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Monday, November 06, 2017

A 50's Roast Of The Silent Era

Dreamboat (1952) Gets Fun From Old Flix

Premise has staid college prof Clifton Webb concealing for years his past as a silent movie heart-throb. This is 1952 when silent films were jeered at or thought creepy in line with Sunset Boulevard and luminaries living dangerously in the past. What mention there was of silent stars was one or other found waitressing or in police court. I'd be interested to know how many became college instructors, or earned a degree at higher education. Webb's Dreamboat character claims at one point that he was plucked out of teaching to act in movies. Was there real-life instance of this? Dreamboat but mildly jabs at the silent era, the real target being television and all its worthless works. Hollywood was bitter and alarmed by the new media, and with reason. Little of what the industry made could turn profit, Dreamboat barely eking dark ink despite but $1.2 million spent. The concept was one that ads had to explain, as in sample above, and at left. As with other ideas unclear from a title alone (When In Rome, for instance), ticket sales might falter where set-ups weren't apparent from the marquee or posters outside. Black-and-white comedy was too easy to get for free at home. Still, if anyone could turn vault key at ticket windows, it was Clifton Webb, who was close as Fox had to a guaranteed money star in the 50's, him being what Betty Grable had once been for 20th.

What put Webb over was social skill (much) in addition to waspish and one-of-kind screen persona. He was a bitchier W.C. Fields who'd not back from his edge to be lovable. Once comedy found Webb, he was unstoppable. Sitting Pretty and then Cheaper By The Dozen were massive hits, two million or more for each in profit. Sequels and follow-ups were, if not as lush, dependable. To social panache mentioned, I'd say that's where Webb consolidated stardom and buddied up with those powerful in the business. He charmed Zanuck and played lawn croquet at the mogul's Sunday gathers. DFZ had friends among those in Fox employ, but he was a true fan of Clifton Webb. The cycle of CW in comedy went right to end of the 50's, and I'd propose, kept the star at peak of a public's awareness thanks to most backlog showing up on NBC Saturday nights, their prime and premiere post-48 showcase of Fox features a must-weekend-see for tele-viewers. Dreamboat, by the way, picked up another $200K for the NBC sale, its net bow on 11-25-61 (Variety on 2-13-6reported the per-title price for a first NBC movie season).

Dreamboat raises practical questions, first which, could anyone who was a major attraction in the 20's blend seamlessly into private life and not be recognized, let alone in a campus setting where they address groups every day? It takes TV exposure of his old films, presumably not seen in years, for "Thornton Sayre" to be unmasked as "Bruce Blair," this result of negatives "being bought for peanuts" by programmer Fred Clark. So here's next inquire: How many silent features played the home box during early 50's? I understand some of Fairbanks did, and maybe stuff Joe Schenck or other independents owned, but what else? I said features now, not short comedies or cartoons. I know those were fed to kiddies from early on. What burns Thornton Sayre is oldies run every week, and nationwide. That would mean network, and I know of no dedicated net series for pre-talkers for whole of the 50's, or in all of TV history for that matter (closest would be Silents, Please, where ABC offered truncated features).

Sayre-daughter Anne Francis is invited by the mean girl sorority to a Bruce Blair broadcast, idea being to humiliate her before a crowd. Fox clearly had it in for Greek systems, if not college structure as a whole. Once-respected instructor Sayre can only save his job by heading Gotham way to bell network fat cats, one of whom is his old co-star Ginger Rogers, now in league with Clark and junk merchants we presume made up all of televised output. Largest laughs of Dreamboat come where Bruce Blair and "Gloria Marlowe" (Rogers) do silent emoting, these clips very much 50's concept of what wowed 20's public. Audiences were flattered and amused to see voiceless films ridiculed. How far we had come from such primitive entertainment! For all of rankle purists get from the jape, Bruce Blair's recreated vehicles are funny, him less a Valentino than John Gilbert, or perhaps Ronald Colman in first flowering. There is a Zorro send-up, desert dashings, WWI aviating, most of genres we then and now associate with vanished time. The clips seem less a mockery of silents because they are so enjoyable. I wonder if exiting moviegoers in 1952 thought of giving more relics a go, especially if they were this much fun.

An aside with regard 50's, specifically Fox, ideal of appeal, re distaff talent. 1952 saw a number of women on 20th contract, none so sky-high as Marilyn Monroe by that year, hers a cat-bird seat not to be seized by any of rivals through rest of a decade. But how does the contest play in retrospect? That is, sixty-five long years later? For me at least, Monroe is more the Bruce Blair of stone-age standard at allure, Anne Francis infinitely more appealing as a "museum type" presented in Dreamboat as so drab that network go-getter Jeffrey Hunter has to be arm-twisted into taking her out. I always thought of Francis as very much the dish that Monroe was proposed to be in Don't Bother To Knock, a same year launch of MM as starring sex bomb and presumed object of patron desire. Audiences were always manipulated as to what idols they should pick, be it in Bruce Blair's day, or our own. What of those who think outside the box where it comes to instinctive response? Anne Francis in Dreamboat and Jean Peters in following year's Niagara beat socks off Monroe for me, that no slam on MM, unless lure is assumed to be all she ever had to offer. I've suspected more of late that it is women who today are more fascinated by Marilyn Monroe, for reasons I'll not try to divine. Dreamboat is available from Fox On-Demand DVD, but watch for it instead on TCM or FXM, where it plays HD and looks fine.


Blogger lmshah said...

Actually, a number of silent film folk became college professors: Arthur Ripley formed the UCLA Film Department in the 50's,and people like Norman Taurog, King Vidor, even Josef Von Sternberg all taught filmmaking classes. Jean Arthur taught drama at Vassar and the North Carolina School of the Arts.


4:42 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

This has long been a favorite since I first saw it on TV decades ago. Very pleasant surprise to see it pop up here. I once had a nice 16mm print of it.

4:46 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Wasn't Louis Wolheim a math professor when Lionel Barrymore suggested he had the face for acting?

6:15 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Milton Sills was a professor at the University of Chicago before he began acting in silent films. He was very good in all his pictures; The Sea Hawk (1924) is especially notable.

6:50 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Obviously iconic stars from the late 20s could not have disappeared into private life. But there are plenty of people who were big stars in the teens and early 20s who seemed unknown to the public after a certain point. Eugene O'Brien lived to 1966; who would have know him on the street, or heard his name and immediately thought, "THE Eugene O'Brien?"

2:57 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Anne Francis will always be Honey West to me. As a ten year old watching her on TV I was enthralled. :)

8:56 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Stinky's arm would not have to be twisted to take out Anne Francis!

10:01 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Ginger Rogers, born in 1911, was a tad young to play a silent star (unless they presented her as Lita Gray young, and that would have put a very different spin on the romance). Also, I recall that the television folk hacked up the films to make them absurd and even to incorporate plugs. So the movie managed to mock silent flicks AND mock television for treating them crassly.

"Dreamboat" was not unduly prescient in building a story around the mockery of old Hollywood. I have childhood memories of commercials that used old-timey footage for laughs, and I think ancient cartoons (including silents that had been given scores) were on TV from the get-go. "Dreamboat" could as easily have been about the creaky talkies that were first to reach TV screens, but that would have meant acknowledging "real" movies could be seen at home.

Just a few years down the road you'd have "Silents Please" showing straight-faced condensations of features, while narrated comedy clips were featured on "Howdy Doody" and were the whole show on "The Funny Manns". By the 60s you had the Youngson films reaching local channels, "Charlie Chaplin Theater" giving the Youngson treatment to shorts, and "Fractured Flickers" trying to use silents for Mad Magazine-type comedy. "The Toy That Grew Up" arrived in 1962. While silents didn't exactly flood the airwaves, one wonders if "Dreamboat" played as more real on television when audiences at least knew silents were knocking around.

1:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"How many silent features played the home box during early 50's?"

Good question. The oldest TV GUIDE in my meager collection is from June 26, 1953. THE EAGLE (1925) with Valentino ran on KRON-4, the NBC station in San Francisco, at 9:00 pm on Monday the 29th.

The major studio silent features weren't any more available than their talkies, so early TV would have been limited to independent releases from United Artists and other lesser companies.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

That ad is for THE UNIVERSITY THEATER in Toronto. It's long gone now. It was one of the best in the city.

5:59 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

12:47 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

Back to Clifton Webb; ALWAYS A FAVORITE here. His role in "TITANIC" (1953) was so good, his timing BRILLIANT, his co-star PERFECT , and an all-around better cast and story than the BIGGER, LATER VERSION with the same title. If we could just fast-forward THRU Bob Wagner's version of a college song warbling "THE NAVAJO RAG" in jest for a female passenger; we will find this version of the sinking an emotional experience to ride with and believe me you WILL NEED need a box of Kleenex for sure IF you get involved with it's OUTSTANDING CAST. And so to quote a TCM TAG: "Clifton Webb"...what a character!

5:41 PM  

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