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Friday, June 05, 2009


COMEDY UPDATES: A pair of recent events worth noting. Richard M. Roberts has alerted me that his Silent Comedy Mafia news and discussion site is now up and running. This is good news for everyone immersed in classic laugh-getters often revisited here at Greenbriar and very much the province of Mafia members who can and do teach us plenty at this very informative address. Already there’s lots of fascinating posts, with more added by the hour. Participants have shared rare images I’ve not seen elsewhere and topics so far include Sacred Cows --- What subjects were considered hands-off among silent comedians? There’s also an essay on Vitagraph shorts by Steve Massa that’s an expert last word on the subject, plus excerpts from a forthcoming biography of Glenn Tryon. I get stuck like molasses every time I go there, and the joint’s only been open five days! They’re inviting everyone who loves vintage comedy to join in.

There’s a petition afoot to get Charley Chase Columbia shorts out on DVD. A lot of you know about this and have undoubtedly signed on, but for those who haven’t heard, word is that transfers have been made and discs are essentially ready to manufacture but for Sony’s reticence, perhaps over the economic downturn and/or concern as to limited interest in Chase. Actual DVD release hangs somewhat in the balance. Will online signatories help stiffen corporate resolve? If so, we need to go HERE post-haste and cast a vote for Charley. Word is they’ll listen and respond if fans make voices heard. I’ve waited years to see these shorts. Some of them have been unavailable since original release in the late thirties. Remember Sony’s terrific Buster Keaton Columbia set? I’m anxious to go there again, this time with Charley. Best place for updates on the petition is the fantastic World Of Charley Chase website. They’ll link you to the polling place and share lots of neat Chase lore as well.

A STAR TO BE REBORN?: I went and did it again this week … looked at forty minutes of 1954's A Star Is Born, then switched off. The dancing stills intrusion at that point remain a vexation for me. Ronald Haver installed them twenty-five years ago and they've hobbled the official version since. If all of A Star Is Born equalled its first act, we’d have a musical to beat them all. As it is, I’m with those who say it’s too long and Lord help us if they’ve indeed secured the missing footage. There are collectors allegedly in possession of complete prints. Maybe they were exhibitors who complained loudly when WB called its three hours in, diced circulating copies, then cut the negative. Letters to trades in 1954 encouraged availability of alternate versions, but Warners said nix. I’m not surprised a few were liberated from depots. Rumors abound that one or more of these will enable a long-awaited restoration and allow us to see as well as hear all those scenes Haver recreated with photos and a surviving track. I’ll be ready for the long trek if that’s the case. Will James Mason seem less miscast at 181 minutes? I can’t buy his Norman Maine as a romantic screen favorite on the wane, for Mason himself never pretended to that. Wonderful as this actor was, he seemed more a character star and not the sort that premiere audiences, such as one that opens A Star Is Born, would swoon over (although I’m aware that women were mightily attracted to career-making scoundrels he’d essayed in the UK). If alternate reality permitted reopening nominations for Norman Maine, I’d suggest Errol Flynn … too far gone by 1954 maybe, but imagine what he’d have done with this role given strong direction and the application of a little personal discipline. Flynn would have at least made a charming and therefore more sympathetic drunk. Mason is mean and surly and manhandles Garland too much of the time. To be so quick with his hands, and fists, you wonder why Esther would ever have been lured by such a hair trigger. I was afraid from their first meeting and thereafter that he’d beat her up. Mason might have benefited here from being less the serious actor and more a matinee idol closer aligned with Norman Maine, and Errol Flynn.

My favorite thing about A Star Is Born is sheer heft of what must have been a revolutionary sound experience for first-run audiences. Haver wrote about that in his excellent book. Music and dialogue just throbs in this picture. They’d say its directional stereo is primitive today, but that’s how I like early Cinemascope best, and A Star Is Born really gives you a sensation of being there when it blew doors off remaining palaces big enough to dazzle thousands (like the Chicago Theatre of the ad shown here, which seated 3500 and was the film’s host in that city). Imperfections of early scope are endearing to me. I like faces broadening out, then closing in as subjects move toward a frame’s outer edges. Judy Garland takes licks for a camera that caresses, then abuses, her features. Haver says it was a chaotic production for technical snafus and uncertainty over color and a wide screen. Director George Cukor shows mastery with initial scenes backstage at Grauman’s Chinese and makes Cinemascope his own throughout, but letting Judy go too blubbery later on (in a grueling confessional with Charles Bickford) or indulging her cutes with a frozen-smiled Mason (she dons lampshades and such) make hours seem longer. Still, the best of A Star Is Born is nirvana itself, and I’ll gladly pull necessary time for any opportunity to see it truly restored. Might that be in a year or so's offing?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks John for your part in spreading the important word about the petition for the DVD release of the Columbia Charley Chase shorts. For several days now I have also been sending the link to the petition to many friends who may not see it otherwise.
I encourage everyone to please sign this petition! We really can make this happen if enough people convince Sony/Columbia that we do want the shorts released and will purchase the DVD's. I also suggest that anyone signing leave a comment that they plan to purchase extra copies as gifts. If the promise of the sale of the DVD's is what they want to see, let's show them our loyalty to the great Charley Chase!

One question for anyone who has already signed: does anyone know why the comments that some of us have left are not showing up on the listing of signatures on the petition that can be viewed (by clicking on "signatures" at the top of the petition page)? I left a comment, and other friends I have checked with also have, but our comments are not there. I hope they are still visible to Sony/Columbia when they receive the final listing of names & comments at the end of June.

--- Richard Finegan

11:29 PM  
Blogger JAMES said...

re: A STAR IS BORN. Whenever I think of that film I first picture the "Born in a Trunk" spectacular.
Nothing like it in any other picture. Yes, I can sing the damn thing from one end to the other in the shower. I can't think of any picture in which I can say I enjoyed James Mason. He always made me feel uncomfortable. I don't like that. I always thought that the role would have been a good challenge for Cary Grant. The role needs sympathy from the audience at times and I believe he he could have managed that. Clark
Gable could have done it. However, at the time, I suppose neither actor would have felt such a role would help their careers. They might have been able to wrangle a nomination for it. You mentioned Judy's "silly" number. I felt it was fun and necessary. Haven't you ever done something "silly" in an attempt to get a loved one out of the "dumps"? I have. And I am
sure it was "silly" as it was meant to be just that. It was a perfect touch for that point in the film, which was becoming a bit too serious for the audience as well. Loved it. Now I am going to get it out of my library, make sure all my stereo speakers are working so as to not miss the Heindorf / Warner Bros unique musical sound. James

5:15 PM  
Anonymous Griff said...

I appreciate what you mean about Flynn as better casting for the matinee idol aspect of Norman Maine, but Mason really excels in the part -- makes it his own -- in a certain way.

I'm thinking specifically of the scene immediately following Garland's peerless rendition of "The Man that Got Away" with the band. This is a dramatic and musical high point of the movie; you'd think nothing could come on its heels, the picture should fade out and pick up some time the next day. But Mason's Norman Maine has been watching the number intently -- as closely as we have -- and he is on fire, and he's got something he has to say to Garland's Esther Blodgett.

Mason grips the screen here as firmly as Garland had while performing the great Arlen/Gershwin tune. He more-or-less drags her through the nightclub's kitchen and out the back door, talking determinedly if abstractly of great fighters, hooking swordfish, jabs of pleasure and "that little something extra that Ellen Terry talked about... star quality." He's trying to tell Esther that he likes the way she sings, that she's special -- that she's got it. We already know this, of course, we've been watching her (and besides, she's played by Judy Garland), but Esther doesn't know this. Esther is suspicious, confused by the sudden attention, put off by the erudite Moss Hart dialogue... but she can't not listen to Norman Maine. Her life begins to change forever the moment he begins to speak.

I can't think that of another actor who could pulled this scene off in such a transcendent way. [Fredric March is all right in the '37 picture, but he doesn't do anything like this.] His enthusiasm for Esther's talent -- for Garland's talent, for that matter -- is palpable, infectious; everything he says, and the excited, almost inarticulate manner in which he says it is, well, perfect.

6:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I don't disagree with what you say, Griff, but it still bothers me the way he keeps manhandling her during those early sequences. And James, I too think Cary Grant would have been ideal for this, although I'm not sure he could have clicked with Garland.

8:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boy oh boy, do I agree with you about A Star is Born. Everything until Garland leaves Tommy Noonan's room--until the stills kick in--is fantastic. After that, rough going, stills or no. Personally, I'd cut Born in a Trunk in its entirety. One of these days--as soon as I get some more hard drive space--I'm going to do a Phantom Edit of ASIB and get it back to the general-release version with a few additional trims. Then I'm going to do Breakfast at Tiffany's with Mickey Rooney edited out.

But has there been some specific news about ASIB elements recently?

9:28 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I remember you could get a few of those Colombia Charley Chase's in super 8mm sound along with some of the Keatons.I never got any and don't think I ever saw one,'cept for one of the Keatons.
I like the Idea of Flynn as Norman Maine more and more..years earlier John Barrymore might have been appropriate...Judy really breaks my heart when I see this film ..can't help thinking how close she is to being the real Norman Maine..

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Charley Chase

Yes, the Columbia shorts were very good, but the HAL ROACH Charley Chases were wonderful--let's go after Hallmark, or whoever owns those, too!

EC Toledo

10:41 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

yeah..I had several of the Roach-Chase's on well as the Todd-Pitts,Todd-Kelly's..which I'd like to see released..and The Boyfriends series which i've never seen...

4:30 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...


I agree with you about the stereo-sound of the early 'Scope features. It was (and still IS) wonderful. Heck, it was THEATRICAL!! "Back in the day" of the early 'Scope films (at least the ones that Fox did) the sound was actually recorded directionally (at least the dialogue tracks were. The music and effects were a different matter; although basically the same for the 3-channel stereo effect.) using a boom with three mikes on it. I've actually seen photographs of this sound-boom in behind-the-scenes shots from "The River Of No Return." This must've driven the soundman NUTS, but the results speak for themselves on pictures such as "Garden of Evil" "The Robe" "The Egyptian" and "Demetrius And The Gladiators".....Fox was never much for surrounds though, and used them sparingly. But the theatricality and showmanship of the old Fox mag-stereo sound has never been beaten and today, of course, the sound in films is SO cockeyed LOUD that you come out of the theater with a MASSIVE headache. I'm certainly glad that the DVD's of (most) of these wonderful old stereo films are being released in their proper stereo configurations (Left/Center/Right-with a mono surround)just as they were 50-plus years ago.

Keep up the great work!


5:12 PM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

I am making the rounds to remind everyone about the "Reading the Movies" exercise I started. I'm going to compile everyone's lists into one master list in a week or two, so jump in! The original post can be found here:


(I can imagine that your list in particular would be quite illuminating, given your extensive interest in cinema memorabilia and history. I hope you decided to participate.)

10:41 PM  
Anonymous sjack said...

I am noticing that TCM is now airing more Charley Chase shorts (no doubt due to its access to the Columbia Library). I am not a huge silent fan (especially comedy), but I have made an effort to watch his films now that they're being aired. He deserves the exposure and will probably get a lot of new fans.

I too agree with you about ASIB being a bit too long. But the scissors were used in the wrong places. The musical numbers could have been condensed (and a few eliminated entirely) to keep the storyline moving. The film did lose steam after a while. I hope that those rumors are correct and they do find the missing footage so that I can see the film as it was meant to be. But even with it, some of the musical numbers run way too long and really disrupt things. Still a great film.

The Errol Flynn casting idea is inspired; I never warmed to James Mason in that role, even though I like him as an actor. Flynn would have been much more appropriate. I've read a number of Garland biographies and none of them mention Flynn having been considered for the part. Cary Grant was offered the role of Norman Maine but turned it down. I am not sure if others were considered but I am certain that James Mason was not the first choice. So many "what if's" with this film.

BTW it was very nice meeting you at the Comfest.

3:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes, sjack, it was great meeting you at Cinevent. One question: Have you actually seen Charley Chase Columbia shorts on TCM? The ones I've watched have all been Roach titles.

James, I love directional dialogue in early Scope features. It's one of the prime joys of watching them.

Movie Man 0283, you have a great site and I've really enjoyed your book project. Compiling my own list is something I'll think about ... would other readers like to see Greenbriar visit that subject?

8:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


TCM is not running any Charley Chase Columbia shorts, or any other Columbia shorts. They have access to lots of Columbia features, and to Roach shorts, but not (at this time) Columbia shorts.

Hopefully in the future...

9:29 PM  
Anonymous David said...

George Cukor himself didn't want the "Born in a Trunk" number in the picture. The script called for a musical number at that point, but Cukor thought "Trunk" was much too long. Jack Warner wanted it in, though, because he was concerned that the movie didn't have enough music in it to please audiences who would show up expecting to hear Garland singing in a more conventional musical.

10:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cringed when the recent PBS doc. on Garland attributed the cutting of STAR IS BORN to "the intrinsic greed of Hollywood".Can't they even keep their socialist twaddle out of a Judy Garland bio? Surely it would have been more accurate to criticize the exhibitors, whose theaters the studios no longer owned.

4:32 PM  

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