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Sunday, May 31, 2015

U-I Owns The 50's West

John Agar Rights Wrongs in Star In The Dust (1956)

John Agar's big break at Universal-International. He'd been a bad boy, pulled time on an honor farm for over-drinking (then driving), and was said to have ill-treated dimple-darling of an ex-wife Shirley Temple. In short ... damaged goods, and doing penance in shlockers for U-I that led to rescue that was Star In The Dust. Could Agar fill Coop's High Noon boots? --- because Star was nothing if not a rip from that popular page, not a first, and far from a last, to ape aspects of the 1951 western game-changer. Star In The Dust is just out on Blu-Ray from Germany, sports a 2:1 ratio (too severe?, though framing doesn't seem over-tight), and the image looks great. All of Star was done on the backlot and Uni's western street, distance covered from Sheriff Agar's jail to the stable where heavies nearly hanged Bill Fields in My Little Chickadee. In other words, home away from home for ones who love U-I and trappings it (over)used.

The yarn is this: Law-dog Agar has smiling (and intellectual) killer Richard Boone slated for the noose at sundown, but opposing forces want the latter lynched ... or set free ... depending on respective sympathies. Personal stories are thus woven, femme interest courtesy Uni lookers Mamie Van Doren and Randy Stuart, plus visiting Coleen Gray. Randy and Coleen do a whale of a catfight at half-point, both scorning doubles. I'll bet the crew gave them big claps at the finish (I would have). Mamie earlier alights from a night's sleep with full make-up, cherry-painted lips, coifed hair --- I love unreality of comfort westerns. And here comes Clint Eastwood in an opener reel bit with Agar, which if nothing else got him star billing on the disc cover, even though there was nary mention of the screen beginner in start or end credits of '56 prints.

Wow and Bravo, JA Could Sing Too
Ties with High Noon are rife. There's emphasis on a clock, Star In The Dust set from morning to dusk of a fateful day. 80 minutes don't drag, suspense maintained nicely so long as your demands are modest. R. Boone is splendid as proposed rope-bait, and yes, he steals scenes from all of Uni's humbler talent, but that's no slam on Agar, who acquits fine as tin-star lead. I'm for putting paid to "Sgt. Jack" (Shirley's derisive label for Agar in scathing memoir account of their union) as lead apostle for 50's bad acting. He seems engaged, underplays commendably, and was real asset to all those U-I weirdies for which he's better known (would you have anyone else topline The Mole People or Tarantula?). Also to Agar credit was fact he never trashed his sunk marital ship Lollipop, even as Temple's book made him out a lothario, if not Lucifer, during years they were wed. Give Jack points, then, for being a gentleman in addition to fine and workmanlike performer.

First Run in Cleveland
U-I's have been, in error, referred to as B westerns. It's a same fallacy applied in hindsight to Touch Of Evil, also from U. Fact is, Star In The Dust played top-of-the-bill in many situations, was in Technicolor, and certainly aimed for broad aud acceptance, if not critic kudos. Outdoor play-off would amount to much of Star exposure, these westerns, done by truckload at U-I, a drive-in's bread-butter in tandem with one another or action subjects supplied from elsewhere. Who knows but what one might break out and become a year's sleeper? That had happened before to smaller westerns. I'll acknowledge director Charles Haas (who he?) as no Anthony Mann or even Joe Pevney, but all industry folk had to eat, and maybe Haas had kin on the lot. Anyway, his helming is functional and overall OK. Star In The Dust's title is a misnomer, by the way, as Agar's badge does not finish underfoot as did Coop's --- does my reveal count as a spoiler? This one has gone unseen for too many years in the US (has anyone shown it?), so looks like Region Two is an only recourse. Highly recommended in any case, Star In The Dust is a peach of a sage-set show. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ooo-La-La On Columbia's Backlot

Paris Model (1953) Is Strictly Off The Rack

The progress of a Paris dress that graces a quartet of wearers, each displaying hubris the garment itself seems to provoke. Do good clothes make people do bad things? Eva Gabor uses the creation to ensnare maharajah Tom Conway, but is trumped by Laurette Luez. Paulette Goddard wants it toward stealing office employer Leif Erickson from a dowdy wife, who checkmates PG by donning the same outfit. Marilyn Maxwell dresses to seduce her husband's boss Cecil Kellaway (be warned ... they kiss), and finally, good girl Barbara Lawrence is tempted by turbaned Conway to ditch fiancĂ©e Robert Hutton, the nightspot they visit none other than cheap-rendered soundstage knock-off of "Prince" Michael Romanoff's famed Hollywood eatery, where Bogey used to 50's-go for ham and eggs. Paris Model is miserly cheap, produced by Albert Zugsmith, and itself a knock-off of Tales Of Manhattan from ten years before. You may watch, as I did, with grim fascination for has-beens and never-weres plunged to basement level. Single-day thesping abounds: El Brendel yumpin' at yiminys as ever, a sickly Florence Bates in her final feature appearance, and of course, poor Tom Conway, who seems confused as to why he's here at all. Paris Model is as punishing as must have been case for Columbia when domestic rentals came to but $195K. All in all, an absolute must-see. There are occasional sightings on TCM, whose transfer is excellent. I hope Columbia On-Demand will release this on DVD.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Doctor In Metro's House

Franchot Tone Caught Between Two Women (1937)

I haven't seen it in years, but there was a trailer MGM did for this where Erich von Stroheim as writer of the original story was really emphasized, Leo's promise being greater realism thanks to his input. Considering Von's down/out Hollywood status at the time, it's notable how his name could still summon crowd expectation for blunt content other movies didn't dare, although in this case it was mere sizzle, Between Two Women barely recognizable as Stroheim's, and watered down by Metro staffers in the bargain. The yarn bites deeper still than Kildares or Gillespies that would follow, latters trading on gloss and romance to disadvantage of med issues this at least tries to address. Between Two Women was a one-shot and barometer for Metro hospital stays to come, setting the scene for sickrooms as locus for drama of life and death. Franchot Tone is the surgeon who's dedicated, nurse assist Maureen O'Sullivan quietly worshipful, while Virginia Bruce society-slums as his short-term wife. Nothing good came of association with idle rich at MGM, but they're everywhere thanks to glamour capital needed, Bruce's character a useful model for fashion even if unsympathetic. It was a cinch, however, that any Metro hero marrying a deb or heiress would come to grief, unless he could somehow "tame" her, or cut ties with Daddy's money (a 30's occupation for Clark Gable after It Happened One Night set the mold).

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

And A Horse Shall Lead Them

Monogram Wedded To Cinecolor For Wild Stallion (1952)

Give me this over any number of super-A's from the 50's. Indian massacre clams parents of a kid who grows up to be Ben Johnson. The horse that got away is what he spends years seeking, Ben getting a jump on Ethan Edwards, only he seeks equine flesh rather than Natalie Wood's. Wild Stallion isn't heavy like The Searchers either, being about little other than pretty steeds and how tough they are to tame. Johnson stunt rides as he had for John Ford, this time before Cinecolor cameras for Allied Artists. He doesn't like cruelty to animals and soundly thrashes ones who practice it. There's love interest with Martha Hyer, largely downplayed, Ben sure enough a cowboy who'd prefer kissing his horse. Wild Stallion rides gentle and there isn't much human villainy. Shows like this were about beauty of nature and majestic mounts running loose. Tote up all the horse movies done in the late 40/50's and you'll find there's quite a few. They were economical to make and exhibitors liked them for non-violent, matinee bookings. I'll bet Wild Stallion stayed in circulation for years after it was released in 1952. Warner Archive's DVD is lovely and a showcase for well-preserved Cinecolor.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Another Winner Book From Weaver

Bear Manor's "Scripts From The Crypt" Presents Bride Of The Gorilla

This third entry in Tom Weaver's "Scripts From The Crypt" series (previous two being The Hideous Sun Demon and The Indestructible Man), delves deep into 1951's Bride Of The Gorilla, a Realart jungle horror you'd not dream would inspire a book, let alone one so irresistible as what genre historian Weaver turns master hand to. He's gathered a blue ribbon panel of experts to flavor behind-scenes telling of a misbegot chiller sold variously as Shocking, Daring, Primitive, and Passionate (to each please add exclamation points, as does ad at left). Any chapter of this book would merit purchase price, and there are over a dozen of them. I attended weekend-long wedding festivities to accompany of GF Ann plus Bride Of The Gorilla, the book enjoyed during hotel bar sequesters fueled by whiskey sours and passages shared with Ann (her intro to sordid details of the Barbara Payton-Franchot Tone-Tom Neal dustup). Fellow tipplers noting the book's lurid cover and my rapt absorption (w/frequent recites) must have wondered what group home I had escaped from.

Here are B Of The G highlights and reasons GPS readership will savor this book: 1 --- an intro by John Landis, ace director and lifelong chill enthusiast ... 2 --- Interviews as only Tom Weaver can conduct them, w/ eye-witness accounts of the film's production, as well as Weaver's close analysis re the latter, his history of Realart, producing Broder brothers, appreciation of Herman Cohen (getting his start here), and 3 --- dissect of once-in-a-lifetime cast Barbara Payton, Lon Chaney, Raymond Burr, Tom Conway, plus gorilla suitors and pulse-quickening F. Tone v. T. Neal. To this add Scott MacQueen's years-later visit with Bride director Curt Siodmak, covered in fascinating detail (with photos). There's "Fun Facts" from Weaver throughout, he and Greg Mank topping themselves with a "Lon Chaney Jr. Timeline" that left me agape over reams of revelation (and me thinking all this time that I knew my Chaney). If you care at all about horror legends, backstage peeps, underbelly probe, interviewee candor served raw (Weaver sure knows how to peel back scabs of memory), all making pages turn sans pause (you'll curse meals and sleep for time they take from this).  Weaver's Scripts/Crypt series is a winning concept, with each setting a new bar. I'm panting already for the author's next.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Warners Lowering Boom On B's

Crime By Night (1944) Plays Like a Miles Archer Mystery

Warners released nineteen features in 1944, of which three were B's. The reason for cutback was company emphasis on longer runs for A product, it being not unusual for urban spots to hold these a month or more to packed attendance. The wartime boom had most to do with that; thanks to rationing of food and goods, what was left to occupy home-fronters but movies? Crime By Night might be subtitled The Further Adventures Of Miles Archer, for here is The Maltese Falcon's Jerome Cowan again as a private dick on murder's trail. Cowan was capable and might have been groomed as a breezier Bogart based on previous Find The Blackmailer and this, but it was the women who'd foretell stardom ahead. Jane Wyman, Eleanor Parker, and Faye Emerson graduated soon to A's, and in fact, had done so by Crime's delayed release (note Wyman's elevated billing on the one-sheet). The pic was shot eighteen months earlier, but held so war subjects could play off. Light (budget) mystery was carryover staple from 30's mayhem with cocktails that characterized Thin Men, Philo Vance, other series sleuths, but harder edge of noir detecting would assert with Murder, My Sweet, released a few months after Crime By Night and changing forever the thriller landscape.

Monday, May 11, 2015

1949 Idea Of Saucy Fun

And Baby Makes Three Is a Third From Santana

Barbara Hale discovers she's preggers by ex-hubby Robert Young, just as she's alter-bound with successor Robert Hutton! A laugh a minute? Depends on taste, but sure it's a curiosity, as Baby was Bogie's (as in Humphrey) third independent venture for Columbia release after better-known Knock On Any Door and Tokyo Joe, both starring him. Santana was the label, Bogart desirous that his firm sustain with pics beyond ones he'd topline. Initial plan was Ronald Reagan for Baby's male lead, but he ankled at a last minute, so R.Young came in to sub. The set-up promised something saucy, but PCA-iced cake wouldn't rise. There is slapstick, love rivalry, misunderstandings; whether it works depends on cast aptitude for farce, Robert Young having what others in this case lack.

Comedy was still genre of choice for widest audiences, so Baby was no gamble for the Bogart firm. You wonder what creative input, if any, he might have had. HB, like many postwar stars and/or directors, wanted more gravy than performer pay allowed, thus boutiques like Santana grown like weeds. Trouble was, none could afford even a single flop (consider what The Fugitive did to John Ford's Argosy company). Santana needed to turn over their product quick and so pushed Columbia to get same into release within ninety days of negatives being delivered. And Baby Makes Three earned $690K in domestic rentals, less than what other comedies brought to  Columbia that season, and certainly below revenue a Santana with Bogart could expect. The star kept ownership in negatives until 2/55, when he sold the lot to Columbia for a million, HB's single largest payday (he'd frame the check and hang it in his den).

Thursday, May 07, 2015

WB Goes For The Rah Rah

Over The Goal (1937) Risks Everything For a Big Win

June Travis extracts a promise from injured footballer William Hopper that he'll never play again, lest a next mishap cause permanent damage. Half way in, plot circumstance demands he take the field, so June simply changes her mind, and off runs Bill to grid glory. That's the nature of B's: everything serves a quick-time narrative, and never mind character and motivation gone askew in service to pace. I fretted over Hopper disabled or even killed at a finish to the big game, even knowing it wouldn't happen in fluff like this. Remarkable how movies would float a big issue for a first half, then ignore it altogether in a second. We're left with impression that June cares more about a victorious team than Bill's welfare, and judging by a happy fade clinch they share, that's OK. Did '37 sport fans value a win over lives of players? Maybe it was no issue as Over The Goal was just a program filler after all. Or could be I take these matters too much to heart, wrestling with moral/ethical issues through such a dumb pic. Given Bill's position, however, I'd have wanted back my frat pin in the wake of June's callous disregard for my safety. Over The Goal when off-field is usual collegiate high jinx: stealing a rival school's mascot, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson wrestling a bear (there now, is that good enough reason to watch?), songs and nonsense from Johnnie "Scat" Davis, whose band would immortalize Hooray For Hollywood, and the time-honored bucket of water poised atop doors to drench incomers. You could heap worse abuse on 63 minutes.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Warners Word Play Gets Fishy

Porky's Poor Fish (1940) Puns Around a Pet Store

Sometimes cartoon humor amounted to something you could get as easily from a printed joke book, as here with puns Bob Clampett uses to name fish as we pan by tanks in Porky's "Shoppe Around The Corner." Overuse of "corny" gags was something Tex Avery quickly got around to singling out; he knew it was coasting, said as much in self-aware gags, and tried to stay above such, as Clampett would have had he been let off the Porky conveyor before 1940 and dispiriting surfeit of Pig assignments. By Porky's Poor Fish, the star was pretty much out of action, most of this cartoon centered around a cat loose among presumed "poor fish." How then to arrange for these, confined in tanks, to overcome feline attack? Clampett and crew are adroit for milking action despite that handicap, and if Porky's Poor Fish is a lesser WB (most agree so), then at least there's ingenuity and nice tune backgrounds conveniently listed by title and composers at the IMDB page for Porky's Poor Fish, the cartoon itself to be had on Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Four.
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