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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Detecting Past and Future Sherlock Holmes

Thanks to Lee Pfeiffer at the always terrific Cinema Retro, I’ve just seen the first advance trailer for Sherlock Holmes, due Christmas Day from Warners (so how many previews will this generate between now and release date? --- for all I know, there may be a half-dozen teasers to come). Robert Downey, Jr. plays Holmes. He will be my primary, if not sole, reason for seeing it. The star system thrives as long as this man works. Downey got me through Iron Man. He’s the only actor outside of George Reeves to uplift superheroes from boring and/or silly. Now they’ve made an Inverness-caped crusader of Sherlock Holmes, and I suspect it will be Downey’s burden to push panic buttons installed by writers ramping up noise in lieu of coherence (that excess of volume having banished me from theatres long ago). I found its trailer as stressful as Sherlock Holmes likely will be. There are multiple explosions and what’s at stake is no less than the world itself, a mere theft of crown jewels presumably unworthy of CGI effects brought to bear upon such a filmic leviathan. Fear does have a distinct aroma, as witness big bangs spent in opening thirds by shows lacking narrative confidence and hollowed out by committees looking to protect this job or secure the next. Too much corporate money rides on event movies for them to turn out any good. I envision an army of C.C. Baxters assigned the task of introducing kids to Sherlock Holmes during run-up to Christmas. He’s another of those icons we figured would be around forever, though I’m wondering how many Warner publicity youths resorted to Wikipedia cheat-sheets upon learning that Holmes was the Yule product they’d be selling. Greenbriar readers might assume everyone knows SH and I’d guess WB to be counting on that as well, but I’d hate to have my studio paycheck hanging on the outcome.

So who is Sherlock Holmes? I’ve not read the Doyle stories, having squandered life so far just watching movies, though teen years chose Basil Rathbone for my role model, so impressive was his carriage and diction as Holmes. That’s an aspect that makes me optimistic for Downey. He speaks well, when they’re not making him run about with swords and dive out windows (please Warners, don’t cut his dialogue when you tighten Sherlock Holmes to a brisk 155 minutes). Downey’s detective is an apparent devil with women, so no more sexual ambivalence as was explored to United Artists’ eventual (and considerable) loss by Billy Wilder in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. There was for years a presumption that Holmes was at best asexual, due as much to programmer movies rushing through six reels with little time for mush. Maybe it was that oversight that got Wilder interested, even if audiences didn’t follow suit. Love found Holmes in days when studios saw not the need to discard romance in favor of sleuthing. John Barrymore and Clive Brook adapted the role to existing personas, with leading ladies accorded status equal to that of deerstalkers and confrontation with revolving Moriartys. To these actors, it was just another impersonation, Holmes not having been around long enough to become sacred text (though Barrymore did apply himself to serious study of the Doyle character and even designed sets for Holmes’ Baker Street digs). The 1922 Sherlock Holmes arrives on DVD in July from Kino. It was/is/always will be profoundly disappointing for those who fondly imagined what Barrymore in his prime might do with such opportunity. A mess of a surviving print figures into the letdown. Kevin Brownlow found that in the early seventies and did a reconstruction. William K. Everson (who participated) said it was like a giant jigsaw puzzle. My own interest had piqued sooner when Everson published the tantalizing above still of Barrymore’s showdown with Gustav von Seyffertitz in The Bad Guys. To finally catch up with Sherlock Holmes is to endure and dutifully mark it off a long-standing must-see list. I wish the film were as fascinating as its rescue. Brownlow could have entertained me better with an 85-minute account of how that was managed. What’s left is still a privileged glimpse. It’s honestly enough (for me) sitting there and regarding William Powell’s screen debut if nothing else, but there is also Moriarty in and out of torture chambers and trap doors (too little of that) along with location shooting in London and surrounding environs. To enjoy Sherlock Holmes best is to expect the worst. Savor its nibbles but don’t expect any bites (and enjoy outstanding music composed and performed by Ben Model).

The 1922 Sherlock Holmes was a daylight rescue performed openly and applauded by media. DVD credits recognize Hugh M. Hefner and The George Eastman House (but where is Brownlow and Everson’s credit?). With no copyright to worry about, there’s not the secrecy necessary when studio ignored backlog is salvaged despite owner indifference to it. Heroes of such enterprise go quietly about missions to put treasures aboard underground railroads to a collector market all out of patience with dilatory conglomerates. I went subterranean after Moriarty’s own fashion by following Kino’s spiffy DVD with a dark cousin acquired by post from a firm less constrained by strict application of rights restrictions. My bounty was Fox’s Sherlock Holmes circa 1932, with Clive Brook as the master sleuth. This one’s almost never been shown legit. It circulates largely among dealers in robber mask. I wonder if Fox even knows they own it. There was limited (and I do mean limited) television exposure when that company included Sherlock Holmes in its Golden Century syndicated package beginning in September 1971 with other early talkers. That venture fell with single-digit station sales and prints largely pristine for not being used. The latter got liberated during warehouse dumps years later and wound up with 16mm collectors, the DVD’s being booted off these. If 1932’s Sherlock Holmes had a champion, it was Alex Gordon, who worked for Fox during the late sixties and saved much of their vintage library despite then bureaucratic resistance. There should be a statue erected of Alex at 10201 W. Pico Blvd, but I’ll not hold my breath waiting for it. His handiwork that is Sherlock Holmes requires digging amongst DVD contraband to find, and though I’d give much (well, at least the price of a Fox-label DVD) to own an authorized copy, chances are remote in view of the company’s recent backing off classic titles. I wouldn’t expect Fox to ride Warner coattails and release a disc in tandem with 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, though they did finally get Man Hunt out in response, it’s said, to Valkyrie, and that was a UA pic, so hope springs eternal. The 1932 Sherlock Holmes may actually be one of the best all-round Holmes adaptations, being briskly directed by William K. Howard and crisply played by Clive Brook and model Moriarty Ernest Torrence. It’s a must-see SH that too few have seen, and I’m reminded of another obscurity, this one from Paramount, The Return Of Sherlock Holmes (1929), which also featured Brook and has been tied up in rights quagmire for many decades. Just try locating a pirated DVD of that (come to think of it, I don’t know of anyone who’s even seen Return).

Thursday, May 21, 2009


CAUGHT OFF TCM: Submarine Command was a chance to see a post-48 Paramount on television, something all too rare these days when so few appear to be licensed for airplay (where, oh where, are favorites I Walk Alone, Rope Of Sand, Appointment With Danger, etc.?). TCM has been using a (too) few of them lately. Watching Submarine Command was like sitting in front of NBC’s Saturday Night At The Movies again circa mid-sixties when that network was a virtual repertory for Para oldies (and mostly very goodies). Those who imagine Sunset Boulevard lacked influence over subsequent Bill Holden vehicles might profitably look at Submarine Command. He enters as narrator, not floating on the water, but conflicted all the same over past events (told in Sunset-inspired flashback) taking place below its surface. There’s romantic sparring with Nancy Olsen as in yore. It’s oft forgotten that these two were somewhat of a recurring team after Wilder’s opener. Submarine Command transitions from World War Two to Korea. William Bendix’s character gets mad with Holden in the former and stays so pretty much through the latter (much as he did with real-life best friend Alan Ladd over an incident that took twenty years for them to reconcile --- that very interesting story in Beverly Linet’s Ladd biography). The Korea mission here is somewhat cloudy as Korea engagements invariably are. Where’s the enemy? Here he’s barely visible and it’s nighttime besides, so we never get much hint of just who we’re fighting or why. This submarine lumbers into not so perilous waters in ways evoking Crash Dive from the previous war, this time minus Technicolor and battle lines clearly drawn. No wonder there’s so few Korean War films, or interest in ones we have. Holden was my best reason to catch Submarine Command. No one surpassed this actor once he caught post-Sunset fire. Bill’s the clearest voice still of postwar establishment disillusion. I find him much more effective in my own middle age than the Brandos and Deans that whined louder.

GRAY MARKET DVD: The River Of Romance is the sort of early talkie thumbnail reviewers say creaks badly. It was released June 1929, barely two months after Charles "Buddy" Rogers’ first talker, Close Harmony, was rushed to theatres. Being America’s Boyfriend was no guarantee they’d spend extra time getting your sound debut right. Rogers was not a Garbo to be accorded special handling. His multi-talents suggested he’d come through any sort of pinch. In events he couldn’t speak, Buddy might merely pick up an instrument (he could play them all) and go to work. I’ll watch his early Paramounts for that privileged glimpse of what sold in the name of youthful male stardom during a silent/sound transition. Rogers didn’t last long aurally. His bolt was spent in heady days when he and femme counterpart Clara Bow represented carefree life on a spree where groceries and lodgings were invariably just there with no concern as to the getting of them. Buddy was best in modern dress with flappers and bandstands nearby. The River Of Romance corsets him in stove hats and dueling pistols, said action accoutrements never his forte and challenges to his manhood all the more inappropo as Rogers never claimed status beyond that of affable boy. The story attracted me because it was remade (within six years!) as major Greenbriar favorite Mississippi, with Bing Crosby filling for Buddy and W.C. Fields assuming a role blustered less effectively in 1929 by Wallace Beery. The River Of Romance parades links with silents by putting Henry B. Walthall, Birth Of A Nation’s Little Colonel, back in Dixie trappings and again depository of endless Mint Juleps (I’ve lived down here all my life and have yet to taste one of those). Walthall made cottage industry of such for what was left of his career in character parts. Seeing him here made me half expect to hear D.W. Griffith’s instructing voice from behind the camera.

BOOK CHOICE: The Unruly Life Of Woody Allen by Marion Meade is among (few) bios that Allen didn’t authorize and thereby control. I’ll always opt for these, stars being determined as anyone (more so) to keep unflattering content out of a life’s story. Allen’s conducted his offscreen affairs in a matter so unflattering as to make his films strictly poison for many viewers. Maybe I should say most, judging by meager rentals they collect nowadays. Women generally revile him it seems, author Meade among them. Opinions of Allen’s character are better left in theatre checkrooms, but human nature seldom allows for such neat separations, thus his plummet from grace and disbelief on youth’s part that Woody’s comedies could once have been such cultural touchstones. I’d like to have sat in on Manhattan’s 1979 opening in one of that borough’s haughty venues surrounded by Allen worshippers. It must have been like camp meetings down here. As it was, I found Woody’s masterpiece limping into a near empty Winston-Salem twinner bereft of sophisticates (or anyone else) to appreciate what Andrew Sarris called the only truly great film of the seventies. My town used Woody Allen bookings to air out seats and de-bug auditoriums. Staff could usually count on getting home early for not having to turn on projectors for the last show. One night I really annoyed management at our long shuttered mall cinema by turning up for Radio Days with my own Baby Ruth and concealed pop bottle so as to deny them even a concession sale. Woody Allen got the blame for overhead and lamp wear my sole three-dollar admission incurred (and I’ve since watched Radio Days a likely dozen more times --- now that one I’d call the eighties’ best picture). Woody Allen clicks for me despite his wicked ways. I admire the man’s work ethic and would wish for half so much discipline (fortified with that, I’d show up around here a lot more often). Many people say his films are unwatchable and have been for years, but even if he just gets one out of three right, that’s still impressive for so prolific a writer/director. Allen trying less hard to be funny makes these serio-comedies more relaxed and enjoyable for his aging followers as most have given up the chase for another Annie Hall. His films represent comfort and familiarity for things done a certain way. Allen’s long been a fixed point amidst a changing industry with still enough variation to prevent his output going stale. I found Victoria Christina Barcelona compelling and unpredictable. Cassandra’s Dream falters a little at the end for a writer’s trap I’m sure Allen recognized even as he slid into it. Withering reviews for Scoop made me realize what a minority I am in for liking that oddball suspense comedy. Meade’s book is rough on Allen and he probably has it coming, but it’s hard to knock an artist who has made his pile yet keeps returning to entertain us. The fact of his showing up yearly with at the least an interesting feature, and doing so well into his seventies, gets an automatic pass from me whatever his depredations otherwise.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Today's Greenbriar Obsession: Clipping Under A Microscope

Every theatre ad has a story. This one hails from Rockford, Illinois in 1937. The Midway was (still is) a Spanish Renaissance venue --- 1500 seats, maybe more, in its prime --- that often hosted live acts in tandem with screen fare. It opened August 3, 1918 and lasted until fires and urban blight shuttered doors around 1980. Later they tried reopening as a performance center but that died too. Now the Midway sits moldering away like so many classic theatres in dotage. The photo here is of recent vintage. I’d love seeing what the original marquee (long gone) looked like when this show ran. Patrons sure had an elegant lobby to wait in, as evidenced by the capture below from 1932. You can actually purchase the Midway Theatre for $312,000. All it would take is an estimated two to three million renovating the joint, then you could go broke showing movies again in a neighborhood said to be pretty dangerous. Those good old days as reflected here ain’t never coming back …

Betty and Benny Fox were the featured act that came two days into San Quentin’s engagement. He’d done Human Fly-ing since boyhood and she was named World’s Champion Flagpole Sitter, among other things. Actually, there were several Bettys. The first was Benny’s wife. Others were billed as his daughter, dancing partner ... whatever circumstances required. These two made hearts stop whenever they climbed a hundred feet up a pole to waltz on an eighteen-inch disc --- sometimes blindfolded. Invitations to their dance included ballroom, tango, rumbas, and leg-twirling jitterbug, always high enough to guarantee broken necks should they plummet. Assistants were paid well for nerve enough to watch these two close up. I’m not sure how they pulled their high act in a movie theatre, though the Midway did boast of one of the largest stages around at that time. Betty and Benny were both five foot four and made an arresting couple. They worked Big Tops and played the skyscraper circuit as well (as above). Benny had his own circus for a while, primarily touring US Army bases. Their Adagio Of Death was successful into the sixties and the act was seen on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson. Unstoppable Benny performed into his eighties and liked telling of encounters with Burt Lancaster, Mae West, and Adolph Hitler along the way. I’d imagine he and Betty’s show at the Midway looked a little like Louise Brooks swinging over the audience in opening scenes from The Canary Murder Case. Theatre-going in those days really was a three-ring affair.

So as to get at least part of the Midway experience, I dragged San Quentin out of its Warner’s Tough Guy DVD Collection and watched. It was actually the first time, even though I’d longed to see it since looking at stills in Bill Everson’s The Bad Guys, a book my cousin got for Christmas 1964 (sometimes it takes awhile to get around to these things). San Quentin is a prison story the likes of which Warners did again and again throughout the thirties and beyond. Humphrey Bogart would be paroled from them in favor of headlining John Garfield, though it really didn’t much matter who starred in these as long as they wore stripes. The formula must have worked for sheer volume of prison B’s coming out of Warners. Sometimes there’d be a sleeper and an Alcatraz Island or Crime School would score "A" bookings and unexpectedly high rentals. San Quentin was made for just $365,000, but it doesn’t look cheap. There is plentiful second unit footage from the real joint into which players are neatly woven. Midway Theatre audiences would have had no reason to feel cheated, even discounting the lure of Betty and Benny Fox. I’d not considered selling possibilities of Ann Sheridan’s nightclub song in the film, How Could You?, but would accept the ad’s word that it was indeed at the top of 1937’s Hit Parade. San Quentin was an evergreen in and out of theatres for a solid twenty years until television foreclosed paid admissions. Warners combined it with Alcatraz Island for a 1950 dualler, and vid purchasing Associated Artists got San Quentin back in circulation through distributing sub Dominant Pictures just before sale to local freevee. We had theatres down here using it into the late fifties. San Quentin engages still for settings that don’t date (prison yards are presumably still just that), seventy minutes moving quick, and no purpose other than telling a familiar story economically and with every cliché intact save a montage of calendar leaves turning (there was, however, newspaper headlines spinning into close-up). I was glad for the incentive this seventy-three year old ad gave me to watch, even if I’d trade that for Betty and Benny Fox doing their Dance Of Death high above the Midway’s stage.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Fleischer/Paramount Supermans

It’s 1941. You’re Paramount newly in receipt of a white-hot fad off comic pages and radio … only this one flies and lifts up passenger trains. How in deuce will you translate that to a motion picture screen? Audiences then weren’t so accustomed as we are to super heroics. Hopalong Cassidy leaped a ravine to credible effect. Superman vaulting a skyscraper was plain silly to everyone but kids and the brain damaged. Republic's previous Captain Marvel serial was tailor-made for such patronage, with flying effects astoundingly good and all-round invulnerability of that character almost believable. Paramount could presumably have gone a live-action route with Superman (has anyone ever seen their deal memo with National Periodicals?), but I’m guessing animation was figured on from the day ink dried between the parties. What right-thinking Paramount star hopeful would agree in 1941 to don tights and a cape? Could Sterling Hayden, Jon Hall, or Robert Preston ever have lived that down? Paramount might spend millions and still end up with another Doctor Cyclops. Dave Fleischer told of quoting big numbers to animate Superman and Paramount unexpectedly agreeing, his look-back suggesting a giant brought to heel by independent Fleischers who could take this commission or leave it. Paramount doubtlessly bristled if such was the case. Where did this Florida shop get off telling New York what cartoons it would or would not make? Max Fleischer’s lavish operation was an iron lung with Paramount supplying the air. Unplug it and the patient dies. I’ve got the feeling Superman had lots to do with erosion quickening between them. It didn’t help that the Fleischers were themselves quarrelling (in fact, Max and Dave stopped speaking). For Paramount sharks, that was like blood on the water, but more of that anon.

So what was this foreign concept called Superman? He’d been around just two years. Youngsters liked him, but adults (and exhibitors) knew less of comic fads than I would now of video games catching fire. One showman called Superman just too extreme to get by. Extremity might have been defined in terms of inflated rentals for the new cartoons. They’d cost more to make and that translated to increased costs for booking. Bad vibes toward the series might have had origins here. Exhibitor response was hostile in any case. They figured Paramount had rocks in its head for sending them dramatic cartoons, the term itself an oxymoron as far as adults were concerned. Superman cartoons are very silly. ‘Tis a little like Popeye, but Popeye is funny, while Superman is supposed to be serious. Even the kids make fun of it and the animation is terrible. That was Ray Peacock of Onalaska, Washington talking, his a self-described venue for loggers and mill worker patronage, but did this broadside represent audience sentiment in general? Attacking Fleischer craftsmanship still a model for artists seems daft in hindsight. Jerky animation works against the effectiveness of these cartoons, said Arthur K. Dane when his Pennecook, NH theatre played The Magnetic Telescope. Negative comments far outweighed praise throughout 1942 trades I canvassed, and the mainstream press, when it could be bothered, took out hatchets as well. Artistically, Superman shorts are the movie cartoon at its worst. Superman looks and acts like a wooden puppet. So do all his playmates. There is little that his creators—the old Fleischer Studios (now Famous Studios, Inc.) at Miami, Fla.—can do to improve their hero—even King Disney can't animate human beings satisfactorily, said TIME magazine regarding Volcano in July 1942. There is never any suspense, since Superman always wins, no matter what happens. But his idolators (of all ages) seem satisfied to see him flex his muscles. By December of that year, the novelty of Superman seemed spent. These cartoons are getting to be just cartoons. Ads Paramount ran asserted smash biz and exhibitors fairly begging for more. The reality was that Superman had not and would not duplicate Popeye’s extraordinary appeal. The sailor man’s super shows of strength got laughs and that’s what folks wanted in drawings that moved (has that really changed, by the way?). Trade support, a lavish pressbook, and trailers (two of them) would not alter that fact of audience life.

Fans yap over cartoon favorites being ahead of their time, but I’d submit we still haven’t caught up with Fleischer’s Superman group. Nearly seventy years out, they are like seventeen Fabergé eggs still awaiting proper rediscovery and appreciation. Warners released the group on DVD. I watched and was entranced. Others schooled in animation arts could tell you better what makes these such treasures. My layman eyes can only report back of a cartoon experience unique and infinitely pleasurable. Maybe Superman was just too good for crabby 1941-43 showmen. That time frame, by the way, allowed for stimulating addition of wartime themes putting Superman at Allied service (though kids surely wondered why he didn’t just fly over and settle Hitler/Tojo’s hash straightaway). Most striking were orgies of destruction the Fleischers put in each cartoon. Buildings collapse, volcanoes erupt, and earthquakes tremor. Death rays jut out of every window. You couldn’t begin staging such havoc in live-action. Modern CGI attempts come off less effective than Fleischer’s animated efforts. I grew enamored of expert voicing brought over from radio that you wish could be duplicated by boy-men enacting super heroes today. Was a then-listener’s own diction improved for tuning in each night to these sonorous speakers? If so, let’s relieve talent of Stairmasters and put them on an OTR regimen instead. I keep lauding the Fleischers for Superman, but credits show they were out after nine shorts, The Japoteurs being swan song for the old team. Paramount must have had ducks in a row for their takeover, as I saw no diminution of quality in the final eight.

Jerry Beck has a really good video at Cartoon Brew showing how Paramount continued using the Superman character after the initial animated series ended. The Man of Steel and pretenders (Bluto among them) show up with Popeye, Little Lulu, and elsewhere. It’s as though Paramount was looking to get value out of usage rights bought and paid for, even if interest in further Superman adventures per se had waned. Fred MacMurray took wing and bullets bounced off his caped outfit (sans the "S" emblem) for a dream sequence shared with Claudette Colbert in the company’s No Time For Love (1943), played not unexpectedly for laughs. Paramount’s deal with National Periodicals presumably allowed for costuming and super-powers very close to NP's protected image. Had special effects so inept as those of MacMurray aloft been utilized for a live-action Superman, both would surely have been laughed off screens. You’d expect as much for ludicrous serials Columbia tried in the late forties. Live on the ground but cartooned (absurdly so) in the air, they cheated ticket buyers hopeful of Superman as something other than pen and ink. Hopes were further dashed with television’s scratch-penny budgets applied to flight against process screens and leaps through soft walls, though George Reeves conferred greatness by sheer force of personality and fine ensemble work with a game cast. You could say Superman got no respect until the late seventies when a couple generations’ worth of comic buyers made big-scale adaptation viable at last. As for Paramount’s cartoons, there was eventual turnover of negative materials to National Periodicals and customary indifference to follow. Flamingo TeleFilm Sales distributed the seventeen to syndication, a number too small for stations to strip weekdays in the preferred manner, but broadcast in fifty or so markets from March 1956 enabled kids to compare Paramount’s Superman with the wider-seen Reeves model. NP let copyrights lapse in all seventeen cartoons and an unnamed scrounger found color elements in someone’s office there (we should give that guy a medal). 8 and 16mm prints began turning up on lists and collectors were fascinated by such rarities, especially as the shorts had by then pretty much disappeared from television. We’re probably lucky the things survive at all …

Some would say Warners’ DVD is an inauthentic record of what Paramount produced. There are purists and there are purists. I’m more of the first persuasion than the last, being fussier over things besides Superman cartoons maybe, of which I’ll confess to having seen but a few before getting this post ready (and to repeat, if I may --- they’re great). End titles are unfortunately replaced on nearly all shorts, clipping music cues much as C&C syndicated prints did when ringing down curtains prematurely on RKO features. An intro segment about Superman’s Krypton origin is repeated on several cartoons, whereas original release found it only in the 1941 pilot. With regards comparisons between Warners and the previous Image/Bosko collection, I’d prefer not going there, being exhausted still from perusal of animation discussion groups wherein such matters are parsed in hair-splitting detail. Mind you, I respect their scholarship and would wish for half so much knowledge. One goes deep into that world like Superman in one of his subterranean adventures and comes away a little intimidated perhaps, though at the least much better informed. For the record, I’ll mention two names notable, Ray Pointer and Jack Theakston, resident experts at many such venues and always handy with straight dope on animation topics. I mentioned earlier the fallout and booting of the Fleischers from Paramount. That topic really engages me. It’s high drama and you could make a movie telling of it. I always figured Hollywood for a hardball racket, but those Paramount-ers must have had scales on their backs for reptilian ways encouraged by placement within executive ranks. I’ve read accounts by Michael Barrier, Leslie Cabarga, and Richard Fleischer representing varying P.O.V’s as to what happened, and my reckoning says Max and Dave got a bang-up screwing to make Roscoe Arbuckle, Wallace Reid, and Clara Bow look like honorees at a Paramount testimonial dinner. My mind’s made up. I’m not accepting whatever vice-presidency they offer. The Fleischers took a corporate hammering not unlike those dealt to cartoon-makers before and later. Even Disney sustained lumps from unscrupulous producer/distributors, and look how they treated Tex Avery and Bob Clampett! Something about animation artists brought out the worst in a front office. I’m thinking they were undervalued and maybe still are. Being cartoons are perceived as for kids, does that put their creators by way of being treated like children as well?

Friday, May 08, 2009

For Monsters Only!

For those that grew up monster maggish, Richard Bojarski was every bit the celebrity equal of movie stars (his alter ego, Bojak The Bojar, always seemed to me a swinging nickname). He drew comics and wrote articles for Castle Of Frankenstein (Bojarski’s Baron Von Bungle strip, above, was a welcome staple of C.O.F. during the mid-sixties). Dick knew more about Lon Chaney, Jr. than any man (then) living. For me at eleven, that was worthy of major props. Word came recently of Bojarski’s death. I hadn’t spoken to him since a paper show years ago in New York. Dick set up at mostly local tables as they accessed easier from his residence in Flushing. He was a guy I always imagined riding subways from borough to borough seeking rare collectibles as he’d done since the early fifties. Dick used to call when I was still living with my parents in the seventies, and always in the middle of the night, which only fueled my image of him as a real-life Gothic Castle dweller. We’d talk for hours about Castle Of Frankenstein and what Calvin Beck was really like. Dick offered 16mm prints which amounted to no more than him reading ads from the same Big Reel I’d received in that week’s mail. His was a mellifluous rendering of features available. Son Of Frankenstein, he’d say, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. I’d interrupt and assure him I knew who was in Son Of Frankenstein, and that this was, after all, a toll call. He’d pause, acknowledge, then go to the next title … Werewolf Of London, starring Henry Hull and Warner Oland. Guess he just liked saying those names. Maybe I liked hearing them, because I eventually gave up trying to abbreviate his recitals. Dick once sold me a print of The Raven, appropriately splice-ridden and shot through with cue marks from a dozen stations that had run it since 1957 when the pic was first released to TV. That now seems an ideal artifact to have come from Dick, and frankly I wish I’d kept it.

Curiosity to meet Bojak The Bojar was finally sated in July 1978 when friend Dan Mercer (he of the 8mm Doctor X attic showing fame) accompanied me to Flushing environs of the man himself. I’d not attempt retracing our pilgrimage today. Memory suggests it was in Queens. There were row houses for endless blocks. You’d have expected to see Archie Bunker sitting on a porch or William Bendix waiting for a bus. We parked and saw a lone figure coming down the street that just had to be Dick. He carried groceries and seemed to shrink inside his clothes when we approached him with perhaps unseemly enthusiasm. Hey, Dick! He probably thought we were loan sharks coming to collect or disgruntled buyers still waiting for Werewolf Of London’s delivery. There was something about Dick’s pallor that suggested a man who’d seen little of the sun. He was gray and fallow after that unmistakable fashion of collectors. We went in the house and quickly realized there was virtually no furniture. Just filing cabinets. They were even in the kitchen. Dick opened a drawer and there were folders jammed with original images of Dracula and Frankenstein and every other totem I cherished (and yes, I’d have traded my refrigerator for but a fraction of these). He showed us a snapshot of Boris Karloff signing an autograph at what Dick said was a Brooklyn opening of The Strange Door … taken, of course, with Dick’s own Brownie. That moment captured for eternity made its eventual way to Bojarski’s lush pictorial album, The Films Of Boris Karloff, published in 1974. He showed us another faded shot of himself and several guys on a tattered sofa at Calvin Beck’s house one night in 1964 to watch all twelve chapters of a silent jungle serial in which Karloff played a minor part. I wondered what conversation had gone on amongst such an august gathering.

Dick’s basement was our ultimate destination; again the inevitable one for pack rats who gather film to the exclusion of most else. Going down those stairs, I was reminded of John Wayne’s line in True Grit ... By God, he reminds me of me! There was darkness of the most extreme sort and a single light bulb hung from its ceiling. Did I mention that Dick had a mother? At least I think he did. We never met or even glimpsed her. There were sounds from an adjoining room upstairs and a woman's call from the landing that interrupted our sublevel viewing of Night Monster, which Dick answered impatiently. Yes, we watched Night Monster. No, let me put it this way. We watched Night Monster with Richard Bojarski, the man who all but channeled the spirit of Bela Lugosi and wrote a book about him as well. Dick showed us a reel of gamy outtake footage from Glen Or Glenda with near naked women undulating as a decrepit Lugosi looked on. Maybe he’d gotten it during those three days he spent interviewing Ed Wood at the director’s auto court of last resort shortly before his death. Bojarski had made that visit but recently with events still fresh in his memory. He and Ed got drunk together while hashing Bela-data. Dick’s reminiscence was accompaniment to a grinding 16mm projector and the rumble of an old furnace that sounded like the opening reel of The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse. Our visit concluded at a diner up the street, which I hardly remember because maybe it was too much like normal living after the afternoon we’d spent in Dick’s basement. This idol of my youth was at all times cordial and friendly and responsive to questions I’m sure fans had asked him repeatedly since glory days of C.O.F. I would see Dick again selling parts of his collection at varied Manhattan swap meets during the late eighties and nineties. There’d be a behind-the-scenes still from House Of Dracula I remembered from C.O.F. that Dick priced at an astronomical $400 sitting beside a near-mint Foreign Correspondent pressbook he’d practically be giving away. Maybe value was based upon presence of monsters therein. Dick continued writing for small horror mags and was even (briefly) listed as guest for last year’s Classic Movie Monster Con that I attended in Knoxville (he didn’t make it). Bojarski should have got a lot more recognition for pioneering work he did researching the genre. I admired him always, still do, and am saddened by the fact that he’s gone. Dick would always address younger enthusiasts, including me, as My Boy … A lot of us were indeed his boys and will remain so.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Speedy Comes To Town

My drive to Winston-Salem last week yielded a 35mm screening of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy at the North Carolina School Of The Arts, an institution that’s been there for years and more recently added a film studies program. A few name actors trained at NCSA. Jean Arthur once taught briefly after retirement from the hurly-burly of the silver screen. I remember she got in trouble with local police for turning loose a chained dog barking in someone’s yard. The place is well fortified and they won’t let you park on campus. I had to leave my car at a YWCA down the road and ride a bus in. That’s a lot of trouble to see Harold but I kept reminding myself he was worth it, especially as the theatre was surprisingly jammed with a reported 263 patrons (at $25 per ticket). Speedy was the culmination of The RiverRun Film Festival, an annual weeklong unspooling of independent shorts and features. They usually drop a few oldies in. Speedy was their silent choice for 2009. The Alloy Orchestra performed with the show and they were outstanding. It was RiverRun’s last night and the host promised relief from a documentary just run about horrors of meatpacking. He said Harold Lloyd was less well known than Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, a preamble I imagine comes with any screening of a Lloyd comedy. This audience was open to Harold and love him they did … you could feel the excitement of discovering something (wonderful) they’d never heard of. Speedy’s surefire for slapstick guaranteed to please, and here it wrapped with a standing, whistling ovation few anticipated going in. Working his audience (preferably large ones) was mastery Lloyd had down eighty years ago and it still clicks. If a wide public could be talked into sampling this guy, we’d have a nation filled with Harold-philes. Outgoing patrons gushed over him. Where had this fabulous comic been all their lives? Some given to pretension speculated over Chaplin and Keaton as being more the thinking man’s comics. Oh, Keaton was definitely more cerebral, somebody said. NSCA screened The General a few seasons back, so they knew from Buster, and I wondered then if maybe he was one they more admired than enjoyed. There’s no such ambivalence about Harold Lloyd. Just seating a crowd puts you over the hump. He’ll bring them all home from there.

Harold might be the safest bet of the big three. They’ll cry with Charlie and gasp at Buster, but Lloyd is most accessible, quite the irony when you consider how inaccessible his films were for so many decades. Harold's open and sunny and easy to identify with. He bustles about in a 20’s milieu we’ve lost and wish we could get back. Speedy drives horse trolleys, visits Coney Island and hangs with Babe Ruth. New York is a big hammock he swings in and you come away wishing it were possible to live in such a place. Lloyd’s characters are resourceful, sometimes ruthlessly so, in ways we particularly enjoy today. You know he’ll find some ingenious avenue out of the pickle. There was a gag in Speedy about Harold tracking villains via his dog having torn the seat off trousers that just couldn’t be devised short of brilliant ingenuity Lloyd’s team routinely applied to story constructs. Last week’s laughter came of intelligence flattered in addition to ribs being tickled. Harold never took his public for morons nor fed them with spoons like those jammed down throats in modern comedies. One woman exiting Speedy was near desperate to know more about Lloyd and where can I get his films? The bus ride back found converts jotting down titles they’d order on DVD next day.

Harold disappeared in part because he was too rich to fret unduly over reviving his pics and way immersed in hobbies more distracting than movie work he’d quit long before. Keaton needed money old films generated and so traveled with and promoted them. Chaplin liked money period and was always on alert to get his library back into theatres, despite being shut out of them on occasion due to personal/political controversies. Lloyd dithered over youth’s reaction to his comedies, reassured by warm reception at varied college shows from the forties right up until he died in 1971, but always playing close to the vest when it came to wider availability. Tinkering with negatives was another hobby, maybe one he’d have better left alone, but at least Harold preserved his loot, as was well attested by NCSA's glistening 35mm Speedy (and someone there told me the rental was $750, a fair figure considering expense of generating prints). Lloyd generally stopped short of full-on reissues. He’d announce, then pull back. Harold Lloyd apparently thinks this is a good time for comedy, said The New York Times as lead-in to a 1949 worldwide revival program, later cancelled, for seven of his features (only Movie Crazy left gates in the US). Lloyd generated 60’s compilations a la Robert Youngson with elegant scoring (Walter Scharf) and narration to surpass his model, but Youngson knew variety was the spice of such programs and never devoted his paste-up features to just one clown. Lloyd (rightfully) didn’t trust television to do right by Harold and for the most part withheld broadcast rights. That, of course, would have served his legacy best despite presentation concerns, as refusal to share with viewers at home was the very thing that caused posterity’s boat to sail without him.

Harold was the man hanging off a clock in stills one wished could move but never did for most of us growing up in the sixties. You’d think ego if nothing else would keep Lloyd thumping for his library, but here instead was real-life's Horatio Alger long transitioned to new worlds he’d conquer, a twentieth century’s epitome of energy and accomplishment. Comedy and his character’s part in it were slide rules extending from the producing corporation he oversaw to bank windows visited often (only Chaplin's stuff grossed higher, though Lloyd bested him for being far more prolific). He permitted Paramount to distribute and saw that advertising guns pointed mostly his way (as here with dapper offscreen Harold confirming Speedy’s first placement in the studio’s 1928 product annual). It took Lloyd’s passing to open reservoirs to audiences diminished for having waited so long, and that’s the bugaboo that’s affected his legacy since. With initial fans dead or soon to be (you’d be pushing ninety to remember Speedy first-run), there’s memory of largely botched Time/Life episodes for seventies’ TV, then Lloyd properties licensed to Blackhawk Films in the wake of a silver crisis propelling  8mm prints beyond collector budgets. Harold’s granddaughter managed the trust he’d set up and spent wads cleaning negatives. Getting some of that back was tough in a marketplace where Harold Lloyd’s name translated mostly to Huh? TCM played the reclaimed assets while fans mining them (on video and DVD-R) clamored after legit release. 2005 saw belated arrival on DVD, too late for commercial resurgence but timely enough for enthusiasts who thought they’d seen comedy’s every potential. Most remarkable about Lloyd’s stash is quality he maintained through starring years, a hot streak running from shorts to the end of silent featuring and then some. You could play Speedy plus a dozen other of these and bring the house down. I wish we had more Lloyd movie nights nearby, but it takes dollars to present them, what with print costs, paying accompanists, etc. Most of you live in areas heavier with shows like this. Maybe Speedy will come your way soon. It was surely for me the filmgoing highlight (so far) of 2009.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Here’s another posting concept I’ll float over the next while that hopefully will work toward getting images up and ideas out that don’t necessarily merit a longer piece. I’ll use the Greenbriar Short Subjects format to recommend books and maybe a few DVD’s as well.

SHOW ALERT: Cinevent 2009 happens three weeks from today in Columbus, Ohio (May 22-25). It’s a four day collector and fan gathering that’s gone on since I was but a youth, and what a marathon this is for rare screenings and unique memorabilia. We used to drive ten hours over perpetually unfinished West Virginia highway to get there. Since ridding myself of that incubus named 16mm collecting, I can traverse the hotel’s exterior lot minus nagging compulsion to intercept dealer vans to see what they’ve brought. Film's been largely displaced by DVD, but there are still ghostly images projected upon walls in the selling area, and I’m nostalgic near to wistful tears for projectors grinding and Super 8 (yes, Super 8!) prints of Castle Films’ Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde being unspooled by dealers I’ve known for nigh onto thirty years and then some. People in the movie life may die, but they never quit. Guys twenty years my senior buy up books and stills like teenagers just entering the hobby. Do we ever lose our childish enthusiasm for this stuff? I keep waiting for my interest to subside, an event concurrent with onset of much belated maturity and realization that all of it’s ephemeral and shouldn’t matter to grown-ups, but in the meantime, I buy up books and stills and wonder if twenty years from now I'll be doing the same (hope so!). They’ll be showing a Bill Hart feature new to me, and I’ll sure be there for that. Also a dye-transfer Technicolor print of Hello, Frisco, Hello which will remind us of what Alice Faye musicals looked like before Fox junked their three-strip negatives. Morris Everett has another of his poster auctions Saturday and Sunday. Program coordinator Steve Haynes sent an e-mail reporting that rooms at the Ramada Plaza Hotel and Conference Center are still available, but going fast. If you’re within a continent’s travel of Cinevent, by all means check it out.

I look at theatre ads like this and so many questions arise. What were the Three Stooges like on stage? This was 1942. Curly was still in pretty good performing shape, but how long before these live appearances became untenable for him? The recent Stooge DVD sets gave us opportunity to examine his decline from one short to the next until a stroke took him out. Bloggers have even posted frame grabs to pinpoint moments when you could see Curly giving it up. I’m open to Stooges now whereas I used to switch off whenever their theme came on, thus nearly all these are fresh viewing meat. One the other day had me levitating upon realization that its setup was lifted wholesale from The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case. Now the rest of you have been on to this for a lifetime, but here I exalted, What A Discovery! Obviously, I’ve got lots of Stooge catching up to do (and I’ve been helped in that regard by Stuart Galbraith IV's excellent DVD reviews). Next question ad wise: Would Jackie Cooper remember this gig with the Stooges? They’d have done at least five or six shows a day (doors opened at Ten AM). That’s a lot of backstage waiting, and I’m wondering how much conversation Jackie might have had with the boys. Did they send out for sandwiches? Things like that cross your mind when looking at these promotionals ... wishing to Heaven you could have been there primary among them, of course.

RADIO vs. MOVIES CIRCA March 29, 1928: The above group supplied an hour’s free entertainment on NBC radio that was like opening cannon fire at Fort Sumter, the first of many battles to come between theatres and media piped into homes. United Artists’ Joseph Schenck committed star talent for an hour sponsored by the car manufacturing Dodge Brothers for purposes of selling their Victory line of six-cylinder models (from left to right at top is A.K. Schoepf representing Dodge, Douglas Fairbanks, Joseph Schenck, and Dolores Del Rio, with John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Norma Talmadge at bottom). Exhibitors hit roofs nationwide over movie people competing with theatres they proposed to support with then silent features. A public’s curiosity assured interest in hearing Chaplin, Fairbanks, Talmadge and the others speak for the first time. It was a coast-to-coast broadcast that neatly bifurcated show nights in the east (8 to 9 PM) and kept normally paying customers hearthside, a chilling portent of things to come. Theatre-men assailed Schenck and got his promise not to let it happen again. Exhibs more open-minded played the Dodge Brothers show with comedy shorts and trailers on screen as UA luminaries spoke and sang from recently installed Vitaphone speakers. There was clean reception or major static depending on location, commercial radio being still in its comparative infancy. Audiences stamped and hooted disapproval according to sound quality or their level of disappointment with speaking voices new to them. Chaplin’s was a particular letdown, and there was reason to believe pro orators stood in for Talmadge and Dolores Del Rio. The whole scheme was pretty much a train wreck and object lesson to discourage further such experimentation, but there was no denying sound’s penetration into theatres and the fact it was very much here to stay.
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