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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What A Lovely Couple!

It wasn’t long after Loretta Young’s 2000 death that her treasures began turning up in Hollywood memorabilia shops. These were personal effects of a long career --- key book stills lovingly preserved in leather albums. Now they were sales fodder among file cabinets bulging with imagery from movies admired, forgotten, or half so. Much of Loretta’s output fell around the half so, or below it. Collectors quickly scarfed those few of greater interest. Career history she’d maintained was thus cherry-picked and ripped asunder. The rest were ignored (any takers for Paula or Mother Was A Freshman?). Wasn’t there family left to care? Grandkids to pass these along to their offspring, even if a greater public had forgotten? Stars who live long enough eventually find themselves sole custodian of legacies the parade has passed by. Their stuff means little more than family histories any of us might be alone in seeing after. Other than precodes lately rediscovered, Loretta Young did (mostly) movies for the moment. She was no bad actress, but neither was she Davis or Crawford. Young protected the image and took few chances with it, being the perfect star face people associate with old (and lightly ridiculed) Hollywood. I figure her to have thrived more on fan magazine covers than films. Once tamed by the Code, at considerable loss to us and Loretta, she became a waxen presence at 20th Fox where entering and exiting cavernous sets (mostly period ones) became stock in trade. Costumes briefer and clinging for early-thirties Warners became long trains following her into pageants not unlike those that swallowed Norma Shearer at Metro. So much was marked disposable, including ones with new to celebrity Tyrone Power, being for the most part modern comedies designed to consolidate fan loyalty for a coming male counterpart to Young’s somewhat empty stardom. Many were (remarkably) made available last year on DVD, nestled among ten so-called Matinee Idol features with Power. Don’t for a moment discount them, for each offer a remarkable summation of what that industry was best at. Nothing puts you further inside the skull of dream merchandisers than these puff balls with sell-by dates clearly marked.

Such froth was designed to tide us over to the next big ticket Power show. They were modest accompaniment to copies of Photoplay a girl fan might pick up going to or from the theatre, product made specifically for those who loved movies and just everything their favorites did. Whereas money was short in 1937 (sorta like today), it’s worth considering how much followers invested in stars they embraced. To see Power/Young at your venue might cost fifteen to twenty-five cents during matinee hours, a time many regulars chose as a hedge against cumulative expense of seeing multiple features in a given week. Photoplay was an additional quarter per month, that in addition to whatever you’d spend on rival publications. To be a serious fan was to surrender most disposable earnings to newstands and boxoffices. Films like Love Is News, Café Metropole, and Second Honeymoon (all 1937 releases) collected monies from those sufficiently enthusiastic (and indiscriminate) as to situate movies at the head of leisure time priorities, while larger ventures like Suez and In Old Chicago cast nets to wider audiences more selective. Fan comedies (or romances) were generally modern dress, thus less expensive. Love Is News had a negative cost of $371,000 and domestic rentals of $762,000. Profits were $361,000 and helped Tyrone Power gather momentum from his debut in Lloyds Of London and follow-up In Old Chicago. Cunning was Fox’s way of following expensive shows with several of modest means and beneficiaries of interest and good will generated. In fact, these saw greater profits than big-budget Suez, which came along in 1938. I’m happy to finally see such in-betweeners at optimum quality befitting care with which they were directed and photographed. Here is the truest eye candy of a vanished era, and most have been shelved for many years. Going to them with unrealistic expectations is to court disappointment. They are comedies only in the sense that you wouldn’t classify them as anything else. Tyrone Power and Loretta Young are not Cary Grant and Carole Lombard. They’re not screwy enough to be screwball, and too timid to be farce. They are girl meets boy, girl misunderstands boy briefly, then succumbs to boy plus viewer desire and expectation. Femmes probably attended in groups, mooned over Ty, then bought dress patterns in hopes of duplicating Loretta’s wardrobe. Men likely took in Power/Young less out of choice (which dates made for them), but with undoubted hopes that running times might be taken up taking liberties where possible in crowded balconies. Couples could do worse yet for enjoying these together, as all three are agreeably unisex in appeal and happily brief in duration (the longest is just 84 minutes).

Newspaper stories seem dated as madcap heiresses that intruded upon so many of them during the thirties. Both are endangered species now. Seems the only news we read nowaday is accounts of staff being laid off as more papers go broke and films like Love Is News retreat further into a never-land modern viewers find so remote, if not peculiar. This is a sort of show the uninitiated might surf by on a classic movie channel to confirm suspicion that none of it has anything to do with life today, and indeed, nothing about Love Is News parallels modern experience. Where was audience identification even in 1937? Power and city room rival Don Ameche trade socks in the jaw and work innumerable double-crosses throughout. Everything’s ramped up in that foolish manner latter-day filmmakers occasionally emulate, always with disastrous result (seen Leatherheads?). We accept behavior in 30’s comedies for being well enough removed to imagine (some) people actually comported themselves such ways. I take these things too much to heart, but it gave me jitters seeing Loretta Young stage a road crash (with herself as injured party) just to get Tyrone’s attention, a gag befitting anything-for-a-laugh abandon fashionable then. Love Is News and kin are like cannonballs rolling faster and louder as they go downhill. You’re willing to spot them twenty or thirty minutes before exhaustion grabs hold (in fact, I fell asleep in the second half last night and had to go back today for the rest of it). Ever notice how often characters get mad and quit jobs in 30’s comedies? Was that wish fulfillment on the part of writers depression-bound to studios? Love Is News posits its romantic escapade as one that engages an entire country, headlines screaming of each encounter between Power and Young, a conceit at least marginally believable as both are larger-than-life attractive in ways surpassing even glamour thresholds prevailing at the time. These two really were almost too good –looking for their own good. Power especially suffered when some of that faded, as advancing years dictated it must. A 1949 remake of Love Is News called That Wonderful Urge finds him trying again with comic instincts sharper but freshness sufficiently diminished as to make you sorry he’s being put through such tired (and by then old hat) paces. Love Is News benefits from the enthusiasm of an actor in quest of stardom and imagining that parts will surely get better if he just pitches in now with all he’s got.

I’m actually sparking up to the Tyrone Power fan base with today’s post. Plenty are out there, as witness this site and that, both among the best tributes to any past luminary. One has a particularly lively and informative discussion group I enjoy following, this and other online evidence causing me to wonder if Tyrone Power isn’t indeed top man among leading men of the Golden Age. Fox must have realized meaningful sales on two volumes (so far) of Power DVD’s (there’s enough left, by the way, for a third). Women still go for him in a big way. His appeal is very contemporary. There’s a sensitivity about Power even when he double–deals a leading lady, an assurance that it’s all in service to silly plots he’d never take seriously. What also works is the voice … seemingly a lost art (if not a discarded tool) of the acting profession. By way of unfavorable comparison, I watched a film the other night with Edward Burns, a contempo name with looks and no small ability, but couldn’t someone teach him to speak? I’d read of weak-toned Clark Gable being perched at cliff sides to yell himself hoarse, emerging from that wilderness only after necessary deepening of vocal range (they even used the device with Lauren Bacall!). Power had at least that (and from the beginning), even if he occasionally mis-stepped otherwise. Café Metropole opens with a drunk scene, always a caution light no matter who’s enacting same, to which still inexperienced Power falls victim, with another trap door opening just afterward when he’s obliged to fake a Russian accent for nearly the rest of 83 minutes. Power’s best at earnest love scenes with Loretta Young, raison d’être for all three comedies. Their coupling in fact takes precedence over moral and ethical considerations that might otherwise dictate actions of less beautiful people. When the divorced pair reunite in Second Honeymoon, it’s a given they’ll consummate attraction shared by an audience quite willing to overlook the fact that Young’s character is now married to hapless Lyle Talbot and Power’s on a campaign to break them up. I’m frankly surprised the PCA let this scenario pass. Were they so smitten by the two as to ignore such blatant moral trespass? Maybe there is a different set of rules for Gods and Goddesses.


Blogger Michael said...

You know why nobody has a voice like that any more? It's not just training. It's unfiltered cigarettes. Mankind went up an octave when the surgeon general got us to kick the habit.

9:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Michael. Never thought of that!

4:32 AM  
Blogger Mrs. R said...

Hi, I worked on the Matinee Idol box set and appear in two features. I chose the movies (though I didn't choose Wonderful Urge or Girls Dormitory). These are films not seen unless you happen to get Fox Movie Channel and catch them during the day.

Michael is right about the unfiltered cigarettes, but Tyrone had a trained voice, as did many actors back then. Many started on stage and also did radio, so a good speaking voice was a must

I have a small hearing loss in one ear, and for modern TV shows and films I use closed captioning or earphones. For one thing, actors swallow their words, and for another, the filming style today is more in line with reality - people talking at once, a lot going on at once, that kind of thing. I never need any help with the old movies, even with stars talking a mile a minute.

Right now, Tyrone Power is undergoing a huge resurgence. Photos of him recently went at auction for $14,000, while Gable, Taylor, and Garbo went from $800-1200. It's said that Power's films earned a billion dollars. At the time of his death in 1958, the average price of a movie ticket was 60 cents. Definitely a wonderful star who deserves the big bucks he's bringing on ebay.

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are very insightful - a fascinating post on two of my favorite stars ---
can you tell any more about who and why Loretta's memorablia turned up in resale shops ? where were her three children ? it really pains me to read a star's "treasures" are so discarded

7:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Very pleased to hear from someone who worked on the Power DVD set, Mrs. R. Were sales strong enough to allow for a third and concluding box? By my calculation, the following are yet to be available on Fox DVD:

Ladies In Love
Lloyds Of London
Thin Ice
Second Fiddle
American Guerrilla in the Philippines
Pony Soldier
Diplomatic Courier
King Of The Khyber Rifles

Any chance of Fox DVD going forward with these?

philiperic, I'm not sure what the family situation is with Loretta Young, but it's a shame her albums couldn't have been preserved intact.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Mrs. R said...

Regarding how the box sets sold, I only know the first box set, The Swashbuckler one, far exceeded Fox's expectations. (I'm not a Fox employee.) I don't know it from seeing figures, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if they decided to release 10 films the very next year, it did well.

I'm not sure how the second one did, except that I do think it did well. As well as the first, with less familiar films on it and with the economy as it is today, I can't say. Well enough, certainly. It definitely wasn't a flop.

I'd love to see Fox do a Power "adventure" DVD set with some of the films you mentioned. Other people have written about this, too. I'm thinking several things: 1) They're not going to do anything this year since they've brought out so much and probably figure they've shut the fans up for now; 2) They eventually will bring out a Sonja Henie collection; 3) I'm thinking Suez and Lloyds of London will be brought out separately; and 4) it never hurts to request an adventure set - Fox has been good about listening to the fans. You can certainly drop a line to their Home Entertainment division and request one -

9:53 AM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I loved Power's work in a lot of films - if his acting was sometimes mailed in, his movement and action on film was so natural he never seemed as stiff as his worst performances implied. Watching him progress into a star from all the linear releases over the years is exactly what I try to stress about the Studio system - the audience would see gradual increases in range by the better actors, like Powers eventually became, and the Studios depended on this recognition from viewers to keep the mill grinding. Unfortunately, the mill also ground out Young's type of stuck-in-amber persona, which is a real turn-off for me. It's an interesting comparison between the two here: Young started out relatively fresh onscreen in her early roles, and regressed as a less interesting actress as time went on, but Power became a real talent beyond his looks - the kind of looks that Young traded on for years rather than that spark she had at the beginning. Nice post about the dichotomy of Studio products.

2:24 AM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

What a wonderfully detailed piece!

2:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Robby, and back at ya for your own fantastic "Dear Old Hollywood" site.

Really loved that piece you wrote (and all the neat fotos!) on the Chaplin studio.

2:16 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

Can't say I'm that familiar with Tyrone Power, largely because TCM doesn't show many of his films and I don't get Fox Movie Channel on my cable system.

The renewed interest in Power due to his clear speaking voice doesn't surprise me. That's certainly been a reason for the revival of interest in William Powell in recent decades.

Loretta Young indeed became less interesting in the post-Code era. I am happy she lived long enough for many of those early films to be revived and for her career to be positively re-evaluated.

12:57 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader James Manuel sent this e-mail and guessed the mystery photo ...

MARGIE, a favorite Jeanne Crain film.
Love your site.
Your recent comments on the films of
Loretta Young made me think of how
humorous I thought it was that newspaper
reviewers of the time tried to find some
dramatic relevance out of these films.
So many like them were released
in the thirties, forties and fifties.
They were pure escapist entertainment.
People didn't even go to see a particular
movie as a rule. "Do you want to go to the
show tonight?" was a frequent question.
So many films during the war years were
aimed at the women audiences. It brought
a bit of romance, dumb or not, into their
lives while the men were overseas.
Granted, it took Hollywood a while to shake
that reasoning after the fellas came back.
The fact that they usually made a profit,
even small profit, kept the studios afloat.
Our family operated the WinterGarden theatre
in a college town in upstate New York during
those years. These rather mindless films played
midweek as single features and often sold more
tickets than the "A" films that played at the front
of the week or the cowboy and comedy double
features at the end of the week. If there was a
good-looking male in the film the gross was
greater. The European group (Henreid, Boyer, etc.)
were not considered stuff that dreams were made of.
That's all.
James Manuel

Thanks James!

5:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to see Loretta Young from time to time at a little neighborhood market called "Santa Glen" on the corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica. One day I was talking on the phone outside in the parking-lot (those were still the days of pay -- not cell) looked-up and suddenly, there was Loretta Young walking towards me, looking like she had just stepped out of wardrobe and make-up from the "Suez" set. Startled, I said, "Hello!" In return, she blew me a kiss! (I reminded myself, later-on, that this was a woman -- never mind Tyrone, or even Ronald Colman, who had worked in the silents with Lon Chaney, Sr.! And we're talking early 80's here!)
As always, John, a great post and a very insightful analysis of exactly who these films were being aimed toward at that time. Selznick and Wellman's (and Dorothy Parker's) depiction of "Esther Blodgett" appears to have been a pretty accurate one, as you indirectly point out. There were millions of Esther Blodgett's scattered across the country in those mid-Depression years, who lived to "go to the show" and moon over Ty and Loretta. By the way, I've been going thru the boxed DVD set sent me by this nice lady with the Tyrone Power Society (she's the one by the way, who petitioned and lobbied the people who release these things at Fox to get this out in time to honor the 50th anniversary of Tyrone's passing -- I know, because I was one of the signers). I just watched "Cafe Metropole", which I had never seen. I'm a sucker for these 1930's mittle-European/imitation - Lubitsch films they were making in those days, and this one did not disappoint!
Once again, you hit it out of the park with this post! Great job, and as always, my congratulations on a wonderful job.
Best always, Rick
P.S.: Loretta sends you a kiss!

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another very nice post indeed. Thank you so much for this blog.

1:52 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, I once saw some amazing home movies of Loretta's at a Syracuse Cinefest that included on-set footage during "Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back." I wonder what's become of those shot-in-16mm reels ...

5:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're asking me! Here's a funny -- maybe not so funny -- P.S. about the "Santa Glen", and that particular-corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica. My friends and I always used to refer to it as "the corner where all the comedians died"! It's true. Lou Costello died suddenly across the street on the opposite corner, at what used to be called "Beverly Hills Doctor's Hospital". (Today it's an office-complex -- in fact, our office here in L.A. does business inside there all the time. Whenever I walk-in, I can faintly hear an echo: "Hey,Abbott!"). Directly-across the street, right at the intersection, is where Ernie Kovacs suffered his fatal auto-crash early one New Years' morning, coming-back from a party up the hill at the Billy Wilders'. (I can still remember it was during a heavy rain-storm we were having out here that year). (Gruesome, isn't it?) Interesting story about how Lou Costello died. In those days, adjacent to the Santa Glen, was a drug-store, with one of those old-fashioned wrap-around soda-fountains that were so prevalent, and popular then. Apparently, the story goes, Lou sent his manager, Eddie Sherman over to buy him a strawberry milkshake. Eddie returned, delivered-it, and they sat and talked some business for awhile. Finishing the last of it, Lou said to Eddie, "That was the best strawberry milkshake I ever had". Then, he closed his eyes and died.

Another great, somewhat forgotten Power film is "Second Fiddle" -- a satire on the search for Scarlett O'Hara , with some great Irving Berlin tunes, and a wonderful performance by the redoubtable Edna May Oliver. (And again, proof what a great, natural light-comedian Ty was).
As always, R.J.

9:51 AM  
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