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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Chaney Does a Texas Carnival

I thought I was done with Halloween for this year till providence guided me to a trade account of beaten but unbowed Lon Chaney (The Lonster for those who revere him) dragging weary baggage to an El Paso pre-Halloween appearance circa October 1964. Junior’s a cautionary fable for all of us tempted to light up a Lucky or have that second snifter. He’s what happened to those who took career paths better left alone. I understand Lon began at plumbing and excelled at it. Lean times forced him into movies. He could barter Dad’s name for better money than was in fixing commodes. I always felt sorry for young Chaney and might even have taken up fishing had opportunity arisen to join the committed angler lakeside (Lon enjoyed best the simple pleasures in life). Texas hosts found Chaney's a rather sad, sweet face under the make-up as he joined celebrants at the Western Playground Amusement Park that October 17-18. Right now I’m making personal appearances to see where my ego belongs, said easy-to-like (their words) Lon. I want to find out if I’m an egomaniac or an introvert, and how the public feels about me. Yes, that’s a quote. Chaney was 58 here. Wouldn’t he know by now? Maybe one of the carnys supplied pre-interview libation, for El Paso’s honored guest seized bully pulpit to sound off on what’s wrong with the whole horror movie business. Monsters should be entertaining without being ridiculous, said Chaney. "The Wolf Man" was a highly popular piece of celluloid. We didn’t clown it up. We worked at it sincerely and did it honestly. Perhaps wistfully, he’d addThe good old monster shows are still the most popular.

His "old monsters shows" served Lon best, for recent ones he’d done were little to brag on. 1964 had so far tendered Face Of The Screaming Werewolf and Withcraft (the latter released a month prior to his El Paso visit). I'd seen Werewolf at the Liberty (and remember thinking what a neat title that was to be appended to such a miserable film) with a thing called Curse Of The Stone Hand. Both were out of Mexico and plenty dire. It would be interesting to know how many (or few) bookings this combo managed nationwide. Chaney had last done reasonably classy work in AIP’s The Haunted Palace, from late 1963. Otherwise, features amounted to short weeks with A.C. Lyles’ ongoing outreach to vintage westerns, where cast members likely spent breaks talking of how good movies used to be. Maybe that inspired Lon to look back longingly on days past, even as he claimed to receive twice as much mail from 1964 fans. His manager in tow claimed 467 film credits for the actor and declared it a world’s record. Chaney himself added that that he’d been in show business almost sixty years … which, according to the doubtful trade scribe, means he was wowin’ ‘em in the front rows from his cradle. Still, it was a sympathetic piece. At least Lon was out there pitching, and not too proud to reveal the title of his latest, Cannibal Orgy: The Weirdest Story Ever Told, which emerged finally as Spider Baby in 1968.

All of which reminds me of George Reeves sawdust tours too lightly attended in the late fifties. If only we’d all been there to cheer Lon and tell him how great he’d always been! Reporting from El Paso acknowledged he was the idol of the younger set. They didn’t know the half of it. I’d have flipped had Lon Chaney showed up for one of our mangy carnivals, but all we got were bumper cars and caramel apples good for AM belly aches. Were there fan-snapped fotos made of Chaney that October? I’ll bet a few El Paso attics hold mementos we’d all like to see. For myself, late Lon sightings would be limited to Screaming Werewolves and what was left of him in Witchcraft, and yes, I too was sympathetic. His Larry Talbot became a friend for life thanks to stations close around liberally playing The Wolf Man during the sixties. He was handsome then in a doomed kind of way. What happened to Larry seemed almost to be happening to Lon as well. Something about those sad eyes bespoke hardship on screen and off. His might have been the first movie character that made me want to cry for him. Things start off well for Larry, then go horribly amiss. Sort of like Chaney’s career at Universal. Those Inner Sanctums to come were like one man’s journey through disillusion and beyond. Who’d have expected Chaney to become such a fine character actor in the fifties? You wish he could have held things together a little longer, but Lon was game all the way to a 1973 end, and there’s plenty in that to admire for El Paso fans grown up and the rest of us who missed out on a Halloween treat to surpass any we’ll get in 2009 bags.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween Harvest --- You'll Find Out

I’ve got sympathy for casual buyers/renters blundering into the path of Warner’s new Karloff and Lugosi DVD set. The box says they’re Horror Classics, though closer examination puts the lie to that. Between forums and disc reviews, these four titles have been parsed into molecules and fan conclusions are pretty near the same. I’m like others for wanting everything K and L did at Warners/RKO/Allied Artists (those catalogues owned by WB). Having descended to Zombies On Broadway and You’ll Find Out, it looks as though victory is ours. Best of this pack The Walking Dead plays Judas Goat in leading collector sheep to the slaughter of Frankenstein – 1970 and aforementioned two. I won’t try reader patience dismembering these when for surprising fact there’s much to like about You’ll Find Out and points of interest in all four. Kay Kyser has always interested me for being a North Carolina native and having returned here after making a clean break from show biz in 1950. The story was that Kyser declared he’d drop out upon realizing a first million from performing. Apparently, that’s just what he did. Unlike bandleaders lured back to spotlights from retirement, Kyser put paid to all aspects of music-making life and had zero desire to revisit his past. Major names having done that number in a handful. I’ve not forgotten one of Richard Lamparski’s books wherein Kay was tracked down to Chapel Hill by NC collector Milo Holt and subjected to an afternoon of old Kyser musicals unspooled in the family’s living room. The former headliner’s daughters had no interest in seeing them and … it seemed Kay and Georgia (his wife Georgia Carroll) watched only out of politeness. That was 1973. Kay Kyser died in 1985. His daughter has subsequently taken up a documentary project with aid from the North Carolina Museum Of Art. I’ll want to see that when it’s done.

The Bad Humor Men that livened up You’ll Find Out in 1940 were Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Bela Lugosi. Their billing played musical chairs according to which credits or poster you consulted. Wide audiences preferred the three laughing at themselves. These were days when Mom, Dad, and kids attended movies together and nothing split tickets like a show too scary for fragile patronage. The Frankensteins and Draculas weren’t worth a risk of sleepless nights for little ones. Horror films served best in isolation and done on small budgets, for they’d never broaden out to audiences so big as those listening weekly to Kay Kyser’s radio program. You’ll Find Out was the richest stage Karloff and Lugosi ever worked on together. Thousands would have been seeing them here for the first time. The likes of You’ll Find Out made K and L safer commodities, paving a way for spook spoofing to come and Karloff’s triumph of self-parody, Arsenic and Old Lace. I’m happy to see the pair amidst luxurious trappings wherein careful photography and elegant costuming display both at peaks of effectiveness (we fans are very protective of K and L’s status and dignity). It may be all in fun, but Lugosi here conducts a whale of a séance that I found creepier than many such episodes played straight amidst cheaper environs. Yes, you could say they’re "wasted," but there’s generally at least one of the three menacing Kyser and band throughout You’ll Find Out’s 97 minutes, so I was not restless.

There’s a big dose of silly with every Kyser serving. Comedy became as much his shtick as music, and jesting band members were favorites with or minus instruments. Smoother than fire engine Spike Jones, the Kyser sound bounced from squirrelly to mellow depending on a given moment’s demand. Kay was immensely likeable and pretty good with dialogue (his a lilting drawl, just like mine). He didn't seem intimidated by powerhouse talent sharing sets and stages (a later co-star would be John Barrymore). You’ll Find Out opens with the band’s radio show in progress, and it’s here we glimpse how well Kyser worked his audience. The act plays at a disadvantage later as YFT repairs to its haunted house, a setting more congenial to triple threat of Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre. What’s left essentially replays Cat and Canary nonsense with extended slippage through hidden panels and concealed rooms. Nowaday fans have loosed microscopes upon scenes where Kyser comes across King Kong’s spider and dinosaur models inexplicably strewn about cupboards, these being a handy short-cut for RKO set decorators who’d kept the things in storage since 1933. With help of freeze frames, the 2009 Kong brain trust has identified each and all of these miniatures. Working my own pause button was a singular highlight of You’ll Find Out, but the thing I want to know is, what happened to those wonderful artifacts? How long did they survive? It seems someone told me of a Desilu sales reel wherein Desi Arnaz strode amongst props at the RKO lot he and Lucy bought in the fifties, and there were Kong models still in evidence. That would be some fifteen years after You’ll Find Out. Were all these little monsters eventually thrown away, or did little monster offspring of lot personnel wind up taking them home for play toys?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Halloween Harvest 2009 --- Part One

It’s only natural for collectors to think more in terms of what they’re lacking than what’s been secured. With a hundred horror and sci-fi discs still on my shelves unwatched, why am I so impatient for Universal to get out a promised Mad Doctor Of Market Street along with four others of their backlog we know to be mostly dregs of the "Shock" lot (for the record, these are House Of Horrors, The Strange Case Of Dr. RX, The Mad Ghoul, and a lone Paramount, Murders In The Zoo)? There are plenty of good genre films yet to be accounted for. Universal owes us at least a batch of pre-48 Paramounts they own, including The Uninvited, Supernatural, Murder By The Clock, The Mad Doctor, plus others of their own depleted vault, while Paramount itself goes on ignoring Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors, Crack In The World, and oddities like The Space Children and Blood and Roses that we’d welcome. Trouble with these is profit motive driving negative owners and diminishing sales DVD’s have experienced over the last several years. We like to think money doesn’t matter when it’s art, but costs of generating software won’t be got back when retailers clear shelves of oldies and in some cases, discs altogether. Labors of love are still performed in arenas of publishing, however. I’m mesmerized by private efforts of longtime fans whose magazines abide even in these hard times. There’s an outfit called Diamond Comics Distributors that seemingly has a lock on whatever fan driven efforts make it to stores. Your mag will get scant distribution lest it reaches their sales threshold, and several have lately dipped below that. Direct subscribing will become sole means of survival for publications that used to be on Barnes and Noble racks (I’ll omit reference to "newsstands" as so few of them are left). My favorites Little Shoppe Of Horrors and Monsters From The Vault thrive online, as both maintain convenient sites for back issues and subscriptions. If you have any interest in classic horror, these two are a must. Slickness and class their editors have achieved are fulfillment of dreams we all had in Famous Monsters/Castle Of Frankenstein days, with research and writing of a caliber not to be surpassed elsewhere. Cover art regularly tops itself and each new issue is an event. When the Rod Taylors of a thousand years from now spin their sum of human knowledge tops, these contributor/historians will be recalled for getting history down while data was accessible and participants were still around to be interviewed.

Re that sum of knowledge thing, Greg Mank brings fifty or so years of it to his much expanded edition of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration, just out from McFarland Press and believe me, worth every dime of a $75 cover price. The Jefferson, NC publisher (mere miles from me) has lately gone with larger formats and better photo reproduction (color plates even), so books like this are deluxe in appearance and joys to peruse. Author Mank has been gathering Golden Age survivors and chatting them up since the seventies. His accumulated expertise just staggers me. I used to go around the schoolyard claiming monster mastery, but it’s a good thing this guy wasn’t among classmates, for he’d have whupped me to a frazzle. There’s so much I learned from these 685 (whoa!) pages, and yes, that’s long, but Mank’s a colorful wordsmith and sets a crisp pace throughout. He’s also irreverent and gossipy when situations warrant, as they often do when subjects are K and L. No wait. Make that L and K. Their billing reversal comes as Mank elevates horror’s forever underdog to deserved prominence, yet another bold caprice in a book filled with unexpected delights. It’s also scrupulously researched and accurate to a fault. And the stills! Here is a gallery for fans who think they’ve seen everything. Mank knows what’s been published before and avoids too familiar images we’ve seen over decades of inhaling monster lore. There are 240 black-and-white shots and ten color poster images. You’d want the book for these alone even if the text weren’t so wonderfully accomplished. The author renders no judgment as to which subject he prefers, as it should be. Who’d want to choose between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff? I’ll always take both, thank you.

From Hell It Came is prominent for being the one (surely there aren’t others) in which a tree uproots itself and goes about killing people. As with other monsters out of Allied Artists, this specimen takes forever making the scene (I’ve not forgotten The Giant Behemoth’s tardy arrival at nearly the end of his story). From Hell It Came is more than two-thirds done before tree walking gets underway. Everything to that point is grinding exposition played largely on a single set with actors I never saw before or would again. I bought the DVD from Warner’s Archive and kept looking for Jim Davis. He used to be on Dallas and was stopped from hanging a sheepherder by Big Jake. Where was Jim Davis? Turns out he headlined Monster From Green Hell, which I’ve always confused with From Hell It Came and probably always will. I even scanned a theatre ad from the former thinking it was the latter. To distinguish between 50’s monster shows done cheap and billed combo-style requires intellect and recall I aspire to, but likely will never have. There’s no good explaining why trees walk in From Hell It Came. Suffice to say some producer thought it was a good idea at the time. What is the lure of these barrel-bottomers? I sat watching From Hell It Came and could not imagine anyone else in the world doing the same, and yet there are kindred (lost) souls, most of whom saw it first at matinees or midnight television, seeking here to recapture innocence for having done so. The long-ago demand for cheap horrors was such that anyone could point a camera at rubber suits and get distributors to handle the finished result. Midwest moguls barely out of teens got Warner Bros. to ship Teenagers From Outer Space in 1959 (Thrill- Crazed Space Kids Blasting The Flesh Off Humans!) and as late as 1965, virtual amateurs sold 20th Fox on a more or less home movie called Horror Of Party Beach. A picture like From Hell It Came has its modern counterpart in 2009’s just-out Paranormal Activity, which proves again you don’t have to spend money to make chillers pay.

Warners has been slowly parceling out Allied Artists titles they own. Frankenstein –1970 showed up in their Karloff-Lugosi set to satisfy long-standing desires for access to Boris in a Cinemascope horror film, not a minor occasion as he did precious few in wide format. You’d think an expanded screen would confer stature upon Frankenstein –1970, but alas, it occupies basement quarters among what fans regard as King Karloff’s worst. They even cite his own performance as lazy and perfunctory. The actor undoubtedly knew by 1958 that a Body Snatcher emerges one out of a hundred such endeavors and that focus might better be aimed toward whether AA’s check would clear. Was Broadway and versatility of television a balm for time served on the likes of this, Voodoo Island, and others such? Theatres along lines as one in Bluefield, WV (above) traded on name recognition Karloff got for a past year’s constant exposure on Shock Theatres across the land, his old Universals now a TV late show mainstay. Implying he’s returned as The Original Monster in the First All-New Story of Frankenstein was mirrored by sleight-of-hand used in televised spots barking Karloff Is Back! (one of those is on the DVD). I won’t say I’ve waited since 1962 to see Frankenstein –1970 again, but it’s nice renewing contact, even with memories of Channel 13’s broadcast being snowy as reception we had from that distant (Asheville) channel. An exemplar of cut-rate shockers as folks outside fandom imagine them, Frankenstein ---1970 strikes a homer. Should I be asked to assemble the next chiller clip parade, it would play center ring. Karloff’s science goes atomic mad in observance of changing times. I’d bet he pulled out stops here in deference to 1958 kids dumber than ones his Universal and Columbia experiments used to engage. BK stops (just) short of outright spoofing, with crooked nose and back, plus legs so bowed as to occupy adjoining rooms he shuffles between. No way did he unwittingly overplay this. I’ll go detractors one better by saying it’s not acting at all, for Karloff hustling his patented menace in Frankenstein ---1970 shoots straight for balconies to give four-bit ticket buyers every cent of their allowance’s worth. "Bad" as it is, this may be his definitive stand as barnstorming purveyor of low-rent scares and proof Karloff knew well what his following was there to see.
Coming Next: More Halloween Harvest and You'll Find Out.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fox Finishing The Unfinished

Just a few notes about Something’s Got To Give before I leave poor Marilyn alone. This may be the most famous unfinished movie ever not quite made, with public awareness going all the back to when Fox cobbled a feature tribute called Marilyn in 1962, hosted by Rock Hudson, which included pieces of SGTG. There was hunger for Monroe footage right from her death. A lot of odd stuff was preserved that would have otherwise gone into dumpsters. A DVD documentary produced by 20th shows a vault bulging with hours of Something’s Got To Give. They’d kept this even as three-strip negatives from the studio’s Technicolor inventory were being dumped. Film history would better have been served had it been the other way around. The DVD has a first-ever assembly of those scenes more or less completed in 1962. What survives is tired comedy anticipating a Dark Age of Doris Day vehicles to come. Something’s Got To Give was in fact revisited and ultimately completed with Day in Marilyn’s part. The remnants landed in 1963 and was called Move Over, Darling. Fox would lose $$ on that one after Doris Day’s participation money came off. Some projects are just doomed no matter what. Monroe’s apparent refusal to finish Something’s Got To Give might have been a matter of knowing what a poor specimen it was and misbehaving in hopes Fox would give up and shut down. She always was perceptive enough to know good comedy from bad. Billy Wilder acknowledged Monroe’s instinct for spotting laughs in given scenes and playing to a best realization of them. Based on the forty or so minutes we have of Something’s Got To Give, there was no mirth there to mine. Dean Martin famously refused to complete the shoot after Marilyn dropped out and Fox signed Lee Remick to pinch-hit. He knew that without Monroe, SGTG had no chance.

Of Marilyn’s truancies during production, the worst was cutting out for Washington and Jack Kennedy’s birthday party. She could always manage miraculous recovery for events like this. A surviving kinescope is among the spookiest chunks of film ever recorded, like a warm-up for the Zapruder footage. The ballroom looks stadium sized. What faces we detect are ghostly blurs, and there are oceans of them. Laughter is distant as if summoned from beyond. Host Peter Lawford might be death itself holding a sickle. Marilyn enters (late) in wrath-like white and barely manages her rendition of Happy Birthday. The miserable kine quality makes it seem lots longer ago than forty-seven years. Wasn’t this close around the time of the Cuban Missle Crisis? Watching makes you think a bomb’s already been dropped and these celebrants are what’s left. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that everybody in that room came to bad ends.

Would Monroe have been happier just being a model? According to histories, she came brightest to life when posing for stills. MM may have been the century’s most accomplished exhibitionist. Going into Something’s Got To Give minus added pounds she’d carried during Some Like It Hot, Marilyn flaunted improvements and got huge publicity for a nude swimming scene that was featured on LIFE’s cover. This was hot potatoes for a yet Code-restricted 1962 and set observers were getting word out that she’d really done the scene naked. It’s naturally a focal point when watching Fox’s DVD construction. Lots of still proofs were tucked away from those shooting days and have dribbled out since. You wonder what more might be hidden in drawers and safe deposit boxes. The disc documentary, Marilyn: The Final Days, includes interviews with those few left to be consulted. Funny how doctors on camera are never among those that prescribed hazardous drugs. One with an open collar and skin like a lizard handbag says MM must have gotten all her lethal stuff from somewhere over the border. That’s probably true enough. Or maybe Wally Reid’s primary care still had a shingle out. Monroe supposedly made a deal with Fox to come back and finish Something’s Got To Give just days ahead of fateful 8/5/62, with director Jean Negulesco to replace George Cukor. Negulesco’s results could not have been any more dispirited than what Cukor had been getting. Something’s Got To Give was really better off not finishing. It serves us well enough as a forlorn document of a studio and star breaking last straws together.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Part Two of Marilyn Monroe and Niagara

I guess Marilyn and Elvis are the two biggest legend names we have. You could add James Dean, though he’s down the line from them and getting more so with passage of time. Will Monroe ever wear out? Elvis won’t so long as there are devices to play his music. Even devoted fans of Marilyn are watching less of her movies now, I suspect, but still images will likely survive civilization itself. Like a lot of female icons, Garbo, Louise Brooks, etc., we think of MM more as an infinite line of photos than a moving and speaking presence. When followers had her alive and vocal, it mattered more what feature she’d turn up doing next, or which marriage she’d be in or out of. Now it’s just reams of frozen imagery selling product not necessarily related to films. We know she was a real person because of much tragic stuff and the fadeout. Everybody has their opinion about that. Mine is that she thoughtlessly downed sleep tablets much as I used to chug nickel bags of M&M’s, only she chased hers with alcohol. Probably not a suicide, or at least not one she meant to see through (there'd been several attempts thwarted by friends and caretakers). Could have been murder, but how would the perp have gotten in and managed that with a housekeeper standing by? I do believe Peter Lawford was sent to vacuum the place before authorities took over. Imagine what that was like for him. Stepping over a corpse in search of a diary and whatever might compromise his/her masters. What if these were clutched in Marilyn's hand? Too bad Lawford took all that truth with him, for he probably knew the score better than any of the rest. They’re all gone now, and it’s not even been fifty years. Was there a curse on everyone in Monroe’s orbit? My family happened to be in Los Angeles the day Marilyn died. I’ve sometimes imagined looking her up at age eight to warn of impending disaster. Would I have met a Kennedy at the door? It's said she was getting ready to call a press conference and spill it all. Maybe somebody did get rid of her. High stakes rode on this woman who was unpredictable at best and capable of taking careers, entertainment and political, down with her if she went. I’m surprised no one has offered up a fake Marilyn diary … or, maybe they have, and no one showed me a copy.

Early photos of Monroe are disturbing. You can tell bad things were being done to her. They're a lot like sad adolescent Clara Bow poses I’ve seen. One magazine even published a shot of Marilyn’s mother sitting on a park bench, during the seventies I believe. Anyway, it was years after MM died. The face was spooky and vacant, as though this woman had no idea who her daughter had been, or even if she had a daughter. Does anyone know when she died? You see, there are experts on Marilyn far beyond levels I could hope to achieve. They collect dust particles of her life and could tell you what Monroe did from hour-to-hour on any day out of that final decade. They know her movies inside out but could care less about anyone else’s movies. My MM knowledge is mere flyspecks beside theirs, but there are bits I do remember. One was grubby chapters in columnist James Bacon’s paperbacks (one was called Hollywood Is A Four Letter Town) about how he bedded Marliyn when she was young and struggling. Seems Bacon was sharing her with aged producer Joseph Schenck, who would call whenever varied potions kicked in and he was, for an hour or so, able to perform. Again I ask … was it worth it being a star? Good thing I wasn’t Marilyn, for in that event, randy old Joe would have had gratification delayed by endless queries about the flame-out of Roscoe Arbuckle’s career, independent producing with John Barrymore, and the formation of Twentieth-Century Fox. Oh, and I’d have chastised him severely for selling Buster out to MGM. Coitus interruptus, indeed!

Fans would shoot home movies around New York in hope of sighting Marilyn. They staked her morning to night and knew where she’d turn up. The candid captures often found a distinctly un-Marilyn-ish Monroe, her scarf wrapped tightly round, an expression distracted or confused. Such 8mm glimpses of MM’s off-guard world include coffee shops, automats, and theatres open all night as backdrop to her retreats. You almost expect J.J. Hunsecker to pass by and say Hi. Everything about Marilyn is bound up in 50’s iconography (wonder who the first writer was to observe that … certainly not me). So many books present Monroe with a startling glamour grin and lipstick that looks like freshly sucked blood. Much of Marilyn’s posing seems too much, at least for me. She looked prettier and more natural in pre-stardom sessions and ones done, interestingly, toward the end. 20th had its own twisted notion of allure and Monroe had to abide with it. Their subsequent build-up for Jayne Mansfield might beat MM’s for crass, but not by much. You can’t help sensing the cloud of cigarettes and sneaked bottles that accompanied campaign strategy meetings for a picture like Niagara, Fox’s first to exploit her as an all-out sex trap. Everybody but Marilyn got a laugh over the fact she was getting only $750 a week for being so exhibited. The price of her fame would be cheap so long as she remained with that company.

Niagara is the best Monroe to show for those with simple and pre-conceived notions of what she was about, as it fulfills civilian expectations for melodrama with switches turned up, a prime sampling of what we’ll call scenic noir. That’s a (sub) sub-genre requiring color for full effect, and included but a handful of titles. Leave Her To Heaven and Desert Fury came earlier and were set in places where you wouldn’t mind living but for so many murders. I was blind to how good Niagara is for sub-par Eastman 16mm prints and black-and-white TV broadcasts that were my former lot. Its pace is quick and they don’t waste time with subtleties. Neither did Fox cheat with locations. All exteriors appear to have been shot at the Falls, making me want to visit even more than when Gilbert Roland did a tightrope walk over them in The Big Circus. Technicolor still had picture postcard quality in 1953, and Niagara is gorgeous on Fox’s DVD. Henry Hathaway (with Marilyn above) directs as he did for Louis De Rochemont where-it-happened thrillers, only this one happens at a place more engaging to look at. As we’ll never have auto courts again in real life, it’s instructive seeing one here. Did vacationers at such places really intermingle as freely as in Niagara? The essential debate passed down these fifty-six years comes to choice between Marilyn Monroe and second lead Jean Peters. Which did/do viewers prefer? I wonder if 1953 males gravitated toward Marilyn in simple observance of billing and poster placement. One writer said that Monroe’s character was for the hoi polloi, while Peters appealed to thinking men. Looks like I’ve finally gotten affirmation, for to me, there’s no contest. These girls might be the Ginger and Mary Ann for barroom discussion of what was sexy in 1953. Niagara supplies money’s worth just for opportunity to ponder the two. A friend who was a service projectionist back then told me that his soldier audience chose Jean Peters to a man. Maybe it’s time for someone to take Niagara out on the road and do the definitive national survey. Any volunteers?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Monday Glamour Starter --- Marilyn Monroe --- Part One

Let’s suppose I’m a director back in the fifties, and they’ve asked me to helm Some Like It Hot instead of Billy Wilder (yikes!). Here would be my strategy for handling Marilyn: We’d start work, and for the first few days, maybe a week, she’d show. Then troubles start. Ailments real or mostly imagined, Paula Strasberg horning in, MM locked in her dressing room, etc. What’s my next move? Having read several Monroe bios plus Tony Curtis and Mark Vieira’s outstanding new The Making Of Some Like It Hot (above), I’d be armed with twenty-twenty hindsight and a sure plan. First, I do nothing. Let several days pass without calling MM or begging outside her locked sanctum. She’d wonder what was amiss. Then I’d quietly tell everyone to just stay home for a day. UA would lose money, but no more than’s wasted trying to reason with an actress mad as a March hare. Next would come my capper. I’d bring in Mitzi Gaynor, having intended her for the part to start with, then go forward on Some Like It Hot as if she were the final choice. Would Marilyn emerge from the impasse like Judy Garland when Ginger Rogers suddenly turned up to do The Barkeleys Of Broadway? It would all be a bluff of course (my publicist would call it A Bold Stroke for the benefit of Variety subscribers), but here the MM of my imagination relents, is ready to work, apologetic, and properly chastened (in real life, of course, she’d grind me to powder and the Mirisches would pick up my Guild card). Crazy as she was, Monroe was watchful of those who’d undermine her position. Even on Something’s Got To Give, she had spies reporting from the set to her alleged sickbed. I can’t go back and fix what was broken in 1958, but dreaming how I might, inspired by this book, confirms fascination the saga holds for me and serves too as solid endorsement of Mark Vieira’s day-to-day account of Some Like It Hot’s production, enhanced by star Tony Curtis’ vivid recollections. Plus Tony drops a now-that-Arthur Miller’s dead-it-can-be-told bombshell that makes for lively reading. All this for me was like being on the set. Small wonder I’d fantasize at running Billy Wilder’s show and rewriting movie history. You might too after reading this just published marvel of scholarship, on-set intrigues, and hotcha celebrity gossip.

What makes my meandering so foolish is excellence of Some Like It Hot as completed, even if Monroe’s behavior made it seem at times they’d never finish. What if this had gone shut-down ways of Something’s Got To Give? According to Curtis/Vieira’s book, that might have happened. Surely it chilled producer blood to have millions dangling upon the whims of an unstable leading lady. That she was worth it just made the siege more unbearable. I’d think that by the late fifties, budget estimates on Monroe pictures would have been routinely bumped by several hundred thousand to take into account her tardiness, endless retakes, and outright no-shows. What right thinker could have imagined smooth sailing with MM by this point? That she justified enduring such horrors was what made so many lie down on railroad tracks over and over. Directors were forever swearing they’d never work with Monroe again … only to work with her again. Wilder did twice. He’d have probably used MM on Kiss Me, Stupid had she lived. I can see that 1964 disaster playing and profiting like a dream given Monroe’s magic in place of a sullen Kim Novak. I’m no particular fan of Marilyn’s, but I’ve got eyes to see that she was an absolute one-of-a-kind talent. No actress save Judy Garland was so tolerated for conduct that would consign anyone else to unemployment rolls. Producers seemed willing to put up with anything just to get a picture out of personalities like these. How many fell into such a rarified category? I’d propose Garland and Monroe among the women, Marlon Brando perhaps among males. Were there others I’ve overlooked? You don’t have to worship at Marilyn Monroe’s altar to realize no one could do Some Like It Hot so well as her. Imagine Mitzi Gaynor in it, or rather … let’s not. Vieira says they wanted MM for Some Came Running, info new to me. Now it’s going to be hard accepting Shirley MacLaine for knowing how much better that part might have been cast. Wait a minute, maybe I am a Marilyn Monroe fan after all …

Sooner or later you have to ask, just how funny is Some Like It Hot? Tony Curtis likes reminding us that the American Film Institute called it the Number One laugh-getter of all time. I missed SLIH in 1959, but am told it convulsed packed houses. Wilder actually had Jack Lemmon shake maracas during one dialogue scene to bridge between laughs that would otherwise drown out lines. Some Like It Hot probably seemed funnier fifty years ago because it was lots naughtier to patrons then. Conventions were easier outraged in those waning days when at least some of them were left. It’s still unconventional in terms of gender bending. When was the last time leading men wore dresses? Some Like It Hot doesn’t seem to have initiated a trend toward that, although Bing Crosby did assume femme disguise in 1960’s High Time, and that was likely enabled by the Wilder film’s notoriety. Some comedies are great even when you take away the laughs. Some Like It Hot is so well structured and entertaining as to get along without guffaws an initial viewing evokes. It’s fun for me, but was never funny-funny. Guys in skirts are inherently delightful to some people, leave others cold, and make a few uncomfortable. The appeal of this show is way subjective, more so than with most classics. I saw it the first time on NBC Saturday Night At The Movies (never mind UCLA or NYU --- this was my film school). The striking thing then was suspense and danger Wilder achieved right from opening bell (and note we hear just that at the end of the credits). Some Like It Hot was a better gangster picture than most others of that kind played straight. I still consider Wilder’s the most chilling depiction of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He was brilliantly right upping the stakes to life and death for his two leads. It’s what makes 129 minutes go by minus fatigue, that being the sad lot of so many comedies wearing out welcomes in half as much time.

What always thrills me in Some Like It Hot is that moment going into the third act when we’re looking at the floor of the hotel entrance and here comes Raft, identifiable by a close-shot of spats we align with carnage in Act One. Imagine shared intakes of breath among audiences seeing it first-run. Wilder had his firmest grip on a public at that deathless and showmanlike bump. He must have looked back often from a late sixties and seventies decline to wish he had such mojo back. Was it accidental that BW chose 1959 to reacquaint us with so many movie faces we were seeing nightly on the Late Show? Wilder likely knew this was the apex of a country’s awareness of old movies, thanks to television’s pre-48 avalanche. George Raft, Pat O’Brien, and all those character faces were practically living in homes from 1956 when all the old Warner crime and gangster shows fell like pianos into America’s after-hours consciousness. The bucket of Joe E. Brown comedies on TV made his face again familiar, it’s being done monochrome hot-wiring Some Like It Hot viewers to comfort of their living room chairs. What a shame Edward G. Robinson bailed out. Accounts say he refused to work again with George Raft after their dust-up on the set of WB’s Manpower in 1941, but weren’t they together in A Bullet For Joey just a few years back of Some Like It Hot? Hard to imagine Robinson turning down work during the hard-times (for him) fifties. There must have been some other reason we’ll never know about. Wilder’s period remove to the twenties worked fine because folks felt at home there, thanks to his brilliantly chosen cast. The thirty-year back references were less impenetrable for first-runners who’d at least heard of Valentino and Fairbanks/Pickford from elders. Today such names bandied in Some Like It Hot flatline with nearly everyone watching. The music will never fade, though. Wilder had an ear for standards that worked like charms with his characters. Where’s the book about this director’s tuning brilliance? His selections were proof that Wilder was at heart a romantic. He always knew what themes worked best. I was with a girl once who had no particular interest in movies, but hearing me absent-mindedly hum a song, she immediately chirped up, Hey --- that’s from "Sabrina"!, and sure enough, it was. There were three albums issued for Some Like It Hot by United Artists’ platter branch. That must have been some kind of record (pardon pun), and surely bolstered rentals. Domestic and import reprints are still kicking around on CD. I wish I were listening to one of them now.
More Some Like It Hot imagining here --- this time at a UA marketing meet.
Coming in Part Two on Marilyn Monroe --- Niagara and Something's Got To Give.
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