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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Favorites List --- Vera Cruz --- Part Two

Variety's Army Archerd reported cool "Good Mornings" between Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster on the Vera Cruz location in Mexico, reason being ... Coop likes to take his direction from the director. There was complication too within hours of location arrival when actor Jack Elam was falsely arrested, and eventually let go, by Mexican authorities. He'd be advised to let the matter drop for benefit of this and future US filming ventures in the host country. Press interest focused on a bandit called Jaramillo who'd been terrorizing perimeters of the shooting site. Twenty had been killed so far pursuing him, said The New York Times, but what was this but gratis publicity for action- dedicated Vera Cruz? There was, as usual, sickness over bad food and worse water. Cooper dodged same for having developed cast-iron innards during prior Mex shoots (but were known ulcer problems exacerbated here?). He picked up rudimentary language skills for a chaser, plus heat endurance others of the company lacked.

Robert Aldrich was chatty to trades over money saved thanks to what he called genuine economy Mexico offered. Going rates were far below the Hollywood average, he said, with labor costs about two-fifths to a half of what you'd spend in the states. Mexican crews maybe aren't quite as speedy or as labor saving as in Hollywood, he added, but they overall belie what he called the great myth of siesta time in Mexico (perpetuated partly by Warner Bros. cartoons on US screens?). Blowing kisses across the border, at least in print, was necessity Aldrich understood. Whatever reality amounted to, he'd finish Vera Cruz in seventy-three days and save an estimated $500,000, getting two-million dollars' worth of picture for a lean $1.5.

Gary Cooper wouldn't stand for his character going low-down like Lancaster's. The latter was flexible to variation on a (still forming) image after fashion of post-war arrivers at stardom, but Cooper knew patronage of decades would balk at his back-shooting or venture down other than high roads. The older actor's book of rules was consulted throughout Vera Cruz, what with its script a continually morphing thing. Close scrutiny reveals a show that might have played out differently. The jumbled ending reveals Denise Darcel holding a pistol during a balcony scene when Lancaster gives her the brush-off. In one shot, she appears to be pointing it toward him. Was there an intended (but later omitted) deadly showdown between these two? Burt got to thinking it might even be fun to let Joe Erin live, till Coop put both feet down. The two got along ... for dollars Coop saw coming, he'd have paired with Lash La Rue, but never for a moment did we  doubt he'd do the white-hat thing ... assurance of that made Vera Cruz Lancaster's movie to steal.

Robert Aldrich came away burnt over Burt's horning in on direction. The Battle Of Giants poster might better have addressed itself to ones these two fought. A bigger blow awaited Bob once everyone got home and producers Hecht/Lancaster began dickering with newly-formed SuperScope developers to utilize their widescreen format on finished Vera Cruz. The process took standard frames and optically enhanced them to an image twice as wide as it was high. This wasn't Cinemascope, but you could play SS pics using CS lenses, and get a picture nearly as vast. RKO was aboard and preparing Jane Russell's Underwater! for early 1955 release --- with Vera Cruz first out of gates for nineteen regional Christmas opens. United Artists would get its jump on SuperScope, Hecht/Lancaster's idea of just more $ in the bank.

Aldrich said later that he never intended Vera Cruz for SuperScope. In fact, the expansion to 2:1 played havoc with compositions throughout his film, taking toll as well on image clarity. Audiences were better off seeing it flat. Many did in fact ... of a total 300 Vera Cruz prints in 35mm, 200 were in SuperScope. The rest went out standard frame that would in most cases have been projected 1.85:1. Aldrich doubtless smelled rats when a Vera Cruz sneak preview took place in Owensboro, Kentucky during mid-October '54 (Burt Lancaster shooting The Kentuckian nearby), to which the director was not invited. He promptly filed a complaint with the Screen Director's Guild against Hecht-Lancaster. This may have been the deal-breaker insofar as Bob and Burt collaborating again --- it would be 1972 and Ulzana's Raid before a re-teaming.

That's Mighty Hard, says Coop as he tenders $100 gold to anti-heroic Burt, but it's GC who got last laughs when $1.4 million came back from his Vera Cruz participation.

Whatever objections Robert Aldrich had to SuperScope, it was an effective selling tool. The optical company had agreed to reduce cost of its lens 40% from the initial $700 for a pair, their new policy to go into effect in tandem with general release of Vera Cruz and Underwater!. Gary Cooper spent nearly a week in New York to pump the Capital Theatre's opening. Excitement there was enhanced when a policewoman fired at a fleeing pickpocket, the shot barely audible over Vera Cruz mayhem in the auditorium. Naturally, this made for headlines with United Artists again free advertising's beneficiary. As for Gary Cooper, his fee plus percentage of Vera Cruz allegedly touched $1.4 million upon final tally --- easily among best paydays any star yielded for a single job. Big as Coop's High Noon scored ($3.7 million in domestic rentals), Vera Cruz did better, with $4.5 million domestic and $6.7 foreign. Here would be the 1954-55 western everyone wanted to see --- tougher, meaner than any dared before --- including Duel In The Sun and mythic The Outlaw.

Vera Cruz was a made-to-grind evergreen on flea pit and drive-in bills well through the sixties and possibly beyond in markets I haven't checked. At least for near-by Greensboro/Winston-Salem, it was a natural for action combos and dusk-to-dawn corndog feeds. When ABC went shopping to fill a new Sunday night movie berth in Spring 1962, Vera Cruz fell among a group of fifteen bought from UA. They'd run from April through summer with the network charging $23,000 per minute to advertisers. All the UA's were post-48 and Variety noted interesting aspect of the ABC-TV features is that many of the films are in color and the network plans to bicycle these features to the key affiliate stations for tint exposure. So Vera Cruz played some ABC affiliates in color and black-and-white for others. By time of my seeing it on a 1967 Channel 9 syndicated afternoon, there was at least color, whatever depredation commercials and editing wrought.

United Artists borrows key art from High Noon to advance sell Vera Cruz.
 And now MGM offers Vera Cruz in Blu-Ray. The image is SuperScope wide, if not altogether consistent re quality and color registration. Neither were 16mm prints I used to encounter, including ones in dye-transfer Technicolor. Argument as to proper ratio for Vera Cruz persist as does debate over Fritz Lang's While The City Sleeps, Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, and long out of DVD print Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. All were released initially in SuperScope, then pleased well enough for years as full-frame TV staples before entering arenas of controversy over how wide (if at all) they should be on disc. Online (and ongoing) discussion of all this has enlivened numerous film sites of late and, if nothing else, separates casual viewers from dedicated nit-pickers among us.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Favorites List --- Vera Cruz --- Part One

I reckon Vera Cruz to have been the first brute western. Not for nothing was it an enormous commercial hit. Meanness, if not actual violence, was up-ticked in what's understood to have been a hodgepodge shot barely ahead of script pages being typed. Who looked ahead from baking Mexico locations in 1954 to a decade later when attitudes forged on Vera Cruz would dominate nearly all westerns, Euro and eventually stateside ones? Here was a showdown between white and black-hats where a jading public began its drift toward the latter. We'd been tempted before to choose badness in personage of Gregory Peck's lawless Lewt of Selznick's Duel In The Sun, a whopper success that proposed wrong being more fun than right. Guess it's safe to say there wouldn't have been a Vera Cruz before the war. Ruthless means of getting a job done was now understood if not embraced. Burt Lancaster stood for those tired of protags who'd shoot guns out of hands (as Gary Cooper does) rather than going for throats (where Burt gleefully applies his lance). Was Cooper conscious of fact he'd defend a persona fast turning obsolete? From what's been written of set differences, I'd say Coop, consciously or not, made the last stand on behalf of cowboys who'd always been heroes, but whose days as such were numbered if not over.

Just Pals Off-Screen --- Though Cooper Would Balk at Aldrich and Burt Directing Him.

Lancaster was more than feeling oats by time they'd got below borders to shoot Vera Cruz in March 1954. He'd been shot out of a cannon that was From Here To Eternity and recently embarked on remaking an industry in his flamboyant image. Whatever twist on a western he chose saw no barrier to financing. In this case, it was United Artists that would kick in and bow besides to minimal distribution fees just for privilege of handling Burt's independent output. Everything he touched (for now) turned to coin. Lancaster was adjudged a force of nature other actors might better steer wide of, Gary Cooper being advised by friend (and friendly rival) Clark Gable to avoid Vera Cruz, but terms Burt's company and UA tendered held promise of riches such as Coop hadn't known in years of dung-kicking on Paramount and (lately) Warner backlots.

Coop's Either Dabbing Make-Up or Signaling Rescuers To Get Him Off VC's Hell-Hot Location.

Lancaster had just done a glum western called Apache with a young director he liked well enough to invite along on Vera Cruz. This would be Robert Aldrich's first big-$ venture ... $1.5 million to spend, but all aboard knowing they'd get twice its value by way of cheap labor and accommodations. Just as soldiers of fortune descend on Mexico under Vera Cruz credits, so did Hecht (Harold, BL's producing partner)-Lancaster trucks hauling equipment into arid locations off paths beaten even by Hollywood-ites lately there to do Blowing Wild, Garden Of Evil, and other pics lensed  Mexico-way. Gary Cooper had in fact top-lined those last two --- becoming near as expatriated as Vera Cruz alter-ego Ben Trane --- but tax furlough Coop sought could be had only by living and working outside the US for extended period, thus his screen characters taking up what seemed permanent residence below the border.

Warner Bros. had counted on Vera Cruz filling their release chart from announcements made in April 1953, but it now seemed an (From Here To) eternity since Lancaster's willingness to accept terms dictated by oblivious-to-his-value WB. The star now at a peak of negotiating power took marbles to United Artists and by October had partner Harold Hecht dickering with 20th Fox for license of their Cinemascope process for Vera Cruz. That wouldn't transpire, and neither would a same month's start on the Mexican shoot, Apache moving up to first among Hecht-Lancaster's UA pledged pics.

Gary Cooper's casting made Vera Cruz a two-act buddy show with slide-rules applied to give each star prominence due. Ben Trane didn't come to Mexico just for the ride, as he tells another of VC's characters, and neither did a Cooper protective of his image and star status --- this was a script daily parsed to head off top-dogging by either man. Appropriate then that Vera Cruz  found Coop's Ben and Lancaster's Joe Erin wary of each other throughout, both alert to possibilities of a double-cross. Director Aldrich got a preview here of big-name circling he'd referee later with Baby Jane's mutually suspicious pair, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Cooper's on-set underplaying convinced Lancaster he'd chosen a lethargic partner ... till rushes told a different story. That had only happened a few hundred times to others who underestimated Coop's screen presence.

There had been buddy/rival teamings before. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, Cagney/O'Brien ... the latter double-dealt at least as ferociously in 1940's Torrid Zone, and that was in wake of service actioners where neither could trust the other. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby upped levels of rapacity in comedies right up to Vera Cruz's doorstep. It isn't hard imagining VC played for laughs with Bob/Bing angling for gold and gals. What shocks (or did in 1954) is Lancaster adding casual kills to Joe Erin's portfolio, and making it funny enough in his circus manner (Joe is another Crimson Pirate --- only more bloodthirsty) to suspend patron's moral judgment. No wonder Burt suggested letting Joe Erin survive Vera Cruz's fade, till Gary Cooper stepped up and said Nope.

Mari Blanchard Welcomed Abbott and Costello to Mars, But Her Big Vera Cruz Break Would Stall on Take-Off. 

The women of Vera Cruz amount to little more than that puff of smoke Caesar Romero references early in the show. There was never intent to get major distaff names. Mamie Van Doren applied, and based on casting criteria, might have been taken up. Another Universal-International starlet, Mari Blanchard, was in fact green lit for Vera Cruz. Her big break, said Hecht-Lancaster and trades, the latter which quoted Mari regarding her key scene in Vera Cruz, a rain-barrel tête-à-tête with Gary Cooper where she definitely will wear nothing but her birthday suit, according to Variety's Vernon Scott. Anything goes across the border, after all. Why else would so many gringos choose Tijuana for weekend getaways? (So Foreign ... Yet So Near, per the 1953 travel ad below).

We forget much of failure in life, Hollywood's being perhaps fastest obscured. Mari Blanchard you'd barely recall now, but it might not have been so had luck dealt the Vera Cruz gig Mari eagerly packed for. In fact, it was mere hours short of departure to Mexico when word came she'd lost the part. A last minute contract dispute between Hecht-Lancaster and loaning Universal seemed picayune, but Mari's prospects hung upon it, her disappointment over the loss profound. All the more galling was learning of the switch not from home lot U-I. but columnist Harrison Carroll, who'd gotten it off AP's wire. Denise Darcel took Blanchard's job, and placement in the rain barrel, a sequence that for all anticipation leading up to it, was ultimately dropped from Vera Cruz.

Shades of Gable and Harlow in Red Dust! --- But This Notorious Rain Barrel Sequence with Coop and Denise Darcel Wouldn't Make It Into Final Prints of Vera Cruz.

United Artists Sold Sarita Montiel as Naughty, but Coop Found Her Plain Dirty --- So It Was Unaccustomed Hands-Off Throughout VC's Shooting.

Slapped Silly Just Before the Clinch --- Is This How Yanks Figured French Wantons Went About Their Lovemaking?

What this western needed was Bombshells to play off Coop and Burt. Never mind that Darcel and Sarita Montiel couldn't act their way out of bags. Success of Euro art flicks fed perception that imported exotics played better games of love. Photogs winged south for art on Vera Cruz's bevy of beauty and word came back that much of what they shot was too hot to publish. Director Aldrich barely got English dialogue out of Montiel, Cooper all too clearly struggling through VC exchanges with her. Darcel tries teaching Burt's Joe Erin a French style of seduction, but comes off coarse in a slap(s) and kiss exchange likely as off-putting in 1954 as now. If Vera Cruz had been made just a few years later, I'm guessing there'd have been a Playboy spread devoted to what press reps dubbed its feminine spice.

Part Two of Vera Cruz is HERE.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Marx Brothers Come Back

Girlfriend Ann calls A Night In Casablanca best of all the Marx Brothers, her memory of that CBS stay-up event still vivid from age thirteen. I've not forgotten counting down hours to the same broadcast in 1973. Could she care less about such a runt in the Marxes' litter were it not for deep impression made that night? We ran ANIC recently and still it clicks, being for Ann the only Marx that does (she hit the kill button on A Night At The Opera after a first ten minutes). Would outcome have been the other-way-around given Opera instead of Casablanca that long-ago late night? Seeing films first in happy context of growing up is to view same through rose-tinted glass from there on. I suspend critical judgment on the Brothers' Paramount features for knowing them first via afternoon television and 70's theatre revival. When life is good, movies seem better. Many have written of biggest viewing kicks between their tenth and twentieth years. That's near enough to when I experienced A Night In Casablanca first, coming  for me as it did on cusp of jaded maturity. To have intersected with it even a year later might have put this one on a pass list from there on. Remarkable the effect a single tube run could have in those days when classic comedy on TV was not to be taken for granted.

A Night In Casablanca would be a Marx comeback from so-called retirement. Was the Bros. chucking Hollywood after The Big Store altogether their idea? The latter had been done at reduced cost ($850K) from previous Go West ($1.1 million). Their comedies since A Night At The Opera were money losers. The Big Store realized a minimal profit for getting made cheap, but its domestic rentals came to the team's lowest so far for MGM. Were pink slips issued here, or did the studio propose re-route to lower status for the Marx Brothers? The boys might have hung on in budget comedies like "Whistling" vehicles Red Skelton did, or second features of a sort Laurel and Hardy fell heir to upon arrival at MGM a year or so later. For whatever decline the Marxes experienced, they never sunk to these levels. Further work at Metro might have put them on a bobsled to B's, however. Apprehension of this was as good a reason for quitting as any.

The story has long been that A Night In Casablanca was means of relieving Chico of wager obligations, darker implication that certain quarters had him measured for cement footwear should he not pay up. There had been cash flow to Chico through the 40's if ads shown here are any indication. His traveling orchestra performed dates in theatres, supper clubs ... wherever there was a stage and music was welcome. I'd assume Chico's act was a hit, what with comic possibilities in addition to seasoned instrumentalists. It's said Mel Tormé began his career with the Marx show. Did Chico losing at games of chance outpace income from the road? My preferred guess says the Marxes took A Night In Casablanca because financing was there to make it, something maybe not the case over a past five years when word was surely out that comedies with them weren't selling ...

David Loew was Casablanca's producer. He was son and heir to founding Marcus Loew of that name's empire at picture-making. David hadn't keys to studio gates, but calls from him were answered, and he'd proven adept so far with independent production (So Ends Our Night, The Moon and Sixpence, some Joe E. Browns). Loew would set up a Night In Casablanca company and, together with the Marxes, share expense and revenue, optimism the greater as this was booming wartime and biz was never better. Preparations got underway a year ahead of the film's release. One boost maybe unexpected was Warner Bros. lodging objection to A Night In Casablanca's title. There'd been several variations on that, as the trade ad below illustrates (and note Loew sarcasm directed at WB "Mayors of Casablanca"). As Groucho might have observed, it was a matter of big bullies picking on little bullies, and he'd not let opportunity pass to spin this controversy in the Brothers' favor.

It was serious at first (May 1945). David Loew went to releasing United Artists' legal department in hopes they could arrange arbitration. Warners had put forth a flimsy argument that using Casablanca in the Marx film's title would diminish value of their couple-years-old Bogart hit, still playing off in theatres, according to WB. Here was the very sort of major studio arrogance Groucho thrived on challenging. His open letter, published not only in trades but a mainstream press, made sport of Burbank monitors and neutralized what could otherwise have been a drawn out and costly ordeal. Readers meanwhile enjoyed madcap Groucho humbling one of filmland's behemoths, and therein lay valued publicity for A Night In Casablanca. But a question --- had Groucho composed the missive (and for that matter, other letters credited to him), or did gag assist sweeten text for maximum effect? Just wondering ... if his correspondence was so clever and witty as many published collections confirm it was, why didn't Grouch turn some of that brilliance toward improved Marx Bros. movie scripting?

The team did apply themselves on A Night In Casablanca, at least starting out. As with prior MGM's, there would be a tour for polishing routines to be used in the new film. The schedule hewed to smaller venues and army bases along the Pacific coast, the "hinterlands" as Variety called it, where hopefully there wouldn't be picture-wise folk to cop any of their ideas (or radio gagsters who might glom laughs for quick ether dissipation). A September 1945 start was planned for A Night In Casablanca, with summer lead-up figured for getting five extended set-pieces ready. Each was timing intensive and only repeat performing could get them in camera-ready shape. Live audience reaction would hopefully tip-off what was funny.

It wasn't enough just featuring the Brothers. Their in-person show needed talent to buffer Marx madness and relieve same with song and variety, not unlike formula Metro earlier applied to the team's filmic output. James B. Carson, a rotund, often-mustachioed character comedian (according to multiple Google sources), had long trod burlesque and vaude boards. Was he an old friend to one or more of the Marxes? Also there was John Sheehan, Stanley Price, and a line of girls with the troupe. Sheehan I could find nothing on ... there was a Stanley Price in many westerns, serials, and some short comedies from the twenties into the fifties. Obscure names, but they toured a summer with the Marx Brothers and presumably would have  their stories to tell, had anyone asked.

There were sixty or so performances, each about an hour long. Routines for A Night In Casablanca were pared, pruned, and polished, said Variety. Producer Loew and Casablanca's director Archie Mayo followed the troupe and singled out props they could retain for shooting later. This sort of preparation reflected Marxian hopes that Casablanca would finesse their screen comeback. Even Groucho was optimistic, according to private letters. Archie Mayo later figured eight days trimmed off sound stage time as result of word-perfect honing of complex scenes, citing a Chico-Harpo exchange of about three minutes that ordinarily would have needed a day to complete. Thanks to prepping on the tour, it wrapped within an hour, according to the director.

But Groucho ended up bitter toward his Night In Casablanca director, calling Archie Mayo a "fat idiot" in post-pic correspondence. Letters Groucho penned, so many of which saw later publication, have lots to do with a frankly harsh image attached to him. We assume he didn't write these for other than recipients to read, and there's at least value in having them for unvarnished insight as to Groucho's attitude toward work and those who collaborated with him, but he does come across callous at the least. How many entertainment figures had so much of their private writings revealed? Thanks to accumulation of Groucho's, we have warts and all to reflect upon from most of comedies he made, particularly later ones that proved so unsatisfactory for him.

A Night In Casablanca's big slapstick finale is no highlight, and filming it settled Groucho's resolve to get out of Marx Bros. movies and stay out (other than what amounted to an extended cameo in Love Happy). I don't ascribe to notions the team was "too old" for a 1946 try. It's only the extreme physical stuff that gives pause. Last reel blowouts had been a Marx staple for too long. Their best comedy was never these in any case. What plays well in A Night In Casablanca is verbal and close-quarter mirth to show off timing precision the three hadn't lost. There's a reel given mostly to heavy Sig Rumann trying to pack while unseen Marxes unpack, as pleasing to my estimation as 30's routines more celebrated. An uncredited Frank Tashlin was aboard to supply gags --- was Harpo holding up the wall FT's creation? Casablanca's not so corseted as their MGM vehicles (Marx clowning reflects more enthusiasm), and I'm not surprised a 1946 public went for it. Netflix HD is streaming A Night In Casablanca, so we at least have visual quality approaching what first-run viewers saw, if not a show recognized among the team's best.

That first post-war year saw stars welcomed back not unlike carpets unfurled for those doing first talkies back in the late 20's. The Marx Brothers hadn't worked for five years and maybe we'd missed them, however tired their act had gotten before the conflict. A Night In Casablanca world premiered to triumph at Chicago's Oriental Theatre, luring a biggest crowd since Amos n' Andy played there long before. Chuck Foster's Orchestra and singer Bob Eberly fronted the stage revue (there is an Eberly Tender Love Songs collection available on CD), and 55G's were counted for a first week (only Sinatra live at competing Chicago Theatre did better). A Night In Casablanca went on to collect $2.7 million in world rentals, the biggest return of all Marx Brothers comedies. Distribution by Standard Television beginning in March 1956 put Casablanca in an obscure package with other David Loew properties (and coincidentally, Love Happy). College and revival bookings often paired A Night In Casablanca with Love Happy, the two filling dates for Marx fans who'd long since committed to memory the team's Paramount and MGM pics.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Back From Memorial Day

I've been on GPS hiatus since the man came and replaced my Direct TV with Dish Network. Thanks to that, there's been helpings one after another on so-called TCM-HD, not really high-definition at present, but an up-convert with improved enough quality to warrant Turner re-visit for titles so far unavailable through Warner Archive, plus what the network leases from Universal, Sony (Columbia), etc. Easter-egg hunting for a best broadcast is fun and a viewing challenge. Couple of weeks ago, I watched She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on standard DVD, as good a home view as could be had to that time, then comes news that Retro-Plex HD, off an obscure corner of Dish Network, will play John Ford's cavalry classic in High-Def beginning 6/10, a first as- such broadcast for SWAYR that I've been aware of. Warners and the rest have been busy transferring to optimum quality --- classics surface either on HD satellite, Amazon On-Demand, or streaming via Netflix, Hulu, VuDu, plus any number of providers I may be ignorant of. Hence my distraction from Greenbriar'ing of late, along with Cinevent's run-up to Memorial Day and driving Columbus-way. Can one's brain implode trying to juggle so much choice?

Chaney at his expressive best sans the heavy make-up.
 Upon arrival back came Tell It To The Marines, a Sunday Silent courtesy TCM and increasingly one I'd vote Lon Chaney the Senior's best. What a star's grip-hold he developed by 1926. Honest-to-real leathernecks said Chaney was most authentic representation of their ranks --- and how he puts over his tough drill sergeant without spoken words. Plotting that would become rote was near-introduced here. Corps service straightens out wise-acre Bill Haines who's mentored by ruggeder-than-rugged Chaney --- I'd have welcomed the latter in more such parts and let freaks and monsters be hanged. Had he lived deeper into talkies, I suspect MGM would have done the same. Think Lon in eventual Wallace Beery roles --- The Big House, Treasure Island (he'd done that already as a silent), and The Secret Six, just to name three that would so have benefited by his starring. Was there a greater loss to movies than LC's departure in 1930?

War being a TCM weekend theme, there came Paratrooper off star Alan Ladd's lower shelf. This was one of his Warwick Productions, British-lensed and not a little raggedy compared with slick Paramounts the star had lately given up. Ladd like others on top salary was fed up giving its bulk to US tax collectors and so grabbed opportunity to shelter income via movies done off-shore. Trouble was budgets stripped after above-line Ladd took his. Paratrooper was called The Red Beret to start, then The Big Jump. James Bond personnel to come was involved ... Albert Broccoli produced, Terence Young directed, and Richard Maibaum wrote. This would be one of several Ladd did on momentum from Shane. Paratrooper, Hell Below Zero, and The Black Knight all lacked Hollywood polish, a not bad thing now but disappointing to the actor's then-following. Paratrooper brought just $1.7 million in domestic rentals to a distributing Columbia, way down from just preceding Shane's seven million.

Red Light played during TCM's Roy Del Ruth night. This was an independent set-up the director initiated after years spent on studio payrolls. Del Ruth got production loans for having a name and expertise at genre fare. Like so many lone producing wolves, he started out grandiose for Red Light casting, then settled for names easier got. James Cagney was first approached to star, a past Del Ruth colleague at Warners also going it solo. He passed. There were feelers to Alice Faye and Lizabeth Scott, with neither interested. Trouble in main was Del Ruth association with starting-out Allied Artists, a company just spun off lowly Monogram Pictures, and not among firms contract players could do outside pictures with. Del Ruth and Allied ended up agreeing for United Artists to release Red Light, this so they could lure class talent before cameras (another AA project also diverted to UA for distribution was Gun Crazy).

George Raft after Warners is for me a blur of downward crime and action pics culminating at Lippert with likes of Loan Shark or dullish foreign legion stuff. I'd have let Red Light pass if not for the new Dish, but glad now for trying this '49 thriller on. There was effort here and no little success at noir-ing in the RKO/Eagle-Lion mold. Red Light reminded me of the round-same-time D.O.A., owing in part to Dimitri Tiomkin's score. Ray Burr and Harry Morgan are heavies to compensate for Raft not being Cagney. Variety reported Del Ruth seeking just-off Streetcar Marlon Brando for a Red Light support spot --- might he have supplied villainy here? There's a billboard climbing finish that anticipates indie to-soon-come Love Happy. Did freebooting producers pinch ideas off each other during lunch? I like George Raft more as these obscurities turn up. He gets a bad rap for having turned down so many leads that immortalized others (The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, more) ... and bearing ridicule of  John Huston, Billy Wilder, plus any number of writer/historians for years to follow.



Callaway Went Thataway was MGM heaping fun on B cowpokes who'd been revived thanks to television, their far-back exploits proving a stronger early 50's draw than many a Metro theatrical program, including Callaway, which despite its clever premise and sometimes bright comedy, took a loss of $284K (against a negative cost of just $1.1 million). 1951 showmen needed a Quo Vadis to pry patrons away from the home box, not B/W gentle spoofing of filmgoing's enemy. Callaway walked gingerly, thanks to intervention by William "Hopalong" Boyd's management team, alerted to a possible dig at money-spinning Cassidy. They demanded a pre-release screening that led to a post-end-title disclaimer assuring viewers all was in harmless fun ...

Clark Gable is among MGM stars doing cameos in Callaway Went Thataway.
The tack-on read thus (and is still on prints, including TCM's): This picture was made in the spirit of fun and was meant in no way to detract from the wholesome influence, civic-mindedness, and the many charitable contributions of western idols of our American youth, or to be a portrayal of any of them. Well then, who (if anyone) did Callaway represent? He's a former singing cowboy turned surly drunk whose pics are revived to vid fame some ten years after he's washed out of the business. There's as much Ken Maynard as Hoppy to that equation, only Ken could scarcely have marshaled legal force to compel such a disclaimer by 1951. The fact Boyd could is testimony to real power he exerted and attendant muscle protecting his image. No MGM star then was so big as this TV-anointed colossus among cowboys.

From Cinevent came a got-to-be-rare set pose from My Man Godfrey (at least I've never seen it before). This actually appeared in Cleveland's Sunday newspaper dated 5/24/36, back when movie news really was news. Notable here is director Gregory La Cava (at right) joining his cast on break (not many pics of La Cava around). Others include Carole Lombard, Mischa Auer, and Bill Powell. And speaking of Lombard, at right is a theatre ad from the same year and town ('36) for The Princess Comes Across. Talk about size --- this one took just about a whole page. Note welcoming of Republican conventioneers ... and the plethora of short subjects on tap.

Finally, a trip to Wal-Mart. I try making as few of these as necessity demands, despite the joint being nearly visible from my porch, but how could one resist with a just-released Blu-Ray of The Big Country available only from member locations? Despite ours being a "Superstore," I doubted they'd stock so vintage a title, even if it was theirs alone to sell (wonder what Wal-Mart paid MGM for the exclusivity). Turns out there was but one copy in stock --- that means some one (or more) around my berg purchased William Wyler's 1958 western-to-beat. Greenbriar has visited this one before --- suffice to say there are few bigger, if not better. I watched even though last occasion seemed recent (turned out to be January 2008). What a stunner disc! It puts even MGM-HD's broadcast to rout. Well worth a wade into Wal-Mart quicksand to get.
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