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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Trailers --- My Favorite Bite-Sized Treat

Trailer trauma is not a thing unknown to me. The scariest film I ever watched was a three-minute preview for Devil Doll in 1964. I revisited it yesterday on DVD. Still pretty unnerving. Maybe I should have avoided the feature and kept the memory as it was. A lot of movies don’t live up to anticipation their preview creates. Devil Doll didn’t. It couldn’t. The fact it played as a late show only at the Liberty disallowed my going in 1964. That only enhanced the mystique. Maybe we remember best trailers for shows we never get to see. Some were probably better missed. How many great previews are out there for features that turn out lousy? Lots, I’d wager. I remember Colonel Forehand’s son alerting us to the One Million Years BC trailer the day it began playing and that precipitated my going to an otherwise indifferent show just so I could see it. Amazing the secrets concealed within such little rolls of film. Ever see the Rope trailer? There’s an entire opening with the murder victim of the feature’s first scene proposing to his girlfriend on a park bench. That’s the last time she ever saw him alive, and that’s the last time you’ll ever see him alive, says narrator James Stewart. Was this remarkable footage Alfred Hitchcock’s handiwork or some marketer’s idea of novelty selling? Either way, it’s a headstarted backstory Rope viewers got exclusive in 1948. Trailers are often repositories of the unexpected. Deleted footage and alternate takes are common. Humphrey Bogart shoots Conrad Veidt in Casablanca only after the latter draws on him, but the preview has Bogart telling his opponent, Alright, major, you asked for it, before firing on Veidt. Was Rick’s killing of Major Strasser originally committed in cold blood? I wonder if an eleventh hour Code alarm forced the softening of what might have been a much tougher resolution for Casablanca, with this preview glimpse being sole evidence of that intended finish. Look at trailers closely and you’ll see moments otherwise lost and since legendary. Lon Chaney, Jr. wrestled a fairground bear in The Wolf Man. No trace of that remains in the feature, but an anguished close-up of Chaney in the preview was almost certainly lifted from said deleted segment. The best trailers were all about breaking down fourth walls. Picture people addressed, confided in, and cajoled patrons. Stars stepped out of character to assure us of pleasures to be had in their newest vehicle. Watching a string of previews was like walking through a carnival. You never knew what would be up the barker’s sleeve. Sydney Greenstreet beckoned viewers come closer to hear him tell of The Maltese Falcon, a device so effective as to become de rigueur for Greenstreets (Across The Pacific, The Mask Of Dimitrios) cut from similar cloth. Trailers for movies in heavy demand were often unavailable for prints long since abbreviated to guitar picks. By the sixties, getting a preview for Thunder Road out of National Screen Service in Charlotte was as likely as Bob Mitchum coming to your drive-in to personally introduce the show.

Trailers began slow and silent. At first mere glass slides, they were colorful and sometime objects of art in themselves. Pre-talkie salesmanship allowed but for scenes, then titles, and back again. Swirling graphics were in primitive development, and narration to stir patron interest was lacking. Universal tried generating suspense as to what Lon Chaney’s Phantom Of The Opera might look like, though teasing was difficult minus sound and visual flourish. Only a tiny percentage of silent trailers survive, a few representing features that are lost. We see a glimpse of Louise Brooks in The American Venus and wish all the more for eventual recovery of the feature. Warners went whole hog on previews once its Vitaphone took the stage. One (virtually the only) available today is a six-minute tickler for The Jazz Singer, dull in itself but the source of Broadway premiere footage excerpted many times since in documentaries about early sound. Talking discs are extant on a few early deluxe Warner trailers. Sound’s novelty was such that audiences welcomed stars addressing them with a five minute (sometimes more) glimpse of hits forthcoming. Some Vitaphone trailers even merited review in the trade press. As novelty subsided and sound programs filled out, previews returned to manageable length, though Warners pressed hard on behalf of its Busby Berkeley output with mini-extravaganzas to rival the musicals themselves. Dames was promoted with a one-reel subject in which contract player Lyle Talbot guides a studio tour culminating in a pitch for the feature. WB’s deluxe sell for Charge Of The Light Brigade included Michael Curtiz directing the climactic sequence, while the Cain and Mabel preview went behind-the-scenes to show the raising of a sound stage to become the studio’s tallest. These were less trailers then precursors of production shorts to come. None were copyrighted, so many went collecting ways beginning in the seventies when enterprising sellers like Thunderbird, Canterbury, and Steel Valley Films made cottage industry selling them in papers like The Big Reel and in dealer’s rooms. Happy were days I came across previews for shows impossible to find on (legitimately) available 16mm. Some of us can still recite narration memorized from endless home screenings of Universal’s stellar Brides Of Dracula trailer (David Peel As The Baron … Blindingly Handsome, Yet His Kiss Turned Beautiful Girls Into Monsters), and that’s but one of a hundred examples dedicated trailer fans could name.

Trailers and old time radio are alike in that both are vast and undiscovered repositories of viewing (and listening) pleasure for film fans who think they’ve seen (or heard) everything. We thankfully get previews on a lot of DVD releases now, but think of all those years when these things were essentially lost. The only way you could see trailers was if you scavenged them on 16 or 35mm film. Television seldom used them, even though syndicated packagers sometimes offered previews to buyer stations. Many trailers survive only by virtue of ones printed for TV in the late fifties. Some turning up for the first time on DVD bowled me over. Who knew Dodge City was promoted with extensive Technicolored footage of the 1939 Midwest premiere, and look at all those stars that attended! Any trailer for a Cecil B. DeMille production merits close inspection. Every one is chock filled with on-the-set and candid stuff. That greatest showman on earth sold his 1952 circus epic with a reel-long lecture under the Big Top, while lures for Cleopatra, The Crusades, and The Ten Commandments amount to pocket dramas of struggles DeMille had getting everything just right. Alfred Hitchcock picked up the baton once intros for his mid-fifties TV series caught on. Humorous pitches for North By Northwest, The Birds, and others gave reassurance that well-liked Hitchcock formulae would be on view in theatres as with television, though Vertigo was notable for avoidance of promotional levity on AH’s part. Directors less familiar stepped up to extol virtues of pictures they’d just finished. Raoul Walsh calls a break when Clark Gable notices our presence on the Band Of Angels set, while an on-location recess during A Distant Trumpet allows Walsh to boost leading man Troy Donahue. Such previews were used during initial release, disposed of, then largely forgotten. I’d come across such things and be amazed for having never heard of or read about them. Collecting revealed hidden bounty among basements and storage sheds. Previously discussed Moon Mullins had miles of trailers smuggled out of National Screen. Sometimes he’d cut out a few and give them to me. One was a nitrate Snow White from the 1937 release. Here was Walt Disney seated at a desk with models of all the dwarfs, explaining to us the character of each. The trailer had splices and was less than complete, but for me it was as something dug out of tombs in Egypt. Who knew in the seventies such a thing existed (or imagined that we would someday have it at our DVD disposal)?

I was drunk on trailers from there. Moon let me have a Cinecolor Invaders From Mars on 35mm and I can still see that weirder than weird green dominating a screen I’d hung before my DeVry semi-portable military surplus chain driven projector. There were also those fulsome narrating voices I came to recognize and treasure. Art Gilmore and Dick Tufeld were favorites. Gilmore was the speaking equivalent of a Frank Sinatra. What a mighty instrument was his voice! You hear it especially whenever old Paramount trailers come on. Gilmore even went before cameras to set up a novel preview for The Big Clock in 1948, as shown above. Tufeld would provide great anecdotes for an article on trailers I wrote back in October 1988 for Films In Review magazine. Sometimes personnel otherwise occupied on studio lots came over to help with trailers. MGM’s John Nesbitt promoted Man With A Cloak, while Pete Smith lent narration for Adam’s Rib. The studio’s On The Town preview was formatted as a James Fitzpatrick Traveltalk. In fact, Metro had one of the busiest and most dedicated crews for producing trailers, and theirs remained unique and inventive long after others turned preview preparation over to National Screen (here’s an MGM crew coaching Gary Cooper for his pitch on behalf of It’s A Big Country). Sometimes distributors got it right with trailers and wrong for the features. American-International ordered previews for most of its Edgar Allen Poe thrillers from the Technicolor company, thus assuring us of 35mm stock that would never fade, while the movies themselves, including Pit and the Pendulum, Tales Of Terror, etc., were printed on inferior Pathecolor and thus doomed to fade or turn pink within all too short a time. Trailers are still with us, of course, but all of them seem to have emerged from a single blender. Is the word I’m looking for --- generic? In a world where … Must every preview start out with those same nagging words? Watch trailers in succession now and you’ll think it’s a single one played on a continuing loop. There are happier alternatives on line. TCM has a Media Room with previews aplenty. I’m seeing goodies for the first time ever there. Joe Dante’s Trailers From Hell site offers the bonus of trailers with commentary from a panel of industry fans whose enthusiasm make them joys to listen to. Here’s hoping they’ll get around soon to that immortal Brides Of Dracula preview … Peter Cushing As A Doctor Locked In Mortal Combat With Overwhelming Evil!!

Photo Captions (from top):
A frightful frame from the infamous Devil Doll trailer.
Humphrey Bogart reads The Big Sleep in a trailer he also directed.
In a preview for Revenge Of Frankenstein, Peter Cushing vows he'll get even for what they did to him in Curse!
Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy, and William Powell march across the Metro lot in a trailer for Libelled Lady.
Powell's seeing double as Philo Vance comes to call on Nick Charles in MGM's preview of The Thin Man.
A dapper Walt Disney tells us about Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.
Tyrone Power and Randolph Scott tell Jack Benny how lucky he is to be starring in Charley's Aunt.
Dodge City premieres in 1939 and the trailer's there to record it.
Yvonne De Carlo, Clark Gable, and Raoul Walsh take time out to tell us about Band Of Angels.
Alfred Hitchcock begins his Psycho tour, possibly the most famous of all trailers.
Ray Milland and Art Gilmore get together to sell The Big Clock.
Gary Cooper getting set to do a trailer for It's A Big Country.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Greenbriar Posting # 500 --- When Knights Weren't So Dark

One of those 4,362 prints of The Dark Knight wound up at the Liberty. I went for my first Saturday matinee there since The Abominable Dr. Phibes in 1972. Ann demurred because she says movies are too loud in theatres and 152 minutes of Batman would be just that many spent in Hell. I drove over figuring for long lines, being this was Hollywood’s all-time socko weekend. Nobody stood out front but a twenty-something with carrot red hair and a bat shirt. He said they’d sold out for Friday’s midnight show, but not since. Alas, it seemed those who could drive, bike, or crawl went the thirty miles or less to watch on bigger and better screens. The Liberty once sat seven hundred fifty with two balconies. A dividing wall came down the middle in 1974 and made hash of all that. Me and a quarter filled house who’d paid four dollars admission watched The Dark Knight letterboxed on a screen maxing out at the 1.85 ratio. I thought back on a summer day in 1966 when the same (bigger and fuller) auditorium looked at Fox’s Batman feature, a thing as removed from this one as silents are from talkies. What happened in that interim other than a Liberty bisected and levity gone all together out of comic heroes? Batman began in dime stories and funny papers. He spake as unto children and most of these put away (or Moms threw away) such childish things in due course. What kind of world would this be had we taken Batman so seriously since 1939? Could we have won a World War with such conflicted role models as super-heroes have become? Bat-motives are at the least suspect now. This Dark Knight wants to turn himself in for an excess of duality with better nuanced villains packing traumatic backstories that put his in the shade (what’s seeing your parents shot in an alley against Dad carving a permanent grin on your face?). Just being Batman nowadays raises a host of moral, if not political, issues. Everyone prattles about Gotham City needing heroes in a movie seemingly dedicated to withholding them. The whole cast is weighed down in guilt. All save the Joker go around apologizing for wrongs that escaped me. Stealing this picture would have been a cinch for actors not half so good as Heath Ledger. What you’ve heard about his performance is true. It’s old style bravura amidst hand-wringing cardboard. He’s fun even when loaded down with monologues explaining what writers assume we’re too dense to see for ourselves. Does youth have eyes to better follow darkened and frenzied action in these shows? Maybe it would have helped if I’d grown up playing video games. Where’s Lewis Wilson getting tangled up in his cape when we need him?

I went Bat-maniacal on January 12, 1966, the night ABC’s series premiered. By September, it was over for me, but for those eight or so months, I dug Batcaves out of neighborhood construction sites, polished my Cesar Romero voice impression, and begged parents for a color television like ones I watched in neighbor houses. My hero costume had its genesis in pajamas and swim trunks, shown here on a surprisingly unfaded Instamatic pose from forty-two years ago. The cape doubled as Count Dracula’s in that school pageant mentioned previously. I drew flip-books and one had Batman trapped on a pit and pendulum device. DC comics took the place of Archie, Hot Stuff, and Richie Rich. Castle Of Frankenstein would put Romero’s Joker on its cover. The editors weren’t otherwise pleased with what ABC did to the characters. Purists were an eccentric minority then. Everyone else loved the camp-up. Guest villains viewed it all as a slumming joke. None were young enough to have read Batman comics (except maybe Roddy McDowell), nor would they take stands upholding the integrity of Bob Kane’s creation. Cesar Romero didn’t even shave his mustache before donning clown white. Laffs were very much at the expense of comic books and those who read them. Imagine anyone daring such a thing today. Television’s Batman was the very definition of a fad passing through in a hurry. The bloom was off the rose for me by second season’s beginning. Tuning in close to the series’ end, I encountered the Joker riding a surfboard, and wondered whatever could have appealed to me about this program. Will The Dark Knight’s followers react similarly when they revisit the feature a decade or so from now? Critics applaud Heath Ledger going over-the-edge and suddenly Jack Nicholson’s Joker looks passé. Jack used to be the coolest act in movies. Wonder how he feels reading such reviews. Men of Nicholson’s and certainly Romero’s generation saw comic villains as merely that. They had fun with Batman before it became Holy Writ. Where does the Joker go from here? Once you’re past him, it’s tough finding Bat-opponents fans can take (overly) serious. The Penguin and the Riddler are too retro silly and lack gravitas befitting lofty aspirations of latter-day comic adapters. One of The Dark Knight’s four or five endings (I stopped counting after the hour and a half that should have wrapped things up) saw a principal character disfigured but no less able to endlessly and pointlessly flip coins upon arriving/departing repetitive scenes. Was this part enhanced to compensate for a seemingly unresolved Joker plotline? Warners may have had a My Son John situation they’d be loathe to acknowledge, let alone publicize.

The purest incarnation of Batman outside the comic books might be those dog-eared Columbia serials. The first one was made just four years after the strip began. We damn their crude economies but shouldn’t lose sight of the fact these chapter-plays represented Batman as kids knew him from the forties until 1966. Lewis Wilson’s hero fought Japanese saboteurs in 1943, sparing audiences moral equivalencies muddying latter-day caped crusading. He and Robin execute costume changes out of satchels in the back seats of cars. It’s so austere as to be sublime. I wonder if a single adult paid attention to these serials. Superheroes then ran generally on matinees, with the noteworthy exception of Paramount’s Superman cartoons produced by Max Fleischer, which got bookings in first-run houses and played to a wider public than comic heroes would for another twenty years. As to respective costumes, Batman’s holds up best for modern palettes. Others date woefully. Superman doesn’t wear well with tights and primary colors better suited to drawn panels. Robin’s problematic for reasons beyond the pixie-boy outfit he wears. I wonder if they’ll ever bring him back. Batman’s costume is so jet black and threatening as to evoke suits of armor, and is about as flexible. How does anyone move in such encasement? Whenever he clanks onto a scene, you figure bad guys could outrun that cumbersome outfit as easily as victims eluding Kharis the mummy, accessible only after having backed themselves into inescapable corners. Mostly it’s the new Batman voice that alarms me. I kept waiting for people in my audience to laugh out loud when he spoke. Is that Christian Bale or some combination of growls like MGM mingled for Tarzan yells? Must have something to do with preserving his secret identity, though it reminded me of suddenly lowered registers they used in radio programs whenever Clark Kent switched personas --- This looks like a job … for Superman. What’s amazing is critics going gaga over all this. Pressed to choose, I’d say The Dark Knight is the best Batman movie, but what does that amount to? The dread curse of third act collapse didn’t spare it. If only these shows would conclude when it’s so clearly time. They too often start with a bang and finish up dog tired. The first five minutes of The Dark Knight is exemplary. For an hour, most of it works, but by the second (l-o-n-g) half, you’re headed for a cumulative letdown. In an attention deficited society, shouldn't people want their movies shorter?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pulling Down Those Wide Screens --- Part Two

Wide screens would soon enough become the 30’s equivalent of electric cars. To allow them to flourish was to invite chaos and untold expense. Would it matter so much to the public either way? They wanted talking pictures, for that was progress whose time had come. Stretched out movies was something else. Harrison’s Reports said it was like trying to watch a three-ring circus. That annoyance is caused to one by the shifting of his head to direct his eyesight to other parts of the screen. Our field of vision had its limits, after all, and besides, said Harrison, a third of the seats in any auditorium would discomfit patrons on extreme sides or those sitting too close to the front. Let the producers give you good pictures on standard size film, and they can keep their wide film. The Motion Picture Academy’s technical branch met in September 1930 with hopes of setting policy for studio members. Sound pioneer Lee de Forest and MGM’s Douglas Shearer suggested 70mm wide negative, with high quality 35mm prints reduced from these. That would save exhibitors the cost of new projectors. It would also enhance film clarity and enable a wider image. Sounds a lot like Vistavision we’d encounter in 1954, only this was full 70mm pre-print and thus superior to Paramount’s later horizontal negative. New screens would be required to get the full effect, but exhibitors disinclined to spend for that could always cheat with alternate lenses and a letterbox effect. Attempts to rebuild existing projectors so as to accommodate both gauges were dismissed as unworkable, despite assurances from some manufacturers that such a thing could be delivered. The determining factor, of course, would be a public’s interest, if any, in wider screens, with all eyes upon Fox and The Big Trail. It was hardly a fair litmus, with only two theatres equipped for Grandeur. Exhibitors playing it in 35mm figured The Big Trail for more of the same old beans, only these were being sold on percentage way out of line with the picture’s modest drawing capacity. By December 17, barely two months into release, Variety was sounding the death knell. Wide Film Is Ruled Out, said the headline, with The Big Trail stamped a failure in both Grandeur and standard release. A troubled Fox Films was bailing out of the revolution. They’d close shop on wide screen photography within the newsreel division, once thought a sure thing for capturing our collective imaginations. Babe Ruth and marching bands would henceforth do without Grandeur. The Academy clamped further down on wide projection. Companies would be limited to twelve playdates for any feature unspooled in large gauge. Wide play beyond said limits was adjudged too disruptive for an industry frankly doubtful of its prospects. The Big Trail finished with $945,000 in domestic rentals against the $1.7 million spent. There was $242,000 in foreign rentals. This sort of money wasn’t bad in itself, but so much more was expected … and needed … to break even. One million dollars would be lost, the company’s worst drubbing thus far in its history and one that wouldn’t be surpassed until the 1945 post-merger debacle of 20th Century Fox’s Wilson.

Accounts of both Raoul Walsh and John Wayne falling upon swords for the failure of The Big Trail are borne out by the wilderness both traveled through much of what was left of the thirties. Wayne took the bruising hardest. They had made him dress up like Buffalo Bill for publicity junkets and walk through hotel lobbies as folks pointed and laughed. Second guessers chided Fox for failing to use real stars in The Big Trail. Why not Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor as pioneering lovebirds? Casting had been a long shot, for Wayne and leading lady Marguerite Churchill (shown here in a pleasing precode alternative to severe frontier costumes she wore in The Big Trail) were at best unknowns and clearly learning on the job. Some critics recognized El Brendel as singular highlight in an otherwise dreary pageant (note his favored billing on the marquee below). Were 1930 sensibilities so perverse as to delegate this mincing oddity as leading apostle of all things comedic? Evidently so, for he enjoyed a vogue brief but incandescent. The ad shown here dates from mystifying apex of Brendel-mania, him front and center with full résumé of rib-ticklers that presumably convulsed Depression audiences. Who’s to account for tastes indulged so many years ago? Raoul Walsh should have got bushels of recognition for heroic efforts he made getting The Big Trail completed. Proper credit might have come, if belatedly, had not the film disappeared so utterly. There was never a reissue. Stock footage of the indian attack and other highlights were sold to Republic for serials and westerns. Historian Conrad Lane told me he saw portions turn up in Fox’s Brigham Young (1940). William K. Everson saw a revival in Germany of their foreign language version shortly after World War Two. When Fox made its library available for non-theatrical rental through Films Inc. in 1948, The Big Trail wasn’t included, nor was it made available through lessor National Telefilm when that distributor began packaging old Fox titles for syndicated television in 1956. It was archivist/producer Alex Gordon who rescued the 35mm version of The Big Trail in the early seventies. Much of vintage Fox would not survive but for Alex. His accumulated work made up the Golden Century package that was syndicated in September 1971. The Big Trail finally had its television debut along with fifty other titles, forty-two designated as "first run" by virtue of having been essentially lost for the last forty years. By remarkable chance, the 70mm negative of The Big Trail had survived and was donated by Fox to The Museum Of Modern Art. MOMA made a 35mm anamorphic print from that negative and played it before an audience in November 1985. Ronald Haver wrote about this in the May 1986 issue of American Film magazine. The 35mm print, and the DVD made from it, are a revelation for modern viewers, but they are not Grandeur as 1930 patrons experienced it. Possibilities of true 70mm projection of The Big Trail are probably lost to us now, as there’s no information available with regards the condition of that large format negative. Has it deteriorated beyond hopes of generating one more true Grandeur print?

Those Academy limits on large gauge runs foreclosed possibilities of selling 70mm to a nationwide audience. Outside of newspaper ads for cities running wide features, there was little press or publicity for the new processes. Companies shooting wide had no guarantee of an audience beyond insiders and those rounded up for test previews. Exhibiting in big format became an unwelcome afterthought for producers once confident of new eras they’d usher in. Most features shot in 70mm would end up shown in 35mm. MGM launched Realife with Billy The Kid, opening the same month (October 1930) as rival The Big Trail. King Vidor directed the western with John Mack Brown in the title role. Like all wide features, it was also shot in a standard 35mm version. Metro’s Detroit premiere trumpeted Realife as vanguard for The Most Amazing Invention Since Talking Pictures (see ad here). Who better than the father of film, Thomas A. Edison, to endorse their achievement? No famous personality is too great to be tied in with a local campaign, said management at the Paramount Theatre, adding that Edison was the logical choice to dignify such an important event. Knowing he rarely slept, they dispatched an invite to Edison by midnight telegram so as to avoid secretarial intervention. To everyone’s astonishment, he played ball. Hosannas went up when the inventor tapped the key in his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory, closing the circuit that started projection rolling on Billy The Kid --- Realife via remote control by the man who’d given us movies. There is question as to whether Billy The Kid was ever shown in 70mm. Modern sources say wide prints on 35mm were reduced from the larger negative, in accordance with those recommendations made by MGM’s Douglas Shearer when the matter was before the Academy. Billy The Kid had a negative cost of $605,000, far less than The Big Trail, but domestic rentals were less as well, stalling at $709,000. With foreign rentals at just $131,000, the picture ended up losing $119,000. A 1988 book, Widescreen Movies, claimed 70mm prints of Billy The Kid were still extant (the 35mm version is shown from time to time on TCM). I checked with a Warners source and was told of a glimmer of hope for the film’s survival in 70mm, and that the situation was being explored. Let’s hope those efforts bear fruit.

Paramount and Universal experimented with wide photography, but never committed to features in the format. There would be more openings during the remaining months of 1930. United Artists’ The Bat Whispers was a spooky thriller shot mostly indoors by director Roland West. Elements from this survived best of all the wide shows, with the 65mm negative yielding 35mm anamorphic prints via UCLA’s preservation facility. A Milestone DVD containing both the wide and standard frame versions (that disc needs anamorphic remastering for maximum effect) is also available. The Bat Whispers was shot in the Magnifilm process, and had a negative cost of $467,000. It earned domestic rentals of $561,000. Chicago’s State-Lake Theatre hosted the premiere of RKO’s Danger Lights, which was shown in Natural Vision on a forty-six by twenty-six foot screen (ad shown here). As with some of the previous wide shows, there were promises of stereo effect. The World Sees For The First Time Pictures That Show Not Alone Height and Width, But Also Depth. Patron skepticism obliged State-Lake management to modify its definition of Natural Vision --- Danger Lights would merely be quasi-stereoscopic. The November 15 program began with a short comedy on standard 35mm, followed by the opening of curtains to reveal the full expanse for 65mm projection. Another scenic of Niagara Falls (this one green-tinted) got the requisite applause, but an air pressure system had to be added to projectors when heat caused buckling of the wide film. Like The Big Trail, Danger Lights would play but one other large gauge venue before finishing up on standard 35mm. Warner’s Vitascope run of The Lash in late December 1930 would lower the curtain on wide screens. Again there were two bookings in 65mm with the rest standard. The Lash lost $210,000. Industry edict handed down that month forbade continued exploration of large screen formats. They had amounted to more headache, expense, and upheaval than an already stressed industry could manage. Best to shut it down and move on. Wide screens would return in the fifties, and even some of the original equipment was put back to use, albeit in support of newly named systems. This time, exhibitors (desperate) and public (fascinated) were ready. You’d not need new projectors to run Cinemascope and Vistavision. 70mm found a congenial home in roadshow palaces with size and seats to justify installation of new equipment. The promise of Grandeur and the rest had seemingly been fulfilled at last, even if most of what had been shot wide in 1929-30 was now lost. Of the little we still have, The Big Trail is most accessible, thanks to Fox’s outstanding DVD, still a startling and impressive show even on our modest home approximations of Grandeur.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Grandeur Of It All --- Part One

What a kick it must have been to walk into theatres during those wildly experimental days of the late twenties! Revolution was afoot among studio alchemists mixing newly arrived sound, color, and screen shapes. Anything was possible beyond theatre fronts promising the newest glimpse of filmmaking things to come. Upturned convention was for this briefest moment the norm. Had not the stock market crashed, and a timid industry retrenched, we might have had most, if not all, of our classic favorites shot, and maybe released, on 70mm film. As it was, that highest of high definitions would wait another quarter century to again make landfall. The technology folks sampled in 1930 beat the pants off Cinemascope and Vistavision we’d later settle for. Good as it looks on the new DVD, imagine seeing The Big Trail in full 70mm on the New York Roxy’s forty-two foot wide by twenty foot high screen, and this was seventy-eight years ago! I’d have been no more surprised riding home that night on the Space Shuttle. We’d understand better such seismic events had viewership exceeded the comparative thimble-full present when these doomed leviathans roared to but fleeting life. For so little as survives of them, such experiments are as retrievable to us now as Broadway and vaudeville turns played live and consigned since to the ether. Most of what was shot widescreen between 1926 and 1930 is lost. Those bold initial strokes at color are largely gone as well. Who cares to save experiments once scuttled and written off? Names their inventors dreamed up are enticing still --- Grandeur, Realife, Magnifilm, Vitascope --- were these puffed up gimmicks or harbingers of greatness derailed by chance and worse timing? Good as movies have looked since the thirties, think of King Kong, Gone With The Wind, and Citizen Kane on 70mm negative. It could have happened. The technology was available to make it happen. Had William Fox’s Grandeur vision succeeded, I wonder how long we’d have waited for broad use of three-color Technicolor and implementation of stereophonic sound. Both could have been utilized by the late thirties, if not before. See how easy it is to be carried away with a dream? Somebody pinch me if I’ve overshot what potential came (and went) with Grandeur. For my money (but not, as it turned out, Fox’s), this was Hollywood’s most audacious leap toward a future we’ve still not met (2008 and we’re exhibiting yet on 35mm!). In an industry so tumultuous as it was in 1929-30, how could Grandeur, Realife and the rest end in anything but glorious failure?

Paramount toyed with expanded screens from 1926 in flagship runs of Old Ironsides, Wings, and other big vista shows. Their Magnascope was simply blowing up 35mm, grain and all, to fill prosceniums where space for such expansion was available. These were essentially cheaters, but arresting ones. Some exhibitors even Magnascope'd trailers to put over bally for otherwise conventional features like The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (an account of one such memorable push here). William Fox gambled and had won with sound on film. His Movietone was out the gate well ahead of everyone's talkies save Warners. Emboldened perhaps by that, plus theatres he was buying up like no tomorrow (and things would turn out something like that), Fox put his own cash into developing a for-real expanded screen process with clarity the equal of its size. Grandeur would shun the use of standard 35mm for both shooting and exhibition. It was a plan sufficiently grandiose (why not just call it that?) as to oblige users just upended by sound conversion to reinvent their wheel all over again, using a 70mm format patented and to be licensed by Fox. Here was a mogul drunk on prospects of eventually controlling all Hollywood. For a few months, he owned even Loew’s, parent company of MGM. A car crash precipitated the tailspin dooming Grandeur and its architect’s extravagant dream before a first public demonstration on September 17, 1929. The picture, Fox Movietone Follies, was familiar to Roxy patrons over previous weeks, having been shown there in standard 35mm and headed comfortably toward final profits of $380,000. The wide version would bow at the Gaiety Theatre, recently re-equipped for 70mm projection and a new screen thirty-five feet wide. The capacity audience of 811 enjoyed a show destined to find its way into motion picture history, according to The Exhibitors Herald-World. Wide film was little short of a sensation. Awestruck ovation greeted the program of shorts designed to arouse just that. There was footage of Niagara Falls (stunningly effective) and remarkably clear shots of Babe Ruth batting homers. A wider soundtrack seemed to have licked problems Fox was experiencing with its Movietone sound-on-film format (greater tonal range, according to them), and the picture, as illustrated here with 35-70mm frame comparisons, was said to be about twice as wide as high. Publicity gilded an already impressive product by implying the effect of third dimension upon Grandeur, and announced the company’s intention of equipping Fox theatres with 70mm projectors and wide screens, foreseeing a time, not far distant, when all Fox productions will be made in the new dimensions. For a trade press and audience that night, it seemed Grandeur was poised to put motion pictures of today into the peep-show class (according to the Herald-World). Conventional 35mm would thus seem hopelessly inadequate as of September 17, 1929.

Grandeur ran a three-legged race from its opening bell. The promise of Fox Theatres conversion to 70mm would not be fulfilled. The market crash of October 24, 1929 put paid to expansions prophesied but weeks earlier (although the Depression wouldn’t generally hit the film industry until 1931). William Fox was forced out by April 1930. The second Grandeur feature, Happy Days, had opened two months previous at the Roxy. Audiences elsewhere saw it in 35mm and as nationwide ad and poster art didn’t mention Grandeur, few realized what they were missing (the film took $132,000 in profits). Logistics of retrofitting several thousand theatres so soon after having done so for talkies was a frightful enough proposition in boom times. Now Fox was barely able to make mortgage payments on real estate they’d overbought. The Big Trail had been on drawing boards since better times suggested viable possibilities of epic filmmaking with sound. Enough money was already spent as to make cancellation inadvisable, and besides, such a frontier saga might still work (hadn't The Iron Horse clicked?). Universal announced The Oregon Trail (trade ad shown here) for its 1930-31 season in June, but dropped the project in deference to Fox’s already in progress The Big Trail. Raoul Walsh would direct newcomer John Wayne and Fox boasted of two million earmarked for the production. Walsh was a sensible choice. He’d painted on large canvases before (The Thief Of Bagdad, What Price Glory?) and more recently made talking westerns pay with In Old Arizona, a picture he’d not complete due to a freakish auto mishap that cost him the starring role plus his right eye. Walsh recovered sufficiently to direct two more major profit pictures for Fox release. He was by far the company’s leading money director. In Old Arizona had realized a $566,000 gain, The Cock-Eyed World was a certified smash with a million in profit, and Hot For Paris finished with $375,000 in black ink. The six-month odyssey that was The Big Trail seemed less a gamble with Walsh at its head. From March to August of 1930, he’d ramrod the biggest overland trek Hollywood had ever attempted. There would be a staggering six versions of The Big Trail filmed. One would be 70mm Grandeur, another was standard 35mm. Walsh directed both. Four more Big Trails were prepared for foreign territories. Shooting on these began in November 1930, over a month after the domestic version opened in theatres. The French edition was La Piste des géants, directed by Pierre Courdere. A German version, Die Grossen Fahrt, was filmed during December 1930 and directed by Lewis Seiler. Variety panned it following a Berlin showing in April of 1931, citing clumsy German dialogue and haphazard scenes. The latter was grafted onto action and outdoor footage Walsh had supervised. Such was the case with all four foreign versions. La Gran Jornada, for instance, generated its own negative costs of $200,000 for an alternate cast and dialogue segments in Spanish. There was $7000 in domestic rentals for La Gran Jornada, as it played, like most foreign-language derivations, in metropolitan areas with large ethnic populations, plus an additional $344,000 from territories outside the US, yielding La Gran Jornada higher foreign rentals than the $242,000 collected by The Big Trail’s English-speaking version (Wayne is shown above with four actors essaying his role in the foreign versions).

Fox actually had $1.7 million in the US negative of The Big Trail. That was more money than was spent on any of their previous output, and indeed no picture Fox made during the 1930’s, before or after the merger with Twentieth-Century Pictures, would cost so much. October 1930 opening dates for The Big Trail saw only two theatres hosting Grandeur prints. Hollywood’s Grauman Chinese was the October 2 premiere site (President Hoover enjoyed a private White House screening just prior to this). October 24 would be opening day at New York’s Roxy. Every other engagement of The Big Trail was in 35mm. Fox’s goodwill outreach to exhibitors promised it for immediate general release bookings (see trade ad here). The Big Trail would not be roadshown outside of the exclusive to Grauman’s Los Angeles territory. Initial receipts from the two Grandeur runs were encouraging. Mordaunt Hall’s New York Times review was rhapsodic. The views on the wide screen are so compelling that when one goes to see an ordinary sized screen … it looks absurdly small. Variety was less generous. You had to wonder if someone there had it in for Fox. Referring to The Big Trail as a noisy "Covered Wagon", the reviewer took even Grandeur to task, referring to photography dimmed by the widened screen and ensemble scenes indistinct. Were technical problems hobbling Grandeur and The Big Trail? Focus issues were mentioned in the trade press. 70mm nitrate film was said to occasionally cup and buckle during projection. Such complications seemed fairly minor after breakdowns endured with early sound systems. Fox spokesman Harley Clarke was nevertheless confident of a four million dollar gross. October 1930 would represent a summit of industry optimism for Grandeur. Wide Screens For The Future (as shown in the ad here) were promoted during the heady week preceding New York’s opening of The Big Trail. Showmen were encouraged to update and get in on ground floors of wall-to-wall projection. Warners was preparing Vitascope to answer perceived demands for 70mm. The last week of October saw that company’s announcement of wide screens for every Warner theatre (in fact, as with Fox, only a handful would be equipped). MGM had its Billy The Kid opening that month as well. It was filmed in 70mm Realife. Were movies so recently given to speech on the verge of another revolution? Was a wide new era about to unfold? The answer to both questions wouldn’t be long in coming …

Part Two of The Big Trail at Greenbriar Archive HERE.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Metro's Accent On Youth

Performing children can (often do) annoy adults, no matter how capable and talented. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland came nearest to universal acceptance, captivating mass followers for a near decade playing kid/adolescents. She was 20 and he 22 when Girl Crazy concluded their co-star teamings. For monies these two generated, it might have gone on forever but for cruelties of time and aging. The latter came hardest for Rooney, but more of that anon. I've watched pieces of something called High School Musical to gauge then and now barometers of youth in the spotlight. Disney manufactures teen idols today like Krispy Kreme cooks donuts, and their public seems untroubled by resolute sameness among casts shifting, then falling through trap doors back to presumed obscurity from which most came. I’m no fair judge of such industry, but who’d not smell rats when singing/dancing "talent" seldom does so for more than three seconds of exposed film (or video tape)? Looking at Girl Crazy made me realize anew how badly we’re cheated by modern musicals constructing each recital out of film strips less than an arm’s length, with dances executed not on stage, but in the editor’s hovel. I timed Rooney and Garland at sixty-nine seconds of sustained hoofing with not one cut. When have we seen that lately? Technology allows us to fake most anything now, including musical/dancing ability. As to that wider audience net MGM cast in 1943, I don’t wonder at grownup acceptance of Girl Crazy (extended runs and one million in profits), as adults are woven into the narrative and do participate throughout. The divide and conquer your fragmented public was years away then. It's almost startling to observe Mickey and Judy in such relaxed negotiation with old-timers initially bemused by, but ultimately accepting of, young ideas. As with other Metro celebrations of adolescent energy, teens are respectful (Rooney unfailingly addresses elders as ma’am or sir), while dress codes are observed by way of neatly tailored suits and junior miss outfits. Parental conflict is minimal with always the promise of reconciliation and never a suggestion of teen mischief beyond harmless (read likeably spirited) levels. Metro wisely chose not to challenge the viewer nor make anyone feel excluded or uncomfortable. To damn old Hollywood for such cunningly applied social science is really just shooting fish in a barrel for enlightened observers lamenting admitted hypocrisies of these films, but would MGM have profited so confining Rooney and Garland to the sort of kiddie ghetto High School Musical occupies? The more baloney I sense in these forties fairy tales, the more I admire the sheer audacity of putting forth such skewed reality and making it pay across demographic landscapes unknown to programmers today.

Girl Crazy opens on a close-up of beaming Mickey Rooney. Such was his popularity at the time that it was enough to kick start on that puckish face and engage the people's delight with grosses assured. I’ve sympathized with Rooney’s ongoing effort to convince youngish interviewers that he really was the Number One boxoffice attraction in the United States for several years running during the early forties. So many of those who loved and laughed with Andy Hardy are gone or going. Mickey will be 88 in a few months. Another year and he will have outlived Judy Garland by four decades. I wonder how many of their old pictures he actually sits down and watches now, and what specific memories he still has. There’s an extended routine in Girl Crazy where Mickey plays ring announcer for an imaginary boxing match. I’d assume those are dead-on impressions he’s doing of various sports commentators of the day, but who’d remember names, let alone voices, so obscure? Rooney was noted as well for wicked mimicry of Lionel Barrymore. I wonder when they last prevailed upon him to do that routine. Sands have shifted so as to make Girl Crazy seem like something that was made two centuries ago. It’s hard to imagine people still with us being involved in it (any left other than MR?). Mickey’s the sort of quadruple talent threat I can’t imagine seeing today. Being a child of vaudeville and silent comedies (!), you’ve got to assume he could do anything by 1943, so it’s no shock to see him blazing over the keys as piano accompanist to Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra. Rooney mentions that signal honor in a newly-filmed intro for the Girl Crazy DVD, but I’d like knowing if he’s aware, or has forgotten, that his playing was eventually dubbed by Dorsey veteran Arthur Schutt (although Mickey’s finger work is every bit as accomplished as Tyrone Power’s would be in The Eddy Duchin Story). Rooney still figures he was shafted by paymasters at Metro. Based on earnings from his films, I’d say he’s got more than a good point, but who told him Girl Crazy grossed more than forty-seven million worldwide? His autobiography also reports $68,166 in compensation for doing the feature (to Garland’s $28,666), and neither of us got a dime’s worth of royalties from all those great songs we recorded. It never takes Rooney long to get around to topics of money he didn't receive for work performed so many years ago. I can see him sidling up yet to Warner hands to inquire if a few dollars shouldn’t be had for introducing his and Judy’s old musicals on DVD. 

No sooner would MGM develop one singing/dancing prodigy than they’d go in quest of his/her successor. Judy Garland’s potential replacement shows up in Girl Crazy before she does. June Allyson was talent well and good unless you put her on a stage with Garland, which Metro wisely never did. Judy’s instability created urgency to locate other girls who could do what she did at something like her level of efficiency. That never happened, of course, and self-aware pretenders understood the hopelessness of their commission. June Allyson spoke later of executive efforts to pit her against Garland, though the former had but to compare her own spirited, but ultimately conventional trouping, against unique gifts of the latter to know there was just no competition. Nothing was so humbling for singing ingenues at Metro than being held to impossible Garland standards. Shirley Temple (here with Louis Mayer, Garland, and Rooney) came over from Fox at twelve and found her once applauded song and dance skills cruelly diminished by arrangers indignant over her seeming inability to do it like Judy. She’d be stripped of confidence and badly used in a single misjudged vehicle (Kathleen) before being let go. MGM continued in the grip of youth madness inspired by runaway Rooney/Garland profits. Here was an ongoing brand that sold --- imagine what multiple teams of kid performers could bring? There were efforts toward that remembered by few today. Born To Sing was Ray McDonald and Virginia Weidler in Mickey/Judy disguise --- an experiment not repeated. Youngsters just off Broadway hit Best Foot Forward have supporting bits in Girl Crazy, bits being the operative word as most of Nancy Walker and Gil Stratton wound up in editor wastebaskets. No one in authority wanted to admit the impossibility of duplicating Rooney and Garland. With growing realization of that, Mickey and Judy began swinging weight around on Girl Crazy and though other factors entered into it, a negative cost at $1.4 million did show marked increases over Babes On Broadway ($955,000), Strike Up The Band ($854,000) and Babes In Arms ($748,000).

Busby Berkeley directed the number for which Girl Crazy is best remembered and then was fired off the picture. He’d gotten edgier and more belligerent (according to arranger Roger Edens, who became his arch-enemy of sorts). Berkeley was one of those enormous talents you had to make many an allowance for. He yelled at everybody and made them work until three in the morning(s). I Got Rhythm was seven minutes plus he contributed that made the rest of Girl Crazy look punk by comparison. No wonder they decided to close the picture with it. Warners found multiple recorded tracks and wedded them to give stereo effect to Berkeley’s spectacle. That multi-channel version is an extra on the DVD and it’s stupefying. Internal frictions led to Busby’s ouster, though fan presses would be stealthily informed it was Judy Garland’s power play that got him canned in favor of lower-keyed journeyman Norman Taurog (shown here on Palm Springs location with Rooney and Garland). Hedda Hopper visited the set and broke columnist protocol with a barbed account of directorial abuses she observed. Was this part of a neat frame MGM was putting Berkeley in? Hopper described a wild gleam in the director’s eye as he pushed Garland close to hysteria. The star added helpfully that she felt lashed by the figurative big black bullwhip Berkeley carried. The set photo here shows Judy holding her director’s hand and looking attentive. Was Hopper’s column the pulpit chosen for captive Trilby to declare her liberation from tyrant Berkeley and thereby grease wheels for his exit? Effects this wound-tight genius achieved weren’t possible short of endless rehearsal and back breaking effort. At a point where feeling their oats Rooney and Garland were bent on slowing their workday tempo, Busby seemed intent upon increasing his. The ultimate victors in such a contest was a foregone conclusion, though posterity would be served by BB’s resulting loan-out to Fox and The Gang’s All Here, perhaps the best known musical for which he received director’s credit. Aforementioned Taurog, for whom the label "journeyman" seems unduly dismissive in view of his previous directorial work, would complete Girl Crazy. He began by acting kid parts in 1912, and was writing and directing comedy for Larry Semon by the time he was twenty-one (the two of them were pallbearers, along with Babe Hardy, at Virginia Rappe’s funeral). Later there were two-reelers he guided for Lloyd Hamilton, one of those neglected funnymen whose output mostly burned up in warehouses. Thanks to good offices of Looser Than Loose and their prodigious catalog of silent comedies on DVD, I saw two of Taurog’s laffers with Hamilton --- Careful Please and Nobody’s Business. Both were howls and showed this writer/director to be a top hand with sight gagging (a five-disc Lloyd Hamilton set is available from L.T.L. and comes highly recommended). Taurog’s legacy got a raw deal when writer Peter Biskind used him to lead off a scabrous account (in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) on doddering old-time directors kept working as young Turks were held at bay, the book’s sympathies clearly with those outsiders looking in. Some veterans were admittedly too long at the party. Taurog might better have retired sooner, but then we’d not have enjoyed that inimitable retro touch he brought to Sergeant Deadhead, Spinout, and Dr. Goldfoot and The Bikini Machine.
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