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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Curtain Call For Silent Clowns

Mack Swain and Chester Conklin are Cleaning Up (1930)

Twilight teaming for old-timers Mack Swain and Chester Conklin as heroic-in-spite-of-themselves street sweepers, their outdoor talk mostly post-dubbed amidst action shot silent as in Keystone yore of both. I say "old-timers" and then remind myself that these boys (wrong again, both were at least middle-aged here) had been screen clowning for roughly fifteen years when this subject came out, but what change sound had wrought, enough to make Mack and Chester seem like dinosaurs. Both were doing good character/comedy work as silents gave way to talk, Swain supporting Mary Pickford, Barrymore, Jack Gilbert, a royal court of screen partners, while Conklin had starred with W.C. Fields in a brace of features for Paramount release (all currently missing). Cleaning Up is a talking update of Easy Street, beat cops Mack and Chester sent to dreaded "Delancy Street" to collar one-time Greed lead Gibson Gowland, heir to Eric Campbell's musketeer of combined back lot and actual streets. Phil Ryan was the credited producer, but I'm wondering if Mack Sennett had a hand. Comedies may have talked by 1930, but most were still done after silent example. You could dial volume down and get as good yoks from Cleaning Up, misplaced noise being what, if anything, weakens it. Paramount did oodles of two-reeling in the early 30's, but few get seen nowadays, Cleaning Up one of a handful Kino-gathered for DVD.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Welles Conjures Up A Starring Lead

That Old Black Magic (1949) Comes Back

Shot For Spectacle, Sold For Spooky
Wildly lavish for an Edward Small production, this was made off frozen receipts of Small backlog distributed in Italy since cessation of the war. The producer had floated the project for years, seeking location where it could be done economically, before providence smiled and gave him castles to play against. Small got keys to Italy kingdom thanks to government co-op, no doors closed to arriving cast/crew, especially as tech positions would be 100% filled by natives. Black Magic was among first major pics Euro-shot by Yank talent now that the continent was calmed (and a first shot in Italy, said publicity, since the silent Ben-Hur). It was also rare starring chance for Orson Welles, lately crossing Atlantic bridge he burned, a proud exile from studio interests blind to his much-heralded genius. Black Magic would be but second occasion when Welles was top-billed in a film he didn't direct (first being Jane Eyre), though rankling was director's meg withheld, especially where that status was accorded Gregory Ratoff, Orson's idea of a hack, if not outright clown ("What a set!," cried Ratoff when he first saw vista of Rome from his hotel suite). Such made for hard times and set-siege by Welles, who'd junk dialogue as written and devise his own, then direct after sending Ratoff home for "naps." Result doesn't announce itself any more than prior or later occasions when OW was said to take over, but maybe he'd have served himself better with greater focus on performing that he was hired for.

His fee for Black Magic was $100K, at best part-payment of IRS debt back home, another reason Welles stayed offshore. He'd play Cagliostro, master hypnotist and sleight-of-hander not unlike how OW presented himself to troops and in war-relief Follow The Boys. Cagliostro was supposed to be magician and sinister besides, the part announced for Boris Karloff when he rode high at Universal years before. More than a shade of John Barrymore as Svengali also informed the role. Welles gets the flamboyance, but not the danger. An early mind-control stunt finds him more distracted by a turkey leg than un-easing us, first of many instances where OW would play down to material he thought unworthy. Black Magic could have been a crowning project if only they'd let Welles direct. As it is, he looks trim, probably a best ever on screen, and costumes flatter him. This might have been entree to romantic leads back home, but word of misbehavior rode too on winds, not only from here but location of a pair for Fox where Welles supported Tyrone Power. Top-of-billing would be an occasion not repeated, but for occasions Orson framed the venture himself (upcoming Othello, Mr. Arkadin). Directing Ratoff turned out to be something of a Stroheim in terms of over-length: his initial cut of Black Magic ran to unsustainable 168 minutes, from which an hour was ultimately cut.

Ed Small knew he'd have to go wide open on exploitation, Welles and lead lady Nancy Guild not of adequate marquee strength to launch the show star-wise. 8/17/49 saw Black Magic bow "in a flock of keys," said Variety. The producer spent $60,000 on advertising and "pulled out the stops on every trick --- no matter how corny --- in the field man's manual" (Small's pressbook is overpowering for size and girth). Outstanding among stunts was dispatch of four hypnotists to work "mesmo" magic on newspaper men in "seven or eight" picked cities. Two gags at least got front-page space: a news scribe and smoker inspired to quit the longtime habit by one of the roving Svengalis, plus another "causing a gal to walk out in the sun in a fur coat (during a heat wave) with her teeth chattering from cold." A stunt in the film had Welles burying his wife alive, so of course hucksters on Black Magic's behalf did the same. Many situations peddled the film for outright horror, UA-supplied ads pointed in that direction. Black Magic stumped toes in the end, however: $669K in domestic rentals. White magic wand was recent-waved by TCM with HD broadcast, back-from-dead occasion for Black Magic to entertain nicely now that we can see and hear splendor. Keep eyes open for this one to show up again.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Crawford Back Home To Metro

Torch Song (1953) A Would-Be Comeback for JC

Was there ever so wide a gulf as that between Joan Crawford of Dancing Lady and the "Mannish Gorgon" (to quote current assessment) that emerged with Torch Song twenty years later? Did "Jenny Stewart" represent a public's conception of what Crawford herself had become by 1953? The character is brittle, bossy, and unappealing to a fault. She's nice to no one save tolerably so to a maid/secretary/cook at home, a chilly place where windows have three-layer blackouts so the Broadway musical star can sleep through days. Were there stage legends along Jenny Stewart line filling theatres and inspiring wait at stage doors so late as the early fifties? Torch Song would have us think so, provided the enactor is Joan Crawford. But I wonder what might have happened if Crawford herself tried a musical comedy on Broadway in 1953, or thereabouts. Could such a show have got backing, let alone an audience?

Jenny Stewart is imperious, but never so to fans. For them, she switches to warmth and first-name basis (as did Crawford, but she'd extend courtesy to working-class crew members as well). These are kids, and the lot of them couldn't afford a ticket, says her manager, to which Jenny rejoins that someday they will, and by the thousands. She sees stardom in long-range terms, as certainly did Crawford. Dialogue in this scene is true enough to make me believe Crawford took a hand. The taxi speech Jenny gives about permanence of audiences and the theatre is pure Crawford credo. The actress had been counted out too many times to imagine such a state could be permanent. We hear talk of "Comeback Kids," and Crawford was that, plus Comeback Middle-Ager, Comeback Methuselah, a lifetime's bag of come-backing. Torch Song was itself fruit of such revival, being tail on shooting star that was previous year's Sudden Fear, a hit that Crawford had good sense to know would be a hit (and so she produced it).

MGM laid red carpet when Crawford "came home," absent star dressing rooms combined to a single suite for Leo's once-leading light. Crawford had been gone from there ten years, but kept the association, for this was where her image had been defined. Proof that work was her life is fact JC slept on the lot for whole of Torch Song shoot. Did other personnel think her nuts? News in itself was mere fact she was back, behind-scenes gossip oozing off the set and making for better copy than a finished film ever could (Crawford always a reliable team player, so columnists were across the board kind). Torch Song, customized in all ways for her, was more Warners than Metro Crawford. She commits all wrongs short of killing, even abuses a blind man, for which she compensates, but barely, by going sappy for him at a windup (no spoiler, as that's foregone from a first reel). We're shocked when ads and the trailer call Torch Song "Her First Technicolor Triumph," surely not ... and yet it was, excepting color tag for Ice Follies Of 1939, which fewer recalled by 1953. Color on Crawford is almost overpowering, as in scarlet lip rouge and hair the hue of something other than real life (she wanted to flatter Technicolor). Jenny Stewart goes to bed, alone, in full make-up, a given in movies, and maybe less startling had they done this black-white. As it is, Crawford crying into (and surely smearing) her pillow goes the distance from camp to 60's grotesquerie that would one day be Blanche Hudson.

The trailer calls Crawford "a charming temptress," and "never more feminine," which suggests few (anyone?) in sales watched Torch Song. "Eternal Female" JC represents "The Romantic Impulse Any Man Will Follow" says narration, but did men, any men, go see Torch Song of their own volition? I picture lady matinees and what was left of the scrapbook keepers, but Crawford was round sexy bend toward scary by now, which begs question, When had she last been attractive? Daisy Kenyon? The Damned Don't Cry? Lots of men, especially today, would say never. The Christina book had much to do with trashing Crawford for keeps, but there was also changed times and mannish mien to render her off-putting for modern males. I've known many who'd not watch Crawford on a bet, a number not likely to do anything but increase. I wonder if JC is even the gay icon she was --- like once-cult figures since discarded, it may-be that she's landed on nostalgia's scrapheap with W.C. Fields, Mae West, and others we thought would be relevant forever. Torch Song cost a million to make, earned less than needed to break even ($1.7 million in worldwide rentals), and so lost $230K. It's available on DVD, streams HD here and there, plays that way as well on TCM from time to time.

Monday, August 22, 2016

When Sunday Night Became Event Night

Disney and RCA Create A Wonderful World Of Color TV Sales

Dateline December 1961: NBC execs and affiliates meet to celebrate 35 years of network success. Parent company RCA has a greater than ever stake in the peacock, its feathers plumed for record number of color broadcast hours (1,630 for 1961-62 said NBC trade ads). All of brass is convened at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, RCA board chairman Gen. David Sarnoff delayed thanks to stop-off in Oklahoma "to be inducted into an Indian tribe as a chief." Sarnoff had been media's power incarnate for longer than most people had been aware of television, and earlier, radio, him credited with virtual invention of broadcast itself. The Big Chief came west on prime mission to sell America on color TV, his partner in merchandising the biggest single name in family entertainment, Walt Disney. What wouldn't we give for a transcript of these two in private conference? Walt was deeper in bed with RCA than any advertiser his company had ever dealt with. Archaic days of ABC and Peter Pan Peanut Butter were by the boards for good --- this was Big business. Walt Disney's Wonderful World Of Color had premiered on Sunday, 9/24/61, and color set sales were rocketing since. Retail stores had customers at the door on Monday mornings, waiting for demo of RCA's color miracle. Would Walt take time to personally conduct NBC visitors through Disneyland during convention week? Yes, he would.

Sarnoff and NBC boss Robert Kintner estimated a million as "good round figure" of sales for color television, nearly half that generated since RCA's early '61 push. There were 179 NBC affiliates broadcasting in color, but prices for a home set came high, beyond reach of most. Initially $1000 when RCA first offered color in 1954, now the cost was half that, but how many had $500 to sink in such a luxury? Sarnoff and crew were confident we'd come up with it somehow, especially now that their network, at least on big viewing Sundays, was a virtual paint-box. The campaign needed a name like Disney's to shake consumer money off trees, and even though it would be mid-sixties before color really took hold, this was a good start. Whatever lucky family had a set could count on neighbors stopping in for Disney and Bonanza parlay. What child of the era didn't beg Mom/Dad for family purchase of the rainbow? That little COLOR box on TV Guide listings was narcotic all sought, but few could afford. I'd defy anyone who grew up in the 60's not to remember when a first color set entered the house.

NBC had been after Disney since his dissatisfaction with ABC became known, first for an animated situation comedy after fashion of The Flintstones, "nixed" by Walt, "who has frequently been described as a man who won't undertake a project unless he likes it," said Variety. He didn't like this one, so no go. Besides, each episode would cost upward of $80K, a figure NBC blanched at. They had their deal by then (February 1961) for the Sunday series, but wanted more. Would Disney let the network re-run his western shows from the ABC pact, such as Zorro, Texas John Slaughter, etc.? Thumbs down for that too, said WD. He was for color only, and a brightest showcase to display it. Walt would spend "way over what I get" from NBC, adding that "I'm not selling color for RCA. I'm selling it for myself." Here was certainly truth being told, as The Wonderful World Of Color would be a best-ever venue to promote all things Disney, including his theatrical features and the Anaheim park. First WD theatrical product to get the Sunday night push was Grayfriars Bobby, an October-November release that rode meteor of initial NBC Disney weeks, where it was advertised at conclusion of each high-rated episode.

Premiere night was brazen for making color the be-all for watching, Variety commenting that Disney's "entertainment quotient" was, at least for a first half, left "dangling on a promissory note" as he delivered what amounted to a "demonstration piece" for RCA television. Who'd complain, however, of Walt himself giving guided tour of Sunday night's future, now securely in his hands? Lead-in was The Bullwinkle Show at 7:00, also color, and opportunity for families to settle supper dishes and gather round the tube for main event that was Disney. NBC figured dials pointing their way for whole of an evening, Bonanza having been moved to 9:00 and also a showcase for color. Even black-and-white hiccup of Car 54 --- Where Are You? got traction for coming between Disney and the Cartwrights, Proctor and Gamble grabbing exclusive sponsorship in hope that Disney's audience would stick out another thirty minutes with the net while waiting for Bonanza. As to Disney sponsor, it was, of course, RCA, but also Eastman Kodak, which was a fit, as they were pitching color possibilities of a new camera line. The Wonderful World Of Color was bold statement that a black-and-white viewing world was soon to go, with NBC and RCA applying the push. Question, though: Did viewers lacking finance for the expensive new sets resent the crowd-out?

Disney emphasized progress, as he'd been wont to do over a long career, showing clips from Steamboat Willie to illustrate how he'd put a silent era to rout ("crude and primitive" he called the 1928 short). Glimpse Walt gives of first-in-Technicolor Flowers and Trees also points up refinements needed, that he had supplied with Fantasia, highlight of which illustrates animation in full-flower. The Wonderful World Of Color was nothing if not polished. There are songs, including a theme, written fresh for the occasion by the Sherman Brothers, and a new cartoon character, Prof. Ludwig Von Drake, joins the menagerie. Von Drake was less funny than talkative, easing some of Walt's host duty as weeks rolled up in that first season. Lengthy lecture on color values eats thirty minutes before we plunge into Donald In Mathmagic Land, a featurette that had gone out with Darby O' Gill and The Little People to 1959 theatrical dates.

Disney policy changed little for all of dramatic switch to a new network and color. Lots more would tune in, simply for muscle NBC had over comparative puny ABC. There would be library dependence, as with the old Disneyland program. First-run movies in two, even three, parts, captivated viewership over the 1961-62 haul. Second Sunday of premiere season offered The Horsemasters, a teens in saddle deal that Disney had shot on economy basis with an English crew. Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates, had been intended for theatres, said Variety, but re-routed to The Wonderful World Of Color, and amounting to a "World Premiere" of this rather handsome feature. More of latter was The Prince and The Pauper, which had Guy (Zorro) Williams in derring-do that rival networks could scarcely compete with for production gloss. Several of these saw Euro play in theatres, where they'd stand ground against any major release (The Prince and The Pauper presently streams in HD at Vudu and Amazon). Disney didn't want The Wonderful World Of Color to be a kid's show, and so doled out cartoon episodes sparingly --- he'd also drop westerns --- while ramped up was nature and Euro-shot "People/Places" stuff, which made each Sunday a decision for viewers. No two Disney episodes were alike, which was how he wanted it. The 9/24/61 premiere of The Wonderful World Of Color showed up recently on TCM's Disney night, hosted by Leonard Maltin, giving us a first opportunity in fifty-five years to savor a historic night in broadcasting. Let's hope more episodes are forthcoming.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Sci-Fi With A Stinger On It

Corman's Filmgroup Does The Wasp Woman (1959)

Roger Corman takes initiative to do his own sci-fi cheapies outside Jim/Sam oversee. He was a maverick that way, tried same again with one of the Poes (Premature Burial), but got outflanked by wily Arkoff. All these guys kept steely eye on the purse, w/ aesthetics in a back seat. That may be what made pictures better, or at least gave them nervous energy. The Wasp Woman was allegedly done in five days for $50K, and for all I know, that's a high guess. Actors always spoke of Corman thrift in awed terms. He evidently made PRC look like a plush sofa by comparison. Just how cheap? Well, by not copyrighting any of his Filmgroup indies for a start, not so bad a bungle where it's disposable tissue like The Wasp Woman, but 1963's The Terror could have enhanced groceries right to a present day. Instead, both these and other Filmgroups enrich scavengers who labored none of (at least) eighteen-hour days Roger put in.

I submit that The Wasp Woman could be nicely remade with CGI. The concept, if not execution in 1959, has real value. If the movie's PD, couldn't someone update Kinta Kertuche's story and cash checks from there? Scripting was Leo Gordon, who I could never picture at a typewriter. He was toughest guy or menace in a hundred films, then played the part at autograph fairs in the 90's. I was frankly too afraid to approach him. The man fairly growled at fans. Who did he think he was --- Leo Gordon? The Wasp Woman tackles femme issues as would year-later The Leech Woman, these exploitable now as then. Will Susan Cabot's age and loss of looks cost her a career in cosmetics? She'll try a doubtful serum to turn back clocks, always a mistake in movies (I wish for once it would work, and render everyone, including viewers, happy). Cabot makes far-fetch believable, a good actress bringing expertise from a seven-year U-I contract to bear on Corman's speed-the-plow. How she real-life perished is a bone-chiller (murdered by her dwarfism-beset son, details horrific).

The Wasp Woman was sold on the top-end of a dualler with Beast From Haunted Cave, latter by most accounts a real stinker. 1959 was late to be fobbing off black-and-white combos. There had been too many ... and too few giving value for money. Even kids were now wary. Shocker money derived better from color (Horrors Of The Black Museum) or chillers more saleable (House On Haunted Hill with sure-thing Vincent Price). Roger Corman was wise enough to see dips ahead and so cast lot with AIP to do Price-in-color House Of Usher, a goose to the genre that would garner profits way ahead of  B/W cheaters. How to promote The Wasp Woman other than with sarcasm? Cartoon ads looked like corner of pages from The New Yorker, flattering suckers that they were above such silliness, but come and let us take your money anyway. The device had been used by Bill Castle on behalf of Macabre (a big hit for such undeserving product) and House On Haunted Hill, then Columbia pinched it for The Stranglers Of Bombay. Ridicule of horrors, even if gently applied, meant the brand was in trouble unless someone breathed in new life, which would come with the Poes, and of course, Psycho, which turned all of screen thrilling on its head and made effort like The Wasp Woman look all a more feeble by comparison.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Columbia's Suggestive Selling for 1958

Cowboy's Trailer Puts a Pox On Lousy Old Westerns

Twilight Time recently got out a Blu-ray of 1958's Cowboy. Directed by Delmer Daves, Cowboy came of that period when studios drew thick line of demarcation between theatre (read, better) westerns and long-in-tooth ancients playing round-clock on TV. Columbia did a Cowboy trailer to point up then-now of sagebrushing, central gag played at the expense of oldies (and at You Tube here). "Adult in every sense of the word" brags on-camera Jack Lemmon over this freshest of product not to be confused with kid stuff on the home box. Ignored is glaring fact that Columbia produced much of that kid stuff once upon a long past, and had glutted tubes with same since early in the fifties. Cowboy's preview starts with a disgruntled viewer clicking his remote control from identical action of one western to another. As with Gregory Peck's 1956 household in The Man With The Gray Flannel Suit, there seems no relief from saddle sores inflicted by television. "I'm plumb sick of childish westerns," he says, to which Jack Lemmon replies, "Me too," both fed up, as are we, or at least we should be, right? But wait, didn't this anonymous viewer, Jack Lemmon, and in fact, a whole of their generation, grow up with the very westerns they now disdain?

50's adults cared less to recapture youth. Maybe because growing up for them (a Great Depression, with war on both ends) was no rose garden like for offspring that thrived in a postwar boom, and have sought since to relive it. One trip back they did have, and cherish, was to action Saturdays of small-town Bijou setting, memories that fueled lifetime love for "childish" westerns Columbia asked them now to renounce. In fact, it was largely adults, and predominately male, sitting day-night for Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, Hoot Gibson, on broadcast loop, heroes that Cowboy proposed to replace with Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, and Technicolor on a wide screen. There was room for the latter, and a ready enough audience, but nothing would erase sentiment for front rows from which senior class of cowboys were seen, and revered. Men who renewed contact with old favorites on 50's television would tighten embrace of their past as the 60/70's ushered in nostalgia publishing, western fan conventions, and gather of 16mm westerns re-printed for TV use (film collecting, at least in the South, revolved largely around cowboys). These were really the pioneers of old movie love that expresses itself today through TCM, Blu-Ray sales, and festival/cruises to feed nostalgia's appetite.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Can We Improve On Perfection?

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) Is Like Being Back There

Have we reached the point of maximum quality for home viewing? Warners' Blu-Ray of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon convinces me so. I can't imagine anything improving on this, unless ... 4K? There are some classics (mostly from Columbia) we can stream in ultra-advanced clarity, but would labels release familiar titles yet again on 4K?  Question becomes how much perfection the human eye can discern. My own can go no further (I have to wear chair-to-screen viewing glasses as it is). She Wore A Yellow Ribbon isn't likely to look better unless afterlife permits visit to Monument Valley circa 1949 where John Ford and crew are shooting. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. A 4K disc of this or any favorite might reveal more than filmmakers intended. That's already a complaint among purists toward HD, especially where wires and other artifice are exposed in special effects. There must be some distance between us and the image we watch. Getting much closer to She Wore A Yellow Ribbon would have us invading Ford's space (but you know it's coming with the inevitable She Wore A Yellow Ribbon in virtual reality, release date 2026).

1966, and the National Near It's End
Like other, and famous RKO's King Kong and Citizen Kane, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon took years achieving optimal quality, at least for watchers at home. For too long, it played black-and-white on television, arriving after other RKO titles because of a 1957 theatrical reissue. By the mid-sixties, and after takeover of the library by United Artists (in April 1959), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon was made available in color for syndicated broadcast. The RKO lot of 720 features had been broken into sixteen smaller packages, and sold to 152 markets. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon was part of "Group 16," which included 25 titles. The only other one in color was Blackbeard The Pirate. The old RKO's would be a tougher sell as the decade wore on and station buyers became more color-conscious. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon meanwhile lingered in theatres well into into the 60's. Greensboro, NC had a downtown grindhouse, the National, whose double, if not triple, bill policy, brought forth oldies long unseen elsewhere. Closed by the end of 1966, one of the National's final bookings was She Wore A Yellow Ribbon with Wake Of The Red Witch, Yellow Ribbon presumably one of the 1957 35mm prints still in service.

Film collectors dreamed of having She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. It was regarded an acme of Technicolor cinematography. There were B/W prints, of course, objects of contempt and to be avoided, while color prints on Eastman stock fared little better for likelihood of pinkish or faded hue. There had been Technicolor prints made in 1949 for military and non-theatrical rent. Identifiable by their bright blue soundtrack, these were lovely for full and un-faded spectrum, but focus was soft and physical condition iffy, survivors (precious few) having passed through unskilled operator hands and meat-grinding projection. Still, this was a closest we could come to an authentic She Wore A Yellow Ribbon on 16mm. I mention all this to demonstrate how truly lost this great show was for so many years, and what a revelation the Blu-Ray is by comparison. It is a wonderful film made more so by a best-ever presentation. If there are 1949 theatrical prints extant (or an 1957 IB on safety stock), I'd love seeing how one would look beside this new disc. Our already high estimation of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon will be enhanced by what Warner Archives has put in circulation. They are to be congratulated for such a beautiful job.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Swim On In, The Art Is Fine

Ice Or Ice-Age Movies, Take Your Pick

I include both these ads to show vary of entertainment put before Washington populace on 11-18-52. Also there was Billy Eckstine performing live at the National Guard Armory, Loretta Young and Jeff Chandler in Because Of You at the Ontario Theatre, and Van Heflin on stage in The Shrike for two weeks only. Ice Capades or Ice Follies hit seemingly all towns of any size back then. The Capades took fifty years to die, wrapping up in the mid-nineties after a public finally had enough. The DuPont Theatre opened as an art house, maintained that policy for years. To tout "Two Memorable Silent Films" was bold for no-talk being much as smallpox warning in 1952. Critic laud was a given for The Last Laugh and Caligari, each earning reams of praise since the 20's, but how much of common clay came to watch? Arties got by thanks to subscriber types who'd show for whatever they ran, hence "season tickets" that were popular. We could wonder what the prints looked like, a certainty that Caligari for one wouldn't approach amazing Blu-ray we now have. Folks felt refined for watching art flix, like obligatory stop at galleries or a poetry reading. Note The Lady Vanishes on its last day before the silent combo lands. United Artists was distributor for that Hitchcock reissue, and picked up $88K in domestic rentals for their pains, a nice number for a pic confined mostly to sure seaters (but wait, The Lady Vanishes also played our Liberty Theatre that year, so there were some mainstream bookings). The DuPont and similars got things seen that would not have been otherwise, and who knows but what lifelong fans and historians got born as result of being dragged there by friends or family. The Last Laugh is a foreign fave of mine. Shouldn't there be a Blu-Ray out on Region One by now?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Longest Saturday Night At The Movies

Primetime's Endless Marnie March

Lately re-watched this hugely unpleasant Hitchcock film, first view having been NBC's Saturday Night At The Movies. This was Marnie's TV premiere, November 4, 1967, and site where many millions more saw it than in theatres. Whatever mass opinion there was of Marnie, at least during the 60's, would be formed here, and from NBC's rerun on 6-11-68. The November airdate scored a 26.4 rating, among highest that season for an NBC movie, the encore seeing 19.5 (The Birds, shown 1-6-68, would be a ratings phenomenon with 38.9). What really hurt Marnie, then and in retrospect, was how long it took both evenings to get through it. NBC devoted two hours and forty-five minutes to the 130 minute film --- an already lugubrious sit swollen further by thirty-five minutes of commercials. I remember this and other nights where network movies ran way past bedtime. We didn't want them cut, heaven knows local stations did enough of that. As midnight loomed and eyes gave way to fatigue, how could anyone come away from Marnie with good impression? Yet here was where overwhelming majority would be exposed to Hitchcock's effort, and form their opinion.

It made little difference what critics wrote where a film was so weighed down. Pauline Kael said Marnie was Hitchcock "scraping bottom," while Robin Wood judged it a masterpiece. I had not read either of them for being thirteen and not yet a subscriber to highbrow journals. What I and other TV Guide readers had (millions across the land) was Judith Crist and her weekly column of picks and pans. Just as there were infinitely more who saw Marnie on NBC than on paying basis in theatres, so too did Crist readership soundly overwhelm Kael followers. So how come so many venerate Kael still, but forget Crist? When Kael died (9-3-2001), there was tribute galore, while Crist passed on (8-7-2012) with far less notice. Perhaps it was case not of how many read you, but who. Crist was the name known to me in 1967, not Kael. She didn't like Marnie either ("just tolerable ... unworthy of the master"), which probably flipped at least a few hundred thousand viewers to Hogan's Heroes/Petticoat Junction that 1967 night, or Dale Robertson in The Iron Horse over at ABC.

Marnie today is at least every visual thing you want it to be, thanks to a lovely Blu-Ray in proper 1.85, or similarly broadcast on various satellite channels in HD, a fair shake at last for a Hitchcock so long in the shade. Marnie falls in the ten year category for me, that being how often I've come back to it, with reaction differing each time. At thirteen, I was too young to fully get it, overpraised it once I finally did, and now realizing this last might be a final watch. Does there come turning point for a show that's been in our lives from childhood, or at least adolescence, where we ask, Will I ever be here again? That's mortality that whispers often as I look at familiar films with mixed emotion and figure maybe it's a last visit, that less thinking my time is closing in than recognition that there are a thousand others I want to see before bells toll, so why drop another 130 minutes on Marnie? Wouldn't increasingly precious hours be better spent with North By Northwest? (speaking of long ones)

Marnie is filled with good moments. Great ones, in fact. Marnie's robbery of the Rutland safe as a hard-of-hearing cleanup woman mops outside, the storm and "stop the colors!" that lead to a closer-than-close up kiss, and best of all, the camera slow closing in on party arrivals of which Marnie's nemesis Strutt (Martin Gabel) is last to enter (a highlight similar to Hitchcock's long approach to the key clutched by Ingrid Bergman in Notorious). What the director needed, but didn't have, for Marnie, was an actress of Bergman's capacity to play the title role. Tippi Hedren invites no interest, let alone sympathy, at least from me. It isn't that Hedren is a bad actress. I understand too little of the craft to properly criticize those who apply themselves to it. Where do ones of us who've never seriously acted come off razzing those who have? In the end, it's a purely instinctive response. I don't enjoy Tippi Hedren as Marnie because she projects no vulnerability, as I believe a Bergman would (too old by 1964, I realize), or Hitchcock's first choice, Grace Kelly might have. It's no good to spend a whole movie recasting the main part. This time I leaned toward Eva Marie Saint as possible substitute. Next time ... but wait, there might not be a next time.

All movies, at least competent ones, invite us to identify with a character. For women here, it would presumably be Hedrin as the title character, which puts me to wondering how women generally react to Marnie, outside of Kael and Crist, that is. She's any man's worst nightmare for sure, the more so because Hedrin plays so utterly nasty to Mark Rutland as done by Sean Connery. "Frigid" but barely describes Marnie ... she's more a floating iceberg. I don't believe for a moment that last act revelations will straighten this woman out. So what if she now knows it was her that clocked Bruce Dern, that a small valise among baggage Marnie carries. The character is so hardened, so cruel to Connery, his long suffering what a male audience will likeliest identify with, and be discomfited by. It's as though 007 were trying to make a proper wife of villainesses he had to cope with in Bond vehicles wrapped around release of Marnie (the film came between From Russia With Love and Goldfinger). Connery's Mark Rutland plays the fool for a woman he cannot sleep with, and because it's Hedrin rather than a more appealing actress as Marnie, we lose patience with him. What pleasure comes of seeing James Bond made impotent? I'd guess at least Hitchcock felt for Rutland's plight, intensely so, if we are to embrace backstage accounts of his obsession with Tippi Hedren.

Marnie was difficult to market, a biggest problem since Vertigo for Hitchcock. The previous three had been naturals: North By Northwest with Cary Grant and built to crowd-please, Psycho and outrage of its shower killing, The Birds with spectacle, if less suspense (those around in 1963 will remember talk this one aroused). Hitchcock admits in his Marnie trailer that it is "hard to classify." I can hear Lew Wasserman whispering the same off-camera. The preview asks, "Is Marnie "A Sex Story?, a Mystery?, a Detective Story?, a Story Of A Thief?, a Love Story?" Answer: Yes, and More! Hitchcock had to worry of critics and viewers saying Marnie was actually none of these, at least to effective degree. And critic approval did matter to Hitchcock, in fact too much so by 1964 and worship of him by the Cashiers du Cinema crowd. Central problem: Ads couldn't convey what Marnie was about, and that was deadly for any film, even a Hitchcock. Print promotion, like the trailer, would ask more questions than answer. Disappointment with boxoffice was probably seen coming by sales staff, if not the director. Wasserman as result felt justified slipping tighter leash on his auteur trophy. Their next, Torn Curtain, would be more his picture than Hitchcock's.
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