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Thursday, April 29, 2010

There's Always Tomorrow Limps Onto DVD

Hurtling through cyberspace comes news that Universal botched the screen ratio on its DVD release of There's Always Tomorrow, Douglas Sirk's 1956 melodrama that Europeans thought enough of to release in a pair of (done right) special editions. Two questions: For how many buyers does this matter, and who's caring about (few) ones that complain? There's Always Tomorrow is part of a six feature Barbara Stanwyck set from Universal. Retail is $49.98. The film was exhibited 1.85 widescreen in theatres (and was, I'd maintain, composed for that ratio). Since 1956, showings have been mostly full-frame and on television. The latter reveals a lot of dead space at the top which was masked out by 50's projectionists. Universal has both transfers but gave us the one that's cropped. The same thing happened several years ago when they loused up The Deadly Mantis on DVD. These were likely oversights the company would consider unimportant. Both are the same movies, after all. Who'd be concerned beyond nitpickers like yours truly and the similarly anal retentive? Bless us one and all for wanting the best, but we're never going to get respect for that. Not so long as home video divisions are staffed by those outside hardcore movie life (I'd get fired off Uni's staff in a day for constantly second-guessing exec decisions) . At least there's compensation of labels that do satisfy. Sony/Columbia's Hammer Suspense box for one. I'm still in disbelief that Cash On Demand and Never Take Candy From Strangers are now available on pressed disc, let alone bunched with four others equally rare.

So as to see There's Always Tomorrow properly presented, I ordered the Masters Of Cinema UK offering. Being Region 2 means you'll have to either get a multi-region player or hack your own to watch. MOC did a fine wide transfer with documentary extras and a forty-page booklet. The movie runs 84 minutes and is black-and-white. Director Sirk was something of a color specialist, that most evident in just preceded All That Heaven Allows, so reverting to B/W for this one comes unexpected. Maybe Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck weren't so big a names (by then) to justify such expense. I perused trades and found Universal's bigger selling guns trained on All That Heaven Allows, with nary an ad for There's Always Tomorrow, released but weeks behind Heaven and surely regarded by press and public as a poor relation. Sirk's melodramas were special for at least trying to intersect more with real life, however overblown general audiences might find them today. I'd be reluctant to watch one with a modern crowd. You'd need a persuasive host to calm the hyenas in advance. There's tendency to lump There's Always Tomorrow with so-called "women's pictures" of the era when it's actually a man's descent into conformist 50's hell we're addressing. Fred MacMurray buckles 'neath combined weight of family obligation and tempting presence of infatuated Stanwyck, middle-aged crises any number of husbands might have identified with, but were they attending There's Always Tomorrow or sitting home with shoes off watching Roller Derby?

Douglas Sirk gets a lion's credit for pics bearing his directoral signature, but I note Ross Hunter's participation as named producer on all the best ones and wonder ... how much did he contribute? Interviewed Sirk spoke of "the young man" Hunter who learned a lot (presumably from him) and never interfered. The director's recall was salted with reference to Freud, Berdolt Brecht, and Oedipus, an imposing triad that certainly would have shut me up had I been inclined to press Sirk further as to Hunter's creative input. I don't know of any Hollywood product (let alone out of Universal!) that inspire such serious analysis as Sirk's. He was boxoffice when that paid in the 50's and dedicated artist when cinéastes came knocking in the 70's. You might say he kind of lucked into a brace of atomic age mellers we now applaud for exposing hypocrisies of the time (all of us being so much more enlightened). By sheer chance or maybe design, Sirk (and/or Hunter?) fed our assumptions to come about repression our parent's generation labored under. We all get to feel quite superior watching poor Fred MacMurray navigate indifferent family waters all the deeper for his surrender to Establishment precepts. Sirk characters are like bugs under modern sensibility microscopes. Our lives may suck, but not so much as hapless Fred's in his suburb prison with bourgeoisie bars. Domestic settings in There's Always Tomorrow are an art-directed Alcatraz, all lattice and banister laden to nail down hopelessness of MacMurray's plight. Children endlessly whine (so that doesn't go on anymore?) and eavesdropping is rife (with layers of misunderstanding to result). There's even Ma Joad Darwell braying about in a maid's uniform. Rays of hope for a finish are but tentative. Sirk said he wanted to strike an even sourer note there. I'd guess 1956 male patrons all but opted for gas pipe concessions either way after seeing There's Always Tomorrow.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Must They Also Be Nice People?

The recent Danny Kaye conversation has me pondering an issue that's come up time and again in my mind. Do we love our favorite comedians more for being nice guys offscreen? Or better put, will we laugh less for finding out they're not? I admit it colors my perception, having spent far more hours reading about the lives of clowns than watching their movies. It's not that I expect them to be off-set Father Christmas' buying ice cream cones for every fan they meet. Buster Keaton, for instance, was never like that and I wouldn't have wanted him to be. It's just disillusioning to know that a happy face on screen is a sour one away from it (like Danny Kaye's, by most accounts). We set a higher standard for comedians' behavior in private life. They're a little like B western stars in that respect. I've read Hoppy had his bad days, and Rocky Lane could be downright truculent. But since cowboys and clowns appeal to the youth in all of us, it's vital they respond kindly when we meet, even if it's vicariously through fans of long ago. It pleases me that Oliver Hardy took time to sit a child on his knee and Stooges Moe and Larry invited fans to visit. I've belatedly gravitated to those latter boys partly for learning they were warm and friendly in retirement. There are sites devoted to correspondence between Moe Howard and admirers, including photos where they met. Larry liked receiving guests at the Motion Picture Country Home in spite of diminished health and seems always to have had time for autographs. The roll of honor among comedians is indeed one I'm constantly updating, and yes, it matters how they would have treated me had we crossed paths.

First off, there's the difference between "on" friendly and normal friendly. The "on" setting was one a Red Skelton maintained. He was said to do twenty minutes just for encountering fans at a hardware store. Would that have been fun or just alarming? Red also made hash of his writers. So did Jackie Gleason. One scribe remembered Bob Hope tossing paychecks from the top of a spiral staircase just to watch minions scramble for them. Not much to admire in that. But we're talking less about how they abused employees than how they'd treat us. I sometimes imagine myself going back and meeting clown idols, so to that extent they're still an ongoing presence. Would Lou Costello wave me off at a time travel'ed Jersey premiere of 1952's Jack and the Beanstalk? Like everyone who's read about them, I have conflicting emotions about Bud and Lou. Especially Lou. He was probably nicest to little kids. Costello's This Is Your Life reveals a lot. It's probably his most humanizing moment before a camera. The same program did as much for Laurel and Hardy, although their kind offices were never in doubt. Yes, Babe was more aloof, but we attribute that to a private nature. Stan was perhaps champion swell guy of the lot, the sort who answered every fan letter and maintained an open door policy at his Oceana Apartment of final residence. I've known admirers who dropped in there and/or spoke to Laurel on the phone. On each reported occasion, he was graciousness personified. Is it any wonder this is the comedian I'd most like to have known?

They say Buster Keaton was easily distracted, especially by a television he liked to play loud (to compensate for hearing loss). Keaton would sign or answer questions, but seemed bound to ponderings of his own. Small talk didn't interest him. Adept hands at Bridge claimed most of Buster's spare hours during later years. Otherwise, he'd be near as silent as his screen alter ego. What then, of those whose private persona contrasted most sharply with images we enjoyed on the screen? There's Jerry Lewis for extreme example here. How many youngsters came away heartbroken from disillusioning introduction to him? I've met several among wounded on Jerry's battlefields. He's one I'd be loathe to meet, or maybe afraid is the better word. Being not so ardent a fan helps in this instance. Groucho Marx is another I don't regret having missed. Some fans say it was an honor being insulted and dismissed by him. I confess to finding this a dubious one, but who's to say what distinction memory would accord to having once been rudely brushed off by Groucho? His brothers are a mixed group as potential acquaintance. Harpo was a recognized sweetheart (or pussycat, as Jerry might call him), while Chico remains a largely unknowable presence beyond gambling toward crisis at a thousand card tables.

They say Jack Benny was wonderful. A soul of generosity to fans, cast, crew ... everybody. Don't any of you correct me here with stories of Jack behaving unkind, for I'd want him to stay pristine. He's like Stan Laurel for being an icon minus even toes of clay. Some comedians were so rich as to be forever removed from the hoi polloi of fan intercourse. How many autograph hounds got to Charlie Chaplin after wealth and worldwide success swallowed him up? I once considered writing CC at that Swiss chateau, but figured one of a hundred servants would intercept my mail. Maybe Charlie sat around waiting for letters that never came, wondering if we'd forgotten him. Harold Lloyd had his palace closer to home. He strikes me as a hail-fellow-well-whatever with a glad hand for admirers, especially ones wearing Shriner hats. College students found Lloyd delightful when he brought silent backlog to campus auditoriums. Private life Harold seems to me to have fulfilled all the ambitions of his screen character. My own college years didn't miss HL's campus visits by very many, even if his did take place states away from where I attended. To go back (much) further, what would meeting Roscoe Arbuckle have been like? That seems to me like an encounter with Lincoln or Mark Twain. Still, I think Roscoe would have been good company. Navigating his vanished era might be something else. I'd be busier noticing stiff collars, straw boaters, and elegant modes of transport (his Pierce-Arrow!), taken aback no doubt by how people lived so rustic then. There'd be stopover to visit Mabel Normand, who'd be receptive enough based on what books say, but would I spend greater energy trying to warn she and Roscoe against calamities to come? What puts most of these personalities within realms of fanaticized access (excepting Mabel and Roscoe of course) is the fact of their lifetimes overlapping my own. Face-to-face encounters were at least conceivable, even if none came to fruition. The fact is I never met or exchanged mail with any of them. Perhaps some of you did. If so, I'd like hearing about it. No such thing as too many anecdotes about comedians we all enjoy.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Doug's South Seas Adventure

As mentioned before, 8mm is where I go for serious living in the past. There's such delicacy to little Blackhawk boxes and films that came in them. They bespeak a time when people who remembered the silent era took pains to collect artifacts from it. There's not many left above-ground to tell us what fun Douglas Fairbanks' movies were in theatres. We have to take written word of gone to reward fans like Alistair Cooke, who penned a thinking man's tribute for The Museum Of Modern Art soon after Doug's passing (in 1939) and remained a vocal champion from there on. Blackhawk was operated by grown-ups who looked back on Fairbanks with a child's fondness. They kept his best features available on 8 and 16mm. The company listed a condensation of Mr. Robinson Crusoe, Doug's late-career talker from 1932 that was his penultimate offering. I watched those nine minutes lovingly edited and narrated by Paul Killiam, a longtime evangelist for early cinema. He spreads gospel for this athletic star whose enormous popularity we'll never fully grasp for not having been there in his prime. Mr. Robinson Crusoe was something Fairbanks knocked off between golf games and tiger hunts. His dedication to filmmaking diminished considerably after sound came in and kicked joy out of stardom. I wonder if Doug didn't do Crusoe mostly to satisfy product quota for part-owned United Artists.
Blackhawk's souvenir made me want to see it all, so deeper I plumbed into laser disc depths for an Image release that probably sold no more than a hundred copies. With so many Fairbanks silents offered on DVD, why aren't his four produced talkies around? Note to Kino: Give us a box set Taming Of The Shrew, Reaching For The Moon, Around The World In 80 Minutes, and Mr. Robinson Crusoe!

To call Crusoe's a narrative by customary definition would be inapt. Home movie is more like it. We open on prosperous Doug aboard a yacht boasting to sportsman friends of how he could survive ... no, thrive ... on an uninhabited island they pass. Lickety-split they exchange bets and off he leaps into the surf. Join Crusoe two minutes late and you'd miss its whole set-up. No other personality could have gotten away with so little exposition. The fact this is Fairbanks makes it only natural he'd engage such a challenge. Does his being forty-nine at the time lessen credibility? Not for the shape he's in here and tricks he performs. A melancholic undercurrent beneath the bravado make Doug's adventures resonate with me. It was often present to some degree or other. Do I sense clouds more for having read about his sometimes depressed mood? Darkness fell unmistakably over much of 1927's The Gaucho and parts of two year's later The Iron Mask, both late travelers down silent avenues that Fairbanks sadly realized were dead ends. After these, he took to wandering continents both alone or in company of restless chums (but seldom with left-at-home Mary). Doug had sense to know his ways were finished in Hollywood, and so steered wide of it. Mr. Robinson Crusoe was really just Fairbanks letting us observe what he'd do if left to primitive devices in paradise. Why bother with plot beyond a simplest of concepts? This and preceding Around The World In 80 Minutes were snapshots brought back from Doug's vacationing, and if you wanted to call him cynical in fobbing them off for paid admissions ... well then, just keep your nickels, because Fairbanks had all of those he'd ever need.

Not that Mr. Robinson Crusoe cheats. It's got movement and energy thanks to stunt ready Doug, even if he leaves modern sensibilities as to race and gender up a tree. DF makes a near slave of a captured man Friday and brings native squeeze Maria Alba (a Fairbanks side-dish during location shooting) home to entertain on Broadway a la Kong (did Cooper and Shoedsack get ideas here?). Alfred Newman contributes an almost wall-to-wall score that was a real advance on mute tracks accompanying most features to 1932. His music previews themes he'd reuse effectively in The Hurricane, Son Of Fury and other south-sea exotics to come. Doug devised Crusoe's story and undoubtedly called most shots, though Eddie Sutherland is credited for direction. What little we know from behind those scenes was imparted by him in a late fifties interview. Sutherland said recording equipment went on the fritz soon after they dropped anchor and most dialogue had to be post-dubbed back home. You can see the out-of-sync truth of that clearly enough. Crusoe plays handily sans talk. Many subsequent prints jettisoned dialogue altogether and added explanatory titles. Sutherland didn't sweat such complications. He was more party animal than committed helmsman (at least according to one-time wife Louise Brooks) and doubtless got his kicks among relaxed environs of Doug's luxury yacht the crew lived (and partially filmed) on. I don't know what became of original elements for Mr. Robinson Crusoe, but have a feeling we'd think lots more of the picture were they available to beget discs. Tahiti locations as evidenced on the laser, presumably mastered from 16mm, give us enough to imagine what a really good transfer might look like. A bad reputation can come of forty years spent in lately called Public Domain Hell, a final stop unfortunately for several late Fairbanks titles. Mr. Robinson Crusoe is among those you'll find for a dollar at grocers and flea markets. This show hasn't been done justice since Blackhawk issued their long-ago reverent highlight reel (that catalogue listing above), which among other things, gave narrating Paul Killiam opportunity to quote from Alistair Cooke's appreciation (one thing I loved about Blackhawk was how much film tutelage they could cram on a five-inch reel). So doesn't Crusoe and a talking Fairbanks deserve at least as much recognition in a twenty-first century DVD marketplace?

Monday, April 19, 2010

1953's Was A Beastly Summer

It hadn't taken television long to beat Hollywood down to the canvas. So many more people were now watching at home than going to theatres, those numbers arched ever upward with each survey taken. Distribution came to realize that promoting movies in living rooms was a surest route toward filling seats downtown. This worked most effectively upon kids propped bug-eyed in front of tubes. 1952 was transitional year for easing movie ads off newspaper pages and onto cathode sandwich boards. RKO pushed its King Kong reissue with territory targeted TV spotting and hit a jackpot no one expected (a spectacular $1.608 million in domestic rentals). Others got the wake-up call and began exploring video campaigning of their own. Gimmick shows were thought best for such high-powered appeals. MGM told Daily Variety in March 1953 they were set to test pulling power of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1941 in tandem with the same year's A Woman's Face. The pair would be sold as exploitation chillers after RKO's example, with ads getting right to horrific point (as illustrated above). Films ... will be supported by an extensive ballyhoo campaign similar to that credited with making "King Kong" a tremendous boxoffice reissue winner, said the trade. Metro's electronic tub-thumping was already in evidence with February's release of Jeopardy, a black-and-white suspenser hardly noteworthy other than as stalking horse to show what TV could deliver in added ticket sales. Daily papers squawked as advertising revenues were redirected to broadcasters. MGM was spending between $9,000 and $10,000 for station blurbs in Los Angeles and seeing profits way beyond norms for Jeopardy's kind of pic. Sobering was the fact receipts dropped significantly during a second week when TV advertising was dropped, while towns out of LA stations' range reported very ordinary business for Jeopardy.

Televised selling was nothing new. It had gone on since 1950 when Paramount put toes in water for Sunset Boulevard. Prior to that, Disney/RKO went to the vid well with Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The difference since was King Kong and sensational results directly traceable to lures planted at home. RKO's man who delivered here was exploitation director Terry Turner, buoyed into free-lance demand now that others realized his was a Midas touch. Turner got MGM's commission to push Jeopardy and the horror duo, while Paramount retained him to whisper War Of The Worlds into our rabbit ears. RKO was meantime squaring away for a Summer's repeat Ape-A-Thon, with 1949's Mighty Joe Young straining at the vaults. A test engagement during January 1953 in Minneapolis was promising. Trades exulted over the enormous mechanical figure of an ape ... set up on the sidewalk, fringing the curb, and facing the boxoffice. Teamed with 1951's The Thing, Mighty Joe Young gave that city's RKO Pan Theatre a splendid seven days. Boxoffice magazine's smart money prediction: Undoubtedly, RKO will make the reissued pair available generally.

Warner Bros. was enjoying a lucrative 1953 Springtime with 3-D chiller House Of Wax. Quick-pacing grosses were through the roof. They'd never made this kind of money so fast, let alone on a horror movie. With a sales force primed to move novelty product, it seemed prudent to try again with a stunt attraction geared to the fastest possible play-off. Independent producers Jack Dietz and Hal Chester had completed The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, about a rejuvenated dinosaur on the loose, and were looking for distribution. Ray Harryhausen, who did the special effects, remembered $200,000 it cost to make Beast, the negative sold outright to Warners for twice that. The company thereby got their Summer saturation experiment ready-made, but for approximately $184,000 it took to lay on a David Buttolph score, add footage here and there, and generally polish the film to expected Warners standard. Trade announcements in early May promised a coast-to-coast television and radio campaign to blanket all the distribution areas of the nation, an expansion beyond more limited spending and saturation RKO had put forth for King Kong the previous year. WB was determined to begin and finish Beast's run within the three months students were on break, using television as principal hook. Kong/Jeopardy marketing whiz Terry Turner was brought on board to ramrod exploitation. June 17 would be lift-off date for territorial video pummeling. Within a month, they'd have this Beast roaring on nearly every TV station in the country.

RKO meanwhile wasn't napping. They had Mighty Joe Young aimed for July 15 dates and saturation bookings to be repeated across territories nationwide. Four years old MJY was head-to-head with Warners' brand-new Beast, but wasn't there enough school's out money for both? RKO hedged bets with a co-feature to accompany the gorilla, Isle Of The Dead, which had laid dormant since 1945 but had Boris Karloff to decorate marquees. Also there were Joe Young masks, way more ferocious in appearance than the gentler ape on screen, along with jungle village cut-outs supplied to thousands of chain markets and drug stores (RKO claimed to have generated one million giveaways). Grass roots selling wasn't ignored by either distributor. Warners emphasized that newspaper coverage would be strong for Beast, with large directory ads to run in Sunday editions announcing all theatres playing the film within circulation vicinity. Radio spots were emphasized for areas out of TV station range, as there were parts of the US still without access to vid signals. While WB budgeted $175,000 for the saturation blitz, insiders predicted spending would climb to $200,000 (RKO, on the other hand, slated $35,000 for Mighty Joe Young's TV promotion and $20,000 for co-op newspaper ads). Market penetration for Beast would commence nine days ahead of playdates. For the first time, kids had themselves a big monster show running not only in their own hometown, but in scores of others surrounding, day-and-date. It's hardly a wonder that Beast From 20,000 Fathoms provoked such must-see fervor among them.

There were ten different TV spots for Mighty Joe Young and sixteen for Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, this to avoid repetition of the same spiel and risk of tiring home viewers. It was unanimously felt that televised saturation campaigns were best suited to so-called "scary" and thrill attractions, their audiences described by critics of the day as having the mentality of 12 year-olds. Noted too was the fact that, as with King Kong the previous summer and MGM's Jeopardy, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms did not perform nearly so well in areas not canvassed by TV promotion. Still, there was sock business for situations where advertising word was properly coordinated. Broadway's opening was, unlike elsewhere, exclusive to one theatre, in this case the Paramount, where stage accompaniment included The Marco Sisters, singer Don Cornell, and comic Frank Fontaine. Beast also beat the combined total boxoffice of three features playing in 3-D among Los Angeles opposition houses, extraordinary for a "flattie" in black-and-white. WB was in fact reporting money from its initial 312 engagements as exceeding any of the company's product released over the last three years with the exception of House Of Wax (surprising even to some Warner officials, said The Motion Picture Herald). Saturated dates for Beast would eventually number 1,560. 1953's turnstile heat melted whatever ice encased this dinosaur. Business was looking more like the atom explosion that turned him loose. Columbus, Ohio's RKO Palace had to stop selling tickets several times during their run due to what management called jammed houses. Among attention getters was a ten foot high Beast figure (above) that moved, growled, flashed light, and belched smoke, all at modest cost of $16.50 to showmen who purchased the display. If vacation 1953 had a movie-going fad sensation, it was surely The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

This leviathan strode swiftly across the US marketplace. June 17-23 was concentrated in the Central and Western territories, then to Southern venues on June 24 (our local Allen Theatre played it June 28-30), with Eastern saturation beginning July 1, and so on. Most theatres kept it a week, striking while irons were hot from the TV assault. Holdovers were discouraged as WB had promised exhibitors in succeeding waves that prints would be available to them, necessitating rapid turnover from one region's dates to the next. Exhibs on the tail end complained that Beast did nothing for them, but there's what came of missing the televised express. RKO's Mighty Joe Young locomotive moved slower and with less cargo, but still performed admirably. It's initial 250 bookings in the Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati exchange areas scored grosses about the same as obtained from "King Kong" in the same areas last year, according to Showmen's Trade Review. Among (many) other ballys, RKO was arranging for milk trucks to include the Joe Young masks with morning deliveries, while kids at grocer checkouts received aforementioned jungle cutouts with Mom's foodstuffs. From these successful dates, it was Joe to Boston and surrounding areas for an August 13 open with 175 theatres participating. I don't have figures for Mighty Joe Young's ultimate take, but if it did half what The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms realized, RKO would have been happy indeed. Warners ended with $1.735 million in domestic rentals from Beast, plus $915,000 more foreign. A profit of $1.3 million established a record subsequent WB monster pics, including Them! and The Black Scorpion, would not beat.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Trailers From Hell Now On The Big (Home) Screen

There's this game I sometimes play when I'm out walking: Pick a film I've known most of my life and review those many occasions we've intersected. For some titles, these number dozens. Ones best remembered still resonate with clarity beyond mundane events surrounding them (for what else made impressions so deep as discovering favorite movies?). We who have surrendered to lives of the screen recognize each other like Cat People. The filmmakers who narrate Trailers From Hell are one of us ... one of us ... for being profoundly affected by films they saw forty and fifty years ago. They've all thrived at writing and directing since, but I wonder if each wouldn't trade a measure of success for a way back to theatres and late-night TV's that fully formed them. What would any of us give for the sensation that came with initial viewing of cherished films? Middle age and beyond is futile hunting ground for moments that thrill us half so much. Is there risk of boring people with anecdotage of moviegoing way back whenever? Well, that depends on how artful the telling, of course, but for sheer joy of revisiting happy filmic legacies, there's no more resonant address than Trailers From Hell and its panel of lifelong eye-witnesses to a fabulous era gone for sure, even as it yet lives through narrations sometimes intense, likeably personal, humorous, insightful, and tremendously entertaining. Trailers from Hell provides unique oral history about the effect films had on filmmakers that also speaks to the rest of us who enjoyed those remarkable (and sometimes remarkably bad) shows. The concept seemed to me a brilliant one when I first encountered Joe Dante's site. Since then, it's just gotten better. There are over 400 trailers uploaded so far, with more added by the week.

My favorite Trailers From Hell narrators are, not unexpectedly, near my own age. Several I envy for getting born those few crucial years ahead that allowed them first-run access to classics I had to settle for on television. Ours was a generation that witnessed the last of black-and-white in theatres and the first of color on TV, a great time to come of movie age. Allan Arkush talks about Rio Bravo and how the theatre exploded when this trailer came on and I was eleven years old at the Lee Theatre in Fort Lee, NJ. As for the cast, he says, they were all on my favorite television shows. Arkush sounds fully aware of how fortunate he was to have been there for the authentic Rio Bravo experience, something I never enjoyed for having merely seen it a first time sliced to two-hour's commercial interrupted mincemeat on Channel 3's Best Of Hollywood in 1967. Most frustrating is the fact I was there to see Rio Bravo's trailer in 1959, for it was booked to follow The Shaggy Dog, my first Liberty excursion at age five. Perhaps our auditorium exploded too, though being months shy of starting kindergarten, how could I remember? Maybe having just been present is balm enough, though Arkush's more aware encounter remains an enviable one.

Reassuring then was advantage I had over Mick Garris. He saw Black Sabbath the first time on black-and-white television. Yes, a lot of us feel your pain, Mick. I too caught a portion of it when High Point's Channel 8 defaced Mario Bava's omnibus chiller with a weekday afternoon's showing, but I'd been fortunate enough to luxuriate in the Liberty's 35mm print three years earlier, and so gave thanks I wasn't introduced to Black Sabbath under such compromised circumstances as you suffered. But how I covet days Joe Dante spent in 50's theatres! He saw everything ... even Them! at tender age of seven (I had to settle for Konga at that juncture, so you've got it all over me, Joe). Dante is the founding force behind Trailers From Hell. He used to work for Castle Of Frankenstein magazine during glory days of the 60's. That's like standing around while they signed The Declaration of Independence. The stories Dante tells are my favorites among the TFH lot. Listen to his Abbott And Costello Meet The Mummy narration for instance. He saw that combo'ed alongside World Without End in 1956. Like so many TFH participants, he remembers when and at what theatre. If I had one Sunday afternoon at the movies to relive, I'd pick that one, he says. For the time he had (watching them twice), I don't wonder, but there was a parental drama to come that evening and a missed Hollywood Or Bust the following weekend, the details of which I'll leave to your own discovery at Trailers From Hell. Another choice interlocutor there is John Landis. He's a fun host and knows movies cold. I'd not forgotten his fine tribute to Laurel and Hardy in Danny Peary's Close-Ups, published in 1978 (that's how I knew the following year's Animal House would be a good comedy). Landis does a really extraordinary voice-over for The T.A.M.I. Show trailer. He was actually there when they filmed it. Again, I say --- you fellows absolutely had it made.

But hold on a minute. My idea was to talk about the new Trailers From Hell DVD, their first. You haven't ordered one yet? Well, get over there and do it now by all means, for not only does it include a selection of TFH's best trailers and narrations, but they've added a feature and cartoons as well (like any balanced program). All looked great projected on my screen. Given the commission to design their one-sheet, I might blurb "Trailers From Hell" Is Now A Full-Length Motion Picture, borrowing snipes from Munsters Go Home or perhaps the 1966 Batman to commemorate TFH's transition from mousepad to TV remote. Anyway, it's an event, and Greenbriar readers shouldn't miss it. Those bonuses include The Vampire Bat, too long unseen in watchable prints, but happily tendered here with the best video quality I've come across yet. Two animated oddities are as welcome, The Haunted Ship (a Van Bueren Aesop's Fable) and Ub Iwerks' The Headless Horseman with Castle Films main titles (reason in itself to have the DVD).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Comedies With Money

The Danny Kaye features for Samuel Goldwyn were comedies with money, just as Eddie Cantor's had been during the thirties. You look at them today and imagine how W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, or Abbott and Costello might have fared with such enormous resource at their disposal. Kaye rollicked in a technicolor garden to their black-and-white tenements. One reason I think folks resent this comedian is doubt (no, conviction) that he wasn’t worthy of such expenditure. Few clowns date so woefully as Danny Kaye. Many wonder why anyone ever laughed at him. These Goldwyn-aramas are so bloated, so extravagant for the sake of showing off, as to convince us that 40’s patrons maintained a whole different standard with regard screen humor. And yet they also liked much of what we still enjoy. Was it the novelty of Kaye’s act? If so, that was a long time wearing off. He had starring parts from 1944 into the sixties (and did give us The Court Jester). His initial brace for Goldwyn were one and all events. None placed below top of the bill. By The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, there’d been three, pretty much an annual laugh and music feed. 1947 offered comedies and then it offered super comedies. Walter Mitty and Paramount’s Hope/Crosby The Road To Rio were for families wanting more than their money’s worth out of a merry movie night. As opposed to lame-o mix-ups with Claudette Colbert or Deanna Durbin getting caught in some guy’s pajamas, these were three-ring howlers for everybody. Never mind what we prefer now, Kaye appealed to a broader base at his peak than any other comic before cameras. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty saw no shame in turning him loose upon audiences for an unapologetic two hours, much of that surrendered to gags done time and again to exhausting effect.

Goldwyn bought the James Thurber short story and committed to making it long. Sophisticates liked this author and were confident he’d be bastardized. Goldwyn thought little enough of the property to initially call his adaptation I Wake Up Dreaming, but restored Thurber’s title in the face of extravagant press covering the shoot. Thurber was consulted in time-honored fashion, then ignored. He'd regale New York Times readers (many fans there) with accounts of Hollywood moguls and their wives mucking around with his story. Turns out there was a Walter Mitty organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of their revered character, so that got coverage too. This was interest building a year in advance of the film’s opening. Few comedies merited such scrutiny. What Goldwyn kept of Thurber were daydreams increased in number from four in the story to a half-dozen for the movie, to which was added a scripter's own daydream wherein Mitty mans up, routs baddies, and wins Virginia Mayo (lacquered and white-gloved to near-statuary appearance) . Boxoffice receipts vindicated Goldwyn's rape of Thurber's art. The author may have had his niche readership, but their combined number couldn't muster $5.4 million in worldwide rentals such as SG's free-wheeled picturization did. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty revolved but incidentally around that title character, its greater resources put to the disposal of Danny Kaye's manic persona. He trips, mugs, and patters as before. Audiences expected no less than multiple encoring for staccato lyrics wife Sylvia Fine penned for each Kaye feature, and what matter if they mis-fitted his Walter Mitty? A technicolored fashion show dawdles in recognition of then-customers' willingness to gaze upon Goldwyn Girls decked in latest 1947 creations. There's extensive second-unit glimpsing of story-set Manhattan, richly lensed to the advantage of gleaming Yellow Cabs and pristine skyscrapers. You can call The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty plodding and witless, but it is sure enough eye candy for those who'd call that enough, which in 1947, was most everyone who attended.

A singular fan-discovery recently brought The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty out of changing tastes' coma, that being indication that among deleted dream sequences was one featuring Boris Karloff reprising his Frankenstein monster act. Shock waves ensued when several E-Bay listings revealed hitherto unknown production stills with legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce applying scars and bolts to the Karloff countenance for the first time since Son Of Frankenstein (there was a baseball charity event in the interim with BK back in harness, but that was a one-night appearance). Members of The Classic Horror Film Board pounced on this revelation and spent numerous posts speculating on hows and whys of such a remarkable (and belated) curtain call. Goldwyn secured permission from Universal to display the protected image. Proof of that turned up in a separate online auction. Forum sleuthers assembled clues over months and realized that The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty was indeed the film for which Karloff again donned his immortal guise, but a question remained ... was there actually footage shot with him as Frankenstein's creation? Ace historian Ted Newsom argued a persuasive yes. Scott MacQueen suspects BK's rather perfunctory entrance into the narrative as it now stands is explained by the fact his monster appearance was excised. There's frankly so little of Karloff in the film as to make me wonder if indeed he wasn't prominent in at least one sequence eventually dropped (after all, he's third billed). The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty makes hash of menacing opportunity with heaped villainy that should have been merged into Karloff's character. His role seems truncated and unsatisfactory throughout. Was this result of eleventh-hour surgery to cover exclusion of the Frankenstein dream? There was one other dropped fantasy we know about in which Danny Kaye assumed the role of Irish rebel (and appears, at least by stills like one above, to have played that largely straight). In all the Mitty pre-release press I looked at, there was no mention of a Karloff/Frankenstein cameo, so debate continues as to how much, if anything, was actually committed to film. Discovery of such footage would naturally send currents through fandom the equal of those that first brought the monster to life.

Many Thanks to Scott MacQueen for Info and Images on Boris Karloff's participation in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.
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