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Monday, May 26, 2008

More Bette Davis

No actress has emerged since to challenge Bette Davis’ status as First Lady Of The Screen. Market realities no longer allow for such opportunity. If we’re to recognize women who achieved legend status in movies, it will now and forever be necessary to turn clocks back to a studio era when career longevity was put first and careful handling assured popularity over (hopefully) more than just a handful of vehicles. Davis did have rivals at her peak. Their legacies have faded beside hers, but Greer Garson at Metro and Betty Grable at Fox were bigger earners during that wartime peak for female stars. Davis began slow as a money name above the title. Jezebel actually lost $78,000, while forthcomers The Sisters (profit $120,000) and Dark Victory ($580,000 in black ink) pale beside enormous monies the Greer Garson series earned once she caught on at MGM. A Now, Voyager clicked by Warner standards with $4.1 million in worldwide rentals, but Garson in Random Harvest got $8.1 from its worldwide total, and Mrs. Miniver took an astounding $8.8 million worldwide. No Davis film approached such figures. Her biggest for Warners would be A Stolen Life, and the $4.7 million that took worldwide probably has more to do with its all-time boom release year (1946) than any intrinsic value the picture had. Betty Grable musicals at Fox were enormous wartime attractions. Their value then as now seem linked to their necessary function boosting morale and rousing service camp audiences. Few think of Grable or her films offering as much when great musicals are considered, but no one’s did better while the conflict was on. Most wartime Grables realized at least four million worldwide, and two vaulted past five (Coney Island and The Dolly Sisters). Such numerical realities count for nothing toward diminishing Davis’ standing. The fact we’ve had numerous DVD box sets devoted to her and only one (said to have undersold) between Grable and Garson settled clearly the winner. That all three went into sharp decline once peace was declared is attributable partly to moviegoing veto power servicemen exercised once they returned home, plus conditions unrelated to the actresses’ appeal or sudden lack of it. People had other things to think about besides going to films, and many personalities who’d attracted during the war (especially women) saw careers headed for diminuendo.

Greer Garson may have been a commercial dominatrix on the home front, but Davis was the truer alpha female (here’s a rare charity event candid of them together). As to musical supremacy, I wonder if BD’s accompaniment didn’t have Grable beat as well. The latter sang and danced, but her music had not the narcotic effect Max Steiner conjured for the Davis pictures. His scores provided flow to link most BD melodramas and comforting familiarity that made them not unlike radio programs one might listen to from week to week. Themes from Now, Voyager spun off into pop vocals, and RCA as late as 1974 marketed an LP top-lining Steiner’s compositions. Much of the dynamism we associate with Davis might as easily be credited to Steiner. How many of BD’s big scenes play in our memories apart from musical support we remember as vividly? Take away Max and some of Davis’magic goes with him, though it might be as easy saying the same thing with regards all the features he scored. The war that sustained Davis and her brand name in women’s melodrama conferred power upon her no female artist at Warners came close to achieving before or since. She’d fight with weak directors, but resist strong ones as well. Finally it became a matter of assigning helmsmen based less on ability than endurance of her tirades. William Wyler said no more after quarrelling through much of The Little Foxes. From this point, outstanding films would come mostly of chance and Warner polish so expert as to disguise cliché and absurdity. Davis attributed much of  compromise to stringent Code enforcement. For drama trafficking in relationship issues, her output had little to do with sex. Dialogue assured innocent outcomes for clinches fading to black, Davis and romantic vis-à-vis confirming later they’ve done nothing to be ashamed of. It was a timid formula bound to catch up with BD once the war ended and audiences demanded content more suggestive of real life. Had the PCA surrendered (or at least relaxed vigilance), she might have hung on to the summit a little longer. As it was, the harder edge of noir sensibility and a reborn Joan Crawford to exploit it would dethrone Davis and finish her stay at the top.

So many declines begin with costs going up and receipts coming down. Bette Davis was an expensive asset for Warners to maintain, even in the best of times. She was getting seven thousand a week and doing one picture a year by 1946. Each went do or die against overhead her salary generated plus generous budgets allotted the films. And now audiences were beginning to file out. Turnstiles ironically went the other direction for newly signed Joan Crawford, whose Mildred Pierce pointed the woman’s melodrama in more violent directions. Davis had killed before on screen, and would again in Deception, but that 1946 release shuddered beneath a $2.8 million negative cost, twice the amount it took to make Mildred Pierce (at $1.4 million). Deception would be the first BD vehicle to lose money ($190,000) since The Private Lives Of Elizabeth and Essex, and with so much expense dragging in her wake, a Davis picture would have to earn tall rentals to bring a profit, an outcome less likely for an aging star in an uncertain market. BD’s age was an issue now. She’d recall said spectre having come to call around the time of Winter Meeting, and that would be another Code-hobbled one with losses amounting to a horrific $1.1 million, Warner’s biggest flop since The Horn Blows at Midnight. The Crawfords were meantime doing better. Humoresque, Flamingo Road, and The Damned Don’t Cry all made profits, and it’s no coincidence that most of her vehicles saw JC brandishing iron and/or immersed in criminal and/or underworld activity. There was still a sex potential in Crawford’s screen exploits, and that plus mayhem supplied a formula for this actress more congenial to rougher postwar appetites. When Davis tried addressing Topic A in Beyond The Forest, results were ludicrous even by her own reckoning, but what self-destructive impulse caused her to make even more demands upon employers at said juncture? Had Warners been willing to open ledgers for talent, they might have shown her rivers of red ink on the final four she did for them. Was Davis aware she was negotiating from such a weak position? If so, she shouldn’t have been surprised when Jack Warner called her bluff (or was it?) and agreed to a termination of their contract during Beyond The Forest. Timing could hardly have been worse for any actress going jobless, let alone one past forty whose alcohol and nicotine habits left imprints of hard-living difficult now to conceal.

You’d have thought All About Eve would be the triumph that would keep on giving, but prospects in its wake were sufficiently grim as to negate whatever benefits that 1950 Best Picture winner conferred. Was it the fact of an ensemble cast and hot director that distracted potential employers? We think of Davis as the big noise in that picture today, but it was, after all, George Sanders and Joseph L. Mankiewicz that won awards, while BD had to share Best Actress nominations with Anne Baxter from that show (and she’d not win). Warner flair was missed in Payment On Demand, an RKO release among few (if any) to turn a profit until Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? in 1962. The interim saw much of her on television. Davis would later admit this was sometimes the only work she could get. The First Lady Of The Screen was now like any character actress for whom theatrical leads came seldom. When she got them, returns were tepid. Another Man’s Poison was BD again mixing lethal dosage for the men-folk, but this independent released through UA was cramped, dark, and realized only $601,000 in domestic rentals. Her final lead prior to the Baby Jane inspired grotesques, Storm Center, was good for a measly $196,000 domestic. She was still a prestigious guest on television, and the vid avalanche of her old films beginning in 1956 made viewers that much more aware of who she was and what she’d accomplished. Flamboyant gestures laid end-to-end on late, late shows gave birth to a new generation of Davis impressionists. She could write her memoirs now and people would be interested. Good sport BD played along with jokesters like Jack Parr and gave talk show instruction on how best to mimic Bette Davis. Her sense of humor was as much impetus for the comeback as her remarkable performance in Baby Jane. My own generation thought of Davis in terms of horror movies. She (and they) sure delivered in the sixties. Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was cranking up as we arrived at the Liberty one afternoon from school, just in time to see Davis (apparently) cleaving off Bruce Dern’s hand and head. That’s the sort of thing that earned BD her bonifides from me. I’d recently been shook up just watching the trailer for Dead Ringer, as Davis here sicced her dog on hapless and bleeding Peter Lawford. Was there any stopping this woman? Stations our way weren’t running pre-48 Warners, so I figured Davis for having been pretty much on a killing spree since the thirties. Things got so bad that a neighbor kid’s mother forbade us to go see The Nanny simply because she was in it, a decision reversed only after I assured her that BD’s title character was a benign one inspired by Mary Poppins. Such were the harmless fibs we told to gain entrance to pics with mature content.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Climb Aboard The Mutilation Express!

Erich Von Stroheim would have called it Universal’s butcher shop on wheels. The Foolish Wives train from LA to NYC was publicity’s relay toward a long awaited January 11, 1922 opening of the studio’s first Million-Dollar Picture. EvS said it cost more like six to seven hundred thousand, though inter-office memos indicate $1,124,498 was needed to complete Foolish Wives. Whatever the expense, Universal got as much in free press and patron anticipation they’d been whipping up over a two-year period. Von Stroheim had started out in the money directing continental exotics. The first two, Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Passkey, looked like beginnings of a profitable and ongoing thing. Foolish Wives would mark his first dive overboard. Universal wanted lavish, but not eight hours of it. Von suggested audiences report over two successive nights at four hours per shift. There’d never been a movie half so long shown in the United States, said the front office. People were still getting used to features in the early twenties. Invited studio previewers sat a one-time marathon beginning at 9:00 PM and letting out at 3:30 AM in early September 1921, little realizing they’d be sole eyewitnesses to the Foolish Wives Stroheim intended. Realist Carl Laemmle (shown below with Von greeting studio visitor Archdule Leopold of Austria) noted excess cargo (if not sore backsides) and delegated shearing duties to Arthur Ripley (seated below on the train), a remarkable biz figure whose lifetime in film would see him writing for Harry Langdon, directing W.C. Fields ,and later Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road, then founding the UCLA Film Center after years of serving on its cinema school faculty. Ripley’s whittling brought Foolish Wives from thirty-two reels down to eighteen, still a four to five hour sit and beyond what Universal was willing to open on a date now set in stone. The rush to January 11 was on. Ripley and his cutting team would get a $40,000 bonus provided they conclude cleaving on schedule. Publicists seized on that urgency and organized a cross-country race against time. Foolish Wives would be shortened in transit on a day-and-night schedule, sleep aboard the juggernaut be damned. Stroheim lamented the rape of his art by all these brainless hacks and Puritans, but as to degrees of that, he’d seen nothing yet. Armed marines (shown here) accompanied the so-called first print, itself insured by varied carriers for $1,078,000 against fire, wreckage, theft, and other loss and mutilation (Universal might yet collect on that last item had it not been their own editors’ handiwork). Coverage premiums for the trip were said to total $12,000. LA officials and hordes of press said Bon Voyage as train left platform with a specially re-equipped baggage car for cutting (lots of that) and screening convenience.

The locomotive was said to have traveled at top speeds. Stops along the way were met by Universal exchange representatives and curious locals. Ripley issued progress reports as editing crew members applied scissors in what must have been a sweltering boxcar. 3000 feet had to go, he said, and a new set of titles would be prepared during transit. Von Stroheim had meanwhile decamped to New York under separate passage, as no invitation was extended for him to join the group dismantling Foolish Wives. Relations between EvS and Universal had soured over cost overruns and the director’s unwillingness to endorse a less than two-part Foolish Wives. Whole sections and subplots were junked. Scenes Stroheim planted in the first half to pay off in the second became meaningless distraction as much of his dramatic equation lost effect. By the time the train reached New York, over half of Foolish Wives was gone. Universal’s reception committee arranged for a ritual trucking of film cans to the company’s home office at 1600 Broadway. Noted composer Sigmund Romberg would arrange a score for the premiere, an august occasion befitting Universal’s biggest opening since the company’s inception. Foolish Wives, at fourteen reels, played to its first paying audience at NYC’s Central Theatre. The program lasted about three and one half hours. Many felt it was too long, and some laughed at wrong places. Stroheim said that wouldn’t have happened had they left alone the version he’d submitted. Universal gremlins worked mischief in the Central’s projection booth by continuing to cut Foolish Wives throughout the theatre’s engagement. What started with fourteen reels was eventually whittled to twelve. Patrons would actually see less at an evening show than counterparts did at the same day’s matinee. The Foolish Wives roadshow was a shrinking affair, but how was anyone to notice with footage disappearing by increments? Vandalism imposed by regional censors and exhibitors anxious to maximize daily screenings denuded Foolish Wives still more. Now there were ten reels. Stroheim called it the skeleton of my dead child. Euro decadence he revealed was so much castor oil to showmen accustomed to rural friendly serials and westerns Universal customarily supplied. Inflated rental terms made exhibs froth at the mouth. Laemmle had little choice but to sell (if he could) Foolish Wives at advanced rates. The picture still lost money. Critical standing it later gained would not be supported by prints even more truncated than what 1922 general release patrons saw. This would appear to be one silent classic we’ll never fully reclaim.

What if, by some miracle, we did find Foolish Wives in its entirety, or Greed, or The Wedding March? Would the legend of Erich Von Stroheim survive our modern scrutiny of running times extended to forty-two reels (as with Greed)? His reputation was actually enhanced from having been broken on the wheel of crass industry, being the directing surrogate of critics who flattered themselves for never bowing to philistine tastes. Stroheim had looks and manner of a tyrant and big spender (as witness an amazing full scale Monte Carlo set shown here), but that only conferred greater majesty when he fell. Much of his reputation was folderol cooked up by studio publicists. The intractable director studio bosses loved to hate was an arresting figure always good for colorful anecdotage. Like Orson Welles, Stroheim seems never to have had a picture turn out his way. Pygmy hordes were forever seizing Von's negative and locking him out of editing rooms. Arthur Ripley and east-bound minions have the look of functionaries no more qualified to assess Von’s work than janitors clipping studio hedges, thus absolving Stroheim of responsibility when films they cut didn’t work. What’s left of Foolish Wives makes sense enough. You'd not think a feature at less than half its intended length would emerge so coherent. Indeed, some advocated trimming it still further. I watched the Kino DVD release. This was a reconstruction supervised by writer and historian Arthur Lennig in the early seventies, and a large improvement on the seven-reel travesty in circulation since Universal again shortened Foolish Wives for an aborted music and effects reissue in 1930 (all US versions previous to this are lost). Stroheim’s martyrdom was such as to secure a place for Foolish Wives on all-time best lists despite its sole survival as the truncated edition he saw and renounced at a Museum Of Modern Art showing during the forties. Critics had to proceed on faith and plenty of imagination when lauding any Stroheim beside silent favorites surviving intact. The Foolish Wives of Lennig’s heroic effort runs to 143 minutes (he combined the leavings of US footage with materials from an Italian archive). The end result was said to approximate what audiences saw in the film’s 1922 general (and shortened from its roadshow) release. Like a lot of silents dragged from the abyss, it requires faith on our part to divine the impact glistening 35mm nitrate would have had eighty-six years ago. You couldn’t reasonably expect to win new converts to the Stroheim cause with such a battered specimen as what remains of Foolish Wives, but for those willing to make considerable allowance, there is still much reward to be had.

There were once coffee table books devoted to Von Stroheim. I don’t think there will be again. Something about EvS must have appealed to that pioneering generation of film historians. Four of them took up the subject in a number of works, all outstanding. Herman G. Weinberg contributed three. Richard Koszarski wrote The Man You Loved To Hate (published 1983). Thomas Quinn Curtiss was a friend of Stroheim’s and his 1971 book was result of collaboration with the director. Arthur Lennig’s comes latest of the bios, having arrived in 2000. Successors to these are few. Who's caring much about Von these days? Is it fact so much more is available to look at now, or just that Stroheim is out of fashion? Weinberg was a champion for EvS since Foolish Wives first ran. He’d known the director and took receipt of fanciful Stroheim accounts as to what became of his approved version. There was a super-complete Foolish Wives shown in South America, according to Von, with a twenty-four reel running time (he also spoke of an uncut Greed having been in the private collection of Benito Mussolini!). Weinberg would chronicle Stroheim struggles to the end (EvS died in 1957), paying further tribute with picture books on Greed and The Wedding March. Both were deluxe editions. Greed carried a fifty dollar cover price in 1971, surely a record for any film book published to that time. A 1974 photo presentation dedicated to The Wedding March, nearly as hefty a tome, cost twenty. It’s unlikely we’ll see a similar photo reconstruction of the complete Foolish Wives, as original images from that title are challenging to come by. These classics illustrated were as close as fans will get to otherwise elusive Greed and The Wedding March (would any publisher front such lavish volumes in today’s market?). One could rent Greed from Films, Inc., but The Wedding March was something you had to travel to see (and still is, other than an out-of-print VHS tape). Both features were renewed by their copyright owners, unlike Foolish Wives, which went into the public domain early on and was available to collectors in 8 and 16mm for years before Kino and Image released the Lennig restoration on DVD.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Weekend Marquee --- The Gunfighter

It wasn’t just television, the suburbs, and divested theatres that pulled Hollywood down after the war. People were sick of atrophied formulas, especially westerns. Jack Warner referred to ones his studio did as shit-kickers. Fresh coatings in noir paint weren’t long before chipping. Psychological complications slowed action further. What was left of the larger audience still wanted westerns to move. Writers panned for that elusive dust of something new to introduce into frontier vocabularies. Andre De Toth was one such prospector looking to transfuse a tired genre. He’d directed the fine and offbeat Ramrod in 1948, and was now teamed with scribe William Bowers to develop The Gunfighter, a spec story recognized right off as worthy of fast tracking toward production. How it came to sell and for how much depends on whose late-in-life interview you’re reading. Many fathers come to claim classics once born and labeled. De Toth would say that he, in collaboration with Bowers, wrote The Gunfighter for Gary Cooper. Bowers recalled (in The Screenwriter Looks At The Screenwriter, published 1972) doing the script with John Wayne in mind, neglecting to mention De Toth’s involvement (and then producer Nunnally Johnson was said to have largely rewritten both men's work). That interview having taken place when Wayne’s politics were way out of fashion, Bowers portrays him as the bull-in-a-china-shop would-be bargain purchaser of The Gunfighter, then entitled The Big Gun. Wayne had offered $10,000 for the story. Bowers held out and claimed to have eventually got $70,000 from 20th Fox (records from their legal department indicate the purchase price was $30,000). Interviewer William Froug said Wayne never got over the loss and would twenty years later drunkenly refer to Bowers as a sonofabitch. The actor’s frustration was understandable. How many really good western scripts crossed Wayne’s desk in a given year, or decade, for that matter? Parting company with The Gunfighter to do The Fighting Kentuckian would be high frustration for any actor, let alone one as aggressive and ambitious as Wayne.

Gregory Peck was that skinny schmuck in Wayne’s estimation, but to paying fans mostly in bobby-sox, he was dreamy personified and object of careful studio handling. The alleged shock and boxoffice consequence of a mustache he wore in The Gunfighter was myth built upon casual remarks Darryl Zanuck and other Fox executives made after viewing an already completed picture. If anything, Zanuck recognized a western possibly too good for its target audience. It’s a Remington, he told director Henry King (shown here with Peck and again with actress Helen Westcott), but coming from a practiced hand at playing to masses, this was not necessarily a complement. If anything, the mustache was symptomatic of a greater problem. It is unquestionably a minor classic, (said Zanuck) but I really believe that it violates so many true western traditions that it goes over the heads of the type of people who patronize westerns, and there are not enough of the others to give us the top business we anticipated. Killing off Peck at the finish might have been avoided for the good of all. Patrons said so (by the hundreds) when ushers inquired during the NYC Roxy run, and yes, the mustache did bother women and young girls. He’d been grizzled for much of Fox’s previous Yellow Sky (not half the picture that "The Gunfighter" is, said DFZ), but on that occasion, Peck’s character took more initiative and got the girl besides, despite an outlaw past not unlike Jimmie Ringo’s. Fox tried merchandising The Gunfighter as something extraordinary among westerns. The trailer depicts actress Gene Tierney exiting a private run to read cue carded raves (a bold and startling departure from the conventional), while ads embraced downbeat content and a morose lead character who’d lived by his guns … too long! The Gunfighter was among Hollywood’s first to chart an end for a frontier so far the site of optimistic empire building. It would soon enough morph into a cemetery waiting to claim freebooters who’d outlived their usefulness. The Gunfighter is cited by many as the non-political superior of High Noon, but it’s also an admonishment to those Jimmie Ringos home from the war to put aside arms and embrace their social and civic responsibilities.

You could see Ringo coming at the end of Peck’s last western, Yellow Sky. His bank robbing gang leader is revealed to have been a church-going scion of good family waiting for the right woman to settle him down. Indeed, Anne Baxter’s prairie hellcat (raised by apaches!) escorts his return to selfsame bank for purposes of giving back gains ill gotten during the first reel. By the fade, he’s done all but join the Jaycees and apply for a position at the teller’s window. Men were men on the prewar frontier. Errol Flynn and sidekicks broke trails and heads in things like Dodge City because there was a West to be won and heroes needed to travel light. Jimmie Ringo’s mistake was less the men he’d killed than the wife and child he’d left behind. We’d won the big fight, and now it was time for post-warriors to get busy mowing the grass (lone wolf James Stewart would learn to play community ball as well in 1955’s The Far Country). The town Ringo comes back to was more like the one I grew up in than depictions I’ve seen of western burgs. It’s a woman’s world and men-folk are good and tamed. No wonder Jimmie has to die. A bright-eyed small rancher sharing one drink with the former badman limits his intake for fear of reprisals from the wife back home, a situation apron-clad barkeep Karl Malden applauds. Ringo returns to a happily gelded community so emasculated as to allow fuzz-faced teenaged bully Skip Homeier to cow its male population. Little boys in the street are spanked home by mommies lest they follow Ringo’s sorry example, and even one-time toughest man in the West Millard Mitchell (as Jimmy’s ex-partner in crime) mediates on behalf of the Ladies Auxiliary. Ringo’s bad end is a conclusion foregone by societal edicts reflective more of 1950 than 1880. Good as he is, Peck may have been too much the gray flannel man for this commission. John Wayne would have made a more convincing bad-ass trying to come in from the cold, offering a better sense of just what Ringo had given up and was trying now to regain. Peck starts out and remains so reasonable as to make me wonder just how desperate an hombre he could ever have been. Might his Ringo have been as happy pushing that lawn mower all along?

The Gunfighter was a hit, especially in the context of Fox’s bombs away 1950 season. Its pressbook offered ad mats reading Movies Are Better Than Ever!, an industry co-op measure of desperation brought on by televisions Dad was hauling into those suburban family rooms. Fox was having enough trouble breaking even with once thought to be sure-fire product. Betty Grable musicals were nearly played out and the company’s biggest profit getter was Clifton Webb. The breakdown of Fox postwar/pre-Cinemascope money westerns finds Broken Arrow at the top with gains of $1.4 million. Yellow Sky is at number two with $1.2 million in the black. Rawhide took $704,000 in profits. The Gunfighter earned $1.8 million in domestic rentals against a negative cost of $1.2. There were foreign rentals of $805,000 and eventual profits of $464,000, making The Gunfighter one of the better earners in a year otherwise awash in red ink (over a dozen 1950 Fox releases lost money --- The Black Rose, Night and The City, and Under My Skin were each down in excess of a million). Fox had an aggressive reissue program. Bookers in the field were expected to bring home contracts for so-called Encore Triumphs. The company published each man’s sales figure per quarter, and competition was high for bonuses realized from not only first-runs, but oldies and short subjects. The Gunfighter was dating again in 1953 with fresh paper and new prints. There was $288,000 in additional domestic rentals and $83,000 more foreign. Profits this time came to $271,000. This combined with earlier gains put The Gunfighter into a solidly positive column on Fox ledgers.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

TCM's Midnight Cowboy Reunion

TCM ran an extraordinary thing this weekend. The Bounty Killer was a western I’d waited a long time to see. It was produced on a ten-day schedule in 1964 by Alex Gordon, a great fan and historian who championed otherwise cast-off cowboys during those sad years between the burial of "B’s" and a last hurrah Italian filmmakers sounded for outdoor actioners. Television had overexposed westerns to a point where it was hard giving them away. Without big stars, few stood a chance in theatres. Alex swam against the tide by making two with casts of long-ago headliners folks hadn’t seen on a paying basis since most were kids. He was early to a nostalgia party that would take off in a large way by the late sixties. Gordon grew up with these frontier colossi and now was going to realize a lifelong dream of producing his own western featuring as many as could report for a day’s work. The Bounty Killer got done in Techniscope and color for a mere $194,000. TCM played a frightfully cropped print, but I didn’t care. It was like watching syndication again. Besides, so few of us are left to value little pictures like this. Patrons Alex took down memory lane are themselves slipping away. I used to see a lot of the old cowboys at various western fan gatherings. How I wish now I’d been more attentive to them. We’d stand around hotel lobbies and chat with Rex Allen, Rod Cameron, Ray Corrigan, many more. Villains and sidekicks were in abundance as well. Rand Brooks and Victor Jory were as affable as you’d hope all celebrities might be. I’m haunted yet by questions I neglected to ask. Alex Gordon himself was a prince among men and incredibly knowledgeable about film. We used to meet him at Du-par’s every time we went to LA. He liked those fantastic pies they served as much as I did. Sometimes conversations turned on work Alex was doing for Gene Autry or those Fox Film Corporation films he’d saved back in the late sixties as head of a nascent restoration effort. There were low-budget sci-fi pics he’d written and/or produced, including Voodoo Woman and Bride Of The Monster (Alex accompanied Bela Lugosi to the House Of Wax premiere). Another of those fascinating people I wish had written a book …

Alex used old-timers on his films so he could sit around and visit with them between hurried takes. Stalwart vet Spencer Gordon Bennet directed a jillion oaters and serials going back to silents, so at seventy, he was Alex’s ideal to helm The Bounty Killer. It’s actually a pretty good western. Stuck-up critics may tell you it’s not. A pox on them, for how could anything with Dick Arlen, Buster Crabbe, Fuzzy Knight, Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Steele, Grady Sutton, Eddie Quillan, and Broncho Billy Anderson be less than wonderful? Yes, I said Broncho Billy Anderson, he of The Great Train Robbery in 1903 and later Chaplin’s employer at Essanay. The man was eighty-five when Alex lured him out of the Motion Picture Country Home for this final gig. He has one line and barely gets it said, but Broncho’s the whole history of movies wrapped up in one amazing cameo. Could anyone today bring anything like equal stature to such a fleeting on-screen appearance? Johnny Mack Brown has that portly look of a cowboy who’s hung up spurs and now (hopefully) limits exertions to cashing dividend checks. You wonder as to financial circumstances of all these westerners. Were they here for fun or money? There couldn’t have been much of the latter. I’ve read of Brown having greeted for a Vegas casino around this time, so maybe a (very) little paying work came welcome. Old Tom Kennedy waits table in The Bounty Killer. By 1964, he’d forgotten being in more pictures than I’ve ever seen, and was the ugly mug filmmakers always hired for ugly mug parts. Buster Crabbe still looked great at fifty-seven playing a villain. If there’d been a river to swim, even with crocs in pursuit, he’d have yet been the man for it. Alex Gordon said they only got two days shooting outdoors. Otherwise, men and horses stood or sat rigid to avoid bumping into painted backdrops as artificial as ones Broncho Billy appeared before back in the teens. Alex used production personnel he’d known at AIP. His wife pinch-hit as pseudonymous writer, along with Leo Gordon, an also actor (mainly heavies --- he once tried to kick John Wayne’s dog in Hondo) who looked mean as a snake even when I saw him at Courts shows years later and spoke so gruff to fans as to discourage my approaching him.

Alex’s generation for the most part deplored spaghetti and revisionist westerns. Dirty ponchos and shots between the eyes weren’t cricket even among the roughest riders of 30’s-40’s youth, and so many felt lost, if not abandoned, by theatres cleared of square shooters and their serial brethren. The Bounty Killer took a woeful $138,005 in domestic rentals on just 2,940 bookings, suggesting that sentiment for old faces had its commercial limits. Paramount would go retro around the same time and host low-budget parties for many of Gordon’s rejuvenated cowpokes. Studio lifer A.C. Lyles produced a baker’s dozen on tight schedules for bottoms of bills. I saw Waco pulling drag for Rasputin, The Mad Monk one Saturday at the Liberty and thought, Shouldn’t this be on television? The Lyles westerns plodded on even as Italos invaded and receipts showed a stark relief between old (fashioned) and new. United Artists realized a sturdy $4.342 million domestic rental with For A Few Dollars More, while Paramount made do on $119,000 for Hostile Guns, $117,000 for Arizona Bushwackers, with a final one, Buckskin, limping across at $107,000. The Lyles output seemed made for those who longed for westerns the way they used to be. I had little use for them other than isolated moments when a Lon Chaney might amble onto one of the phony exteriors. As counterculture sensibilities transformed the frontier, old guard patrons grieved for role models denied my generation. Graying members of latter-day Buck Jones and Roy Rogers clubs invited youngsters to share the love, but how do you win converts to black-and-white oaters made generations before they were born? The more reactionary among one-time junior rangers said we’d be fast to hell in a handbasket for our disavowal of heroes who’d always been cowboys, and who’s to say they were wrong, considering all the great stuff they got to see growing up? Country artists wrote songs for old pards who understood. Roy and Rex lent mellifluous voice to laments for times gone forever. I feel for that greatest generation (of movie going), even if much of it seemed odd if not pathetic then. Back in the mid-seventies, I’d play mascot to 35mm collector Moon Mullins and local trail blazing seniors when they hunkered down on Buster Crabbe/Zane Grey actioners (on nitrate!), and here I am thirty plus years later being all nostalgic for their nostalgia. We southerners were number one with a bullet when it came to western conventions. A lot of the old guys wore cowboy suits and could watch twelve chapters of Zorro Rides Again on a straight backed metal chair with nary a saddle sore to mark their way. Dealers at these shows couldn’t care less about anything except westerns. One let me have an original 16mm Mark Of The Vampire for $130, for which I’d have gladly kissed him and his horse had he brought one. We were riding an elevator in a Charlotte hotel during one con when a Hoppy suited brigand suddenly pulled what looked to be a real six-shooter on us. Damn, now I won’t have any money to pick up that print of "Red River" was my first thought as death seemingly stared me in the face (even though it turned he was just funnin’ with us). Such a moment might have alerted me to priorities badly in need of realignment, but such was my collecting mania that I barely skipped a jot laying hands on the film once satisfied my life had been spared.

I was going to school in Hickory when Roy Rogers showed up at the old Terrace Theatre to promote his comeback western, Mackintosh and T.J. The place was a madhouse full of kids towed in by fathers (and grandfathers) who wanted their young squirts to see what a real cowboy hero looked like. Roy talked about old times and how there was too much sex and violence in pictures today (cue lusty cheers, and there were plenty). His new one was going to turn this country around and restore better values for our youth, even as hard "R" one-sheets in the Terrace lobby suggested otherwise. The cowboy gospel died hardest in the South. Theatres had but recently stopped using "B" westerns and serials for Saturday shows. With films no longer available out of Charlotte exchanges, some houses actually installed 16mm projection and borrowed collector’s prints for suspended-in-time matinees right through the seventies. Cowboy clubs met in the backs of small town diners to run Genes and Roys after biscuit and gravy breakfasts, with horse-tradin’ in dupes to follow out of auto trunks in the parking lot. Video sent most of the film to Boot Hill, leaving us with fifth-generation VHS Hoot Gibsons in plain white boxes which may (or likely wouldn’t) play once you got them home. Cowboy cons are going still even as online venues celebrate "B" westerns. One of them is The Old Corral, a one-stop for great reading and reference on the subject, while Boyd Magers’ Western Clippings site is a fine adjunct to his wonderful newsletter of the same name (I’ve been a subscriber for years). The top gun of books on the subject (from which I pinched two of the above stills) is Don Miller’s Hollywood Corral: A Comprehensive B-Western Roundup, which includes chapters by leading modern historians along with the definitive Don Miller text originally published in 1976. This is an expensive book (but worth every dime), out of print at present, but available used and new from various sellers. It is simply one of the best books on film, western or otherwise, ever published.
Photos (Top to Bottom):
The Bounty Killer Lobby Card
Veteran western stars gather for The Bounty Killer --- left to right: Buster Crabbe, Richard Arlen, Broncho Billy Anderson (seated), Fuzzy Knight, Dan Duryea
Johnny Mack Brown in his Universal prime
Latter-day Johnny poses with producer Alex Gordon during shooting of The Bounty Killer
Buster Crabbe and Al "Fuzzy" St. John
Bob Steele and leading lady
Roy Rogers plays the innocent with Republic chorines
Mackintosh and T.J (1975).
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