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Saturday, February 04, 2012

UA Makes Crime Pay

Like a lot of obscurities from MGM's On-Demand label, Vice Squad has crept on cat's feet to Screen Archives and lately, Warner Archive listings. Viewers know it, if at all, from late PM slots, then infrequent TCM play, VS having otherwise pulled 1953 duty filling cop/robber dates between adrenalin shot of 3-D and grenade burst of Cinemascope, square in that summer of hope's renewal for a beat-down industry. United Artists distributed and was part investor in this venture thought promising thanks to tyro trio Arthur Gardner, Jules Levy, and Arnold Laven, whose first (so far only) feature, Without Warning, had been bought by vet producer Sol Lesser, then sold to UA, everyone coming out rosy. G,L&L, plus Vice Squad's exploitable title and micro-budgeting, looked to be safe bets for hot weather exploitation.

Trade sources pegged Gardner as administrator, Levy a point-man for deals, with Laven pulling much of creative duty. Whatever sold was catnip to this team. All were young and a two of three vote guided policy. They'd tried getting Invaders From Mars off the ground, but lack of funds saw rival Ed Alperson grabbing those marbles. Profit G,L&L made off Without Warning enabled Vice Squad. Edward G. Robinson was had for comparative pittance ($50K according to co-star Paulette Goddard's biographer Julie Gilbert), his stock HUAC-diminished to what Robinson later called "a B picture phase of my career." Fallen name Goddard, says Gilbert, received $15,000 for three day's work on Vice Squad. Hard times weren't theirs alone --- many off contract payrolls took work where it could be had for whatever they could get.

Gardner, Levy, and Laven understood the value they'd gotten in Edward G. Robinson. Life has shaped Eddie, the three told Variety. People who really know him, love him for what he is. He doesn't have to ham it up any longer. That's for kids practicing to be mimics. So we asked him to play himself. Much to their credit and Vice Squad's good was said recognition of Robinson's icon status and how to make a most of it. Walk through this, Eddie, G,L,&L were quoted as saying, and you'll be great. Vice Squad does show a relaxed star, Robinson doing what we most enjoy, whatever his own appreciation of reduced circumstances. This was an actor incapable of a poor or indifferent performance. Mature players, said the producing team, are not types. Their years of experience have made them into believable people, which was, added Variety, what these documentary mellers need more than anything else.

Shooting of Vice Squad was like camera conducted tour of Los Angeles circa '53, always a best feature of budget thrillers set on streets. Gardner, Levy, and Laven even scored access to the new Hollywood Freeway just days before it opened to traffic, a fifty-five million dollar set, according to trades. Vice Squad was less noir than police procedural, an insider peek at law enforcement wheels on the grind. Civil liberties take a hike under detective Robinson's command. He's for rousting suspect/civilians alike, ordering frame-ups and illegal arrests like black coffee. Those fed up with soft on crime must have rocked balconies cheering. Being it's vice we're examining, there's B-girl round-upping and inventory of underthings gathered during raids. That last, plus Paulette Goddard's winking maintenance of an "escort service," amounted to spice denied home viewers of tamer Racket Squad and closer-quartered precincts at home. Even cheap fare like Vice Squad paced way ahead of TV competition by getting outdoors more and clearer spelling out of blotter content, this being fresh meat to a 50's audience, and not a little titillating.

Trade reviews were good, with emphasis on "exploitation facets." One of these was television spotting, United Artists committed now to spend largely (Variety) after ad-fueled success of Moulin Rouge, High Noon, and The Moon Is Blue ($600K was sunk in Moulin promotion alone). Trailers for TV had become a must-do since rapturous response to 1952's Sudden Fear and a King Kong reissue the same season, but it does not fit all products, said the trade. Best results seem to come where actual scenes from the negative have a high "teaser' appeal. Melodrama and horror subjects make up into potent come-on, but lush musicals in Technicolor are not advantageously sold on a tiny black-and-white parlor receiver. Vice Squad was singled out by Variety for its title which was a lulu for home shock value (as were "gruesome scenes" in another TV-spot-made hit, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms).

Vice Squad sold beyond even optimist outlook. Bookings finessed in "A" houses more than returned bacon, and holdovers were rife. Patronage voted at ticket windows for Eddie back in holsters. To hammer the point, ad design even borrowed key art of Robinson from 1937's Bullets Or Ballots to let everyone know he'd conduct business-as-usual. Trade trumpets by late August pegged Vice Squad as a sleeper, and major studio heads keep asking to see the picture, according to columnist Frank Scully. The William Morris agency put together a Vice Squad pilot with Edward G. Robinson for hopeful vid placement, but showing that around got no bites. The feature returned $918K in domestic rentals and $722K more foreign, one of United Artists' best performers among small budget titles that year (only I, The Jury in 3-D topped it). For their profit-making effort, Gardner, Levy, and Laven got another UA ticket punched with Code File: FBI, released in September 1954 as Down Three Dark Streets, also a crackerjack police job available from MGM On Demand DVD.


Anonymous Paul Duca said...

I thought Paulette Goddard was wise with money, as she once commented "If anyone calls me a Communist, I'll hit him with my diamonds"

12:24 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Love, love, love the post! It's always neat when we find out some largely forgotten B was actually something of a hit in its day. Great to realize how late Robinson and Goddard were still box office draws.

10:53 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

Was Robinson really doing that badly during the "Guilt by association" phase of his career?. What about those who could barely work at all?

3:16 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Arnold Laven was one of my father's oldest and closest friends. It is he, I'll remind you John, who came-up with the money-saving idea on the "Garden of the Moon" set, that my father spoke-of in his book. Arnold and his wife Wally were often at parties at my parents when I was a child and I'm sure were, in retrospect, incredibly-tolerant of one rather precocious-brat!

3:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer weighs in on "Vice Squad."

So, the producers told Edward G. Robinson, “Eddie, just be yourself!” He must have appreciated that, but I wonder if the patrons of Vice Squad would have been a little taken aback to find an urbane, well-read art connoisseur in a smoking jacket instead of the tough, cigar-chomping cop the poster led them to expect? There was something about that Robinson mouth that seemed made for a cigar. No wonder ads used old art from his days with the Warner Brothers.

If they were disappointed, however, they certainly had Paulette Goddard to turn to. Somehow I had the idea that her career had petered out after "Standing Room Only" — at least one person of my acquaintance thinks that that picture was even better than the similarly-themed "The More the Merrier," though his enthusiasm might have been because of its use of a particularly outrageous double entendre — but actually she was quite active for several more years. Here she is wearing a saucy smile and a charming dishabille. She must have been 42 years old then, but, like a good wine, she’d only gotten better.


8:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon on "Vice Squad' and other interesting things, including Universal horror pics on TV ...

Hi John,

I enjoyed your piece about "Vice Squad". It must've been tough for some actors to have to take work in crummy little movies after they'd been major assets to major film companies, as was certainly the case with Edward G. Robinson. I'll never forget seeing him in "Soylent Green", and being moved by his 'death' scene in that. A great actor and presence. I think that was his last movie, too. (Obviously, it could be confirmed on the IMDB...) As for L, G and L, I was a big fan of "The Vampire" with John Beal, which showed up pretty regularly on our local sci-fi movie slot in L.A., although I can no longer quite remember which one! There were at least a couple of them. The third one drew upon Universal's catalog and so I always thought of it as basically 'the horror movie' station. I mean...if you can really consider the Universal films 'horror' movies! But, an earlier generation sure could. Times do change. "Poltergeist", my first chance at doing something on my own as a makeup artist, is 30 this summer, and I read some posted comments under a still from the movie somewhere, and though some presumably younger commentators were still fond of the movie, just as many others weren't, and several opined how 'dull' it is! Ha! I don't mind. Again---the same thing happened to the early, creepy Universal horrors. For me, they will always have an irresistible appeal for the marvelous strangeness and fairy tale quality. I like the sequels, too, but for slightly different reasons. I WAS actually frightened---quite a bit!---by "The Bride of Frankenstein" and "Werewolf of London" in the '50s, when I saw them on the B&W family TV. But, I was also quite young in the 1950s!

8:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

More from Craig Reardon, from Levy, Gardner and Laven to John Wayne and "McQ!"

Oops! I lost Levy, Gardner and Laven! The other one of theirs which turned up frequently was the marvelous (to me) "The Monster That Challenged The World." That's the one with the big worm creature, isn't it? And Tim Holt, with some added avoirdupois since his "Stagecoach" and "Magnificent Amberson" appearances (or, even "Treasure of the Sierra Madre".) There was a very attractive actress in that, too, but I can't think of her name right now, #@$! (I wish someone could invent a 'brain rinse', for getting that sticky, brown film off your brain that traps all the information in there.) I have a very weak Levy and Gardner (but no Laven!) story. A pal of mine in high school somehow became acquainted with the son of one of these guys, I think it was Gardner (?)---anyway, in 1973 or so he told me he'd been told they were about to record the score to one of his dad's pictures, a John Wayne movie. Would I be interested in coming? HOW I managed to flub this, I will never know!----but, I did, and missed out on being able to watch Elmer Bernstein record his enjoyable score for "McQ" (released in '74.) It was, of course, one of the Duke's final pictures, and he's actually outstanding in it, in my opinion: still a big presence, but a natural quality minus some of his trademark calculated 'pauses' and other tics. It's also an entertaining mystery on top of the expected thrills, suspense, and brawling and shooting. I actually think that, as with "Big Jake", Wayne was emulating the elements that the younger pretender to his throne Clint Eastwood had continually exploited with great success: guns and more graphic violence. The late Al Lettieri who'd recently been in "The Godfather" and would be in "The Getaway" (or already had been---help!) was prominently cast in "McQ", but it also featured two wonderful actors I met and worked with later down the road in my life: Clu Gulager and Eddie Albert. Both gents. I always wished I could meet or even just glimpse John Wayne in the flesh, but alas, it never even remotely happened. Wayne was like Eastwood, in more than one respect---he worked a great deal with the same people, and you had very little hope of cracking that egg.



8:11 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Levy, Gardner and Laven also worked on the small screen, as the producers of THE RIFLEMAN.

4:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some observations about Edward G. Robinson's reversal of fortune in the 50's:

Vice Squad is a tightly scripted, entertaining little picture, but more than a step below what Edward G. Robinson had been playing even at that stage of his career. In 1948, he was Rocco in John Huston’s Key Largo, and in 1949 he appeared in two moody film noirs, John Farrow’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes and House of Strangers for Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In 1950, however, he made the first of three appearances before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. Though Robinson was cooperative and able to demonstrate that he had never made financial contributions to subversive organizations, his career suffered. Studios and producers were unwilling to give him prominent roles in expensive productions while his reputation was tainted. Finally, in 1956, Cecil B. De Mille, of all people, gave him the role of Dathan in his The Ten Commandments. De Mille was a well-known conservative who had won the enmity of many of his fellow directors when he attempted to replace the leadership of the Screen Directors Guild because he consider them subversive. He was also a principled man. The picture was a spectacular success, and De Mille’s willingness to use Robinson allowed him to return to good roles in better pictures for the rest of his career, including Cheyenne Autumn, The Prize, The Cincinnati Kid, and his last, Soylent Green, which he completed filming just days before his death from cancer on January 26, 1973 at the age of 79. Unfortunately, the loss of income he suffered during this period forced him to sell most of his art collection to raise cash for his divorce settlement in 1956 with Gladys Robinson.


7:01 AM  

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