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Saturday, February 23, 2008

W.C. Fields From Stage To Screen

We may never know the identity of the funniest man who ever lived, since he would not necessarily have worked in show business, but narrowing down those who did would surely lead us to W.C. Fields, by all accounts the biggest laugh-getter of the last century and maybe for the next. All that’s a matter of opinion, of course, and I’d allow for those who can’t abide him, as Fields was never set upon capturing every heart in his audience. Balking at pathos and loathe to playing at lovable, he was recognized (still is) as one comic who saw life as it was. What we’ve inherited on DVD is but a suggestion of gaieties a live audience knew when Fields trod Broadway boards. Louise Brooks wrote of how his routines collapsed when translated from stage to screen. She was around during the twenties to see both. So was actress Jane Wyatt, who reminisced for biographer James Curtis. It’s just long enough ago for most of those auditoriums to have emptied into eternity. Soon there won’t be anyone left who saw Fields live. Unlike his movies, we have precious few stills to commemorate long runs he had with the Follies and other revues. To be a Broadway historian (which I’m not) is to know sublime frustration, as you’ll never see varied objects of your study. Fields’ stage hit Poppy survives by way of 1925’s Sally Of The Sawdust and the 1936 remake Poppy. Good as he is in both, I’ll concede that Fields doing it in person would be tenfold better, but maybe it’s best not to think too much about that, though some marked differences can’t be overlooked. First off, Sally is silent. If we’d never heard Fields speak, had his career ended before talkies arrived, this wouldn’t be such an issue. As it is, we miss his voice a lot. Filling the blanks with your imagination helps. We "hear’ Fields even in a silent film, surely a tribute unique to his persona (though I’ll confess to picking up faint, if identifiable sounds from pre-talking Ronald Colman and William Powell as well). Sally Of The Sawdust is virtually the only silent Fields readily available. Other survivors are in Paramount cold storage. That inexcusable state of affairs is likely to continue, barring a small DVD label (Criterion’s Eclipse?) subleasing them. Sally represents opportunity to examine the first permanent footprint Fields left (at feature length), and is as close as we’ll get to Broadway’s 1923-24 run of Poppy.

Sally Of The Sawdust is W.C. Fields building the foundation of a screen character upon ground giving way beneath director D.W. Griffith and co-star Carol Dempster. Urban critics who thought he’d slipped since early triumphs Birth Of A Nation, Intolerance, Hearts Of The World and Broken Blossoms knocked Griffith, quite forgetting that, after all, the man had to eat. Commercial shows since these were all over revenue charts. Historians for instance now rank One Exciting Night among DWG’s worst, yet there it stands among his biggest commercial successes ($836,000 in domestic rentals). Sally Of The Sawdust was another Griffith bid for ticket-buyers indifferent to art. It’s a lot more entertaining than what we’d expect from a director supposedly in decline. Fields and Griffith hit it off right away. The latter was no technician with sight comedy, but had wisdom enough to leave his star alone to improvise whatever bits might help. A lot of that wound up cut, unfortunately. There was a story to tell, and Griffith was bound to his tried-and-true ways of getting narrative across. That means melodramatic framing devices, country idylls for romantic pairs we care little about, and extended dance recitals for Carol Dempster, Griffith’s own love interest but anathema to co-workers and much of her audience. Every leading lady is someone’s cup of tea, however. I find Dempster appealing in a kooky kind of way. She mugs and flails about as if to parody much-lauded Griffith forebears Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh. Hoydenish is a term modern critics use, and they don’t mean it as any complement. For me, that’s the very thing that makes her work. When Dempster’s united with a grandmother who’s never seen her, she crawls into the woman’s embrace and all but laps her like a dog. Not exactly what I expect from a Griffith heroine, but I’ll take it over Gish’s eternal suffering. On-set observers watched Fields doing all sorts of routines that aren’t in any print we know today. There was a newspaper gag, one about flirtation and flypaper; all shot and later excised. Much of my work was eliminated because it diverted attention from the star, Fields would say. Dempster allegedly made DWG shoot more close-ups of her after rushes revealed WCF was off and running with the picture. Assistants damned the actress. She ruined him … She had nothing … that sort of thing. I wonder if some of that’s a bum rap. Fields and Dempster apparently got along. She called him Pops, and scenes they play together are some of the film’s best. Griffith didn’t mean to undermine Fields’ performance. It just didn’t jive with editing patterns the director adhered to. His juggling of multiple characters and stories was not unlike Fields keeping balls and cigar boxes aloft. Problem is once the comedian got such objects in the air, the last thing we needed was cutaways to drama happening four miles off. Still, they had much in common, and Griffith did give Fields his best start in movies. Both were students of nineteenth century literature and talked for years thereafter of getting together to do Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. These were men who’d gotten extensive self-education poring over great writers. The stage Poppy may have introduced the dominant Fields image, but Griffith gave it first screen expression. Watching Sally Of The Sawdust made me wish all the more for someone to find That Royle Girl, the follow-up teaming of Griffith, Dempster, and Fields now sadly lost. Ironic that both director and comedian would go to Paramount shortly after Sally ($722,000 in domestic rentals) to become factory artists bound to schedules and supervision. Most of what Fields did there is lost, and you wonder how things might have been had autonomy been his to make a series of silent features the Fields way. Thankfully, that’s pretty much what he (and we) would enjoy once talkies arrived.

W.C. Fields laid sick for nine months before he did Poppy in 1936. All sorts of projects were announced and later scotched. This was a proven property and ready to go if only Paramount’s star could get through the shooting. Two preceding it, Mississippi and The Man On The Flying Trapeze, were considered substandard (at the time, certainly not now). The public knew well of Fields’ illness. He’d be a figurative Lazarus rising on that first day he showed up to begin Poppy. In the last two years, Fields has become a sort of myth or legendary character, entitled, therefore, to make his entry in a hush, said The New York Times after visiting the set. Director Edward Sutherland (shown here with Fields facing the camera) described a struggle to get useful footage. I don’t think Willie was in twenty-five percent of the picture. Watching Poppy today gives the lie to that estimate, but when Sutherland sat for an oral history at Columbia University in February 1959, who was there to correct him? Film history in those days turned upon memories shaded by years gone by and temptation to juice up otherwise commonplace events. Poppy would have been difficult to revisit in any case. There was a limited Paramount reissue in 1949, then sale to television as of April 25, 1958, but most recollections of Poppy harked back twenty-three years by 1959, and whose among these were any more accurate than Sutherland’s? Fields is doubled primarily for stunts, climbing, and falls he’d have ceded in any event. The stand-in wearing Fields’ costume and a rubber mask (Johnny Sinclair) was visible to me in only two scenes. Maybe he did a lot more, but that’s likely footage cut before release (Poppy runs a mere 75 minutes). The star is slowed by his afflictions. Timing is off by centimeters. You’d not notice with most comedians, but this being Fields, you do. As if to cover, he’s referred to as old-timer early on. Juggling was proposed but nixed by the comedian. To have attempted that would reveal infirmities he’d otherwise work to conceal, but even Fields at half-strength is a Fields rich in comic invention, and highlights in Poppy are right up to former standards. Set pieces include a croquet match similar to the golf routine he’d done in several previous shows. From the original stage Poppy, there is the kadoola-kadoola (Fields playing a bizarre boxed instrument with strings), which allows him to remain seated throughout but calls on timing only he could master so brilliantly. Some have commented that Fields is offscreen too much of the time, but I never felt cheated. Crowded theatre reaction was expected to cover for musical scoring they omitted during Fieldsian recitals. That silence is all but deafening when you’re watching Poppy alone on DVD, but may be preferable to intrusive boinks, slide whistles, and other cues to laugh as supplied by Universal in their four Fields comedies of the late thirties and early forties.

Larcenous Fields reassured depression crowds. Here was their champion using bluff and cunning to ward off poverty, with Poppy a how-to manual for getting oneself out of hard times, never mind the means for doing so. This ideal timing allowed Fields to intersect with his public’s prevailing mood. Too bad such a peak found the comedian too physically compromised to seize full advantage. Poppy appears to have been a sizable hit. Though not having figures to back it up, I’d guess it was his biggest for Paramount. Both fans and studio could only have been frustrated by the relapse Fields suffered after completion of Poppy. He’d be down for months more even as Paramount promised another comedy for the 1937 season. A major problem was devising vehicles up to exacting standards Fields set. Being the creative mind behind all of his features, he wouldn’t go forward with production until satisfied with content. Fields resisted assembly line mentalities anxious to meet release schedules even when that yielded inferior product. The uniformly high standard of Fields’ output was the result of staying home until material was properly honed. He’d grow tired of opening every show selling snake-oil to suckers, though I suspect audiences then as now preferred him in that more assertive posture. Fields the family man carried about an air of defeat. You’re Telling Me even found him contemplating on-screen suicide at one hopeless juncture. A reason Poppy hit was confidence Fields generated, as if to assure depression dwellers that if he could overcome stuffed shirts and high-hats, so could they. The costume helped as well, an arresting visual enhancement (nearly identical to the outfit he’d worn in the 1923-24 stage Poppy, as shown at top) and probably the wardrobe we most associate with Fields to this day. Delays attendant upon health concerns ground down production wheels on Fields features to come. Judging by the condition he was in, it’s a wonder he ever completed Poppy. Those positive reviews were as much valediction for a trouper emerging from his sickbed to make us laugh for possibly the last time. Few could have imagined then that Fields would go on entertaining for another ten years.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Exhibition's Baby Jane Blast-Off

It was a sure enough dismal fourth quarter looming when members of The Theater Owners Of America met in July 1962. Distributors had long been hoarding better product for holidays and summer release, leaving crumbs (and crummy pictures) for showmen to get by on as best they increasingly couldn’t. The leanest in industry history was how TOA’s investigating committee characterized the bleak autumn to come. So how to induce the majors to release something good to alleviate the drought? The group made its presentation to Warner Bros., the company they felt was best equipped to supply them with a high quality feature justifying effort and expense this project would entail. Would Warners agree to move up the release date for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? from February 1963 to November 3, 1962 in return for guaranteed (extended) playdates and assurance of intensive promotion efforts by TOA members and cooperating showmen? The announcement came on August 20, via the blue ribbon panel of showmen and Warner execs shown here. Baby Jane would lead the charge of so-called Hollywood Preview Engagements, a plan calling for nationwide saturation, patron contests, and month-in-advance drumbeat to create anticipation and excitement. This was the bolt of lightning that would galvanize Robert Aldrich’s gothic shocker and place it on a fast track to a whopping $3.5 million in domestic rentals. Few modestly budgeted black-and-white independent projects had it so rich. The fact he delivered more than goods expected was that much icing. Jack Warner (shown at top in his office with Davis, Crawford, and Aldrich) likened sneak audience reaction to a match lit in a paint factory (watch Baby Jane on television and imagine how those shudders reverberated over a hundred rows of seats). Aldrich had started out with a good story, plus Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, neither of whom raised interest or dollars among prospective studio backers. Elliott Hyman, he of the legendary purchase of Warner's pre-48 library, put up cash and an edict that Baby Jane be shot in six weeks. Warners was brought aboard to release, but were not otherwise invested. Press at the time took Aldrich on his word that the shoot was completed for $825,000, though his career files indicate the negative cost ran to $1.025 million, still an amazing bargain for an "A" picture in 1962. The TOA bolt from the blue came in the midst of shooting. Now time would be of far greater essence. A release moved up from February to November required post-production be done at a dead run. Aldrich told it to The New York Times. We finished shooting on schedule on September 12. Exactly one month later, we held our first sneak preview at the State Theatre, in Long Beach, California. That we were able to get the picture in shape in this incredibly short time is due to a group of dedicated craftsmen who performed above and beyond the call of duty --- and almost beyond physical endurance --- who worked virtually around the clock to meet our schedule.

As Aldrich sweated completion of Baby Jane, exhibitors coast to coast were vying for $1,750 in prize money being awarded for the most creative campaign, to be judged by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, among others. The TOA’s locomotive had left the platform. Exhibitors aboard were expected to get their ducks in a row early. That meant special trailers promoting the Hollywood Preview Engagement (they weren't free, as evidenced by the order form here), plus an additional cross-plug trailer to be shown in rival theatres. And why would competing houses agree to push Baby Jane? Remind them that they may be playing the next Hollywood Preview Engagement and will be anxious for your cooperation (and indeed, there would be a follow-up HPE venture, The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father, in Spring of 1963). TOA and Warners also sponsored a contest for patrons. There were 1200 prizes, including round trips for two to Hollywood or New York via American Airlines Astrojet. Participants were to compose essays in fifty words or less as to which scenes in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? were most exciting, and why. Warners had 400 prints ready for the November dates. That may not have been a record, but it was close, as most features went out with less, even for saturation openings. The whole idea of HPE was to make audiences feel they were getting something ahead of everyone else. 116 bookings covered neighborhood theatres throughout the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, certainly the widest coverage any picture had received in that territory. Bette Davis rode a Greyhound bus for weekend openers as far as White Plains and wide as Astoria (per the ad shown here), stopping in seventeen houses for raucous on-stage appearances wherein she handed out Baby Jane dolls and yelled herself hoarse thumping on behalf of the picture. A visit to Jack Paar’s talk program found Davis regaling the host over Hollywood’s initial reluctance to back she and Crawford as co-stars. We wouldn’t give you a dime for those two old broads was self-deprecating humor to roll viewers in the aisles, but Crawford was less amused (her letter the following day asked that Davis not refer to her as an old broad). This may have actually been where enmity between the two had beginnings, for Davis was nothing if not outrageous during interviews and cared less about maintaining dignity Crawford cherished. The latter would surely not have submitted to a sketch on the Steve Allen Show called Whatever Happened To Baby Fink?, but Davis did, and was game besides to record a twist variation of Baby Jane’s theme song. Her performance of that was seen on Andy William’s variety hour, and it’s happily part of Warner’s recent special edition of the film on DVD.

Two years before Susan Sontag analyzed and immortalized the term, Baby Jane was camp on the verge of camp recognition, though in 1962, this picture was sold and consumed as straight gothic terror. The prospect of gorgons like Blanche and Jane living just off Hollywood Boulevard was no leap of faith for viewers who indeed wondered whatever happened to familiar faces from late night television. They’d fed on thirties movies since TV began, but never so many as had been broadcast in the six years prior to Baby Jane’s release. Bette Davis seemed to have divined those camp sensibilities Baby Jane would eventually appeal to. She embraced full out performing needed to put this one over, both onscreen and as uninhibited promoter for the film. It was OK by Davis to see her early emoting submitted to ridicule during opening flashback sequences detailing why Baby Jane never made it as an ingenue player. Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady were the Warner programmers excerpted, long before buffs discovered joyous potential in studio precode vaults. Davis spent years loudly declaring them wretched movies. TV runs by 1962 were sporadic and revival theatres took no interest in titles so obscure. Davis had scant opportunity to see such pics again and realize how much fun they were (especially in comparison with overwrought WB melodramas she’d make during the forties). Mid-seventies mining by William K. Everson and his New School showings began the slow rehabilitation for these and other worthy precodes (he ran, and extolled the virtues of, Parachute Jumper in March 1974). While Davis twisted on behalf of Baby Jane, Crawford burned. She’d mourn the romance and glamour her beloved industry had forfeited. Hollywood could thrive again if only they’d make stars the way they used to, and by extension, if ones like Davis would behave with decorum befitting their legendary status. Crawford made many adjustments to stay hep with the times for going on four decades. Now she was wagging fingers at newcomers (Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe) with a sort of don’t-do-as-I-once-did, do-as-I-say-now attitude. There’s an illuminating Crawford interview with British historian Philip Jenkinson wherein she longs for times as vanished as those Blanche and Jane Hudson clung to (and refers to herself as having been a teenager during silent days at MGM!). Davis picked up on ironies lost to insular Crawford. The former’s cheeky Variety want ad for acting jobs after the triumph of Baby Jane would never have occurred to uptight Crawford. Indeed, it may have been the latter’s awareness of that plus resentment of such antics that led to Crawford’s campaign against Davis’ bid for an Academy Award.

Both actresses had books out when Baby Jane hit theatres. Still, their public knew far less of their lives than we’d learn from biographies later on. Press inquiry revolved around ego clashes surely to come of co-starring these two. As early as July, and before shooting began, columnists said there’d be fireworks. Would Davis and Crawford act in accordance with characters they’d played in all their movies? If so, expect a donnybrook. Did Davis kick Crawford in the head and leave an injury requiring stitches? Hopefully yes. Did Crawford weigh herself down so Davis would wrench her back hauling the actress across floors? Surely she would, if for no reason than to avenge having her head kicked in. People who loved the violence of it ... thought it was inherent, but it wasn’t, said Aldrich. Tales of on-set combat were/are distorted, but they’re hard to resist in view of physical and emotional carnage in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? As star exposé and icon dismantling got grubbier in the seventies, Davis loosened restraints for writers telling her side of the Crawford story. Mother Goddamn was a 1974 bio with Davis commentary tempered by Joan still being alive, but later This N’ That in 1987 saw gloves coming off. Crawford’s alcoholism and unbridled vanity were on the table now, and Conversations With Bette Davis, published shortly (1990) after BD’s death in 1989, found her referring to JC’s past venereal diseases as possible reason for the actress' hygienic obsession.

The cracked doll head was my introduction to Baby Jane in 1962 newspaper ads. I didn’t even ask for permission to go see the picture. That image ran a close second to Devil Doll for me as the sixties’ most disquieting. Baby Jane was (still is) a decathlon among horror films. People bragged then for having got through it. I was packed off to bed the Sunday night of Jane’s broadcast premiere shortly after Blanche was served her rat dinner. That moment was treasured among members of my age group at the time. Ten years later, a sorority played it in our student commons lobby because, outside of Psycho, Baby Jane was considered about the scariest picture around. I never heard anyone laughing until well into the eighties. Camp following must harden sensibilities, for I watched the film again yesterday and was traumatized as ever. This is one epoch maker for cruel and nasty. My fast-forward spared me much of BD’s shrieking and JC’s agony, but did slow down whenever Victor Buono undulated onto the scene. Whether slurping cereal or heaping invective upon his suffocating mother, Buono is humor’s Godsend in a picture otherwise relentless in its assault upon nerves. Aldrich oddly lets composer Frank DeVol maintain jaunty airs to accompany Buono’s initial visit, despite suspense he otherwise seeks to create with Crawford’s desperate effort to summon the character’s attention and effect a rescue. Was that music Aldrich’s effort to lighten our viewing load? I’ve read the director couldn’t afford process screens and so had Davis driving down Hollywood streets as his camera rolled alongside. Economy thus afforded revealing scenes on bleached-out LA locations and shows us what a drab place it had already become by 1962. The Hudson house is a convincing fall from grace, probably not unlike places a lot of old stars live in yet. Blanche’s movie relics on television are shot through with obnoxious announcers and dog food commercials, a time-honored object of industry scorn since the early fifties, then more recently when Billy Wilder had Jack Lemmon trying to watch Grand Hotel on his Apartment TV. Baby Jane's over-length comes of bodies dragged s-l-o-w-l-y; Davis with a housekeeper she’s hammered to death and Crawford’s agonizing crawl down a flight of stairs. Maybe people mock Baby Jane to relieve intensity otherwise unbearable. I know I was glad to see it finally end.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Half Dozen Hitchcocks I Threw Back

My choice came down to how many high definition Hitchcocks I would toss over the side of my hard drive lifeboat. There were ten shown on HD Network and being there’s a limit on digital storage space, I had room to keep but four. Those ended up being Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. With a heavy heart, I deleted the subjects of this post. How soon would one go back to Torn Curtain and Topaz in any case? Would there come a day when I’d actually be able to finish Family Plot and The Trouble With Harry? Lesser Hithcocks have been pretty much identified and agreed upon. It’s settled as to which ones are the crowd pleasers. My own preference saw the aforementioned jettisoned along with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 remake) and Frenzy. I’m of the school maintaining that Hitchcocks should be clever thrillers first and art second. Serious analysis of his films might better have waited until after Hitchcock died. Would it have benefited the director to be less aware of how great he was? By the sixties, it was no longer enough being merely The Master Of Suspense. Movies became a distraction from receiving honors and fielding questions as to deeper meanings within his oeuvre. More harm than good can come of genius lauded, especially when the genius is trying yet to create entertainment for masses not disposed toward autuerism. Even as cineastes wrote glowingly of his art, Hitchcock was struggling with scripts that wouldn’t work (like Torn Curtain) and Universal executives determined to avoid another Marnie ($2.8 million in domestic rentals, the lowest of all AH pics the company released during the sixties and seventies). It seemed the richer Hitchcock became, the more insecure he felt. Stories of his caving to studio demands are disillusioning on the one hand, though in view of Hitchcock’s MCA stock ownership, you can’t altogether blame his watching out for money partly his own. Universal controls the bulk of Hitchcock now. They have since the early eighties when Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble With Harry, and Vertigo were leased from the director’s estate. Along with Psycho, earlier bought from Hitchcock himself, and those actually produced at Universal, that’s fourteen of the Master’s films in their stewardship, plus the television series. Never have these films been seen to such advantage as on high definition broadcast, an occasion good as any on which to revisit some of them.

Two he signed do not seem at all like Hitchcock films. Even those weakest are filled with moments peculiar to his genius, but The Trouble With Harry and Family Plot are for me imposters, so much so as to make them plain intolerable getting through. To enjoy The Trouble With Harry, one must answer this question in the affirmative: Do you find the idea of a dead body being juggled about in bucolic settings by quirky characters for ninety-nine minutes amusing? I didn’t, still don’t, and the Lord knows, I’ve tried. I wish Hitchcock had never stumbled across the fey little book Harry was based on. Paramount must have wilted when he brought this stray dog home. People defend it by talking about how pretty the leaves are, but wouldn’t another one with Grace Kelly have been more so? There’s something discomfiting about corpses left out in the sun so long, even amidst such beautiful landscape. You’re in trouble when the Vistavision fanfare is your favorite part of the picture. A lot of the foliage was brought back to Hollywood, and there’s much talk and lingering in those close studio confines. Maybe when I’m Edmund Gwenn’s age, I will have learned to like The Trouble With Harry. For now, there’s reassurance in knowing others were in accord when it came a cropper with only one million in 1955 domestic rentals (and so soon after To Catch A Thief did four times that). Family Plot is, if anything, ten times the ordeal. The idea was to present two differing stories for a first half, then have them merge for the second. Neither is engaging, and both are weighed down with the most unappealing players Hitchcock ever used. Was Universal’s casting influence at work here? These people seem better suited to episodes of The Bold Ones than a theatrical feature, let alone one directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Again you wish such a story had never crossed his desk. Family Plot is proof certain that even this great director couldn’t make a silk purse from a decided sow’s ear. With material like this coming recommended out of Universal’s story department, you have to wonder what sort of personnel they were using. A look at much of this studio's output during the sixties and seventies might explain. Were good properties just too expensive? I’ve read Hitchcock habitually underpaid writers and withheld his name from negotiations so he could purchase stories and novels at fire-sale prices. For results he had with The Trouble With Harry and Family Plot, the old axiom of getting what you pay for may well apply.

For me, Frenzy was the great black comedy The Trouble With Harry wanted to be. Every line’s a laugh; by far it’s the funniest strangling sex psychopath picture ever made. Credit goes as much to writer Anthony Shaffer for its success. You wish he’d started earlier with Hitchcock and stayed longer. The picture is not unlike other British thrillers arriving around the same time. A vaguely comic New Scotland Yard pursued The Abominable Dr. Phibes a year previous (could the light tone of that investigation have been at least partial inspiration for Frenzy?). The idea of quaint yet dogged (if amusing) Yard men was familiar to British films. Even John Ford mined considerable humor tracking Gideon’s Day. Hitchcock’s Frenzied London was said to have harked back more to the one he’d left thirty years earlier, and thanks be to that, for it’s the UK of cobblestones and fruit stands I like best, having never seen the actual place and imagining since boyhood that Sherlock Holmes and Jack The Ripper still trod its narrow by-ways. Hitchcock shunned the grimy and ephemeral mod, mod, London that Michael Reeves explored in The Sorcerors, and indeed, I wonder if he even realized how radically things had changed on the other side. Food is the stuff of tension and mirth throughout Frenzy. The potato truck retrieval of an incriminating stickpin is justly famous for working on both those levels. You can almost smell incoming produce in Hitchcock’s Covent Garden, and marvel at the variety of hiding places he locates there. Frenzy is the neatest and most straight-ahead job of construction the director had since Psycho, and must have surprised Hitchcock loyalists exhausted by the strain of defending Topaz, Torn Curtain, and Marnie. This was also the master’s first go at an "R" rating and freedom he yearned for. Like an eager boy handed car keys, he overheats what results in the only truly repellent scene of all his output (the initial tie murder). Donald Spoto described Hitchcock disturbances along those lines, and to think the poor man was hauling psychic freight like this at seventy-two. The pictures wouldn’t have been as good had he been normal, but reading troubled biographies, you wish Hitchcock could have enjoyed a higher comfort level, if for no other reason than as reward for all the marvelous pictures he gave us (there’s an incredible twenty-eight that I consider excellent to great, and your count may well be higher). AH is by far the movie’s best argument that profoundest torment makes for the most enduring entertainment, but hasn’t that been true of art since time began?

My family was at the beach when Torn Curtain opened. We went because Alfred Hitchcock was directing Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. There wasn’t a hotter package in town during the summer of 1966. I was twelve and figured it would be good because AH did scary thrillers like Rear Window and sometimes outright horrors like The Birds and Psycho. Turns out this one was about defectors, a topic about which I knew nothing and cared less. The stars were introduced in bed together, presumably naked. I figured we’d have to leave right then, but cruel fate dictated our sticking out the entire 128 minutes. Hitchcock said Newman and Andrews were foisted on him. That again. I’ve begun to think Lew Wasserman was as much the auteur as AH himself, at least when they were together at Universal. The director wanted to do anti-James Bond spy movies, at a time when audiences (including me) wanted nothing but James Bond spy movies. Secret documents, microfilm, and such had always been secondary concerns in Hitchcock thrillers, reduced to "McGuffins" he often dismissed in interviews. Torn Curtain and later Topaz violates the Master’s own rule by attaching too much importance to the espionage. Topaz adheres to plot labyrinths ported over from a best-seller everyone’s forgotten now, and who wanted, then or now, to see ads for a Hitchcock film giving so much emphasis to the book it was based on (as shown here)? I wish he’d stayed away from Cold War subjects altogether, mainly because they’re just too … cold. Hitchcock’s talent was better suited to passionate expression among characters we could better identify with. Globetrotting intrigue worked with him only if the war was getting hot, as with Foreign Correspondent, or barely cooling off, per Notorious. Politics plays lightly upon events in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but for that 1956 remake, Hitchcock wisely kept emphasis upon the kidnap and its effect on James Stewart and Doris Day. The director as master technician was at his peak here. International complications are explored only insofar as they move the personal story along. The humor audiences liked was harder to place once the child is nabbed, as we’re expecting Stewart to shift into obsessive Anthony Mann-hunting mode, and a weakness remains his somewhat tentative pursuit of the kidnappers. Doris Day’s use of Que Sera Sera to flush out her abducted son begs credulity as well, being more than a little anti-climactic after the set piece at Albert Hall. Still, The Man Who Knew Too Much is Hitchcock at his most assured, and if not worthy of top-tier position, certainly earns a place among runners-up. Nothing we care about is at stake in Torn Curtain or Topaz, despite the fact they’re both handsome productions with many moments of Hitchcock magic. Process screens and phony locations are forgivable because this is Universal after all, and having spent lives watching economy minded product from them both in theatres and on television, we’ve long since learned to adapt. Paul Newman said that all during the shooting (of Torn Curtain) we all wished we didn’t have to make it. Julie Andrews got off to an equally demoralizing start when Hithcock told her on the first day that shooting pictures was for him just a bore (preparation being the part he enjoyed). You feel that loss of energy watching it. The saddest chapter played out when the director fired his longtime composer Bernard Herrmann after demanding a pop score, which reason should have told him he’d never get from an iconoclast like Herrmann. Portions of what BH delivered have been grafted onto scenes from Torn Curtain (available as a DVD extra). It’s some of the heaviest and most doom laden music the man ever wrote, the score as defiant gesture hurled at corporate heads and a director cow-towing to them. I’m sure the message wasn’t lost on Hitchcock when he showed up for the disastrous listen that ended with a shouting match and Herrmann’s dismissal. This had to have been the moment where Hitchcock really felt he’d sold out. In case he was too obtuse to get it, I’ve no doubt Herrmann spelled it out for him.

For purposes of selling, Hitchcock wheat was long ago separated from chaff. Most reissues tracked closely with how the shows performed when they were new. Those that Universal leased from the director’s estate were distributed to theatres in 1983. All had been out of circulation for at least ten years (not twenty as this Rear Window one-sheet alleges). A special trailer for the group was narrated by James Stewart, but what misguided editor chose to reveal the ending of Rear Window therein? To release the entire set within a four-week period between 9-30-83 and 10-28-83 may not have been the wisest marketing, for like Fox’s more recent Star Wars revival series, these came in like lions and went out like lambs. Rear Window opened first (9-30-83) at $4.0 million in domestic rentals, pleasing crowds best of the five as expected. Vertigo followed on 10-7-83 and tumbled to $2.4 million. 10-14-83 was Rope and $650,645 domestic, then The Trouble With Harry (10-21-83) finished slightly up with $727,990. Finally, there was The Man Who Knew Too Much (10-28-83) which did $1.0 million in domestic rentals. 1983 being prior to serious restoration efforts on behalf of library product, all these looked pretty dreadful on theatre screens, and diminishing returns as the series progressed wouldn’t have disposed Universal to spend much cleaning them up in any event. That would come years later when Rear Window and Vertigo got deluxe polishes via Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz. Both were back in theatres upon that occasion, but years of television and video exposure made tickets harder to sell. Vertigo (10-6-96) in 70mm engagements still did $1.9 million in domestic rentals, while a 1-21-2000 reissue of Rear Window scored a respectable $1.5 million. To realize significant theatrical revenue from any library product nowadays is an achievement. Home theatres have progressed to a point where fans with space and resources can duplicate if not surpass most any revival house experience. The missing element remains the appreciative crowd surrounding as we watch, a major consideration for those looking to experience Hitchcock as original audiences did. Will even high-definition compensate for that loss?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Abbott and Costello Wind It Up

I recall crying at the end of Dance With Me, Henry when I was ten. Hadn’t seen it again until yesterday, and was mystified as to what could have moved me to tears in 1964. Was Lou Costello’s proposed new direction the right one after all? Slapstick is outdated, he said when Henry was produced at a modest budget of $450,000 in 1956. This was a serious part. Lou looked to character playing for his future, with or without Bud Abbott. His performance in Dance With Me, Henry indicates Costello had little further need for a teammate. No one’s idea of a good comedy, Henry does point the way toward a revitalized career Lou might have enjoyed had not premature death in 1959 intervened. Pied Piper Costello leads dancing children in that final scene I spoke of. Would he have done the same for Disney in live action sixties comedies? Possibly by then he’d have tamped down the Sad Lou he projects to occasional excess in Dance With Me, Henry. Watch this final pairing with Abbott (if one could even call it that) and you know the split is imminent. There’s not much interaction between them, and no verbal sparring to evoke memory of happier days. With physical comedy largely withheld in the bargain, Dance With Me, Henry gets by (or doesn’t) on gagging of a sort too genteel for once rambunctious Bud and Lou. It took writers pretty jaded to salt an otherwise kid friendly story with two murders, and why put Costello on the receiving end of so much abuse from played straight gangsters? There’s discomfort felt here similar to when Harpo Marx was beaten by thugs in the unhappy Love Happy . Stress and peril blend well into comedy, but recipes overdone leave a distinctly sour aftertaste. In Dance With Me, Henry, Lou is adoptive father to orphan kids for no reason other than making him more sympathetic and less the punch bag and fall downer of Universal yore. Teenage foundling Gigi Perreau assumes soprano duties once the domain of Gloria Jean, but since when did girl singers belong in A&C’s universe, other than The Andrews Sisters? Jumpin’ Jive walked hand in hand with Bud and Lou in better times. Now Costello’s berating a rock n’ roll hep cat for music little different from that which backgrounded the team’s antics a decade before, all of which leaves him hidebound and out of touch with the very audience Dance With Me, Henry seeks to entice.

The title made little sense then. Less now. There’s no Henry in the film, but there was an R&B platter of that name covered in 1955 by songstress Georgia Gibbs which went to Number One. As Dance With Me, Henry wasn’t released until December of 1956, any commercial assist via the tune was negligible, and perhaps knowing that, the feature barely plugs it. The photo shown here is from a dream sequence in which Costello leads an orchestra featuring Gigi Perreau, the title number recurring as humorous counterpoint to her vocals, but none of this made it into the finished print. Much of Dance With Me, Henry takes place at a Kiddyland park specially built for the film, nostalgic for those who remember such places thriving during the fifties and sixties at many drive-ins where this movie would have played. There were in fact numerous bookings for Dance With Me, Henry, 18,076 in fact, equal to most "A" releases United Artists handled and surpassing a number of them (to compare, Sweet Smell Of Success had 9,322 bookings and The King and Four Queens 17,671). Domestic rentals for Dance With Me, Henry totaled $573,080 and foreign was $360,000. Contrary to its reputation as a wickets loser, chances are Abbott and Costello’s final feature went into profit. By 1961, it was playing television. Lou would be surprised while filming Henry’s trailer by the studio arrival of Ralph Edwards, there to escort both comedians to a broadcast of This Is Your Life in November 1956. Instead of celebrating the team, as had been the case two years earlier with Laurel and Hardy, it would be Costello alone in the spotlight, his life drama and many charitable acts being ideal fodder for Edward’s lachrymose intrusion. Unknown to all of us … you were hiding an aching heart, he oozes. We’re going to hear about that tonight. Lou looks apprehensive and beyond what by then must have been a fairly sustained level of annoyance with Bud. The split that would come weeks later in Las Vegas has its unspoken genesis here. From the near pleading inflections of his speech to Lou, you sense Abbott’s apprehension as well. We let a molehill become a mountain, he begins as Costello looks down with little expression. Lou, I thank God we came to our senses. But had they? At this point, Costello expresses joking relief that neither you nor I could sing, a reference to the team of Martin and Lewis, whose up-to-the-minute comedies were mopping the floor with A&C. He’s clearly uncomfortable with his partner’s emotional recounting of conflicts past, but Abbott presses on. Today our friendship seems all the more precious to me because we almost lost it forever, through foolish pride. For what this reveals of Abbott and Costello on the virtual eve of their break-up, it may be the most effective scene they ever played together.

Lou used other partners to recreate some of Abbott and Costello’s burlesque routines on The Steve Allen Show after the team broke up. He did a General Electric Theater and an episode of Wagon Train in a bid for recognition of serious thesping talent he’d previewed in Dance With Me, Henry, but death at age 52 insured his legacy would remain firmly affixed to team efforts he'd made with Abbott. Their comedies played heavily in theatrical reissue during the fifties and more so on television in the sixties. Universal copied the Robert Youngson model and compiled The World Of Abbott and Costello for April 1965 release. Haphazard clips from the best and worst of their features were sweetened (or soured, judging by most viewers’ response) with smart-alecky narration by Jack E. Leonard. Business was tepid with a mere $189,000 collected in domestic rentals. This was a particularly egregious figure when compared with MGM's take from concurrent Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing Twenties, a far better merchandised package that ended with domestic rentals of $1.2 million. Were Abbott and Costello’s routines too familiar from TV, or had Universal simply bungled its campaign? The old features were all over various packages for syndication. Until July 1971, stations couldn’t purchase the A&C’s as a set. That year's offering of twenty-nine titles included The World Of Abbott and Costello and would provide opportunity for fans of the team to finally see all the ones they’d missed over the past ten or so years of broadcast. A latter-day champion for the comedians was hotter than hot Jerry Seinfeld, whose willingness to host a 1994 special on A&C insured prime-time placement on NBC, giving Bud and Lou their biggest single audience (twenty million plus) since the old Colgate Comedy Hour days. This was actually a worthwhile and sincerely felt tribute. Seinfeld was in a position to do right by the boys and get the word out to an enormous viewership ready to trust him as to what was funny. Would that other major (contemporary) names come forward on behalf of vintage performers. Universal included the special in Volume Four of its Abbott and Costello Franchise Collection. Most of the team’s features are available on DVD; Rio Rita, A&C Meet Captain Kidd, and It Ain’t Hay being the only three I can think of among the missing.
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