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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fashion Noir --- Part Two

There are those thrillers that make history, like Psycho, and then there’s the rest, like Midnight Lace, merely functional in their day, and little remembered now. Who cares that the latter played, and very successfully, but months in the wake of Hitchcock’s smash? Both were offered up as exercises in polished suspense. The not unfamiliar device of encouraging audiences to arrive not later than the picture’s beginning was gently pursued by theatres showing Ross Hunter’s confection (and yes, by golly, that’s the ideal word to describe it), while Hitchcock’s similar, but hard-and-fast edict on Psycho’s behalf, was actually written into exhibition contracts and enforced at ticket windows (as shown here). Having opened in October, Midnight Lace provided balm for audiences undone by Hithcock’s relentless assault upon genre conventions. Its mystery was as reassuringly elemental as its outcome was predictably resolved. To challenge viewers would be to distract them from matters of greater concern to Ross Hunter, namely clothes and décor that would center merchandising strategy and deliver a success on the order of previous Hunter hits. Midnight Lace represents the triumph of the superficial thriller, one that might emerge if an artist like Hitchcock were to shoot and release the barest skeletal outline of a coming project. By 1960, the guessing game as to villainous identity was one practiced non-stop on televisions everywhere, what with schedules awash in whodunits and series like Perry Mason making armchair sleuths of us all. The point of a Midnight Lace had to be something other than which character was seeking to terrorize Doris Day (shown here in a pair of unretouched portraits with co-star Rex Harrison). The imperative must be what Day was wearing while the unknown he/she was about it. Howard Hawks had been canny enough to observe the impact of relentless video recycling of westerns, and so put greater emphasis on character and bantering comedy in 1959’s Rio Bravo, cowboy formulae now being all but impossible to deliver fresh. The ubiquity of old movies at home was indeed forcing Hollywood to remix paints, especially with regards familiar genres.

Ross Hunter was something of an industry’s Ashley Wilkes. He so wanted Hollywood to remain that place of glamour others knew was dying. Almost poignant was his conviction that all of what once made movies great could somehow be recaptured in the likes of Midnight Lace. Toward such ends, he invited monuments of an already vanished studio era to sprinkle stardust upon pictures designed to remind patrons of theatre going at its romantic summit. Myrna Loy was among red herrings in Midnight Lace, but her larger purpose was to evoke larger-than-lives she’d essayed back when Hunter, and most of his audience, were thrilling to pulse quickeners more recently consigned to the late, late show. They Don’t Make Them Like Used To was a chorus sung by middle-agers who’d stopped going to theatres in any case, and the producer’s idea was to lure them back along with his now loyal core of women both teenaged and young adult. To these he presented Doris Day at the very moment of her coronation as Number One Boxoffice Attraction in America, with Midnight Lace arriving in the wake of Universal’s phenomenal Pillow Talk (here they are on location with co-producer, and Day's husband, Martin Melcher). To read Day’s straight-faced account of traumas she suffered enacting her victimized heroine in Midnight Lace, we’re all the more amazed, if not impressed, at how earnestly stars of her generation applied themselves to what viewers would now (charitably) call high camp. Part of my respect for Midnight Lace (and others like it) derives from its cast’s refusal to betray their condescension to what most of them knew to be pulpy material. Doris Day recalled projecting onto her character to a point of on-set breakdown and three days needed to recover. Within a few short years, players briefed on irony and the knowing wink would convey their indifference all too well, and sensibilities like Ross Hunter’s would run out of avenues for expression.

I assume there’s still a fashion industry, but does it thrive as in 1960 when Universal marshaled its forces on behalf of Midnight Lace? Hollywood must regain its place as Glamour Capital of the world and clothes is what made Hollywood just that, said Ross Hunter as the studio’s aggressive tie-up with retailers nationwide left the feature an almost afterthought in the wake of Doris Day-inspired outfits designed by Hollywood’s renowned Irene. She’d been in movies since Keystone days, first as would-be actress, and later more successfully as dressmaker to the stars. Ross Hunter built much of his Midnight Lace campaign around Irene’s wardrobe for Doris Day. There was a six-minute short, free to exhibitors, made up of costume tests for the film, and this was fanned out by Universal field men to department stores in every key location playing Midnight Lace. 16mm prints were shown to clerks in advance of shopper arrival and display windows were festooned with outfits seen in the film. In Kansas City, for instance, the sales staff of Harzfeld Clothier, a mainstay in that city since 1891, con-fabbed with studio reps at a closed screening of Midnight Lace with accompanying fashion short. The idea was to acquaint management and thirty-six sales staffers on how best to merchandise both the movie and clothing displayed during it. An original Irene suit as seen in the film would be a Grand Prize in contests held at the store. Professional craft and guile on the part of Universal exploiteers created Midnight Lace consciousness running weeks in advance of the show’s opening. As with Portrait In Black and its beauty salon tie-ins, this was surest to target femme patrons and inspire commerce both at Harzfeld’s and the National Theatre circuit, which had booked the feature into houses it controlled throughout the territory.

Why I Would Like To Be Doris Day For A Night was the subject of contemplation for over a hundred who responded to the Center Theatre’s contest appeal in Corpus Christi, Texas. It seemed not a foolish inquiry in light of this actresses’ popularity. There were scores of women nationwide who wanted to be Doris Day all the time, or at the least spend whatever they had to spare of it watching her films. Much of that appeal had to do with luxuries she was thought to enjoy. Pillow Talk was as much about (lavish) lifestyle as laughs, and Midnight Lace would be more of that same, only this time gracious living would be salted with comparatively mild thrills. Doris on screen (and fans assumed off) consumed much of what (lots of) money could buy, so To Be Doris Day was to wear the latest and buy the mostest. No more would vehicles find her in humble circumstance. She was tied inexorably to products sold on her image and/or endorsement. Representing an ideal to patrons now meant shopping for them as well, so why not be Doris Day for a night when that amounts to having your wish list filled? The contest winner in this instance would enjoy a night on the town consistent with those DD might routinely experience, provided one bought into Hollywood as the High Life Incarnate. Here was an illusion still tenable, but for not much longer, in December of 1960 when Mrs. Fran Lowley of Ronstown, Texas had her big night out. She and extended family (including kids not unlike ones Doris had in that year’s Please Don’t Eat The Daisies) were driven seventeen miles in a 1961 Chevrolet Impala sedan (on loan from a local dealer), with color commentary by a radio announcer brought along to broadcast the event. There was supper in the spacious dining room of the luxurious Luby’s Cafeteria in Corpus Christi, followed by a star entrance into the Center’s lobby (as shown here) and an interview on stage which was transmitted live to listeners. Mrs. Lowley then took receipt of gifts presumed worthy of a Doris Day and by courtesy of town merchants --- a transistor radio, Vinyl jacket, a cigarette lighter, and a crisp new $50 bill in addition to twelve months of free admission to the Center. It wasn’t a wardrobe by Irene, but this being 1500 miles east of Hollywood, it would do. Whatever glamour dust was needed to supplement this temporal Doris Day would be supplied by Midnight Lace, for which Universal collected $3.5 million in domestic rentals, their biggest profit taker for 1960 next to Operation Petticoat.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I Call It Fashion Noir --- Part One

I don’t know if success ever spoiled Ross Hunter (at right with Lana Turner), but it certainly blew his critical reputation. He’s the producer Douglas Sirk was said to have risen above to give us All That Heaven Allows and Imitation Of Life, while his Portrait In Black and Midnight Lace rank high among Bad Movies We Love. Will latter-day noiristas ever come to embrace Hunter’s signature Fashion Noir? He had a determinedly superficial concept of what movies should be. I gave audiences what they wanted --- a chance to dream, to live vicariously, to see beautiful women, jewels, gorgeous clothes, melodrama. So how are legacies preserved upon such craven appeal to lower appetites? Hunter never cared. His was the sensibility of a movie fan turned loose to make the sort of movies other fans dreamed of seeing. I’m not ashamed to watch his shows and thoroughly enjoy them. You can have the camp readings and ironic overlays too, for I’ll take my Ross Hunter straight up and leave deeper insights to academics and post-modernists. I showed Midnight Lace to Ann in secure knowledge she’d like those very things Hunter listed above, and it having been 1968 since I last saw it, we both waited in suspense for the would-be killer to be unmasked. This clearly isn’t Hitchcock, but such things as Midnight Lace and Portrait In Black offer much by way of simple pleasure others might dismiss as trash wallowing. How much expectation should you bring to any picture whose credits read Gowns By … and Jewels By …? A Ross Hunter story was always secondary to lifestyles he celebrated. Having taught English in high schools, he applied just enough polish to flatter that level of his viewership. Women, teens and so-called young adults were his targeted audience, and Hunter had a teacher’s good sense to know these were about the only groups still buying tickets to movies by 1960. The sun was setting upon an industry’s outreach to a fan-driven, glamour-for-its-own-sake public. Soon enough they’d be gone to the counterculture and sensibilities like Ross Hunter’s would perish with the transition. By 1970 and his last big hit, Airport, the producer himself would represent old Hollywood in graceful retreat, his exit, like that of Doris Day, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, and all the rest who’d made his output so much fun, being seen as necessary giving way of a discredited old to make way for a knowing and more sophisticated new.

It’s no good watching Portrait In Black right after Vertigo (both being suspense thrillers set, and at least partially shot, in San Francisco). You’ll be let down, but then again, maybe not. As with all Ross Hunter, one must surrender before one can enjoy. Vertigo, indeed most of Hitchcock, takes endurance and commitment. Portrait In Black has all the comforts of an electric blanket with an Oreo box besides. You consume, and maybe come away a bit sullied, but it was pure pleasure being there, and what’s more engaging than a movie one can feel so superior to? Balls-out melodrama is a necessary corrective to excesses of civility we get from pictures critics like. Give me confrontation, faces slapped, and pistols in handbags. Let it be actors slumming but never condescending to the material (as they would, and do, nowadays in woebegone efforts like Down With Love and Far From Heaven, two that tried spirit rapping with a departed Ross Hunter). Lana Turner spent a lifetime and attendant marriages, gone sour loves, and even a real-life bedroom killing to qualify herself for Portrait In Black. That is credibility you don’t come by with acting lessons, and reason withal why modern actresses can never heft the weight she did at what she did. Turner performed best in courtrooms and nightclubs. That was all the preparation needed for frankly silly movies featuring her in middle age. Clothes made this woman (and previous Sweater Girl), and even if Lana never knew her Ibsen, she sure had that reality down pat. Her instinct was infallible, and it was wired to those who paid quarters for magazines she had posed in for twenty plus years. Portrait In Black director Michael Gordon accused Turner of impoverished taste, but I’m betting he was the one who wasn’t getting it (certainly she, and not he, walked away with gross percentages on these Universal mellers). Lana was not a dummy, and she would give me wonderful rationalizations why she should wear pendant earrings. They had nothing to do with the role, but they had everything to do with her particular self-image, said the director. Au contraire, Mr. Gordon, for I’d submit that Lana Turner, like her producer Ross Hunter, knew well that earrings (and gowns and furs) were the role. Nothing beyond these was really consequential in films like Portrait In Black.

In fact, it was Lana’s hair that drove ticket sales in many situations. Universal tied in with Seligman and Latz beauty salons, with 350 locations nationwide, to highlight a Lana Turner-inspired frosted platinum blonde hairdo in department stores where S&L had parlors. National advertising tied to saturation bookings was becoming the norm with high profile releases, but Universal still leaned on exhibitors to get the word out locally. Toward that end, special kits were supplied in advance of regular pressbooks. This is not a do-it-yourself kit, but one which tells you what you can do with the picture if you want to become a showman. Against so loud a countrywide drumbeat, was grassroots management getting lazy and as willing to let Universal tote the heavier load? May-be, but they were also loudest to complain when increased percentage demands reflected distributor effort to get back some of what had been spent on large circulation magazines and network television ads. Selling Portrait In Black in twenty-one publications (including virtually all those geared toward feminine readers) was said to have reached 140 million, but how many of these actually paid admissions to see the feature? Theatre attendance was seriously declining after all. It was enough for most women to check out photos of Lana Turner sporting her new "champagne blonde" style in the pages of Redbook. Why buy tickets and bother with her emoting too? Sobering indeed was the measure of those 140 million readers against $3.2 million in domestic rentals Universal realized on Portrait In Black. The fraction of folks going to movies grew ever smaller as the 60’s dawned, and for a company like Universal that seldom vaulted far over a single million in rentals, $3.2 was actually a more than respectable number. Others were surely getting by (or not) on far less. You really had to work to drag people away from their televisions. Star touring was essential. Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, Virginia Grey, Anna May Wong, and even novelty appearances by Portrait In Black script girl Dolores Rubin, canvassed forty cities and towns, a heavier plow to pull than merely working on the film itself. Universal applied wake-up calls in many spots by comping news scribes with wining and dining their paychecks could otherwise ill afford. Suspiciously kind reviews were the outcome. Exhibitors will find their local newspaper and radio people well-conditioned on "Portrait In Black", said a confident Universal (well fed and lubricated might have been a franker choice of words). Spinning off the previous year’s Imitation Of Life (a monster hit also with Lana Turner) and memories of L' Affaire Stompanato assured mother/daughter conflicts would segue over to Portrait In Black’s scenario and be emphasized accordingly in ad art (one shown here). Wasn’t this, after all, what Turner’s image was all about?

It’s said that Sandra Dee became every mother’s dream (and note devoted elder ladies reaching out to her at a personal appearance here). She was perhaps the last of the white glove ingenues. Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but that arose as much from having subsisted since childhood on a diet of lettuce heads and Epsom salts. Childhood was an elastic term in any case, as Dee seems never to have had one. She played beyond her years from the age of eight, called ten by her ultra-aggressive stage mother looking to jumpstart employment in teen roles. Sandra Dee was cresting just when Portrait In Black had its Summer 1960 landfall. She’d been featured on two dozen fan mag covers so far that year. Veteran Universal still photographer Ray Jones called hers the most kissable lips in Hollywood, comparable only to those of Clara Bow. Dee nuzzled John Saxon on camera and pretended all the while to be eighteen, abetted by a studio anxious to move her up to adult parts. She inspired girls to buy Coppertone and Lustre-Crème (as here), while being kept clear of peers on the lot lest one damage the valued merchandise Dee was. It was still possible for movie stars to revisit hometowns in triumph. Sandra Dee’s was Bayonne, New Jersey, where she’d be received in that delirious way (young) celebrities just off assembly lines were. A local showman such as the one shown with her here would welcome both a visiting star and the unaccustomed sight of his house filled to capacity. A customized Sandra Dee, like other studio models catering to fad and fashion, could thrive but for a moment when a public embraced the idealized teen she personified. That having ended, Whatever Became Of … was a question few even bothered to ask. Dee was a soft object for ridicule once her era came under a succeeding decade’s microscope, but what in the end was more pathetic? --- being cruelly spoofed in Grease (1978) by a song called Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee, or having it sung by a cringingly over-aged Stockard Channing (three months older than Dee, being 34 at the time she played a teenager in that geriatric musical with its leading lady Olivia Newton-John a ripe 30)? The frightful revelations set forth in PEOPLE magazine and her son’s book, Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, crushed whatever illusions fans might have clung to, leaving one with little but satisfaction for not having been a movie star like she so unfortunately was.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ranown Westerns --- Part Two

Was John Wayne wise to have handed off such winning westerns as these Ranowns? He could have kept them at Batjac and starred in the group to come as Scott did, but imagine the pall an eight hundred-pound gorilla like Wayne would have cast. As Ride Lonesome made brisk headway through eighteen days of no-frills shooting, his The Horse Soldiers bogged down on distant location with a script half-baked and stars (Wayne and William Holden) collecting three-quarters of a million just for showing up. The blessing of Ranown was to be spared all this, as no one booked their westerns with expectation beyond that of covering the house nut and maybe a little extra folding money. One Randolph Scott was good as another for any man’s program. An exhibitor friend who, in 1941, started with assistant projecting (at age 10!) gave me a refresher course in cowboy showmanship, the ads here being visual aids and proof that westerns sold best in bunches. He paired an ancient Scott, 1933’s To The Last Man, with sleek new 1954 model Riding Shotgun, to show how far the star (and motion pictures) had progressed in those intervening years. Also above, Ride Lonesome worked fine on a triple-header for two days at a Scotland Neck, NC hardtop (and note free admission if you rode your own horse to the theatre). Well, would there have been a better way to see these? While such as The Horse Soldiers was being sold on onerous percentage terms, Ranowns were in and out of such venues and pleasing at all stops. Even now, they play better than the biggies that rolled over them gross-wise. Some of us got together with a friend who was managing for UA theatres and ran The Man From Laramie with Ride Lonesome in 35mm. All in attendance preferred the Scott. It was lean filet against prime rib with (by comparison) too much back-story fat. The Man From Laramie seemed overwritten beside ultra-terse Burt Kennedy exchanges delivered in far less a running time (73 minutes vs. 104), with self-possessed Scott a calming alternative to neurosis-on-his-sleeve James Stewart. It takes but one pass through the Ranowns to recognize writer Burt Kennedy as essential cog in the wheel and undoubted most valuable member of the creative team. Decision At Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone are notably weaker for his not having written them. We know and admire Kennedy’s bumps for their being repeated with minimal variation in all four of those he did. Still, I never tire of watching … and listening. How many westerns find their audience wanting to get past indian attacks so they can hear more dialogue? Budd Boetticher recalled pretty much shooting the scripts Kennedy handed him. We can thank providence for that.

Burt Kennedy was also credited for an interim western at Warners, Yellowstone Kelly, but it’s clear other cooks diluted his broth. For all the westerns he’d write and direct for another forty years, both theatrical and in television, Kennedy would not again scale the heights of Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station. He was promoted up to directing, but that proved more a lateral move, for good as these are for what they are (The War Wagon, Support Your Local Sheriff, others), you come away wishing he’d written them instead and that Boetticher weren’t in Mexico obsessing over bullfighters. Kennedy wrote and directed 1973’s The Train Robbers, back with John Wayne, but that venerable star, older now and less given to patience than anyone left in his crews, was not about to hand Kennedy free creative rein. Other writers who’d earned with westerns in better days were reduced now to dismantling the genre for television spoofs done badly and on the cheap. Kennedy directed scripts by William (The Gunfighter) Bowers, yet this combination of talent beget nothing more than a pair of leaden Wild, Wild West revivals in 1979-80. It was hard reconciling these with work they’d done not so many years before. Seeing westerns die became sad ritual for us watching. Imagine what it was for those who began careers breathing fresh life into them. The sixties was scorched desert for cowboys and audiences that took westerns seriously. The Ranown team was as well advised to split, for commercial interest in economy westerns was now altogether restricted to those you’d make for television. Randolph Scott retired holsters after Ride The High Country at MGM in 1961, and Harry Joe Brown was done within a few more years and one last curtain call (A Time For Killing in 1967). Budd Boetticher subsisted on TV westerns before heading to Mexico and his own heart of darkness in bullrings there. For all our admiration of maverick directors, we like them best when they deliver goods, whatever the obstacles and all the more when those are overcome. Boetticher seems to me to have blown the sixties in worshipful documenting of a matador who died suddenly and left the director with a filmed profile no one cared to see. Wild man Budd further defied reason by dumping (shown here) wife Debra Paget, prima facie evidence of that Mexican sun having driven him balmy. Breakdowns and time served behind bars further suggested he had gone round the bend. By the time Boetticher came home seeking work, there was only 1969’s A Time For Dying, so bottom-of-the-barrel as to help no one, and now tied up in rights dispute.

With regard rights, these were what kept Seven Men From Now buried for almost fifty years. John Wayne’s deal with Warners called for all Batjac negatives to revert back upon expiration of a specified period, after which they’d belong to that independent company. Though Wayne continued producing features under the Batjac banner, he had less interest in reissuing old properties or making them available for rental and television. A 1960 lawsuit against Warner Bros. had perhaps soured the actor/producer on releasing his backlog to syndication. WB had lumped all of the Batjac features, including Hondo, The High and The Mighty, and Seven Men From Now, into a post-1949 package for sale to TV. That announcement came in July 1960 while Warners still controlled distribution of these films. Batjac immediately sought injunctive relief from the courts to keep its library off local television, but the ruling went against them. As soon as Warners’ distribution rights in the films ended, Batjac withdrew them from US markets and most remained unseen for many years. Seven Men From Now was among those languishing, primarily due to the fact it did not star John Wayne and consequently drew less attention for having gone missing. Certainly there were no television runs after the early sixties. I remember seeing videotapes for sale at western cons, chained from 16mm prints long turned red and near unwatchable, but how else was one to see Seven Men From Now? I’d heard of Batjac’s negative left in standing water at some storage locker in LA. Such rumors were as often true where estates ended up with fragile elements and neither resources nor expertise to preserve them. Commercial prospects of DVD and satellite broadcasting loosened many of these just short of extinction. Digital options for rescuing faded elements became the salvation of Seven Men From Now. What’s there on DVD from Paramount (its having made distribution deals with Wayne’s estate) is as good as this picture is ever going to look, release prints from 1956 and 16mm having faded or gone to red.

Columbia’s negatives were compromised as well. Eastman fading and day-for-night scenes impenetrably dark are hazards in the preservation game and not all such damage can be fixed, whatever the technologies lately introduced (Ride Lonesome suffers most noticeably in sections where there’s virtually no color contrast left). Columbia kept ownership of five Ranowns and all were in more or less constant circulation from their original release. Decision At Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, and Ride Lonesome were playing local television as of September 1962. The Tall T and Comanche Station followed in May of 1964. None had network runs, going directly into syndication and staying there. Columbia in those days was particularly inept at scanning anamorphic features for flat presentation on TV. You’d see Randolph Scott deliver dialogue on one side of the frame and only hear his companion speaking from the other. Compositions so carefully arranged by Boetticher were utterly destroyed in pan-and-scanned Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, for years available no other way. Universities and film societies pushed for 16mm rental prints in scope, and by the late seventies, Ride Lonesome was added to Kit Parker’s non-theatrical catalogue. Encore Westerns still plays them cropped on TV, however. Forthcoming high definition will presumably put end to such abuse, Columbia having prepared HD masters for the group. Widescreen televisions in more homes will best serve the growing reputations of Ranown westerns, a process already begun with TCM’s broadcasts of Comanche Station in proper ratio. Columbia’s DVD release of the five is a first opportunity for most of us to see them in the widescreen intended. The Tall T, Decision At Sundown, and Buchanan Rides Alone were originally released in 1.85 format, and though they looked adequate in standard TV ratio, this wider view lends size and stature to counter low-budget appearance these films otherwise have.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Renowned Ranowns --- Part One

For DVD collectors these past years, it’s been seven westerns from now and a long wait for Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Decision At Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Westbound, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station (Westbound being still absent, but less of a priority). Those luckiest are ones that first came across these at drive-ins or humble theatres. Others of us discovered them where best they could be scrounged (and seemingly never in adequate prints). I hesitate in referring to the seven as Scott-Boettichers, or the auteurist’s preferred Boetticher-Scotts, as that diminishes contributions made by Ranown’s remaining essential corners, producer Harry Joe Brown, and perhaps most important, writer Burt Kennedy. Archives and museums are no fittin’ place to watch westerns so free of pretension. I suspect Kennedy’s terse dialogue was best heard through car speakers. Martin Scorsese recalled going to The Tall T in 1957 and knew then it was something special. No one of us coming to the film since will share that unique thrill of mining such treasure at the bottom of a double or triple bill as 50’s patrons did. Some may even be disappointed after the build-up these repackaged (and restored as best possible) shows are getting. Call them under the radar or termite art, the Ranowns represent a loyal opposition to puffed-up westerns of the time intent on societal betterment via frontier archetypes making the same mistakes we are. High Noon clunked viewer  heads with that fry pan and Rio Bravo answered back. Others put men of the west in analysis and gave them nightmares besides. Randolph Scott rode serenely past that and righted wrongs as he found them, being not simple-minded in the doing, even if some of his westerns had been. Hailing Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy along the trail he rode with longtime producing partner Harry Joe Brown was inspiration itself. It's good critics never noticed these little oaters getting made and quietly released. Had success gone to anyone’s head, the cake might well have fallen (but what would this team have made of DVD box art emblazoned with The Films Of Budd Boetticher and nary a mention of Randy Scott on its front?). Accepted wisdom is largely true. The Ranowns were small punkins, though not "B’s" in the way Johnny Mack Brown or Rocky Lane did "B’s". They admittedly brought up drag on most programs. Proof of that is here, and I’ve found plenty more vintage ads reflecting same (but reality was Columbia valuing The Warrior and The Slave Girl above Comanche Station, as reflected in this double feature placement and in trade ads pushing hard the former but not at all the latter). US posters were unpresupposing if not flat ugly (but check out Euro stunners here and in Part Two --- they seem to have divined greatness in these shows long before we would). Pressbooks aspired not beyond a merely functional (more coloring contests?) recital of ad mats available. Shame then upon distributors and showmen who spat in the eye of noble effort these four made toward westerns a cut above the rest. Posterity conferred applause too late for Boetticher and Kennedy to get meaningful work out of it, but both lived long enough to at least see Seven Men From Now repaired and revived. Scott was not as fortunate, though exiting (in 1987) with a hundred million in the bank must surely have been a comfort.

Scott was the constant current running beneath "A" westerns flourishing after the war. He’d gone over completely to cowboy parts, profited handsomely on many he produced, and passed shooting breaks conferring with stockbrokers. There were ongoing deals with Warners and Columbia, permitting Randy to knock off four and sometimes five a year while bigger names like Wayne, Stewart, and Cooper limited western output and spent themselves as heavily hammering out percentage memos and negative ownership. Scott was on and off jobs within three or so weeks and traveled no further than Lone Pine to finish yearly quotas. He was unstoppable in small towns and all his shows met payroll. His Southern accent was apple butter to kinsmen here in North Carolina where Scott grew up, and no frontiersman came more credibly of times and places his westerns depicted. You figured any Scott character for recent service with the Confederacy, and though his cowboys were square shooters, they never came across as square. Randy had a handshake partner in Harry Joe Brown, the sort of hustle-up producer who could get a western made this afternoon in your backyard if the money was there, which it usually was for a star with Scott’s track record. Brown dated back to Fred Thomson and Ken Maynard silents. He had scouted every rock within two hundred miles of Hollywood, and knew from good westerns besides, having teamed with Scott on several (Coroner Creek, Hangman’s Knot, A Lawless Street) well before Boetticher and Kennedy came into the parlay. Brown and Scott made theirs as routinely and efficiently as you or I might cut grass. Expertise they developed, and boxoffice reward for doing so, softened ground for newer (and younger) partners to develop westerns minus interference from studios that would never have given Boetticher and Kennedy such carte blanche otherwise (as BB learned from having taken supervisory orders at Universal). As it was, the Ranowns came not a moment too soon, for this was twilight not only for Scott and Brown, but for their kind of outdoor actioners as well.

Bob Thomas told a priceless Jack Warner anecdote in his biography of the studio head that neatly sums up declining fortunes of medium-budget westerns by the mid-fifties. Warner had gathered his line producers and lower execs to map out the year’s program. We’ll make the usual number of Randolph Scott westerns at seven hundred and fifty thousand apiece. We can always count on rentals of a million and a quarter, he said. Could I make a suggestion?, asked a young man in the room. Why not spend a million dollars on the Scott westerns? With improved quality, maybe they could bring back two million, he said hopefully. Kid, you’re fired, replied Warner. I’ll tell you why you were fired. Those westerns are a dying market. The public is getting all the shit-kickers they need on our TV shows. Now if you had said, "Why don’t we make the Randy Scott westerns for half a million?", I would have made you my assistant. This, unfortunately, was the backdrop against which Seven Men From Now was produced, for by then Scott grosses were declining. Warner’s most recent with him, Tall Man Riding (1955), barely cracked a million in domestic rentals, while across-town Columbia saw just $777,000 from 1956’s 7th Cavalry. WB did try economizing to the extent of shooting in-house Shootout At Medicine Bend in black-and-white the following year, an act punishable in this instance with domestic rentals lowest of any so far --- $655,000. Budgets and profits both fell as tele-cowboys rose, with WB enthusiastically competing with itself. Cheyenne was breaking big on ABC by 1956-57, having gone to new episodes every other week after an initial season among revolving wheels on the failed Warner Brothers Presents, and Maverick was in preparation for a 1957 premiere. "B" westerns had been wiped off industry production charts for several years as cowboys migrated to television, and many of Randolph Scott’s oldies were turning up there as Seven Men From Now opened in August 1956. This was the new team’s first project (minus Harry Joe Brown, who’d be back when they moved to Columbia), Burt Kennedy having brought his original script to John Wayne’s Batjac company (its product distributed by Warners), with Scott and Boetticher added at Wayne’s instigation. The star was himself reluctant to do another western so soon after The Searchers (a decision he’d regret after seeing how well Seven Men turned out), and besides, a modest negative cost ($719,000) could not have been maintained with Wayne in the lead. Boetticher recalled JW’s fury when a preview of Seven Men found it playing to an audience who’d come to see Serenade with Mario Lanza. Trade reviews were favorable, but counted little among showmen who regarded most westerns as interchangeable at best. It was immaterial which Randolph Scott "shit-kicker" was which, as long as prints were available and bookings cheap. Seven Men From Now did gross better than Scott’s recent ones at Columbia, but with final tallies of $989,000, it represented the first of his Warner released westerns to fall below a million in domestic rentals.

It was precisely that indifference that enabled Scott/Brown/Boetticher/Kennedy to function so well. Why stick corporate noses into an operation so cut-rate and time efficient? (Ranowns generally took eighteen days to complete) Shooting at Lone Pine became policy. By the last two (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station), it was one hundred percent location. Scott never threw his star weight around, so there was no nonsense along the lines of a leading man wanting to stop action for accordion solos, as was the case for director Anthony Mann when feeling-oats James Stewart imposed his will on Night Passage and ended up scuttling their partnership. Lone Pine might well have become known as Budd Boetticher’s Monument Valley had not so many westerns filmed there going back to Roscoe Arbuckle and 1920’s The Round-Up. The Tall T went the typical way of second-tier Columbia product into second feature berths and drive-ins (the distributor being so confidant of limited prospects as to not even make billboard sized twenty-four sheets available). Small town theatres that clicked with Randolph Scott (mostly in the Southeast) might play it as a single, but two or three days would have been their maximum commitment. One Greenbriar reader left word of having seen The Tall T at an ozone triple with Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad and Don Siegel’s The Line-Up, a 1957 show I’d call getting your money’s worth, but no worthy showcase for a western we now call classic. Maybe Columbia’s trade ad meant it when they said The Tall T was The Best Randolph Scott Adventure In Years. Certainly they weren’t disposed otherwise to treat it as anything special. Again, what was the point? Merit didn’t matter. For all its superior quality, The Tall T with $767,000 in domestic rentals earned less than Scott’s last two for Columbia, 7th Cavalry with its aforementioned $777,000 and A Lawless Street, which collected $926,00. Television was the truest enemy of westerns, good or bad. It was only costs kept very low that allowed this series to continue at all, plus the fact that color still had pulling power for folks not able to get it on home screens. The five left for the Scott/Brown/Boetticher/Kennedy team showed if nothing else just how vital each member was to overall success of the films (creative, if not economic). Proof of that came soon enough with Decision At Sundown and Buchanan Rides Again, to be covered, along with the rest, in Part Two.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Has Our Gang Left The Building?

I’m looking for a show of hands from those who still care about The Little Rascals. How many of you are left? Websites devoted to vintage TV often confuse Rascal comedies (called "episodes") with programs made for the tube, lumping them in with Leave It To Beaver and even the Brady kids for all-purpose nostalgia wallowing. Our Gang seems more a product of the fifties and sixties anyway for DVD buyers looking to recapture childhood. How many of us saw Our Gang in theatres for which they were intended (let alone called them by that correct name)? Arc the graph of interest and I’d submit the Rascals peaked twenty-five to thirty years ago, much as did looks back to Beaver and the Bradys as both were revived and revisited by boomers wanting to embrace a less complicated past. Does nostalgia diminish as we get older? I’m not seeing my kind of oldies on TV Land anymore. Stuff I’d have flushed in the eighties is clearly someone’s idea of fond memory now, but how long will Punky Brewster’s generation remain devoted to her? Movies and programs we followed on television might linger long with us, but I wonder if there isn’t an expiration date on sentiment generated by the home screen. Can we maintain the intensity old pards now in their seventies feel for Saturday westerns and serials they experienced in crowded theatres? I saw Spanky McFarland appear at a college in 1984 and realized even then that his party was almost over. Those students had been exposed to Rascals mostly gutted and shorn of alleged offence by a new syndicator (King World) fresh out of sensitivity training. That had happened back in 1971. Eight shorts in the package were removed altogether while others were cut nearly by half. Television has been no safe haven for Our Gang since. Yum Yum, Eat ‘Em Up draws mostly blank stares from those under fifty. The shorts would have been dumped anyway for being in black-and-white. We tolerate the latter for having once lived in households without color TV (I say we in the comfortable knowledge that anyone shunning B/W would also shun Greenbriar Picture Shows). The Little Rascals survive, like zoo animals in protective habitats, on DVD. AMC was the last TV outlet to spend money showcasing them with its 2001 run hosted by teen star of the nano-second Frankie Muniz. Honest appraisal of all eighty talking subjects produced by Hal Roach reveals a bag nearly as mixed as Warner Bros. cartoons swallowed whole. The best are great, the good still get by, and the bad go unplayed. I’m culling them now pretty much as I did in the sixties. Our Gang never got on pedestals with Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and others, despite their greater sustained popularity. Are critics and historians a little stuck-up when it comes to Roach’s Rascals?

DVD purchasers are lately emerged from the dark cave of Genius Entertainment’s Little Rascals box set to report on what a disappointment it’s proven to be. In this enlightened era of heightened digital standards, they actually used 16mm Blackhawk prints as source material for a number of transfers, including ones done right in previous video and laserdisc releases. A lot of Genius’ transfers are out of sync as well. I don’t generally play at DVD reviewing, but this is just unpardonable. Common sense assures me that cubicle dwellers at Genius could care less what seasoned fans think, being more alert to how many units Wal-Mart might buy. They should recall this mess and clean it up. 

So what of the shorts themselves? My first stop was Railroadin’, the Gang’s second talkie and the only one not included in television packages, owing to sound discs being lost until 1979. I can watch this without flash-backing forty years, which is to acknowledge again that there are certain Rascal images in my subconscious as yet unnerving and poised to awaken when I hear Yum, Yum, Eat ‘Em Up or You’ll Eat That Mush and Like It! To my (now) delight, Railroadin’ has its own disquieting element to rival those that haunted my boyhood. Loco Joe ranks high in the gallery of demented adults preying upon the Gang. He corners Farina and Joe in a train engine from which there’s no ready means of escape, his growls and brain-damaged appearance too realistic to be dismissed as idle (or comical) threat. Such people were (are) a fact of life, but who other than Hal Roach permitted them onscreen entry into a child’s world? That world, by the way, was largely Culver City, Roach’s headquarters and site of most outdoor shooting for Rascal subjects. It was then a place of humble shops, (surprisingly many) vacant lots and blue-uniformed police directing light traffic at intersections. I visited Culver City several times during the late eighties and nineties, hoping there would be some vestige left of that place I’d known in Our Gang (and Laurel and Hardy). One or two building fronts suggested what once was, and a few alleys revealed window frames unchanged, but mostly there was sadness over change and a simpler life swept away. The Roach lot itself, featured in Our Gang’s Dogs Of War, looks in that 1923 short more like a sawmill I worked in one summer after freshman year, and the furthest thing imaginable from anyone’s conception of glamorous Hollywood (the studio was unceremoniously torn down in 1963). Rascal comedies, at least the silents and earliest talkers, are rich in dirt-road austerity. No wonder modern kids fail to connect. The Gang’s childhood has scarcely a parallel with youth as experienced today. It comes almost unexpected to hear of Our Gang-ers still alive. Few are, of course, having been winnowed out by natural causes and fate’s occasional application of Rascal-hood’s "curse". There’s none left of the principal silent group, and survivors of the talkies number few, if any.

Maybe it’s time we looked closer at all those "fake" Rascals who came forward over generations to claim status as the original Fatty, Freckles, or Stinky. I’ve got the feeling most of them were in kid comedies, just not ones Roach produced. There were hundreds of such youngsters, most silent. Competing companies dredged moppet reservoirs in search of profits Our Gang realized. Many were so interchangeable as to be easily confused with the product brand. Syndicators in the fifties packaged ersatz Rascals and sometimes they fooled us on TV. Children that worked in these shorts grew up thinking all gangs were Our Gang, an understandable conclusion. After all, didn’t their comedies also have the requisite fat kid, black kid, bully, and sweetheart? Their numbers surely outweighed those of Roach’s Rascals. I’ve watched some on Looser Than Loose Publishing’s Kid Gangs and Juvenile Stars DVD collection (excellent, by the way) and emerged dizzy from exposure to so many would-be Rascals. Some aren’t bad. There were The McDougall Alley Kids, Buster Brown, Big Boy, and the Hey Fellas! series. "Sunny Jim" McKeen was Universal’s mischief maker, and maybe we’d know more of him had he lived past age eight and had his films survived beyond that death in 1933. Where few were once contenders, most of these comedies ended up lost or ground down to 16mm dupes, even fragments. "Fat kid" players who exited the scene prematurely were said to have died of obesity. Mickey Rooney’s lucrative gang was the screen incarnation of popular comic The Toonerville Trolly, wherein Rooney was rechristened Mickey McGuire. These did well and straddled silents and talkies, their limited number in the latter category explaining absence for the most part from television. No competing series, however, had Roach’s facility for picking personalities and renewing the line as youngsters aged out and were replaced. They had the luck (or likelier skill) of recognizing kids that would click. Several went on to "A" features. Our Gang’s popularity was whitest-hot in the twenties. The Kellogg’s cereal tie-in shown here resulted in five thousand billboards across the country with seven hundred field men out of Battle Creek extolling the virtues of Roach’s Rascals. This was dawn upon an era of merchandising familiar to us now, but revolutionary then. Kids loyal to the Gang they watched could also be faithful to products their screen models used, and the possibilities from there were limitless. Had we not had so severe a Depression, I’d venture Our Gang would have become, as Disney did eventually, a tie-in force truly to be reckoned with, one which alone could have kept Hal Roach Studios affluent for decades to come.

Better don one of those helmet lamps they use in coal mines should you decide to go looking for Our Gang silents. You’ll dig deep among off-labels and public domain dollar bins, and even then come up with mostly dross. The majority of Our Gang silents are PD, which means you, me, and Loco Joe can package and sell them to whatever super market will basket them up. That Genius box and object of my rant included three that were renewed by copyright owners. Spook Spoofing has a track as still as the graveyard Farina visits, but I sat for its three very silent reels after being drawn in by an opening title (He Knew That No Boy Had A Chance Against The Ghosts Of Dead Men) that neatly summed up the perverse and unpredictable nature of Our Gang comedies. Dog Heaven began with Pete The Dog hanging himself (and alarmingly convincing at doing so) after Joe Cobb abandons him for a neighborhood girl. The canine suicide theme is pursued to a hairbreadth finish as Pete seeks repeated solace in the noose. Hal Roach might have been well advised to furnish counseling services to his creative staff, as many paraded issues and obsessions perhaps better left to treating professionals. Our Gang silents are alive with bizarro sights less peculiar to viewers then. Organ grinders with monkeys are not uncommon (were they actually?). Kids get about by goat-driven conveyance, while others are pulled by dog teams. Flies are everywhere. They crawl into eyes and nostrils. I went for years thinking it would be quite impossible for children to build their own streetcar or train, but reckoned not with ingenuity of American youth in those days, for there was an acquaintance I once worked with (then in his seventies), who at the age of fourteen built an airplane that flew (and had pictures to prove it). He’d been caught up in the Lindbergh fever, but hindsight makes me wonder if Our Gang didn’t provide his first flush of inspiration. If nothing else, Roach’s Rascals gave ongoing incentive for kids to get off their cans and do things. Can anyone imagine a sedentary Our Gang playing video games?

Enter the Home Restorationist. Their online numbers are increasing. One made a project of 1924’s Seein’ Things, in which Farina steals a live chicken and eats it (presumably raw), only to be beset with nightmares in which the Gang assumes gargantuan size and chases him through downtown streets built to reduced scale for maximum horrific effect. That one’s on You Tube, along with a number of silent Our Gangs otherwise unavailable. Home Restorationists rescue old prints, scraps of footage, so-called "toy" reels once given away with home movie projectors … whatever can be cobbled toward a reconstruction of lost films. The silent Our Gangs had been diced to near oblivion over the years. Most were shorn of intertitles and content besides for TV packaging beneath umbrellas like The Mischief Makers and Those Lovable Scalawags With Their Gangs. You may remember these. Few were coherent inasmuch as they’d been degraded from two-reel running times down to speeded-up travesties. Putting them right has become a mission for enthusiasts able to transfer their salvaged footage on home computers and bring them a degree closer to what audiences saw in the twenties. They can’t approach digital perfection achieved by well-financed corporate efforts, but these are labors of love and deserving of recognition for effort put forth on behalf of comedies too long neglected. Laughsmith Entertainment is presently working on what promises to be a definitive collection of Our Gang comedies for DVD release. Their previous offerings, The Forgotten Films Of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Industrial Strength Keaton, are two of the best classic compilations around, so this promises to be something really special.
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