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Friday, October 31, 2014

Bogart In The Desert War

Is Bogie Making a Rude Gesture Here?

1943's Sahara Seeks a Last Drop Of Water

Desert warfare with Humphrey Bogart traversing sand in a tank with diminishing cast in support, their being plucked one-by-one after Lost Patrol fashion. This was among most beautifully shot black-and-white films, thanks to Rudolph Maté behind cameras; his work stood out even against an industry's best. J. Carroll Naish is an Italian taken prisoner who'll gladly switch sides, our impression during WWII that his countrymen were more misguided than lethal. Germans, on the other hand, are pure bad and will aim for the back if mercy is unwisely shown. Location looks to be a real Sahara, but this was shot closer to home and proved less an ordeal than it looks. Bogart was hot off Casablanca, as in truly arrived as a major star, and Columbia was lucky to have him at such peak of interest. For his part, Bogie waited till last moments to cram dialogue to memory, then went out and delivered as though he'd spent all night at prep rather than social drinking. HB had sense enough not to tempt fate by going back to the stage where reams of dialogue had to be memorized. Sahara gets a huge enhance thanks to HD streaming off I-Tunes, being another of those for which uptick in clarity adds stars to modern-day reviewing. I'd increase it to four from a three my old 16mm print would have earned. Vintage pics are truly reborn thanks to higher definition.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Some Halloweenies From Universal-On-Demand

More Halloween Harvest, and It's From Universal Vault

Universal's Vault Series has turned Halloween into Christmas with a Santa bag of chiller DVD's the fan-base has waited years for, all released on the quiet and within a last couple weeks. Five are new-arrived, all in good quality: Secret Of The Blue Room and Supernatural (both 1933), Mystery Of Edwin Drood (1935), Mystery Of Marie Roget (1942), and Jungle Woman (1944). Each bear the Uni logo but for Supernatural, a Paramount creeper. Again we suspend critic standards, these running scale from OK to wretched for folks half-way discriminating, but since when did me or "Shock!" followers pick/choose among offerings from that late show lot? We watched way back when even owls slept and gladly took U's with faintest genre aroma. How else do you define these that barely smacked of horror? They were crow-barred into Screen Gems, and later MCA, packages that needed volume to fill TV scheduling. Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummies were well and fine, but there weren't enough of them, even with all of sequels. It took magic number of 52 to fill a first syndicated bag in 1958, one a week that would last stations a year, or permit double featuring with single repeat, like a typical series of that tube era. But for syndicated groups of yore, would we care less about these minor morsels?

I watched triad of Blue Room/Supernatural/Drood and was over/out in barely over three hours. Now there's a quick triple bill. Nice aspect of these and other Uni thrillers was fact you could see one (heck, close to two) starting at 11:30 and be in bed by 1:00. My late show life only got complicated when I began sitting up for likes of The Caine Mutiny and On The Waterfront. Seemed like "came the dawn" before such as these ended. I'd wake up more than once on the floor with an Indian head test pattern flickering before me. Even horror host jabbering and glut of commercials couldn't bloat Universals by much --- they were all short, if not sweet. Nice thing about plain-wrap thrillers, that is, ones minus a name monster, was faces we knew from so much of horror. Secret Of The Blue Room commands attention from a start for Lionel Atwill as headliner. He's owner of gothic housing where anyone who sleeps in a particular room dies before morning. It's just a fact of life he accepts, lives with, and propagates by letting family membership and guests use the space to satisfy whatever whim or suicidal impulse guides them. We'd like there to be spook basis for Blue Room mayhem, knowing all a while that human agency is responsible and will be unmasked, the "Secret" killer patently obvious from opener reel. Still there is Atwill, beauteous Gloria Stuart, and buckets of stormy atmosphere the bliss of Universal viewing, all done at stunningly low negative cost of $68,847.

Supernatural is the Paramount ringer. Many have wanted this for being one of few horror pics the company made during early 30's scare-rush. The Halperin brothers of White Zombie fame were handed reins, a major studio stopover they'd not make before/again. The Halperins getting this job makes us realize what a sock White Zombie was in its day. These guys had made a really good chiller on the cheap and it did business. Could Para slip a collar on them and have equal success? Turns out no, Supernatural a more or less cock-up barely worthy of its title despite individual scenes that unsettle. Star Carole Lombard figured Supernatural a worse stinker of her career, understandable as she'd soon be way past programmers like this, but when else did the actress get to play love scenes so intense as here, where the spirit of an executed murderess guides CL to wreak vengeance on bad egg Alan Dinehart? That scene alone covers cost of an hour watching, Supernatural a curiosity and rare as any vintage chiller up to now. Vault's transfer is fine too, if not pristine. This is the kind of stuff we forever hope will be released on DVD, but too seldom is.

Mystery Of Edwin Drood is a Charles Dickens adaptation of his final and unfinished novel. There's horror people in it (Claude Rains, David Manners), though it's not a horror movie --- but hold on, there are catacombs, a murder, and secret burial within those catacombs, which look like underground Boris Karloff would retreat to in same year's (1935) Bride Of Frankenstein --- plus you've got C. Rains in mad mode as he obsesses over beyond romantic reach Heather Angel. Mystery Of Edwin Drood is classy and most enjoyable. Universal spent past what they would on horror subjects (neg cost:$253,631), Drood for carriage trade in "A" houses. I liked seeing portly and majestic Francis L. Sullivan getting his start on Dickens before heading home to England and definitive interp of CD characters in Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. You'd think big studios like MGM took dibs on Dickens and classic authors of sprawling saga, but Universal had their own Great Expectations even as Metro did David Copperfield in 1934, and with Mystery Of Edwin Drood, they'd challenge Leo's Tale Of Two Cities from a same season. We think of Universal as home to B's and fiends, but they swung for fences too, Edwin Drood a game and pleasing try for wider audiences in better theatres.

Buried Beneath Live Acts The Oft-Fate of Jungle Woman at Urban Sites

Jungle Woman --- well, that was something else. Made for $105,612, it plays even cheaper than that. You'd think personnel from PRC somehow got through the doors and did Jungle Woman on the sneak at Universal. There are things from Monogram that look like Intolerance beside it. One can't come to Paula the Ape Girl with expectation, although her first (of three), Captive Wild Woman, was, as snide critic Steven H. Scheuer used to say of better U's, "way above average for this kind of trash." To be fair, and not snide myself, I'd guess Jungle Woman was so denuded by censors as to demoralize its makers and leave no choice but to sweep clean what horrific potential there was in sizzler Acquanetta turning into a gorilla, then back again ... and again. Trouble is, we're not shown any of that, for PCA reasons I'll wager. Was it whiff of bestiality that made Code enforcers blanch? Universal must have been a pushover for these watchdogs. Who'd fight for integrity of a cheap monster movie? Jungle Woman was simply merchandise to back up lurid posters and skin art of Acquanetta that utterly fails to represent what we see of her in the film. Did anyone complain over such a tease? Arthur Mayer's Rialto mob surely cried foul --- I would have.

Of great authors consulted for movies, Edgar Allan Poe came handiest. And he was a bargain --- as in free --- thanks to Public Domain status of all works. That free part was what commended Poe most to Hollywood, plus fact there was cache to the name for schools teaching him and most at least knowing his stuff was morbid, if not a little mad. That last was what made Poe a saleable deceased commodity, sort of like what Alfred Hitchcock is today. Both were "Masters Of The Macabre," and nothing so attracted as a tag like that. Universal had exploited Poe for titles, if not content, of his writings. Their Murders In The Rue Morgue was basis for a Bela Lugosi vehicle in 1932, as would be The Black Cat and The Raven a few seasons later. All were said to capture the "spirit" of Poe, and so could be forgiven for otherwise betraying their literary source. By 1942 and Mystery Of Marie Roget, Poe was better spelled Anything Go, for now he was grist for developing starlet Maria Montez, here given early opportunity at leading woman for a not-quite chiller turned on attempted kidnap/murder on her part, Montez understood early on to be too exotic for demure roles. Call her a hotcha Bette Davis at screen conniving, at least for title role as Marie Roget, but MM would be better used as costume temptress in a brace of Technicolor kid-pleasers, these her legacy, if indeed she has one. Universal looks to have spent a tad freer for Mystery Of Marie Roget as plush pillow for Montez, at least plush as U could manage. It's fun in terms of backlot familiarity and degrees of separation its cast has from horrors done fore and aft. This and others are just the kind of things we'd like to see more of in Universal's Vault line. Five is a good start, but I'm a pig. Bring on balance of those "Shock!" packages!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

More Blu-Ray Poe-Pourri For 2014

Halloween Harvest and Corman/Poe/Price

There were eight Edgar Allen Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman for American-International release. Six are available on Blu-Ray under Vincent Price umbrella, which doesn't bode well for Premature Burial in similar clarity (will it join the others eventually as a single?). The Corman/Poes are films which must be seen wide. Scan/cropping destroys them. TV was ruination for the lot until TCM began running them letterbox. When I collected 16mm, there were virtually no scope prints that hadn't turned red. Eastman processing had bad ways of doing that. My Pit and The Pendulum showed faintest blue even in dream scenes tinted entirely in that color. But at least the thing was scope. Flat prints were cropped and horrid. Schools would too often rent these and give a bad show as result. My college had an Interim course that used the Cormans to illustrate movie departures from Poe text. I peeked in on a clattering 16mm and better than half of carefully composed frames shorn throughout. Was Roger Corman aware of abuse to his work? We're happily done with that now, but wait --- there's 20th Fox selling On-Demand discs of Cinemascope titles on same putrid format. A pox on that!

70's exhib Mike Cline of sterling Then Playing site remembers his drive-in run of Premature Burial (apx. 1977) as a crimson tide --- all but one color gone and the print in rugged shape besides. AIP used to run the Poes like herd of cattle through kid shows and all-night drive-inning, five in a serve for dusk-to-dawn marathons. The series had happy afterlife beyond tail-off that was Tomb Of Ligeia in 1965. Dan Mercer and I looked at that one over the weekend. He considers it a best of the lot. Parts were shot on English countryside, with centuries old housing for Vincent Price residency. Ligeia may actually have been too good for its own good. The Poes by '65 were stuff of teen/child attendance, sort of what you got on flip side of AIP beach blankets. They'd be spoofed outright, with Pit/Pendulum stock footage assist, in Dr. Goldfoot and The Bikini Machine, which came within a year of Ligeia, and hadn't Corman himself kidded the lot with Tales Of Terror's middle and all of The Raven? Tomb selling was strictly in spook terms as with all since initial Poes, elevated quality gone unapplauded. I Liberty-went after memorizing the Dell comics tie-in, a summer '65 near-miss of Ligeia recalled years back at Greenbriar (did anyone else want side-panel sunglasses like VP wore? I searched stores, but could never locate any).

Some of best money to be realized by Poes came from television, debased as they were by that ancillary market. Sam Arkoff hoped for network sales and lucrative licensing that entailed, but Pit and The Pendulum would be an only primetime Poe, ABC running it 12/10/69, and again on 5/17/70. CBS used House Of Usher (9/19/72) and The Haunted Palace (10/9/72) for its weeknight Late Movie, result the two being out of a package AIP offered to local stations in mid-1972, focal point of which was remainder Poes with "King Of The Occult, The Weird, The Horrible" Vincent Price. It's less often noted that Nicholson/Arkoff continued mining Poe after Corman was done with him, but these lacked distinction RC's had: War Gods Of The Deep, more a copy of Jules Verne than Poe, The Conqueror Worm, well-regarded now, traumatizing then, Murders In The Rue Morgue, with a good cast but nevertheless a stiff. Continuity, if not quality, seemed lost after the "official" eight, but AIP topper Jim Nicholson remained proprietary re Poe as late as 1972: "Edgar Allan Poe may not have known he was writing for American-International, but almost every title of his that we have dramatized has attracted a loyal following."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Rank and Eagle-Lion On Thin Ice

Scott Of The Antarctic (1948) Freezes Up At US Boxoffices

A shoot-the-works Ealing production, their most expensive to date (negative cost $1.2 million), about the doomed Scott expedition to the South Pole. Average time shooting a feature at Ealing (and other Rank studios) was ten weeks. Scott Of The Antarctic took nineteen. It didn't do well as hoped, at home or here. There are DVD's available, Amazon reviews all over a map as to quality. Mine was a Region Two boxed with others from Ealing, and looks fine. Had no idea how controversial Robert Scott remains in exploration circles. Painted as a national hero since death, some since have branded him a fraud and incompetent that led his party to avoidable disaster. These claim too that Scott Of The Antarctic was a whitewash, Scott's widow as assist foreclosing chance for an honest treatment. I didn't read Scott at all that way. John Mills plays him as determined and in many ways admirable, but judgment errors are made from a start, accumulation leading to failure and demise for the crew. Missteps he makes are subtly indicated, Scott/Mills dismissing advise to use dogs for all of pulling instead of primitive tractors and ponies that couldn't sustain coldest temperatures.

What may have doomed Scott Of The Antarctic was public awareness of how the title character's venture ended --- that history could not be changed. Success of any mission that movies depict is a given. Why sit two hours to see them fail? Answer was to ennoble the team by emphasis on sacrifice that enabled others to conquer the Pole. To loss of Scott and his men was added a midway stinger of someone else having reached the Pole first, a rival expedition led by a Norwegian. Scott Of The Antarctic had to be told in terms of victory rising out of defeat, and if that worked, Ealing would have a click. Hardship onscreen was matched to degree by ordeal a cast/crew endured, icy exteriors found in Switzerland at 11,300 feet above sea level, then move to Norway to capture backgrounds close-in-look to real thing captured in Antarctica by a second unit said by Ealing to have spent six months gathering footage.

Ealing was a satellite in J. Arthur Rank's orbit, his benign oversee granting a degree of autonomy for artists who'd not enjoy such leeway from other big companies. And Rank was England's filmic leader, from his far-flung and busy shooting facilities to cinema circuit ownership (Odeon and Gaumont) that insured bookings for all of output. What Rank wanted was entree to lucrative US markets, his sizeable interest in Universal-International a pry to stateside theatres resistant to imports. Mutual back-scratch saw Universal distributing select Rank features for domestic play, while Rank would make room for Uni product on Brit screens he controlled. Problem was sheer quantity of pics Rank produced; Universal couldn't release them all. Choice of his best was theirs, and so 1949 would see the following get a U-I berth: Christopher Columbus, in Technicolor with Fredric March, The Blue Lagoon, also color, and Nevermore, aka The Passionate Friends, a David Lean romance with Ann Todd, Trevor Howard, and Claude Rains.

Others of Rank origin went to Eagle-Lion Classics, another entity where the UK producer had investment. Theirs for the '49 season would include Saraband and Blanche Fury, both with casts obscure to Yank viewership, but enhanced by Technicolor. Between Universal and Eagle-Lion, there would be 24 Rank features US distributed for the 1948-49 season (up from 20 in 1947). J. Arthur Rank had learned that prolific output as his would need more than one stateside handler, and so built these relationships to insure exposure for promising product. Scott Of The Antarctic as Rank/Ealing's most ambitious venture to date would seem to guarantee placement on U-I's release schedule, but arrangement had been made in 3-48 for Eagle-Lion to distribute. Trade talk from overseas indicated wan US prospects, Variety's man at the Royal Command performance wiring home that Scott's "appeal will be restricted to audiences interested in a chapter of British history," the film not falling into "top category" for boxoffice success. Upshot was their celebrated hero not being our own. Besides, we had homegrown Admiral Richard Byrd to teach Yank youth in terms of success --- he flew over both Poles and lived to tell about it.

And so Scott Of The Antarctic went with Eagle-Lion, meaning spottier and harder-earned dates. They could make waves with something really exceptional like The Red Shoes, but had a hill, or rather a glacier, to climb with Scott. Variety didn't help with a 5-26-49 stateside review, bespeaking "doubtful" prospects. "It won't attract run-of-the-mill theatregoers and will take all of the E-L ballyhoo talent to enable it to meet expenses," damning words to imply that loss was a fait accompli. US release was announced for April 1949, with a Washington benefit premiere to be attended by Mrs. Truman. Also to this fete came MGM's Nicholas Schenck and Paramount's Barney Balaban, "helping Anglo-American film relation by lending their names and themselves ..." said Variety's "Washington Hullabaloo" column on 4/20/49. This followed a benefit preview in Miami (2/9/49) to aid "British needy children," and a "special" showing at the Museum Of Modern Art the following month.

Eagle-Lion seemed to be positioning Scott as most prestigious of their current line, but that wouldn't translate to boxoffice, despite promise of "The Noblest Adventure Man Ever Dared" (itself problematic for US viewers with faint interest in "noble" adventurers). Ads with heading of "Had We Lived ..." tipped off the downer finish, word-of-mouth doing the rest. Scott Of The Antarctic ended up doing some of poorest business recorded by any Brit/Euro offering for 1949. Los Angeles' Four Star Theatre, a haven for arties, saw a miserable five days, Scott yanked before completing its week with receipts at $900.00. A reissue of ten-year-old Pygmalion had preceded and done $4,400 a first week, $2,700 the second. Replacing Scott was a duo of more oldies, The Seventh Veil and Great Expectations, which earned $2,500. It was as if the public specifically did not want to see Scott Of The Antarctic. Philadelphia's experience was much the same, Scott doing half the $5,000 that Brit predecessor The Small Back Room earned for the 500-seat Trans-Lux, while failing to match Italy's Bitter Rice, which snagged $3,000 in its 24th week. Scott Of The Antarctic froze at ticket windows sure as members of that doomed expedition. Maybe it was a story better told in documentary rather than dramatic terms. A public then as now was reluctant to invest emotion in two hours they knew would end disastrously. Jack Cardiff, principal cameraman for the film, might have been on to something when he said: "It was so faithfully portrayed that it was almost unbearable to watch."

Monday, October 27, 2014

Run-Up To Halloween

The Mummy (1959) Shining Brighter Than Before On Blu-Ray

Among fruits of Universal subcontracting horror films to Hammer was the Brit firm's access to properties Uni-controlled, including The Mummy, which they'd remake here along Kharis rather than Im-Ho-Tep lines (Schenck/Koch rubbed lightly against preserve with their Pharaoh's Curse in 1957, but reanimated mummies were otherwise U's alone to exploit). Christopher Lee gets to humanity beneath his wraps, the only gauze-bound Mummy I can recall managing that (Hammer used no-name bandage wearers afterward). Lee moves stiff but determinably, his Mummy unstoppable with stiff-at-first legs, but use of both arms, unlike Kharis of old who needed victims to position themselves just so for his lumbering attack. Mummy trailer bait was scenes where he smashed through glass doors to get at Peter Cushing (latter the one with a game leg) and is shot, speared, each unsuccessfully. This Mummy had muscle! Lee's is a sterling go at a role more confining than most movie monsters I can offhand recall. Should there be "Best Actor" category for work done in head-to-toe rubber (or gauze as here)? Who then for nominees? Ray Corrigan in It! The Terror From Beyond Space, or any one of those in Godzilla guise? I'm going afield of The Mummy, however, so never mind.

Had a guest group, including deftly observant Dan Mercer (in from the North) to view The Mummy this weekend. His reaction, shorn of sentiment for not having grown up on Hammers: "A colorful presentation that was sure to have pleased its intended audience, but pedestrian in many ways. The mysticism and romance of the original was relegated to the searching depths of Christopher Lee's eyes. His performance almost redeemed the picture for me." As for Greenbriar, there was but wish I'd been beyond (too young) five in 1959. The Mummy used to show up on mid-60's kiddie shows in Winston-Salem --- I'd sit home Saturday mornings, 58 miles away, and despair over newspaper ads for shows too distant to attend. The Mummy wouldn't turn up on TV until Seven Arts unloaded its Hammers on CBS for late network nights, these having reverted to 7A after Universal (and others) distributed theatrically. An initial DVD of The Mummy was soft and uninviting. You had to wonder if elements were imperiled, but then comes Blu-Ray from Region Two to bell the cat --- it's superb. Comparison to the 1932 classic won't wash --- better to link with ones Chaney did, or better yet, Tom Tyler in The Mummy's Hand, a player Christopher Lee somewhat resembles during flash-way-back to Egypt. Color is point of departure here, plus English spoken among ancients, a mistake Universal didn't make in glory days. Legend has it Hammer shot closer observed tongue-slitting and had on-camera nudes amongst vestal virginity. Is another search of Japanese vaults in order?

Pace slackens for Michael Ripper's drunken sighting(s) of marauder mummy Lee, padding needed to eke 88 minutes from The Mummy. The wrapped one intrudes twice upon Peter Cushing meditation to near-identical result, not an only whiff of redundancy here. Was it to pump more action into the show? Hammer's tomb opening looks like entry to a jeweler's shop that needs but light tidy. You expect a friendly clerk to emerge and assist visitors to this cave undisturbed for thirty centuries. Cushing does nice cat-mouse dialogue with Turhan Bey-ish George Pastell, probably a best talking portion of the show. Writer Jimmy Sangster once summed up his work by memoir-asking "Do You Want It Good, Or Tuesday"? --- he'd opt for Tuesday with The Mummy. What matters in long run is less what we hear than what Hammer shows, always arresting design, spray of color where mummies hadn't trod before, and a stock company game no matter words given to speak. My group enjoyed The Mummy for these, and probably will again as it makes future Halloween/Hammer rotation.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Trevor Howard Gets To Be Dashing Lead Man

Treasure Hunt On Location in The Golden Salamander (1950)

Archeologist Trevor Howard is as reluctant to meddle in North African smuggle-racket as was Humphrey Bogart in actioners made closer to home, The Golden Salamander departing from these for location its UK team hoped would lure a wider market. Variety thought it "too slow" to compete in a "sophisticated, competitive" US market, and maybe they had a point, for there was surfeit of similar yarns being done over here, most quicker-paced than this import distributed by Eagle-Lion Classics. Trevor Howard had momentum of Brief Encounter and lately The Third Man, the latter a mainstream hit, but he wasn't actionful by nature and less a right romantic partner for teenage Anouk Aimee in her first English-spoken part. Howard's role anticipates Alan Ladd in Boy On A Dolphin, the latter an all-but uncredited remake. Done before Brits began playing rougher with balled-fist subjects, Salamander is too much mannerly for a topic of murder and gun running, so domestic indifference was understandable, but how many of our melodramas travelled so far to tell such a familiar story?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Better Remembered For Early Bette Davis ...

Ruth Chatterton Joins Warner Team For The Rich Are Always With Us (1932)

Warner Bros. thought they hooked big fish by raiding Paramount star roster and emerging with Ruth Chatterton (plus Bill Powell and Kay Francis). Ruth had scored with early talkies (Madame X) in voice like pealing bells, a thing much valued during uncertain days when screens found speech. Age was Ruth's enemy; she'd have few years left in romance leads, seeming always the senior to male co-stars, even real-life husband George Brent as here. Part and parcel of wealth was understood to be moral collapse and inability to stay married, so Chatterton and company are much occupied with Paris divorces and Transatlantic passage just to meet for drinks. Did deeper-into-Depression patrons resent such ostentation? Most projected themselves onto it, I suppose, or figured to be better off for ability to preserve relationships, however troubled. The Rich Are Always With Us isn't precode enough to join revival's Hit Parade, but there is budding Bette Davis to grab attention from others onscreen, and they'd have been stone deaf/blind not to see in '32 that she was a next big thing. Refreshing to have John Miljan as an unfaithful husband who turns out to be not a bad guy, he being typed in villainy most, if not all, times, after PCA enforcement got hold (but see him in a terrific Back To Bataan character cameo dated 1945). The Rich Are Always With Us is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Flat Crime Thrills On Wide Screens

Crime Wave Leads The Pack Of 1954 Thrillers

Two Toughies, Both From WB
Shot in latter months of 1952 (November/December), but held for January '54 release, this was among few (any?) full-frame Warner pics playing off in an otherwise 1.85 season. Titled Don't Cry, Baby, then The City Is Dark before and during production, the project was initially set for Bogart, as would be months-later The System, but HB was turning away everything Warners offered, so sour was he after years of servitude. Eventually labeled Crime Wave thus went on B schedule to be produced by Bryan Foy, who was seasoned at these. Directing Andre De Toth had two weeks and low budget (neg cost a piddling $377K, by far a WB lowest for its release year). Worldwide rentals of $880K meant profit; audiences could still trust Warner for bristling gang subjects. Gene Nelson was given the ex-con lead, a depart from dance work previously engaged; like Gene Kelly at MGM, there was desire on both actor and studio parts to widen range, result occasional detour to rugged subjects. Pace is quick; there wasn't time to dawdle, given  abbreviated scheduling. There's much location and night shooting, a big help. Crime Wave wasn't much regarded then, but Warner values it now, as witness HD streaming on their Archive Instant arm, plus DVD availability.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

TCM Unearths Another Gem

The Stranger's Return (1933) Is Back On Television

Warners has quietly cleared another out-of-circulation title and put it back on view. The Stranger's Return played last week on TCM without fanfare, no mention in Robert Osborne's intro that this was a first time showing in the over twenty years since TNT, according to online posters, had a run. History of The Stranger's Return in terms of spotty sightings is fascinating in itself. There certainly were 16mm prints made up for television when MGM's "Pre-48 Greats" became available for broadcast in August 1956. Sixty stations would within a first three years purchase the entire package of 716 features, including The Stranger's Return, so it did not go unseen during that period. Metro pulled the title in 1963, however, indicating The Stranger's Return as "withdrawn" in syndication listings. The flag was result of underlying literary rights (source novel by Phil Stong) that had not been renewed. Other titles taken out of TV circulation at the same time included Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Mr. and Mrs. North (1942), among others, some of which still remain to be cleared for broadcast. There would later be rental access to The Stranger's Return on 16mm, through Films, Inc., whose 1977 Rediscovering The American Cinema catalogue listed the 1933 feature, suggesting that MGM still had non-theatrical, if not TV, rights.

William K. Everson ran a 16mm print to his NYU class on 10/14/77. He probably rented The Stranger's Return from Films, Inc., but on the other hand, it may have been his own print, which hopefully is still around and might supply a scene missing from the final reel. What TCM played looked to be from 35mm with low contrast, reminiscent of grayish 16mm local stations used to lease from syndicators. There seems not to be multiple prints of The Stranger's Return around, the camera negative having burned years back. So question as applies to any oldie brought out of hibernation: Is it worth the wait? Being a King Vidor project automatically confers interest. The theme was one he liked and would return to, being rural-based and close to soil. Location is generous, and thanks-be, these farms aren't built on Metro stages (Stranger's was shot "about an hour or so" from Los Angeles, according to Vidor in a later interview with Nancy Dowd). Characters live off the land, so there's no Depression reference other than Miriam Hopkins mentioning fact she couldn't find a job in the city she's recently left.

I don't gravitate to sticks-set stuff as a rule, finding them usually clichéd or oppressive, as in beat-down of Lillian Gish in The Wind or harsh Mountain Justice as meted in that Warners ordeal directed by Mike Curtiz. Worse is when they go all-out poetic with stunner imagery but caterpillar pace, like City Girl. Every farm patriarch is a hard case, it seems, Lionel Barrymore no exception in The Stranger's Return, but good writing lends wit enough to dialogue to make his character engaging, a third act twist on expectation being for me what's best and most memorable about the show. LB talks of long ago when he "went to the Civil War," and there's a real sense of battles having once been fought on ground he now tills. North Carolina had Confederate vet parades well into the 20th century; my mother recalled ones taking place each year in Kings Mountain, where she grew up, so The Stranger's Return and Barrymore's role must have rung especially true for many who saw the film first-run in 1933.

There's also importance of food to these people. They eat, and talk a lot of eating. Lionel is served cereal, "cardboard" according to him, at breakfast (for Grandpa's health) and rebels by going outdoors to collect eggs and do ritual of frying these plus bacon in extended action where we can almost taste result. He later balks at lemonade and cookies served by neighbor Franchot Tone and wife because they'll "spoil our lunch," while his threshing crew after a morning's work rushes to table like starved animals. Their attack on loaded plates seem like comedy to sedentary moderns who've lost sight of what it is to be really hungry after honest-to-goodness work outdoors. Stranger's extended feast with Miriam Hopkins unable to keep pace with demand for seconds, salt, and what-not, is a highlight that's staged beautifully by director Vidor.

Hopkins has a part so well conceived as to make her for once appealing as an actress. She's a modern woman having been around, married, and then split from that, but not jaundiced by experience. Her developing romance with Franchot Tone is believable, suffused with good dialogue, and played splendidly by both. He has a wife, who thankfully isn't a shrew or doormat we wish would clear out for sake of new-found love. There's real sense that Tone would give up much by letting her go, no matter novelty's attraction in Hopkins. The situation is adult, sensitively handled, and reflective of benefit Vidor had for getting his cast/crew well away from Culver to shoot. The Stranger's Return was pre-Code, but not aggressively so, having not the sort of theme we'd associate with the category, and yet ... Vidor did refer to a haystack love scene between Hopkins and Tone missing from a print he saw in the late 70's (his first screening since the film was new). There was no such footage in TCM's broadcast last week. Had it been Code-cut at some point? Many features of the period were, with trims never put back. What we have of The Stranger's Return may be incomplete beyond short business lopped from the end.

Note Clark Gable As Originally Having Been Cast

"My audience in North Dakota ate it up," said one showman. "The answer to the small town exhibitor's prayer," said another. This was typical of grassroots reaction to The Stranger's Return. Of multiple opinions I read, none were negative, and all reported good business. It was, in fact, "a picture that sends them away smiling," according to one manager who'd report pleased patrons he'd not have to duck the next day (bad pictures had a way of keeping managers off small-town streets until stench died down). Some playing The Stranger's Return used the "Personal Assurance" gag that was always chancy, unless you had something truly good to sell. In this case, they did. 100% customer satisfaction was reported in numerous situations. Agricultural centers were a natural, Variety reporting that Lincoln, Nebraska's same named venue "has the town to itself" while playing The Stranger's Return. Overall rentals were fine, with nice gains for Metro thanks to reasonable negative cost ($288,035). Domestic rentals were $439,000, foreign $191,000. Final profit was $117,964.

Many Thanks to Dr. Karl Thiede for info/data on The Stranger's Return.
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