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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fatty's Fate and Roscoe's Rescue

Would that Roscoe Arbuckle’s image were as pristine as this 1919 Pierce-Arrow that once belonged to him! The sleek roadster travels now among auto buffs faintly aware of the forlorn figure pondering his fate on its running board as San Francisco prosecutors sharpened their knives back in September 1921. Leave us face it … Arbuckle is now and will forever be known primarily as tawdry footnote to a period in film history mostly forgotten (challenging enough getting anyone to watch something from the twenties, but the teens?). His comic pioneering seems all the more remote for old rags and hanks of hair that pass for surviving prints. Watch those ghostly figures steeple-jumping over splices and sections missing, then try convincing your doubtful audience that such things once delighted millions. Examine ancient books and periodicals and you’ll find Fatty smiling on every other page. His was the cherubic face people loved (and remember that a heavyweight like him was less common then than now), an oasis of humanity among freakish ensembles populating early comedy. Roscoe's girth was the happier substitute for grotesque mustaches and eyes so heavily made up as to resemble black pools. Kids making their first calls on phones but recently installed would ask exhibitors what funnies they’d be playing, then follow beelines in the event it was Fatty. How many of them cried when he was brought to ruin? So many cheerful images (including this Yule art with Charlie Chaplin) would be banished as if to exorcise an industry of taint Arbuckle was said to have brought upon it. Search for remnants today and chances are you’ll come up empty, as poster survival rate for his films is but a tick above that of pterodactyls. Every stream of Roscoe’s life and accomplishment feeds into that reservoir of tragedy and downfall. He is film history’s reigning underdog, and fans consumed by the injustice won’t rest until Fatty’s out of Coventry and standing equal with comedy’s big three. Would you rank Roscoe with Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd? Having watched most of Laughsmith’s wonderful DVD collection, The Forgotten Films Of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, I’m inclined toward at least sympathy placement for this saddest of clowns. Nothing’s so fascinating, so compelling, as greatness laid low, and seeing Arbuckle’s output finally celebrated brings him closer (for me) to standing within at least hailing distance of the triumvirate. Should gods of nitrate preservation smile more generously (and a number of his thought-lost films have surfaced over the last ten years), Arbuckle’s reputation may yet scale greater heights. The litanies of what if litter the path of every Arbuckle historian. You’d like to take those forks he missed, for most would have led to a better place for Roscoe. I watch him now and laugh, though images of cruel chance and pitiless fate linger. Should one look to season classic slapstick with real-life loss its practitioners knew, Arbuckle rises quickest to the top, with Keaton, Chaplin, then Lloyd following. Fish for comedy out of such troubled waters and you may find Arbuckle greatest of them all.

Keystone comedies generally start at a run and gain speed from there. People kick and get kicked. They chase and fall down. After awhile, you lose track of who’s being chased and why. Sometimes I’ll twilight during a Keystone and two reels will pass by without me. Mack Sennett emphasized the motion in pictures. Anything standing still made him nervous. Was viewing in 1914 so restless? I’ve read of audiences divided between immigrants and illiterates, packed into refitted storefront ovens generally smelling to high heaven because there was no ventilation. Did these pickled herring laugh at everything they saw? As early Keystones play like one never-ending pursuit extended over hundreds of single reels, you figure a saturation point had to be reached. Roscoe Arbuckle was on the performing road enough years to know he’d need to vary his screen act to keep patrons coming. His weight makes Fatty recognizable in comedies that seldom used close-ups. He is expressive where other faces speed past in blurs. He’d try for moments of subtle pantomime in front of jittery cameras on seeming rubber legs. To appear human in the Keystone universe was accomplishment plenty. People falling off sheer cliffs and walking away from point blank gunshots forfeited audience identification. Arbuckle knew that wouldn’t do. He began directing (under Sennett imposed guidelines) and teamed with Mabel Normand in marital farces. She had supervised comedies as well, and shared with Roscoe a conviction that the future belonged to characters as opposed to caricatures. Charlie Chaplin’s looming shadow obscured foundations these two laid and rough edges they smoothed. History would credit him for comedy’s emergence out of darkness, but how much of that came of Chaplin’s greater longevity and a better survival rate for his Keystone shorts? Normand’s death in 1930 and Arbuckle’s in 1933 closed the book on a debate that may yet be revived should we come across the dozens of still missing Fatty and Mabel comedies. By 1916, Arbuckle was making his shorts on the East Coast and away from Sennett’s interference. They’re not at a level with what Chaplin was doing for Mutual at the same time, but are plenty good runners-up. Roscoe’s placement as second only to Charlie in popularity polls is borne out by subjects like The Waiter’s Ball and He Did and He Didn’t. The move he’d make to Joseph Schenck’s Comique series would yield comedies even more impressive, and partnership for Arbuckle with new to films Buster Keaton.

Again would credit be deflected away from Roscoe, this time in Keaton’s direction. Of twenty comedies Arbuckle made for Schenck (and Paramount release), fourteen also featured Buster. Most were shot in the East. Keaton literally walked in off the street and went to work. He’d been a vaudeville headliner but knew films would be his future. Recruiting comedy’s next genius was Roscoe’s advantage for the two years they worked together. Writer/director Arbuckle liked everyone to pitch in. His Comiques are far less the insistent one-man shows that Chaplin was doing at Mutual. Fatty’s stock company, other than Keaton, came over with him from Sennett. There was a nephew, Al St. John, to play the menace, and few were so menacing as this apparent escapee from asylum grounds. St. John looked like the demented brother Conrad Nagel kept hidden. Most of his teeth went missing, and ones he had were none too appealing. He always looked dirty. Alice Lake was the girl. Sometimes she’d have lots to do, others she’d be near invisible. Roscoe liked to improvise and welcomed distraction. He’d throw ideas against the wall to see which ones stuck. The earlier Comiques might start off one place and conclude at some entirely unrelated other, as though a pair of disparate one-reelers were pasted together. Arbuckle played safe and hewed to Sennett-inspired formula much of the time, only now with bigger budgets he’d empty the whole flour barrel instead of mere face-fulls of it. Roscoe taught Buster but ended up learning more as Keaton quickly mastered film forms. The shorts got better as BK found footing. His hand is evident in gags more evolved than ones Fatty staged at Keystone. Acrobatics on Keaton and St. John's part seem beyond capabilities of mere mortals. Were these men or mythic titans come to life? I swear I saw them fly on more than one breathtaking occasion. Note the beach pyramid here. There’s not an ounce of fat on Buster and Al. Those arms look like steel cable. Fatty’s nickname belied the tower of strength he was. Few men half his size moved so adroitly. Keaton liked to toy with camera tricks and spoof plot conventions others took seriously. Watch The Bell Boy, Good Night Nurse, or Backstage and you’ll see why Buster would later move right into his own starring series for Schenck. Both Keaton and St. John acknowledged Arbuckle as the man who gave them careers in film. Al was said to tear up whenever Roscoe’s name was mentioned. He would go on to starring groups of his own for various companies through the twenties, a trade ad for one of them shown here. Kino and Image have released the Comiques in two competing DVD sets. You’ll need both to get the best viewing experience, as print quality varies from title to title. There are several shorts in the Image box that aren’t available from Kino. The back and forth is well worth your effort in the end, for this is one of the richest groups of silent comedies around.

Joseph M. Schenck bartered Arbuckle to Paramount in much the same way he would Buster Keaton to MGM in 1928. It was time for Roscoe to graduate. He’d work henceforth at corporate headquarters. That meant properties selected for him and directors to whom he’d answer. The retooled Fatty received an astronomical one thousand dollars a day, and would seemingly work twenty-five hours of each. The first eight months saw seven features completed. People wondered how he kept the pace. Roscoe spent his money on cars and hootch and whatever barnacles attached themselves to his star. Paramount promised (or was a better word threatened?) real stories with logical development. Poster copy (shown here) for his first, The Round-Up, read Nobody Loves A Fat Man, chilling prophesy in light of what lay in wait that Labor Day weekend of 1921. Fatty was like a big ripe watermelon waiting to be busted open. The happy caravan snaking into his rooms at the St. Francis found him lubed and vulnerable to all manners of extortion. The sex assault he was said to have inflicted upon sometimes actress Virginia Rappe led to a manslaughter charge after she died several days later. There were multiple trials and Roscoe was acquitted, but tawdry aspects of that party assured public censure and got him off screens nationwide. Notwithstanding criminal charges, the perception of wrongdoing might have been enough to do Roscoe in. Gangsters and tipplers could laugh off the Volstead Act. The rest of us, including picture people, were expected to abide by it. A debauched Fatty in pajamas sipping bootlegged cocktails for breakfast was no fit subject for child viewing. Has any personality paid stiffer price for poor judgment than Arbuckle? As to guilt or innocence, modern accounts call it a frame at best and a monstrous act on the part of corrupt authorities. Some of Roscoe’s colleagues disagreed and vilified him to the end. Actress Miriam Cooper was friends with Lowell Sherman, who’d made the fateful drive with Arbuckle to San Francisco and was there for the infamous party. She claimed in a 1973 memoir that Sherman's account as privately conveyed to her and husband Raoul Walsh squarely put blame on Roscoe for Rappe’s death, despite the fact he’d previously gone on record maintaining the comedian’s innocence (I think Lowell was bought off, she said, In fact, I’m sure of it). Pretty damning account, but how reliable were Miriam Cooper’s recollections some fifty years following the event?

Roscoe was shut out of theatres (other than touring vaudeville), but found work directing other comics. Some of these shorts have been unearthed and are part of Laughsmith’s DVD set. All the ones I’ve watched are excellent. I wonder how much participation Arbuckle had in Buster Keaton’s features. He’s said to have helped out on Sherlock, Jr. All nine Paramount features saw release in Europe, outdistancing the scandal that dogged Arbuckle here. Leap Year was among several never shown in the US, but remarkably turned up in Paramount vaults during the late sixties and was turned over to the American Film Institute. It’s more fascinating than funny, and shows the new direction Arbuckle was headed. The comedy is gentler and more situational. You could argue this was just Fatty being polished to a dull sheen, and indeed, if nine such features had been released as scheduled, he’d have been at the least overexposed. Would Roscoe have eventually gained back control of his image and work? Seems likelier he’d have gone on as artist for hire. Arbuckle was never accorded respect Chaplin enjoyed, and had not the business acumen of a Harold Lloyd. One critic summed it up --- Charlie Chaplin is a genius, Roscoe Arbuckle merely a clown. Some will dispute that. Roscoe rescuers say he was at the least a comic visionary, and they’ve got rediscovered Arbuckle films to back it up. Watch Love, one of his Comique shorts made while Keaton was on a WWI service hitch and you’ll see Roscoe the creator in full flower. By whose standard do we anoint genius in films? It must be a largely subjective one. For whatever reason, I tend to think of Chaplin as a brilliant and hard-working inventor of comedy, while Keaton I consider --- a genius. Roscoe to me is funny and endearing and sometimes inspired. Were he a genius, I might not enjoy him as much. Look at Fatty’s stuff and he’ll grow on you. I’m wanting someone to release the other Paramount features said to have survived. They include The Round-Up, Life Of The Party, The Traveling Salesman, and Gasoline Gus. A lot of those Comique shorts were considered lost until fairly recently. Their availability has served Roscoe's legacy well, but what of Camping Out, the one most lately found? Is there room in a forthcoming DVD collection for it? I’m optimistic of even more Arbuckle turning up in foreign archives. Any rediscovery is bound to be a happy one. What’s more satisfying than really good comedy seeing projection light again after eighty-five plus years?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Week Gone Cartoon Mad

Sometimes when I’m grooving with cartoons, I’ll say to myself, Why not just move into these and leave the rest alone? A lot of collectors have. They look at animation and little else. Cartoons are colorful and seductive and the best of them make live action seem staid by comparison. Those Looney Tunes Golden Collections are like bags of chips where the first one you consume dissolves quickly to thirty-five or so cartoons I watched this week. The panel of experts behind DVD extras (along with informative websites several of them maintain) made me aware of rivalries and resentments those WB animation directors harbored over lifetimes. For decades, it didn’t matter so much who introduced Bugs Bunny. It was probably as well so little praise was bestowed upon artists during those (amazingly) prolific peak years, for too many slaps on the back might have gone to their heads, or at the least slowed them down (and its surprising how minimal was Warners' trade support compared with Disney, Metro, and even Columbia). With the seventies and its inaugural crop of serious animation historians (most of them still active), the question of credit for Bugs and other characters became vital bones of contention among Termite Terrace inmates then in their (mostly) early sixties. Sniping that went on among Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Tex Avery reminds me of high school feuds sustained long past urgency as to who threw a touchdown pass or kicked the winning field goal. These men who once animated as much for fun as money now staked claims in deadly earnest to Bugs, Porky, and Daffy. Carefree home movies taken on the Warner lot in the thirties contrasted sharply with later-in-life interviews and bitter rebuttals that followed. Clampett told his story to Michael Barrier for Funnyworld magazine and on screen in 1975’s Bugs Bunny Superstar. Jones took exception and induced Avery to add his signature to a poison-penned manifesto Chuck wrote in defense of he and Tex’s seminal work on cartoons made forty years earlier. Memoirs were laced with snubs and hatchets. You’d not call it a blood feud among these gray eminences … more like a pen and ink one. Fans got caught in the middle. They were on Chuck’s side, or not, and Jones kept score. His ego demanded first placement. Maybe that came of staying active in the business longer than the others. Some of Avery’s spirit had been knocked out by personal loss (a son) and being put on the shelf by studios no longer making his kind of quality cartoons. The latter was so for Clampett as well. His son was barely aware of greatness Dad achieved at Warners, thanks to Blue Ribbon syndicated prints with titles shorn of Bob’s credit. LA fans teenaged and in their twenties were welcome guests at Rancho Clampett where Bob watched his old cartoons with them and dragged out original animation cels he had kept to illustrate points. It was through such hospitality that Clampett secured his immortality, for many a youthful Boswell went on to write animation histories we refer to today.

Many of the faithful watch cartoons alone. Adults more casually interested burn out after one or two. Mavens who mean business were raised on plates-full running an hour if not more. That’s at least six at a sitting. The shared cartoon experience is pretty much lost now that so many are on DVD. Animation festivals that used to play crowded theatres are kaput. Kid matinees retreat further into memory. An ad shown here promised bingo in addition to a numbing onslaught of screen fare (topped off with The Invisible Boy). The exhibitor poised between twin towers of 35mm cartoons is preparing to haul twenty reels and cans up to the booth for what looks to be a strenuous day for projectionists. Back then management would sometimes let you in for bottle caps. Enough of them might be rewarded with a bicycle prize like one here for which its winner must have redeemed half a million RC Cola tops. Such promotion lured crowds not unlike these queued up for A Lawless Street and the heaven only knows how many Bugs and Daffys the mob sat through once inside. Shows I attended were punk beside these, as  bloom was off the rose of such marathons by stripped down Saturday bills of my youth. Coming late to the party meant I had to bring my own cartoons. By the seventies, a few of them were being pirated on 16mm. I’d drop my Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (bought for $35 from an obscure post office box in California) into any number of campus shows secure in the knowledge that classmates would never have seen it before (query to experts --- was Coal Black ever shown on TV with the others? --- my print had an AAP logo and the 16mm negative was apparently made up for the package going to local stations --- does anyone recall seeing it?). One time a fraternity ran King Kong for one of those drunken gymatorium blanket affairs (site of my own 8mm Phantom Of the Opera debacle) and made the mistake of renting a Road Runner Parade reel from, I think, Audio-Brandon. Now one R.R. is great --- two might get by --- but this program featured four in grueling succession, overkill that engendered dangerously hostile reaction among co-ed coyotes several sheets to impatient wind. As a collector, I learned quickly that not all Warner cartoons are created equal. A wise sage once noted that of the thousand or so they made, one third were good, another third OK, and the rest dogs. Fair assessment? I wouldn’t know, not having made a clean viewing sweep of the library, though as long as I’m putting out questions to those more expert in this area than myself (and there are lots of you, I know), here’s another one: Were post-1953 Warner cartoons supposed to shown in 1.85 widescreen? I assume theatres played them with the same masking used for feature programs, and by the mid-fifties, wide apertures would have been standard for virtually all shows. WB cartoons I see on DVD are always full-frame. Are these cropped and missing information on the sides? Most look right enough to me, but I can’t help wondering…

Kids don’t appear to be watching Warner cartoons anymore. Their popularity had a long run, but I’d say Looney Tunes are over but for nostalgia probes. One look at so-called animated features today explains it. The current crop doesn’t look like cartoons as I knew them. Pixar is aggressive and dimensional in ways that are unnerving. I’m always afraid they’re going to fly off the screen and engulf me like the Fiend Without a Face. Daffy and Porky operated at a safer distance. Pixar invades my space. Vintage cartoons look prosaic beside such hard chargers. Do they generate all this stuff on computers? Do cartoons even involve drawing anymore? Maybe the term itself is archaic. Go back to cels and paints and you might as well invoke Ray Harryhausen for another run at Dynamation. I looked at one of the cartoon message boards to see if anyone shows Warner cartoons on television now. Sad to say they mostly don’t, unless it’s three in the morning and even those come and go with scheduling vagaries favoring current merchandise. What cruel spin of fate took WB’s out of general circulation just when the company got them looking so pristine after years of abuse and neglect? When cartoons got rediscovered in the seventies, prints available required patience and allowance for faded color, replaced titles, and inventory split among multiple owners. Look at Bugs Bunny --- Superstar or that Camera Three special (extras on DVD) and imagine how the former and its Blue Ribbon content would have looked blown up on theatre screens in the mid-seventies. The other day I watched a 1940 Chuck Jones called Tom Thumb In Trouble on DVD. The quality was astounding, just as it is on every cartoon that rolls off the Golden Collection line, with color beyond rich and doubtlessly sharper than audiences in 1940 received it. How did we become such fans watching black-and-white prints of this and so many others way back when? These DVD’s are for me like taking off clouded glasses worn for years and seeing everything clearly for the first time.

We remember them. They’re burned in our minds, says Jerry Beck during one of the DVD interviews. My own recall of cartoons is less specific. Most I saw young are a blur of theme music and arresting openers. I didn’t consider individual titles until 16mm collecting sent me in quest of those few available. Tom Dunnahoo at Thunderbird Films discovered some that had slipped into the public domain, thus Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur plus a few others turned up on sales lists in 1972 (the year its copyright protection would have lapsed). Piratical providers (those P.O. boxes again) enabled me to acquire Slick Hare and the aforementioned Coal Black shortly after. That aroused darker impulses to somehow lay hands upon favorites I was seeing on television. One fateful morning during freshman year, Hollywood Steps Out turned up on a nearby UHF channel. Boy, was this a great cartoon! Somehow I just had to have it. Well, the station was less than an hour away. Why not drive down and try my luck? This seemed a constructive excuse for cutting classes that day, so off I went with a friend in his Ford Pinto. We located the goat pasture address of said independent broadcaster and gained easy entry to their film library. The place was garlanded with cartoons. Racks and rows of them. A Solomon’s temple of animated booty. I made my pitch, mindful withal of the very real possibility they’d summon cops and I’d be posting bail with what little cash I’d brought to achieve my nefarious end. Discussions proceeded in hushed tones. What if I were a distributor plant working deep undercover to ensnare potential backdoor Merrie Melodies merchants? That might have occurred to them. After all, I was a stranger bent upon a bizarre mission. Weren’t nineteen-year olds more typically engaged at chugging beer, faking ID’s, and other such healthier enterprise? To my delight, the film editor’s assistant’s assistant sold me Hollywood Steps Out, Coo-Coo Nut Grove, and one more he unspooled on the desktop editor, Bacall To Arms. You might as well take this too. We could never show it on television, he said after observing a blackface gag which closes the cartoon. Surreptitious removal was achieved by way of my benefactor’s lunchbag, from which he removed a pimento cheese sandwich and banana before secreting the three small reels within for my discreet exit. I spent the rest of college running them to death in both classrooms and commons (sometimes for course credit). My conscience was clear as only a collector’s could be in those days when owning films branded us all criminals in the eyes of studios and squads of law enforcement acting at their behest. Certainly there were moral compasses thrown further askew than my own, but we were all products of tumultuous times and relaxed ethics where film collecting was concerned. I thank Warners for enabling me to now walk a straighter path cleared by cartoons legitimately got, though I may yet go in search of a lunch bag deep enough to conceal all those Boskos and Buddys I’m still waiting for ...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

James Stewart's Hundredth

I always thought it diminished James Stewart a little when they called him "Jimmy". He spent a long career cultivating audiences for both incarnations. The simple equation of a bashful 30’s boy becoming the hardened postwar man is manageable enough for most viewers, but closer examination of his output finds James and Jimmy playing musical chairs throughout nearly sixty years he worked. There was considerable flexibility within the Stewart persona and he made all of the variations pay. Other leading men of the era seem bound by images more confining than his. Having felled the ogre of typecasting in the late forties (studios would have been as happy to let him go on playing guileless Jimmy), JS warded off monotony for another decade to enjoy the biggest and most varied run any actor had during that period. There was a near-bottomless well of tricks James and Jimmy could draw from, and since the actor never allowed himself to be trapped in either posture, he could enjoy benefits of both longer than most players traveling along narrower gauges. The fun of encountering the unexpected starts early with Stewart and gets more so as you observe him adding the layers. Within confines of youth, he’d do much. Halting speech and a gangly frame in Wife vs. Secretary and After The Thin Man suggest a bleak future in character support --- a more presentable Walter Brennan maybe? Stewart averted that by means of sensual appeal just beneath the surface of just-folks he portrayed. His was a new line in aw-shucks seducers who seemed not a threat. Love scenes with Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and others are surprising for heat they still generate. Early Stewart in a clinch has not the off-putting modern effect of caveman tactics practiced by screen lovers who wear less well. Lest a woman feel safer with Jimmy, however, there is Winning Your Wings, a how-to manual he narrates for potential recruits in the Army Air Force. Here is randy Stewart unmasked, a part noteworthy for cocksuredness he displays re that most universal obsession. John Huston directed the 1942 Warners short. Both he and Stewart knew from plenty what guys really expected once they donned uniforms, and lest any forget, Jim puts the Army’s most inviting proposition right on the line. What you’re gonna see next isn’t considered part of the regular training course, says Lieutenant Stewart, photographed close and from just below so as to take us into his confidence, but you’re a chump if you don’t include it in your curriculum. A flyer’s arrival at a canteen dance gets a phenomenal (Stewart’s word) reaction from unbilled Dolores Moran. You find out the effect those shiny little wings have on a gal, intones narrator JS as she’s off in immediate pursuit. Stewart was an able instructor here, being himself a noted swordsman about town. Kirk Douglas told a story in his autobio of JS stealing his date at a Hollywood party, something for which he never forgave the older man.

The serious business of wartime enlistment was a gamble for actors moving up. Career momentum might be lost for those three or more years off the screen. Stewart was remarkable for having joined twelve months before Pearl Harbor, with no promise of renewed stardom once his hitch was up. For every Gable or Tyrone Power who regained strides, there was a Ronald Reagan or George Montgomery for whom brass rings once attainable were now out of reach. John Wayne recognized the hazard and stayed home lest progress be impeded. Stewart’s war record was outstanding. We’ll probably never know the full extent of his military accomplishment, so reticent was he to trade upon it once the war ended. Like Audie Murphy, JS largely avoided combat subjects in movies he did afterward. Missteps once home included Magic Town and The Jackpot, the sorts of Jimmy pics that might not have worked even when such Capra-esque things were popular. The one that turned things around was Call Northside 777, a still compelling semi-documentary with accent-on-the James Stewart crusading on behalf of framed convict Richard Conte. Here in his first entrance is the new man, approaching managing editor Lee J. Cobb’s desk not in the open and friendly manner of Jimmy, but with attitude now at the least suspicious and just short of outright cynicism, suiting ideally the mood of his 1947 audience (Northside realized profits of $857,000). The clincher would be Winchester ’73, Anthony Mann’s 1950 western generally credited for introducing Stewart the hard guy. Most of that turned on the impact of JS bashing Dan Duryea’s face into a bar counter and going near bestial on him. Beyond that transcendence, Winchester was novel mainly for putting Stewart on horseback and placing another genre at his profitable disposal. You’d like to think his screen neurosis flowed from horrors he’d witnessed overseas (there was hearing damage sustained in those bombers), for how could such intensity come of mere actor’s artifice? At the least, it went against grains of patron expectation and gave them one more reason to seek out further Stewart offerings. Elements of surprise were cunningly mixed with vehicles harking back to the old Jimmy (You Gotta Stay Happy, Harvey). To these would be added a cash cow he’d milk through most of the fifties … romantic biopics. Legs blown off (The Stratton Story --- $1.2 million profit), prison sojourns (Carbine Williams --- $643,000 profit), and a plane crash demise (The Glenn Miller Story and $7.6 million in domestic rentals) dampened not the can-do American spirit of real lives he would enact. Unbroken success at this made Lindbergh seem doable despite age disparity between actor and subject. The Spirit Of St. Louis would be first to show cracks in the structure, and based on reports of his behavior during production, maybe Stewart sensed trouble even before exhibitors did.

He was noted for wily ways at percentage splits, and Winchester ’73 to this day takes pride of place in most histories as first of those to divide bounty between star and studio. While it possibly led in terms of press recognition for such a split, and there was considerable ink on the subject in 1950, such arrangements in reality went back almost as far as movies themselves. Marie Dressler had a large piece of Tillie’s Punctured Romance in 1914. The Marx Brothers, Maurice Chevalier, Fredric March, Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello --- all were in on receipt counting at one time or another, and these were long before Stewart’s Winchester ’73 deal. Percentages would become a matter of course for most free-lancing names in the fifties. Between Mann westerns, Hitchcock thrillers, and biopics, JS put not a foot wrong in that peak period up to 1957. The decline, easier to identify in hindsight, began that year. Stewart’s semi-hysterical outbursts and abandonment of Paris locations during filming of The Spirit Of St. Louis have only recently been explored in bios of Billy Wilder, and actress Maureen O’Hara writes of Stewart temperament we always figured he was well above. His was a treasured (offscreen) image that allowed for little human frailty. The showdown with Anthony Mann (below on location with Stewart during The Man From Laramie) and its resulting spilt between star and director is a drama yet to be fully delved, but it exacted a toll upon both men’s careers. The Lindbergh disaster ended Stewart’s run at playing real-life heroes, and within a year, even Hitchcock pondered the actor’s age as possible basis for Vertigo’s disappointing $2.8 million in domestic rentals. A mature and self-consciously responsible Stewart carried establishment banners in 1959's The FBI Story. The outsider and frequent malcontent of Mann westerns now displayed a badge upholding American institutions just before opening bell on a decade bent upon dismantling them. Stewart also lowered the veil between himself and conservative politics, going public in defense of standards under siege. Being a gentler presence than friend John Wayne kept him out of culture warring crosshairs, but Stewart quotes on draft dodging and Communist infiltration were/are no less incendiary to opponents, some of whom have renewed said ideological battles on websites commemorating his hundredth year.

With Mann westerns, biopics, and Hitchcock off the table, there was but aging Jimmy to sustain what was left of Stewart in features. He was beleaguered Dad in a trio you could put under a big umbrella called Kids Today --- Parts One, Two, and Three. These were Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation, Take Her, She’s Mine, and Dear Brigitte --- each for Fox and all showing a loss at the end of their run. Past prime John Ford would have been a bigger help had he called ten or twenty years earlier. Their sixties collaborations found Stewart straining at effect that had come easier when he was on top. John Wayne took second billing on posters for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but his was otherwise the dominant presence in scenes they played together. There would be a final western success featuring Stewart. Shenandoah was back at Universal, and a surprising $7.8 million in domestic rentals suggested a comeback, though hopes for that were cruelly dashed by the under-performance of The Rare Breed (a plunging $1.9 million domestic), one of those Entertainment For The Entire Family westerns destined to bore viewers from 1966 on. Stewart was meantime wrapping his military service (with a rank of Brigadier General) as observer on a B-52 bombing raid over North Viet Nam (!). A final feature with him in the lead, Fool’s Parade, was released in 1971. That left twenty-six years to serve as elder statesman and cameo specialist in a Hollywood now comparing younger flashes-in-the-pan with Stewart. A public domain It’s A Wonderful Life surged back in the mid-seventies and would, for many of that generation, define Stewart’s entire career; remarkable indeed for a picture obscure and even hard to see until suddenly everyone was watching it. Stewart complained of what scripts he got being nothing but retreads of that 1946 classic. He was exceedingly good to fans, always willing to mail back signed stills on request, but the sort of book length interviews you’d like to have read don’t seem to have taken place (unless I’ve missed them). There was an audio commentary Stewart did for a laser disc of Winchester ’73 that was ported over for the DVD, one of the few times he regarded a backlog piece in such welcome detail. Martin Scorsese found the actor appropriately polite, but curt, when they met (twice). Maybe Stewart foresaw probing questions this most devoted of cineastes might ask and decided to clam up straightaway. Goodness knows by then he’d developed radar for such eager approaches.

Monday, June 02, 2008

George Stevens Fights The Power

It’s a crusade largely forgotten today, but when director George Stevens (below on location with bathing beauties) took on Paramount and NBC for the latter’s distorted, truncated, and segmented broadcast of A Place In The Sun, he was striking a blow for filmmakers appalled by television’s habitual abuse of theatrical motion pictures. The rape of a creative effort was what he called NBC’s March 12, 1966 televised premiere of the 1951 hit release (it earned three million in domestic rentals against negative costs of $2.2 million on initial bow). Stevens had been simmering over disrespect accorded colleague’s films playing NBC’s Saturday Night At The Movies. Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 saw its 120 minute running time swollen to two and a half hours on the network’s October 23, 1965 playdate, thirty of those minutes given over to commercial interruptions increasing as the feature progressed. Most frustrating was directorial impotence when it came to protecting work completed years before. Slicing and dicing to sell ads was an absolutely immoral practice, said DGA president George Sidney, and others stood behind him. It makes me furious. I refuse to watch them on TV anymore, was John Ford’s response after a local broadcast of Young Mr. Lincoln saw the 1939 classic shorn to ribbons. Frank Capra and Fred Zinnemann girded for action, but cooler heads reminded them of original contracts they’d signed allowing studios to do whatever they liked with property owned outright. I checked 60’s TV GUIDES for the Los Angeles market. Broadcasts of syndicated movies were indeed claustrophobic. Most daytime slots were ninety minutes, a goodly portion of this given over to commercials. One station was running triple features within a three-hour time period. More footage landed on the editor’s floor than likely saw transmission. Stevens filed a lawsuit in February 1966 prevent Paramount and NBC from showing A Place In The Sun. A motion picture should be respected as being more than a tool for selling soap, toothpaste, deodorant, used cars, beer, and the whole gamut. As the network had paid $300,000 for broadcast rights, it was doubtful they’d leave such advertisers out of their Saturday night parade. Stevens cited his original contractual right to edit, cut, and score A Place In the Sun. Defense attorneys said that wouldn’t apply where televised showings were concerned. GS wasn’t the first David to tackle these Goliaths. Otto Preminger tried to protect Anatomy Of A Murder from scissoring. As there was no specific language to address this in his contract, the court dismissed OP's action in January 1966. Preminger failed to cover clearly the issue of cuts and interruptions, therefore giving Columbia whatever the custom of the industry regarded as comprised by the phrase "television rights." The court upheld the studio’s, and its televising lessors, right to interrupt for commercials and to make minor cuts to accommodate time segment requirements. With Anatomy Of A Murder clocking in at 161 minutes, what was the likelihood of syndicated cuts being "minor" ones?

The Preminger precedent may have encouraged Stevens to offer a compromise. He’d permit A Place In The Sun to be televised providing NBC limit commercials to only two breaks. They refused. A sympathetic judge handed down a temporary order forbidding NBC to alter, adversely affect, or emasculate the artistic quality of the picture so as to destroy or distort materially or substantially the mood, effect, or continuity of the picture. Within these limits, the network could broadcast A Place In The Sun. The battle royal got lots of press. Spokesmen for NBC said viewers were conditioned to segmented programs. Columnists disagreed and spoke for home audiences sick of the unrelenting hard sell and chopped movies. Stevens became something of an industry hero. I’d just turned twelve and was intrigued by NBC’s announcement that A Place In the Sun would be shown without cuts (as indicated in the original TV GUIDE listing shown here). Was there hot content in this old film I’d been unaware of? Clearly this was one not to be missed. As it turned out, the only moment at all suggestive was a night-to-morning dissolve on a windowsill radio implying Monty Clift’s having spent the night with Shelley Winters. Otherwise, it was the same two and a half-hour slog that accompanied Stalag 17 the previous October. According to Stevens' angry post-broadcast motion before the court, A Place In the Sun was broken into ten segments with nine commercial interruptions, the average length of drama being twelve minutes and nine seconds before yet more advertising destroyed and distorted the mood, effect, and continuity of the motion picture … as I produced and directed it. NBC seemed to have violated the judge’s directive, and all parties were back to court in June for a reckoning. Stevens counted forty-two commercials during those nine breaks, and what’s more, NBC replaced his careful dissolves with simple fades to black. It’s like taking the cadenza out of a concerto, said the director. This time, unfortunately, there was a different judge hearing the motion, one more inclined toward NBC’s viewpoint.

Some of A Place In the Sun’s artistry was weakened. It just wasn’t substantial or material enough, said the hearing judge. The average television viewer is thick-skinned about commercials and tends to disassociate them from what goes before or after. NBC was found not to have been in contempt of the court’s previous order. It would seem that advertising was sufficiently ingrained into the TV experience as to make it inconceivable that we should do without it. Stevens rightly identified commercial television as the natural enemy of motion pictures, but he was tilting at combined windmills of a studio in receipt of a substantial leasing fee and a network bound on turning a profit for having tendered it. This was big business and no lone complaining director was going to disrupt its flow. Paramount was now supplying most of NBC’s Saturday night movies for the 1965-66 season. It wouldn’t do for these to come with riders attached by disgruntled creative participants, though challenges from these were increasing. William Holden sued Columbia and ABC to enjoin the September 1966 television premiere of The Bridge On The River Kwai, this while Stevens’ suit awaited its final disposition. Holden said giving Kwai away on TV (he was in for an ongoing percentage) would destroy its theatrical value, a theory discounted by the court. The actor was right, of course. Kwai had sixty million viewers that night (far more than ever paid admissions to see it), and did indeed disappear from theatres thereafter. Nothing burned off features like a run on home screens. Paramount felt they’d squeezed the last dollar out of A Place In The Sun. They had reissued it once in 1959 on a combo with Stalag 17 (trade ad shown here) and that yielded $347,000 in domestic rentals. The company maintained theatres wouldn’t want A Place In The Sun beyond that. Reissue money generally dried up in the sixties as more recent titles began surfacing on television. MGM’s 1966 encore for North By Northwest actually showed a loss after print and advertising costs were factored. If new movies were the equivalent of first editions, then old ones were just so many dog-eared paperbacks as far as studio librarians were concerned.

The trial itself was largely anti-climactic. NBC lawyers divined the mood of the court and took the position that commercials enhanced their broadcast of A Place In the Sun. Folks actually benefited from repeated opportunities to stretch and relieve themselves. This time the judge opted for a marathon screening of three separate versions of Stevens’ feature. First would come the theatrical original, followed by NBC’s offering sans commercials, then concluding with the GS alleged distorted, truncated, and segmented version. One of the witnesses was director John Rich, who would colorfully recall the ordeal in his memoir, Warm Up The Snake. Seems Rich, seated in the cramped screening room with parties, lawyers, and other witnesses, found himself desperate for a relief break of his own after testifying to the necessity of viewing features without interruption. The whole matter was mercifully put to rest with the court awarding George Stevens one dollar in damages upon a finding that Paramount and NBC did indeed truncate his film. It was ruled there was no real harm done however, and the defendant’s technical violation was not sufficiently damaging to Mr. Stevens’ reputation for artistic achievement. A Place In The Sun could continue playing television with commercials, though the judge added that Stevens could file a new suit if a future broadcast caused substantial changes in dramatic content. GS claimed a moral victory, but it was a hollow one. No doubt he’d had a snootful of arguing over A Place In The Sun, but dogging his quarry a little farther might well have hoisted the butchers upon their own petard, for once this feature went into syndication in April 1970, local stations unmindful of the judge’s ruling took scissors to hand and made NBC’s broadcast look like an Academy tribute. I watched A Place In The Sun on numerous occasions during the seventies and eighties. You can bet not all those 122-minutes survived daytime and/or primetime showings. Mostly they were squeezed into two-hour berths. You’d have a splice after hitchhiker Monty is picked up during the credits, then it was destination unknown. We’d rejoin him packing boxes for the Eastmans or already headed for disaster with Shelley Winters. Those fabled Stevens dissolves oft-time survived, if at all, garlanded with ugly cue marks stations habitually punched in. A battered by local programmers 16mm print I later came across would have served nicely as Exhibit A had Stevens elected to wade again into combat with Paramount.
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