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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Greenbriar Weekend Marquee

My last gray market DVD shopping basket included a Tom Mix talking western he’d done near the end for Universal. Hidden Gold was the one where Tom got hurt bad enough to force him into retirement. He came back three years later to star as The Miracle Rider, but for all intents and purposes, the party was over when mount Tony stepped into that gopher hole and Mix sustained life threatening internal injuries. He was past fifty --- a real life rebuilt (several times over) bionic cowboy. The deal called for six more westerns after the 1932-33 season of an initial half dozen, but Tom was done in and wrung out. Only nine in all got finished. Experts call Hidden Gold a weaker one of these. If that’s true, I’m in for treats galore tracking down the remaining eight. Universal spent money once they signed Tom. This was no cut-rate cowpoke, but an authentic superstar of the silent era with millions of fans anxious to hear him talk. The latter was Tom’s rub, for his voice was raw as parched sandpaper, but every bit what imagination would project upon a real wild westerner. You believed everything he struggled to say. Mix budgets were set at $84,000 each, but costs averaged nearer $107,000. These were depression dollars, so more of them ended up on the screen. Hidden Gold never looks cheap. Cliché and convention you expect in "B" westerns aren’t in evidence here. It’s among those I like where horses and cars run parallel. Thirties rural settings in much of the country allowed for occasional gunfights and bulldogging on Main Streets. Double breasted suits and full dress cowboy regalia (plus holster) are not in the least incompatible. Hidden Gold opens with crooks robbing a bank, then getting away in a roadster. Tom segues from ranch foreman to pro boxer, then goes undercover in a state pen not unlike The Big House at MGM. He and bank robber convicts bust out, after killing a guard (for which Mix would presumably bear some responsibility --- but this being precode, he never answers for complicity in that crime). Hidden Gold’s fifty-five minutes go like lightning. There’s a whopper of a forest fire for the wind-up. They evidently set the woods ablaze and sent in Tom to manage as best he could. I’ve seen few stars of his calibre near such licking flames (John Wayne came closest when he braved cataclysms in Circus World). All this took sixteen days to shoot (on a scheduled twelve). Those nine Mix Universals disappeared soon after initial playdates. Revivals were rare following his death in 1940. There weren’t enough of them to make up a dedicated TV package, so Tom wound up lumped into a syndicated group of 97 budget westerns Universal sublet to Flamingo Telefilm in the early fifties. Home video and satellite TV hasn’t heard a peep out of them since. Universal got burned when they tried out a group of four Buck Jones westerns for VHS release, so what’s the chance they’d take a flyer on Mix? The bootleg DVD I watched of Hidden Gold had spliced up replaced titles, a too dark picture, and muddy resolution. It was no doubt chained off an old Flamingo print. You could easily lay all nine Mixes across three DVD’s and have a thumping set, but it would take a small, sub-leasing label to roll those dice. Wonder what fee Universal would put on these fine westerns they’re otherwise ignoring …

Assuming paradise in the afterlife is everything it’s cracked up to be, one of my first stops will be that screening room where all of Orson Welles’ films play as intended by him (preferably with OW in attendance for afterward Q&A). It’ll be quite the marathon, as virtually everything he did after Citizen Kane got mutilated or was left unfinished. The Stranger gets the go-by from Welles scholars (and was dismissed by him) because it’s as close to the mainstream as he’d ever direct, but evidence suggests the original, at 115 minutes and later cut by twenty of these, went in far more adventurous directions. Two whole reels were lobbed off the beginning to start with. OW did all sorts of tour-de-forcing that flew in the face of conventional storytelling. The Stranger as Welles envisioned it sounds like Touch Of Evil ten years ahead of schedule (and even what's left has a four minute take to rival his later opening for T.O.E.). John Huston helped write it, but couldn’t take credit as he was still in uniform. The concept is a humdinger and battered as it is, The Stranger may be the most accessible of Welles’ features. Producers William Goetz and Sam Spiegel did an ax job after OW finished, but left studio prescribed three acts simple enough to follow and bravura performances always fun to revisit. It’s a good primer to run ahead of more challenging Welles puzzles. I’d venture the uninitiated would find him more compelling as flamboyant ogre here than as problematic leading man Kane, as audiences have never been able to warm up to OW in that capacity. Might The Lady From Shanghai have grossed, as Carl Denham once said, twice as much had director Welles cast Glenn Ford opposite Rita Hayworth instead of himself? Welles is barely believable as Loretta Young’s love interest in The Stranger. He’d shed twenty pounds before going into clinches, but otherwise plays his Nazi war criminal so broadly as to make any reasonable person suspicious, let alone plenty-old-enough-to-know-better wife Loretta. Welles was hung up on lingering threats of fascist resurgence after the war. His was among first (mid-1945) features to tackle the subject; and how many star/directors, then or now, were moonlighting as nationally syndicated political opinion columnists? The (original) Stranger was a meditation on what might happen should Nazis get loose in America. Once shorn of opening reels and nuance elsewhere, audiences ended up with the safer known quantity of Gaslight revisited. Democracy in jeopardy may have been Welles’ concern, but Goetz/Spiegel knew it was Loretta Young in jeopardy folks were coming to see (note emphasis on her in this newspaper ad, and a barely visible Welles). 1946 boxoffice realities proved them right. The Stranger took $2.9 million in worldwide rentals, surely the best earnings a Welles directed film ever had, but way short of what Alfred Hitchcock realized with a similar property released within months, Notorious, with its worldwide $7.1 million. The Stranger has always been the easiest Welles to see, if not own, having fallen into the public domain decades ago and dredged up but recently in a DVD from negative possessor MGM/UA. Those surviving elements still need work, but how likely are they to spend dollars on something already piled high in super market dollar bins? People talk about the desecration of The Magnificent Ambersons, but The Stranger took nearly as many knocks and is as far afield as any movie Welles proposed to sign. An ugly replaced end title is a spit in the eye retained even in MGM/UA’s authorized version. Being an independent production released through RKO, but not retained by them after general release, could there be a chance, however slight, of The Stranger outtakes surviving in some obscure warehouse, attic, or garage?

MGM musicals in their heyday were like corporate earnings. They had to keep moving onward and upward. Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling in a rightly celebrated number from Royal Wedding, so how to top it in his next show? It seemed Fred’s art was being measured alongside longest sword duels and biggest pie fights. Invitations to his dance came now with a promise to deliver the impossible. For The Belle Of New York, he’d levitate and waltz upon air itself. Special effects and dance were at best an uncertain alliance. With The Belle Of New York, it had become a gimmick. Ad art stressed Fred in apparent flight to disguise a package otherwise grounded. Out of eight songs written for the film, only one stirs recollection now. Astaire’s I Wanna Be A Dancin’ Man still ranks among his best. For sheer dancing volume, The Belle Of New York exceeds most of the star’s vehicles. Running time may be the shortest of any Metro musical --- 82 minutes. Structured by season like Meet Me In St. Louis, Belle surrounds snow scenes with picture frames like Currier and Ives prints brought to life. That sequence is ambitious enough, but without a Vincente Minnelli to oversee it (Charles Walters directed Belle), everything becomes sterile tableau. Astaire and Vera-Ellen’s engaging dance provide the only spark of inspiration. There was a soundtrack released in 1952. MGM had been putting out albums for selected musicals since 1946 and Till The Clouds Roll By, initially on 78 RPM. I’m wondering, though, how many of Belle’s tunes played outside the film and accompanying platter. Were any of them covered by other recording artists? I Google searched The Bachelor Dinner Song. It seems not to have had much life beyond The Belle Of New York. Songwriting team Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer provided that and other melodies heard in the film. These don’t appear to have survived much better than the uninspired "book" section of the movie. Weak stories can be forgiven in a musical with song and dance good enough to compensate. Belle stops coldest when Keenan Wynn and Marjorie Main insistently foreground the story, an albatross on paper exacerbated by two of the least appealing players on MGM’s supporting payroll. Fred Astaire remained defensive on the subject of The Belle Of New York. He liked it despite what others said. Both Belle and Singin’ In The Rain began shooting the same day --- June 18, 1952. Their negative costs were nearly identical --- $2.5 million give or take a few thousand. Singin’ used old songs, emerged a major hit ($1.6 million profit), and took its place as perhaps the greatest of all studio musicals. The Belle Of New York offered all new songs, tanked, then was forgotten. Domestic rentals ($1.3 million) fell way short of negative cost and final losses were $1.5 million. The film was not reissued with other MGM musicals as part of that company’s Perpetual Product Plan in the sixties. Of ones Arthur Freed produced, it would fade quickest from collective memories. Pecking order among them can be measured by place and prominence in various That’s Entertainment(s) since 1974. I found The Belle Of New York excerpted briefly in Part Two and again in the last one they did (1994’s TEIII). Those many MGM soundtracks restored by Rhino for CD release did not include The Belle Of New York. The only disc I came across was an import from Spain, where it shared space with music from The Bandwagon.


Blogger JAMES said...

True, Belle was not one of the better musicals. The dancing-on-air numbers looked awful and the "Oops" trolley track ended at a curb and dancing on the horse's back was stupid and Marjorie Main seemed not to know her lines. However, I loved Alice Pearce, especially in the "Naughty But Nice" number. The "Baby Doll" dance with Astaire and Vera-Ellen was supurb, as was most of the Courier & Ives number dancing. It needed a script and it needed to drop the "air" numbers. I still watch it from time to time and play the album from time to time. I imagine that one of these days MGM (WB) will give us a DVD box set with some of those lesser MGM musicals that were fun if not great. I LOVE MELVIN, TWO WEEKS WITH LOVE, RICH YOUNG AND PRETTY, NANCY GOES TO RIO, LOVELY TO LOOK AT, THIS TIME FOR KEEPS, THREE DARING DAUGHTERS, SKIRTS AHOY, etc.

1:25 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

While I was watching "The Stranger" years back, I forgot it was an Orson Welles movie. To me, it looked exactly like a Hitchcock production. Definitely as accessible as Welles ever got.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

"Tom Mix Wash", the scene of his fatal crash in nowheresville Arizona, was a frequent road sign whilst going back and forth on a small road in the desert over the years I was a kid. My father duly related the gruesome death every so often, undoubtedly even more gruesome than the actual event, and the legend of Tom Mix's millions swirling in the wind from broken suitcases, spilled all over the road, was a common way to keep rowdy kids occupied on those trips - we pleaded him to stop so's we could look around for some in case they had lain hidden under an ocotillo bush for all those years, or were somehow impaled conveniently on a spine on the far side of a prickly-pear cactus, just waiting for us to pluck it. Wise father that he was, of course he didn't stop - leaving us to look longingly out the back of the Ford station-wagon rear window as the gully disappeared into the distance. Good thing too, 'cause it was always better not to really know, dontcha think?

Welles had a nice touch with villainy, and no one ever spoke better duplicitously than he - this was a warm-up for Lime, and even Cesare Borgia from "Prince of Foxes". His directing was way ahead of time, with some nice touches in amongst the forest leaves. For a '45 film, it must've been more believable to contemporary audiences, regardless of the overwrought script, as Robinson playing checkers while sniffing out Nazis in small-town America must've seemed almost normal for a Hollywood production so close in time to many similar, and also farther-fetched, plots already released during the war - Welles's obsessed SS ravings were no more unreal than Olivier's Canadian ham version of a Canuck-French trapper in "49th Parallel". It was nicely atmospheric, too, even with Lo's rather rigid hysterical looks - she looked better when doing the obtuse lovestruck sleepwalk. Still, I liked it immensely.

12:07 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

James, I'd like nothing better than to see all those musicals you listed released on DVD. There's a wonderful set of nine coming within the next few weeks from Warners, and hopefully many more ahead. Agreed about that dance on the horse's back in "Belle". They were really reaching with that one. Thank goodness it was a "prop" steed --- otherwise the poor beast would be worse off than his brothers that supported an increasingly corpulent John Wayne in his late sixties westerns!

East Side, you could indeed mistake "The Stranger" for a Hitchcock film. It still works as a solid forties thriller, and maybe the most satisfying of the ones he did as far as general audiences are concerned.

Vanwall, your Tom Mix remembrance is priceless! THANK YOU for passing it along. I'd heard that Mix was carrying a lot of cash with him that day. Reminds me of scavengers to this day searching the Carole Lombard plane crash site for artifacts (and still finding them from what I've read!).

As to Nazis in small-town America, I don't think they'd have had much luck where I grew up. We still regard Northerners with deep suspicion down here!

9:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In That's Entertainment III, they showed Astaire's "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man" number in two versions side-by-side -- first the original version, then the reshoot ordered by Arthur Freed with a new set, new lighting, and a new costume on Fred. Narrator Ann Miller says it gives us "a rare opportunity to see just how perfectly rehearsed Fred really was." True enough. But more important (to me at least), it also gives us concrete proof of the genius of Arthur Freed. The original version is perfectly good, and would no doubt have been gladly included in any Astaire musical (indeed, it's virtually indistinguishable from many numbers in Fred's non-MGM movies). But with the blue background, the follow-spot, and Fred's ice cream suit, it becomes really magical -- a tribute to the taste and instincts of Arthur Freed. (I almost said "the unerring taste and instincts", but then there was also 'Til the Clouds Roll By...)

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm wondering how many of your readers are aware that Orson's first-choice for casting of the "Nazi Hunter" was Agnes Moorehead! Would have made interesting casting! Best, R.J.

4:38 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

One of my biggest curiosity about films is when I look at either the posters for the Tom Mix posters for his FBO pictures and the Ken Maynard's for his First National productions.

Too bad that the films themselves were not as preserved as those nice looking and colorful posters.

11:54 PM  

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