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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jim and Sam Present Paget and Pagans!

1960 was finally time for American-International to live up to its name. No more would Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff rely on a domestic market for the bulk of receipts. Henceforth they'd branch past US shores to sell and buy. Foreign rentals accounted for 30% of AIP's 1959 take, with 1960 projecting at 50%, this the 9/30 forecast Jim shared with Variety's Vincent Canby. A hands across seas policy had given Nicholson/Arkoff their biggest so-far hit, Goliath and The Barbarians, to be followed with economy models Euro-shot, but adorned with production values hard got in the US short of spending a million AIP didn't have. Jim and Sam wanted desperately into A's, and so charted 1960's mission of making imports and upgraded domestic product look expensive at least. Here then, was crossroads where an industry's hungriest upstart made a meal of Fritz Lang's farewell to epic filmmaking.

Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff Display Wares of a Boffo 1960 Season To Come

Herr Lang still had a reputation, if not many takers for directing service. US companies had cooled on him, but this was still the man who'd once done Metropolis and M, two revered if not often revived in a 50's market allergic to by-gone pics. Fritz Lang and ten cents might buy a cup of coffee in Hollywood, but native Germany held his banner high, and one producer there, Arthur Brauner, had means to make Lang's comeback a reality. Upwards of a million (way more in the end, thanks to overruns) would be sunk in costumed exotica filmed partly on India location and running a whopper 203 minutes, these divided by half so patrons could tender admission times two to see the whole thing.

The pair translated to The Tiger Of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. Despite deadly reviews (some of the most unfortunate German postwar productions, one said), they did well on the continent, thanks in part to Brauner's casting a known Hollywood lure, Debra Paget, as star and promoting ornament. Germany's most expensive baubles Euro-played from January 1959 (nothing Deutsch-made had cost so much, not even Lang's silent extravagances) and would not escape notice by pleasure/business traveling Jim and Sam, always on the lookout for exploitable product AIP could retrofit for home consumption.

Arkoff wrote colorfully of he and Nicholson's screening agenda when in Rome (and elsewhere continental). The two would encamp among whatever complete or unfinished Euro-flix were available for cheap purchase, watching sometimes a dozen prospects hour after exhausting hour. It got to where they had two projectors running at once, side by side, eagle eyes darting back and fro in quest of saleable content. Unless there was promise in a first reel, they'd not move on to the next. We were looking for production value, Sam said, and it often didn't take long to figure out which pictures had it and which didn't. AIP's pragmatic pair set radar for adventurous scenes, scary moments, and pretty girls (Sam's criteria --- he knew his public). Thus was discovered Goliath and his Barbarians, a standout chiller they'd rename Black Sunday, and eventually, The Tiger Of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. There was potential aplenty in these, diamonds amidst Lang and Brauner's three-plus-hour molasses serving.

Jim Nicholson spent much of August 1960 checking progress of AIP co-productions shooting overseas. There was Konga in London, Goliath and The Dragon in Rome, and Reptilicus in Copenhagen. Bounty brought home were German buys The Tiger Of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, which Jim spent Labor Day week paring down to a single feature he'd call Journey To The Lost City. Editing/dubbing was done in New York --- a complete AIP overhaul of what Fritz Lang had shot two years before. Set for October 12 release, Journey To The Lost City would become the highest-profile and most profitable German film exhibited in the US during 1960, indication if nothing else of how shut-out pics from that country were on domestic shores.

The Debra Paget Dance That Adorned US Lobby Cards for Journey To The Lost City ...

... and the Dance Euro Patrons Saw.
 Nicholson/Arkoff bought Tiger/Tomb for visual splendors and what vitality could be distilled from Lang's handiwork. What attracted AIP was clear enough --- breathtaking locations, many not captured before on camera, along with action highlights that would translate well to poster art. Most saleable, as in Europe's play-off, was known quantity Debra Paget, late of pairing with Elvis, plus The Ten Commandments, performing a snake dance that became focal point for selling Journey To The Lost City. What Nicholson could not retain from Tiger/Tomb was Paget's near-nude encore of said dance that could no way have passed US censors. Adolescent boys in 1960 would surely have come away from such an exhibition transformed, as did more than one DVD collector when the complete Lang assembly finally surfaced stateside in 2001.

Jim Nicholson cut Journey To The Lost City to 94 minutes, Lang's length split pretty much down the middle. That didn't leave much time for dull explanations of various plot details, said Variety. Reviews hinted Journey might still be too long. The "sex-and-sand spectacle" had nice scenics, but dialogue was "ali-babble all the way." Still, there were kids enough to finesse $494,000 in domestic rentals, a nice take in an AIP year that saw House Of Usher and Goliath grossing highest for the firm. Fritz Lang didn't go on record as to Nicholson's cleave-by-half of his Indian epic, but the two did meet for discussion of AIP remaking Metropolis, rights to which Jim and Sam acquired shortly after the Tiger/Tomb buy. According to Variety, Nicholson prevailed upon Lang to direct AIP's update, but the director has declined, understandably says Nicholson, on the grounds that the new version would certainly be compared with the old, and probably in an unflattering way, no matter how good he could make it.


Anonymous KING OF JAZZ said...


Yeah, >that< photo.

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

I rented the original two movie version of this when it came out on dvd recently. It is an odd jawdropping movie. On the plus side are the locations and sets... all shot in eye popping color with Lang's usual visual flair. The plot is silly, not unlike the serials Lang made back in the silent era. At the end of the first movie there is a cliffhanger and a notice that another movie is on the way. And indeed that snake dance (with a truly fake looking snake... you can see the wires than animate him) along with Paget's thigh baring outfit is pretty unforgettable. The dvds are in 1:33 and it looks like it was meant to be shown that way, so I assume AIP must have shown it cropped (Colorscope anyone?).

10:51 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

An AIP "Metropolis"? Having recently viewed "Master of the World", the mind boggles.

Best case scenario would probably be a Lang noir using existing modern buildings, ala "Alphaville."

3:07 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jim, the question of proper ratio for Tiger/Tomb has vexed me as well. I'm sure "Journey To The Lost City" was projected at 1.85 or thereabouts, but all I've seen of AIP's re-cut is a bootleg off a 16mm television print. I'm wondering if present-day MGM owns "Journey" among their AIP holdings. Anyone know?

9:49 AM  
Anonymous John Roberts said...

The Euro version of Debra's temple dance is available on YouTube. Greatest harem-dancer outfit ever.

12:49 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some interesting thoughts on Fritz Lang ...

As you say, Fritz Lang and 10 cents would get you a cup of coffee in Hollywood in the mid-fifties. Someone would have to advance the dime, though.

After Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Lang had trouble finding projects that interested him. What he was offered, he didn’t want to do, and what he offered to do, no one wanted to back. He’d gone to India and developed the idea of a film about the Taj Mahal. It fell through. Upon his return to the United States, he wanted to do a film on FBI wiretapping. While this figured in one of the episodes of The FBI Story, Lang’s treatment would have been rather more controversial, given the political temper of the times.

He was getting old and his eyesight was failing. Despite his reputation, he hadn’t had a real hit in years. Even Hitchcock needed to keep filling the seats if he wanted to continue making films. So Lang was delighted to receive an offer from Arthur Braumer in Germany to make Der Tiger von Eschnapur and its sequel, Das Indische Grabmal. The films promised to be popular, he was to be given a free hand in making them, and he and Thea von Harbou had worked on the same subject 37 years before, on a film taken over by the producer, Joe May, after their artistic differences became irresolvable.

The resulting films could charitably be described as colorful escapism and, as you've noted, they were popular in Germany and on the continent, though not with the German critics, who had a barely disguised resentment for émigrés like Lang and Marlene Dietrich. It was different, however, with the critics centered around the French magazine, Cahiers du cinema. For them, Lang was among a pantheon that included Rossellini, Welles, Renoir, and Mizoguchi, and such lesser luminaries as Bud Boetticher, Robert Aldrich, and Sam Fuller. They were less concerned with fairy tale plots or Debra Paget’s snake dance--the things the public loved--than by Lang’s continued mastery of mise en scene. After the cold detachment of his last Hollywood films, they found a return to form in his flamboyent visual compositions. To the extent they considered the stories at all, it was to find a resonance between them and those of such films as Fury or You Only Live Once—that is, the “trapped man” theme—where a man might make apparently rational decisions, only to learn that everything had been controlled by others or by circumstances. So the architect in Tiger would pass through door after door, thinking that he was coming closer to safety, only to open the last one and find the tiger awaiting him.

There is merit in their analysis, as there is in the auteur theory they developed during this period, though ultimately they indulged in the kind of deconstruction that was more a display of their cleverness than a revelation of the films under consideration.

Lang would make one more film, in 1960, also in Germany, Die Tausen Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), thus bringing the critically celebrated portion of his career a full circle before his eyesight failed him completely and he retired. This was a strange one, he surrealism of which may have owed as much to the technical inadequacies of the production as the deliberate choices of the director, who may have found himself a “trapped man.” It seems a pity, though, that he did not come to terms with Messrs. Nicholson and Arkoff about a remake of Metropolis under AIP auspices. Mounting such a monumental subject within the budget constraints of a Master of the World would have been a very droll conceit indeed.

9:50 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Not having seen this product of Lang's career in any form, I'm grateful for John Roberts's YouTube referral, where I found both versions of Debra Paget's temple dance. That Euro version is certainly an eye-opener; interesting that with all her costume reveals, it still covers her navel (maybe that's what held it up).

Can you really see the strings animating the snake? Frankly, I wasn't looking there.

9:09 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some thoughts re Debra Paget's dance skills ...

Debra Paget’s snake dance is sensational, especially in the European version, but it’s curious that a Hollywood star of even her prominance would allow herself to be exploited in that fashion. Probably she was told that it would never be shown in the States, just as Rhonda Fleming was probably told the same thing before she went into her dance for Queen of Babylon.

Or maybe Debra just knew the score.

I remember watching her in Stars and Stripes Forever on “Saturday Night at the Movies.” She was the talented girl friend of Robert Wagner’s incorrigible tuba player in the John Phillip Sousa band. When he importuned Sousa, played by Clifton Webb, to see her perform, it turned out that she was part of a “living statues” act in a burlesque house. The trio were forced to flee the police when one of the girls in the act splits her tights, but eventually they find refuge in the Sousa household. There Debra demonstrated how talented she really was by putting over a raucous song and dance number while still in her “living statue” costume. It covered her about as adequately as a coat of paint. Certainly it was an eye opener for an adolescent lad like myself, though Webb seemed to take it in stride. However, if a scene like that could pass muster when the movie was released or 12 years later, when it was televised on a national network, she couldn’t have been terribly surprised by what she was asked to do in the Tiger movies.

It was a matter of degree, not of kind.


7:37 PM  

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