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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Jack Benny Looking For A Screen Persona

The Rounder (1930) A Single-Reel Curio

Jack Benny, dapper in straw boater, is the title figure attempting drunken entry into upstairs window of a residence not his own. That means ladders, a curious cop, and business not played to Jack's strength, which in 1930 was not so clear as radio would establish a few years later. Jack had scored in vaudeville, played the Palace, but was slower to conquer movies. His emceeing of The Hollywood Revue Of 1929 wasn't noteworthy, and a surrounding cast in The Rounder seemed more congenial to film work. His character is described by Dorothy Sebastian as a man who "laughs and drinks and scoffs at life," but dissolute didn't become the Benny we'd come to love. Neither he nor Sebastian are quick on verbal uptake, but that may have been uncertainty re talking technology new to both. She'd been girl support to Keaton and part of flapper retinue at MGM, candles burnt at both ends offscreen, but only one wick lit when onscreen,  partnering with Sebastian leaving comics with most of a load to carry. Briefer-in George K. Arthur had been half of a sock team with Karl Dane, but they were for most part done by 1930, and he'd tumble down billing from there. Appearing even less was Polly Moran, on verge of success with Marie Dressler, giving The Rounder halves of Metro comedy teams both going out and coming in. The short is DVD-available on Warner Archive's Classic Shorts From The Dream Factory, Volume Two.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Warner's Last In A Library?

Book Revue (1946) Is Tour Through Mid-40's Pop Culture

Apparently the end of the line for cartoons where book covers come to life and a whole of then-popular culture gets a roasting. Book Revue was among last that Bob Clampett directed for Warners. What a shame he left, and a year before Book Revue came out, release often a wide lag from actual production. Did some of topical gags outdate within that gap? Clampett and others at WB were drunk on what came over radios and off advertising pages (wasn't everyone at the time?). Pillage of Lucky Strike's pitch for its cigarette was constant in cartoons: So round, so firm, so fully packed, so free and easy on the draw. Generations grew up knowing the phrase, but ignorant of what it once sold. As incorporated to comedy, it was a mainstay, and continued long past Book Revue. Humphrey Bogart got laughs via recitation of it when he guested on Jack Benny's 10/25/53 TV program, not coincidentally sponsored by Lucky Strike.

Book Revue also uses Daffy Duck more or less as Danny Kaye, the latter's then-popularity great enough to subvert the cartoon duck's established personality and make Daffy the mere mimic of a white-hot comedic novelty. Was Frank Sinatra as rail thin and emaciated panic-inducer among femmes getting tired? The routine had been basis for much of WB's Swooner Crooner in 1944, Sinatra in again that year with Stage Door Cartoon, and recurring as slender enough to be sucked through a straw for 1947's Slick Hare. Book Revue may be the most barbed of Sinatra impressions, Frankie's pallor sickly as he's pushed about by a male nurse. Manic animating as in Book Revue wouldn't outlast Bob Clampett at Warners, cartoons like his not dared by directors remaining on the job. All the more reason to hold Clampett's stuff dear. Book Revue used to be hotly sought by 16mm collectors, the first title they'd ask for when a WB package jumped off back of a film truck.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hammer Trading Monsters For Suspense

Hysteria (1965) Puts Another Amnesiac In Harm's Way

MGM-Elstree was a buzzing hive in 1964 when partnered with Hammer for Hysteria, another (and last) of B/W thrillers done by the horror specialists to feed off success of Psycho. Jimmy Sangster had written most of that group; now he would produce as well. This was likeliest a subcontract between Metro and Hammer, as Hysteria has belonged to the former since '65 release and is currently available from Warner Archive. MGM needed product to distribute and hired Hammer to supply it. There's little about Hysteria to identify it as a Hammer film. The company was transitioning out of Bray House and losing some of its distinctive identity in any case. To shoot at Elstree and London locations made Hammer product indistinguishable from others of similar type. Bob Lippert could have sent a lead man like Hysteria's Robert Webber over and gotten result same as chillers Witchcraft (Lon Chaney) or The Earth Dies Screaming (Willard Parker). Webber was functional if not charismatic; he's an amnesiac who might have killed during blackouts. There are bloody knives and a shower murder, these having more practical use in trailers and publicity for Hysteria than in the narrative itself. Sangster said later that he'd gotten tired of this stuff, and director Freddie Francis confessed it was a miserable six-week shoot (Webber's misbehavior, among other things). Wayne Kinsey tells the story with fascinating detail in his Hammer history book. There's no hint of mod or swinging London among drab backgrounds captured here. Even Webber's penthouse flat has lingering air of postwar austerity. Variety said Hysteria should please "at the bottom of a double bill," where it sat mostly behind Signpost To Murder, another Metro suspenser, or Hammer's She remake, also MGM handled in the US.

Monday, February 16, 2015

How You Can Blow 86 Minutes Like I Did

South Of Suez (1940) Is Warners Jungle Rot

Knew I was in trouble for passing much of this Warners programmer wondering if a pet monkey was the same one Errol Flynn had in The Sea Hawk. "Programmer" may be inapt to describe a sprawling, yet strict-B rummage off sets from The Letter and situations echoing Bordertown and same year as SoS, They Drive By Night, which itself lifted Bordertown bumps. Stories at WB were like bolts of cloth used over/again till worn to thread. Second-tier folk at least got leads and colorful character work; here it's George Tobias as a straight heavy with Lee Patrick going all Lupino-Davis at a shrieking finish, which must have been fun for her. Leading man is George Brent, good for utility when Cagney or (later) Bogart couldn't be bothered. Did Brent ever object to tepid scripts --- or just take what was handed him? I'd guess the latter, as what force could he apply to argument with WB front office? Brenda Marshall is the woman interest; I've begun to notice an always unhappy expression, even when Brenda smiles. Did Bill Holden notice this at home? South Of Suez is overlong, by fifteen or so minutes, for its slight content. Another where everything has to be resolved in a drawn-out trial sequence, point at which I confess to fast-forwarding. Q: Why do I continue to watch these? A: Because I enjoy the world through Warner prism. Seen on TCM.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Best Noir in Smallest Package

Armored Car Robbery Joins a Crowded 1950 Bill

Charles McGraw Cracks an Armored Car Robbery (1950)

Oh, what a honey of a noir! To think masterworks like this were taken so utterly for granted. RKO made it for just $203K, but still Armored Car got robbed to loss of $40,000 (only $195K in domestic rentals and $100K foreign). Weren't there critics and trade to tell everyone how nifty these 67 minutes were? Cop shows would surface on TV, making it tougher for modest features to graze. Now pics like this are revered, and rightly, Warner Instant streaming Armored Car Robbery lately in HD. Nice when a title gives you the pic's whole score, robbing fuse lit in an opener reel and chase being on from there. Charles McGraw is happily not among miscreants, him the seasoned dick beset with an immature partner. McGraw is my idea of star presence, gravel spit with every line. Heavies are the customary loser lot but for William Talman, who cuts tags out of wardrobe to avoid "loose ends." Who wrote such marvelous stuff? Credits say Earl Fenton had a hand, applied as well to RKO classics His Kind Of Woman, The Narrow Margin, more. Did this man (who died in 1972) realize how good he was? If not, the Academy should have told him. Directing was Richard Fleischer, Armored Car Robbery a calling card when he was mentioned for afterward jobs. Did Disney catch the Armored Car before offering Fleischer 20,000 Leagues in 1953? Unsure how many times I've watched this, an always joy, and evergreen forever.

Monday, February 09, 2015

One That Fought Hard Contest With Sleep

Maybe Not Good, But Still Hypnotic: Night Monster (1942)

Doctor guests at a spooky manse are killed in succession. You wonder why the whole party doesn't move someplace safer. Universal made these by truckload and it helps to have seen them first during impressionable years when all such was captivating. In other words, don't risk Night Monster on your uninitiated, lest they flee as NM's cast should have. I used to watch it on TV without even expecting thrills to happen; that's how drunk I was on all things Universal, especially when Bela Lugosi lurked around corners. Dan Mercer and I once saw Night Monster with Dick Bojarski in latter's basement, horrors not altogether confined to the screen. You just don't forget experiences like that. Dick put a pox on Universal for misusing Bela as a red-herring, but here it was 1983, and what could we do about it? Further question: Was Lugosi in supporting role ever the "surprise" killer? Fans didn't like him diminished to butler status as others conducted mayhem. It was sadly how he'd finish though, answering castle doors and sweeping up in The Black Sleep.

The murders are signaled by swamp frogs that stop croaking, a neater than it sounds trick. Victims are glimpsed with outstretched claw hands, as if they were scared to death, but when we finally see the killer, he's not so formidable. Every Uni chill was build-up and suggestion, censor clamp on horrors past that. Lugosi and Lionel Atwill are billed first, but Bela's subservient and Atwill's the first to die, thus a letdown. I think Universal kept using Lugosi in the 40's because he was got cheap, and there were exhibitors (that is, Universal's customers) who saw value in the name and that many more twelve-year-olds who would show up because Bela was somewhere in the movie. Chicago's 1942 first-run ad at right provides some proof: note Lugosi's billing above the title --- Woods Theatre management knew he was leading lure for the show. Night Monster represents for me nostalgia that has little to do with merit it lacks, the recent watch pleasurable because Universal's DVD looked so good. How did I last past midnights with this after long Friday at elementary school? Shock Theatre was oft a battle against onrush of sleep, especially when likes of Night Monster was on wee hours' marquee.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

One That Technicolor Kept Afloat

John Wayne Blows Up in Tycoon (1947)

It's easy to knock Tycoon as a weaker-than-weak John Wayne vehicle, which it undeniably is, despite Technicolor and lavish spend on RKO's part (negative cost: $3.2 million). The pic lost money even as it was one of the company's top grossers for 1947, another instance of expending more costs than could be got back. Since then, Tycoon has been labeled a "bomb," which it may be aesthetically, but not so commercially. Recovering such outlay would have been a challenge even to biggest and best product in the 40's. Tycoon showed up lots on syndicated TV, especially in primetime, because it had color in addition to John Wayne. Black-and-white, and movies made that way, were being eased out from late 60's through the 70's, programmers falling back on a Tycoon for crucial color alone, never mind its weakness elsewhere.

And Tycoon was long, mighty long, at 128 minutes. All this to build a tunnel, and then when that caves in, a bridge, each to accompany of Duke losing his temper with friend and foe alike. And that's where Tycoon derives modern interest, being glimpse of offscreen John Wayne spilling onto a character he'd play. How so? Tycoon's "Johnny" is the straight-ahead and goal-oriented Wayne, as viewers preferred him, who'll broach no delay in completion of his tunnel, then bridge (both ill-fated). What enriches a stock part is the actor being (staying) impatient, blowing his stack, push of co-workers into compliance, these played bracingly real by a star whose own fuse would shorten as fame's pressure  mounted. Tycoon (on Warner Instant in HD) is Wayne riding herd on those beneath his level of competence, a trait he'd more and more display behind scenes.

Frustration for Wayne was knowing more than anyone else on a set just what it took to finish films efficiently, twenty years in the business having taught much. He'd blow up quick over hours lost for carelessness or lack of planning, especially where Duke's own dollars were at stake on later Wayne-Fellows and Batjacs. Tycoon suggests some of what would go on when Wayne took responsibility for success of a venture, juggling natural mishaps and louse-ups along way to completion of task. As a flood would take down his bridge in Tycoon, so would myriad weather and unforeseen delays put many of Wayne's self-produced shows behind schedule. His reaction in front of and behind camera probably had much in common. Notable is fact that a first where Wayne received producer credit, Angel and The Badman, came out also in 1947, ahead of Tycoon. Was his character blowing off steam from that pressurized experience? Maybe more Tycoon fun can be had by imagining Duke at producer helm of a troubled movie rather than drilling holes through a mountain.

There Was Glorious Technicolor Sunset For John Wayne and Laraine Day
To See in 1947, But We'd Not Share It in Latter Day Prints

Dross shows through clearer in Tycoon due to prime ingredient missing since the film was new, that being Technicolor in what would have been nitrate summit in 1947. Since then, Tycoon has run a three-legged race. It looks alright on W-Instant's HD, better so than videos and a DVD also available. None, of course, rise above whisper of color values meant to lift Tycoon past pat story and situations. I got swallow of this from a 16mm collector in Connecticut who was fortunate to own a Blue-Track IB Technicolor print struck when Tycoon was near-new. There was a scene where John Wayne and lead lady Laraine Day view a sunset we're told is Andes-based. I'd seldom to then seen color reproduced in quite such splendor. The print, if softer than what digital affords, had a vividness we'd not experience short of what archives or private collectors keep hid. One can damn or dismiss Tycoon, but without access to truest color values, this show and minor ones like it won't get a fair shake.

Monday, February 02, 2015

It's Moider Like The Song Says

Murder, He Says (1945) Is More Arsenic Stew

A backwoods Arsenic and Old Lace, with Fred MacMurray under threat of murderous hillbillies in search of hidden loot. "Dark comedy" was a natural mate to war worries, audiences willing to laugh in the face of death. Did the Code object to murderers as figures of fun? It's understood that Peter Whitney (as twins) has bashed in the head of a visitor previous to MacMurray, and effort to poison guests is very much out of Arsenic playbook. To Murder's credit, there is no shrinking from deadly intent of the Fleagles; they kill intruders, and that raises risk that Fred will be a next victim, so stakes are higher than normal for a chase comedy. Again in pic favor: no rug is pulled re victims piled up, as was case with in-the-end anemic Karloff comedy, The Boogie Man Will Get You, another rubber stamp made off Arsenic and Etc. Frolic is stretched thin, most taking place in and around the Fleagle house, but I imagine this raised howls among multitudinous patronage.

Many would remember and speak of this show with affection in after-years when Murder, He Says was tougher to see. I'm sure it made a difference viewing with hundreds as opposed to lone sit, which was recent case for me. Murder, He Says may have initiated mindset that hill folk were killers at heart, as what was Deliverance but Murder, He Says minus laffs? And 2000 Maniacs merely pays off Paramount's 1945 premise, in spades admittedly, but someone among creatives (H.G. Lewis?) must have recalled the earlier comedy. Murder farcing gets as physical, a run through secret passages like one Paramount staged for The Cat and The Canary in 1939. Just a little less slapstick, and Para could have scared folks with this one. Latter-day owning Universal has Murder, He Says in their "Vault" selection, but the transfer has whiskers and should have been freshened before taking our checks.
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