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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Back To The Bowery

But for a thing called High-Definition, I might never have gotten around to watching two that had so far slipped my radar, Dead End and The Young Savages. Turns out these are like buttons and bows for being an ideal tandem bill and barometers of juve delinquency as viewed by Hollywood. To have been a Bogart completist and skipped Dead End for this many years seems odd. Was it my antipathy towards The Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys/whatever? I’d ducked them growing up for being obnoxious in that threadbare way that made The Three Stooges anathema, having condescended but to a pair they’d done with Bela Lugosi that I watched purely for him. Maybe their shtick was too urban-based, Northern-centric if you please, for a child of such outer provinces as myself. Anyway, Dead End is distinctly something else, a class drama that doubtlessly made 1937 folk feel they were seeing real life and problems along mean streets as (presumably) existed then. It’s not canned theatre in spite of stage-derived origin, for William Wyler was too capable to betray that. You get a sensation here of sharing the experience with first-nighters for whom this was a shocking blast of social reality, even as we find it quaint and altogether removed from present circumstances. If "bad" kids were no worse than Dead Enders here, we’d have ourselves a modern utopia, for hope sprang eternal in both Dead End and The Young Savages that any boy can be reached given positive influence or kind offices of a big sister (or Mom) who cares. Was the opposing reality too harsh for moviegoers to contemplate? Hollywood’s depiction of thoroughly rotten teens would wait until the fifties, but even then it was limited to isolated bad apples among bushels otherwise salvageable. Dead End kids were mostly about street patter, batting each other around, and stirring mischief we could only wish were the extent of latter-day misbehavior on the part of wayward youngsters. They beat up a rich kid who impliedly has it coming simply for being privileged, an irksome device that rearranged my sympathies and left me hopeful they’d be brought to book for it. The idea of bad neighborhoods as cradles of crime excuses bad acts on the kid’s parts, so to buy into the drama, you’ll need to share the social attitudes behind it. Best perhaps to focus on elements more ancillary at the time, such as remarkable thesping by Humphrey Bogart in one of those isolated (really) good parts he had in an otherwise barren 1930’s when most of his screen gangsters were no more nuanced than budget western heavies. The business of Bogart’s Baby Face Martin as tutor in ways of crime was frowned upon by Code supervisors, and indeed was the ball Warners ran with the following year when they essentially took the best of Dead End and turned it into Angels With Dirty Faces. Bogart was here a variation on his previous year breakout of The Petrified Forest with further embellishment on sympathetic outlawry, which remained his stock-in (better roles) trade right through High Sierra. That one was long awaited reward and transition to (more or less) a right side of the law. Did producers spend those five or so initial Warner contract years thinking he could play nothing but bad men? Obviously so, as internal memos reveal efforts to widen Bogart’s range and disappointment over his seeming inability to deliver.

What’s a Dead End Kid as opposed to an East Side Kid alongside a Little Tough Guy? Post-graduate level fans know. I’ve spent near a lifetime floundering over permutations of a series that lasted seeming longest of any feature group with more or less ongoing cast members. Did I mention the Bowery Boys? They were later. We’ll assume Monogram (later Allied Artists) did about a thousand of these and leave it at that. Warners owns an indeterminate number and wants to release some on DVD, despite negatives long junked and even collectors (that last resort all studios must eventually plead to) unable to supply missing links (there may be more interest in Mr. Hex’s restoration than that of a complete Magnificent Ambersons!). Further digging into exhibition life makes me admire all the more sheer brilliance behind these programmers (and they were surely that --- playing low end on duallers and singly but in small bergs and action houses). Dead End/East Side/ Bowery Boys were inspired amalgams of comedy plus youth/action. Fists and quips flew for six reels with nary a demand upon viewers beyond showing up and dumbing down. They were sure money a debased Hollywood earned best, for so long as budgets stayed rigid, you could blow creative impulse to the wind and avoid penalty for serving lowest brows among patronage. Dead Enders (let’s call them that for simplicity) were ideal for serials. Those plus an Axis threat were Heaven sent. I’ve watched 1942’s Junior G-Men Of The Air over the last several weeks. No, it isn’t good and you’re better watching something (almost anything!) else, but such backwash draws me like honeysuckle to bees and what’s twelve chapters fed into a psyche benumbed by chapter-plays even worse? Junior G-Men Of The Air (there were several --- the first a mere Junior G-Men serial of two years before) was inspiration for kids everywhere to ferret out possible fifth columnists in their own backyards. Were such networks indeed operating on local street corners? There’s nary an eyebrow raised when Billy Halop and his gang (not a criminal or particularly anti-social one) discover Japanese spies acting at the behest of lightly slant-eyed Lionel Atwill, his crisp diction given over but tentatively to Oriental inflection. Dog heavies make glancing gestures toward Nippon appearance, as if instructions from chapter-to-chapter (and revolving co-directors) were random at best and received with indifference at most. Universal did serials like most people put out a cat. You want them gone before they smell up the house. I’ll risk coming off an utter imbecile and say Junior G-Men Of The Air actually insulted my intelligence, something Republic serials seldom did and reason enough why fans to a boy prefer them today.

I’d characterize Universal chapter-plays as indifferent. Also repetitive (grindingly so), unimaginative, and given to dulsatory special fx. Junior G-Men are constantly in and out of the same abandoned warehouse and hopping rides on back of (again the same) truck effecting escapes from endlessly duplicated scenes of perfunctory crime. Serial loyalty entailed sacrifice when they were Universal ones. Our Liberty and Allen Theatres had a product split and cliffhanger spoils were divided so that all Republic output went the former’s way, leaving a depreciated Allen the scraps of Universal, Columbia, and whatever independents were issuing (or reissuing). Junior G-Men Of The Air at the Allen went head-to-head on our Main Street against the likes of Spy Smasher and Perils Of Nyoka offered by the Liberty. I should think the victor would have been a foregone conclusion, but who really knows how preferences ran among serial fans in 1942? Immediacy and thus greater tension were advantages a Junior G-Men Of The Air had with a war just underway. Atwill and minions are in fact preparing throughout its twelve chapters for an invasion they’ll launch December 7, a plot device sufficiently compelling as to mitigate sloppy execution otherwise. The wing pin made of etched brass shown here was exhibition’s giveaway and an invitation for kids too young for enlistment to engage the enemy weekly and feel themselves part of a struggle unfolding on the greater world stage. That alone lent urgency to Junior G-Men Of The Air we’ll not know for missing 1942’s initial run, making it seem almost churlish to point up weaknesses so many years after. Maybe Universal understood the ephemeral nature of its serials too well by 1956 when it sold outright all those chapter-plays not reverting to comic publishers (such as Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon). Revenue realized after federal taxes at the long-term capital gain rate was just over a million, boosting reported studio earnings that helped disguise profits diminished from 1955. Universal serials had played television from the early fifties and were figured to have little if any value beyond that. Most fell into the public domain and became available on duped 16 and 8mm when Thunderbird Films began releasing them to collectors in the early seventies. VCI maintains said policy with DVD’s mastered from hardy 16mm survivors of early syndication days, and its release of Junior G-Men Of The Air is actually pretty good for a serial we’re never likely to see truly restored.

Internal friction and rivalries among Dead Enders could fill volumes if not provide content for its own series of melodramatic programmers. These boys did not pal around. Many (most?) graduated from Bowery mirth-making to plain mean drunkenness as careers skidded toward bits and forced retirement. They were funny/goofy/geeky in appearance and stayed pretty much that way to the last, coarsened by ravages of intemperance but otherwise unchanged and forever resistant to what life’s lessons taught others. Billy Halop admitted to lack of esprit de corps among Dead End membership, citing his own better billing and money as basis for smoldering on-set jealousies. Respective agents hustled favored positioning for individual boys much as stage mothers sought dominant turf for Our Gangers over at Roach and MGM. Dead End reunions would likely have ended in as many bar fights, old resentments being a match struck often in latter memoirs and interviews. Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall ended up driving their Bowery jalopy the furthest. Monogram and successor Allied Artists ran its series to an astounding 1958, long after most "B" groups went off the chart. A man could go proud producing these. Ben Schwalb kicked around town thirty years before securing a Bowery berth, as sure a lock on steady income as an uncertain industry allowed. Schwalb called it a peculiar chemistry. I guess it’s that the public likes the boys and that the format has been continually changed so that the series is kept interesting and different. Schwalb and AA’s chemistry was indeed applied science, all exploitation angles … deliberate and planned, he said, not accidental. By the fifties, four Bowerys per year came surely as changing seasons even as Schwalb’s notion of comedy constructs remained unaltered: It seems like the physical things, like a man bumping a nose on a door, is the best yock getter. Ben preferred what he called hurt gags. So did the Bowery Boy’s public. They kept running beyond the series’ finish as small theatres continued booking oldies into the sixties. Dead End influence permeated even mainstream and presumed serious treatments of juvenile crime. 1961’s The Young Savages took cues from neighboring smash West Side Story, but prevailing examples for its street toughs were more Slip and Sach than authentic delinquents filling 60’s police blotters. D.A. Burt Lancaster’s suspect list amounts to vaudeville turns by varied ethnic youth parading eccentric if not comic "personalities" no different from ones that originated with Dead End’s cast back in 1937. In fact, the latter come off as more authentic than Method exertions of The Young Savages, whatever its ambitions toward hard-hitting realism. Veterans Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall were meanwhile game for an encore, but who’d have dreamed they’d turn up in a cornpone slopshoe like Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar? This 1966 compilation of hillbilly music acts was manna to drive-inners here in Greenbriar country (and invariably the supporting feature would be something like Red River or Horror Of Dracula!). I’d venture Second Fiddle got more North Carolina dates than Doctor Zhivago. Leo and Huntz act as in-betweeners for solid performing talent, first as inept paperhangers (well, it was good enough for Bobby Ray and Babe Hardy back in the twenties), then back and forth/in and out of a mummy case, these routines seemingly improvised on the go by Gorcey and Hall. Attendees to Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar probably wished the boys would get back to full-time foolery. Indeed, but for encroachments of age and market realities, The Bowery Boys might just have gone on forever.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Westerns Worthy and Lost Till Now

I always figured it was myth that Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott switched parts at the last minute for Sam Peckinpah’s Ride The High Country. How could anyone for a moment foresee McCrea in any role other than exemplifying moral leadership and unshakably right resolve? He had not the baggage Scott carried for Budd Boetticher and at no time would his westerners ride out vengeance seeking or set upon questionable trails … and there’s the rub insofar as McCrea finding wide acceptance among modernists seeking dark aspects of past cowboys. Another problem was Joel’s not having lucked into a run of now classic westerns like the Scott/Boetticher/Kennedy group that clinched Randy’s legacy for our generation (and hopefully future ones). Both stars otherwise followed paths near identical after the war insofar as shared resolution to do outdoor actioners and little else. Westerns paid and were risk free, the nearest to a sure thing in movies during the fifties. McCrea and Scott were the Coke and Pepsi of an industry that counted on them to bring home bacon and sure enough they never failed at just that. Independent producers preferred wading into an uncertain industry on horseback. Many of these rang Joel and Randy’s doorbells and cinched deals far safer than ones made for artier product. McCrea was approachable and not given to Hollywood airs. Luncheons out often ended with scripts rolled up and pushed into his coat pocket. Everyone wanted a flyer on his kind of boxoffice insurance. Stranger On Horseback was one that began as a gleam in an independent’s eye and thanks to Joel, saw completion and release through United Artists. It’s recently out on DVD from VCI. There is cult interest thanks to Jacques Tourneur having directed. His is a name worth noting for seldom if ever having directed a bad picture. Was it a practiced eye for performance and composition or did Tourneur (below on a set) take weak scripts home and transform them? Cat People, Out Of The Past, Stars In My Crown (an earlier great one with McCrea), and Curse Of The Demon were all his. I’ve got to think he was either the luckiest man in town or had a brilliant way with story telling. Having Tourneur on board your next Joel McCrea western put it immediately in a category beyond routine oaters the star was otherwise grinding at Universal-International, most of these under the rush-it-up baton of former Republic "B" maestro George Sherman, a well-intentioned workhorse not likely to be confused with Ford, Hawks … or Tourneur.

The challenge was to break free of the program western class. Discriminate viewers dredged for gold at drive-ins and grind theatres where cowboys drove filmic herds by dozens if not hundreds through a given year. Where was time or inclination to watch them all? You might safely ignore the Rod Camerons and Forrest Tuckers, but hope sprang eternal of another High Noon coming out of nowhere to seize mass approval and wide open profits. Gary Cooper was after all just Joel McCrea for a little more money and here was High Noon doing a smash $3.7 million in domestic rentals, more dollars than any western outside Red River and Shane had realized since the war. It was possible to grab the folks with a unique turn on frontier mythmaking, thus potential sleeper status conferred upon seemingly every feature trafficking in horseflesh. Even Republic promised High Noon grosses on Vera Ralston investments, but was it realistic to expect she and John Carroll to deliver such numbers? By the early fifties, westerns were all over television. Free ones … even if they weren’t much good to adults other than those still loving Ken and Hoot. You couldn’t run theatrical cowboys on cruise control with expectation of bookings (and rentals) beyond second-billed and flat. Trying harder enabled The Gunfighter, Winchester ’73, and higher-tier work from Andre DeToth, Samuel Fuller, and other directors who applied themselves to westerns worth paying to see. Joel McCrea in Stranger On Horseback was of that higher rung, its beckoning toward High Noon not mere hyperbole. A Great Western may have been putting it a little strong as in this trade ad, but Stranger On Horseback was an entirely worthy one, and at 66 minutes, deserving of applause for being less than half the length of bloated modern attempts to make westerns half so good. It tells a story old as hieroglyphs, admittedly dulled by less inspired retellings, but McCrea as lawman/judge seeking punk killer offspring (Kevin McCarthy) of town boss John McIntire sharpens the blade with terse dialogue and straight-ahead narrative. You believe in McCrea with a horse and gun, and that puts him in a top acting class by my estimate. Stranger On Horseback did a respectable $708,000 in domestic rentals and $427,000 in foreign. This wasn’t High Noon money, but for the little undoubtedly spent, why be piggish? Stranger was another of family owned properties sitting dormant for years before rescue for DVD (the producer being Robert Goldstein). For all that time, you could as easily track London After Midnight (Stranger in no syndicated TV package I found). The camera negative is apparently lost. VCI had to borrow a surviving 35mm print from the British Film Institute for the transfer. I’m imagining a Goldstein heir with no idea he’s got Stranger On Horseback possibly sitting among discarded rakes and lawn mowers in an untended LA garage.

Wichita’s negative did survive. We’ve evidence of that via Warner Archive’s just arrived DVD. You might figure it lost too for near-never runs on television and video invisibility these past fifty years. Wichita is yet another Cinemascope artifact looking now toward cult and critical rediscovery. If WB gives us Stars In My Crown, we’ll be equipped with a McCrea/Tourneur trilogy to maybe give Scott/Boetticher a run for their money. Wichita was released within months of Stranger On Horseback. Walter Mirisch tells the story of how he got the deal together in his recent memoir, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History (excellent and highly recommended). Allied Artists had recently shaken off its Monogram moniker and busily, if not obsessively, engaged at shedding "B" status to break into first-runs where their output could pull something other than drag. Steve Broidy was chairman. He barnstormed exchanges/exhib conventions in March 1955 putting showmen on notice of AA’s determination to supply pics for their houses. Small producers had long been frozen out of better theatres in deference to studio giants and their bully-boy distribution networks. Managers gave majors priority to avoid friction with salesmen liable to withdraw popular attractions should a theatre extend playing time to an Allied Artists release. Broidy declared he was tired of AA being a service station to which exhibitors come as a last resort when major company product is unavailable. Allied stalwarts Bomba and The Bowery Boys would morph into multi-million William Wyler, Billy Wilder, and John Huston projects, those directors having signed with AA for star-laden potential hits. Broidy promised twenty-five million to be spent on thirty-seven features over the next sixteen months, penetrating a so-called "Magic Circle" of playing time dominated by the majors. For an interim period waiting on these really major pictures, there would be first-time Cinemascope and Technicolor product coming out of AA, shows done yet on a budget but way more ambitious than cheapies formerly associated with the company. Castigated majors actually helped with a few. Paramount loaned John Derek for An Annapolis Story, while MGM supplied backlot facilities for same. The Warriors with a declining Errol Flynn was half-financed by Fox and used castle sets Metro constructed for Ivanhoe. Wichita enjoyed the sweep of scope and Prints By Technicolor at a bargain negative cost of $400,000 according to Mirisch --- and trade reviews were supportive. An ambitious effort, it shows that AA can compete successfully with the majors and, no doubt, when the returns are inked in the ledger, that little book will tell the same story, said The Independent Film Journal, reflecting hopes of all exhibitors that Allied could indeed crack that Magic Circle.

Wichita was another that took cues from High Noon. A major selling link was Tex Ritter’s theme song, a hopeful successor to Hit Parade smash Do Not Forsake Me … that accompanied Gary Cooper up lonesome streets in 1951’s hit. I checked several Ritter CD’s and couldn’t locate the Wichita number among these Best Of compilations, so hearing it over DVD credits was my first exposure. Guess even Tex couldn’t bat them out of the park every time, for this tune sounds strictly from hunger. Wichita did enjoy recognition benefit of real-life figures it depicted. McCrea was Wyatt Earp and most everybody knew Earp from history books and past westerns. Bat Masterson was there along fringes to pique interest among 1955 audiences for whom these were brand action names the equal of actors portraying them. The Wichita setting assured a splashy premiere for its namesake still thriving. That town’s opening was settled on the location when Dr. L.A. Darnell, Wichita's mayor, visited the stars and producer Walter Mirisch, shown here, to get it in writing. His endorsement was apropos for this frontier-era counterpart very much caught up in local politics and how self-interests among city fathers interfere with Earp’s law enforcing. Such old west reimagining was again a legacy of High Noon and its emphasis on venal (read modern) ways of local governing. Earp/McCrea’s opponents are less outlaws running loose than renegade city fathers engaged in quiet banditry and posing the greater threat to civic order. High Noon had taken raps for political content, but surely its (many) imitators, determined to go their model one better, suggested even more our ongoing miasma in a democracy needing overhaul. Joel McCrea’s reassuring Establishment presence, and his inevitable triumph at the finish (he won’t toss his badge into the dirt), kept Wichita out of harm’s way critically, its success leading to Allied Artists' and the Mirisch's commitment for several more westerns with the star, none of equal quality due largely to absence of essential Jacques Tourneur.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Warner Archive Pick --- Somewhere I'll Find You

Certain star images conferred foresight with regards World War Two that make you wish they’d been in charge around Washington rather than having such clairvoyant talents go to waste in Hollywood. These guys knew all along we couldn’t trust the Japanese. Assurances of peace out of Tokyo were the bunk. Clark Gable says as much in opening scenes of Somewhere I’ll Find You, the latter taking place during weeks preceding Pearl Harbor. His assurance of Nippon perfidy makes chumps of those who’d censor Gable’s news dispatches out of China, here depicted as just another backdrop for soldiering of fortune and incidental fortune telling re America’s naivete. When Gable says Wake Up, we best call off peace conferences and prepare immediately for combat. Somewhere I’ll Find You was one of those with a script near dry before bombs dropped on December 7, so rewriters got hasty putting Gable’s hero wise before that surprise attack. The pic began shooting January 15, 1942. Events made it timely and far more than a kissing marathon’s encore (Gable/Lana Turner) to Honky Tonk of the previous year. Gable’s image gained stature for parallels it drew with Rhett Butler and that character’s pre- (Civil) War awareness of battlefield realities. There was a sense of his knowing our enemy long before we woke up to recognition of same. What opportunity Gable (and we) missed for the star’s enlistment in the wake of wife Carole Lombard’s death in an air crash the same month (in fact, the very day after SIFY got started). Combat actioners with him through this war would have been a rewarding lot for credibility Gable accumulated over ten years of onscreen leadership. Maturity attained through that would have made him an ideal man at the head of a (fictional) fighting column. Roosevelt’s advice and a studio’s plea should have been honored. Stay home and do battle where civilian morale and potential recruits could best use it. To put an aging Gable (41 and having smoked/drank to the brim of it) in Army uniform and behind a machine gun was waste of a resource far more needed in theatres. Somewhere I’ll Find You shows promise unfulfilled of what a next three years might have offered toward better winning a war on Metro soundstages.

The pre and post Pearl Harbor elements of Somewhere I’ll Find You make for a kooky mix. Here’s a story that needed more revision than they evidently had time for. Its hot off the presses advantage mitigates lumpiness of a narrative that began as mere parlor setting for innumerable clinches with Gable and Lana Turner. They were The Team That Generates Steam, and no war, not even a world-encompassing one, was going to get in the way of that. Was MGM aware of the serious conflict we’d gotten into, or did they figure their public wasn’t? Kissing scenes were permissible (only just) as sex stimulus for Code-shackled audiences. Close-up smooching timed on a stopwatch was socially accepted pornography for folks denied (or ashamed to go out in pursuit of) the real thing. Women in trade ads shown here weren’t fantasy. Millions lined up to see Lana crushed in Gable’s arms. No telling how many Honky Tonk babies were conceived in 1941, and more would go into pipelines thanks to Somewhere I’ll Find You. Sex figures like Gable and Turner generated manpower production for future wars and did so with probable greater efficiency than those working swing shifts at ball-bearing plants. They were, for good or ill, a then-patron’s most accessible models for lovemaking and courtship ritual. When Gable and his women collided, Metro cameras rolled up to facing profiles so close we risked getting sprayed (and said formatting rule was inflexible --- even John Ford was obliged to assume the position in Mogambo). Imagine such three-ways in theatres with the voyeur’s object(s) blown forty feet high. Such erotica could be but fully absorbed in a dark auditorium with overpowering images, that shared blackness concealing ragged breathing and beads of sweat forming on viewers drawn into shared embrace with idols they could nearly touch. And don’t ignore the yawning chasm between generations removed DVD’s and glistening nitrate 35mm prints these folks reveled in. Based on ways Gable and Turner go at it in Somewhere I’ll Find You, I wonder how patron couples delayed their own consummations till at least getting out to parked cars.

At a halfway point where story gears shift abruptly (right after Pearl Harbor?), Lana Turner and Gable decamp to a soundstage labeled "Indo-China," mostly Tarzan foliage with dry ice fog. Phony sets patently enough so always suit me better than actual locations, sort of like models and miniatures standing in for bridges and trains. Movies are most magical when they’re confined to facilities close at hand where artisans improvise with what they’ve got. Metro often went with layers of process screening to make you think 3-D’s come early to features. Gable, clad in suit and tie (but loosened slightly) searches an easily penetrable jungle only briefly before greeting Lana Turner’s picturesque arrival in what looks like a Chinese touring gondola. It’s just outrageously silly enough to be completely endearing, the sort of experience you might have if folks at Disney World let you romp through backstage Frontierland. People nowadays (condescendingly) imagine that 1942 onlookers were childish enough to take all this for the truth of foreign climes and conditions. I don’t think for a minute they did. Somewhere I’ll Find You makes winning this war look so easy that you wonder why we weren’t all back home before the picture could be released. There is a climactic battle sequence almost balletic in its absurdity. Japanese invaders appear like insects at a distance toward which flit bombs are tossed with stunning accuracy. They blow up and/or are buried alive by MGM juveniles hopeful of a wartime contract and paying off for Pearl (starting out Van Johnson is among them, as is Keenan Wynn). Did boys turning eighteen or just out of high school watch this and make for recruiting stations? I wonder how much enlistment could be traced to 1942’s first brace of war-themed shows girding our loins for a fight. No one took polls measuring the true influence of movies during those years. How could they? --- but I’d venture this one had affects we’d not dream of for watching it so casually after these many years.

Pictures like Somewhere I’ll Find You had directors. It just didn’t matter so much who they were. MGM would run a man in and out for days here and there, then replace him with scant regard to signature styles other companies might value more. Wesley Ruggles was credited on this occasion, but who’s to know if Clarence Brown or Jack Conway didn’t come in some mornings to pinch-hit? Metro’s house organ The Lion’s Roar (so elaborate a publication that I hesitate calling it that) profiled Ruggles for a SIFY cover story. He was by this account efficient and unassuming. They said he kept a pad by his bed so as to write down ideas that came during the night, but would a rigid Metro mill have let him implement them the following day? Ruggles once directed Cimarron and that won Best Picture in earlier talkie days. He was what kinder modern scribes call a journeyman. Those with less tact would leave it at hack. He was another that died before people cared much about vintage movies, let alone factory marshmallows like Somewhere I’ll Find You. The real drama connected with SIFY, and the one for which it’s remembered, if at all, is the industry (and Gable’s) loss of Carole Lombard going in. There’s been lots written about how he finished the picture in mourning. In fact, it was almost all shot after her death (Somewhere I’ll Find You wouldn’t wrap until April 22). By then, Gable had made up his mind to enlist (Send me where the going’s roughest), so maybe by chance but likelier intent, his concluding scene in SIFY plays like a valedictory not unlike Joel McCrea’s close to 1940’s Foreign Correspondent. Gable’s monologue, dictated to furiously typing Lana Turner, is in effect telling us he’ll be gone for the next few years, but to keep lamps burning and maintain the fight. It’s one of the actor’s all-time blockbusting scenes. No wonder they missed him so much afterward. Somewhere I’ll Find You stayed in circulation longer than most off MGM’s fast assembly line. Our Liberty Theatre brought it back after a (first) year of Gable deprivation. Audience hunger was such as to allow even Fox to cash its own ration ticket by reissuing Call Of The Wild to $730,000 in fresh domestic rentals (for eventual profits of $502,000). Somewhere I’ll Find You, released September 1942, scored $2.8 million in domestic rentals (with $1.1 foreign) and ended with profits of $1.7 million. It would be February 1946 before Clark Gable would return with Adventure.

Monday, April 06, 2009

At Last In Command of The Command

Here’s another reason I’m high on the Warner Archive Collection. They’re putting out early Scope features that haven’t been available as such since many were first-run, including several (so far) that I’ve avoided on television in hopes they’d someday be viewable in proper ratio. Now they are, and from what I’ve seen and heard, these WB wide DVD’s are delivering the goods. Wichita, The Adventures Of Quentin Durward, and today’s subject The Command, were among my initial Archives order, and all looked fine. Friends tell me The Big Circus is terrific as well, and the good word is out about sixties titles The Money Trap, My Blood Runs Cold, and A Distant Trumpet, among others. I’m assuming much of this Scope material was more recently remastered and that’s why they’re uniformly better. Either way, it’s great having them available at last. These are strong arguments in favor of forward projection and a wide screen at home. Merits of the features themselves is never the point with early Cinemascope. I watch them for a residual rush of something that was innovative and exciting during the fifties when showmanship had perhaps its last great roar. The Zen state has its cinematic equivalent when watching vintage scope. Mine was achieved with The Command by way of contemplating this premiere night photo taken at NYC’s Paramount Theatre in January 1954, along with trade ads also shown here. From there, it was just a matter of transporting myself via Warner’s just arrived DVD. It didn’t actually relocate me to that historic night, but sure came closer than conventional viewing could have over these past fifty-five years. The fact I was born a month after The Command's premiere helped. A Warner-phonic soundtrack provided further enhancement to my hyper-screening, as directional stereo effects at one point had me pausing action in the belief that someone was coming in off the porch outside. Moments like these are where you connect with sensations 1954 crowds felt, and provide at last a vivid explanation of why audiences surged upon theatres running a western we’d considered ordinary for not having been among The Command's initial throngs.

The Command was Warner’s first Cinemascope release. Actually, that’s an error, and not the first I’d make in any detailed exploration of widescreen history. There are experts who lay in wait on various forums as those of us less informed posit reckless guessing as to intended ratios for features circa 1953-54, years convulsed by amended screen shapes rendering an earlier transition to sound pallid by comparison. I’ll go a safer route by not asserting any fact as absolute, merely possibilities for further discussion, and likelier, correction by more knowledgeable readers. What I said about The Command being WB’s first in Cinemascope was wrong to the extent of their lens being something other than ones used by Fox to shoot their trademarked wide programs. Jack Warner preferred a system of his own and deplored licensing fees payable to Zanuck for use of the quickly accepted brand name Cinemascope. Steps toward that avoidance included purchase of competing anamorphic lens from the Zeiss Optical Company in Germany. Seems the Europeans were leagues ahead of us in developing wide technology, as it was a French inventor that developed Fox’s Cinemascope. Tardy delivery of the Zeiss system resulted in The Command (initially titled Rear Guard) being shot using a process called Vistarama. WB yielded cash to Fox for lens they’d not use on The Command, but what else to do when your public’s drunk on Cinemascope and disinclined to embrace untried copycat systems? That swooping trademark was more vital to a showman than names on his marquee, particularly as these included lusterless Guy Madison, lately of second-tier westerns, and Joan Weldon, a WB contractee of uncertain prospects. You could put The Command on widened screens in January 1954 and be assured of patrons lured by a novelty while it was still that. A mere four months had passed since The Robe’s premiere, and many smaller houses were waiting yet for installation of Cinemascope (our Liberty and Allen Theatres would see March before getting theirs, and a neighboring town was into August 1954 when River Of No Return finally debuted the system there).

It’s no good pretending that The Command is an outstanding western, but it was the first outdoor actioner shot for a wide canvas (excepting 1930’s The Big Trail, of course). They could have staged most of The Command flat for all the advantage that’s taken of scope. There was a climactic indian chase and battle that excited patrons for being a first glimpse of what running inserts could look like on an expanded screen. Locations and sets otherwise had an undernourished look typical of barely-A westerns WB was wont to do. We made it very, very cheaply, recalled director David Butler, the picture reflecting that and rushed efforts to get a finished show into theatres while screen novelties were still hot (the negative cost was $1.331 million). I use a plural there because Warners actually filmed The Command in 3-D as well as Vistarama, but released it minus Naturalvision effects (there was also a standard ratio version available). Using scope and 3-D meant every scene had to be staged differently, according to Butler. We would wind up with two pictures. The astonisher here lies in the fact that WB still has The Command’s 3-D elements in usable condition. Will we ever see them? Maybe when technology allows for viable 3-D on home video, which would enable any number of Warner properties to come to us in depth. Guy Madison was never a big screen name of consequence, but there was major advantage for attaching him to a western likely to attract kids who’d watched their small screen favorite on The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok since its TV debut in 1951 (Madison’s role modeling was emphasized in safety tie-ups such as one shown here). Music scoring enthusiasts might profitably regard The Command as a Dimitri Tiomkin concert with pictures, for his is the dominant sound lending epic stature upon a venture otherwise devoid of same. Tiomkin was one of my main reasons for wanting to see the picture, and he doesn’t disappoint. Warners saw profits of $1.528 million from domestic rentals of $2.158 and foreign rentals of $2.054, a more than respectable payday, but far below what Fox and Metro recovered from their introductions to Cinemascope. Pictures like The Command please today for expectations we don’t bring to them, with discovery and surprise often the happy result. I’m looking forward to the Warner Archive’s further scope mining, with Green Fire, The Cobweb, I Died A Thousand Times, The Warriors, The Burning Hills, The Last Hunt, The Opposite Sex, Tea and Sympathy, and Tribute To A Bad Man being ones high on my want list.
The David Butler quotes came from an outstanding book length interview conducted by Irene Kahn Atkins for the DGA. It's a Scarecrow edition long out of print, but some used copies are available from Amazon.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Digging The Warner Archive (And I Do!)

Transition has long been a way of life in home viewing. For we who take video seriously, tumult might be a better word. I’m a slave to the next big thing and have been since 8mm entered my life forty-five years ago. Remember when laser discs were the living end? They ended alright, as most might be better employed for serving finger sandwiches or sausage balls (there’s an idea --- I might try it over Easter). To collect on DVD, DVR, etc. is to go dizzy whilst emptying your purse. Resourceful Warners found a new means for getting at mine, and again I’m their willing supplicant. WB’s Archive Collection is up, operative (sometimes barely, as the site can be sluggish), and visiting havoc upon collector VISAS nationwide (but not beyond as yet, their discs being unavailable overseas). As this thing’s gone on barely ten days, most reaction has been anecdotal and limited to forums and discussion groups. I’m sounding off on five that reached my door yesterday, having watched three so far. There's a $20 tag hanging off 150 titles presently available, but a coupon code saved me 25% and made my splurge easier to abide. By way of confession, I did use Ann’s name to order an additional five at the discount. That worked, but further attempts in the names of Mortimer Snerd, Rollo Treadway, and the Baron Meinster have been rebuffed (the coupon expired last night in any case). I'm confident that newly christened Warners Archive will work through its growing pains. Good (no, great!) is the fact they're giving us shows unreleased (and less likely to be) otherwise. What’s to become of conventional DVD and box packaging with retailers either closing or clearing shelves of this stuff? It won’t be long I’ll wager before all the companies are selling oldies Warner’s way. You order and they print. Yes, Warners is indeed using DVD-R for transfers, but mine played just fine yesterday, so maybe that technology has come to acceptable term of late. As to further confession, I’d emphasize here my near-total ignorance of disc authoring and wizardry applied to bit rates, progressive blah-blah, and single vs. double layering. Don’t bother trying to teach me either, because it’s hopeless (I wasn’t welcome at school science fairs even as a spectator).

Yes there are kinks, but I’m betting Warners will iron them out. Word is that’s already in progress. Quality thus far seems to be running hot and cold, according to customers who’ve posted about the Net. These DVD’s are pigs in pokes, but I’ve been lucky, for mine are tasty spare ribs worth the fifteen dollars I sprung for each. Rival companies must be observing closely. Sony is rumored to be preparing a similar service. I’d heard their entire library was transferred to HD format, so quality would likely be excellent. Certainly the Columbias they’ve leased for TCM broadcast look good. Burning-on-demand appears to be a wave of every distributor's future, but how many short seasons will pass before even that disappears in the wake of yet another mode of delivery? Why spend cash for what’s clearly a planned obsolescence? Warners will continue transferring to HD for television broadcasting if nothing else, and those will eventually be available for storage on our DVR’s (I’ve already grabbed a number of HD Warner features off Cinemax and HD Net Movies). Well, maybe WB knows, just as I know, that life is hardly worth living without The D.I. on my shelf and at the playing ready. What sense does it make for me to have bought Strange Interlude when I can be fairly certain of seeing it in high-definition within another five or so years --- but will I live that long? Collecting is all about that need for gratification right now. Remember when the Stooges were plunging downward in a plane and Joe Besser cried, I can’t die now --- I haven’t seen "The Eddy Duchin Story"! There’s as neat a summation of Warner’s customer base, for if we’ll traverse lakes of broken glass to get titles we want, surely we’ll empty bank accounts to custom order ones we’ve waited for longest, and with thousands of features (not to mention shorts) in the WB library, the sky itself is no limit. Here’s an idea for marketers, and speaking as a compulsive consumer badly in need of forcible intervention, I guarantee it will work. Offer subscriptions with discounts for minimum monthly buys. Since you’re planning to add (at least) twenty new titles every four weeks, give us a break in exchange for income we’d otherwise squander roofing our homes or keeping babies in milk. Hey, it’s worth that for cash off and The Adventures Of Quentin Durward!

My first screening out of the box was The D.I. Well, of course. That’s been a favorite since discovering it syndicated around 1972. I’d just turned eighteen, and could observe miseries among recruits on Parris Island without fear of being drafted to some such place myself, the Viet Nam threat having subsided enough by then to remove threats of conscription. Jack Webb’s mode of verbal attack briefly became my own. Well, pardon me while I jump up and click my heels was among sarcasm applied on freshman halls just prior to being tossed clothed into showers in retaliation for same. It’s amazing how many classmates were familiar with location and burial of a sand flea as depicted in this timeless 1957 classic. The D.I. delivers just for letting us hear Jack Webb bark out dialogue. A Dead Marine Is Never Sorry --- A Dead Marine Is Just Dead! Do they actually teach that in the Corps, or was it merely Jack’s philosophy? He’s fabulous in this, and might rightfully have sued Stanley Kubrick had he lived long enough to see how that director pillaged The D.I. for Full Metal Jacket’s opening hour. Webb had Marine cooperation for filming (note honorary Corps membership he’s receiving here), though most of The D.I. got done on sound stages in that stripped-down way he’d perfected with Dragnet. There’s a dress shop set so austere as to have come out of a quick assembly kit, yet somehow all this befits Warner’s no-frills DVD packaging (there was a wonderful trailer Webb appeared in and narrated, unfortunately not included). Quality is OK on their widescreen presentation (the pic was originally 1.85 --- seeing it that way was a first for me). Contrasts are grayish at times, which took me back to a few 16mm television prints in collecting past, but overall I was satisfied. When would anyone get round to remastering, let alone restoring, such a minor titles as The D.I.? It’s been off TCM along with many other post-48 Warners for having been long-term leased to satellite stations no longer interested in running it. For all that latter-day invisibility, The D.I. was a profit-getter in 1957 with negative costs of just $628,000 and domestic rentals topping $2.4 million (foreign was a much lower $200,000 --- this wasn’t their armed forces after all). Profits were $1.3 million, the last real hit Webb had as a producer/director (1959’s --30 — ended with minimal profit of just $13,750). There’s much more about The D.I. and how it came to be in Michael Hayde’s excellent My Name’s Friday, which covers Jack Webb’s life/career and is essential reading.

Next was Strange Interlude (excellent DVD quality here). This was long reputed to have bombed when released in 1932. Actually it made profits of $90,000, less than usual for stars Norma Shearer and Clark Gable (the Grauman’s Chinese opening was accompanied by Disney’s short subject premiere of his first Technicolor cartoon, Flowers and Trees). Strange Interlude enjoyed prestige via Eugene O’Neill having written the source play, which used soliloquies to let us know what characters were thinking as opposed to what they were saying. It may have worked onstage, but with actors here registering expressions to reflect those thoughts, the whole thing smacks of broad silent era gesturing made to compensate for lack of spoken dialogue. To have employed such technique in a modern play was boldly experimental. Transporting it to movies was ill advised. We examine screen actors too closely for them to get away with mugging in sync to words read off-camera. Groucho Marx might have put MGM on notice (had they chosen to listen) spoofing Strange Interlude two years prior in 1930’s Animal Crackers, wherein he confided nonsense thoughts to the movie’s audience and credited O’Neill’s play for giving him impetus to do so. The casting’s a little whacked in Strange Interlude, with Clark Gable misapplied to a passive part unbecoming a he-man image in emergence, leaving Norma Shearer in firm control of the narrative and assorted weakling males in her character’s orbit. The film does take precode initiative by dealing with a subject far more taboo in today’s sensitized filmmaking. The notion of inherited insanity is one seldom addressed anymore. Maybe that’s why Strange Interlude fascinates me so. Families keeping one of their own locked upstairs and fearing possibilities of recurrence should sane members procreate is a topic few movies go near (King’s Row and various Jane Eyres come to mind among later tries). With social/political Production Codes so strictly (if unofficially) enforced today, it’s unlikely we’ll see another like Strange Interlude.

The Adventures Of Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward has a title unwieldy enough to have likely sunk the enterprise in 1955 (mostly it was shortened to simply Quentin Durward), or maybe patrons were tired of Robert Taylor in period costume. Either way, there was $908,000 lost against dreadful domestic rentals of just $693,000 (foreign had come to a partial rescue with $2.1 million). After profits taken by Ivanhoe ($3.3 million) and Knights Of The Round Table ($2.4), this was a shocking indication of changed (and suddenly so) audience tastes. Was tide so quickly going out on swashbuckling adaptation of Sir Walter and kindred scribes? His name was prominent on Durward ads, probably as much for his (and Metro’s) previous Ivanhoe hit. All three Taylor pageants (and I don’t include Quo Vadis among these) were directed by Richard Thorpe, enough in itself to consign them to critical non-personage, as Thorpe remains MGM’s staff director least likely to be rehabilitated (I even mistakenly typed his name in lower case just now --- or was it mistakenly?). It seemed enough in the fifties to shoot these in Cinemascope and use real European castles for backdrops. MGM was selling travel exotica at least as much as costumes and literary pedigree. Handsome presentation was first and surely foremost. A Richard Thorpe could at least deliver that and maybe the rest would sort itself out. I shouldn’t enjoy such stolid things, yet I do. Robert Taylor impresses me for punching his MGM clock and playing costume heroes straight (though not without humor). He’ll not rob us of what little romance was still possible by the mid-fifties in pictures already looked upon as old-fashioned, and won’t play down to the material the way other late term swordsmen often did. Quentin Durward does acknowledge a cynicism gnawing away at noble gesturing and Taylor’s positioned as out-of-touch with changing Middle Ages. The actor and his studio were themselves of a vanishing mindset by 1955 when Quentin Durward tanked. There’s wistfulness and onscreen regret for passing ways (and an especially nice bonus of Taylor briefly playing opposite Ernest Thesiger). Warner’s Archive Collection DVD of The Adventures Of Quentin Durward is outstanding, with first-rate picture and directional stereo sound.

All told, I’m happy with my Warner Archive purchases and will doubtlessly buy more. I have a feeling this concept will work and that Warners will be responsive to consumer’s suggestions and concerns. Selling movies on demand is the likely future of (vintage) DVD, and it looks to be a bright one. Thanks Warners.
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