I’d lost touch with whatever it was people wanted in movies. This was the first new release I felt old watching, and that’s some kind of hammer to come down when you’re twenty-three (I’ve just this week captured Star Wars on DVR and intend to give it another chance). Such late seventies fare would accelerate my enthusiasm’s retreat toward the older stuff, and revelations would come, if at all, over encounters with classics I’d never seen. One of these was The Tall T. Some of us drove down to a vintage theatre in eastern NC some "B" western fans had taken over for a nostalgic Saturday of cowboys on the big screen. The place and the people seemed transported from 1957 when this show was new. Certainly the theatre was unchanged from that time. I came away thinking this was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen. That doesn’t happen often once you’ve reached a certain age, as I definitely had by 1992. Was it The Tall T, or this apparent trip backward I’d taken? Looking at the (so far) whole of Greenbriar, I realize there are many films that have had similar effect. I couldn’t be there when Psycho, Citizen Kane, The Searchers, and Sunset Boulevard opened, but with enough trade ads, stills, and ephemera, maybe it’s possible to travel at least part of the way back. Speaking of which, I’d invite readers, especially those who’ve joined Greenbriar Picture Shows more recently, to visit (or revisit) past postings. The search index is a good way to explore what’s been previously published on favorite people and titles. Going into this third year, and time, health, and interested readership permitting, Greenbriar looks forward to keeping its house lights burning.
PHOTO CAPTION: Up top, Joan Crawford takes a break from shooting Ice Follies Of 1939 to celebrate Greenbriar's second anniversary.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Teams On The Ups and Downs

Residual fame must be like that same kind of pain. The height of it is gone, and most times never comes back. I admit being haunted by the ghost of Karl Dane selling those hot dogs in front of Metro gates he’d once entered as a star, and welcomed this glimpse of twilight as a major name and his being treated accordingly. Three years prior to a self-inflicted gunshot that ended it all, Karl and partner George K. Arthur set off touring Fox Wisconsin territory theatres aboard the sister ship of Lucky Lindy’s Spirit Of St. Louis. Would that some of that luck have extended to Dane, for here would be his last walk down red carpets. Keys to the city were extended in Kenosha. The boys were mobbed at airports, and six motorcycled police escorted them to city hall. Their sketch was called Fall In, which pleased fans as this was a live on-stage reprise of comedy familiar from screen hit Rookies back in 1927. Shorts they had done recently satisfied less. Six for independent producer Larry Darmour concluded their work as a team, the most recent, Dizzy Dates, adjudged poor by Fox showmen now receiving Dane and Arthur as honored guests. There were radio appearances during noon hour broadcasts. You could wish for just one to survive, but from a local station in 1931? Not a chance. Bally efforts saw dummies carried down Main Streets on stretchers. He died laughing at Karl Dane and George K. Arthur, who are appearing in person at the Fox Theatre. Celebrity faded slower in the hinterlands. Middle America was always last to forget. You could energize faded lights in Wisconsin long after they burned out elsewhere. George K. Arthur played a single at the San Francisco Fox Theatre in April 1930 (as shown here with The Divorcee on screen), but I’m betting he got no police escort upon arrival. Stars dimmed and otherwise were more commonplace on both coasts. Returning to an indifferent California after Green Bay-Appleton-Oshkosh triumphs must have been like coming out of a dream for the two comedians.

There was tons o’ fun out west when Monogram lassoed saddle stalwarts Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson for a middle-aged go at frontier justice seeking in a series they’d call The Trail Blazers. Most trails lately blazed by these two had been to saloons and refrigerators. Ken sauced it through much of the thirties, and Hoot never met a Hershey Bar he didn’t like. And yet there was majesty in seeing them together and back in (mostly doubled) action. You respond to these embattled vets for what they’d once been as opposed to reduced circumstances their rotten luck, bad habits, and increased poverty had now placed them in. Eight hundred dollars per feature? I’ll (very grudgingly) take it, said Maynard, but don’t expect me to wear out treadmills prepping for westerns shot on budgets of $12-18,000 apiece. Today’s screen gladiators could take a lesson from Ken and Hoot. Just report for duty fat and sassy (or in Maynard’s case, plain belligerent) and let the audience take it or leave it. Ken took it for six of a proposed series of eight. He was buddies with Hoot, but Universal series washout Bob Baker as third wheel was strictly (Ken regarded) poison. He split after one shot at partnering the Blazers. They brought in Bob Steele , a boyish thirty-six and less dependent on stunt assist. Hoot was fifty-one and really needed this money, trifling as it was. He’d been off screens a long time, eating dust behind state fair caravans and belly upping with a so-called Hoot Gibson Trading Post recently opened and (more recently) closed. Gibson relaxed in front of and behind cameras. His cowboy was old-style and free of sequins and spangles favored by yodelers at Republic. An expanded girth helped conceal a pistol he wore under his belt. Hoot sits out the fisticuffs, leaving most of that to Ken, and later Bob. Trail Blazer westerns were outgrowths of a three’s better than one strategy that teamed up-and-comers with faded names and gave us The Three Mesquiteers (a short-term John Wayne address), The Range Busters, and The Rough Riders, among many to whom similar labels were affixed. TCM runs Trail Blazers thanks to Warner ownership, so prints are actually good, a rarity when you’re trolling series westerns. Five Trail Blazers played last month, and I watched and slept and watched them all. Give me more of Ken Maynard manhandling simple dialogue, and I’ll take his and Hoot’s attempts at comic banter over seasoned rivals anytime. These were sagebrush giants who had earned the right to goof off and take money for nothing as they pleased. Just having them show up was (and is) more than enough.

I always thought of Salt and Pepper as that place discarded Rat Packers went to (figuratively) die. Watching it this week revealed no buried treasure, but Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford show aptitude for spy spoofing I had too long neglected. For me, Salt and Pepper was zanier than Matt Helm and more fun than Flint. Transplants from Vegas Sam and Peter are Soho swingers whose club plays host to miscreants plotting takeover of the Prime Ministry. Dead bodies piling up in Sammy’s (crowded) suit closet result in Davis double takes worthy of Lou Costello, then minutes later he’s shooting (to death) a potential femme assassin in Peter’s bed (Salt and Pepper’s mood swings play like comic pages out of Bonnie and Clyde's book). Lawford in bad times, which began in earnest shortly after this and lasted an agonizing drug-riddled decade and a half before premature death on Christmas Eve 1984, claimed he was first to be offered James Bond. That’s probably bogus, as most players with British accents short of Terry-Thomas made similar boasts, but I’m thinking Lawford might actually have worked as 007. He’s properly suave, more than presentable in black tie, and possessing of voice and carriage in maturity consistent with most concepts of Bond. A shame he was kicked curbside by mercurial Frank, punished over random misunderstandings arising from a fateful weekend Jack Kennedy was to have spent at Sinatra’s Malibu pad (read Shawn Levy’s excellent Rat Pack Confidential for that story). Lawford had a (too) high voice when he sang (and spoke) at Metro in Good News and other musicals, but he gained authority in television and good feature parts like Never So Few and Dead Ringer. Cool and dapper were stocks in trade going to seed by Salt and Pepper time. He’s always walking through crowds waving to offscreen greeters, an interesting Lawford mannerism he used from Ocean’s 11 on. Teaming with Davis was product of their friendship, plus Sam was among few that stood by Lawford once he’d been banished from the Pack. Davis had his own ups and downs there as well, so what the hell, they’d start their own club (Salt and Pepper might better have been titled Rat Pack Remnants Loose In London). Salt (Sam) and Pepper (Lawford) fall down a lot and do variations on Bob and Bing’s patty-cake routine before killing heavies with machine guns. There must have been lots of empty hangers in Carnaby Street shops after Sam got through accessorizing, for here he’s aglow in a rainbow of leisure suits and Nehru jackets. His are real gone ensembles throughout and surely inspiration for what showed up later in Austin Powers' wardrobe. Most scenes begin and end with Sammy and Peter lighting each other’s cigarettes. Subduing henchmen with fists and artillery might play more nimbly with fitter leading men, as most engagements lapse into slapstick, both stars sustaining tumbles I’d have expected doubles to take. Japanese posters such as one shown here play up Davis and Lawford as straight-ahead crime-busting agents, reflecting the mosaic of sales strategies applied to Salt and Pepper worldwide. A woebegone sequel called One More Time is high on my must-see list, being directed by Jerry Lewis and featuring cameos by Peter Cushing (as Baron Frankenstein!) and Christopher Lee (as Dracula!). Reason for the latter might have been Sammy’s major fan devotion to Hammer Films. The soundtrack album for Salt and Pepper would seem a good listen, and it’s still available, though sensibly limited to vintage cassette and LP. Selections include I Like The Way You Dance and Chase In A Mini-Moke (Sammy's onscreen performance of the former is an especial highlight). The record illustrated once sold for forty-seven cents, which sadly may be about all this movie’s reputation will ever be worth.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Vitaphone Your Sanity Away!

My job was stressful, so I thought, but I’d have rather dug roads in prison stripes than be a Vitaphone projectionist. The only thing worse would have been managing the house where sound was being introduced. Both were the roughest assignments in town during the late twenties. Conditions were bad enough before. Boxoffice receipts dwindled as radio and gramophones widened entertainment options at home. Moviegoing was a seasonal affair in many towns, certainly the small ones. Patrons heard voices in their heads even as they watched increasingly old-fashioned silents. Music and speech was now available at home after all. If we could electrify our living rooms with sound, why couldn’t theatres do the same? Desire for something new, and excitement upon getting it, inspired viewer patience to see them through a most difficult transition the industry ever faced. Audiences sat still for presentations so wretched as to make today’s multiplex bunglings seem like models of efficiency, but end result, and everyone could envision potential there, made all of suffering worthwhile. The preceding silent slump was one distributors hoped to conceal, especially from exhibitors to whom they were peddling soon-to-be obsolete goods. So-called forced runs on Broadway created illusions of hits that seldom translated to the smaller marketplace. Harrison’s Reports noted an audience of four hundred on a Sunday afternoon at the Capitol where MGM’s silent Telling The World, starring William Haines, was otherwise playing to forty-six hundred empty seats, and yet shows drawing poorly as this remained weeks in New York palaces, just so trade ads and sales staff could trumpet them as first-run attractions.

The trick, and it was surely that, was to bamboozle contracts from smaller houses denied actual head counts and records of boxoffice receipts. Hits that were really flop
s included Drums Of Love, The Enemy, and even Sunrise. Each played metropolitan houses beyond the public’s interest, all touted as Broadway (and elsewhere) successes by distributors shuffling cards for potential buyers down the exhibition line. Truth is, New York first-runs had little to do with movies they were showing. These were incidental to big time vaudeville acts also on the bill. Motion pictures, even good ones, became afterthoughts. Who cared what was on the screen with Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, or John Philip Souza performing in person? Theatres were spending fifteen to thirty thousand dollars a week to load up stages, competition fierce among NYC palaces. Total weekly expenses for such powerhouses ran as high as one hundred thousand. Extravagant numbers representing boxoffice receipts were published, but who was verifying these? Movies of minor interest got the credit for
three ring circuses in which they had but small roles, salesmen using numbers generated by "A" list vaude talent to increase rentals from showmen dazzled by numbers rung up in Gotham. Disappointment inevitably followed and distrust fermented. Sound, and distributor grabs for ever more revenue, would make things worse.

Vitaphone began as a strictly cosmopolitan offering. Initial programs were customized for urban audiences. There was, from the beginning, a highbrow vs. lowbrow division between those who regarded Vitaphone as harbinger for cultural uplift and others who saw it as dispenser of broad-based entertainment with appeal well beyond Manhattan sophisticates. Warners wasted little time covering all bases. Don Juan lured the carriage trade with Vitaphone prologues featuring mostly classical and operatic performers. That opened in August 1926. By October, slap-shoe comic Sydney Chaplin headlined The Better Ole, not so much in itself, but accompanied by possibly the greatest all-star vaudeville bill ever gathered, according to Variety. A highlight was Al Jolson’s Plantation Act, wherein he sang and ad-libbed to his unseen audience as though standing before them. Whether anyone realized it at the time, this was the future of Vitaphone, for patrons responded strongest to spoken word as supplement to song. Casual speech electrified as surely as currents running through horns and amplifiers. Opinion makers tried spinning emphasis toward orchestral accompaniments. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall referred to these as Vitaphone Concerts, lofty occasions for a great unwashed to improve themselves. Vitaphone will give its patrons an excellent idea of a singer’s acting and an intelligent conception of the efforts of musicians and their instruments. There was much sneering among columnists over tin pan pianos (or worse, woman-handled pianos) and squeaky violins that would be replaced in small towns across the country as Vitaphone rescued provincial sinkholes denied good music for too long.

So far, sound was a revolution very much supported by the elites. To further gratify rarified tastes, Warners offered When A Man Loves for February 1927, th
e third Vitaphone program and one that would play nineteen weeks at Broadway’s Selwyn Theatre. Shorts preceding
the feature were back in longhair mode with the exception of vaudeville favorites Van and Schenck, whom the Times damned with faint praise. Although they are aptly registered, (Van and Schenck) jar on one after listening to the classical airs (in this case, tenor Charles Hackett along with selections from Rigoletto). When A Man Loves, like Don Juan, limited its Vitaphone accompaniment to orchestral scoring, with familiar to New Yorkers Henry Hadley as composer (he’d been conductor for the city’s Philharmonic earlier in the twenties). Sound effects included knocks at doors, bells ringing, and as with Don Juan, clashing of swords, but still no dialogue. Warners maintained Vitaphone as music only adjunct to play in first runs and palaces that were wired. Take away the limited sound and you'd still have fully intertitled silent versions for servicing of neighborhood and smaller situations. Establishment resistance to speech on screen remained an inhibiting factor. When motion picture action is interpreted not by words, but by music, an interesting art is created. True enough, and maybe we’d have been better off if electronic assist were limited to scores it could provide, but would there have been profit in that? Maybe not, for initial Vitaphone success was not to last. Receipts would begin dipping after the first three.

Vitaphone as a novelty, if not a modern miracle, saw Warner’s innovation through Don Juan (profits $473,000), The Better Ole ($305,000), and When A Man Loves ($150,000). Going to these was like attending opening night of a new play or symphony. Movies had seldom attained such prestige. Attractively designed souvenir books were available for a quarter. At twenty pages, with embossed cameos of John Barrymore and Dolores Costello on the cover, these keepsakes for When A Man Loves were sold in the Selwyn Theatre’s lobby. A copy I located bore a handwritten tribute from the nameless fan who bought it eighty years ago. I saw this at the Selwyn Theatre on Friday matinee, April 1,’27 with Helen Roone, Lil’s sister from Baltimore. One of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen. Splendidly acted. Dolores Costello is exquisite as Manon and John Barrymore is fascinating as ever, if not more so. TCM can offer us When A Man Loves with picture and sound beautifully restored, but they’ll not reclaim the romance and excitement of first-run discovery like this. Precious few experienced it even in 1927, for this feature with Vitaphone accompaniment would have enjoyed but limited playdates. Speedy development with regards sound rendered product even a few months old passe as metropolitan houses across the country began wiring. Still, Warners had a grand first season with Vitaphone. Don Juan, The Better Ole, and When A Man Loves accounted for thirty-six percent of all studio profits for 1926-27, and this was a year in which Warners also released twenty-six conventional silent features, most of which saw gains well below $100,000 (Rin Tin-Tin, considered a top draw, ended but $58,000 to the good for Jaws Of Steel). By autumn of 1927, newly installed Vitaphone theatres were crying for brand new attractions to put on their talking screens. Specifically, they wanted The Jazz Singer, which would be released in October. Most audiences received Don Juan, The Better Ole, and When A Man Loves as conventional silent programs. Those woman-handled pianos would not be silenced just yet. As city patrons became accustomed to Vitaphone through 1927, inertia set in. The fourth offering with sound, Old San Francisco (June 1927), saw profits fall to $78,000. It seemed customers were back to judging movies on merit rather than novelty. Chickens came home with the fifth Vitaphone, The First Auto, which actually lost $124,000. Number Six, The Jazz Singer, would arrive not a moment too soon.

The complicating factor with Vitaphone was a human one. You could sooner juggle six orange crates than get one of these shows to play through without breakdowns or complications (accent on plurals). Managers and projectionists lived in daily fear of losing their jobs. Each blamed the other for screw-ups neither could be entirely responsible for. You’d rehearse these shows all night before opening (many did) and still something (everything!) would go wrong. Sound equipment was Greek to booth veterans accustomed to projectors dating back to the teens, and synchronizing records with pictures on screen was hell itself. Unions got wise in a hurry and demanded two (at least) of their membership to handle projection. That sent house nuts through the roof, but was nothing beside what distributors were trying to rake off by way of increased sound film rentals. Minimal flat rates for silents was the norm that kept small houses solvent through much of the twenties, but this was a grim new day. Better to avoid sound altogether. Stay silent! Pick the best programs and don’t pay over $7.50 -- $10 -- $12.50 and $15.00 for from two to three days. Sage advise if you could live by it, but what to do when your customers are driving out of town to see talkers? Buy the installation --- five thousand and up for so-called dependable ones, then get ready for rentals climbing past fifty dollars per feature, plus twenty-five more for the platters. Those often came in scratched or otherwise defective. One manager drove Bulldog Drummond and accompanying discs over seventy-five miles to three other houses and couldn’t get it to play properly in any of them. A lot of owners gave up and closed. Our own Rose Theatre tried getting by with silents till late in 1929, then shuttered. Yet to come were distributors instituting percentage policies (previously applied only on super-specials). Cleveland exhibitors dug in their heels and refused to play that game. Their resolve melted in the face of a public’s demand for talkies.

Film companies really had showmen by the throat this time. Salesmen for Warners went around peddling silent prints of Vitaph
one features at inflated prices, citing big grosses these shows had earned in the flagships. What they didn’t address was why anyone would pay to see The Jazz Singer without sound. Things were a mess even in major venues. You needed mechanical genius and exquisitely attuned senses to checkmate gremlins hiding in this dread calliope. Motion Picture Herald acknowledged the crapshoot nature of projection with sound. Individual performances are of varying quality in reproduction and there is a wider range of quality between one show and the next. That was a tactful way of putting it, but then MPH was accepting ads from the film companies, so tact /understatement would remain first /foremost. Small comfort for lone eagles flying solo in booths above two and three thousand angry patrons. So Al Jolson jumps out of sync. Where does the operator go from there? All he can do is try to get it back right again and it is just luck if he can strike it right, said one exhausted operator. Cool heads would prevail or hit the bricks. No longer would you fire up the arcs, then sit and read a newspaper. DVD reviews of a newly released The Jazz Singer indicate there are minor sync issues yet, so I
suppose the Vitaphone curse, eight decades running, is indeed eternal.
Notes On Photos: That's a Vitaphone projection set-up above, with turntable. The posed group of four includes Jack Warner, Dolores Costello, John Barrymore, and director Alan Crosland on the set of When A Man Loves.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Snacks At Their Summit

Nowhere was selling so intense as concession stands in the fifties. Those (popcorn) kettles had been boiling since the war ended. Soft drinks hoarded for service personnel were now available to everyone, as was candy and other sweet confections. The end of sugar rationing opened gates wide for treat counter expansion and profit enough to make up some of the loss resulting from reduced attendance and higher film rentals. Never before were patrons so manipulated, for theatre admission was but a preamble to management's dedicated campaign to lighten customer purses. The sensory seduction began with popping corn in the lobby, its siren song irresistible to eyes, ears, and smell. One fix necessitated another, as salt-laden bags aroused customer demand for beverage. Small change was returned for dollars spent, thereby tempting further impulse purchase of snack goods. Candy became huge. Nestle would package chocolates especially for theatre sale, nickel bars good, dime ones  better. Dressing concession areas became as important as displays out front, and no longer was negotiation limited to food. When the Des Moines Theatre in that city went to selling The Greatest Show On Earth, it all but pulled viewers out of their seats to insure repeated visits to a lavishly appointed counter as shown here. A Betty Hutton trapeze cutout swung over the heads of attendants, and fairground-inspired displays filled the lobby. Clowns plus barkers worked streets approaching the theatre, circus bric-a-brac sold alongside candied treats. Your seat in the auditorium was no refuge from determined hawkers working aisles during intermission, and even seizing the stage itself. Ladies and gentlemen, while we are changing acts in the center ring, our ushers will pass among you with popcorn, peanuts, Crackerjack, hot dogs, and soft drinks. Further stating the obvious, and with the help of shrill whistles to command attention, barkers assured that These are for sale! They are real! They are delicious! Throughout a newsreel opening the show, hard selling continued with employees marching back to front holding merchandise aloft and tossing bags and boxes to customers. Crowds for The Greatest Show On Earth necessitated several satellite candy counters throughout the lobby and mezzanine areas, with the Coca-Cola Company loaning extra coolers with aprons and caps for roving salesmen. It may seem like too hard a sell today, but carnival atmosphere was then an expected part of the moviegoing experience. Showing movies was but pretext to the lure of food stands.

Air conditioning and plenty to eat were reasons enough to buy a ticket in those days. Double features meant you could settle in for hours enjoying cool comfort and take meals besides. Sandwiches might be offered in addition to sweets. We had them at the Liberty, plus a bulldog faced attendant named Frank who’d slam my M&M’s down with sufficient force to shatter the outer coatings. One thing we did not experience was a pitch for Will Rogers Hospital, the industry’s primary charity and one that functions to the present day. Again there were aggressive moves upon patrons to kick in. United Artists Theatres for one used to bring up house lights before ushers went among seated customers with collection cups. During the fifties, a fourth of operating venues maintained regular drives for the hospital, which was located in Saranac Lake, NY. Rogers displays such as one shown here were common, and placed prominently to engage patrons entering the theatre. Always a downside for increased concession variety was attendant mess and necessary cleanup. Most of this stuff wound up on floors, and floors had to be cleaned, but how to monitor spillage and droppage through a typical day, where janitorial service ran a losing competition with kids using refuse for improvised missiles? You’d think no sensible exhibitor would encourage chewing gum sale on his premises, yet here is trade evidence that some did for sake of variety to customers. Enhancement of audience appetite was supplied by shows appealing to youth. House Of Wax and others in 3-D were a natural for enhanced counter treatment, as here with the dimensional cutout looming over concession buyers. Restless youngsters sought out displays such as ones Disney provided for 1953’s Peter Pan, a marketplace for souvenirs well beyond mere candy bars and Pepsi. Note the availability of plastic place mat sets for four inspired by the character. There were also hats, phonograph records, comics, coloring books, the stuff of a well-named Peter Pan Bazaar, and  early occasion for Disney to bring his merchandising right through the front entrance of houses where his animated feature was playing. Part of reason all this worked was prices kept within reason through the fifties and into the sixties. So-called (elevated) "theatre" rates for concessions were kept at bay at least that long, and business thrived, but how much customer good will has been forfeited since? I could sooner make  down payment for a new car as pay for popcorn and a soft drink today. 

Thursday, December 13, 2007

(At Least) Two Big Sleeps

A guiding and protective hand was loosened when Howard Hawks sold to Warner Bros. his contractual interest in Lauren Bacall. Despite the debut sensation of To Have and Have Not, she would be as vulnerable as any newcomer, save for critical barb-spinners poised in anticipation of her follow-up vehicle. Confidential Agent (co-starring Bacall with Charles Boyer) might have sunk the whole enterprise had the public been so unforgiving as reviewers. The sultry stare has been almost as widely publicized as the glance of the Medusa represents panning Bacall and Confidential Agent got. This was the sort of dog that begged to be kicked. Mutual distrust and antipathy would characterize the Warners/Bacall relationship from this point forward. She wisely (if not cunningly) drafted a champion in Bogart, who would wade into studio battle on her behalf and spare Bacall the starlet’s eventual fate (was Dolores Moran her cautionary example?). What remained for Bogart and Howard Hawks was to rescue Bacall from the debacle of Confidential Agent and consolidate her stardom with The Big Sleep, a project to hopefully demonstrate she was no flash in the pan. The latter as final verdict would itself be narrowly avoided, for The Big Sleep was a deck of cards shuffled and reshuffled over almost two years between  shooting and eventual release. How and why this happened is understood better thanks to a surviving early cut that allows us to track The Big Sleep as the work in (slow) progress it was. Would we think less of classic era favorites given more rough drafts and false starts to evaluate? Maybe it was wiser studio policy that junked outtakes even if it meant the loss of Tarzan Escapes, forty minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons, and so many other now lost treasures. Proud companies didn’t like untreated merchandise getting to their public. The Pacific’s bottom might be our richest film archive but for pitiless salt water. The Big Sleep in dress rehearsal survives by virtue of prints shipped to military bases for off-duty entertainment. Soldiers felt like something special getting movies in advance of folks back home, and studios earned much good will putting combatants at the front of movie lines. Resulting letters home recommending previewed features made for buzz among family members and enhanced boxoffice when the shows played stateside, so rewards for studio generosity were ultimately measured by enhanced profits. 1944’s Hollywood Canteen endorses Warners’ policy of sneaking new films to servicemen when Robert Hutton brags to Bette Davis of having seen her Mr. Skeffington ahead of civilian patrons. The Big Sleep went out in like fashion after principal photography was completed in Spring 1945. It would be years before anyone noticed substantial differences between 16mm military prints and the version WB eventually released in August of 1946, as most of the former were gathered up and disposed of shortly after they played off in camps. One that survived came into noted collector David Bradley’s possession, but was seen by few. Robert Gitt and UCLA restoration crews got the 1945 Big Sleep back into circulation for archival showings and a DVD combo with 1946’s standard version. Differences are both subtle and substantial, depending on what you’re looking for.

Agent Charles K. Feldman isn’t someone historians talk about, so influence he wielded won't be  appreciated, but memos coming off The Big Sleep suggest he is due credit for broke things getting fixed and others being propped. In addition to well known reshooting he encouraged in January of 1946, Feldman seems to have arranged for even earlier retakes and additional scenes. He was Lauren Bacall’s representative, and didn’t want to see her ruined with ill-judged costuming and unflattering hairstyles. At some point, the initial scene with Bogart and Bacall went back before cameras, as the still shown here reveals a completely different outfit and coiffure from what ended up in either extant versions. There were issues as well over a veil Bacall wore during another scene (also here). As women never seem to opt for these anymore, I wonder how long ago they went out of style. Unflattering and off-putting at best, you’d have to wonder whose brainstorm it was to hang one on a nineteen-year-old actress, and whether Howard Hawks’ own middle-age betrayed him in using it. Bette Davis donned similar apparel in Now, Voyager and even kisses Paul Henried through the latticework, a scene always good for uneasy laughs out of modern viewers. Feldman wanted the veil dropped from The Big Sleep, but for at least the 1945 edition, Warners ignored him. Everyone agreed by the beginning of 1946 that The Big Sleep needed further work, and most of that would revolve around strengthening Bacall’s part. Feldman went so far as to warn that if this were not done, Warners’ investment in the actress might be a lost one. As with To Have and Have Not, there was another player nipping at Bacall’s heels, and like before, priorities had to be sorted out. Martha Vickers would be the sacrificial lamb, though in this case, Howard Hawks would not be so compliant when time came to gut her part. "The Big Sleep" has had an unfortunate history, said co-screenwriter William Faukner at the time. The girl who played the nymphy sister was so good she shattered Miss Bacall completely. So they cut the picture in such a way all her best scenes were left out except one. The result made nonsense and Howard Hawks threatened to sue to restrain Warners from releasing the picture. After long argument, I hear it; he went back in and did a lot of reshooting. Hawks had cast Martha Vickers after seeing her on a magazine cover, much as he had Bacall, only Vickers had done films prior to The Big Sleep, albeit small parts. With Bacall now off his personal contract payroll, Hawks was less willing to steamroll other players for her benefit, thus his objection to Warners’ plan for denuding Vickers’ role.

The Carmen Sternwood character was originally tagged for a spectacular third act finish according to Faukner; a hair-raising scene, as he called it. Instead of Eddie Mars exiting into a hail of henchman bullets (the climax we know), initial scripting had Vickers’ Carmen backing out the door with a pistol trained on Marlowe, only to be mowed down with machine guns when she’s spotted from outside. Whether such violence went before cameras is a question. Code restrictions would surely have prevented its inclusion in the final Big Sleep. Martha Vickers is good enough throughout to make us wonder how she might have fared if the part had been left intact. What became of her might have evoked memories of Dolores Moran among those who cared to notice. Few would. Martha Vickers was born in May 1925. She’d have been nineteen when The Big Sleep was shot between October 10, 1944 and January 12, 1945. Howard Hawks was supposed to have had a long-term affair with her, though anecdotes Regis Toomey told late in that actor’s life suggest she was woefully naïve about certain aspects of her "nymphy" character in The Big Sleep (according to Toomey, she claimed to be a virgin when kidded by cast and director). I wonder if Hawks didn’t get (or take) credit for conquests among actresses he never made. Persistently self-serving in every other career account, why not this? Indeed if Vickers accommodated him, no favors appear to have been reciprocated, and isn’t that, after all, why starlets bed down with powerful producer/directors? All she ever hit after The Big Sleep was a thick brick wall. Warners paired her with Jack Carson, Dane Clark, Zachary Scott, every pinch hitter and low scorer they had. Love and Learn was sufficiently lame as to be deplored even by its cut-and-paste director Frederick DeCordova. Vickers maintained public profile by marrying Mickey Rooney, which, like her Warners contract, wouldn’t last. She turned up in a second season Perry Mason I watched last week, somewhere down the cast list and bumped off short of the halfway sponsor break. Howard Hawks told Peter Bogdonovich of Vickers coming to him in tears over her skidded-out career after The Big Sleep, only to be chastised by the director for playing ingenues again after she’d been so good as a nymphomaniac. She died in 1971 at age forty-six.

That veil was finally off by 1946, but what of Bogie’s pajamas? No one mentioned it at the time. After all, men still wore them, including detectives (William Powell’s silken pair in The Thin Man) and private eyes. Sam Spade was pajama-clad upon receiving word of Miles Archer’s death. Modifications would come in the sixties. Sans top James Bond played host to a tarantula bedmate in Dr.No and would henceforth dispense with bottoms as well, this being a new era wherein heroes seldom if ever slept alone. The Code dictated single occupancy for Philip Marlowe come sacktime, but have passing years and changing fashion taken away some of Bogart’s cool for sleepwear he chose? Wartime necessitated The Big Sleep be shot indoors, thus a look and sound of alternate reality beyond even that we expect from old Hollywood. Street scenes are done on Warner stages. Car doors slam and echoes reverberate against studio walls. When Bogart runs his auto off a roadside, we’re startled to find ourselves in open spaces. On the topic of automobiles, were their interiors ever more celebrated than here? The Big Sleep embodies romance of forties driving. Vehicles compel even when sitting still. Bogart is staked out comfortably in his sedan and goes through a pack of Chesterfields waiting for something to happen inside a sound stage house, and this after rifling another parked car on the premises. Dashboard lights cast a noirish glow, ID tags hang from steering wheels, and ready gun compartments snap open at the touch. Spacious front seating might allow for picnics if one were inclined, every compliance there for love scenes played out minus impediment of safety belts we’re required (by law in many states) to wear. Bogart stalks hoodlum prey from behind leviathan-sized autos providing cover adequate as tanks he had utilized in Sahara. If Americans were gripped by the postwar driving obsession I’ve read about, surely we can credit The Big Sleep for starting us in that direction. There would (unfortunately) be no more Bogart/Hawks collaborations after this, hurt feelings over personal choices Bacall made a partial cause. The now married couple would not be comfortable working with this director again, and estrangement between them added up to entertainment loss for us all. Would Dark Passage and Key Largo have been better with Hawks in charge? Probably so. They would at least have had more humor, and judging by how both turned out, could have used it. I’ve read that Hawks never visited Bogart when the actor was sick, explaining that since he hadn't been invited before, there was no call to show up now that the end was near.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Calling All Popeye Clubbers

Some of us used to meet on once-a-month Saturdays with a collecting old-timer in Concord, NC who’d lately been privy to 16mm prints being dumped out of nearby TV stations. Prior to share of his bounty, we’d sit in a Shoney’s off I-85 where Bill would polish off a Slim Jim Special whilst regaling us with memories of a film going  youth. Many were references to The Popeye Club, of which he’d been a proud member fifty years prior. Anytown USA might have been the group’s address, for chapters sprung up everywhere once Popeye caught on in 1933. This was a craze born and reborn with succeeding generations. When the cartoon backlog went to television in 1956, what exploded in the thirties did so all over again, and we’ve since had Popeye released on DVD. Bill’s gone now, and so I suspect are most members of the original Popeye clubs. It began as a grass roots exhibiting phenomenon. Betty Boop introduced Popeye, but he quickly put her in the shade. Betty was more for adult consumption anyway, and enjoyed not his kid drawing power. Suddenly Paramount had their own Mickey Mouse, and as Disney’s rodent boasted matinee clubs in his name, why not Popeye? Mouse meetings were a model for weekly programs that would restore strength to Saturday ticket counters surely as spinach did for Paramount’s animated star. Co-ops were a natural for Popeye. The Colfax Theatre’s Guy Martin had a sure bet when he tied up with South Bend (Indiana) News Times for boosting between comic strips in the daily and cartoons on the Colfax’s screen. Gratis three column ten inch ads (one shown here) in the Times trumpeted club meetings, and special trailers following each Popeye cartoon at the Colfax led child patrons back to the paper’s strip. Each matinee was a down home extravaganza highlighting talent from neighborhoods and city blocks where kids with musical instruments and tap shoes were encouraged to parlay performance into cash/toy prizes.

Shows began with a call to order and the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, with organ accompaniment and a screen projected American flag. Popeye salutes and handshakes traveled along rows, front to back. Dad had Lions and Civitans, but this was Junior’s own fraternal order. I’m betting a lot of those youngsters made friends they would not have met but for attending Popeye Club. There were three theme songs, with lyrics geared to local people and events plugged into melodies of Hail, Hail (The Gang’s All Here) and East Side, West Side. The live portion continued with song and dance, recitation, magic acts, all performed by kids from the audience trying their luck. In an era of child stars and stage mad moppets, interest (and talent) came in abundance. There was even a Popeye Club Band, with twelve members, and according to Colfax management, growing by the week. Within a short time, we will be presenting one of the finest musical aggregations of its kind in the city. Special mid-week Popeye Club Follies brought performers to the attention of adult patrons, and were greeted as important local events. Almost an afterthought were screen offerings in the wake of such entertainment, but these too were stellar as might be expected. The ad here promises, in addition to Popeye, a Terrytoon, Betty Boop, Charley Chase, plus news and sport reels, followed by Metro’s Trouble For Two, a still enjoyable thriller with Robert Montgomery. Admission for all was a dime. Kids with birthdays that week got in free. Postcard updates went out regularly to the membership. Other theatres devised bally and ritual of their own. The Park Theatre in Roselle Park, New Jersey gave each child a pipe along with his/her member card (but did they comp tobacco as well?). There were jingle contests, harmonica eliminations, and bring your (preferably tethered) dog promotions. By way of gaining support from parents, local PTA and Police Departments were invited to supply weekly tips on safety and citizenship. We can say on one hand how reflective of simple times this was, but who or what is drawing youth to fill thousand seat theatres today? I’ve thought (and written) of how lucky I was to grow up with cartoons on fifties and sixties television, and yes, we can look at Popeye DVD’s and approximate our discovery of them, but even memories sweet as these would be hard pressed to compete with glories that Popeye Clubbers routinely enjoyed.
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