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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hip To Flip On 8mm

I’m looking at 8mm again. There’s no good reason really. Could it be the lingering allure of its abysmal low tech-ness? Nostalgia surely factors in. Or maybe it’s rebellion against digitally scrubbed pictures looking too good. I collected the tiny gauge (all the more so as my vision clouds with age) from 1964 to 1973. Those who stayed with film will assert tactile quality it possesses and hands-on projector operation as sole avenues toward a purer viewing experience. I’d not argue with that. Some also favor vinyl as opposed to CD’s. Digital formats are impersonal. They’ve deprived us of physical contact between collectors and what they collect. DVD looks and sounds better, but there’s a sensation one gets from threading up a show and finessing it to completion. Will your lamp blow? What if a bad splice or torn sprocket trips up the works? These were stresses that once factored into shows I gave. Now it’s an effort staying awake through DVD’s once started. To revive 8mm means going in search of artifacts others stopped caring about long ago. Equipment you’ll use is no longer being manufactured. Even the replacement bulbs are middle-aged. There are forums for 8mm enthusiasts online. Some identify themselves as Master Film Handlers. They can take apart and put together an Elmo in a dark room using a flashlight. I’ve wished lately for such skill, as projectors off Ebay are invariably fixer-uppers (even ones they call Brand New). Veterans warned me. Any 8mm machine is at least thirty years old. Rubber drive belts, gears dormant since Nixon’s presidency, and sound hopelessly muffled … these are hallmarks of a gauge forever gone. Don’t expect 8mm to fire up and run just for plugging it in. Wiser heads would say forget the whole thing. Enjoy your memories and never mind recapturing them. Has the effort been worth it for me? Yes, and then some. It’s fun having toys again I can really play with. Beaten remnants of projectors I once used include the Bell and Howell Regent my father brought home in the late forties (there must have been a million sold, as Ebay is never without dozens), and the Eumig Dual 8 sound model I longed for and received in 1969. Neither work, and won’t again. They are mantle pieces now, broken on the wheel of rust and parts worn out. Am I so corroded as my Eumig for the passage of forty years?

There were guys in Syracuse and Columbus who could repair 8mm junkers I bought off Ebay. For their having applied work bench magic, my recently acquired projectors run like tops. I’d kept some Blackhawk and Castle Films from adolescence and was anxious to play them again. Of course, that led to more Ebay bidding for subjects I’d disposed of before and ones that looked to be fun now. Best so far have been cartoons Blackhawk once sold featuring Flip The Frog. I looked at 1930’s Puddle Pranks and reveled in its scratches and lines, having frankly missed those too long for living in my cocoon of flawless digital resolution. Distressed film has integrity. It’s been places. If only 8mm prints could tell their stories, other than ones they project on a screen. Maybe some of these I’m buying now once belonged to me, and somehow made the trek back, like Lassie the time he/she got locked into a fruit truck and went on his/her odyssey. Cartoons especially should be viewed on film. Their drawings move, after all, from frame to frame. You could hold one up to a light and examine the artist’s work. Try doing that with a DVD. Flip The Frog is my ideal of an 8mm subject. He’s primitive and extinct just like machinery I watch him on. Ub Iwerks was the pioneering genius that produced the Flips and lots of other independent cartoons besides. Somehow Blackhawk ended up with surviving negatives in 1974. They needed something to compete with the Walter Lantz subjects Castle Films was selling to armchair showmen. Major companies wouldn’t lease (Disney in fact offered their own home movies), so Iwerks’ backlog, many out of circulation since theatres last ran them, filled a void for collectors who wanted animation to play with Chaplin and Laurel/Hardy shorts. These were waning days for black-and-white cartoons as viable inventory for any seller. Soon enough such ancient fare would be exiled from television, other than as objects of bemusement on kid programs like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

The problem for anyone that worked with Walt Disney is shade they'd forever occupy afterward. He was the biggest noise in cartooning and no one else in the organization stood a prayer of getting recognition. Ub Iwerks had started with Walt in Kansas City when both were boys. It looked for a while like they’d stay equal partners, but Disney worked easier with people and thus forged ahead. Iwerks was like so many geniuses who functioned best when left alone. He designed Mickey Mouse and drew the early cartoons single-handed, turning out seven hundred sheets a day when release push came to shove. Walt paid Ub more than he himself drew from the till. Sneak in the grass Pat Powers, who distributed Disney shorts mostly to the extent of skimming what profits he could off the latter’s share, sensed Iwerk’s frustrated ambition and lured him with promises of independence and status to equal Walt’s. The resulting series (begun in 1930) got a flying start when MGM agreed to handle Flip, a sort of poster frog for precode abandon and vessel through which Ub Iwerks explored darker animating impulses. Of all cartoons I’ve watched from the early thirties, these may be the nastiest. Had television played them (did they?), there might well have been parent complaints. Flip morphed from excessively froggish, almost grotesquely so, to a more palatable bow-tie look and near human Betty Boop-ish femme accompaniment as Iwerks (and Metro) slow pushed his character to a short-lived peak around 1932. There were even efforts to merchandise Flip in ways evoking runaway success of Mickey Mouse toys and doo-dads. Children’s books (like one below) and figurines based on the Frog must surely be hot pursued collectibles today, for how many would have sold at depression whacked counters with Mickey items displayed alongside?

The Flips are currently among those sold on DVD as Cartoons That Time Forgot. A little sad when you consider the hopes invested in Iwerk’s creation and others he imagined would lift him to Disney’s pantheon. There was also Willie Whopper and a series called ComicColor, the latter relegated to State’s Rights distribution after Metro bailed on further Iwerks/Powers output. Not that any of these cartoons were/are bad. Like everyone who tried competing head-on with Walt, Iwerks went down in defeat. He eventually wound to Disney’s as a salaried employee. Men like Ub Iwerks strike me as Magnificent Failures for having reached toward a sky with room for but one King Of Cartoons (other companies competed successfully with Disney, but no individual could). There was something heroic going on there. Historians tend to characterize 30’s independent animation as unconventional, even bizarre. That just shows how thoroughly Disney’s model defined the art even as men like Iwerks, Van Beuren, and Fleischer struggled to challenge it. In the end, of course, Disney won. No wonder we view these competitors as outlaws. It’s somehow fitting that on-the-margins Blackhawk Films would acquire the Iwerks library in 1974, then sell them to eccentrics bent upon showing movies on hanging sheets. As long as there is appetite for cartoons put adrift, Flip will endure. His thirty-eight cartoons (wow --- they did that many?) are presently owned by Film Preservation Associates. Search me as to what if any rights the Iwerks family might maintain in the character. A better question might be … who’d bother infringing? I’ve seen time-warped Ebay listings for Flip toys and even a set of buttons like ones shown above, but no one’s likely to get rich selling these. There are two volumes on Image DVD that contain many Flips and others of what Iwerks produced, all with best surviving quality. I’ve avoided going into too much depth about individual Iwerks cartoons in deference to really superb and definitive liner notes provided by Greg Ford for the disc release. A wonderful documentary about Ub Iwerks written and produced by his granddaughter is an extra on Disney’s Oswald The Rabbit DVD from the company’s Treasures series. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in this great animator’s life and work.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

There Was Nitrate In Them Thar Hills

Movie buffs up north had it so made. I’d see them gathered in pages of The Classic Film Collector doing confabs where likely as not you’d have a silent star or two to spice proceedings. New York/Jersey turnpikes seemed paved with collectors and enthusiasts getting together for rare screenings. It seemed I’d never make a Cinecon for being far off and without a driving license (let alone wherewithal to fly). Getting away to college in 1972 was less opportunity for higher education than freedom at last to scour North Carolina backwoods for like-minded film folk. My base of operation was a four-year Lutheran school called Lenoir-Rhyne. I confess, and should be ashamed for doing so, that my primary reason for going there was access it provided to jim-dandy independent UHF channels out of Charlotte running non-stop pre-48 Warner, Fox, and Paramount packages. Hickory, NC was also home to collecting mentor Moon Mullins, confidante to shadowy figures with 35mm tucked away in tool sheds, chicken houses, and barns throughout North /South Carolina. He and I made epic drives to root these out, raising sky-fulls of dust along gravel and dirt roads better fit for herding goats. Moon proved most fearless on snow days atop mountain precipices, and expected me to be so. Boy, If you want this stuff, you’d better be willing to go deep in the woods to find it. He was the seasoned product of years digging after indian relics as well as film, having constructed a backyard museum that schoolkids frequently toured through; Indiana Jones minus a pistol and bullwhip, though I sometimes felt driven by both as we forged along routes I’d not dream of traversing again.

Bolder by Sophomore year, having been initiated by deals closed with (always) rural collectors, I began venturing on my own to acquire, for instance, George O’Brien and Monte Montana westerns found in a closed theatre next to its owner’s house, a handful of Buster Keaton nitrate Educational shorts back of a hayloft, and Warner’s Isle Of Lost Ships, sans Vitaphone discs, flanked by odd reels from Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. A few times I asked Moon about Tom Osteen, the latter known to have possessed various lost films (including the Fred Thomsons). Of course, Moon knew him, probably since shots were fired on Fort Sumter. A sidenote here: All these guys seemed primeval to me. Being nineteen, it was as though anyone with first-hand memory of Birth Of A Nation had to be pushing hundreds. For reasons I don’t recall, Moon chose not to go on the proposed Brevard trip with me. Maybe he and Tom had quarreled once over an uncut print of Greed. Anyway, I was determined to know Mr. Osteen and see that flooded basement for myself. Two years was passed since the Sylvan Films controversy. Sam Rubin’s Collector’s Court was either dismissed or in recess, for I’d not seen further mention of Osteen in then-recent issues of The Classic Film Collector. Moon recommended calling the Co-Ed Theatre in Brevard. That’s where Tom would likely be, day and night. Using a dorm pay phone one Friday around 9 PM, I reached the Co-Ed and was switched to the booth. Osteen was running their show, his voice just audible over a grinding Simplex. I identified myself as a film collector about eighty-five miles away wondering if maybe I could drop by. He said come ahead. By the time you get here, I’ll be finishing up. As was custom, I loaded up with trade goods after the fashion of Randy Scott in Comanche Station (B western lobby cards I’d gotten out of the Liberty several years before) and struck out for Brevard with friend (still is) John Setzer in his powder blue Ford Pinto (the kind they later warned might explode on rear impact).

John had lived in Brevard for awhile during the fifties, so the mountains leading there were familiar to him. So was the Co-Ed, but he remembered better the old Clemson Theatre next door, closed since 1959. He’d seen Darby O’Gill and The Little People there when he was five. We showed up in Tom’s booth at the Co-Ed a little after 11. The night’s show was over (precious few patrons). I noticed shelves piled high with memorabilia. Figuring it was current stuff, a first (of many) surprises came when these turned out to be complete lobby sets for all sorts of biggies dating back to the early forties, none of which was a big deal to Tom, as things like Singin’ In The Rain were for him contemporary titles (and you know what, as this was 1974, he was near right). The Co-Ed being dark for the night, we figured Tom would head home. Turns out the Co-Ed was his home. He couldn’t have been more thoroughly absorbed by that theatre if he’d walked into the screen. Here was a man through whose hands thousands of miles of film had passed (having projected for over fifty years). Much of that celluloid was evidently still there, for Tom salted prints in not only the Co-Ed, but a boarded-up Clemson as well. His catacombs were not unlike those of the Phantom, but above the opera house(s), rather than below. For that matter, Tom himself had a distinct Chaney unmasked quality as he led us through narrow corridors from a barely open theatre into one long closed. Along these passages were big cracker barrels, each filled with rolled-up one-sheets. I chanced unfurling a few. My Darling Clementine came first. My acquisitive nature, an obnoxious trait all the more so given my immaturity, went into overdrive. This place was King Solomon’s Mines and I was Stewart Granger! The Clemson boxoffice and front was still decorated for its last operating day in 1959. They had simply closed the place without taking down any of the posters. Setzer flipped when he saw what their final show had been --- Darby O’Gill and The Little People.

I had to measure my curiosity over the fabled Fred Thomson prints with opportunity now to trade for a building full of amazing collectibles. It wouldn’t do to alienate Tom with a lot of questions about a controversy now passed. Still, was there a chance he’d still have that nitrate? Storage rooms we entered were well above ground and dry as bleached bones. Film was everywhere. A 35mm They Died With Their Boots On here, Fox Technicolor musical trailers there. Yet I had a sense that the really rare stuff was put deeper away, as these buildings were honeycombed with rooms we never entered (Nothing in there, Tom would say whenever I approached one of them). Finally I mentioned the Thomsons, casually so as to avoid the appearance of an undercover G-Man acting on behalf of The Classic Film Collector. Lost in a flood, Tom said, none of it left. Fair enough, I thought, but had he at least been able to watch them before the deluge? Oh yeah, and they were really great. I guessed they sure enough were … back in 1928. As to his having seen them since, I had increasing doubts, but again, I wasn’t going to rock a fragile boat, for here was Tom giving me access to posters and film to hasten the beat of my greedy collector’s heart. The Clemson’s auditorium, dark for so many years, was a landfill for 35mm trailers Osteen discarded. His idea of expendable was mine of a gold field. Those little rolls of film were lying about like Easter eggs, and we gathered baskets of them. El Dorado, The Left Hand Of God, For Whom The Bells Toll, Wilson (those last two on Technicolored nitrate), and yes, Darby O’Gill and The Little People, among hordes of others. We left that morning about 4:30 AM. Tom had cleaned me of what Tim McCoy and Hoppy paper I’d brought to trade, and my arms were loaded with bounty I’d treasure from there on. We were both happy, and Osteen invited me to come back anytime (and I did --- on several occasions). Like a lot of veteran collectors I dealt with in those days, Tom was probably amused, if not a little incredulous, that someone young as me was out chasing this ancient stuff. Maybe my childish enthusiasm reminded him of the boy he was when Fred Thomson rode tall on the Clemson’s screen. In any case, I found Tom Osteen to be an unfailingly nice guy wholly supportive of collecting passions we shared. Looking back on encounters with old-timers like him, Moon, and lots of others, I realize now they were passing the torch to a new generation that loved their kind of movies. Certainly they were generous toward me with both time and extraordinary archives they had accumulated. I’m only sorry Tom’s not still in Brevard so I could go visit again.

POSTSCRIPT: Tom Osteen died in 1983. He’d been an occasional attendee at cowboy fan gatherings in Charlotte, Siler City, and other such campgrounds for western enthusiasts. Raleigh, NC resident Ed Wyatt got a lot of help from Tom when he wrote a definitive history of Fred Thomson entitled More Than A Cowboy, published privately in 1988. The book was a marvelous labor of love by a generation of men (several dedicated Thomson fans assisted Wyatt) who’d started out spending penny allowance on vending machine cards of Fred and his horse, Silver King. My last contact with Brevard came after Tom Osteen passed and I spoke to his family re items from the collection to be sold. I wound up oddly enough with a 16mm print of Horror of Dracula (now what was Tom doing with that?). The Fred Thomson nitrates of persisting legend were never accounted for. I’d like to think they are hidden somewhere in the still-standing Co-Ed Theatre (neighboring Clemson leveled long ago), waiting for a future generation of archeologists to rescue Fred and Silver King and set them riding once again.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

1970 Collector Hopes Raised and Dashed

I’ve spent this week mining my way into the hearts and minds of Fred Thomson followers who once carried banners for the long departed cowboy star and have for the most part joined him on the trail beyond. Members of Fred’s adoring legion were mostly around my age when they looked back from the early seventies, a time when silent moviegoers were still out there in abundance and publications like The Classic Film Collector served as community forums, much like online boards and discussion groups enable twenty-first century fans to compare notes. Big happenings for us include rediscovery of a complete Metropolis and whatever’s forthcoming on DVD. Sometimes announcements are too good to be true. Think of last year when some prankster claimed to have seen a print of F.W. Murnau’s Four Devils in a collector’s trove. There are sightings of London After Midnight as frequent as seasons change, all (so far) bogus. Back in Fall of 1970, it was a trio of thought lost Fred Thomson westerns that lit up silent enthusiasm’s world, their having allegedly surfaced in the archive of a North Carolina collector who’d soon make them available on 8 and 16mm. This was news of seismic import to readers for whom long ago Saturday walks to see Thomson in action were among happiest days of youth. Other silent cowboys had been accessible since respective 20’s peaks. You could still buy or rent Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and Ken Maynard, or even watch them on television. Thomson was different for having died before talkies gathered him up, and being his output was silent, virtually all of it was consigned to bonfires and silver reclamation. I got a lowdown on the fate of Fred’s FBO output (Film Booking Office, then controlled by Joseph P. Kennedy) from author Cari Beauchamp, who kindly got in touch by e-mail following Greenbriar’s post about her fine book, Without Lying Down. She passed along the following from recently published Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years, which recounts correspondence between two key FBO employees soon after Fred Thomson’s death. Here, according to Beauchamp, was final stop for that star’s nitrate legacy:

Charlie Sullivan was still at his Gower Street office, but now on the RKO payroll and Pat Scollard was at the Pathe office in New York. Whatever their titles or, for that matter, whoever was paying their salaries, their first and foremost loyalty was to Kennedy. For weeks following Fred Thomson’s death, both men, from their respective perches, made time to collect Thomson’s insurance as well as press Paramount for a full accounting of the films still in distribution.
Scollard and Sullivan exchanged dozens of letters and, as necessary, sent updates to Kennedy. In the process, Sullivan told Scollard that there were over one hundred cans of Thomson’s FBO movies left in what were now the RKO vaults. "We are shortly going to need all of our vault space," Sullivan reported and he needed to know what Kennedy wanted done with the films. Pat Scollard, trained over the years to look at the next quarter’s balance sheet, instructed Sullivan that "unless there are some shots there that you could sell and get some money for, I think it would be the best plan to junk it all and send me a check for the scrap film." After all, that could bring as much as a penny per foot. In doing so, they destroyed 2200
pounds of "scrap film" or, in other words, Fred Thomson’s life work.

Tom Osteen was the Brevard, NC projectionist and collector who claimed to possess three of Fred Thomson’s Paramount features. A Sensational Announcement, he called it, with long lost Jesse James, Kit Carson, and The Sunset Legion slated for release through Osteen’s Sylvan Films. Classic Film Collector Publisher/Editor Samuel K. Rubin had visited Tom in Brevard and saw film boxes clearly labeled. He took Osteen’s word as to contents inside and began promoting the Fred Thomson westerns to come. Readers sent advance payments for Jesse James, its early 1971 delivery assured by Sylvan (with Kit Carson to follow in mid-1971 and The Sunset Legion set for 1972 availability, per Osteen). Outstanding artist Anthony Phillips again demonstrated uncanny ability to duplicate the look of silent film ads when he drew a full-page display for Osteen’s forthcoming slate (above). Orders (with checks) began pouring into Brevard. I well remember the breathless articles in CFC about Thomson’s westerns and their miraculous rediscovery. Being sixteen and well short of the needed $50 to buy an 8mm Jesse James ($160 for 16mm), I could only dream as to what awaited better-heeled collectors (there would even be glossy photo sets and poster reproductions available for Jesse James). Sam and Tom posed together before Osteen’s original one-sheet, as shown above, and the latter was making noises as to other thought-lost westerns he’d scoped out via collector friends with stashes of their own. Was North Carolina shaping up to become the great-untapped well of nitrate treasures? The months to follow would answer a resounding … no.

Sam Rubin put out calls for Fred Thomson articles to further trumpet pending release of his westerns. Classic Film Collector readership sallied forth with affectionate tributes able yet to bring tears to my eyes. Longtime fan William Barton contributed Fred Thomson Rides Again, and that writer’s pal James Pierce (erstwhile silent era Tarzan!) lent commentary re his then forty year ago friendship and professional association with Thomson. So many old timers were still around in 1970, access to them as simple as picking up a telephone. I’m astounded by resourcefulness of pioneering historians who got researching jobs done even as they worked unrelated jobs and juggled family obligations (Sam Rubin ran a furniture store while moonlighting as CFC publisher/editor). Another who related a very personal account of boyhood devotion was Tom Brennen, whose I Can’t Forget Fred Thomson in CFC Issue 30 was a moving recollection of that bleak Christmas Day in 1928 when a local news extra informed him, at age 11, of the cowboy star’s death. I don’t know if Brennen is still alive. He’d be 92 if he were. In whatever case, his article is a masterly evocation of a screen idol passing and the shattering effect it had on at least one youngster who I’m sure spoke for others mostly gone now.

Joyful contemplation of Fred Thomson collector prints to come was shattered when Sam Rubin headlined bad news in CFC #2. Lost Films Lost Again! preceded an account of massive flooding in Tom Osteen’s basement that washed away all the Fred Thomson reels, plus an FBO Tom Mix, "Son Of The Golden West," he (Osteen) was going to release (as if readers needed further salt in wounds). It was the local gas company what done it. They were digging in front of Tom’s home and struck a water line. Nearly 100% of the collection was destroyed. Osteen claimed possible recourse to another print of Jesse James he’d borrow from a fellow enthusiast, but reader disappointment over the announcement was acute. Cannot understand why he had not decided to have prints made up after having them for all this time, said one letter. One negative should be kept in a bank vault, and a spare negative elsewhere, remarked another. Refunds would be forthcoming, according to Osteen, and maybe one or two Thomson fragments could be printed from what little footage was salvageable. Doubters began speculating that Osteen never had the nitrate to begin with. And even if he did, weren’t copyrights renewed by Paramount on the Thomson westerns and thus protected? Maybe it was all just a sham. Months would pass in silence from Brevard. Checks sent had been cashed, but those refunds weren’t happening. Osteen ran an ad looking to dispose of printing equipment, so clearly Sylvan had tossed in the towel with regard generating film. A year plus six months went by before Tom landed in the CFC’s Collector’s Court, a one-man tribunal Sam Rubin established to keep dealers honest. But there was no luck bringing Tom to earth. Well, maybe those NC mountains had swallowed him up. Brevard was (is!), after all, about as remote as wilderness that once gave Alvin York refuge. Was fifty dollars tossed at phantom 8mm prints worth venturing into such a benighted region?

Many Thanks to Cari Beauchamp for information regarding the fate of Fred Thomson's westerns.
Coming in Part Three: My Brevard Trip at Age 19 to find Tom Osteen and Whatever Became of his Mythical Fred Thomson films.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Choice Book --- Without Lying Down

I’ve been reading Cari Beauchamp’s book, Without Lying Down, about screenwriter Frances Marion and the Hollywood she knew. Marion was among that group of women who thrived during the silent era (and partly into sound) before, says Beauchamp, studios became rigidly corporatized and male dominated. Some lived long enough to bear witness from decades out as to filmic gamesmanship as they experienced it. Anita Loos and Adela Rogers St. John were contemporaries of Frances Marion and both spun embellished accounts of incidents in which all other participants had long passed on. St. John lost sight altogether of where truth and her embroideries parted company. Frances Marion's reflections are more reliable for being culled from private diaries and journals she kept, and which Beauchamp had access to. Marion got an early break writing for Mary Pickford. For several years, they were professionally inseparable. I’m fascinated by Beauchamp’s account, but can’t for the life of me shine up to Pickford. Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley is supposed to be one of the better ones Pickford and Marion teamed on, but was tough sledding for me. Maybe I need to commit to a week or so of Pickford, with stops at eight or ten of her features (at least that many are on DVD) before attempting an informed opinion. The problem is she just doesn’t intrigue me on screen. If they’d made films about Pickford's climb up stardom’s ladder (more like a catapult) or the marriage to Fairbanks and its collapse, I’d be more receptive. Further data about her reclusing years at Pickfair would also be welcome, as those stories of withdrawl with Buddy Rogers as gatekeeper are pearls of filmland Gothica. How many fans are out there who still watch Mary Pickford movies? I actually wish I were one, because a lot of them survive (thanks to the star’s own conservation efforts) and you can’t say that about most silent-era legacies.

Without Lying Down is a terrific book, well-researched and full of insight into lives of that vanished period. Among those (many) invisible now is Frances Marion’s tragic husband Fred Thomson, otherwise a screen cowboy that some claim out-performed Tom Mix as king-sized boyhood idol to fit all. Every western Fred made, save one, is lost today and he did over two dozen. It’s like his stardom was wiped off the cultural map. Pretty tough reviving a name when there’s so little film to back your argument. Thomson is mostly just stills now, like so many silent lights gone dark. He fascinates me for two reasons. One is how he died. Beauchamp gives the best account of that in Without Lying Down. Fred had been a crack athlete, WWI vet, and Presbyterian minister who got into movies somewhat reluctantly. This perfect specimen died at 38 of tetanus. I don’t know about others of you, but that word always gave me chills. How many times was I warned growing up to wear shoes so as not to step on a nail and get tetanus? It’s said to be the most horrific of deaths and always hopeless once you’re infected. Then there’s lockjaw for a chaser, just to assure an agonizing exit. The story I’d heard about Thomson through the years was that, indeed, he stepped on a nail. Beauchamp questions that, and says doctors found no evidence of an open wound. Medicine being what it was in 1928, you could enter a hospital with seemingly minor problems and never come out. Fred was being treated for kidney stones as well as tetanus. Both were potential killers then. Maybe, as was the case with Valentino a couple of years before, they could have saved Thomson had he access to modern medicines we know. Succeeding generations merely finished the job of erasing Fred by letting his films go to dust.

Frances Marion silent partnered her husband in terms of writing most of his westerns along with helping out on edit work. Her contributions were quiet, as neither wanted focus on the town’s highest-paid scribe steering program westerns gratis. Would the Thomson oaters stand tallest for her more than capable participation? Imagine them all turning up and proving to be the very best outdoor series of the whole silent era. That notion intrigues me. On the other hand, who’s likely to care much about ancient cowboy shows in any rediscovered capacity? The twenty-first century is a pretty big echo chamber for remaining adherents of silent film, let alone those who’d thump for Fred Thomson. Frances Marion kept working after her husband died. Her peak came during early sound, with Irving Thalberg a head champion. Projects she delivered in ribbons gave Metro star-based cycles they’d ride for decades after. Reading Beauchamp’s account convinces me that Marion’s genius was what created Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, for it was she that majorly penned Anna Christie, Min and Bill, The Big House and The Champ. The latter two were stories Marion created from ground up. Dressler was the absolute high priestess of America’s boxoffice for those few star years she had before early death intervened at a peak. I watched Min and Bill for the first time recently. It’s short and funny and moving. Why folks loved it is no mystery. Dressler acts from the heart and is so authentic as to merge as one with viewers. There wouldn’t be anything so honest and natural as her again. Beery had a slobbery realness as well, so long as vehicles were as finely written as ones Frances Marion turned in. If she’d acted upon invitations to direct (rather than bowing out early on after a few stressful tries), Marion could have been the feminine auteur to lead a 30’s charge. As it is, they squeezed her typewriter dry after Thalberg died and took front-office protection with him. Marion disdained Louis Mayer and he returned the sentiment. Metro committees wanted her to reheat the Beery formula she’d invented, but now the star was hung with braying Marjorie Main for a partner who could never replace long-gone Dressler, and lesser talents were freely rewriting Marion. The latter toiled along margins and finally drifted out of movies in favor of art and sculpture at which she also excelled. Her whole story is splendidly told in Cari Beauchamp’s book. Read it and learn lots about the Hollywood Frances Marion’s talent enhanced (there are used hardcovers on Amazon starting at $1.90).
Coming in Part Two: Fred Thomson Rediscovered --- Or Not? A North Carolina Collecting Story

Monday, September 14, 2009

Can't Like List --- Suspicion

I’ve revisited a couple of pictures lately that I’ve so far never been able to enjoy, thinking maybe this time would be different. One was Where Danger Lives of a recent post, redeemed somewhat by passage of time and my softening attitude toward it. Suspicion, however, is something else. It has the promise of another good Hitchcock from beginnings of a rich new-to America period (preceded by Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent), and for the first time, AH had access to a really major star name in Cary Grant. He claimed never to have wanted the title, but surely Hitchcock would have got round to using it eventually (another seeming natural, Deceit, was a shooting title for Family Plot, but not used by him otherwise). Suspicion remains a frustration for me and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. It attests to Hitchcock’s dependence upon writers, and how hopelessly he’d flounder on occasions when they let him down. I've read often the axiom that you can ruin a good script by poor direction, but that even a brilliant director cannot uplift a bad script. Like it or not, our story driven industry continues to operate on said rule, never so rigid as in 1941 when Hitchcock was obliged to sign his name to the mess that was Suspicion. Here was a writing dilemma gone unresolved. I’ve read that RKO leadership changed during production, the bane of not only Hitchcock, but others like Orson Welles and Val Lewton who toiled there and faced similar interference. There was fuss over Cary Grant being a would-be murderer of wife Joan Fontaine. Hitchcock supposedly wanted him to poison her at the end (and she to knowingly drink it). I’m thinking they all knew better than to imagine such a thing could ever pass. Never mind the Code. I don’t think Grant would have played it. Besides which there’d be a downer finish to wreck whatever boxoffice Suspicion might have had. The ending as it is cheats, but for me, the whole murder set-up seems arbitrary. Nearly an hour passes before we’re asked to consider Grant as potential killer. I wondered why Fontaine didn’t rid herself of him for lying and thievery that makes for Suspicion’s distinctly unappealing first half. She’s a doormat for this cad and the fact he’s Cary Grant doesn’t mitigate it. Maybe Hitchcock was trying to show us how inherently untrustworthy such charmers are. Grant is almost too good enacting a rotter we might suspect lies at the core of his screen persona. It’s one of the riskiest parts the actor ever took, lots more off-putting, I think, than his Devlin in Notorious, which is more generally credited as the darkest of Grant’s Hitchcock gallery. For his Suspicion character to have turned out an unrepentant killer might have left a disagreeable taste audiences would never have forgiven, and more disastrously, could have ended CG’s association with Hitchcock.

Suspicion was a hit. Against a negative cost of $1.1 million, there were domestic rentals of $1.3 million and foreign brought $919,000. Profits amounted to $440,000, an unaccustomed windfall to RKO where triple digit gains were less common than at competing majors. Hitchcock techniques were freshest then and it was exciting to discover novel ways he put over a thrill. Audiences talked about creeps they got when Cary Grant ascended dark stairs with a seemingly radioactive glass of milk, a scene so visually compelling that it didn’t matter whether it paid off or if that milk device ultimately curdled. What patrons remembered too was Joan Fontaine spelling Murder among her puzzle pieces. Both scenes dazzle when standing alone or as highlights in Hitchcock compilations, but neither survive greater scrutiny applied to Suspicion in its entirety. Hitchcock was known to chuck narrative logic in favor of set-pieces he knew would distract us, and generally that worked in stories resilient enough to bear such strain, but Suspicion was from its outset built on sand. In better Hitchcocks, like Rear Window especially, there was a basis for your protagonist suspecting foul play. They didn't let us down at the end by saying there was nothing to his/her fear. If the expected villain turns out to have been a misunderstood red herring, what was the point of watching? So "The Threat Of Murder" promised by Suspicion’s one-sheet proves a non-existent one and a betrayal of viewer expectation sustained over 99 minutes of running time (the cheat not being apparent until the very finish). Lesser filmmakers might fall back on such machination, never (except here) Hitchcock. Still, there are fans that like Suspicion. From the standpoint of movie star glamour Hitchcock manipulated so well, it is irresistible. You look at posters, plus that title, and figure surely it must deliver. I never chanced Suspicion with student groups to whom I ran many other Hitchcocks, for fear they’d turn on the picture, AH, then me. Maybe I assumed too much, was guided to excess by my own prefigured lights, and deprived them of something they might have enjoyed, always a risk when programming films based on personal preference (but if not guided by your own tastes, then whose?). Every audience is full of surprises, especially at Hitchcock revivals. I’d like knowing how Suspicion plays to a modern crowd. Anyone tried it out lately?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Enter The Master Of Suspense

Maybe it’s not a big deal, but I need to know when Alfred Hitchcock became The Master Of Suspense. That was a question I’d intended to touch on briefly in a post about recently watched Suspicion, but became itself the focal point of interest as pressbooks and trades were consulted. Yes, he was a name in England and had become one over here, but what was the wide American public’s image of Hitchcock when he arrived on our shores? Ads I’ve consulted for The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and other UK thrillers found them mostly on art house screens, or "little theatres", as they were mostly known then. The first US assignment was Rebecca, and that yielded an avalanche of publicity for the English director, but there were bigger names behind the camera, first that of producer David O. Selznick, just off Gone With The Wind and hugely prominent for having shepherded that blockbuster. Then there was novelist Daphne Du Maurier, a name very much to be reckoned with for having written the enormous best seller Selznick and Hitchcock were now adapting. Rebecca’s prior exposure included hardback publication, magazine serialization, and multiple radio dramatizations (one of these presented by Orson Welles). As source material for a high-profile film, Rebecca enjoyed nearly the popularity of GWTW. Hitchcock was merely one of many elements to promote, being lauded for his eerie touch achieved through understatement, evidence of this being the British imports recognized by a critical and Hollywood establishment if not by a wider American public not so receptive to movies from offshore. Still, there were publicity mats available to remind readers of Hitchcock’s UK output (as above), along with assurance that with unmatched resources of Hollywood at his command, (Hitchcock) leaves his past history-making achievements far behind. There were references to the director’s humorous personality going hand-in-hand with his corpulence and eating habits that led to it. As uncertain indicator of labels to come, Hitchcock was called The Master Of Melodrama in articles to serve as newspaper plants for Rebecca. Ads for the film, however, put greater emphasis on the source novel, with virtually all of them featuring art of either the book’s cover or pages opened within. None was without endorsement of David O. Selznick as the producer Who Made "Gone With The Wind." These were Rebecca’s selling priorities, and Hitchcock would have to wait for his second American feature, Foreign Correspondent, to put a brighter light upon his directorial contribution.

Foreign Correspondent was where bricks began laying, where Hitchcock was anointed Master Of Suspense in America. There was less for him to compete with in that film's campaign. Producer Walter Wanger was an important name, but not half so as Selznick, and certainly there was no Gone With The Wind on Wanger’s resume. Now it was Hitchcock who’d be linked to a just recent US hit: The Man Who Directed "Rebecca." For the first time, he had a possessory credit, Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterful Production of "Foreign Correspondent," which placed AH first and foremost among names to sell the 1940 release. It helped having a cast that wouldn’t overshadow him. Joel McCrea and Laraine Day were stars of a second-tier and not foremost in ads and poster art. Topicality was what United Artists pushed. This was a story ripped from wire services, and Hitchcock with credits now on both sides of the Atlantic was an ideal interpreter of tumultuous international events. He’d introduce a greater sophistication to upend hackneyed technique of melodramatists gone before. But Hitchcock wouldn’t be stuffy about it. He was called the customer’s director, one who shared a patron’s disdain for cliches we’d all grown tired of. AH would demolish these and replace them with action lots more fun and surprising. Foreign Correspondent’s spectacular plane crash at sea was proof of that, being another of those Hitchcock Moments unique to his sensibility and excitingly fresh to ours. Ads for the first time included the director’s image over a caption reading The Master Of Suspense (as here). Standees were available with Hitchcock’s name and the same legend displayed prominently. As of this second only film he made in the United States, AH would become a filmmaker celebrity of the first rank.

The next of Hitchcock’s thrillers, Suspicion, consolidated his position. Now he was sufficiently well known as to be recognized in caricature. National magazine coverage had seen to that. Hitch was colorful and made good copy. Readers found his look arresting and manner even more so. Comments he’d made led columns across America. AH said actors were cattle, or should be treated like cattle … whatever … it was enough to put him on entertainment pages nationwide. Star Carole Lombard brought livestock onto the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith to pay off the gag everyone was talking about, and Hitchcock was showman enough to laugh with an increasingly adoring public. By the time Suspicion rolled in for Thanksgiving 1941 release, he was as familiar as any movie star and likely more welcome than most. RKO’s trade ads got it said with Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, and a cartoon Hitchcock pointing authoritatively with cigar in hand. Two Great Stars and A Great Director conferred equal standing to this trio of hit-makers. Even smaller Suspicion ads found placement for Hitchcock’s caricature. The Screen’s Master Of Suspenseful Romance was among several variations on the director’s brand. Suspicion used this and The Master Of Insidious Surprise to describe him. Hitchcock’s image and the direction he’d follow had grown clearer with each project. It was an imprint fully formed to last for a career of thirty-five plus years to come and posterity beyond.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Hammer World I Live In

To watch Hammer’s 1959 Hound Of The Baskervilles twice within days made me ponder reasons for going back when so many interesting things remain unwatched. I think it’s mostly the welcoming house and grounds at Bray, which is odd for the fact they’re 4000 miles off and I’ve never once visited except in US theatres and more lately DVD. Still, there’s familiarity in those environs that’s just like coming home. Bray was the place where Hammer operated, shot their movies, and served meals. Every room, corner, and shed turned up eventually as background or was dressed for a set. I like going on Hammer holidays, exploring upstairs and down in castles (really just one) that designer Bernard Robinson modified time and again to suit purposes of whatever monster claimed residence. Every crypt and fireplace is like the handshake of an old friend. Those who wonder at the allure of Hammer just haven’t seen enough of it. Their films have a better sense of community than output from any other company. Personnel who spent careers there have confirmed as much. A comforting and familial place it was. Where else do horror films give off such a warm glow? There’s toasty rooms where you can sit before a crackling hearth like Jonathon Harker to enjoy your host’s wine and a baked loaf, then retire upstairs where bed chambers maintain crispness of Autumn air. We see their breath when John Van Eyssen and Christopher Lee speak in Horror Of Dracula, a reality of chilly Bray stages I’d not trade for anything. The Little Shoppe Of Horrors is a terrific magazine devoted to Hammer Films. They’ve published photos of Bray both inside and out that show just how economical those settings were. How they managed to make them look so majestic in finished product is tribute to genius and ingenuity of artists on staff. Surely Bray was a magical place when Hammer thrived there, for seeing films they made, especially when properly presented, is like bed and breakfast at --- take your pick --- Castle Dracula, Frankenstein’s chateau, or Baskerville Hall. No wonder I keep going back.

MGM’s High-Definition network has been running Hound Of The Baskervilles. I wonder if they realize what joy they’ve given fans who’ve waited years to see it so gloriously rendered. The DVD was a bust for being non-anamorphic. Prior to that was television’s ritual abuse. Hound was not the world-beater Hammer and United Artists counted on when released in Summer 1959. There was $450,000 in domestic rentals, a figure cleaved by half of what Universal-International realized off the previous year’s school vacation release of Horror Of Dracula. The novelty of Hammer was wearing off even as quality maintained. Hound had to compete with another from the company that Paramount was handling, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, which drew a punier $238,000 in domestic rentals. Hound did much better in foreign markets, with rentals from those territories coming to an impressive $1.4 million, so it was by no means a failure overall. Chinks in armor of its US campaign might be spotted in awkward effort to sell Hound as a blood-dripping horror fest along lines of prior hits Curse Of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula. Totally ignored in all ads was the fact that this was a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Of what commercial value was Conan Doyle’s character in an exploitation-driven late-50’s market? Holmes hadn’t been around since infrequently revived Basil Rathbone thrillers, which by the mid-fifties were being shown on television. The big push for 1959’s Hound focused on the title beast, made to look so ferocious as to imply a werewolf’s not-so-distant cousin. What Hammer put on the screen was a distinct letdown from that, and I wonder if disappointed word-of-mouth among kid patrons did damage to second/third days and subsequent runs (anyone recall their initial impression?). Something about a Bone Chilling Howl made ad copy for most engagements, perhaps not enough to close sufficient sales.

Still, there were showmen who persevered. One was Dan Austell of Winston-Salem’s Carolina Theatre. He utilized the deathless wheeze of inducing a local woman to sit alone in his auditorium for a midnight showing of Hound, a fresh ten-dollar bill her reward for making it through the show (WANTED! --- The Bravest Woman In Winston). WTOB was King of the Hill among local AM Top 40 stations and often tied in with theatres for stunts like this. The Carolina shared first-run product with the Winston, located just down a block. Neither gravitated to horror films as a rule, and runs were brief when they did (I remember Masque Of The Red Death being in and out of the Carolina after two days, contrary to their usual three-or-more policy for new pics). United Artists must have sent up a crack salesman to get a mid-week booking and such aggressive campaigning on Hound’s behalf. The Thalhimers referred to in the ad was Winston-Salem’s ritziest department store, located across the street and more or less between the Carolina and the Winston. I was bored silly the few times my mother took me in there. They did indeed have a beauty salon on the third floor. The women wore uniforms just like Mrs. Maxine (Bare) Morrison’s here and looked like nurses. It’s sobering to think that this young woman in her undoubted twenties is now at least to mid-seventies. I wish I could talk with Mrs. Morrison, for I’ll bet if she’s still among us, she’d well remember that midnight show of Hound Of The Baskervilles at the Carolina (well, wouldn’t you?).

Many of the Hammer films owned or partly so by Seven Arts were kept off television until the seventies and thus enjoyed extended lives on theatre screens, while others, like Hound Of The Baskervilles, shuttled off to the tube much earlier. Hound’s syndicated availability was announced in July 1962 as part of a thirty-one title package including UA features just off ABC network runs. Being the lone horror film in the group (other than sci-fi chiller, Invisible Invaders), Hound would share late-night berths with highly regarded Witness For The Prosecution, Sweet Smell Of Success, and others. The following 1963-64 season saw Hound joining a group of sixty UA/RKO/pre-48 horrors in a syndicated package that was probably the best one available outside of Screen Gems’ two Universal "Shock" groups, as it boasted Doctor X, the Val Lewtons, King Kong, and many more favorites.

There’d been talk of Hammer launching a series of Sherlock Holmes thrillers beginning with Hound Of The Baskervilles. UK audiences might well have embraced it (note the above British quad’s reference to S.H.), but United Artists’ domestic sales force had no such confidence in the Holmes name as potential draw. The film itself juiced up creepy elements not to be found in Doyle’s source novel. Hammer had its own brand name and reputation to uphold. There’s flamboyance here to erase memories of staid sleuthing done by previous Holmes enactors. Peter Cushing’s exuberance freshens up plot machinations less energetic during a long middle section when he’s offscreen, and Christopher Lee enjoys the sort of dashingly romantic part I wish he’d played more often. As with so many Hammers, color is a Godsend. Theirs had a look peculiar to British Technicolor processing that upped tension levels in ways almost subliminal. Ones I saw theatrically are memory stored yet as unique encountering with reds, greens, and blues rendered like nowhere in US chillers, which beside Hammer output, always seemed more conventional. Martin Scorsese once recalled that Hammer films were events growing up, chillers he and friends knew as something special. The best of Hammer made Anglophiles of a generation of American youth, well before James Bond and the Beatles took credit for leading Britian’s cultural invasion.
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