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Monday, November 28, 2016

Where Clowns Ruled The Roost

When Comedy Was King (1960) Dons DVD Crown

It’s been written and said that Robert Youngson beget a generation of silent comedy enthusiasts that later became collectors, then archivists, and ultimately suppliers of classic clowning to DVD buyers, all this detail-explained by Richard M. Roberts in a richly informative and entertaining audio commentary for Kit Parker’s new release of Youngson’s When Comedy Was King, the 1961 compilation agreed by most to be the compiler’s best. Roberts was another inspired to collect by Youngson example. He understands the impulse that drew so many moths to 8/16mm flame. How often do movie mavens pause to examine mirrors as Roberts does here? He recalls the Blackhawk catalogs, old flick shows with Shakey’s pizza, kiddie meets where Youngson first wove theatrical spell. A lot of us rode these magic carpets ---still do by digital route. For me, at least, it’s valuable to take stock of where so much of it began. Like “monster kids” sharing scary pursuit through magazines and late shows, here was a generation separated by states, but shaped by an enthusiasm Youngson was among first to express. The producer's career and personal story is told by Roberts, each comedy highlight also ID’ed, w/ background as to how RY foraged footage for When Comedy Was King and others of his oeuvre.

When Comedy Was King was available before, though never like this. 16mm transfers of indifferent quality are here replaced by sourcing from the original negative. When Comedy Was King has not sparkled so since ’60 first-runs. Care Youngson took with his presentation finally sees fruition thanks to highest grade release of all that has gone before. If you’ve shrunk from prior DVD offerings, you need not from this. When Comedy Was King resonates personally for being first of Youngsons I saw, sock finish of Laurel and Hardy with Jim Finlayson and contested Christmas trees a segment I'd recall when Big Business showed up in a 1968 Sears catalog. Seems you could own the two-reeler, in its entirety, watching just as 1929 audiences did. What heady intoxicant this was in days before film possession became commonplace thanks to discs and digital. I'll not reiterate powerful narcotic 8mm reels became. They'd be monkeys to ride my back for years to come.

When Comedy Was King is a best lure for civilians new to silent-era laughter. Highlights, as in Chaplin, Langdon, Keaton, the rest, are presented not as museum march, but lively brisk-pace to accompany music/effects that made Youngson a mainstream hit-maker to 50/60's showgoers. No need being film-fixated to enjoy these, a point made by commentator Roberts. Some of sheer fun in old comedy has been bled out by over-reverence, slowed-down projection, or analytic overkill, our obsess for vintage clowning a sometimes-threat to suffocate it. None of this was chanced by Youngson. He was first, and so set the mold, for compilations everyone could enjoy, even those never before exposed to early-era slapstick. The DVD, available now from Amazon, includes three bonus shorts with mirth-makers so far unsung outside purest leagues, but they still amuse, and how: Hughey Mack and Dot Farley in An Elephant On His Hands (1920), Lige Conley in Fast and Furious (1924), and The Three Fatties in their Ton Of Fun comedy, Heavy Love (1926). These plus When Comedy Was King make for an evening, plus happy repeats, of vintage merriment.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Warners Cast Pulls Jury Duty

Love and a Murder Trial Complicate Perfect Strangers (1950)

Twelve not-so-angry men and women hash out guilt or innocence in an L.A. murder trial, two debating illicit love in addition to final verdict. Perfect Strangers begins with careful depict of the jury process, names drawn, letters sent, civilians reporting for duty, all after semi-doc fashion of Louis De Rochemont or Eagle-Lion true crime mellers. Support folk engage more than dullish principals Ginger Rogers and Dennis Morgan, Perfect Strangers typical of Warner output after Jack cinched belts to offset a plunging boxoffice. He had revived a B unit for increase of volume and use of overhead, idle stages and personnel a drain on dollars, but what came out of WB by 1949 and after reflected well on nobody, output looking cut-rate beside free spending of wartime's boom. Still, there was increased production, Warners getting out 23 features in 1948, 27 for 1949, then 29 in 1950, the studio not doing better, but at least doing more.

Trial progresses as background to drama among jurors, the twelve sequestered in as comfortable a drab hotel as Warner set-dressers could afford. If real-life deliberations were like here, I'd figure little justice to have been done, or by sheer inadvertence if it was. Still, this was near-first for the process half-seriously portrayed, and since most of us get jury summoned eventually, the topic had relevance and might in itself have sold curiosity tickets. Producing was Jerry Wald, Perfect Strangers an oasis of modesty among lots more ambitious Warner projects he'd done. Story had been told on stage by writer team Hecht/MacArthur, and I'm wondering if censorship might have taken juice out of dialogue these two penned for the play. Certainly nothing heard here suggests the celebrated team. Bretaigne Windust had directed several for Warners, none distinguished save a Bogart, The Enforcer, that's said to have been salvaged by Raoul Walsh, sans credit. Windust would move on to television, die young, be more/less forgotten. His last credit was a Leave It To Beaver. TCM runs Perfect Strangers, and there's a DVD from Warner Archive.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Where Paramount Put Westerns On The Talkie Map

The Virginian (1929) Looks/Sounds Like True West

This was widely famed when new in 1929, so much so that Paramount brought it back in 1934, then did a remake in 1946. Outdoors never sounded so good, opening titles scored by mooing cows. This is where Yup/Nope got hung on Gary Cooper for keeps. He'd live with, sometimes spoof, that image all the way to the end. It's so pervasive as to obscure the performance he gives as The Virginian, so halting, so naturalistic, as to seem almost like "bad" or inexperienced acting. But Cooper was experienced by this time, for that matter understood new rules of screen talk better than vets that played opposite him to their peril (John Barrymore said Cooper was the best bar none, including himself). I think Coop based his Virginian on genuine articles he'd met growing up in Montana. No talking cowboys had so far registered like this. Compare Cooper with Warner Baxter overreach as the Cisco Kid the previous year (Fox's In Old Arizona). Cooper's so raw here as to be without even mannerisms he'd develop as stardom was consolidated. Compare The Virginian with later The Plainsman, Along Came Jones, or Dallas, and see him apply tricks to a point of being mechanical. Problem for Coop was his knowing it had come to that, freshness of The Virginian not to be fully had again.

Not to say he'd ever be less than great. I looked at him recent in Garden Of Evil and ... monumental. In fact, monument was the word to describe this star by 1954. Cooper knew he was relying on repeated effects by then, and sat in on acting classes (with coach Jeff Corey) to improve. His efforts went right through the career. It wasn't insecurity, but a genuine humility. Did greats like Cooper fully realize that it was cumulative effect of all their roles that moved us so, redoubled each time we saw a new one? I'd grow up with his on syndicated TV, one week Vera Cruz, then The Hanging Tree, backward to Sergeant York or High Noon. Each built upon the last, as brick was laid by Cooper to his screen persona. I missed that initial impact, am sorry for it, can but imagine going to each of his when new, as well with Bogart, Gable, Flynn, Cagney, the rest, were unfurling at a same time. These were method actors in a far truer sense than would be the case after it became a self-conscious, if not destructive, cult.

Everything Cooper and peers experienced in turbulent lives was reflected by performances, not an affect, but genuine and to large extent unconscious. We saw what smoking and alcohol did to these faces. Almost all of them would die comparatively young. Whatever disturb went on in private lives translated right to the screen in expression if not interpretation of roles. Authenticity rather than affect. While Method-ers plowed childhood for emotional guideline, these had but to recall last night's assignation or unwelcome flap at Ciro's to create mood for a working day. Cooper and peers were pros, but they hauled rocks from personal life and habits, all shared, if unknowingly, with ones of us (especially now with benefit of candid bios) that knew what went on back of scenes. Cooper was especially colorful, if unwise in some of indulgences, but each were plasma to feed unimpeachable authority of his screen self. Anthony Perkins once recalled telling Cooper how great it was to work with such a living legend in Friendly Persuasion, to which Coop replied, "How about we leave off that legend s--t." Cooper knew that to analyze his gift was to jeopardize it, and hardly needed to be told he was a legend.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ziegfeld's Heaven-Sent Encore

Ziegfeld Follies Is MGM's Super-Revue for 1946

N.Y.'s Capitol Hosts Gotham Premiere
Years spent in production, false starts (director George Sidney dropped out), and lavish numbers shot, then jettisoned, leaving us to wonder if maybe the discarded stuff was better than what's here. Were the actual Follies in 20's heyday as uneven as MGM's recreation? There's no narrative --- just songs and blackouts --- and get ready for a slog ... for 110 minutes. Everyone's in it who could dance/sing. Producer Arthur Freed had carte blanche after smash that was Meet Me In St. Louis, but that one had story and heart. Ziegfeld is just elephantine. Imagine $3.4 million spent, which wouldn't be got back even in movies' brightest boxoffice year and $5.3 million in worldwide rentals. MGM had a reputation to uphold: they were filmic equivalent to B'way legend Ziegfeld after all, so every musical, especially ones from the Freed unit, had to be events.

A lot of Ziegfeld Follies is good; Vincente Minnelli directed the most ambitious parts, but who needed Keenan Wynn in extended comic mode, or Edward Arnold and Victor Moore in an agonizing routine with no apparent end? Comedians Ziegfeld had used were surely funnier than these, but wait, there's Fanny Brice, who did appear for the Great Man, her material as lame as the rest purporting to be funny. To Ziegfeld participation, there is William Powell as grey eminence in a heavenly penthouse, an opener section that shows what Metro decorators anticipated by way of eternal reward. Numerous directors handled stuff not worthy of Minnelli: Roy Del Ruth, aforementioned George Sidney, Norman Taurog. Fred Astaire dances the most, once with Gene Kelly, which, along with a Judy Garland piece, is likeliest to turn up today and in future as excerpts, along with Lucille Ball wielding a whip over chorines in cat suits. Ziegfeld Follies has played on Warner Instant in HD, and you can add a star or two to ratings previously given just for visual uptick.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Notorious New Star Is Born

Young Widow (1946) Is First Wide Glimpse Of Jane Russell

This was the Jane Russell movie most people saw after five years of ogling her pin-ups, The Outlaw a sufficiently hot potato as to be shunned by circuits and certainly small towns. Howard Hughes went for lurid even in push of this placid drama wherein war-widowed Russell must rejoin romance ranks as embodied by flyer Louis Hayward. "What Are The Two Biggest Reasons For Jane Russell's Success?" asked Hughes' publicity, to which everyone giggled the answer, and why not? To pose such a question was asking for trouble. A wider public hadn't seen Russell other than in still photography on haystacks or carrying milk jugs. Hughes was insanely unsubtle, or was he merely insane? For all his micromanage of publicity, HH interfered less with production of Young Widow, Jane Russell having been loaned to independent producer Hunt Stromberg. Part of that deal included starter Faith Domergue in third-bill placement, even though she'd have but two scenes.

Hughes would also negotiate for United Artists distribution, a package deal with The Outlaw, which would go out just behind Young Widow, Russell personal-appearing with both. Stromberg took time, and lost time, completing his project. There were complications renting studio space, the producer not having access to facility of the majors. Delay in getting Young Widow started ("scripting and casting trouble," said Variety) put Stromberg beyond his lease period with California Studios, so he had to move to General Service facility. Ida Lupino had been set to star, but "pulled out because she didn't like the script," according to Variety. By the time Jane Russell was aboard, Young Widow was headed over-budget, to eventual sum of $600K, according to Tino Balio's United Artists book. What muddied water further was three directors in and out over shooting: William Dieterle (left after arguments with Stromberg), Andre De Toth, and Edwin L. Marin, who Russell would recall as too literal with regards script and gave no leeway for actor input.

Maybe a most important element was stills, specifically ones of Russell in negligee and provocative pose. Two weeks were spent on these. If Young Widow sold, photo art was how they'd sell it. JR was tendered as "The World's Most Exciting Brunette," much of ads with her in bathing attire and/or sleepwear. Who'd have known going in how somber this drama would play, especially for a first act with Russell wallowed in grief? Well, the title warned them. It's only when action switches from bayou setting to Gotham night life that action picks up. Maybe audiences got tired from waiting on The Outlaw and Russell to show up on screens, accustomed to her as a face on mag covers and not movies, for Young Widow crash-fell to $1.2 million in domestic rentals, and only $355K foreign. Those numbers should have been better in attendance-peak 1946, and certainly more was needed to cover overruns incurred on the film. Young Widow has gone into hibernation since, other than a 50's reissue titled The Naughty Widow, and early syndication. What shows up infrequently on TCM looks to be 16mm, so no idea as to where present-day ownership lies.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

When Barbed Wire Souls Were In Fashion

Heel Hud Becomes 1963's Hero

Hud was offered up by Paramount publicity as a "Man With A Barbed Wire Soul" when this came out in May 1963, but what filmmakers didn't recognize was barbed wire souls coming into vogue as old standards of behavior and morality got 60's heave-ho. Or maybe it was casting ultra-male Paul Newman as title character and giving him sharpest dialogue. Anyway, we liked Hud Bannon, and that upset all of apple cart as loaded by writing and direction. You just don't take a dynamic young lead, surround him with a righteous old man (Melvyn Douglas) and goody-goody kid (Brandon DeWilde), then expect us to side with them. Human nature will cooperate but so far with a movie's message. Hud was meant to be a selfish bastard we'd hate, or be made uncomfortable by. Instead, he came off a hero and role model. James Cagney once complained that his Cody Jarrett of White Heat had a same kind of unintended consequence, urban youth cheering the character as he pumped bullets into occupied trunk of a car. Films might instruct minds in how to react, but never the heart. We wanted Hud to win, and never mind the right or (mostly) wrong of him.

Hud came out shortly before we "lost our innocence" (what, again?). I've never understood just when it was we were supposed to have lost our innocence. The Kennedy death, Vietnam, Watergate? Depends on individual agendas, of course. Maybe it's what Hud himself said, "crooked game shows, souped-up expense accounts," etc. --- only he makes all that seem fun, which is another thing we like about him. Hud is serious about nothing, save pleasures of the moment. Setting Hud in arid Texas rather than urban milieu implies freedom too from social responsibility. With people spread out so far, there's less call for concern over humanity as a whole. Increasingly political films wanted to worry about the mass of us. Hud worried only about himself. He was refreshing for just that. There was always risk in using attractive players to do villainy, as they had way of upending narrative intent. Hud tries valiantly to isolate its bad man and hand moral authority to his victims. That it fails doesn't make the film a whit less enjoyable. In fact, it's said frustrated effort that keeps Hud interesting.

Advance Teaser
1963 posters said "Paul Newman IS Hud," an early application of actor not just as, but becoming, a character. Sean Connery would be laden with such billing, and despair of such close association, with James Bond. In Newman instance, Hud was continuation of anti-heroic mold set by The Hustler and to be repeated with further terse titles beginning with "H." He did become Hud according to co-star Patricia Neal, who was shocked by the actor's evident insensitivity to her daughter's recent death. Neal would realize later that while she addressed Newman, it was Hud that answered back (with one word, "Tough"). Method actors gave much to the art, including relationship with peers, but was rudeness rewarded with great performances? In Newman's case, I'd suppose yes (he certainly is great as Hud), and there had been others outside Method training who took on surly aspect of characters they'd play throughout a shoot, John Wayne an instance when he did The Searchers, according to a cowed Harry Carey, Jr. We could wonder, then, how Newman behaved through production of The Secret War Of Harry Frigg, but so far, I know of no one who's asked.

Paul Newman Briefly Takes On James Wong Howe's Camera Job

Hud's world is flat and parched. The Last Picture Show later went with a same look. Others that would try missed out for using color made mandatory by people having it at home on television. Hud is wrecked unless seen in scope, so was laid low by sale to television within five years after theatrical. During interim, there was a reissue, a double with Hatari!, which made for hard seating after four and a half hours (both long movies). When ABC picked up Hud for 1968 broadcast, there was still trimming for language, which took guts out of Hud in addition to half its intended frame width. I had one of the network's 16mm spots for a Sunday night premiere, where dialogue went thus: Hud --- "What made you go sour on me, old man, not that I give a chit-chit" (sound of blooped profanity), then dad Melvyn Douglas answering back, "That's just it, Hud. You don't give a chit-chit ..." What a fraud movies were on TV back then, networks buying titles, then giving viewers but skeleton of them.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

How Not To Shop In Eight Minutes

George Burns and Gracie Allen are Fit To Be Tied (1930)

Credits get this off to an interesting start, with two directors cited, one for dialogue, the other for "screen direction." This wasn't uncommon for early talkers, there being doubt in some quarters that old-timers who herded silent emoters were equal to task of ramrodding word exchange. Distinguished meggers were thought to be washed out by coming of sound, not a few careers headed for scrap thanks to industry shake-up. Fit To Be Tied was Paramount detouring of Burns and Allen to Astoria from vaudeville stages where the team's trade was ordinarily plied, their movie experience to 1930 being a single reel for Vitaphone (Lamb Chops) and nothing else. This then, was audition as much as anything for screen work to come, and must have been a click, as B&A kept mirthing for Paramount in both shorts, and eventually, features, for nearly a decade more. Fit To Be Tied George seeks neckwear in a department store among staff that's either indifferent or plain nutty. The latter is where Gracie comes in, but first there's Burns trying to get a word into slangy edgewise between billed-as "talkative salesgirl" June Clayworth and unnamed assist. Theirs is actually a funniest segment in the reel, being fast-spoke glossary of 20's catch-phrasing that I'd remember and utilize but for speed and plenty of it (Listen, big boy, if you're going to talk to me in that varicose vein, I'll leave you flatter than a puncture). The George/Gracie exchange looks transposed from their vaude act --- why write specific for a camera standing in for front row sitters? The only thing missing was an audience, that, of course, being crucial, and a disadvantage all these performers labored under when they put acts to film. Fit To Be Tied is included among Kino's DVD Cavalcade Of Comedy.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Haines Hanging On

Take Your Pick for Thanksgiving 1930

Remote Control (1930) and Haines' Metro Act Getting Tired

"Wisecracker" (his bio title) William Haines drags contract plow through another lousy vehicle. Seems most Metro talent was as badly served through opener round for talkies. If Chaney had lived, I suspect he'd have been no better off (not that his late silents were great shakes either). Haines was breezier when he didn't talk, obnoxious times two a consequence of handing him speech. The pics were flat programmers too, each less profitable than the last. Remote Control puts Bill to radio announcing, then crime-busting, his guile tendered as equal to tough gang led by John Miljan. Believable? Not for a moment, but then neither was Haines in romance capacity. Did audiences sense the offscreen truth of him? --- because there are  tip-offs in gesture and line readings. The usual cadre of comic support is along for joyless ride --- Ed Brophy, Polly Moran, Cliff Edwards (hog-calling), and Benny Rubin. Were folks laughing at this stuff in 1930, or being force-fed by Leo? Too bad so few survive to tell us. What Bill needed was another red-blood actioner like Tell It To The Marines, but that biggest of his had Chaney to lead. Haines evidently didn't care that much about stardom one way or the other, as outside ventures (interior decorating) engaged him more. I'll bet he cashed bigger checks in that line than what movies had to give, and was the better in long run for not having press/fans poking into his private life. There's a good coffee table book about rooms he designed. Oh, and one more surprise: TCM ran a spanking new HD transfer of Remote Control, so watch for it next time.
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