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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Metro Making Music and Million$

Everybody's Kind Of Music To Win The War

Was Music For Millions handing out the wrong kind of hope? A telegram from the War Department tells June Allyson that her husband has died in the South Pacific, a fact her intercepting roommates conceal from Junie, a bad idea by itself compounded by fact that the wire turns out to be a mistake. He's still alive! I was under impression that wartime pics never did a reverse on official word of casualty. Same year's Since You Went Away has Jennifer Jones questioning bad news re Robert Walker till Claudette Colbert firmly says "that's the worst thing you can do." A warring nation did not want families kidding themselves once in receipt of bad news. Did Music For Millions make some of us doubt truth in telegrams? This was where fantasy at Metro may have had damaging effect. Hope was fine, false hope something else. A "Bureau Of Motion Pictures" at the government's Office Of War Information had been created "to assist Hollywood in furthering the war effort by enhancing the audience's understanding of the facts." Compliance with OWI policy wasn't compulsory, but they could and would apply pressure where necessary. Did Music For Millions get a pass for being such obvious confection?

"A Romantic Drama Of Young Love Set To Your Musical Favorites," said the trailer, this to accompany of The Hallelujah Chorus. Music For Millions filled a big tent for all tastes, classical as performed by Jose Iturbi, swing by most everyone else, plus comic riffing on concert scale by Jimmy Durante, who introduced his to-be standard Umbriago here. Great composers got respect from mainstream Hollywood in the 40's, especially at Metro. Servicemen go misty-eye over Grieg and Rachmaninoff. A harmonica solo of Claire De Lune reduces a filled bistro to tears. "Our song" that couples share is often as not classic derived. Jose Iturbi was another in line of plain folks conductors, Leopold Stokowski ("Stokie" to fan familiars) a previous model from pairing with Deanna Durbin. Music For Millions lets Iturbi be mildly temperamental ... he's a genius after all ... but Jose, like the rest of us, will go sappy on sight of adorable Margaret O' Brien. He'll even let her sit with the orchestra during rehearsal. So did a classical music establishment turn as blind an eye to unrealities as the OWI? For what Music For Millions did for attendance at real-life concerts, I'd guess yes.

Margaret O'Brien with Joe Pasternak and Henry Koster

MGM had ways of luring talent from elsewhere to richer preserves at Culver. For promise of better money and higher budgets, talent like Mervyn LeRoy, Pandro Berman, numerous others, crossed the moat. One who'd defected to Metro (from Universal) and would stay for remain of a career was Joe Pasternak. It was his kind of candy land. Joe believed in movies as fluff. His musicals for Deanna Durbin had been machinery printing money for U. Pasternak wouldn't direct, but had a friend back there who did. It was only matter of time before Henry Koster came over and joined his teammate. Pasternak/Koster would be trusted with $1.7 million of Metro dollars to make Music For Millions. That was more than had been spent on any two Durbins. Koster lived long and told some of truth from the experience to interviewing Irene Kahn Atkins for a Director's Guild oral history. He recalled a "whole high command" of departments, each an undermine to director authority. Koster found Margaret O' Brien already pre-programmed by her mother and acting coach Lillian Burns, the studio sanctioned guide for most if not all performing talent. Koster felt "very safe" at MGM, but realized such factory efficiency "interfered" at times.

Margaret O'Brien may have been a most valuable of acting assets for Metro during 1944. She was all of seven and being top-billed for a first time in Music For Millions. Unlike Shirley Temple who could admittedly sing/dance better, O'Brien was a mini-Garbo enacting high drama to wring tears not only from herself, but a nationwide public. The cry mechanism was one that O'Brien reduced to science. She'd ask Koster if he wanted tears streaming, halfway down cheeks, or merely wet eyes. O'Brien has always impressed me for never whining over hardship of child stardom. She loved the work and saw herself as an actress from beginning at age four. MGM would be her candy land as well as Pasternak's. Maybe it wasn't for everyone, but certain personalities could thrive in this Lion's den. I don't know of an interview where O'Brien knocked Leo, Mayer, or any of co-stars, except Wallace Beery (from Bad Bascomb), a stance endemic to any and all that worked with famously truculent Beery. For those who get unwanted sugar high from Margaret O'Brien, Music For Millions is a picture to stay away from, but do note critics to a man adoring her once upon a 1944 Christmas season, when just-previous, and still playing to packed houses, Meet Me In St.Louis, established O'Brien as a top working actress and asset for Metro.

To stand hours in the snow suggests you want to see something badly. Above was the scene outside Broadway's Capitol Theatre, an MGM flagship and site of Music For Millions opening for holiday week '44. A photo like this makes me look back for any theatre I'd have sacrificed such time and warmth getting into. What's a lifetime's longest wait to see a movie? These hundreds shivered willingly for Margaret O'Brien, or was it live act Tommy Dorsey that appeared with Music For Millions? Trade ads tended to play down stage shows that were truer lure for Broadway crowds. Dorsey was at popularity's summit and certainly accounted for much of a first week's $75K the Capital took. The Main Stem gathered many a Christmas shopper to bosom that was first-run theatres, each with best the industry had for Yule attracting. Meet Me In St. Louis was in a fourth week at the Astor, and National Velvet made up a third for Metro at Radio City's Music Hall, the latter welcoming customers at 7:45 AM for the week. Management at most houses offered lobby check-in for Christmas parcels while patronage watched the show. Moviegoing was a break for shoppers who'd spend all day afoot on streets or in stores. For serving such useful and practical purpose, notwithstanding their entertainment value, few pics could fail during that holiday week.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The fascinating thing about this film is to compare what you have described, and people going to the theaters to see it, to what I experience with this film. It used to air very frequently in the afternoons on the Latin American version of TNT, before TCM was created. Despite its big production and gloss, seen it there the film seemed unremarkable, even though it is far better than what populates television nowadays.

1:20 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon checks in with some comments on this and a few past GPS posts:

Hi John,

I love all your posts, and briefly want to say re: Margaret O'Brien that it was interesting when she appeared on Robert Osborne's program (TCM) some years back with fellow grownup child stars Darryl Hickman and Dickie Moore, and mentioned her Spanish heritage! I've heard of the black Irish, referring to the Spanish armada being destroyed off Ireland and some Spaniards swimming to shore (what, with all those breastplates on?---or have I seen "The Sea Hawk" too often?) and being pitied, ahem, by the Irish colleens! Tyrone Power certainly typifies 'the look'. But I don't know if O'Brien's mother was perhaps Hispanic. I must say she looks as much Hispanic as Irish, if we're talking about types. She was a darling little girl, alright, and super-precocious.

But I wanted to briefly mention "Stage Fright". Only finally saw this when WB Home Video released their own excellent AH box in the early '00's, and we finally got this and things like "I Confess" (with its gorgeous and seldom-remarked-upon Dimitri Tiomkin score, his best for Hitchcock to my taste) and "The Wrong Man". I like "Stage Fright" very much, and it has a LOT of side delights, such as another appearance by his talented and cute daughter Pat, also my opinion of course rather than some absolute fact, and excellent photography by the man Charles H. Schneer put to use for several years, namely Wilkie Cooper; and, a terrific score by one Leighton Lucas. I love his Main Title, which is thrilling and sophisticated. It's not as barnstorming as the hellfire title music Clifton Parker wrote for "Curse/Night of the Demon", but just as distinctive and also distinctively 'British', versus the marvelous and idiosyncratic music of Tiomkin or the later definitive Bernard Herrmann sound that so aided Hitch in his various cinematic excursions.

As for "Frankenstein", more terrific stuff indeed (with your typically-amazing archival visual materials; that one ad and its artist's attempt to portray The Monster is almost risible!---but wonderful), and wouldn't it be fun to see an actual trailer for the original release, as you say? To see if they actually managed to withhold that great face and still get 'em to come see the picture? Shows what could be achieved just with a few hints, back then, so exotic were most horror movies to the public. Even the 1953 trailer for "House of Wax" famously shows NOTHING of the movie, including the ultra-exploitable horror-puss of Vincent Price in his George Bau burn makeup. BTW, I finally saw "The Criminal Code", thanks to TCM's new package of three 1931-ish pictures featuring Karloff, which they've called "The Criminal Kind", along with an absolutely great still of BK as Galloway in "...Code". This (and the picture) make it rather more easy to understand why and how James Whale could've seen this picture and thought, "THAT'S the guy we want!" Karloff not only looks great, and had that unique look, but he's playing mean and menacing, which brought out the best in his hard, lean features. But I don't think anyone could've anticipated the amazing and almost transcendent quality he acquired in that monster makeup, nor the sensitivity and imaginative scope of his performance. Versus "Frankenstein" (and other Whale features), "The Criminal Code" is almost modern in a contemporary sense in the way the entire cast plays their parts, and one is tempted to credit director Howard Hawks...though he didn't quite keep Muni down in "Scarface"! Karloff could often go 'big', but he too is admirably plausible and scary as the obsessive, vengeful Galloway.


8:55 AM  

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