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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gray Market DVD --- Le Roi des Champs-Elysees

Discredited as he was in Hollywood by 1934, there was still enough residual fame in Buster Keaton’s name to interest producers outside industry mainstreams. Europe was mad for our sight-gagging comedians and spent more to look at them than domestic audiences. Chaplin’s foreign revenues were often leagues ahead of what he realized stateside, and Keaton was revered by French audiences whatever the reduced circumstances he’d come to on US shores. Euro producers came calling after dismissal from MGM left Buster unemployed but for a season of low-budget shorts at Educational. American majors might shun him, but starring feature work was but an ocean away (above is Buster shipboard with second wife Mae). Le Roi des Champs-Elysees was for Nero Films in France. It never had a United States release. There is no English language or dubbed version. William K. Everson used to run Le Roi on 16mm for his class and occasionally loaned the print to film cons. My seeing it was on one of those rare occasions. Le Roi is a must for Keaton purists. His voice is substituted by an inexpressive double, but there is so little dialogue as to make the switch unimportant. Buster was experienced with at least phonetic readings of varied tongues in Metro foreign versions he had done previously, so the comedian likely took a whirl at speaking French for Le Roi (lip readers say yes to that). Maybe producers decided as after-thought not to use his tracks, which is too bad because it would have enhanced the finished product. Le Roi floats among fans on DVD-R and each of them roll dice (or a ten-dollar bill) hoping copies scored off E-Bay or dealer tables will be watchable. The one I found turned out to be unusually nice, with overture and exit music (!). The feature runs not much over an hour. Buster performs routines traceable back to his silent shorts. He’s bound to have given plenty in a creative capacity, for much of the humor is unmistakably Keaton’s own. There is plenty of street shooting as well with pedestrians reacting to a prominent American clown in their midst. I'd like to think Buster was accorded respect by Le Roi's French producers, as Von Stroheim would be when he traveled there to do Grande Illusion. Keaton looks healthy and from all appearance seems to have bucked up from the Metro descent. Perhaps he was energized by co-workers who recognized his genius long before we would. I’d say Le Roi surpasses then-recent Keaton features just for being his vehicle and not one to be shared with Jimmy Durante or other MGM comics (Polly Moran, Cliff Edwards). It was made for a price, but does not look so cheap as Educational shorts coming before and after. Effort and energy is clearly put forth here, by Buster plus those behind and in front of the camera. There is a music score throughout that really helps, and a nice payoff to what is actually a well-constructed little story. For lack of Hollywood polish, Le Roi is a bit raggedy at times, but it is no disgrace to Keaton, and he acquits himself nicely throughout. Too bad a US release was not forthcoming. Paramount seems to have handled it in at least some foreign territories, and doubtless considered distribution for here. Being they'd pass on Harold Lloyd’s The Cat’s Paw the same year, I guess the studio figured visual comedy was, at least for 1934, a dead issue.

Friday, August 28, 2009

When Noir Hurts

Of all film noir, Where Danger Lives delivers the sharpest kick in the head. Or should that be poker to the head? Either way, keep a Valtrex on hand for the migraine you’ll get watching. Never have I so felt an actor’s pain as when Robert Mitchum takes a blunt blow from cuckolded husband Claude Rains at the RKO thriller's first act crisis point. They’re fighting over sultry Faith Domergue. Bob clutches his presumably caved-in skull and goes the torturous rest of the picture half-comatose. My own head jangled for seeing Where Danger Lives the first time some years back. I took it out this week in hopes of time hardening me for a rematch (some movies are like tribulations we look to overcome). There’s such a thing as noir getting too uncomfortable. It’s tough staying with any film where your lead gets seriously injured and presses on despite it, especially with tormentors unrelenting, plus homicidal Domergue to impede. The posters said Mitchum In Action!, but for once that’s misleading, as he’s effectively sidelined early on and that’s harrowing for viewers looking to his character for a way out of the jam. Should there be a sub-genre called Handicap Noir? If so, Where Danger Lives is its very definition. I so wanted Mitchum to find an elixir, but as his intern character explains, this is a concussion and will only get worse (nice how the below lobby card captures it). A happy ending comes more unexpected here than in any noir I can recall. Were it not for that upbeat fade, Where Danger Lives would be well nigh unbearable for me.

RKO’s were the inkiest noirs, unseemly in fact beside creamy gray scales with which Metro and Paramount moistened their dark puzzles. Dreadful things always seem likelier to happen at RKO. Was it because Howard Hughes had taken charge, or did jailbird Mitchum increase our anxiety? Patrons walked a wilder side when buying tickets to Where Danger Lives and others like it. WDL is nasty, intense, and throws off vibes I don’t get from the competition’s noirs. Does that make RKO’s better? Some fans say yes. They often tread a narrow ridge between fun and bummer noir. Hughes laid paw prints on everything once he closed the buy. You could go bug-eyed reading print accounts of his kooky ways. Maybe that’s too whimsical a term, for Hughes to my impression seemed dangerous as sociopaths gumming up works for Mitchum and kindred noir folk. He was in fact a cobra not to be crossed (I’ve sometimes wondered if Hughes ever had a man killed). Actresses who claimed to have dodged his lure (and that’s just about every one in HH’s orbit) were for saving face and reputation before interviewers and autobio readers, but my guess is, if Hughes wanted you, he got you. That much money and power would have been hard to resist for anyone hoping to advance or preserve a career. Mitchum appreciated Hughes for standing by him in the marijuana bust. Both were lepers in a way after Bob got out of stir. Maybe that was license for Hughes to throw caution aside and make his kind of noirs (including the unforgettable His Kind Of Woman). Mitchum now drew customers tantalized by his convict persona and all the more believable casting as marginal types. It was like he was telling us, Sure, man, I’ve been in jail. Hasn’t everyone? Mitchum may have been the first star to make incarceration seem cool, but how long could he have maintained stardom on such a disreputable treadmill? Even Holiday Affair seems noirish for its drab and black-etched look (which is maybe in part why I like it so much). Mitchum’s rerouting into color and then wide vehicles didn’t come a moment too soon.

Mitchum wore the same gray suit like cowboys donned Stetsons. It was his look and a simple one that needed not change or variation. His noir characters seemed never defined by what they wore. Costume changes would probably have been an unwelcome distraction. Faith Domergue is the sole focal point in terms of dress. I imagine her being personally clad by Hughes to his very particular specifications. Here was one producer who shaped actresses not to expectations the public had, but to ones that were his alone. With money being Hughes’ to burn, what did it matter if audiences embraced his ideals of female presentation? Domergue is so carefully handled as to achieve at least a good seeming performance, sort of like singers to come being juiced up with stagecraft and audio enhancements. She seems more confused than wicked, but for all that, Domergue’s is ideal casting, especially as partner to Mitchum’s eternal dunce with regards wiles of women. Every decision he makes in Where Danger Lives is a wrong one. He’s like the coyote returning for another go at the Road Runner. You spend all the film wishing someone could smarten him up. Mitchum and Domergue lam it for Mexico after Bob thinks he’s killed Claude Rains. They turn on the radio and it’s always right when announcers report progress in manhunting them. John Farrow directs all this artfully and goes for remarkably long and unbroken takes. There’s drawn out tension in and around a getaway car that shows Farrow knew plenty about desperate straits and those plunged into them. I’ve read of the director’s own roustabout and uncertain background, that suggesting a man ideally suited to random happenstance of noir. Can film-schooled, experience-deprived modern pretenders ever hope to properly direct this kind of subject? If you like coffee table noir that meets every desire historians arouse, here is one made to order. Do the stills shown here entice? For me, they're aesthetic equals of the film itself. Its three-sheet (above) would hang nicely in any rec room hip to noir, reflecting well upon tastes of the owner. This one sold for $6,325 (not to me!). That’s buying a lot of cool. Are high-end collectors disappointed when they finally get around to seeing movies such stunning graphics represent? Where Danger Lives may have been a letdown for audiences zoning out on doom-laden crime thrillers, as Summer 1950 was a crowded marketplace for noir (Overall outlook is spotty, said Variety). WDL’s negative cost of $948,000 ended up overshooting anemic domestic rentals of $840,000, with scant relief of $450,000 foreign. The final loss was $450,000.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Unexpected Pleasures --- Colleen

The older I get, the more I’m enjoying harebrained movies. Last week, I watched Colleen twice. It was actually the first (and second) time for me. Colleen appeared till then to be a stale cookie off WB’s assembly cutter that I might have passed a lifetime not seeing, so Thank You to Warner Archives for including it among Dick Powell/Ruby Keeler value pics offered a month back. There are dance/song/farces so nitwitted as to achieve a state of grace. Colleen might have caught me in a receptive mood of the moment (though there was no alcohol involved), which was partly why I revisited a couple days later. Turns out I’m not entirely alone for liking Colleen, as Maltin’s review assigns three stars and calls it neglected. For all of comedy from the thirties that’s funny, there’s far more of it that isn’t. The ones that try hardest are generally the most trying. It’s fun just observing the mechanics of Warner musicals gone loonier than their own cartunes. Too many were being made for the company’s better talents to sustain. Novelty and inspiration gave way to noise and clowning minus pre-Code peppering that seasoned Busby Berkeley ones. Names you’d not hear of again were tried and discarded. Choreographers not so good as Berkeley (who could be?) gave of their not-quite-good-enough best. Bobby Connolly’s routines would look fine were it not for memories of Golddiggers Of 1933 and Footlight Parade. Colleen used pretty much all of Warner’s musical stock company. By release date of March 1936, they were street cleaning behind the elephant that was RKO’s Astaire/Rogers series (Colleen took $834,000 in domestic rentals to Swing Time’s $1.6 million). For maybe knowing they could never approach such levels of sophistication, the WB’s headed an opposite direction and gave in to mass-friendly zaniness.

Each performer sings his/her introduction over close-up credits, a likeable touch I wish had been applied oftener. Powell and Keeler’s fuel was running low by 1936. Colleen would be their last together. There was intense fan following for the two. Perhaps it had diminished, or could be ideas were all used up. Profits declined in any case. Co-star Joan Blondell was the one Powell married off-screen, despite a public’s having chosen Ruby for his bride. Blondell was still amused about that decades later when John Kobal interviewed her, saying that people took all that love stuff so literally. Filmgoers were emotionally invested in their favorite players, a response to movies that has clearly worn off since (just this weekend I read of bottoms falling out of contemporary star salaries). Colleen’s Ruby Keeler couldn’t sing worth a hoot and her footwork was joked about lo the years to come, but customers thought her personality sweet, and for a while, that was enough. Warners brought in a Broadway dancer named Paul Draper to maybe sprinkle Astaire/Rogers fairy dust on Burbank stages. He and Keeler teamed for tap extravaganzas that are highlights of Colleen, but anxiety over dialogue found him stepping on her lines during scenes played off polished floors. Well, what RKO rival didn’t want their own Astaire on payroll, but as with Berkeley, what were chances such talent could be duplicated, let alone manufactured? The comics were easier bets. Laughter was at least contagious in theatres seating thousands, and maybe if Warners told you enough times that Hugh Herbert’s funny, you’d eventually wear down and agree he was. That woo-woo man was force-fed upon countless audiences, or was he? Suppose folks actually found him amusing? What does that say about our forebears? Anthropologists might profitably look into Hugh Herbert and the people who laughed at him. Kids latterly raised on Warner cartoons at least knew his caricatures if not Herbert. He was easy to mimic and instantly recognizable. Insiders must have enjoyed him too, for HH is everywhere in those Warner Breakdown reels that were compiled and shown at studio Christmas revels. Colleen was further awash in clowns dating back to Keystone days. Louise Fazenda was familiar as old slippers, and got laughs as much for happy recollection of how funny she’d been in silents. Jack Oakie had risen like a phoenix at Paramount and was assurance of a million laughs for another thirty years after Colleen. The more I watch the guy, the more he appeals to me. Oakie has a pas de deux with Joan Blondell to the tune of a ditty called The Boulvardier From the Bronx that made me appreciate just why pros like them stayed in harness from virtual cradles to grave. Could be I like musicals of a Colleen sort simply for the glimpse it affords of biz artists working full tilt at something notches beneath their best, but giving it all as if such a vehicle were their best. The DVD from Warner Archive ended up costing $10 as part of the Powell/Keeler package, and though quality’s not of a burnished sheen like Berkeley classics out on disc, it still more than passes muster and looked fine on my screen.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Favorites List --- Only Angels Have Wings

The problem of writing on titles familiar as Only Angels Have Wings is knowledge that many ahead of me did it better. Is the subject finally exhausted? There’s reams of OAHW analysis out there, increased manifold by ease of online access as opposed to waiting on film journals mostly gone now. The best Howard Hawks films seem endlessly watchable. He doesn’t waver in and out of fashion like other cult directors. That word never applied to Hawks anyway, for he was too mainstream and popular to be the object of cults. Whatever started in France during the fifties was just overseas recognition of what we'd known for years. A Hawks film stops you no matter where it's tuned in. The beginning … middle … no matter. There’s always something good coming within five minutes that you remember and want to see again. I practically avoid El Dorado on my HD hard-drive for knowing that a half-hour at least will evaporate just for scrolling down to it. The best thing to do with any Hawks film is load up, surrender, and watch the whole thing, as I recently did with an umpteenth helping of Only Angels Have Wings. Here are stair-steps of deathless moments spread barely apart. Hawks said good pictures are made up of pleasurable scenes. Years of experience showed him that highlights supplied by interesting characters paid off lots better than stories rigidly adhered to. I’d gladly swap dramatic peaks of a hundred classics to again see Walter Brennan burn his finger with the match in Rio Bravo. It takes but once to know gist of even the most brilliant movie plotting. Where is need of seeing a thing play through again once you know the outcome? Hawks would have been the wrong man to direct Charlie Chan mysteries. I like the way he seizes on fun events to be revisited where occasion permits. Cary Grant tells cracked-up pilot Thomas Mitchell that his neck’s broken in Only Angels Have Wings. We remember the exchange and so would Hawks, thirty years later doing a variation for his final film, Rio Lobo. John Wayne delivered the line for that occasion, and it had a same impact. Reusing action bumps worked better for Hawks than when comedy was encored. Rock Hudson complained of ideas run aground for 1963’s Man’s Favorite Sport and how Hawks reheated stale bread from Bringing Up Baby. The director attributed old routines not working to lack of skill on the part of 60’s players who could not measure up to vintage stars like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.

The best of Only Angles Have Wings began with earlier pictures, not all of them directed by Howard Hawks. His 1939 film abounds with echoes of writer Jules Furthman’s China Seas of four years back, as well as friendly rival Victor Fleming's Red Dust from 1932, which plays like a blueprint for much of Hawks to come and supplied at least one third act crisis for OAHW. I’ve read Hawks was envious of success Fleming had with Red Dust. Furthman’s China Seas model contributed to all the shows he would write for Hawks, and I wonder if he doesn’t deserve a lot more credit for devices we call Hawksian. Surprising too that a seemingly ideal HH lead, Clark Gable, never once worked with the director. They were friends and rode motorcycles together. Maybe Hawks staying away from MGM through the remainder of the thirties and thereafter had something to do with his not intersecting with Gable other than socially, a loss to both for not having teamed. As to Angels’ Cary Grant, he is more effective for me as a Hawksian action hero than in comedies they did together. I wonder that Grant engaged so little as an authority figure and man of movement, as he commands well, is believable on planes and subs. Hawks said he based Angels incidents on real-life aviation drama he had come across during WWI. It wasn’t uncommon for he-man directors to adopt been there-done that attitude where staging action, evidence of having walked the walk, William Wellman and Raoul Walsh among others who'd claim membership in a real-life adventurer fraternity.

Howard Hawks action movies are less needful of action than any other director’s action movies. You could actually do without it altogether and still have a good show. His best scenes tend to revolve around conversation. Model effects in Only Angels Have Wings betray a director’s impatience to get past flights and crashes so he can focus on character’s reactions to same. I have actually grown fond of those toy planes. There is variety in seeing them interposed with real aircraft occasionally utilized. To Hawks’ credit, he avoids bogging down with realism we neither want nor need. I think of Only Angels Have Wings and see flight jackets with scarves, coins being flipped, and cigarettes constantly lit. Songs as always find their moment in a Hawks film, everyone participating and narrative points made as we listen. Few had accomplished this outside of musicals. My issues with Jean Arthur as leading lady have been assuaged with repeat viewings, each to his own as to what annoys. I could submit names that would have suited her OAHW part a lot better, but where is point in that? Of casting ideal, there is post-stardom Richard Barthelmess bidding for renewed status enjoyed from the late teens into earlier years of talkies. His Angels character is battered and resigned to exile, much as was this actor by a facelift noted among press and colleagues stunned by Barthelmess’ post-procedure appearance. The actor looks OK in Only Angels Have Wings for a man whose deadened expression bespeaks cosmetic surgery barely off drawing boards. Barthelmess threw a post-opening party for the Angels cast/crew (above), this a last sustained effort to get back in the game. Angel’s trailer emphasized the return of a great star. RB's disgraced pilot achieves power and not a little poignancy in a film not otherwise given to sentimentality, but it proved a one-off and no basis for a comeback the actor hoped for. He retired a few years later after modest parts in three more films, relieved for having salted enough cash to manage a dignified retirement.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Mexico Be Scary in 1953

A curtain of dread hangs over 40’s/50’s films set in Mexico. Crossing that border always proves to be a mistake. To vacation there like Barbara Stanwyck and family in 1953’s Jeopardy is sheer lunacy, with audiences by then well conditioned to expect the worst when characters venture south. It was one thing to lam for Mexico like Robert Mitchum on oft-occasions. Others gold-hunted there at considerable risk (Bogart in Treasure Of The Sierra Madre most prominent). Horrific fates awaited those reckless enough to cross into seeming Hell. My never having been there is no coincidence. For repeated and traumatizing exposure to Sierra Madre, Border Incident, Jeopardy, and Blowing Wild (among lots of others), it’s likely I never will. There were complaints by Mexican officials of defamations to their country. Almost anything set below the Rio Grande amounted to that. Mexico was where noir was darkest and all bets were off. Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil was final pay-off for a decade where every border sign should read: Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here. By no more than chance, I’ve looked at a brace of Mexico-set features and come away wondering if that country got a raw deal in movies. I’d not venture a yay or nay for said lack of personal experience, but impressions formed early and reaffirmed often die hard, and facts of the matter are, I wouldn’t follow even Jane Greer into such foreboding territory.

Blowing Wild played our TV stations often between school and supper. "Gringo Giant" Gary Cooper wildcats for oil, hauls nitro, and fights banditos. All of this is patently derivative of better films John Huston, Howard Hawks, and even King Vidor directed. There’s no period remove to assure us that conditions are improved in modern Mexico. This is modern Mexico, and our own nineteenth-century West was never wilder. Cooper brings in wells and bandits repeatedly level them. Pal Ward Bond begs from fellow Americans as did Fred C. Dobbs, and everyone they encounter deals off the bottom. To travel Mexican roads is to be assured of bandit intrusions. Law enforcement seems so overrun as to have given up. I kept wondering why Cooper didn’t pull the hell out for someplace safer, for this seems too dicey a venue even for him. Mexico is where soldiers of fortune head after every other option plays out. That was always the case in movies and would remain so. Cooper moseyed down again within the year for Garden Of Evil, and then Vera Cruz, Mexico’s undoubted idea of a bad will ambassador tarring that nation’s image in theatres worldwide. His reason for so many trips was actually a prosaic one of tax avoidance, as Cooper saved considerable income by working outside the US during 1953-54. He was an aging star beyond the streak of prestige parts he'd enjoyed in the forties, despite an Academy Award for High Noon. Everyone knew Coop could act, but most were happiest watching him pump rifles and crack heads. Outside of westerns, Mexico was the last setting where he could believably do these things. Blowing Wild doubtless played havoc with tourism down there, but this was 1953 and many films of similar disposition had gone before it, Jeopardy by mere months. That was contempo-set as well, with roads treacherous as ones Cooper drove nitro over. Bandits are absent, but convict killer Ralph Meeker finds comfortable refuge on Mexican byways with few impediments along those desolate avenues of escape. A woman alone, in this case Barbara Stanwyck, will certainly be abducted, thanks to local police immobilized by endless miles of desert bleakness. Blowing Wild and Jeopardy take place in Mexico because we’d never believe such things could happen within our own borders.

Jeopardy is less known than another thriller directed by on-the-ways-up John Sturges. Bad Day At Black Rock was later by a year and in color. It’s higher regarded thanks to Spencer Tracy and exceptional character support, but even at similarly brief run times (Black Rock is 81 minutes, Jeopardy 69), the earlier one plays tauter. Jeopardy is a small gem that served no purpose other than to support bigger pictures and play nearly always on dual bills. I’d hesitate calling it a B, despite relegation to program status these mostly occupied. Jeopardy was produced mainly to absorb overhead run up hourly by a large company struggling against shifting tides of a sometimes hostile marketplace. The ad shown here was for Chicago’s first-run. Jeopardy played with Confidentially Connie, another MGM release sans color, loosed to theatres increasingly in demand of multi-hues for combatting television’s rise. Both were remarkably low-budget. Jeopardy had a negative cost of $589,000 and Confidentially Connie finished for only $501,000. These were cut-rate figures for 1953 product from a major studio. A close look at United Artists Theatre policy shows why they had to be made for a price. Adult admission to 1 PM was just forty-six cents (exclusive of state tax) and kids got in for a quarter throughout the day. Lean times required more show for the money, thus neighboring Roosevelt Theatre offered a Universal combo of comparable modesty, Desert Legion and Ma and Pa Kettle On Vacation, and at the same prices. It was tough and getting more so to earn profits on such humble fare. Had Jeopardy cost a few nickels higher, it would surely have gone into loss columns as co-feature Confidentially Connie ultimately did. As it was, there was $1.2 million in domestic rentals and $438,000 foreign, for an eventual profit of $285,000.

Vehicles like Jeopardy and Blowing Wild were the purest distillations of what their stars did well. One’s tempted to dismiss Cooper and Stanwyck as playing such formula in their sleep, but for me, it’s pictures like these (she’s in both) that go to the very essence of talents fully matured and aware of iconic status they’d achieved. Cooper and Stanwyck long since understood those aspects of their personas that suited best a paying public. Let younger stars open new ground and assume risks thereby. These two were welcome for delivering, again and again, variations so slight upon previous roles as to be almost indistinguishable. Stanwyck in Blowing Wild is near-identical to the Stanwyck of The Violent Men, which came within a following year. Both fed off momentum established ten years before with Double Indemnity. Stanwyck was an actress of a certain age whose playbook allowed but for slight variants … it seemed she was always either victim or murderess. BS was just too bigger than life and freighted with audience expectation (for melodrama heatedly played) to pass inspection as a mere leading lady. Joan Crawford tended to shuttle as well between opposing sides of the law. Both actresses were preferred either pointing guns or struggling to get beyond range of them. Bette Davis might have had an easier time of the fifties had she followed closer their lead. Jeopardy’s Chicago ad snipes A Woman In … over the film’s title to assure patrons as to content and Stanwyck’s time-honored role in it. The thing that’s remarkable is how fresh and dynamic she always was on such frequently trod ground, and often in pictures not so good as Jeopardy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Beverly Hillbillies Real and Imagined

How many of you went (or go!) out in search of Beverly Hill-billy Type Fun at drive-ins and theatres? A lot of us did in after the series hit big during 1962-63. It was the Number One show for its first two seasons on CBS. There was nothing more popular in the South, not on television or in movie houses. One episode where Granny hunts a giant jackrabbit (turns out to be a kangaroo, I think) still ranks #34 of most watched network prime-time telecasts since 1964, encompassing 44% of all viewing households (22.57 million, and you could at least triple that number to figure a total of individuals seeing it). Beating such stats with paid admissions was impossible. The Clampetts in a feature would have outdone Thunder Road around here. Actually, Buddy Ebsen appeared in one called Mail Order Bride (in 1964) that less scrupulous exhibs promoted as the Hillbillies at full-length (Old Jed’s Lookin’ For a Wife!). Anything that smacked of cornpone humor was re-christened as a Clampett night at the movies. Ads like ones shown here were rife through Dixie and snookered patrons imagining they’d see all-night Hillbilly fun just like CBS was giving away at home. I was fascinated by such programs at the time because of titles (always printed small) that often dated back to the forties and beyond. Republic’s old Judy Canova laffers had a comeback, as did the ancient Private Snuffy Smith from 1942. Sometimes even the Weaver Brothers and Elviry got a look-in, and I’ll bet smaller houses used nitrate prints on a few of these. Note the running dog, moonshine, and jalopy art? If they used that once in counties surrounding me, they used it a hundred times. The last occasion I saw Abbott and Costello play a theatre date was Comin’ Round The Mountain as part of a Hillbilly marathon. How long did such shows last? Probably no later than the mid-sixties. By then, customers maybe realized they weren’t going to see the Clampetts on movie screens, and these ersatz mountaineers would no longer be adequate substitutes.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A Bottomless Treasure Trove

I’m here to propose theatre ads as a Great American Art Form. I’m not talking posters or lobby cards. Those were mass-produced and sent around to theatres nationwide. Besides, they were recognized long ago for aesthetic qualities we appreciate by way of thousands spent bidding on rarer ones. I speak of and celebrate those humble promotions decorating newspaper pages now yellowed with age. Civilians would notice them no more than grocery sales and attendant basted turkey art, but growing up for me was daily perusal of opener and holdover announcements, no two of which were ever the same. That’s what separated ads from one-sheet posters. Every one was different, and each reflected initiative and imagination of showmen who designed them. There were art shops for that in bigger houses, or district staff for the chains. Otherwise, a small exhibitor had early morning starts at preparing ads for afternoon or next morning editions. There were pressbooks to lend assist, replete with varied sizes to fit your advertising budget. Really creative managers shunned pre-prepared stuff for knowing better what their patrons wanted, constructing ads from the ground up and performing beautiful and individualistic feats as simply as you or I grill hamburger. Such was genius served fresh daily and discarded the next. Trade magazines recognized outstanding ads, but only insofar as they’d boost selling. No one lauded the work itself. They still haven’t. Am I nuts to rave over neglected masterpieces such as random sampling shown here?

So much depended on ad rates. Newspapers less grabby enabled lavish displays for the town’s showplaces. You’ll find, for instance, better and larger ads in most New York tabloids than in the Times, for it was the latter charging highest rates for limited space. Our own newspaper was sufficiently expensive as to alienate Liberty management at a crucial 1963-64 juncture, resulting in no ads whatever for nearly a year. I’d been scissor-happy from kindergarten and cut ads from neighbor’s subscription copies as well as our own. Scrapbook results have come to the rescue of many a Greenbriar posting. There was a Seven Faces Of Dr. Lao display from the Winston-Salem Journal scotch-taped to my desk in fourth grade, intended to remain until the Liberty’s playdate enabled classmates to see it. My efforts at promotion on George Pal/ Metro’s behalf was frustrated, however, by teacher intervention, and future ad preparation was limited to bookings for my imaginary Parkland Theatre, its bill-of-fare reflecting impossible childish dreams of shows unlikely to play within real-life reach.

I’ve sat down with exhibitors and stacks of amazing ads they tore off like daily duties (and that they were). If you do a thing often enough, you'll become good at it, and boy, did these guys get practice at art they perfected. Ideas were shared and bongos were quick to alert others of ones that worked. Let someone in Ohio dream up novel slants for all-night horror shows, and flyers he’d printed would head south for colleagues to emulate. Imagery of laughing heads, border encircling cartoon icons, and vampires springing out of graves became familiar sights, as one for all, all for one management forwarded arresting layouts to houses featuring similar programs. It was good business for everyone in exhibition to succeed, and not uncommon for key art from one film to bleed into ads for another. A singularly good tag line might sell half-a-dozen monster movies over time. The particularly ferocious Werewolf In A Girl’s Dormitory head shot was utilized for any number of dusk-to-dawn hooror-thons, and it mattered not if they actually included Werewolf In A Girl’s Dormitory among offerings. American-International had some of the best art going, especially their chiller stuff. Exhibitors cribbed it to a point where Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff issued warnings against theatre usage of AIP imagery to sell other company’s product.

Ads like these transport us closer to vintage moviegoing than we'll ever get otherwise. I like dissecting those with lots of detail and policy stuff. Live acts add flavor as well. Lurid come-ons were there from early on and naturals for programming aimed at youth. I wonder how many shows I've come across that promise To Scare The Yell Out Of You. Maybe 50’s juvenile delinquency became the problem it was because of all-night drive-ins celebrating hooliganism on screen. Those ads practically invited kids to tear the joint down. I’m like a pig in mud whenever old piles of newspapers present themselves. You might imagine best ads coming out of big towns, but as even tiny hamlets had theatres in those days, yokel gazettes printed movie sections often the inventive equal of anything urban sheets offered. There might be two or a handful of poster styles for a given major title, but there are thousands of ad variations for that same feature in surviving newspapers, in fact, as many as there were bookings. Consider too that most theatres advertising daily prepared multiple styles for pages up to opening. The way films were sold varied wildly from one community to the next. Ads generated at a manager’s desk reflected his/her personality and no one else’s. They’d monkey with billing and emphasize aspects of a show that exhibs twenty miles down the road wouldn’t dream of. Stars rose and fell in local courts of management opinion long before said status became apparent to employers back in Hollywood. Showmen were closer to cash customers and thus way ahead of the curve. They recorded an industry's progress (or lack of) through ads that were like ticker tape memorializing success and failure. Newspaper advertising is the richest untapped vein of picture history I know of. It’s frustrating in a way because you know you can never see a fraction of what’s out there, no matter how dedicated your search. To post this handful at Greenbriar is to place mere drops upon a vast ocean, but I’ll court the futility of same by revisiting ads from time to time, reassured perhaps by knowledge that we’ll never run out of them.
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