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Monday, September 30, 2013

Flynn As "The Robin Hood Of The Seas"

Favorites List --- The Sea Hawk

There's a provocative entry among Steven Scheur's Movies On TV entries that reads thus: Sea Hawk (1940) Try and stop your youngsters from watching this salty tale of a sea-going Robin Hood. Don't leave the set too fast yourself because you're liable to enjoy this lusty sea story. Scheur's capsule reviews used to appear in our Winston-Salem Journal with TV movie listings. He was the critic who infamously referred to Bride Of Frankenstein as "way above average for this kind of trash." Ten-year-old me wanted to box his ears. Such snobbery prevailed in the 60's and much of the 70's. Are we even now past it? There was a Hollywood and The Stars episode, done around 1963, wherein Joseph Cotten narrated an appreciation of swashbucklers and referred to The "magnificent" Sea Hawk. Now that was more like it. Trouble was low contrast prints sent by then owner United Artists to stations leasing The Sea Hawk and others of the pre-49 Warners package, 16mm washed in flat gray-tone to meet prevailing broadcast standard (it was felt that low contrast registered better on home receivers). Collectors had a fit finding a Sea Hawk worthy of rich B/W audiences in 1940 experienced.

There also was a wonderful soundtrack album issued in 1972 to renew interest in The Sea Hawk. Charles Gerhardt conducted selections from the sefaring epic and others of Erich Korngold composition in what RCA sold as first in a series of classic music revivals. Colleges could rent The Sea Hawk for $75, but prints from UA/16 were a same as television, to-wit gray as ghosts. A hazard too were cuts that had been made by WB for a 1947 reissue, these diminishing The Sea Hawk from 127 first-run minutes to 109 for a pairing with The Sea Wolf (also trimmed). The footage had been put back to most prints in later TV/rental circulation, but collectors still felt the bite of stragglers reduced down from Dominant Pictures' 35mm that serviced 1956 dates. Dominant was a late theatrical stop for The Sea Hawk before its surrender to television with other Warner oldies. You could recognize cut prints for Dominant's logo that appeared at the head of credits. For 16mm gatherers, this meant Buyer Beware.

Now all that is as much quicksilver, for The Sea Hawk flies upon High-Definition wings on streaming services and hopefully soon from Warner Blu-Ray. It is a show that benefits for sharpest delivery of black-and-white, being one of the most richly designed and photographed of Gold Agers shot monochrome, a word I almost hesitate to use considering that The Sea Hawk looks more vivid than many peers boasting Technicolor. It might have been done in the latter process but for stock footage from earlier Captain Blood and even 20's sword/sash stuff Warners intended to use, but barely did, as spending for The Sea Hawk rose to a near studio record of $1.701,211 (only The Adventures Of Robin Hood had cost more). Of pirate pics Errol Flynn top-lined, actually fewer than you'd think considering his iconic status as such, The Sea Hawk was a summit. It's among his best and now even better thanks to HD delivery.

A Concluding Scene for The Sea Hawk That UK Patrons Saw More Of.

What Warners has today is unique too as a definitive and for years unseen version of The Sea Hawk, being complete beyond even what American audiences saw in 1940. British prints featured an extended version of Flora Robson's Queen Elizabeth speech at The Sea Hawk's conclusion, it being a call to arms and plea for preparedness that would resonate with a UK public girding for their own war with Germany. The speech wasn't used for US prints, Flynn's character being knighted, and no more, for the pic's finish. Even notwithstanding the trim (and a sequence aboard ship between Flynn and Donald Crisp), The Sea Hawk was nakedly political, and one more reason voices rose in protest over Hollywood's support for Euro intervention. TV watching of years after WWII ignored or didn't notice parallels between Spain's King Philip, the Hitler counterpart, and Queen Elizabeth standing in for beleaguered England. Where was difference between plotted Spanish conquest and Germans laying in 1940 wait? The message couldn't have been clearer if contemporary-set.

A "Color-Glos" Still As Issued by Warners for The Sea Hawk in 1940

Something else I noticed this viewing was the violence. Was that basis for Steven Scheur's counsel for parents to  "stop your youngsters from watching"? Battling aboard ship is brutal, as are whips applied to captive backs below deck. The old Fairbanks model could distance itself from carnage through silence. The Sea Hawk used the clash of swords and an aggressive music score to update benign pageantry to a new level of costumed bloodletting. We notice it less today for endless imitating since, but imagine 1940 response to The Sea Hawk's fresh coat on swashbuckling. Captain Blood had been a start, but harked more to a ruffle sleeve past than to vigorous future The Sea Hawk would herald.

Flynn's performing too, had matured. I don't know of another 30's lead man whose acting progressed so rapidly (compare him in Captain Blood with immediate-after Charge Of The Light Brigade). Errol gets a little cute and ad-libby at times in The Sea Hawk, business with the monkey as example, but in moments where he exhibits leadership under stress, there's just no peer to Flynn. Watch next time business in the swamp where he notes desperate condition of his men, then draws himself up in knowledge they'll look his way for salvation. It's a great moment that wordless-conveys quality this star had that others wouldn't duplicate.

Luxury in Abundance at The Ambassador Theatre in St. Louis 

Here's an interesting engagement for The Sea Hawk that illustrates ongoing love-hate between exhibition and a by-1940 entrenched double-feature policy. The Ambassador in St. Louis was a deluxe house that seated 3,005, and was thought fully equal to any palace in the country. Their launch of The Sea Hawk in September 1940 would also inaugurate a Single-Feature strategy, featuring the "Finest Short Subjects Available" as opposed to the customary B feature in support. Reserved seats were available with prices advanced. RKO supplied the junior fare, a March Of Time about the Dutch East Indies, and Walt Disney's Technicolor cartoon The Bill Posters, with Donald Duck and Goofy. The entire program, with perhaps a newsreel, would have exceeded two and one half hours. The Sea Hawk teed off a testing period for the new policy as conducted by Ambassador owners, the Fanchon and Marco chain. Over five weeks following The Sea Hawk, these were tendered as singles: Brigham Young, The Howards Of Virginia, Spring Parade, No Time For Comedy, and Down Argentine Way. According to Variety report, the plan failed and double features were back by late October. Had two-for-one been implanted for keeps in the minds of moviegoers?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Crime-Busting Bruce Cabot on MGM Payroll

Sinner Take All (1936) and Another Murder Solved In The City Room

I like the title, which I guess could fit any B mystery out of MGM or elsewhere. Systematic kill-off of wealthy family members (Charley Grapewin thrown off a balcony!) draws news scribe Bruce Cabot to investigate. There's gathering of suspects at a dinner party a la The Thin Man, but Cabot's no Bill Powell, even as he exerts a certain brutish charm on Margaret Lindsay (on loan from WB?). Cabot came of privileged stock himself, offscreen habits and conduct somewhat belying that. How often were reporters a source of murder solutions? H'wood writers graduated from the ink trade sure gave their old stand a boost. You'd think journos were all the civic authority we needed during the 30's. Police are superfluous in Sinner Take All and (many) pics like it, though it's refreshing to find habitual bad guy Edward Pawley for once on the side of law. Killings are gory even if we don't see them committed. One victim already dead gets six shots to the head just to avert suspicion from a still alive red herring. You could talk about the worst kind of violence, pre- or post-Code, so long as you didn't show it. MGM B's were fun lest they overstay, which some did, but happily not Sinner Take All at 74 minutes, an enjoyable one worth the seek-out.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Single Reel Harold Lloyd

Harold Invades 1919 Office Space in Ask Father

The title refers to eager beaver Harold Lloyd's needing to get (her) dad's permission to marry, easier hoped for than done. Two clever gags make up nucleus of this single reel: Bebe Daniels laying pillows at a distance in anticipation of Harold being thrown their way, and slapstick aboard a moving walkway installed in offices HL tries to crash. The latter was variation on Chaplin's escalator business in The Floorwalker. Comics could devise much on mechanical, thus peril-laden, props, plus audiences were fascinated with devices so exotic. Buster Keaton would go Lloyd and Chaplin better by shaping shorts around gadgetry gone haywire, this playing well to 1919'ers that didn't trust infernal machinery to start with. Annette D'Agostino Lloyd says in her indispensable Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia that Ask Father was his 48th "Glass" character short, and that Harold by this time was getting $300 per week from boss Hal Roach. HL had by 1919 ridden his own escalator to a top among screen clowns. In portent of stuntwork to come, he scales up a building to achieve Ask Father ends, early evidence that screen Harold would do anything to make success. It was this quality above all that  endeared him to 20's viewership.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Greenbriar Still Aboard The Train

A Runaway Express From 20's Beginning to Blu-Ray Destination

I'm really drunk on this runaway train, enough so to delve further into its progress through theatres and homes during  20's peak of popularity. What motivates the search, of course, is having been blown away by restoration of Lyman H. Howe's Famous Ride on a Runaway Train as six-minute highlight of the National Film Preservation Foundation's DVD release from a well-publicized New Zealand find. Long-missing till now, this is a thrill ride you can show doubters who claim silent pics are dull affairs, the best helping of pre-talk I've had this year. DVD booklet notes by Scott Simmon reveal that Howe's short made a splash at Broadway's Capitol Theatre in 1921 and scored two bookings there. Indeed it did, first in April of that year, playing behind stage overture The Queen Of Sheba, the Capitol's Ballet Corps, and Maria Samson of the Royal Opera of Budapest singing Bird Song from Pagliacci. What came after the Runaway Train was Percy Granger on a Duo-Art piano, a Mack Sennett comedy, "a potpourri of Irish melodies," and finally, the feature, Made In Heaven, with Tom Moore. Now how is that for a loaded bill! It's said that movies were often Broadway-cut by whole reels to accommodate live acts. Given the dollop here, I don't see where there was time left for hapless Made In Heaven, which must have unspooled in any case to a numbed audience.

Despite horn of plenty, the Runaway Train stood out, so much so that Capitol management repeated it a month later, this time backing more live bits from Pagliacci, further ballet dosage, Harold Lloyd's "first three-reeler" Now Or Never, and Will Rogers in Boys Will Be Boys. The Capitol's overture tendered selections from Faust. Here was footloose mélange of high and low culture, not at all untypical of palace entertainment that sought to please everyone filling the Capitol's 4,000 seats. The hit Howe's train ride made led to Educational Film Exchange, Inc. buying distribution rights in June 1921, barely a month after the Capitol splash. What clicked in Gotham, after all, could be expected to do so elsewhere. Educational was after "a big share of the short subject requirements of American exhibitors in 1922," according to 12/31/21 coverage in The Exhibitor's Trade Review, and Lyman H. Howe's Famous Ride on a Runaway Train would join a pipeline of comedies, travelogues, and other one-to-three reel novelties.

Among 16mm Offerings To Home Collectors
For March 1928 is Howe's On A Runaway Train
Further Lyman Howe shorts aspired to Runaway Train's "famous" stature. Thrills and Spills had explosions and fire from New York City's waterfront, auto racers cracking up, etc. This sort of thing was always good to warm edge-of-seats, as Robert Youngson would remember when he reprised the brand thirty years later with a series of daredevil/disaster shorts for Warner Bros. Others too knocked at Howe's door: Rapid Transit from John J. Iris (great name for a filmmaker) had traffic careening up Fifth Avenue with audiences in a perilous driver seat. Film Daily liked it, but noted that "the idea has been done previously." Well, of course it had, and with success sufficient to make such joy rides welcome no matter how oft-repeated. Another thing that kept Howe's Runaway Train "Famous" (Howe himself had died in 1923) was its availability to collectors in 16mm, that offering made by the Bell-and-Howell Company in 1928, On A Runaway Train among Howe's Hodge-Podge reels. These "amateur movies" sold to home hobbyists were a thriving alternative to theatregoing during the late 20's. Far fewer silents would survive if not for preservation effort by these "amateurs" who held on to their 16mm after studios junked 35mm prints and camera negatives.

A Tilted Subjective Camera Spikes The Thrill of a Train Run Amok

Educational's Revamped Ride with Sound, Released 6/15/29
"The short feature that played five times on Broadway, and broke all records for repeat runs all over the world" was back via Educational Pictures in June 1929, now with a disc-recorded soundtrack tarted with full-steam effects and music sped to accompaniment of a frenzied train whistle. What began as placid departure, the locomotive chugging off to a Chopin melody, becomes a race against disaster as titles warn that THE TRAIN IS RUNNING AWAY. Audiences knew that Howe's reel was stuff of thrill legend; it had been around decades after all, in some incarnation or other. Now Educational fired the engine again with appropriate bells and whistles to make new-fangle talkies look stock-still by comparison (which in 1929, they pretty much were). Educational could safely call this Runaway Train "The greatest single-reel novelty thriller in film history!," its value to exhibitors exponentially increased now that sound was added to ramp up excitement.

Film Daily's review of the new version (6/16/29) called Ride On A Runaway Train "a sensation when it was released seven years ago," and acknowledged "real exploitation value" in the vintage reel. There was nostalgia built-in for having back an old favorite that stood up so well, "offering as it does a comparison of thrillers of years ago, with those of today." Fox West Coast Theatres issued periodic guides for showmen in search of kid content for matinees. Thematic tie-ins with notable dates or anniversaries could often fill a bill in celebration of, for instance, birthdays of Sir Walter Scott (Scotch-themed adventure) or Herbert Hoover (patriotic/American historical). A suggested theme for Saturday, August 16, 1930 was centennial of the Schenectady and Albany railroads joining, Fox Theatres suggesting an all-rail program with local engineers, locomotive firemen, and other railroad personnel invited to stage-lecture, with foyer displays illustrating progress made in engines and cars (talk about a Golden Era of exhibition!). Recommended screen subjects included John Ford's The Iron Horse, Lon Chaney in Thunder, and The Runaway Train. Noteworthy here are at least two things: silent features being still viable for 1930 Saturday attendance (were children less inclined than their parents to discard non-talkers?) and Lyman H. Howe's Famous Ride on a Runaway Train being listed by altered or abbreviated title, at least a fourth such I've come across in following its tracks. Could there be other extant prints of this subject bearing one of several differing monikers?

Thanks to the splendid resource that is LANTERN and ongoing enrichment of film history by David Pierce and Eric Hoyt. Also thanks to Scott MacGillivray for sharing of Educational's Lyman H. Howe Hodge-Podge trade ad.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

I'm Just Off a Ninety-Year Old Rollercoaster!

This Nitrate Train Ride Will Leave You Dizzy

Lyman H. Howe's Famous Ride on a Runaway Train is one of many subjects contained in a newly-released DVD of rarities from New Zealand archives. Greenbriar will cover others from this extraordinary disc as they are watched. The Cinerama crowd had nothing on Lyman H. Howe, who arrived generations earlier to subjective thrill rides that put theatregoers in roller coaster seating, or at least its equivalent, to wit the runaway train that is centerpiece of this six minute thriller-diller. I predict myself watching Howe's Famous Ride many more times, and showing it to company. How many ways does it please? More than I count from initial viewing, attention caught up by careening passage over mile-high trestles and seemingly sheer inclines. Boy, did trains take perilous route back then! I'd have been scared to climb aboard given awareness of wilds they traversed. So what were chances of plunge off mountainsides or tumbling off bridges? The roller coaster effect is thrillingly maintained. Just like that inspiration, the ride starts slow, folks sat serenely on observation platforms for slow climbs upward. Then H --- breaks loose and we're free railing. Program notes for the Treasures DVD (via New Zealand archive) say patronage went nuts for a reel itinerant exib Lyman H. Howe had taken on roads since forever, adding footage here, sharpening edits there, until he had half-a-dozen visceral minutes to put audience hair on ends. Added beauty to the 35mm nitrate find is wedding of an original soundtrack replete with agitatado music, train whistles, the blood-racing gamut. Here's advise: Be sure to catch this train on as large a screen as accessible --- it excites best when views are life-sized. Talk about a single subject being worth price of the disc! (which contains, as well, many other shorts and a new-discovered John Ford feature) Result like what's got here give film preservation reason for being --- show this to a deep-pocket crowd and I'll bet they'd give it up ($) toward further preservation. Pardon me now while I watch Lyman H. Howe's Famous Ride on a Runaway Train --- again.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Psycho Killer Loose at Blair Hospital!

Metro Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942) Now That Ayres Is Out

Murder We'd Forgive, But Wrecking a Department Store's
Electric Train Display? --- Unpardonable!
What drama went on behind scenes of this one! It was written and partially shot as another Kildare, then Pearl Harbor happened and Lew Ayres declared Conscientious Objector status. That gave him poison oak amongst showmen, and outraged patronage all but wove the hemp. One thing was sure: Lew was off the staff at Blair General, but was that sufficient cause to dump a lucrative series? Crusty Lionel Barrymore stayed aboard, after all; we didn't have to worry about him being called up and refusing induction. It was therefore simple matter of losing Kildare and giving Gillespie the show, provided there was attractive youth to don scrubs and be guided by scenery-chawing Barrymore (I can hear directors: Great Lionel, but give it more!).

Lure for ladies here is Euro import Philip Dorn, being road-tested in a handful of Metros to see if he could be another Charles Boyer, or closer match Paul Heinried. Dorn's Blair residency was a one-off, the Gillespies finding their level when likeable Van Johnson and Keye Luke joined staff later. Barrymore impresses for all but doing slapstick from the wheelchair --- his reaction to electric shock nearly results in backflip and reaction worthy of Babe Hardy in similar discomfit. It isn't all laughs of course, as ingénue Donna Reed has unwisely affianced herself to psycho killer Phil Brown, who clubs a cute cocker spaniel in the opener scene (that nearly made me turn the movie off) and later destroys electric trains in a dazzling 40's store window display --- murder we'll accept, but not offing doggies or wrecking O gauge treasures. The serial murder stuff is actually pretty chilling; there's even a closed door and pull-back that Hitchcock would use verbatim in much later Frenzy (did he see Calling Dr. Gillespie and remember?).

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Walt Disney Sets Picture and Music To Time

Putting A Stopwatch To Synchronization With The Clock Store (1931)

One thing you could say about Silly Symphonies from the beginning: they were precision instruments. Each was synchronized to the last beat, a flawless wedding of animated picture and sound. I'm only surprised they didn't get around to a clock cartoon sooner, considering how much Disney's output had in common with timepieces. Silly Symphonies measured music with picture in terms of  hair-splits, that being what thrilled audiences most when Disney shorts were shown. The novelty of synchronization, even if flawless, would dissipate as a wider industry gained competence. Where, then, to go past technical summit once reached? Disney was slowed, but not stopped, by two good men who'd quit him --- Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling. They'd done initial Symphonies almost single-handed. Other staff would train toward their level, but in a meantime, release schedules had to be met. Walt's best cartoons were ones he did slowest, but distributing Columbia's clock wouldn't pause for him.

Many a past century home, humble ones even, kept clocks that were often a centerpiece among furnishing, many having been passed down generations. Ornate-enough specimen could engage a family like radio or television to come, set-off of chime/cuckoo, or figures emerging from behind a time-face to signal an hour's passage --- these could entertain between stories told or meals ate. We had a Grandfather clock that concertized every fifteen minutes. I don't know how I slept through its night-long din. The Clock Store trades on good will folk felt for time-keeping, happy association with what ticked at home. How else could Disney draw seven minutes from such inanimate objects going into their dance? (added query: how many digital-dwellers are even conscious of clocks, other than collectors of antiquity?) A lot of '31 viewers, especially youngsters, might have imagined household clocks coming to life at night, asserting their presence amidst otherwise silence. Impressed critics called early Silly Symphonies "mood pieces" for just such meditation, and didn't require they be funny. In fact, the Sillies were as close as any cartoon series got to being art. Walt couldn't have bought his genius persona with just the Mickeys. He would (to his mind) improve on The Clock Store and stately shorts like it, B/W Symphonies removed from circulation, and kept for decades on ice. A one-and-only place you'd see a lot of them was The Mickey Mouse Club. It's only within a last seven-twelve years that we've had access to a complete run (but wow, look at prices those out-of-print DVD's command!).

Monday, September 23, 2013

A UK Deluge on American TV

When The Brits Invaded Our Living Rooms ...

To follow up on The Long Memory post of Saturday, 9/21, I checked into release and reception of the 1952 UK pic in America. Producer J. Arthur Rank had made aggressive play for Yank dates to widen a public for his prolific output, principal US distributors being Universal-International and Eagle-Lion, both of which had been hypoed with Rank investment dollars. By 1952 and completion of The Long Memory, those honeymoons had ended (E-L) or were about to (U-I), and Rank had to search anew for stateside handling. January 1953 saw a Variety trade ad announcing ... In Proud Array, the company's slate, which included, among others, The Promoter with popular Alec Guinness, which Universal would handle here, Outpost In Malaya, to be released by United Artists, and The Long Memory, for which there were no so-far takers. The Long Memory being black-and-white with a dark theme and settings was alien to US audiences, its cast other than John Mills unfamiliar to our marquees. Variety had reviewed the film for London's bureau, calling it "conventional," with modest prospect for American theatres. Rank then, was perhaps lucky to secure a mid-1953 release through independent Astor Pictures, former outlet for reissues and program westerns. Astor sold The Long Memory in expected lurid manner, as witness their one-sheet at left, the aim toward exploitation and grind play. So how else could it have been marketed?

I'd like knowing what rentals The Long Memory collected --- bet it was nickels. Within a scant two years, the '52 noir became part of TV dealing Rank engaged with ABC for much of his backlog, the network hungry for movies and Hollywood majors so far unwilling to sell. Their deal was historic: primetime runs, Sunday night from 7:30-9,  including a best Great Britain had to offer. Odd Man Out was the opener, with Caesar and Cleopatra, Tight Little Island, and Stairway To Heaven for following weeks. The New York Times called it a "British Invasion," pointing out NBC's import, The Constant Husband, going head-to-head against ABC's run of Caesar and Cleopatra. It seemed all the best free-vee movies flew a Union Jack. Local channels were presenting UK standouts for early and late shows as well: Great Expectations, The Man In The White Suit, Brief Encounter, Captain's Paradise, numerous others. Some of these had not been long out of theatres, TV viewership getting privileged access to fresher entertainment than cowboy and cheapies that were majority lot of US features playing the tube.

The trouble was "sheer artistic butchery" resulting from wholesale cuts made to films in order to squeeze them into predetermined time slots. The Man In The White Suit, for instance, had been shaved to fifty-five minutes for its evening broadcast. But, judged by the film norm of TV in recent years, the current British fare is a decided forward step from a viewer's standpoint, said a forbearing Times. The influx of UK movies into American homes was making Anglophiles of many, especially those in metro areas tilting already toward elevated fare. ABC got the message, and increased ratings, for their oversea plunge. Brit pics were whopping the competition on Sunday nights, and the network wanted more of them. A next shopping cart to Rank shelves was filled with 100 titles as opposed to 35 initially purchased, the majority of even more recent vintage. The deals enriched Rank by over $3,000,000, with ABC's playing off the lot on weekday afternoons in addition to continued Sunday primetime.

The new slot would be called Afternoon Film Festival, from 3-5:00 p.m., a lead-in to The Mickey Mouse Club, the start day to be January 16, 1956. ABC got "unlimited use" of the package for "an extended period," a crown jewel of the batch being Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, which, of course, would have to be cut (severely) from its original 155 minute runtime to fit into ABC's time slot. Sales staff for the network stayed busy, the weekday and Sunday movies being "participation buys" with time available to unlimited sponsors rather than a single one buying entire programs. The boon for watchers was film largely new to them, a number of the Rank features having not had a US theatrical release. Others, like The Long Memory, were barely seen by paying crowds thanks to Astor's limited resource. Here, then, was where a mass audience began discovering fineness of British films overlooked (if not avoided) before. Thanks to the Rank packages, viewership could finally adjust to movies done a UK way, the very thing J. Arthur Rank sought and struggled toward over the past two decades. The late 50's and into 60's boom for Brit pics may well have been enabled by ground laid in living rooms across America, television's flow of free samples persuading us finally that entertainment from across the pond could be as satisfying as our own. Do James Bond, The Beatles, and kitchen sink dramas have 50's American TV to thank, at least in part, for their stateside success?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Warner Comedy With Accelerators Down

What Got Laffs in 1941: Honeymoon For Three

Romance writer George Brent outruns his femme fans to hotel retreat with secretary Ann Sheridan, but his troubles aren't over yet. Were authors then like rock stars now? You'd think so watching Honeymoon For Three. There were active fan clubs for wordsmiths, some of them print equivalent of movie names. George lectures for lady clubs and book nooks with membership seeking to bear his child. Would it pay similarly to be a famed writer now? Honeymoon For Three was remade from Goodbye Again, fresh tread on old tires being Warner way. It's fun for brevity (75 minutes) and infinitely the better of empty loudness that was same year's Affectionately Yours, all WB comedies not being created equal. Like most studio bids for fun, Honeymoon is salted with comic vets who could lift silliness over wires, Charlie Ruggles a cheapest skate haggling over Dutch treat with Sheridan as waiter Walter Catlett registers incredulity. Youngsters William T. Orr (a future Warner son-in-law and TV powerhouse), Herb Anderson (he's everywhere in WB "B's,"), and Our Ganger of silent-era Johnny Downs look in and bid for laughs. Dialogue was punched up by those same Epstein brothers who similarly enhanced Casablanca and other Warner to-be classics. Top-billed Ann Sheridan is a most attractive ever here: what happened between this and 1948's Silver River? Were cigarettes and too much sauce the culprits? Stolid Brent cuts loose to alarming degree --- you get a feeling he was starved to do comedy. Honeymoon For Three comes on TCM, but should turn up eventually at Warner's DVD archive.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A 1953 Serve Of British Noir

John Mills Walks UK Mean Streets in The Long Memory (1953)

Wrong place at wrong time John Mills pulls twelve years for a murder he (in fact, no one) committed, actual perps and supposed victim at large and going unpunished until he gets out to get even. The Long Memory is low-key British noir that captures maybe too well UK austerity still in play after a devastating war, its effect felt on locations near-post-apocalyptic. Our mean streets were like yellow brick road compared with what Mills traverses here, harsh tours like The Long Memory a workout even for trench coat faddists who think they know edgy. Brit noir generally had us beat for its stripping of all glamour and star appeal from dark subjects. Players over there took work as same was found and brought no temperament to gigs they were thankful to have. It's for that and conviction otherwise that all seem born to hardships portrayed. A UK industry hanging on by thumbs was well-suited to desperate topic in any case. Continued search for noir from there is always rewarding. I've not seen one yet that missed. The Long Memory is another from VCI's Rank Collection, and quality is fine.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Universal Catches Gaumont's Express

Rome Express (1932-33) Was a US Sleeper Train

A flat marvelous rail-set thriller, which once aboard, never stops till we reach dénouement. What a kick to find one previously unknown that turns out so good as this. I'm for putting Rome Express in a class with The Lady Vanishes and Night Train. Part of bounty is surely Sydney Gilliat, the writing whiz whose very early credit this was. Along as well to punch entertainment's ticket is Conrad Veidt, sinister as we prefer him, and silent-era lure Esther Ralston, a doll here and adept with words. Why didn't she cut it with talkies? Rome is Grand Hotel on rails, multiple stories converging to frenzy of a last act. Snappy beyond what you expect of Brits at dawn of sound, this one went out with high expectation.

Producing Gaumont-British had just erected a lavish new facility at Shepherd's Bush, including what was said to be Europe's largest soundstage. Rome Express would be their first filmed there, work begun in June 1932. US release was surely a target, as this was customized very much after Hollywood pace and fashion. Could Rome's locomotive outpace our own Shanghai Express? Critics said it had --- indeed,  consensus among many was that Rome Express beat even Grand Hotel at multi-character gambit. "At last there is an English picture that one can welcome with rousing huzzahs," said New York's World-Telegram. Rhapsodic press called it a landmark, that rare UK import you'd call truly entertaining. To The Hollywood Reporter's estimation, Rome Express gave "clear indication that the London producers have finally caught on."

Variety reported (12/32) Universal's US distribution buy from Gaumont for $20,000, "as a guarantee against percentage." The trade further gave Rome Express a rave, calling it "probably the best British film shown over here to date." Rome Express had been made for less than $100,000, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and would "demonstrate conclusively that our big costs and heavy overheads are foolish, that not only can good pictures be made for $200,000 and under, but MUST BE MADE (their caps) at that figure if our business is ever to be put on a profitable basis again." The Reporter saw Rome Express as product that could overcome ingrained prejudice of domestic audiences toward foreign-made films, "PROVIDED Universal gets behind it with the proper advertising and exploitation ..."

Universal used trade and critic momentum to score a booking at the RKO Roxy, adjunct to the Radio City complex recently opened. Here was a prestige date that got attention, but a first week's take of $30K was adjudged an overall loss thanks to overhead the 3,510 seat venue generated. Latter half of February 1932 stood out for three British-made features opening in Times Square, including Gloria Swanson's independent Perfect Understanding, and The Man Who Won, from British-International, in addition to Rome Express. No one could accuse Universal of narrow offerings; their weekly house organ pushed a second Gaumont acquisition, Be Mine Tonight, a musical from over there, and a more challenging sell than Rome Express. These were sold alongside The Big Cage, with Clyde Beatty, a first starring feature for Walter Winchell, and Lee Tracy in Private Jones (when was the last time these were seen anywhere?).

One aspect of Rome Express that gave me a happiest jolt was recognition of footage that Universal lifted for use in their two-years later The Black Cat, that being stuff of train departure and extras getting aboard. The corpulent chef taking receipt of meat delivery, cigarette hung out of his mouth (above), is a Black Cat image that's stuck with me going on fifty years. Now I know from whence he came, and even better, there's more of him in Rome Express, even to dialogue and reaction when bodies pile up. I always figured that character had an inner life we weren't seeing, and here it is. For all I know, Vitus Werdegast and the Alisons are seated somewhere aboard this Rome Express as well, making their way to fateful rendezvous with Hjalmar Poelzig. VCI has a fine DVD of Rome Express as part of their ongoing British Collection. I couldn't recommend it higher.
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