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Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Choice --- Laurel and Hardy: From The Forties Forward

Here’s the conundrum. Back when I discovered Laurel and Hardy, there was plenty to watch but little to read. Now there is abundance to read and virtually nothing to watch. Fans middle-aged and past have kept this fire burning as television bailed long ago on the team (and Our Gang, and W.C. Fields, and The Three Stooges, and …). Cable/satellite finds them only at TCM, not often, but isn’t that the fate of increasingly more last century stuff? Pretty soon we’ll all have widescreen sets whose owners won’t tolerate square pictures any more than they did letterboxes. It’s natural enough to want every square inch filled on expensive screens you buy. As for the best of Laurel and Hardy on DVD, I’ll be posting from Saturn before those are available. Just out, however, is a terrific revised and expanded second edition of Scott MacGillivray’s (I bet your name’s misspelled as often as mine, Scott) Laurel and Hardy: From The Forties Forward. The first printing was in 1998. I read that flying home from Los Angeles. It was so good that, had the plane begun plunging earthward, I would have finished the paragraph I was on before uttering final prayers. Author MacGillivray covers distribution, reissues, television release, and exhibition of L&H shorts and features, expanding on his theory that the team’s Fox/MGM wartime features have been unfairly neglected and maligned since the forties. In other words, I think he wrote it for me, even if we’d not corresponded at the time. Those who’ve tolerated Greenbriar for these nearly four years will adore this book. It is what any of us would want to have written given MacGillivray’s level of talent and initiative. Whatever you think you know about Laurel and Hardy, you’ll find many times that in revelations poured forth here. The author has done fine work in the past on Castle Films and Gloria Jean. This one represents his summit.

I’ve posted before on the comedies Laurel and Hardy did for 20th Fox. My problem with these is geographical. I’m just uncomfortable with the Boys off their home lot. Hal Roach was where they began and prospered as a team. Elsewhere the act seems out of place. Streets they walked/ran/chased in Culver City are as essential for me as L&H being there. You get to know that town’s landmarks for repeated use. Laurel and Hardy were as much about a place as times they represented. Books have tracked Roach locations, but few went exploring where Fox pitched cameras for the team. Music too was an essential. Take away Roach generated cues and L&H seem no longer themselves. My first picks collecting 8mm sound were their subjects with wall-to-wall incidental themes --- The Perfect Day, Brats, Hog Wild. Fans watch beyond perpetuity at least in part for music that is, for me at least, forever. Pondering why they declined is partly explained by loss of that accompaniment. This plus undeniable fact of Laurel and Hardy getting older. Hal Roach probably turned the duo loose as much for that as for fact he was moving toward other late 30’s direction. Stan got heavier as he aged. You see it as early as Swiss Miss and Blockheads. Babe’s was no longer the solid (if portly) athletic weight maintained on golf courses. Their increased schedule live touring and (minimum) nine-to-fiving at Fox gave him less time to counter evening cocktails with healthful traverse over the links. What age did to their appearance made Stan and Oliver’s act seem exhausted, but no team possessed such reserves of a public’s good will. Pressure was less during road tours, for merely seeing Laurel and Hardy was thrill a-plenty for customers who’d loved them since the 20’s. Stan wrote a sketch or two they’d perform with little more than a desk and a couple of chairs, knowing perhaps that just being there got the job well enough done. Theatre ads I’ve found for Laurel and Hardy in the forties generally find their Fox/Metro comedies playing second on double bills. Ones shown here represent Chicago first-runs for Air Raid Wardens, The Dancing Masters, and The Bullfighters. In terms of revenue, MGM’s features during this period, Air Raid Wardens and Nothing But Trouble, performed well below half of what Abbott and Costello delivered with three they did for that company (for instance, Lost In A Harem earned a worldwide $3.6 million to Nothing But Trouble’s $1.5).

Movies were tougher for L&H because competition was faster and, here’s a key word, bawdier. Abbott and Costello were aggressively co-ed. So was Bob Hope and patter types like him. They brandished (comparative) youth and sex overdrive to constantly remind wartime patrons of what everyone was really fighting for. A&C had transitioned from burlesque stages to filmmaking ones. I’m a Baaad-Boy Lou spoke the language of audiences reading between comic lines for smarmy jokes underlying. Funnymen at war were expected to be girl crazy and ever alert for the score. Bumbling Costello was never so much so as to abandon his wolf whistle. It was wrongest timing for an essentially asexual team like Laurel and Hardy. Not reliant on cheesecake or leg art before, now they were garlanded with it. Fox campaigning sat the team beside ingenues less associated with the films than necessity of skirts upraised and body profiles shifted sideways. Laurel and Hardy were slaves to fashion by other means incomprehensible to present-day fans and DVD purchasers. For us, there’s no accounting for Dante the Magician as billed-above-the-title co-star in A-Haunting We Will Go, his name and image sharing unearned prominence with Laurel and Hardy. Had the studio got round to elevating L&H to an A picture, I’ll bet it would have been in support of players then perceived as more important (Jitterbugs coming a year later might have found them listed below Vivian Blaine). Maybe it’s as well that Laurel and Hardy finished with Hollywood by the mid-forties. Were it possible to change the course of careers sixty-five years hence, I’d have at least put more songs into L&H Fox/MGM comedies, for there’s much dead air in ones we have. And I don’t mean tunes by guest artists. Laurel and Hardy were well up to singing and dancing. That was demonstrated in features for Roach and The Flying Deuces. Music plus the old routines would have easier carried the day, even if it wasn’t beloved Hal Roach themes we were hearing. So where do I come off trying to rewrite increasingly ancient history? Chalk it up to endless fascination of Laurel and Hardy, I suppose. We either love these two or are utterly indifferent to them. Ones among you who’ve stuck out this post should be well rewarded with purchase of Scott MacGillivray’s book. He has exhaustively covered what I’ve merely touched on here. Laurel and Hardy: From The Forties Forward represents the best scholarship I’ve come across about this team.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Our Greatest Tarzan Adventure

Warner Archive has lately released the Gordon Scott Tarzan shows. With no intent other than to confirm widescreen format, I put on Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and wound up watching the whole thing yet again. It could stand restoration (what 50’s title shot on eastman negative wouldn’t?), but overall, the presentation is adequate. Just seeing it wide for the first time was a kick. Greatest Adventure was absorbed along with most other Tarzans into a syndicated package that played television for years. Paramount hasn’t owned rights in ones they released since first-runs. 16mm collector prints were invariably pink or headed there. It's always been effort finding people who realize how good Greatest Adventure is. Boosters emphasize its adult appeal (as did the trade ad below). Well, early ones with Johnny Weissmuller were bold as well, but I’ve got to credit Sy Weintraub with nerve for pulling even fewer punches here. I've mentioned before the pre-credit sequence playing like James Bond teasers to come. I’m convinced it served as model for brass-knucked Brit actioners that quickened US 60’s pulses. Shots are fired at close range and victims bleed. Tarzan is within minutes shed of Cheetah as if to assure that it’s a serious game we’re playing. Gordon Scott gets most fan votes for best screen Tarzan. Who else brought such authority to strongman parts? Most came off either wooden or like a clown. Our impulse after all is to laugh at extreme Herculean types. Scott maybe realized that and low-keyed to a point where we wouldn't. So good as he is here, I wonder how GS registered in that Italo-Buffalo Bill pic he did later in the sixties (barely, if at all, released in the US). A little less Apollo baggage and he might have parlayed TGA (and almost as good follow-up Tarzan The Magnificent) into a wider range of parts. As for Greatest Adventure support, I've seldom come across UK players so vigorously flexing real muscles as opposed to mere thespic ones. Anthony Quayle sweats and oozes physicality in addition to customary mastery of dialogue. I’d like knowing how this actor looked back on his role as Slade. Surely he found it among ones most rewarding. Sara Shane recaps the Ava Gardner part in Mogambo to the extent of screwball-ish repartee with Tarzan as they jungle track Quayle’s murderous group, one of which is busting out of his stall Sean Connery, here to demonstrate how much energy he'd bring to bigger projects if only producers would notice (and a couple did, thus Dr. No a few years later). Tension within ranks of villainy keeps TGA on a high beam traversing 88 minutes as if half that length. End titles came before I knew it.

My friend Mike Cline and I were out to a North Hollywood autograph fair about fifteen years ago and met Gordon Scott. In fact, we were appointed his chauffeurs by show manager Ray Courts. This was fine with Mike as he’d been a dedicated Gordon fan since TGA’s first-run in 1959. Here was opportunity to grill Tarzan as to all his adventures over seven or so miles driven very slowly between Beverly Garland’s Holiday Inn and a modest apartment Gordo occupied somewhere in Burbank. I found Scott to be rather subdued, not unlike his interpretation of the Jungle Man. He called both of us Pal, as though being driven around by two guys from North Carolina was nothing less than his due. He probably figured we flew out just for that (and maybe it did justify the trip, as I don’t recall that much else about it). Scott was serious in conversation, not given to levity, and knew his worth as an actor. And yes, he’d also come to recognize Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure as an outstanding vehicle for him. Gordon’s taste in movies ran to thoughtful fare. Breaker Morant was one he mentioned for liking a lot. GS had the air of a man who’d catalogued regrets long ago and was getting by as best he could on what was left. He wore the same workout suit for the two days we ferried him and had access to a high school track where he ran each morning, plus a pool at the apartment complex from which balconies we imagined him diving as he had off TGA's treehouse. Gordon's digs reminded me of motels lush when new in the early sixties, but languished since to a melancholic drab. Scott was clearly low on cash, as he’d put his Tarzan knife up for an auction that weekend at the Garland, then was visibly upset when it failed to make reserve. I liked him even if he’d forgot me five minutes after we parted. So who says celebs have to be hail-fellows-well-met? --- Well, for that matter, how many would define Gordon Scott as a celebrity by the mid-nineties? It was enough to be his "pal" for as long as it took driving him back and forth to where his signed name could bring ten dollars a throw and fans like us could assure him once again that he was King of All the Ape-Men.
Thanks to Mike Cline for the Tarzan's Greatest Adventure montage, and go here for Greenbriar's post about Paramount's (mis)handling of TGA and Tarzan the Magnificent.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Boris Karloff Blog-A-Thon --- We Had a Karloff That Swings!

The big cameo in teen-targeted Bikini Beach turned seventy-seven in 1964 when that pic came out, yet few in its audience needed introduction to Boris Karloff. He was youth’s oldest friend and longest standing cool personality. Boris played sinister straight but kept a wry distance. He was for having fun with scares and that made him welcome most everywhere during the sixties. Here was the decade of Karloff’s fullest flowering. No more Broadway (too old finally?) nor pursuit of character work outside spooky type, his was an image firmly entrenched once Thriller made Boris Karloff TV's brand name for gooseflesh. That hosting (and sometimes top-lining) hour program put the actor in a televised hall of mirrors where avuncular host morphed into hours later alter ego from decades before. You could board a Karloff express with afternoon theatre stops (his for American-International), straight on to Thriller in the evening, then midnight arrival with Shock Theatres at (seemingly) all stations (what television market in the 60’s didn’t have one of these?). His was exposure the likes any player might dream on, and it made Karloff’s a face (and voice) so familiar as to be living under our very roofs. I used to scan TV GUIDES to see where he’d be that week. Didn’t matter the vintage. I’d surf his clowning with Red Skelton right to the next wave of Behind The Mask from 1932, all in a same viewing cycle. Oh, and it never mattered if shows or movies were worthy of him. Simply Karloff was enough and closed the deal for whatever they were running.

Pierre Fournier at Frankensteinia anticipates over a hundred participants for his Karloff Blog-A-Thon this week. I’ve pondered just how BK rates such blogging fervor. Would counter-programming on Bela Lugosi’s behalf inspire such participation? We know Boris ran success-wise rings round Bela during their lifetimes. What was it about Karloff that transcended monster ghettos? Yes, he was stuck in the genre most of the time, but embraced nonetheless by entertainers who’d not otherwise venture near horror folk. I just listened to a Bing Crosby radio broadcast from 1947. Karloff was guest and engaged easy repartee with Bing and announcer Ken Carpenter. He did scary movies, but maintained a kind of remove from all that, as though joshing with show biz pals like Crosby was the real Karloff life and menace work mere fooling (and other than infrequent quality work with a Val Lewton, that’s likely how he viewed it). Lugosi could never manage such distance. He came off intense even when laugh lights were flashing. Part of it was Bela’s foreign-ness. Crosby might have invited him before a microphone but for doubt BL could manage outside prepared skits. You could never be sure that Lugosi’s act was just an act. Karloff, on the other hand, readily exited his graveyard to relax among personalities way outside genre boundaries. Curling hair for AIP, but also voicing the Grinch, and doing it playfully enough to relax us and earn good will among folks not given to horror patronage.

Some of you might want to go out and get popcorn now, because this is where I start talking about how I grew up with Boris. Are monster memories getting tired? My generation has been at it now for longer than Universal made all those Frankenstein and Dracula pics, and I’m apprehensive that my look-backs are looking mighty like everyone else’s. Are we getting like those old timers going on and forever about Bob Steele and Captain Marvel? And what of ones in the cemetery still rhapsodizing over Fred Thomson (and come to think of it, Lon Sr.)? I look forward to chatting with them if there’s an eternity, but in the meanwhile, I wonder if it isn’t time to give my monster kid past a rest. Just … not quite yet. Indulge me one more late show in my footie pajamas (which I’d actually like to have had at one time, but could never locate) and chance to relive what it was like seeing The Mummy on August 7, 1964 (like so many others excavating childhood, I went back and confirmed that date). Karloff was one of the first to offer me a sense of continuity in life, supplying as he did an ongoing visual record of the aging process and how increments of a year or ten will change a person’s circumstance and appearance. Fascinating was fact that a man who’d made movies labeled (1931) in my guide listings was yet turning up in just-out ones I’d caption (1964) for home-compiled records. Remarkable too was his guesting on pop shows first-running in primetime. The man who was the original Frankenstein monster was now Jim West’s opponent, and next week The Girl From U.N.C.L.E would play host to his villainy. Camped up television timed perfectly with Karloff’s grand old man phase of spookery. He stopped short of outright genre ridiculing Vincent Price and Peter Lorre indulged, disdaining ad-libs they peppered The Raven with, for Karloff maintained dignity and a champion’s defense of horror conventions that brought him fame. For interviews, he’d split hairs over Horror as opposed to Terror as descriptive term for work he did. I don’t think Boris would have sanctioned that Frankenstein model where the pants fell down.

As to my dedication, just a for instance. When Karloff did his Wild, Wild West (9/23/66), I guested (not necessarily by invitation) at neighboring cousins to watch in color, our own household being three months shy of a multi-hued set. Karloff was a maharajah of sorts, resplendent in costume and disgorging lines I still quote (This absurd ape begins to weary me --- just watch it). What disturbed were situations where this elderly man was clearly overtaxed. I didn’t enjoy his being struck down at the WWW finish any more than previous watery struggles in The Terror’s final reel. Both these were well past time when Karloff could easily manage on-set ordeal, yet we knew he was too much actor to permit doubling. It was like seeing one’s grandfather needlessly imperiled. Boris got pneumonia doing Black Sabbath in Spain and you knew someone was to blame for not looking out for him properly. How solicitous were ten-year olds of the time for real life seniors they knew?

Boris Karloff is introduced as guest host of Shindig (10/30/65) and teen girls scream as though he were all of the Fab Four … put to-gither. Here’s where we understand best just how contemporary BK's appeal was. Among other things, he sang The Monster Mash, a song credited to imitator Bobby Pickett, though I suspect most thought it was Karloff himself on that chart buster. It’s a heady thing to watch Boris reciting lyrics of The Peppermint Twist as go-go girls swivel around him. From vantage point of a throne chair, he introduces acts like Jim Doval and the Gauchos (a name not likely to be spoken again until the next siege of Troy) and spars verbally with Ted "Lurch" Cassidy, on hand to lead his own signature dance. Rock n’ Roll was still of two minds in 1965. How else to account for the Wellingtons’ straightforward rendition of Some Enchanted Evening? Surviving prints boast usual ghostly pallor of TV done primitive, the fact Shindig played basement network ABC making it all the more so. That Karloff should thrive here was no surprise, though I’ll declare without closer research that he was the only artist nearing eighty to ever appear on Shindig (or for that matter, Hullabaloo). Trips to the newstand found him aboard mastheads of varied mystery comics, the Karloff name sufficient to relieve us of twelve-cents for purchase. Monster mags celebrated past greatness of the senior Chaney and Lugosi, but Karloff was a here-and-now-working presence they’d visit on sets. Die, Monster, Die! made Castle Of Frankenstein headlines for Karloff playing an actual monster for the first time in years, and look at this herald for that film’s Charlotte first-run where Boris and Channel 3’s Dr. Evil are billed together as WBTV’s Two Favorite Bogeymen. It’s noteworthy too that the Capri was one of that city's premiere hardtops, and here was Die, Monster, Die! booking there as a single for nine days.

It couldn’t last forever. Karloff looked frail on his Red Skelton appearance toward the end, and by the time they reran it in the Spring, he was gone. My cousin was the one who broke news of that. I wrote a tribute for a local paper that had been printing my scrawls they charitably called movie reviews. Meanwhile, there was indication of Karloff having done a brace of horror films still to be released. We caught up with The Crimson Cult, billed as his last (it wasn’t), and near unwatchable save for an unexpected nude scene out of left field (and BK’s presence). Coincidental was belated appearance of one of what critics referred to as Mexican abortions Karloff did, these being his actual last. The Fear Chamber played our Channel 8’s Shock Theatre in the mid-seventies and rocked viewers for nudity as generous as that afforded most "R" features. Clearly this was a print the station’s editor had failed to vet. Maybe Karloff was as well to exit when he did. Ugly times lay ahead, and these final bows were proof he’d have had no place in horrors to come. Targets in 1968 was all the more valuable for reflecting Karloff’s awareness of that.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Don't Let Noir Change You!

I have to limit my intake of Film Noir. Maybe it’s weakness of character that makes me particularly susceptible to its dangerous allure. I’m becoming more of a mind that Noir can change a person. When Farewell, My Lovely came out in 1975, I went at least four times. Being twenty-one, it seemed a good idea to try Robert Mitchum’s personality on for size, so I went straight from the theatre to buy a pack of filterless Camels. The trenchcoat was already squared away, my having found a Bogartian corduroy number a few months prior. I must have looked the utter fool swallowed up by that wrap (at least several sizes too large, but why would they carry trenchcoats for the shrimp I was?), and the cigarettes were as ill advised for the fact I’d never inhaled smoke without gagging. Still, my thoughts were hard-boiled, at least for remaining hours on those days I watched Noir. I’ve since realized how easy it is to be seduced. These things can darken one’s view of the world. Treating professionals might prescribe a Jane Powell musical as chaser to excess of Noir. The most persuasive of it will turn one from dulled spectator to Hipster Sage. A good memory for dialogue helps. The other day Ann remarked that money isn’t everything. Yeah, but it comes the closest was my reflexive comeback. She knew right off that the line was too good to be mine. Questioned as to origin, I confessed getting it from Bob, probably when he played Jeff Bailey, or was it Jeff Markham? Wait a minute, they’re the same guy! What we need is capacity to catalogue every line Mitchum spoke in Out Of The Past. Imagine social situations we’d master, arguments we could win. All of the best of noir is like that. Filled with guideposts for a cooler and more knowing life, but a narcotic powerful and one best used in strict moderation.

I risked overdoing it this week with all five of Columbia’s (let others call them Sony --- I won’t) recent Noir Collection. How many pictures fifty years old toss such bracing ice water across decades into our faces? So much in these just took my breath away. Violence shocks best when there’s less of it. A lot of what happens in the five comes unexpected. I speak of them as if all were one movie running over multiple discs. In a sense, they are but a continuing tour past places largely gone now. Most everywhere you see is real location. The Line-Up visits aquariums and ice rinks that are surely parking lots today. I wish I could have lived amidst such environment and at a time when society enabled them, never mind risk of sharing space with hit-man Eli Wallach or psycho shooter Arthur Franz. A part of us would like knowing folks who dressed so nattily as Lee Marvin in The Big Heat, even if that meant flirting with disaster he comes to. If only life could run those 50's ways now, minus the getting shot at parts. Said parking lots and condos we've inherited are ugly as characters Lee and Eli played. Something else wonderful about these films are people real and vivid in ways impossible for weekend seminar trained writers to capture today. Syd Field and Robert McKee can’t equip students to think at pavement levels. Experts are all over Columbia’s set to background what we’re seeing (Eddie Muller, James Ellroy, some known directors). They have drunk the potion and are now truly one with noir. Yes, there is attitude you develop from watching these. For my own healthier peace of mind, I’ll opt for Jane Powell this weekend to rinse the grime off (Holiday In Mexico, anyone?).

Columbia’s offering is called Film Noir Classics 1, which suggests there will be a 2. They have, in fact, already indicated titles for a follow-up box, so I hope this one sells in order to cinch the deal. Each of the following represent as good a way to invest ninety minutes as you’re likely to find:
The Big Heat --- Once provoked, family man police detective Glenn Ford goes looking for trouble and propels 89 minutes of non-stop confrontation and violence. Noir leads sometimes mope. Never Ford. He walks right into snake dens with holster unsnapped and fists at the ready. Show this to beginners at Noir and they’ll be enraptured. The Big Heat is most recognized of the set and one that Columbia put out years back when they cared a lot less about library stuff on DVD.
The Sniper --- Loser at life Arthur Franz gets fed up with everyone else pairing off and begins splitting them up with a rifle. Not always fun going into the skull of deranged characters, but few are better done than this. Adolphe Menjou plays far removed from his Paris playboy image and is believably dogged as investigating detective. Pictures like this ran mostly to drive-in corn-dog munchers and bargain hunters intent on getting a second feature’s worth, so it’s all the more tribute to filmmakers still wanting to deliver something worthwhile. The Sniper earned $597,000 in domestic rentals. Had rewards been greater, these little films might have become as pretentious as neo-imitators are today. Columbia made buckets like them and successor Sony could release annual volumes for as long as I’ll be around to collect them.
Five Against The House --- Columbia Stars Of Tomorrow (watch the trailer) plan a casino heist for mostly kicks, and I could believe that better if this group were college-age as opposed to just being in college. GI bills must have paid out for a lot longer than we realized. I kept wondering which war these guys were veterans of. Guy Madison is sold like a newcomer even though he’d top-lined Warner’s
The Command just a year before. A happy end strikes us as unsatisfactory, but noir rules weren’t necessarily observed when object was to showcase attractive casts in what I’d call suspense lite. There’s impression of Five Against The House serving wants of youthful patronage, so why upend them with noir’s customary dose of fate served hopeless?

Murder By Contract --- From what I’ve read, Vince Edwards got full of himself doing Ben Casey and proved misery to work with. Was it so as well with this beginner part? Considering such possibility makes Vince more credible as outwardly easygoing, but lethal withal hit man. Different from other Noirs thanks to fact that largely unsupervised writers and directors could experiment more freely with so minimal at stake. Columbia probably cared as little about these as monster movies they distributed. I wonder how many viewers looked back on cheap thrillers to wonder if they’d intersected on TV or in theatres (I remember Vince Edwards in an episode of that series "Murder By Contract" …). Something like this had to play second feature because it would have seemed a cheat otherwise for people wanting color and wide screens for their admission. Martin Scorsese remembered seeing it with The Journey in 1958, which was both those expensive things. How many other customers hung on with him to watch Murder by Contract?
The Line-Up --- Hired assassins go about afternoon killings like housewives finishing up errands before supper, the process of systematic murder being just as rote and perfunctory. This is so much better than you’d imagine it could be, even knowing Don Siegel was director. How did pictures like this slip everyone’s attention in 1958? Siegel must have wondered why he didn’t get more claps on the back for a job so well done. Few crime stories received meaningful attention, unless there was something like
The Killers or The Asphalt Jungle where you knew Hollywood was going all out exploring the underworld. Cheaper ones took more liberties, made clearer statements, and so startle us decades on. You begin The Line-Up figuring you’ve seen everything and wind up jolted out of complacence, but quick. I ran several scenes back just to make sure I’d seen what I thought I saw.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Captain Video Flies Home

That fine nostalgia site Matinee At The Bijou was in touch this week concerning Greenbriar’s July 2006 post on Captain Video. They’d recently come across some You Tube’d episodes of the original 1949-55 DuMont series and planned to incorporate these into an updated version of the GB story. For not keeping up with You Tube, I had no idea these shows had been submitted there, as my info was that virtually all of them were lost. I’ve learned since of thirty or less existing, some offered on DVD by Alpha Video and others scattered about the PD wilderness. What began as a paragraph footnote for a three-year old GB entry about the 1951 serial became what follows after I watched and was thoroughly captivated by television’s Captain Video. Matinee At The Bijou will be featuring one of these vintage episodes on their blog screen this week as our two sites link up for this Captain Video look-back. Be sure to catch Matinee’s CV upload for thirty minutes of retro viewing joy. And while you’re there, check out their archive for much vintage stuff to watch, and a wonderful piece run recently where animation experts and fans were asked to pick their favorite cartoon, a great idea for a post I wish I’d had.

Unlike Columbia’s serial photographed with conventional 35mm cameras, Captain Video was shot using Dumont’s Electronicom, a device that by its very name implies something exotic and futuristic. The Electronicom’s dual capacity allowed for both live transmission and a Kinescope capture, the latter being 16mm film that was sent to stations playing a later broadcast of Captain Video. If DuMont hadn’t junked their Kines, we’d have something other than faint record of this very first science fiction series for television. Maybe limited samplings are enough, though. Much as I enjoyed the one off You Tube, it could be hazardous sitting through a raft of these things, no matter one’s sentiment over afternoons before the Zenith with its porthole screen (all twelve inches as shown in the 1950 model here). That last part was an essential to Video Ranger membership, plus necessity of being around in the late forties/early fifties to properly experience the show. I've never seen a round screened TV in action, having come closest perhaps in front of washing machines running with a full load (and who’s to say that would be any less engaging than much of early television?). To have grown up transfixed by such a contraption seems inconceivable, but viewers younger than myself can't imagine TV sans color, so I guess all of us reach our own level of obsolescence eventually. When did programming lose the zeal of Captain Video and its kin? Every pitch is an impassioned one. Announcers come on like tent preachers. TV gave up a lot when it became the so-called cool medium analysts talk about.

Captain Video sponsors included Post cereals and a candy bar called Powerhouse (ever had one? I don’t think I have, and sweets are my lifelong obsession). It would be great seeing all the CV commercials. For two nickel Powerhouse wrappers and ten cents in coin, you got by mail a Captain Video identifying ring. It must have been great living in the summit era of prizes and premiums. Addresses were so simple too. You’d reach the Captain through a bare-bones New York postal box, as if that metropolis were some rural route with letters finding their destination no matter the scrawl on envelopes. I once sent Kellogg’s boxtops for a Great Sounds of 1959 LP, so I have at least some idea of what it was like for kids ten years earlier awaiting delivery of Captain Video gimcracks. In a world gone daffy over cholesterol and carbon footprints, it’s refreshing to visit a time when children were beset with such irresponsible marketing. Longtime CV partner Post Sugar Crisp was a tooth-rotting harbinger of diabetic seizures to come and every bit as lethal as interplanetary tyrants the Captain proposed to dispel. Each little puff of Sugar Crisp is coated with candy, he'd say, inveigling youngsters to consume non-stop. Why weren’t more kids fat back then like they are today?

A character they call Lieutenant Cromwell tries seizing a Ranger rocket (upon being disarmed by him, I’d swear one of the Rangers said Damn You, Lt. Cromwell … at least that’s what it sounded like). This guy’s sonorous line readings are better than any of his opponents, so I wanted him to succeed. He also resembled John Dehner, but turned out to be an actor named David Lewis. I looked up Lewis on imdb and it seems Captain Video was the first credit of a career that lasted many years. Here’s more CV trivia: Ernest Borginine got early work as an interstellar heavy, but I’m not sure any of his episodes exist. Captain Video players often trip over dialogue that would tax a Barrymore. Blow up the nucleus of the comet by bombarding it with atom blasts!, this doable thanks to comet interiors being made up of meteoric masses. Everything by way of excitement is talked about rather than shown. It’s like radio with fuzzy pictures. Trips to Pluto are frequent offscreen events. You really had to use imagination to groove with Captain Video. I’d have preferred my science fiction in comic books, frankly. Were others of the same mind? Only 24 stations countrywide ran Captain Video to a viewership estimated at 3.5 million (gee, isn’t that about what network news is drawing nowadays?). I’m surprised so many fans remember the Captain.

There were two Captain Videos. The first resembled a young Rock Hudson and the second was more John Wayne-ish. That was Al Hodge, a name destined for obscurity once his character departed from airwaves in April 1955. You couldn’t syndicate Captain Video for its going out live or on kinescopes, so there was little to remember him by other than scattered toys and merchandise bearing the name. Hodge accommodated our darker expectations as to what became of discarded TV personalities by finishing (1979) in what’s said to have been a tiny apartment surrounded by Captain Video bric-a-brac. Well, if he’d gone out prosperous, would I have mentioned it at all? Lifelong fans are defensive of integrity they ascribe to Captain Video. Sets we call threadbare are (they say) at least equals of what other primitive series were hanging, and maybe I’d agree given access to more televised stuff from that era. Truth is, no one was doing programs so early on that could stand beside features or TV to come. Is it a wonder Hollywood regarded home viewing with such contempt? Captain Video was for filling its daily thirty minutes with anything that could talk or move, never mind what or where. One device (my favorite) was when the Captain activated his Remote Tele-Carrier to monitor progress his "California Agents" were making. These included Ken Maynard, Johnny Mack Brown, Raymond Hatton … whatever buckaroo might be pillaged from B westerns excerpted in eight or so fragmentary minutes. The CV crew would use these breaks to change sets and load ray guns (which never, ever killed or even injured anyone). It didn’t matter where they dropped the needle on a cowboy show. Such was filler and nothing else. Parts I watched made no sense whatever, with Buster Crabbe’s image so poorly rendered as to be recognizable only by his voice. Still it’s wonderful to experience kid programming this audacious. Maybe Captain Video’s episode ending tribute to America’s educational system was a kind of compensation for mind numbing he propagated during evening hours, along with his assurance that in other countries, the school system is ineffectual. Child viewers might well have wondered how the Captain sized up public education on Pluto.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Somewhere Between Hack and Auteur

Dependable Journeyman. That’s damning with something short of faint praise, being a label applied to directors whose work we’ve enjoyed even if we don’t recognize names credited. I’ve tried championing a few. Norman Taurog and George Marshall come to mind. Neither left memoirs or tooted own horns despite living past our initial discovery of auteurists among their profession. Frank Tuttle was retired as other veterans continued work where they could find it and died (January 1963) before historians dug ways down to him, but as a book recently out from Bear Manor reveals, he’d quietly written a career overview during 1960-62 that no one save family members knew about. Editor and author of They Started Talking’s introduction John Franceschina collaborated with Tuttle’s daughter in bringing the manuscript to light. It’s a Dead Sea scroll of picture history that might have remained attic buried but for efforts these two made. Frank Tuttle had a solid run from silents into the late fifties. Better work includes This Is The Night, The Big Broadcast, Roman Scandals, and This Gun For Hire. Most of his pre-talkers are lost, and that is where I suspect best effort were spent. Quite an event discovering a Classic Era director’s book-length memoir we never knew existed. Made me want to harvest up whatever Tuttle titles I could and start watching. So far it’s been Love Among The Millionaires and several other Clara Bow talkies he helmed. These were all Paramounts off the gray market. What a shame we must look at such dilapidated copies of the man’s work. Still they are preferable to days of not seeing them at all.

Frank Tuttle had the look and carriage of an Ivy Leaguer. Always a suit and tie to work. Note the tiepin here during Millionaires shooting with Clara Bow. You could have turned cameras around in those days and captured as much style behind them. Tuttle exuded breeding and education. He was like friend Walter Wanger in that respect. They both moved up with help from contacts made at school. Wanger gave Tuttle a boost after getting charge of Paramount’s east-coast operation. For having written and staged plays at Yale, Tuttle could knock off screen treatments literally overnight, and did. His book tells of round-the-clock doing of the impossible to meet production schedules. Paramount ladders reached to star directing and solid grasp of formulas that kept three and four yearly helpings of favorites from getting stale. For a while it worked, but Paramount raked through talent and took not the time to develop staying blueprints for them. Simple formats were devised and pounded into hash. Names including Richard Dix, Bebe Daniels, and Raymond Griffith were overtaxed and toiling on slopes tilted downward. Staff directors like Frank Tuttle could inject but so much individuality into vehicles rushing toward pre-determined release dates. Still, he described himself as a lucky guy who loves what he’s doing, and by all accounts, coworkers liked him for it. Louise Brooks called Tuttle a master of easy, perfectly timed comedy, her approval never easily earned. The director writes glowingly of association with Raymond Griffith and a brace of comedies they did together, but most of are missing, as is a Brooks called The American Venus for which only a trailer survives. What a downer to read accounts of 20's era Hollywood with so little extant film to give it life. Is this why some otherwise classic fans ignore silents altogether?

Frank Tuttle directed four of Clara Bow’s talkies. None had chance of amounting to much. They are precode by definition, but flaccid in result. Paramount sensed Bow slipping and no one was throwing lifelines. David Selznick worked there from 1928 and recognized the blight. He described the studio as one big assembly line for program pictures geared to audiences who’d watch anything. An early talkie boom suggested DOS was right. Clara Bow became a problem from the moment she spoke, but who cared about fixing that with boxoffice rewarding novelty of hearing Bow? Microphones bound her to fixed positions. Sets closed in and outdoor shooting was curtailed. Bow's talking output looked drab beside brightness of silents like It where cameras could be as energetic as their subject. Love Among The Millionaires focuses more on working class Bow’s suffocated environs than mansions her character aspires to. MGM invested more to contrast Joan Crawford’s humble shopgirls with deco paradises they repaired to with co-stars Robert Montgomery or Franchot Tone. Metro’s banquet table for Crawford was always fuller than Paramount’s for Bow, and a paying public noted the difference. Our Blushing Brides, for instance, is a far more satisfying meal than Love Among The Millionaires. Close-together release of the two made comparison cruel and inevitable. Bow was stuck in a talkie poorhouse and had no champions. Selznick suggested a bigger push to rescue her from doldrums. He referred to Bow being on her way out, adding by February 1931 … only a great picture would save her. That Selznick was concerned at all put him in a minority among Paramount executives.

It was some of the final Bows that Frank Tuttle directed. He speaks positively of her in They Started Talking. This was not a scorched earth account of on-set traumas making movies. Maybe if it were, they’d have published years before now. Tuttle was likelier penning a book his grandkids might one day enjoy, and besides, many colleagues of his were still alive in the mid-sixties. Why risk alienating them? The director mostly cited problems Bow had that he caused, reflecting modesty that may explain why Tuttle was so popular around the Paramount lot and lasted so long there. The downfall for Clara Bow lay mostly with inability to protect herself, being no judge or architect of material even as she played it brilliantly. Stars like Mae West and W.C. Fields held artistic reins tighter and preserved long-term careers against Paramount’s natural drift toward mediocrity. Clara Bow’s vehicles became dumping ground for inadequate leading men and comics playing better off each other than with her. Love Among The Millionaires even let Bow tender child support to Mitzi Green, a grizzled nine-year old with talent to suggest she’d trod vaudeville boards a lifetime beyond such tender age. Tuttle says Mitzi even proposed dialogue changes he accepted. Paramount talkies of that jangled period were asylum for every sort of curious act, and most turned up propping Clara Bow. Did she need Harry Green, Skeets Gallagher, and Mitzi Green? Probably not, but she got them all the same, in spades. Variety referred to Millionaire’s comedy as laid out with a trowel for the simple folks, suggesting it would play best for split-weeks with live acts in support. Such remarks among the trade were as helpful as a shiv in the back. By June 1931, Selznick was figuring ways of extracting the last value out of Bow before letting her go (callous is sure a word for this business). Breakdowns she’d have on Kick-In hastend that. It would be Clara Bow's last for Paramount.
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