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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Life and Death For a Go-Getter

I am so drawn to sad ghosts of the silent era, among which Wallace Reid stands tall. They say he was the first in Hollywood to have a private swimming pool. Women were nuts for Wally and stood hip deep outside Paramount gates hoping he’d pass. Reid was collecting three thousand a week during the teens. What made him sad was a morphine addiction with an alcoholic overlay. Otherwise, he seems to have been an exemplary family man. Wally’s on my pantheon with Roscoe Arbuckle and Mary Miles Minter. Black cats surely crossed their paths, and often. The price of fame got paid and repaid by these whose shadows grow ever dimmer with passing nitrate years. Reid’s fans have mostly joined him now. If not, they’d be pushing their second hundred years. I paid belated homage at Cinefest-ivities last week and watched Reid in The Dancin’ Fool. That one came out in 1920. He was way hooked by then. There’d been a (literal) train wreck the year before and studio doctors propped him up on hop so he could finish a show called Valley Of The Giants. I watched Wally close for signs of stress. He was clearly a good actor because the monkey never showed on his back. You might with hindsight call him Douglas Fairbanks lite. Wally was calmer and didn’t climb every telephone pole he passed like Doug. Reid had a foot in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was up-to-now (or then) in the safe sense of not ruffling feathers that mattered. His characters were gentlemen and ultra-motivated in ways young men were expected to be in such Horatio Alger-istic days. Wally’s boldest stroke might have been popularizing soft collars for men’s shirts. Not so much, you might say, but try strapping one of those celluloid numbers around your own neck, then give thanks to trendsetters like Reid who spared subsequent generations the agony of wearing such devices.

Insiders remembered Wallace Reid for a long time. His generation of stars all but crossed themselves upon mention of his name, lest Reid’s sorry fate be visited upon them. Conrad Nagel looked back from the sixties and extolled Wally’s virtues and utter lack of conceit. Reid was a guy who never deserved what chance dealt out so harshly. He drove himself in that dawn-to-midnight era when picture tasking was just that and more, with sundry skills expected of all that applied. Reid wrote, directed, starred, and moved scenery. Sometimes he brought a violin and supplied mood music for silent emoters. He’d crank out two or more pics a week. His alternating positions in front of cameras amounted to on horse and off. Who had time to go see all the pictures Wally made before he became a major name? Their sheer number was staggering but not untypical of pace such pioneers maintained. Reid got in chips once Paramount recognized his formula and welded him to it. He’d be youth-on-the-go, preferably in roadsters and putting to rout old fogies with outmoded ways. Wally could do the same story eight times in a year (his 1922 output of features) and still they’d come. Imagine that whilst feeling in the pink, then picture yourself pulling same hours on a morphine crutch. Reid and his image parted ways from aforementioned 1919 injury, but there was still three plus years to bleed out of what was left of him. Some, like director Karl Brown, blamed Paramount for exploitative policy and indifference to Wally’s health. I could buy that theory based on ways he was clearly overworked. Reid would not be Paramount’s only tangerine squeezed dry, as other circumstances equally dire cut Arbuckle and Minter loose. Fans do bail eventually on any act repeated ad nauseum. Seven and eight doses per annum was piling on heavy, even for folks used to attending movies several times a week. How many races were left for Wally to win? --- yet Paramount leaned on accelerators as he approached collapse, a policy not unlike ones applied to sales and exhibition men in the field expected to bring back contracts for Reid films in current release (some of them here gathered and competing for placement on the studio’s "honor roll"). There was no company so ruthless as Paramount. They moved like sharks through towns to starve out mom-pop theatres perceived as competition, sort of an early century’s Wal-Mart. Adolph Zukor was robber baron in chief, and to my eyes looks like the very devil in surviving photos, ice-effing-cold. To be on this man’s payroll, let alone in compromised circumstances Reid knew, was perdition come early.

The Dancin’ Fool is deeper retro than even dedicated retro dwellers like to go. It’s altogether pre-modern, pre-deco, and barely post-horse and buggy. Sets are cramped and drab. We assume people danced and dined in "cabarets" depicted here where you expect Charlie Chaplin to arrive in waiter guise and spill soup. Reid introduced a fresh ingredient by demonstrating how well he could twirl, with Bebe Daniels partnering. The two are likeable in ways that transcend ninety years and generations of negative decay elapsing since. I would have been a Reid fan in 1920. His characters pointed way toward success that may well have worked. As office boy for grouch Raymond Hatton in The Dancin’ Fool, Wally introduces a typewriter as labor-saving device, and that’s good for a reel's fun. I guess Reid functioned as role model for lots of youth. He showed how to go out and get your piece of the dream when white-collar ladders were just starting to go up. This hero may be just off the farm, but it doesn’t take him long to wise up and get with the urban program. Young men understood merit in that approach and emulated Reid. When off-screen truth revealed feet of clay, they would applaud his name on credits and hope for recovery. Directors who lived to venerable age recalled being there for his last, Thirty Days, finished but weeks short of Wally’s final entry to a sanitarium. He was led to the set and looked like a zombie, said Joseph Henabery, while Henry Hathaway remembered him sinking altogether into helpless tears. Reid’s death at thirty-one in January 1923 shocked and grieved a public with too few stars they could truly identify with. The scandal aspect took longer to congeal. Wally had avoided pusher and needle routes. His doctor delivered fixes poolside and the law being soft as it was, there was no sweat. You could get morphine readily as jelly beans then (it may well be an addict that finally invents time travel). I’d like to think Wallace Reid is poised for rediscovery, but prints that survive are lousy and the rest are lost altogether. Never mind his being one of the more interesting personalities to come of early films. Reid’s widow led a several decades fight against drug abuse following his death, but she’s forgotten too. Dewitt Bodeen interviewed her for a career profile on Wally in 1966 for Films In Review. It’s the place everyone goes to for information on the actor. Were it not for Bodeen and FIR writers like him, we’d have precious little first-hand data on that initial generation of picture people.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When The Passion Seems Yours Alone

Film enthusiasts are at times like misguided evangelicals, persisting in a life’s mission of bringing others to the fold. How often have we tried (and mostly failed) at "introducing" family and friends to our idea of better viewing? From a time when I could first thread Castle reels upon our 8mm Bell & Howell Regent, mine has been an ongoing assault upon varied unfortunates dragged to darkened rooms for screenings they’d as soon avoid. Quick upon heels of acquiring a "Complete Edition" (eight minutes) of Dracula in 1964, I prevailed upon my father to abandon his morning oatmeal to attend my premiere of same. It’s hard for devotees to accept possibilities of such stuff not appealing to everyone. Just give it a chance, you’ll say, then try concealing disappointment over a tepid (or worse) response. I’ve given up cheerleading for having been burnt so many times. Here’s Rule Number One: Never assure your audience that they’re about to see the funniest movie ever made, or the scariest one. That’s merely challenging them to prove you wrong. No one enjoys taking receipt of their opinion before they’ve expressed it. The wiser course might be suggesting they’d (possibly) find your show interesting, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee it’s good or that they’ll like it. Interesting takes you off the hook for a brutal letdown sure to come when you make rash pronouncements.
Gosh, John, I didn’t laugh once during that Harry Langdon film you just showed, to which I’d rejoin, Yes, but you must admit it was least interesting. We need hides like alligators to preach on behalf of classic movies. And never use that word! --- I stopped years ago --- what expletive is more intimidating and off-putting than classic? TCM, change your name and find that mass audience you’ve sought! I twist in emotional winds as outsiders look at my stuff. Honestly, it’s more satisfying to watch alone. At least then you bear no responsibility for inflicting a bad show on anyone other than yourself. I’m through performing celluloid baptisms, a balm to myself and most of those (outside collector circles) who’ve lately shared my company (I come here instead to annoy you readers). My courtship of girlfriend Ann did touch upon Universal horrors and even Deanna Durbin in First Love. As our relationship blossomed and necessity of constant togetherness diminished, she drifted off to evenings with seventies sitcoms and I withdrew to Films Noir, serials unendurable to those aspiring toward normalcy, and umpteenth unspoolings of The Thing. For giving ourselves over to such esoteric matters (which reminds me of a cousin who’d recently checked out GPS for the first time --- It’s OK, John, but too esoteric), might we have become intellectual carrots? The mind boggles (and see, I needn’t explain that reference, but would to anyone off the Greenbriar reservation). All this is mere preamble to my account herein of what disaster fell when just this week, Ann asked if we might watch something spooky together. As such was a rare request after seven years and most entertainment choices made separately, I decided to lay Black Sabbath on her, with alternating foreign/domestic versions, much background as to what the 1964 omnibus chiller had meant to me (since age 10), and drum-beating over scares it would generate for us both. Did I get burnt again? Yes I did.

My preparations toward getting things right, rather pathetic now in hindsight, involved leaps from DVD to DVR and back again. I’d known Black Sabbath most of my life and so was ready to play this chessboard. Ever identified the films with which you’ve shared an ongoing life’s history --- ones that resurface time and again as you get older? Black Sabbath is one of those for me. The first scrap of movie memorabilia ever to come my way had been a pressbook cover sent home by Colonel Forehand via my father just after the film’s 1964 first-run at the Liberty (that somewhat frayed item shown above). Already nostalgic for chillers like it by the time I was booking college programs, Black Sabbath played a 1975 Halloween tandem with Brides Of Dracula (if memory serves, each was had for $35 rental). I’d tightened that parlay by simply omitting Black Sabbath’s second of three stories, The Telephone, on my conviction that it was too weak a link and might prematurely drive off the audience. Decades passed and Black Sabbath limped its way onto video and laser disc, a drab representation of what we’d enjoyed in theatres. DVD supplied a pictorially superior rendition of the Italian original (in that language), and though it preserved (at last) Mario Bava’s intended cut, this Black Sabbath lacked a crucial element, Boris Karloff’s voice. Those tracks are controlled by MGM stateside, and they’ve shown no interest in releasing the domestic version as it was re-cut/scored/dubbed by American-International back in 1964. You’d have to combine the two for something approaching an ideal presentation. As of this month and MGM-HD’s long-awaited broadcast of the AIP Black Sabbath, I was at last able to share a childhood’s horrific milestone, and this time I’d include The Telephone, jazzed up as now it was with a lesbian subplot missing from the US edition. Ann and I sat down on the Sabbath just previous (not necessarily a Black one) to watch, beginning with A Drop Of Water, which most consider by far the most effective of BS’s three offerings. That’s just a doll, screeched Ann as the frightful old hag stared from her deathbed. May-be, said I, but it terrified a generation of children, including myself. I might have argued further had not Black Sabbath run further aground with still weak despite lesbian subtexted The Telephone (to which she declaimed, that’s just lame) and an abysmal (Ann’s word) The Wurdalak, from which she exited altogether. I was left to solitary contemplation of Black Sabbath and doubt of my own judgment as to what’s good and bad in movies. Had sentiment and an excess of critical forbearance blinded me to realities of a frankly so-so (if that) horror movie no one younger than me could (or should) care about? Ann vaguely recalled it showing up on Channel 8’s Shock Theatre when she was ten (that would have been around 1971). Her household, including three brothers, laughed it off their black-and-white tube, abetted by horror host Dr. Paul Bearer and hot dogs they’d boiled for the telecast. Was this any way to watch Black Sabbath, let alone remember it? That difference between large screen and small, and a perhaps even more crucial one between color and monochrome, was enough to bleed Black Sabbath white for Ann, whose own comeuppance would come years later when she tried introducing The Legend Of Hell House, a horror that had rocked her theatrically in 1973, to her own children. Did you really think that was scary, Mom? was their incredulous inquiry after snickering and rolling eyes throughout the show.

I’d have gladly carried James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff’s bags through all those exhibitor conferences just to watch them operate in varied suites, lobbies, and cocktail lounges, for it was such hotel environs that breathed commercial life into Black Sabbath and others of its genre sort, bookings typically secured over AIP-sponsored luncheons and drinks supplied by Jim and Sam. American-International had become a showman’s best friend since opening shop in the mid-fifties. Nicholson was formerly in management and a movie fan besides. By 1963, he and Arkoff had sold bushel-barrels of low-budget horrors to theatres and drive-ins whose appetites for AIP’s kind of entertainment seemed insatiable. Their output was mostly color now, being necessitated by more and more monsters on TV since days when the company released their B/W cheapies pre-packaged in pairs. Jim and Sam figured to use known quantities from the home screen and toward that end made deals first with Peter Lorre, then Boris Karloff, both chiller veterans and late show regulars. Lorre’s pledge called for eight pictures over four years through 1967. Karloff would star in four through 1965, his contract barring any outside motion pictures dealing with horror, science-fiction, macabre subjects, or Edgar Allan Poe subjects. The restriction also applies to television, said trade mag Boxoffice. Lorre and Karloff had been a hit together in The Raven (here they are on a publicity junket for that) with $1.231 million in domestic rentals, but a follow-up, The Comedy Of Terrors, stumped its toe and brought back a disappointing $747,000. Maybe audiences didn’t want to laugh at their creepers after all (some theatre ads, like Chicago’s first-run shown here, actually tried minimizing light-hearted aspects of the film and sold it as a straight thriller). Another parodic project set to go, Graveside Story, which would have reunited the cast of The Comedy Of Terrors, was abandoned just short of production. Karloff dispatched to Europe for a shocker to be done in earnest by Italian director Mario Bava, whose Black Sunday in 1961 performed the best of any black-and-white genre pic AIP had released to that point ($706,000 in domestic rentals). Nicholson and Arkoff meanwhile continued looking for ways to enhance their good-will standing among exhibitors. The biggest noises generated by these were complaints over post-1948 features showing up on television. Ever ones for seizing opportunity that might enrich bookings, Jim and Sam took to convention floors and swore they’d stem the tide of product going over to the enemy… even as AIP was quietly preparing to close a video deal on much of its own library.

Producers and distributors have an obligation to offer some protection for exhibitors to prevent almost new pictures from being rushed into TV and in some cases conflicting with theatre bookings, said Nicholson to an assemblage of the Theatre Owners Of America and Allied States Exhibitors Organization in March 1963. We of American-International Pictures challenge the other companies to follow our pledge to exhibitors. The "No TV Clause" guaranteed that all future AIP product, beginning with The Raven and Operation Bikini, would be withheld from television for a minimum period of five years from the date of release, subject only to bank foreclosure or financial loss (the clearance would not apply if film rentals do not equal production and distribution costs and expenses within a period of two years from national release). Calling theirs an urgent and necessary move, Jim and Sam (posing below with exhibs) slammed actions of competing distributors as cannibalism of the worst sort and warned that this unregulated and indiscriminate early TV exposure cannot help but convince the public that they need only wait a few months and they will see all movies on TV free. This, of course, was music to a show world’s ears. Nicholson and Arkoff were all but hoisted up as if they’d kicked a winning field goal. TOA and Allied directors issued a resolution encouraging members to show their appreciation by booking AIP product at every possible opportunity. What came next could not have been entirely unexpected, for Nicholson announced in June 1963 that sixty-nine AIP features had been sold to five American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres television stations for two million dollars. All but seven of the sixty-nine were black and white, and included titles such as The Amazing Colossal Man, Blood Of Dracula, and I Was A Teenage Werewolf, along with westerns, war, and other genre actioners the company had dabbled in. AIP assured theatres that product involved has been in continuous theatrical release and many of the films have been reissued and have exhausted their full theatrical potential. In fact, many if not most of them were still playing heavily on weekend hardtop programs and all-night drive-in berths. The company said it would provide showmen with dates of initial TV showings so as to avoid conflict with theatre bookings. Runs on AB-PT stations throughout 1964, these located in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and New York, were followed by wider syndication of the sixty-nine AIP’s in January 1965 through a company called Screen Entertainment. These knocked a lot of the old Universal monsters off their perch (I remember The Day The World Ended playing Charlotte’s Horror Theatre on New Year’s night, initiating a year of AIP domination of Channel 3’s Friday late movie).

It didn’t take American-International long to forget its promise. The company’s own TV division offered the Amazing ’65 package of twenty features to become available in September 1964. These included Black Sunday, Circus Of Horrors, and Konga, each outside perimeters of the pledge, having been released prior to 1963, but the following year’s Amazing ’66 (available September 1965), offering The Terror, Dementia 13, and The Evil Eye, among twenty-two titles, seemed to have violated terms. Had AIP lost money on these and thus excluded them from its protected group? The company’s theatrical revenue was dropping from previous seasons. The Terror only realized $360,000 in domestic rentals, Dementia 13 a worse $116,000. AIP was in effect competing with itself, having so much similar horror and sci-fi backlog not only saturating in theatres, but now in homes as well. American-International Television began salting its syndication packages with Euro titles unreleased stateside and very cheap sci-fi’s they’d commissioned from producer Larry Buchanan. The Amazing Adventures 1967 group included twenty-five features and Black Sabbath was among them, its availability announced March 1966 for Autumn season play (Queen Of Blood was included as well, despite having been released theatrically that same March --- could this be why they changed its title to Planet Of Blood?). Black Sabbath had maxed out with $419,000 domestic rental dollars from 7,130 theatrical bookings. Boris Karloff in horror films tended to perform well below what Vincent Price could recover for the same brand. Black Sabbath may also have been shunned in church-going communities where small exhibs passed so as to avoid negative patron response to its title (I noticed that apparent trend in a lack of bookings for the film in surrounding NC towns, though our Liberty thankfully ran it as a single for two days). All this history is so much smoked meat now that we (more or less) have ready access to Black Sabbath, but its critical reputation remains largely stillborn outside fan followers who remember it new (Maltin’s Guide assigns it just two-and-a-half stars) and that’s largely because it was so hard to decently see for so long. Will presentations worthy (Thanks, Anchor Bay DVD and MGM-HD) and scrupulously researched production histories elevate Black Sabbath to a deserved pantheon? Only if they keep Ann out of the voting!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cinefest 'Round The Bend

Some (I hope a lot) of you will be headed for Syracuse next week (March 19-22) for the annual Cinefest. I was a regular until 2002, my last year of attendance, so this will be an opportunity to see how much the show has (or hasn’t) changed since. Cinefest is one of those rare weekends you can spend surrounded by hundreds of people that know who William S. Hart is. Kindred spirits all, gathered in a large banquet room to watch dozens of silent films and early talkies, Cinefest-ers are fans of the hardest core. Program selections are from among those least accessible … unseen even by devotees who faithfully monitor TCM and DVD output. These are movies the folks back home never heard of. Significant others best pass on Cinefest, as time and conversation are almost entirely taken up with matters so arcane as to seem like foreign language to those outside the life. It’s always snowing in Syracuse, or there’s a foot on the ground. I like that because it reminds me of weather we used to have down here. Flying in is reminiscent of the final scene from Airport. The hotel is fine, but I can never sleep at these shows (except during movies I stayed up particularly to see). Iron men (and women) will sit fourteen hours through a dozen features in straight-backed hotel chairs not unlike Barbara Steele's Iron Maiden accommodations in The Pit and The Pendulum. I used to slide two or three together, prop myself up on pillows, and lay there like Theda Bara in repose, but that drew attention if not censure, so this year I’m trying a fold-up seat like people use at ball games (now there’s a question --- how many Cinefest-ers also attend sporting events?). Food is good at the hotel and surrounding restaurants. They pop corn to go with screenings. There’s a dealer’s room with guys who’ve lugged in merchandise since stone built the pyramids, and I salute their enduring backs, wishing indeed that my own were as resilient. A highlight of Cinefest is the 35mm show at Syracuse's Palace Theatre, a picture palace as James Mason might have called it, where archival prints are often unveiled for the first time. The journey’s made worthwhile by this event alone. Cinefest is four days of viewing joy and fellowship. Anyone who can get there should get there. It is that weekend’s greatest entertainment bargain. Go here for further info at the official Cinefest site.

What follows is the film schedule recently posted at Cinefest’s Facebook site:

Thursday, March 19th
9:00 am A BUNDLE OF BLUES (1933) with Duke Ellington, Ivie Anderson.
9:10 am SAFETY IN NUMBERS (1930) with Buddy Rogers, Carole Lombard.
10:40 am LESS THAN THE DUST (1916) with Mary Pickford, David Powell.


1:00 pm CARETAKER’S DAUGHTER (1934) with Billy Gilbert, Eddie Foy, Jr.
1:25 pm ALL WRONG (1919) with Bryant Washburn, Mildred Davis.
2:25 pm TRAILER MANIA SHOW II Hosted by Ray Faiola.
3:30 pm CITY OF PLAY (1929) with Chili Bouchier, Patrick Aherne.
4:50 pm DOCTOR’S WIVES (1931) with Warner Baxter, Joan Bennett.


8:10 pm GUMBASIA (1955) A film by Art Clokey.
8:15 pm THE INSTALLMENT COLLECTOR (1929) with Fred Allen.
8:30 pm THEY SHALL PAY (1921) with Lottie Pickford, Allan Forrest.
9:30 pm LOVE NEVER DIES (1921) with Lloyd Hughes, Madge Bellamy.
10:50 pm THE LAST TRAIL (1933) with George O’Brien, Claire Trevor.
11:55 pm WHAT PRICE VENGEANCE (1937) with Lyle Talbot, Wendy Barrie.

Friday, March 20th

9:00 am THE DESERT SONG (1929) with John Boles, Carlotta King.
10:50 am WOMAN (1918) with Warren Cook, Florence Billings, Ethel Hallor.


1:00 pm THE WHEEL OF LIFE (1929) with Richard Dix, Esther Ralston.
2:10 pm GREENBRIAR PICTURE SHORTS presented by John McElwee.
3:15 pm NEXT DOOR NEIGHBORS (1931) with Edgar Kennedy, Pert Kelton.
3:40 pm THE DANCIN’ FOOL (1920) with Wallace Reid, Bebe Daniels.
4:35 pm THE SECRET MAN (1958) with John Loder, Marshall Thompson.


8:00 pm THE BANK SWINDLE (1930) William J. Burns Detective short.
8:15 pm JOAN CRAWFORD HOME MOVIES with Joan Crawford.
8:45 pm THE CIRCLE (1925) with Eleanor Boardman, Malcolm McGregor.
9:45 pm THE PERFECT SPECIMEN (1937) with Errol Flynn, Joan Blondell.
11:20 pm DOCTOR X (1932) with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy.

Saturday, March 21st

7:45 am: The buses will begin to load from the front entrance of the Holiday Inn for the 35mm presentations at the Palace Theatre. Last bus leaves at 8 am 8:30 am (Films may not be presented in order shown on program):
EVERYBODY’S SWEETHEART (1920) with Olive Thomas.
A MILLION BID (1927 with Dolores Costello, Warner Oland.
20 DOLLARS A WEEK (1924) with George Arliss, Ronald Colman.
LUNCH BREAKBEGGER ON HORSEBACK (1925) with Edward Everett Horton.
SHOPWORN ANGEL (1928) with Gary Cooper, Nancy Carroll.
BACK PAY (1924) with Seena Owen, Matt Moore.

The buses will leave immediately after the presentations for the hotel.
Program resumes at the Holiday Inn:

4:30 pm RHAPSODY IN BLACK AND BLUE (1932) with Louis Armstrong.
4:40 pm ENTER MADAME (1934) with Cary Grant, Elissa Landi.


8:00 pm STARBRIGHT DIAMOND (1930) William J. Burns, Detective short.
8:10 pm WEAK BUT WILLING (1929) with Billy Bevan, Dot Farley.
8:40 pm IN THE PARK (1915) with Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance.
8:50 pm WHITE GOLD (1927) with Jetta Goudal, Kenneth Thompson.
10:10 pm ONE MORE RIVER (1934) with Colin Clive, Jane Wyatt.
11:40 pm PADDY THE NEXT BEST THING (1933) with Janet Gaynor.

Sunday, March 22nd

9:00 am BOYS FROM SYRACUSE (1940) with Allan Jones, Martha Raye.
10:30 am THE AUCTION (2009) Hosted by Leonard Maltin and His Stooges.
12:30 pm THE LADY WHO DARED (1931) with Billie Dove, Sidney Blackmer.
1:30 pm GATEWAY (1938) with Don Ameche, Arleen Whelan, Gilbert Roland.
2:45 pm LITTLE TOKYO (1942) with Preston Foster, Brenda Joyce.
3:50 pm WESTBOUND LIMITED (1937) with Lyle Talbot, Polly Rowles
(Films and starting times may be subject to change)

My own program, Greenbriar Picture Shorts, is scheduled for Friday afternoon (March 20) at 2:10 p.m. It’s an hour of single- reelers that I hope will be new to those in attendance. Here’s the summary as it will appear in the Cinefest program:

Greenbriar Picture Shorts Presented by John McElwee --- Here are four subjects hopefully unavailable on DVD and not otherwise saturated on TCM. The first is a Warners reel from 1934, Movie Memories, which was actually the second of two tributes to stars recently departed. There are glimpses here of Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, and others memorable to Cinephiles. Next is a rare Screen Snapshots from Columbia, Out West In Hollywood --- a 1953 pastische of screen cowboys going back to the silent era, introduced by Ralph Staub and Ken Murray, the latter doubling as pitchman for his current western, The Marshall's Daughter. Then we have a seldom seen complete episode of an early fifties TV series, Life With Buster Keaton. These were shot in a week and taxed the great comedian's efficiency to the limit. Hardly Keaton's best work, but a fascinating curio. Finally, there is a reel Walt Disney prepared for local stations considering purchase of The Mickey Mouse Club. This was for the second season in which the program was available in syndication (1963-64) and all stops are pulled to tempt prospective buyers. Overall, an hour's variety of shorts we hope you've not seen before.

I’ll also be bringing two features to Cinefest, both of which will be shown on Friday night:

9:45 pm: THE PERFECT SPECIMEN (1938, Warner Brothers) Dir.: Michael Curtiz. With Errol Flynn, Joan Blondell, Hugh Herbert,
Edward Everett Horton, Dick Foran, Beverly Roberts, May Robson.

Here is an Errol Flynn comedy with Joan Blondell too long out of circulation thanks to tangled story rights. It's perhaps more silly than funny, as were most Warner attempts at screwball farce, but a game effort for all that, and welcome opportunity to observe Flynn in something other than action mode. Director Michael Curtiz demonstrates his customary versatility. Was there any genre he couldn't address? The 16mm print we'll see is from Flynn's private stash. He was a dedicated collector of his own and other Warner features, which he often threaded up during birthday and yachting parties. Outside of the presumed lost Murder at Monte Carlo and Hello God, this may be about the toughest of the star's films to see.

11:20 pm DOCTOR X (1932, First National) Dir.: Michael Curtiz. With Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, John Wray,
Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Leila Bennett, Robert Warwick.

So why run a feature we've seen over and over on TCM? Well, look closer, for this is the rare alternate black-and-white version of Warner's horror classic which was shot side-by-side with the two-color and now commonly shown edition. It used to be the other way around. For years, we could only see Doctor X in B/W. Now try finding it that way ... except here at Cinefest! There are numerous, if subtle, differences in the two. You'll observe alternate takes, set-ups, and not a few surprises. Some say this is the more satisfying Doctor X. Should an audience straw poll conclude its showing? There'll likely be plenty of discussion among viewers afterward, for this is a Doctor X every bit as spooky and atmospheric as the color one that's since become the ‘official’ version.

On To Syracuse!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Just Out --- Errol Flynn Slept Here

Errol Flynn slept here, there, and thither over fifty short years. That’s part of the joke that undermined recognition of talent seemingly unique to this actor. Others said it perhaps to diminish him, but Flynn really was about the only guy (in talkies) who could play believably with sword and sash. To Perform Well On a Horse may be the highest goal to which thesps can (should) aspire for all the times we've seen it done badly. How does one apportion credit between the man who declaims well on a stage and one who rides pell-mell off a canyon wall and delivers those words from astride old Dobbin? It’s time action men got their due, and I’m for placement of Errol Flynn among Best Stars (?), Best Personalities (??) --- no, let’s make that Best Actors of a Golden Age when athleticism came of something other than daily workouts under personal trainer tutelage. Having tipped my hand as a Flynn devotee (and that’s gone on forty years), may I convince those of you who aren’t that Errol Flynn Slept Here is a book you must have? Hopefully yes, for here’s one that goes beyond star worship from a fan’s afar and takes you into Flynn's private sanctum (in this case his legendary home on Mulholland) where the authors' exhaustive, and on-site, research finally reveal secrets Errol might better have taken to whatever his eternity amounts to (what is Heaven’s reward for celebrities?). Imagine if you dare what probing eyes might discover upon close inspection of your own homes, then factor in an outrageous public lifestyle Errol Flynn indulged throughout a largely debauched Hollywood career. Robert Matzen and Michael A. Mazzone found the trap doors, two-way mirrors, and casino outbuilding (that which also hosted orgies and cockfights). Both perused the house and shot rolls of film before it was torn down and replaced with a dwelling for Justin Timberlake (could anything sum up our cultural slide better?). The book, like Flynn’s life, is part comedy, much tragedy, and all insight. It’s then and now in that way good writers have of linking up a glamorous movie past with decay and waste such fame enabled when its objects had not judgment nor any sort of governors on offscreen behavior. I’m hackneyed perhaps in saying that Flynn’s dream house became his nightmare, but his was a loss I felt for being attached to a dwelling customized to suit myself. The struggle he maintained to keep that hilltop overlooking Burbank (you could and can see the Warners lot) was real-life equivalent to ordeals fought by Robin Hood, General Custer, and various Sea Hawks he played, but Flynn lost this one in a courtroom and was banished to a floating residence (his yacht the Zaca) he’d barely managed to salvage. I’ll be trite again: The man’s own saga was twice as dramatic as anything he did in movies. Matzen and Mazzone are the first to view it all from Errol’s own poolside. The book is coffee table sized and 184 pages. These authors have seen and read everything about Flynn that’s come before and have not duplicated any of it. Errol Flynn Slept Here is in effect their own Mulholland House, for by composing and laying out the entire thing themselves (and seeing to its publication), Matzen and Mazzone present here exactly the book they’ve dreamed of for the thirty plus years I’ve been friends with both (and yes, the result's a dream come true for those of us who like Flynn as they do). I asked Bob Matzen to detail a little of what all that entailed, just in case any Greenbriar reader might like to follow their example and self-publish a book of his/her own:

My wife Mary and I have both managed print projects for many years. She is a senior editor and project manager of high-end training materials; I do a lot of writing and print work for NASA. So we have both worked extensively with designers, we both know something of print specs (Mary knows more than I do) and we've both taken things all the way through the print process. We got the help of two designers to lay the book out for us with an art deco theme, something that fit Flynn's personality and the times. Then we had a professional production person create style sheets for us to work with in Quark XPress, a software program used to create books. The production person gave Mary a crash course in Quark, and Mary taught me, and we then proceeded to drop the entire book into Quark XPress files working on a Mac G-5 with external backup drives. We created the book chapter by chapter in spreads (a left-hand page and a right-hand page), and when it was laid out, we knew how much copy we needed to add to fill up a chapter, because every chapter has to end on a right-hand page. My idea all along was to have a lot of sidebars in the book--chunks of copy that told a story within a story. Some were one column, some were a page, but most covered an entire spread. And of course we wanted lots and lots of photos, color and black and white, and the design was burgundy and green on every page, so we wanted a four-color print job throughout, which is the most expensive way to go. Every photo had to be scanned at extremely high resolution, Photoshopped, and converted to tiffs for insertion in Quark.

As we were working on the book, we began a nationwide search for a printer. We worked with our production person on the exact kind and weight of paper we wanted, 80-pound coated stock, and how we wanted it to be bound. Early on we had thought we'd do a softcover, but we could see how incredibly well the book was coming together; to do it justice, we had to go hardcover, which meant spending roughly 2.5 times the money we had budgeted for softcover. We wanted a high-gloss dust jacket as well, and our designer worked with us on many designs. This was in some ways the hardest task, because we couldn't find the cover design we wanted. At one point she said, "let go all of your beliefs in what the cover should be, and let me try something new." And she came back with THE cover design. Flynn and Lupino are in full color because symbolically, Lupino is the one woman that Flynn should have married and didn't, the one woman he adored. She was at Mulholland a lot in the 1940s. Damita poses seductively in front of the house that she would claim from Flynn in lieu of back alimony payments. And Rick Nelson, the devoted Flynn fan, looks great in an unpublished candid in the corner. So we had a design and specs for the dust jacket, and specs for the internal pages, and for the number of pages, and we entered this information in an online printing industry exchange, and received bids from all over the world. It was important to us that the book to be printed in the USA, and we asked for samples from our finalists to assure a quality product. We feel we were very fortunate with our final choice, Bookmasters of Ashland, Ohio.

After months working in the Quark XPress file, we turned it over to our production expert and she fixed little problems we had created with photos, captions, and columns. We gave it a couple of final proofs, and then sent it off, nervous as cats that we had missed something. We saw proofs in a week and got our first finished samples seven weeks after that. Then in early February, four pallets of hardcover books, 146 cases, and 6,800 pounds, arrived at our door. And that's how we published our own book.

Errol Flynn Slept Here demonstrates what now can be achieved on one’s own desktop. The book is as handsomely mounted as any film book I’ve come across this or any year. The photo reproduction is superb. One thing I’d mention is that virtually all these images are rare and previously unseen. They represent the best of numerous Flynn archives (including Greenbriar’s own). I’m betting even seasoned fans will find much that is surprising and unfamiliar (my recurring question during recent conversations with the authors … Where did you find that?). The book isn’t confined to Flynn’s own residency at Mulholland. Others attempted living there. Varied incidents convinced some that this was a house possessed. Rick Nelson’s family saw/heard any number of visions/bumps that convinced them Errol was still Master Of Mulholland, never mind his having been gone and buried decades by the time they arrived. There’s a chapter called "This Old Haunted House" that spins tales of latter day visitation from a swashbuckler’s beyond. Maybe there was good reason for tearing the joint down. Rick Nelson’s stay has its own gothic flavor, considering the singer’s isolation there and tragic premature finish. Matzen and Mazzone got his sons’ cooperation and their spin on weirdness round and about those troubled grounds. Christian songwriter and performer Stuart Hamblen also lived a number of post-Flynn years at Mulholland. The book finds him posed beside a mini-freezer into which a dead mountain lion’s been stuffed. If Flynn had a born-again counterpart, this flamboyant character might have been it. Maybe Errol was soul mate of a kind with all these subsequent owners. In any event, he seems to have made his ongoing presence felt with each. As is clear enough here, I found values to this book well beyond those of ordinary star gazing and Hollywood memory banking. That house he built had a life as compelling as Flynn’s own, and I salute these authors for having turned an even hand toward documenting both. Errol Flynn Slept Here can be ordered now from Matzen’s website and his price is $34.95. For what you’ll get, it’s both a bargain and an undoubted collector’s item to come.
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