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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Friedlob and Lang's Tabloid Thrillers --- Part One

Friedlob (Bert's) placement over Fritz Lang is no typo. Hustling dollars in the mid-fifties to independently produce features was a tougher job than directing them. Friedlob managed While The City Sleeps and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, Fritz's final US pair, died prematurely (8/56), then bore Lang's epitaph (Son of a Bitch) from there --- one more (now less) obstacle between an auteur and his art. That neither film would have been made without Friedlob's push, let alone with Lang directing, is today forgot. Like most giddyup guys who enabled great directors, he ranks beneath a footnote. Someday there ought to be a book about the lone wolf pack who did movies from ground up and put them before a Golden Age public. To know of Bert Friedlob and his fraternity is to shovel frozen ground, yet I increasingly find him of equal (greater?) interest than further accounting of Herr Lang beset by another producing bogeyman.

Friedlob introduced roller derbies and midget races to South Pacific isles during (comparative) youth, then fitted skates to Mickey Rooney for The Fireball, an indie partnership with vet director Tay Garnett that 20th Fox thought enough of to distribute. Bert grazed star-lit clubground where flashbulb-baits Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker (a wife), numerous others gathered, that in addition to having once wed money. He'd wade into bar fights on behalf of pals outnumbered. Columnist Jimmy Starr wrote of shorts and robe-clad Friedlob bully-clearing Mocambo's floor as afterthought to buying a newspaper outside. Jimmy was in a jam and battle-ready Bert saw not the need for formal dress to join the dust-up. Needless to add, he made valued friends and used them to churn budget shows. The Steel Trap was his nifty vault heist thriller also Fox-handled, as was Bette Davis as The Star, her confidence in Friedlob a vote of same throughout the industry.

Making good with these got BF a 20th berth to produce Untamed for the company (1955, with much budget and location), meaning his ship had come in, but Friedlob preferred smaller pics done his way, thus While The City Sleeps, and welcome work for lately idle Fritz Lang. Begun as News Is Made At Night in Spring '55, Friedlob had the $ and commitment to release from United Artists, but sold interests, plus the negative, to product-starved RKO in early '56. Part of his compensation would be a term contract and that studio's bankrolling follow-up Beyond A Reasonable Doubt. There was meantime a title switch from News Is Made ... to While The City Sleeps, along with "conversion" of the neg to SuperScope, an ill-fit, as such wide projection was never contemplated when Friedlob and Lang did Sleeps a year earlier.

Friedlob had gotten trade ink via his campaign against vicious comic books, this being outgrowth of a personal crusade against such pulp publications launched by director Lang. The latter had read Seduction Of The Innocent by Dr. Frederick Wertham and was "engaged in battle" since. Lang suggested insertion of the attack on the horror comics to underline the character of the psychotic killer in his film, according to Variety's Hollywood Inside column. With much of Hollywood similarly appalled by vile comix, here was easy route to establishment approval for a movie that might otherwise have been ignored for simple exploitation it was, though Casey Robinson aboard as scripter, plus remnant of Lang's prestige, did suggest quality beyond low-cost norms.

"The New RKO" was for mending ties with a show-world alienated by the company's disposal of its library, a first such mass migration to rival television. The company promised nine new features completed by September 1956 and fifteen by the end of that year. Foreign producers were wooed to bring another two or three to RKO's release plate, these financed by the waning major. Top talent was scared off by instability that had become another name for RKO, so product reflected lower standards --- The First Traveling Saleslady, Tension At Table Rock, Back From Eternity --- all lacking major star wattage, let alone distinction otherwise. Friedlob and Lang's Beyond A Reasonable Doubt was completed before While The City Sleeps was released in May 1956. Both, said trades, had come in under schedule and budgets, helpful blurbs to secure future work for the team, only by now Lang had fallen out with Friedlob, who would himself die of pancreatic cancer within months.

Selling of While The City Sleeps aimed square at trash sensibilities. Early ads mimicked covers of notorious Confidential magazine, then an industry scourge and regarded near-as-bad as kid-chilling mags Lang deplored. Reviews were overall good. This was a cheap (and cheap looking) picture, but with a game cast of has-beens and character folk, well-schooled at bottom scraping, fun was assured. "Sensational Lipstick Murder" was the hook ... in fact, a series of them, catnip for skin art/sleazy ads of Rhonda Fleming and Sally Forrest, femmes offered up as potential prey for "Mixed-Up Mama's Boy" killer John Drew Barrymore. Lang dramatizing such serial-antics harked back to his German M, but also forecast 60's and later excess when a whole biz would embrace Psycho and imitator doings.

Part Two of While The City Sleeps, plus Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, is HERE.


Anonymous Paul Duca said...

If you want to learn about the whole comic-book hysteria story, read "The 10-Cent Plague" by David Hadju.

8:57 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I've heard that's a very good book.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

That's pretty funny, hatred of comic books coming from the guy who practically invented supervillains with secret lairs and the like.

9:43 AM  
Blogger citizenkanne said...

Couldn't agree more that some book (or books) about how the independent producers, promoters, hustlers, etc. made movies outside (with occasionaly safaris inside) the classic Hollywood studio system would be fascinating. Certainly more interesting than another detailed analysis of the mise-en-scene of Michael Curtiz. The anti-comic book sentiments attributed to Friedlob and Lang sound like press agent puffery to connect to a then hot issue. Judging by the photos, Friedlob had better things to occupy his time with than comics. I seem to recall Lang saying in some interview that he liked and even drew inspiration from newspaper comic strips. But Lang has also always seemed quick to take credit for creating whatever worked in his films and blaming someone else for what didn't. The comic book angle is also interesting because in Charles Einstein's novel "The Bloody Spur", which is the source for "While the City Sleeps", the lipstick killer is a religious fanatic whose warped interpretations of the Bible drive him to murder. No way could that be the motive in an American film of the 1950s!

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think my grandfather was in some way a part of this last gasp - revamped and re-organized RKO group. In '55 I believe, he and Ted Koehler were brought in by good-friend David Butler to write the songs for Butler's inde production, "Glory", with an adult Margaret O'Brien. (The "comeback" didn't take unfortunately, but the songs M.K. and Ted wrote were good.)

I've always liked these two late Lang films as well. As always John, you ring the bell!


6:31 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Greetings RJ ... I've been curious to see "Glory" since coming across trade mag stills of David Butler promoting it. There would hopefully be a Warner Archive release down the line.

7:25 AM  
Anonymous EddieH said...

I enjoyed what you wrote. However, I must put my two cents in regarding The Steel Trap. I couldn't believe Joseph Cotten's character could be so stupid as to not plan ANYTHING to rob his bank. After a while I began laughing.......and couldn't stop. It turned out to be one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. The part where he walks over to the chuckling pilot and stewardesses and says, "Why don't you shut up and close that door," pratcially had me on the floor. Don't get me wrong, I loved the film.

11:54 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some interesting thoughts about "While The City Sleeps" and the comic books controversy ...

The detail you developed in your essay on While the City Sleeps, that Fritz Lang found his inspiration for John Barrymore, Jr.’s “Lipstick Killer” from Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, was an especially telling one. I don’t believe that it was just a publicity gimmick, just as I don’t believe that it reflected any desire on Lang’s part to protect American youth. He wasn’t that kind of director and this wasn’t that kind of a film. Rather, he found a topical angle to exploit with the audience of the time. Most people today have forgotten how influential the Wertham book was. My mother, for example, never let me read comic books then, other than the Disney kind or Classics Illustrated, and she was far from being alone among the mothers in my neighborhood. The fact is, Wertham had made a point that was obvious to anyone who stopped by a news stand. The crime and horror comics did play up sex, violence, drug use, and other sorts of nasty behavior, sometimes for laughs, always for salaciousness. Sex was rarely overt, even then, but it was almost worse, sublimating it into cruelty and sadism. Adolescents would be especially vulnerable to this, as their own developing sexuality had no real outlet otherwise and wasn’t expected to. And, of course, all of this was done by those in love with the dollar, however it might be gained, and with little regard for the communities they lived in. It’s the same sort of criticism that would later be made of television, movies after the production code was replaced by the ratings system, video games, and the pornography available on the internet. Where Wertham went too far in his analysis was that he didn’t take into consideration the great weight of religious belief or cultural tradition in the country, which tended to mitigate the changes being wrought through the media. Those changes, however, have been persistent, even pernicious. We may not appreciate the full extent of what has been happening because it has been so gradual, and because our sensibilities have been changed as well. Music, for example, has a profound effect on human psychology, but it would be difficult to understand how offensive jazz first seemed to many people, simply because most contemporary music has sprung out of jazz or its cousins, rock n’roll and the blues. As to the visual media, however, I listened to a story on NPR last Saturday about the teenage girls who love the Hunger Games series of novels and are flocking to the new film adaptation. Many of them have made their own video versions of the stories they’ve read, and inevitably, it is the cruelty they emphasized, the infliction of pain and humiliation. The same lines from the same stories, being repeated again and again in these little videos, as girls find a thrill in torturing and killing girls and boys. The comic books were not innocent in comparison—most of the stories found in the EC titles were pretty sick, after all—it’s just that they were the first incremental steps towards a moral coarsening of the youth of the country, which has continued through the various media, generation after generation. A Lipstick Killer who reads rough comic books was as relevant then as a teenager who loves killing people in video games is now, when he walks into a school with a gun.

10:47 AM  

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