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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.


Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

I saw Vera Cruz on a big screen at Harvard back in the Nineties, and while I can't say whether it was SuperScope or not, it definitely looked huge. It was interesting to read about Cooper's concerns. Whatever his reservations about "adult" westerns he seemed to be able to hold his own in them rather than turning them into heroic vehicles like a lot of Wayne's movies. In any event, I enjoyed both the movie and your short history of it.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Oscar Grillo said...

I used to watch the "scratchboard" poster of this movie for hours in my local Buenos Aires' fleapit. A truly beautiful piece of graphic art!

8:42 PM  

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