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Monday, August 12, 2013

Greenbriar Back In Newsreels

Too Hot To Handle (1938) and The Dirty Business Of Photographing News

I may have found what took the place of sex after precode got shut down: Cynicism. Too Hot To Handle reeks of it, double-crosses ramped to levels more startling to us than they would have seemed in 1938. Everyone is on the merciless make and there are no reformations for a finish. Go-getting to extreme was more acceptable then, I'd guess, but how can we know first-run threshold for dog-eat-dog seventy-five years hence? Let's call Too Hot To Handle extreme screwball, but to that add actioner, jungle-thrilla, globe-circle race, whatever's left in the bag. All such genres enlisted disguise and deception, and many endorsed hero/heroine's underhanding as means to the end. Movies like Too Hot To Handle celebrate upward mobility after scorched earth fashion movies shy from today, lesson plans on how to grab success from the other feller. A problem with Clark Gable for modern viewers might be his caveman-ing not only women, but anyone between him and a stated goal. Males, even alpha ones, just don't behave like this anymore.

Camera Chief Harold Rosson with Gable and Director Jack Conway

I Could Never Get Girls As Interested In My 35mm Stash
Cynicism bled into Too Hot writing, a clear case of Metro scribes laying forth what they'd ridicule Hollywood for at commissary tables: So long as we're paid for this junk, let's really let 'em have it. I ran Too Hot To Handle for Ann and she volunteered that indeed it was too cynical. That's what got me thinking: We who incessant-watch old movies often miss forest for trees. There's expectation that 30's Clark Gable will swagger and maybe lie a little to achieve ends, but his Too Hot news(reel) hound never meets a scam he can't exploit; beyond a first dozen double-deals, you risk losing track. Depression's famine still hung in ways like black crepe even at '38 juncture, Gable standing for qualities men needed to thrive in struggle-a-day jungle. His was a persona customized to tenor of times, and reception for Too Hot and others of the "King's" canon (save Parnell) left no doubt that manhood as embodied in Gable was a cut other men should measure for and women were eager to embrace, but is CG's style in rampant virility too hot for us to handle today?

Newsreel Man Leonard Hammond Visits The Set
Too Hot To Handle comes up as follow-through on Greenbriar's newsreel theatre post of 8/3/13. Just how rough and randy was the rover reporter racket? Based on THTH, I'd say between piracy and international smuggling. Too Hot To Handle presents rivalry between news gatherers as blood sport. They'll crash planes, fake footage ... anything ... to scoop the other team. You could say that Too Hot To Handle does for newsreel reporting what Ace In The Hole would to journalists. And yet --- in both instances, there was extensive cooperation. Marshall McCarroll and Leonard Hammond were stout newsreel names, lending selves to tech advise and general publicity (see photos). Were newshounds flattered by screen depiction as daredevil, if not ruthless, headline gatherers? This may be the most exhilarating arena a Gable character ever soldiered for fortune in. Who knew shooting newsreels amounted to all-out war? Look back enough distance from seeing Too Hot To Handle and you'd swear it was a war movie, but no, the setting is peacetime, even though Sino-Japanese conflict the US would soon join is played here for fun of Gable and nemesis Walter Pidgeon doing the other dirt to score combat scenes.

Director Jack Conway Supervises a Scene

Ace Newsreel Man Marshall McCarroll Drops By
What did 1938 crowds care about Asians mixing it up thousands of miles off? Few imagined we'd soon be hip-deep in such war, so why not let them supply backdrop for men of unprincipled action? The world was still a stage for Hollywood's brand of silly, though Too Hot To Handle would seem quaint in hindsight as among last to indulge screw-off attitude toward regions till-then marked "exotic" and left at that. Those who'd write of Yank imperialism and insensitivity toward far-off cultures might squeeze off a master's thesis or three from Too Hot To Handle --- it's that rich a vein. When Gable refers to himself as "head floorwalker" among native "jitterbugs" in the Amazon, you'll best bury THTH deep in shame's time capsule, it being xenophobia with the cork out. Would Too Hot To Handle have been challenged for a Code Seal had Metro submitted same as proposed 50's or so reissue? Not that there's indication they tried, the pic being well and truly dated by curtain's fall on WWII, not played widely again until TV got 1956-onward hooks in.

Here's a Shot To Make All Us Collectors Feel Like Clark Gable

Gable's Too Hot Credo:
Give Me A Camera and I'll Give You A War
More of what's wonderful about Too Hot To Handle: Clark Gable and Myrna Loy working with film. They handle 35mm, grind rewinds, bend over editing tables. She also has an ultra-ham radio that could pick up Mars, as did many of patronage that saw Too Hot To Handle in 1938. Folks then were high on technology like us, their idea of super-modern those very ribbons of moving picture we've so lately discarded, and they look to be having more fun with it than we're likely to with digital. Too Hot To Handle is the only movie where Clark Gable wields a camera like other he-men do firearms. I love where he fakes a Jap attack on Chinese villagers, using a little girl and her dolly as sympathy-getter props. Slapstick here came courtesy gagman Buster Keaton, a recent Metro hire at $100 or so a week. The segment was funny enough for Bob Youngson to remember and include among his Big Parade Of Comedy for MGM in 1964. I don't know of another action-comedy-what-not so immersed in the romance of celluloid. There's even Gable and Loy in a dubbing room to punch up narration and sound effects over shipwreck footage they've captured. I wonder how many impressionables sought out career in newsreeling after view of Too Hot To Handle.

Myrna Tends To Worldwide Communication on Her Attic Radio Set.
We'd Be Surprised at How Many Patrons had Similar Rigs at Home

Just Another Foreign Culture For Ugliest American
 Gable To Graze On
What sleight-of-hand Gable applies to newsgrabbing reflects slick surface of the feature itself, MGM having shined product by 1938 to mirrored summit, the sinking ship Gable/Loy photograph representing advance of process work and fx developed by Hollywood to that point. I remember seeing clips of the shipwreck portion in a 60's Gable documentary and being much impressed. Said trick stuff still looks good today. Too Hot To Handle represents well the progress dream factories had made, an industry having reached levels where they could stage most anything, and on backlots as opposed to location. They'd not get away with it much longer, any more than Gable does with his phony Shanghai attack, but there's lots to admire in make-believe so boldly rendered, and Too Hot To Handle, if nothing else, shows what a Classic Era could accomplish on sheer nerve and fed-by-success assurance. The movie is available on DVD from Warner Archive.


Blogger James Abbott said...

I’ve always considered THTH something of an unsung masterpiece. Certainly it is smarter, funnier, breezier and more interesting than the usually celebrated Test Pilot.

In this film, Gable and company speak in a classic Depression-era idiom, a mixture of wise-guy sentiment and cynicism. It’s delivered in a staccato fashion, and the movie just hums with its current of pace and tempo.
It has so many things working for it – screwball comedy, jungle adventure, industry double-dealing, crime drama. I’ve always found it completely irresistible.

11:13 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson looks back at demon reporters of the precode period, as well as Buster Keaton's "The Cameraman."

A precedent worth noting is "The Front Page" and all the other 30s films about ruthless/shameless print journalists. Now and again a "Five Star Final" would express outrage, and other films might decry fifth-estate jackals in passing. But more often reporters were jolly outlaws, not only crashing murder scenes and messing with evidence ("Lemme keep this for 24 hours, Clancy, and I'll flush out the top man for ya!") but actively foisting fake leads on the competition and getting heavily involved in stories they were supposed to be observing.

They were the noisy, unhousebroken sentinels of freedom, finding time to bring down crime bosses and political machines between lurid society scandals and sob stories. It wasn't just bread on the table -- although tough reporters were always trying to wrangle a few more bucks out of tougher editors -- but a sort of heroism. They wanted to catch the killer or expose the crook almost as much as they wanted the scoop and the extra $5 a week.

The newsreel boys weren't quite the same, to be sure. Their job was to bring back images, not stories, but they were still a powerful influence on public opinion and they often did take lunatic risks. Again, a bit more than mere scrappiness.

Another precedent is Keaton's own "The Cameraman." There's an amoral streak under the surprisingly sweet romance. The big story is a tong war in Chinatown, and the comedy is Keaton going about his business while stereotypical orientals kill each other and occasionally try to kill him. One famous gag has him filming two combatants struggling with a knife. When the knife is dropped he puts it back in the man's hand and resumes shooting. (While there's certainly a tinge of racism here, remember that Keaton also did gags about soldiers dropping dead around him in "The General." But there at least he was a participant in the war, not a tourist.)

5:06 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

For some real depth on this subject, see if you can track down the terrific 1979 half hour documentary STRINGER, PORTRAIT OF A NEWSREEL CAMERAMAN. The cameraman portrayed was Mike Gittinger, a self trained Ohio based freelancer shooting footage for most of the major newsreel services during the depression. He's the guy who shot that oh-so-familiar clip of the ice skater with the skyrockets strapped on his back. The doc has plenty of the goofy stuff like chorus girls tap dancing on a catwalk on a still-under-construction suspension bridge, and several variations on a sharp shooting scam Mike would drag out whenever business was slow (99 year old grandmother sharpshooter, 6 year old girl sharp shooter, etc., all easily faked for the camera).

But the film also touches on the hard boiled aspect you and your friends have referenced; in an on-camera interview, the old man cold bloodedly gloats about his good fortune of having an already loaded camera available when a car drove into a power pole a few doors away from his own home. While one of his neighbors was electrocuted(!) trying to save kids trapped inside the car, 'lucky' Gittineger cranked away, creating footage he hoped to sell several times over to different services!

This doc popped up all the time on PBS outlets in the 80's.

10:49 AM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

There's been some conjecture over whether Gable actually rescued Loy from a burning plane in the film, the result of special effects running amok. In her autobiography, Loy said she wasn't even sure.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Good old movie.
Odd bits of this seem to have recurred in newer action movies I've seen: Gable's use of headphones, an accessory and a radio to cheat the Chinese soldiers at cards is the same set-up used by Goldfinger in the James Bond movie of that name; and the chase of the float plane on the river by the angry natives has some similarity to a sequence in 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' - I have to admit that I can't offhand recall seeing any other movies where natives chase after a float plane on a river, though there must be others, as it seems such a natural thing to show in a "jungle adventure" sequence. Maybe I simply haven't seen enough jungle adventure movies - I should take steps to remedy that.

9:10 AM  

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