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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Watch List For 10/31/12

TRUE TO THE NAVY (1930) --- I've been searching for a word to describe Clara Bow's Paramount talkies, and have arrived at "confining." Seemed True To The Navy would never get away from a drug store counter around which interminable chat revolves. Bow still had looks and personality, both hamstrung by microphones and a camera nailed down. Paramount was ruthless at wringing what value was left in her name. But then CB was no worse used than other stars on their roster. Her leading man is Fredric March, then a relative newcomer, but too urbane and Broadway-bred to be seeking "soivice" at Bow's soda fountain. Stock comedy is tiresome province of one Harry Green, his ethnic act a staple at early-30's Paramount. I wonder who among employers thought him funny enough to continue using.

Get-it-done talkies didn't allow for luminous close-ups such as lavished on Bow in Wings and It days. Yack-yack pervades True To The Navy, innervating reels of it, Clara and others stood stock still to recite dialogue we'd happily do without. Bow jerks sodas, but has a maid at home, to whom she performs the picture's one song. Paramount's indifference reflects all over. What we know of behind-the-scenes make these vehicles (and Para itself) hard to admire. Nothing about True To The Navy suggests care or application of effort. Frank Tuttle was a good director, but only with workable material. No commitment on Bow's part could have overcome disadvantage here. She would do a handful more, then leave Paramount. Better instinct for self-preservation might have helped her change the tide, but Clara Bow was about showing up for work, not evaluating or looking to improve work she was given.

MOMENTS IN MUSIC (1950) --- This was part of a series of shorts produced under the auspices of the Motion Picture Academy during the late forties and into 1950. Each major studio contributed one or more subjects (Moments In Music from MGM), their mission to boost an entire pic industry and keep families attending as families. This, however, was waning day of all movies appealing to everybody. Fragmenting of patronage was around a 50's corner, and all of Hollywood's PR effort, including this series, was for naught toward slowing it. Emphasis of Moments In Music is on films' potential to enrich viewers with classical and operatic performance. There is acknowledgement of swing and "boogie-woogie," but it is capacity for class being advanced, thus Stokowski, Jose Iturbi, and Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy for highlights. Oddly no Deanna Durbin, even though access would have been had to footage of her (all studio libraries available for clip usage in each subject). We're led to think from Moments In Music that audiences young and old would be forever linked in loving establishment Hollywood and tunes it offered. The fact that wouldn't be the case lends sad subtext to an otherwise beguiling reel.

THE STRANGER FROM PECOS (1943) --- Johnny Mack Brown in the second of a Monogram series begun in 1943. He's a federal man earlier played by Buck Jones for a Mono group with Tim McCoy and Raymond Hatton, but Jones had died, so continuation fell to Johnny Mack, minus Tim, but with Hatton continuing as comic support. Brown was capable enough with dialogue to forgive dearth of action in these. He fights less, "investigates" more. Too much talk on blah sets was staple of Monogram B's, but The Stranger From Pecos has expertise of Brown and sidekick Hatton, their byplay a sustenance for the 57 minutes this lasts. One Stranger scene has them reminiscing about events from the last western they'd done. Roy Barcroft and Charlie King are welcome heavies. These Monogram Browns haven't looked so good since 40's newness. Warner Archive packages them on DVD and will hopefully continue doing so.

CONSOLATION MARRIAGE (1931) --- Irene Dunne and Pat O'Brien marry on rebound of jilting by former lovers. This is precode by definition, but dullish in execution. RKO under exec producer William LeBaron churned drama with sameness of imprint in slo-mo tempo that make latter day sits an effort. The concept is interesting. You know the old girl/boyfriend will be back to renew claims, but it plays with singular lack of urgency. Dunne and O'Brien are equal to uplifting task, they'd save worse vehicles in a past and future. There's John Halliday in customarily splendid support, and Myrna Loy sprinkles precode spice where she can. RKO needed supervision of a David Selznick and later Merian C. Cooper to elevate merchandise. Consolation Marriage and so many from early Radio seasons were drugs on a picturegoing market and barely improve with age.

ONE MORE TIME (1931) --- Warner Bros. was eager, nay desperate, to develop a next Mickey Mouse. Their efforts went begging, like everyone's, at least for initial 30's seasons when sole recourse seemed to be plagiarizing Disney's mouse outright. One More Time's "Foxy" is a Mickey photostat with a bushy tail and rodent ears that come to a point. Difference beyond is less than negligible. Foxy acts and reacts like Mickey, the latter such a powerhouse as to make competitors put all restraint aside in efforts to clone him toward profitable end. WB had bought the Brunswick Music Company, thus had a deep catalogue of song. These would frame cartoons and hopefully sell piano sheets. All they lacked were onscreen words and a bouncing ball.

Gags proved timeworn and not much funny even then. Characters set on crude mostly shoot razz berries. That would end with Code enforcement. Even bits and background figures are drawn like Mickey, with scarce attempt to conceal the theft. Disney needed a lawyer army to stop burgling from his easels. Foxy wouldn't last and didn't deserve to. There'd not be one more time for him after One More Time. Warner cartoons improved when talent like Avery and Clampett came to create Porky, Daffy, and the rest. These were what finally put end to Mouse-napping. Seen on Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Six.

MUSIC MADE SIMPLE (1938) --- This is one of MGM's Robert Benchley shorts. You either like his stuff or don't, few half measures apply. Benchley would do situation subjects where he'd try to sleep or train a dog to comic effect, the Algonquin's Ed Kennedy or Leon Errol. Then there were ones that put him behind a podium for a reel's duration, Music Made Simple among these. Humor being subjective can figure on some that'll howl through any Benchley lecture, as neighbors on a same row sit in stony silence. His humor was what they called "droll," which is to say it's not much practiced anymore. Benchley suits me best when decorating a China Seas or Foreign Correspondent and not overstaying his wit. One reel of all-Benchley will do --- two reels would have been stretching his point.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Halloween Harvest 2012 --- Part Two --- Putting The Sell On Vampires

Silent era watchers knew all about that thing called a "vampire." Theda Bara had been one. So were Louise Glaum and Nita Naldi. Wrecking men's lives was a vampire's business, but to literally suck his blood was something else again. That for most went beyond belief. Supernatural done serious was for those who bought into mystics, séance following, and other such foolery. The idea of being "undead" seemed a concept unworthy even of silliest fiction. Universal's mission for Dracula was to overcome all that and make real vampires believable for picture audiences. Germany, by way of director F.W. Murnau, had earlier (1922) grooved to blood-sucking and eternal lifestyle with Nosferatu, that having belatedly US-opened in 1929 (so it's written --- were there any bookings sooner?), and mostly to "little theatres," these earlier incarnation of art houses.

There's been too much written about Dracula for me to regurgitate a fraction of here. It's a dense subject best approached by increment, in this case with emphasis on how a few 1931 theatres sold the groundbreaking pic. Dracula was an exploitation natural that foresaw horror's push to generations forthcoming. A lot of bally tricks were introduced here. Showmen could wish all merchandise came so natural to promotion. Dracula the movie was played straight, but needn't be sold that way. Exhibs found you could take the edge off nightmare inducers by stressing "fun" element of being scared silly, thus come-ons tinged with humor. Then as ever, patrons sought higher ground in relation to shows that might frighten them otherwise. Nobody wanted to be a crybaby. Let others take chillers seriously while we maintain composure and stay in on the joke. Showmen were better to tread lightly, for weren't Dracula and his kin somewhat of an irreligious lot to begin with?

Toward figuring out what this Dracula was all about, the Exhibitors Herald-World dispatched a rep to Universal during 10/30 while filming was underway. He came back to describe a vampire thus: blood-sucking "half-dead" ... who peers through cobwebs, changes himself into a wolf and then into a veil of mist. Well, it was a start toward understanding this character from a novel reported (at least by EH-W) to have sold more copies than any other book except the Bible. Uni's expenditure for production was said to be $400,000 (actually $341,191, according to my source), while star Bela Lugosi makes weirdness a part of his daily life --- even carries it into his home. Was this publicity's variation on Nosferatu's gag that lead Max Shreck might himself be the genuine vampiric article?

Setting a pace for selling's ground game was the Roxy on Broadway and Hollywood's Pantages Theatre. Times Square had seen a surfeit of so-called "weak sisters," those pics difficult to push for their sheer lack of exploitable elements, Dracula a stark departure from these. Mobs around the Roxy reflected success of posted "snipes" around town that used a Friday The (February) 13th opening day as superstition's endorsement of Dracula (actual bow had been moved ahead one day to avoid possible jinx of a 13th premiere, thus first Roxy showings on the 12th). Said snipes courted levity along lines of Monster Laff gum cards we used to buy in the 60's: Good To The Last Gasp, I'll Be On Your Neck, etc. And imagine that palace's Dracula backed by an aggregate of ballet, chorus, and "Roxyettes" 125 strong.

Fox West Coast Theatres laid groundwork in February for Dracula playdates ahead. The circuit heard rumors that Universal planned roadshows for the east, but trade screening raised some doubt as to wisdom of this: While it must be admitted it is a thriller ... still there are spots where it sags and takes it out of the big class ... or even out of the semi top class. Fox put its own pen-and-ink artists to ad prep for Dracula at West Coast venues, these among most striking imagery to bestir interest in the thriller. This is hardly classed as a child's picture, warned editors of the circuit's newsletter: We would not attempt any contest among school children ... it is a bit too nightmarish.

Excess morbidity was also discouraged. It would not be very good policy to use coffins in front of your house ... in other words ... don't go too far in gruesome exploitation ... keep it weird ... but don't suggest dead bodies. To further leaven the horror, a principal Fox ad pledged that "Dracula will haunt you ... he will thrill ... and yet amuse." One screwy scheme to emphasize the latter was the Pantages' placement of paperhangers in formal dress and masks to install a Dracula twenty-sheet on Hollywood Boulevard billboards. Keep it fun was the overriding message, as was Handle (Dracula) With Care. By all means, stay on board with eerie exploitation, but don't go overboard, and avoid targeting kids.

Universal trade ads were frisky and distinctly precode. "Dracula Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out" seemed to trade on a Lon Chaney-spoofing song introduced in The Hollywood Revue Of 1929, while art of Bela Lugosi hovering over a barely night-dressed victim promised delights the film would sadly not fulfill. "The Story Of The Strangest Passion The World Has Ever Known" put Dracula's erotic appeal on a front burner, with eager femmes seeming to await the bloodsucker's unholy embrace. So what was this Dracula other than "a vampire petting party of 500 years ago"? That was plenty enough to fill registers. Sex was pushed, and pushed hard, for these first-run engagements, a spin that would be abandoned later when Dracula was back for reissue coin, often in Frankenstein's company, straight chilling being watchword for 1938 and beyond ads observed closer by Code authorities.

For '31 dates at least, there was promise of the vampire's kiss like the icy breath of death ... yet no woman could resist. So how many of that gender's number lined up to see what this amounted to? Dracula issued a virtual challenge for women to confront this most impure of potential lovers. Were "Gasping Heights Of Passion" not unlike "Terror," after all? Midnight previews might answer that query ---these a lure to grown-up attendance and hopeful word-of-mouth for days to follow. Dracula could do worse than "living on the kisses of youth," after all. I tried finding Google reference to some of these vaudevillians who stage-preceded Dracula at RKO's Orpheum Theatre (above). Naro Lockford and Co. were acrobatic and adagio dancers. The "5 Honey Boys" are apparently lost to time (as are a majority of minstrel acts, I suppose). The Sandy Lang Revue was known for its skating exhibitions, and continued performing as bonus to movie shows into (at least) the forties.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Watch List For 10/24/12

AIR FORCE (1943) --- May-be the best of combat pulse-pounders done when the war's outcome was still uncertain. Howard Hawks directed Air Force for Warner Bros., so top rungs are a starting point. I hear Hawks gave supervisors apoplexy by shooting slow and having dialogue rewritten. As many fresh words came via Bill Faulkner, you'd have to figure Hawks once again knew his business. The flying crew is a usual wartime assemblage, but clearer-drawn, and all memorable here. Placing Harry Carey among them confers instant authority. John Ridgely commands and had to have looked back on this as his shining hour in films (mostly minor parts otherwise). John Garfield is malcontent to start, but gets with the program. That sounds familiar, but he doesn't play it so. Neither do Hawks or his writers.

What We're Fighting For was never put across so effectively. First act tension derives from night flying toward Pearl Harbor just after the attack, and battle scenes to follow are just impeccably done. So much Air Force atmosphere presages The Thing, broken-up dialogue and stepped-on lines an HH signature. Underplaying applies modern patina we expect of all that is Hawks. Did he possess a crystal ball that saw into 21st-century preference? You'd not be embarrassed showing any of his best to a current crowd. That's been the case for Air Force's near-seventy years and applies as well to ones even earlier. Hawks was himself reticent and so are his characters. At no point in Air Force do any of them go over tops. It's his finest war drama, which is to say it's anyone's in that category. Long, but never feels that way. You're hardly aware of the clock. Apple streams Air Force in high-definition. I never knew anything could look so good.

BACHELOR APARTMENT (1931) --- Lowell Sherman repeats his Way Down East seducer for laughs, going about what was then expected of a well-established screen persona. Irene Dunne tames him in that way "good" women had of draining fun out of otherwise spicy comedies. Again, there are misunderstandings to eat up slow moving time. Sherman's splendidly art-deco digs are at least visual compensation. Silent-era names make late career appearance. Mae Murray seems more a stalker threat than intended comic mistress Lowell discards. Norman Kerry of added weight and thinning hair supplies curio interest for those who wonder what became of Phantom Of The Opera's leading man. Bachelor Apartment is another RKO with soft picture and flattened sound in common. Are camera negatives for these lost?

THE PERFECT SNOB (1941) --- A more silly than funny B from Fox, but I made it to 65 minutes' finish line. Star aborning Cornel Wilde is supported by comic gifts from God Charlotte Greenwood and Charlie Ruggles as henpecker and henpeckee. These two plus indulging director Raymond McCarey make The Perfect Snob fun. Ray was Leo's brother, lacked the latter's singular genius, but knew ways 'round comedy, having directed Our Gang, Roscoe Arbuckle, Laurel/Hardy, and the Stooges. He replaced Mal St. Clair --- from expertise standpoint, a mere switch from apples to oranges. Plenty creative was Fox's reuse of Swamp Water sets for Wilde and Tony Quinn's sugar plantation. Nothing went wasted at Fox. Build for one and use for three. That water-logged stage surely stank to blazes by the time this crew came by it. The Perfect Snob's story splits between there and Hawaii resort setting, so we don't feel confined, that the bane of B's where background is static and under-dressed. Cornel Wilde is actually livelier here than he'd be as a star. Did after-handlers tamp him down? The Perfect Snob is good example of talent brought along in sink-or-swim programmers where not too much is gambled toward creation of headliner merchandise. Excellent quality via Fox's On-Demand DVD.

MANDALAY (1934) --- Here was precode released 2/34 in last flowering before strict enforcement applied chokeholds. Tears are shed yet for latter-half 1934 shows shorn by censors wide awakened. Mandalay got under a net lowering and perhaps chose that occasion to give precode a wild and wooly send-off. Kay Francis is the dove soiled yet again. She loves, loses, then poisons Ricardo Cortez, for which there is no legal consequence. Mere months later would have seen her led off in cuffs, something neither audiences then nor us now would have liked. Warner Oland supplies first-half menace. He was another of those true eccentrics that bespoke precode, a face and voice to sum up the period and make a best argument for reviving its wares. Directing flair uplifts Mandalay's not-uncommon narrative, Michael Curtiz composing to maximum effect. Foregrounds are never vacant, interesting people and objects moving constantly between us and principals who emote. How is it backlot locations are more satisfying here than if they'd gone abroad to actual ports-of-call? Humblest programmers from WB are rife with flavor and incident. The likes of Mandalay are what form lines at precode revues put on by what repertory housing survives. I saw it on TCM, but a Warner Archive release can't be far off.

MABEL AT THE WHEEL (1914) --- Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand fun-making for Keystone. There's renewed life in this antique for archival gathering of multiple nitrate prints used to cobble a best-ever presentation of CC's for Sennett. What's wondrous is street and background life we observe as comics cavort amongst real folks going about daily life. Do general (not film) historians realize what valuable social documents these are? There are people standing in distant backyards to witness Charlie and Mabel merriment as if that were routine incident. Heck, maybe it was. Best of the Keystones for me are when they plop down clowns at actual events such as parades, auto races, whatever engaged a pre-WWI populace.

On this occasion, it's a motor derby and Mabel is indeed at the wheel. Other drivers are kitted in turtleneck and goggles, looking sporty and not a little teens-era glamorous. Speed roadsters spin on mud as Sennetteers (including Sennett himself) dodge them. We're less taken with foreground frolic than onlooker eyes darting between Chaplin/Mabel and the camera photographing them. A lot by then would have known CC for the up-and-comer he was. Others look frankly bored. One smiling man leans backward into the arms of a male companion (out and proud circa 1914?). Mabel At The Wheel is 23 minutes truly spent in another era, print quality at last permitting us to reach forward and feel the air.

CHINA DOLL (1958) --- Blame director Frank Borgaze for the ocean of tears to be shed at a wallop emotional finish to this WWII romance. The impact comes slow and unexpected, opener reels suggesting little past odd pair-up of hardened flyer Victor Mature with a Chinese waif he unknowingly "buys" from her father. Give it time and China Doll will hand you something memorable. Borzage's name assures plenty out of the ordinary. Mature shows again how good he routinely was by this point of a prolific career.  Robert Morrison produced for the Batjac company --- he was John Wayne's brother. Duke could have played this, and well, but not so well as Vic. Dish Network comps subscribers with On-Demand HD of China Doll and others of United Artists origin. It looked terrif in 1.85.
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