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Monday, June 29, 2009

Exhibition's Sweet Smell Acid Bath

1957 Manhattan in Sweet Smell Of Success was moviegoing Heaven from where I sit in 2009. Watching again this week (on MGM-HD) satisfied me that Sidney and J.J. had lives of Riley amongst clubs, theatres, and an overall seedy elegance long since no more. Never has New York looked so good on film. The opening credits show delivery trucks dropping newspapers along corners behind which are theatre marquees at night. One features Seven Wonders Of The World in Cinerama. I wondered why Falco concerned himself with placement in Hunsecker’s column when he could be watching that … at least three times in a week … as I would. Newsreel theatres were in evidence when Sweet Smell was made (the Trans-Lux is visible during several shots). Warners was at the point of abandoning their headline service, but Universal-International still had current events on screens. So did Fox and Metro (Paramount bailed in 1957). Imagine going into a theatre to watch news. And speaking of dailies, did people really hover about stands waiting for the morning edition to arrive as Sidney does? What a world --- back when newspapers mattered. I noted that he left his (early breakfast?) hot dog unattended to score the morning Chronicle, coming back to find it unmolested (you can’t say Sweet Smell’s altogether cynical). They should have given Tony Curtis an Academy Award for this. He’s somewhere beyond great. Falco apparently doesn’t sleep, changing suits between night shifts and not once using a bed back of his office. The dressing table bottle of Alka-Seltzer was a touch I noted for the first time thanks to high-definition. A really priceless sequence later on reminded me of screen and vaudeville’s coexistence well into the fifties. Sidney visits a comic backstage who’s waiting out a movie before his next turn, this the lot of many a performer doing six and seven appearances a day between unspooling reels. Big names pulled time propping up features from nine or ten AM to midnight. Live acts were reason to attend for a lot of patrons, as here where Esther Williams and comedian Wally Brown offered incentive likely more compelling than weak screen sister Always Together at Chicago’s State Lake Theatre.

Another Sweet Smell plus is music by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. I hadn’t investigated a soundtrack previous, but should have known there’d be one. It looks and sounds good (there’s samples you can play at Amazon’s listing). Jazzy scores had been around by 1957, but few so melancholic. That’s a word that might describe showmen after they got a look at Sweet Smell. They figured on another TrapezeLancaster-Curtis success of the year before. These were primarily action stars and their public was confused by prospect of their lingering over telephones with furtive passing of notes. Exhibitors asked why spend audience capital on such a downer. Lancaster would back chamber piece of Marty sort but mostly did onscreen work more conventional (Gunfight At The OK Corral of the same year). To don owlish spectacles and be photographed so harshly made merchandise tough to sell. Sweet Smell posters read The Picture That Will Never Be Forgiven --- Or Forgotten. The first part was certainly true for theatres playing it. The second would manifest within a decade when critics and buffs began discovering it. Sweet Smell was a problem you couldn’t solve with ads and posters. Just what in blazes was this thing about? A hit’s most saleable points take few words to put across. This one needed more, plus a sophisticated audience to decode media-speak and acid drippings not necessarily recognized as such by hick viewers. Premiering in New York was a foregone conclusion. United Artists announced 255 key dates to open July 4 weekend following the world bow at Manhattan’s Loew’s State on June 27, 1957. Was the saturation bid an effort to get Sweet Smell in and out before word-of-mouth killed it off?

Either way, it died. Burt Lancaster and Barbara Nichols (both shown here with showmen and interviewers) spent July thumping Sweet Smell. Lancaster’s company had produced, so the star put forth promotional effort above and beyond calls of studio duty. Otherwise, it was left to United Artists to cobble whatever mass appeal this sour persimmon might generate. A tie-in with Topp’s Bubble Gum (photos of Burt and a pitch for the film in each pack) were among measures fairly desperate --- that plus ad cards perfumed and designed for placement in pocketbooks and lingerie drawers (!). Ads titillated with a brother/sister could-be-incest angle and promise of a fistic set-to between Burt and Tony, this being more along lines folks expected (who’d be all the more disappointed when they didn’t get it). Pete Harrison spoke for exhibition when he lauded content, but added that reception in small towns would be problematical. The counterfeit currency gimmick supplied by the pressbook was one I used years later for a University run, printing several hundred bills and spreading them around campus (we even set up a jar in Student Commons labeled Free Money). Our audience was actually pretty good, probably better than a lot of houses pulled during Summer 1957. UA’s beating could actually have been worse, as Sweet Smell took $1.422 million in domestic rentals. Foreign was harsher with only $848,000, but few could have expected this sort of material to perform overseas (what did they know or care of press agents and Broadway columnists?). There were fewer bookings (9,322) than customary for a major star offering. Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp (in Gunfight At The OK Corral) burned up the woods giving crowds exactly what they wanted that summer, and was rewarded with four million in domestic rentals for doing so. Now it’s Sweet Smell Of Success that’s the permanent classic, its brilliant dialogue an inspiration for modern writers and viewers addressing same. I’ve read several remarkable essays just this morning extolling the greatness of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster’s then-folly. If there are rewards in posterity for underappreciated films, this one more than collects. Tony Curtis has fortunately lived long enough to dine out on it for several decades. I could kick myself for meeting Martin Milner at a Courts autograph show and not mentioning Sweet Smell, instead honing on the Route 66 episode Lizard Leg’s and Owlet’s Wings and Springfield Rifle. He was responsive enough about these. Has anyone interviewed Milner at length? My Web search turned up nothing so far.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Favorites List --- The Lodger

There was no Jack ripping in 1944 when Fox’s "A" thriller got bookings at theatres normally off-limits to horror films. Younger viewers won’t regard The Lodger so highly as Greenbriar veterans who were creeped by it in theatres and syndication TV. Slashing moderns expect of J the R was withheld for obvious censorial reasons in firm place then. 40's audiences weren’t missing explicit mayhem they’d have otherwise enjoyed. Wartime crowds for The Lodger’s first-run were accustomed to filling in blanks for things heard though not seen (and the film uses sound very effectively). To show Ripper murders was to invade imagination’s personal space among these patrons, a breach of protocol we don’t appreciate for not having experienced suspense and horror programming on radio as all of them did. Late 30’s/early 40’s broadcasts I’ve played are harrowing for shock effects we can visualize to oft-disturbing effect. Listeners then honed senses far more acute than our own for envisioning horror served now to us raw. Applying imagination to things unseen really is a lost capacity. My generation missed it and certainly younger ones have. Those who’d knock The Lodger for pulling back really don’t know what they’re missing, or rather, denying themselves. For myself, there’s hesitation to watch Time After Time, a 1979 Ripper reboot with good things, though its gorier killings are ones I now scan past. Do we grow out of appetites for explicit bloodshed? I think I did years ago, and for that The Lodger serves me still, being a chiller with atmosphere to live in and a lead performer whose on and off screen complexity gets way beyond mere recital of Jack The Ripper’s fiendish way with a knife.

To delve deep into Laird Cregar’s mystery would be not unlike study of history’s real-life Ripper. Both are fascinating and impenetrable. Cregar’s life is narcotic to fans who prefer idols tormented and fated to bad ends. With talent enormous as his bulk (I don’t mean to copy you dozen other writers who have undoubtedly said that), Cregar was richly flamboyant and commanded scenes with a silken, yet forceful, voice. Losing him so early inspires reflection on missed opportunities and imaginary recasting of films he’d have made better. His agonized homosexuality was an open secret during Cregar’s lifetime, even if unpublished then, and histories since have spotted it as motivation for ill-advised (massive) weight loss and early demise. He died at thirty-one and within months of The Lodger’s release. Portly teens with orientation issues had early arrival of their own James Dean in Cregar, though misery on his sleeve would surely have made Laird's life a less likely one to emulate. I’ve long been alert to colleague observations about him. Quotes abound in reference to garrulous/withdrawn/moody/resplendent Cregar. I’m hackneyed for saying the actor himself was more interesting than parts he was given, but there it is. The Lodger might have worked with someone else --- but who? The Cregar mystique translates well to psychosis, and for Fox to have followed The Lodger so quickly with Hangover Square’s further serial slaughter must have given the actor considerable anxiety. The Ripper part was sensitively written and Cregar lends considerable empathy, but it’s no romantic lead and that apparently was his goal. Physical size and isolation thus imposed was limiting then, but it’s since conferred immortality, for nearly no one forgets Cregar once they’ve sampled him, and to The Lodger he brings tragic grandeur beyond skilled writing and direction already in place.

Particulars of knife killing figure into much of The Lodger’s dialogue. Cregar’s application of the weapon is limited, but others discuss and demonstrate its effect upon victims dispatched offscreen. Such clinical, even casual recapping of what the Ripper does to women must surely have raised gooseflesh among those for whom the idea of being stabbed, let alone mutilated, was as frightening as witnessing the act itself. Here again was a device effectively transplanted from radio. You had only to talk about effects of a madman’s assault to scare watchers silly. Characters simulate the Ripper’s moves in lieu of our watching him make them. We’re at all times removed but one step from the crime, a convention taken for granted then but almost never observed now. The Lodger was a horror movie not to be sold as such, sneaking into (most) theatres under a cloak of respectability its studio and star cast implied. All the more surprising then was the fact that this would emerge most unsettling of all thrillers released during that decade. Poster and ad mats underplayed carve-ups explored in the film, but enterprising showmen often vetoed suggested art and designed lurid come-ons of their own (as in above's display). The Lodger could have been sold like the Blood Feast of its day or as period drama for the carriage trade, so flexible were choices in an exhibition universe catering to varied audiences and communities.

Lives set to movies (like my own) intersect over and again with a favorite. Each encounter brings something new to the relationship. Mine with The Lodger began on a lumpy couch at my grandmother’s in 1965 watching a television turned low as not to wake the house. Its horrors seemed not so restrained, for hadn’t Hollywood continued operating under Code restriction, albeit a weakened one? The Lodger remained of a piece with features we were seeing in theatres (sort of a Hammer horror minus color). It was introduction of MPAA ratings and resulting explicitness that dated The Lodger and its kin. As with anything of similar vintage, I chased it around late nights and UHF backroads. A station near my college town bought The Lodger and several hundred Fox titles from NTA, retaining two dozen or so after their license period expired. Dead air was thus filled with The Lodger, Great Guns, Son of Fury, and others ad nauseum, playing them like radio used Top 40. Film collectors would seek The Lodger and often find it, thanks again to NTA’s relaxed vigilance vis a vis 16mm prints. Some of these were spectacular. My memory suggests they looked better than the DVD. Certainly they were sharper. The blacks seemed deeper too. Could mine be selective recall of a time when mere access to such was thrill enough? 16mm rewarded on one hand and snatched away with the other. The Lodger may have been pictorially stunning, but variable density soundtracks were sometimes (often it seemed) printed too dark or light with a resulting motorboat effect that all but obliterated dialogue, especially in quieter scenes. You might pick up multiple prints or odd reels with peculiarities of their own toward constructing a perfect whole, an ideal seldom attainable. I do wonder what The Lodger would look like in 35mm. Anyone know if Fox still has original negative elements on these two?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

One Hundred Errol Flynn Years

Errol’s tally so far is a century minus half that he’s been gone. A lot got done and undone in those fifty years. Flynn’s acting wears well. He underplayed maybe out of embarrassment for performing in make-up before a camera (like lots of male stars) but would be rewarded by placement (though not in his lifetime) among players audiences won’t laugh at for hamming at heroics (which the Fairbanks’ both Senior and Junior sometimes indulged). I meant this as Part Two of the Flynn splurge over Matzen and Mazzone’s book, but am glad now to have been delayed as here we are at the centennial and I’d hate to have let it go by unheralded. Besides, I’m of an opinion that Errol’s quietly become one of the most popular vintage names still running (often on TCM and in multiple DVD sets). Will demand ever abate for swords and fast horses and charges into valleys of likely death? Action Flynn was a beautifully choreographed instrument. Never mind his own graceful athleticism. Technicians then just knew (so much better) how to stage fast moves. I recently watched the massacre finish of They Died With Their Boots On and there’s three succeeding pairs of cavalrymen and indians fighting to respective deaths minus a single cut. I’m so tired of being faked out by present-day "action" that’s nothing but an inky blur. They’ll argue youth’s preference for faster cutting, but as with cheater musicals side-stepping steps, methinks we're being played for chumps and getting mere suggestions of movement rather than the thing itself. The Bournes and Batmen and even Bond are giving us short change. If I can’t tell what’s going on, then how’s to know it’s anything at all? With the likes of Flynn, you had a sense of participation gone now with keyboards same as one I’m using merely simulating what his generation did for real and often at personal peril.

Flynn was of a restless breed that might have better stayed in Tasmanian wilds. His was jungle instinct brought to bear on an industry ruthless in its way, but no match for an authentic soldier of fortune who’d run slaves and was said to have killed a man back when. Errol sported a cracked moral compass and nary a governor on behavior recognizing no authority. Sans dependents he’d acknowledge as such, there was always possibility of Flynn packing his kit and blowing movies altogether. Chains other actors wrapped themselves in would not contain him. If power in negotiation is willingness to walk away, Flynn had that in abundance. He was like Garbo for unilateral moves indifferent to consequence. Once he split town during a shoot to horn in on Spain’s Civil War. None of his business, of course. Errol probably likened it to diamond smuggling, pearl diving or such enterprise that occupied the larger part of his experience up to then. It’s for sure he wasn’t stupid or even that reckless on approaching a real abyss, for he liked big Hollywood money and would always come back for more of that. To Flynn, living large was the entire goal, and no company man achieves that whatever the riches and fame one’s master bestows. Other players said that if Flynn tried harder, he might be a fine actor. I’d say the opposite was true, for sustained effort was anathema to a free spirit that performed best when studying least. I’d guess Errol judged for himself beginner steps of initial effort as Captain Blood, for he’s remarkably improved in the next, Charge Of The Light Brigade, from which location I’ve read no account of anyone giving him thesping lessons. It was just a matter of sharpening instincts already in play.

For one who could seemingly reach up and touch the masthead, Flynn was surprisingly fragile. He was a walking (sometimes-falling) glossary of tropical diseases. TB and recurrent malaria accompanied overnight stardom. There was also a heart attack, presumably mild enough to allow his remaining in the saddle. That last part was what snickering was about after Errol barely squeaked out of his rape charge. In Like Flynn expressed slangster’s belief that every woman rolled over for Warner’s swordsman extraordinaire, but Errol was too indiscreet to score so mightily as actors who knew better how to keep mouths shut. Reputations might be ruined just talking with him. Women in Flynn’s company were likelier to attempt shakedowns or drag him into court. Companies seeking family business found him awkward selling, these including studios, theatres, magazines --- just about every entrail of then mass media and all dependent upon appeal to conservative values. Warners would like to have traded higher on Bad Boy Errol, but had to be cautious of Code limits and those who’d accuse them of endorsing his dissolute ways, thus even as Don Juan he was chaste and misunderstood. Theater ads (like this one for Never Say Goodbye) might refer to Flynn Aflame Again --- In Trouble Again!, but his image as seducer was quicksand and anyway was never essential to the knight’s image. The loss of that was what cut deepest, for after his acquittal, we’d never think again of Flynn as champion of any noble cause. Dodge City and Santa Fe Trail had been mission westerns with appointed leader EF quelling threats to order. San Antonio twisted that to parody and Silver River was plain grim. Partly it was changing times and natural fatigue over Flynn as continuing uncomplicated hero, but he was damaged goods just the same, a status revealed in ravaged appearance if not in roles he’d now play.

It’s modern viewers who benefit most from Errol’s collapse of nobility. Personal crack-ups and ongoing disintegration broke his career into multiple chapters with much to enjoy in each. Beginner fans like Adventures Of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, and others representing the peak, but seasoned followers caught up in the actor’s bobsled ride are as beguiled with ones he did later. I confess a liking to Silver River, Mara Maru, The Master Of Ballantrae, and others that mirrored Flynn’s growing ambivalence toward straightforward derring-do that had got him by during pre-war (that is, the one waged in court). He’s older, tired, sometimes belligerent. Flynn on and off screen merged by the late forties. He drank more and barely finished assignments. Silver River overflowed its banks to a negative cost of $3.2 million, though it and Escape Me Never were among very few WB Flynns to lose money. They would probably have kept him right through the fifties for profits even declining vehicles brought. The Master Of Ballantrae (last on the star’s contract) showed a million dollar gain. Lost years that followed are represented mostly by films no one’s seen in forever. Some are passed into legend and you begin to wonder if they were actually made. One such is Hello God, which negative was snatched and hidden and said to have turned up at Euro festivals barely attended. The aborted William Tell rests in a vault at Boston University, its donor restriction (Roddy McDowall!) prohibiting exhibition. Whatever rights remain in that and Crossed Swords reside with last wife Patrice Wymore, and who could blame her not wanting to be bothered? Flynn did television his diehard fans have spent years tracing. Sometimes bizarre fragments wash up. One friend sent a hush-hush DVD of Without Incident, a Playhouse 90 from 1957 that was the actor’s final western role. It talked and dragged for a nowhere ninety minutes and put to rest what I’d heard about that Golden Age of Television. Game and talk shows used Flynn for his ability to form sentences (not like stars today) and knowledge on arcane subjects where he played guest "expert." One of his interests was Cuba and its coming revolution. A nation close to his heart for its cockfights and contraband, Errol donned a Cuban flag for a sitdown with Jack Parr (does this footage still exist?). The fade came just after clowning on The Red Skelton Show, of which only a few seconds’ clip has surfaced. Many of us would love seeing the entire episode. A couple of fans approached Red late in that comedian’s life, but what were chances he’d move rakes and lawn mowers to find it? All that’s available for so much of Flynn’s latter output is stills like ones shown here. What's to motivate anyone to locate the rest of it?
Man of a Thousand Portraits --- Here's one in color.
Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland do publicity for Captain Blood
Shooting Another Dawn with Kay Francis
With director and on-set nemesis Michael Curtiz
Theatre Ad for Never Say Goodbye
With Julie London and Ann Sheridan in Without Incident
Partying with Clint Walker and others --- Errol was arrested later that night as a "plain drunk"
Errol explains the Cuban situation to Jack Parr
With Patricia Barry in 1959's The Golden Shanty for TV
Making the Bongo scene on the Skelton show with teen girlfriend Beverly Aadland

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Digging The Library

MovieMan0283 of The Dancing Image invited me to participate in a selection of movie books that made lasting impressions. To avoid burdening readers with hundreds of picks, I’m limiting myself to a bunch from formative years when the following got read a lot more than books my teachers issued in schoolrooms …

There were years when movies weren’t important enough for there to be much written about them. You’d go into stores during the mid-sixties and find next to nothing on the subject. There certainly wasn’t a shelf devoted to entertainment categories. Maybe that was symptomatic of living in North Carolina. Our closest bookstores were a couple in Winston-Salem where stationary and gifts commanded equal space and lady clerks all but sneered if you asked after film related stuff. There’d be one copy of whatever they did have and experience taught me it probably wouldn’t be there for our next trip down. Urgency thus attached to getting ones I wanted, being a now or never proposition with the never part referring to my always lack of funds (how often would you have six or eight dollars in your pocket at age 12?). Books cost real money as opposed to four bits you’d spend on Famous Monsters or less for comic books. What follows are some I managed and treasure most to this day. A few earned service stripes for being cut up and bent over years of supplying images at basement and campus shows. Despite acquiring cleaner copies later, I cling to these wrecked survivors and figure someday we’ll retreat together to whatever home for the aged awaits us.

THE MOVIES by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer: This was my first, originally published in 1957, but remaindered and republished by others in near-perpetuity since. I’ve just now flipped open my copy and there’s an account of John Gilbert and His White Voice. There’s also a story in pictures from The Public Enemy along with many others I longed to see from looking at this book’s fabulous images. Sometimes The Movies went to school with me. Once we put on eighth grade assembly and used it to organize a skit about the silent era. Griffith and Mayer’s is still a great basic primer and there’s nothing since better illustrated.

CLASSICS OF THE SILENT SCREEN by Joe Franklin (but really Bill Everson): When I met Bill in 1976 (like meeting a star!), he revealed authorship of this book which I’d suspected was his based on unmistakably Eversonian wit and erudition throughout. I carried it down to Wake Forest the night they showed Sherlock Jr. with The Barber Shop and Double Whoopee in 1968 (Bill had chosen Sherlock as one of fifty great silents). Both the book and that evening spun me toward collecting 8mm other than Castle monsters.
AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM by Carlos Clarens: This is most everybody’s choice that grew up when I did. That $6.95 tag was a killer though. I promised to mow grass into adulthood if only my mother would get it for me. Bless her heart, she did. It was hard to believe someone had written a serious book on horror movies. There was also a photo of Lionel Atwill unmasked in Mystery Of The Wax Museum, and Clarens’appreciation of Val Lewton would turn my ignition on whatever of his films I could locate around local TV.

SON OF FAMOUS MONSTERS Compiled by Forrest J Ackerman: Just reprints from old FM’s, but ones I’d missed, so it was all fresh, and what a novelty to have my favorite mag in pocket format. This came out when kids were really goofy over monsters and would buy anything Warren published. For some reason I tore the back cover off mine, but that’s OK because I doubt if it’s so much a collector’s item today.

MONSTERS, MAIDENS, AND MAYHEM by Brad Steiger: A probably cynical cashing in on the mid-sixties craze, but Merit Books got my sixty cents, and based on well-worn binding, I must have perused it plenty. Not bad text as it currently reads, and such an obscure book as to have turned up seldom since. I wonder how much distribution it had back in 1965.

THE PARADE’S GONE BY by Kevin Brownlow: A new generation of silent film enthusiasts was born when this was published in 1968. Sounds weird I know, but the smell of its pages intoxicates me still. Silent era imagery never looked so good as when published against these black backgrounded pages. Greenbriar’s own format was/is inspired by Brownlow’s magical layouts. So expensive (at $13.95) I had to wait till Christmas that year to get it.

THE REAL TINSEL by Bernard Rosenberg and Harry Silverstein: This was sort of a road company The Parade’s Gone By, with its authors profiling folks who’d seldom if ever been approached by historians and sitting for what were in many cases a final interview. Sol Lesser, Adolph Zukor, Gil Perkins, Douglas Shearer, Max Steiner and many more are here. A great collection I’ve gone back and enjoyed often.

THE FILMS OF LAUREL AND HARDY by William K. Everson: I could have done this list quicker including ten of Bill’s books, as each were growing up companions and remain all-time favorites, but this one I’ll single out for having accompanied my every Saturday morning of L&H watching on distant channels sometimes barely receivable. Everson was also my guide for Blackhawk 8mm purchases.

KEATON by Rudi Blesh: Buster’s career ups and downs as told to Blesh and endorsed by Keaton shortly before his death. I nearly got hit by a car at a Winston-Salem crosswalk in 1968 thanks to distraction reading this just acquired book from Hinkle’s (a store long since shuttered).

THE SILENT CLOWNS by Walter Kerr: The classic comedians volume that got it all together arrived in 1975. Mighty prestigious having a critic of Walter Kerr’s stature addressing himself to slapstick matters, and presentation was appropriately lavish. Kerr’s judgments have been questioned since, but this is still a mightily impressive work filled with wondrous insights.

THE COMPLETE WEDDING MARCH OF ERICH VON STROHEIM by Herman G. Weinberg: This author was brilliant and a hound for Von Stroheim besides. He reconstructed this and Greed in a couple of massive tomes that must have piled up unsold by scores in warehouses later. My Wedding March cost $2.99 at a Walden Books bargain table back in 1977. I should have grabbed all fifteen copies they tossed there. Chock full of photo leavings from yet another mutilated EvS epic, and entirely worthy of its subject.

THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE by Various Authors: The AFI published this in 1972 to show off projects done since formation. I learned much from its panel of experts and was and am still dazzled by the variety of topics and titles. Still worth searching out.

REDISCOVERING THE AMERICAN CINEMA from Films, Inc.: The first rental catalogue I recall to lend major academic cache to Hollywood oldies. Contributors here made many a silk purse out of varied pig’s ears. Still fun to read and a valuable record of a turning point in recognition for studio output too long neglected. I sought rental catalogues during the seventies like bubble gum cards, and this was by far my favorite.

WHATEVER BECAME OF …? By Richard Lamparski: The author’s Brownie shot photos of long retired stars were often fuzzy and not a little creepy, but who else then was looking up these old-timers? There were scads of books in this series. I’m probably still missing several, but ones I have remain hypnotic. Lamparski should write a new (very thick) update about what these people were really like. Bet there’d be eye-opening stuff there.

KINGS OF THE "B’s" by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn: So loaded with great stuff as to keep one reading for days. Filled with interviews I wish were twice as long. I’m liable to put aside this post and luxuriate in it the rest of tonight. Sam Arkoff, Steve Broidy, and Edgar Ulmer speak! This book is still as much a must as ever it was. Find one and be enraptured.

MOTHER GODDAMN by Whitney Stine with Bette Davis: Was this the first time a major star teamed with a historian to review an entire career in films? I ate this up in 1974. Davis lays everything on the line and suffers no fools who crossed her path. Seriously great history and amazing ongoing commentary here. Why couldn’t other legends have done this? (answer --- they didn’t have her nerve).

THEY WENT THATAWAY by James Horwitz: A sort of hipster front-row kid takes a sometimes-jaded walk down memory lane in search of past cowboy heroes. Then and now I found his attitude fresh and way off beaten paths of mindless nostalgia wallowing. Like a latter-day Lamparski, I’ve often wondered whatever happened to James Horwitz.

THE FILMING OF THE WEST by Jon Tuska: Boy, this Tuska spelled out truths and blew glamour dust off western legends, but this hard-hitter told it like it was, and I’d have my reading on the topic no other way. I used to subscribe to Tuska’s Views and Reviews magazine back in high school. Remember when he hosted that Educational Television series about classic cowboys? I hear all but one episode are lost now. The Filming Of The West is a bottomless well of great info.

DAYS OF THRILLS AND ADVENTURE by Alan Barbour: This author rhapsodized about his good old days the way we do online about ours, only Barbour’s were in the thirties and forties, and boy, do I envy him those. Really nice, straight-down-the-line nostalgia stuff, but he vividly painted what it was like camping out in theatres when Saturdays were another name for paradise.

VALLEY OF THE CLIFFHANGERS by Jack Mathis: I’d bring this one up the hall to review, but it’s too heavy. Way beyond belief cowhide-bound monster of a book about Republic serials. Copies list for a grand now (but does anyone actually pay that much?). I found mine at a cowboy show and the guy only wanted sixty bucks. They just about had to carry me out to my horse.

DAVID O. SELZNICK’S HOLLYWOOD by Ronald Haver: This is another one that leaves creases on my lap. Amazing still reproduction, many in color, and outstanding text. Haver wrote about how he knocked on Selznick’s front door once and asked for a job. I admire that kind of brass. One of the best movie books ever conceived.

THOSE LITTLE PYRAMID PAPERBACKS: I started coming across these for a quarter at funky gift shops in the mall (retail was $1.75). Some are better than others (different authors), but the best of them are still valuable accounts of great star careers. There were several dozen --- plus some I probably still don’t know about. Bill Everson wrote a great entry about Claudette Colbert.

TEX AVERY: KING OF CARTOONS by Joe Adamson: A pioneering 1975 account of Avery’s career with a lengthy interview. There’s also a ratings system for each cartoon that I used in making my selections of bootlegged prints back in the seventies. Great book and eternal thanks to writers like Adamson for getting to and celebrating these great animators while they were still with us.

Obviously I’ve gone on too long with this post, and the above is only a fraction of the books I wanted to recognize. The good thing is you can still get most of them on Amazon Marketplace and from used booksellers who list there. Most are actually cheaper than they used to be. I looked up several and was surprised to find almost all of them available at very reasonable prices. Online purchasing is a modern miracle!

Monday, June 15, 2009

I Want Leonore Lemmon To Have Done It

In a few hours, it will have been fifty years. I don’t recall George Reeves’ death from age five for frankly preferring the Mouseketeers and being resentful upon occasions when my brother switched over from them to The Adventures Of Superman. Others can tell you where they were and describe impact to psyches approached by no happening since. For my present immersion in all things related to that mystery shrouded event, you’d think I was among those hit hard on June 16, 1959, but having known several (lifelong) fans who were, maybe there’s cause for thanks at having been spared the blow. Something about a Perry Mason episode Ann and I watched last night brought the whole thing to at least a moment’s clarity, even as I struggled to view the twenty-five inch TV set we’d set up in a retro den at my parent’s former house we’re fixing up. Remember when consoles looked really big? I don’t think ones that size were available back when George was doing the series. It was a shock to realize I’d need glasses to watch it now. Perry Mason harks from an era when death, crime, and investigation of same were low-tech in the extreme. There’s a relaxed tempo to bodies being discovered and suspects fingered. As we watched, I imagined Lieutenant Tragg being called in on the Reeves matter. He’d putter about, glance at a shell casing, and maybe flirt momentarily with Leonore Lemmon. Anyway, the whole thing would be put to rest by daybreak of the 16th (if only Perry had intervened and cleared things up!). I’ve wondered if alcohol’s involvement made George’s death less consequential to authorities. That plus the fact he was a sub-level celebrity off a cancelled series living in a modest house. He just wouldn’t have mattered as much in 1959. TV’s Superman Kills Self on the front page did indeed sum up adult bemusement, if not indifference, over a costumed oddity watched on tiny screens in black-and-white by kids at risk of trying to emulate flying stunts off home garages. Could grown-ups have imagined the exhaustive investigations eventually to be made by those just lately born when it happened?

June 1959 headlines had cruel thorns. Here’s your hero, they said to kids. No wonder it hurt so much. Reeves’ off-screen image was just too pristine for such a thing to make sense. Nothing published so far had blighted him. That might be another way of saying no one paid much attention, and maybe if they had, we’d have known more of George’s frisky ways with Eddie Mannix’s wife and party girl Leonore. As it happened, his apparent suicide was a first and therefore all the more shattering disillusionment for Superman’s followers. No one saw this tragedy coming. What we’ve learned since make events of that night play like locomotives rushing toward collision. George did keep volatile company. Plus there were guns in the house. Mix that with copious liquor and 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive was a powderkeg just poised to detonate. I have an impression (from movies and star bios?) that people drank more in the fifties. That’s the dark side of a decade otherwise preferable to now. Men seemed always to be wearing jackets and ties and kept handkerchiefs in pockets. I’m figuring George did for that last outing to the Brown Derby with Leonore. But for saucing and arguing into harm’s way with her, he might still be here, or at the least more recently deceased, but there’s a feeling of inevitability about this man’s early death. Bullet holes in floors at the house and some family history of suicides speak to that. Much as I hate admitting it, the Beverly Hills Police look to have got things (mostly) right. Just the same, I’ll continue pinning it on Leonore. She was the kind capable of shooting a man, or at the least waving a gun for his failure to come through with an engagement ring. I see her pulling George’s Luger out of its drawer and drunkenly pointing. He grabs it and Pow. That’ll remain Greenbriar’s public stance until someone proves otherwise.

How many remember seeing The Adventures Of Superman when it first showed up on TV in color? It was 1965 down here. Neighbors (several) had sets and one afternoon left me stunned for discovering Channel 12 in Winston-Salem running the venerable series with deep, stunning multi-hues. Yes, color did look richer then. Ann told me that a child’s senses register such things more vividly. Our perception actually dulls as we get older. I hate hearing that, of course, as it bodes not well for the future (my 16mm dupe of The Adventures Of Robin Hood looked like a blast off rainbows in 1974 --- would it seem so today?). The Superman episode had Perry White encountering a literal Great Caesar’s Ghost. It was one of those you’d not watch but for color (heck, I’d not give a row of beans for the series itself if not for George Reeves). Jan Alan Henderson in American Cinematographer says these were shot in Cinecolor. Their palette is limited, but what’s there is intense (seen Invaders From Mars?). 16mm prints of Adventures Of Superman from the sixties were indeed startling (all the more so when you could find one --- most have by now turned Eastman red). Reeves’ suit jumped off my screen when I ran a few in college. I wonder if actual Cinecolor prints exist. That would really be something to see.

They’ve always paid off as much for luck as merit in Hollywood. How else do you explain George Reeves not becoming a big feature star? Here are stills from movies where he appeared (sometimes fleetingly). You glimpse George in any of these and wish leading men would cede center ring to him. There’s the real Reeves curse, and we get the brunt of it each time he comes and goes too soon in somebody else’s picture. There was a glimpse in 1956 of a future that might have been. Westward Ho The Wagons! had Reeves billed down the line below Fess Parker and character actors trekking westward in Cinemascope and Technicolor (and undistinguished as it is, Westward should be available on DVD). To my notion, George was the surer promise of leading men at Disney, not well intentioned but dull Fess Parker. I’d submit that had he lived, Reeves would have covered most if not all of Brian Keith’s (for instance) starring roles at that company. Age lent George greater authority. He’d have been ideal in Richard Egan’s Pollyanna role opposite Jane Wyman. Reeves in A Tiger Walks and Those Calloways would have at the least made them better pictures if not memorable ones. Long-running vid series during that 60’s flush when programming was so ideally suited to action heroes doubling as father figures would seem a natural had Reeves lived. An Irwin Allen project might actually have justified itself with George starring. Of all the actors to die prematurely, he’s the one I think would have shined brightest had destiny given him another decade to work. It’s pointless now to contemplate that, but today of all days permits such indulgence, and it’s a cinch I’m not alone in wondering how things might have turned out had 6/15/59 played out differently. Likely as not The Adventures Continue will address this and other matters relative to the anniversary and have many insightful things to say about it. They are the Web’s premiere Tribute to George Reeves and The Cast and Crew of the Adventures Of Superman and continually up with something fascinating on the subject (there’s also a really neat message board). By all means go there on this 50th and see what they’ve got cooking!
Here's that photo of George with Superman and The Mole Men producers Robert Maxwell and Bernard Luber that ran briefly as a Greenbriar banner several weeks back.
Look at us, George, not her! Reeves with Fred Crane and Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind.
Reeves in real-life uniform during World War Two.
The lost Leonore in her prime and long afterward.
George seated while bigger names stand in Blood and Sand.
A local TV ad for the syndicated Adventures Of Superman.
There's a wall between Reeves and stardom in The Strawberry Blonde.
George in character as Merle Oberon's boyfriend in Lydia.
Cowboy sidekick to Hopalong Cassidy at United Artists.
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