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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Watch List For 10/17/12

PAT AND MIKE (1952) --- A Tracy-Hepburn I'd never entirely sat through, but should have long before, as it now ranks for me best of their lot. Shot mostly outdoors because of sports-centered theme, Pat and Mike radiates sunshine, and even gruff Tracy looks pleased to doff sound-staging for once. Hepburn was a natural athlete, so is well cast, a lot of golf and tennis stuff less often using a double. She even takes her own nasty spill on the court that I bet a crew and onlookers applauded from behind cameras. Tracy was in latter stage of playing get-up-and-go types. He seemed happier with comedy as years and sameness of dramatic performance took hold. The Sea Of Grass apparently taught he and Hepburn never to be serious with each other again, a relief for them and more so for their public.

It's shocking how Spence aged in the wake of Pat and Mike. I kept thinking how Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and the end came only fifteen years later. Will my own decline be so fleet? Makes me wanna take the pledge and stay on the wagon if nothing else. Pro sport figures of the day appear and lend conviction to P&M, Hepburn exerting to believable effect alongside them. She's easier to like when not pushy, and as here, being gently (or not) manipulated by promoter Tracy. Pat and Mike coming on heels of The African Queen must have made it look like Hepburn's second wind at the wickets, as both were hits, and she got (deserved) credit for making them so. Jaunty music score by the great David Raksin. TCM's print is spanking clean and that helps. This would be a pip on Blu-Ray or HD streaming.

HOLLYWOOD GOES TO TOWN (1938) --- MGM gets ready for a big Marie Antoinette premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre where they later Hollywood-bowed Gone With The Wind. There's privileged glimpse of grunt work by manual crews whose job it was to duplicate the Garden Of Versailles in the forecourt for movie stars who'd arrive hours later. You really get insight here of caste structure that pervaded Gold-Age Hollywood, from day-laboring to fan worship behind velvet ropes, then beautiful folk descending from Olympus that was just over the hill in Culver City. Did gods and goddesses disillusion on up-close inspection? There is Norma Shearer entering on the arm of Tyrone Power. Much of MGM talent follows --- was their attendance compulsory? A sign-in book with what looks like hundreds of names would go for thousands if auctioned today. Wonder who ended up with it. Did one of the four-bits an hour'ers sweep up that souvenir and take it home to his kids?

WAGONS WEST (1952) --- Rod Cameron breaks trail for Monogram. This, along with others the company did in Cinecolor, blurred lines between B westerns and A status they aspired to. There were good casts, trade support, and top-of-bill playdates. Director Ford Beebe made budget yards go a mile. Monogram did Wagons West toward elevation to new company name (and corporate identity) Allied Artists. Westerns of Wagons' quality helped make the jump. They were cushions for disappointment youth felt as series cowboys headed for the barn. Saturdays would change, though not all of a sudden. Indeed, front row kids were still being cultivated to the end of the 50's.

FROM A TO ZZZZ (1954) --- Apologies to Chuck Jones fandom, but I find his cartoons overly-precious and not a little smug. This is one of the Ralph Phillips numbers, a boy who daydreams. Limiting animation by 1954 was as much necessity as creative choice, so I miss crowded canvas of late-thirties and forties WB shorts. Jones gags are cute, but I lean toward Frank Tashlin or Bob Clampett's wackier stuff. This gets admittedly into matters of opinion, and maybe (probably!) I don't know a great cartoon when I see one. Looneys were costing more and earning less as they wound down. That was a long process though, and From A To ZZZ came around a beginning of it. Chuck Jones would end up a most noteworthy of drawing directors. His approach was unique and I see his appeal, but it just doesn't happen to fly my kite. Are cartoons even more a matter of individual taste than features?

JUST RAMBLING ALONG (1918) --- Yes, just rambling is what this amounts to, but a banquet for those who trail Stan Laurel's career back to beginnings. I had thought Just Rambling Along was the earliest surviving Laurel-solo comedy, till historian and comedy expert Richard Roberts informed me (in the comments section) that there are earlier ones extant. Rambling Stan's on the bum in that seeming way of all silent comics, cadging dimes and sneaking past pay registers. No attempt at loveable here. He'll steal from kids and wallop womenfolk. Stan has slicked-down hair and a long face. His weren't striking features that helped Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd stay aloft. For myriad of shorts SL did, bouncing to and fro short-term companies, you'd have thought he'd never make it. Certainly a Just Rambling Along wouldn't punch his ticket. Gags herein look borrowed. Clever was a hat routine, but I wonder how familiar it was to 1918 patronage. When Stan uses salt/pepper shakers as a spyglass, I was reminded of Chaplin doing the same, and often. Well, didn't Laurel make his initial US way imitating CC? Fun and fascinating by modest means, Just Rambling Along was Hal Roach produced, ten years shy of SL's breakthrough with Oliver Hardy. The heaven knows he paid enough dues. Part of Kino's Stan Laurel --- Volume Two DVD set. Fine quality and score.

THE MAGIC CARPET (1951) --- Rightful caliph John Agar alights titular rug to quell tyrannical Bagdad rule. This was producer Sam Katzman following Columbia lead of costumers with Cornel Wilde, Larry Parks, others, from which Sam entertains best of the lot. A game cast larks through it, Lucille Ball and Patricia Medina perpetually at verge of loosing sarcasm on the enterprise. Agar flies his carpet with élan and fights nimbly without recourse to doubles, as Lucy shares a kiss with wicked vizier Raymond Burr. Suppose he/she reminded him/her of this at later Emmy ceremonies both attended? Katzman/Columbia spent more than customary on The Magic Carpet, with improved Super-Cinecolor brought to bear, thus pleasing blues added to Cine's usual red/green palette. I'd guess Carpet got back into theatres by dint of Lucy and Ray's burgeoning home viewership to come. Available via Columbia On-Demand and looks just fine.

GUN TO GUN (1944) --- Another of Warners' junior-mint westerns, again with Robert Shayne, and culled from action/crowd footage going back to the early thirties (and welcome's the sight of old-timer Tom Tyler, above, in what amounts to a cameo). Did someone at WB keep a tickler file on oldies they could raid for wide-awake scenes to enhance two-reel shorts like this? Never mind awkward match-ups, some of what's here might have originally been two-color Technicolor from cloudy look of it. The story, stripped to barest essentials, was basis for 1931's The Lash as well, that starring Richard Barthelmess, and by 1944, long out of circulation. They reused the yarn, plus big scenes that propelled it, and for all latter viewers knew, Gun To Gun was fresh meat. Were there hardcore moviegoers alert to the subterfuge? Maybe they played a screen equivalent of Charades as do we --- trying to guess throughout Gun To Gun where each pillaged scene comes from.


Blogger Unknown said...

Glad you enjoyed PAT AND MIKE! It's one of my favorite Tracy/Hepbrun films. I love how many real life professional female athletes are in it too. Hepburn herself would have liked to be a professional athlete if she hadn't gone into movies.

7:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

One of the things I like best about "Pat and Mike," Margaret, is how believable Hepburn comes across as a sports-woman. This, along with Tracy's usual expertise, is what makes P&M my favorite of their co-starring films.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

That's because she is a sportswoman. She LOVED golf, and tennis, and she swam practically every day of her life. And she liked to cycle everywhere.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

and "Alfalfa" is along for the PAT AND MIKE ride as well.

7:30 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes, Alfalfa is there! --- and he gets some lines too, as I recall. Alf must have had some friends around town that took care of him, as I've seen him turn up in a lot of 50's things. Was it the hunting guide thing that kept him in contact with other Hollywood sportsmen who were also casting directors, other studio folk?

7:35 AM  
Blogger reprobates said...


I hate to tell you this, but there is indeed at least one earlier surviving Stan Laurel short extant. It's his first for Roach, DO YOU LOVE YOUR WIFE, shot the week before JUST RAMBLING ALONG, but not released until the first week of 1919. I have a print of it, and I believe it's available on one of Lobster Films Stan laurel compilations, though I do not know whether it made it onto the Kino sets.

Also, it is quite possible that Laurel's first film, NUTS IN MAY, was actually incorporated into a Samuel Bischoff released two-reeler called MIXED NUTS, so it indeed survives as well.


8:03 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Richard --- Just checked the Kino Laurel sets and sure enough, "Do You Love Your Wife" is there. I did not realize it was shot before "Just Rambling Along" and withheld from release until 1919. As "Ambersons" Tim Holt said, "That's a horse on me!"

Also glad to hear that "Nuts In May" survives.

Have added a reference to your correction as an update to the post.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Lucille Ball wrote in her memoir that Columbia's Harry Cohn owed her one picture and $85,000, and he didn't want to surrender the project and the money. So he sent Lucy the script for THE MAGIC CARPET and dropped Sam Katzman's name, certain that she would turn it and Katzman down, giving Cohn the right to break her contract. Lucy recalled that she'd never been a problem employee and wasn't about to hurt her reputation as a workhorse, so she accepted MAGIC CARPET. "Mr. Cohn almost fell over backward and poor Sam Katzman just about had a coronary." So as long as Columbia was on the hook, Cohn and Katzman sprang for SuperCinecolor and reused existing sets and costumes.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Another athletic side note: Pat and Mike is where Chuck Connors switched from baseball & basketball to acting. Don't know if that qualifies as stunt casting, since Connors wasn't really a name in the sports world.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

As usual, terrific sampling!

PAT AND MIKE - same stars, director and screenwriters, I think, as ADAM'S RIB which usually gets the blue ribbon as Spenceburn's all time best. And I'd have to agree with conventional wisdom that RIB is probably the superior film (a genuine classic) but PAT AND MIKE does have that breezy, less calculated charm. My own favorite SCENE of the two stars together, however, is the insanely sexist but thoroughly hilarious climax to WOMAN OF THE YEAR: Kate cooks breakfast.

WAGONS WEST - Speaking of charm, I find something very appealing in these transition period Monogram/Allied Artist "A" items. A, of course, only in poverty row context, but I'm sure WAGONS WEST did top the bill out in Pumpkinsville, Minnesota or other points south and/or mid-west. Have not caught this specific one yet (will track 'er down) but I love this stuff and give extra points when they are presented in any small studio queasy-color process.

FROM A TO ZZZZ (1954) - I'm crazy about the Chuck Jones epics from this exact era (personal favorites: BROOMSTICK BUNNY and ROCKET BYE BABY). Maybe your readers already saw this grown-up version of Ralph Phillips (what a blandly unfunny name!)

JUST RAMBLING ALONG - Stan Laurel really was the epitome of the gag-comes-first silent movie comedian until teaming, wasn't he? He was crafty, dumb, cruel, pathetic, clumsy, agile, gay, crude, clever… sometimes all in the same film! Whatever the joke on hand demanded. Makes stuff like this one look so funny today ('cause so many of the gags ARE great.) And also so forgettable. Pretty amazing how disciplined he became almost over night, once he focused on humor stemming from character.

THE MAGIC CARPET - Man, I zoomed past that black and white portrait of the romantic duo too fast… thought we would be talking about ROAD TO MOROCO! John Agar as a Bob Hope look-a-like! (Okay, it was my first fast glimpse!) Again with the Cinecolor… ya gotta love it!

GUN TO GUN - Saw all these WB two reel westerns back in the 90's when TCM used them as programming mortar. Sometimes they tried hard on the costume matches… sometimes not so much.

Keep up the great work, John!

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

In another book about Lucy and Desi I read, Lucy took the role in THE MAGIC CARPET when she discovered she was pregnant (with daughter Lucie) and wouldn't be able to play the role she really wanted, in THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.
Also, she wasn't happy with Harry Cohn, after he signed her for a picture, then suggested she should play the role of Billie Dawn in BORN YESTERDAY. After she passed on the part in the film for which she was contracted, Cohn gave the part to Rita Hayworth...who in turn Cohn booted, thus allowing Judy Holliday to immortalize the character she created on stage.

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you say about Chuck Jones resonates with me. There's a streak of middlebrow suburban blandness and entitlement in his cartoons that really started to assert itself in the '50s which puts me off his fare of the era, and this is one of the most representative of that streak.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

From what I remember of the recent bio of Spencer Tracy, I don't think you need worry about going down that slope. His bouts of Olympic-sized drinking would've killed anyone else -- even if he'd go years of dry spells in between. I'm still astonished that he was only 67 when he died, considering he looked about 134.

An interesting fact about the Tracy/Hepburn movies I learned from the book was that, by and large, they weren't all that popular outside the urban markets. (I think "Sea of Grass" was their highest-grossing picture.) In fact, most of them actually lost money. It seems that Hepburn was the problem: men were cool toward her and women flat out didn't like her.

As for Stan Laurel -- he admitted in a '50s interview that he wasn't very good before teaming with Hardy. Having been a lifelong L&H fan, I was surprised when I watched his early, solo movies -- not very funny and wildly undisciplined, the latter being his problem with the work of his friend Jerry Lewis. I don't know if any other film comedian changed his onscreen personality so drastically and succeeded.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

Interesting observation about Jones. I generally admire his stuff cerebrally but it doesn't zing me like the crazier, more antic stuff you mention. The whole pared-down era of animation from the early 50s to (in some ways) the late 70s is probably that which interests me least compared to some of the denser (as you put it) stuff before and after. I'm fond of some of it though - I love A Charlie Brown Christmas as much for the memorable score and brilliantly cast slurpy kids' voices (and of course the Schulz script) as for the iconic animation.

4:07 AM  

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