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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Buried Treasure --- Standing Room Only

We all find out eventually how subjective humor is. I learned long ago never to guarantee an audience laughs, as there's no faster route to a hosting Waterloo. One comedy I'll always walk the plank for, however, for fact it's so utterly forgotten if nothing else (especially by owning Universal) , is Standing Room Only, a delight worthy of revival on TCM, if not DVD release through their Vault Collection. This wartime frolic (released 1944) enjoyed underground renown among 16mm collectors who called it hilarity's improvement on better known The More The Merrier, which has run on TCM and is available via Sony disc. Maltin's Movie Guide gives Standing Room Only but two stars and calls it "dated." Well ... duh. That's half this movie's charm. How does SRO play to an audience? Mine have liked it lots. Given a crisp digital alternative to the milky spliced-up print I had to run this weekend for lack of anything better, they'd have cheered more. Presentation is crucial to enjoyment, but what can you do when a thing's not available save battered 16mm remnants someone snuck out of a warehouse thirty years ago? And how many signatures would adorn petitions to exhume a farce about Washington housing shortages during WWII? It's when advocating on behalf of a Standing Room Only that I realize how alone in the world we fully-vested fans are. No wonder civilians think we're a little cracked.

Is anyone at TCM or Universal listening? I sometimes wonder if those behind corporate walls read movie blogs, let alone GPS. Maybe one of you in contact with decision makers can forward my earnest plea. As it turns out, Standing Room Only as a 16mm option sort of crashed when my take-up reel froze and a thousand feet of film cascaded onto the projection booth floor, a reminder as if one were needed of why I stopped collecting film in favor of DVD. We did get through the show, but only just. A big disconnect between folks that live with old movies and those that don't is fact the latter can't know character faces as we do, recognition of these being well past adjustment to conventions of dialogue, pacing, and fashions long out of fashion. Linger enough on TCM and shows like Standing Room Only wear as comfortably as fleece robes (all the more reason it would fit ideally there). Hey, there's Roland Young ... we know pretty well what he'll be up to, having seen Topper, The Philadelphia Story and two-dozen others where he's type-cast ... and here comes Edward Arnold, a known quantity welcome for us as surely he was to 1944 audiences. Still, I can't blame people who reject past Hollywood. There's nothing familiar for them to latch onto, and it's worse now than even a few decades ago when at least a handful of veterans were alive to stir memory of work they'd done more recently. I was able to sit Ann down for Standing Room Only largely because of Fred MacMurray being the lead, his name and face she'd recall from My Three Sons, but how many others as of 2010 still know My Three Sons?

Shows like Standing Room Only were customized for theatres aspiring to SRO conditions of their own. On-screen players paused for laughs same as if they were on a stage. Paramount especially paced their comedies to the rhythm of packed houses. Modern viewers wonder why Bob and Bing halt a beat after sock lines. Well, it's because they didn't want two thousand then-patrons to miss the next sock line. There are moments in Standing Room Only that I'll bet took roofs off flagship venues like the Chicago Theatre (ad below). SRO played mid-May 1944 as part of an entertainment smorgasbord that headlined live-appearing Gil Lamb, eccentric comic of much Paramount exposure (having been in Riding High, Rainbow Island, others), along with the Glenn Miller Band's crooner Ray Eberle, a frequent attraction on Chicago's stage (clicked well with the femmes and begged off after four curtain calls, said Billboard). Broadway's Deluxe Tapsters Lathrop and Lee rendered "Darktown Strutter's Ball," with plenty of flash and high-class stepping, followed by Lamb joining harmonica whiz Bob Coffey for a go at Rhapsody In Blue to accompaniment of a farcical jitterbug dance. There was also the Glenns, whose remarkable acro (batic) work ... stopped the show. Bandleader Lou Breese had signed a year's contract to front the theatre's orchestra and was performing a record eight shows a day (imagine his fatigue at conclusion of that). Buying a Chicago seat to Standing Room Only yielded 83 minutes of feature plus such gravy to swell entertainment well past two hours, surely a bargain at whatever the price.

Few remember Paulette Goddard beyond appearances as Chaplin's leading lady (offscreen as well), but war years saw her emblazoning marquees in crowd pleaser A's that vaulted PG to most valued distaff name on Paramount payrolls. Fred MacMurray never forgot her wangling favored billing in Standing Room Only, even if the film itself was more or less a blur. Paulette had ways of managing ... always ... what was best for Paulette, and talent or lack of it figured but lightly into equations. Her birthdate was cited as 1910, but closer scrutiny, done after stardom's closure, suggested 1905 as likelier date of arrival. Goddard might well have been easing toward forty by time of Standing Room Only, but looks wouldn't betray age until a few seasons later and 1947's Unconquered, her last of consequence for Paramount. She'd got by with va-voom and ready willingness, although insiders swore Goddard had ten times said appeal behind cameras. There may be sauce beyond even that if visiting friend Dan's randy interpretation of a certain "whipping cream" line she utters in Standing Room Only is correct, though I'd prefer thinking that's just D's baser instincts at work yet again. All this yammer, by the way, and I'd forgot to mention what SRO is about. The set-up, not simplicity itself, but productive of much misunderstanding, close calls, and prat-falling, has hard-charging Fred and pretend secretary Paulette forced to become butler and maid for "hen-pecked wolf" Roland Young. Now a kicker here, though not one felt until a decade later, is fact Fred plays a toy manufacturer, just as he would in There's Always Tomorrow (1956), a foolproof companion for Standing Room Only that I'd hereby commend to TCM and revival house programmers. Book these end-to-end and put your own reading to go-getter Fred's 1944 character beaten down by 50's conformity and family obligation as calendars roll round twelve years --- and all the while he's moving toys. There's got to be monograph potential there for Sirk (and maybe Sidney Lanfield!) scholars.
Some more nice images of Paulette Goddard at Greenbriar Archives here.


Blogger Dugan said...

I would love to see this film. I saw Paulette Goddard in the two Bob Hope thrillers and thought she was great she really worked well with Hope. Fred MacMurray never got enough respect. How many Disney films did he save? He's about the only reason to sit through "The Reluctant Millionaire," and believe me I've sat through it.

9:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Just received an e-mail from reader Griff ---

Wonderful post. John, I'm not sure if I've ever seen this, but I have an odd late-show-memory-fogged question: does it begin in a rainstorm?

-- Griff

Griff, there's a rainstorm that figures into action during the first third, but not at the beginning. Maybe the print you saw was edited for TV!

9:11 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Paulette Goddard! I think Robert Benchley said something like "That woman could charm a rock!"

1:03 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

I was able to sit Ann down for Standing Room Only largely because of Fred MacMurray being the lead, his name and face she'd recall from "My Three Sons," but how many others as of 2010 still know "My Three Sons"?

Well, a lot of people do know another movie MacMurray made in 1944, although it wasn't a comedy...

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think TCM shows much stuff from Universal. Mainly MGM, UA, Columbia and Warners.

2:09 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Actually, they've been using quite a lot of Universal-owned material in the last several years, including a fair number of pre-48Paramounts controlled by that company, so "Standing Room Only" is a reasonable possibility, if only TCM would consider it.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

I've always assumed it was a dud by the lack of interest I've always found when trying to sell movie posters from the title but it looks like it was because few people in recent years have seen it!

4:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Bill, I'd noticed too that prices on "Standing Room Only" posters and lobby cards are really low. I think the one-sheet I have, by the way, might have originally come from you ...

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

I believe Griff is thinking of There's Always Tomorrow which begins with a title card reading "Once upon a time, in sunny California ..." and dissolves into a shot of the rain pouring down outside of Fred MacMurray's toy factory.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Re: Today's usher inspection banner...only one of them will be needed to handle the crowds to see "Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man."

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

[chortle!] Bolo's right; talk about all dressed up and no place to go...

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

You can see the other feature being promoted behind the ushers...THAT TOUCH OF MINK. I'm sure that needed a full set of them, as this was when Doris Day was queen of the box office.

Dugan...the movie you are thinking of is THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE. Disney cut a deal with the Hallmark Movie Channel (and TCM) for its older live-action titles, and it's one they have been showing often.
I also read that it was Disney's first large budget road-show production (MARY POPPINS wasn't handled in the same way--that was before another musical showed Hollywood that the hills are alive with the sound of money, getting them to jump on the song and dance bandwagon).

8:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, John -- your association of SRO with THE MORE THE MERRIER, a picture of which I'm very fond, is enough to whet my appetite.

C'mon, TCM -- come through!

10:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson has an interesting observation about Fred MacMurray and an earlier film, "True Confession.":

For this boomer it's still odd to see MacMurray in something other than his Disney/My Three Sons persona -- Even his SOB exec in The Apartment seemed to consciously play off the avuncular TV dad.

The comedy True Confession foreshadows the Disney MacMurray: Fred's a lawyer whose high principles keep him clientless. When his wife (Carole Lombard) is charged with murdering a lecherous employer, he gets her off with a brilliant case of self-defense. In fact, she's perfectly innocent but lets him think otherwise so he'd get this high-profile, career-changing break. Then John Barrymore staggers in as a blackmailer who threatens to ruin everything by proving she IS innocent. The script doesn't fully exploit all that potential -- one wishes Wilder or Sturges got a shot at it -- but it's solidly amusing, even when you worry Barrymore isn't going to make it through a scene.

6:55 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

You talked me into it, John. By a happy coincidence, when this post was current, there was a 16mm print of Standing Room Only on eBay, and I won it. (I was the only bidder; had to perch like a hawk on the auction to make sure one of your other readers didn't snatch it off at the last moment.) Looking forward to seeing it...

1:02 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I noticed that e-bay print too, Jim. I think you'll really like the film, and hope the print will be good.

4:06 AM  
Blogger Erik Weems said...

I don't know how much TCM takes notice of the "voting" mechanism on their pages about individual films: SRO has 44 votes for a DVD release, one of which is mine just based on the GPS recommendation here (and that association with "More the Merrier".)

11:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Erik --- I haven't paid much attention to those voting options at TCM, or Amazon, but I should. For all we know, they may have a lot to do with titles that are selected for DVD release. Thanks for the reminder ...

5:30 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

As a child who like many others only knew the Disney/MY THREE SONS Fred, imagine my shock at THE APARTMENT closely followed by DOUBLE INDEMNITY,a few of his Westerns etc....and as a young leading man!!!

4:08 AM  

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