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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Watched At Random for January 2009

I really like Charlie Chan, but confess to getting mixed-up as to who’s who and which of them might be the killer and why. The mystery always engages me less than ancillary matters like old dark houses and (good or bad) comic relief. There are surely reasons for filling crossword puzzles other than completing the thing itself. I’ll usually try following a Chan plot for about ten minutes and then give up. What made these work so well for so many years? Fox made profits on every one they did! I think it was those distractions from the mystery that pleased best. Chans are family comedies in a detective’s disguise. Low-key Charlie in frustrated by-play with exuberant sons assure lightness of touch missing from whodunits too absorbed in … well, who done it. The one I got out was Charlie Chan At Treasure Island, which fans consider the best of those with Sidney Toler. I’m not as deep into the Chan life as others, but certain tricks of the mystery trade are recognizable for years of (occasionally) watching these things. One device they played me here was that of a character receiving superficial injuries supposedly inflicted by the killer being sought. Said character will always turn out to be the killer! A lot of you more expert will say Duh, but I was quite pleased with myself for guessing correctly. Charlie Chan At Treasure Island looks like an expensive picture. Dress extras mill about at leisure. Sets glisten and are sumptuous. I was amazed to learn it had a negative cost of only $199,000. Yes, that’s a "B" budget (only Jane Withers, The Jones Family, and Mr. Moto worked as cheap), but talk about putting all your money on the screen! Another thing about Charlie Chan At Treasure Island was how creepy parts of it were, more so than most horror pictures being done at the time and as handsomely mounted as any of them. There was $280,000 in domestic rentals and $138,000 foreign for $72,000 in final profits. Fox could probably estimate Chan revenue to a near penny during the heyday. Costs and returns didn’t vary a lot for as long as they produced the series. Bigger markets used them in support of "A" features, but many small towns played Chans as singles. Returns diminished somewhat for Sidney Toler taking over from Warner Oland, but how do you follow an act as good as the latter’s? I’m glad these are all available now (well, other than some Monograms and the lost ones), and relieved that Fox found good elements on most. Someone told me that overseas sales on the Chans were what assured release for the entire (existing) Fox group on DVD.

Why remake Libeled Lady, nearly scene-for-scene, a mere ten years after a well received (and doubtlessly remembered so) original? Was Metro’s poverty of ideas by 1946 so acute as their seeming inability to launch stars of a quality equal to pre-war manufacture? Here are the substitutions: Van Johnson for William Powell. Esther Williams in Myrna Loy’s part. Lucille Ball as Jean Harlow, with braying Keenan Wynn an update of Spencer Tracy. The bringing along of personalities was by now so streamlined as to permit slides into home for talent (or lack of it) that a decade before would have stalled in auditions. Metro covered such deficits by way of free spending that a wartime attendance boom made possible. Libeled Lady had cost $603,000. Easy To Wed’s negative ran to $1.6 million. The mentality afoot required Something For Everyone in such entertainments; thus outsized musical numbers intrude upon an already sluggish narrative. I found myself in anxious anticipation of Ethel Smith’s upcoming organ recital (being a fan and proud possessor of her "Best Of …" CD). She’s a welcome respite in a final third by which I’d lost all interest in labored attempts at comedy by players with too little aptitude for it. Easy To Wed represents old Hollywood as derided by those who’d tar all studio product with a formula brush. It’s a beached whale of a musical/comedy/romance that was a dream factory’s occasional nightmare. Hard enough core students of the era will yet find aspects beguiling. I’d have wondered all my life why Keenan Wynn was promoted to such (near) leads but for Scott Eyman’s explanation in his Lion Of Hollywood bio of Louis Mayer. That very practical reason as put forth by Eyman is a compelling one for watching Easy To Wed, as Van Johnson figured in an offscreen drama that provided for me a subtext irresistible (let’s just say that Van needed a beard and Wynn’s wife supplied it). Had 1946 audiences but known of such extraordinary measures taken to protect fragile star images! Lucille Ball previews the sort of bull in a china shop persona she’d adopt for her vid series a few years later. Stations with the pre-48 MGM package likely advertised Easy To Wed as vehicle for her during the run of I Love Lucy, even if Wed's part is a shrill and unattractive one (Harlow was as well the least appealing of the four-cornered leads in Libeled Lady). Van Johnson is cruelly assigned dialogue beautifully spoken by William Powell a decade previous. You’d have to assume Van’s bobby-sox followers had either short memories or tin ears for comic timing. Metro signed contractees while stronger names were off to war and set youngsters upon on-the-job training that made or broke most within short periods. Such cynical enterprise got lightweight talent in over heads and out the gates before skills could develop. Johnson was good (and persistent) enough to survive in eventual character work. His recent obituaries failed to emphasize what an enormous draw Van was at the peak of Easy To Wed and fluff-shows like it. Four million in domestic rentals and $1.6 more from foreign brought this one to an eventual $1.7 million in profits. That’s a lot of seats filled for something very nearly forgotten today.

I was almost surprised to find that Phone Call From A Stranger made money ($254,000 profit in fact). For a straight drama with no gunplay or violent element, and in black-and-white, you’d think viewers could get as much for free at home. Television dealt heavily in playlets themed on forgiveness and personal accountability. Such could be made economically on single sets and arouse no viewer objection. Producer/writer Nunnally Johnson was a mainstay at Fox whose scruples clashed with in vogue Joseph Mankiewicz, to whose (commercial) success this film aspired, but Johnson wouldn’t let characters off the hook with glib dialogue and pat resolutions. His narrative follows through on responsibility characters bear and mistakes they must answer for, with Phone Call From A Stranger mirroring a value system largely gone out of movies and television since. Film Noir is as much about these things, but more palatable to modern viewers thanks to crime and suspense supplying fun this frankly drab picture lacks (and kudos to Fox for not trying to sell Phone Call as Noir). A problem with three part stories is that one of them will likely be more engaging than the other two, while representing only a third of the total. That had been the case with A Letter To Three Wives, the previous Fox hit referenced in Phone Call’s trailer. You get a sense of marketing desperation from previews like this. Lines out of context suggest sexual liberties not taken in the feature, and Shelly Winter’s role as a strip-tease artist (emphasis on that in narration) is hammered beyond its importance to the plot. Imagine a sales division handed a finished movie with little that’s provocative and struggling for crumbs suggesting that it is. Hollywood by 1952 was at a point where every feature had to make its own argument for a patron’s dollar. People just weren’t going to theatres as a matter of course anymore. Small black-and-white dramas like Phone Call From A Stranger (negative cost $801,000) would be ushered out with Cinemascope’s arrival and availability of better anthology programs on television. Fox remade the story for its own dramatic series in 1956, using a combination of actors recreating their roles and footage borrowed from the feature.

I watched Birdman Of Alcatraz on NBC Saturday Night At The Movies in 1968 and wondered why they hadn’t let such a nice man go free after those books he'd written and a prison riot he quelled. Come to find that real-life Robert Stroud was pricklier (read psychopathic, according to prison records) and not near the benign figure (even in old age) as played by Burt Lancaster. When you’re fourteen (as I was for that telecast), rights and wrongs are simpler and notions of fair play easier arrived at. To me it seemed Stroud got a raw deal and a crawl at the end informing me of his death five years before (1963) while still in custody made it tough getting to sleep that night. Most of us recall first exposure to adult movies (not just ones with nudity or "R" ratings, though I certainly haven’t forgotten those either!). I’m thinking more of ones that made me listen to dialogue and ponder interaction among characters as opposed to waiting for the next saucer landing or colossal man to come my way. 1968 was the year I finally sat still for things like The Caine Mutiny, Tunes of Glory, and Birdman Of Alcatraz, pathways to filmic adulthood and each putting me wise to nuance they explored. The three are still favorites and not just for being rites of passage. Birdman takes its time, being that’s what it’s all about --- there’s a feeling of incarceration you get for sharing Stroud’s eternity behind bars. Some say the picture dawdles. John Frankenheimer gets close on a bird egg that takes several minutes to hatch and there’s no reactions or cutaway, a sort of directoral audacity we’d see more of through the sixties. Prison life as experienced by Stroud/Lancaster is more detention than hellish reality of systems (still) in place and doubtlessly worse in that convict’s time. Audiences can bear only so much infliction upon movie stars locked up, thus Burt’s spared beatings, drug use (which figured heavily into Stroud’s own experience), and sexual abuses endemic to real-life stir. Such restraint would be applied as well on Clint Eastwood’s behalf in the later (1979) Escape From Alcatraz, itself clearly modeled on much of Birdman Of Alcatraz. Those who knew Stroud said Birdman was purest fantasy, but much of his life is presented as it happened, even if this drama stops short of indicting the system he exposed in a book suppressed during the prisoner’s lifetime.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Howard Hawks Blog-A-Thon --- The Prizefighter and The Lady

Ed Howard is hosting a two-week Early Howard Hawks Blog-A-Thon at Only The Cinema, which I recommend to Greenbriar readers (Flickhead designed his banner for the event). I’d meant for months to write up The Prizefighter and The Lady, so here was my incentive. Not that Prizefighter’s much of a Hawks property. It’s stretching a point to say he contributed anything beyond (maybe) a skeletal story, some preparation, and a few days’ work before being fired/replaced/rerouted, depending on who you read, to another MGM project. Hawks was too undisciplined and independent minded to take orders from so rigid an outfit as Metro. He gambled a lot and threw money away, which I guess is what drew him to the doomed enterprise that was filmmaking for Mayer (and Thalberg, Hawks’ brother-in-law). Family ties aside, you were expected to stay busy there, which meant pitching in on shows stalled or talents idle. Participants who lived long enough claimed credit for everything good that MGM released. The Prizefighter and The Lady is among the latter. You’d never think to look at such a one-off novelty of a comedy/romance/sport subject lest you followed boxers and their so-called sweet science (I never did), but this one's a gem I’d recommend to TCM followers and Hawks ultra-completists. In its way, Prizefighter’s as freaky as Freaks. There’s banged-up old wrestlers and boxer vets in for cameos. Search me as to who they are (were), as most belonged in movies about like the dog on my back porch, with the remarkable (and I do mean that) exception of one Max Baer, a screen idol that might have been had Demitrius met his gladiators a few decades sooner. In fact, The Prizefighter and The Lady is a depression’s own precursor to strongman pics we liked in the sixties, with glove matches pretty near the real stuff. Metro indeed tried fooling customers with a trailer implying sure enough ring battling between challenger Baer and actual at the time heavyweight champ Primo Carnera (here’s that man mountain posing with Jean Harlow in the ring). Both are shown training in footage (not her, them) unique to the preview, and we’re led to expect a deciding event to come in the feature, even if it’s altogether fictional and the fight a staged one. Well, Baer’s character was less one of imagination. "Steve Morgan" reflects clearly the offscreen Max, just a big likeable lug of a reprobate and serial philanderer, a sort presumably taken to heart in 1933, perhaps even tolerable to women his character so mistreats, but one distinctly off-putting to sensitivity trained modern viewers. Hawks said he spent a few days teaching Baer to act. Either he was a remarkable tutor or the clay was near molded to begin with, for Baer does indeed have the "It" publicity credited to him and a likeable way for the camera (and yes, that's him visiting with Kim Novak during the Vertigo shoot!).

People knew then if not now that Prizefighter was praiseworthy. Maybe not prize-worthy in a Eugene O’Neill sense, but agreeable and not insulting to reviewers’ intelligence. MGM surrounded Baer with the best they had, no step down for personnel working off a yarn seasoned by ace Frances Marion (she’d say later they mangled it, but what writer’s ever satisfied?). A Walter Huston wasn't slumming here --- how many of such calibre lent thespic support to athletes having a first go at play-acting? Marion’s story rated an Academy Award nomination, which may explain others dropping in for years to claim shadow authorship. Even Hawks, that inveterate credit jumper, said later that he (and Josef Von Sternberg!) cooked it all up as a lark and had forgotten the whole matter short of MGM dusting off their piece and running with it. Todd McCarthy’s excellent Howard Hawks bio says that Hawks did write something pretty similar for Norma Shearer back in the twenties. You could go dizzy navigating all the hands in stew that finally saw projection light in November 1933. First Prizefighter was to be Clark Gable (with the ladies alternatively Shearer, Joan Crawford, then Jean Harlow). Hawks came and went during the Harlow flirtation (and according to David Stenn, theirs ripened into a one-night affair --- well, you had to work fast in such harried days). Hawks said years later he’d done two or three good opening scenes and then (W.S.) Van Dyke stepped in and shot the rest. I’ll bet HH regretted stepping off once he saw how well the finished picture turned out. That had happened just previous with Red Dust, a success for close friend Victor Fleming that left Hawks pea green wishing he’d directed it. How many really good properties showed up in those days? A Red Dust, even a Prizefighter and The Lady, were rare and to be coveted, particularly by careerists like Hawks who understood well the translation such quality had to prestige and autonomy he sought.

Hawks realized that Metro’s machinery could function as well with or without him. That ongoing affront to his ego (he had one alright --- but earned it) got Hawks in Dutch with bosses expecting him to take plant orders and expedite same. The aged lion in retirement tried mitigating company man tenures by speaking (fabricating) of those occasions when he straightened out front officers who overstepped bounds, but who really believes Hawks grabbed up Louis Mayer by lapels in his own office and showed the boss what for? Many aspects of Prizefighter bear evidence of content ideally suited to Hawks’ freewheel talent. Max Baer singing and dancing with showgirls? It might have been a musical highlight like those Hawks staged to lighten shows to come, but he could scarcely have done better than Van Dyke in what proves a (if not the) major delight of The Prizefighter and The Lady. Production numbers are often best when unexpected. This one comes clear out of left field and reveals Baer as a trouper of promise. There was talk of movies to come, but he didn’t like acting half so much as nightclubs and beating guy’s brains out. The screen talent was one he’d call up but sporadically from here on. There were dems-and-dose lamebrain comedies where he’d be driving hacks or dodging brickbats (tossed by interchanging femmes called Myrtle, Sadie, or some such) and sparring good naturedly with dumb ox Maxie Rosenbloom. Then there was welcome happenstance of character work such as The Harder They Fall, wherein he put across chillingly a relish for destroying men in the ring. If boxing engaged me more, there’d be lots here about Prizefighter's climactic rounds with Carnera, which I understood gave Baer enough tips as to enable his defeating the champ in real life the following year, but my expertise ends with that tidbit as passed along by Myrna Loy in an autobio wherein she credits the film as something worthwhile beyond its novelty for pugilists. Nice that she lived long enough for fans (and writing assistants) to reacquaint her with oldies dismissed or otherwise forgotten. The Prizefighter and The Lady was on TCM last week and I noted the dread Code seal before credits rolled. But wait, didn’t I say it was released November 1933, before enforcement took hold? Turns out it was submitted and passed by the PCA on August 26, 1935, perhaps for a reissue (to cash in on Baer’s less than a year status as Heavyweight Champion Of The World?). Anyway, I’m starting to wonder if what’s left to us now is Code-cut. Such things bedevil me. At least it doesn’t appear cut, as do so many others (Viva Villa, Manhattan Melodrama, The Merry Widow).

So just how hot was boxing on screens? Very so as perusal of theatre ads suggest. You could draw ‘em like flies to ring action, first in newsreels, and later on closed circuit. Here’s a sobering footnote to those who figured Buster Keaton’s The Navigator brought some of his biggest audiences. Maybe so, but should we also (if not primarily) credit Jack Dempsey’s personal appearance (as shown in this ad) for the entire week of Loew’s New York first-run? Note the boxer’s position in the ad. Keaton’s nearly an afterthought. Exhibitors realized fighting rang bells for patrons on the fence as to attendance. Precious boxing footage often tipped scales between profit and loss. Consider a not untypical October 1927 in St. Louis. The Tunney-Dempsey fight pictures proved the most popular drawing cards of the week. They were shown at the St. Louis, Orpheum, and Grand Opera House and have been held over for an extra week, reported The Motion Picture News. Dempsey-Tunney was packing them in Kansas City and San Francisco as well. SRO business was reported in Minneapolis when the match played in support of Harry Langdon’s Three’s A Crowd, which in reality was a tail wagging the dog. It would, in fact, be the boxing reels held over for a second week, not Langdon. There was a kind of outlaw allure about pugilism in those days. It was but recently forbidden in many markets where it now played to capacity houses, and personalities like Dempsey were news, more so than most film stars. He was definitely an advantage to Metro’s promotion of The Prizefighter and The Lady by virtue of appearing as referee for the climactic fight, his participation lending authenticity to what otherwise would seem another staged Hollywood dust-up. The age-old dilemma of appeal (or lack of) to both sexes made marketing difficult. Men were assured enough, but some women demurred with regards a stomach for canvas poundings, and Baer’s caveman stuff may have proved a jinx as well. For whatever reason, The Prizefighter and The Lady lost money. Its negative cost of $682,000 was not recovered with only $432,000 in domestic rentals. Foreign rentals of $501,000 would not make up that shortfall, and the picture ended $105,000 down. Did audiences smell a rat in the frankly misleading trailer? They had to know that whatever fighting Baer and Carnera did on screen was phony. Maybe that was a turn-off. It needn’t bother us now, of course. We can enjoy the artifice without expectation of any real contest being settled.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Marxes Out Of Metro

I’m to a point where it’s no longer the best work of great comedians I gravitate to. Fascination for me lies in their weaker (so-called) output, where specters of decline and submission make bittersweet laughs they’re yet trying to generate. What’s most interesting isn’t always "good." I’m more immersed in Keaton at MGM and Laurel and Hardy at Fox than ever I was with great ones they formerly made. What went through the minds of artists engaged in such unworthy factory commissions? You put yourself in the place of lesser talent imposed upon genius and wonder why they couldn’t step aside and let proven ability have its way. My own age and compromise that comes with it makes more poignant what advancing years did to comics I once loved best in their prime. Why else would I take down The Big Store this weekend instead of another go-round of Duck Soup? --- and yet something about The Marx Brothers in decline speaks of grandeur all my favorites shared, a willingness to clown past prime and make at least sips of lemonade from decided lemons. There’s fun to be had in The Big Store if you’re willing to define that in terms beyond gags and whether they work. I like watching the Marxes swirl in Metro pudding, and say, who invited Tony Martin to the party (and gave him co-star billing)? The deuce of it is I like his singing. Tony's welcome anytime to my meditation on what it took to keep a veteran comedy team in business during times that were a-changin’. To embrace The Tenement Symphony and ponder its inclusion in a Marx Brothers feature is to open rich veins of exploration into what seems in hindsight an irrational use of comics any of us might have served better had we been in creative charge. I see myself among harassed studio personnel told to whip something together for a team whose last three lost money. Were customers simply tired of The Marx Brothers by 1941? If so, the team wasn’t alone for being overly familiar. Laurel and Hardy seemed to many a tired act. Abbott and Costello would get everyone laughing aloud soon enough, but that was less for inspired clowning than the fact they were something new. Our stuff simply is going stale, said Groucho, so are we. This was April 1941, two months before The Big Store was released. How many comedians would go on such damning record with product still to (try and) sell? Metro bookers surely wished they could put a muzzle on Groucho: When I say we’re sick of the movies, I mean the people are about to get sick of us. By getting out now, we’re just anticipating public demand, and by a very short margin. The Big Store was the team’s first at Metro with negative costs under a million ($850,000), and thanks to that, it returned profits of $33,000, but domestic rentals of $789,000 (with foreign $525,000) were the lowest yet recorded for an MGM Marx Bros. comedy. The team’s announced "retirement" did indeed anticipate studio demand, if not the public’s. I wonder if Metro, or any company, would have consented to further (continuing) use of them in anything other than "B’s."

Groucho appears to have invested wit and barbed intellect in private correspondence and humorous writings, but for films he’d rely upon others. A shared credit (with Norman Krasna) for The King and the Chorus Girl was integral to publicity for Warner’s 1937 comedy, as this most verbal of Marx brothers implied by speed of delivery that at least half his best lines were ad-libbed. Did Groucho consider movies (specifically ones starring The Marx Bros.) unworthy of his creative bother? I wondered and still do why he didn’t write more of their stuff. Had he done so, would higher standards have been maintained? Maybe Groucho did contribute, without credit, and I’m just unaware of it. The Marx Bros. seemed to have risen (and fallen) on the backs of men who supplied words on Broadway and later in their best movies. When less inspired scriveners came aboard, the likes of The Big Store resulted. It seemed the brothers were unable (or disinclined) to turn familial hands toward generating comedic content for themselves. I’ve read of how they went through motions, cooperated little, and disappeared often to relieve boredom of work before cameras. Did the letdown of losing a nightly audience sap their energies? Like W.C. Fields, you have to assume their act was a hundred times on stage whatever it became in pictures, but Fields wrote his own best stuff, and guarded well against studio mediocrity. The Marxes seemed to have cared a good deal less provided employer’s checks cleared the bank. Maybe it was conviction that movies were beneath them. Groucho took a jaundiced view in letters referencing ones he’d completed. Toward the end, they were mostly dogs in his estimate. I watch Groucho play The Big Store at half his Paramount strength and wonder how much that was diminished from effort he put forth on Broadway. Still yet, there are sections when The Big Store lights up and though I know opinions differ (strongly) on said account, I think Metro’s accent on music actually helps here. Sing As You Sell appealed for me. It’s a production number to which Red Skelton might have been as efficiently applied, but energetic and reflective of the Brother’s maintained status as A-picture clowns (Fox would never have staged a highlight so grand for Laurel and Hardy). Studio confusion as to who the Marxes were and how they best functioned was reflected in another of those last refuge chases that derive of nothing other than resignation and commitment to formula. Knowing this and reflecting upon Marx and Metro’s exhaustion with one another made the finish oddly irresistible for me.

Consider this dream setting for a trip back forty years: You’re seated at one of those packed University showings of a Marx Bros. comedy … trouble is they’ve run all the good ones and now it’s down to MGM titles via Films Inc. 16mm rental. I’d love to have seen the reaction of counterculturalists to The Big Store. Films Inc’s catalog tried putting a happy face on Marx shows they distributed that few liked. Their page (shown here) nobly defends virtues of At The Circus and Go West (the pair of films credited to Buzzell may prove more satisfying in the long run just because they do seem more involved with the Marx Brothers themselves), but gives up short of endorsing The Big Store (If any one film might be said to be typical of what happened to the Marx Brothers under Louis Mayer’s paternal care, this one would be it). Text for the catalog (published 1970) was supplied by academics/historians William D. Routt and James Leahy, their descriptions of available features being a deft merging of cerebral film school-ery and straightforward salesmanship. I Googled both authors and they’re still active (Routt has a webpage). Fans (and scholars) had long known that moving to MGM was tantamount to a Marx surrender before Hollywood’s most dreaded Establishment, an act that seemed to militate against everything they stood for. Films Inc. cleverly rationalized decisions made thirty years before: The Marx Brothers’ comedy was always the comedy of revolt, and the slick productions of MGM brought out all the best in the team as they massed their forces to destroy, destroy, destroy. Honest appraisal of The Big Store gives the lie to that. The Brothers here compromise, compromise, and are constrained. As with previous MGM vehicles, they are less anarchists than compliant performing seals. They step aside not only for Tony Martin, but novelty singer Virginia O’Brien as well (hey, I like her too!). Henry Armetta plays bombastic foil, though his antics and those of obnoxious kids in tow reduce the Marx Brothers to near-invisible support for an overlong routine that expresses best how directionless MGM was in its handling of the team. I’m guessing The Big Store caused near-revolt among disappointed students coming to see their heroes mock convention. Confirmation, or correction, from Greenbriar readers who remember would be welcome. Just how were MGM Marx comedies generally received at colleges? My own experience was limited to a bootlegged print (but a nice one) of earlier Paramount Horse Feathers I hauled around campus from 1972-76 and played repeatedly to classmates who’d (generally) seen little of the Marx Bros. prior. The Big Store and other Metros didn’t appeal to me then like they do now. Could it be my own intervening submission to convention that enables such patience, if not affection, for these beleaguered shows?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Weekend Marquee --- The Bravados

The era of responsible westerns may have ended with The Bravados. Revenge themes were frowned upon by the Code. You could seek justice for killings, but getting even for its own sake was verboten. By 1958, restrictions were sufficiently loosened as to allow Randolph Scott to ride vigilante style through an economy western like Seven Men From Now, but this wouldn't do for Bravados director Henry King, a veteran since silents who’d applauded restrictions and happily worked within them. King was a deeply conservative filmmaker with studio granted freedom sufficient to invest projects with a highly individual sense of rights and wrongs as he saw them. Few mainstream features went so deep into their director’s head as The Bravados. King was past seventy when he made it, a helmsman since 1915. He was to Fox what DeMille had been to Paramount. No one challenged his authority nor questioned creative control from inception to release. King made it clear he’d not direct The Bravados without major alterations to the script. He felt strongly that revenge, as a guiding principle, was both pointless and morally wrong. If that were not emphasized in The Bravados, he’d have no part of it. A third-act reversal King developed was indeed something new in westerns, one that would shame viewers for shared bloodlust with Gregory Peck’s morose lead character. Could that have limited the boxoffice? Expectations for July 4 and continuing summer business were naturally high. The Gunfighter from this team had performed well and continued doing so in reissues, despite its own downbeat ending, but westerns now were engaged in daily showdown with television, and only the strongest survived. The Bravados had a negative cost of $2.1 million, nearly twice the tab for The Gunfighter, and earned domestic rentals of $1.8 million, a losing proposition rescued by foreign rentals of $2.8 million. The final profit, albeit disappointing, was $159,000.

I don’t think you could find a story like "The Bravados" anywhere else but here, on the Cinemascope screen of your theatre, says Gregory Peck in the trailer he narrates, and so he’s right to the extent of adult themes beyond permissive boundaries of television as of 1958. That was the comparison intended, of course, and a pointed one to remind us that indeed there were no surprises left on the tube at home. Westerns had exploited sex before. There was The Outlaw and Duel In The Sun, but here was one to confront taboo topics of rape and revenge and call them by name. This was queasy subject matter, but unavailable among TV cowboys, and expensive westerns by this time needed size (The Big Country) or nerve (Man Of The West was another with harsh sex content) to compete. Gregory Peck as avenging angel for the rape/murder of his wife was itself unexpected. Could The Bravados follow through on such a premise with the Production Code still operative? As things turned out, it would not. Eleventh hour edits and discreet cutaways avoid confrontation with Peck as a killer in cold blood. We’re never sure just how some of his quarry meet their finish. He confesses later to having killed three men, but two are not shown dying at Peck’s hand, and a third appears, by way of a confused edit, to draw first. It’s as though cooler (censorial?) heads prevailed and punches were pulled, so as to spare Peck following through on what his stated mission promised. Someone blinked here. Maybe it was director King, or an intrusive Code, or perhaps Gregory Peck in defense of his image. Either way, The Bravados, good as it is, was compromised. Within another decade, we’d have no such moral reservation with Lee Van Cleef squaring familial accounts in For A Few Dollars More. Indeed, a sixties (and beyond) audience would feel cheated by heroes showing the slightest hesitation over matters of taking revenge, preferring they do so in brutal accordance with wrongs done them.

Limited availability and inadequate presentation on occasions when they could be seen circumscribed the afterlife of pictures like The Bravados. Fox Cinemascope looked good in theatres, but would not again for network and syndicated years to come. Nothing adapted so poorly to television as movies shot through anamorphic lenses. The Bravados was sold to NBC for home premiere on the new Monday Night at the Movies, a 1962-63 expansion of Fox’s relationship with the network which saw much of its top 50’s product reaching audiences far larger than had ventured to them in theatres. In this instance, The Bravados played middle position in a three-week punch-out of competitor CBS, which until that season had dominated primetime programming on Mondays. NBC ran The Enemy Below, The Bravados, and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison against the weekly lineup of To Tell the Truth, I've Got a Secret, The Lucy Show and The Danny Thomas Show and according to TIME magazine, blew CBS out of the water. It was dawn upon the era of recent Hollywood movies as ammunition in network wars, and viewers made it known they preferred features, so long as star names were familiar and broadcast was free. NBC's Hollywood movies were obviously as superior to CBS's TV shows as the old ironclads were to the wooden gunboats, said TIME, but where were voices noting how inferior said cropped casualties looked once transplanted to inhospitable home screens? Now that we’re getting accustomed to wide televisions, I wonder if even casual viewers would sit for pan-and-scan abuses such as were visited upon The Bravados and its kin over so many years. DVD release and showings on the Fox Movie Channel have finally made The Bravados (properly) available again as margins close on Fox Cinemascope titles unaccounted for in the digital recovery. Among worthy westerns still waiting, From Hell To Texas stands out, coincidentally another one that ran during that 1962-63 NBC season (which is when I last saw it). There’s still a number of wide features from the 50’s needing to be put right, and a lot of these will see critical reputations made (or restored) when that time comes. A humble suggestion to Fox for next year's deluxe box set and follow-up to Ford and Murnau/Borgaze might be a collection of all the remaining unreleased early Cinemascope titles. There would be a signal event for 2009!
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