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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tribute To Bad Men and Changing Times

Big enough film stars were always coddled. It’s disillusioning to find out what big babies certain he-man idols could be offscreen. So much bad behavior was indulged when moat-like factory walls protected actors. It was only when the studios and their contract systems broke down that we finally got peeks into reality of celebrity lives. Tabletop weeklies initiated profiles approaching candor about Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and others once longtime employers sprang them loose. Minus muzzles, they made fun copy with opinions formerly suppressed under front office rule. Bogart took to running down films he’d finished that were awaiting release. Gable sounded off over how badly MGM had treated him, while Cooper ventured into conservative political waters. Publicists also separated from weekly checks peddled tell-alls about experiences they’d had behind company barricades. One of these was James Merrick, formerly with Metro, and later truth teller as to what really happened when Spencer Tracy was fired off Tribute To A Bad Man in 1955. Merrick spilled it all for Look Magazine in January 1962, seven years past the fact and long after Tracy was free-lanced and subject to press lancing unbound by MGM enforced restrictions. Merrick’s made a bracing story. Here was revered actor Tracy convulsing with tears as his career seemed all but over, unceremoniously dumped after twenty years with his studio employer. Look readers must have been shocked by revelation shorn of tact carefully applied back in 1955 when the same drama played out much quieter …

Herewith is MGM's version of the Tribute To A Bad Man breakdown as dutifully reported in June-August 1955 by The New York Times: Work was proceeding on Colorado mountain locations under the direction of Robert Wise. Mr. Tracy had experienced difficulties working in the high altitude, said the studio’s publicity department. Gossip suggested otherwise, however. Metro acknowledged as much by admitting there were other causes for Tracy’s summary departure off the location. Spencer is very exacting about everything he does, remarked one executive, and he is unhappy about several things. The studio has to determine if it wants to give in to him on some points. Meetings with the actor’s agents convened as the crew of 110 sat idle. Two days later (June 23) it was reported that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is resigned to replacing Spencer Tracy in "Tribute To A Bad Man," due to Tracy’s being not physically up to the assignment. By June 30, Gregory Peck had turned down replacing him, as would several others. James Cagney was then announced as being under consideration. By August 4, Cagney was confirmed for the lead and set to begin work by mid-month. This was the official version of events as conveyed by MGM. What had actually taken place was longer in surfacing. Late in life interviews with Robert Wise and Cagney filled in details even James Merrick omitted. The saga of Tribute To A Bad Man, all told, offers considerable insight into ways of doing Hollywood business very soon to end.

Stars often acted out once they sized up projects for dogs. Spencer Tracy had recently done Broken Lance for Fox and saw Tribute To A Bad Man as more of the same. Even its title was shopworn, having been intended for what became The Bad and The Beautiful in 1952. Grace Kelly was proposed as co-star for Tracy. There was indication of his having a little crush on her and willingness maybe to do even a bad picture so long as she came with it. That scuttled fast once Kelly saw the script. Tracy’s support was largely culled from newcomer ranks. That would make his a higher hill to climb, a fit analogy, as these Rocky Mountain settings were eight to ten thousand feet in altitude. Among Hollywood’s bigger challenges was development of young talent to succeed veterans like Tracy. Universal prospered at star manufacture. Others less so. Metro would borrow Columbia’s Robert Francis, late of The Caine Mutiny, to work alongside Tracy. An untried Greek actress, Irene Papas, was tabbed for the Grace Kelly part. Tracy claimed to be early bound for the Colorado location, but didn’t show up. Weeks later, he flew in, socialized with the crew, then disappeared for parts unknown. Wise finished everyone else’s scenes as overhead soared (cost to Metro: $30,000 per day). Producer Sam Zimbalist panicked as search parties found no trace of Tracy. When he finally surfaced after two weeks, ST bitched over the script and said he couldn’t breathe thin mountain air. Robert Wise recalled his star’s outlandish suggestion that the entire ranch complex built for the film be relocated to lower elevations. Metro trouble-shooter Howard Strickling arrived to try and reason Tracy back to work. Hours were spent negotiating in trailers. Wise was sick of having authority usurped by his leading man (seems ST was determining which of his shots were keepers). MGM tried covering with bogus accounts of Tracy attending local functions amidst work’s smooth continuance. Finally, Wise had enough and said he wanted Tracy gone. This was a standoff the actor would have won ten years before, but 1955 being a new day, it was Spence what got the hook. Doubtlessly stunned by said new rules in play, he broke down utterly to a stunned Robert Wise: That’s the end. My career is finished. I’ll never work again.

The first call for replacement went to Clark Gable, now a free agent and much in demand. To wrangle a major name on mere weeks' notice wouldn’t be easy, and besides that, Gable still nursed enmity over ways Metro had done him wrong. Tribute’s several months break was further complicated by the death of Robert Francis in a plane crash (7-31-55) during that interim. He’d be replaced with Don Dubbins, a neophyte to film whose prior work was juvenile lead in the road-company of Tea and Sympathy. Spencer Tracy was meanwhile let out of Metro via settlement of his contract, said parting announced as an amicable one with ST in receipt of a pension for two decades service to the firm. James Cagney said years later that he did Tribute To A Bad Man mostly as a favor to Tracy, one of his closest filmland friends. Jim was fifty-six going in, having developed a paunch that was there to stay, but game withal for stunts not limited to an acrobatic fistfight with Stephen McNally reminiscent of fleet-footed Cagneys of yore. Sensitive Don Dubbins was so much so as to be frankly a bore, especially in circumstances where you’d lots rather him take up arms to liven things up. This was product of postwar trends toward softened males inclined to (endlessly) hand-wring conflicts rather than strapping on irons the way Cagney’s crowd would have in livelier times. Only bad boys (like Vic Morrow here) got much fun out of mislabeled "action" parts for youth.

Tribute To A Bad Man dawdles among interiors hashing a Code-denuded romance between Cagney and twenty-five years his junior Irene Papas, side-stepping the essential question of whether or not she’s his mistress. Vets like JC treaded much 50's water playing (and replaying) lions in winter. Cagney especially tended to roar beyond capacity of jangled patron ears, ramping up decibels as if to compensate for age slowing him down. There was an interesting trailer wherein he extolled virtues of young Tribute players, putting up front Metro’s anxiety to mold a next generation now that his own was waning. Jim opens the preview seated on a tractor at his own working farm, reassurance that there’s life in the old boy yet (and above are 1955 publicity stills of Cagney tending agrarian matters). JC's passing a torch to dubious successors he garlands with praise, though Dubbins and Papas sputtering at the gate would frustrate those hopes. They’d continue to work, but never at lofty heights achieved by Cagney in his youth. Dressed out as it was in Cinemascope and color, Tribute To A Bad Man seemed poised to gross along lines of adult westerns then fashionable, but $2.8 million spent, much of that attributable to false starts with Tracy, Robert Francis, and others whose footage was scrapped, wilted in the face of only $1.2 million in domestic rentals plus $1.4 foreign. The final loss of $1.3 million landed Tribute To A Bad Man on a scrap heap piled high with MGM losers of that year, including Forever, Darling, Meet Me In Las Vegas, Gaby, and The Swan. Television’s merciless assault upon theatres was really being felt in the mid-fifties. Tribute To A Bad Man is recently out from Warner’s Archive. It’s a gorgeous wide transfer, certainly my first time seeing it decently presented. These lesser 50’s westerns play so much more effectively given advantage originally had in stereo-equipped theatres with scope capacity. Its DVD release may (should) occasion reevaluation for Tribute To A Bad Man as well as others so long ignored.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Once Upon a 1931 Holiday Revel

Here’s another theatre ad that might have been tossed out seventy-eight years back. The 1931 holiday season was upon Toledo and this was their Paramount Theatre’s celebration for a long-ago week between Christmas and New Year’s. Most people’s idea of disposable newspaper is mine of gem reserves where live entertainers buttressed screen shows already chock to the brim with great stuff. Did patrons know how good they had it? It might have been worth enduring a Depression outside to get indoors to programs like this. The Paramount was near-new at the time, having grand opened in 1929 with Richard Dix in Redskin. There was room for 3400 patrons. I’ve never sat in a theatre that large, let alone one with half so many seats filled. You got into early shows for a quarter, just like I did to the Liberty until age twelve, but Colonel Forehand never gave shows like this. Sickening on the one hand is reality of Toledo’s largest theatre being torn down in 1965, but how could a modern (read decaying) urban center sustain such elegance with surrounding blocks gone to ruin? There are forums where old-timers speak of such. They remember glory days and waning ones when the Paramount ran Cinerama just up to rendezvous with the wrecking ball. Sooky was the screen attraction for this late December show. They called the five stage turns Holiday Revels. What I could find about Duci de Karekjarto indicates (1) he was a violinist who’d (2) done a Metrotone short in 1929 and would decades later play fiddle on a Donna Reed TV episode, and (3) die in 1961 at age sixty-one. Either I’m right on this or there were two Duci de Karekjartos and I’m addressing the wrong guy (his name is spelled with one letter difference between Paramount’s ad and everything else I found). Unlike movies that (sort of) survive, these performers did their thousands of stands before many times that in patrons and then vanished into history. Unless they got famous in movies or television, it was destination oblivion. I can picture Duci sitting at a bar with a scrapbook trying to convince tipplers he was once a Big Noise in Toledo and countless points elsewhere.

You could say Sooky survives, but again only sort of. I’ve never seen it. It was a follow-up on Skippy, and buried now just as deep. Universal is allegedly starting its own Archive program after the fashion of Warners. That could be where Sooky and Skippy make DVD landfall, for Universal owns both by virtue of pre-48 Paramounts vested in that company since the fifties. Reality suggests that I’ve got as much chance of owning these as Duci had of being recognized in that bar. But here’s the incredible part: Jackie Cooper is still autographing Sookys and Skippys (both 1931 … I said 1931) at celebrity fabs on the West Coast. Mickey Rooney’s there too, both in attendance at a show reported by The New York Times some weeks ago. The paper's correspondent was as incredulous as I might have been. These guys who began in silent movies are still hawking signatures in October 2009 at the Marriott in Burbank! Mickey once co-starred with Tom Mix and Jackie sat with Marie Dressler at the Academy Awards. I just have a hard time imagining these two, who worked together in The Devil Is A Sissy seventy-three years ago, seated a few feet from each other signing fan photos by the hundreds. Someday we’ll all be sorry not to have somehow got out to the Marriott to experience that.

Think about all the entertainers who made good (in terms of Hitting It Big), and numbers many times that who didn’t. The Gaudsmith Brothers must have felt they were doing all right for the thirty or so years I gather they performed. Chances are they ate, which was plenty enough in 1931. Theirs was called a "Poodle Act." Two brothers and an educated dog. The three jumped about on precision all fours. No telling how many pups came and went over decades of this trio. A lot of us watched animal routines on Ed Sullivan, but how many saw one live? The Gaudsmiths alone would have more than redeemed my quarter at the Paramount, though there was a sad story involving these two + the dog. What looked like a huge movie break had come when MGM brought them out in 1948 to do the Poodle Act for The Pirate, only to delete their scenes prior to release. Must have been the defining letdown of the Gaudsmith’s lives. Imagine doing your career routine, by then honed to perfection, telling everyone you're going to be in a big Hollywood musical, only to find it gone in theatres. I watched The Pirate in search of the Gaudsmiths (has anyone since the Gaudsmiths done that?). They were billed at the start, seen but fleetingly as the camera rushed to Gene Kelly, then not again. What glimpse I had was intriguing. Their poodle might have been a third Gaudsmith brother for all his acrobatic skill. Given MGM cutting room privileges, I might have yielded one less Kelly dance (or Judy song) and a finished cut of The Pirate with spotlight cast brightest on these forgotten troupers.

One name off the Holiday Revels we do know is Ted Mack (minus His Boys). Ted was host of the so-called Original Amateur Hour, which lasted a couple of centuries on radio and television. He started out bandleading in support of acts like Duci’s and the Gaudsmiths. The latter probably bragged years later about how they knew Ted when he was nobody. The Paramount’s organist was Stan Malotte. He’d be gone within weeks to take up a twenty-five year residency at the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham where he was among most beloved local personages. Stan was so good that people came to lousy films just to see what he had to offer by way of prologue. I wish I’d grown up in thrall of a theatre organist at the Liberty. All we had was a scratched record of Star Dust they spun with daily curtain. Must have been hypnotic for patrons in Toledo … and Birmingham. I read of Stan playing for jammed Alabama kiddie houses during the 1930’s. Their Saturday morning Mickey Mouse Club was the largest in the world --- 10,000 members. Malotte later relocated to the Fox in Atlanta and died in 1972. He should be as well known as movie stars his organ preceded, and indeed, in Birmingham and Atlanta, they probably regarded him better. On topic of the Mouse, he was part of the Paramount’s holiday bill too, with Mickey’s Orphans. I always like seeing how prominently cartoons were advertised back then. Finally, there is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for New Year’s Eve and touted as the Exclusive Ohio Preview Showing. I do know the Fredric March classic had its New York opening the same December 31 night, and now I’m wondering how many other theatres around the country were in on that year’s end preview.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Those Wacky 3D Stooges!

Ann says my gravitating toward The Three Stooges might imperil our relationship. Are all women so hostile to them? I couldn’t be bothered with the team growing up. Maybe that’s for cutting teeth on their dreadful late-term Columbia features at the Liberty where my only solace was a jumbo Baby Ruth and whatever diversion the trailers provided. Lately I’ve come to enjoy them a lot more. You might almost call it a twilight of life discovery (though hopefully I’m a little early for that). Stooge comedies are in a way best when they’re baddest. I’m all for reversing standards when it comes to these boys. Bring on the stock footage, threadbare sets, and Curly in decline. By these criteria, Volume 8 of Sony's DVD series should be most rewarding of all. The last group out (Vol.7) included long awaited Spooks and Pardon My Backfire, both shot in 3D and here available with glasses for home viewing. My own experience with depth screens has always been problematic. Theatres around here invariably bungled the process. Usually it was too dark projection to blame. 3D needs a lot of light. My exposure to House Of Wax was limited to single-strip reissues indifferently presented. You couldn’t help coming away from these wondering what all the 50’s fuss had been about. We agonized through Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein at Greensboro’s Janus Theatre in 1972, from which I emerged with a headache worse than ones Cody Jarrett got. Showing 3D right required considerable expertise in the booth. Sloppy exhibition was no small reason it flashed in the pan. Nowadays 3D is back and thanks to digital projection, more popular than ever. There are still kinks insofar as watching on our own TV’s owing to technical blocks I won’t pretend to understand. You’d risk migraines watching Spooks were it longer than sixteen minutes. Everything’s thrown at the camera but chairs we’re sitting in. I like 3D best when it’s purely exploitative. Spooks is that in spades. Were the presentation better, this would be the fun DVD to beat for 2009.

Most first-run theatres in 1953 got Spooks with Fort Ti, a western starring George Montgomery . Columbia offered them as a full service 3D program for summer audiences. You needed left and right prints of every reel and these had to play in perfect synchronization. If one broke, the whole show fell into disarray. Union chapters struck to force two-man booths for projection, as a lone operator might go mad trying to coordinate it all. New York’s Criterion Theatre premiered the Fort Ti / Spooks combination and Showman’s Trade Review sent a man to check out their newly installed 24 by 42 foot screen. Fort Ti had been shot in standard 1.33 to 1 ratio, but the Criterion blew it up to 1.85 wide, a not uncommon practice among theatres eager to jumpstart a panoramic revolution. The Technicolor at times seems pallid, said STR’s observer. There was a break in the morning period and a period in an afternoon showing when the "right eye’ 3D went blind, thought to be due to an arc’s blowing. Even Broadway palaces weren’t immune to third dimentia episodes, it seemed. Still, the Three Stooges in first-time 3D got fantastic rentals, with Spooks earning $93,000 domestic from stereo bookings, along with $27,000 from 2D engagements. The team’s average take from the previous 1951-52 season of eight shorts had been $37,350.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Phil Isley Behind Phylis

There was no persuading Jennifer Jones to sign or acknowledge fan mail. Writers that approached her got nowhere. Retirement went three and a half decades past The Towering Inferno, and except for a glimpse at a few Oscar shows, she was invisible to a public that couldn’t help caring less as those years passed by. The Internet allows for much more recognition of celebrity exits than old media could have managed, thus dozens of tributes so far this weekend (hundreds if you dig). Mine would merely be another voice, and a less eloquent one, in praise of performances she gave in Since You Went Away, Duel In The Sun, Portrait Of Jennie, and others I hope to someday post about. What’s been mentioned less is the Phylis Isley who came up during momentous days of the picture business as only child of one of the Midwest’s great exhibitors. Phil Isley began with tent shows toward what he hoped would be a career on the legit stage. He and his wife led a touring company through wilds of Texas and Oklahoma during the teens and twenties, pitching canvas in whatever tank towns would have them. Sometimes they ran silent film as chaser or to fill intermissions. Phylis sold tickets and candy from an early age. She also played child parts on improvised stages her father jerrybuilt. Chances are Phylis threaded projectors in a pinch. I’d like to think she was the first Academy Award winning actress to have personally handled nitrate film. Someone wrote of Hollywood’s future Silent Movie Theater operator John Hampton getting his start watching 35mm at the Isley’s house, with little Phylis sitting alongside as shows unspooled. Father Phil opted out of Depression blues by saving cash for expansion into talking movie cribs. He spotted areas where theatres closed for inability to install sound equipment, stepping into the breach with one, then another, screen that spoke. The Isleys prospered through lean times on a circuit Phil quickly developed through the Midwest territory. Friends and contacts nurtured there would pave his daughter’s initial way into movies.

Phylis and then Jennifer always had money behind her. Phil would accumulate several dozen venues by the late thirties and she’d want for nothing. Out-of-state schooling and acting academies were covered by revenue pouring forth from Isley theatres. Dad used exhibition’s muscle to get her into, then out of, a contract with Republic. Seems Phylis didn’t thrill to working alongside Dick Tracy and The Three Mesquiteers. When she married Robert Walker, the parents (hers) gifted them with a sky-blue convertible. Was Phylis a little spoiled even before ("A" level) Hollywood beckoned? I don’t offhand know of another actress whose father owned a string of theatres. Phylis, now Jennifer, occasionally came home to personal appear in some of Phil’s lobbies. When his grandson was born in 1941, Phil celebrated by building The Bobby Walker Theatre (ad here) in Abilene. Jennifer’s eventual liaison with David Selznick makes a kind of sense in hindsight. Maybe he reminded the actress of her father. Phil didn’t like Selznick at first, but the two shared common interest in promoting film and making it pay. They even got together during the forties on promotion for DOS releases. I found a trade article about Selznick sending one of his field men to train with Isley and get practical advise for selling reissues of Rebecca and Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. Well, who better than a seasoned theatre man? --- especially when it’s your father-in-law. Phil’s was a name forever turning up in trade headlines. He was a big noise in his territory and knew everybody. When cowboy beginner Monte Hale needed help, Isley picked up the phone and got him into Republic. He did the same later for Jimmy Wakely, only this time it was Monogram on the wire. Well, how does a producer of B westerns turn down a Texas showman with dozens of screens hosting oaters every week? Phil was always welcome on filming sets. The above photo with Russ Tamblyn was taken during 1956 production of The Young Guns. I think in the long run, I’d rather have interviewed Jennifer Jones’ father than Jennifer. His exhibiting career lasted into the seventies. That’s over sixty years with the biz. Wonder what became of all the filing cabinets at Isley headquarters. Wish they were in my house. I could post my lifetime on just what Phil accomplished during his. Could Jennifer Jones have gotten to where she did if not for this pioneer showman?

More about Jennifer Jones at previous Greenbriar Glamour Starter posts Part One and Part Two.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hanging Again Off Mascot's Cliff

A wilderness serial produced by Mascot Pictures seems entirely appropriate. Any of us as kids might have shot something comparable given rudimentary cameras and equipment. That’s not to say Last Of The Mohicans is amateurish. It only seems so in that lovable way primitive chapterplays have of taking us to a rugged outdoors where anything might happen, and in event it did, no retaking to cover blown lines or stunts gone wrong. Nat Levine set out for the woods and rushed twelve installments of action crude as it gets filled with dialogue seemingly delivered off the fly. I kept wondering what his crew did for lunch over twenty-eight days they spent making this serial. Bet ones with guns shot rabbits and skinned them right there. There’s no pioneer spirit in movies like that applied to making Mascot serials. Last Of The Mohicans really gets down to basics I’m betting real frontiersmen knew. No flowing maned GQ Daniel Day-Lewis stuff here, nor pyroteched Michael Mann set-pieces to remind us it’s big Hollywood on the job. Nat Levine was lifelong opposite number of all such contrivance. Instead of dressing rooms, he’d give actors a barrel to change in. The man was perfect to translate early American myth. Nat himself was catch-penny Hollywood’s own mythic figure, a strictly fringes sort that brought exposed film out of God-awfulest places others didn’t venture near. Levine seems to have picked locations especially for drab. Last Of The Mohicans departs from that with background at least as captivating as woods behind my house. Given extraordinary circumstance of a Nat Levine reincarnated to make another serial, I’d gladly extend permission for him to shoot there …

Fans more knowledgeable assure me that Last Of The Mohicans is something of an educational serial, a real Classics Illustrated of the chapter dramas. Seems Nat really based his story pretty close on James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel. A lot of youngsters wangled parental dimes in 1932 by assuring Mom that this was no mere cliffhanger, but a faithful adaptation of a Great Book. Sort of like the time I got our sixth grade teacher to give extra credit for going to see Steve Reeves in The Trojan Horse. Jon Tuska wrote that Cooper’s novel actually lent itself to episodic play. Could we argue that Nat Levine’s serial is indeed the most effective of all that story’s renderings? I’d sure give it an A for splendid effort, and agree with Tuska that Last Of The Mohicans may be the best of all Mascot serials. As with most twelve to fifteen week affairs, LOTM does the ying-yang of capture and rescue throughout. Often it’s treasure maps or cyclotrodes. This time velvet-clad sisters are the prize sought by warring factions. Veteran heavy Bob Kortman plays Magua and he’s one bad indian. I still wonder how Beery and March got the Oscar away from him that year. Kortman had a gap between his front teeth that looked like a window at the Automat. Spend twelve chapters with actors and you really get to know them. Lead Harry Carey received $10,000 to play Hawkeye. He wears authority like Kingly raiment and was clearly what sold/sustained this serial over three months it took 1932 patrons to finish it.

The curse borne by orphaned cliffhangers has been abuse heaped by exploiteers intent on coin from decrepit prints in circulation. Unless I’m mistaken, all the Mascot serials are Public Domain. That means you or I can get rich selling them! … except for the fact precious few care anymore about Mascot serials, and haven’t for quite a long time, which is how and why they went PD to start with. I’ve been mulish in my support for these things, having celebrated The Vanishing Legion and The Miracle Rider on previous Greenbriar occasions. Consider this fair warning that I will address other Mascots as they become available. VCI’s recently released Last Of The Mohicans DVD is realization of dwindling fanbase dreams (when we die, who will be left to watch?). There used to be a horrid VHS wherein philistines grafted a classical score over much of the otherwise mute (and better for that) action. Add music and you rob Mascots of their starkest gift --- quiet austerity. All carry banners of anti-slickness and are ongoing rebuke to shiny models Republic later did. Rarity of Mascots only enhance their cache. I wonder if 35mm exists on any of them, let alone camera negatives. VCI quality on Last Of The Mohicans is surprisingly good, however. Digital’s greatest gift has been ongoing rescue and availability of so many discarded subjects we’d have never seen again otherwise. Toward that end, VCI has been one of our best providers.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Half-Dozen Ways We Forgot The War

Let the record show that Universal made six Maria Montez/Jon Hall adventure romances between 1942 and 1945 (Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, White Savage, Cobra Woman, Gypsy Wildcat, and Sudan). They were embraced by a wartime public that we’ve since been informed was starved for such escapist exotica. I guess all of us will eventually be sized up as neatly for whatever films we’re currently making popular. The six were escapist and as nearly exotic as 40’s restriction made possible. Youngsters liked them for swordfights and snake pits, plus their playing often in tandem with Sherlock Holmes or comedy/musicals Universal released by peck loads. What really distinguished Montez/Halls was Technicolor. The first of them, Arabian Nights, was also the company’s initial run at three-strip lensing, setting a pace for class bookings in theatres not otherwise hospitable to Universal output. If you want to know what this half-dozen meant to a generation coming up in the forties, read Alan Barbour’s first chapter of A Thousand and One Delights, his paean to moviegoing during what I’d call an absolute peak era. He saw them first-run and later chased Realart revivals playing Montez/Halls into the fifties. These were evergreens for being actionful and unbound to years they were made. Color sold them to theatres intent on edging out television, with showmen going back/forth to Realart wells throughout ten-years the company leased oldies from Universal. After that, it was anybody’s luck just finding the six. I’ve tried and have so far seen only half. Universal released two so far on DVD, Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves. Now having teamed with TCM for disc projects, I hope they’ll do the rest. Word is that three-strip elements survive on the group and prints maintain much of Technicolor's original luster (but were some lost in Universal’s disastrous vault fire of last year?).

France sells a DVD of Cobra Woman, likely a result of Robert Siodmak having directed it. There used to be revivals of that one, sometimes on nitrate 35mm, at revival houses catering to audiences in search of laughs over its retro silliness. They anointed Maria Montez as camp icon for a generation removed from Alan Barbour’s matinee congregation. Now camp is as dated as its followers proposed Montez and Cobra Woman to be. Everyone back to original writers and crew knew the group of six to be outlandish. Celebrated director/scribe Richard Brooks got his start on Cobra Woman. To he and others, the Montez/Halls were initiations not unlike fraternity Hell week, a future rich source of anecdotes about fat-cat producers slapping out "tits and sand" (their appellation) from which genuine talent struggled to graduate. One needed healthy cynicism to work on these. None got respect, but cash reward flowed aplenty. Arabian Nights cost just under a million and brought back several times that. Producer Walter Wanger made a personal killing for having produced it at Universal. Once he laid the blueprint, staff hands pushed forward to replicate the mold. They all recognized camp without benefit of introduction to the term. For such profits earned, you could label these molasses and still drive a Cadillac home.

It really comes down to one’s own exotica threshold. Do you draw the line at Sabu dashing about in harem pants? To have enjoyed 1940’s The Thief Of Bagdad helps, for the Montez/Halls are largely economy versions of that. Maria Montez was among those Hollywood celebrated as most fabulous of beauties. For temperament minus notable talent, there was no chance she’d play a Mrs. Miniver, but Montez was equal to displaying as much (which is to say not much) flesh as censors would allow, being a type reincarnated in the sixties as Ursula Andress and various Hammer Glamour practitioners. Montez also forged ahead of her time posing in see-through attire for photographers (as here), anticipating Playboy pictorials successors would engage. There were reports she stood before mirrors to declare, When I look at myself, I am so beautiful, I scream with joy. That was likelier a Universal plant to prevent Montez aspiring beyond status as a costumed joke. By the time the actress tried variation, it was too late. Some have attached Hollywood Babylonian significance to Montez’s 1951 heart attack in a bathtub (filled with too hot water?), although that death at age 34 probably amounted to nothing more than it appeared.

Jon Hall was a big side of beef way this end of magnetic, his screen companions (even besides Montez) forever more colorful and engaging. Aforementioned Sabu was like Beanie Babies for the brief time he swooned a public fascinated by his boy-toy allure. Sexual currents were afoot in these shows beyond bare midriffs Montez displayed. Robert Stack remembered girls lined up at Sabu’s dressing room for a go at his offscreen exotica, and frequent supporting Turhan Bey cut a hooded eyed swath through boudoirs not limited to consort Lana Turner’s. Both these guys put Jon Hall in the shade for manly technique their foreign origins suggested. Bey would in fact replace Hall as romantic lead in the final entry, Sudan, with the latter now relegated to support. What's best overall about the series are its background players. Never did comic relief strive so mightily to soften starch out of endlessly told tales (one writer alerted Walter Wanger that Arabian Nights was just a western with camels, to which the producer essentially replied, Yeah, and your point?). Even allowing for viewer disdain with turbans and slippers with bells, there are joys of Shemp Howard, Billy Gilbert, Andy Devine … a casting department’s joke bag emptied in service of brisk shows (all under 90 minutes, most less than 80) that really benefit from oft-doses of slapstick. For those that enjoy giddy days of Universal manufacture, the six Montez/Halls are gem fields worth mining. I’ve had fun watching ones available. They’ve kind of grown on me like mosquito bites that feel good when you scratch them. The DVD’s of Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves (plus the Region 2 Cobra Woman) are some of the prettiest modern renderings of vintage Technicolor around, and reason beyond the film’s entertainment values to invest.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Warners Keeps On Battle Crying

When did Warner’s TV tail begin wagging their theatrical dogs? I’d submit not long after James Garner hit as Maverick. His launch as a feature star was Darby’s Rangers, also the last feature directed by William A. Wellman (Lafayette Escadrille was released later, but completed before, Darby’s Rangers). Bill’s being wild is better remembered than most films he made, thanks to anecdote-laden profiles done since he was active. Wellman made an unholy bargain with Jack Warner to guide routine shows in exchange for dream project Lafayette Escadrille, the latter recut and ruined by WB so as to neutralize a downer ending Wellman preferred. The routine assignment said to have barely engaged him was Darby’s Rangers. Warners has released that on an Archive DVD, at last in widescreen and looking very nice. Based on real-life wartime exploits, Darby's is less hard-hitting combat than opportunity for WB to audition television players on a larger canvas. A few of said youngsters click. Most evaporate. It was actually a smart idea to spin low-paid tube faces into longer forms. Jim Garner in a modestly budgeted feature drew teens that missed him over Maverick’s summer hiatus, and what 77 Sunset Strip fan could resist "Kookie" Byrnes on local theatre screens? Darby’s Rangers wasn’t cheap (negative cost: $1.6 million) and did return a half-million profit. We forget for a half-century’s distance how adroitly such pictures were sold and considerable interest home viewers had in seeing them. Warners salted ABC with spots for full-length butterflies emerged from series cocoons, and there were plenty once Darby's paid out. Viewers cared more then about Fort Dobbs, Up Periscope, and Yellowstone Kelly than do now, yet no product from the era better represents successful fusion of free and paying audiences. WB was first to draw patrons to ticket windows with personalities off television. We look at bonafide classic Rio Bravo today for reasons very different from those that separated 1959 customers from their coin. They cared barely a whit for Howard Hawks’ possessory credit, but Walter (Grandpa McCoy) Brennan, John (Lawman) Russell, Ward (Major Adams), and Ricky Nelson were something else again. For all our latter-day Rio Bravo analysis, we can never know what excitement a cast like that generated for first-runners, and how much television contributed to their enjoyment of Rio Bravo, Darby’s Rangers, and others that supped from video reservoirs.

Darby’s Rangers began as something more ambitious. Charlton Heston had agreed to star for a percentage of the gross. He wrote at the time of excitement over that deal, which for him amounted to membership in a very exclusive club. Jack Warner not unexpectedly reneged on the sharing and Heston withdrew, his lawsuit to follow. James Garner was then bumped to the lead. It’s likely the project was downgraded for lowered expectation now that untried-in-features talent was aboard. Most of Darby's was shot indoors, possibly reflecting Wellman’s age (well-worn early 60’s) and fatigue, plus Warner economizing. The director’s body was an arthritic roadmap of injuries sustained in daring youth as a WWI pilot, that service having propelled his since career as ruggedest of helmsmen. Edd Byrnes wrote in "Kookie" No More (engaging memoir) of Wellman rants and his discharging firearms on the set to discourage producer visits. Interesting how this sort of old Hollywood craziness was still tolerated on efficiency driven 1958 stages. Maybe Bill got a pass because studio veterans felt a little sorry for him, seeing aspects of their own uncertain futures in a noted director burning out. Wellman’s indifference to Darby’s Rangers seems odd for previous excellence handling similar The Story Of G.I. Joe and Battleground. Artificiality of his combatants firing on studio floors dressed as outdoor terrain had peculiar appeal, for Wellman gets effects he wants from such controlled environments (low-hanging fog almost like a horror set) that for me at least, convey more atmosphere than if Darby's had gone all-location.

I suspect Warners dictated Battle Cry as template for Darby's Rangers with less emphasis on war than sex, befitting crowd excitement over Here to Eternity bed-hopping by then standard issue in WWII subjects. Raoul Walsh’s 1955 brawler had seen five and a half million profit, reason enough to sell Darby’s Rangers along Battle Cry lines (note ad similarities here). WB wasn’t alone for shifting prominence from battlefield to boudoir. Robert Mitchum would spend less time fighter piloting than seducing officer’s wives in 1958's The Hunters for 20th Fox, while same year The Young Lions dealt far more with love action off front lines than combat thereon. Code restrictions being somewhat relaxed, Warners put uniforms on carnal Darby’s youth as lure for randy audience teens, with starlet discoveries sporting exotic names marquees barely got right. For these warriors, dodging Germans would be incidental to sampling French/Italian pastries that never said No. Wellman surely found all this insultingly childish, especially as he’d known real war and realized Darby's was prurient fantasy, but 50’s soldiering minus sex was nowheres-ville from a marketing standpoint. Vibrant youth idols weren’t to be wasted going stag into battle. Judging by sparse enemy presence in Darby’s Rangers, 1958 kids might have overlooked just who we were fighting, as there’s nary a close glimpse of adversaries in the field, let alone ones planning counter-offensive. Darby’s Rangers ended up being a war movie for audiences that didn’t much want to be bothered about whys and wherefores of war.
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